Summer was ending, and my sister was shrinking.
I first noticed when we were sitting on the dock near the lake at our summer camp; as she stretched her bare leg toward the water, I saw a new striation of musculature in her calf, a ridge that didn’t used to be there. Atop her denim cutoffs, she was wearing one of my sweatshirts, despite summer’s warmth. On me, the garment was formless, the shoulders square and sexless, but on her it hung sensually, Kate Mossian. Her fine hair fluttered weakly in the breeze.
Still I said nothing—only photographed. The camp had converted an old barn into a darkroom and started offering a photography class that only I had signed up for, and I was spending most of my time behind the viewfinder of an old 35-millimeter camera, extra rolls of film wrapped around my waist like a belt of ammunition, the pickly brine of darkroom chemicals lingering in my nostrils.
A few weeks earlier, after I’d selected the class as my elective for the summer, my mother had driven me all over, scouring shops for film, expensive light-sensitive paper, the kind of camera that people had stopped using decades ago. We sat at red lights while she squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of her nose in frustration.
“Can’t you just do tennis or something? We still have your sister’s old racquet,” she said. But the first time I picked up the camera, I fell in love with the heavy snap of the shutter, the feel of its heft around my neck, the way its weight grounded me to the earth. I wished I could crawl inside the thick plastic casing, pull it around me like a cocoon.
At drop-off, my sister stood sullenly, occasionally letting out a sharp exhale.
“That was designer, you know,” our mother finally said. She had just discovered this morning the vintage blouse my sister had taken from her closet for a party weeks before. Spilt beer had ruined the silk. “I’ve had that blouse longer than I’ve had you. Besides, you don’t even have the chest to fill it out.”
Turning away from us, our mother approached Mr. Murphy, the camp director, and shook his hand just as she had every summer for the past three years, holding his grip a bit too long, the way she did with men. She was middle-aged now, gray at the roots, creases beginning to appear in her face, but a former pageant queen—she never missed a chance to break out her onstage charm. Mr. Murphy crossed his arms over his chest, watching us impatiently.
“You know I’m going away this summer, so be good,” she told us, squeezing our shoulders performatively. My sister rolled her eyes. It was something our mother did periodically, going away; we pretended we didn’t know she had checked herself in again, and when she came back we knew her newfound warmth would be only temporary, that she would soon be back to blaming us for wrecking her beauty, for causing our father to leave. When she was angry, our mother would pull up her shirt to show me the C-section scar she blamed me for, pink puckered skin like she had been sawed open; she always had the TV on and loudly remarked on how pretty or ugly the actresses were. But when she was away we were left alone. We stayed up late eating pizza and ice cream and all the unhealthy foods our mother never let us have, savoring the forbidden taste of butterfat, speaking freely and enjoying each other’s company in ways we never could when she was there.
She was fifteen then, my sister, pretty and popular, and I three years younger, with frizzed hair and freckles and wider hips than the other girls in my grade. I barely saw her anymore since she had started high school the year before, boarding a separate school bus each morning to spend time with her older friends, girls with narrow waists and cartilage piercings, boys who had facial hair and could drive. She started tying her t-shirts in a knot at the small of her back so that they showed a sliver of stomach. She took scissors to the collars, shrugged them off one shoulder so you could see her lacy bra straps, the raisin-sized mole in the hollow of her clavicle. In bed at night I silently pinched my flesh, all the places I had meat and she didn’t. I trailed behind her like a shadow, wide and flattened.
In summers past, when we were still allies, we stayed in the same cabin, where we would stay up late into the night whispering from our adjacent bunks.
“Did you know a girl drowned in the lake?” she once asked me, the moon shining through the cabin window as the other girls slept.
“You’re just trying to scare me.”
“It’s true, I heard it from the older kids. It was thirty years ago, but the camp doesn’t want you to know. Her name was Louisa, and one night she snuck out, tied stones to her feet, and walked into the lake. Her nightgown floated up in the morning, but her body was never found. They say she still lives there, grew gills and sleeps at the bottom. She can turn into a fish when she feels like it. Sometimes at night you can hear her singing. She even comes out on the full moon.” My sister’s face fell. “She’s lonely, probably.”
We used to creep out of our cabin at night and sit by the lake, silent, waiting to see the girl emerge, sometimes falling asleep on the grass, waking when the sun rose. This year I still sat on the dock with my camera, but ever since she had aged into the next group, our cabins forty feet apart, my sister had mostly lost interest. From my spot at the lake I could hear the older girls sneaking out in a haze of hushed giggles and cigarette smoke. Some nights the boys followed, moving in a scrum as the girls wobbled like newborn deer in their wedge heels and tight denim skirts, nicotine curlicues spilling from bitten lips. On those nights I would follow them at a distance, hide behind the density of trees that ringed the campground, listen to flirtatious laughter and the clink of beer bottles as they were drained, placed on the ground, and spun. Squeals always followed. Sometimes a couple would go off behind a wide tree, or into the bed of a parked pickup truck, and the squeals would lower to whispers. I always had my camera but never used it, knowing the flashbulb would give me away.
The lake was where we had learned how to swim as children, where on the dock two summers ago Jimmy B. gave my sister her first kiss and she rushed back to tell me about it. We used to pinch the petals off daisy heads—he loves me, he loves me not. The younger girls wore one-piece swimsuits; the older girls triple-knotted their bikini tops so they wouldn’t come down when the boys tugged on the strings.
The boys at camp looked at her in a way they never looked at me; just being her sister wasn’t enough for me to coast on. They watched her ass like a sunset as she walked away from them. They snapped her bra straps underneath her tank tops, blew the spores of dead dandelions into her face. They dropped Hershey’s Kisses on her knees as she sat cross-legged on the grass while I lay beside her, invisible.
I noticed she stopped swimming about a month into camp that summer, on a day she wouldn’t take off the sweatshirt when I tried to pull her toward the water. Her breath smelled like something dead as she shouted No in my face. The other kids turned and stared.
“Just my baby sister being a brat,” she called to her friends. The boys resumed their game of Frisbee; the girls went back to their chatter. We sat silently near the dock a few yards from the others, twisting blades of grass between our fingers, pulling up fist-sized clumps of earth and tossing them into the water. I could hear the girls sitting near us complaining about their thigh fat, talking about how many extra crunches they had to do after Sundae Sundays. My sister sipped a Sprite Zero. She smelled like lemon—she had squeezed one over her head so that her hair would lighten in the sun. I raised the camera to my face and she thrust out her hand, blocking the lens. There were two fresh scabs on the backs of her fingers, just below the knuckles, a bluish tinge to the nailbeds. That night I tried to catch her eye from my table at dinner, but she avoided my gaze, just laughed raucously with the older girls as they pushed salad leaves around their plates, glancing over their shoulders at the boys across the mess hall.
Once, as my sister sat on the grass at the lakeside refusing to swim, I waded into the lake and felt something grab my ankle. I screamed and swam to shore as fast as I could, falling onto my sister as I climbed out of the water.
“Was that Louisa?” My sister dipped a toe into the water.
“Probably just a fish.” My voice was shaky and uncertain.
“You think there are fish in this lake?” She paused. “Other than her?”
My sister pulled a bobby pin from her hair, pried off the rubber cap so the metal tip was exposed and bent it into a makeshift hook. We tied it with twine to a branch, baited it with a piece of bread stolen from the mess hall.
For a while everything was still, but then the twine began to dance, and we pulled back on it together, hand over hand, until the fish burst out of the water. It was slick and gray and flecked with mud, with scales that shimmered rainbow in the sunlight. It lay still on the grass, sucking in air in loud gasps, the bobby-pin hook pierced through its whiskered lip. We were silent for a moment, watching its gills flap with effort. Its eyes shone black, pleading for help, darting back and forth between my sister and me, reflecting our shocked faces back at us. My sister stood silent with one hand pressed over her mouth. I knew she wouldn’t touch the fish; she never did like getting her hands dirty. Finally I knelt down, wrapped one hand around its body, and tried to pry the hook free from its lip.
It was wedged in tight. I felt the pull of cartilage, saw a row of sharp tiny teeth. The fish’s nostrils flared. My sister stood motionless, biting down on her fingers. The hook finally began to slide. Just as I was maneuvering the final curve, the fish slipped from my grasp and into the air.
My sister screamed. The fish hit the grass and launched itself back up and into her, drawing a faint line of blood where its sharp scales scraped across her shins. She fell backwards, her hand closing on a rock, and she smashed the fish over and over until the twitching stopped and her hands were slick with blood and the grass lay strewn with glittering scales and fine translucent bones.
When we were younger my sister and I played Cinderella, where she was the beautiful white-gloved princess and I the plain stepsister. I couldn’t fit into our mother’s old pageant gowns like she could. Red lipstick made my sister look older, sophisticated, like a movie star; it made me look like a clown. Spotlit under the round white bulbs of our mother’s vanity mirror, I saw my sister as the boys must have seen her, as I wanted them to see me. For years I scorched my hair with hot irons trying to make it straight like hers. Her pink razor left little red bumps on my legs. In our shared bathroom I glimpsed her after a shower, her towel riding up her thigh, enough for me to notice the patch of dark rough fur between her legs, one more thing she had and I didn’t.
By myself in the darkroom, I felt the least alone. I made prints of the leaves full and lush on the trees, the tranquil mirror surface of the lake, my sister as she lay beside it, all hanging heavy as they dried on sagging clothesline. Even in analog, I could manipulate images, dodging and burning to my liking. I put dark spots over the ogling faces of the boys in the background, chopped photo paper at diagonals, enlarged negatives to crop them out. Twice a week, I met with Mr. Murphy, who was teaching the class. He gave me a chart listing F-stops and their corresponding shutter speeds. He showed me how to read a light meter. He explained how the stop bath halted the work of the developer, keeping a print from blackening. He told me about parallax, the discrepancy between what your eye sees through the viewfinder and what the camera sees through the lens. He would circle the room looking at my prints mostly in silence, occasionally noting where the contrast was too high, which were overexposed. He clucked his tongue at the photos of my sister in her swimsuit from early in the summer, shook his head at the arch in her back, the mountain peak of her hipbone, the legs thin and stiff like uncooked spaghetti.
“Do you see that?” I asked Mr. Murphy, pointing to a spot on my sister’s forearm in a picture I had taken the day before. Small bumps emerged from underneath the cuff of the sweatshirt, almost sharp-looking, like the edge points of fish scales. There was a weblike film of skin between her index and middle fingers that I had never noticed before. Mr. Murphy leaned in, his nose nearly pressed to the print.
“Probably just a trick of the light. Like this one,” he said, moving to one of my photos of the lake, gesturing toward a dark oblong shadow on its surface.
“Mr. Murphy? You’ve been here a long time, right? Is it true about that girl Louisa—that she drowned in the lake?”
Mr. Murphy tensed. “Who told you about her?” I shrugged. “She was a runaway. Probably went off into the woods and threw her nightgown into the water to throw us off the trail. We called the police and they dragged the lake, but there was no body. Only fish.” He snorted, crinkling his brow. “But I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
After the meeting, I went up the path from the darkroom to the cabin, keeping the camera close to my body in case I slipped in the summer mud. I pulled the camera case out from under my bed, wiping my fingerprints off the different lenses—standard, fish-eye, telephoto—and wrapping each piece of equipment in its own soft cloth before zipping them into the square padded bag. Then I walked the forty feet to my sister’s cabin, climbed the splintery porch steps, pulled the door open with a squeak, closed it behind me as quietly as I could, and crawled into my sister’s bed in the far corner of the room.
Even though it had been hours since she was last there, I could still feel the warmth of her body, smell the residue of her sweat and perfume clinging to the sheets. There was her messy attempt at hospital corners, her old teddy bear Rosie atop the stack of pillows. She kept magazines under her bed, titles like Glamour and Seventeen; she had torn out the fashion spreads and tacked them to the walls, dog-eared the pages with exercise routines and celebrity diets. The bed crinkled under my weight with empty Cheetos bags and Reese’s wrappers she had stashed under the mattress like contraband.
Our mother never kept snacks at home. Her idea of a good meal was grilled chicken with the skin removed, bouillon cubes stirred into hot water. We would sit around the dinner table, taking tiny bites of our entrees to make them last longer. She made comments if we went for seconds, or—heaven forbid—thirds.
“I hope you appreciate everything I do for you,” she said as we ate. My sister sat silently and stared down at her dinner, pulling the bones out of her salmon and stacking them on her plate, a tiny graveyard rising next to her side salad.
She fainted by the lake.
There were only a few days left before summer’s end. I wasn’t there to see it, but I heard a commotion from the direction of the lake, and Kelsey, a strawberry blonde from my sister’s cabin, came and found me in the darkroom. She was still wet from her swim, damp hair sticking to her neck, shoulders glazed with sunburn beneath the straps of her purple bikini. She looked at my prints as she delivered the news between chews of Hubba Bubba, her pale back to me.
“Some people were playing chicken in the lake, and Jimmy B. wanted her to be his partner. She was sitting on the grass, and he grabbed her by the arm, and he pulled her up too quickly and she just flopped down,” Kelsey said. She glanced at me over her shoulder. “She woke back up just about as soon as she hit the ground,” she added when she saw my wide eyes. “Mr. Murphy brought her back to her bunk and put her into bed.”
Kelsey made her way around the room, moving slowly from image to image, pink bubbles intermittently expanding from her lips. “She changes in the bathroom, so no one can see her. At night when she thinks the rest of us are asleep, I can hear her throwing up.” I imagined my sister with tile marks pressed into her knees, two fingers down her throat till she gagged. “The other day she asked me if toothpaste has calories, and now her breath smells like dead fish all the time. I don’t know what she’s worried about. I wish I were as skinny as her. This is a nice photo.” Kelsey was fingering the corner of a print of her and my sister by the lake, wearing mirror-lens sunglasses and chipped nail polish, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Kelsey wore spaghetti straps, my sister the borrowed sweatshirt. She was smiling, and I noticed that her teeth looked sharper than usual. “Can I have this?” Kelsey asked. I nodded and she released the image from its clothespin, put it under her arm, and left.
I went to see my sister in her cabin, but she pretended to be asleep—I could tell from the way she sucked in air when I spoke, the uneven breaths as if she were underwater. A fishy tang emanated from her hair, matted with sweat and earth. Her stomach growled audibly.
She wasn’t at dinner that night. After bed, I padded outside, hoping no one would hear the floorboards groaning as I walked, the sound of my thighs brushing together. Outside her cabin I stood under the window where I knew her bed was, pressing my ear to the weather-worn wall and clutching the camera to my chest.
There were no giggles that night, no group of girls sneaking out to meet the boys, but I heard the muffled slam of the cabin door, the creak of the old porch stairs. The moon was full, and a drizzle misted the air. I followed, picking flecks of peeled paint from my ears and keeping close to the darkest patches, the damp grass squelching softly beneath my bare feet.
She moved like a shadow, long and thin and silent, down to the lake, and I knelt behind a tree as she began to remove her clothes, the camera suddenly heavy around my neck. First my sweatshirt, then a t-shirt, then a tank top fell to the ground, followed by baggy pajama pants. At a distance, I could count her ribs, protruding and sinking with each breath like gills. Her underwear sagged on her frame, the lace waistband clinging feebly to the angles of her hips; even in the dull moonlight, each knob of her spine was visible. Prickly heat dotted the vast valley between her shoulder blades, scapulae so sharp they looked like they would slice through her skin. She unclasped her bra from the tightest hook, her nipples dark and hard enough to cut the air. She began to wade into the lake, and before I realized what I was doing, I raised my camera to my face. She was waist-deep, holding her elbows out like fins, moonlit ripples flowing from her hips, raindrops settling into the grooves of her shoulders.
As if pulled by gravity or another force, my finger came down on the shutter. The flashbulb popped. In the momentary glow of the light, her skin shone iridescent. I swore I saw something move behind her in the water, a head emerge and then recede.
She whirled and came toward me, moving so swiftly it looked like the wind was lifting her out of the water and off the ground, and then was on me in a grapple of limbs. We tumbled to the grass together, our feet tangling in tree roots. She tore the camera from my neck and flung it beside her. I heard the shattering of glass. I smelled the sour salty sweat in her pores, felt the daggerlike bones of her elbows as they pushed me into the ground, the hardness of her palms where there should have been padding, how light she felt on top of me, and yet somehow also so heavy, too. Waxy eyes flashed in the darkness. Had her pupils always been so black? Her wet skin was slick and yet also rough, like it was about to slide out of my hands. She didn’t say a word, but her mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, and her breath made dry ragged sounds, the same heaving gasps the fish made after we pulled it out of the water. A faint smell of old cigarettes and vomit wafted from her lips; I thought I saw small whiskers at the corners of her mouth. We lay frozen, cold air raising small bumps all over our bodies like we had been sprinkled with salt. As the moon disappeared behind a rolling patch of cloud, she lifted herself off me, tripped and fell, stumbled, rose again, scooped up her clothes and disappeared into the night.
I knelt in the dark and tried to feel my way around the pieces of my camera, the lens detached from the body and in shards across the grass, pricking my hands and drawing fat droplets of blood from the tips of my fingers. The body was intact; even her unearthly rage wasn’t enough to damage the hard, heavy shell.
I took the camera to the darkroom, peeled off my mud-soaked pajamas, and with shaking hands freed the film from the protection of the plastic casing. I added the chemicals, weighted the roll in the dryer and waited, naked, until every bead of moisture was gone and the film stood stiff and straight, brittle as my sister’s bones.
I flipped through my binder of negatives. She grew smaller and smaller—first full, happy cheeks, the soft squeezable flesh of an upper arm; later swollen ankles, protruding joints, three fingers of space between her thighs, frayed denim shorts giving way to thin legs draped over the edge of the dock like vines. And then my new negative—her naked back in the lake, greyscale, dark in the light places, light in the dark ones.
I selected one of my very first images, from the beginning of summer. I clipped the image free from the roll, put the slide into the enlarger, beamed down light onto photo paper. I released the white sheet into the tub of developer and watched as my sister’s smiling face appeared and then, left too long, gradually faded to black.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz