|My big sister grew up unable to dance because of the scoliosis, because
of the Milwaukee brace she wore twenty-three hours a day beginning in second
grade. So she taught her fingers to dance, fast skinny fingers on piano
and trumpet. The living room was her ballroom. The piano by the fireplace
obeyed. Celia could play "The Entertainer" with both hands. She'd find
middle C and go from there. She knew a whole book of church hymns by heart:
Have Thine Own Way Lord and When the Saints Go Marchin' In. She tried to
teach me but I couldn't learn. If the fingers of my right hand found the
keys, my left hand moved in spasms.
Seventh grade. Boys don't know what to say to a girl who wears a back brace. To seventh grade boys a girl is this: simply the sum of her parts: metal from neck to tailbone, hard plastic on the rib cage, white pads against her chin that hold her head high and still.
I remember her, age twelve through seventeen, in exactly this way: black eyes squinting over a needle, head bent, all the world unknown to her. The needle's tiny point pierces in and out, in and out. Her lips move but make no sound as she counts the stitches, one, two, three. Or her hands fly in little circles, a wad of yarn unrolling on the floor as two long needles click-click-click, and miraculously a blanket or baby booties take shape between her hands. The walls of our parents' house are covered with unframed squares of cloth depicting peaceful, happy scenes stitch by perfect stitch, thread by meticulous thread.
"Here, let me show you," Celia used to say. "It's just a simple chain stitch." But my hands couldn't learn, my fingers wouldn't work. Now Celia is married to a man named Dave who owns an iguana. The movement of the iguana's head is like a parody of my sister's in those years when a simple sideways glance was an effort for her, an obvious discomfort. Dave takes Celia to western bars. She knows every step of the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Home for Christmas, on the front lawn of our parents' house with the grass still green in Mobile's winter heat, she says to me, "It's easy. Put your feet like this, see, and count." But my feet are no better than my fingers, and to this day I can't match numbers to movements, can't tap out a tune on the piano or do the tush push to a cadence of one, two, three. Now Celia has a metal rod up her spine to make it straight, they sliced her open and put it there. Her back will never bend. The scar is shaped like three quarters of a moon turning on a raw celestial axis. For several days after the surgery she lay on her stomach, a bright red C of blood seeping through the gauze.
On Celia's wedding day, her dress scooped low to show the scar that made her straight. Six days before the wedding I entered her bedroom while she was sleeping, lowered the sheet, ran my finger along the scar. It felt like silk, not skin, slick to the touch and minutely wrinkled. I remembered how, years before, my mother had lifted the soiled white gauze and carefully redressed the wound as I watched from the doorway, hating them both for that one last gesture of intimacy in a long history of intimacies.
"If you had several children and one of them was stricken with leprosy, would you leave the healthy children to accompany the sick one to the leper's colony?" I had asked.
Startled, my mother had turned to me. "I didn't realize you were there."
She did not even pause to consider. "Yes," she said, moving her hands with the utmost tenderness across my sister's bruised back.
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