Oh my brother, we have come again to the crossroads. We are not children anymore. No witches left to cage us, and the forest leveled by your axe years ago. You built your city on its grave, constructed from its bones. When will you lay this anger down? When we were young, our lives were divided like this: before, when the lullaby of our mother’s loom sang us to sleep each night, and after, when it lay silent in the corner of the kitchen, beside the ash-cold fireplace. Now, even that distinction is nothing compared to before the walk, the woods, the witch; and after. My daughters and granddaughters are all married, my hair gone gray – and yet, some nights I wake with the taste of her, burning, burning down my throat. I will not lie to you, my brother; I never have. When I left your city, it wasn’t because I feared you. I’ve only ever feared for you, heart of my heartbeat, my taller half, boy with the bent smile. For you I braved the overgrown path, the dark whisperings in the wood. For you I stayed in the witch’s house, despite the sun shining through the open door and her blindly muttering over her herbs, nowhere near me. For you I watched, waited, prayed: I slayed the witch, my little fingernails my only weapon, scrabbling and tearing at her thin neck until it opened, like the door. We rolled her body in the fireplace, terrified of her power; maybe, we reasoned, she was immortal. We set the whole house aflame. We slept in its light. In the morning, the heat had turned her bones to ruby, yellow diamond, citrine, bronze. Her teeth gleamed sapphire; we filled our pockets full and tied my apron into a sack to carry my victim’s skeleton home. This is when we diverged. Before, we’d been as eerie as twins always are: same gait, same thoughts, same eyebrow quirk; you finished my sentences and I finished your math work while the teacher’s back was turned. I cleaned your spilled milk. When he called me ugly, you made Conrad Ulric eat a pig turd. After, we were rich. Our stepmother danced at the end of our strings while our father lamented his own weakness. The only walks we took: to town, to buy as many goats as we could butcher; to school, where they kept wary watch of my fingernails, which I scrubbed red and bleeding every morning; to the edge of the witch’s ruins, where we no longer knew what the other was thinking: the place I saved you, the place I lost you. We grew – up, apart. Our fortune of bones bought you a castle, built you a city, but brought you no closure. The decimation of the forest exorcised none of your ghosts. Evenings, I watched you push your potatoes around your plate, count every pea you ate. I picked and picked at my nails until my hands were bleeding; they were meant to be bloody. Beneath the cloud-broken moon I cried into my knees, helpless; I could not do my duty: I protected you with death, but your nightmares lived beyond the reach of my knife, my nails. Heart of my heartbeat, I’m sorry. I saved your life and still, I failed you. My whole life had been running away: into the forest away from our empty cupboard, away from the witch and what I had done. So it was easy to run, also, from you. Maybe, I thought, I am the ghost that’s haunting you – remove the reminder, and you’ll start anew. But I misread you. While I was gone – heart of your heartbeat, your smarter half, girl with the silver eyes – you remained the boy in the cage, but the cage was your city, the prison your memory. I stayed away, year after year; watched lines crowd my face in the mirror. I made a family without you, never uttered your name. Each time I came to a road that might have led me back to you, I turned a different way. How could I save you. I told you when we entered the forest to hold my hand and it would be okay. Instead I led you to that hovel, that hell. For weeks I left you in that cage. If you knew how many times I might have opened the lock but I was too afraid. I’ve never lied, my brother. Just the same: I never told you I’m the one to blame. But I’ve come home to you now. It took me decades, but I came. Heart of my heartbeat, you don’t have to be brave; I’m here to hold your hand as you walk this road. I’m here to lift your burdens: your sorrow, your rage. The keys are in your hand now, love. Let go your pain.
Kimberly was a finalist for the 2019 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize, and a 2020 Pushcart Nominee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sky Island, Sleet Magazine, Stonecoast Review, Jet Fuel, Pretty Owl Poetry, Blind Corner, South Dakota Review, Harpur Palate, Iron Horse, Barely South, and Electric Lit, among others.