THE LIONS’ MURDER BALLAD
by Melissa Wiley
There is always a cruel sister. There is always one more beloved than the other. There is always a stronger who kills the weaker, in life as in the murder ballad “The Two Sisters,” versions of which have circulated for centuries across continents. The older sister cannot help being the uglier, making her the murderer.
Still neither sister seems to notice the landscape’s blankness as brown and leafless trees keep collapsing. Both are equally preoccupied with their appearance—one with its charms, the other with its disappointments—while thin, naked trees surrender to wind blowing the sisters’ hair across their faces, making one briefly indistinguishable from the other.
In one of the few pictures I have of my sister and myself together, I stand with my hands clasped behind my back, my stomach’s rondure thrust forward. Five years old, I have swallowed a globe, or so it seems to me decades later. An entire world beams from my navel. I resemble some town’s extremely young mayor, some town at the time I can only imagine because I have seen so few of them. I wear my turtleneck tucked inside my trousers.
I have pasted stray wisps of my hair down with saliva, wisps too short to be braided. I live on a farm where everyone is too dirty themselves to notice these pains I’ve taken. No other houses are visible beyond power lines that seem to cross in the distance yet never touch when I run and stand beneath them. My world is solitary except for my sister and parents.
I still might be running for office, so eager do I look to please the person taking the picture, who is likely my mother. I have always needed to be good for someone, however. At the time the picture was taken, I cared less about being a good sister than a good daughter. Compared to me, my two-year-old sister is reckless. She is good even when no one is paying attention.
She skulks in my shadow’s taper, her white shirt stained with ketchup that has dried into a small African continent with no ocean surrounding it. Her mouth is compressed into a silverfish. The croquet set beside us is not hers, and she knows this. She knows if only because I have told her so often. She only ever plays under rules I invent as the game progresses. If she disobeys, she knows I’ll take her ball and mallet.
Also known as “Binnorie,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Dreadful Wind and Rain,” “The Bonny Swans,” “Bonnie Bows of London,” and “The Singing Bone,” among others, the song “The Two Sisters” first appeared on a broadside in 1656 as “The Miller and the King’s Daughter” after being passed down orally for centuries. In most iterations, a suitor stokes the jealousy of the older sister by courting the younger. His ardor leads to his beloved’s drowning.
After he has paid yet another visit and charmed even the parents, the older sister invites the younger to walk with her to the sea. Pushing her in, however, proves too tempting, too easy. Yet the older sister is still more woman than villain. She cannot help exercising the strength she’s been given, strength she’s no more asked for than the younger her attractions.
Perhaps because the tale has been told so often, everywhere from Hungary to Iceland, the crime no longer shocks me. If you’ve heard the Scottish “Binnorie,” for instance, you know the murder served only as pretext for the singer to lavish yet more praise upon the corpse’s beauty. The younger sister benefited, in other words, from dying while still attractive.
In many versions of the song, a miller finds the body. The ballad becomes a panegyric to her features and proportions. Even in death, she evokes the erotic. Alternatively, the miller’s daughter discovers and mistakes her for a swan missing her lifelong partner. In still others, a harpist comes upon her washed ashore and fashions a new harp from her skeleton. The bone harp begins to play another melody named “The Singing Bone” while the harpist only listens. The harp recounts the crime of the sister still living and grown yet more repulsive.
To my own sister, I’ve been considerably kinder. I’ve done nothing to hurt her apart from making her play croquet according to rules I determined as the game advanced. “Light has legs,” I often said instead of attempting to drown her. I repeated nonsense along these lines to her over and over, a tendency that has been with me so long I cannot explain its origin.
I still pretend my chairs have kneecaps with bruises, my vases throats to swallow water. Likewise, I told my sister the peanuts in her peanut butter were brown eggs certain to hatch in her intestines. I convinced her lightbulbs harbored little men inside their filaments the lamp switch awakened.
“Light has legs,” I sang as we played croquet after my mother took the picture of us together. “Light has legs. Light loves darkness. Light loves to walk inside dark closets,” I repeated almost as an incantation meant to summon bodies from the light that made them visible to begin with. Of all the things I’ve forgotten, I remember this syllogism. I still retain the belief some truth lies buried in my own nonsense, either out of arrogance or because I swallowed the world too early.
“Binnorie,” unlike the ballad’s other versions, takes its name from a place known intimately to the writer. The title evokes the murdered sister’s longing for the home she shared with her sister and parents. Yet death means returning is not an option. She cannot revisit a landscape that itself determined how she met her end. She would never have drowned had she not lived so close to water, for instance.
Now that my parents have long since died from illness, my sister and I have no home in common. She has filled hers with children while I rent a small apartment. I can no longer visit a place where someone else now lives and, my sister tells me, breeds mastiffs. I have relinquished my old goodness toward everything except objects too inanimate to notice.
Legs, common as they are in all lights illuminating a building’s darkness, still strike me as extravagant. They are sinewed jewelry hanging from the body’s thickness. Long legs imply speed, often without any objective. They suggest restlessness, especially when a person is sitting. My legs aren’t long, but they’re longer than those belonging to my sister, who is more contented of a person, contented meaning better. “Can I be done with behaving correctly?” This is the cry of everyone with legs longer than her sibling’s.
I never wanted for my husband to call her, to tell her I’d thrown my wedding ring into a green and turgid river. I told him this was where I tossed it when I’d only thrown it on the river’s bank. I told him this so he would not attempt to recover what I no longer wanted, because for years I have tried to take an axe to our marriage. I have wanted to use this strength I’ve been given to hurt something.
Later, though, I searched for and found it among a bed of ashes. I searched for it more out of lingering goodness toward my mother than my husband. It was my great-grandmother’s engagement ring more than a century before this, and my mother wore it for decades before she gave it to me after my husband proposed while we were spooning.
Originally the ring had three diamonds. To my eyes they were mute, shining sisters from the beginning. Someone, though, had made them sit on a bench, perhaps in punishment, and two gold bars framing their tops and bottoms still keep the two sisters left from squirming. When my mother paid a jeweler to widen the band to fit my wider finger, she kept one diamond. She made it into a pendant with which she was buried.
She squeezed one sister off the bench regardless. She squeezed off the sister I assume was the youngest, who was easily too the prettiest by this logic. I can no longer remember the reason for the argument I had with my husband that made me throw away the two sisters remaining. I only know that with the last possession I have of my mother’s lost to me, I had at last murdered something.
After my husband called my sister, she started crying, because he had also mentioned the suicide I’d threatened. She reminded me it was murder, bloody and vicious. She said this as if I were a kinder person than the one she’d grown up with, as if I couldn’t kill the uglier, meaner sister before she did worse damage. Only after she stressed its wrongness did I feel more tempted. Then to change the subject, I told her the ring’s two sisters had drowned in a river. I had sent both to their deaths, sparkling and ageless. There was relief on my part followed by silence.
I woke next morning from a dream that still feels more real than reality at present. I dreamt our farm was overrun with lions that wandered through our yard where we played croquet. As my mother and sister fed them grass, I watched from our kitchen as my dad slurped coffee. He smiled while watching the lions prowl our beds of roses when I asked if he planned on doing something. “Someday they will kill us, Daddy.”
He sighed and said he supposed I was right from a practical perspective. My sister had begun letting them into the house in the evenings, petting them on our couch while watching TV as I lay sleeping, because I have always gone to bed earlier than everyone else in my family. My sister was the animal lover while his oldest daughter preferred lamps and vases, he noted, laughing. He agreed to speak to her, though it was a shame, he mentioned. They offered so much beauty. In this way I knew he meant to do nothing.
The next morning, I took a gun from my dad’s shed and shot them while they lazed in our garden. Just as my sister ran outside to witness the carnage, I awakened. Still I saw the lions’ blood had stained her shirt with ketchup dried into the shape of a small African continent with no ocean surrounding it. For the first time too I knew she saw me clearly.
If light has legs, if light loves darkness, if light loves to walk inside dark closets, it does so only because it finds dark closets wondrous places. Because brightness needs a rest from all it sees. Brightness needs to swallow darkness the same as someone needing to be good for someone who is looking also wants to inflict her cruelty. She may not want to kill her sister, but she wants to kill something. She wants at least to kill the lions. She wants to punish things of pure beauty.
The last time I saw my sister, we went swimming. She brought goggles for us both, but the pair she gave me leaked, and my eyes soon reddened from the chlorine. I pulled her leg as she swam ahead of me, when she stopped and exchanged pairs readily. For her the goggles leaked just as badly, but she said nothing. When we paused for breath, half her eyes were filled with water. They looked red to bloodied.
An hour later, we were driving back to her home where I was spending a few days with her family, and the sparkle of my ring caught her eye as she turned her car into her driveway. She stopped the car and ran her finger across the two sisters’ faces. She circled their heads with a phrenologist’s sensitivity then asked how I found it. Hadn’t it drowned in a river? Hadn’t it been sucked down, as I’d told her, with the sewage?
Hadn’t they? I corrected before answering. Then no, the sisters had only fallen. I’d thrown the ring on the bank and missed the river on purpose. To have drowned them, I would have needed more courage. Then in silence I reflected there have long been too many variations of “The Two Sisters” for there to have been only one older and one younger. In truth, there must be millions of the former as well as the latter, millions of the drowned and the drowner. Given this overabundance, I’m no crueler than average.
In response, she said nothing. She only made a noise with her lips compressed, a flat hum indicating I’d lied about something important. I’d lied, but she’d let me live with it. Lied, made up, invented—there wasn’t much difference. I’d done it ever since I’d picked up a ball and mallet. Yet in these lies—in these dark closets—deeper truths lay unspoken. I hadn’t killed my parents, but I’m the one with murderous tendencies, which have always been with me. I have become mayor of nothing.
Visiting Scotland a few years ago with my husband, I enjoyed hearing murder ballads sung in a pub in the evening more than hiking in the Highlands. And I still would partly rather have dropped my ring in a river, killing both sisters so they die together. As it is, I kill only lions. I make no attempts to murder my sister but make her less than happy. I threaten suicide every time I grow miserable in my marriage. I make no effort to be good for her now that I’m done with being a good daughter.
Over time, “The Singing Bone” has become my favorite version of the ballad, because here the younger sister lives if also stripped of her skin and organs. She lives through her bones, where we all know things. She has kept her shins and femurs. She has kept her legs that fill with light when she sings from her marrow’s jelly.
In life, the younger sister’s skin was smooth and shining. In death, though, her bones glow even more brightly. When you watch the harp playing its own music, light passes through the bones forming its strings. The bones look like sea glass washed upon a beach when the sun’s last light is receding. Glass from old bottles tossed about on the Atlantic, glass with edges rounded by waves.
The wind, however, still is blowing. Brown, leafless trees keep falling over, though neither sister takes time to notice. Yet only one now is preoccupied with her appearance. The other walks inside dark closets.
And though I am the older sister, I too like to think my bones will frost and turn to sea glass in time, should I die by drowning. I hope this rather than holding out hope of my corpse inspiring a ballad. Because what would they sing? Not that anyone pushed me into the sea but that I jumped willingly.
Sea glass from a shipwreck too is the rarest kind, I’ve heard from those who comb beaches searching for sea jewelry. And if this body is not some species of shipwreck, then I have misunderstood who I am from the beginning. If light does not have legs, then I have no idea how it goes walking. I only know that you do not have to wait for your sister to push you to drown in the sea. You do not have to drown to know your bones are sea glass in the making. As long as you live, your bones are waiting to sing, to mourn the lost love and beauty.
Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena, an essay collection forthcoming from Split Lip Press. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in journals such as DIAGRAM, Juked, Drunken Boat, PANK, Atlas and Alice, Superstition Review, The James Franco Review, Tin House Open Bar, Mud Season Review, Under the Sun, Pinball, Squawk Back, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Souvenir Lit Journal, Pithead Chapel, and pioneertown. Her travels in Lapland are also anthologized in Whereabouts: Stepping out of Place.
Image credit: josefnovak33 on Flickr