My sisters Shelby and Cleo came with me the day I got lost in the woods. It had rained for three consecutive weeks; everything gray, everything the same. As we scattered rampant over the pulpy ground and through leafy knobs of sycamore, the sky started to break up. Beneath a barely visible, fuzzy moon, our fleeing shadows resembled naked souls in a state of unrest. I hurried, like this, through my entire childhood. By the time I left home, each day seemed cloaked by a routine state of panic.
The summer I turned eight, Cleo and I burned down the living room. It started out as nothing at all; an accident, a spark, really, from a modest heap of Mama's cigarette droppings. Despite her acrimonious threats, we'd been smoking again on the windowsill behind the living room curtains. From the beginning, Mama blamed me for being a bad influence on Cleo, two years younger. By peeking through the spokes in the railing, Cleo and I used to watch Mama suck down cigarettes one after the other. Something innately sexual about how she did it intrigued us. She seemed to understand the power of her own beauty. While leaning against the kitchen table, she arched her head back with her chest out and elbows on the tablecloth. We never knew who she was showing off to. Maybe she's practicing, I suggested.
"For what?" Cleo asked, unprepared for the answer.
We'd creep up to our room after and pretend to smoke Ticonderoga pencils. Then one day we tried it for real.
In the tiniest fraction of time, flames lunged from the tops of the curtains to the ceiling and then down again to the china cabinet. As a collective reflex, Cleo and I dropped down onto the shag carpet and lay on our stomachs with our hands over our hair. Oh God, don't let me die, I said to myself. I haven't been kissed yet. Not more than ten seconds later, the room filled with smoke and our bodies became blocks of lead. In lumbering pulls, I tried my best to drag Cleo behind me through the dense fumes. But time seemed reduced to half speed and gravity had doubled. Each step left me trembling with terror and exhaustion.
"Mama," I wailed as loud as I could. "Mama!!!" But she wasn't listening for my voice, that day or any day.
And by the time I reached the back porch, I discovered I was alone.
Our older sister Shelby tried to help. She was ten that year, at a time in my life when thirteen seemed as old as one could get. Much taller than all the other girls her age, Shelby stood on the coffee table, yanked the curtains off the rod and began stomping out flames with her new birthday boots. Shelby possessed courage like Hercules had strength. I'll never forget the steel look upon her face as she dragged Cleo's limp body through the foggy living room. That was supposed to be my job. I cried when they reached the back porch.
Cleo looked shrunken in her long hospital bed, like the size of her Penny doll. She was shrouded in a wash of white curtains, white sheets, and nurses in white smocks and shoes. Sickness burrowed through her tiny body like microscopic moles, and for two weeks we thought she might die. Mama refused to look at me in the hospital waiting room. While the doctor relayed to us the miserable condition of Cleo's lungs, Mama could scarcely breathe. Cleo had always been her favorite. We all knew. Three weeks later Belle, the friendly nurse, put Cleo in a wheelchair and took her for a spin around the fifth floor. By suppertime that night, she'd contracted viral pneumonia. She didn't leave the hospital for three months.
Mama smoked her last cigarette on Christmas morning. I could tell it was her last one because she closed her eyes to inhale and wept as the final streams of smoke left her lips. In her heart, I think Cleo was still her favorite, but something had changed, for all of us. The dynamic of our self-contained, nuclear family seemed irrevocably altered. After a brutal recovery, Cleo still limped when she walked, and over-exertion left her pale and wheezing. So sometime in the latter part of 1962, Shelby became Mama's surrogate favorite. For Christmas gifts that year, Cleo and I got hand-loomed rugs made out of spun, dyed sheep's wool from a Shoshone woman Mama met at a quilting bee. Shelby got a brand new violin.
"But I don't want to play the violin," Shelby screamed infant-like beneath the yellow slaps of my mother's palm. In the years I'd been her sister, not once had I seen her cry. Mama's attention meant nothing to Shelby. To Cleo and me, it meant enough air to breathe.
Onions grew in our beet patch the next spring. We hadn't planted bulbs and no one knew where they came from. Mama called it the divine harvest. All at once, we seemed to have things we'd needed for so long. New shoes, a new metal trough for the horses, someone to repair the barn doors and broken furnace. The mysterious bounty of vegetables put us all in the most peculiar, smiling trance. Cleo cleaned under her bed; I did chores without being asked. One time, a man we didn't know came to visit Mama and brought a bouquet of pink flowers. They all disappeared into her bedroom and the man was gone before breakfast.
Mama sold the farm in November and moved us into a house closer to civilization. The farming got to be too much after Daddy died. Cleo and I liked the big house in town. We discovered hidden rooms and cedar closets, and the small barn in back had a split-door where you could open just the top. Shelby, fourteen by now and a grown-up in our minds, used to take boys into the hay loft and let them touch her anywhere for a dollar. With her discovery of the swelling mounds on her chest, Shelby's new walk evoked attention like she were running stark naked through the streets. I watched people notice her -- ranchers, their sons and grandsons. The women mostly looked away. At night she modeled Mama's braziers for Cleo and me, and demonstrated the application of lipstick. After an examination of my own smooth, flat chest, I was sure I had to be a boy. I could discern no other explanation for my lack of breasts and pubic hair. I'll never grow up, I remember thinking. So in the interest of learning about girlhood, I devised a plan to spy on Shelby by climbing up to the loft before she got there. After just one time, Cleo got sick again and was too cumbersome to carry up the steep loft steps.
We had spectacular neighbors surrounding that house. Mama called them vagrant out-of-work hillbillies. Yolanda lived behind us on top of a grassy slope. A husbandless, middle-aged woman who wore expensive clothes, women came to her house late at night and they listened to jazz on the radio and danced in their living room. Shelby told me she was a lesbian call girl. I had no idea what this meant, but I knew it must be exotic. An oriental man, whom we called Mr. Ninja because of a display of antique swords above his fireplace, lived to the left of us in the small house with no front door. He seemed so ethereal in his movements, I used to imagine he entered the dwelling by passing through walls. A Lebanese family moved into the house next door to us with the ghost in the basement. We could smell their curious, brown food through the screen door on hot summer nights. Arannah, the girl my age, tried to teach me her language, but I couldn't make my mouth fit around the words.
Shortly after moving, Mama took a job at a quilt store in Cody. Cleo needed constant care and it was the only way to pay for an in-house doctor. I accidentally ran into him on his first day. The collision knocked the wind out of me.
"You must be Charmaine, Cleo's sister. I'm Dr. Vanderloo. But you may call me Marcus," he commanded and whisked me up into his arms like a half-filled sack of potatoes. "You're going to be all right," he said in response to my gasping and coughing.
Dr. Vanderloo's presence created turmoil in our house at first. Without proper notification, he took the liberty of bringing along his wife and an Australian Blue Heeler named Popo. Popo turned out to be one of those crotch-sniffing, friendly dogs. Mama threatened to kill it every time Marcus turned his back. Marcus introduced his wife as Geneva, but I knew he called her Jeannie in the privacy of their bedroom. During their first week's stay, Cleo and I listened with a glass cup against the bathroom wall every night. Geneva bathed after breakfast every morning, though I could never understand how someone could get dirty just from sleeping. And a collection of European perfumes stood like shiny glass soldiers on her walnut vanity table. We were poor. We were not like her. Not in the least. To Cleo and me, Geneva was a goddess, with her lion-mane of golden hair wrapped neatly under itself on top of her head. We watched her braid it once in the time it takes to sneeze. She spoke without barely moving her mouth, and called us "Kittens."
In order to procure free room and board, Dr. Vanderloo and his wife made themselves useful around the house. I caught Marcus, once, shirtless and wiping his brow, perched high on some rented scaffolding used to repair the ceiling. So graphic and raw was his hairy armpit marbled with bulging muscles and the glistening, oily sweat on his skin. Peering at him from behind the kitchen wall, my face got so hot I thought I might faint. That was the first sensation I ever remember feeling in my groin. At that moment, I knew I was not destined to be small and awkward forever. All three of us girls fell in love with Marcus, but I had it the worst. Against Geneva's stark features and resolute blondeness, I felt dark and shriveled like a dying Gypsy child. I hated her for this. I wanted to cry every time Marcus kissed her. For him, I would have cut off my leg and let myself bleed to death.
From the neighbors we learned that Doctor Vanderloo had married into money. They maintained a small house on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Geneva told us about it many times. We sat on the front porch, all of us, drinking hot cider out of jelly jars. Mama put a cinnamon stick in the side of each jar, and the grownups got theirs spiked with rum. Cleo had just returned from the hospital again and was wearing a new woolen suit Marcus bought her. She'd lost almost twenty pounds this time; her clothes seemed knotted up around her, half tucked in, misbuttoned. She looked like the scarecrow we put up in the back yard. I wanted to cry every time when I looked at her. Geneva seemed to understand this and put her long white hand on my shoulder.
"My ancestors have always lived in Aegina, although I was born in New York and have never even been to Greece," she said twirling a fallen strand of hair.
We all stayed quiet, clinging to her thoughts and words while she reverted into some forgotten trance. The air outside on the porch chilled our cider even before the first sip, but no one moved.
"Somewhere in my mind, I live in Aegina. Not necessarily with Marcus, but very close by. My hair is cropped short like a boy's, and I wear long, dangley earrings and very little makeup. My complexion is buffed to a flawless glow from the winds on the beach every day. I jog across white sands at dawn and drink fresh-squeezed juices. During the day, I write children's stories and create charcoal drawings to hang on my slab walls.
"My house is a single-story stucco hut painted white, with arched doorways and alcove ceilings, and round rugs hand-braided by local merchants. Every night, supper of shaved lamb, Retsina and souvlaki with the year-rounders is followed by square dancing. The music comes from the twang of ancient dulcimers and the sounding bliss of the emerald sea polishing the shore."
So absorbed by this imagery, I swore I could hear seagulls and smell low tide. The potent amalgam of Geneva's words and grainy voice somehow transformed our hick, small-town world into something entirely cosmopolitan. After that night, Shelby began buying fashion magazines and cutting out pictures of leggy models to hang on her walls. She eventually adapted her own personal style to this shallow ideal, changing her wardrobe of mostly overalls to sleek, black clothing and tall boots.
With Daddy gone, Marcus and Geneva stayed on long after Cleo got well. Mama never asked them or addressed the matter directly; they knew she needed someone to look after us and she tolerated their constant presence. Shelby, by this time, had developed a nasty habit of staying out late and sometimes not returning for days. Mama, who called this routine "prowling," always went looking for her and didn't come home until she found her. Cleo and I knew where Shelby went every night, yet this information remained privileged and sacred. Bubba Savage lived on the other side of Cody, the Yellowstone side. We lived on the side facing Powell. Bubba drove a motorcycle and was old enough to buy beer. When he courted Shelby, Bubba parked his bike on Happy Jack Road two miles away, and hiked through the woods to the big rock on the far edge of our property. Marcus knew Shelby was in trouble, and he knew he could count on me for anything. From the start, my lack of self-control around him infuriated me. I watched Shelby in the company of men. She knew how to be coy, how to flirt with her eyes and make them do whatever she wanted. Where did she learn such a foreign skill, I often asked myself. Daddy died when I was six. I had no idea how to act around men.
"Charmaine, come over here," he said with a daring smile -- straight, white teeth framed by red lips and a darkly graying mustache. I considered his green eyes part of his smile. They somehow personalized what would otherwise be a distant, rugged face. Oh God, I thought. There was nothing I wouldn't tell him now. Cleo sent me telepathic threats from across the room, hip to Marcus's power over me. He picked me up and sat me on his lap, a gesture I'd clearly outgrown. He angled his lips close to my ear and spoke in a feather voice.
"My dear, we are all very worried about your sister," he said. I saw Geneva in the kitchen trying not to listen. Mama did the same by wiping already-dried dishes. "Would you tell me where you think she is?" he asked with a glare so intense and penetrating, I had to look down at my dress to be sure I wasn't naked. This possibility endured for several seconds before my resolve caved in.
"She's gone to Bubba's cabin on the Mackland's ranch," I mechanically replied. While Cleo scalded me with her eyes, Marcus rewarded this capital betrayal with a kiss on my cheek and a long squeeze. I felt his heart beating through his shirt. Well worth the consequences, I thought.
The grownups left together in a sort of search posse. With everyone else gone, Cleo and I crept upstairs to Mama's bedroom. In and of itself, this act would not go unpunished. But, she had the only electric blanket in the house and the heat was turned off. Oddly, we both noticed the distinct odor of tobacco on Mama's sheets. We knew she had quit long before, yet we found a curiously soiled ashtray on the nightstand beside her bed. Cleo pulled the power button on Mama's black and white television. At first we did not notice what program was showing, as it would have interrupted our scavenger hunt through Mama's jewelry box and underwear drawers. Cleo found a foiled package of yellow pills, and I found what I thought was the oddest garment I'd ever seen.
"It's a garter," Cleo told me. Cleo, my younger sister, knew this.
"How would you know?" I demanded.
She thought for a moment. "Shelby has one. She showed me how to put it on."
I asked Cleo what she looked like in it, but she wasn't listening. Her eyes had gotten stuck on the television screen. My eyes followed hers and soon became glued to the moving images. At the same moment, our breathing stopped and our jaws hung open. Neither of us moved. As I watched the sultry woman, dark skinned and naked except for the bath towel around her head, I thought of Marcus. How would he look at me if I were grown up and looked like that? After requisite kissing, the man placed the woman gently on the unmade bed and lay down on her, groping her every private place. While his hand reached down between her legs, the woman remained smiling; laughing almost. How could this be? Marcus, I kept thinking. What if he did those vile things to Geneva? What if he undressed her and got up on top of her all sweaty everywhere like the man on the television? Was Marcus like that man? Was Geneva that kind of woman? When I saw Cleo bite down on her bottom lip, I turned off the television.
I made dinner for two out of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken soup out of a can. Cleo ate in silence; I made contrived efforts at conversation by rehashing old bits of gossip.
"Did you hear about the Sugar Beet Festival?"
"No," she replied.
"They canceled it on account of the crop damage from all that rain. The Iverson's didn't get a quarter the harvest they got last year."
By the time the grownups returned, it had been dark for hours. Shelby walked in first with torn pants and mud streaked across her cheeks.
"What have you been doing, Shelby?" I asked her, but the Shelby I knew was not there. In her face I saw someone, or something, altogether unfamiliar. No one said much for the rest of the night. Mama and Geneva disappeared with Shelby who had to be shoved up the stairs screaming. Over the next several hours, Marcus sat in his rocking chair flipping through medical textbooks, and Cleo and I tried to fall asleep despite the noises coming from Shelby's room upstairs. The first time I heard it, I felt my heart in my throat.
"What was that?" Cleo asked, running to the edge of my bed. I held her hand with a reassurance I could not even give myself.
"I don't know. Something happened to Shelby, I think."
Cleo drew her hand to her mouth. "She's crying. What's going on in there? I want to go see."
"No!" I hissed, retaining her against the side of my bed. "Mama and Geneva are there. She'll be alright." This was a lie, though. I'd never been so scared my whole life. What began, in Shelby's room, as a flutter of quiet sobs quickly turned into uncontrollable shrieking. All of my thirty-something feet of intestines contracted into the size of a baseball. Cleo is younger, I kept reminding myself. I must remain composed.
Early the next morning, I watched the sun make its slow ascent over the pink mountains in the distance. Lying on my back facing the window, I tried to remember a saying from my childhood, "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight..." I heard Mama put water on for coffee shortly after I woke up. This, I decided, was an opportunity in disguise. Without saying a word, I crept up to the kitchen table and watched her nervous choppy movements. By the way her back moved, I could sense her erratic breathing. From the time Daddy died in the barn seven years ago, she hadn't looked right. Looking at a back view of her -- hips narrow and contracted, hair dry and feet pointed in, I knew pain had gnawed away at her most vital traits. I couldn't tell if she sensed my presence or not; her awareness seemed hazy. When she turned around and noticed me, we both seemed to gasp at the same time. In that moment, I relived the waiting room scene in the hospital when Cleo's lungs got burned in the fire. This is what Mama's face looked like now. Eyes bloodshot, creased and folded in, abysmal vertical lines in her cheeks, pallid complexion, mouth vexed and compressed into a tiny pink dot.
"I didn't know you were here," she said perfunctorily and turned away.
"Mama, I want to know about Shelby."
Her movements froze at the toaster. Bread stuck in her left hand, butter knife stuck in her right, she stared at the wall. And as elegantly as Ginger Rogers danced in her long white dress in the movie "Top Hat," Mama reached her gnarled hand into the top drawer and withdrew a leather case. I watched her welcome a cigarette to her lips like an old friend.
"Do you know what the word 'defiled' means, Charmaine?"
She looked haunted. I was afraid to answer. For some reason, I crossed my legs.
"It means Bubba Savage took something from your sister he shouldn't have."
I glanced out the window, just as a reprieve from the tension. The ceiling of low, dark clouds made the world a dark, enclosed place. "Can Shelby get it back?" I asked.
Mama tried not to laugh. Instead, she dragged deeply on the cigarette. I waited, but no answer came. I heard Marcus moving around upstairs; I recognized the weight of his footsteps against the hard wood floors. Geneva turned on the water faucet to run her morning bath. Things were happening, people were waking up. I needed answers now because I knew none would be available after today. This incident, like the living room fire, would soon become one of those things people only discuss with their eyes. From the rear of my brain, I heard Marcus open the front door and go outside. Mama looked up and then looked at me.
"I heard a story one time of some of our ancestors from way back who had a little stone house in the center of a plantation."
"Where?" I asked.
"Down south near Laramie," she said.
"What kind of plantation?"
"I don't know. I think beans and alfalfa mostly. But they used this little stone house for cooking. Just for cooking," she repeated to enhance the delivery. She looked up at me again, searching for something in my face.
"These people cooked inside, but slept outside every night in the back of the barn. Not even a barn, really. More like a lean-to because it had no ceiling. There was a dirt floor and a detached side wall where they hung their overcoats, boots and farming tools."
Why is she telling me this, I wondered on the verge of tears. I wanted to know about Shelby. "What does this have to do with Shelby?" I insisted.
Mama cried now, and let the tears fall into her ashtray. "That's where I found her," she weeped. "I found her in a place just like that. A little hut with no ceiling, no clothes on her, one of her legs lying in the dirt, blood on her bruised face." Nothing was said for a long time after that. Marcus came back in the house and put his strong arms around Mama. I thought, then, of all the men I had known. I thought of Daddy, of Bubba, and then I looked up at Marcus. He put his arms around me without lifting a finger.
Seventeen years later, I found my legs dangling off the edge of a ferry en route to Aegina. After two children and just as many marriages, my physique surprised most people. I remember Shelby telling me once that I would always have strong legs from walking to school every day. A man sitting across from me had been staring at my lower half for most of the trip. My own fault, really, since I'd chosen shorts and a tank top as the day's attire.
"I'm Gabriel," he said with a smile that revealed glorious white teeth.
This smile seemed the least of what was familiar to me now. Marcus had encompassed my every thought since departing the aircraft in Athens. Gabriel and I were the ferry's only passengers, so obviously we would get to know each other. I groaned at his presence, though, and politely looked away.
"Do you have friends in Aegina?" he asked me.
I had to think for a moment. His English came out choppy, and took some mental translation. "I used to."
"Where do they live now?"
"Well," I tried to explain, "they lived with us when I was very young; the woman's family lived in Aegina. I don't even know if they live here."
Gabriel smiled at my words. "You are a brave woman traveling all this way, on hope."
"Yes," I laughed. "Hope."
Our ferry, the approximate size of a Boston Whaler, had taken on rainwater earlier, which drained through the portholes in the side. The promise of another storm filled the sky and atmosphere. Communication screeched to a halt when the winds began. The boat weaved clumsily through the forest of crested waves. Gabriel moved to my side of the boat at the Captain's request, a command I could tell he didn't mind following. Near him, I felt small again like I had around Marcus. And safe.
"What are the names of your friends?" he asked, almost yelling now in response to the sudden downpour.
I looked at him. "Dr. Marcus Vanderloo and his wife Geneva."
Almost as if Gabriel heard my words before they even left my mouth, his smile interrupted my train of thought. "They have four children," he said. "The eldest is Marcus, Jr. We work together on a fishing boat."
While my mouth hung open a few inches, no thoughts came to mind. Could this be possible? Was Marcus here, and did this man really know him? "Are you certain?" I managed to ask, nearly crying. Gabriel grabbed my hand and held it until we reached port.
The Vanderloo home stood proud on the edge of a rocky hill, like it had in so many of my dreams. From the road, Marcus was a spec of a man looking in my direction. But as I neared him, his grand stature rose like a giant against the translucent Aegean Sea. Gabriel kept his arm around my back as some lame gesture of ownership. I made my hand unavailable to him by clutching one of my bags. The sun began to set an hour before, and now its shadows decorated the sky like the frosting on birthday cakes.
As we approached the house, Gabriel said, "You know, I've always thought that love hurts the most when you pretend not to feel it."
While I knew these words had been handpicked for the present occasion, I had other priorities. Marcus, ten feet away now, began running toward me. He had tears in his eyes.
"I knew you would come," he laughed. His embrace raised me up off the ground. We were almost dancing. "After all these years, I always knew you would come!"
Right away, I learned that Geneva died three years before of heart complications. Out of some solidarity, Gabriel had neglected to tell me this on the ferry. "She was never strong like you girls," Marcus said with a paternal air. Could it be that he thought of me, Cleo and Shelby as his surrogate daughters? I hated this idea. I hated how Marcus kissed me on the forehead when he saw me.
"What about your family?" he asked after storing my luggage in a spare bedroom.
Mama, like Geneva, died of a heart attack when she was forty-five. I told him about how Cleo went to college and worked as an insurance broker on the East Coast. "And Shelby," I started, which brought an instant smile to his face, "teaches riding lessons to children on her cattle ranch in Casper."
The day after my arrival, I met Marcus's family of three handsome sons and a pregnant daughter. His two oldest boys took me out sponge-fishing which I learned was, besides tourism, Aegina's main industry. His daughter, Tara, had suspicions about me from the start. At our first meeting, she squeezed my hand like an empty tube of toothpaste.
"We are twenty years apart in age," Marcus said one night after dinner, attempting to address what had lingered unresolved for so long. "You have blossomed just like I pictured. But after all this time being away, I cannot define what is between us."
Though the question remained unanswered, Marcus and I sat up all night on his balcony overlooking the water, listening to the waves, and seagulls, and watching our thoughts wash out to sea.