We had started walking in the fields, dressed in the usual high-waisted jeans, casual denim overshirts, and snug rubber boots. Thin wisps of hair fluttered in front of my eyes as I tried to shield them from the glare of the lowering sun that still hovered above the nearby wooded hill. The air was balmy--freakishly so, it being February--but with the slightest chill in the breeze. It was the kind of day when Winter taunts the world, making everything believe she's given up, when Spring is yet far away.
Jetta's long strides soon outstripped me, but I wasn't trying to keep up. We weren't headed anywhere in particular, just in the general direction of the woods and bluffs. For some reason that was where our steps had turned to say our goodbyes, to the place where we'd spent so many hours as children.
We slowed down upon entering the forest, mostly because we had to dodge trees, thorny undergrowth, rocky outcroppings, and wet-weather streams. Leaves crunched under our boots and we started talking again. "I wish the visa hadn't caused such trouble. I might've bought my tickets long before, and now I'll have to pay an arm and a leg. I hate international travel." Jetta snapped off a twig that was blocking her way and continued tromping up the slope. "Good thing you don't have to go through all that, eh?" When I didn't say anything she turned her head slightly and looked back at me. "All right, Magda?"
"I guess you'd give just about anything to go to England, wouldn't you? Isn't that funny! And you'd love to be engaged, too. Here I am, the homebody of the family, finding the perfect job and it just happens to be in England. And I've never cared much for men except as friends, then I meet one who decides he wants to be my friend for the rest of his life. Odd, isn't it? You're always dreaming of oversea travel and chasing after boys, and it all happens to me." She put out her hand to lean against a mossy tree trunk while I trudged to catch up to her. "But you aren't the least bit jealous, are you, Magda?"
"Me? Of course not. I'm happy for you." Do you ever talk and have the words sort of claw their way up your throat, like they don't want to come out? I couldn't help but notice that tilt of my sister's head, the way her jaw sort of jutted out. Confident. Beautiful. Talented.
"What do you think my wedding colors ought to be?" We were going on now, stumbling slightly over the rough ground, clambering up the bluffs and sliding back down as we cut across the side of the hill.
"That's really your decision, isn't it?"
"Of course it's my decision, but I think I can take a little advice! I was thinking aquamarine and white, or perhaps black and coral. What would you have your wedding colors be, Magda? Have you ever thought about your own wedding?"
I couldn't help gritting my teeth. A Celtic wedding--ladies in medieval gowns, men in classic suits, harp music up the aisle, fluttering banners, cascades of fresh flowers.... "No, not really. I've always loved forest green and silver, though."
She gave a little laugh and stepped over a collapsed fence of rusty barbed wire. "Yes, I think you're right. In fact, I think that green is Michael's favorite color! We might just have to do that. Green and silver--yes, it would fit the time of year, too." Another laugh. "Dear Magda, I don't know how you put up with me sometimes. At least I'll be in England in a few months, hmm?" We went on, slipping, climbing, panting, regretting the rubber boots, until we came to a large, smooth-topped rock. It jutted out above the narrow valley, and there was pile of rocks many feet below where bits of the bluffs had fallen down over decades. We stood on that rock, the sun already down behind us, watching purple shadows slowly but surely wrap up the forest. The only sounds were the chattering of a few squirrels and birds, what might have been a rabbit in the undergrowth, and the blowing of the breeze.
Jetta was standing right at the edge of the rock with her back to me, hands in her pockets, her hair slowly uncurling in the wind. My own hands came out of their pockets to hang at my sides, and I tried to bring down the heat in my cheeks. "One little shove is all it would take."
My sister's voice shocked me into stillness. Then I choked, "Wha--what did you say?"
"I said that one little push would take care of everything." Her tone was suddenly violent and bitter. "It's a steep fall, and I might survive if I fell just right, but more than likely I'd land on my neck, and then it'd all be over. I wouldn't bother you anymore."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Jetta. Don't be stupid." There was an unwonted quaver in my voice. How had she known? Why would she think?
She pivoted around to look at me. "I know you wouldn't do it. You're too scared."
"Jetta! Are you accusing me--"
"I didn't say anything." She slid down off the rock and began working her way down the hillside. "Come on, it's time we go back toward home."
"Why are you talking about falling off rocks? What could you possibly be upset about?"
"Do you recognize this place?" I couldn't say that I did. "It's our fairy bower. Just a rotting log overhung with vines, but we used to tell each other stories under here. Stories about the things we'd done and were going to do. About the little people in woods and fields.... Things were very different then."
"We were shorter."
"Ha! Yes, that's true. You hardly ever spoke to me unless we were out here."
"Hardly spoke to you? You're kidding. You were always underfoot. I couldn't get rid of you." Was it my fault that there was vinegar in my voice? It had been bubbling in my heart for so long without an outlet. Jetta gave a deep sigh and sat down on the overgrown log, tucking her feet under her and settling her chin on her hands. I stood.
"Did you have any idea how much I wanted to be with you?"
"If your constant nagging was any indication, yes."
She shivered and wouldn't look at me. "You had the power to give me everything I wanted, Magda. Can you imagine how I looked up to you? My big sister?"
"Good grief. I think I spent enough time with you. We lived together for many years, in case you've forgotten."
"No, I haven't forgotten. But of course, it wasn't the same as it might have been. You were always so much closer to Daniel and Bethany--the older crowd--never to me. I guess I was...off your radar."
A little shimmer that might have been a tear showed on her cheek and she nervously adjusted her hair. How could I be feeling sorry for her? Jetta? The one who had everything? The one who was going to live in England? The one who had Mr. Darcy as a fiancé? My blood began to boil in earnest. "That's nothing, girl! You have nothing to complain of. You're asking me if I know how you felt, do you have any concept about what I felt?" That got her. "Every time we did anything together--and Mom made sure that we did absolutely everything together--you were always, always, always in the lead. Drama class. We were having a little improv excercise, then all of a sudden the teacher announces that you are going to be one of the main actresses in an upcoming play. What do I get? A bit-part that was shoved in at the last minute. I didn't even get the pleasure of being the comic relief! I was older and I knew that I was a better actor than you. But no, Ms. Marin liked your smile, liked your enthusiasm, said you had 'promise'. You're not the only one who's had disappointments, Jetta, not by a long shot!"
My breathing was so heavy by now that I felt I was going to suffocate. I decided instead to stagger off a few steps away from the "fairy bower" to try regaining my lost composure. I didn't hear a word from Jetta. She was in shock, probably. The girl had probably never been talked to like that in her life, certainly not by me. Just thank Heaven that she'll be leaving soon, not to return for several good, long years. I looked back and caught a glimpse of her, just getting up to walk over to me. I leaned against a tree and breathed the odor of wet moss and sawdust, then said quietly, "Sorry. It's just that when you gloat like that it--irks me."
Her voice was soft and deep. "Did you think I was gloating back there? Really, I've never been very happy being ahead of you in anything, Magda. It's never been enough for me. You have no idea how much it hurt--still hurts--that you don't love me, don't respect me, don't really want to be around me. I've never wanted anything so badly."
I almost shook her hand off my shoulder, but stopped just in time. What good would it do? Shouldn't I try, at least try, to turn over a new leaf? Try to forgive? "I'm sorry, Jetta. I'm very sorry if I've snubbed you or treated you unfairly. I didn't really mean to. I do love you."
"And I'm sorry that I've rubbed it in. I'm not really more gifted than you are, you just aren't confident enough! In fact I've always envied what you can do with music, the way you can compose something that sounds like it should be on a movie soundtrack--it's always amazed me. I guess we're both jealous, in our own ways." Isn't jealousy described a big green monster? It shouldn't be. It's more like a lizard that slithers into tiny cracks and stays there so long you forget about it, then blinks it glassy eyes at you when you least expect it.
I laid my own hand on Jetta's and we stood there like that for several minutes as the temperature dropped and a mist began to rise. I remembered her face as we stood on that rock, and marveled at a depth of pain I'd never known in my sister. Did I have the power to inflict that on someone? "It's all in the past, Jetta. Let's move on now." She gave a happy little sigh and we linked arms, then walked down the homeward path.
"Magdalene, we got the invitation in the mail!"
I opened my bedroom door to see Mom flourishing an envelope of heavy cream-colored paper with an elegant wax seal. Nice touch, that. I plucked it out of her hands and took out a sheet of forest green stationary with lines of silver calligraphy. "The proud parents invite you, etcetera." Hmmm. Green and silver. I guessed that that had just become her habit. Then I caught myself. Yes, that had become a habit for both of us. A sort of vicious cycle.