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Good Stewards of the Earth

To say that we are siblings is not enough. I’m not speaking just in terms of biology, but of the physicality. When we lay our arms side by side on the table, there exists still a shadow of doubt that they belong to the same person: Jake’s is broader and more densely haired. We are not twins in the sense of having shared the womb, but I rightly claim the term as mine.

An orange peel takes eight years to decompose; a glass bottle, one hundred. My parents wanted us to become good stewards of the earth and sent us each summer to the woods where we wove rope and dyed flax with berry mash and boiled our water before each single drink. We browned and sweated; we earned everything we got. On the first day they threw down a pile of tents without instructions and left us to teach ourselves. We did, not wanting to wake up dampened with dew. The Lumberjack’s Friend we used for toilet paper, the Arrowhead tubers we boiled and gnawed. Evenings, we’d leave the others and take the trail to the lake where I stripped down and washed with biodegradable soap. Jake sat shoreside to watch. The other campers never came to find us. When the light spent and the water chilled to 40 I’d climb out and dry with the selfsame clothes I put on. Nights his breathing convinced us it was my own. Mornings palms and fingers meshed.

We weren’t stewards of anything but orange pop, 110% high-fructose corn syrup. I used to think the color came from crushed oranges, hand-picked in the grove by women with bonnets and songs. Jake set me straight: The color was nothing but a chemical, formulated in a room like our basement but whiter, by men who never drank the soda themselves. Scientists, Jake said, like it was a spell. On the couch we weren’t allowed to eat or drink but Jake sneaked plastic bags of cereal and hid them between the cushions so mother wouldn’t see. We reached our hands in the crevice and drew them to our mouths quick as we could. I always liked the planetary cereal the best, sugar-frosted galaxies in a paper box.

He never grew larger than I did: We matched each other inch for inch in most dimensions. When we were younger our closets were divided but as we grew we overtook the hallway linen closet, tossing out the tablecloths never used except for company. His were the top two shelves, the bottom two mine. My favorite was the Transformers t-shirt that ended just before my waistline. His was the green sweater with the neck that cut straight across. When our parents stopped forcing wilderness camp we’d spend whole summers in his room, listening to records we stole or bought. Mostly the former since we didn’t work a day in our life. The life of leisure, Jake would say, and laugh like an outright prince. The fan in his window drew out smoke and acetone fumes and together on the rag rug we leaned our heads in, sharing a soda through two straws, purely for sentimental reasons.

At prom, we went separately but together. I was over all the boys at my school and Jake didn’t talk to anyone but me. We arrived in twin limos, his white and mine black, that our parents had sprung for. The driver held open my door and I curtsied before him, ever-so-slight, and just then Jake’s limo pulled up behind. I could see his eyes through the tinted glass, fixated on the way I balanced my weight. Sinister glance like a corpse from the bottom of a fish tank. Fancy seeing you, he purred, and pinned a white rose to my strap. We entered regal, measured our steps. Heads turned. There go those twins again, people said, always outdressing each other. Which was true: We did each strive to be the prettier, and prom was a night of especial competition. Even so, we spoke civilly to the girls with braces or large foreheads.

We were good stewards of our name.

High school ended like a dream and I shook my head for months, trying to leak the water from my ears. What happened? I crossed that stage and took my diploma and walked to the green edge of the field, never to be heard from again. Jake went the opposite direction. I know this only because we didn’t end up together, not because I looked back. I never send my parents letters and I know they don’t worry because a girl like me can fend for herself. It’s Jake I worry about. Sometimes I receive late-night telegrams typed in a frantic timbre, the words nonsensical and bleating. Dance hall crash! Lost an ear and hours and hours. Where is my white collared shirt?

Car broke down: walked the shoulder miles. Birds melting in the heat. In the dirt a bottle coiled with smoke. Opened it and singed eyelashes. Must seek replacements.

On these occasions, I never know quite what to do so I do it anyway: plunge naked into the chilled bathwater and sing the songs we learned in our youth. Conjure the taste of oranges so that when I spit the water holds a ruddy tint. On a different shore, another child does the same.


Kate Garklavs  lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA from UMass Amherst, and when she’s not writing she’s collecting taxidermy.