When I arrive at my sister’s house, the sky is on fire. We stand in her gravel-and-cactus yard gazing westward at the low line of indigo mountains, the molten gold, neon orange, incandescent fuchsia clouds. I’ve been driving for three days, and I’m grimy and tired. I haven’t seen my sister in three, no, four years. We turn from the melting sky to go into the house; instead of an embrace she offers me a bath. Knowing her as I do, I understand this is the warmest possible welcome.
In the morning, wakened by bird chatter and a drift of miraculous, rain-freshened air through the open window, I watch blue weave among the clouds, working from slate to cerulean in a manner which, if encountered on canvas, would seem far too contrived, impossible, really.
The twins, Nikki and Chantal, newly ten and full of the significance of that passage, giggle as they push open my door and move with thoughtless grace across the room. They curve themselves like cats around my lumpy form in the small bed.
“We wanted to wake you up,” Nikki breathes happily, “but you were already awake.”
One of Chantal’s enormous green eyes stares unblinking into mine, an inch from my face, the other obscured by a wrinkled pillowcase. From this range her eye is pure form, the outline Egyptian, the iris a cold, inscrutable ball of color.
“Oh, cool,” she says, “your eye looks funny.” She looms even closer, until my eye occupies her entire field of vision. “Google eyes!” she shrieks and rolls away. Her breath smells like bubble gum.
Nikki is wearing a T-shirt lately discarded by her brother Julian. It says Monsters of the Deep beneath a picture of three cartoon whales wearing sunglasses and holding electric guitars in their elongated flippers. She pulls it down neatly over her pink little-girl panties with an economical gesture, betraying her sudden modesty.
The girls are long-limbed, tanned, their brown hair lightened from swimming. A scar cleaves Nikki’s left eyebrow at the point of the arch, from when she was three and drove her tricycle down the steeply sloping driveway into a juniper tree. This thin, jagged white mark gives them away and prevents the usual identical-twin pranks.
They sit up and bounce restlessly on the bed, complaining of their baby brother’s snoring. Temporarily displaced by my visit, he is sharing their room.
“There’s something you can put over a person’s head to make them stop,” Nikki says hopefully. “It’s made of leather and it’s like a cap. It covers their nose.”
“God, Nikki.” Chantal squirms. “He could suffocate. He’ll stop if you bump him or turn him on his other side.”
Snorts suggestive of a long-standing sinus condition come from their bedroom. Bored with my slow waking, the girls flutter toward the living room, devise and reject a plan to tickle Christopher awake, decide instead to take their Cheerios to the couch and watch MTV. I hear their comments, breathy and theatrical, over the noise:
“Gross. Look at his nose.”
“Amy Riser told me she likes Tom Petty. Can you believe it? It’s only because Jason does, and she thinks Jason is so cool.”
“Well, Julian likes him.”
“Tom Petty, stupid.”
“Julian likes anybody.”
• • •
I gaze up from Christopher’s narrow bed, imagine myself small and restored to wonder. The walls are a pale savanna green and teem with life: a lioness in profile coolly tolerates the tumbling of cubs over her back; animal couplets, mother and baby elephants, tigers, chimpanzees gambol in the open spaces between fan-shaped trees bright with the plumage of tropical birds. Careless of morphological accuracy, grinning pandas roll in tufts of wildflowers. An enormous giraffe covers the back of the door; it is marked with inches and dates charting the upward surge of Christopher’s dark crown. The most recent is a line of lime-green crayon made by Christopher himself, above which he has drawn a large and spindly “4.”
I think of Christopher alone in the hushed, reverberant state before sleep, when objects begin to glow with an inner light, when the tight bonds of the ordinary stretch and sag. Are these animals, so glossy with cheer in the daylight, a comfort, a sturdy bridge to innocent dreams, or are they a menace? Do the tiger’s eyes glow hungrily in the dark? Does the happy giraffe turn monstrous?
I remember my sister’s painstaking preparation of this room. I went with her to buy paints, checking labels for lead and toxicity. I watched her stencil the animals onto the wall, adding a line here and there, sweetening the compositions. She was tired and harried; three young children already, a job, pregnant, and nearing forty. “It’s my last baby,” she said. “I want to do it right.”
What inducements have been used to cause Christopher to give up his room for me, I cannot guess. My sister wants me to have quiet, and privacy. I don’t know why. In this house everyone knows what everyone else is doing. A current runs through it, a smooth but dangerous current of subterranean life, animated by my sister’s tireless consciousness, her achingly vigilant infiltration of every corner, every shadow, every breath.
• • •
My sister’s first husband, Michael, died in a car accident when she was pregnant with the twins. Now she is married to a man whose teal eyes are like the veined and splintered marbles that, as teenagers, we rolled from hot frying pans to cups of tepid water in one of those crazes that sweep junior high schools like temporary bouts of madness.
Joel is large as a bear. His mouth, purplish and soft-looking, is mostly hidden by the mat of dark hair covering his face from the cheekbones downward. He loves my sister with a mute devotion which, though unshakable, will never approximate understanding.
At one time, he was a serious painter, with an MFA from a good school, and modest success. He related to me once that he was reclining on a park bench, lost in a pleasant reverie, when he heard the call to what he thought of as a higher service. He spent two years in a pre-med curriculum, then enrolled in medical school. He said he found himself, his purpose in life. Now he runs a pediatric clinic for children of the poor. He said, when I asked, that he has never had a moment’s regret. “I have dreams,” he said. “Old paintings come to life, especially unfinished ones. And I see things all the time, colors of shadows, the children…I’ll be a Sunday painter when I retire.” He winked at me. “I don’t miss it,” he said, solemn again.
We were flipping through his portfolio as we talked, an ungainly thing of ancient green leather, worn to brown on all the edges and straps. I covet some of the drawings inexcusably. In one of them, an abandoned tricycle casts huge ellipses of shadow across a seamed sidewalk lunar in its desolation. In another, a man poised on the verge of motion, a solitary dance perhaps, in a bright, empty kitchen, holds aloft a bottle of vodka, a kitten splayed precariously on his head. Their reflections are ghostly in the dark, uncurtained window.
I am shamed by my hunger to possess these images, to contemplate them as I wake, to observe the suffusion, then withdrawal of light from their surfaces as the sun passes; to know them in shadow and in darkness as well.
When I mention them he sighs and says, “But they are just sketches, ideas I was working on…” I have not asked, but I suspect he won’t give them to me, not because he is ungenerous, but because he thinks of them as nascent, unborn. It is precisely this quality about them which raises the goose-flesh on my arms; they are inexhaustible.
• • •
After breakfast we walk the short distance to the swimming pool along a narrow asphalt path already sticky and fragrant from the heat. Julian, who is fifteen, consents to go only because it is so hot, it is summer’s end, he is bored. It’s evident that he would rather not be seen with us, our large noisy entourage reeking with attachments, emotions, blood ties. The potential for embarrassment before his peers is great.
He is sweet, though, to the twins when he thinks no one is watching, and as Christopher tires, Julian swings him up on broad, sunburned shoulders. A fleeting expression of contentment and pride from this experiment in manliness transfigures his face.
The desert sun throws a blinding glare off the shimmering turquoise water. Its surface is shattered by leaping forms which cast off, in bright crystalline streams, the illusion of color as they pierce the water’s skin. Mothers line the decks, methodically roasting their bodies, tilting the dark blank plane of sunglasses down as wet children come to shiver and drip, seeking solace, towels, quarters for the snack machines.
My sister swims laps while we play, dogged in her rejection of leisure, her pursuit of muscle tone and cardiovascular health, for its propriety rather than its pleasure. The loose plait of her hair swishes and folds on itself between jutting brown shoulder blades angular as grief.
• • •
She lost a child, too, in that accident, their second child, Jesse, who had just turned two. It has been ten years. Jesse would be twelve. Michael would be graying and have lines like long commas around his eyes. I know not a day has passed in ten years that my sister has not reckoned these things.
Michael had picked Jesse up from the sitter, and they were on their way to get Julian from school when the driver of a truck behind them lost control and slammed their small car into a concrete bridge abutment. Julian’s kindergarten teacher called to say that Julian was still at school and could someone please come get him. My sister rushed to pick him up, knowing something was amiss, but not too worried. When they got home the patrol car was in the driveway.
I moved back. I had left to escape the implacable waves of life pushing out from my sister, from my earliest memories onward; the rushing tides that threatened to engulf me, to sweep me along in her wake like an undertow. Suddenly they were lulled, reversed, and washing the fecund substance of her away.
The pregnancy saved her; Julian saved her. Children take what they must have. Gestating, they leach your teeth and bones, make you eat and sleep in patterns foreign and bizarre. They use your body, heedless of the black filter at the edges of vision, the drone of death’s beckoning. Five-year-olds require breakfast, conversation, stories, baths. They demand to know about this world of cruel tricks in which daddies go to work and never return, and children disappear, and Mom has a face like a mask; blank, or straining to hear echoes.
“Are we going to die today, Mommy?” Julian wanted to know, every day.
My sister could not throw anything away. For months I had to take out the garbage when she was asleep. She stacked newspapers and magazines, unread, in careful piles, and moved them from place to place—beside the door, in the garage, next to the garage door—but never out. She saved paper bags, string, rubber bands, the foil from the broiler, broken toys, empty milk cartons, tags she clipped from clothes she bought when she was able, finally, to go out.
Sometimes I would get up at night and find her standing in the kitchen, staring, white-faced, out the window. Her hand might be halfway to her face, the motion arrested, forgotten.
Somehow the twins were born, and cared for. She emerged from that nightmare year encased in her grief, rigid with determination to press on, to manage, to resist the pull of the silken, gaping darkness that opened beneath her feet at every step.
• • •
Now, here in her house, there are noises in the night. Heavy objects thud against the walls. There is the splintering crash of broken glass. Voices drone, rise to muffled shouts, drone again, stop. The soft night air is charged and pulsing with anticipation of the next sound; my skin is electrified, all the nerve ends alert and straining.
Christopher, like a homing device, stumbles in and climbs into bed with me.
“My bed,” he croaks, and drops instantly off to sleep again, his knees tucked under him, rump in the air, his face wet with drool pressed into my shoulder.
I’m up at dawn, stirring milk into my coffee when Joel leaves, looking drawn and tired. My sister does not come out of their room. Slowly the household wakes and gravitates toward the kitchen. Chantal, sleepy-eyed and disheveled, spreads pancake-making over all the countertops. Julian thunks a tennis ball over and over into the side of the refrigerator from where he sits, straddling a chair backward. Nikki and Christopher hunch over the breakfast bar, watching Captain Planet on the small TV there.
Christopher says, “I want to be Captain Planet. Fix me a cape, Nikki, please.”
“They don’t have capes. That’s Superman. Look, they have rings.” Nikki taps the screen.
“I want a ring then, Nikki…Nikki…Nikki,” he pleads, singsong, pulling on her arm so insistently that he tips his stool and crashes into her.
“Brat,” she says. “Get off me, little creep.”
Christopher’s face crumples in disbelief. Sobs work their way up from his midriff and burst from his mouth in a broken wail. Still the door to my sister’s bedroom is closed.
“Don’t talk to him like that,” Julian says, glancing obliquely at Nikki, not missing a beat in his monotonous assault on the refrigerator. Nikki stalks stiff-legged and haughty from the room.
I pick Christopher up and walk him around the kitchen, ask him if he has ever eaten a turtle. He stops crying and looks at me suspiciously, knowing it’s a trick, but unable to resist.
“Course not,” he hiccups. “Turtles are yuck.”
“This one isn’t yuck.”
I set him down and dribble batter into the pan, showing him the turtle shape. Still skeptical, he demands, “Where’s its tail?”
“You can make the tail. Here, drip a little batter from the spoon…”
Not until we stick bits of raisins in the head for eyes is he satisfied.
• • •
The closed bedroom door is a presence, monolithic, with the dull, inexorable pull of a magnet; my mind drifts toward it no matter how I struggle to keep it here, on the food, the dishes, the crumbling veneer of our accord.
The children, sensing something ominous, do not ask about their mother or try to go into her room.
At ten thirty I knock lightly on the door. There is no sound from inside. Thinking she needs to sleep, I wait as long as I can stand to; then finally I open the door. She’s not in her bed. Through the door opening into the bath, steam clouds the mirrors.
• • •
Tendrils of pink unfurl in the water around her wrists, ephemeral bracelets making visible the currents, the water’s life. She grips a razor blade between a bloodless thumb and fingertip; even now her control is formidable. Her face, though, is collapsed, cratered, the site of some unfathomable disaster.
A wildness descends on me. “Your children,” I scream, unable to hear myself. “Joel,” I yell, as if she is deaf. I seize her arms and pull her half out of the tub.
She is helping now, standing up, stepping from the tub. The cuts are small, bleeding freely. She knows right where the arteries are; it has taken all of her strength, I know, to miss them. Wrapping her in a towel, I hold her tightly and feel the boniness of her, the hard muscles of her abdomen trembling. She begins to cave in, and a sound comes from her that is unlike anything I have ever heard.
• • •
I dial Joel’s office; the receptionist is cool, professional, practiced at deflecting the note of hysteria in most of the calls she receives.
“Yes,” I persist, “it is an emergency. Please have him call right away. No, it’s not the children. Yes, right away, please.”
I can hear Julian breathing against the bedroom door. I’ve wrapped my sister’s wrists in gauze and covered her with blankets; she shivers despite their weight.
When Joel comes in, I’m struck suddenly by how much Julian resembles him: the thick dark hair, pale skin taut with worry. Joel gathers my sister up; I disperse the children into the yard, where the heat will stun their disquiet and make them forgetful.
“She’s going to be all right,” I whisper into Julian’s damp hair. “She needs to rest.”
• • •
Joel stays at the hospital through the night, dozing in a chair by my sister’s bed. When I’m sure the children are asleep, I rise and move like a shadow, soundless, hardly breathing, through the house to the garage, where Joel’s portfolio is visible in the darkness, lit by a faint glow I know is not moonlight. The drawings have their own light. I can see them clearly. In fact, they light my way back to Christopher’s room. In my suitcase, they are a perfect fit. I cover them with clothes, and still the light seeps out a little, a dim phosphorescence in the dark closet. Only Christopher would notice, I feel sure. Now, I think, now I can stay, as long as need be.