Their house remained in a state of hush as he tepidly knocked on her bedroom door. There was no response, so he entered to see her hugging her pillow. He knew to only speak in soft tones.
“How ya’ doin’ today, sis?”
A jerk of her shoulder.
He left the tray with a bowl of dry cereal and a glass of milk on her bedside table, hoping that she would eat a little today, or at least pick at it a bit. That was his hope every day. Some days he even got his wish.
“I’m downstairs if you need me,” he said, and quietly closed the door behind him.
Six months ago his life changed—again. It began with a phone call. It always begins with a phone call. He had been out on his own, living his life, when he received the second of the worst two calls of his life. Something had happened to his sister at college. That’s all they would say. He needed to come down because someone had hurt her. His baby sister. Someone had actually hurt his baby sister.
He had worked so hard to raise her after their parents died and he’d become the reluctant all-but-in-name father to a pre-teen. He had believed himself grown until this responsibility landed on his shoulders. Paying bills, keeping up the house, watching over her through her teenage years with all the burdens of a father and none of the authority. He struggled to give his little sister a stable home while they both grieved the loss of the two most important people in their lives.
His head was giddy with pride at her high school graduation as she waved to him with her diploma clutched tightly to her chest and marched across the stage. He had done it. They had done it! She was an adult now, heading to college. He could go back to figuring out his own life again. He had even considered selling the house and moving into a place downtown. Now he was glad that he hadn’t. His sister needed a familiar place. This place. Their home. And she needed him. Her brother. Her clueless, clueless brother, who loved her beyond reason.
The brutality of what had happened was compounded by the fact that his sister knew the guy. She mumbled over and over during the ride home that maybe it was her fault. Maybe she had made him think that she wanted him to … Maybe she had made the mistake … Maybe she had made it happen … He listened to her say these things over and over as he drove down the darkened familiar streets with his palms sweaty from gripping the wheel too tight, and a numbing pain in his jaw from gritted teeth. He found himself shouting and cussing almost like he was watching himself from outside his body. He was screaming not at her but at the air. At God. At the devil. At this life.
Afterwards, he felt sorry for his words. Not for their meaning but for how they came out. She didn’t need his anger. Whatever it was she needed, she didn’t need that. She murred then went silent and hadn’t spoken a full sentence since.
If this had been a death, the rooms would’ve been full with well-wishers and friends. Loved ones would have sent flowers and cards offering their sympathies. But there were no flowers, and no greeting cards are made for this. And friends not knowing what else to do, did nothing. Everyone stayed away or gazed sorrowfully at him when they saw him on the street or in the supermarket. All except for one old college friend he had kept in touch with only sporadically over the years.
He remembered him as being from some small country he had never heard of and couldn’t find on a map. The kid had plenty of money, though. Enough that he could pay his whole tuition in cash. Their similar awkwardness had helped them become friends in school. They studied together and hung out a number of times, but he hadn’t seen him since graduation.
How this old friend had heard what happened was beyond him. But he had and sent a handwritten note that simply said, “This may help.” Tucked within the folded paper lay a crisp white business card that had printed on it in raised black lettering a phone number and above that the title “Healer.”
The notion that someone—that anyone—could heal this was crazy. So, he left the card sitting on the front table untouched. After days and days and days of hesitation and of feeling crazy and exhausted and angry and desperate, he picked it up and made the call.
A machine voice requested his name. After he answered the machine voice spoke again and said, “What do you want?”
He almost hung up, thinking this must be some kind of sick joke. Then he remembered that his old friend wasn’t the type to play silly games. So he said into the phone, “I need help … Please, help my sister.”
The hum of the line filled his ear for so long he wondered if he had been disconnected. Then the machine voice replied, “Okay,” and ended the call.
He didn’t know what to make of it. Days went by and he continued the routine of delivering meals that were barely touched to his silent, disturbed sister and working on his computer for the hours required to keep his job and paycheck. Life had become an existence devoid of light and sound and touch, and of agonizing moments of waiting for something to change.
The bell rang. Before answering, he peeked through the door’s window slits. A small, plump woman wearing black wire-rimmed glasses and a leather tote bag over her shoulder stood there.
“Yes,” he said through the crack of the door with the chain still strung across.
“You called for my services,” she said without a smile.
He wanted to pretend that he didn’t know who she was and why she was here. But he instinctively knew. So, he undid the chain and moved aside to allow her to enter. Before he closed the door behind her, he spied a black sedan parked in front of the house with a man sitting in the driver’s seat.
She walked into the living room. He felt embarrassed for his poor housekeeping skills. He nearly apologized. His words caught in his throat and when he saw her slip the card sitting on the entry way table into her pocket. She then turned to face him. Her smooth skin and jet-black hair made her seem ageless; her eyes spoke of countless years. Even though he towered over her, he felt small and found that he needed to sit.
“Where is she?” she demanded.
“Upstairs,” he said. “Wait. What are you going to do to my sister?”
A glimmer of white flashed across his vision, and he wiped his forehead. He could have sworn he had just opened the door. He peeked through the door’s window slits to spy the arrival of a white van covered with blackened soot and dents. A rather large woman wearing a close-fitting knit hat climbed out of the van and walked up the path in strides that displayed a sense of urgency. When she knocked on the door, the sound of each of rap pounded at his heart.
“Yes,” he said through the crack with the chain still strung across.
“We’re the ones you called for,” she said.
“Don’t be scared,” she said with sympathy. “We’re here to help.”
His heart melted. He’d had no idea until then how much he needed to hear those words. All the helplessness of the last few months, all the horror, all the grief, fell to the earth like autumn leaves. Someone was coming to help his sister.
He undid the chain and let this strange woman in.
She removed her hat to reveal an unruly head of hair. She uncomfortably bowed to everyone she saw as if to her betters. No one knew what to say, so they said nothing. She seemed an unlikely candidate for a healer of any kind.
“Good evening,” she said, bowing again.
“Are you the— ” the mother said.
“Me? No, ma’am.” She smiled bashfully. “I just come in first to make sure that everything’s alright. She’s in the van outside.”
“Oh,” the mother said.
“Yeah, that’s my job. I gotta make sure that everything’s alright before she comes inside.” She repeatedly squeezed the soft hat in her hands and shifted her weight from one leg to another. “You have my deepest sympathies over what happened. I know time’s been awful hard on you folks, so what I have to say here is kinda delicate.”
The room leaned in to listen.
“She, I mean the lady outside, is a bit special. What she does is hard work, and it’s taken its toll on her over the years, you see, um, so … well, to most folks she looks kinda funny … and they stare at her … Well, I’m here to ask you to please not to do that, okay, um, yeah, so …”
“We understand,” the mother, said even though she didn’t.
“Yeah,” the knit-hat woman said with a huge smile that was all teeth. “I knew you would. You look like nice people.”
An uncomfortable moment passed. “Um, ah, so could someone show me where the girl is? I, uh, need to see.”
“I’ll show you,” the father said, and the strange woman followed him up the stairs into a glimmer of light.
The brother sat alone in his living room and felt confused. Something odd had happened. He didn’t know what. He audibly swallowed despite himself. His throat gone dry. The woman stood with her leather bag now hanging in her grip low to the ground. The side of her mouth smiled.
“You are lucky,” the woman said. “Few know of my services, and even fewer can afford them.”
“We can’t … We don’t have much money.”
“I don’t accept money,” she said with scorn. Her offence seemed deep.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Yes, I’m sure you didn’t. No need to worry. Our mutual friend has vouched for you. In the end, all debts will be paid.”
He wanted to say, “What do you mean by that?” but instead he nodded and went to the staircase with the woman following behind.
He opened the door to his sister’s bedroom to the squeak of the hinge. With the blinds drawn and the curtains closed, blackness impregnated the room. He entered alone and sat on the bed where she lay.
“Someone is here to see you.”
“I don’t wanna see anybody.”
“She’s here to help.”
“I can’t explain. Just please let’s try this.”
“What are you talking about?”
A glimmer of white and he was in the living room waiting with his mother. The squeak of the hinge of his sister’s door upstairs shattered the silence.
“It’s okay. Yeah, um, you don’t have to disturb her,” he heard the woman with the knit hat say. Moments later she and his father came down the stairs together.
“I’m gonna go get the lady from the van, okay … Um, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said and bowed again to everyone, then left.
The brother nervously parted the window curtain to watch for what would emerge from the white van while his father comforted his mother as if she was the girl upstairs.
“They’re coming,” the brother said and moved the curtain back. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and held the door open for the two figures who came up the walk.
The large girl with the knit hat entered, assisting a figure covered with a blanket from head to waist and whose twisted body contorted so that she could barely walk without aid. The knit-hat girl directed the blanketed woman inside towards a terrified family. The brother closed the door behind them. All stood as if in a tomb that had been sealed shut; the air sucked out of the room.
The knit-hat girl said, “Um, this is the lady whose gonna help. Yeah, um, she’s done this plenty of times, so there’s no need to be scared. Um, okay?”
She lifted the blanket to reveal a person who may have been a woman once. Despite their attempts not to, each family member winced at the sight of her. The diminutive creature had a treasure map of healed-over scars on about half her forehead going down to her jaw. The eye there drooped milky white while the other looked off into distant places. She smelled of incense and sorrow.
“Where is she?” said the gravelly voice from the creature’s mouthful of broken teeth. Small bubbles of spit sprayed from the empty spaces.
“Imma take you to her,” the knit-hat lady said and helped to escort her up the stairs.
The creature-that-was-once-a-woman stopped midway and pointed to the family and mumbled, “You come, too.”
They eyed each other, mother, father, and brother, and followed with uneasy steps behind the two strange women into a glimmer of light.
His sister was hesitant, but she trusted him—her brother, who has been there for her through so much in their lives—and she didn’t put up a fight as he carried her gently to the floor. The woman with glasses pulled out of her leather bag a small sack of salt and methodically spread it on the ground in a circle surrounding all three of them, then sat squat in the circle. Out of her bag she retrieved a white pillar candle about three-inches thick and several metal bars with flattened heads that made them appear like large nails. She neatly placed them parallel on the floor before her.
“What the hell are you gonna do with those?” the brother said.
“Shh …” she said, and lit the candle with a match, and the room dissolved into a white light.
The three climbed the stairs together. When they reached her bedroom, the girl in the knit hat positioned herself outside the door. The creature entered alone.
The family stood there for a long while, barely able to breathe as they listened to the creature softly chant in some language. After a while, they were beckoned to come in.
If not for his sister, he would never have walked into that room. But it was his sister, and he loved her. He knew that now more than ever. He followed his parents inside. A deep darkness impregnated that room, but for the light of a single candle whose faint flame highlighted his sister’s huddled body. A neatly formed circle of salt lay on the ground. The creature sat squat within the circle, examining his sister’s open palm.
“What is—” the brother began.
“Shh …” the creature said as she gingerly pressed into the ball under the thumb of his sister’s palm.
Then, to his surprise, his sister reached out and gently touched the creature’s cheek, and said, “You are so beautiful…” and all fell into a glimmer of white.
The woman with the glasses chanted in some language he didn’t understand while heating one of the iron bars in the flame of the candle. Her grip on the bar never flinched even as it warmed to an orange hotness.
“Hold her still,” she said, and methodically pressed the bar into his sister’s twitching flesh at secret locations on the tops of her feet, then her thighs, and around her belly button. After a while his sister relaxed as if she felt nothing. The scent of burned flesh sweetly mixed in the air. And shadows formed outside the circle. They grew out of the corners of the walls and through the floorboards. From out of the hazy smoke-marbled darkness inside the circle, a deformed woman appeared, sitting squat next to his sister examining her palm. Her gravelly voice said, “You will see what you need to see.”
Darkness is the absence of light, and light the absence of darkness. So it is, and so it was.
His sister reached out and said, “Mom … Daddy …”
The brother, wide-eyed, saw himself and his parents standing there outside the circle.
“I’m here, baby,” their mother said.
“We’re all here for you,” their father said.
Her brother, wide-eyed, saw himself sitting there within the circle.
Time and space folded, and the shadows received their instructions. They flowed out of that room, then through the house, and out the door. They flew through the sky for miles and miles, directed and sure of their path and destination, until they found the one who had committed the crime. They flew into his window and covered him in his sleep and shriveled his seed so that he would have no heirs, then blackened his member to a lifeless limb.
The brother walked the woman with glasses to the door, still perplexed about what he had witnessed. She turned to him in her smart jacket and her leather bag placed over her shoulder and said, “She will never be the same. All I offer is numbness. There is no cure. She will remember, but she will feel nothing. She will feel nothing for you. She will feel nothing for anyone.” Then she continued, “But you, I am impressed with, as our mutual friend said I would be. I am thinking of retiring soon. When your sister is ready, I believe she can be trained. She will also need a guardian.” She returned him her card. “Call me.”
He stood, holding her card, as she walked out the door and down the path to climb into the black sedan that waited for her. He watched as it drove away.
He returned to his sister, who still lay on the floor. He wanted so much for her. He hoped that she would now be well.
“Is she gone?” her voice said.
“Yeah, she’s gone.”
“I hope that helped you.”
He didn’t understand what she meant by that. Then he thought about it for a little bit, and then he realized that he did.