Clara settles now, to grow what she can. Sweet peas in March. Tomatoes in June. Love handles, fat and loose, in December. A scraggy cat who won’t leave her doorstep. Basil roots in a glass on the kitchen sill.
She collects: teacups, gilded white with pink flowers. Hollow dolls from Russia made of paint and wood. Matryoshka. Matryoshka. She loves how it sounds.
She weaves paper baskets on May Day, finds things she can fill.
Sometimes at night, if she holds her breath, she can hear her sister’s heartbeat, waiting.
In the mirror, silver hairs halo her face in the vanity light. Sweat weeps from her forehead, sets into the wrinkles she’s long resigned trying to smooth.
Doubled over at the sink, her center grows claws, the familiar unearthings of insides.
After, she flushes the remains, cradles the bloodied hand towel.
She sets the kettle to boil. She cries in the shower, a private grace, learning how to let go.
Another horrible fuck. All rhythm, saliva, movie lines, soul mates. But he’ll do. A geology professor at the University. Green eyes. A full head of straw straight hair, despite middle age. His hands, large and calloused. His eyes wink when he smiles.
He might be kind.
She changes her name. This time it is Phoebe. She likes the way it rolls off her tongue.
She likes the way it looks nothing like it should.
“You are one crazy bitch,” the man says, sliding his sweaty palm over her shaven head as he gets out of her tousled bed.
Her back to him, she listens as he pulls up his jeans, snugs the zipper, the metal of his belt chiming softly.
The warmth of what he has left her pools out between her thighs, and she seals her legs together, good measure.
“Call me,” he says from the doorframe.
Her father pulls clothes from her hamper, jerks open dresser drawers, spits answers around his cigarette when her mother asks where will she go?
In the gas station bathroom, she calls her boyfriend, bleaches her mousy hair back to the blonde of her youth.
Outside, the summer air on her skin feels like traveling although she stands still. Like a thousand stirring seeds inside her.
She unwraps the nesting dolls from her birthday package, opens each up and counts.
Three. Four. Five.
“The biggest one is Mama,” her oldest sister says as Clara puts the dolls on the kitchen table. “Then there’s Sofie. And me. And this one’s you.”
Clara runs a fingertip over the pink circles of blush, each of their bright red smiles. Eyes that give nothing away.
The last doll is so small, no bigger than a pill.
It doesn ‘t hurt at all when she swallows it.
“It won’t heal if you keep picking it, Clara,” Mama says from the steaming sizzle of the stove. “Go set the table. Papa will be home soon.”
There are six empty chairs. There should be six plates. Six glasses, six napkins, six tummies to fill.
When Papa gets home, he is angry, and breaks the extra plate in the sink, rubs his forehead.
The five of them eat without talking. Knives and forks clink and scrape. Spoons find the bottoms of bowls.
Under the table, Clara catches her fingernail on the thick edge of the scab on her knee, again and again, until it comes off with a wince.
She has no memory of it but cannot forget.
Clara and her twin sister, finally asleep, their breath a steady instinct after the long rocking and whispered songs.
The careful transfer to the crib. The slow click of the door. The cautious exhale.
Certainly, they reach for each other, even sleeping. Stretch and roll in easy turns, to find hands like their own.
They shared a heart too, inside their mother, once.
Meagan Johanson is a writer from Oregon, where she lives with her family. She loves music, books, new obsessions, and anything with butter on it. You can find her on Twitter: @MeaganJohanson.
Photography by: Iza Gawrych