I lost my twin to a harsh November nine years ago. Ever since, I’ve felt the span of that month like no other, as if each of the calendar’s thirty perfect little squares split in two on the page. I wished they’d just disappear. Bring on winter. I had bags of rock salt, a shovel, and a strong back. I wasn’t afraid of ice and snow. November always lingered, though, crackling under the foot of my memory like dead leaves.
It was no wonder then that I gave in to impulse one November evening, left papers piled high on my desk and went to where I’d lost myself in the past with a friend. I thought I might evade memory for a while at the auction house, but I slammed into it anyhow. It was just November’s way.
Only this time, November surprised me.
I had to have it.
Just over a foot long, the wavy dagger looked ancient and as though it’d been carved from lava rock. The grooved base was a study in asymmetry, with one end swooping off in a jagged point and the other circling into itself like a tiny, self-protective tail or the crest of a wave. Gemstones filled a ring that bound metal to a cocked wood handle. Intricate engravings covered the silver sheath. If not for a small hole in the blade’s center, it would’ve been flawless.
I leaned in to touch it but was jarred out of my study by a poke to the thigh. The poker, a little girl, almost capsized me, and not from the poking, either. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did I might think I was looking at my sister from years past. My sister, a child. Eyes like the sea. Long, red hair like hers—and mine, before I snuffed out my pyrotechnics with several boxes of Platinum Snow and found a pair of scissors.
My vision grayed a little as I stared at her. She might’ve been seven or eight—a few years younger than Moira and me when we’d filched a sword like the one I intended to have and lost it in the bay. Well, I’d lost it, pretending to be Alvilda, Pirate Queen.
The girl poked me again.
“Can I help you, little one?” I asked. “Are you lost?”
She didn’t answer, just pointed toward the far back of the viewing table. There wasn’t much there: a bust of JFK, a pearlized candy jar, and an indigo bottle that might’ve been Depression-era glass. Noel would’ve been able to say for sure.
“Do you want that?” I took a guess and pointed at the candy jar. Maybe there was a secret stash of chocolate in there; who knew? But she shook her head. I looked again and saw a small black box slathered with pink roses, the buds as sweet as frosting. Of course. “The box?” She nodded.
I cradled it before her, and she reached out a hand pudgy with youth. “Careful,” I said. I looked for parental figures but saw no one exhibiting missing-child panic—or with the right hair color. The girl didn’t take the box, just left it in my hands and opened the lid.
Music swam up at me. “The Entertainer.” The girl giggled.
“Do you—” My voice turned to rust. “Do you like music?”
“I love dancing to the music.” Her voice was sweet, as shy as her smile. She was so much like Moira, but whole, able to run and laugh. I missed my sister’s laugh—maybe most of all.
“Do you play any instru—”
“Jillian! There you are!” A woman with dark hair strode toward us, her face a combination of annoyance and relief.
“I was looking at the music, Mommy,” the girl said. “See how pretty?”
The mother bent before her daughter. “You scared me. Next time you want to look at something, we’ll go together.”
The girl nodded, serious, just as the lights flickered.
“Let’s find a seat.” The woman pulled her daughter behind her as the girl lifted her hand to me. Good-bye. They disappeared in the crowd.
I shook off my melancholy thoughts and turned back to the blade. My fingers itched to touch it, but just as I reached, an auction attendant pulled it off the table, sheathed it, and placed it in a cardboard box. “Viewing time’s over,” she said.
“Fallen in love, have you?”
I’d never seen another blade like the one I’d lost to the sea, and the desire for it tugged at me as if a line were rooted in my mouth. “I have to have it.”
The woman added items to her container: the blue bottle, the candy jar, the music box. “You’d better get out your checkbook, then. Old George thinks that sword will go for hundreds.”
Fine, then. I had a checkbook.
After a few minutes of dodging elbows and purses, I registered as the temporary owner of one beat-up paddle (number 51). Snippets of conversation danced around me as I wedged my way between wide-shouldered men and women.
“John would love that old clock for Christmas.”
“Let’s get through Thanksgiving first.”
“Thanksgiving’s just a day. Christmas is an event. Besides, it’s never too soon to buy for Christmas. Don’t you think he’d love that clock?”
I veered away from them, closer to the stage. That stage and the old floor, pockmarked from where rows of shabby velvet seats used to reside, were all that remained of the theater that had once been a revered landmark in Betheny, New York. At least, that’s what Noel had told me. I’d only been a resident since college.
I’d just reached the front when George Lansing, the owner of Lansing’s Block, appeared center stage. There was a blur of activity—the sale of someone’s stamp collection, a worn set of stools, a mahogany china closet that would break backs. I saw the blue bottle poking out of its container at George’s feet and knew the blade lay there as well. The bottle sold, and then George grasped the music box.
“Going once!” he said, after a token amount of haggling with the crowd. A middle-aged woman with a sour expression had raised her marker and placed a bid of $5.
Where was the girl? Wouldn’t her mother buy the box for $6? I looked around but didn’t see her.
My arm lifted almost of its own volition. “Ten dollars.”
George didn’t even look at me, probably just wrote the bidder off as a sucker. There were no further offers.
I didn’t need a music box. I didn’t want a music box. In fact, I’d hate that music box. But the child who looked so much like my sister should have it. I couldn’t seek her out, though, because just then George held the sheathed dagger over his head, and the raucous room grew hushed. I leaned closer; everyone seemed to.
“Now here’s something you don’t see every day,” Lansing said, his voice as gritty as his wares. “This here’s a keris. It’s a little roughed up with a hole through its middle, but not bad shape when you consider it was made somewhere in Indonesia probably two centuries ago.”
Somewhere in Indonesia. Probably two centuries ago. I smiled. Lansing had never been big on facts—something Noel had taken profitable advantage of in the past.
And then Lansing’s pitch rose, and the chant began: “Who’ll bid two hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, two hundred dollars?”
It seemed half the room’s occupants held their markers high, and the price rose to $225, $250, $275. I gripped my marker with slick palms. Noel had taught me how to bide my time, to don a face as still as the water on a windless bay; the slightest ripple would attract Lansing’s attention.
“This blade’s worth at least double that last bid, and I won’t sell it for anything less than $350!” He pounded the podium—a technique that probably wasn’t in the Christie’s handbook, even if it did work. I looked over my shoulder as number 36 grumbled his bid of $350.
How much was I willing to spend in honor of a memory?
“Going once for three hundred and fifty dollars, going twice!”
I raised my marker and hollered, “Four hundred dollars!”
George finally looked at me, and his speck-dark eyes grew wide. “It’s Noel Ryan’s friend, the little albino girl,” he said with a smirk. He eyeballed the room, but Noel wouldn’t be found here tonight. “He send you for this?”
“No,” I said, “he didn’t.”
Little albino girl. Times like this I just wanted to shout out that I, Maeve Leahy, was in fact a professor and connoisseur of more languages than George Lansing could probably name. But I said nothing, just tried to skewer him with my most lethal stare as people turned to look at me and my hueless hair. He smiled as he waved the gilded carrot that was Noel’s impeccable reputation and keen eye before the crowd, and didn’t blink when the false bait drew bites and the bidding resumed.
My Irish kicked in when it was down to me and another persis- tent soul, someone who pressed on from the back of the room. I had to have the blade, so I would have it. I lifted my marker and tried not to think about the cost.
But the other bidder didn’t relent, either.
“You?” George Lansing said with incredulity the first time number 12’s marker was called out. After, he just glowered at whoever gave my checkbook and me such a run, which was curious in and of itself.
I craned my head to pierce my competitor with dagger eyes, to say, Back off. This is mine. But I couldn’t stand tall enough to see a face, just the competing placard and an odd black hat on a short-statured body. I was no fashionista, but the hat looked like a pillbox wrapped in a scarf.
None of it mattered in the end. Once the price teetered up to $700, not even Lansing could coerce blood from the others’ snapped-shut, firm-tucked, copper-pinching veins. So I won.
The tautness in my chest loosened as I made my way to the pay-and-pickup window. I might’ve forgotten about the music box, but the woman behind the counter quoted me $710, and handed it over straightaway once I’d written out the check.
“The other—that sword thingy—it’s not here yet,” she said.
I took the music box and returned to the jammed room. I spied the young mother right away, standing in line for hot dogs.
“Excuse me.” I held the box out to her. “Your daughter admired this earlier, and I’d love for her to have it.”
“Oh, no.” The woman’s painted brows knit tight. “We couldn’t possibly. Thank you, but no,” she repeated over my objections. “We can’t accept that, can we, Jillian?”
Her daughter appeared by her side—or maybe she’d been there all along and I hadn’t recognized her. Because her hair, it wasn’t red at all; it was dark like her mother’s.
“It’s pretty,” the girl said with a shrug. “You keep it.”
“You must have another daughter,” I said to the mother. “She’s the one who liked the box.”
The woman’s expression turned wary. “No, I only have one.” And then she laughed. “One’s enough.”
“No,” I muttered. “One’s not nearly enough.” I took a last look at the girl before turning away.
I stood beneath the ratty paper-globe light at the pay-and-pickup window until the blade arrived. I couldn’t wait to touch it, but when I did I felt a startling amount of disappointment. There was no internal tremor, no spark. Instead, my chest clogged with emotion. I held that blade and whispered in every language I knew, “Bienvenue. Bem-vindo. Bienvenido. Salve. Benvenuto. Bine ai venit. Welcome.”
the first thing I noticed when I stepped into my apartment—besides the deafening silence that meant Kit was once again not at home—was the bright green face of my cell phone staring up at me from the entry table. I’d forgotten it again. And I’d missed a message. My thoughts leaped to Noel. I tossed the music box and the blade on the couch beside my sleeping cat, Sam, and checked for voice mail.
Daddy. My heart stuttered.
“We can’t make it for Thanksgiving after all. Sorry, sweetheart. Well,” he said, “wish you were there. Talk soon.”
I stood static for a minute, then called Kit. It surprised me when she picked up.
“Miss your daily dose of harassment?”
At least she knew herself. “Yeah, my life’s bland without your trademark aggravation peppered all over it.”
She laughed. “I was just about to call you. I’ll be home later, so don’t freak if you hear the door open.”
“They’re letting you out for good behavior?” I walked to the window to stare out at the night. “Have they strapped one of those detection boxes to your ankle—you know, the kind they give to stay-at-home convicts?”
“Yep. It’s called a pager.” Kit, a first-year resident physician, worked far more hours than the law allowed, though it suited Betheny’s floundering teaching hospital just fine.
I breathed on the glass, then put my finger against the film of condensation and made a tic-tac-toe grid. “My dad called. My parents won’t be here for Thanksgiving after all.”
“So go to them,” she said without missing a beat. “It’s not such a long drive, and you haven’t been to Castine in years.”
“I’ve been busy.” I put an X in the center of my grid, then an O at the upper right.
“But it could be—”
“No.” I imagined it for a second: seeing my parents and the old room I’d shared with Moira, walking over Maine’s rock beaches and sailing the Penobscot. But as much as I missed the sea, Castine had become like quicksand for me. “No,” I repeated. “I’ll stay here. That means it’s you and me and the cat.”
“So we’ll make our own Thanksgiving. Turkey, all the trimmings.”
“They’ll let you whip up garlic mashed potatoes in the ER?”
“Funny.” She paused. “We still need to schedule your MRI.”
I wished she’d let that go, but I guess it was my fault for making a big deal out of it once when the noises came—scattery disjointed sounds, a little like you’d hear trying to tune in to a distant radio station. We’d been eating one of our rare meals together when I’d covered my ears and growled, “Knock it off!”
She stopped twirling pasta to stare at me. “What the hell?”
“Nothing. Just my personal noise factory.”
“You’re hearing things?” Her cat eyes narrowed on me, and then she’d provided an encyclopedic listing of every freakish thing that could make a person imagine sounds. “I don’t think it’s schizophrenia.”
“Thanks for that.”
“But what about a brain tumor or—” A gasp. “It could be post-traumatic stress disorder! You’re scatterbrained, you sleep for crap, you have zero sex drive—”
“Enough! I haven’t been in a war, Kit.”
“You have, kind of. It could be plain traumatic stress. That’s like PTSD, just not as severe.”
I understood the excitement of untangling a mystery and weaving a theory, but Kit was off the mark; I knew more about the noises than I’d let on. Those little immature sounds that wanted to bust free in my cranium were the remnants of a previous life, the parts that used to make up my sum. I’d moved on, and I wished the remnants would, too.
“Well, if I did have one of those diseases,” I’d said, “could you prescribe something to stop the noises? Does such a drug exist?” Maybe not my best idea, but what good was it to have your best friend become a doctor if she couldn’t whip out her prescription pad once in a while to simplify your life?
She’d just shaken her head and said, “You need to see a neurologist,” which I wasn’t about to do.
I tried harder after that to repress the sounds, though the effort stole my energy, and pretty soon Kit was saying I was too pale and my body temperature too low and that maybe I had chronic fatigue syndrome or a sleep disorder or needed to be tested for lupus and an array of other things. I thought she was the one with the clear diagnosis: medical residentitis.
“Hey, you there?” Kit said in real time. Me, I’d drawn my third tic-tac-toe board, and I hadn’t won a single game.
“Only if you promise not to start in with me.”
“Hallucinations can be serious, Maeve.”
“Random noises don’t count as hallucinations, just corroded brain joints.” God, if I told her about the little girl with the not-red hair she’d have me admitted to the psych ward for sure.
“Well, I think you should see someone,” she said.
“I know you do.”
“I love you, you know?”
“I know. I’ll leave a light on for you.”
I shut my cell, then found the Windex. I squirted solution onto the window markings I’d made and cleared them all away—just in case playing tic-tac-toe with yourself could be used as evidence of insanity. And if there were any noises other than that of squeaky-clean glass, I pretended not to hear them.
that night, I had to force myself to read and grade half of the essays left on my desk. If not for Jim Shay’s effort—“C’è un’orrenda creatura nel mio brood” (There’s a gruesome creature in my soup)—the process would’ve been entirely unoccupying, which was odd, because I loved to teach, loved my students, loved to keep track of their progress and grade even the most Nytol-ish of papers. And I loved language—all those words with their own spin and dip, requiring their own special curl of the tongue: ebullición, bellissimo, kyrielle, obcecação, labialização, babucha, l’Absolu, d’aria.
I gave up on my work, sat on the couch, and unsheathed the dagger. My finger traveled the metal. God, it took me back.
Once upon a time, my parents liked to tell bedtime stories. My mother favored the parable of the Five Chinese Brothers, who were as identical as Moira and me, but whose different talents saved them from every imaginable catastrophe. One boy could hold an entire sea in his mouth, while each of the others could either go without air or survive fire unscathed, or had an iron neck or legs that could grow into stiltlike appendages.
But my father liked to tell Alvilda’s tale. She’d escaped a prince who wanted to marry her to become a pirate and ruler of the seas instead. Funny, that very prince bested her in battle later and made her fall in love and settle down. She became the queen of Denmark. A story far more satisfying than your run-of-the-mill Cinderella romance.
At the fearsome and fearless age of ten, I decided to become the next Alvilda. All I needed was a boat, a sword, and the sea. I had plenty of boats at my command, since my father made them for a living, and there was sea all over the place in Castine. That left the sword. So one day, I put on my best Alvilda clothes—a red coat, black boots, and an eye patch fashioned out of black construction paper and a shoelace—and sketched a plan for pinching the wavy blade from the artifacts cabinet. There were all sorts of things in that cabinet that my grandfather, an anthropologist, had brought to us from all over the world. But the wavy dagger was my favorite and would make the perfect accessory for my adventure.
Moira was nervous—
“We’ll get in trouble!”
“Shush, Moira, ’cause if Daddy comes now I’ll tell him it was your idea.”
—but she went along in the end. I found the key, opened the cabinet, grabbed the blade, and bolted with my reluctant shadow. We didn’t stop until we reached the docks, and I barely waited for Moira to hop in before I started the motorboat.
We went pretty far out for us, and then I stood on a seat near the prow and acted my part as the mighty Alvilda.
“Bring it on, matey!” I crowed, waving the blade around until Moira squealed—
There weren’t many words that could snuff out my bravado, but shark did it when we were in a tiny boat and far from Daddy’s help. The blade and its sheath were lost in the water. I don’t know if I dropped them in or if they slid from a precarious perch as I hovered over my twin. Regardless, by the time I realized the fin belonged to a whale—who lifted his harmless black head just once—they were gone.
My gut had ached more than my thwacked backside, knowing that beautiful blade lay at the bottom of the ocean, gone forever, thanks to me. But now I had one again.
Shadows drifted over the ceiling like sorcerer’s fingers, until my eyelids grew heavy and I gave in.
With sleep, though, came the nightmare.
Water seeped beneath the closed door as it always did. Open the door! the voice commanded as a growing stream drenched my shoes, socks, and skin. The pounding began. Open the door!
Then, something different: Tinny music, “The Entertainer,” began to play on the other side of the wood.
I broke from the dream. My skin prickled with the icy-wash feeling I loathed, and my heartbeat thundered in my throat. The music box lay open on the floor, combing through its circular song with its many pins and pegs. I must’ve kicked it off the couch in my sleep. I shut the lid and “The Entertainer” stopped. But sound remained, intensified, then mutated.
My mind filled with its own music: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12, each hammered string tinkling through my memory like water torture. All in my head, yes, but far from a hallucination.
I tapped into an old skill and pressed back the sound until song became broken notes, and notes became a weak scatter of between-station noise. Why was it that whenever it snuck in, it was piano, like a knife scraping at the last of my nerves?
An owl hooted outside my window, and I thought with a mix of exhaustion and irony that perhaps I’d just been answered, but in a language I would never understand.
From the Hardcover edition.