[Split Lip Press; 2023]

Part road novel, part meditation on sisterhood, part paean to outsider-ness, and all told in just 106 pages—Colleen Burner’s Sister Golden Calf is a small book that knows how to take up space. Following two sisters on a journey to scatter their mother’s ashes, Burner’s debut novella shimmers with poetic language and a seemingly boundless love for the people and landscape of New Mexico. Structurally, the novella is surprisingly complex for its size. The book is divided into three numbered parts, each of which are split into unnumbered chapters, and each of these in turn is made up of vignettes which are sometimes page-long scenes and sometimes paragraph-long fragments. Out of these components, the fragments dominate the overall feel of reading Sister Golden Calf: strange desert images drift into view and then pass out of sight, like so many roadside visions seen at speed through a car window, simultaneously incongruous and interconnected.

The sisters, Gloria and Kit, set out on their road trip about a year after their mother’s sudden death. Drifting and nearly penniless, they ply their unusual family trade: the two capture invisible essences, which they exchange for money, food, gas, and other necessities. Gloria and Kit’s wares are apparently empty jars labeled things like, “SOMEONE ELSE’S DREAMS,” “THE BIG PLUNGE,” or “COLD STREAMS OF LOGIC.” The two travel aimlessly until, at a roadside museum dedicated to Billy the Kid, Gloria sees the taxidermied body of an eight-legged calf and becomes obsessed with it. The image of the calf follows her long after she and Kit have moved on down the road. Gloria becomes so enamored that she eventually decides to split off from her sister, sneak back to the museum, and steal the calf from its display.

Gloria’s love for the calf stems from its apparently impossible strangeness—a strangeness she immediately associates with outlaw life. Sister Golden Calfs invocation of the outlaw is very much in keeping with the tradition of the road story—Burner name-checks Bonnie and Clyde, and there are echoes, too, of Thelma and Louise. But Kit and Gloria push beyond tradition, probing the invisible essence of the outlaw to ask deeper questions about the kinds of idiosyncrasies that are not tolerated by society and by nature, like being unhoused or having eight legs and two heads. Grasping for the outlaw’s true meaning, Gloria asks “whether murder is necessary, if thievery is required.” She wonders “what kind of life the calf may have lived, what law of nature she defied.”

It’s hard, at first, to tell what kind of outlaws these sisters are. Are the jars they’re hawking a kind of whimsical snake oil? What trick is at the center of all this and who is in on it? It becomes clear, however, that the sisters attach real importance to their collection. Each authentically feels that she is capturing real albeit invisible substances in jars that once held pie filling and baby food. When they offer a trade, they do so with genuine consideration of the sort of essence their customer needs. For instance, meeting a gas station attendant named Kimberley who suffers from insomnia because she sees angels fighting every night at the foot of her bed, the sisters search through their stock for something “placid and galactic.” Gloria adds that “she needs something far away,” before finally settling on a jar labelled “WHAT IS LEFT AFTER A STAR EXPLODES.”

In this esoteric consideration of need, the sisters’ outlaw-hood shifts. They are not snake oil merchants, but something more akin to wise women, witches. Their capture of the uncapturable flies in the face of a more consensus version of reality; their lives seem destined to remain on the margins of society. The sisters are outlaws in the sense that they exist outside the standard bounds of law and society. They are strangers everywhere they go, but they’re not alone.

Sister Golden Calf is filled to the brim with outsiders. One of the greatest joys of Burner’s novella is that classic feature of the road trip: not having any clue who or what you are going to run into next. Besides the gas station attendant who sees angels, and the eight-legged calf, you’ll come across a biker gang called the Calamity Janes, an unsettling ghost town, a nudist sunbathing ranch, and a group of nuns who protect and sell dirt from a supposedly miraculous hole. Each keeps the sisters company for a short time, lending a new and eccentric angle to Kit and Gloria’s own perspectives. What communions would be possible, Burner seems to ask, in a world populated entirely by this kind of outlaw?

But synchrony is not the only outcome of these meetings. Kit and Gloria’s chance encounters resonate (or fail to resonate) with each sister in vastly different ways. Kit feels pulled towards the ghost town, while Gloria is repulsed by it. The idea of returning to the eight-legged calf captures Gloria’s heart but inspires no passion whatsoever in Kit, who wants to make a pilgrimage to the dirt-protector nuns instead. The potential for rift has been with them from the beginning. Where Kit is sure of herself, Gloria doubts. Even the ways that they learned, as children, to capture their invisible essences in jars are very different: “I was like a tiger trap while Kit was a pounce in slow motion.” The novella circles around this question of whether it is possible to be inseparable while being so separate. In this way, the sisters perfectly parallel the titular calf with its two conjoined bodies. They are a version of the catch-22 that felled the calf, since to separate would kill as surely as to leave conjoined.     

Conjoined opposites of all kinds are at the heart of the novella: the body and the spirit, death and life, the seen and the unseen. Gloria struggles openly with the tension between the last of these. Early on, she asks the gas station attendant, Kimberley, “Do you think you have to see things to really believe them?” The girl answers yes immediately but then, just as quickly, deepens the problem by adding, “But I don’t think everyone can see things the same.”

If everyone senses the world differently, and if we have to sense things to believe them, how can it be possible to share our lives and beliefs with anyone else? For Gloria and Kit, this is a pragmatic problem as well: the sisters’ work is to interest people in the ungraspable, though what those people most want and need are tangible things. When Gloria offers one woman the jarred soul of an elk, the woman demurs, saying, “I can’t handle invisible things.” The woman, in turn, offers one of the crystals she’s selling, before acknowledging that it isn’t a good fit for Gloria, either.

But while Gloria and Kit work with the intangible, and occasionally despair at the world’s hunger for the opposite, they also live in the physical world. They need burritos and places to sleep. The most precious jar in their collection is full, not of soul or starlight but of the dwindling grit of their mother’s ashes. When Gloria finds the taxidermied calf, she falls in love precisely because it is such a perfect physical manifestation of her relationship with her beloved sister. Burner points, then, to the fundamental problem of the artist: you fall in love with life and want to capture it, but all too often you end up with a jar of something only you can see. What else is there to do but slap a ridiculous label on it, and hope that someone else can see the precious, invisible thing, too?

As I was reading Sister Golden Calf, nearly all of the comparisons to other books that occurred to me were appropriately paradoxical and totally unhelpful: “Imagine On the Road, but without any dudes,” or “It’s an upbeat and itinerant We Have Always Lived in the Castle!” The closest I can get is the beautiful novel Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, Finnish author of the Moomintrolls. An ode-in-vignettes to her work and life alongside partner Tuulikki Peitila, Fair Play is similarly fragmentary, similarly obsessed with the space and closeness between of a pair of people engaged in artistic, outsider life. Both books are light on plot, heavy on blessing. But most significantly, Burner has adopted one of Jansson’s favorite intangibles as their own: the assertion that the tensions between work and love, life and art are no enemy to either side. Sister Golden Calf is a book that lounges comfortably in the naked paradoxes we all embody: eternal love in a fleeting moment, our dead everywhere and nowhere, the infinite in a small, fleshy frame.

Amelia Brown is a writer living in Boston. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. https://www.amelia-brown.com/writing.html

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