Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear by Cathy Ulrich
“Your sister’s children are always disappearing when she closes her eyes….”
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Your sister’s children are always disappearing when she closes her eyes. She opens them again and her arms are empty.
Here, she says, gesturing. Right here, and when you touch her skin, you can feel the warmth where a child’s small body rested.
Your sister’s husband came from a large family. He has five sisters and three brothers. You can never remember their names, can never tell them apart. They are always at your sister’s house for the holidays, with their husbands and their wives and their own children, who never disappear. One Thanksgiving, everyone thought the littlest one had, during a game of hide-and- seek, but he was found in some brambles out back, frostbitten, barefoot, thumb tucked into his mouth. He lost his littlest toe. It wasn’t lost, not really. Not like your sister’s children. The doctor put it in a jar. It floated there, small and black and dead.
Your sister is constantly pregnant, belly round, hair in a ponytail.
This time, she says. This time for sure, patting her belly.
She practices not blinking, staring into her bathroom mirror for hours.
Does it count if I close one eye and then the other? she says, and does a slow, lopsided wink.
She says when the next baby comes, she won’t sleep.
I’ll never sleep again.
The first baby was a boy, and he disappeared while your sister was rocking him beside his crib. There was a quarter moon that night, she remembers. She was looking at it and humming that song about the black sheep and the wool, and then her husband said: Where’s the baby?
Don’t you have him? your sister said, and they looked all over the house for him. They looked in all sorts of places a baby wouldn’t even go, like the inside of a teapot and under the bathroom sink. The police came and took your sister’s fingerprints. She kept saying the baby must be in the trunk of the car, but the police checked and checked, and there was no baby there.
After that, she had a girl, then another girl, then a boy, then a girl again. After that, you can’t keep track. After that, she stopped giving them names.
Baby, she calls each of them. Baby.
She likes to hold her children before they disappear, likes to feel their soft baby flesh. She is always staring at her children, wide-eyed, unblinking.
Mommy loves you, she says.
All of your sister’s children are quiet and thin before they disappear. You don’t think you’ve ever heard one cry. Your sister has let you hold some of them. They feel like a bundle of air, so light.
When the last one disappeared, your sister’s husband said: We don’t have to keep trying, you know, and your sister smiled at him, lopsided like her one-eyed blinking.
I know, she said.
The jar with the littlest nephew’s toe has been deposited at your sister’s house. His parents thought your sister might want it. She shakes the jar, and the little black toe bobs up and down.
Did you know, she says, he still walks with a limp?