national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014
Honorable Mention in Fiction

Shark Season in Kanawha Country

Nina Sabak  • 
University of Pittsburgh

1.

Lilliana starving is what we’re used to. She says her bones don’t fit right. What kind of bones does a sister need? She wants low hips, paper ribs, big square hands for dancing with the state fair girls. She spends all morning on her belly in her whitewashed bedroom; she watches herself move. The room smells like the pennies we’ve been saving for a candle. (There are prayers, there are ways.) Lilliana holds up her wrists, tamps down the veins till we can hear the blood slurrying through. Her skin runs hot with fever dreams. She dissects talking dolls and leaves them chest-down by the columbine. When she hides, we push notes under her door until they block the light from the lamp on her table, where our dolls’ heads watch her sleep. Our sister cocoons herself in sweat on the floor. We bring her orange soda and greasy pepperoni rolls soaking through their plates. We fix grits and ramps and sweet sorghum and watch her throw them into the woods. Her teeth are small and sharp. Don’t you know I’m haunted? she says. She bites her nails to the quick and smears blood in her palms. There are ghosts in the hollers and they’re trying to catch me. I need someplace to run.

 

2.

On bee-sting nights Lilliana spreads her lap wide and lazy. We don’t remember seeing this hardness in her hips. She binds her heart, she cuts off her hair with pinking shears and lets it stick up ragged. Our mama sweeps up her braids on the front porch with her splintered broom and cries when birds steal the brightest. By nightfall the trees beside the river are full of Lilliana’s hair, shining gold and lonely. She shivers under the stairs, her skinny legs red with chigger bites. The back of her goosebumped neck is bruising. Our mama tells us, Go on get out, stop staring. There’s nothing else to do in the summertime. We stomp up the stairs, scavenge her junk-flooded closet for something familiar, the wreckage of our love. Everything rots sweet; we hold our noses. We bring our sister’s cracked mary janes, half-rusted earrings, photos of her old face peeling at the corners, and she takes us by the shoulders and shakes us. Not Lilliana, she says, no name like that, not anymore. When we call our sister in the night, we don’t know who we’re asking for.

 

3.

We ride to town in a muddy pickup truck, the four of us crammed in the bed, our mama up front. We stretch our legs toward the bumper, flex our toes, pretend to be dead. On Main Street the parade is gone. Everyone’s packed up their lawn chairs and disappeared. We call for our mama to slow down, we want the candy on the curb, we can jump back up if we run. It’s Thursday in May, the start of festival season. Down at the river. Look, someone says, all them lights, the slides, the smell of sugar. We are afraid to ride the Ferris wheel. Even Lil is afraid to lose the feel of ground. The air feels like drowning fast. Our legs are slick and shining where we’ve crossed them like we’re taught, our skirts clinging all unladylike. When the cab rises, the music goes up so everyone sings too. We sing our driving songs, our hoping songs, our white trash running songs. This is what sisters do, they hold hands over potholes. They keep an eye out for a glimpse of grocery store. Tonight we hold our fingers up to squeeze the summer, waving to no one, like tickertape queens.

 

4.

Our strange sister sits by the river in her cutoffs and cracked ribs singing radio songs. Her chapped mouth. Her staticky voice unfamiliar. We watch her from the tree house, where she can’t run us off. We want her close enough to rescue. She drowns in our dreams and we wake with windmilling arms, trying to save her, but she’s beyond our fingers now. We shove each other to stay put, hush up. We hold nothing but the sweat in our hands. What kind of skin does a sister crave? The skimmers hum on the water, waiting. She shimmies out the blues, leaves her shorts on the rocks. She plants her dirty feet on the bank, tilts forward until she falls belly-first, her calves a flash of curve and stubble. Lilliana’s thin skin fades, blends with the fish below. We don’t know about salvation, but we see her hold her breath till she’s transformed. Her bones propped up while she’s washed clean. No face, no legs, no nothing in between.