Which is Better

by J Saler Drees

You said she was possessed, your sister, my aunt. Began when we lived in Panama, you tell me this often. Your father, a Navy General, with the severe face of a Catholic, was stationed at Rodman Naval during the fifties. I imagine you and her in a strange land, two white girls, one pulling a knitted shawl closed, opening a book, the other curious about the green fruit, salted waves, and twisted canopy of forest beyond. As the orange dusk settled, you both huddled under the mosquito netting, preferring the outdoor cots to your stuffy beds, and giggled pretend secrets: I drank the black water that makes you live longer; I saw Jessie, the Admiral’s son, row out to the forbidden islands; Lupe says stillborn ghosts churn up the Canal fog. Some nights the wind howled so hard it sounded like wounded dogs, and you held each other close.
These were the times before. Before the episodes. Before your family’s maid Lupe led the Navy kids, who slipped her coins, to see your sister locked in the basement, throwing her own feces, voice changed gravely. Before the scratch on Father’s cheek testimony to her fight unhidden.
I met her once, your sister, my aunt, a woman with black hair piled high. Everyone called her Kettle. She smiled like her mouth held the sun, and she wore bell bottoms with high platform shoes. The two of you whispered inside stories and yet nothing sounded close. I watched the distance, your tight lips, your insistence on air conditioning, the way your eyes glared under the antique light of Tiffany lamps as she rose and sang, snapping her fingers—remember this song? And she danced over to me, saying aren’t you cold, before opening the dining room windows and winking as I unfolded my arms to the warm air.
She had been released from the hospital, this time for leading her children, my cousins, miles and miles through the wheat fields of Kansas. She insisted it was chasing them and they had to keep running. My cousins ended up wards of the state.
They brought this episode up at her funeral. Remember those three days in the fields, how we believed her? That the demon was coming for us? They spoke of it like magic. And I imagined them then, wheat meat stuck in their hair, stomachs curled in hunger, shoe rubber flapping, but they didn’t complain, because their mother held tight their hands and kissed their noses, shushing them, soothing them, keep moving toward the other side. They nodded and smiled at her because never did they feel more safe, her all to themselves, there beneath the stalks of wheat.
What if it’d been me and you running through that field? But no, at the end of the day you scrub a toilet soiled by that man’s drunkenness, your hair bobby-pinned, inner veins faint with rose perfume, reminding me it’s easier to behave.
When I mentioned Kettle to my husband, he said schizophrenia, masking the word crazy. He sounded like the city, not the townsfolk you told me about after you moved back to the States. How they believed she was cursed by a santera-cast demon. It’s science, my husband said, not spirituality.
You shook your head at my husband’s diagnosis, said Kettle welcomed the demon at first. Your voice bright with conviction, as if it was her volition, as if she had the power. A demon better than schizophrenia without a choice. Does believing this make you freer?
I see Kettle lying awake on her cot, longing in a new land, and she’s calling out in the cicada-filled dark, Come to me, unafraid, the demon’s otherness a thing of sparkle, not ugliness, and you, on the next cot over, did you hear her loneliness, a girl of fifteen, how she eyed the boys hauling in lobster traps, perked ears to the gossiping girls gutting fish along the shore. But Navy daughters were separate from the locals. You obeyed while she did not.
Some nights I lie awake beside my husband’s thick body warm in sleep, the quiet empty dark making me feel light, like I’ll float off, disappear, and I crave heaviness sitting on my chest, invite it, Come to me. Think of Kettle, her power, her plunge, the way she left you barely breathing on your cot, body stiff in awe.


J Saler Drees currently resides in San Diego, land of the Kumeyaay People. Recent works have appeared in Dillydoun Review, Evening Street, Hypertext, Litbreak, Literally Stories, K’in, Rain Taxi and Yolk.

Tip Jar

%d bloggers like this: