The Sistren is a collection of stories about seventy-two singular sisters. Every week a new sister’s story is told, accompanied by an original illustration. 

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Calpurnia shuffles through an endless train. There is frost in the quiet car: the year begins. As she travels from car to car, lingering in some for a few hours, in others for weeks, she introduces herself to the passengers. One is wearing ancient robes. Another is dressed for a masque. She asks them their names and destinations and never forgets a single one. She will not see them again, but she casts them in memory. Her favorite ones she writes in a small book she keeps chained to her wrist. 

The snow thaws: it is early April and she finds herself in a wooden cafe car. She has been waiting for the birds to begin their song, but right now the train is rattling across an ocean and she must be patient. Sometimes it dips under water and she catches glimpses of briny kingdoms. These she then sketches from memory. 

The spacing between cafe cars is erratic, so Calpurnia stocks food in every one. She spends days in conversation with the diners – the talkers more than the listeners, though she relays stories to the quiet ones. When others give their stories to her, she records their answers carefully, then repays them with a secret. It is always the same one, drawn from the inside cover of her book. 

Calpurnia hears birdsong. It is mid-May and the train is skimming the topside of clouds. She has spent the better part of the month seeking a stowaway. The wooden cars have given way to steel, and his footfalls echo somewhere ahead. He eludes her always, but the passengers report seeing him – he must be just one or two cars ahead, they say. Each describes him identically, except half of the passengers describe him as a lively young boy, and the other half as a dying old man. When the boy winks at them, they feel a surge of luck. When it’s the old man, an icy confusion. 

In midsummer Calpurnia is mute. She walks the cars, sitting beside passengers and watching them intently for a long time before noting something in her book and continuing on. Some match her gaze and others hide from it. Some try to engage her in conversation, but she merely smiles and continues studying them. Once a day she chooses a passenger to sit beside, opening her book and pointing wordlessly at specific passages and drawings as she flips through the pages. There are nods and gasps and sudden shakes of the head. Often there is blood and madness, and Calpurnia departs sorrowfully. No one knows where she sleeps.

September is darkness as the train bores through the underground and Calpurnia crawls slowly through sleeper cars. There are men and women and children in the first hundred – a family in every tiny world. She meets them and holds the children and commiserates with the mothers, but pushes on to the next thousand sleeper cars, filled with women. Warriors, muses, grandmothers – some deify her, some hold her in contempt, and to others she is invisible. She walks on patiently but with purpose, to the final dozen sleeper cars, these filled with men. Here she extinguishes the cabin light and spends the next seven days. Each man will spend the rest of his life chasing this week – the lusty songs sung, the quiet peace of the dark mornings, the gaggle of perfect beings that descended on their lives, one spritely and coy, another shy with hair to her knees, another otherworldly and insatiable. All they will have left are the foreign words and symbols scrawled permanently across their bodies.

Huddled in corners day after day, Calpurnia spends October devouring her book. She commits every word and sketch to memory, tracing them with her finger over and over, mouthing the phrases as if they were incantations. Late nights she spends walking car to car reciting pages from memory, drawing images in the air with her finger. Bleary-eyed riders watch her curiously. To some it seems a dance. She pours herself into the pages by day, pours the pages into herself by night. 

In November Calpurnia drags herself exhausted and half-mad through a seemingly endless procession of cattle cars, each with different beasts bucking and vying for her attention. She is seeking one in particular, amidst the sea of fur and hide, but her weariness threatens to overtake her with every step. No one has ever entered the cattle cars save the animals. She is the first of a different species to the beasts and they magnetize to her. She refuses to look them in the eyes. She can formulate her vision of the end, and as she stares at the floor it appears before her and guides her onward. Not only does she abstain from writing, she forces the glimpses of animals from her memory. None of November happened – in her mind there is nothing there – a blank. And by the end of the month, covered in feathers and fur and a stench that threatens never to go away, she exits the miles and miles of cattle cars.

And it is December, and Calpurnia is giving birth. It is a completely empty car – spotless and silent. She lies patient as, one by one, she delivers the characters in her book – each inky blackness until they are fleshed out and realized when they come in contact with the air in the cabin. They come into existence, brush themselves off, and walk out from the car into the next and the next. Calpurnia is in labor for the month as, one by one, each blotchy creation wriggles into the otherwise silent cabin, and onward. It is a slow, intermittent process – all grunts and footsteps. A population awakening and taking form. When she is finished she rests.

The train stops while Calpurnia sleeps and the old passengers are let off. Calpurnia has never felt the train stop. It goes on and on forever, churning ahead, winding its way around this giant seed somewhere in the very center of the universe – the engine of creation.


Illustration by Chris Baily