Fourteen years old and my sister decides she is going to starve herself into the shape of something beautiful. She has not yet told me this is her plan, but from the way she studies her back in her reflection and counts the ribs so close to the surface that they breach her skin—one, two, three—her fingers rolling down each bump of translucent, hair-covered flesh, I know. I know because I am her older sister and though we hardly talk, we share a room, and I see her when the door is tiptoeing open, hunched over. Four, five, fingers rolling down her jagged, rounded spine, and there is pride in her eyes. I am sick noticing the way her gaze shines, and I hope there is distortion in the mirror. An interference giving off that look instead of something from her inside beaming out.
Fourteen years old and my sister is sliding a white boa constrictor of black numbers marking inches around the smallest of her middle, that gap between her ribcage and widening hips. Stomach sucks in and twenty-four pushes against zero. Our grandmother says she remembers being able to wrap her hands around her waist and have her fingers meet when we call her, a mess of a family FaceTime. Oma says things like this often: breezy metrics of the space taken up by any given body, noting if a new waitress at the diner downtown is fat but pretty or telling me the food at college must be good with a knowing glance at my stomach. There are lots of doctors here, she tells us, you don’t need to worry about me and Opa, so we don’t. We love you Oma. I see my sister measuring the span of her waist with the same crawling, numbered white ribbon. Her hands stretch around the smallest part of her middle, and the straining fingertips don’t quite reach.
Eighteen years old and I am the older sister of something thinning in the approximation of beauty. For breakfast, she cooks rancid black beans on the stove to remind her hunger that it is something she can neglect, control. My sister has been going to bed before the sun sets, and it is February. The day is so long, she groans when I knock at our room at seven in the evening, her voice passing under the crack of the door without force or breath behind it. She balances a pillow between her knees when she goes to sleep. To stop the friction, she tells me when I come into our room and see a tent of raised legs shifting under the sheets.
My sister refuses to do dishes. I find the question Can calories seep in through skin when I go on our desktop computer one night, syllables of desperation dangling in the search engine. She drinks water at room temperature, but I imagine it cold, cold, cold when it slides earthbound in her esophagus.
I watch her: bent over in front of the mirror like a gargoyle, a body made alien to me, trying to count her bones. My sister walks outside for hours and hours until her hunger grows into something dull and bearable. She gets lightheaded when she stands up too quickly. She practices yoga morning and night. She goes on runs before our parents wake up, our parents sequestered in the real house, wearing masks that bruise their faces red around the edges. Our parents wave to us from their window most nights, my sister and I sheltered together in the guest house, a strange politeness in the exchange that is more neighborly than parental. This is our quarantine compromise: daughters share the cottage in the backyard, take classes online, roll through the lulls of each nothing day passively; parents wake up at seven and drive to the hospital across the bridge and tend to men whose final breath is a cough.
On Sundays, we all have family dinner in the backyard, Mom and Dad keeping the prescribed number of feet away, three of us eating from takeout boxes sprayed with alcohol and essential oils, and one of us not.
I think of telling them about her, about the food scale that measures to the tenth of a gram or the slow drip of her breath when she sleeps, and sometimes I get close, and then my parents tell me they are so glad my sister and I have this special time to bond, or my father talks about work in a voice like lead and I see those veins in the thinnest skin around his eyes sputter red, or my mother holds my hand, just for a moment, and looks at me with all the trust and earnestness she has in her and tells me thank you.
And then I can’t.
In quarantine, my sister has been going on long walks around the neighborhood. She puts on too-large leggings that sag around her ankles and bulky, ridiculous sneakers, and she ties weights to her thinning wrists and does four laps around our hilly community. This morning is the same as any other: fabric wide on her legs, vague shirt breezed over a child’s chest. I am sitting on the porch, preparing to drive to the market and bag groceries for the old people on our block whose feeble forms have constrained them, when I see my sister approach the front of the house sweating under the distinct sharpness of winter sunlight.
You’ve been walking for two hours, I tell her.
Is that how long it’s been? she asks in a voice round with apathy. Semblance of a girl who hasn’t been counting the time, or the miles, or the calories.
Why are you walking so much? I ask. I know she has been searching How to lose fat on the desktop computer, but she doesn’t want to say that’s why, and I don’t quite know how to make her tell me. Instead of saying anything, she raises her eyebrows in the imitation of a response and looks at the step-tracking-device on her wrist. I think of those burning, hungry letters. How to lose fat. How to lose fat. How to—
Before I can think of what I’m saying these words fall out of my mouth, in this order: You can’t lose fat. When you think you’re burning fat, you’re actually just shrinking the molecule. You can never really lose a fat cell. Once it’s there, it’s there forever.
My sister’s face stays still, but she swivels around decisively, and I feel hot red stupid crawling on the back of my neck. Why did I say that? The impulse to be right clogs my chest with more words, and my sister is going out for another thirty-minute lap around the neighborhood, the same angry sun cutting the trees into silhouettes on the blacktop. And for a second watching her walk away, I think the wind might knock her over.
My sister is a martyr. That is what she tells me when I sit her down and ask her to eat, a bowl of cereal shiny and full in front of her. An intervention of sorts I stage because my sister is growing thin while the days are getting longer and warmer, and she is not interested in anything but walking in circles. I want her to nourish. I want her to step back into her frail body instead of haunting it. Fruit flies halo the apples I buy that she does not eat. So much waste in this temporary home we share, the bread board cradling stale carbohydrates, the fridge smelling of muted rot. I buy her foods we used to eat as children: sour candy with four colors striping its long ribbon of sugar, Kraft macaroni and cheese with the pasta shaped like cartoon characters. Things that don’t expire, things that might make her nostalgic enough to be hungry. All sitting dormant and technicolor next to beans and canned soup and rolls and rolls of toilet paper in the pantry.
Tell me what you’re doing. I want to understand. My eyes are big and dumb and pleading when I ask her.
So she explains it to me. It is not so much beauty she is seeking as it is absolution. Her fingers are bruised at the knuckles, the violent white of bone betraying her degrading skin. It is the same idea as bloodletting, she tells me. Or Christ. I am going to absolve us of this. Just give me time.
Skinny, she tries to convince me, is our savior. My sister believes the fat cells clinging to her skin are killing people and once she can rid herself of them (or shrink them; she can only really shrink them) the universe will be put back into balance, and the sky will grow beautifully muddy with the soot of airplanes, and things will be as they were.
People are dying, she tells me, and pushes the bowl of food away in disgust.
I feel swollen with helplessness. I want to give my sister her body back. I have dreams about being her mother and giving birth to my sister in a bathtub. It’s fall in the dreams, dead leaves sweeping at the clawfoot tub. I am so sure of the beauty emerging from me. But something coils in my stomach, and it’s me, it’s my body consuming her, greedy, gluttonous, selfish. Instead of bursting into the world dense and red and alive, my sister falls out of me, drowns in the water, a stillborn. In my dreams, I carry her body in my useless grief, bring her to an apple tree ripening in ignorance of the other plants evaporating morbid and thin for winter, and I wail at the orchard with its blossom and fruit and futility in the presence of her.
My sister does not have her period. The internet tells me she might not ever get it again. If a woman with anorexia is able to conceive after recovering her period, she still faces a high risk of miscarriage or of having an underweight baby. My stomach churns.
I drive to the grocery store and buy food for the old people, painstakingly wipe down each cranberry juice carton and dried apricot bag with germ-obliterating wipes, drop paper bags off on their porches in the evenings. I love their cute, wrinkled faces, mouthing thank you from their doors, though most nights I feel like I am lying to them, nourishing their bodies, that same fragile instrument that locks them inside.
Fourteen years old and my sister is rubbing poison oak onto her body.
There was a king in the Middle Ages who wore a scratchy ring of fur around his wrist to constantly remind him of God and fear Him. Did you know that?
No, I didn’t, I tell her.
I wonder if this all is from indoctrination of the private-Catholic-school variety, with its textbooks where the ‘h’ in ‘He’ is capitalized and its uniform skirts that only go up to a size large. I wonder if there is a way I can curb all the history and nonsense and vulgar quarantine-productivity-motivation that seeps into my sister’s water-lined skull and tell her hunger is like bravery. She adjusts the Fitbit on her wrist like it is ritual, something sacred made of plastic and metal that tells her the time and exactly how many active minutes she has spent today. My sister thinks she is a sacrificial lamb. She is going to save us with her thinness. She says I should thank her. The sky is still quiet, blue and empty, the shade of no airplanes and no people, when she goes out for another lap around the block.
This quarantine I go on a walk, too, to follow my sister. I hug the sidewalk and stay the prescribed number of feet away when a man walks towards me. A cloth mask obscures his jaw, but I assume he smiles, so I smile back.
I see a coyote on the walk, wounded. Red seam where flesh meets fur, thick tongue of an animal trying to soothe it. At first, I think it is a dog, but I soon correct myself—look how gamey and strange the sharp ledges of his ribcage pulling into his hind legs are. Everyone in this neighborhood is too rich to let their dog grow so scarce. I have the impulse to help it, to give it water. To give it food.
The sidewalk falls away to thick green, pushes pavement aside for lush gnarls. Soon the path is just flattened leaves, dead grass submissive under heel, the trail becoming the footsteps of a fourteen-year-old banishing her body during the apocalypse.
A body I cannot save. A body I walk after anyways.
is a Barnard College student from the upper half of California. She is a 2020 YoungArts Finalist and a Scholastic Art & Writing American Voices Medal recipient. Her work appears in 4×4 Magazine, Canvas Literary Journal, Quarto Magazine, and elsewhere. She loves lakes but is scared of the ocean.
ART: Floral Dress by Kelsey Howard
KELSEY HOWARD resides in Wilmington, N.C. where she works as a full time registered nurse and paints every moment she can. Her work focuses on using bright colors while playing with light and shadow and fun accessories. She loves painting faces and creating wild colorful women who are imperfect but beautiful. They inspire her to be brave and not worry about being perfect.