The Marburg Sisters - New England Review

The Marburg Sisters - New England Review

AndreaBarrett The MarburgSisters I. HISTORY The girls' mother told them stories: how their grandfatherLeo had grafted French vines onto North Americ...

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AndreaBarrett The MarburgSisters

I. HISTORY

The girls' mother told them stories: how their grandfatherLeo had grafted French vines onto North American roots with his German-Russian hands, finding the western New York winters easy to manage after the Ukraine. At the head of the lake the Couperins, who ran a rival winery, had laughed at Leo's cultivation practices, but in 1957,when Bianca was born, Leo had his revenge. That winter's violent cold spell left the Marburgs' earth-shrouded vines untouched when everyone else's were killed, and Walter Couperin lost all his hybrid vines and switched back to Concords in a fury. Leo smiled and kept his secrets and established acresoigewurztraminer,which Couperin couldn't grow, and rkaziteli, a Russian grape temperamental for everyone but him. The girls grew up hearing words like these: foxy, oaky,tannic, thin. Like all children, they knew more than they knew that they knew. In the fall the cold air slipping down from the hills hung white and even below the trellises. Leo's winery thrived, and his oldest son- Theo, the girls' father- threw himself into the business with a great and happy passion. Peter Couperin, Walter's heir, field-grafted Seyvals onto half his Concord stock, and still Theo outdid him. The girls' mother, Suky, told them this, along with much else; she was herself the daughter of another winemaking family. When the girls were still quite small, she said, "Yourfather named you red and white, like girls from a fairy tale." So they were Rose and Bianca, Bianca and Rose: inseparable. Or so they thought. In the white house in Hammondsport, on the western shore of Keuka Lake, their names formed a single word in their mother's mouth, like the name of one of Leo's grapes. RoseandBianca,they heard, as she called them in for dinner. "You were lucky," Suky said, "that you weren't named Merlot and Chardonnay or Cabernet and Aurore." In other ways they were not so lucky. When Rose was ten and Bianca almost nine, a tourist speeding down the lakeshore road struck their strolling mother and killed her instantly. SukyMarburg, the headstone read. Belovedwife of Theo;cherisheddaughter of Alice and Charles;adoredniece of Agnes, Marion, Caroline, and Elaine. Nothing about "Missed Mother of," and they were thought too young to attend the funeral. Yet who could miss her more? After that they were wild girls, in a place that seemed like wilderness. Silky's Aunt Agnes came to care for them; a loving woman, but soon she took sick and spent her days perched on the porch glider while her mind disintegrated. When she called the

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girls she said, Rose) Bianca) the long pause between the two names another bewildered question. Meanwhile the girls' teachers called them holy terrors and the neighbors referred to them as "the Marburg sisters," which connoted nothing so kind as their mother's fusing of their first names. Even before her death they'd been unusually close. Afterwards they seemed like the two sides of a coin, easy to distinguish but impossible to split. Much of what they did together is best passed over. Despite their disgraceful scrapes, they whizzed through school at a frightening pace. A strange rivalry drove them, darker and more serious than the one between the wineries- some sort of competition for the scraps of their father's attention. When he allowed it, they helped him out in the winery. Most often he ignored them and they worked on their own projects. A chemistry set appeared one Christmas, along with this information: yeast enzymes, he said, were the proteins made by yeast, which made winemaking possible. The girls made wine from grapes and honey and different flowers and once from rhubarb, for a lark. From a book full of mysterious pictures, they learned about the uses of hair and eggshells and feces and worms, herbs and the blood of a red-hairedman. They painted black the walls of their room and then hung pictures they snipped from their books; alchemists' labs juxtaposed with models of DNA and the three-dimensional structure of hemoglobin. Their father turned dirt and sunlight into wine; was that alchemy, or chemistry? Either one might turn their isolation into freedom. And so of course they studied biochemistry in college, first Rose and then Bianca right behind her. Both of them gawky and geeky and barely sixteen when they entered. And of course they were entranced by the equipment and the theories, which made their earlier experiments seem childish. They never dreamed that they wouldn't work together. In college they shared lovers and books. In graduate school, before Bianca dropped out, they wrote two papers together. Now Rose studies enzyme structureand kinetics at a research institute outside Boston; she has several grants and two technicians, although she's still younger than some of her graduate students. A whole section of her address book is devoted to Bianca- San Diego, Vancouver, Alaska, Hawaii. All places Rose has never been. Bianca does different things, which vary from year to year and are hard to explain. That's the short version, the dry version- of course the details differ, depending on which of us tells it. Still, anyone could tell that version of our history to a stranger in a bar, and both of us have done so. Oh>look,in effect we say wryly. A dead mother, a crazygreat-aunty a distantfather. But herewe are. All the shameful details buried, all the juicy parts elided; both of us grown now, no big deal. Good enough for strangers. But once we were closer than twins, and there were times, with the width of a street or a country between us, when we wondered why this version of our history didn't account for how we drifted so far apart. The drift was far from steady, but it was persistent. On an August night in 1980, we made a fumbling attempt to find our way back to each other. Our evening included drugs and drink and voices and visions, a lot of water and a dog. Later, we'd look back on it as a time of preparation that failed in

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most ways but succeeded in a few, which helped us endure the loss to come. The story of this night forms a sort of pendant to our early history. 2. ALCHEMY

As Bianca drove from state to state while meaning only to reach Boston, she'd been thinking about the dead. The road beyond the cone of her headlights had been as black as a lake, and from the corner of one eye she had seen faces: Suky, Agnesalmost as if Rose had been beside her in the car. This had suggested a plan to her, for which she needed Rose's help. By the time she arrived at the institute's low white building, she was bursting with things to say. But before she could reach her sister, a man in a uniform stopped her in the lobby. "Miss?"he said politely. "Miss?" He blocked her with his body. "I'm sorry,"he said. "Visitors must be accompanied past this point. May I ring someone's office for you?" "My sister," Bianca said. "And your sister would be?" "Rose,"Bianca said huffily. When he still waited she said, "Rose Marburg" The man took her name and repeated it into the phone. A few minutes later a pair of doors opened with a hermetic sigh and Rose appeared in the lobby. Her dark hair was cut very short; her hands were in the pockets of her long white coat and she had a nametag pinned to her chest. For a minute Bianca wasn't sure who she was. Rose, who'd run from the lab to the lobby as soon as she got the call, suspected trouble right away. "What is it with that guy?" Bianca said. "How come he couldn't see we were sisters?"Then, as they passed dark labs and offices, Bianca described how she'd been brooding about Suky and the accident and their lumpy impossible childhood. That old story, which Rose alreadyknew. At the moment all she wanted to do was fend ofFBianca's rush of words. "Isn't it obvious?" Bianca said. Although she was tall and fair and Rose was dark and slight, she couldn't understand why that man at the door hadn't seen their resemblance at once. "Wally,"Rose said to her babbling sister. "His name is Wally. He was just doing his job." "Wally,schmally,"Bianca said. "He should have known who I was. When did you cut your hair so short?" Rose led Bianca into her lab. Gleaming benches and rows of glassware; a tidy office in which a computer screen glowed. She didn't stop to show Bianca all the gadgets in the lab; Bianca had been here before and knew how to use them as well as Rose did herself. In her office she guided Bianca to a chair. "I wasn't expecting you," she said, interrupting Bianca mid-sentence. "Is everything all right?" "Fine," Bianca said. "A little ragged, a little jagged. I almost got arrestedbut that was last night. You have any coffee?" Rose poured her a cup, noting the fine tremor in Bianca's hands and the way her

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pale hair stuck out in all directions. Rings beneath her eyes, a stain on the front of her shirt; a general air of funky poverty. For the last few months she'd been supporting herself by proofreading organic gardening articles for a magazine in Vermont. Rose suspected that Bianca needed another loan. Bianca rose from her chair and paced the small room. "What a drive/5 she said again. Rose tried to shape the cloud of her sister's words into a plot as linear as the graph on her computer screen.
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known how to do so, she would have cut her past away with a knife. "How about I take you home?" she said. "I'll make you some dinner, you can have my bed. I'll sleep on the couch." "No, no, no," Bianca said. "Here. I'll sleep here. On the floor- I don't want to be in your way, I don't want to be any trouble. And I brought food and stuff to drinkeverything for a picnic." She had this plan, which she'd hatched in the car and would not reveal to her sister yet. It depended on them staying in the lab. She reached into her knapsack and took out a bottle of Jim Beam and another of tequila; lemons, salt, tortilla chips, two cans of bean dip, and a jar of salsa; then a loaf of dill-and-wheatberryloaf and an ounce of dope, a chunk of hash, some papers and a pipe. "This cop?" she said. "Last night, when he stopped me, I was sure he was going to look in here. He asked me why I was driving so late, and . . ." "Okay,"Rose said. "I get the picture." She shut the office door. "Relax," Bianca said. "Who's here? You're the only one who keeps such wacky hours." She pushed the door open again and Rose let it stay that way. Bianca was right: no one else would be in the building except a few security guards and the night cleaning staff. Perhaps a handful of graduate students, running experiments or crunching numbers but no one like Rose, none of the senior staff. They'd all be safely back in Newton or Concord, having dinner with families and dogs. She didn't socialize with them. She was single, she lived by herself in a studio with a brokendown couch and a wall of books and no TV. She had no friends, no pets, at the moment no lover. The lab was cheery and well-lit, the only place in the world where she felt at home. Her sister was here. Bianca said, "So?"and Rose said, "Well. We could camp out here, I guess." We demolished almost everything in the pack. Bianca gave Rose a bracelet she'd picked up in Maine and Rose clasped the heavy metal around her wrist. After midnight it started to rain, and we opened the window in Rose's office and stuck our heads out to catch the falling water. This felt so good that we exchanged a glance and then dropped through the window to the empty ground below. We were as high as kites, as high as Denali, which Bianca had once climbed but which Rose had never seen. Bianca was perfectly comfortable but Rose felt like she'd lost her mind. We ran across the wet grass until we reached the fringe of woods at the edge of the grounds. A creek wound between the trees, and Bianca was the first to shed her clothes and flop down in the shallow water. We were both soaked to the skin already, and so Rose didn't resist when Bianca grabbed her ankle and pulled her in. The rain was cool but not cold, the night was warm but not hot. The water flowing through the creek seemed to have no temperature at all. Rose leaned against a boulder with her legs floating in the creek and watched the stars swirl and dance above her head. One star blazed red and then crossed the path of another. It might have been a satellite, or perhaps it was only a plane. Her sense of time was so deranged that she couldn't judge its speed. Against the sky she saw

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substrates and binding sites, inhibitors and antagonists. She said to Bianca, "Don't you miss doing science?" Bianca, rolling happily in the mud on the bank, said, "Don't you miss this?" Her white skin was painted brown. She meant, not the mud specifically, but the fact that it was late, that we were alone, that our minds were shattered almost completely and that we were doing something forbidden. This was the state in which, as girls, we'd held at bay our mother's loss and the taunting of our schoolmates. This was the state in which the rivalry between us dissolved. We couldn't mention the dissolution because we seldom admitted the rivalry.How could we have admitted that we eyed each other's lives and work with envy? "I do," Rose said. "I miss it something awful. But I'd miss work more if I couldn't do it." We did not talk about the scene that had led Bianca to abandon science: a moment, in Bianca'sthird year of graduate school, when we had fought bitterly over the interpretation of some data for a paper we were writing together. It was not the argument that had sundered us but Rose's refusal to join Bianca in a certain ritual during which we might have asked our dead mother for advice. Rose had firmly turned her back on this. A dog came bounding down the creek, flashed white before us, and then disappeared. Of course this wasn't our father's dog; that dog lived in another place and wouldn't be important to us for years. But this dog, even then, made Rose think of our father. We had not had a dog when we were young, because our father had claimed to be allergic. Recently his allergies had disappeared, and from phone calls Rose had learned that he'd acquired first one dog and then another. First dogs and soon a wife. Both of us were troubled by this possibility. Bianca, although Rose didn't know it then, had in mind a consultation with Suky, which might have told us how to feel about our father's decision. "Conformation and catalysis,"she said, waving a muddy arm over her head. "Specificity and inhibition, protein architectureand gel chromatography.It makes me tired. Where's the excitement? Where's the fun?" 'The job part isn't so fun anymore," Rose admitted, thinking how biochemistry had seemed like magic when she and Bianca were young. The white dog reappeared and floated over the field to them. "I can't explain it," Rose said to Bianca. She held out her hand to the dog but the dog ran off again. 'The experimenting part, the real part it's still fun for me." Bianca said, "I'll show you something fun," and pushed herself up from the muddy bank. Back into our wet clothes, back across the dark lawn, back through the narrow window and into Rose's laboratory. Rose's lab, not Bianca's;Rose's name was on the door and on all the papers and awards. Both of us knew this to be unfair; the name was only half a name. Bianca rummaged in the pack and found some chocolates, which she and Rose

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shared. Then she led Rose into the lab and swiftly arrangedtubing and glassware into an elaborate array.She spread a white cloth over the bench and set down a handful of mushrooms. "Where did you get those?" Rose asked. "Out there," Bianca said, pointing towards the creek. "From the trees." Rose could not remember gathering any mushrooms, nor any time when Bianca might have slipped away and gathered them herself. She sat on the floor with her back against the spectrophotometer and watched, half in a dream, as Bianca took over the lab. What was Bianca saying? A long stream of words, only some of which made sense. "I'm losing you," Bianca said. And then something about how she believed she could see our futures and that they looked like this: Rose would grow drier, thinner, sharper, more famous; Rose would win prizes and buy a small house of her own, in which every room would be cool and clean. Bianca would drift from state to state: Wyoming, Idaho, Maine, Hawaii; panic, detachment, elation. Most of what she said that night would not come true, but she believed it and feared it. In one important way her fear was justified. As Bianca spoke she minced the mushrooms very fine, ground them in a mortar and soaked them in water and then in ethanol. She squeezed and extracted, strained and heated, stirred and cooled. Then she set up a fractionating column and let the vapor from the distilling flask rise gently through the wisps of glass wool. Fluid dripped into the receiving flasks, a drop or two at a time. One fraction, quite aromatic, was as clear and bright as rubies. Fire, water, earth and air, she mumbled while Rose listened. Cinnabar, hartshorn, verdigris, tartar. Cinnabar, she reminded Rose, was once called dragon's blood and was thought to be the blood of a serpent crushed to death by a dying elephant. She pipetted a sample of ruby fluid and released it on her tongue: bitter, she said. So bitter. Musky, alkaline, faintly salt. "Outlaw pharmaceuticals," she said. "Every biochemist's province." Rose closed her eyes; when she opened them again she saw bundles of herbs and retorts. The athanor, the furnace of transmutation, was shaped like a giant egg. Suky said, Wouldyougirls like togo for a sail} and Bianca said to Rose, "Did you hear that?" It was not possible that her sister could deny it. "Mom?" Rose said. Suddenly our mother seemed to be speaking inside her head. Bianca nodded, relieved. When school was out and the weather was good, she and Rose had sometimes sailed Silky's small green Comet and tried to make sense of the sheets and lines. The wind, bouncing off the hills, had come from all directions at once and made the sailing difficult. A bubble rose slowly in one of the flasks and broke with a sigh. A few minutes later we heard our great-aunt Agnes say, Dear, couldyou rub my back?I have thispain in my side. Rose shifted on the floor and moved her hand along her ribs. 'That was strange," she said. "I don't know," Bianca said, almost absentmindedly. "I hear Aunt Agnes all the time. I think this is almost done."

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Bianca removed her clothes for the second time that night and sat cross-legged and naked on the floor, not far from sleepy Rose. She tore a tiny strip from a piece of filter paper and held it, hardly more than a hair, to the corner of Rose's eye. Rose tried not to blink. A bit of moisture crept up the paper and turned it dark. Bianca dropped the paper into the flask and then added a bead of her own saliva. She was talking, still. Rose tried to concentrate on her words. In Hilo, Bianca said, she had swum the harbor in the dead of night, secretly boarding the boat where she lived alone and illegally. In Alaska she had had visions in a tent by a lake so wild she saw no one for weeks at a stretch. "All of it's slipping away," she said. "Do you know what I mean?" Rose nodded, although most days Bianca'slife seemed utterly foreign to her. "All the people I meet now, they're like radios that only get two or three stations while the news from the rest of the universe slips by. No one's listening. I can't stand it." 'That's not what I'm like," Rose said. "That'sonly part of me." But Bianca shook her head. Rose would see this evening as an aberration, she declared;come morning, she'd be ashamed of herself. The world was spinning in such a way that soon everything that had once seemed important would be declared an error or a dream. All Bianca wanted to do was to keep her sister in touch with a part of the world she persistently denied. The rest of that night is mostly lost to us now, but we remember a handful of things. Sometime before dawn we either did or didn't call our father, waking him to beg him not to sell the winery. But why would we have done this, if we did it? Rose would not have wanted to echo the phone call Bianca claimed to have made the night before, and even if she'd forgotten that, the winery was not a place we ever visited. Nonetheless, Rose believes that Bianca woke her after a brief, shared nap; that we made this call; that during it our father invited us to his wedding and we both said we were busy that day. Childish, childish. Rose is still ashamed of this, but Bianca claims that Rose dreamed the entire conversation. It's true, though, that neither of us took part in the festivities. The next morning, Rose woke after eight with a stiff neck and a numb foot. Bianca was nowhere to be seen. Rose, hungover and tired, believed that Bianca might be seducing a janitor in a closet or making a fool of herself in the cafeteria or driving back to Vermont by way of Labrador. She always had a tendency to believe the worst of Bianca. But Bianca's pack was still on the floor and the office was strewn with bottles and damp shoes and half-smoked joints. Quickly, guiltily, Rose disposed of the evidence. She flung open the window, praying that the sweet, heavy odor might dissipate before anyone dropped by. In the mud below the window she saw deep footprints, which led away from the building and into the grass and looked exactly as if two people had leapt from the lab and escaped. When Bianca walked through the door, her hair brushed and her clothes changed and her hands full of paper bags from the fake-French bakery down the street, Rose couldn't keep from leaping on her. "How did you get out?" she said. "How'd you get back in? Did you sleep?"

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"Explain the obscure by the more obscure," Bianca said. 'The unknown by the more unknown." There was a time when Rose would have understood exactly what she meant. Suky had taught us a secret technique, which had to do with water and the faces of the dead and could not be talked about. Nor could it be explored alone- we'd both tried it separately and failed. When we were young, though, and together, we had made it work. Bianca set her offerings on the desk: steaming coffee and rolls and butter and jam. From another bag she pulled two new wineglasses, still with price tags on their feet, and a bottle of organic cranberry-raspberryjuice. She poured juice into the glasses, disappeared into the lab with them, and returned. "Cheers,"Bianca said, holding one out to Rose and raising the other to her lips. Ruby fluid: magic potion; we knew better than that. Rose has never acknowledged that she knew what Bianca added to the glasses. But she did know, as she also knew what it was meant to do: fuse our vision back together, the way Suky had fused our names. But we didn't call on Suky that day, because Rose continued to resist the idea as if it, not the potion, were poison. And so nothing changed between us, although we were reminded of how much we loved each other. We stop here, usually, or actually a little before this: If one of us is telling tales to a stranger we stop with the raised glasses and the toast. As we do with our history, we try to maintain a light tone when we talk about that night. We try to make it sound like a tale of youthful excess, pharmaceutical madness; a last gasp from the Seventies. The sort of escapade someone older and wiser can look back on with a smile. Time passed. Lots of things happened to both of us, some important and some not. We met now and then, when Bianca passed through Boston on the tail end of some journey, but after that night we met casually, mimicking the interaction of any pair of sisters. Mostly we talked on the phone. Our lives continued like this for almost a decade, until our father got sick and we went to Hammondsport to see him. During the time of his dying we saw each other intensely, intently, but where it counted we were as separate as stones and it seemed clearer than ever that the ruby fluid had failed us. A year after that, though, we returned to Hammondsport for the first anniversary of our father's death. What happened then is not a part of our history. We swore we'd never tell anyone and still can hardly mention it between us. 3. SPEAKING

WITH

SUKY

You said, "Look down into the water. A hole will open if you spin the surface with your hand or a stick, and you will see what you need at the base of the hole." We're sure that's what you said. Under clear skies, on a hot day, in a green-painted Comet with natural trim, during a summer when we were still children and you were still around. We spun the water beside the boat with an extra paddle, twirling and twirling

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until a vortex formed. Looking down, into the hole that seemed to lead to the bottom of the lake, we saw grandpa Leo's face. And today) Today we spun the water and found you. Why did you wait so long} It's only been a year. It took us that long to get ready.We were drowning in memories of the last time we'd seen our father. When we met here that time, we slept downstairs on a large piece of furniture not quite either sofa or bed. The upholstery was smooth to the touch, except for the spots where the dogs had shredded it. There were arms and backs and edges, which made it like a sofa; then big stretches of ambiguous flatness the size of a bed. We were sleeping there, in the basement, because there was no other place for us. Your househis house, our house- was gone, and the acres of vines and the stone buildings, the casks, the vats, and all the equipment, all the wine. We had never seen the place our father had rented after his wife had made him sell our house. Both of us lived elsewhere, with other men. We had never shared a bed with each other, and except for a night in a lab in Boston we had not slept in the same room since we were little girls. We felt uncomfortable lying next to each other and so we moved until we were lying head to foot and foot to head, toes near each other's ears. In that position, with the glass doors letting in moonlight and shadows and the sound of the water at the edge of the lawn, we rested and talked. The painting of you had been moved from the living room in the old house to the hallway between the half-finished basement room and the extra toilet. Who has it now) The painting? Thepainting. We don't know. It's gone. We had rushed to Hammondsport after his phone calls to find him alone except for the two huge dogs in a filthy and uncomfortable house. The dogs followed our father everywhere. They slept on his bed, laidtheir heads on his knees, looked at him imploringly. He was weak and could no longer walk them, but although they were frantic with restlessness they would not leave his side. They growled and lunged at us at first, and even after several days they leapt from our father's bed and barked each time we moved from room to room or even from chair to chair. At night we willed ourselves not to stir and wake them. In the mornings we watched as our father groomed them with the last of his energy. One had white hair, very long, which flew out with the strokes of the comb. The other had hair that was

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shorter and brown. Our father's arms and legs had grown very thin but his middle bulged from the tumors in his liver. And what has happenedto thesedogs) The dogs are gone; it's a long story and you don't want to know. On the first night we were home we fed them biscuits and then rubbed a chicken with oil and garlic and herbs and roasted it in a hot oven for an hour and forty-five minutes. Our father's hands began to shake as the smell filled the house. "I have no appetite," he said, but this turned out not to be true. He had no energy with which to cook or shop, and the foods he managed to make for himself were in no way appetizing. His wife was there but not there, present but absent; she had taken a job and an apartment in Syracuse and came home only on weekends then. As there was no one around to cook for him, he had convinced himself that the feeling he felt wasn't hunger. But when we sat him down and placed the food in front of him water came into his eyes and his mouth. His head was hardly higher than the surface of the table. When he lifted his fork he was so anxious to greet the food that his neck craned and his mouth thrust forward. He ate very fast, smearing his mouth with fat and dropping fragments onto his shirt. His irises were pale blue against a field of yellow shot with red. His hands were heavily wrinkled, dry-skinned, swollen and discolored. Earlier, one of the dogs had rested a paw on his forearm and left behind a trail of bruises. What did he looklike> Didn't we just say? Dry, pale, shrunken, shriveled. Not the way you remember him. The top of his head came below the chin of one of us, below the nose of the other. His hair was thin and gray and the skin on his forehead was mottled. When he walked his legs were unsteady and splayed. His hands shook until he'd had the first two or three drinks of the day. After they steadied, he cut apples in half and tossed them at the dogs, who adored them. The dogs also liked grapes, he said, but in July, when we visited him, the grapes here were only wishes. Wereyoufrightened* Not frightened, exactly. Yearsago, when Aunt Agnes was sick, we had taken turns nursing her. Our father wasn't around very much; the winery was flourishing and he was busy becoming rich. During the time when we were alone with her, we had learned about the relentless disintegration of the body. Perhaps you're familiar with this- the drying and thinning of the skin, until the slightest blow or scratch leaves blood behind. The rubbing together of fleshless bones, the sores and bruises and rashes and welts, the loosening teeth and the bleeding gums, the clumps of hair coming out in the comb and the alternating waves of hunger and nausea. All of this was familiar to us; none of what was happening to our father was unexpected. Although

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we were,of course,surprisedthat he was still drinkingso heavily.And the firstnight we stayedin the house, beforewe becameused to it, we were surprisedto find the two huge dogs in bed with him, theirheadson pillowsand theirpawsthrownacross his body. Tellme whatyouleft behind. Men. Severalmen, for one of us; for the othera loverwith jet-blackhairandnarrow feet, who had ended a long dry spell in Boston like a flow of cool water.The skin over this man'sankleswas pale and so thin that the blue veins were visible,and this seemedlovely until the day we had to batheour father'sfeet and saw the sameveins over the ankle,beneaththe dry and fragileskin. Our fatherwore baggyboxershorts that gaped at the fly when he bent to pat one of the dogs or pick up a bone or a brush.He had alwaysdone this, but we had not lived with him for manyyearsand had forgottenhow disturbingit was. The men with whom we shareour beds wear narrowpantsthat cling closelyto theirbodies. And whatdidsheleave* The wife? Her. She took off so fast she left half of what she owned behind.We weren'tsorryto see hergo. Therehad beenseveralwomen sinceyourdepartureandshe was the worst of them. We dislikedher voice, which was affectedand loud. She left behinda blue hassockembroideredwith swans, severalsets of expensivesheets, a cabinetfull of cosmetics,and a refrigeratorfull of food. She had cooked for our father;all of them did. She'dbegged him to sell the house and the winery,so they could be freeto travel. It was time, she said.Afterhalfa centuryof beingtied to that pieceof land.We think she also hoped, in the backof her mind, that by freeinghimselfof the propertyhe might free himselffromyou. For a while he kept your portraitover their bed in the rentedhouse, althoughshe objected.Aftertheirfirsttrip, to the GrandCanyon,she came home and moved your portraitto the basement.The second trip, the one to Bordeaux,went badlyas well. Whatcould she havebeenthinking?Thatthe chateaux and the acresof vines on the stony soil would not remindour fatherof what he'd given up for her?It was then, we think,aroundthis time, that she realizedthe house and the land and the vines had been a largepartof what had attractedher to him. She was forty-fiveand on good dayslooked younger.She bought some clothes and went off to Syracuseand found a job, fromwhich she returnedto the rentedhouse on weekends.Halfwaypresent,halfwayabsent.In her absence,our fatherseemed unableto feed himself.

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Wheredid the moneygo> We don't know. Grapes were down, and so was the price of land, and he didn't get what he should have for the property. Then there were trips, and bad investments; probably she took the rest. Who can say? When we arrived, we cleaned out the refrigerator.We found a red enamel pot containing the remnants of a barley mushroom casserole, part of a pork roast gone slimy and slick, four half-empty cartons of milk, liquefied broccoli, rotten lettuce, three-quartersof a red pepper, a container of instant pancake batter, old bacon, stale bread, moldy cheese, dead fruit. On the porch were large boxes full of old vegetables, which our father said had come from the produce stall in the village and would otherwise have been thrown out. Much of the money had disappeared in the year before he got sick, but he refused to talk about this with us. On the porch, where we sat for an hour in the warm sun while our father was taking a nap, we looked at the lake and the fallen trees and the expensive lawn furniture now rusted and worn, and one of us said to the other, 'This is a different way of being poor." We had a problem, we knew: the problem of our father, who could not feed himself, and the dogs, who could not feed either themselves or our father and also could not walk themselves. We had lives of our own, elsewhere, and soon we would have to go. In those other lives, in our real lives, we sank down at night into beds with men who were precious to us, who had strong thighs, strong arms. But during this visit we slept with no men. We slept with each other, on the bed that was not a bed, and when we awoke we fixed our father breakfastand then went to the market and bought more food and then came home and fixed him lunch and fed the dogs as well. We walked the dogs in the marsh south of the lake. The largest dog, the white one, every day pushed his way through the weeds to the rim of black mud and sank down to his shoulders. When we came home, we wiped him off with a cloth. Always, before we were done, he tore himself from us and bounded into our father's room and leapt up on the bed and curled himself next to his master. You werejealous of the dogs* Our father said, 'They are all I have. They are the only ones who treat me affectionately." He was talking about the dogs, not us. We were cleaning and cooking and shopping and wondering what to do; we couldn't agree about anything. We argued about what we should do for him and how we should do it. One of us would want to peel fruit for him at the same moment the other decided he needed meat, a roast. Sun or shade, hammock or bed, hot tea or cold juice- always chaos, always conflict. We quarreled one night, when he said he'd like ice cream: which of us should be the one to fetch it and which the one to stay behind with him, for a private moment when we might be redeemed. We wore him out, and for all that, neither could feel like his favorite. Our father sat on one of those wrought-iron chairs that had served as decoration in the summer-room of our old house, but which here had become the sole, inade-

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quate kitchen furniture. A moth flew against the window over the sink and then fell into the standing water and drowned. Our father had always been a small man, but we had never noticed it before. After he ate he felt tired and went back to bed. The white dog lay like a person beside him. His head on thepillow) On two pillows, turned to face our father. We went to the store. We bought spinach fettucine and fish and grated hard cheese and butter and muffins and coffee and cream, and when we came home we washed the kitchen floor, which was suddenly, mysteriously, covered with small ants. Against the baseboardswere drifts of dog hair. A doctor called and then another; appointments were made. In our houses, we told each other, the counters shone in the sun. At night we undressed in darkness and avoided looking at each other's bodies. You know how differently we are built- one tall and rounded, one short and spare- but in the light of our father's disintegration we seemed identical in our health and smoothness. Our father told us a story about your mother, our grandmother, and how she and Agnes and your other aunts were raised by their mother after their father died and left them the vineyard and no men to cultivate it. In the Ukraine, he said, at about the same time, his father, our grandfather Leo, was struggling to establish vineyards for Stalin. He said our family had been drawn together by forces that felt like fate. Later he mentioned that he had borrowed heavily against his life insurance and had not been able to pay the money back. Do you wishyou'd,stayed) Yes. No. Yes. How could we stay? We had our own lives. But it's true that despite that we thought of staying, talked of staying. On our knees on the kitchen floor, scrubbing the accumulated dirt and dog saliva and ant tracks and juice from a surface that for months had seen only the briefest sweeping, we looked at each other and said, "Anyone could walk into this house and tell there are no women here." And this was a strange thought, for both of us- that much of what had gone wrong had to do with the absence, not only of women, but of women willing to do those things that have always been women's work. Our father'swife was a busy woman, successful in her own way and seldom home. We were busy ourselves, and gone. And so there was no cleanliness, no order, no smells of good food cooked with care and eaten with pleasure, no signs of the raising of children, no curtains ironed, no flowers tended and cut for the tables. No one to relish a clean yellow counter shining in the sun. Our father could not do one thing to make life pleasant or comfortable for himself. Didn't you do whatyou could) We abandoned him.

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Didn't he welcomeyour helpi We abandoned him. Wasn'theglad to haveyou there> He died one August weekend, when we were absent and his wife was present. She was furious with us for coming to visit and then furious that we couldn't stay. She'd moved back to the house for his last weeks, and when we returned for the funeral she opened the door as if to let us in and then started to say something and flushed and slammed the door on us. She couldn't keep us from the church, but she wouldn't let us into the house and so we stayed outside. We drove around the lake, up into the vineyards on the hill near where our old place had been, and when it grew dark we simply stopped the car where we were. There was no one around and the sky was very clear. We took two blankets out of the trunk and spread them on the ground and lay there, talking and holding hands. We slept, we think, toward morning, because we were not awake when the dew fell and we woke covered with cool water. The sun crept over the hills across the lake, lighting the mist that filled the valley. We thought we sensed you there, but we weren't sure. After the funeral, we tried once more to come into the house. We meant to take the dogs, about whom our father had been very worried, and the portrait of you, and a few other small mementos. But again his wife would not let us in. She had already found homes for the dogs, she said. She had already let go of the lease on the house, already arranged for the sale of the few pieces of furniture that were left and the removal of the things she wanted to her new apartment in Syracuse. She had a new life, she said, and she wanted to start it, and that new life didn't include us. So we left. But last week, one of us said over the phone to the other, "We should go back, it's been a year." So we made arrangementsand met each other here, and although there were strangers living in our old house, as there have been for many years, and although of course the house where our father spent his last days had been cleaned and rented to someone else, and although the dogs were gone and everything we'd ever known, we thought we had done the right thing. We rented this boat at the dock near the post office, and as soon as we'd sailed into deep water, both of us realized you were near. One of us took the tiller and the other handled the sheets. You werealwaysgood sailors. This is a lake on which it is impossible to get lost. But so much else is gone, all the remnants and relics of our family. The house, of course: but also your mother's rugs and sofas and chairs, and your lamps and bureaus and paintings and knickknacks,and Aunt Agnes's cups, and our old books- everything, really. And when our father's

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widow disappeared from our lives and disposed of the dogs, it was as if our family had never existed. It was as if we'd imagined our history. All that is left is the shared set of memories we have of our last days with our father in that house that wasn't his house. He asked after you, during our last day with him. He thought we were back in our old house, and he wanted to look at your picture in the living room. We sneaked downstairs and took the picture from the hall and dusted it and brought it upstairs to him. We told him we'd brought it to him so he wouldn't have to move. We did not have the heart to tell him that there was no living room, filled with books and our family's things, with your picture hanging from its cord. Was heglad to see me) Of course he was. Have you seen him since then? No. 4. THE

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Were we really speaking with Suky? Was Suky really speaking with us? Bianca says yes, absolutely. I say yes, sort of, maybe. Nothing happened after our sail on the lake we didn't see our father's ghost or feel his presence or even reach any sort of peace or understanding. We were comforted, of course; Suky'svoice fell on us like balm. But I believed that what we'd done was wrong, and even as Bianca couldn't help showing her triumph at having lured me into speaking with Suky, I couldn't help resenting it. That night we shared a room with two beds in a new motel where no one knew us. We slept uneasily and guiltily, aware that we had left things undone and that there were people in the village whom we should have visited. The next morning I dropped Bianca at the airport and then I drove home. Now I can't talk to Bianca about what went on then, or earlier, because Bianca is gone. The stories we've made of our past have come to nothing. A month after we met in Hammondsport for the anniversaryof our father's death, she fell in love with a landscape painter our father's age and moved with him to a house on a cliff in Costa Rica, where she has no phone. I live back here in Hammondsport now. Around the time that Bianca took off I quit my job and decided to move; Boston, where I'd lived for more than a decade, suddenly seemed like a place where I'd set no roots. When my colleagues pressed for reasons for my decision, I told them I'd inherited something from my father that required my attention. Quite quickly I learned that any mention of his death would stop the conversation. No one will pass the screen thrown up by that word, I've learned. Behind it I could and did- still do- conceal my confusion. Only Bianca felt entitled to pry. When I told her my plans, she told me I was

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making a big mistake; this, after all the complaining she'd done about my job. The last time we spoke, I was in my lab in Boston and she was at the Houston airport. She said, "You'recrazy. There's nothing in that place for you." "It'swhat I want to do," I said. "Why is it any stranger than moving to Costa Rica with someone you hardly know?" "Because it is/* she said. "Those people- you'll always be who you used to be, for them. Is that what you want?" This, like the predictions she'd made in Boston, would turn out not to be true. But even then, not knowing that, I said, "Would that be so bad? Is that worse than being with people who don't know anything about us?" "Oscar knows me," Bianca said. "He knows what I want him to know." Meaning, I think, that he understood her in terms of the stories we'd manufacturedtogether. For a minute we were silent, listening to the low roar of airport noise and the hum and whisper of the instruments in my lab. "Come with me," Bianca said finally. "I'm all for your getting out of that lab, but it's stupid to go back home. Oscar wouldn't mind if you came to stay with us." "Maybe next year," I said. "Maybe I'll come for a visit, once I figure out what I'm doing." "Maybe I won't be here by then," Bianca said. We promised to write and hung up, disappointed with each other. Honestly I think we have felt this way since our last conversation with Suky. Hallucination, perhaps; but if it was we shared it. Since then, though, we have found it almost impossible to share anything. I moved back here after that phone call and rented an apartment that I only kept for a little while. Then I did two things even more distasteful to Bianca: I got a job teaching chemistry to sophomores and juniors at the school Bianca and I had attended, and I moved into a house in the village, with Harry Mazzullo and the white dog. Harry is, was, my father's lawyer. The white dog is not the one Bianca and I saw by the creek in Boston but one of the dogs my father cherished. The other dog is dead; when I tracked down the family who'd taken him from the pound, they told me he'd barkeduncontrollably until they'd had to put him down. But one day, shortly after I moved back, I found the white dog by accident as I was walking through the village. He was sprawled on a broad porch, looking completely at home, and when I knocked on the door of that house Harry opened it and greeted me as if he knew me. "Rose?" he said. "Rose Marburg?" When I nodded he said we'd been introduced at my father's funeral. I didn't remember this; I remembered almost nothing of that day. Bianca and I had been in the back of the church, as if we were guests and not daughters, while our father's widow had accepted condolences up front. At the cemetery we had stood at a distance, talking to no one, and then we had left. When could Harry have met me? But he swore he had. And when I said, "How did you get that dog?" he said he'd had it for more than a year. "Your father's wife," he said. "After the funeral she was

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so ... confused. She was making a lot of decisions very fast, and I was worried about the dogs - your father was very attached to them." "I know," I said. 'They'd gone to the pound. Fm sure she didn't mean to do that, but she was under a lot of pressure. By the time I got there the brown one was gone, but no one wanted this one and so I took him home myself." All this time, it turned out, the dog had been safely with Harry. Harry took me out to dinner that night, and a week later he took me sailing. Cool water, a gentle breeze, a bottle of wine. This is where the shameful part comes in. Already I had sketched our history for him, and Fd told him the story of the wild night Bianca and I once shared in Boston. But while we were out on the lake, while I was relaxed, a little drunk, almost hypnotized by the water, I told him about the vision Bianca and I had had, which in different ways had caused both of us to move. Harry sat quite still and listened, only his hands moving on the tiller and the sheets. I told the story just as I remembered it, a dialogue in which I played both parts. My mother's questions I rendered high and thin and soft; our responses lower, slower, doubled. Two sisters speaking simultaneously with one voice. Harry didn't shrug or make a face or look at me as if I were crazy. How calm he was, how cool. Perhaps his years as a lawyer have exposed him to stranger things. He said, 'That's interesting. I knew your mother a little, when I was a boy. She was quite a woman. So were your great-aunts, for that matter. That was one of your greataunts, wasn't it? The woman who moved in with you?" "It was," I said. "She took care of us." We were not, apparently, going to pass judgment on either the scene with Suky or the way Fd rendered it. "I remember," Harry said. "And when she was sick, I remember that you and Bianca took care of her." A few months later, he asked me to move into his house and I accepted. I live with Harry because of the way he absorbed my story; because he was good to my father near the end; because he tells me tales about my father's last days that I would otherwise have no way of knowing. Tit for tat, my secrets for his. It's not much of an excuse to say that perhaps I sensed this was what Fd gain. Five weeks passed between the time Bianca and I last saw our father and the time we returned for his funeral. During those weeks I was back in Boston and Bianca was in Dixon, New Mexico, where she was working on a garlic farm. During those weeks, Harry said, some strange things happened. Bianca and I had envisioned our father the way we'd last seen him- how could we imagine anything else? Guilty, horrified, we'd imagined him alone. On a Friday night, we had left that house together: both afraid, it seems to me now, that the one left behind would never find the strength to leave again. Or maybe both afraid that the one left behind might somehow gain the upper hand. And then there was also, beyond these fears, the problem of our father's wife. Leaving, we had told ourselves that she was due home within the hour. By then

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we'd realized that our father wanted her, not us; our fussing and cleaning and cooking only tired him, and none of it led to what he wanted. He welcomed the filth, we had come to see, and the signs of his abandonment. He believed these signs would sway his wife and bind her to his side for his remaining days. Each night of our visit she'd called, and the change in his voice when he talked to her had been unbearable to us. By the time we left, we almost understood that all our efforts had only postponed the moment when he might have his wish. The clean house we left behind meant his wife could feel free to leave again come Monday. But we'd buried that thought beneath our need to feel that we'd done some good; in our departure, finally, we acted with one mind. Only back in our own worlds could we see the ambiguous nature of what we'd given him. Alone, we said to each other, when we learned she'd disappeared again. How couldwe leavehim alonei But while it's true that his wife left after that weekend visit and didn't return for good until three weeks later, the fact is that even then he wasn't alone. There was a nurse with him for several hours each day: I spoke with her frequently on the phone and always felt relieved after hearing her voice. She was strong and practical and had a nice laugh. She bathed our father, and washed his sheets and changed his bed and cooked some meals. Bianca and I thought his wife had hired the nurse, meaning by this to prove that she was capable and we weren't needed. But Harry told me a group of our father's old friends had been responsible. "What friends?"I said. We had not known that our father was that close to anyone. He golfed with a group of men: other winemakers from the valley, a doctor, a dentist, a broker. They had never seemed like more than drinking buddies. But Harry said they'd rallied when it became clear that my father was dying. They hired the nurse, he said. They rented a gadget that would buzz in their homes if my father pressed a button for help. And they paid, Harry said, for my father's funeral. Harry claims that Peter Couperin- the same Couperin who'd figured in our mother's stories as our father's greatest rival, but who'd been hardly more than a name for usorganized the other men, and that together they did what they could to ease our father's last days. Perhaps he was more than a name. I remembered Couperin, vaguely, as a red-faced man who spoke too loudly. When Bianca and I were young he used to visit our house sometimes; always, after he left, our father would make fun of him and his pink Catawba. They'd had an argument when Bianca and I were in college, over some land that Couperin had sold to a real-estatedeveloper. I wasn't aware that they'd seen each other much after that. But Harry said that the last few years had brought hard times to Couperin as well. He had developed a bone disease that was eating its way through his spine; he was in a wheelchair and his head was held upright by a brace that stretched from his shoulders alongside his ears to end in a metal halo pinned to his skull. One son had died; a daughter was in a drug-rehabilitation clinic. Harry, who was Couperin's lawyer as well as my father's, says that when he brought the news of my father's illness

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to Couperin, Couperin had first laughed and then cried and finally said, "Look at us two old buzzards- after all these years, the both of us sick and alone." Harry, at Couperin's request, brought my father to Couperin's house for a reconciliation. It was something, he said: those two old, beaten men, their families lost or scattered, one in a wheelchair and wearing a halo and the other frail and in pain, perched on chairs in front of Couperin's fireplace and getting drunk on Couperin's oldest brandy. Harry was there, sitting in the background. He says Couperin said, "What are we saving it for?" He also says the two men talked some about their children. When Harry told me that I didn't ask him anything; I suppose I was afraidto know. But later, after I'd slept on that story for a couple of days, I asked him if he could tell me what they'd said. "Pm your father's lawyer," Harry said. "You know the things he told me have to stay private." "You weren't at that conversation as a lawyer," I said. "Were you? You were there as my father's friend." Harry admitted that this was so, but all he would do was answer me in generalities. Couperin had said something nasty about my father's daughters, who couldn't find the time to take care of him, and my father had said that we had visited just recently and that we planned to come back again soon. We were good girls, he said. "He said that?"I asked Harry. "Did he say anything specific about either of us?" I couldn't help asking that. Harry gave me a skeptical look. Then he said, "Yourfather told Couperin that you had a great job and that he was very proud of you." "And Bianca?" "He loved to tell stories about her adventures." "Hawaii, you mean? Alaska?The climbing stuff?" "All that." All the things I hadn't done. Harry wouldn't tell me if my father's pleasure in Bianca'sadventures outweighed his pride in my accomplishments. Instead, he told me other stories about my father's friends. They brought food, some of them not one of them had a wife left, all their wives had died or abandoned them, but they cooked clumsy meals and brought them to my father. They planted a chaise in the front lawn and on sunny days guided my father out there for some air. They drove him to the doctor. They talked to the nurse. They brought Scotch and wine and sat on the end of my father's bed, refreshingtheir drinks and telling bawdy anecdotes from their shared youth. Harry said they made my father laugh. These stories give me such a pain. Because women had come and gone from our father's life with some frequency before his second marriage, and because he never seemed to miss any of them any more than he missed us, Bianca and I had labored under the impression that he had no emotional life. And yet this turned out to be untrue. Our father had an emotional life, although it was not one wç could recognize. It was centered, while he waited for his wife, on his dogs and on this group of men. Now, when I see these men in the village, they are quite cool to me. They judge

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me harshly, and rightly so, for not sharing my father's last days. But everyone else treats me as if nothing has happened. In the high school there are still a few teachers left from the time when Bianca and I were students: Mrs. Komnetz, who teaches English; Mr. Baker, who teaches biology. And of course there are plenty of other people in town who remember me and Bianca as girls. When I first moved back here, and even more when I first got my job, I wondered all the time what these people thought of me. They remember me and Bianca, but they remember us as if we were different people. "You were such bright girls," Mrs. Komnetz says. "So spunky, so talented. We all knew you had a future. What is your sister doing these days?" "Painting," I say, although Bianca is not painting but only living with a painter. But everyone accepts this, as if we are only doing what they expected. They're a little surprised to find me back here, but happily surprised, pleased. They have no knowledge of anything Bianca and I did after we left this town, and what they remember of our girlhood here is sanitized and wrapped in a shroud of nostalgia. No one mentions the times we were suspended from school, the endless notes sent home to our father, the policemen showing up our house at night after certain acts of vandalism that pointed unfailingly to us. In their revision of our history, we are local girls who made good. They act as if they're grateful that I came back, and they are so tactful they never ask if I mind the cut in salary or if I miss being called "Professor" or "Doctor" instead of plain "Ms. Marburg." Of our visit to our father before his death, they remember that we came and cooked and cleaned; they forget that we left. Of the funeral, what they seem to remember is two young women struck speechless by loss. No one knows that we slept on that hill; no one wonders, or not out loud, why we were never seen with our father's widow. If they remember anything strange about that time, they tend to blame it on her. She was not a local woman. Instead of talking about those things, they tell me stories about our grandfather and our great-aunts as if they were still alive. "You look like Agnes," they say to me, or "Did you know you have Leo's nose?" They've forgiven or forgotten everything, especially now that I live with Harry and his white dog. This dog and I share a secret: our pasts are lost to everyone but us. I remember who I was as a girl, but everyone seems to have entered into a conspiracy to deny that that girl was me, as they deny their knowledge of what I did while my father was dying. As for the dog who knows what the dog remembers?People treat him like Harry's dog: ancient, arthritic, harmless. I think he remembers each of my father's last days. Since my arrival,this dog has attached himself to me. He sleeps on the floor beside me, within reach of my dangling arm. When I'm absent he pulls my dirty clothes from the hamper and gathers them patiently into a heap, on which he turns and turns and turns before flopping down. At night, when I sit grading my students' exams in the room that Harry has turned into my study, the dog lies groaning and scratching the floor as he dreams his way through our past. If I wake him up too suddenly, he jerks stiffly to his feet and then barks at the portrait of Suky, which turned up at a flea

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market in Ithaca after I thought it was lost forever. If dogs could talk, I believe this one could list each moment where I failed. What am I to make of all this? Fve tried to describe much of it in my letters to Bianca- always leaving out the most important part, which is that Fve shared our deepest secret with Harry. Bianca suspects this, I believe; she didn't reply the first two times I wrote. But a month ago, after I wrote describing Couperin's involvement in our father's last days, and the recovery of our father's dog, she wrote back to me. "Why are you telling me these things?" she wrote. "I bet you don't remember Couperin any better than I do. But I'm glad you have Dad's dog and that he's all right. Are you happy with this Harry? Please tell me you're not with him because of that dog." Harry is kind. Harry helps me understand. But I'm not in love with him, and Bianca knows it. She writes that yes, she finds it odd that our father's widow has vanished from our lives without a trace. And yes, she thinks of our old life sometimes, and of our father and his last days, and of the talk we did or didn't have with Suky. But she doesn't think about these things often, she says. Not very often at all. In her new life, in her new country, she never speaks about our past. Do I believe her? Sometimes; sometimes not. Often I wonder if she hasn't told Oscar all I've told Harry and more; if she doesn't lie tangled in sheets at night, talking the darkness away. But all the rest of Bianca's letter was about her daily life. Oscar paints her nude, she writes. In their house on a cliff in Costa Rica, both their old lives left behind, he poses her on white sheets strewn with flowers and then works furiously on a gigantic canvas. It's steamy, she says. Impossibly sexy. The things he says, the things he does; she has never had such wonderful sex, she has never been so in love. Around them are orchids, iguanas, bananas and parrots, howler monkeys and coatimundis and frogs the size of salad plates. At night, she writes, they make love outside, in the jungle, in the rain. The hereand noWythe moment,she says. This, when for years she chided me for leaving our history behind. I can hear her voice in my study, as clear as an equation. Why dwell on the past>

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