My sister hates me. But I’m not sure if I hate her. I was just learning about the Egyptians in school and told Eliya. I told her about Cleopatra and she said, “Tryphaena had the right idea.”
I don’t know who Tryphaena is. She must be awful.
My sister said Tryphaena was the sister of Cleopatra. That Tryphaena had her younger siblings all killed but Cleopatra. Even her father was murdered. Cleopatra’s favorite sister, Berenice, was killed too.
My sister won’t tell me why she hates me.
I mean, I say sister. She is my step-sister. Half-sister. Like Cleopatra was to Tryphaena. And Tryphaena hated Cleopatra. With a passion.
She lay on her stomach on the bed we share. She was reading, her necklace dangling over the pages and following the line of the words. Eliya was reading a crime novel with gusto. She loves crime novels. She loves reading about murder.
I think Eliya is creepy. I know she hates me.
Eliya looked down at me, reading about Cleopatra, down on the floor. Though I didn’t see it, her eyes quickened, and she smiled slightly.
“Hey Eileen,” she said, quietly, lowly.
“Reading about old Cleo, huh?”
“Did Dad ever tell you about your mother?”
My heart sped up. She better not say what I think she’s about to. She hated my mother. My father left Eliya’s mother for mine. My mother is dead now. We have a brother; Heed. He’s three. His mother is our stepmother.
Queens, sisters, queens, sisters. We were like Elizabeth and Bloody Mary, we were like Cleopatra and Tryphaena. I was Elizabeth, I was Cleopatra. She was Mary, Tryphaena. She hated me, and I had no idea why.
She said, “Did Dad ever tell you about your mother?”
I did not reply.
She threw her book at me, “Look at me!” she screamed.
I got up and ran. I ran and hid in the root cellar, my favorite place to hide. She clomped down the stairs and hissed into the darkness.
“I know you’re there. I know you are.
“You know your mother? She was a wretch. She was a thieving, chain-smoking, Prohibition-lobbying drunk. She hated you!”
Her voice rose to a shriek. I burrowed farther into the potatoes. I squeezed my eyes shut, so hard it hurt. I tried to shut her voice out of my head.
“She HATED you.”
Eliya’s voice broke. “She hated you. She left you. She tried to sell you for drinking money. Dad didn’t know. She tried to sell you in the backalleys, but the bootleggers didn’t want a baby. Dad only barely got her out of prison for drinking during Prohibition.
“She hated you. She died because she hated you so much.”
A tear dropped into the potatoes. Tears were leaking from my eyes, and I dared not raised my hand to wipe them away.
“She was a flapper girl. Before she met Dad she was a drunkard who went and danced for clubs in a flapper costume. She hated you.
“She hated me.”
There was silence for a long time, and then I raised my head. Eliya was gone. I went to the library and tried to forget what she’d said. But I couldn’t.
That night Eliya rolled over and whispered in my ear.
“Do you know what I want? I want to be like Cleopatra. I want to be free and not have to stay in one place. I want to die. I want to live. I’m going to be young, I’m going to act. I’ll make money and drive a bus or a taxi. I’m taller than the rafters, I’ll feel the good cold wind. I’ve seen the script, it’s all a hoax. I’ve played my part.
“When I die, I’m going to die alone.”
I was still. I pretended to be asleep.
Suddenly she grabbed my shoulders and she started crying. “Don’t leave me, Eileen, I love you. I hate you. Never let me go, please. Don’t leave me alone.”
She released my shoulder and fell back to her side. I could hear her crying softly.
I stared into the blackness for a long time.
Eliya was one of a kind. She was a stranger to my family; she always had been. Our father could not understand her. She was like a witch, one with a bubbling potion, one who cast spells and ruined lives.
She went out at night, without permission. It was before the Depression; 1934, just after Prohibition was repealed. I worried she drank. I don’t know what she went and did at night. She could play the piano well. Maybe she did that.
Every so often she’d repeat that she wanted to be like Cleopatra, like Bloody Mary with no ties to anything. With no one to hold her down. She said she hated me, she loved me.
She hated me, she hated my father.
Never let me go, never let me go, never let me go…
Her words stuck to me. I couldn’t shake them.
I would often cry over her. I had no pity for her, for what she did, but I worried about what she was thinking. About what she might go and do.
She refused to associate with flapper girls, as she called them. Girls with short skirts and lots of jewellery, who stood in pairs in doorways and at street corners and laughed at passersby.
I think she wanted to be like them, but Dad wouldn’t let her. I thought she liked them. They were like Cleopatra. They were like Mary. They were wild and free and they had no strings attached to them.
All Hallow’s Eve came. I had a dog named Halloween. Eliya hated Halloween, the dog and the holiday. I loved them both.
I liked the flapper girls. I decided to dress as one, for All Hallow’s Eve. I took shawls and used them as skirts. I took my mother’s long train of pearls and looped them around my neck. I took an old bowler hat and cut the rim off for a flapper’s hat, I practiced the Lindy Hop and talking slang. I showed Dad, and he roared with laughter.
I went and sat on the doorstep and waited for Eliya to come home from school. She was in high school. I was in third grade. She was what dreams were made of, for me.
When she came I stood and showed off my outfit, smiling.
She took one look at my costume and burst into tears and ran upstairs.
I still haven’t figured out why she hates me.