Her Sister’s Tattoo

Ellen Meeropol

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Her Sister’s Tattoo, by Ellen Meeropol. Living in Detroit in 1968, Rosa and Esther Cohen are used to protesting, and so join a nearby march. But when a conflict breaks out, Rosa and Esther are caught in the middle of it, and ultimately arrested. Terrified, Esther, who longs to return home to her infant child, agrees to a plea bargain against her sister, a decision which changes their lives forever.

It’s Detroit, 1968. Sisters Rosa and Esther march against the war in Vietnam with their best friend, Maggie.

As they reached the rally site, double rows of blank-faced National Guard troops lined the wide avenue, sunlight bouncing off their helmets. Rooftop cameras mounted on panel trucks with television station logos swiveled to catch the action. Esther smiled and waved to the soldiers.

“Don’t wave.” Rosa’s lips pinched into a thin line. “They’re the enemy.”

“No, they’re not. They’re Danny.”

Esther wondered if their favorite cousin wore a helmet like that. Twenty months earlier he had stopped by the sisters’ New Year’s Eve party to announce that he’d been drafted. Esther remembered his exact words: “I know you’re disappointed in me. I’m not burning my draft card or moving to Canada. The war is wrong, but I’m going.” Rosa asked how he could be a soldier if he believed that the war was wrong. He stared down at his red basketball sneakers and answered, “I’m no chicken.”

Rosa probably regretted what she said to Danny that night, her voice barely audible above the party chatter. “Fine. Go be a brave soldier. Kill people. Napalm babies.” Danny just stood there looking at Rosa, his hand trying to smooth down the cowlick that tormented him.

“You don’t mean that,” Esther had told Rosa, then turned to Danny and touched his shoulder. “She doesn’t mean it.” Danny started basic training two weeks later.

The crowd spilled onto the sidewalk, around and through the curious onlookers, the parked buses with license plates from Illinois and Indiana and Ohio. Rosa stopped to high-five a skinny guy carrying a hand-painted sign saying Politicians Lie; GI’s Die. The marchers pushed amoeba-like into Kennedy Square, flowing around the blue islands of police officers standing with arms crossed, batons swinging from their belts. They funneled under the red banner with human-sized block letters reading Bring Down the War Machine, then fanned out onto the brown August grass.

Maggie approached a man wearing a red armband and distributing flyers. “Where’s first aid?” she asked. The marshal pointed beyond the stage to a white canvas tent, its roof visible above the heads of milling protesters. He handed Esther a flyer and she glanced at the list of rally speakers and supporting organizations. The ink, tacky in the humid air, left fragments of print on her fingers.

Maggie tightened the red and white fabric band around her arm and checked her watch. “I’m on duty soon.”
Esther wished Jake had also volunteered for first aid, but a pediatric residency didn’t leave time for anything else. Their friends didn’t understand and made fun of him. “Jake is a regular Albert Schweitzer of toddlerland,” Rosa once sneered, “fighting the epidemic of ear infections.” Maggie still had a year of RN training to go, but she had taken a street medic course and here she was in the trenches, ready to treat victims of police violence.

“We’ll walk you over,” Rosa said.

Onstage, members of the tech collective draped extension cords between the mammoth speakers and the microphones. The squawk of feedback added to the almost unbearable weight of the air, thick with moisture and crackle and heat.
The sisters followed Maggie into the first aid tent, where the harsh sunlight filtered into soft shade. “How’s it going?” Maggie asked the medic on duty.

“Not bad. A couple of minor burns from hairspray flamethrowers. Beth is on her way in with a scalp laceration—some frisky cops on Grand River.” He unclipped the walkie-talkie from his waist and hand- ed it to Maggie. “I’m going to listen to the speeches, but I’ll be around if you need me.”

“Thanks. Beth and I will be fine.” Maggie attached the walkie-talkie to her belt, then placed a liter bottle of sterile saline and a thick pack of gauze pads on the table. She waved at Esther and Rosa. “We’ll talk this evening.”

The sisters wandered past the stage and found seats along the fountain. Rosa rubbed at the blue ink on her hand. “Guess I won’t need the Legal Aid number. Sounds like all the action was on Grand River.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“A little.”

Esther gathered her hair into one hand and lifted it off of her neck. Sometimes Rosa was too much. “Well, I’m not disappointed. The march was fantastic and I can’t wait to see the six o’clock news, but I’m really glad there was no trouble.” Esther grinned. “Didn’t you love that old woman’s sign, Another Grandmother for Peace? I hope we’ll still be activists when we’re that old, and our kids and grandkids will march with us.”

“And how about that chant from the Bloomington contingent, for the student who couldn’t come because his mother threatened to have a heart attack?”

“Five, four, three two one, Mrs. Goldberg, free your son,” they sang together.

“I’m dying of thirst.” Rosa kicked off her leather sandals. “Any juice left?”

Esther rummaged through the contents of the daypack: crumpled wax paper from their cheese sandwiches. Plastic bags with bandanas soaked in vinegar in case of tear gas attack. Legal Aid telephone number on a folded piece of lined yellow paper, the same number as the one scrawled on their hands. Torn strips of bed sheet and a can of red spray paint, ready for a last-minute banner. Six empty cans of apple juice. A brown paper bag? Where did that come from? Inside were four small apples, green and rock hard.

“No juice,” Esther said. “What’s with the apples?”

Rosa smiled. “In case things get heavy, like if we need to break some windows. If we’re busted, we can always say, ‘Why, officer, that’s just a snack.’”

Break windows? Rosa wasn’t serious, was she? Esther didn’t have the energy to disagree. Rosa would puff up and play the more-radical- than-thou game and Esther would lose the argument, as usual.

A woman with a red and white armband hurried by, leading a young man toward the first aid tent. She must be Beth, the other medic. The guy’s shirt was bloody, as was the cloth he held against his head. He stumbled and almost fell. Beth steadied him with her arm around his shoulders and spoke into his ear. Esther tugged on Rosa’s arm. “Come on. Maggie might need help.”

He was young, just a kid really. He staggered inside and crumpled onto a stretcher as Rosa and Esther watched from the doorway.

Rosa grabbed her sandals and the sisters followed the injured man to the tent. He was young, just a kid really. He staggered inside and crumpled onto a stretcher as Rosa and Esther watched from the doorway. Maggie peeled the bloody cloth from the boy’s head. It was someone’s T-shirt, the peace symbol soaked deep red. The bleeding bubbled up under the blond surfer-boy curls at his hairline. Rivulets hugged the contours of his face, spreading across his forehead, flowing along his nose, streaming into his mouth. He spat blood.

“What happened?” Maggie tore open a package with her teeth and pressed the gauze pads against the boy’s forehead, then handed him a tissue.

He wiped blood from his lips. “A bunch of us broke off the main march. We walked along Grand River. We were in the street, singing, holding signs. These mounted police showed up in front of us. They yelled at us to get back on the sidewalk.”

“How many cops?” Rosa asked.

“A dozen? Maybe more. We told them we had a right to march in the street. Fucking cops just charged us. No reason.”
Rosa moved next to his stretcher, kneeled down close. “What happened then?”

“One cop came right close to me. He held his billy club over my head and said it was my last chance to get my ass on the sidewalk. When I didn’t move, he swung his club down on my head. Hard. I fell. I couldn’t see, but I heard horses’ hooves stamping all around me. People pulled me away from the horses. Someone gave me his shirt.” He pointed to Beth. “She came and helped.”

Rosa frowned. “Anything else?”

“They used tear gas. Lots of it. One canister exploded right in front of us.” He looked at Maggie. “I’m bleeding like stink, aren’t I?”

“Scalp wounds always look worse than they are. Did you lose consciousness when he hit you?” Maggie asked. “Pass out?”

He shook his head, sending a new gush over Maggie’s hand. She taped the bandage to his forehead. “You need stitches. We’ll clean you up, then send you to the ER.” Maggie pointed to a liter bottle of sterile saline. ”Open that for me?”
Esther poured the saline on clean pads, grateful to have something to do so she didn’t have to look at the boy’s face. Maggie wiped the blood from his eyes.

“What about the other people back there?” the boy asked. He touched his fingers to his scalp, examined his blood.
Maggie gathered up a supply bag from the table. “I’ll go.”

Beth nodded. “Good idea. There’s another medic there, but she may need help.”

Rosa touched the boy’s shoulder. “We’ll get those bastards for you.”

“Get real, Rosa,” Maggie said.

“I’m going with you,” Rosa said. She stood up, swaying visibly. She planted one hand on the kid’s stretcher; the other clutched the thick central tent pole.

Esther grabbed her sister’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Rosa steadied herself on the table edge. “Must be the heat.”

“Or the blood,” Maggie said. “Stay here. I don’t need you fainting in the street.”

“No way.” Rosa took their backpack and followed Maggie into the square. Esther trailed after Rosa, past the marchers listening to the speeches in the sun, tagging along as usual, even when she didn’t really want to go. But she couldn’t let Rosa go into danger alone.

Two blocks down Grand River, they heard the shouting. People leaned out of second and third floor apartment windows watching the street below. Rosa and Maggie ran toward the action, with Esther close behind. They passed an empty police cruiser parked half on the curb, tilted at an awkward angle. The sun flashed off the metallic paint and Esther saw her face reflected there, warped by the curve of the trunk. The cruiser’s strobe lights flickered in time to the jumpy beat in her chest.
The air grew harsh with the acrid weed-killer smell and Esther’s eyes started to sting and burn. After seven or eight marchers ran past them back toward Woodward holding bandanas over their noses and mouths, Maggie pulled a mask from her medic bag.

“Shit. My throat hurts.” Rosa unzipped the pack and grabbed the plastic bag with vinegar-and-water-soaked bandanas. She handed one to Esther and held one over her nose and mouth. Tossing the pack to Esther, Rosa started running down the street to catch Maggie. “Hurry,” she called behind her.

Esther slung the pack over her shoulder and followed more slowly. The tear gas haze was thicker ahead. Clouds of it, or was that just her eyes, blinking and weeping and stinging? A small crowd, maybe three dozen people, mostly young, swarmed the middle of the street. Facing them, standing between the protesters and the rally in Kennedy Square, six mounted police held their batons high in the air. One officer yelled through a bullhorn, “Get back on the sidewalks. You have no street permit for this location.” A few onlookers watched from under the green-and-white striped awning of a restaurant across the street.

A young woman wore two Vietcong flags safety-pinned together in- stead of a shirt. The red tops covered her chest, the blue bottoms hung below her waist, and the yellow stars hovered, half and half, over her heart, front and back. “Let us through,” she shouted at the cops. “We have the right to march.”

Esther stood on tiptoe, trying to see past the horses’ broad rumps and braided tails. One cop swung his baton wildly, threatening the flag-wearing woman. This was going to be ugly and Esther didn’t want to be there.
She caught up to Rosa. “Let’s go back to the square. It’s too dangerous.”

“You go if you want. I’m staying.” Rosa ran to the left, around the line of horses, toward the demonstrators.

Esther lost sight of her sister and stood frozen on the sidewalk, torn between going back and going forward. Sticking close to Rosa and Maggie sounded like a good idea. But how could anything be safe, with angry demonstrators and angrier cops ready to fight? She wanted to be home. If she were hurt, what would happen to Molly? Could tear gas poison breast milk?

A scream, someone in pain. Was it the flag-wearing woman? Was it Rosa? Esther ran in the direction her sister had gone.
Maggie kneeled on a small square of lawn in front of a three-story apartment building. A woman sprawled on the sere grass, motionless. Her head rested on a boy’s lap, ponytail skewed to the side, the stain of her blood on the boy’s khaki shorts. The boy sobbed, rubbing at his eyes with both fists. Rosa stood between Maggie and the street, staring at the scene. Esther squatted next to the boy and handed him her bandana. She showed him how to hold it over his face, then took another one from the backpack.

The boy’s words were muffled behind the cloth. “This lady lives on my block. The cop hit her, on purpose.” He looked down at his lap where his neighbor’s bloodstain grew large on his shorts.

The sounds of yelling and chanting grew louder. A pop, then another, and the gas cloud grew thicker, denser. The crowd started to shift along the far side of the street, spreading out around the phalanx of policemen.

Maggie fiddled with the dial of her walkie-talkie but got only static. She tore off her mask, tried again, then shook her head. Coughing, she turned to Rosa and Esther. “They’re probably blocking our channel. Can you go back for help? This woman needs an ambulance.”

Esther looked around. “Where’s the other medic?”

“She is the medic.” Maggie pointed to the woman’s armband. “Cops like to target us.” She replaced her mask, adjusted the stethoscope earpieces, and began inflating the blood pressure cuff.

From the street came the dull cracks of wooden sticks on heads and the answering shouts and screams. Esther stood up. The mounted cops were turning, herding the demonstrators in the direction of Kennedy Square.

The boy cried louder. “Make them stop.”

“I’ll go back for help,” Esther said. She tightened the bandana over her nose and mouth.

Rosa stepped off the curb into the street. “Fucking pigs,” she shouted at the cops. “Leave the people alone.”

Esther grabbed Rosa’s arm, pulled her back onto the sidewalk.

“Don’t get them pissed at you. Come back with me.”

“We have to stop them before they kill someone.” Rosa reached into the backpack for the brown paper bag. She grabbed the four green apples. She put one in Esther’s hand, pressing her fingers around it.

Esther stared at her sister. “Help me do this,” Rosa said.

Esther looked into the street, then down at her feet, at the sidewalk. Clumps of grass grew in the thin lines of dirt through the jagged cracks. How had she—the quiet sister, the artist, the mother—ended up at the edge of a street fight facing the rear ends of six police horses, rock-hard apple in hand?

In the street in front of her, one of the cops shouted a couple of words, quick and sharp. A command, it sounded like, and then all six police- men attacked. They leaned out over the protesters, truncheons swinging.

“Now,” Rosa said. She threw her apple hard at the officers.

Rosa’s face was so fierce that Esther had to look away. She studied the apple in her hand. Her fingertips searched the apple skin, seeking a soft spot, probing for a worm hole. Maybe it wasn’t that hard. Not like a rock, not really.

Rosa threw a second apple and reached for the third.

An officer stood tall in his stirrups and leaned way out over the crowd. He raised his baton above the flag-wearing woman. It smashed down on her head with a dreadful crack, and she sank to the street. Rosa grasped Esther’s chin in her hand, brought Esther’s gaze to her own face. “Throw with me, Esther. Now!” Rosa said. She pulled her arm back, ready.

Esther hesitated. It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it, to stop the cops from hurting people? She squeezed her eyes shut and hurled the apple as hard as she could, at the same instant Rosa threw hers. She pictured their twin green spheres flying into the turmoil on the street, together, in the same graceful trajectory. Well, maybe not exactly the same: Rosa’s probably flew straight and true, while her own wobbled a little and fell short. But still together, like sisters, together, even if they didn’t agree about everything anymore.

A horse screamed, sounding astonishingly human. Esther opened her eyes. The horse sidestepped wildly. The officer on its back, already leaning over with baton high, seemed to teeter in the air, then lose his balance. He yelped and tumbled off the saddle, disappearing into stamping hooves and brown rumps.

Two cops dismounted. Another grabbed the bridle of the skittering horse. Had the horse been hit by an apple? Oh my god. Did they do this? Did she do this?


From Her Sister’s Tattoo by Ellen Meeropol. Used with the permission of the publisher, Red Hen Press. Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Meeropol.

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