She learns how to speak Elvish. She has read me The Hobbit and we have moved on to the Lord of the rings. It is true there is a wonderful secret pleasure in knowing a language that only exists in books. A language shared between the two of us and barely anyone else in the world. I am slow to learn. My tongue is thick and I do not have the focus to understand the grammar. Our grandmother knows three languages to speak and several more to read or understand. When I tell this to Karen her mouth hardens to a pencil line of condescension. Even if our grandmother knows twenty languages she is not invited to share in our Elvish. This is something for my sister and I alone.
She grows impatient with me. We come back to the lesson each day after school but instead of learning more words I seem to forget a new one every day. The lessons are for her and I am there to watch her learning. I know this, and so I nod when she tells me I am slow. She sets up a Special School in the corner of the yard and instead of Elvish my task now is to tie and re-tie my shoe while I listen to her recite poetry in a language that I have not yet mastered. I am obedient. Still there is a vague unsettled feeling itching under my skin. I know how to tie my shoes and yet I fumble it, miss one eyelet or another leave the laces too loose and let them fall apart under her inspection. She punishes me, and her punishments make her bad and in comparison I am good.
There are numerous examples of good girls patiently waiting for their rewards. I think of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. Various assorted princesses each one suffering under pressure from evil step mothers, horrible husbands, ugly sisters. The harsher the punishment, the more virtuous I become. At school I am the most obedient of students. I know the answers to questions, I am always first to put up my hand to help the teacher. My sister takes her rage and channels it into evil deeds. She sits in the schoolyard with the malcontents. She is sent to the office once or twice a week. She is surly at dinner, and, afterward when we settle to work on the models together, she sits with her back to us, preferring the company of a book to our stories on reel to reel. We have chosen our sides. She is the bad child. I am the good. We stick to our separate territories and we excel in our polarised roles. Still each afternoon we play the game. I fail the small domestic task that she has set for me. She dishes out new punishments, holding a stone outstretched on the palm of my hand till my arm starts to burn and my muscles cramp, writing out lines in a notebook, I must do better next time, I must do better next time.
We have an alliance. Like all good prisoners and their captives there is a certain care between us. I give myself up to her slow kind of torture and she allows herself to become beastly in her treatment of me. For a while we are close. An equilibrium.
When the family ask her about school she just shrugs. Volunteering nothing. When I am alone with our mother in the kitchen, she puts her arm on the top of my head and draws me closer to her.
“Is Karen okay?”
“I think so.”
“She talks to you about things?”
“But nothing is wrong? At school? Or anything?”
“No. Everything is good.”
I am blessed with secret knowledge, the hidden moods of my sister are mine to keep to myself or to divulge.