Lemmings (This story first appeared in the literary journal Crazyhorse)

We were just one of a handful of Lemming societies, ordinary people jumping off 30-foot cliffs. Most people landed okay. Then my sister joined us.

Her descent started normally, but she seemed to slow as she neared the ground, her body like a peacock feather. I stared. She jumped again. Same thing. It was like trying to hurl an autumn leaf. We filled her pockets with rocks, pennies, lead shot, anything to make the decline faster. It did at first, in those first precious seconds of free-fall, but she lost speed, landed soft. I thought I saw her bounce. We loaded her pockets heavier and heavier, were drawing a crowd, she stumbled off the cliff and dropped with the weight of a curly hair. Like a good brother I jumped after her and landed on Elijah, whom I later learned was already dead. I only sprained my ankle.

“You were something.” I leaned on my sister’s shoulder as she helped me limp home.

“We should ice your ankle,” she said. “I think it’s starting to swell.”

After news of my sister hit the media, Lemming societies took hold faster than we’d thought. Before we knew it there were two hundred fifty chapters nationwide and an equal number of mothers’ groups organized against us. But the mothers couldn’t stop our flow — the t-shirts we had printed up with little lemming herds before the fall, the weekly meetings we organized in community center basements, our national convention in Denver. The bumpers stickers sold two for a dollar.

Of course Lemmings Anonymous support groups sprouted after the Denver convention, mainly due to the untimely passing of thirty Lemmings, but most other members thought this statistic reasonable considering the thousands that had gathered to jump. Besides, new people flocked to join Lemming societies faster than they swore off them. Many called us a cult, but we didn’t have much to say about that.

Since my sister’s tuition payments for the art institute were due at the same time I was made treasurer of the state Lemmings chapter, the natural thing was to find a tall building and charge a viewing fee.

“I don’t feel quite right about this,” she said as she leaned out a twentieth floor window, surveying the crowd like a princess from an ivory tower. I’d had her dress in white – blouse, pants, shoes – to make her appear even more angelic. Her hair was still brown, though. She’d refused to lighten it with peroxide.

“I know we’re not going to be able to collect the fee from everybody,” I said, “but I’m sure we’ll get a good sixty percent of them to ante up.”

She looked at me for a long moment and then lifted one leg up and over the windowsill. A cheer from the crowd. She straddled the window ledge, managed to balance her rear on it so she could lift the other leg out, sit on the sill for another few seconds.

“Here goes nothing,” she said.

“You’ll do fine,” I told her, gave her back only the tiniest of shoves.

Mothers Against Lemmings was protesting in a nearby parking lot, but I swear even their eyes grew wide when she fell. To our credit we hadn’t made them pay the fee. With brotherly concern I watched her descent, could only tell when she hit by the cheer of the crowd.

“I guess that wasn’t bad,” she shouted to me when I finally reached her, mobbed as she was by Lemmings.

“I told you everything would be fine,” I shouted back. She smiled, nodded, continued to shake hands. After things calmed down, our Lemmings chapter had a group jump from the fifth story window.

“I don’t want to,” said my sister.

“Come on,” I said. “It will be fun. People want to jump with you.” She shook her head, leaned against a rusting white Oldsmobile as twenty of us hurled ourselves much less fantastically than she had done. She clapped politely for each of us, and I broke my collarbone. Again. We gave ambulance priority to Geoff who was in the worst shape, back brace and all, so my sister drove me to the hospital.

“At a dollar a head we grossed a few hundred,” I told her.

“Another semester in school,” she said. My sister wanted to be a ceramicist, own her own pottery studio someday, and all her free time was spent with clay. “I didn’t think we’d make that much money.”

But I knew we could do even better.


Over her summer vacation from college we launched the U.S. tour. I had t-shirts printed up, booked our dates in various cities, ordered one thousand gold lemming lapel pins to sell.

She was excited at the Washington Monument, too nervous to eat lunch.

“All those people,” she said as she leaned out the window, seconds before the jump. It was July 1st and everyone was waving American flags, crowding the base of the monument. I had decided to dress her in a white top with a row of blue stars across her chest, red shorts, and a large gold bow in her hair. Which was still brown.

“You’re sure you don’t want to be a blonde?” I asked. “Your hair would show up better from the ground.”

“I like my hair,” she said, smoothing her ponytail protectively.

“Just making sure. Wanna hold a flag?” I waved a small one, maybe six inches long, in her face. “Very patriotic.”

“Just the jump is enough.” She scrunched her nose. “I don’t want to worry about poking myself, or anyone else, in the eye.”

“Your decision.” I shrugged and tried not to look too disappointed. As tour manager I had to worry about appearances.

“So far down,” she said, leaning out the window. “I’ve never jumped from this high.”

“You scared?” I twisted the flag in my hands. She couldn’t let me down now, couldn’t.

“No, not really. Let me take a breath.”

“Fine.” The fans were waiting. I shifted from foot to foot.

“Okay,” she said, and she was gone before I knew what had happened. She fluttered down like a lost Valentine, a descent lasting two minutes, eighteen seconds, and the applause was deafening. It took twenty minutes for me to reach her once I was on the ground.

“I missed being up so high once I landed,” she said. “Washington looks a lot nicer from up there. All of those pristine white buildings. No litter, no trash cans, you just can’t see them.”

“Glad it was fun,” I said, thrusting a handful of t-shirts her way. “Sign these. We can charge three dollars more, then.”

We sold more than four hundred t-shirts and half the Lemming pins. I had to order more from our New York supplier that evening after my sister dragged me through the National Gallery to look at pottery. Because I am a caring brother I tried to show interest.

“I want to throw like that someday,” she said, pointing to a blue-glazed vase as tall as she was. “When I get back to school in the fall I’m gonna try out some new techniques.”

“And you won’t have to worry about tuition payments,” I reminded her.

“Guess not,” she said, hauling me by the hand to look at Greek statues.

A dozen or so Lemmings followed us through the museum wearing their tour t-shirts. They were quiet, almost reverent, like disciples at the feet of a religious figure. To pacify them we had a small group jump out the window of our hotel, one after the other, since we couldn’t get access to the Lincoln Memorial. I broke a toe, but a little ice on the bugger and everything was fine. It was just a bit twisted and I was walking with relatively minor pain the next day. My sister sat the jump out again, claiming one per day was enough. The Lemmings wanted to camp outside the door of our hotel, but management made them go away.


“It’s amazing,” she said as we stood on a ledge in the Grand Canyon. It was a sheer drop, maybe six hundred feet down. “We should stay here for a week or two.”

Crowds at the bottom had gathered to watch her with binoculars, others were viewing a telecast at the canyon’s rim.

“We have to be in St. Louis in three days,” I said, smoothing the ceylon ribbon I’d chosen for her hair. She was dressed in a blue tank top and shorts, a nice contrast, I thought, with the red, orange, and brown canyon walls. “You’ll look like a drop of water falling to the river.”

“I want to have a least a little time for a vacation.” Her lower lip grew into a pout.

“We’ll have a while to look around.” I wished I’d dressed her in a bathing suit, a sparkling blue one that would have caught the sun as she tumbled down, made her descent just a little more spectacular. I was a little upset with myself for not thinking of the swimsuit earlier, a little upset with my sister for her impatience, this was a tour after all, not sightseeing, and I admit I might have pushed her off the ledge a bit harder than I should have. If so, I don’t think she noticed. At least she didn’t mention it afterwards, all she could talk about was the fall.

“Terrific,” she shouted to me while signing t-shirts for grabby fans. “The rocks, the boulders, all carved by that river. As you fall it gets so loud you can’t think of anything but water. It’s like you’re soaring through thousands of years in a few minutes.”

“Can you pose for a picture with this gentleman?” I asked, shoving a Lemming her way. He was paunchy and middle-aged, smelled of sweat and cologne, had scholarly glasses that made him look almost like our father.

“Imagine how the land must have looked millions of years ago,” she chattered to him. “That river must have been only a stream. Earth shaped by water, it’s almost like pottery…”

He smiled blankly and nodded, put his arm around her shoulders for the picture. She shook it off before the flash. He glared at her with granite eyes but paid the five dollars.

Once things were more calm we had a group jump from a cliff that was not too high, thirty-five feet or so. They asked my sister to jump last. It took some coaxing, but even the wounded craned their necks to see her fall before they allowed paramedics to give them first aid or load their broken bodies onto stretchers. It’s not easy to get a full medical team at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She signed tour t-shirts as EMT’s went around and made sure everyone was okay. Most were. I’d only jerked my knee a bit on the landing.

“I can walk it off,” I said, shaking my head when a nurse approached. We had the rest of the afternoon and the next morning to look around and my sister spent a few hours hiking canyon trails, but when it was time to leave and catch our flight she locked herself in the bathroom.

“This is very unprofessional of you,” I said. “We’re due in St. Louis tomorrow.”

“I want to look around more. Couldn’t we put it off for a day?”

“We need to have the photo shoot for the local papers the day before the jump,” I told her. “What good is it the day of the jump? We have to make people aware this is happening. More publicity means more revenue. Think of art school tuition.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I like it here. I want to stay longer. I want to collect buckets of red dust to mix with clay when we get back home. I could make pots with the Grand Canyon.”

We negotiated for an hour. I promised we’d come back once we finished the U.S. tour.

“Really?” She cracked the door.

“Cross my heart.” I drew an exaggerated X over my chest with my finger. X marks the spot.

“Okay,” she said, swinging the door wide. Her bags were beside the toilet, packed and ready to go.


There was a slight hitch at the St. Louis Arch when a band of Mothers Against Lemmings appeared to protest her jump. One woman carried a sign with something that looked like a squirrel lying in a pool of blood. It was a similar scene at the Sears tower in Chicago. But the crowds were not diminished and my sister’s jumps were fantastic. I upped the selling price on the lapel pins by a dollar and people still bought them like crazy. It was phenomenal.


At Niagara Falls she jumped in front of a wall of water.

“This is so exciting,” she said looking down. “Look at all that power, those rocks.”

“Very nice,” I said, eyeing the stark gray bottom of the falls where so many barrels met their end. My sister was one of many to go over, but I doubted most others drew such a crowd.

“You wanna come?” She winked at me. “I’ll hold your hand.”

I gazed down the crash of water, considered the potential of a brother-sister jump, the feel of spray like tacks on my face.

“No, no,” she shoved me back cheerily as if we were playing tag. “You stay up here.”

Her orange life vest was like an arrow all the way down. I found her on shore, beaming and dripping. The day was warm, she autographed hundred of t-shirts, chatted with Lemmings.

“No, no, I can’t make the jump again today,” she said. “I’m signing this one to Dennis?”

I tapped her shoulder hard so she’d turn around.

“They want you to do it again? Why not?”

“A jump that high, it makes me tired,” she said. “One more and I’d be spent.”

“But two jumps in one day would be awesome,” I said. “I bet nobody’s ever gone over the falls twice in one day.”

“Looks like that record will have to hold,” she said, turning away. I was nonplussed. And later, back in our hotel room when we watched her jump on the news, she waxed poetic about her fall yet was clueless as to why I was upset.

“The spray felt really nice,” she said. “So much water falling down, and I was falling with it. There were so many rainbows in that spray, and I was soaring through all those colors. If only I could capture that in a glaze, make a pot the same color as the fall.”

I grunted.

“You haven’t eaten any of your ice cream,” she said. We’d both gotten a pint of mint chocolate chip at a gas station on the way back to our room.

“You could have been in the Guinness Book of World Records,” I said. “Hell, you could have jumped the falls ten times today. Think of the publicity! It was a great jump, you said so.”

“I was too tired.” She threw back the excuse she’d used earlier. “I don’t know why but I could barely stand when I was done. Then there were all those people and their t-shirts…”

I grimaced while flipping through my atlas, concerned with booking dates, sending a new shirt design to our supplier. I couldn’t let this little scuffle slow us down.


My sister had to put off the ceramics degree for a semester once we began her European tour. We started in Paris at the top of the Eiffel Tower with my sister holding a forty-pound case of Nutella wrapped in a red, white, and blue bow. Nutella was my idea. I figured if she held something on every jump, we could sell it as souvenirs along with the t-shirts and lemming pins.

“Now what do you say when someone wants to buy some Nutella?” I asked, tightening the red, white, and blue bow in her hair.

“Deux cent francs s’il vous plait,” she said.

“Great,” I said.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she said, looking down. “It curves outward.”

“You’ll be fine,” I said. “You negotiated those rocks at Niagara Falls.”

“That was different,” she said. “It was prettier. All misty.”

“Just jump out a little to compensate,” I said, patting her shoulder. “If worse comes to worse, slide down the last few feet. But don’t drop the Nutella. Someone could get hurt.”

She nodded, took a deep breath, flung herself into the air. I watched her contort her body like an inchworm, wresting herself further from the tower. She landed in the designated area, a circle of red tape, American and French flags gracing its center. The applause was terrific.

I took the elevator down and found her selling Nutella and autographing baguettes.

“The box was hurting my arms,” she said. “Next time find something lighter.”

“You did a great job,” I told her.

She smiled for several pictures before drooping against me.

“Maneuvering like that takes a lot out of you,” she said on the Metro back to our hotel. Lemmings clustered around us even in the Metro car, asking her to sign their hands. I made them pay a couple francs each.

The hotel offered to let us stay free if she agreed to do a couple of jumps from our room on the top floor. Maybe they thought it would be good for business.

“Can’t we just pay them for the night?” said my sister. “There’s a contemporary ceramics exhibit at the Louvre I wanted to see.”

“Please,” I said. “Just jump once or twice. It’s only four stories and straight down, nothing fancy. There’s a crowd outside. It’ll only take a minute then we can go to the museum.”

She sighed, hauling herself from bed to the window to gaze at specks of people below.

“One jump,” she said, dragging open the balcony doors.

The crowd of Lemmings and Parisians cheered heavily, held their collective breaths until she landed on the ground, shouted for her to do it again.

“That’s the last time,” she said after the fourth jump. “I’m bushed. Forget the Louvre.” She didn’t have dinner, just fell asleep. I saved a couple croissants au chocolat for her to eat in the morning before going to a third-floor balcony and having a recreational jump with a couple of Lemmings from Syracuse.

Three hours later I was released from the hospital. The people from Syracuse had decided to extend their vacation a bit on account of injury, but didn’t seem terribly depressed about it. I just had a fracture so they gave me a walking cast and I was home by eleven. My sister was sleeping so deeply I didn’t wake her when I came in.

Page break

The jump from the Brandenburg Gate was little more than a hop for my sister. We sold a large number of lapel pins to German Lemmings chapters and only a few people tried to repeat her feat. All but one was able to walk away with limited assistance.

While her leap from Big Ben was impressive she didn’t much care for London.

“It felt grimy up there,” she said. One man followed her off. The paramedics arrived quickly but sometimes there’s only so much they can do and I tried to explain this to my sister but she refused dinner anyway.

“I want you to do something for me,” she said on the plane to Pisa. .

“Sure, what?” I said.

“Make sure no one jumps from where I do at the top of the tower.” She wasn’t looking at me. “They can jump from lower levels, maybe two stories up. But not higher.”

“Fine.” I patted her shoulder. “I’ll find some Lemmings to watch the rest of the crowd and make sure no one follows you off.”


I figured Italy would be more her style. For the Leaning Tower of Pisa her clothes were violet and gauzy, loose pants and a flowing blouse that billowed around her like music when she moved, almost holy. She wore her hair loose and wandered around the tower before the jump, touching columns as the crowd grew restless as fleas.

I motioned her to the edge, she flowed towards me slowly, her smile fading. I’d respected her wishes to jump while holding lightweight objects, gave her one hundred thousand lire in thousand-lire bills.

“Watch them,” she said, nodding down to the crowd as I stuffed lire into her hands. I figured we could sell them for five thousand lire each.

She stepped over the edge easy as sleep, clutching the bills, her clothes like petals flowering around her body. When she landed the cheer echoed ethereal in the tower.

When I found her on the ground my sister was swaying back and forth, woozy.

“I don’t feel very good,” she said. “Something about the angle of the building when I fell, or all these clothes whipping every which way. I got dizzy.” She thrust the bills into my hands and I sold them while she posed for pictures with tourists and tour guides. We were both too busy to stop the three Lemmings who scampered up the tower for a repeat performance.

The crowd cheered for them briefly, but fell into rusty silence.

“Oh, God,” said my sister. “You were supposed to be watching.”

More Lemmings thrust lire into her hands so she could autograph them.

“Now I feel really ill,” she said, pushing the bills away. “You were supposed to be watching them. I was supposed to be watching them.”

“You can go back to the hotel,” I said, attempting a brotherly pat on her shoulder while making change for a twenty thousand lire bill.

She slapped my hand away. “I’m going to bed.”

Five Lemmings followed my nauseous sister, asking if they might hail a cab for her. She touched each of their hands briefly and said she’d be fine on her own. Ambulance sirens wailed.

After the lire and most of the t-shirts had been sold, I couldn’t resist a jump with two Lemmings from Berlin, one from Tokyo, and another from Dallas. Our leap was only four stories up, but I banged the walking cast when we landed and that smarted a bit. I got a cab to the hotel after making sure the remaining Lemming from Berlin was able to contact next of kin.

“You’re still awake,” I said, finding my sister in her violet costume sitting on her bed.

“You let them jump,” she said, twisting a corner of the sheet around her fist. “We let them jump. They followed me.”

“We didn’t let them jump,” I said. “They wanted to jump. It was their decision.”

“Are you okay?” she asked, unwinding her fist from the sheet. She squinted at my foot.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

“How much longer?” she said. “I’m getting tired of this, people jumping after me.”

“One more stop on the world tour,” I told her, flopping down on my bed.

She gazed at me with eyes hard as fired clay.

“Then a few little jumps back in the States.” I looked at the ceiling. “Nothing big. Then we can take a break.”

“Last night,” she said, “I dreamed I was falling and I never hit the ground.”


At the CN Tower the crowd was our largest yet, ten thousand at least, for the highest jump she’d ever done. I’d hired vendors to hawk t-shirts and pins before and after the jump. My sister and I stood on the observation deck looking all the long way down.

“I hate this shirt.” Her arms were crossed. “It’s stupid.” I was rather proud of the find, had picked it up on a lark after breakfast – a white shirt with red printing, the letter I followed by a heart and a maple leaf.

“It’s cute.” I hugged her shoulders. “They’ll love it. You don’t have to wear it again.”

“I shouldn’t let you choose my clothes.”

“I won’t if you don’t want me to.” I stepped back from her, understandably hurt by the comment. I had prided myself on getting outfits that would please the crowd.

“I’m wearing this shirt home and getting clay smeared all over it when I’m sitting back at my wheel,” she said. “I’m going to make ten bowls without stopping.”

“That will be nice.” I rocked back and forth on my ankles.

“Well, bye.” She leaned over the open window ledge and was gone. A second later I looked around frantically to make sure she had taken the jar of souvenir gold maple leaf pins. She had. I watched her the rest of the way down. A long while. I couldn’t tell if she had made it until cheers erupted high and shrill like ten thousand tiny mammals.


She seemed happy when we returned to the States for a brief tour of the West Coast. I had planned for us to visit the Seattle Space Needle, University of Oregon campus library, a giant sequoia, and the Golden Gate Bridge; but even at the Space Needle I could tell something was wrong. Attendance had slimmed since our first tour of the States. Where we should have had a few thousand in attendance, only five hundred showed. I had expected smaller crowds on this encore tour, but this was unreal.

“Everyone saw her on the news,” one Lemming said to me, shrugging. “After that CN Tower jump, the Space Needle seems a little lame. Maybe she should do flips or something.”

“Flips,” agreed another Lemming. “Or fireworks shooting around her. Just doing the jump, I mean, it’s getting old.”

“You could drop her out of a plane at ten thousand feet,” said the first Lemming.”

“And she could shoot off rockets or something.” The second Lemming nodded.

“Gold ones,” agreed the first.

I smiled, sold them t-shirts, and we were on our way. At the University of Oregon library most of those in attendance were librarians, half of whom looked faint when my sister was two-thirds of the way to the ground. In California we faced a meager crowd of thirty Lemmings and twenty environmentalists at the Sequoia tree jump.

I mentioned the fireworks to my sister over dinner, a big plate of nachos.

“Nothing that could explode,” she said.

“But people want things to explode,” I said. “Or something more than just a jump.”

“I could mold pots in midair,” she said. “That would be fun. We could sell them after they were fired.”

“That’s dumb,” I said. I was very tired at the time and a few loyal Lemmings had been trying to break into our hotel room all evening and steal the ice bucket and drinking glasses. They kept pretending to be room service.

My sister looked down at her hands. They moved like they were shaping clay, cupped around the walls of a bowl.

“Okay,” I said. “Forget the fireworks. They loved us in Canada, not to mention all over Europe. We could just go to Asia, make it a world tour.”

“No,” she said. “I want to go home to my pottery wheel for good. I’m tired.”

“One more stop, San Francisco, and we’ll go home, I promise.”

“We never had that vacation at the Grand Canyon. You promised me that, too.”

“The dates booked faster than I thought.” I stuffed more chips into my mouth. She looked at me with porcelain eyes until I’d finished chewing.

“One last jump,” I said. “Then I’ll buy you a new wheel.”

“I can buy myself ten wheels with all the money I’ve got now,” she said.

“We’ve got now,” I corrected. “We have to keep going while this is hot.” I imagined crowds would dry up overseas just as quickly as they had in the U.S. “It won’t last forever. Then you’ll have enough money for your own studio, your own gallery, let alone art school.”

“I need to throw some pots,” she said. “After that we’ll see how I feel.”

I let San Francisco slide in the hopes that I could convince her to book a couple more jumps in Asia. Still, on the plane home I dreamed how it would have been to see her flying through the Pacific Ocean mists, how it would have felt to throw myself from those cliffs worn bare as bleached bone.


Arriving home we found all of her belongings in my apartment. Mom had disowned us both. But we were rich. My sister didn’t want to go to the weekly Lemmings meeting the day after our return, but my fractures were healing nicely and I was happy to hang out with the old gang again.

“Great to see you on the news.”

“Where’s your sister? We need to have her in as a guest speaker.”

“So what sort of sizable donation are you going to give the chapter?”

Following the congratulatory cake and punch, we had our weekly jump and I broke a rib. It didn’t take long for the medics to tape me up, and I was fine to drive home on my own, despite what the nurse said.

In the apartment my sister was throwing pots, had covered the living room carpet with a tarp and set her wheel in the center. One formerly white wall was speckled with red clay splats.

“What the hell are you doing?” I said. “This is still my place and you’re gonna have to scrub that wall ‘til it shines.”

“I’ll buy you a mansion with all the money I earned,” she said. “Do you like this vase? I think it has such a nice curve to the wall.”

I’d been fairly reasonable about her need to be home for a few days, but her nonchalance made me upset. “Don’t get too comfortable,” I said. “We have to go on another tour before we’re yesterday’s news.”

“Well today I’m throwing pots,” she said. “What’s bad about that? I’m happy.”

“You’re being unreasonable,” I said, marching to the edge of her tarp. “We’ve got to go to Moscow and Tokyo and the Great Wall of China…”

“Have fun,” she said, dipping her fingers in a bowl of water and touching them back to the clay. “I won’t be with you.”

I grabbed my sister’s arm because the twirl of her pottery wheel was driving me crazy, because she wasn’t listening. My fingers scraped the edge of her vase.

“Bastard!” she gasped and hit me, smacked my cheek and smeared it with red earth.

“Bitch!” I yelled and pounded out of the living room. That was it. I found the cardboard box on the kitchen counter. Mom had packed it full of pots from my sister’s bedroom at home. There must have been fifteen or twenty bowls and mugs and vases inside so it was quite heavy. I took the whole thing up to the apartment roof. Dusk was a pleasant time to be there, and the pots fell so gracefully, predictably, when I tossed them over the edge. My sister must have heard them crashing on black asphalt because she was on the roof before too long, trying to wrest a teal-glazed bowl away from my hands. I tossed it anyway. She jumped, flailed, grasping for the bowl in midair, but it was faster than she and exploded on the pavement before my sister was halfway to the ground.