Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
It’s common enough, once or twice a generation. We had a great aunt who became a dagger. Most families have a weapon of some kind, usually a woman, usually a blade, and it is our mother who carries her. Our great aunt will pass to me eventually, and I have already made a sheath and a belt that I think will meet with her approval. There is a family in town with a mirror that was someone’s brother, thirty years ago, and I must say I have never looked better or more myself than I did the one time I saw my reflection in him.
Less frequently, someone becomes a place, or rather part of a place. When the orphanage burned twelve years ago, there were only three children left alive. One came to live in the town; he runs the grocery store now. The other two remained where the orphanage once stood, became where the orphanage once stood, and now that place is full of birdsong and strange mists. It is not unpleasant, if you are expecting it.
My sister showed no such proclivities, in our youth. She did not appear to yearn for the seaside. She did not walk the high meadows and have the dazed expression on her face that the mountain peaks had when they were people. She never amassed an unusual collection of objects. She did well enough in school, and appeared to love a couple of times and, when I came back from the war, she had become a house.
It would have shown in the Aptitudes. I learned that much later. But when we were children, our father never told us our results. The intelligence exams, the school placements, the mandatory emotional evaluation: after all of it, he just tapped his fingers on the kitchen table and said, “You’re very similar. A point or two apart.” We were so close to each other, even then, that my sister and I did not argue over who might have had the extra point.
When the last envelope finally came, he didn’t even say that. He sat for a long time in the green leather chair in the front room but, when he called us for dinner, there was nothing but a dusting of grey ash in the kitchen sink, and the smell of burnt paper floating over the dumplings on the stove.
The next day at recess, when the other kids started telling what their envelopes held, I said our family didn’t believe in revealing the results. We would come into them in our own good time, as our parents had. I think my sister lied too. We never talked about it.
There are two schools of thought on what you should tell children about their Aptitudes. One says that your nature is set, from your very first breath; that your eventual form comes into the world with you, as much as your eyes do, or your spine.
The second says that an Aptitude may, rarely, be changed: by luck, by experience, or by desire.
I do not know which result our father was hoping for by not telling us. Three times in my life I have been to the Hall of Records, thinking I would go in and find where it said what we would become. Each time I have turned around and come back home.
My sister did not stay with us. My sister could not stay with us.
There was a great sadness in her, and we spoke around it more than we spoke of it. Much of the time it was like I crouched at the top of a well, and she sat at the bottom, and we shouted at each other. Echoes will distort your words.
I could not explain what it was like to live in the sunshine. She could not tell me what it felt like to stay at the bottom of a well for so long. It is my belief she waited as long as she could.
I never wanted to be anything except what I am, until I came back from the war and found that I was without my sister.
It took me a long time to find her. Not the house herself, of course: it was there, completely and immediately, the day she vanished. My father woke up one morning and my sister was gone for breakfast. When she still hadn’t appeared by lunchtime, they went looking and found the house at the back of our mother’s property, sitting on the edge of a rumbling creek. The water tumbles over the rocks there, loud enough to soothe a noisy mind, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why she chose that place, when she did.
After that I came and went any number of times, and once I was gone for two years, off wild-catting down the coast like a much younger and dumber woman. When I came back the wisteria had grown so high above the frame around her porch I could barely see inside the windows.
I was limping, and dirty, and tired, and when I said something about the vine, it started a fight with my mother.
“I do not have time to maintain everything,” she said. “Your father has never been good with tools. If you want this place to look a certain way, do it yourself.”
Not the next day, because that would have been giving in, but the day after that, I took the pruning shears and the shovel and some packets of seeds and went down to the creek. It took a long time to beat the wisteria back. I planted the flowers on the southern-facing slope where they would get sun for most of the day. Then I left. I did not return for six months. Someone tended the garden; I imagine it was one of my cousins, though they did not mention it.
When I came back I brought my sister a table. It had to be carried up our narrow road in pieces, and it took me quite a while to put all the pegs back together, but when I polished it down and stood it carefully in the long western room, I swear I heard a little noise of contentment from the walls.
I realized then that a house cannot furnish itself.
After that, I brought something back for her every time I went away: silver candlesticks, shaped like bulls, to stand on the mantel. Curtains of copper silk for the upper windows. A rough green mat for the front steps.
The skirmishes started up again and, even though I was no longer the soldier I had been in my youth, I went south to join them. Apparently a streak of grey hair and a foul mouth was enough to make you a general in those dark times. I tried to be a good one.
They said we won. I had buried so many young soldiers, I couldn’t tell, and when I finally came home, the quiet in my parents’ house was as abrasive as a sandstorm. After the first sleepless night in my old room, I walked across the fields and put my blankets on my sister’s porch, and the next night I slept in the mostly-empty living room, in front of the fire. When the first winter storms started, three weeks later, I asked the carpenter from down the lane to come and build me a bed.
I dream better here and, with everything I’ve seen, that’s a blessing I can’t begin to believe I deserve. It occurred to me far too late that my sister was the one who gave me more time, as much as she could, well beyond the bounds of bravery, and even when she left me, she stayed.
When I die, still this mess of fat and bone and feeling, I’ll be buried in her back garden. I hope she won’t be sad I couldn’t join her; it’s not my nature. If I were different, I could have had a building site next door. We would have stood together in the sunshine and the snow. Someone in the family would have lived here, and planted over the garden again with their own. Instead, I still come and go, more than I should. I’ll stay with her as long as I can, and then someone else will live here.
I already know which of my cousin’s children should have the dagger, and which the house. I think she knows she’ll be my heir: I’ve seen her making a bookshelf in the barn. It will look just right in the western room, under the long window, when she’s done.