Each June, sisters slink up from the swamp. Spanish moss clings to their arms. Uprooted blueberry bushes drag in their wake, zigzagging black sand. The butch ones drape water moccasins around their necks like bowties, but most wear nothing. Mud clumps on their hair and skin. They lurch forward, bone thin and hungry, picking the pine needles from their teeth and ears. This year I am twelve, and I've brought my lasso. I'm determined to be an only child no longer.
Townspeople and tourists line the street. Some hold mimosas. Others grip cameras. The running of the sisters used to be strictly local, but since R. J. Glass, the travel writer, wrote us up in American Zoo, journalists and gawkers come in hoards. There are diabetics in wheelchairs, epileptics, cancer patients, psychotics: all hoping to be healed. There are bachelors, too, who smell of refuse and wear willow branches behind their ears. I laugh at these men and whisper, "As if." Still, we locals are protective, and the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, link arms to form a human chain between the crowd and the gauntlet. There are rumors of bounty hunters. The mothers want only to keep our sisters safe.
The sisters, though, do not exist to be safe. A redhead leers at a fire hydrant. A cross-eyed brunette bites the ankle of a child. They have scars and tattoos and lick dried chewing gum off the streets. They defecate where they please. The smell of smoked meat makes them wild, and travelers have set up grills. A tiny sister drags herself forward on her elbows, stopping to hump a sidewalk curb. An outsider with a high collar and black shoes shouts for this sister to repent, and I nod in approval as officers carry him away. The sisters belong to us, and our love is fierce. I feel no pity. The little one crawls away snarling, and, between her teeth, I see her tongue like a snake in her mouth.
The sisters slither quickly now, gnawing and gnashing their way to the high school. Lonely boys, boys like me, race behind them. I spy baseball bats beneath tucked elbows, canvas sacks, hammers, knives, and sandwich baggies of stripped jerky. In the woods by my house, I've been planting a garden. I have skunk cabbage and ragweed and a few tall cattails that whisper when wind blows. I water my plants with buckets that I fill from the creek. I pull up weeds when they sprout. When I bring my sister home, I want her to love me.
At the low end of the soccer field, where JV teams do sprints and summer stoners play guitar, the sisters will gather. Their hum is like distant thunder, and we lean in to hear. Gradually, their voices leap higher, each one off-pitch from the others, until the thrum of overtones vibrates inside us, rattling the thin spaces between our teeth. The music, if you can call it that, quakes the ear. I push my way to the front of the spiraling crowd, a ribbon of indignant men in my wake. There're perks to being small.
My throat stings. My eyes water. I can see blood on one sister's arm and rivulets where tears or sweat crisscrossed her cheeks. The sulfur smell is strong here. I've never had a better view. The littlest sister, the one I saw before, has her head back and her eyes closed. Her wail rips inside me, and I grip my rope tighter. I've heard that love is a river, but never before have I felt such a surge. When I throw my lasso, I pray it's her I catch.
Around me are other boys. Across the circle, a teenager nods. His eyes are narrow, and the feeling of our exchange is a handshake before a duel. I square my shoulders and do my best to look big. He is watching the same sister I am. His fingers grip a baton.
One by one, the sisters rise. Their calves tremble. They grip one another's elbows for balance. Swamp grass slips off thin limbs. It is hard for me to watch this part, the sisters' buttocks and small breasts bared to all. Their beauty astounds me. Soon, they will raise their arms and shed their skin, and it is then I will lasso my girl. All around me, I hear feet shifting. Boys and men are planting their heels, bracing for fight. I uncoil my rope.
The sisters shiver and sing louder. I keep my eyes on the tallest girls, waiting to see who will signal first, but in the end it is my own teeny sister who raises her arms and begins the renewal. Mud slips off her back and belly, dropping like ice from a glacier, shattering when it hits the mud-stomped field. Velvety and brand-new, she gleams. Even the photographers are stilled. I pull back my throwing arm, but as I let go, a light, white and blinding, illuminates the circle. My lasso is rising, but my aim is off. My dreams are a halo vanishing, a gift snatched away.
I'm looking up when I feel the crowd sway. It happens in a moment, stillness broken. I fall and raise my hands over my skull. Pain bolts my spine. Cleats and galoshes pound my back. I close my eyes and pretend I am elsewhere, but it's no use. I have become dirt upon which a mad crowd flees.
Limp in the field, I wish for survival. When the stampede recedes, thick hands haul me into the trailer of a semi. Before a door closes and hot air turns black, I see legs and arms, bleeding and bent. I hear weeping and wince at the tugging of my hair. We are caged, the sisters and I, bound for some horror, but it's not fear I feel. It's joy.
More nights than I can count, I've dreamt moments like this, a boy alone surrounded by sisters. No crowd in sight. Now that it's happening, my heart slows. Wheels turn beneath us, but there are no windows through which we can gaze. With luck comes misfortune, and I try not to panic. I pat a limb of some nearby sister, but she spits and I kick her. Who am I to call them my own? To think their presence could change me? All around me they scratch and howl. We know not where we go. We are darkness and we are moving. This is family. I am one.
Anya Groner's stories and essays can be found in journals including Ninth Letter, Carolina Quarterly, the Georgia Review, the Rumpus, and the Oxford American. Currently, she teaches writing at Loyola University in New Orleans and is at work on a novel.
Art: The sun that pins branches to the sky (2013) by Xochi Silos. Solis is a painter living and working in Austin, Texas.