Napalm by Anna Hogeland

She’s born first. After my mother releases her, I stretch my wrinkled arms to fill my sister’s space; and then I am sucked, a whirlpool to the drain, into the cold and dry air.

My mother tells us we both opened our eyes when we were born, that our broken pupils looked at her and squinted at the fluorescent lights. Ariel says she remembers the colors. She says she knows what green looks like and she can still see it—behind her eyelids.
I don’t remember the brightness; I don’t believe I ever saw it. But I believe that Ariel saw. In the moments before I joined her in the world, Ariel opened her eyes and saw the ceiling and our mother and the green and white. If I opened my eyes, I saw the same blackness from inside. The pain of the cut told me I had been born.

Those seconds of sight give Ariel her beauty. Ariel saw the world and it saw her. You can feel the light she absorbed when you touch her.

She lives in a colored darkness and I live in a blank black.

Aunt Judith says our mother went to join our father, and wherever that was it wasn’t here so there’s no point in looking. I know that our mother is dead and our father isn’t. I guess he wanted daughters who could see him and so he went to have some, and I don’t blame him for that.

Judith and her perfumed friends tell me I’m pale like our father and Ariel is olive like our mother. They tell us so we can conjure a view of ourselves from invisible images. But I see them in smell. She is garlic and he is cedar.

The first years are dark with memories stuck on at random. Judith cries when the president gets shot and she says the world is ugly. Preschool smells like wax. The teacher gives Ariel and I stuffed animals while the others learn the colors and draw pictures of barns and mountains. I peel off the glass eyes and scrape the hardened glue underneath. Green is for grass, yellow is for sun, black is for tar; so they tell me and I believe them.

We listen to the radio programs in the living room during dinner. There’s a story about a man in Colorado named Louis like the neighbors’ dog. He murders his kids and his pregnant wife. They kill him in a gas chamber I imagine smells like propane. “You get what you deserve,” Aunt Judith says with nicotine breath. “And you deserve what you get.” At night I press my palm to the door of the wood stove until I smell skin.

Ariel becomes soft and poised. She talks with the ease of the women on the radio. I’m quiet as a girl and silent as a woman. I become as invisible as I am blind; I prefer invisibility to ugliness. When I’m invisible they see me like I see them. When I’m invisible I can hear everything.

In the summers we drive three hours to the pine-planked house on the lake. Ariel and I share a twin bed with a thin quilt and listen to the cicadas and the bedside clock ticks us to sleep. Judith brings a boyfriend who smells like aftershave. At night she puts on Elton John after they leave the porch; I can hear the bed hit the wall and it sounds like someone’s beating a rug over a bannister.

In the mornings we eat oatmeal and walk on the sand path to the lake’s shore. The air smells like cold water. Ariel and I wade into our waists and necks and squeeze hands. I put my head under and hold my breath until my eyes throb, and she stays above and keeps my hand.

A family with a boy named Jon rents the house next to us. Jon lies with us on the sand and swims around us as we inch in. He smells like grass and has a low voice. He tells us he lives in New York during the year and the sky is a different blue here, at night you can even see the Milky Way. After we swim, he washes in our outdoor shower while Ariel and I spread our towels on the porch. He asks us to the movies and ice cream and board games. We never go and Ariel pretends she doesn’t want to.

Jon doesn’t come to the lake for a few summers. A young couple with a baby rents his house; we never hear them at the lake. Judith tells us she doesn’t know where Jon went to and why he isn’t here — and if only we could see him then we wouldn’t care to ask where he’s gone and if he’ll be back.

When he returns a few summer later, his parents don’t come with him. He’s different. His voice is lower and he pauses in thought before he speaks. His tone deepens when he talks to Ariel and her voice rises when she replies.
He splashes her when he takes showers on our porch and she shrieks and pulls the towel over her face. “Jon, stop, stop! You’ve got me all wet.” He walks to her and puts his hand on her braided head and says that’s what you get for wearing a bathing suit like that.

When we go to the lake he swims underwater with me and holds my hand with his, strong and callused. Ariel stays on the sand. She doesn’t like to go in the water anymore because of the crawfish, she says. Because she can’t see them coming.
“I’ll watch out for you,” he says to me and I stay underwater next to his leg. He carries me on his back to the shore and tells me I’m light as a feather. On the sand he lies next to Ariel and reads aloud the stories he writes. He reads one about a boy with a mark on his cheek so dark and wide the boy tries to scrape it off with his dad’s razor. Ariel asks if it’s about him. I imagine shapes of letters and words coming from his mouth and what it would feel like to peel your skin with a blade like that.

He taps our window at night after Judith turns off the radio in the living room and closes her bedroom door. Ariel gets up and walks out the back door and makes sure the screen doesn’t creak.

He taps and she leaves every night. He stops bringing me to swim and stays next to Ariel on the sand and reads her his stories.
I swim farther out until my toes can’t grasp the slimy sand, the current shifts and strengthens and tries to suck me down where it’s dark and cold. I pedal my legs, loose muscle and skin, and listen to my heart pounding in my chest and ears like a chant. I don’t know how deep the lake is. They say it’s deeper than you’d think and it’s so wide the shore on the other side looks like a haze.

Ariel lies in bed after she returns one night and says she loves him. She doesn’t ask if I’m awake. “It’s like I can see him. And I can see me from his eyes and I’m beautiful.” She rolls to her side away from me and falls asleep in a sigh.

He comes over for grilled corn and beer. He tells us he’s going back to New York to try to be a writer and make some money, and when he comes back he wants to live in the lake house with Ariel in it, if she wants. I can hear her smile and reach to touch him.
That night she doesn’t come back to bed. I go to the kitchen and take the knife from the dishwasher to the back porch and slit the skin in my inner thigh with a steady hand. It’s a clean cut. The sliced nerves tell me I’m alive and feeling, whether I like it or not. I sleep with toilet paper between my legs and dream of the water, cold and dark and deep.

In December she visits him in New York. She tells me I’m welcome to come and wraps her arms around my neck so I can smell Judith’s vanilla perfume. She says she loves me and I will find a boy like Jon to love me someday soon, she’s sure of it.

“You want to be happy like your sister?” Judith says on the drive from the train station. “You know, boys might think you’re pretty if you let them see you.” I listen to the program under her voice. They’re talking about napalm, how it burns your skin at 2,000 degrees and then you suffocate and faint and die. And you can’t get the napalm off you once it’s on, no matter what.

The next summer I drive with Judith and Ariel to the lake. Ariel stays with Jon. I stretch my arms out on the bed and fill her space. Jon reads his story to me on the porch while Judith and Ariel buy a dress in town. He sits close and smells like soap. The story is about two sisters, both beautiful and blind, who can only see underwater. “Now you’re immortal,” he says and presses his hand into my shoulder as he stands. He tells me he’s going to go for a swim before it storms asks if I want to come. I wait for him on the porch.
Ariel comes home and tells me how there are so many buttons down the back it takes forever just to get in and even longer getting out. She asks where he is and we walk to the shore and listen for him. The wind picks up and it smells like electric rain. And then we hear him, far away, he cries a disgusting cry like an animal’s. Ariel runs to the water and I run too, she screams his name and the wind carries her voice down the shore. He cries the cry again and then once more—and then come pellets of hot rain.

Ariel begins to lose her light. I feel it leave her like heat drains from coffee. She cries in her sleep. Judith tells me not to be so selfish. This is Ariel’s loss and I don’t have the right to mope about like that.

In some time she begins to sleep silently again. Then she laughs and wears perfume. She wins a full scholarship to Perkins for the fall, spends the year in Boston and stays there for the summer.

Judith says it isn’t worth going to the lake without Ariel. And why would I want to go back anyhow, after that terrible thing. If only we could see him, she says.

 

About the Author:
Anna Hogeland is a clinical social worker and writer living in Boulder, Colorado. She grew up in western Massachusetts and attended Bates College and Smith College School for Social Work. She’s published nonfiction in The Common and CASE Magazine, short fiction for theNewerYork, and news pieces for Mic.com. She likes to make collages and macaroons.