Asa served her sister, Aoi, a warm bowl of soba noodles, chopped green onions on top, and a cup of sake. Across from table, a pet lizard looked out from its glass case, its bulging eyes taking in the world, perhaps becoming too big for it. Inside, there was also a miniature replica of a foxglove tree. Only when Aoi finished, did Asa make a bowl for herself. She always ate alone.
The sisters lived in the same apartment they once shared with their mother before she went missing without a trace. Although the mother pointed to several men in succession as their real father, all DNA tests came back negative. Asa always suspected that the mother had poisoned the men with some form of foxglove after each one denied his fatherhood. Asa and Aoi were born joined at the hip. Each claimed they shared each other’s thoughts before they grew apart.
It took several surgeries to unhinge the sisters. In a family album, hidden in the back, there was still a photograph of the two as babies, joined together, one laughing, the other, crying. When asked who took the photo, the mother said it came out of her body along with the girls. She said that a nurse had fainted. The sisters couldn’t tell if she was joking or in one of her mysterious moods.
When the sisters reached their twenties, it was Asa who was beautiful and snobbish, dating handsome college students from Tokyo or Kyoto, and Aoi who grew disenchanted, increasingly prone to bizarre visions and twisted logic.
The sisters went to the same school but hated different teachers. Sometimes they fell in love with the same one. They would make paper mache portraits of their “crush” and fight over him. Aoi, being the less aggressive and the more insecure, usually lost. Then Asa would tear up the paper mache cut-out and throw it in the air. She would laugh all the way home. Aoi would keep her head down, sobbing. She’d study the contours of her shadow as she walked and wondered if she could ever catch anything, anyone.
Once the sisters went out to a nightclub and danced together. Two men, whose first names were the same, tried to pick them up. In a rare moment, Asa was protective of Aoi, and tried to get between Aoi and the stranger, a burly man with thick dark hair. She rebuffed the advances of the other man, who reminded her of one too many computer nerds, always memerizing pick-up lines from a self-help book. But Aoi insisted to go home with the other. There was a twinkle in her eyes.
When Aoi returned home the next morning, she told Asa that she had laughed so loud while she experienced her first orgasm that his tiny room shook, In fact, a ceramic bird might have fallen and shattered. She wasn’t sure. “And he was so scared that he ran naked into the street carrying just his shoes.”
Asa sat up in bed, her eyes following Aoi as she giddily sang the wrong words to a popular love song as she sashayed out of the room.
Aoi, who as a child, loved exploring the rooms of the apartment, later fell in love with a fisherman from one of the tiny islands to the east. She even had mother sew her a wedding dress from scratch. It fit her so well, was so perfect, that it almost had a life of its own. It seemed to breathe. It would make Aoi breathless.
But Asa, always envious and spiteful of everyone who might have more than her, stole Aoi’s fiancé. She said it wasn’t her doing; it was his. Men can’t fight their desires. They spend so much energy on denying them, that they become exhausted and helpless in these kinds of situations.
Aoi stood for a long time, staring at the wall behind the sofa her sister sat upon, browsing a women’s fashion magazine. Her lips parted, forming something between a scowl and a smile. All she could hear was the crinkling of pages and fisherman’s words that there was no one as special as her.
Aoi withdrew from everything, cried for days and weeks. Around this time, she revealed to both mother and sister that she had noticed “cracks in the walls big enough to fit through.” It was on the other side, she said, that she saw a whole world, perhaps derived from this one, or maybe the other way around. There, she had met her real father, a lizard king who sat on a throne, who granted favors to those kind to him, respectful of the desert, of the heat, of night or of sun, of water, and most importantly, the cracks in the ordinary world that everyone either ignored or denied.
Whenever Aoi spoke of this “other” world, there were noticeable gaps in her speech. It was if someone else was speaking through her.
To keep her grounded, Asa reminded Aoi to run errands for mother, that they needed buttermilk four and rice. Aoi obeyed and cooked, but everything came out bland, tasteless.
One day, Asa announced over dinner that she had sent the suitor away. He was really below her station anyway, she said, as if she lived on top of the world. Aoi looked up then continued to eat her mountain vegetables as if it didn’t matter at all. That night, she pressed her face into her pillow and imagined smothering herself. This life of hers, or the life she wanted, she concluded, was never meant to be. She had a dream that night of the fisherman drowning. She would not save him. After it was lifted by men on police boats, his body was bloated and blanched white, She did feel then, a stab of pain and remorse.
In the weeks that followed, Aoi spent more time alone, exploring undiscovered cracks and where they led to. She told Asa of the conversations she had with the lizard king and how he wanted her to be his wife. She said she needed that wedding dress back. Asa told her to watch the simmering herring and enough of this nonsense. What’s done is done, she said, as she whisked some eggs for a cake. Mother sat stone-faced, lifeless hands on her thighs, on a mat in another room.
The apartment became tense to live in. Mother and Aoi lived in their own separate worlds and often, didn’t answer Asa’s questions or requests, or said they couldn’t “hear her.” After many flare-ups and confrontations, the mother, at Asa’s promping, committed Aoi to a mental institution. While there, Aoi, glassy-eyed and constantly smiling, warned the mother that if she did not allow her to marry the lizard king, there would be dire consequences for her. She told her that she, the mother, might fall through the wrong crack and there will be no one to catch her.
Over the years, Aoi was in and out of institutions. She was given bouts of unsuccessful electro-shock treatments, subjected to hours of therapy sessions and group meetings. There were all kinds of different colored pills and pills to counteract the effects of the others. Often, she complained how Asa brought chocolate that was already melted, or was too hard to bite into, or that Asa brought her bitter strawberries that made her screw up her face. And when she bit into them, she could taste the hatred, hatred meant for her, the acidic juice running down her lips, ruining her skin. She thought of the lizard king and how they would both glow peacefully in the night.
When not visiting, Asa stayed home to care for the mother who was becoming progressively forgetful and despondent.
Aoi returned home with a promise that she would be a better daughter and sister. But she still couldn’t stop thinking about the cracks in the walls. She avoided herself in mirrors. They made her feel ugly.
One evening, after Aoi spat out her evening meds, she tried to convince Asa to follow her into one of the “cracks,” or as she like to call them, “the tears in our fabric.” Asa refused, but when she was asleep, Aoi whispered in her ear, and in a twilight state, she followed Aoi. Deep past the crack, Asa saw the wedding dress mother once made for Aoi. It was floating through air, over tree branches. At times, it eclipsed the sun. It had a life of its own. When Asa began to run, Aoi caught her and said “I’m marrying the lizard king. He wants me. He loves me for myself.”
After other trips beyond the crack, Aoi began to look younger. Her complexion became smoother, her breasts like large ripe fruit. Asa grew winkled with lines around her eyes and mouth. Her legs turned shriveled with broken networks of veins showing. She no longer whisked through every chore. She trudged and labored. She complained of all kinds of pain.
Aoi said to her, “You can give me away at the wedding since mother disappeared. The lizard king has appointed you my good sister, my protector beyond the crack that leads into the deluded world of failure and suffocation and constant ache.”
Aoi and Asa made regular trips to visit the lizard king and the world he ruled over. Soon the two grew comfortable in either world, since they knew which one they really belonged to. Both knew they were not meant for the world of bitter strawberries, chocolate that did not taste like chocolate.
The sisters found a kind of peace they had only known when they were joined at the hip. They sometimes took that old photograph of themselves at birth and smiled and giggled over it. Sometimes they cried when they confessed they had not done enough for mother, another victim of a world one could only pay homage to, but cannot live there. Earth could be colder than Mars said Aoi, as she offered her sister a golden apple. Aoi smiled as she looked into her sister’s eyes and said, “No, it doesn’t have a worm inside it. It’s perfect in itself.”
One night, Aoi slept and awoke from a dream where a voice was calling her from a distance. Aoi looked everywhere, in the fields, over the streams and ponds, over the jagged lines of colored rocks. She could see nothing.
She slipped out of bed to make herself some tea. Asa followed her into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong?” asked Asa, “couldn’t sleep?”
Aoi shrugged. Ask Asa if she wanted some tea.
“Why not. I’m up now.”
Aoi turned her head from wall to wall. She slowly stepped out of the kitchen. Asa followed her.
A shadow loomed on each wall. It slithered, or stood upright. It waved to the sisters. Its back was slightly hunched.
The sisters huddled. Asa said she was going to grab a knife, There must be a thief in the house.
Aoi grabbed her wrist and said No. It was no thief.
“How do you know?” asked Asa. “What else could it be? Do you want to be killed or beaten without a fight?”
Aoi stared into her sister’s eyes, then crouched low and followed the shadow into every room. Asa followed behind.
“Do you think it was that fisherman who I once sent away?’ said Asa.
Aoi turned around, looked up at her sister’s face.
“Why? Why would it be him after so long? He’s probably married, I’m sure.”
The shadow stood still, crouched down too, as if imitating the two women.
Aoi whispered in her sister’s ear.
“How is it that we can see this shadow so clearly with such dim lights or no lights at all?”
Asa’s eyes roved from her sister’s face to the shadow moving from wall to wall. At one point, it faced them and seemed it would walk out of the wall and directly towards them.
“Do you know who it is?” asked Asa.
“Look at how it waves to us. Look at the curve in its back.”
Asa studied the shadow. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped slightly.
“It’s mother,” said Aoi. “She’s not lost after all. She’s here in some way. She’s here with us.”
“Perhaps,” said Asa.
“I wonder if she can hear us.”
Aoi waved to the shadow. It waved back and walked from wall to wall, towards mother’s old bedroom. The women followed. In the bedroom, the shadow disappeared.
“We will see her again,” said Aoi.
“I hope so,” said Asa, “I miss her so.”
The women held hands and went to pour tea.
Later that afternoon, they sat in the dining area, facing each other.
“Would you like more udon?” asked Asa of her sister sitting at the table.
“Yes, and you must join me. It’s too much for one.”
Asa bit her lip, pondered it as if something ineffable. She finally agreed. Aoi doled out generous portions into her sister’s bowl.
The lizard behind its glass case blinked its enormous eyes. Once. Then twice. Then three times.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Your Impossible Voice, Night Train, Toad, Matchbox and elsewhere. His latest ebook is Father Dunne’s School for Wayward Boys at amazon.com. He blogs at http://upatberggasse19.blogspot.com/