by Christopher Barzak
I don’t know how to describe Hester before her changes started to happen. She was Hester, my older sister. She was plain and awkward and bad at conversation. You wouldn’t invite her to a party. You wouldn’t ask her to a dance.You probably wouldn’t want to have a locker next to hers, either. You could become strange by association if you spent too much time near her.Hester didn’t have any friends, and neither did I, but I had none because of Hester. Because of my embarrassment for Hester, I never brought anyone home. I’d meet Alex or Ryan or Chelsea at the movies, or the mall, or else at a coffee house or the park. They never asked about my family, and I never asked about theirs.We were conspirators in covering up our own pasts. We respected each other’s secrets, never prying or becoming curious.We knew our own secrets weren’t that interesting, and what pain we harbored no one else would understand. We wouldn’t find each other’s problems to be problems anyway, so we never asked what they were.
It was unavoidable, though. After Hester started to change, after the town itself started to change, and the media slipped into our lives, everyone discovered we were related. I was now the girl with the tree growing out of her head’s brother.You might have heard someone call me by that name. You might have read a reporter quote me wrong in any variety of news articles or docudramas, and I never approved of the actor they chose to play my part in the made–for–TV movie, "Wild Thing."He was uncouth, and my hair isn’t even blonde. I never wear hiking boots either. That was a dramatic affectation dreamed up by the director, most likely. But people started recognizing me anyway. I could no longer exist anonymously. Suddenly my identity was more Hester than Stephen.I was more Hester than Stephen was ever Stephen. When people saw me, they thought of Hester.
"How is your sister?" they’d ask. Or else, "Is Hester still growing?" Or even, "Tell your sister her sort doesn’t belong in our town."
I’d nod and twitch a little at the people who held violence towards Hester in their hands. They seemed unforgiving, as if she’d done something to personally affront them. The postman in particular became decidedly spiteful. "You should get someone to start landscaping this crap," he told me one afternoonin the summer. I looked to where he was pointing and saw vines growing around our mailbox.He pulled some vines away from the lid, stuffed our mail inside, then snapped the box shut. "Sorry," I said, as he stalked down the driveway. But all he did was flick me the back of his hand.
* * * * *
As summer wore on, Hester spent more and more time outside, in the back yard. My parents installed a small above–ground swimming pool, and Hester would lounge on the deck with her feet curling into the blue water. I swam along the floor of the pool and watched the shadows from the light above rippling along the bottom.I watched Hester’s toes flick back and forth above me. Tiny roots grew between her toes, like potato tubers. They soaked up the water and Hester soaked up the sunlight, like a plant photosynthesizing.
Hester was now at least eight feet tall, a giantess by all standards, and she continued to grow without pause. One day, my father hired a lumber company to bring us a truck full of lumber, and over the course of a few days, he fenced in our front and back yards. The fence stood twelve feet tall, a virtual fortress."There are too many people in our business," he grumbled, looking up sheepishly at Hester, then back to the work at hand. Hester winced each time the hammer met the nail, but she never said anything. Eventually, she looked down at her feet and walked back to the house, back to her bedroom, ducking her head under each doorframe.
* * * * *
Not much later, the first of the geese arrived. It was a large bird, sleek and sidling up to everyone’s legs, but especially Hester’s. Soon only Hester. It followed her around like a zealot. If someone raised a voice to Hester (which I often did in argument, even if she was over eight feet tall) the goose would flap its wings threateningly, hiss and bare its bill.I called the bird names like Brunhilda and Marta. I called it the Viking Bird, the Assassin, the Bodyguard. And eventually Hester asked me to, "Please desist in offending the poor creature. It doesn’t have a name like we do, Stephen."
"I was joking," I told her, and she said, "I’m not." The discussion began and ended with Hester folding her arms across her chest in warning.
"Ice Queen," I muttered as I walked away.
"I heard that," she shouted. "Do not think your willfulness goes unrecorded!"
I stopped short, shaking my head in disbelief. Finally I said, "Are you protesting something, Hester? Because if you’re protesting something, why don’t you just say so, and protest, instead of acting all weird?"
Hester winced. I raised my eyebrows and waited. She didn’t say anything, so I turned and left her there, wincing.
* * * * *
In our town, every street had five lampposts lining it. There was a town square with a gas station, a grocery store and a Super–Mart, which came three years ago, set itself up like an overnight circus, and began selling everything from household cleaners to underwear.We no longer traveled into the city for art supplies, books, birdseed, nor to have our automobile’s oil changed. It was a self–sufficient community. Children attended three schools: one for elementary students, one for the middle grades, and the last for high school.We were raised to be good, decent people, who knew what it was to be practical, what real work was, and how to raise our own children one day with these same values.
If our town had any failing, the flaw was in our environment. Within a span of three years, most of our trees had been cut down. Dutch Elm disease invaded, infested, and because of this, shade in the summer was a commodity. We had few birds, since birds and trees go together, but occasionally we’d see them pass overhead.The last refuge for our trees was the town park, a mile wide and long, where they enjoyed a small pond and a cannon used in World War II. Also a small memorial wall engraved with the names of all the men from our townwho died in one of the wars stood in the shade of our remaining elms.