In the Year of Long Division

They were always breaking bones across the street. Knuckled and fisted, those boys had bruised voices that traveled, raised. We could hear them in the alley in the night behind our house, the curtains swelling in a room still shared. We lay in bed awake and listened. Brothers, they did it to themselves, our mother said, to each other, she supposed; a leg, a crushed elbow, knees--deserved. We were female in our house. We cracked the windows for air, my sister said, for better winter breathing.

Days, we saw those boys in the sun, in snow, pants slit up the seams; the quick glint of a splinted finger, foam. Our neighbors were whistling, snow-slinging, crutching. Their socks were rough and thermal. Wool, maroon--the grimed red of a scab where a shoe was gone. We thought the casts were dyed. We saw wobbles and scribbles. Names were named in ink.

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At first, we could not tell those boys apart or, in the holler and tilt of them in motion, just how many of them there really were. We were strangers to their injuries. Girls. We dressed in mostly purses and dresses, straps flat and narrow down the hollows of our shoulders, straight, neat--not a collarbone banged, not a square patch of bandage at an eye to keep the eye tight shut.

The boys' mother was missing a breast, our mother said. She said, "Those boys are good for trouble, fatherless boys like those. Look out."

We looked out from indoors. Nose-to-glass, we looked, fogging, we looked, through the damp of our exhalations, downstairs, upstairs, piggyback--we saw scenes through see-through curtains, a shadow boxing with a shade, something bubbled, tubside--every which way we could find to look, we did; one and the other, and once--or was it twice?--both, in a wash, shriveled and skin-shedding, soaked in looks of bathroom-window-frosted boy. Rings ringed the tub. We left smudges in our wake of who knew what.

Rust. Spit. Lotion. Spit and polish, spray and wax, and gabardine going dotty in a closet, smells, plugs, the smell of Mother, and starch, and rutted underfoot wood, patent leather and nails, bleach, blood, gum and balls of hair balls in the drain--this was our house.

We girls were squealing-clean.

Inside, we knew our number. We could count on it wholesome, even, and Mother made three.

We were shy of nothing so much as the faces.

We were not of one mind. Those underhanded boys, our mother said, were throwing rocks and sticks in our direction. They were capable of damage. They had matches, those boys, and stink bombs and canes. Their wrists were thick and knobby. Growing boys, they were winging grenades at the stoops on both sides of the street, and there was recent talk of missiles.

"Poor, poor her," our mother said, speaking of the mother of the boys. "It's in the glands," our mother said. "Pits--pits of apricots," our mother had been overheard to say into the phone when we were busy overhearing. "Glands.... Bananas.... A holy hill of beans," our mother said, "and not a man in clear sight."

But whose heart was beating hardest?

This was in the year of falling and falling and falling snow. Day and night, night and day and afternoon--it did not matter. There were drifts above the height of our imaginings. Sisters, not twins, we were not the same in body and build, but in the alley in back, our booted feet went sliding higher in tandem than the various places where otherwise our heads might more rightly have been.

It was the year of hocus-pocus and underwater voodoo--"Do you do it, too?" my sister said--and making angels on our backs. We leaked. Boots and tights and shins, all dripping. Our jackets had been lacking. Slushy, and full of the smell of ourselves and of synthetic, sopping fleece, we poured our sorrows out to Mother. We exploded in sneezes, emptied our purses, slid weak ankles in the stream of the tap.

"Lukewarm," our mother said, and not, as we had thought, hot.

The drain choked. We were mottled and tender and to blame for flowing over. We should have worn pants, our mother said.

Girls will be girls. We should have worn gloves for making pristine bricks.

Because those boys were building fortresses and hospitals. Headlong, in a rush of fresh construction, there was one of those boys erecting bases and silos and hotels with special access--or so we thought we'd heard.

It was the hard packing snow with slivered ice. It was good, we believed, for inflammations. It had quieted the air to punch-drunk.

Our ears rang.

Blue, in the insubstantial hours under covers, stray syllables between us were strange and often lost. Long halls wandered window-lit alone turned to blind and empty spaces, hushful and soft, and holding only the soft sounds of Mother on a late, blind line.

We sisters swapped our beds. Lonely, we took to stuffing pillows up high beneath our dresses, admired the effect and learned to squint. Mysterious machinery appeared beneath our windows. Those busy, industrious, and backbreaking boys were in possession of equipment of a glorious kind. We were glowing in reflection. But no one had a shovel.

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