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Steps and Stairs

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This year their steps-and-stairs family is even-numbered again: Ella's sixteen, Henny's fourteen, Sarah's twelve, Charlotte's ten, Gertie's eight, and Charlie's, well, almost four. But Sarah thinks they've never felt more at odds. They're prickly and confused and bickering and growing, five girls and a boy in their little apartment, and somehow it seems like they're growing apart as they grow together.

First off (thinks Sarah as she considers and catalogues the changes that have taken place), there's Ella. Ella has a new friend, of sorts. A boy. A beau, in fact. None of the girls have ever had one before, and it feels as if Ella is growing too old for them, leaving them all behind. As if she is no longer quite a part of them, because she is so close to somebody else now.

Charlie is too young to be particularly interested, except that for some reason he doesn't like Michael, Ella's beau, and tends to hide behind Mama's skirt when Michael gets near. Ella always tries to coax him out, and really Michael is very nice, but Charlie seems to have inherited the stubborn streak that also runs strong in Henny, and his almost-four-year-old feet stay firmly planted behind Mama.

Gertie and Charlotte giggle at Ella, and tease her sometimes. Ella is alternately patient, embarrassed, and angry in response. What never changes, though, is how united Charlotte and Gertie are in these acts, how much closer they have grown even though Gertie no longer follows Charlotte's direction so unquestioningly.

Sarah cannot quite make up her mind about the whole thing. She is curious about what it's like, and happy for Ella because Ella seems happy, but half-wishes to tease her sometimes as the younger ones do. But then they would get into fights, and Sarah misses the big sister of her childhood, who was always so much Sarah's friend, her bedtime companion. The old rule that bedtime is the same for all the children has long since been abandoned, and Ella has started staying out later, going out with Michael and returning after Sarah is asleep. When she wakes up she is often torn between sadness and anger, between being distant with Ella because Ella was distant first, and being especially sweet to Ella, to try to bring her closer. Sometimes she swings between these two reactions in the space of an hour, so that Ella doesn't know whether to expect a sweet sister or a prickly one, and ends up withdrawing further, and then Sarah is sorry and angry at herself and Ella both.

What has happened to her, she wonders sometimes. She, Sarah, has always been the practical one, neither so soft and dreamy as Charlotte nor so hot-headed as Henny. Now she's acting like both of them in one person, and Ella, with this new outside life they're not a part of, is no longer quite the motherly figure she once was to all of them.

But despite appearances, despite all this complication seemingly stemming from Ella, the real problem, the stick in the spokes of the wheel of the family, is Henny.

One night Sarah settles under the covers next to Ella, as always, and says, "Shall we decorate the Pink Room tonight? We did the Yellow Room last time."

Ella is quiet next to her for a minute. "That one's yours, isn't it?" she says finally. "And the Pink Room is Charlotte's? It's been a while since we did imaginary decorating."

"Yes, of course," says Sarah. "You know the rooms, Ella, we've been imagining our house since I was six. Gertie's is green, Charlotte's is pink, mine is yellow, Henny's is red, and yours is blue. And Mama and Papa's is white."

There's another little pause, and then Ella says, "I think Michael would like a red room."

"Michael!" exclaims Sarah. "But our mansion is just for our family. And Henny already has a red room anyway."

"Henny," Ella says musingly, and sighs. "I wish I knew how to reach her. Sarah, don't you think Henny has been more -- well -- Henny-ish lately?"

Sarah feels a rush of -- gratitude, and relief, and something she doesn't quite know how to name, that Ella is confiding in her again, that she is still paying attention to their family, that she still cares. Deep down, she knew that already -- Ella is, as she has reminded them often enough, still Ella, still the caring big sister they've always had. But as close as Sarah and Ella have always been, Henny is still the sister closest in age to Sarah, her fellow upper-middle sister, as they call it sometimes, as opposed to the lower-middle sisters Charlotte and Gertie, and the Ella the eldest and Charlie the baby. Sarah has always been particularly attuned to Henny's moods and tempers, and lately they have unmistakably been getting worse.

"Yes," she says, "I've been noticing for a few months now," and is relieved also to voice it at last, and know that she is not alone in her worry. Ella has her back -- hers, and Henny's, and all the rest of them, the way she has for as long as Sarah can remember. 

"Do you have any idea what it could be?" she ventures, when Ella stays quiet. 

Ella pulls the covers up a little higher, a little closer around both of them. She looks past Charlotte and Gertie already asleep, to the far corner of the room where Henny lies in her bed alone, as she has done for as long as Sarah remembers. That seems to be the way of things in their family, Sarah thinks with a sudden rush of mixed comfort and sadness and love. The sameness, the steadiness and stability of tradition. They always look out for each other, Ella especially; they always persist in their old patterns of sleeping and eating and chore-doing; and Henny is always -- alone? 

But then Sarah remembers that their bedtimes are all different now, and that that's because of Michael, who is also new, and that Ella is more grown-up and Henny seems more unhappy and she, Sarah, is more confused and inconsistent in dealing with it all. 

Ella looks over at Henny and says softly, "Perhaps she's only growing older. Fourteen can be a hard age for anyone, and you know Henny's always been -- you know--" She half-smiles, fondly. "Henny."

"Perhaps," says Sarah, and feels a little left out for not yet knowing the particular travails of being fourteen. 

"Anyway," says Ella, "you'll continue keeping an eye on her, won't you? Of course I will too, but I think you've always understood her better than I have."

Sarah feels her eyebrows making a skeptical face.

"You've got her stubborn streak," Ella says, and grins at her. Sarah thumps her on the head with her pillow, but grins back, and when Ella uses her own pillow to retaliate, it feels like old times again, back when they were very small and there was no Michael. All the way back, even, to when it was only the three of them, with baby Charlotte too young to join in their games and fights alike, just Ella and Henny and Sarah together.

Sarah wouldn't give up her younger sisters and brother for the world. Not for all the candy in Mrs. Blumberg's store, not for all of Mother's best hamantaschen, not for all her friends at school, not for all the books in the library. 

But nor does she want to lose her older sisters to the distant world of adults or mysterious unhappiness. "It will be all right," Ella says then, as if reading her thoughts, and Sarah supposes she'll just have to believe that while they try to figure out what to do.

***

Over the next few weeks Sarah keeps careful track of Henny's moods. There's the time Henny has a fight with her best friend Fanny -- not in the least an unusual occurrence, but Henny seems unusually unhappy over it and doesn't do her homework for a week. Consequently her teacher sends a note home for Mama and Papa to sign -- also not an unusual occurrence, but for some reason Henny looks more upset than a simple spanking should merit. 

Then Michael comes over for dinner, and Henny is sullen all through the meal. Mama makes her special cake that all the girls love, and of which Henny ate no less than five slices of last time, but this time she picks at it and gives her piece to Charlie.

And all throughout these events Sarah is no less mystified than before. Henny seems to be finding pleasant things disagreeable and unpleasant things disproportionately horrible, and neither Sarah nor Ella knows why. Even Michael wasn't always such a source of displeasure for her; months ago the two of them seemed to get on quite well.

It all comes to a head when Hanukkah comes. Normally Hanukkah is one of Henny's favorite holidays, after Purim, of course. The whole family swears she wins all the dreidel games by cheating, but they can never catch her. 

This year their home is filled to bursting with relatives, families filling the rooms with warmth and chatter. Tanta Rivka and Tanta Leah, Uncle Hyman and Chaim and Schloimon, and all their children make for quite a din in their little apartment. By contrast, Henny is mostly quiet, until they're all seated around the table and the conversation turns, rousingly, to Michael.

"Who's next?" roars Uncle Hyman merrily. "Henny, when will you find a nice Jewish boy like Ella here?"

Henny stands up and shoves her chair back so hard it topples over -- turns from the table so fast that she knocks her drink to the floor, the heavy wooden crash of the chair offset by the shattering of glass and the spilling of liquid. 

All around Sarah the whole family gasps, but Sarah feels only a sinking feeling of inevitability. Is she the only one unsurprised?

Mama is up in a flash, her gaze piercing and fierce. "Henny," she says only, but in a voice so quiet and terrible as to make any child quail, even Henny -- except Henny doesn't, not this time. 

She stands there with her fists clenched, her good apron stained by her drink, her arm sporting a scratch from the leg of her chair as it fell -- it will probably show a bruise by morning, but Henny doesn't spare it a glance. She doesn't look at Mama, either, or indeed any of them, but fixes her gaze (Sarah suddenly sees the family resemblance where she never had before, the intensity of both Mama and Henny) somewhere above and beyond all their faces, and speaks to that invisible target. 

"Is that all anybody ever cares about?" Henny demands fiercely, ripping into the sudden silence. "Boys! Do you know what? I've lived just fine without a beau for fourteen years, and if nobody asks me about boys from now until another fourteen years from now, it won't be soon or long enough. Maybe for once someone would recognize there are more important things in my life than finding some old boy to moon over! I'm going to go to bed and lie in the dark and even that will be more interesting than this discussion."

And she whirls around and tears away into the bedroom.

Somehow Sarah knows this is her chance to understand and make things right. Before anyone can say anything, she says, "Don't worry, I'll go talk to her," and follows.

She steps into the bedroom and instinctively closes the door behind her. The room is dark -- Henny left the light off and Sarah knows better than to try to change that -- but she can barely make out Henny climbing into her bed. Alone, as always. 

"Henny," she says softly. "Is it all right if I join you?"

A pause, and then a terse, "All right" from the corner. So Sarah crosses the room and climbs into the little bed beside Henny. Henny scoots away from her, but only to make room for two in a bed meant for one. They sit against the wall, blanket wrapped around them, hardly able to see each other in the dark. Sarah, suspecting she has found the right answer after all this time, begins her attempt to comfort Henny.

"Don't mind Uncle Hyman's teasing you about finding a boy. I'm sure you'll have one soon too, Henny, all the boys at school admire you so--"

There is another little silence, and then, "I don't want one," says Henny, oddly calmly. Normally -- much as she has just done, in fact -- she would scoff and proclaim, "I don't want any old boy! You couldn't pay me to have a beau right now. I've got better things to do!" and perhaps Ella would be hurt, or try to assure her how nice it was to be seeing a boy, or, maddeningly, share a knowing look as Mama smiled indulgently, thinking Henny only jealous.

"It's okay if you do, I won't tell anyone," Sarah promises. "Especially not Ella, if you don't want. Or Gertie, because she thinks boys are horrid."

Henny smiles slightly. "So did Charlotte at that age. So did you. I bet even Ella did." But then she stops smiling. "But Sarah, it isn't like that. I really, truly don't want one. I don't think boys are horrid, I just--"

Henny breaks off, takes a deep breath, throws back her shoulders as if facing off to go into battle. 

"I do have a beau," she says. "Of sorts." 

Sarah wants to exclaim at this new information, but she knows instinctively this is not the time. So she just sits quietly and waits for Henny to go on.

Henny's eyes flash -- in defiance, in challenge, in preemptive anger and maybe, Sarah thinks, just maybe in fear. It isn't like Henny to be afraid of confessing something, and yet it is so like her to put on her brave face, to face her fear straight and tall and with her head held high. It makes Sarah afraid to imagine what could be so awful as to frighten even Henny, but at the same time she draws comfort from Henny's characteristic anger, flaring bright and hot in the cold dark of winter and of fear. So she doesn't protest, doesn't entreat Henny not to be angry with her, because this is Henny's strength, and right now Sarah could use some of that too.

It occurs to her then that maybe Henny needs her to say something in reply, to let her know it's okay to tell more. Sarah always hates telling secrets into a void; a sister's voice reaching out to draw it out of her always helps. "What's his name?" she prompts quietly. 

Henny takes a breath as though preparing to answer, but then says nothing. Sarah wonders if a guessing game of sorts would be easier. "Is he in your class?" she tries, and is rewarded with, "Yes."

And then, "It's Fanny," says Henny, in a terrible whisper as though even her famous courage is insufficient to let her speak aloud. She is stock still, dark shape against the dark of the wall, and Sarah almost loses track for a second of which dark is flat inhuman surface and which dark is her stubborn, terrified, incalculably brave big sister. 

For one infinite second Sarah can't breathe. Her mind whirls in frantic disarray. She doesn't know what to think or do or say. A hundred memories rush through her mind -- the library lady, Kathy, who they first met the time Sarah lost her library book, and Henny nudging Sarah and whispering how pretty she was. The trajectory of Henny's moods following, so closely, the pattern of fights and reconciliations with Fanny. The flashes of Henny's eyes, hot anger masking the cold buried fear, every time anyone intimated that she was merely jealous of Ella. 

Then beside her Henny tosses her curls back proudly, raises her head higher and clenches her grip on the blanket even tighter. Sarah can practically see her knuckles glowing white through the dark. And all of a sudden it truly registers how afraid Henny is, how she must be waiting in terrible suspense to see how Sarah reacts. How so, so much depends right now on Sarah. 

And Sarah bursts into tears, reaches for her sister, and hugs her harder than she's ever hugged anyone. She buries her face in Henny's shoulder for a moment and cries, "Oh, Henny, I thought something was wrong -- I thought something was really, really wrong and I didn't know how to help -- I'm so glad you're all right, I don't ever, ever want to lose you -- Henny--"

And beneath Sarah's arms, the tension she hadn't even noticed until now starts slowly draining out of Henny's body.

"You're not -- you don't think I'm horrible, then?" she says, and Sarah's heart breaks into a million tiny pieces, like the crackers in Mr. Basch's broken cracker barrel.

"You're our horrible Henny," she says half-laughing through her tears, "Our horrible hot-headed high-volume Henny, just as you always have been, and that's why we love you so much." 

Henny sits back somberly then. "You think so," she says. "You don't know what the others will think. Please be honest, Sarah -- do you think -- do you think they'd still love me too if I told them? Or do you think they'd think me too horrible to love?"

"Oh Henny," says Sarah, and seizes her again. "They would never. We could never. You're our sister, our wonderful ornery second-oldest sister, we wouldn't be steps-and-stairs without you. Who would plan all the best pranks? Who'd help me with my math homework when Ella only helps with reading? Who would tease me and keep me from getting too big a head when my history teachers praise me? Who'd be the best at making us all laugh? Who'd win all the candies in the dreidel games? Who'd--" she laughs, "be Mama's helper when the rest of us get sick because we don't have a magical disease-resistant body like you?"

For that she gets a small laugh in return. "I knew you all only keep me around to be your servant," Henny teases, and elbows her, prompting Sarah to add, "Who'd have the sharpest elbows? And the funniest ears? And the biggest nose?" before Henny grabs Sarah's ears and gently pulls them so they stick out absurdly. 

"I don't know about funniest ears," she says, "These look pretty funny to me. I think I have an elephant for a sister."

"Only if you're the monkey," says Sarah. "I still don't know how you managed to climb through the window of Mr. Basch's store and jump out and scare him when he came in to open shop," and Henny snorts in laughter. 

"That was Fanny's idea, really," she says merrily, and then breaks off, suddenly shy again.

"Then you'll have to bring her home with you to teach the rest of us," says Sarah, smiling. "The way Michael taught us to shoot a slingshot. And Mama will bake her best cake for special occasions -- and you'll actually eat it this time, too -- and we'll all bombard Fanny with questions to make sure she's good enough for you. And if she's not then we'll find you a new girl who is."

Henny's smile really does shine white through the darkness then. But then it disappears into darkness. 

"We won't be all of a kind anymore," she says. "If I'm different. I'll be the odd one out."

"We never really were," says Sarah. "Certainly not since Charlie was born, and you know how much we all love him. And even before -- I was still the practical one, Charlotte was still the dreamy one, you were still the ornery one." She smiles. "You have always been, and will always be, our ornery one, Henny. You know it, and no girl or boy will ever change that.

And anyway," she adds, "remember how the library lady called us a steps-and-stairs family? We'll still be that. We're not all the same, maybe some of us are steps and some of us are stairs, but stairs and steps are the same thing, really. And either way, they let you climb higher than you ever could on your own, and we'll still be that, too."

"Knowing us," says Henny, "we'd probably spend half the day bickering over who got to be steps and who got to be stairs, and then the other half arguing which one was better. And then we'd forget which one we wanted in the first place."

And then, "Race you down the stairs," says Sarah. "First one there gets all your dreidel winnings."

"Deal," says Henny. And they're off.