Recently, I’ve been paying attention to fictional representations of sisters. Perhaps this is because the holidays were just here, and while my sisters are both on the west coast, this time of year we reunite in my parents’ apartment to sleep three in a room. (Three brothers, also, and they’re stuck on a couch or floor, depending on how many make it home.)
Here in the Midwest, the storm windows of my attic apartment are frosted over, their sills piled with Polar Vortex snow, and I’ve been filling my living room with the amber-light of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. The film makes life feel warmer. Of course there’s warmth in the soft brown Andalusian llantos, the golden hair of the mother, but also in the bedtime whispers between Ana Torrent and Isabel Telleria, the sisters of Erice’s film. It’s a melancholy world, really, set during Franco’s dark hours, but each frame seems shot through glass glazed the color of honey. The kids have just seen James Whale’s Frankenstein, and are spooked, in their separate ways.
“Why did the monster kill the girl, and why did they kill the monster?” Little Ana asks her older sister Isabel at bedtime. A candle illuminates their faces, and their eyelids open and close, as the girls circle around the dreamstate. The question presents itself as an opportunity for story telling, for creating a world. Isabel considers her words before replying to her younger sister.
“The movies are a trick,” she explains. The older sister’s words are not intended to comfort, but to frighten. Isabel claims a more sinister reality: that she knows the monster, that she can summon him by calling out to him with her own name.
“Soy Ana,” Isabel demonstrates for her little sister. Which translates to “I am Ana,” literally, but here means, “It’s me, Ana. I am right here.”
“Affidamento” is an Italian word, which means “entrustment.” In the context of Italian feminism, the word refers to a close friendship between women, central to which is a mutual honoring, an entrustment, perhaps, of the other’s artistic work. Implied by the term is the idea that one woman is older, or more experienced than the other, and therefore can provide not only friendship and artistic advice, but support, the guidance of an older sister. Writer Maggie Nelson speaks of poet Eileen Myles as her affidamento, and of moving through New York City’s poetry circles during a time in which “one could make casual affidamentos.” Nelson argues that between affidamentos, it’s not just an exchange of artistic work, writing in this case, but something more radical. This mutual mentorship insists that “the transmission of (knowledge, experience, wisdom, power) between women matters — and not in some kind of back-alley, segregated prayer space kind of a way, but in a central way.” We choose these siblings, sure, and some of them appear in those dusky formative years in our own families. To me, the word “affidamento” fills in the gaps of a more worn, familiar word like “sisterhood,” with life-shaping purpose, with world-creation, with the engagement of art in all its real and imaginary spheres. I’m lucky enough to have a few of my own.
One of my affidamentos, a poet, confessed to me that in childhood, she had whispered nightly to the younger sister cuddled in the bed beside hers that she had recently returned from the dead with the object of haunting her little sister. On other evenings, the younger sister would try to speak to my friend, and my friend would order silence until the completion of her nightly prayers. Sometimes my friend’s prayers were so comprehensive that her younger sister had drifted off to sleep by the time she was done. Sometimes my friend pretended to pray, and then feigned sleep while her little sister whispered her name again and again.
For my part, I remember regularly, systemically, intruding upon my little sister’s dreamstate. The idea occurred to me one night as she snored in the pull-out trundle beneath my twin bed. A perfect motor inside of her. Four years younger than me, I could pick her up whenever I felt like it, and I would. That night I lifted her into the closet, placed her gently amongst the sneakers, and shut the door, hopped back onto my bed. She awoke with a start, a snort, a gasp.
“You’re asleep,” I whispered. “You’re on an overnight train to Boston. You’ll arrive soon. Chuga chuga chuga chuga chuga chuga choo choo. Stay in your compartment.” I reached my hand from the pillow to the closet and held it there against the closed door.
What was it that I wanted? To be the master of my tiny sister’s perceptions? It wasn’t necessarily harm I wanted to inflict, but the possibility of a universe we created together, to set space and time on different terms than the ones we knew.
Getting ready for school in the morning. Years of my life, those morning hours, putting on our school uniforms, my theory of time expanded and contracted like the wood of a shut door. Camisole, a training bra, and undies, tall navy blue socks. Shorts (in the day’s style of men’s plaid boxers), and then a stiff plaid skirt, box-pleated, that zips and fastens on the side with a chipped plastic button. A white sailor shirt with a generous collar, a pocket at the left breast, material thin enough to show the classmate seated in the desk behind whether or not there’s a training bra, or a bra-bra, or nothing, underneath. A red necktie, looped against the breastbone. A polyester sweater, frayed at the wrists, a bulky navy blue on top. White Converse low-tops (high-tops are preferred, but forbidden by the Archdiocese).
My sister and I race through our clothes. Modesty is no object for my little sister, but paramount to my game. She sits naked on her trundle bed, staring into space. I contrive ways to enter my training bra in ultimate privacy. I hear my mother packing her workbag in the hallway, my father stirring oatmeal. My brother knocks his forehead against the door, which I have naturally locked. I hold my breath until I am dressed, eyes on the second hand of my Minnie Mouse watch. I bark at my sister to hurry up before she makes ALL OF US late. My little sister is in first grade and has a rich inner life.
“I’m gazing! This is an insultment!” she protests. I am ten, and what I don’t know, when I tromp around the room, mocking her quietude, hot-dogging my progress by tapping my Converse against her little bare foot, is that she is meditating.
I promenade before her: “I’m the dressing machine, the ONLY dressing machine!” Her large brown eyes fill with tears, spill over. Those deep pockets of time, replay over and over. I’m still apologizing.
Later on in Erice’s film, Isabel plays her trick. Isabel stages her own death for Ana, expertly maintaining her composure until she is certain that Ana believes her to be truly dead. While Ana runs in terror for help, Isabel hides, then sneaks up on Ana when she reenters the room. This time Isabel wears the costume of a ghoulish adult man, Frankenstein’s monster, exactly the kind of spirit that haunts Ana’s imagination. After she screams, Ana looks more wronged than scared.
“Such cruelty,” my father said about that scene the first time we watched the film together. “Too dramatic.” The creation of that sister-reality must unfold quietly, even inside of a family.
“My duende sister” is what another female poet calls me. She’s an affidamento, in the traditional sense: older than me, with a successful literary career behind her already. Each week we hold workshop together with three other writers, share that duende’s dark secret world, drink wine, finish each others’ sentences, contextualize each new poem or chapter within the body of work we’ve already shared, tear apart the work, rebuild it.
I think sometimes my sister and I scared each other as a way of seeing where she ended and where I began. We drew lines around each other, erased them. Is this real? Is this imagined? Is it real because we imagined it together? Sometimes we weren’t sure where I ended and she began. A friend, also one of six siblings, tells me that she often doesn’t remember whether she’s had a private thought or shared a story with one of her brothers. Secrets become difficult to keep, if only for this kind of intimate forgetting. Our brains have marinated too long in the same murky waters; boundaries get lost.
In Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s novel The Sad Passions, four sisters piece together the mystery of their mothers’ madness and the disappearance of Julia, the second eldest. (Coincidentally, Julia happens to be the name of my beloved baby sister.) Julia gets at the permeable boundaries of her childhood through her Art History scholarship.
Writing about the artist Robert Barry, Julia puts it this way:
“She is something else entirely, unspeakable, perhaps. When you draw her, make her liquid fragile tissue, a gaseous substance, diffuse and undefined. Make her a watercolor in deep dark shades, with tones spilling into others, and marked by lack of line.”
And of Francesca Woodman, the young photographer whose image is reproduced here, Julia writes: “The play we see permeating Woodman’s work is a necessary in between place, the unclaimed transitional space, from which we can actively create our own lives.”
The sisters of Gonzalez Peña’s book look to each other as proof of their individual realities, as the mirror that says, it’s me; I am still here. Art is there, between what has formed us, and the dark matter we seek to know.
Images: Victor Erice, James Whale, Francesca Woodman