The Empty Above
They tell you that your sister has died, and you are lying in the bottom half of the bunkbed and looking up at the empty space above you and thinking I know, I know, I know.
Your sister was born twelve minutes before you were. She has always existed in this world before you. You feel the minutes stretching out between you, the hours, the days. You feel yourself growing older, older, older than she ever will.
You have five older half-sisters. They are all beautiful with long black hair. They do the dances at the powwows perfectly. The beads shimmer on the dresses made by their aunties. They smoke clove cigarettes, they ride in rumble-engine cars with white boys, they walk with delicate deer-foot steps.
They sleep side by side by side on your bedroom floor when they come to stay after your sister dies, worn blankets from the storage chest tucked over their shoulders. In sleep, their breath goes soft like the morning train when it has blown its last warning and gone off around the corner.
You lie in your bed and listen to your five older sisters breathe.
Above you, there is nothing.
While your older sisters stay with you, your mother makes fry bread like she does for special occasions. Your older sisters are not her daughters; they belong to your father and his first wife, who died and left them in the care of nimble-fingered aunties, we love you like our very own.
She tells them all they’re good girls, good, good girls; she strokes her fingers through your long hair when you help her in the kitchen. She shows you how to knead the fry bread, how to dig your fingers into the dough.
Like this, she says, like this, and everyone tells her she is so strong, how she doesn’t cry.
While your mother makes dinner at night, your older sisters teach you how to do makeup. They show you eyeliner and shadow, lipstick and blush. They show you your reflection with handheld mirrors.
They say: you’re so pretty, they say: you’re going to be so pretty.
Your five older sisters show you the steps for all the dances. They promise to bead you a dress for the next powwow. They give you Black Velvet sips from bottles tucked in the bottoms of their suitcases.
It will numb it, they say, and they are thinking of their mother, open-mouthed on the couch when they got up that morning, how they went round and round her like circling aunts, how the oldest called your father (just theirs then, their father) still on his overnight shift, how they sat holding hands on the kitchen floor till someone came. They tip Black Velvet into your bird mouth: It will numb the pain.
They take you outside at night, lie down beside the house like they did when they were kids, say look up, look up, and the sky is star-filled and lovely, and a plane goes overhead all white and red flashing lights, and the roar trails after; everything follows after.
Cathy Ulrich does beading, but she has never mastered peyote stitch. Her work can be found in various journals, including Citron Review, Flashback Fiction, and Adroit.