My sisters wanted to be the stories, central and adored, but I was of an age that wanted Father as I was now, a boy whose swollen sex woke him with alarm, and then the delight in its easing.
I wanted the story of Father's looking on, spellbound—his word—by the simmering Oma stitching up her lip with only whiskey to numb the work. Not that Oma drank much. Not even her lip, split enough for stitches, could make her drink. Nothing that happened to our father's mother's mother—not the lip, not the fire, not the loss of her Dora—could raw our Oma to tears.
Was I so brave as that? I didn't ask.
Our father's mother's mother was brave, and our father was brave, too. He was the one who cut down the suicide, that possum-ugly, mud-dark, urinous man. "Tell us again," but in the stories Mother repeated our father came out married. He came out worn and running away, leaving Mother with the next bad job.
Is that a true story, we asked, unbelieving.
The island life was good then, but not so good as we would stay here.
Here, the ocean and its drama, an island cliffed and beaten by ferocious waves on one side and at the other, flat and lapped. "Water, water everywhere and not a one of us can swim!" Our mother's song for us when Father took us to the pond. The pond, a mirror of small water in the center of the island, was where we learned, holding to the soft bank and kicking such a froth until my head burned with snorted water, and it seemed I was water, the cellar-white root of me in water, blinded and blued with water, my face all snot and spit. "Let go!" Father said, and he kicked me loose, and I sank. This happened over and over again while Mother stood by singing on.
Our mother says the mornings now are hardest and that I should know how many nights she cannot sleep unless she braces her body between the bodies of my sisters.
But I was speaking of before, before the rain washed out our start, our father, and the very boat that brought us; before the rain, the island was dewed and jeweled with water caught in plattered leaves we drank from as from glasses. Deer, which must have clicked across the ice one winter, bounded past us, and there was smaller wildlife—fox, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel—and birds of northeastern, fall-serious colors. Mussels, periwinkles, dust-scuttling crabs and bark-colored fish, the shallow water could be farmed, and we gathered what the high tide left behind. We gathered low-bush berries and mosses we could eat. This was our beginning when the insistent squaw of seagulls crashing after urchins, susurrant grasses and groggy frogs, the thin-pitch, high-pierce of wingy invisibles was our music on any clear morning. The trees sweeped through the afternoon until stilled by the sun, they held themselves erect as candles, and the island flamed, and Father told my sisters, "Wish!" and they did, I think; I saw their mouths move. The island was in such ways silencing. The nights, guttering in kerosene, were starry and long—and the cold, the cold! Often I was witness to my Mother when she held out her hands and said, "Look at how cracked," when she said, "No matter how beautiful it is here, I am lonely."
To me she confided how she missed seeing other people, simply people passing, strangers whose stories she liked to make up; and when she thought there was no one but us now to know her story, she was sad.
I was a son. The island, I knew, would not always be my home—even if my sisters never married and pursued eccentric crafts, I would not come back to act as the stunted bachelor brother. My aim was to…well, I couldn't see an end exactly. The ordinary world we had left behind looked far away. The ordinary world from the island's highest point hung at a watery distance like laundry, like cold-smelling and sun-smelling coarse, white sheets. No harbor mess of lobster traps and low-tide stinks from here. From here, where I went sometimes for the view, I saw what we had left and what I could go back to.
Imagined blocks ablaze with fall's hard light, fall's winds, a new smell, school.
But it was August. The island was hushed, and the pond where we swam was turned to scum. My sisters sulked. "Daddy," they said, "don't make us." I had no choice but to ease off the bank and into the water as example to my sisters, who yet resisted, saying, "He's a boy, Daddy, please, don't make us."
The intoxicant of swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming! The length of the pond and then the length again! Alone, afar, adrift from my family and Father shouting from the shore made me wonder at the submerged and muffled experience of water, which was also the experience of my age—fourteen. I might sign on board if a boat passed near enough, I might explore beyond the mainland.
I saw my oldest sister's sex in sudden passing, a hairless, white hardness and a dark slot. I saw her and touched myself and was not ashamed. The island conspired to sex us; the leaves, torn, milked, and there was rustling. The stones' soft shapes marked and swashed by rising water—rising water itself—ferns unfurling, teary gums and oozes from the trees, slimes, foams, the sweat that fell from Mother's face when she was bent to anything…all, all of it aroused me. My sister, the oldest, yet not so old but that she wandered in undress, made me want to hurt her. What would she feel like to squeeze?
The skin on her arm when I twisted it was hairless and cool, and I could feel the bone in her arm whereas the youngest's arms were all flesh. The youngest was easier to drag; the other's hipbones knocked against the stones; and she bumped along the length I dragged her; yet she liked to be dragged—they both did—and spooked and swung around and chased and carried. Piggy-backed and given up to jouncing, the oldest sagged the reins by which she held me; and she leaned back and looked up and in a clip-clopped voice noised her pleasure at the sky. So this was childish play, and I was aroused, and I kissed her.
She said, "What are you doing?"
"Act like someone else," I told her, and she didn't move when I touched her but stayed on her back and still.
The fog descended on the island, and the wind came up, and there was lightning where we lived. Our father died. Rain, rain, rain runneling down a mudslide, our father must have stuck and drowned. Mother made a spoon of her fingers and scooped mud from his eyes.
I begged against his ear to breathe.
My sisters cried.
On the cliffside of the island Mother beat me nearly deaf. "There are goats if that's your purpose," she shouted.
"But what is my purpose?" I asked, and I was mad in pain and sick and Mother said at first she didn't know what and then she did. Why not stay here and people the island, she asked. "Why not fuck me?"