My sister disappeared five years ago. It happened during summer on a day that was golden, dizzy with humidity and warmth, the kind that is sticky, hot and sweet. She’d planned a picnic near the Printer farm under and old oak tree with a thick, craggy trunk and leaves that provided ample shade. She’d wanted to welcome me home from the university and tell me about everything I’d missed. She was like that — cheery and apple-cheeked. She liked to laugh in an unabashed way that was not prim and proper. Mother was always displeased with her unkempt hair and rumpled skirts. Yet, I love my sister for her bright spirit. There was no one like her.
After she went missing, I told a simple lie when questioned. My story was this: Elsa went for a walk to pick berries. I fell asleep; I’d had a bit too much wine. When I awoke, she had not returned. I waited, but she did come back.
This was not what occurred.
It started with what was a mirage. There was a figure in the distance coming at us across the meadow, his shape shimmering beneath the hot mid-day sun. Walking towards us at a steady pace, he had a purposeful gait, broad shoulders and dark pants. He carried what appeared to be a scythe, the tool held firmly against his chest, its blade catching a brief spray of sunlight, which blinded me when I looked too hard. I assumed it was one of the Prischer boys coming back from reaping.
“Mother thinks I can’t do needlepoint, but I mess it up on purpose.” Elsa giggled and took a sip of the wine, white and warm. Picked over sausage, cheese and apple were scattered about on a chintz plate that she’d borrowed from the cupboard. I was stretched out on the picnic blanket, glad to be home, but wishing my girl Hilde was there at the same time.
“You shouldn’t egg her on so,” I said as I watched the figure growing closer. The wine had made me slow. I propped myself up on one elbow. “She just wants you to be a proper lady.”
Elsa scoffed. “A proper lady! Is this really my brother Daniel talking? What happened to you at university? Did you meet a young lady and now want to settle down with her?”
She always could read my mind. “I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”
“I knew it!” Elsa smacked my arm playfully. “Once you boys fall in love all girls must be proper ladies. They should cook and clean, wear their hair up, their corsets tight, sing pretty and do needlepoint.”
“That’s not true. I don’t mean that I want you to be like the others. I like that you’re different. All I meant is that you’re smarter than Mother, and you should remember that when she’s harping at you. You can control the conversation.”
“I have very little control being of the female sex.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Elsa. You think it’s better to be a man? I have to work my whole life. I have to turn over every rock and stone to feed a family, otherwise I’m a failure. It’s easier to be a woman.”
Elsa waived her hand in the air like she was swatting a bug. “You can’t possibly understand.” Her expression darkened. “You’re becoming just like all the rest.”
The figure was nearly upon us, but the sun was at his back and I could not make out his face, though his shape seemed familiar. “Hello there,” I called out, shading my eyes.
“Hi.” He stepped closer and the shadows fell away.
I found myself unable to speak. It was impossible — too much to put into words.
Elsa turned, and her face fell. She looked back at me, and then at the stranger. “My goodness. You look very much like my brother.”
The man smiled with my lips, my eyes, my nose, my hair. He looked exactly like me. There was no doubt. My mind quickly jumped to the logic of it. Maybe he was a long-lost twin brother. A distant family member who bore an eerie resemblance. A doppleganger. Or maybe I was dreaming. Could I have been asleep?
I have wondered this many times, but I decided I was not sleeping.
“What is that in your hands?” Elsa asked pointing to the scythe.
“This?” He looked down at his hands. “It’s a leaf blower.”
“What on earth is that?”
“It’s — it doesn’t matter. I was just cleaning the backyard when I saw you. And so I started walking. I can’t believe that it’s really you.”
I realized then that he was staring at Elsa with a queer look on his face. Her dress was loose around her bosom, her cheeks red from the sunshine and strands of her blonde hair, damp with sweat, stuck to her neck and the dip of her collarbone. Most men would have desired her at that moment.
I found my voice. “Who are you?”
“I’m Daniel.” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Who are you?”
“I’m Daniel too.”
There was silence. Elsa stood up, shakily. She extended her hand, and he took it, dropping the leaf blower object. He — me — my twin drew her close and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed the top of her head, and I saw his eyes fill with tears. She leaned her head on his chest.
“Come back with me,” he said to her.
She looked up at him. Something passed between them. “I see,” was her only response.
“What do you see? Let go of my sister.” I stood up. I was the same height as this man, but he wore different clothes. Bluish pants of a material I’d never seen and a shirt that was checked like a Scot.
“I have to go back with him,” Elsa said.
“What? Go where? You’re not going anywhere.”
“You’re just like all the others — mother and father, grandma and grandpa. You’ll never understand. You want me to sacrifice my life to fit a role that I don’t want to be in. I’ll never be a proper lady.”
She turned and they began to walk away, hand-in-hand, like lovers. The sight of them like that shook me to my core.
I hurried after them and put my hand on my twin’s shoulder. “Stop. You’re not taking her.”
“I will if she wants to come.”
“I do. I want to go,” Elsa said.
“Then its settled.”
“No, it’s not. You don’t get to take my sister. Who are you anyway?”
Then he hit me. Hard. Across the jaw. I fell into the grassy meadow, landing face down with the smell of the soil in my nostrils. The taste of blood was in my mouth.
I pushed myself up to stand, but when I looked back, Else and my double were gone. There was nothing but the wind and rattle of leaves from the nearby tree.
And yet, the stranger had forgotten his leaf blowing tool amongst the tall grass.
I buried it next to the tree. Since I could not bury my sister, the least I could do was commit that thing to the ground.
Sometimes, when I’m doubting myself, on those days when I think I have gone crazy and made the whole thing up, I go back to the tree and dig up the tool. I touch it. Commit it to memory. Then bury it again.
No one would believe me anyway.