by A. Marie Carter
My sister and I play a game. It’s a game of a sovereignty of sorts, and it’s played out inside the front cover of every storybook our family owns. Her name is written in neat print, at the top, there first, claiming ownership from the start. My name is always scrawled underneath; the desperate scribble of the second sister who came after all the gifts had already been given. I too own this book, it seems to say. But she’s always the first, three years my senior. Her name is always already there.
It’s inside an exquisite copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that her name irks me most. I adore this book, a present from our grandmother, with its intricate illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Each sister is drawn in a gown embellished with a different fruit or flower, and her dresses, her headwear, even her delicate dancing shoes, are themed to match. I spend countless hours examining these pictures, trying to decide which sister I want to be.
Am I the youngest princess, whose dresses are adorned with flowers of orange and tangerine? Or can I be another one? I can’t be the one who wears wine-dark grapes in her hair because she is the eldest and my own sister is already just like her, quiet and wise, while I, like the story’s youngest, am all clamour and noise. Standing in between them are ten other women, in varying shades of our own selves.
The youngest sister in this story is terrified of noises in the dark, scared by the snap of a golden twig, by the footsteps of an invisible soldier. I don’t want to be that sister. I don’t want to be the one who is always afraid, who is frightened by things she cannot see. So I try hard to be the boldest, to be the bravest.
But when our grandmother dies I am the one who sits stupefied by her bedside, unable to speak anything but sobs, while my sister says all there is that needs to be said. The thank yous, the admissions of love. The acknowledgment of things that pass between girls and grandmothers. For all my bravado, it is her that takes the burden even though, strangely, I wanted it. But I can’t begrudge her that.
Just like in all the fairy tales, it’s the eldest who inherits the throne.
A. Marie Carter is an emerging writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure and the Review of Australian Fiction. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Flinders University, where she is also completing a PhD on monstrous mothers in varying folkloric contexts.
Illustration by Errol Le Cain from The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1981)