We are always barefoot. I try to explain this to the police officers who arrive from the mainland. We’re quieter this way and we need to be quiet when we’re stalking wild animals in the pine forest. Heaven walks in front because she’s the oldest, then me because I’m the youngest, then Bluebird at the rear. When I tell the black policeman we were hunting, Heaven shakes her head. She tells him we were at home. He looks at me, then her, then back at me. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, the soles of our feet muddy and bleeding. Well, says the officer, which one is it?
We trap rabbits and small birds and fish. We let the birds go mostly. We go crabbing down by the mud flats. I always make a joke of wiggling my fingers in the bucket and pulling them back before the crabs can snip them off. Bluebird finds it funny but Heaven always tells me off. We help pull the net when the adults go down to the beach but sometimes we sneak out to do it alone, even though we’re not supposed to. We’ve made our own net from scavenged rope. We’re more or less self-sufficient, which is better for Bibi and Grandaddy.
Our grandparents are really too old to be looking after us anymore but it can’t be helped. They have to be our parents now, because the ones we were born with are gone. Our real daddy walked into the woods one day and became an oak tree. Soon after that, our real mama just turned into light and dust in the garden, right in front of our eyes. I was too young to remember but I was there, we all were. Heaven and Bluebird said her skin came away like ribbons cut from rainbows. Bluebird said she looked at peace. Heaven said her face was full of fear. I was swaddled against our mama’s back so that when she turned I fell to the ground and cut my head on a stone. That’s where I got this scar.
When I asked Bibi if all this was true, she said, Sure enough, I came outside and there you were, lying in the dirt with your head split open, blood everywhere, your mama gone and your sisters looking at me dumb as rocks. When I asked Grandaddy about it, he just shrugged and said, Your mama and daddy got free.
Bluebird goes missing when we’re in the forest. We’re tracking a deer. We’ve never caught a deer on our own before. We aren’t really supposed to hunt big game because the government designated the whole island a nature reserve, but we’re hungry and there’s been no grocery barge for weeks because it’s tropical storm season. Every day we eat microwave burgers with bright plastic cheese and washed lettuce from Bibi’s patch in the garden. We want real meat. I’ve been dreaming about eating raw flesh.
We’re deep in the forest when Heaven looks over her shoulder, past me, and says, I heard Grandaddy talking about you.
Bluebird says, To who?
He was on the phone. Telling somebody they’re going to send you away.
Yeah, yeah, they always say that.
He meant it this time. They want to send you to a correctional place on the mainland.
Why would they do that?
Miss Laura isn’t happy with you at all.
Whatever. She can suck a dick.
Where’d you even get the gun from? Grandaddy don’t keep guns in the house.
We walk a while longer in a growing silence. Eventually Bluebird says, They’re not going to send me away.
Heaven has always had a stomach for cruelty. It’s clear she’s joking, at least to me. If she really believed our sister was going to be turfed out, she wouldn’t talk so casually about it. But she shrugs and says, That’s just what Grandaddy said.
Miss Laura is our neighbour. We don’t especially like her. At church, she always has something to say about our mama. She’s always asking stupid questions like, Can’t you even get dressed up nice for Jesus? Didn’t anybody teach you table manners? What kind of names are those? Bluebird snapped at her once and said, The ones our parents gave us, dummy. Miss Laura had something to say to our grandparents about that.
Bibi always says don’t pay that busybody no mind. She disguises her condescension as concern. I’m worried, she tells Bibi, that your girls are always running around out there with no shoes on. Ever since your daughter went away, they’ve been acting like wild dogs. The little one’s practically feral. Hell, I saw her down by the water with no shirt on. Sister, please, you’re a reasonable woman. You’ve got to do something.
We have committed more than one crime against Miss Laura and her grandsons over the years. We used to untie their dog because he was always crying in their front yard. Sometimes we picked oranges from her tree, but only because she never picked them herself, just let them fall and rot in the grass and heat. We left most of what we picked on her porch. We didn’t go out of our way to antagonise Miss Laura but her grandsons were bullies. They deserved whatever they got. I bit the younger one’s arm at Sunday school. I ground my teeth in until I tasted blood. He wanted to play with the toy I was playing with and he’d pushed me over to get it. I pushed him back and then, for good measure as Bibi likes to say, I nipped him.
All our neighbours are of the general consensus that we’re not punished enough. Our grandparents are too soft to care for us properly. We need discipline. My week-long grounding after the biting incident wasn’t satisfactory for Miss Laura. Neither was the stern talking to we got when their dog ran away, nor the beating we got when she found the orange rinds we left fertilising under her tree. Miss Laura was just worried, she was always saying, about our lack of supervision. She never failed to call and inform our grandparents when Heaven was seen in cars with boys or when Bluebird beat up somebody’s brother or when she saw us coming back from the forest with a fresh kill.
Two weeks ago, Bluebird was at a party with Heaven. Somehow she ended up walking down the old forest road, barefoot and alone. She’d gotten into a fight at the party, which was regular behaviour for her, and had to leave. Miss Laura’s oldest grandson and his friends followed her. They were calling her names, throwing rocks. Bluebird pulled out a pistol, fired a warning shot and then, when it looked like they needed further suggestion, took aim at their heads. They legged it. She said they were just trying to scare her, but Heaven made me turn away when she rinsed her off in the tub. I got a glimpse of her back, the tops of her legs. Raw and colourful, like old meat. It took the boys over a week to rat her out and when they did, they made it sound like she threatened to kill them for no good reason. As soon as Miss Laura found out, she was on the phone.
Bluebird’s actions look reckless to outsiders but only because they can’t see the crystal web of her mind. She once built a sculpture out of the good china to calm me down from one of my fits, assembling a towering, precarious bridge on the dining table. As I watched her build it was like seeing music in the air. Something formless suddenly had a shape. I could breathe again. All Bibi said when she came in was, She’s methodical, alright.
I know my sister. Everything she does has a logic to it, and a purpose.
The police and our neighbours canvass the woods with flashlights and dogs. We can hear them calling out her name, even from the house. An hour ago they found a pair of her shoes, torn clothes. Nobody’s mentioned that they weren’t the clothes she was wearing earlier.
We’re still sitting in the kitchen. We’ve been warned by Grandaddy not to move, even an inch, and the evening’s general atmosphere dissuades us from testing how strictly we are to observe these instructions. I want to ask where Heaven thinks our sister would’ve gone but she’s angry at me for getting us in trouble. The room is wrapped in a cool stoniness. There is a tap at the window, then another.
Heaven says, It’s Walter.
She swivels in her seat and pushes the window open. Walter, is that you?
Are your grandparents home?
No, everyone’s out looking for Bluebird.
Walter lets himself by the back door, which has been left unlocked in the event of Bluebird’s voluntary return. Heaven rises to meet him on the patio but she doesn’t close the door behind her. They whisper, he kicks his shoes off. After a couple minutes, my sister follows him in. Her expression has relaxed.
How’s it going, Sage?
Not bad, I shrug. Wish Bluebird would come home already and stop all this fuss. I’ve got school tomorrow.
Yeah, I saw all them going out to look for her.
I’m sure she’ll be back soon. She just wants to give them a scare.
Yeah, says Walter, sounds like Bluebird. Well, I was just coming over to bring you this when I heard. I brought one for Bluebird too. He hands me a book with a rough green cover and one with a navy cover and a pretty dust jacket. I open up the green one and press my lips to the pages. The print is small and lovely, it has a musty smell that always reminds me of ink.
Where’d you get it?
Say thank you, Sage.
It’s alright, I found it at a house I was cleaning out with my dad. There’s loads more down at the dump if you want to take a look. Maybe tomorrow after school.
Heaven lifts herself up onto the counter in a way that she would never do if our grandparents were home. With one of her legs outstretched, she balances herself by gripping the edge of the kitchen island with her toes. She looks like a dancer. She cocks her head to one side and her neck clicks. She says, Did you see them all then?
Yeah, they were fanning out across the tree line down by where you normally set your traps. You were out hunting?
We were, says Heaven, but I wouldn’t have told them that. She looks at me.
Aw, you won’t be in trouble for that though, when they find her they’ll forget all about it.
That’s what I said!
How can you like her, Walter? She’s such a bitch.
Heaven sticks her tongue out at me. Walter laughs diplomatically and changes the subject. She just ran off then?
Yep, typical Bluebird.
You’re not worried?
No, she always turns up.
Walter says to me, Let us know if your grandparents or anyone come back, alright?
I want to say that it was Heaven who made her run off like that but I stay quiet. I let my eyes slide away as Walter takes Heaven’s hand and leads her down the corridor to the den. She starts laughing, then they close the door and the sound is strangled like the sudden hiss of an extinguished candle. The book Walter brought for Bluebird has gold embossed letters on the jacket. It’s a romance, exactly the kind my sister likes to read.
We’re very close to the deep heart of the forest. Here is where the pine trees give way to the old twisted oaks, the ugly branches dressed with lacy greenish moss. We see the deer standing in a small clearing. Heaven has the best aim. She raises the hunting rifle we’ve been loaned by Grandaddy. He always pretends not to know what we’re doing out here but when Heaven asks for the keys to the shed, he gives them to her and says only, Be careful with that now.
Bluebird and I crouch down carefully. I cover my ears. Heaven draws herself up to her full height. She likes to show off but it isn’t really necessary. At this distance, it’s a clear shot.
As Heaven squeezes the trigger, there’s a scream and a flash. Her aim falters. I look up. The shot grazes the animal. It runs into the trees with a superficial wound. Heaven spins around, ready to curse at the two of us. A flock of birds’ dark silhouette spirals into the air above. I wait for her admonishments but none came. Her eyes are bright but wide, hesitant. Heaven says, Where’s Bluebird?
We search without urgency. It isn’t unlike our sister to disappear, especially in the forest. I’m sullen. I know Bluebird ran off because of what Heaven said, because it’s true. Miss Laura and her grandson got a lawyer. Grandaddy and Bibi won’t have a choice, they’ll have to send her away for good this time. We wander in the same direction the deer went. There aren’t any broken branches. The pine needles that litter the ground are undisturbed. I suggest we circle back to ask our daddy oak.
Don’t be stupid, Sage.
I’m not being stupid, I say. Maybe she went there.
It’s just a tree.
Heaven calls me a baby but we go back to the big oak anyway. It’s the largest tree on the island. It sits at the edge of a deep pond where they used to drown our people way back before our grandparents were even alive. We came here all the time as little kids. At the water’s edge looking for ghosts. The tree’s bark has all these oval-shaped ridges pushing out of it, like faces. They’re the real faces of our people. I touch the one that looks like the pictures of our daddy, where its cheek would be. See? says Heaven. Bluebird isn’t here.
As she says it, we hear breathing. Short, frantic breaths that sound like struggle. We walk slowly around the tree, I cling to the back of my sister’s shirt. We see hooves—it’s just the deer.
The smell is suddenly overpowering. Powdery, sour decay. We cover our mouths and noses with our sleeves. The same deer we were hunting, blackened and writhing with small white worms. Its fur is dark green and slick. Its devoured stomach is still rising and falling. The deflated black eye rolls glossily in its head, as if it can see us. We take off running.
Three days after the last time we see our sister, the policemen carry a body out of the woods. It’s the older grandson. Everyone hears Miss Laura’s howling down the street and they stand on their porches like a vigil. They put him in a long black overnight bag and then into the back of an ambulance. He’s got blood on his clothes that isn’t his, and one of Grandaddy’s neat little pistols in his hand. The chamber’s empty.
Walter reluctantly describes it to me—it’s him and Heaven that find the body. He has little cuts all over his face, delicate curves like small moons. His eye sockets are hollow. A deep red that’s barely colour anymore. When the ambulance arrives, Heaven tells me not to look, to look at her. I do as she says, but in her eyes—it’s like I’m not there. She stares at me like we’ll never meet again.
It’s clear to everybody what happened. Somehow, Bluebird killed him. But they still can’t find her. The red and blue lights play off the evening-white walls of our neighbours’ houses. Eventually, somebody turns them off.
Grandaddy gets quiet and Bibi gets sick. She retreats to her room. She threatens to walk down to the beach and turn into sand, or a wave. We don’t hunt anymore. Walter brings us groceries. He claims he saw Bluebird at a gas station on the mainland. Heaven doesn’t believe him. She thinks he’s trying to cheer me up. Others have seen her too, but none are able to catch her. She melts as soon as they pull their gaze away, reaching for their phone. Gone by the time they start dialling.
Heaven goes out with Walter in the evenings and doesn’t get home sometimes until morning. But she starts coming in through the door instead of the window, no matter how late it is, because nobody tells us what to do anymore. Bibi doesn’t have the energy, and Grandaddy doesn’t have the heart.
At night, when everybody else has gone or gone to bed, I read the books from the dump. I’m a slow reader, even slower without my sisters to read aloud to me, but I keep going. I’ve left the pretty blue book on the nightstand. I won’t read it.
It’s Bluebird who comes in through the window now. She arrives as a flock of birds and perches on the windowsill. I wonder how our parents knew what to name her. This is why can’t nobody catch her. The bluebirds line the sill and weigh down the tree branches. I ask her where she got to but she won’t tell me what happened in the forest. She just asks, Which time? and I don’t know what she means. She says she’s in the same place as mama. She’s following the sun. It’s wild over there but it’s peaceful. She promises I’ll like it. Time folded down until it’s lighter than paper.
Eventually, says Bluebird, we’re all gonna get free.
Kandace Siobhan Walker is a writer and filmmaker. She was born in Toronto to a Jamaican-Canadian mother and a Gullah-Geechee father, and raised in Britain. Her short film ‘Last Days of the Girl’s Kingdom’, produced in collaboration with ICA and DAZED, was aired on Channel 4’s Random Acts. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Bough, Prototype and The Good Journal. She lives in Wales, and is currently working on a novel. Twitter: @kandacesiobhan