Backward in the Night

Belen Robles

You mumble something, half-asleep.


You repeat yourself, but the words come to me slowly.

You turn your head back to the ceiling and say goodnight, pulling and twisting your lavender sheets around your body, then you flip towards the wall, away from me. I used to do the same and we’d be two sisters with their backs to each other, our breathing slowing at the same time, but we’ve been on different rhythms recently.

You stretch, the lavender sheets crinkle, and your foot, no longer broken, sticks out.

Your mumble, your words, they finally make sense and I smile in agreement, watching you turn from twelve to two years old.

Yes, time does seem to go backward in the night.

When you were two, I remember I used to have to shove a smaller version of that foot into a shoe the size of my palm. I always tied it too tight! with floppy ears dangling on the sides. And that back, with all that hair! I thanked Mom the day she didn’t make me wash it anymore, those beautiful and frizzy mess of black curls.

“No, let your sister wash her own hair,” She said that day and had already walked away when she turned back to my sister with a pointed finger, “But! Don’t waste all the conditioner!”

Mom and I used to complain all the time about her

conditioner-sucking curls! conditioner-sucking curls!

And she hated it. But I know now that if I could, I’d spoil her with some of the lavender-smelling conditioners to remind her of the birthdays Mom would take us out to the fields. Though a decade separated us, our birth month was the same and in the spring Mom would make the two and half hour drive to the lavender fields to celebrate.

On her fifth birthday, Mom and I couldn’t hold in our laughter and it rolled off the hills with her as she ran with her head barely above the flowers. Her arm raised high, five fingers reaching for the last rays of the melting sun, as if desperately trying to tell them her age before they went to bed.

Now, you’re in bed and not quite asleep. We also used to have lots of nights like these when sleep was too far.

She used to jump on my bed and I used to jump on hers, using her stuffed animals as ammunition. Build-a-Bears, random animals from fairs, and pillow pets of all sizes scattered around the floor until we could use them as a bridge between beds. She’d apologize to each one of course, but they were immune to lava and we weren’t. I remember when she turned ten, though, they were all gone and only her favorites were left. She was growing up so fast but because, at the time I was too, I didn’t notice. She was still so small.

You seem small in another way, sinking into the mattress. No, shrinking. You spend a lot of time like that, listening to me, only interrupting when I start going forward. Like now.

You pull the sheets down, revealing your face gazing at our speckled ceiling. You’re twelve so it’s been two, almost three, years and the scars have healed. Your cheeks and jaw are still soft and it’s easier to go backward.

Back to when Mom had two jobs. Nana would care for her in the day and I’d watch over her in the night.

You twist your head towards me, Yes, that could be why I come at night.

She was such a good baby, sleeping in my arms as I did my homework. And a messy baby, spilling cereal all over the floor. Then a loud baby, crying as I scrubbed milk from the carpet before Mom got home. At sixteen, when I got home, she’d already be in bed and Mom would wait up and have cereal with me. She had one job and so did I. It was just enough. I wondered if she’d need another again but she’s been doing just fine. Hopefully, Mom won’t have to even in four more years when twelve turns to sixteen. One of us should get to–

You pull the sheets over your head.

Of course. Whenever things get too hard, you hide. You’re doing it right now, hiding from the present. You did it when you were smaller, too.

Like when she was six and she came up to me, stomping her little feet, demanding that I quit my job so I could spend the nights with her again. That I was much better at playing lava with her than Nana, that Mom wasn’t as patient with her homework as I was. It should have been easy for her to hide from me in anger since she was already asleep by the time I got off work, but there was a wall of pillows and stuffed animals acting as guards between our beds for a whole week.

Nonetheless, your childhood was still pretty blissful, much smoother than mine. I only had one mom and you had two.

She was six. No. I remember she was—

You say, “Eight.”

Eight when Mom first let her sleep in a house that wasn’t our own. I dropped her off, gave her some lip-gloss and my bright make-up palette. Later that night, her story was full of selfies with girls I’d never seen before and another we’d grow to hate. Nothing too serious, just the things that sisters would never forget and secretly, never forgive. But that girl was there at my funeral and when she hugged you, you felt safe.

You sit up, your hands on your face as I thrust you too close to the present. But it’s not the present. I have been going backwards. My death was years ago.

That I remember. The screech of the tires, the sound of the crash and the glass breaking. The jagged cuts on your cheek and the cast you wore around your leg for a week. Those sounds, your sounds, they were the last things I heard while I was alive.

You get out of bed and come to me. To the spot where I normally sit, under the dangling lavender, to tell our stories. There are always fresh ones from recent visits and the old ones are crinkling like my ashes, like the ones you and mom spread on those very same fields.

That’s backwards, too.

Usually, flowers are brought to the grave. Instead, you take them from mine.

Of course, it’s not really a grave, just a resting place. And of course, I don’t mind. Not when you bring them here and hang them from our— your— ceiling so they’ll remind you of all the birthdays they’ve witnessed. Though, I wish you’d give us something back. A new memory, perhaps? Like Mom.

During the first year after work, Mom would find herself driving in my direction. She would say she could’ve sworn she was going home but end up at the lavender fields on random days of the week just before sunset. I always knew when she was here, making out her light footsteps on that familiar little path where the soil is soft and the lavender is tallest.

This time, you’re the one asking. Are we still going backwards?

You’re restless as I tell you we are, just not as far.

When Mom used to visit, the hills of purple were darkened by the fading light and when walking between the rows, her eyes would get shiny. Sometimes, she asked about Nana. I responded with warm winds that gushed with lavender scents. I loved it, though, when she talked about you in the daytime. What you’re like when the nights don’t make you go backward.

You interrupt like you always do and say, “But I like the night. I like going backwards to you. Anything else feels like forgetting.”

I’ve said something like this before, but I’ll tell you again, Don’t waste all your time with just me at night. It bleeds into your day, unwinding slowly, and you forget everything else.

A ray of sunlight peeks from between the blinds and we both know what’s coming.

I say visit me at the same time you say don’t go and all I have left to give you is a little bit of hope that soon, it won’t feel so heavy. Soon, visiting the fields won’t be so painful and you won’t have to pluck the lavender to feel like I’m with you.

Mom’s voice shakes her awake, “Babe?”

Mom rubs her arm, gently bringing her daughter back to the present. The first few times Mom walked into the bedroom to find the bed empty, panic blurred her vision instantly and it didn’t clear until she felt her daughter’s solid arms around her. Safe and warm. The next few times she knew where to look, under the dangling lavender that seemed to point and say

she’s right here.

They left early that morning, the two and half hour drive full of old tears and memories. The fields were cold and held a pastel color, but Mom singing happy birthday and my sister running down the hill with both arms waving to the rising sun made me feel warm. When she finally stopped and the grief rolled down the hill, she blinked ten fingers then three, telling me her age. Thirteen. Mom caught up to her and they walked between the rows holding hands and I listened to them go backwards and let them go forward.