Sunday Stories: “Turning”


by Sylvie Pingeon

They are birds before they become children. Alight on the rocky beaches, picking orach, russian olives, the supple, tart thorns of the cat-briar which has not yet grown woody and sharp. At night, a tautog fish lulls them to sleep with angry murmurs. In the mornings, they awake to the sun rising. They wake together always, their salt-streaked bodies nestled close, Layla’s larger wing tucked over her little sister, Freya’s, fragile, pulsing back. There is no time, just now, and they soak in this nowness, let it saturate their feathers, drink it up through their beaks. 

Layla is flying over the shoreline. She’s wheeling in circles, her feathers not quite grown in, all straggly and brown and dancing with her movements in the air. Freya is perched on a gray rock down below, a collection of shells spread out before her. She’s pecking at them, sorting them absently as she watches her sister swoop and race. She’s younger than Layla, all down no feathers. She has not yet–perhaps will never–learn to fly. For now, she’s content to simply spectate as the older bird soars fast, fast, fast along the current of salty, summer air. 

But winter comes eventually, and the sisters migrate from the sea. The feathers fall off their little bodies, a few more every day. Everywhere they go, they leave a trail of down in their wake. I was here, this trail seems to say. I was here and as a bird. The girls’ wings grow longer, pinker, pliable. This same pink skin forms on their legs. Claws turn into toes. Hands grow. Fingers. Fingernails. Layla goes to fly and finds she cannot leave the ground. She flaps her arms in wild panic. Freya tries to comfort her, but she does so with poorly masked glee. On the ground, Freya can run just a little bit faster than her older companion; she hops ahead in a chorus of giggles. Layla does not seem to notice. The transformation keeps on going, each day bringing subtle changes. Within weeks, their beaks soften into thin, rosy lips. Their eyes widen and turn a stormy ocean sort of blue. Hair sprouts from their heads in thick, dark waves of brown. And just like that, they are little girls, their days as birds but a vague impression in their minds.

Time passes by, and Freya turns three years old. She often wakes early, and she spends her mornings watching the birds perched on the pine tree outside her window. She gives them names–Misty, Foggy, Cloudy, and so on. She watches them fly and talk and peck for insects in the bark. She likes to imagine that she, too, is a bird. Sometimes, she almost feels she is. So one day, Freya makes a pair of wings. She finds blue-gray papers, the color of the air, and tapes them together, cuts little holes. When the wings are finished, she puts them on and goes out to the garden bench. She jumps and jumps. Every time, the drop feels a little longer. It takes time, she decides, to learn to use your wings. 

For Christmas one year, Layla gets an orange fleece. She puts it on and races circles round the yard, a gleeful, offset grin stretching her face wide. Her dark hair covers her eyes, her cheeks. Her twiggy limbs move everywhere all at once. It’s the best Christmas ever and the fleece must be magic because she feels like she’s flying and she loves it she-loves-it-she-loves-it. Freya doesn’t get a fleece, and she must start to cry or pout or scream because a few weeks later, a blue one comes for her. When she tries it on, though, she finds it cannot make her fly. 

That same year, Layla and her friends invent a game they like to play with Freya. It’s called Mary Dick because, while they don’t know what Dick means, they’ve heard it’s a bad word. So Freya is Mary, and the older girls screech at her and run from her and call her names. Freya giggles, makes fake claws. Fear me, fear me, she likes to scream. She chases and chases Layla, chanting this mantra all the while. But her legs are far shorter, and she never can keep up. Her shouts grow more frustrated, more pleading. But  the older girls laugh, and at that Freya glows.

The sisters share a room, but they do not sleep together anymore. Freya begs and begs to share a bed, but Layla’s walls are high (and Freya never did learn how to fly). Sometimes at night, she tiptoes over to Layla from her bed across the room and crawls in beside the older girl. Layla always tells her not to do this. If Freya will fetch water or maybe brush Layla’s hair, Layla swears that one day they can share the bed again. So Freya jumps to these tasks eagerly, but it never is enough. Later, later, Layla always says. But later never comes, and Freya cannot sleep alone. So she invades her sister’s space most nights, pressing up against the sleeping girl. But Freya always awakens back in her own bed. She never remembers how she ended up there.

One day, Layla walks into their room and finds Freya crouched in the corner, a pink and blue journal clutched in her hands. It’s Layla’s journal that she’s holding. And then Layla is there, and Freya is caught with her sister’s words resting in her hands. Layla screams more words for hours; Freya catches them with open arms. And then there’s silence for three days. Layla spends these days building her walls higher to keep creeping hands from thrusting in where they’re not wanted. The days pass by. Amends are made. Freya doesn’t ever ask to share the bed again.

At age eleven, Freya writes a story about a little girl left behind after her older sister kills herself. I haven’t swum since Kayla died, she writes. I haven’t done anything since then. Nothing but staring into space, knocking on wood, and holding my breath so it does not go to waste.

For months, Freya gives her life to this story. Kayla and the little, orphaned narrator occupying her every thought. Her story has a flashback, too, where both sisters are alive:

Kayla walks into the kitchen; she’s been crying. I hesitate, not sure if I should comfort her, ask what’s wrong. I walk over. 

‘Are you okay?’ She brushes past me. ‘Kayla?’

‘Just leave me alone.’

‘I jus–’

‘I said leave me alone.’ She’s crying again. I start to join in her tears, but she runs upstairs and slams the door to her room. I go out to the birds and stand alone, watching them fly.

She tries to show the story to Layla who is always writing too (longer, bigger, better stories). She’s not sure what she wants from this–maybe to be seen or maybe to push Layla further away. But either way it doesn’t matter because Layla says she doesn’t want to read it. 

That same year, Freya walks downstairs in Layla’s shirt. It’s white with little flowers, and Freya likes it better than anything she owns. Layla’s in the kitchen, and she sees Freya in the shirt. She goes still for just an instant, and then she starts to hurl words again, the way she knows to do so well.

I’ve told you again and again, Freya. My stuff. Mine. Stay away. 

Freya stands and does not speak, does not raise her arms to catch the words. They drift to the ground and disappear without a trace. So Layla starts throwing fruit instead. First, it’s peaches. She slams them down and stomps and stomps. Juice and pulp and skin spread across the floor,  sink their way into the wooden beams. Freya still just stands and watches. She goes to speak, but finds she cannot make a noise. The words stay pressed in the back of her throat: I’m sorry. I love you. I don’t know. Maybe your reaction is a little crazy? Maybe you aren’t being fair. But Freya can’t speak. She stands steady and quiet. 

Say something! Layla’s voice is steely, flat. Why are you mute?

When met with silence, the older girl grabs a bag of oats and dumps them on the peaches. She grinds them into the pulp with her heel. Freya vaguely thinks she should try peaches in her oatmeal. Layla keeps throwing, throwing, throwing: fruits and oats and words, anything she can to make her sister yell or hit or show she cares at all. Freya does her best to show she doesn’t care a bit, and so Layla’s words keep coming. 

The words hit Freya, each one stinging sharply against her skin. She can not dodge or run. Partly since she cannot move, and partly because the words come quickly and Layla’s aim is perfect, each word striking exactly where she throws it. Freya stands and takes the hits, blinking rapidly so she does not cry. But then she realizes she does not have to stand there as a child. Just like that, she turns herself into a stone. 

She does not know where the rock comes from. Maybe it’s magic. Or perhaps it’s the sand still inside her somewhere from those years she lived as a bird upon the sea. But however it may be, here it is, a casing of granite pressing up from her skin. It’s just a thin coating at first, but the rock keeps coming and coming. Within minutes, Freya is a smooth, gray boulder. Not a trace of girl in sight. From within the rock, everything looks far away, and Layla’s words are muffled to the point where they barely sound like words at all. Layla’s monologue cuts off abruptly at the sight of her sister as a rock. Oh my god, she says. You’re not even human. You’re an it. There’s no surprise in her voice. It’s like she knew it all along, knew it far before the rock began to seep from Freya’s skin. Knew that granite, cold and hard, was Freya’s destiny. I want it out of my sight, she says.

And so Freya, the stone, rolls out of the kitchen and back up the stairs to their bedroom. There, alone, she pushes at the rock encasing her. It chips a bit, little shards of rock flaking off onto the yellowed carpet. She balls her hands and bangs her fists. More pieces of rock fall away. A large crack forms. She pushes out one arm, and then the other. Her head breaks free. She kicks her legs, and little by little, they poke out into the air. So now she is half girl, half rock. She no longer ever thinks of flying. 

The next few years flow in cycles–rock growing, eroding, then growing some more. Every morning before school, Freya scrapes away as much of the rock as she can muster. On the best days, the rock is just a thin layer round her torso. It doesn’t show from underneath her clothing. Her memories of girlhood grow shady and ungrabbable, but the rock that shields her also makes it hard for her to care. When she reaches back in memory, her time as only girl does not feel like her time at all. 

And so Freya turns fourteen, then fifteen, sixteen, then seventeen. The years blur and meld. Freya and Layla fight, then play, then keep on fighting. They fight over text and in person, with words and thrashing limbs. Layla mostly picks the fights, but Freya primes them for the picking. She keeps on taking from her sister–clothing, jewelry, lamps. A new black tank top, Levis jeans, a pearl necklace that would look just perfect with her outfit. She wants and wants, takes and takes. More, more, more. These thefts never go unnoticed, and Layla’s rage grows each time. Freya always lies at first, her voice measured and even. I told you I’ve changed. I wouldn’t do that to you anymore (this with the necklace tucked into her pocket, the tank top scrunched up behind her bed). This lying comes easily to her. Her pit of guilt is so encased in stone. Still, though, she always is found out. 

Freya is vaguely surprised by her sister’s anger every time it comes, at this burst of violence from the girl she knows loves her most. She can only see her sister in relation to herself. Can’t picture Layla lonely, hurting, insecure. She knows this is unfair, that she’s made her sister too, into some other type of stone. But Layla doesn’t have that rock which Freya does, real and hard and cool.

So every time Freya takes, her rock also grows thicker, a bit more impenetrable. Layla’s anger cannot break through. The fights end with Freya weary and heavy but otherwise unscathed. But Freya doesn’t want to be unscathed; she wants wings and air and her sister by her side. She wants no ground beneath their little feet. She’s not sure what Layla wants. She doesn’t really think about it. 

And so Freya goes to school and she does her work and she goes to parties on the weekends. Layla goes to college. Both girls have their own lives which sometimes touch but rarely meld. Freya still has two years left of high school. She gets good grades. She’s well-liked, for the most part. In class, she is outspoken and playfully provocative. She talks back to her teachers, crossing over faintly drawn boundaries. She often makes the whole room laugh, though with her or at her, she never is quite sure. 

She’s pretty enough, but when boys try to talk to her, she pushes them away. Her rocky skin is her only secret, and she lives in muted terror that someone will unveil her. That she will be found out for the numb, half-human that she is. And so now her walls are high. 

But she’s happy–or as happy as a rock can be. She has a best friend named Fiona. Fiona is a bright, bubble of a girl; so shimmery and full of light that sometimes Freya wonders if she will simply disappear. They compliment each other, this girl of air and this one of stone. 

The two girls are standing in the bathroom of a party when Fiona tells Freya that she doesn’t like Layla. 

I know she’s your sister, and I know that you love her. And I know that she loves you. But she’s just…don’t get mad at me, but she’s just not very nice to you. 

The bathroom lights are bright and time is moving in that slippery, warped way it does when you’ve had too much to drink. But even in this dimmed state, Freya feels her rock thicken underneath her shirt. The fierceness of her loyalty surprises her

It’s not like that, is all she says. The rock trickles out a little in her voice, stony and unfeeling. The girls go back out to the party.

And then it is summer, and Freya is eighteen. Layla and her are together again, just the two of them. But they aren’t home. They’re in Amsterdam. And they aren’t together, not really, because Layla went to pee, and Freya is on the dance floor of an old power-plant turned night club. But it’s okay because she isn’t alone; she’s in the arms of a much older man. The strobe lights are constant and the smoke is so thick and the music beats so loudly that she feels it running through her. The man is touching her and kissing her, and she’s not kissing back but she also is not stopping him. His beard scratches her face, and he smells of sweat and sour beer. His hands are grabbing, seizing, grabbing more, but he doesn’t seem to notice Freya’s rocky casing. In spite of herself, Freya leans a bit into his needy touch. 

But then Layla appears from out of the smoke, and yanks Freya away, out of the dance floor and down the dark tunnel of a hallway. Freya thinks she sees dried tears on her sister’s face, but she can’t be quite sure because Layla is so alive with anger.

I’m seeing red, Freya. I was all alone. What the fuck. I thought I’d never find you. How could you? 

Freya notices people watching, wide-eyed. Layla pulls her out onto the street, shouting all the while. Somehow, outside the cave of pulsing music, the world has turned to morning, the sky gray with cloud and early sun. The music beats out faintly in the city air, and Freya blinks in the new, real light. She is bewildered and drunk, and all she can think is but you left me. I didn’t want to kiss that man. You knew I was on the dance floor. Of course, though, she does not say this…and she also knows that Layla is right. Freya had not been thinking about where her older sister was. And she hadn’t tried to stop the man–she wasn’t even sure she’d wanted to. So Freya just says that she’s sorry she’s sorry she’s-so-sorry-and-it-will-never-happen-again. And Layla responds that of course it will never happen again, because they will never go out together again, and how-could-you-how-could-you-how-could-you.

Somehow, they wind up back in their hotel, huddled in the little bed they’re sharing. It’s seven in the morning now. Layla is gripping Freya’s arm, her fingers digging into the flesh. Her arms have been girl-arms for a while now, bone and skin that stretches, bleeds, and bruises. She is glad for the sharp pain of her sister’s nails against this flesh, glad for how it grounds her amidst the haze of leftover drink and tears. Layla is whispering, so as not to wake the neighbors, but her words hold the fossils of a scream. 

Freya, that guy was so fucking gross. Of course you were with him. 

I know, Layla. Don’t say that. You don’t have to tell me that. 

I’m booking you a flight. You’re going home. 

Okay. I’ll go home. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

How dare you? How dare you? Were you not even thinking about me?

I wasn’t. I’m sorry.

Gradually, these whisper-screams shift to whisper talks. Where both girls’ tears had burned their skin before, now they seem to wash it clean instead. They talk some more, words which neither of them will remember the next day, words which matter only in the way they sag and drip with love. 

You know I’m not booking you a flight, right Freya? How could you believe me when I say that?

I believed you, and it’s fair. I’m sorry.

You know that I love you, Freya. You know that I think you are a good person. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry. That’s not fair to you. I don’t think I’d have done that with anyone else. 

Layla pulls Freya in for a hug, and Freya basks in the warmth of her sister. Her body is aching and weary, but the drink has faded and she realizes she’s lucid now. Realizes that she had not been before. Her sister’s arms hold her tight, their bodies pressed together. Freya notices that she can feel contact everywhere, even on her torso which is always numb within her hard, stone shell. She looks down and sees the sheets beneath her are wet with crumbled sand, glimmering with glints of micah. She sees that Layla has a fistful of sand laid out in her palm. She’s sifting it through her fingers, playing with the remnants of Freya’s shell of stone.

The sisters fall asleep in this puddle of melted rock. The sun is already high when they shut their eyes. In the afternoon, they wake together, their salt-streaked bodies nestled close. Freya’s skin is raw and pink and new. Layla reaches over to grab her glass of water and then draws back; her arm is shaking. Freya’s arm wraps over Layla’s back. Leg against leg. Hair mixed with hair. The girls look at each other for a second before slipping back to sleep.


Sylvie Pingeon is a junior at Wesleyan University studying English. Her work can be found in Expat Press, Back Patio Press, and Arts Fuse Magazine.

Image source: Mehdi Sepehri/Unsplash

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