Spines of the Saguaro

by Audra Coleman

Editor’s Note

The Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville is an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study. It was designed for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLAS program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. We are pleased to include works from the Creative Writing concentration in our publication.

“O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

Six months ago, my older sister Ree had every divine word of it tattooed onto the back of her right shoulder blade. In less than three hours, each black cursive letter was needled deep into her epidermis that engulfed every particle of the foreign pigment injected into it. So I can’t say I was totally surprised when she called at 3 a.m. wanting me to go with her in search of Christ to be found somewhere in the New Mexican desert.

As soon as I heard the first ring, I knew it was her. She’s the only one who ever calls me in the middle of the night. No drunk ex-boyfriends wanting to come over. No crying best friend needing a ride home. Only Ree.

“Hey. Are you up?” she whispered.

“Are you okay? Why are you whispering?” I asked with my eyes still shut.

“Are you okay?” she said elongating the words, saying each of them in an even heavier and more dramatic whisper before laughing. “What are you doing? Did I wake up you up?”

“I feel like you already know the answer to that,” I answered, sitting up.

“I know. Sorry. I mean, I’m kind of sorry.” Then, the quiet pause of a smoker’s inhale. “I’m not totally sorry because I have an idea.” Turning on the light, I found my jeans, pulled them on, and began to look for my own pack of cigarettes.

“We need to quit smoking—both of us. We’re too old for this shit. It’s just stupid at this point,” I said.

“Okay. We can quit on the trip. For real—I’ll quit with you, we can quit together.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about right now, Ree.” I wondered why I had even said that about quitting smoking. I knew I wasn’t going to quit. I firmly believed I couldn’t write one worthy sentence without smoking. “What trip are you talking about?” I unlocked the door to my apartment’s “balcony,” which was really just a narrow fire escape platform, the kind you find attached to the side of old brick buildings found in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Chicago, each scaffold above the other, diagonal stairs zigzagging down from one metal platform to the next.

They aren’t as easy to imagine in downtown Iowa City. They don’t inspire the same urban vitality felt when Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint scramble up one in order to access the roof or when Tony and Maria stand above the streets of Lincoln Square and sing their love for one another. These are not the fire escapes of Hitchcock’s Grace Kelly or Holly Golightly singing “Moon River.” Still, I had taken the apartment solely because of it, a small outdoor escape, to feel the breeze on my face, to sun my legs while writing, but, more truthfully, I wanted it as an easy place to have a smoke.

When the manager showed it to me, he had made it very clear—the apparatus was for “s-a-f-e-t-y purposes only,” that city codes, for this very reason, prohibited keeping anything on them. He raised both his eyebrows and looked hard at me. I nodded my head indicating that I understood, but within the first week, I had spent half a night’s tips on two enormous terracotta pots and had staggered under their weight as I carried each one up four flights of stairs so I could plant pink geraniums in them. I pulled the last cigarette from my pack and lit it. “Where? And when? I’m right in the middle of finals—I have like two huge papers due by the end of this week.”

“Jesus, aren’t you a fucking PhD by now? This trip might actually give you something to write about. You’ll be famous. Like, fucking New York Times bestseller famous.” I inhaled thinking I might not even make it through my masters.

“I’m not kidding, Ree. I seriously have like forty pages due in three days, and I think I have three sentences written. Three—it’s not good.” I thought about my professor, how she hated everything I wrote. Cliché. Too forced. Too easy. Not believable. Static. Trying way too hard.

“Okay—so after that, when you finish.”

“I still have no idea what we are even talking about.” The streets were quiet, only the occasional red taillights of a car, a man crossing the street with his tiny dog, its tags jingling from its collar.

“Okay. So there’s this place a client told me about. So random. It’s a monastery in New Mexico. Christ in the Desert. That’s what it’s called. It’s got like fucking for-real monks, like brown-robes-with-braided-belts kind of monks. And—it’s seriously—like in the middle of the fucking desert.”

I knew then she had been drinking, not because she wanted the two of us to drive across the country to New Mexico to find Christ, but because Ree only says “fuck” when drunk. “You can’t even call the place. They seriously–don’t–have–a–fucking–phone. You have to write a letter telling them that you’re coming.” Inhale. “Two weeks, that’s all I’m asking.”

“So we’re going to spend two weeks in a monastery? In the middle of the desert? Praying?”

“We’ll figure it out on the way. The two of us.” I didn’t say anything and after a few seconds of silence she said, “You know if I go out there without you, I might not come back. I might just stay out there in the desert, and you know you would miss me. You know you fucking would.”

She meant it as a joke, said it to make me smile, but it was too easy to imagine Ree not coming back, too easy to imagine her sitting out beside a rundown trailer with flashing Christmas lights surrounded by only red desert. I could easily imagine her under the scorching sun, roasting her porcelain skin with no hat, no sunscreen—her desiccated skin splitting apart, splintering the tattooed words written across her shoulder. She would be half-starved, her ribs protruding from eating only a single can of tuna day after day. I could already smell it on her breath. I was sure she would stand naked under all those burning stars lightyears away. I saw her screaming into all that universal darkness to taunt distant coyotes jealous of her ability to starve on end. I was certain they would mockingly yelp back from shadows left unmapped. I did not want to see her bleeding hands, wrecked from clawing into the dying earth in search of something that once belonged to her. It was simply too easy to see her die out there, the vultures circling overhead waiting to rip her rotten flesh from bone, too easy to hear “Besame Mucho” sung on her shitty radio just twenty-five yards away from her baking body. I did not want to find her like that, face down in the thirsty earth, and that’s why I agreed to go—because all of that—every single bit of it was just too easy to imagine.

I had always known that Ree and I could not survive independently of each other. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. England, had stood in front of the class and written the words “Mutualism” and “Symbiosis” in big letters across the black board and shown the class a glossy picture of a fat bumblebee surrounded by a wild tuft of scarlet petals opening to the summer sun. We searched our dictionaries for the words nectar, pollination, coevolution. With our small index fingers, we tightly pinned the words on the page as we looked back and forth from dictionary to paper tediously copying every word of the definitions. The next day she talked about clownfish and anemones, how the small banded fish live among the Medusa tentacles of sea anemones, how they protect the anemones from the fish who prey upon them, and in turn, how the stinging tentacles of the anemone protect the clownfish from its predators by injecting them with a dose of venom, a mix of neurotoxins that instantly paralyzes the aggressor. She explained how a special mucus covers the clownfish, how it allows the clownfish to remain unaffected from the toxic sting of its host. A week later she placed in front of us our unit test. The last question asked for one specific example of two interdependent organisms, organisms that could not survive without the other, an example that couldn’t include the bee and the scarlet-petaled flower, the clownfish, and the anemone. I am sure our text book must have included multiple other examples, and even though I had read it, sitting there at my desk with pencil in hand, I could not think of any, any except for Ree and me. Of course, I didn’t write that down. Instead, I only made a large and heavy-lead “X” where I should have written my answer.

I knew this long before Mrs. England’s science class, that Ree and I needed one another in order to both survive, that if I couldn’t find her hand in all that darkness, it would, without a doubt, swallow us both. My first word as a baby had been her name, or, at least, a part of it, Ree instead of Averey. I didn’t say one word before I turned two, and right when everyone was beginning to think there might be something seriously wrong with me, I screamed “Ree” after tripping and landing face first on the sidewalk. It was Ree who came running, who scooped me up and carried me inside to our mother, who upon seeing my bloody face snatched me away and rushed me into our tiny bathroom. It was then when I really began to scream. Over and over again at the top of my tiny lungs I bawled “Ree-Ree! Ree-Ree!” until Ree, who was waiting right behind the door, finally pushed it open and said, “Mama, I’m pretty sure Ree-Ree is me. I think she wants me.” Sure enough, they say that as soon as I saw Ree’s face, I instantly calmed down.

My mom looked at me, shook her head, picked me up off the toilet and only said, “Well, there’s not room for all of us in here. Get those Band-Aids, Ree-Ree. Let’s move to the kitchen.” And that was the day when Avery’s name became Ree. Her name was the only word I spoke until months later, when reaching for our turquoise sugar bowl, I blurted out my second word— “shug.” And that was the day when everyone stopped calling me Baby Addie and started calling me “Sugar.” And by everyone, I mean everyone. My mom told me once that while filling out an official school document, she had forgotten I had another name and simply spelled out S-u-g-a-r, each letter in its own separate box. Two enduring nicknames decided by a speech-impaired toddler.

I keep a picture of us, Ree and me, on my refrigerator. I took it from a shoebox of old photos that my mom still keeps up on the top shelf of her closet, buried under winter sweaters. There must be two hundred photos in there. Many of them are pictures of my dad, whom she left right before my first birthday. In one, he is sitting on an Indian motorcycle, one foot on the gravel balancing the bike. His dark hair is thick, wild, and untamed. He’s smiling with the sun in his face. Behind him on the leather seat sits Ree, her leg dangling over the side, her small arms stretched around his waist to hold on. In another photo, my mom is kneeling down, her arms wrapped gently around both daughters. Behind us is our Christmas tree, its only ornaments bare strands of thick red yarn tied into bows. But my mom is stunningly beautiful. The dark green of her velvet dress intensifies her green eyes. Her red hair falls to her shoulders in waves. My sister and I are both smiling, leaning into her. We look happy despite being dressed in matching red jumpers, ribbed wool tights and black patent shoes.

If you only looked at us, it wouldn’t be obvious from the photo that we never had an extra dime to our name, that our mother’s prayers focused solely on the car not breaking down and no one getting sick enough to need a doctor. But the tree gives it away. She did her very best with those sad bows of yarn. There are other photos in there, too. Pictures of my mom in high school. Pictures of grandparents I never knew. Pictures of us taken at ballet recitals and standing beside snowmen. What is missing is a single picture of Mike, the man who would become our step-dad for two years.

I took only the photo of me and Ree. In my mother’s handwriting on the back is written “June, 1973.” I would have just turned one. We are sitting on the front steps of our duplex, Ree balancing me on her left knee. Her sleeveless t-shirt has a running horse galloping across the front of it, its black mane blowing in the wind behind it. Two thick fire-red braids frame her petite face. Like my mother, she is fair-skinned with the same light dusting of freckles and brilliant green eyes. She’s got one arm wrapped around me firmly while her other hand holds a purple ice pop. You can’t miss the contrast between us. I am dark like our dad. His side of the family originally came from Southern Italy, thus our last name Rossi. My hair is black and longer than looks normal for only a one-year-old. My brown eyes are wide open looking toward my mother, who, I imagine, took the photo. We look nothing like sisters.

When the picture was taken, it would have been five months after our mother left our dad, a consummate cheat and gambler, who that January had lost all our rent and grocery money when he bet on the Redskins who ended up losing 14-7 to the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. It would have been five months after she drove us eight hours east to Indiana where her only sister and brother-in-law lived, five months since they lent her the money for the deposit and first month’s rent for our tiny side of the duplex across town, since she started her job as a hostess at the Fireside Inn.

I think I can remember all of this, even though I know it is impossible, even though I hadn’t even been born when my sister sat on the back of that motorcycle. Still, I am convinced that I can hear the exploding throttle of its engine, see the exhaust pouring from its pipe, that I can smell the very fumes of it. I still think I can smell the pine of that Christmas tree and feel the softness of my mother’s beautiful velvet dress pressed against my cheek. I still argue that I distinctly remember Ree letting me have one lick from her melting Popsicle ®, that I remember the sugary grape syrup sweet in my mouth. It seems to me, in some unexplainable way, that all those scenes captured by the camera somehow entered my own memory much the same way the beams of light bounced off those faces and objects and travelled toward the camera’s lens. In the same way, they moved from one medium to another, the waves of light entering the lens at different angles, one part of the wave reaching the glass before another until all the waves were redirected and brought back together to form a real image, a real memory. That’s the best way I can explain it.

But I have more impossible memories, moments that weren’t captured by a photo. They seem too real, too tangible to only be imaginings. Like my mom on that early morning in January when she packed up the car to leave, her stuffing black trash bags filled with clothes and towels into the passenger’s seat, her struggling to rearrange the different pieces of my dismantled crib so somehow it would all fit. I think I remember the contents of the only actual box she packed—a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a thermometer, a bar of deodorant soap, two toothbrushes, a half-squeezed bottle of toothpaste, a flowered oven mitt, and a yellow teapot all thrown on top of some plastic drinking glasses, plates, and random silverware haphazardly wrapped in pink paper towels. I am certain I remember Ree buttoned up in her baby-blue wool coat, that she spelled out A-V-E-R-E-Y one letter at a time on the chrome bumper before climbing into the back seat. I am certain I can see my dad standing in the snow as we pulled away. But his face, his face is the one thing I can’t remember no matter how hard I try.

I also argue that I have memories of our duplex in those first six months, how the only furniture it possessed was a card table and two chairs in the kitchen and my wooden crib in the bedroom, how on the floor beside it was a pallet of blankets and two pillows in Holly Hobby cases laid side by side. How on that first Easter spent with Aunt Kiki and Uncle Tom, he excitedly asked Ree if the Easter Bunny left her a surprise basket filled with chocolate eggs under her bed, and how her child voice had flatly answered, “Uncle Tom, you know I don’t have a bed.” The way my mom had just smiled and pulled Ree toward her saying, “Not yet, Baby, not yet. You got a basket, just not under your bed. I bet you next year he’ll hide it under your bed.”

Whenever I tell Ree about these memories, she just laughs and says I’m full of shit, that she can’t even remember the day we left our dad, that no seven-month-old is going to remember a bottle of rubbing alcohol or pink paper towels, and that even if I could, I was napping in another room when Uncle Tom asked about her Easter basket. She says it’s crazy that I claim to remember when our dad showed up almost a year after our mother left him, that there is no way I remember the knock on the door or how he was dressed in a new suit holding a bouquet of red carnations meant to woo my mother back, how wedged under his free arm were two stuffed animals. I admit I can’t remember the one he gave to me—no one can—but Ree still has hers, a stiff, carefully sculpted yellow lioness with short mohair fur. It looks just like the ones you see on television resting in the shade of acacia trees in the African grasslands, its hard glossy eyes a brilliant green, just like hers. One of the eyes is now missing, the other dangles loosely from a knotted string. She says I can’t remember him saying one word because our mom was outside with the door pulled shut when he argued that the three of us belonged to him, that it wasn’t too late for us to come back with him, to be a family again only this time different. My mom later told us red carnations were the one flower variety she had always hated, and that she took it as a sign. If he didn’t know after six years of marriage that she detested carnations, it was clear to her he never would. But I do know this, when she shut the door and he drove off, that was the last time we ever heard from him.

Ree says this is why I want to be a writer, that I hear stories and need to make them my own. Of course, I know she’s right, that I’m essentially hijacking everyone else’s memories. I don’t really know why I continue to claim them as my own. Maybe, in some way, I need them to belong to me, to have some control over the narrative of self that has been written. But it’s even more than that. I don’t tell her that I also do it for her, that I do it because I know some of the memories are too heavy for only one child to carry, because I believe she will be crushed by them if they remain only hers to bear. You can’t just pick and choose; it is all or nothing.

But it would be inaccurate to say I only pilfer the memories of old photos or stories retold. I really do have my own that no one can argue with, since they are from an age that even neuropsychology would deem possible. Miss Ruth who lived two doors down happens to be one. She was our mother’s answer to after-school childcare and expensive summer camps and was probably the closest thing we had to a grandmother, though looking back she might have been a questionable one. It is no secret that Miss Ruth spent most of the day inhaling one Kent cigarette after the next sitting in her dead husband’s La-Z-Boy. The house and everything in it from the carpets to curtains to bedspreads and pillows smelled like stale smoke mixed with dog piss, since her miniature poodle Sparky wouldn’t go outside to pee if the sky even threatened rain. I can only imagine that my mother had no other choice, since she hated both smoking and little dogs.

When in Miss Ruth’s care, Ree and I could do pretty much what we pleased with one understanding—unless we were choking or on fire, we didn’t interrupt her during her “stories” which started at exactly 12:30 with Days of Our Lives and ended three hours later with As the World Turns. On days we could play outside, this never proved problematic. Those hours easily passed with us creating roly-poly farms, finding daddy long-legs so we might feel the tickle of their stilt legs marching up and down our arms. We crowned each other Queen of Brookshire Apartments with wreaths and necklaces made of shimmering golden dandelions.

But on the rainy days, the days Sparky went room to room lifting his leg on every piece of furniture, it proved more difficult. On those days we quietly worked at puzzles or colored aimlessly until we finally heard the Family Feud theme song, which meant we could at last be free. On those days, Ree and I would often lie side by side, stretched out on our stomachs in front of us one of Miss Ruth’s plastic red ashtrays flipped over serving as our buzzer. We beat it mercilessly as we tried to name the top reasons why a person might suddenly start sweating or the number one place you might find lint. Ree got into the habit of saying, “How are you, darlin’?” until my mom insisted she stop. Miss Ruth loved Family Feud for one reason only: “And SURVEY SAYS…” Richard Dawson. Every time he held the hands of all those beautiful women and suggestively smiled at them, we would hear her say, “Good Lord, that man has perfect teeth.” When he kissed them on their cheeks, when he lingered only inches away staring into their eyes, she’d exclaim, “Now, that’s a good-looking man for you right there,” before eating a handful of mixed nuts and lighting up another Kent.

But I mainly remember Ree. It was Ree who taught me to slurp spaghetti noodles from end to limp end, how to make mud pies and properly lick an ice cream cone. It was Ree who taught me how to tie my shoes, how to roller skate down the uneven sidewalk out front. Pulling me forward with both hands, she’d say, “Don’t be afraid to fall, Sugar. Everyone falls. You can’t be afraid or it won’t work.” Her face never showed any trace of the fear I felt as my whole body visibly shook, as my arms and legs flailed wildly out of control. Finally, one day she looked at me and said confidently, “You can do it, Sugar. Just bend your knees if you fall,” and then she let go. It had taken me twice as long to learn as Ree, but, finally, I could roller skate.

But everything came easy for Ree, especially school. She could read and write before she started kindergarten, and she felt bound to help me since I seemed to struggle with just about everything. She spent hours and hours sounding out the most basic of words with me. “Fa, fa, fa. See my teeth, Sugar. Look. On my lip. Fa, fa, fa—fan-tas-tic.” She never tired. We added and subtracted from piles of jacks, paperclips, pennies, and pinecones, anything she could get her hands on. I sometimes wonder if I would have been held back a year if Ree hadn’t been there to help me. At night before falling asleep, she would tell me how rainbows were made by the reflection and dispersion of light in water droplets. That they weren’t always arcs but sometimes full circles, that double rainbows happened when the sunlight was reflected twice inside rain drops. She taught me about turtles. Did I know they have been crawling along the surface of the earth for the past 200 million years? Did I know their shells were just a lot of fused bones? Kangaroos are called marsupials because mothers carry their babies in pouches found on their bellies. A group of kangaroos is called a mob, like a group of hyenas is called a cackle. Antarctica is actually a desert, even though it’s mostly covered in ice—that’s why it’s called a polar desert. The sun, really a hot and volatile star, is the largest object in our solar system. Without it, the earth and all the other planets would go flying into space. Did I know that the universe never ended, that it only expanded? Most nights I fell asleep listening to her voice explain all these unknown wonders in words I only half understood. There seemed no end to her knowledge.

She was fiercely protective of me, with even our own mother. Once, when our mom confronted us angrily over a stain of deep burgundy nail polish permanently hardened into the carpet, Ree falsely confessed to the spilling of it. I find it hard to imagine my mother believed her since it was me who had an obsession with all things Max Factor and because it was me alone who had been warned repeatedly to stay completely out of the makeup drawer. Nonetheless, she let Ree take the rare spanking for it. And because she wouldn’t cry for herself, which seemed to make it all the more painful for me, I cried for her. She only stayed in the bathroom, standing on the toilet with her pants down and twisting her torso to look toward the mirror. We didn’t have to wait long to see all five spankings appear, each in the perfect shape of a wooden spoon.

And, God forbid, someone actually mistreated me. She would not tolerate it. Tara Thompson can attest to that. She was in Ree’s class, but more often than not, all the kids in the apartment complex played together. Age, race and gender took a back seat to the unspoken socioeconomic alliances that poor kids learn to make early on. She had teased me, and laughingly told everyone I sucked so bad at jumping rope that she thought maybe I was retarded, that I should ride the short bus. She insisted the game was “locked” to retarded babies. I was hiccupping between sobs when I ran home and told Ree what happened. I hadn’t finished the story before she was dragging me by the hand back outside and straight toward the group of girls. She didn’t hesitate, and before I or anyone else knew what was happening, Ree had grabbed the jump rope out of Tara’s hand and with both hands pushed her hard to the ground. “Now, the game is locked, Tara. Now, it’s locked!” she screamed down at her before starting to rotate her end of the rope and demanding me to jump. Whoever was holding the other end of the rope must have been too afraid to drop it because I was already jumping before Tara brushed herself off and ran home to tell her mom. I can still see Ree’s face. Her burning cheeks as red as her hair, she seemed a fire set ablaze.

It’s not that I don’t remember my mother because I do. I can still see her at the foot of our bed, studying both of her daughters’ faces, making sure she hadn’t been so tired or busy that she missed some critical piece of our growing up. There was never a night she didn’t tuck us in and say prayers. “Close your eyes, girls,” she would whisper as we wiggled and wormed beneath the covers. In unison, the three of us would nightly recite, “Now I lay me down to sleep, if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Afterward, she would stroke our foreheads once or twice before kissing us goodnight. Some nights she would linger on the edge of the bed, each one of her thin hands placed upon our hearts, and an invisible heaviness pressed into us as she wished us sweet dreams before rising to flip the switch to darkness. She was there, but there was always a weariness, a weariness that must surely accompany all single mothers.

She tried to do it all. Work. Clean. Cook. Mother. And, honestly, looking back, she did. Our house was always immaculately clean, so clean you could eat off the kitchen floor. We knew to say “Please” and “Thank You” and “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am.” She never failed to pack our lunches, and often we would find a love note stained with grape jelly slipped inside our sandwich bag. On a small piece of scrap paper would be drawn a rainbow or a huge smiling yellow sun with shooting orange rays. Below it, in a purple or red crayon would be written, “You are my sunshine!!” If we were invited to a birthday party on a weekend that she worked, she somehow made sure we had a ride to and from so we wouldn’t be left out. At least once a school year, she signed up and volunteered to be room mom. She dressed up like the tooth fairy during Dental Awareness Week and once she made Halloween ghosts out of Dumdums for every one of my classmates. On our birthdays, she made cupcakes from scratch and let us lick the batter from the beaters. She made us Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer pancakes on Christmas morning, his antlers created from torn fried bacon, his eyes chocolate chips, and his nose half a strawberry. She did it, all alone and without help. I never heard her complain.

She didn’t meet Mike until I was in third grade, the same year Ree disappeared from our shared elementary school to attend her first year of middle school. To my knowledge, he was the first man my mom dated since she left our dad seven long years before. It never occurred to me that my mom might one day meet someone, but Miss Ruth said it was about time when Ree and I started showing up there on Friday “date” nights. While my mom was learning to become a woman again, Miss Ruth, Ree, and I sat glued to the television set as we watched the Ewings destroy one another. One episode at a time, we watched as each brother plotted against the other in the struggle to rule the family’s oil empire, a full hour of backstabbing, lust, and greed. Like clockwork, right when it finished, our mom would return, smiling and filled with a new joy, to pick us up and put us right to bed. She now laughed instead of sighed with irritation when, inevitably, I could find only one of my shoes every time we were rushing out the door. She now turned up the car radio singing to Donna Summer with the windows rolled down. Six months later, before we even had the chance to ask with all of America’s viewing audience, “Who shot JR,” my mom told us that she and Mike were getting married. She had taken us to get ice cream and the excitement of the news mixed with sugar made us giddy out of our heads for her, for us.

The truth is, for someone who claims to have as many memories as I do, I can’t say I even remember meeting Mike before they were married. I know this can’t be right, but I don’t ask, not Ree, not my mom. What I do remember is moving into a big new house in a new neighborhood. That instead of our old Datsun whose passenger side door could fly open unexpectedly when crossing over railroad tracks, we now had two shiny ones that were parked not on the street but in a garage with a door that opened and closed with the single touch of a button. That Ree and I now had our own beds complete with the purple canopies that belonged only to the princesses found between the well-turned pages of our favorite fairy tales, and that the new white wooden bedside table between our beds had the same intricately carved flowers that wound themselves around our bed posts. That on top of it was placed the most beautiful lamp I had ever seen. I must have spent hours upon hours those first days studying each pair of hand-painted butterfly wings that fluttered across its ceramic base.

Other than that, I don’t remember much—riding my bike, smashing geodes and catching crawdads in the creek out back, running for the bus in the morning. I don’t remember Mike at all, and I barely remember my mother, and Ree seemed barely within my grasp. Maybe it is because Ree was in middle school, because the ages of nine and thirteen are separated by so much more than the four years that chronologically separate them, but, looking back, I doubt that was the reason. But then came the night, the night that changed both my sister and my mother in ways that slowly made them unrecognizable to me. Suddenly, time is rewound at a speed so fast that it makes me both dizzy and nauseated. Suddenly, I am right there. Suddenly, I can remember everything, minute by minute, playing out like it only happened yesterday instead of almost twenty years ago.

It was the night before my mother, Ree, and I were supposed to go to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. My mother had surprised us with the long rectangular tickets a couple of days before. I begged her to let me keep them in my room until it was time to hand them over and enter the mesmerizing world contained beneath the big tent. In my hand, the tickets themselves seemed magical, full of spectacular promise. Out of the left corner flew a white Pegasus with luminescent rainbow wings, behind it floated pink iridescent clouds in a starry night sky. The edges were trimmed with a golden scroll as were the words Greatest Show on Earth and beneath it, in much smaller print, Create Memories to be Shared for Generations to Come.

The circus became a fascination that consumed the whole of me, and an unbridled excitement took full possession of me the night before. I lay in bed keeping Ree awake with all the marvels I just knew we would experience in less than twenty-four hours. No doubt, there would be daring feats, like the woman dressed in a silver body suit who would be shot from a smoking cannon, her beautiful body sailing through the silent air until it bounded upward again and again bouncing from the net that saved her life. Or the lion tamer, who I imagined looked just like David Copperfield, commanding the king of the jungle to jump from one stacked platform to the next, to roll over like a small kitten and to jump through hoops of blazing fire, all this accomplished by just the crack of his long whip snapping sharply in the air. I was sure before it was over, before herding the beast back into its large metal cage, he would stick his very head deep into the cat’s deadly jowls as we trembled with delicious fear. There would be clowns with big red shoes and small cars, clowns holding bouquets of plastic yellow flowers that squirted water into our faces. That would happen. I just knew it.

There would be pink and blue cotton candy, peanuts, and powdered-sugar elephant ears. Yes, there would be elephants, elephants to ride, elephants with their wide flapping ears sitting atop a tiny little stool. Beautiful trapeze girls covered in sequins would somersault through the air, unicyclists would teeter on high wires, jugglers would toss balls, rings, and clubs fifty feet in the air, and contortionists in tight leotards would frontbend, backbend, oversplit, and dislocate. A man would steadily hurl sharp knives at his human target, the steel blade travelling violently toward a beautiful woman with half-escaped breasts strapped to a spinning board. What did Ree think would happen if he made a mistake, if he misjudged and the knife stabbed deep into her thigh or throat? Globe of Death, fire dancing, trick-pony riding, and human pyramids. We would see it all. Eventually, I fell asleep with the roar of lions in my ears.

Sometime in the middle of the night I woke to Ree pulling me from my bed, ripping me from my dreams of ringmasters in their tall black hats and petite twins dancing with flying Chinese yo-yos. I remember hearing her say only one word—“No.” I didn’t notice Mike sitting in the dark at the end of my own bed until I was in her bed lying beside her. His dark silhouette sat there motionlessly staring at us both. All that moved was Ree’s shaking body beside me. A new cavernous terror I had never known swept over me, paralyzing me for reasons I did not understand. The sun disappeared and the planets hurtled chaotically through space just like Ree said they would. Half an hour must have passed before Mike finally got up and left the room without saying a word. Only then did I begin to cry. When I told Ree I wanted our mother, she didn’t say a word. She only pulled me closer to her. She was still shaking when, a few minutes later, she asked if I knew that one third of the earth’s surface is covered in desert, that the hottest desert is the Sahara and that it spans twelve different countries. Could I imagine 122 degrees? Did I know that more than two hundred rattlesnakes can live in one square mile, that saguaros are the cactuses that have limbs that look like human arms reaching toward the blistering sky? It wouldn’t be until Mrs. England taught the class about the clownfish and the anemone that I would fully understand that Ree’s pulsing tentacles had enveloped me that night, retracting and expanding, protecting me from a danger I could not see.

The next morning I woke up before Ree’s alarm went off. I felt the wet sheets and my soaked pajamas before I had time to remember Mike sitting in the dark at the foot of my bed or Ree’s shaking body or hundreds of rattlesnakes coiled together for heat after the setting of the desert sun. “Ree, I think I wet the bed.” She pulled the sheets back and felt them with her hand, and the new panic I had felt the night before rushed back to me in one drowning wave. As she began stripping the wet cotton from my body, she whispered, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t cry. Just get dressed for school. Here—give me all these—your underwear, too.” I did what she said, and while eating breakfast, I heard her tell my mom she was too sick to go to school. My mom felt her forehead and agreed that maybe she was a bit on the warm side. She would call and check on her every couple of hours. If she felt any worse, she should call her. When I left, Ree was back in bed, covers wet with urine pulled to her chin.

I don’t remember much from school that day, except that in art class I drew a tiger sitting in the center ring of an enormous red tent. Beneath it I wrote, “Circus of Tigers” in all capital letters. I still have it, strange evidence that the day really did exist. Before the last bell, the front office delivered a note instructing me not to ride the bus home; my aunt would pick me up. When I got in the car, she forced a smile and with the back of her hand wiped the tears from her face before placing it gently on my knee. “Hey, Sugar. So you’re going home with me today, sweetie. Your mom and Ree are there.” I didn’t ask why like I normally would have. I already knew in the strange way all children know in the pit of their stomachs when something terrible and unspoken has occurred. I knew that while I had been at school, those hurtling planets had collided and exploded into a million shattered fragments. “You okay, Sugar? I just want you to know that your Uncle Tom and I love you very much. And Ree. And your mom. We’re always here for you.” I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what to say. We rode the rest of the way in a deafening silence.

When we got there, Ree and my mom were sitting at the kitchen table. My mom’s eyes were so swollen from crying I had to look hard to even find them. She bent down, grabbing both my shoulders in her hands. “Baby, you can tell me. You can tell me. It’s okay. He can’t hurt you or Ree. He’s gone. But I need to know, baby, I need to know if Mike ever—if he ever touched you.” She choked on the words, every other one sliced into tiny pieces by the knife thrower’s sharp blade now lodged in her throat. “In a bad way, Sugar, like he did Ree. Ree told me that he has been touching her—in bad ways, ways a grown-up shouldn’t. Do you understand what Mommy’s asking you? Do you? You can tell me, Sugar. You can tell me. Just tell me.” I shook my head no and that moment the knife was yanked loose and the thick blood poured out from her throat in the form of strange, unrecognizable sobs.

It was late that night when my uncle and aunt drove us all home. My uncle walked through each room of the house and looked in the garage. One car. He asked my mom if she wanted him to stay the night. She said she would call the police if Mike came back, that she had told him so, and told him that he deserved to die and rot in hell. Tomorrow she would figure out the rest. She couldn’t think. Ree and I needed to be in bed, that it was just so late. That night we all three slept side by side in the guest room with the light left on. I fell asleep to my mother’s quiet sobbing, to her whispering the words, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. God, please—please help us. Help Ree, please help Ree,” over and over again.

We were still in our pajamas watching Tom and Jerry when the doorbell rang the next morning. The police told my mother a man had found Mike’s car still running, with the hose stretched from exhaust pipe to taped window on a country road twenty minutes south of town. She must have told them everything because shortly after a woman showed up with a big bag of baby dolls, Barbies, and art supplies and asked Ree and me if we wanted to talk about what happened. And for the first time since the night before when I told Ree I wanted our mother, I started to cry until I bawled uncontrollably. “Can you tell me why you’re crying, Addie?” she softly asked. I knew that I was crying for Ree, because just like the time she took that wooden-spoon spanking for me, she wouldn’t cry for herself now. “The circus! We missed the circus! All of it! The elephants! We were supposed to ride the elephants!” That was all I screamed.

So, when Ree called in the middle of the night asking me to go to the New Mexican desert, I knew why she was going. I knew there were things she hoped to bury out there, and that she felt she needed Christ himself to help her do it. I knew that her life in many ways depended on it, and that her death had meant my own death, so maybe, I thought her resurrection would be mine, too. Ten days later, the night before I drove home to meet her, I dreamt of her, her long hair flowing from her pillow to mine, blowing across the states, weaving its way in and out through rows and rows of corn, floating across the current of the Mississippi, and travelling inches above the asphalt streets of the city until, like wildfire clematis, it wound itself up, up, up the black steel of the fire escape and through my bedroom window. Only as the strands began to encircle me did I notice the thousands upon thousands of saguaro spines trapped and entangled within the thick red strands of her beautiful hair.

Audra Coleman lives in Asheville, North Carolina and is currently earning her MLAS at UNC Asheville. She has enjoyed seeing her work published in WNC Woman, 3288 Review, Mothers Always Write, and The Good Mother Project. Two of her creative nonfiction essays will appear in the upcoming publications of Palaver and Kestrel.

About Spines of the Saguaro—I began this piece with the goal of following the sisters on their journey to the desert, but all of “this” unfolded before they even left on their trip! I want to return to this piece to include their trip and what they discover for themselves during the journey. I’m not sure if it will unfold into a novel one day or a rearranged, longer story. I just know I’m not finished with the sisters and the telling of this story.