The Webbed-Arm Man Never Wanted My Twin
"The Last Unmapped Places" from HERE IN THE NIGHT by Rebecca Turkewitz, recommended by Wynter K Miller for Electric Literature
Introduction by Wynter K Miller
“The Last Unmapped Places,” from Rebecca Turkewitz’s collection Here in the Night, begins with a set of unusual circumstances: a violent storm and a bolt of lightning. A girl is struck—a twin, our narrator—but she survives and the storm passes, leaving in its wake only “a strange settled sense of dread.” Of course, dread is not a feeling of the “only” variety. As any true fan of horror knows, dread is a gateway feeling, an open door for your ugliest fears to step inside. An invitation for monsters.
As Rachael and her twin grow up in their small Maine town, Turkewitz gives readers a panoptic view of two lives in juxtaposition. Hannah is the golden twin: beautiful, athletic, safe in the world, a confident swimmer in open waters. Rachael is her opposite: quiet, weird, the kind of child inclined to collect animal bones in the backyard. And yet, at the end of this tale, it is Hannah who is pulled under by the darkness Rachael has been courting, leaving the reader to wonder: how does one get caught in an undertow? What causes a person to lose their footing in the world? And what happens if you misstep?
I’ve never liked monster stories. In my family, I’m the cowardly sister, closing my eyes well before the chainsaw ever whirls to life. It is a credit to Turkewitz’s writing—to the irresistible force of her story’s emotional undercurrent—that I could not look away, even as I began to worry that Rachael’s childhood monster might enter my adult dreams. Make no mistake, the monster in this story is real. It has a physical form that I suspect will satisfy genre traditionalists. But the monster is also beautifully metaphysical; it’s terrifying because it represents the uncomfortable reality that sometimes we grow into instead of out of our childhood nightmares. Or, as Rachael’s monster puts it: sometimes, “the smoke gets thicker the further you go.”
– Wynter K Miller
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
The Webbed-Arm Man Never Wanted My Twin
The Last Unmapped Places by Rebecca Turkewitz
Imagine, please, a September storm hugging the coast as it sweeps northward. Dark, moody skies with clouds so thick they seem solid. The apple trees in our backyard thrashing. A heavy blue tarp, draped over whatever project my dad was working on at the time, loose and flapping in the wind. The ocean, only a few miles from our house, roiling along the jagged shoreline. The rain arriving all in one rush like an exhaled breath. My family inside, snug and languid and unaware of my absence. My mother stretched across the couch, reading; my father in the kitchen pickling vegetables; my twin sister drawing quietly at the coffee table. A crack of thunder so loud and so in sync with the lightning flash that my mother is about to say, That must have struck something nearby. She stops because my sister’s hair is standing on end, fanned out like a sea anemone. Then my mother smells singed wood, singed earth, singed hair. Hannah is crying and my mother grabs her, but Hannah appears to be uninjured. My father rushes into the living room, knife still in hand. “What happened? Why is she screaming?” My mother smooths down Hannah’s hair and asks her what hurts. Hannah continues to sob. “Oh my god,” my mother says when she realizes there’s nothing wrong with this twin, the one safe in the living room with her and my father. “Oh my god. Where’s Rachael?”
Hannah and I were eight at the time. I was outside by the backyard oak tree. The lightning cored the oak and then an errant arm of electricity reached for me. I was out cold for several minutes and when I opened my eyes the world swam in front of me like a television channel that wasn’t in focus. Thanks to the miracle of Hannah’s electrically charged hair, my parents were there when I woke and an ambulance was already wailing in the distance. My mother loves this story. As family lore it’s irresistible: the raging storm, the twin connection, my mother’s instincts, the proof of our uniqueness, and the razor’s edge of disaster that only nicked us.
I spent a week in the hospital. For several years I had joint pain and occasional seizures in which my face went slack and my head snapped up and down like a skipping CD. I started getting migraines accompanied by blurred vision and moving colors and a strange settled sense of dread. But I was lucky to survive. The doctors and nurses told me so again and again. Still, I didn’t feel lucky. I felt exposed. I felt like someone had broken into the house that was my body and moved all my things around.
And the part of the story that my mother always left out of her frequent retellings: when my parents asked if I remembered anything leading up to the lightning strike, I told them that I had been beckoned outside by a man in a black rain cape. His voice was low and throaty. His breath smelled like damp soil. When he gestured for me to walk in front of him and his cape opened, I saw that his arm was webbed; a pink flap of flesh ran from his wrist to his waist. His shoulders were high and hunched. I wanted to resist, but was too scared of not obeying. Rainwater streamed over his face. He told me, “The smoke gets thicker the further you go.”
We lived in a small town on the Maine coast, where kids rode dirt bikes through the woods and walked without hesitation over barely frozen streams and had no fear of the dark, yawning nights that seemed to swallow everything during our long winters. Even before the lightning strike, I was the quieter, stranger twin. Afterwards, I grew jumpy and fearful, which were great sins in our town’s childhood kingdom. Hannah saved me from being an outcast. Whenever she sensed I was about to do or say something too weird she changed the subject or caught my eye and gave a quick shake of her head. When I told friends at a sleepover to keep the lamp on to ward off the Webbed-Arm Man, Hannah laughed loudly and said he was just a character from a bedtime story our mom had told us. When I hesitated to retrieve a Frisbee from a crawl space that pulsed with a sinister energy or a beach ball that floated too far from the shore, Hannah would rush past me with feigned excitement and recover the item before I could refuse.
In some fundamental way, I didn’t understand what people expected of me. Once, when I was ten, I proudly showed the supermarket cashier a dead mouse that our cat had killed. I’d been keeping it in a toy handbag. As the cashier shrieked and people in line turned away, my mother said only, “She’s a little scientist, this one!” while Hannah apologized and ushered me out the door. My mother, a librarian from New York with wild gray hair that she wore much longer than was fashionable, wasn’t perturbed by my behavior or the way the town regarded me. But my father was horrified when Mom recounted the story. He buried the mouse, still in the handbag, in the yard while I cried. Dad asked Hannah what I’d been thinking and Hannah said, “She wanted it for her bone collection,” reluctantly leading him to where I’d stored the sun-bleached skeleton of an opossum I’d found by our back fence.
Hannah was my opposite in every way. She resembled our dad: sandy-haired, athletic, and approachable. I’m more like our mother: dark-eyed with angular features and unruly curls. And Hannah always knew exactly what people expected of her, which was a different sort of burden than the one I carried. She was adored, confided in, and admired, but she had her own anxieties, which she hid from everyone but me. She worried about our father, who she claimed was stressed about money and the properties he managed. She worried that our mother found us boring. She worried about our parents’ frequent arguments, about a close friend whose brother was cruel, and I assume also about me—my fixations, my strangeness, my poor health.
I never figured out how Hannah intuited others’ secrets, but even when she told me about them, they didn’t trouble me much. My fears were visceral: that the undercurrent would drag me to sea if I went into the ocean past my knees; that our dad’s truck would fishtail in the snow on the drive to school; that there was someone crouching behind the rhododendron bush, ready to grab me every time I rushed onto the porch. I had seen the Webbed-Arm Man and I knew he was watching from whatever dusky corner of the universe he resided in. I knew that he was waiting.
Before we go any further: Hannah is dead. She drowned three years ago, when we were thirty-one. The knowledge of her death is like the fear I felt in childhood: a second shadow that’s always with me. And this shadow falls heavily over my recollections of our lives, so there’s no true way to tell this story if you don’t know that’s what I’m building towards. Besides, I’ve never liked surprises, even when they’re for other people.
Hannah and I never stopped being close, though eventually the world began to edge its way in. Amidst the many other mild mortifications of middle school, Hannah began to cultivate friendships that, for the first time, didn’t include me. In high school, she joined the volleyball team and jogged five miles every morning before breakfast. As I brushed my teeth, I would watch from the small bathroom window as she stretched in the driveway, lithe and flushed and pleased with how much she’d accomplished while the neighbors still slept. I had no talent for sports, but I developed an intense passion for geology and started a blog on the rock formations of the Maine coast. Hannah had her first boyfriend, a surprisingly tame relationship that nonetheless overwhelmed her and filled her with moony longing. But weekday evenings still found us in comfortable camaraderie in our room, debriefing the day and planning for the next one.
On our sixteenth birthday, Hannah secured her license and we discovered how much we loved to drive together. We’d meander through the woods, pointing out abandoned railroad crossings, fire towers, and leaning cabins. I felt more settled than I had in childhood, tethered more firmly to the world as others saw it, but I had few friends and I was achingly lonely when weekend evenings Hannah disappeared to parties or team sleepovers or her boyfriend’s basement.
When the time came to apply to college, our dad sat us down at the kitchen table and told us he wanted us to go to different schools. Hannah laughed and said we’d consider it. Later, I asked Hannah what the big fuss was and she told me, “He wants us to be normal,” which was how I learned he thought we weren’t.
We disregarded Dad’s advice and went to a small college within an hour’s drive of our hometown. Everything about college was a surprise. I, who’d never felt comfortable anywhere, was suddenly full of purpose. I dove with pleasure into the study of maritime history, the geology of the ocean floor, cartography in the middle ages. It seemed there was a class for everything. I even braved late-night walks alone through the dark campus, grasses rustling and strangers’ footsteps echoing through the narrow corridors between buildings, if it meant I could stay at the college’s library until it closed. I started dating a girl who worked in the interlibrary loan office and was absorbed into her group of clove-smoking, intricately tattooed friends. I took six classes at a time. I helped my professors with their research. I never turned in a single assignment late, even when my migraines nestled in my head and pulsed their jagged spikes into the tender flesh behind my eyes.
Hannah, who’d always been competent and sure-footed, suddenly lost all momentum. She’d been recruited for volleyball, but played badly and was taken off the starting line-up. Eventually, she quit the team. She began drinking more and slept with her Spanish TA. When she confessed to her chaste high school sweetheart, he refused to forgive her. She missed classes because she’d been partying, then because she just didn’t want to go. She chose subjects seemingly at random. She began staging protests with my girlfriend’s friends, becoming passionate about specific causes—veganism, the cafeteria workers’ rights, banning plastic containers—only to abandon them weeks later. She started a frenzy of volunteering—teaching ELL courses to custodial staff at the school, serving at the town’s soup kitchen, working with kids at a youth shelter.
When we were juniors, our parents divorced. I knew I should have felt more strongly about it, but all I felt was a slight sadness at the thought of our dad all alone in our old house. Hannah, on the other hand, spent hours on the phone trying to reconcile them, reckoning with my mother’s anger and restlessness, my father’s loneliness and sense of failure. Against the advice of her advisor, she went abroad to Madrid. My migraines became unbearable while she was gone and I was so exhausted I starting falling asleep in class. I didn’t think I’d survive her absence, but after only a month, Hannah had an incident with some sleeping pills and red wine that alarmed her host family, and it was decided she’d come back early. When I picked her up at the airport, she was so thin I wanted to wrap my arms around her just to give her more heft. On the ride home she told me, “It’s like I’m watching myself. I don’t even know who’s running the show.” She moved in with me and for a time we were as close as we’d ever been. I walked her through her daily routines until she’d regained her bearings and come back into herself.
Our senior year, I got lost in my thesis, a sprawling history of humans’ attempt to map the seafloor, and my girlfriend felt neglected and left me for a freshman poet. Hannah’s charm and intelligence kept her held aloft while she continued to slip and slide, never quite gaining traction. She came home one night, unsteadily drunk, and darkened when she saw me with a draft of my thesis spread across the floor. “Look at you,” she said to me. “You’re so good. You’re so focused. Do you remember when I had to check the closet every night for the Webbed-Arm Man before you could sleep?”
“You saved me,” I told her.
“Rachael,” she said, dropping to her knees in front of me, grasping my wrists. “How does a person know what they’re worth?”
When she touched me, the boundary between us fell away, as it often had when we were children. I felt her shame and emptiness like a wave of nausea. I felt her furious love for the world and her belief that she was undeserving of it. I realized that her frenzy of volunteer work was her way of trying to earn her place—not just at the college, but on this earth. I rested my forehead against hers. She had saved me; she was still saving me. “There’s no one better than you,” I told her, because it was true.
Hannah’s mention of the Webbed-Arm Man that night surprised me. Over the years, we’d stopped discussing him, and I thought she’d mostly forgotten him. I had not. My fear of him had lost its sharp edge, but I never stopped believing. I’d seen or sensed him several other times. When I had my seizures, I used wake to the harsh smell of wood smoke, which I took as a signal that the Webbed-Arm Man was close. When I was twelve, an October snowstorm knocked out the power and Mom sent me to retrieve a flashlight. The candle I was holding snuffed out just as I took my first step onto the basement staircase. I reached an exploratory hand into the sudden blackness and felt a wet flap of flesh; I scrambled back upstairs and locked the door behind me. I also occasionally caught glimpses of him under porches or in bushes or off the side of the road. And once, when I was brushing my teeth in high school, worrying over why Hannah hadn’t yet returned from her morning run, I saw him leaning against our neighbor’s fence, his eyes also trained down the road. By the time I’d gained enough courage to rush outside, he was gone and I could see Hannah turning onto our street. My dad dismissed my sightings as the product of an overactive imagination or a symptom of my epilepsy. My mother believed me, or claims she did.
Even in college, when I’d become less skittish and more grounded, he was present in my life. Most notably, on a camping trip at Acadia National Park with my girlfriend, I’d made the Webbed-Arm Man into a campfire tale as we roasted marshmallows, embellishing the story with a series of elaborate recurring nightmares I’d never had. That night I couldn’t sleep, worrying about a group of men at the site next to ours, who’d kept trying to flirt with us and then grown surly and quiet when they realized we were a couple. It began to rain and the loamy smell of the wet soil brought the Webbed-Arm Man back to me in the form I always knew him to be: a memory and not an invention. I woke up Elise and forced her to sleep in the locked car with me. When we drove into Bar Harbor the next morning, I had a voicemail from Hannah.
“I know, I know, I know you’re fine,” the recording said. “But I just had a feeling I couldn’t shake, so please call me when you’re back in civilization, okay?”
For me, the years after college passed like rolling down a hill: effortless and inevitable. I attended grad school, where a tendency towards fixation is the most promising trait, and my research burned so brightly everything else in my life seemed to dim. I won awards. I graduated with the highest honors and started my dream job as a map librarian at the Boston Public Library. A woman named Priya took an interest in me after touring an exhibit I’d curated on mapping the cosmos, and fought her way into my vision long enough to make herself part of my routine.
Hannah took back up with her high school boyfriend and they were married within a year. Part of the reason he’d been so chaste and unforgiving all those years ago was because he was a deeply, onerously religious man. Hannah became very involved in their church, which distressed Mom to no end. But the church stabilized Hannah’s life and gave her a community who valued her generosity, even if they couldn’t see that it wasn’t earnestly in service to the lord, but born from her intense need to correct the debt she thought she owed the world. Out of some punishing instinct, she got a job organizing study abroad programs at a company based in Portland, which she was very good at despite her failure in Madrid.
Although our lives had very different shapes, she remained one of the only people whose motivations and desires were not opaque to me. Every morning we woke an hour early so we could talk on the phone as we drank our coffee. I’d close my eyes and imagine her across from me, and it always seemed that if I just reached out my arm, she’d be there on the other side of the table, ready to take my hand. Once, when I opened my eyes after the call, I was looking at Hannah and Chris’s tidy kitchen counter and had to shake my head hard before my own small apartment came back into view.
I remember almost everything about the night that Hannah died. I’d brought Priya to Maine for Thanksgiving to meet my family. Priya is Indian-Canadian, so she had no other plans, and she wanted to see where I came from and get to know the golden sister I talked so much about. Hannah and Chris picked us up at the train station and whisked us to Mom’s apartment in Portland for our day-before-Thanksgiving meal, which Mom kept calling “the first Thanksgiving” to acknowledge that we were going to our father’s the next day.
By then, my mother had moved into an attic apartment at the edge of the city. The house was at the top of a steep hill and Mom’s bedroom window had an expansive view of the bay, so in the mornings she could watch the lobster boats slinking out to sea and the clouds of greedy seagulls trailing after them. Hannah was worried that Mom was becoming eccentric—she’d developed an obsession with the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis and painted bright pastoral scenes on every free surface of her apartment—but Mom was much happier than she’d ever been living with Dad or raising us.
Priya complimented my mother’s artwork and seemed genuinely charmed that Mom had ordered a buffet of Thai take-out because she’d forgotten to defrost the turkey. Mom offered to show Priya more of her paintings after dinner. I watched Hannah’s expression carefully for a clue as to how the interaction was going. Hannah gave me a little nod of approval, but there was sadness underneath it.
After dinner, Mom disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a pot of mulled wine. When she theatrically took off the lid, the dining room filled with the scent of cloves and Priya clapped. Mom bowed and then poured each of us a steaming mugful. When she slid one over to Chris, he said stiffly, “You know I can’t have that.” He was five years sober.
“Just one can’t hurt!” My mother took a showy sip of hers. “It’s delicious.”
“She does this on purpose,” Chris said to Hannah. He hated when anyone drew attention to his sobriety, highlighting his one deviation from the righteous path.
Hannah took his mug and put it next to her own. She said something softly to him that I couldn’t quite make out.
“Suit yourself,” Mom said. “But it’s the one thing I cooked tonight.” She laughed. When no one laughed with her she shrugged. “I guess if you’re drinking, Hannah, that means no luck yet on the pregnancy front.”
Hannah blushed and shook her head. She and Chris had been trying for years. Chris insisted that God would bless them when it was time.
“My friend Patty was telling me all about IVF,” Mom said. “It’s normal now. So there’s no need to be so prudish about it.”
“That’s enough!” Chris said, so loudly that Priya jumped.
“Don’t be startled, dear,” Mom said. “He’s always like this. You two have the right idea. If I’d been smarter, I’d have been a lesbian, too.”
“Mom,” Hannah said sharply. She turned to me, “How’s your new exhibit coming? Have you started installing it yet?”
“What new exhibit?” Mom asked, allowing herself to be led. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
“I did,” I said. “When we talked last month.” But Mom only vaguely remembered the conversation—she was often painting or out for a walk when we talked on the phone. But I was happy to explain the project again; my work is one of the few conversation topics that come easily to me.
This was the first major exhibit I was designing on my own. It focused on places that are still uncharted. I’d titled it The Last Unmapped Places, and was working sixty-hour weeks because I needed it to be perfect. Mom asked for examples, and I explained about the miles-deep cave system under farmland in Vietnam, an unclimbed mountain in Bhutan, the shifting outline of Greenland’s coast, and shantytowns in Pakistan with no reliable street maps.
Hannah had finished both her and Chris’s wine and was filling her mug again. Chris made a show of checking his watch. “You’re sure you want to have another?”
I kept talking as if he hadn’t interrupted, so Hannah wouldn’t have to respond. “The challenge is figuring out what to display, since the focus is the unmapped. But really, it’s about mystery and its tug on the imagination. Our last exhibit was on trains, and now we get to feature remote sections of the Amazon jungle seen by no one still alive on this earth.”
“How ambitious,” Chris said, draping his arm over the back of Hannah’s chair in the proprietary posture that men like him are made for. “But you should be careful. If you spend too much time scratching away at the mystery, you’ll eliminate the very thing you think you love. As soon as you find the unknown, it becomes the known.”
“Is this about God?” I said. “Again?”
“Rachael,” Hannah said. “He’s not trying to convert you. He’s just making conversation.”
“He wants to make good believers out of all of us, like he did with you.”
Priya put a cautionary hand on my knee.
“I don’t have to tolerate this,” Chris said.
“She’s just feeling defensive,” Hannah murmured.
“Don’t do this again,” Chris said. “Pick a side.”
“How can I?”
Chris stood, nearly upturning Mom’s wobbly table when he braced himself against it. “I’m going home. If you want to stay, you can call me when you need a ride.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” I said, but I was pleased that the night would carry on without him.
“So you’re really not coming?” he asked. Hannah didn’t look at him when she shook her head.
We continued drinking, and I began to feel really good, surrounded by the women who made up the whole of my social world. At some point, Mom announced that she was going to bed, but encouraged us to stay up talking.
After she left, Hannah became confessional with Priya. She explained that we hadn’t been raised with God. She was drunk—really drunk, like I hadn’t seen since college. “I do feel awe in church,” she said. “But the God I feel, it’s as if He’s channeled through Chris, like I’m believing through him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Priya said. I could tell she liked Hannah, which was not a surprise. Everyone liked Hannah.
“Do you think it’s really okay? Sometimes I don’t know.” Hannah started to cry. Priya and I got out of our seats and crouched next to her. We each took one of her hands.
When Hannah’s crying had slowed she said, “I’m not always like this.” Then, she turned to me and said, “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I feel like I don’t have any edges anymore. The way I used to feel only with you, I feel that way with everyone.”
I squeezed her hand.
I don’t remember what we talked about after that strange interlude, but we forged on and the mood lightened. Eventually Priya said that she’d like to see Maine’s famous coastline before she left, and Hannah said, “What better time than now?”
Outside, the night was clear and fresh and ripe, and it calmed me to take the sharp air into my lungs. Hannah led us to a park with a small gazebo and a wrought-iron fence. It was an almost-full moon; a funnel of light sliced across the river. We climbed down a steep stone staircase partially hidden by trees, which spilled out onto a paved path that wrapped around the cliff. I recovered my bearings; if we’d gone right we would have come across the ferry terminal and then the seafood restaurants and ice cream shops and fish markets. Instead, we turned left, towards the open ocean. We could hear waves slapping against the sea wall.
Priya took in a big breath. “I smell salt!” she said, delighted.
“The water’s so choppy.” I was surprised. “It’s not that windy.”
“Are you already forgetting the ways of the ocean?” Hannah teased. “It stormed yesterday. The sea remembers.”
When we came to an old jetty, Priya hopped out onto the rocks. She took in the gyrating peaks and valleys of the water. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “On a night like this, it’s obvious there’s no risk of losing mystery, no matter how much you study it.”
Hannah followed Priya onto the rocks. “How lovely,” she said. “What a lovely sentiment.” Then she said, so low that I could barely hear her over the tut-tut of the waves, “You will be so good for Rachael.”
And then something went wrong. A twisted ankle, the sole of a shoe too smooth to grip the rock face, or a step made unstable with alcohol. Or maybe something darker. I know. I know there’s the possibility that Hannah intended, or half-intended, to go in. The only certainty is that one moment Hannah was a striking silhouette against the blue-black sky, and the next she was in the water.
I heard the splash and the sickening intake of breath as the cold hit her. I screamed. I ran to the sea wall and dropped to my knees. I searched and found Hannah surfacing, pulled in toward the piers faster than I would have expected. She tore at the water.
I must have encouraged Hannah to swim. I must have shouted for help. Hannah, when she said something finally, was impossible to understand.
I stood up. I took off my shoes and my coat. From the jetty, Priya saw my intent and hissed with as much intensity as a slap, “Don’t you dare.”
Still, I took a step back, poised to jump. I felt how cold the ground was beneath my socked feet, which made me pause for only a moment, but it was enough time for Hannah to go under again. I lost her. I scanned the water, then caught sight of a dark figure. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a shadow or an underwater rock or her body. “Do you see her?” I demanded. Priya was useless, sobbing and shaking.
Then, around the edges of the Hannah-shaped blot, I saw a black, shifting form that slithered through the water like heavy fog. The shadow slunk forward, somewhere between a liquid and a solid, before coming together and opening its great webbed arms behind her. The air grew thick and murky and there was a sudden dank-earth smell. There is no way for me to describe it now—it’s like describing the particular smell of a house you no longer live in—as clear and distinct as a fingerprint but you only know it when it’s around you. I’d smelled it before, all those years ago. The fear I felt was beyond fear. It was fear that the bottom fell off of.
Later, after Priya’s desperate call to the police, and the officers’ embarrassed questions, and the rescue boat and the divers and the condescending explanations about currents and riverbeds and tides, I asked Priya if she saw the thing in the water, the thing that wrapped its arms around Hannah. And Priya admitted that she may have seen something, but she was sure it was only a reflection or maybe a refraction of light. I asked her if she smelled him, and she looked at me with such deep concern that I dropped that line of inquiry.
Four days later, a water taxi driver leaned over the side of his boat during low tide and saw my sister’s body below him. In the great sorrow of that day, I lost my sense of caution and I pressed the matter again with Priya, asking what exactly she thought she’d seen that night. She snapped, “This is crazy. You think it was your childhood monster? It was nothing.”
But I’d recognized the long arms and the wing-like flaps and the sidling, confident movement. I know that I’d caught, once more, a glimpse of what it is that comes to take us away.
For years, the cloak of grief held me under its damp, pressing weight, and the only time I ever felt alert was in the archives at the library or deep in the world of a book. Talking to Priya or my parents or the throngs of school children I was expected to usher through the library collection was like interacting through muslin. I studied every detail of Hannah’s drowning, turning my memory of it inside out. Not only the what-ifs of what might have happened if I’d jumped in or the unanswerable questions around what caused the fall, but also how high the moon was, how fraught the sea. How the leafless bushes had held onto their winterberries. How the staccato thump of the waves against the seawall resembled the trapdoors in our arteries opening and closing. I tried to recall precisely that peculiar dusky smell and the way the air thickened and cracked open and the feeling that bloomed in my chest the moment I knew Hannah had passed through. This is all I can tell you. Like all stories about death, you’re left with the survivor’s incomplete tale.
Only recently have I been able to lend my attention more fully to the details of the present world. And I notice, sometimes, just before I fall asleep or when the motion-activated lights in the library archive go out, a certain flicker of movement and then a feeling of airlessness. And it’s like, if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have to breathe. And I wonder why the connection that passed between Hannah and me all our lives, which was the pride of our bohemian mother and the unease of our cautious father and as normal to us as eating or drinking, would be severed by death. In the darkness, I open myself up. I become what I am meant to be: her mooring on the other side of all that smoke.