Sister: Excerpts

Excerpt One

If you’ve never been inside a Catholic church, I’ll show you what it’s like to go there, believing, into the cool dark air with only the light from the sacristy to guide you. Imagine the half-filled pews stretched out in rows as quiet, as impossibly even, as the rows of corn and soy in the fields behind the houses which trail from the church in four directions, the way lightbeams radiate from a child’s sketch of the sun. Pretend you’ve just come from one of these houses, as I have, as my grandmother has, as all the people around us have, and at first the measured stillness of the church seems torturous, unbroken, unbearable. But as your eyes widen to accept the dusk, you’ll notice a handkerchief twisted from palm to palm, a jiggling foot in an open-toed shoe. And, too, there are smells: rose perfume wafting from beneath a loosened collar, whiffs of manure from rubber-soled boots, dust which (I read this as a child, wanted it to be true) is mostly organic, made up of epidermal cells and bits of human hair. There is dust layering the top of the holy water font, where we dip the tips of our third fingers before making the sign of the cross. There is dust smudging the colors of the stained glass windows, dust on the legs of the table where we select this month’s missalette, dust on the intricate statues with their deep, worried eyes. Everywhere there is evidence of the body’s desire for its own beginnings, the soul’s helium float back to God.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what I feel, a teenaged girl towering over her grandmother at the back of this small Wisconsin church. There is the altar boy in his cumbersome smock peeking out from the doors off the sacristy, excused from English or Math or Civics to serve the daily noon Mass. There are the men on their lunch breaks, the smattering of older retired men, and so many women! — young mothers with their sleeping babies, older mothers in groups of three and four, and the dozens of widows, women like my grandmother, who are the raw heart of this church. When they speak you hear the older languages floating around their tongues. They wear their hair in tight, curly nests; thin gold bands still dent their fourth fingers. They carry what they need in big black purses, secured with fist-like clasps, for they remember times without bread when they had to feed themselves and their families on their own ingenuity and the Word.

The men of my grandfather’s generation were like visitors, cherished as guests who could not be relied on to stay for very long. They went off to war and disappeared, they were crushed under heavy farm machinery, they shot each other by accident and on purpose, they fell off horses and rooftops and silos, drowned in rivers, succumbed to snakebite, emphysema, whiskey. After my grandfather died of tetanus in 1947, my grandmother raised their four daughters and maintained the farm; when land taxes threatened to rise it was she who sent the oldest two, Mary and Elise, to work in the cannery. Men died young; you mourned, you kept their graves tenderly, and — somehow — you went on. But when fire broke out, snuffing the lives of those daughters and fifteen other girls into ash, the shock left Oneisha and all the surrounding towns senseless with grief. These girls were the seed of the community, some of them already married and putting down roots like their mothers. A tragedy like this must have happened for a reason, and for some, that reason was all too clear. A girl’s place was in the home, not working for cash in an ungodly world where company owners locked fire doors, paranoid about theft. My grandmother was thirty-eight years old, and for the rest of her life she would blame herself for my young aunts’s deaths. She sold the farm and moved her remaining daughters to town, where she kept them close to her, forever close. By the time I was born in 1965, she was in her fifties, sharp and strong, merciless as a crow.

We pause at the back of the church, lingering the way polite guests do before walking toward the general area where we always sit, the heels of my grandmother’s short boots meeting the floor with absolute certainty. I stay close behind her, feeling every inch of my height, my feet kicking after one another like loosely tossed stones. A place to sit. For some there are choices. One might choose to go all the way to the front, to sit half-hidden from the lectern by the bulky old confessionals; one might stay by the new, modern confessionals at the back. There are favorite seats beside the pillars that support the fat, curved belly of the ceiling, with its painting of angels ministering to Mary as she walks in the cherry orchard; there are seats beneath the mounted statues where a child might sit to admire the delicate toes of the apostles. But we sit in the middle of the church, away from the pillars, the statues, potential distractions, away from the drafts that pulse from beneath the warped frames of the windows, whisper from the long, dark line where the walls meet the floor. My grandmother rubs the knuckles of my hand with her thumb, her peculiar gesture of affection, and I glow with her touch, with the knowing looks of the women around us who observe me at Mass, day after day, and whisper the word vocation. Sometimes, I am asked to sing while the other parishioners kneel at the altar, five at a time, to receive Communion. My musical talent, like all good things, is God’s gift, and such a gift is both a blessing and a burden. You wonder if you are worthy. You wonder what God might expect in return.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what we feel. This is the tray that holds the hymnal, attached to the back of the next pew. This is the old-fashioned hat clip beside it. That is the altar with its hand-sewn linens which are laundered by the Ladies of the Altar. Here are the flowers these same women bring with them from their gardens or sun rooms to decorate the church. These are the woven wicker baskets which will be circulated twice during the course of the Mass by old Otto Leibenstein: once to help the missionaries, once to maintain the parish. And somewhere in the sacristy, trapped in a ring of gold, is the Body of Christ, the miracle that results again and again from the Mass. The Processional is about to begin, and you know exactly what to do, feel the weight of over a thousand years behind each simple ritual. You cannot imagine a time when this feeling of absolute purpose will leave you. You cannot imagine losing your faith. You cannot imagine the loneliness.

* * * *

When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person, as if my life were a story being told to someone else. Though I listened with no particular interest, on occasion I did wonder what this third-person self might say or feel or do. She goes upstairs to her room, the same room they shared as children. She rearranges the glass figurines on her bookshelf, imagining her brother’s face. A man can take care of himself, my father liked to say, and though Sam wasn’t yet a man, he was wiry and tall, made taller by the steel-toed boots he wore, his cropped spiked hair, his dangerous eyes. He had disappeared several times before, reappearing hung-over, dirty, his face drawn thin as if to shut out what he’d seen. This time, he’d left the house on the afternoon of August fifth. He didn’t come home that night; he didn’t come home the next.

A peculiar heat wave drifted in from the west, capped by a low bank of clouds that isolated eastern Wisconsin from its usual, cool lake breeze. After three days, my mother went to the Horton police, adding a fresh report to Sam’s plump file: driving under the influence, vandalism, trespassing, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, truancy. “He’ll be home when he’s hungry, Therese,” they told her. “He’s probably shacked up with friends.” No one was eager to look very hard for a kid who had virtually dropped out of school, disappearing each night into the cars of strangers, accelerating south, always south, towards Milwaukee. But three days became four days, and then five, and then a week. Clearly, something was wrong.

My father took a personal leave from the car lot, distributing Sam’s picture throughout Sheboygan, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee. My mother ran a small advertising company, and every morning she printed up new flyers for him to post on bulletin boards and telephone poles and in the windows of bars, new press releases to be sent to newspapers further and further away. Since she’d first reported Sam missing, there had been a series of break-ins: Dr. Neidermier’s big lakefront house on August 10th, Becker’s Foodmart and the drive-in theater west of town on the 11th. Next came rumors of an incident involving an older woman in Oneisha, Mrs. Baumbach, a friend of my grandmother’s. These rumors grew, threading their way through polite conversations, twisting between quiet suppers and afternoon cups of coffee. There were people who moved away from us when we sat down in our usual pew for Mass. There were men who no longer would shake my father’s hand. Suddenly, the police were eager to find my brother too. Perhaps, they told my mother, he was involved somehow — as a victim, or a witness. None of them dared suggest to her face that Sam had become a suspect.

All through the third week of August, strangers drove up the long, gravel driveway to our house, parking on the shady grass beside the barn: police officers, detectives, reporters, all of them sweating dark necklaces around their crisp shirt collars. My mother split her time between her tiny Sheboygan office and our sweltering living room, where she served Raspberry Kool-Aid and gingersnap cookies. She brought out Sam’s baby pictures, his old drawings, the statewide art prize he’d won in fifth grade for a watercolor painting called “Tulips”. She didn’t mention that, afterwards, my father called Sam an “ah-teest”, that he’d spoken with a lisp saying “ah-teests” were fairies, and maybe Sam was a fairy too. Instead, she discussed my plans to leave for college the following week; she talked about Sam’s upcoming senior year and how she hoped he’d be back to start on time. I knew she was trying to present an image she felt would make her client — in this case, all of us — appear most appealing. She’d gone through Sam’s room collecting rolling papers, loose joints, a plastic bag containing a piece of mirror and traces of white dust, and she put all these things in a bigger plastic bag and buried them in the fields. “There’s no sense in having his life ruined by this,” she said, and she reminded me that I didn’t have to talk with the detectives if I didn’t want to. By the time the sheriff arrived with a warrant, Sam’s room was as clean as my own, lightly scented with lavender air freshener.

“You know Sam wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody,” she told me, and the way that she said it was like a prayer, as if she believed I had the power to make her words the truth.

So I watched as my third-person self told the detectives that, like her mother, she hadn’t seen Sam since the afternoon of August 5th. She said she’d never noticed signs that Sam was drinking or taking drugs, and that Sam and her father never fought, and that Sam had been missing school in spring to look for summer work — not an uncommon thing in Horton. She told them that there was no reason Sam might break into people’s houses, or steal, or assault a woman in her own home, a woman my grandmother’s age. She told them she had never seen a knife like the one Mrs. Baumbach described. Suddenly the walls spiralled swiftly inward. I woke up on the couch; a strange man in a Kool-Aid mustache was fanning me with a legal-sized pad. The weight of the past few weeks hit me like a punch, and I sobbed as I came back into my body, feeling every painful inch of my pounding head and hollow chest, the tension knot between my shoulders, the sourness of my breath from telling lies.

That night, unable to sleep, I said the entire Rosary, remembering those long-ago trips I’d taken with my mother to Holy Hill Retreat. We’d meet my grandmother and Auntie Thil, her children Monica and Harv, and we’d walk the Stations of the Cross, re-tracing Christ’s crucifixion over a mile of wilderness. At each station, we’d kneel down on stone to say a new Our Father and Glory Be, asking forgiveness for our sins. My father and Uncle Olaf never came along; Holy Hill was for women and devout old men. Sam had gone when he was small, but as he got older my father teased him the way he did whenever Sam wanted to do something with my mother and me. Harv’s persistence past age ten was unusual; a blessing, a sign. At twelve he announced he planned to be a priest, and after that he worked freely beside the women, building altars of flowers to the Virgin in May, arranging the family creche at Christmas time, making the pilgrimage to Holy Hill that left our lips blue, our teeth chattering, our knees wet and chafing in the chill air.

My father scoffed at Harv, at men who were not what he called a man’s man. He was awkward around priests the way he was around all bachelors, loners, men who did not quite fit in with the others; he spoke a bit too loudly, laughed a bit too long. As Sam approached adolescence, my father became increasingly concerned over his quiet ways, his attachment to my mother and me. No son of his would be a sissy, a priest, a man who belonged to no one. No son of his would serve as a mirror, reflecting back the things that frightened my father most about himself. And by the time Sam entered junior high, he was learning to see the world through my father’s rational eye. Painting pictures was silly because you couldn’t make a living at something like that. There was no point in picking out a dream house or boat or a sports car from a magazine; where would you get the money? If God was everywhere, then how come you couldn’t see him? “If there is a God, let Him drink this glass of water,” Sam said, and he placed it on the window sill where it stayed for days. Yet, eventually, it was gone.

“Evaporation,” Sam said smugly.

“Maybe that’s how God drinks.” I was willing to believe, but Sam said that if God could do anything, he should be able to gulp eight ounces of fluid. He should be able to make everyone happy. He should float face-down in the sky, like a balloon in the Macy’s Day Parade.

It’s hard to remember the earlier times when Sam was not spinning in his own lonely orbit. Without imagination. A man’s concrete eye. It’s hard to remember that my family once believed we were special, that God himself would cup his hands over our house to protect us from each other.

Excerpt Two

Each year, my parents leased our fields to one of the larger local farms, and spring rumbled in with the roar of the cultivators circling the perimeters of our land. There were no other children living close by; our nearest neighbors, the Luchterhands, ran a horse farm three quarters of a mile down the road. My brother and I grew up in the company of beets, which stained our hands and mouths a bloody red; during luckier years, there were sweet peas or snap beans, sugar-sweet to the tongue. Once, the renters sowed field corn which attracted rats the size of gourds. But the summer I was ten and Sam was nine, they planted sixty acres in sunflowers, and by August our house was surrounded by a fiery corona which swallowed the usual deep summer greens in an elaborate golden yawn. When the damp wind blew off Lake Michigan, we could hear the petals rustling, sexual and fierce, and Sam and I frequently paused during our games, whirling to look over our shoulders; it was a summer we never felt completely alone. We avoided the cellar, the smokehouse, the walk-in closet in our bedroom; at night, we leapt into our beds so that anything lurking beneath them wouldn’t be able to grab our ankles and pull us down. Mornings I’d wake up and look out the window, and there would be the bright, broad faces of the sunflowers, all facing east like so many wise kings. In his bed on the other side of the room, Sam was still sleeping, his head thrown so far back that his body formed a question mark. Even now, the memory of him frozen in that vulnerable arc fills me with an aching protectiveness, as if he were my child and not my brother.

That summer, Sam and I played only those games which involved wearing dark clothes and crouching behind shrubs and using words like “covert” and “operation” and “ambush”. A boy at school had an older brother who’d gone to work for the CIA; when we pressed him for details, he combed his hair with his fingers and said, “Classified,” in a way that let the rest of us know there were things in the world we had not yet begun to imagine. I remember that I wasn’t discouraged when I heard that girls could not be spies any more than I was discouraged by all the other things that, as a girl, I wasn’t supposed to do, because I had a vague idea that becoming an adult meant turning into a man. It was not a fully conscious thought, but it was present in the same way that God was present, a concept you trusted you would understand when the appropriate moment arrived.

Until first grade or so, I had been just as securely convinced that I could grow into any animal I wished, and after careful consideration I chose to become a cat. To encourage this metamorphosis, I made cat-noises and licked my skin and ate cat chow from the house cats’ bowl beneath the sink. I pinned a piece of twine to the seat of my pants, wriggling my butt to make it swing from side to side. Once, I managed to elude my mother and board the school bus that way, and the older boys nearly strangled me with my tail before the driver intervened. Still, I believed in my right to choose my destiny, and when one of the semi-wild barn cats had kits, I recognized this as a moment of truth and knelt beside her to nurse. But she scratched me — three parallel lines across my forehead which lingered for weeks like a signature.

The summer of the sunflowers, I decided that the years I had spent practicing for cathood had had a purpose after all: they’d given me all the skills I needed to be an effective spy. I could scale high walls and jump off cliffs and fight dirty, using my teeth and nails; I could contort my body to fit into small, dark places; I could move with the fluid stealth of a cat intent on a kill. Of course, Sam wanted to be a spy too. After morning chores, we filled our afternoons with secret missions, ambushes, and code words like smokey bear and 10-4 Charlie. We painted elaborate, colorful scenes of spies climbing up the walls of castles and parachuting out of airplanes, and these we hung above our beds for inspiration. But by August, we were forced to face our greatest limitation. There was nobody to spy on. My father was seldom home. My mother ruined the mood by saying things like, “If you want to know something about me, just ask. There’s no need to follow me around.” The Luchterhands down the road were not an option because of the stallions; we remembered from a visit to the barns in spring the sound of those gunshot hoofbeats and high, crazed whinnies, the chill of those rolling devil eyes. And so we loitered around the house and barn, waiting for a mission, trying not to notice the watched feeling that followed us everywhere we went, invisible as breath and just as urgent, brushing the tops of the fields like wind. My father had grown up on this farm; it had been a hard life, one he rarely discussed. But he’d told us about the German POWs that my grandfather, himself a German immigrant, had hired as cheap summer labor. On hot still nights, we thought we could hear them: their choked, guttural voices, the music of their chains, the hungry scrape of their bent tin spoons as they ate beneath the quarter moon.

* * * *

My mother believed in intuition, God and the power of prayer. The future came to her in quiet dreams and chilly flashes, a gift she’d had ever since her oldest sisters were killed in the cannery fire. One week after the funerals, she told her youngest sister, our Auntie Thil, “You come away from that stove,” and seconds later, the stove pipe exploded. She sketched my father’s face on a napkin the day before they met. When she carried me, she dreamed that I appeared to her, a perfect baby girl who asked to be named Abigail Elise. Where did I come from? I asked whenever she told the story, and then she’d describe the netherworld she’d seen, a universe of unassigned souls, churning in a sort of primordial soup, each shrilling, Choose me! Choose me!

Foolishness, my father said. But the time my mother begged him to stay home from work, he did. Later, we learned that the highway had been closed, due to an accident involving four cars. Two people were killed. How had my mother known? She just did. The artificial nature of spying puzzled her, though she tried her best to play along, to help us out and, in the process, convert our interest into something useful. She sent me out to the garden to “ambush” slugs with saucers of beer; in the morning she suggested Sam “case the beans” for signs of Japanese beetles.

“That’s not the same,” we told her, but neither Sam or I could explain why. We flung ourselves at the furniture and moped: two combat-trained, sophisticated, deadly bored spies. It was this boredom, rather than our former sneakiness, that began to wear at her nerves. One day late in August she decided that we could take our bikes into town three miles away. We were to pick up some dishwashing detergent at Becker’s Foodmart, stop for ten minutes at the dime store — just to look — and then we were to head straight back home.

For years, we had begged to go all the way into Horton by ourselves. We dug our battered Schwinns out of the shed and coasted down the long gravel driveway toward the road, making elaborate hand signals in case my mother was watching from the kitchen window. It was a warm, humid day. The east wind off Lake Michigan which usually cooled our afternoons had been stalled by a low, grey bank of clouds at the horizon. Buttercups and Queen Anne’s Lace choked the ditches, and every now and then we passed a pale, green patch of wild asparagus, delicate as mist. At first, we raced each other, because the flat length of road was a novelty, but after a mile or so we settled into a steady rhythm, side by side, and we felt how small we were, surrounded by fields of corn and alfalfa and occasionally, cows. They were Holsteins mostly, and because of the heat, they clumped together beneath what shade they could find, usually small stands of trees that the first German settlers had left behind. Sometimes there was an old foundation beneath those trees, a boarded-up well, a scrap of rotting fence, all that was left of an original homestead. The cows watched us pass, releasing powerful streams of urine which splattered their legs and bellies, their silent mouths working, working.

Horton was the sort of town that happened all at once. It began with an old grain mill, the only warning before an eruption of close-set houses that lead toward the downtown. If you looked between those houses to the west, you could see the fields that stretched behind them; if you looked between the houses to the east, you could see more fields, and a glimmer of aquamarine that was Lake Michigan. We propped our bikes against a telephone pole and went into Becker’s Foodmart. As usual, it was crowded with cans of food that no one ate unless it was a holiday: cranberry relish, Boston brown bread, Mandarin oranges. The Dessert of the Day was always arranged on a long, low table by the grocery baskets. This time it was a strawberry shortcake cut into crumbling cubes. My mother never let us try these samples, though she sometimes took a styrofoam cup of the complimentary coffee for herself. Who knows how long that’s been sitting there? she’d whisper, sweeping us past and into the sour meat smell. Now, we popped the largest pieces into our mouths, but they were dry, too-sweet, disappointing.

Mr. Becker prided himself on greeting everyone who came into his store. All children looked alike to him, so he simplified the matter by calling boys Charlie and girls Susie. Today, he was stocking soup; we tried to slip past him to the Household Aisle, but there were jingle bells attached to the electric doors and he’d heard them when we came in.

“Susie! There’s my girl,” he bellowed, dropping the carton of soup cans and charging up the aisle. “What can I get for you now?”

“We know where everything is,” I said in the voice I saved for adults like Mr. Becker. But Mr. Becker dropped one cold, heavy hand on each of our shoulders.

“What you got to say for yourself!” he shouted at Sam. Sam looked at the floor and did not speak; I fixed my gaze on a pyramid of Fancy Artichoke Hearts. We both knew that, when attacked by a bull or a bear, your best option was to play dead. “Cat got your tongue?” Mr. Becker asked, and then, mercifully, he released us and chuckled his way back to the soup. Sam and I headed for the dishwashing liquid, embarrassed for both ourselves and Mr. Becker. Rounding the next aisle, staring grimly ahead, we saw a tall, thin girl slipping a package of Hostess Ding Dongs into her purse.

She was about fourteen. She wore silver sandals and a gold ankle chain and frayed jean shorts that crept so high you knew she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Her shirt was a man’s white tee-shirt with the sleeves and the collar ripped off. A gold star, the kind the teachers stuck on our papers when we spelled everything right, was glued to her cheek. She looked over at us, a slow, too-casual glance, and we got very busy comparing the prices of Ivory and Palmolive. Without saying anything about it to each other, we knew we had gone undercover, real spies with a very real mission: follow the thief. I imagined our names in the Saint Ignatious Parish Bulletin, perhaps with a picture of us shaking Father Van Dan’s hand. I imagined Mr. Becker rewarding us with cash, prizes, maybe even a trip somewhere.

“What should we do?” Sam whispered. The girl was heading toward the automatic doors; they sizzled open and she disappeared, like an angel, into a pool of light.

“Go pay and then meet me outside,” I said, pushing the money into his hand, and then I walked quickly up the aisle and plunged into the sudden bright heat of the street outside. The girl was standing at the edge of the curb as if she were waiting for me. Her purse bulged at her side. “Hi,” I chirped, trying to be cool. “Hey,” she said noncommittally. I thought that, perhaps, I’d seen her before, one of several girls who liked to sit smoking on the half-wall in front of the bank. She braced herself against the telephone pole where we had left our bikes and lifted first one foot and then the next to unbuckle her silver sandals. Each had a braided noose meant to ensnare her big toe, and I thought I’d never seen shoes that looked so terribly cruel. They reminded me of the traps my Uncle Olaf kept hanging in his basement with bits of fur still clinging to the metal. There were red marks on her toes, and she rubbed at them the way an animal licks a hurt. I wanted to touch them; I wanted to ask her name. I wanted to be beautiful in the way she was beautiful, wearing silver trap shoes and a look that shivered inside me. This was the sort of girl my mother referred to as a wild girl, and suddenly I loved the sound of those words. They made me remember my cat days, moving by instinct and intuition only, prowling through the darkness with 20-20 vision, striking with a neat, clean blow. Her eyes did, in fact, look like the eyes of a cat: they were narrow and green, outlined in green eyeliner, made wider and brighter by green eye shadow. For the first time, I imagined my own eyes painted: fierce, mysterious, untamed.