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shoo fly. that was what my mother called me. shoo Fly Pie. Shoo,Flyódon't bother me, I belong to somebody. I can hear her still in the southern nights of my childhood, nights that never seemed clear and clean like they do farther north but were instead heavy and alive with fireflies, and nightjars, and all of the things that move and wind through the dark.
When I think of those nights now, I hear my mother's voice. She is standing in the kitchen, the soles of her Keds firmly planted on the linoleum floor. Her hands, narrow and long-fingered, move rhythmically and without thought, like something programmed. She is canning. She ladles whole peaches, squishy and bright yellow, into jars, pours syrup that will stick to you and burn if it spills. She spoons piccalilli that is red and green and hot with peppercorns. And while she does this, she sings.
Her thin, hopeful soprano threads its way through our house. Sharp and not quite right, her voice is out of harmony with Georgia. It does not match the long green fields of the farm, the road, red with dust, the sun-blistered walls of the sheds, or the slow creak of our screen door. It is not some slow, rolling bass, nor the sweet arc and swoop of a Baptist hymn, nor a sad, slow sax note of the South. Her voice is not a knife wound. It is just something present and unseriously painful, like a paper cut that stings and cannot be forgotten.
"Shoo, fly," my mother sings, and sometimes in the night I feel that she's calling my special name. My mother didn't have a special name for Marina. I'm not sure why, perhaps because it was enough of a name in itself, enough of a distinction for Petamill, Georgia.
Welonged to be called Sue-Ellen. Carla-Louise. Mary. Daisy. Or best of all, Elizabeth-Anne. But no, there we were in that town with those names, Marina and Susannah, the living evidence of our mother's optimism, of her double-dog dare that in the face of circumstance we would "become something." It was as if, in naming us as she had, our mother had given us something grandiose, something to make up for the fact that we had no father. Or, to put it more accurately, that she had probably never been quite certain of who he was.
Not that our mother was wild anymore. Our birth must have cured her of that. With her bobbed dark hair and her pressed white blouses, the tiny gold earrings from the five-and-dime, and the midheight heels that she wore to work, our mother's wildness was a thing of the past. It clung to her only in half-remembered stories and hovered about her fine-boned beauty like a memory. I dream of my mother as a young girl, and when I do she is always wearing a candy-red dress with a wide skirt and little flat shoes that are black and have bows on the toes. Her waist is tiny. Her hair is a glossy cap. And I can hear her laughing. I dream of her in roadhouses, in those places by the side of secondary highways where the parking lot is crowded with pickup trucks and lit by a neon sign, and where the noise from the bar and the jukebox lifts everything up and floats it out onto the heavy dark.
But that is only my dream. I do not know what the reality was, and my mother never told me. As I have grown older, I have come to suspect that it had more to do with the backseats of Chevrolets, with beer cans and bottled cocktails. With truckers pulling through town. There was, of course, our hair, which was a color unlike any known in our family and distinctive enough to have been something of a clue, if we had been looking for clues. But, now that I think of it, Marina and I were peculiarly uninterested in the possibilities of our parentage. We had very little, if any, interest in who our father was. Our world was closed and complete. Night after night we spun the threads of a cocoon around ourselves while, upstairs in our room, we listened to our mother's song.
We lie stretched and still in our twin beds, and if our mother was to climb the stairs and look in on us, as she so often does, she could assume, from the sweet tilt of our heads and the motionlessness of our hands, that we are sleeping. But she would be wrong. On those nights Marina and I are not drifting high above the farm on a cloud of dreams. We are not sinking and innocently lost in sleep. Oh, no. We are busy.
Without so much as a motion or a sound, Marina and I are weaving words. We are sliding them along the bar of light from the hall that filters under the door. We are sending phrases, paragraphs, laughter, faster and faster, like flights of moths across the dark space of the room. Braiding the strands of our secret cocoon, we are nightspinning.
Not that our mother would know this. Not that anyone would know it. It is our secret. No one guesses that we are nightspinners. No one knows how much we talk, or about the web of secret words we stretch between us. We work in silence. And when our mother eases the door open, she rewards us for what she assumes is our sleep. She whispers, "You are such a good girl." She says it just once, to both of us, as if we were one. Which, in fact, we are. We are two peas in a pod, Marina and me. We are bright as buttons. Cute as pie. Mirror images. We are twins.
By the time we were nine or ten, Marina and I could carry on complete conversations without speaking. Our nightspinning that had begun in the dark had long since grown strong enough to withstand the light of day. I would feel a prickle on the back of my neck, a subtle rising of the tiny, soft hairs that grew there, and I didn't even have to look at her to know what she was saying. Marina would send entire paragraphs into my head, whether I wanted them or not. Permanently set to receive, I was a fax machine that never ran out of paper. My mind was a blank slate, and Marina could write on it any time she chose.
Mostly, when she was nightspinning, she would not meet my eye. She would look in another direction, her gaze fixed on the wall or the fields, her chin set stubborn. And the tiniest smile of triumph would flicker across her face because I could not stop her, could not turn her away if I tried.
To be honest, most of the time I did not try. And neither, insofar as I know, did she. For I used my privilege as a nightspinner, too. I sent my share of messages across our private airway. But I do not know if the back of Marina's neck prickled, or if she came to resent me for my uninvited presence in her head. I presume that was what she felt, if only because it was what I felt. But I do not know, and since I never asked her, I will never know. My sister is dead. She was murdered eighteen months ago in Alexandria, Virginia. Now she is just a case number, an unsolved homicide. One of many.
It is going to rain, i can smell it. the high sashed window that opens onto the balcony of my apartment is raised, and the sounds and the smells of the city drift into my room. There is not much traffic in this part of Philadelphia. Popular wisdom says the city is dying, and so perhaps that explains the quiet of it. It is only occasionally that I hear footsteps on the sidewalks below, or shouted laughter, or the rush of a car in the street like a great exhaled breath.
In the corner beyond the fireplace, the dog moves restlessly. He is a German shepherd, a leggy, two-toned wolf, black and tan with a bearlike snout and golden eyes. As I watch, he rises from his bed, stretches, and regards me seriously. It is almost midnight, and we are due to be abroad, to make our final patrol of the empty streets. He paces in front of me through the hallway and waits while I reach for my sweater and his leash.
We open the door and pause outside my apartment. Only five of us live in this building, and it is possible to imagine that the other three apartments do not exist, that the dog and I are completely alone, and that in stepping through the door and out onto the landing, we have crossed back over time, fallen through a hundred years.
The house is a brownstone, a dowager duchess of the Victorian past modified only slightly in order to greet the modern age. The wall sconces, once lit by gas, are flame-shaped buds of glass. A brass chandelier, adapted uneasily to electricity, hangs in the stairwell. One story above me, a great skylight glows faintly, its smoky panes suggesting an eternal blanket of snow or a Holmesian fog. The stairs, thick-carpeted in crimson, wind down four flights to the parquet floors below. The banisters are huge and ornately carved and far too wide for me to wrap my hand around. This late at night, in the quiet, I feel that I am a small child and the grown-ups are asleep.
The heavy doors swing shut behind us as the dog and I come down the front steps and onto the sidewalk. We pause to sniff the air, to listen, and then begin our walk, turning left and, a block later, left again. We have a routine, and it never varies. Along Delancey Place, the dog inspects each set of iron railings, considers each ginkgo tree. He stops to peer intently at several sets of the wide front steps that lead to glossy black doors with knockers of polished brass in the shape of claws or lions' heads. One particularly ornate lintel is supported by a pair of caryatids. The dog gives them a conspiratorial glance in passing, and they look benignly down on us, as if their thoughts have room to wander while they hold the house on their heads. Even in the coldest wind, or in the powdery pinpricks of the snow, the dog never hurries this ritual. Sometimes his leisurely pace, his lack of urgency, makes me impatient, but not tonight. We are having an Indian summer, and even though it is late September, the breeze is a warm breath that puffs in from the Delaware, bearing the promise of soft, overblown drops of rain.
On nights like this, I sometimes think I can smell the sea. The ports of Philadelphia are a long way from open water. Nevertheless, I like the idea enough that I often insist on it.
"You are lying!" George would say when I claimed that I could taste the ocean, could roll its salt along the back of my tongue. He would smile, reach for my hand, raise his eyebrows at the horror of it, and exclaim, "You are such a liar, Susannah!" Born and raised among the small towns of the Midwest, George found mendacity both incorrigible and faintly erotic. Now I wonder about him, and whether he misses the idea of the sea, and my lies. Then I remind myself sharply that George is no longer my business. He has decamped to Paris, and I am not to wonder about him, not to indulge in fruitless speculation. I have given up keeping track of French weather and calculating time changes. That way lies the road to ruin. The dog turns left, and left again, and we are on the home stretch.
As I lock the door behind us, the clock in the entryway strikes twelve. I slip the dog's leash off and let him run ahead of me up the stairs. He is on the landing when the phone begins to ring. He cocks his head and looks at me, and I look back at him and shrug as I fit my key into the lock. He noses the door open, and I wipe my feet and drop his leash on the table and follow him into the living room, past my desk where the phone rings and rings.
At first I used to answer it. "Hello, hello," I would say obligingly over and over again. But there was never anyone there. I even dialed *69 a couple of times, but all I got was a beeping tone that the operator informed me meant my caller had "blocked" the line. Now I no longer bother about the calls. I have become used to them. Like the walk, this midnight call has become part of our routine. The phone will ring exactly five times, and then, just before my answering machine clicks in, it will stop. Even as I think this, the noise ceases, and the first splats of rain hit the balcony window.
The dog makes a quick patrol of the apartment and returns to his bed in the living room. He does not sleep in my bedroom; he likes to keep his distance. He is aloof in his devotion and not especially made to cuddle. His purpose is more serious, and he has chosen it for himself. He is the watcher at my door.
His yellow eyes follow me. I can feel his cool regard as I stop in front of the hall mirror, caught by my own reflection. I am the only one left now, and I think that I look both the same and not the same. It is as if, now that Marina is gone, I am more concentrated. I am both of us, doubled up, distilled.
I reach up to unclip my hair and stop in midaction as my hand moves in the mirror. It is my mother's hand, exactly. Bony and long-fingered, it reaches into the air, a blank space on the finger where she wore her ring. It is spooky and yet momentarily familiar, the claustrophobic way in which my mother and Marina have arrived to dwell in me. It is as if they have quit the game and left me the family representative on earth. I shake myself, push them away, and finish the gesture they have arrested me in. I remove the large clip and let the hair fall down around my shoulders. I am not a vain woman, but it is true that this lion's mane of bronze and red is my pride and joy.
Posted October 13, 2005
I read the hardback years ago and this is what I thought: I loved this book. I am not sure of the technical term...but the book jumps from present to past...normally in this type of book I speed read the past to get to the present because it's usually where the action is. I had no problem w/ this book the past was as interesting and exciting as the mystery in the present. The book sends Susannah on a hunt for the person who murdered her twin sister...I felt I could feel for Susannah and her situation. I loved her dog! I won't give away anything but I was in suspense until the end. The closing of the book was good. I love a book that gives all the detailed endings to the characters. Way to go Lucretia!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.