September 16, 2015KR OnlineFiction

My Sister is in Pain

Unbearable pain when she gets up in the morning to go to work, when she goes to bed at night, and when she sleeps, she sleeps in pain and wakes up in pain again and dresses in her stretch-waist pants and bright complicated sweaters, heats up meals from packages, substitutes low-fat margarine for butter, sucralose for sugar, and smokes cigarettes in pain on her porch, while squirrels scramble like idiots up trees, and cars without mufflers vomit smoke and clatter through this neighborhood of potholes and broken windows, where kids steal anything to sell for money to buy meth. Her doctors shrug in their lab coats, send her to specialists who throw up their arms. Pain like airplanes with their airplane-engine noise, flying over and messing up the sky. Pain like dishes in the sink—not just her own dishes, but dishes of strangers who’ve left them there for days, in cold, gray water. She is our mother’s daughter, but we don’t know who she is or what her pain could mean, her cicadas of pain on summer nights, the jolts in her spine like flashes of abominable fireflies, pain that radiates from her intestines like the shocks of electric eels. Stabbing pain sixty hours a week as she bathes and medicates and tends to the needs and the pain of old ladies for minimum wage, throbbing pain when she has a day off. She was born more beautiful than the rest of us and called out more loudly from her crib, cried in her bed, and outside in the woods she wailed—she never said what those boys did to her beside the creek. Imagine a long corridor with hundreds of rooms all closed against pain; she walks down the corridor and her pain does not diminish. Whether or not she stops and knocks on any door, whether or not anyone invites her in for a cool drink, whether or not one of the people who invites her in for a cool drink is myself, still, her pain does not diminish. We rarely call her, are polite at Christmas, give tentative embraces, compliment her sweaters, her beads, and hair bows. We nod when she explains about her special shoes, her Copper Wear as seen on TV. The gifts she brings us are elaborately wrapped. We untie the ribbons in terror.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (W.W. Norton) and the bestselling novel Once Upon a River. She was a National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her collection of stories, American Salvage, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow.