This Wild Silence: A Novelby Lucy Jane Bledsoe
"I like to tell Liz that I'm her dark side," says Christine, the narrator of critically acclaimed author Lucy Jane Bledsoe's newest novel. And Christine and her sister, Liz, are indeed opposites. Liz, married to her high school sweetheart Mark, has an outwardly perfect life, but her fierce control is beginning to falter. Christine, a doctor in San Francisco's
"I like to tell Liz that I'm her dark side," says Christine, the narrator of critically acclaimed author Lucy Jane Bledsoe's newest novel. And Christine and her sister, Liz, are indeed opposites. Liz, married to her high school sweetheart Mark, has an outwardly perfect life, but her fierce control is beginning to falter. Christine, a doctor in San Francisco's Tenderloin district who is buried in her work, cannot connect meaningfully with any of the women with whom she falls in love. But the sisters share a secret, one that has bound them tightly to each other for 30 years.
"Scanning the horizon for Timothy is almost an instinct with me," Christine reveals in the book's opening sentence. Timothy, her little brother, disappeared 30 years ago while she and Liz were supposed to be watching him, and their guilt over this event and the lies they have almost come to believe have haunted both sisters throughout their lives. On a winter expedition in California's Sierra Nevada mountains with Liz, Mark, their current juvenile delinquent charge Lenny, and Mark's assistant Melody, an undercurrent of tension bursts into open hostility when a sudden storm traps them on the mountain.
Through Lucy Jane Bledsoe's graceful writing, the -sisters' lifetime of deception is gradually and heartbreakingly revealed, and finally, in this harsh and dangerous environment, secrets are exposed and lies give way to the kind of healing truth that provides a possibility for hope.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of Working Parts, winner of the American Library Association Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Award for literature, and Sweat: Stories and A Novella, a Lambda Literary Awardfinalist. She has been published in Newsday and Ms. among others, and teaches in the master's of creative writing program at the University of San Francisco.
- Alyson Publications
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this wild silencea novel
By LUCY JANE BLEDSOE
alyson booksCopyright © 2003 Lucy Jane Bledsoe
All right reserved.
Scanning the horizon for Timothy is almost an instinct with me. I do it every time I'm in wilderness. It has never felt absurd, the idea that a little boy-and I always picture him still five years old-might come loping over the horizon and back into our lives. Never mind that by now he would be thirty-five and not a little boy at all.
This morning's horizon is violent with the colors of dawn. Blood red. Fire orange. Bruise purple. Smeared like pain across the sky, over the mountains and frozen lake. It's a raw morning, new as an egg, and for a moment I feel afraid. I glance at my sister, Liz, who futzes with the others around the splayed open truck, and I know she has changed; something inside her has slipped, let go, and settled in a new but not necessarily happy way. I also know my sister can't change, not significantly, without changing me, and that is the basis of my fear.
My theory is that change happens when there is a convergence of seemingly unrelated events that, despite their chance encounter, form a critical mass that overcomes the angle of repose and propels a person forward into new territory. Even in this first moment of the trip, long before anything consequential has happened, I am briefly aware that Flo is one stream of the convergence, this sunrise another, and of course Liz is somehow, as always, the controlling current.
The game, however, these thirty years since losing Timothy, has been that I'm the truth-seeker, the one to creep toward the uncomfortable precipice of our family secrets, so as the sun approaches the horizon and sears the brilliance out of the dawn, I let go of my fear, slip into my role, and regain my foothold on this planet by mentioning Timothy to my sister.
"Thirty-five," I say, reminding her of our brother's age today.
"Yep," she says, kneeling in the snow to snap Lenny's gaiters on over his size fourteen boots. Lenny is telling a story about an avalanche he survived by making swimming motions. He windmills his arms in the dim, icy air, demonstrating while Liz concentrates on his feet. He says his life-all sixteen years of it-passed before his eyes. He says that afterward he lay on the snow, his legs buried, for twelve hours before a Saint Bernard found him. He says he was clinically dead.
"So what was it like on the other side?" Mark, my sister's husband, asks.
"The other side of what?"
"Were you sweating and holding a pitchfork or were you floating on a cloud and wearing a white gown?"
Lenny smiles a crooked smile. Mark is good at teasing without making you feel bad. He's the butter in our family, the one luxury that makes everything go down easy.
"I don't remember ever skiing with Timothy," I say to Liz. "Did we?"
"I guess he was too little."
Liz used to scowl or change the subject when I talked about Timothy, which would only egg me on. I didn't like her implying that my wanting to talk about him was as stupid as picking a scab. But lately she has taken a different tack, shining me on, which is more effective. In the city last week, after we had lunch together and I was walking her back to the train station, I saw a tall, pale man with raspberry lips. "Hey, Liz, see that guy? Don't you think that's what Timothy probably looks like?"
"Gray suit, though. Timothy would never be a suit. Do you think?"
Anyone could see that talking about Timothy does not help her, that she is perfectly content in her Timothy silence, but it helps me. I obsess on who he might be today. I keep a mental list of all the possibilities: a cowboy in Montana, dead of exposure in the woods, slave to a pedophile, dead from measles contracted in an orphanage, a banker in the Cayman Islands, beaten to death at age five, a victim of amnesia, killed in a car accident, adopted into a loving family, a suicide in some prison, a New Age guru-follower in an ashram, dead of AIDS, a street person in New York. Et cetera. I always make sure to list an equal number of dead and alive possibilities, although logic tells me dead is much more likely than alive. If he were alive, certainly he would have contacted us. We're not hard to find. But then, amnesia would prevent him from contacting us. In fact, several of the options would prevent him from doing that. After all, he was only five years old. He could have easily been adopted into another family and forgotten us.
Or, I think, looking out over the blue dusting of snow on the dawn-lit lake, he could be little remaining bits of organic matter locked into lake ice, frozen year after year, thawing out in the spring, becoming fish food, until the fishes died and became bottom-feeder food. Until they died and fed the plants. Little bits of organic matter that never disappeared, just changed form moment to moment, year after year.
I wonder now why I haven't told Flo about Timothy. As Liz likes to point out, I tell everyone who will listen. Flo would listen, but to tell her would be like touching an open wound with a hot poker.
Turning my back to the eastern sky, the icy lake, and the mountains, I face the parking lot, its dirty snow and big brown outhouse on the far end. The problem with extreme beauty is that it is excruciating. So is this cold. It's freezing out here at five in the morning. Even the air seems crystallized, hard to breathe. We are skiing in only a few miles, making the excessively early start unnecessary, but that's Liz for you. She isn't actually a morning person, and that galls her. She pretends to be one. It's part of her modus operandi. Part of the wilderness survival thing. She annoys everyone with her brisk dance, her silver thermos of too-strong coffee, her insistence on conversation at the crack. If she were a true morning person, she would know to keep quiet, to listen, to enjoy the only part of the day when time unfolds haphazardly. The light now is so fragile a sharp voice could break it.
What amazes me about sisters is that you can look through the same lens-if you can think of a family as a lens-and see entirely different worlds. Like me, Liz works in the city, but she wouldn't dream of living there. And she thinks I shouldn't live there either. She likes to confuse me with my patients, most of whom live in the Tenderloin, many of whom are homeless, a few of whom are crazy. In fact, she thinks of anything urban as a pathology. Many years ago, when land was still relatively cheap, she and Mark bought several acres of rolling hills and live oaks on the other side of the East Bay crest. They built their solar-heated house themselves, and also the barn where Mark runs his educational publishing firm. Even though they both work full-time, they keep what they call a garden but I would call a farm, growing all the vegetables they eat, plus much more, which they give to me for my patients. In the winter they have lettuce, broccoli, carrots, cabbages; in summer peppers, squashes, watermelons, beans, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, everything. They keep a few goats to do their "mowing" and for milk for their morning coffee and whole grain cereal. They also have a small orchard that provides buckets of apricots, lemons, apples, plums, and avocados. They even tried to grow their own wheat for making bread, but that didn't pan out. I feel accomplished if I manage to pick up a loaf of bread that isn't Wonder.
I like to tell Liz that I'm her dark side, and I am, literally and figuratively. Her long hair, which used to be straw-blond but is now caramel, hangs in a braid the length of her spine. Her skin always looks freshly scrubbed, glowing with lovely pink health, and her eyes are a cool and practical gray. Next to my sister, I look chunky and big-breasted; my light auburn hair and brown eyes seem muddy, lacking in clarity. I have our mother's heavy eyebrows and Liz has our father's trim lips. Despite these differences, it's obvious we're sisters; she just looks lighter and thinner and fresher.
Besides tending plants, Liz and Mark take on human projects too, such as Lenny, who now stands like a child, all six feet of him, while Liz adjusts his pack, cinching a strap, loosening another. His oversize feet, hands, and nose give him a look of vulnerability, making the stories of juvenile delinquency I have heard about him seem ludicrous. He appears quite tame now, tamer certainly than Liz, who struggles to fiercely overcome the morning.
Liz opens her thermos and pours a cupful of black coffee. She holds the cup out to her husband. He shakes his head. Mark is barely five feet five inches tall but has a powerful build. In a life drawing class I once took, the teacher had us draw the human form using all ovals, but if I were to draw Mark, I would use all rectangles. He's a flame blond with a ruddy face that makes his hair look all the brighter. He could be a Southern California surfer if he didn't scorn everything about California. Until he was fourteen and moved to Portland he lived in rural Oregon, near the Rogue River, and prided himself on his survival skills, as he now prides himself on his and Liz's anti-urban lifestyle-even though they live less than an hour from several Bay Area cities, including San Francisco. Liz and Mark are more than a couple-having been together since they were fourteen years old, they are more like twins.
After downing the cupful of coffee, Liz reaches into the front seat of the truck and pulls out a sheet of paper. "Mark, stove?"
"Lenny, two space blankets?"
"Aye, aye." He salutes her.
Giving up on silence, I fit earphones over my head and let Janis Joplin's rasp ease the tension my sister infuses in me. I slide my finger along the ridged volume dial and crank up Joplin telling me to get it while I can. I've often tried to imagine what it would have been like to be Joplin's lover. To have sat on the back of that motorcycle with her. To have leaned my face into her badly damaged hair. To have felt all the fury in that small, also badly damaged body of hers. It could have been good. It could have been as wrenching as her voice. But then maybe not.
I knock a cigarette out of a pack and grip it between cold lips. Liz, still going through her checklist, glances at me and I see an appeal in her gray eyes, which I mistake as concern for my health. I shrug apologetically and tear off a match. I can't hear the scratch of the match with Joplin in my ears, but I can smell the mini-explosion of sulfur and draw it into my lungs. Next the glorious nicotine. Joplin's voice and the cigarette almost warm me up.
I watch Liz for a moment and reconsider that look she gave me. An appeal. She's afraid I won't be a help on this trip, but a help with what? Without sound on my sister, irritation morphs into affection as I watch her command our little expedition. Liz can be annoying, but when I'm with her I can almost feel the loneliness hiss out of my body, like air from a tire, leaving me flat and malleable. Her authority is comforting.
We're nearly ready to go. Mark stows our wallets in the hidden compartment and locks the truck. Melody, who works for Mark, has been ready for twenty minutes, and she skis back and forth in the woods next to the parking lot, a look of concentration-which could be joy, could be anything-on her face. Liz told me that Melody is a Buddhist.
I walk a few steps away from everyone, facing the lake once again, and savor the end of my cigarette, enjoying the contrast of fresh air and tobacco smoke, and let Joplin tear out a piece of my heart. The sun crests the horizon at last, its light seeming to clean away the debris of nighttime, offering up a crazy burst of hope. I think of Flo's room, where I slept night before last, laden with burning candles, the flames like little bits of the sun. I imagine Flo's previous life resembled Joplin's, but Flo didn't self-destruct. She changed. I wonder what she would think of this alpine morning. I can't imagine her here.
I let out a little scream, which I can't hear myself, when two giant fingers snap in my face. Lenny. He wants a cigarette. I slide the earphones down to my neck and pull out my pack. Standing behind Lenny, Liz scowls. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Well, smoking isn't illegal. The only problem is, I've brought a rationed number of cigarettes, figuring that on a camping trip I should smoke less than usual. If I have to split them with Lenny, I'll have even fewer for me.
Since Lenny's hands are encased in Gore-Tex mittens that on him look like boxing gloves, I light a cigarette and reach up to place it between his lips. I would like this kid, just based on his looks, if I didn't know anything about him. He has straight jet-black hair and bovine eyes, the lower lids drooping down, and upper lashes so long the tips actually touch his eyebrows. His too-big adolescent nose, matching his huge feet and hands, looks so out of place on his face. Mark and Lenny were matched in the Big Brothers of America program two years ago. Since then, Lenny has landed in juvenile detention twice, once for setting fire to a garbage can at school and once for helping to rob a 7-Eleven, and he's recently gotten into some fresh trouble-"having something to do with a woman," was all Mark said. Lenny is the alleged reason for this weekend. Mark and Liz believe hard labor in the wilderness can cure any personality malfunction.
Which I suspect is why Liz wanted me to come along. Like Lenny, I am in need of rehabilitation, a weekend's exertion in the mountains. But in my case, it's for my inability to "settle down," in Liz's words. Specifically, for my colossal misstep in breaking up with Robin and thereby denying myself the possibility of finally having a home, a real home. All Liz's interpretation, of course, but Liz is never entirely wrong.
When I told her about the breakup four months ago, I knew she'd be upset. She and Robin got on like bandits. My sister had practically offered the woman a dowry. So I embedded the information in an enticement, like giving a dog a pill wrapped in meat.
We were on the phone when I asked, "Hey, do you and Mark want the Bonnie Raitt tickets I bought before Robin and I broke up?"
"Bought Bonnie Raitt tickets but can't use them."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I said, trying to forestall the lecture. "But it wasn't working."
"It doesn't just work on its own," Liz informed me. "You have to work it."
"I'm not in love with her."
"You didn't give yourself a chance."
"Look, Robin broke up with me so-"
"Did Robin know about Lucienne?"
"Of course she knew about Lucienne. I have a lot of faults, but I'm not a liar."
Oh, boy. I didn't mean to say that. I could almost hear Liz wince, as if I had called her a liar. I hadn't meant to. I don't think I had, anyway.
Excerpted from this wild silence by LUCY JANE BLEDSOE Copyright © 2003 by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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