~2,600 words, approx 15 min read time
You’re in the swamp. That’s sort of not what you planned to do with your day, but it’s your sister Quince’s wedding, so you’ve all driven up there. You’ve gone along with her when she tells you the legend of the swamp. About the dead lady trapped down there, about her necklace made magical by the water, about the necklace can only be retrieved by a very special person. Quince tells you in her cutesy voice that she wants you all to dive down to retrieve that necklace because it is going to be her something old and her something blue.
She would go in, she tells you, but she’s pregnant. So that glow is not just her cockroach milk face-masks. Everyone pretends to be happy for her. Everyone is not happy for her. But no matter. Her pregnancy is beyond your control. Your therapist has told you about boundaries, what they are, how to set them, and you tell her, “I don’t do swamps,” before you realise that you are justifying, arguing, defending, and explaining, and that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.
She smiles at you. “Please let’s just have a nice day with no arguing,” she says, and then she pushes you in, your mouth open, stagnant water filtering right in through your teeth that grit quickly but not enough to stop any of it happening. You come to the surface spluttering and coughing, your linen suit instantly stained with dirty liquid and mossy sludge. She shrieks with giddy happiness, jumping up and down, waving at you, telling you to find her the necklace. Her betrothed tells her how cute she is.
A kerfuffle breaks out behind you. Your eighty-year-old grand aunt has found a piece of jewellery. There are whoops and cheers. But your sister inspects it and finds that it is just some other necklace, not the necklace of the dead lady of the swamp, and she grins and says, “Back to the drawing board,” before throwing the just-some-other-necklace back into the water.
“Has she always been like this?” friends and lovers want to know. Not at first. At first they think you’re exaggerating and you’ve got unresolved issues. Then they meet her.
You never know what to tell people. You know what it sounds like, and everyone understands trauma these days. Yes, isn’t it truly awful what Quince went through. Yes, that’s enough to make anyone go over the edge. Yes, you hope she finds the support and healing that she needs. You don’t know how to explain that she chose to go through something awful simply in order to be able to behave like this with impunity. Because yes, she was like this before. Of course she never told you but you know full well Quince went out looking, specifically seeking something that would justify it and make it make sense. But the few times you’ve tried to explain this to someone, late at night, past the drunk stage of inhibition and through to the early morning hours of bonding and confessionals, they have chalked it up to an even more complex trauma response. “So she was troubled before, and then this happened to her, and no wonder she’s struggling like this now,” they say. And you nod, and you thank them for their insight, because you cannot bring yourself to be the monster that says she deserved it, or that she masterminded it, or that she did it on purpose in order to be able to control and manipulate you.
This is how it went. The two of you are twelve at the time. And yes, it is a coincidence that two stepsisters should be born on exactly the same day. And you’re not even stepsisters, just to complicate matters. Stepsisters are sisters you acquire legitimately, through your parents meeting one another in later life and forging a blended family. What actually happened was this: your mother and her father had extramarital relations, both with white people. Probably on exactly the same night, although you’ve never cared to investigate this. Two conceptions happened, by two religious people who think children are a gift. Her mother dies. In childbirth. Yes, yes, it’s awful, poor her, alone in the world. So her father, your adoptive father, takes her home with him, and your mother, who is still high on the drugs it took to give birth to you, adopts her. They call you twins. “Not identical,” people say, and yes, it’s true you’re not as beautiful as she is. But once you know her, all that beauty rubs off and all you can see is her greasy little heart and her long manipulative fingers and her stupid big eyes.
Anyway. The two of you are twelve and there is a game going round the neighbourhood. The game is that you all go into an attic. You light candles. The setting is very important here. You sit in a circle, like all good games, and you lean in close and you whisper. “Who shall start?” You whisper it to each other, and then eventually someone elects themselves the starter. “I’m thinking of a number between one and five,” they say, and they hold out a certain number of fingers behind their back where the others can’t see. All a gentleman’s agreement. There’s no way of telling whether the starter changes their number halfway through to suit the intricacies of the game. So maybe it’s a game of skill, maybe it’s a game of chance. Everyone else comes up with a number.
The person with the number furthest from the starter has their head eaten off their body while they are alive.
Not really, of course, but there are screams and shrieks and hilarious attempts made, and it’s a wonderful and delicious way to pass the time until the adults hear what you’re up to and come up the attic ladder to break it up. Nobody says, “Where did the kids come up with such an idea?” because the game is a version of a very real game, so then not really a game, that an adult serial killer, a real adult serial killer, has been playing, and playing for the last eighteen months.
People have been dying. Not here, but near enough that everyone is spooked. The thing that seems to scare them the most, besides the dying part, is that people have returned home from holiday to find a dead person, head chewed, upstairs in their attic. No other signs of a break-in.
There is a curfew.
Nobody walks outside alone at night anymore.
Except for Quince.
She keeps going out at night.
Sneaking out of her window.
Your parents put a lock on it, but a lock is no match for a twelve-year-old girl who has figured out how a house works. There are always other means of escape.
“Oh just let her,” says your mother, after the twelfth night of it happening. “Honestly. Whatever happens, happens. Just let her.” Your mother is exhausted from a miscarriage and working two jobs. Your father, your adoptive father, is exhausted by her exhaustion. Neither of them can be bothered anymore.
So on the thirteenth night, Quince goes. You see her going. The two of you share a room, so you can see damn well when she sneaks out of it. She slides out of the room and you know the way you know about a good melon that she has gone to find the adult who plays the face chewing game.
It’s all over the news the next day. Which is unusual for a black child. But Quince is light skinned and has all of that 3C hair. CHILD MISSING. At church and at school you’re called young ladies. It’s always, “You’re young ladies now,” and about sitting properly and eating properly and setting an example to the younger children, but suddenly now that Quince is missing she’s a child.
You’re questioned. You lie through your teeth, of course, because how else can you explain that you watched her go and did nothing about it? Your parents also lie through their teeth. That conversation about letting Quince do what she wanted never happened. The three of you never talk about it.
Quince returns home the very next night. Sneaks right back into bed and tells you, in excited whispers from beneath the coverlet that the police inspected earlier for signs of abuse, that she saw someone get eaten alive. You feel trapped. You can’t open your eyes. You can’t move. You are so terrified that you can’t do anything, and it is not the adult murderer you’re terrified of, it’s this power she has now, you can sense it already. So you open your mouth and you do the only thing you can do – scream. Your parents rush in.
She manages to lead the investigators to the adult murderer’s lair. The adult murderer is locked up. Fine. Kept in prison for years until someone starts a restorative justice programme in that area, and obviously Quince wants to get involved. Your parents think it will be good for her. Give her closure. You know she will enjoy it. And a part of you, a part of you that you are ashamed of, wishes it was you. Everyone is always thinking of what will be good for her. Nobody is thinking of what will be good for you. And you’d like to meet an adult murderer. She gets to meet everyone.
And so somehow you both go. Your father, your adoptive father, drives you both there to meet the people, the other people ‘personally affected by’ the adult murderer. You two are the youngest there, so your father stays; otherwise, he would be told to wait in the other room with the other people who are here to support the people ‘personally affected by’ the adult murderer. That’s what it’s called. Support. That’s your role, technically, but you don’t think of it like that. Quince doesn’t need support. She needs something else – something to make her love people. But you don’t know how to do that.
All the other people are very troubled by having seen a corpse with no face. Quince is not troubled. She is pleased. And so is the adult murderer. They are looking at each other as if they have a private joke, and in fact they do. Because at some point during the conversation the adult murderer says, “That turquoise necklace,” – you can’t remember why – and this sets Quince off. She laughs like there is no tomorrow, and the adult murderer giggles. Everyone else is quiet. You are not. You want, more than anything, to be in on this joke. You are desperate for it. So you start laughing yourself. You are so determined to be included that you just get involved. You open your mouth and tip your head back and you start cackling. And as soon as you do, Quince and the adult murderer and your father, your adoptive father, and everyone else gathered there, they all look at you as if you are a very disturbed and attention-seeking child.
You all drive home in silence. When your mother asks what happened – she was unable to attend, working all day – your father shakes his head and says he will tell her later. He is obviously extremely disappointed in you. Quince smiles at you as soon as he leaves the room. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she says, squeezing your hand. “Everyone wants to be like me. It’s natural. But you have to be you instead.” She flashes you a smile, every one of her brilliant white teeth gleaming in a sort of light she has created all by herself, and she runs outside to play horses on the old apple tree round the back that has not borne fruit since the big thunderstorm a decade before. You do not join her. You are too embarrassed and ashamed to do anything but sit in that chair in the living room and let the tears leak out of you.
You keep your head down. You do well at school. You do well at college. You do well at adult jobs, at boyfriends and girlfriends, at acquaintances, and friends, and networking. You learn what asparagus is, and how to eat a warm salad. You see L-shaped couches, you travel by plane and by boat, you know how to hold a conversation in a bar with someone you are trying to impress. You see Quince only when you have to. You get through it and you reward yourself at the end with a big drink and a plate of something greasy in a sauce that numbs your mouth if not your mind.
But today is different. It’s her wedding day – a day when she is allowed and expected to make a big fuss of herself – and you are not having it. You climb out of the swamp. You spit fetid fluid out of your mouth and you unbutton your suit jacket. Quince is not even watching you. She’s watching your father, your adoptive father, duck dive under the surface and grab at something deep down with his long hands. Not the necklace. Just some kind of hard pondweed that feels like charms under the water. You felt it when you were in there, and for a moment you thought you found the necklace she wanted, and you were excited for the opportunity to withhold something from her.
You take off your jacket. You take off your blouse. You’re not wearing a bra. You barely ever do, these days. You let the soft weight of your breasts inspire you to take off your trousers as well, and then your underwear. You don’t care that it’s mostly family in the swamp, or that her future husband is standing right by her, staring at you with his mouth slightly ajar in what looks like disgust. You have decided, for reasons, that this is your day.
You run up to Quince and you kick – not push, kick – her into the swamp, pregnant, and in her pre-wedding dress. She emerges coughing and you bend your naked body down to her and you hold her head beneath the surface, biting away her fiance who has bounced in to save her, batting back elderly relatives, and count to ten. A trick your mother taught you when you were little. For when you are angry. Count to ten. It works. After ten you are ready to let her come back up for air. Her eyes have done something feral. They look like animal eyes. When you realise you are seeing the reflection of your own eyes in hers that have rolled back into her head, you are proud.
The spell is broken. Perhaps this is all you had to do all along. The dead lady of the swamp glides out fat, beautiful, glistening. Nobody notices. They are all looking at Quince, rushing to help her, even though they know in their heart of hearts that she belongs to the dank water now, and will exist there, trapped, for some time, but the dead lady of the swamp is looking at you. You embrace. She drapes herself around you like silk and rubs buckthorn oil into your skin. She presses her finger into your mouth and the two of you kiss for longer than is strictly necessary. You have the necklace on now, the wild charms of solid turquoise heavy on your clavicle. She has her freedom. Otherwise naked, you step into your car, and you drive the long way home, not stopping along the way for petrol or for toilet breaks or for food.
Laura Barker is a writer, artist, and facilitator. She runs a queer black writing group in London, UK. Her work has appeared in Apparition Lit, midnight & indigo, and The Other Stories, and her YA novel Picnics was shortlisted for the Faber Andlyn BAME (FAB) Prize. Follow her @LauraHannahBar