My Sister, Rapunzel
The summer I was twelve, my sister, who was ten, was grounded for three weeks (which would stretch to six) for kicking our mother in the shin in protest to being ordered to help bleach the floors. Three times a day my mother would bring her food, which was often cold by the time it got there, without saying a word to her. We were not to speak to her. Father especially was not allowed to bring my sister her food, or visit with her, because he was so weak to her charms, and would, inevitably, undermine Mother by emancipating her, or, in his way, lessening her pain. All throughout the day my sister would narrate her life in prison. "I am lying on the bed," "I am drawing a picture of Mother being hit by a bus," "I am taking a bath," "I am missing my father and brother," "I am taking a pee."
Her detention was more painful for the rest of us than it was for her.
My room was right beside my sister's, connected by a shared bathroom. While she was grounded, my side of the bathroom was locked and I was forbidden from unlocking it--though I easily could have. Whenever my sister was grounded, she took quite a few baths. In fact, her life has always occurred between the refrain "I'm taking a bath!" Her baths were her earliest opportunities to disappear.
Because my side was locked to the bathroom, when I needed to use the toilet I had to go downstairs to the bathroom that was connected to our parents' room. At night it was difficult to navigate myself down the stairs because it was so dark and my limbs had such lag to them. But at least I got to walk by our old, upright piano. The ivory-white keys sliding against my sleepless fingers revitalized me, even then, when my fingers were still in the process of clearing their throats. During my sister's sentence, when I finished in the bathroom, at midnight or beyond, I would always return to my room, sit beside our shared bathroom's door, and continue whispering stories to her.
I told her stories every night. They helped her sleep. I had been telling her stories for a long time, long before she began to be regularly locked up. She particularly liked fairy tales, but she also liked when I told her stories about things that had happened to me. She was particularly fond of the story of my first kiss, which was with Sally Manchester, back when I was nine. Back then, before Sally had become an idol for having grown the best breasts first, Sally was called the Sally-Mander, which was mostly because of her name, but also because she was very afraid of snakes, and presumably all other reptiles. Once, another kid from my class (I can't remember his name) put a toy snake in her cubby hole and scared the bejesus out of her. When that happened, just before school ended for the day, I told that kid, Hey kid, I don't like what you did to Sally, it was a mean thing to do. He showed me his teeth and said oh no you must be in love with the little Sally-Mander then, Percy-Worse-y. Without a moment's hesitation, I punched the kid in the jaw. It hurt me as much as it hurt him, though he wore it worse. At the moment of our pained exclamations, all the attention was off of Sally and on us, and I never hit anyone else like I hit that kid then. I like to tell people I peaked at seven, at the back end of my tiny little fist. I told my sister that whenever I told her the story. But the peak, actually, came after the fist, because on the school bus home--where, that evening, I would get one of the longest groundings of my own life--Sally sat beside me and kissed me right on the lips. Up close like that, she looked a bit like Morgan le Fay.
That was just one of the many stories my sister loved. She liked the way that I misremembered stories, too. Conflating them irreverently--and often unconsciously. They never quite sounded the same, and she relished in marking the differences. "Before you said she was called Sally-Monster and was afraid of Barbie Dolls!" Also, I almost always mixed the Rapunzel story with Bluebeard. Bluebeard, in one version, tells his new wife, as usual, not to open his special door, even though he gave her the key and allowed her to go into every other room. But inside that door--which his wife could not hold back from opening--were not the dismembered corpses of his new wife's missing sisters, but rather Rapunzel, very lively combing her thirty-meter long head of magically golden hair. And what came to pass when Bluebeard came back, angry at his new wife for opening his door, sword glinting through the rays of sun? Rapunzel and Bluebeard fought it out, her long hair animated, and him--with his sword swinging like a machete through her golden vines, his blue beard bristled and strong-- making headway towards the two defiant women. Despite Bluebeard's formidableness, though, in the end Rapunzel gets the upper hand, wrapping her shimmering locks around his throat, strangling him. I told my sister, at this point in the Bluebeard story--because, though it varies, every iteration with Rapunzel ends with him being strangled by her hair--how strange it was for the wife and Rapunzel to see a man with such a blue beard wearing such a red face. Then I'd hold my breath to show her what that would look like, even though I didn't have a blue beard. She thought it was funny. Every time. The stories ended: "...and Rapunzel would live happily ever after, with Bluebeard's widow."
I told her that story when she was grounded behind the door one night, and when I got to the end, she asked me, her voice soft, flittering through her sleepiness: "Percy, what does it look like when he is strangled?" and I whispered that I'd show her, and I held my breath on the other side of the door. I knew that I didn't have to, but I did. My face flushed and my vision began to go when I finally gave it up and breathed again. I heard her own breathing, slow and methodical, on the other side of the door, so I went to my bed, grabbed my pillow, and lay down with it as near to her as I could, head flat against the wooden door, the dim wind of her breath snaking out across the jamb. Sleeping together like that, so close but yet a few locked inches between, we were like two brains trying with every empathetic flourish to connect to each other completely, but each one held at bay by the thickness of the other's--and its own--skull.
John Stintzi is a poet and novelist who was raised on a beef farm in northwestern Ontario. John’s poetry and fiction has been featured on Lemon Hound, in Humber Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, PRISM international, and others. In 2018, John's chapbook of poetry The Machete Tourist will be published by k | f | b, and they will be an Artist-in-Residence at The Watermill Center in Watermill, New York. John lives in Kansas City with their girlfriend. "My Sister, Rapunzel" is an excerpt from a novel in progress: Missing Persons. Follow John on Twitter @stintzi.