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Not-Sisters
    by Shannon Peavey

Not-Sisters
Artwork by Michael Wolmarans

There was a man in those days who lived in the house on the hill with a thousand creatures in cages. His mother named him Ludovic, but he called himself Doctor.

He employed a girl from town to help with his work, paying her in gold lumps the size of a baby's tooth. In return, she held the light steady as he put pins in the flight feathers of a terrified bullfinch, skewering it to heavy cardstock. He sketched its shape, measured the length of its claws. And when he was satisfied, he killed it and ate its heart raw.

Though he would answer her questions about the creatures they studied, their qualities and place in the natural order, he paused when she asked why he did it. "Alina," he said, "what do you think about this world? Do you ever doubt what you see? That this is the truest world, the most real?"

"No." Alina was a pragmatic girl.

The doctor smiled and tapped his bloody fingers to his temple. "But I doubt it," he said. "The only world I know to be real is the one I am building in my mind. And once I come to know something, it no longer has reason to exist outside. It exists in me, in the world I'm building, and that's enough."

Alina said nothing and the doctor's smile sharpened. He said, "One day, all things will exist only in me." Then he turned from her and went to clean his hands.

A shiver crept down Alina's spine. Her not-sister hissed to her: Do you hear that? We can't let him know us. Not ever, not ever.

Alina gathered up the dead creature and carried it to the garden. She tried to pinch its ribcage closed, but the bones were snapped too far and the ends wouldn't meet. So she buried it in a shallow hole next to the others, near the grass and a sprawl of white alyssum.

The doctor watched her from a window high in the house. His hands were clean and he had licked all the blood from his teeth. But when Alina looked up, feeling the prickle of his gaze on her neck, he was gone.

All right, we're done, her not-sister said, please let's go home--but Alina said, Don't be a coward. We have things to do here still, and she dusted the black garden-dirt off her skirt and went into the house to get the doctor's supper ready. She made him sour fish soup and sausages and left the meal on the table. She'd never seen him eat anything other than the bloody hearts. But when she came back in the morning, the dishes were always empty--so she supposed he must take some nourishment.

The doctor called to her when she was at the door with her hand on the latch. "Alina," he said. He was somewhere above her and his voice came disembodied down the stairwell like a proclamation from heaven. "Did the things I said frighten you?"

The windows alongside the door showed the sky streaked orange and grey. She had to hurry if she wanted to get home before dark. Her mother was expecting her.

She said, "Yes."

"That's good." The doctor's voice was soothing. "That's your animal instinct for survival. You know it--you've seen it in the beasts, just before we rip out their hearts. But you needn't worry. There are so many things to know before I must know you."

Alina lifted the latch and went out into the dusk. She shut the door firmly behind her and told her pounding heart to calm.

"This one has such color on its wings. Do you see? Like little eyes."

Alina rubbed her hands together. Her fingertips still felt strange after brushing the moth's wings. Some powder had come off and it felt slick and alien on her skin. Nothing she was ever meant to touch. "How do you expect to study everything, when the world is so big and has so many creatures in it?"

The doctor glanced at her briefly, then went back to his work. "Every man has only the time he is given, and he must do what he can with it."

Alina's not-sister whispered: He won't ever die. He'll know everything in the world.

The doctor leaned over the moth, touching its thorax gently with the flat edge of a scalpel. "What an interesting creature," he said. "This coloration, you understand it's for camouflage. To disguise itself as something fearsome, rather than the tasty bite it is."

He tapped it again, and the creature threw itself into a spasm. One wing ripped free of the pins, leaving a jagged hole in its tip. The moth flopped unevenly on the cardstock, still trapped at three corners.

"Alina, another pin," the doctor said sharply.

She bent down and waited for the right moment and then speared the wing with surgical precision. Her aim was good. The moth stilled, crucified against the stiff paper.

But when Alina went to straighten up, the doctor's iron fingers on her shoulders kept her bent low.

"Just a moment." His breath brushed past her ear. His fingers traced patterns on the nape of her neck, just under the collar of her dress. Alina's spine went stiff. Her not-sister screamed in her head to turn around, to jab her fingers into the jelly of his eyes--but she breathed evenly through her teeth and stayed still.

"Why didn't you tell me about this before?"

"About what?"

She knew what he was looking at. The skin all over her back, mottled and tigerstriped. Her mother hated the marks, had hated them since Alina was born. "Cover those ugly things," she would say. "You look like meat that's been burned on a grate."

"They're beautiful," the doctor said. "Do you know what they mean?"

"No."

"It means there were two of you, once." The doctor's fingers ghosted over the knob at the base of her neck. "But you ate your twin in the womb."

"Please let me up," Alina said politely, and the doctor removed his hand.

She stood up and straightened the cardstock, moving it so it was centered on the table. The moth pinned there no longer struggled. "My skin is not a book. It can't tell you my history."

"I wonder if your twin would have been like you," the doctor said. "Or if you ate it because you were too different to exist so closely in the same space."

In Alina's head, her not-sister said nothing at all.

"It's getting late," Alina said. "Would you like to do anything further with this moth before I go?"

"I wonder what it would say, if we could speak to it," the doctor said. "An eaten-up twin. Imagine."

"Not even priests claim to speak to the dead," she said, a bold jut to her chin. "And whatever you may find on my skin, I am the same as when you hired me on."

"Yes," the doctor said. "Isn't it curious what we find we don't know about people?"

Alina turned away. She gathered the doctor's scalpel and all his tools and went to clean them with the bottle of alcohol at the other end of the room.

The doctor ripped the moth from its bindings and popped it in his mouth. He chewed slowly, the hard exoskeleton buckling and breaking under his teeth. "Still, wouldn't you like to speak to your twin? Just to see what it would have been like, to be two instead of one."

"I don't see what difference it would make."

"Give me a few days," the doctor said. "I will make it happen."

Alina swallowed hard, her throat bobbing against the lace collar of her dress. Her not-sister was stirring, unsure of what to think. What--could he let me speak--

"I must go now," Alina said.

"Of course. Good night, Alina."

"Good night, Doctor."

"I'll see you tomorrow."

She nodded, and swept out to the hall with her not-sister hammering at the corners of her mind. We've done it, Alina said, a smile fighting hard to surface but she pushed it back--bright triumph pulsing along with her heartbeat. She had always feared the doctor, but had also known she might use that ferocious curiosity. We've put him to work for us.

And her not-sister, faintly: What--does he say I might speak--

At home that night, Alina picked at her stuffed cabbages while her mother talked about Mr. Petrescu's son. "He's such a good boy," she said. "So respectful. And strong! Muscles the size of my head." She winked and smiled with her mouth full. She reached down to scratch her withered right leg, stretched out beside the table and propped up on a footstool.

Alina was quiet for a moment, picturing Radu's muscles. They really were quite big. But there were other things to think about.

She cleared away the dishes and her mother poured some clear liquor into a glass and sat drinking it, scratching her leg with the tines of her fork. Alina went outside and sat down on the steps, resting her head back against the door and staring at the stars.

Don't you want to speak? she asked her not-sister.

Her not-sister said back: I want to live.

I know, Alina said. I know.

She put her hand over her own heart and felt its steady beat. She wondered whose secrets were housed inside it--what knowledge would burst forth when it was crushed between teeth and tongue. Her own, or the ghost twin woven into her body like a ribbon.

It didn't matter. She reached back behind her head and rapped on the door. "Mama, I'm going out to walk."

"All right," her mother said, her voice muffled through the wood. "Be back before dark."

It was already dark. Alina got to her feet and walked down to the lane, listening to the soft nighttime noises of the neighbor's sheep behind their rough plank fence.

How arrogant, to think that one man's mind could contain the whole world. And yet when he said it, she almost believed. That she could go on living after he killed her, copied perfectly into the cavern of his skull--or maybe, more accurately, that she wasn't living at all; that she and everyone else were only dolls that ceased to dance when the doctor closed his eyes.

She crossed a bridge halfway and stood with her head down watching the water ripple as it parted around clogged and rotting waterweeds. If she looked up, she could see the lit windows like a constellation of stars in the doctor's house on the hill. But she didn't look up.

You could go, her not-sister said. We could still run. You're not tied down here.

Not now. Now he's finally offered us a chance.

Why did you ever take this job?

At first? Because it paid well. Mama needs the money.

And now?

Alina put her thumb in her mouth and bit the side of it and worked a little sliver of skin free with her teeth.

You never listen to me, her not-sister said sullenly, and retreated to the back of Alina's mind.

Right, Alina said with sudden fury. Because you would do things so differently, if you had been the one who lived.

Her not-sister said: I would.

The lights in the doctor's house stayed lit all night long.

When she arrived the next day, the house on the hill was filled with the smell of lacquer. Alina hesitated at the door, her hand on the latch, but the doctor called her inside. So she went.

"Good morning."

"Good morning," she said, and hung back watching him as he poured a cup of thick brown liquid into a mixing bowl.

The doctor pointed at one of his dining-room chairs with one brown-spattered, ungloved hand. "Come on and sit down."

"What is it for?"

"Don't be stupid, girl, I'm not going to hurt you," he said. "It's for your own good."

Alina stepped slowly over to the chair, eying the bowl of brown lacquer. Strips of something soft floated in it. "This is about yesterday. What you said about my twin."

"Of course it is." He flapped his hand at her. "Sit, sit."

You could kill him now. His hands are busy.

I'm doing this for you, Alina said.

She sat. "What are you going to do?"

He didn't say anything right away. He picked up the bowl and came to the chair and circled around it. "I've learned a thing or two in my time," was all he said.

He took her chin in his hand and tilted her head back. He closed her eyes with his fingertips.

Alina breathed deeply. The doctor ran his knuckles down the side of her face, his own expression momentarily blank and then broadening into something stranger. Like the look men sometimes take on when they're presented with something they've always wanted, but never imagined they would receive.

He smoothed a thin coat of wax over her face, his hands making broad strokes over her cheekbones. She swallowed and tried to recapture the feeling of sharp triumph she'd had the day before. I want this. I do. He's playing right into my hands.

The doctor reached into his bowl and took his hand out dripping and carefully laid a strip of soaked linen over Alina's forehead. She startled, unable to see his hand approaching, alarmed at the cold, slick feel of the cloth on her face. She said, "What are you doing?" and he laid a finger along her lips.

"Do not move," he said. "Don't speak."

He left traces of lacquer behind on her lips that she could taste. It slid into her mouth and up into her sinuses. Her throat worked but she said nothing. The doctor laid another strip of linen below her hairline.

Then he covered her eyes. "No--" she said.

"Stop." He rapped her jaw with the back of his knuckles. "You will be fine."

Then he pressed down, gently, making the soaked linen take the shape of her brow and the bridge of her nose and her closed eyelids.

Alina held still. Her fingers worked wildly, tensing and releasing on the seat of the chair until an impression of the edge worked into her palm. But she kept her face still.

The doctor worked his way down her face, carefully laying linen and molding it to the curves of her skin. He left a gap at the base of her nose for Alina to breathe through, though every breath came heavy with the stench of lacquer.

The mask he was making wasn't a copy of her face. He took care in certain places to shape it differently. He would pause, and tilt his head like he was listening to something. Then he made the cheekbones a little broader, gave the nose a slight arch. It wasn't like when he studied his creatures. He didn't speculate aloud to Alina, spreading his knowledge just for the joy of hearing it in the air--instead he kept silent. He worked the mask, and he stopped to listen.

It wasn't hard, the doctor thought. Alina wore her sister very close to her skin.

It became hard for Alina to move as the mask took shape and hardened over her face. At first she sat still because the doctor commanded it. But as the mask started to curve around her jawline, she tried to unclench her hands and found that they didn't want to go. Like stubborn mules. She told them to move, and they would not.

"Not much longer, now," the doctor said.

Impossible to tell how much time had passed. Not with her eyes closed and the doctor's fingers crawling all over her face. Alina had been sitting there, utterly still, long enough for her tongue to dry and crust to the top of her mouth. The doctor hummed to himself as he swished the cloth strips at the bottom of the bowl.

He laid a final strip and stepped back. "It's done. Stay still a while and let it dry."

She couldn't have moved if she wanted to. She said to her not-sister, Is this you? But her not-sister said nothing back.

The doctor left the hall, his footsteps ringing sharply on the hardwood floor. Alina listened to him go. She counted her breaths while he was gone, but she'd long lost count by the time he came back.

He rapped on Alina's cheek with his fingertips and the mask stayed solid under his touch. "Good," he said. "It's dry enough. I'll peel it off."

He worked a thin file under the edge and then pulled with his fingers. The mask sucked off her face with a sound like a bubble popping and cold air rushed back to her tender skin and all of a sudden Alina could move again. Like she had been released from some prison. She bent double in the chair and held her head in her hands. Feeling every inch of skin on her face, unsure it still belonged to her.

The doctor took the mask over to a side table and set it down. He looked for a moment at the face sightlessly staring up at him and then he plucked his scalpel from his breast pocket. He worked the tip of the blade into the thin seam at the corner of the mouth. Carefully, he cut a slit between the stiff cloth lips.

Alina still sat folded over in the dining room chair. He took the mask in his hand and went to her and put his hand on her shoulder, pressing her back to sit upright. "Are you ready?"

"Yes," she said, clamping her hands into fists. She didn't know what she was agreeing to, but people weren't rewarded for passing up chances when they were offered. She wouldn't end up like her mother, quiet and safe until the moment she was felled on her back with dirt in her mouth and her leg twisted under the plow.

"I've been looking forward to this," the doctor said, his face intent. "I am eager to know your other half."

He clapped the mask back on her face.

And the thing started screaming.

The doctor looked calmly at his assistant and the mask screaming on her face. He said, "Who is in there screaming?"

He didn't let the noise bother him. It didn't answer him right away, and so he stood there with his hands clasped, letting it scream itself out.

When it quieted, he said again: "Who is in there? To whom am I speaking?"

The mask said, "Why should I answer you?"

"You're angry."

"I am," it said. It clenched Alina's hands into fists. "All these years and I've been alive but I haven't been living. I was just a passenger in her brain. A parasite."

The doctor nodded and went back to the table with his tools and scalpels on it, deliberately showing the thing his back. "You are the eaten-up twin."

Alina's not-sister didn't waste her opportunity. She snapped forward and crossed the hall in an instant and then she had her hands clasped around the doctor's throat. "Nobody's eaten me," she said.

The doctor sighed, a little disappointed. Although he hadn't expected different, not really.

Then he slammed his elbow back into the girl's gut, and she went staggering back with the breath knocked out of her. The doctor spun and knocked the mask off her face with the flat of his hand. It clattered to the floor and rocked there for a moment, chittering on the hardwood. Then it was still.

"Ingrate," the doctor said.

Alina stood petrified in the middle of the hall, her hand at her face. "How," she said.

The doctor stepped over and clapped her on the shoulder. "I must say I'm glad you were the one who survived," he said, a smile on his lips. He bent down to retrieve the mask and then gave it to Alina. She took it automatically. It was rough in her hands, still patterned like stiff cloth. The face so much like hers, yet different.

"You're just going to give it to me?"

The doctor shrugged. "It's yours to do with as you will. Use it, destroy it, I don't care. It's fragile enough; you can break it on your own."

He strolled down the hall with his hands in his pockets. Alina looked once more at her dark twin, at the slash of its mouth, and then she followed him. "You made it speak, and now you'll just let me destroy it?"

"Of course," he said. "I know the twin exists, and now I've spoken to it and learned its character. It doesn't interest me any further."

He gave her a flat look that made Alina's mouth dry up.

"I wonder, though," he said. "Do you feel any different?"

What do you mean, she almost said. The words were on the tip of her tongue. But then something made her twist and pull out the collar of her dress and peer at her own shoulder.

The marks were gone.

She spoke to her not-sister without even thinking about it. What do you think about this--What will we do, after all this--

But no one answered her.

It was lonelier than she'd expected.

She held up the mask to eye level and said, "We always wanted bodies of our own."

The mask's expression never changed.

Alina's mother slept snoring at the kitchen table, tilted back in her chair with a half-empty glass at her elbow.

Just to see if it works, Alina told herself. Just this once.

She crept upstairs to pull the mask from her trunk of clothes, from under a pile of thick winter wools.

She wouldn't wear the mask herself, because she remembered how her not-sister had controlled her. But it itched at her, how the thing was so still and she couldn't even tell if her not-sister was inside it anymore.

Her mother didn't wake. Not when Alina stepped close enough to count the grey hairs sprinkled through her bun like coarse silver wire. She wouldn't wake even if Alina shook her, not when she was like this.

Carefully, Alina slipped the mask over her face. It slipped and stuck, firm as a second skin.

Then her mother jolted like she'd been shocked and Alina's not-sister said, "Oh Alina. Sister, how could you have done this to me."

"I didn't know he was going to trap you in there."

"But he did," she hissed, furious. "You did. You trapped me in this thing."

"I saw a chance for us," Alina said, and she was tired of explaining it. To her not-sister, to herself.

"A chance for me to ride my mother's body like a tick on a dog."

"No," Alina said. "No, of course not."

Her not-sister raised their mother's black-knuckled hand to her face to pry off the mask. Before she did, she said, "Did you stay with the doctor so long because you thought he would separate us?"

"I didn't know it," Alina said. "But I knew he was clever and curious and that if we had any chance of freeing ourselves, it was with him."

"And did you know he was a killer?"

"Of course I did. How could I not?" An acceptable risk, Alina thought.

"Sometimes I wish you'd eaten my mind along with my body." Her not-sister tucked a finger under the edge of the mask and slipped it off her face.

The sound of the mask hitting the floor didn't break her mother's sleep. In moments, she was snoring again. Alina watched her face for a long while and then she took the mask from the floor and retreated back up to her room.

She wore the mask knotted on her sash, from then on. Riding on her hip. When the doctor saw it, he sneered but made no comment.

"If I ate your heart," Alina said, "would I learn everything that you know?"

The doctor raised his eyebrows. "What do you think?"

She looked at him for a long moment and then looked away.

The doctor moved across the room to the window. He looked out into the garden and said, "Did you know I lived once in the southern jungles? For some time, actually. Learning the culture. Learning the people."

"I didn't know," she said, though she wasn't surprised. If the doctor told her he'd spent time on the moon she wouldn't be surprised, except that she still saw it in the sky.

"Yes." He looked at her with his head tilted and he smiled. "The locals there had a very curious practice. Because they were beset by tigers, you see. They would wear a mask tied to the back of their head while they went out in the mangroves--to protect themselves. Tigers are cunning creatures, and they won't attack a man while he's watching. They'll wait til his back is turned, then jump on him and rip out his spine."

Alina said nothing. She wished they had been working. At least then she would have had something to do with her hands.

"Isn't that pitiable?" he said. "How can they think that will protect them? Not for long. Don't they know the beasts will learn?"

Alina looked past him to the pale light shining through the window. "Are you telling me a parable?"

"No," he said. "Just a story to pass the time."

"Did you know, I saw that Radu today--he's so handsome! And do you know what he was doing? He--"

"Mama," Alina said. "I don't want to hear about Radu."

"I was just talking," her mother said. "No need to snap."

The doctor did not call her for hours one morning. That wasn't so strange, and Alina busied herself lighting lamps and cleaning away dishes. He would find her when there was work to be done. She had so lost herself in the work that when he did call her, it was a surprise.

"Alina, please come here." His voice came echoing down the hall and for a moment she couldn't trace its origins. She left the dishes on the table and set off through the house, her footsteps clacking on the hardwood.

Silent, unheard, deep in the mask, Alina's not-sister said: This is the day he's going to kill you.

But Alina thought it, too. It was in the way the lamplight bounced through the hallway, the way the doctor's voice echoed. Hollow and full of promise.

"Doctor?" she called, and he called back, "In here." Somewhere behind her. She doubled back and stood outside the door trying to hear what he was doing inside.

"Come in, girl."

She opened the door.

And the doctor was there, right when she stepped inside. He took her arm and his grip was granite. "You didn't listen to your animal brain this time," he murmured, his breath hot in her ear. "What did your instincts tell you?"

"I'm not an animal."

"You know that's not true." He ran one hand up her arm and kept the other clamped around her wrist. "Look at you. The fear stench of you. I can almost see your heart beating."

Alina's free hand was on the mask, quietly twisting at the knot that held it. "You said I was safe." The knot held and her fingertips kept skidding off it. "You said there were other things to know."

"So I learned them."

He yanked her close and clutched her to his chest. The top of her head slotted neatly under his chin. "I wonder what your heart will taste like," he said. "I bet it will be bitter."

Alina sank her teeth into his arm. She clenched on until her teeth almost met through his flesh and a hot spurt of blood welled up and smeared on her chin.

The doctor sucked in a breath but didn't cry out. He staggered back and Alina pushed back with him and stepped hard onto his ankle and toppled him to the floor. He landed badly and his head made a sound on the floorboards like wet washing slapped out on a river stone.

Alina scrambled up onto his chest and put her knees in his gut. She leaned over close to his face while her hands sought out the scalpel he kept in his breast pocket, and she flashed him a bloody-toothed smile. "You don't know me as well as you think."

He thrashed under her knees but didn't have the breath to speak. A low airless wheeze sucked out of him and his eyes rolled in their sockets.

She kept one hand on his throat and hacked at her sash with the scalpel. One-handed, it took a few strokes. But then the mask dropped free and landed on the ground next to the doctor's bloodied arm.

Alina picked it up. She said, "Thank you for everything you've taught me, Doctor." And she placed the mask on his face.

Immediately, the body under her knees ceased to struggle.

Alina waited for a moment more with her hand on its throat and then she got up and stood to the side. She rolled her lips over her teeth, trying to clear them of the blood taste. "Are you there?"

"Yes."

The doctor's body sat up. It touched its arm gingerly, probing the extent of the bite wound.

Alina watched her not-sister curiously. "Is the doctor still in there? Can you feel him?"

Her not-sister shrugged. "Not well. I imagine he's watching this."

She got to her feet slowly, and refused Alina's hand when it was offered. "You let him do such monstrous things to you."

"I did it for you," Alina said.

"No you didn't." Her not-sister clamped a hand over her arm and smiled bitterly. It was an expression that had never before graced the doctor's face, and it was invisible behind the mask. "You're going to be glad to see the back of me."

"We're different people. We should have different bodies."

Her not-sister nodded and set toward the door. "I know. But I think it was good for you, having me in your head watching what you were doing."

She opened the door and went out and held it for Alina. Alina followed her into the hallway and wondered that she didn't feel anything stronger, what with blood on her hands and in her teeth and her not-sister standing there in the doctor's body.

"We're still sisters."

"I know it," her not-sister said. "And I appreciate what you've done. But if you stay here I'll tear your eyes out."

"All right," Alina said. "That's fine."

For a moment, they stood watching each other. Alina's not-sister rolled the doctor's shoulders and marveled at the feeling of muscles controlled by thought.

"What about his world?" Alina said. "The one he was building in his mind. Do you see it?"

"I can't see it," her not-sister said. She gave a sour laugh. "Maybe you could."

Alina nodded. It was a waste, she thought--the animals and people he had gathered there, all gone. "Goodbye, Doctor."

Her not-sister inclined her head. "Goodbye, Alina."

They parted ways in the hall. Alina walked out toward the door; her not-sister stood where she was and watched her go. One of them thought: it couldn't have worked out any other way. The other one worked a piece of the doctor's flesh free of her back teeth. She wondered what his heart would have tasted like, after all.

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