They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle, thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers were thicker, so he could not.
Looking back on it, many years later, he often thought it had started with that, with her carefully working her fingers up under a shingle as he waited and watched to see if it would crack. That was one of his earliest memories of his sister, if not the earliest.
His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to knuckles, and say, “I feel something. What am I feeling?” And then he would ask questions. Is it smooth? he might ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are in or out? Can you feel its eye move? He would keep on, watching the expression on her face change as she tried to make his words into a living, breathing thing, until it started to feel too real for her and, half-giggling, half-screaming, she whipped her hand free.
There were other things they did, other ways they tortured each other, things they both loved and feared. Their mother didn’t know anything about it, or if she did she didn’t care. One of them would shut the other into the toy chest and then pretend to leave the room, waiting there silently until the one in the toy chest couldn’t stand it any longer and started to yell. That was a hard game for him because he was afraid of the dark, but he tried not to show that to his sister. Or one of them would wrap the other tight in blankets, and then the trapped one would have to break free. Why they had liked it, why they had done it, he had a hard time remembering later, once he was grown. But they had liked it, or at least he had liked it—there was no denying that—and he had done it. No denying that either.
So at first those games, if they were games, and then, later, something else, something worse, something decisive. What was it again? Why was it hard, now that he had grown, to remember? What was it called? Oh, yes, Windeye.
How had it begun? And when? A few years later, when the house started to change for him, when he went from thinking about each bit and piece of it as a separate thing and started thinking of it as a house. His sister was still coming up close, entranced by the gap between shingle and wall, intrigued by the twist and curve of a crack in the concrete steps. It was not that she didn’t know that there was a house, only that the smaller bits were more important than the whole. For him, though, it had begun to be the reverse.
So he began to step back, to move back in the yard far enough away to take the whole house in at once. His sister would give him a quizzical look and try to coax him in closer, to get him involved in something small. For a while, he’d play to her level, narrate to her what the surface she was touching or the shadow she was glimpsing might mean, so she could pretend. But over time he drifted out again. There was something about the house, the house as a whole, which troubled him. But why? Wasn’t it just like any house?
His sister, he saw, was standing beside him, staring at him. He tried to explain it to her, tried to put a finger on what fascinated him. This house, he told her. It’s a little different. There’s something about it… But he saw, from the way she looked at him, that she thought it was a game, that he was making it up.
“What are you seeing?” she asked, with a grin.
Why not? he thought. Why not make it a game?
“What are you seeing?” he asked her.
Her grin faltered a little but she stopped staring at him and stared at the house.
“I see a house,” she said.
“Is there something wrong with it?” he prompted.
She nodded, then looked to him for approval.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Her brow tightened like a fist. “I don’t know,” she said. “The window?”
“What about the window?”
“I want you to do it,” she said. “It’s more fun.”
He sighed, and then pretended to think. “Something wrong with the window,” he said. “Or not the window exactly but the number of windows.” She was smiling, waiting. “The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside than on the inside.”
He covered his mouth with his hand. She was smiling and nodding, but he couldn’t go on with the game. Because, yes, that was exactly the problem, there was one more window on the outside than on the inside. That, he knew, was what he’d been trying to see.
But he had to make sure. He had his sister move from room to room in the house, waving to him from each window. The ground floor was all right, he saw her each time. But in the converted attic, just shy of the corner, there was a window at which she never appeared.
It was small and round, probably only a foot and a half in diameter. The glass was dark and wavery. It was held in place by a strip of metal about as thick as his finger, giving the whole of the circumference a dull, leaden rim.
He went inside and climbed the stairs, looking for the window himself, but it simply wasn’t there. But when he went back outside, there it was.
For a time, it felt like he had brought the problem to life himself by stating it, that if he hadn’t said anything the half-window wouldn’t be there. Was that possible? He didn’t think so, that wasn’t the way the world worked. But even later, once he was grown, he still found himself wondering sometimes if it was his fault, if it was something he had done. Or rather, said.
Staring up at the half-window, he remembered a story his grandmother had told him, back when he was very young, just three or four, just after his father had left and just before his sister was born. Well, he didn’t remember it exactly, but he remembered it had to do with windows. Where she came from, his grandmother said, they used to be called not windows but something else. He couldn’t remember the word, but remembered that it started with a “v.” She had said the word and then had asked, Do you know what this means? He shook his head. She repeated the word, slower this time.
“This first part,” she had said, “it means ‘wind.’ This second part, it means ‘eye.’” She looked it him with her own pale, steady eye. “It is important to know that a window can be instead a windeye.”
So he and his sister called it that, windeye. It was, he told her, how the wind looked into the house and so was not a window at all. So of course they couldn’t look out of it; it was not a window at all, but a windeye.
He was worried she was going to ask questions, but she didn’t. And then they went into the house to look again, to make sure it wasn’t a window after all. But it still wasn’t there on the inside.
Then they decided to get a closer look. They had figured out what window was nearest to it and opened that and leaned out of it. There it was. If they leaned far enough, they could see it and almost touch it.
“I could reach it,” his sister said. “If I stand on the sill and you hold my legs, I could lean out and touch it.”
“No,” he started to say, but, fearless, she had already clambered onto the sill and was leaning out. He wrapped his arms around her legs to keep her from falling. He was just about to pull her back and inside when she leaned further and he saw her finger touch the windeye. And then it was as if she had dissolved into smoke and been sucked into the windeye. She was gone.
It took him a long time to find his mother. She was not inside the house, nor was she outside in the yard. He tried the house next door, the Jorgensens, and then the Allreds, then the Dunfords. She wasn’t anywhere. So he ran back home, breathless, and somehow his mother was there now, lying on the couch, reading.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He tried to explain it best he could. Who? she asked at first and then said, Slow down and tell it again, and then, But who do you mean? And then, once he’d explained again, with an odd smile:
“But you don’t have a sister.”
But of course he had a sister. How could his mother have forgotten? What was wrong? He tried to describe her, to explain what she looked like, but his mother just kept shaking her head.
“No,” she said firmly. “You don’t have a sister. You never had one. Stop pretending. What’s this really about?”
Which made him feel that he should hold himself very still, that he should be very careful about what he said, that if he breathed wrong more parts of the world would disappear.
After talking and talking, he tried to get his mother to come out and look at the windeye.
“Window, you mean,” she said, voice rising.
“No,” he said, beginning to grow hysterical as well. “Not window. Windeye.” And then he had her by the hand and was tugging her to the door. But no, that was wrong too, because no matter what window he pointed at she could tell him where it was in the house. The windeye, just like his sister, was no longer there.
But he kept insisting it had been there, kept insisting too that he had a sister.
And that was when the trouble really started.
Over the years there were moments when he was almost convinced, moments when he almost began to think—and perhaps even did think for weeks or months at a time—that he never had a sister. It would have been easier to think this than to think she had been alive and then, perhaps partly because of him, not alive. Being not alive wasn’t like being dead, he felt: it was much, much worse. There were years too when he simply didn’t choose, when he saw her as both real and make believe and sometimes neither of those things. But in the end what made him keep believing in her—despite the line of doctors that visited him as a child, despite the rift it made between him and his mother, despite years of forced treatment and various drugs that made him feel like his head had been filled with wet sand, despite years of having to pretend to be cured—was simply this: He was the only one who believed his sister was real. If he stopped believing, what hope would there be for her?
Thus he found himself, even when his mother was dead and he himself was old and alone, brooding on his sister, wondering what had become of her. He wondered if one day she would simply reappear, young as ever, ready to continue with the games they had played. Maybe she would simply suddenly be there again, her tiny fingers worked up behind a shingle, staring expectantly at him, waiting for him to tell her what she was feeling, to make up words for what was pressed there between the house and its skin, lying in wait.
“What is it?” he would say in a hoarse voice, leaning on his cane.
“I feel something,” she would say. “What am I feeling?”
And he would set about describing it. Did it feel red? Did it feel warm-blooded or cold? Was it round? Was it smooth like glass? All the while, he knew, he would be thinking not about what he was saying but about the wind at his back. If he turned around, he would be wondering, would he find the wind’s strange baleful eye staring at him?
That wasn’t much, but it was the best he could hope for. Chances were he wouldn’t get even that. Chances were there would be no sister, no wind. Chances were that he’d be stuck with the life he was living now, just as it was, until the day when he was either dead or not living himself.