The first time Heloise saw Mitch, he was standing beside the vending machines in the hospital cafeteria, angular and fresh in his puckery clean white scrubs. She had come in for a Coke and chips, not that she wanted either, only the excuse to escape her rounds with the hospital chaplain and her classmates from the Divinity School. It freaked her out how much she was attracted by the misery of the people in those rooms. The stumps. The scars. The pins. Unlike her classmates, she couldn’t force herself to ask a patient’s name, sit by a bed, and hold a hand. All she wanted to do was stand by the door and stare.
She fled to the cafeteria and stood sipping her Coke, trying to remember why she had wanted a degree in religion in the first place. As an undergrad, she had taken courses in paintings of the Renaissance, the poetry of Donne and Blake. The next thing she knew, she was a student at Harvard Div, tagging along behind a stocky Congregationalist minister and a bunch of sincerely devoted ministers-to-be, all of whom wanted to offer dying people the comforting words of Christ.
She looked up and saw Mitch. He twisted apart an Oreo, scraped the icing with his teeth, and studied her as if he were diagnosing some disease. Absently, he curled his wrist to stroke the shiny head of the stethoscope around his neck. She suspected he could put that instrument to her chest and discover things about her that she didn’t know herself. Like maybe she had a better heart than she thought she did.
“So you really believe in God?”
She must have looked startled.
“Upstairs,” he said. “I saw you with the other student ministers.”
She knew that the accepted way to eat an Oreo was to split the layers and lick the icing, but she always had preferred biting the entire cookie. Not that she had eaten an Oreo since she was five.
“So, do you?” Mitch asked again. “I’ve never met anyone our age who believes in God.”
“I’m trying,” Heloise said. “But sometimes I have to wonder if God believes in me.”
Opposites attract. Everyone said it. Mitch was tall and she was short. He was fair and she was unfair. Mitch had never had a girlfriend, while Heloise had been having tortured romances since her senior year in high school, when she had instigated an affair with the witty bisexual black man who taught history in her town. She tended to earn good grades, but each success came hard. Mitch was healthy, handsome, smart. He had grown up in a loving family and won scholarships to MIT and Harvard Med. He was a non-believing Jew who put his trust in antibiotics and NMRs; she was a half-assed Unitarian trying to justify her faith in a supposedly loving God.
So yes, opposites did attract. The question no one ever asked was: How long can they stay attracted? What were people, magnets? That was why so many marriages fell apart. For a few years, in your twenties, you thought you could be your opposite. People who were weary of their madness married people who promised peace. People bored with their own stability married spouses who were sure to shake things up. But souls could only stretch so far, for so long.
Still, their marriage might have worked. She admired Mitch. She loved him. She hoped his goodness might rub off on her. Really, there was nothing wrong with the man except that he had never suffered, and what kind of flaw was that? She might have survived forever as a sort of Persephone in reverse, tolerating three seasons a year with Mitch in his cheery sunlit world, if only she had been allowed an occasional brief fling in Hades. But she depended on Mitch for everything. They moved when he got his fellowship, and later when he got his first job, and still later when he became chief of anesthesiology at the largest hospital in Troy, New York. She finally found the time to work on her dissertation, an overly ambitious attempt to understand the appeal of martyrdom in Judeo-Christian art. But this meant she stayed at home mired in confused ideas about sex, despair, and strange deaths, while Mitch spent his days and nights in an unambiguously bright OR, where everything was clean and measured—the rise and fall of a patient’s chest, the unwavering needle on a clear-faced dial.
They moved so many times that she misplaced her friends along the way, like the measuring spoons she had inherited from her aunt and the tablecloth her mother had embroidered before she died. With no friends of her own, Heloise was forced to borrow Mitch’s. Like Mitch, they loved to hike. All that greenery and dirt made up for their sterile days in the hospital’s harsh blank corridors. Most of Mitch’s friends had been Boy Scouts in their youth, and even in their thirties they still radiated the boyish confidence and sincerity Heloise associated with that group. Camping or not, Mitch acted as if nothing could go wrong so long as he made sure to carry the right equipment and keep a clear head. At least once a month, the surgeons and dieticians planned some sort of trek, and Mitch and Heloise trekked along with them. On regular weekend nights, everyone got together for potluck dinners, although the two-doctor couples could have afforded to cook—it drove Heloise nuts, the way Mitch’s friends pretended they weren’t rich. Still, she always prepared a dish and went. And when everyone else got pregnant, Heloise and Mitch got pregnant, too.
A year after Eunice was born, Heloise and Mitch planned a trip with another couple. The other mother, Deb, showed them a brochure that had been printed on recycled paper. “It’s called Sunshine Lodge,” she explained. “It’s on a mountain up north. Everything’s solar powered. The owners keep llamas, goats, and sheep. There’s a playroom for the kids, a sauna and hot tub for us, and an orchard with miles and miles of cross-country trails.”
Later, Heloise scolded herself for not knowing better than to spend her vacation at a petting zoo. She hated cross-country skiing. Why make a sport of the exhausting horizontal slog a downhill skier was forced to endure from the parking lot to the lift? But Mitch was too deliberate to enjoy skiing downhill. He loved getting out in the woods, pouring cups of cocoa, and watching the snow sift prettily through the trees. Oh well. You couldn’t crash down a black-diamond slope with a toddler on your back.
“We have an extra kiddie-pack you can borrow,” Deb offered. “That way, you can ski with Eunice, and Hank can carry Inga.”
Deb and her husband, Hank, were a warm good-natured couple. Heloise didn’t dislike them. They signed petitions. They volunteered. They were just a little too earnest. It wasn’t as if their lives were untroubled. Deb’s father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and Hank’s parents were dead. Deb was a neurologist; Hank specialized in eyes. They saw heartbreak every day. But these troubles didn’t seem to trouble them. It was as if they were standing in the rain, talking about how wet they were getting, but you could see the water rolling right off their Gore-Tex shells.
It was five in the afternoon before they left. An hour north of Albany, Hank steered the Volvo off the highway and maneuvered it past a shabby snowmobile showroom and a general store and bait shop that sat clustered around the exit like hoboes around a fire. Hank drove for another hour up a narrow gravel road that ought to have brought them somewhere more worthwhile—San Francisco, say, or Heaven—than the remains of a barn and silo and a sign that said SUNSHINE LODGE with a smiling sunflower-face below.
The buildings were squat and dull. A ski lodge ought to be quaint, oughtn’t it? Oughtn’t it have a gable or two? Some gingerbread? The man behind the desk was as round and timid as a friar; he even had a tonsure like a monk’s, although it turned out he had struck it rich with a computer start-up, then left the whole technology rat-race and gone back to simpler things.
“Greetings, wayfarers,” he mumbled, then inked their names with a quill pen in a ledger. Showing them their rooms, he barely said a word, but later, when he took them on a tour, he couldn’t seem to shut up—organic this, self-composting that, vegetables kept warm and lush beneath their Plexiglas pods, a hot-tub kept hot with power from the sun. Index cards in lavender calligraphy were tacked beside each fixture, detailing what a person should or shouldn’t throw in, the proper way to stoke a stove, what lotions and perfumes mustn’t pollute the tub.
Heloise and Deb carried their children to the game room while Mitch and Hank lugged in the duffle bags and portacribs, the collapsible highchairs, the diaper bags, wipes, and diapers, the juice boxes, bottles, snacks, and pacifiers. A mother, Heloise decided, was a woman who remembered to bring her daughter’s six favorite stuffed toys but neglected to pack underwear for herself.
“Isn’t this place just perfect?” Deb said, tugging off the hiking boots she wore whenever she wasn’t at the hospital. She settled on the rug, swirling her skirts around her. Heloise tried not to hold it against her that she still styled her hair in a pageboy and never tweezed her brows. Inga, a chunky blonde toddler nearly twice Eunice’s size, although both girls were eighteen months, grabbed a wood spindle and began setting one hand-carved ring atop the next, from the largest to the smallest. It amazed Heloise, the way Inga always seemed to know what a toddler was supposed to do. Eunice clumsily grabbed the smallest ring and jammed it in her mouth. To avoid suffering further damage to her illusion that her daughter wasn’t developmentally delayed, Heloise wandered to a table where a guest had pieced together a puzzle of a busy New England town. Heloise finge ed the centermost piece, which bore the image of a parson. When Inga began to wail, Heloise slipped the parson in her vest pocket before turning to convince her daughter to give up the smallest ring.
Another child came in. She was eight or nine, with a pasty face and lank brown hair. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Alice,” and began to tell the new arrivals about her sisters. “They’re twins,” she said. “But they’re special twins. Everyone who meets them loves them.” Something in her voice brought to Heloise’s mind a carnival barker, or God help her, a pimp.
The door to the game room opened and Alice’s sisters tumbled in. They wore identical purple stretch-pants and yellow shirts. They were hugging, Heloise thought. Then she realized their connection was more intimate than that. They were joined by a thick band of flesh from their navels to their necks; they held their inner arms draped around each, with the rest of their bodies opening outward like a book. The sister on the left seemed flushed with life and strong, but the other sister’s skin was as transparent as tracing paper and her head lolled to one side.
Alice ran across the room and threw both arms around both girls. “Here they are! This one is Sarah”—she indicated the stronger of the twins—“and this one’s Meribeth.”
“Yesterday was our birthday,” they said together. Or maybe not together. Meribeth spoke first and Sarah echoed, although sometimes Sarah spoke first and Meribeth chimed in. At other times, one girl pronounced the first few words of a sentence and her twin sister completed the idea.
“We’re having a party when we get back home.”
“We’ve got so many friends—”
“We can’t hold it at our house.”
“We had to rent a restaurant.”
“But we like to play in the snow.”
“And go sledding.”
“We can’t do that in Boston.”
“So our parents brought us here.”
“They have a special sled,” Alice explained. “They can sit on it side by side.”
“We have a special tricycle, too.”
“One of us pedals.”
“And the other one rides for free.”
Mitch and Hank came in, smelling of snow and smoke. With his curly pale hair, delicate face, and silver glasses, Hank wasn’t a bad-looking man, just surprisingly insubstantial; even at forty-two, he seemed to delight in his gawky innocence. He was followed by a boy whom Alice introduced as Jarred, the innkeepers’ son. Mitch leaned against the door and studied Sarah and Meribeth the way he had studied Heloise the day they met. The four children started playing a card game called Uno. It didn’t seem fair to Heloise, as if one sister might guess the other’s strategy. Of course this made no sense; the sisters didn’t share a head. Yet weren’t their cells patterned by identical DNA? Hadn’t they shared the same experiences from the moment they were born? What was an individual if not a single set of experiences bound inside a skin?
“It’s so upsetting,” Deb whispered behind a hand. “I see sick kids all the time. But usually there’s something I can do to help. This just goes to remind us all how lucky we are.”
Heloise nodded. How could she not feel blessed by her daughter’s brutish good health? But Deb’s view of the twins seemed limited. It was as if she thought that Sarah and Meribeth existed solely to make the rest of humankind feel blessed. But the girls weren’t symbols of misfortune; they were people in their own right. If Eunice, Inga, and Jarred were to grow up with the twins as their only playmates, they would assume that some kids came in ones while other kids came in twos. They might even be jealous that their own bodies were so plain. Besides, the twins seemed happy. It was Alice who seemed forlorn, which was probably why Heloise’s attention was drawn to her.
A bell chimed. “That means dinner is ready,” Alice informed them. “The food here is good, so long as you don’t want hot dogs.” She led the parade of guests down the stairs to the dining room, where the innkeeper’s wife, Eleanor, was ladling out the food.
Eleanor was small and neatly made but even shyer than her husband. “Hello,” she said in a voice as thin as a wisp of steam. Then she ducked back in the kitchen. Heloise got the sense that Eleanor and her husband would have preferred to run the lodge for the theoretical beauty of the self-composting toilets and manure-heated pods, as God might have preferred to run Heaven for Himself.
But the woman could cook. Heloise had never seen such food. She didn’t even recognize the ingredients. Nuts, but what kind? Exotic forms of grain. Rich velvety pools of cheese. Mushrooms nestled in flaky crusts, as sweet as pecan pie. No additives, no funny colors. This was food you needed a spiritual license to be allowed to eat. Probably, if you ate it long enough, it endowed you with eternal life.
The dining room was arranged in two long tables, with benches on either side. Heloise, Mitch, Deb, Hank, Inga, and Eunice took up one end of one table, with a pair of tall gaunt lesbians named Carol and Kim in the center, and Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and their mother holding down the other end. The twins’ mother turned out to be a soft pear-shaped woman with flowing brown hair and a face that bespoke great patience. Gently, she laid a hand on Alice’s arm and cautioned her not to eat so fast—it occurred to Heloise that Alice felt the need to eat twice as much as normal to make up for being an only child, or rather, for being only one child.
After everyone finished eating, Alice, Sarah, and Meribeth came over to pat the toddlers and admire Inga’s dress. Alice gestured toward their mom. “She sews my sisters’ clothes.”
Now that she mentioned it, Heloise noticed that Sarah and Meribeth’s shirts were cleverly designed with a sort of cloth tunnel where their bond of flesh connected them.
“She used to be a teacher,” Alice said, “but now she stays at home and takes care of my sisters and me. But I don’t really need much taking care of.”
Deb and Hank could only nod. But Mitch, bless his heart, pointed at the sliding glass doors and sang out: “Look, everyone, snow!”
Sure enough, the flakes were battering the glass like weary travelers trying to get inside.
“Snow!” Alice shouted.
“Our mom worries when we go sledding,” Sarah said.
“She thinks we’ll die sooner,” Meribeth added.
“But we’d rather go sledding now than live a long time later.”
“Girls?” their mother called. “Don’t make nuisances of yourselves. Come over here and eat your tofu pudding.”
Heloise desperately wanted a drink, but the lodge served no liquor. Instead, Eleanor lectured the new arrivals on the importance of sorting the remains of their dinner into color-coded bins for compost and recyclables. After the twins’ family had left, Mitch, Deb, and Hank reached the opinion that Sarah and Meribeth shared a single heart and Meribeth was not getting enough oxygen, which was why her lips and skin looked blue. Eventually, Meribeth’s lungs would fail and she would die, and, not long after that, Sarah would die as well. Heloise wondered if the twins’ parents knew this. They must. But did the twins?
Everyone migrated to the game room, except the twins’ father, who, despite the girls’ plot to sneak up to his bed, tickle his feet, and wake him, didn’t appear that night. Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and Jarred played Uno while Deb and Hank traded the task of keeping Inga occupied. Mitch rarely minded Eunice, not because he didn’t want to, but because Heloise spent so much more time with the baby that she knew Eunice’s needs better than Mitch did. Mitch was fine when Eunice was happy, but he seemed unable to understand her discontent or imagine a remedy. A vicious cycle, Heloise thought. A vicious cycle that kept producing vicious wives.
Deb, Hank, and Mitch stood whispering in the corner. Their plan, it turned out, was to put the girls to sleep and get naked in the hot tub. Heloise could see by Mitch’s face that he wanted her to say she would go with them. But it gave Heloise the creeps the way Deb and Hank liked to take off their clothes. Whenever they went hiking, Deb and Hank would plan the day’s adventure to include a pond. Oh, just look at that pond! they liked to giggle. Don’t you feel like taking off your clothes and jumping right in?
They loved their naked selves and wanted Inga to do the same. How could Heloise object? But she did. “I object!” she felt like shouting every time they tried to shame her into taking off her clothes. Hank owned a guidebook that listed every nude beach in America. Heloise had nothing against swimming nude, as long as it was done at night in a forbidden place with someone you hoped to fuck. But how could she explain such reasons?
She lied and said she was reluctant to leave Eunice by herself.
What could happen? Deb insisted. We’ll be a few yards out the door.
Well, what if the inn caught fire? Heloise would be outside while Eunice would be sizzling in her portacrib.
Come on, Hank said. What were the chances the building would catch fire during the hour they were in the hot tub?
Heloise looked to Mitch. Wasn’t he Mr. Logic? Hadn’t every parent who had ever watched a baby go up in flames thought nothing bad could happen in just the one hour they had left the kid alone? But Mitch wore the defenseless pleading face that Heloise always found it impossible to refuse.
She changed tactics. What if the girls started crying?
Deb had already thought of that. They could ask the lesbians to come and get them.
The lesbians? If the lesbians wanted to be minding kids, they would have brought some of their own.
“Please?” Mitch said. “For me?”
But she was angry at how many times he had come home late and fended off her advances. He consented to sex infrequently, as a form of recreation, like a hike or a bad TV show. And it bothered her that he thought he could fix their marriage so easily, with a trip to Sunshine Lodge and a midnight dip in a hot tub.
“I can’t,” Heloise said. “I’ve got my period.” This wasn’t technically true, but she expected it at any time. And she hadn’t packed protection. This truth hit her like a punishment. She hadn’t packed tampons, and the nearest store that sold them was thirty miles away.
She put Eunice to sleep while Mitch took a towel and slumped off to the hot tub. Heloise sat on a chair outside their room, considering whether to ask Eleanor for some tampons. No, a woman like that probably used some weird environmentally friendly product like peat-moss napkins or reusable rubber cups. Heloise might have tried Carol and Kim, but they passed in the hall just then, so entwined about each other that Heloise didn’t have the heart to interrupt.
“It’s spooky,” Kim said to Carol.
“Don’t worry,” Carol said, “I’ll protect you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The two women quickly kissed and clattered down the stairs. From the second-story window, Heloise saw them heading off. Both were dressed in thick blue parkas, identical striped wool hats, and jeans. Did lesbians still do that thing where one pretended to be butch while the other was more femme? Was it kinkier to make love to someone like yourself, or to someone very different?
The two women vanished down the path, at which Heloise discovered that the window allowed her to glimpse the hot tub; it was surrounded by a fence, but, looking down from that angle, she could just make out three heads. She heard Mitch’s laugh, then Deb’s. Oh, why not go down and join them?
She peeked in the room and saw that Eunice was asleep. But instead of going out, Heloise put on a nightshirt and crawled beneath the scratchy blanket. Sometime later, Mitch came in, but by the time Heloise had struggled up to consciousness, his eyes were already closed and his breathing as regular as if he had given himself a whiff of whatever anesthesia he used to knock out patients.
She slipped on Mitch’s boots and hobbled down the stairs and out the door. The air was so frigid it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, or maybe that was the effect of seeing who was in the hot tub.
He was swarthy, with broad flat cheeks and a prominent crooked nose—he might have been an Indian, or an Arab, or maybe a Jew like Mitch. Even though his nipples cleared the water by several inches, the ends of his long black hair floated on the surface like some sensual ooze.
“Hi,” he said. “Join me?”
Her plan had been to yank off her nightshirt, simmer herself back to some semblance of relaxation, then slither back to bed. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
His shoulders lifted. “I’m not anyone. Anyone was here before. I’m nobody. Who are you?”
How could it matter if a stranger whose name she didn’t know, in a town whose name she also didn’t know, saw her with no clothes on? As she unbuttoned her nightshirt, he made no effort to look away. She stepped out of Mitch’s boots and tossed them over the fence so they wouldn’t be standing there tapping in disgust while she sat naked with another man. Without looking, she climbed in the tub. It was like lowering her body into a roiling tub of sex. She could sense the stranger’s cock twitch. Even his armpit hair turned her on. Women! Men got turned on by women’s breasts, which everyone knew were beautiful, and women got turned on by armpit hair. Or maybe only Heloise did.
“Are those your girls?” she asked. “Sarah and Meribeth? And Alice?” She could sense his cock deflate. Did he expect her to say something thoughtless? “They’re beautiful,” she said, then winced. Using a man’s twin daughters to get his cock to stand back up!
“That they are. They are beautiful. All three of my girls are beauties.” He let his head drop backward to expose a vulnerable throat; with his arms along the rim of the tub, he seemed to be waiting for someone to shoot him full of arrows. Like St. Sebastian, Heloise thought. St. Sebastian of the Hot Tub.
“So, this is your first time at Sunshine Lodge?”
Heloise said it was.
“It’s all right.”
“Just ‘all right’? I don’t think you’re allowed to say it’s just all right.”
“You have to say it’s perfect.”
She laughed. “Okay. It’s perfect.”
He ducked beneath the surface, then reappeared and shook his head, wringing water from his hair. “Don’t all the little signs and compost bins and all that healthy food make you feel like shooting up?”
“Well,” she said, “now that you mention it.”
“I have some heroin in my jeans. But you have to supply your own needle.”
“Oh,” she said, “I always bring my own needle.”
As they laughed and talked, they kept inching around the tub until they were sitting side by side. She had to remind herself this was someone else’s husband. She had a toddler named Eunice. The naked man beside her was father to a girl named Alice and twins named Sarah and Meribeth. He loved all three of them, he said. “I love all three of my daughters.” He said the sentence twice. He was just tired of being good. “People think just because you have disabled kids, you somehow become a saint.”
Under normal conditions, she doubted he would have been the self-pitying kind of man. But the hot tub brought it out, like some torture pit from Dante, broiling him until he confessed his sins. It broke his heart, he said. How could it not break his heart that his girls would die young? But every now and then he caught himself looking forward to not having to spend every waking moment worrying about their pain.
Before the twins were born, he had been planning to leave his wife. But how could a man leave a woman who had given birth to Siamese twins? Not that she wasn’t strong enough. She was stronger than he was. The twins had given her life a purpose. But it had robbed him of his. If a sacrifice was given grudgingly, in his wife’s book, it didn’t count. He taught music in the public schools. Squeaks and squawks. Lost tempers. The constant abuse of strings. Before the girls were born, he had been planning to make it as a jazz clarinetist. But with all the extra bills and the need for someone to stay home with the twins …
Heloise shifted around and stroked his knee. He put his hand a few inches below her breast, which was more arousing than if he had put it on her breast. Their nakedness, thank God, was anything but wholesome.
“I’d better go,” she said, although really, she didn’t want to go. She got out and found Mitch’s boots, clutched her nightshirt to her chest, and darted to her room. Eunice was still asleep. Mitch lay curled to the wall. She got in and sniffed his neck, which smelled like bubblegum and vanilla icing. “If I ever run away, come after me,” she whispered. She had said this to him many times when he was awake, but she didn’t trust that he would come. She would run away, remembering everything he’d ever taught her about blazing signs along her trail. But Mitch would be too proud and hurt to follow.
The next morning, she woke to the sore breasts, bloated stomach, and intense pressure to commit multiple gory homicides that indicated her period was about to come. She sucked down her pride and asked Eleanor if she had some tampons. Without a word, Eleanor pulled a cardboard box from beneath the sink. Sifting through a litter of sunglasses, condoms, deodorants, and mismatched boots, the innkeeper’s wife lifted out a single linty tampon, the old-fashioned kind that came in a cardboard tube. Heloise only hoped it didn’t date from the Age of Toxic Shock. Well, one tampon was better than no tampon. She would horde it until she absolutely needed to borrow the Volvo and drive the sixty miles to the general store and back.
After breakfast, the twins’ mother bundled them in a snowsuit she must have designed and sewn. Packed in its padded double womb, the twins went out to play. With Alice’s help, they built a snow mother, a snow father, and, thank God, instead of a set of Siamese snow-twins, a lopsided snow-dog. Then they instigated a war against Jarred; the twins windmilled snowballs at the boy while Alice packed ammunition. Heloise was so incensed at the way the twins took advantage of their Siameseness she almost enlisted on Jarred’s side. They rushed him, tore off his hat, packed it full of snow, put it back on his head and pulled it down, at which Jarred lunged their at knees and Sarah and Meribeth went over backward.
“Do angels!” Alice cried, and the girls lifted their arms and lowered them, then struggled to their feet, leaving the indentation of a two-headed angel when they went inside.
At lunch, Heloise overheard the twins’ family argue about their plans for the afternoon. The twins wanted to go sledding, but their mother insisted they were too tired. “We can do it if Dad carries us,” they said. “Like that last time, in Vermont.” Their mother shook her head; she had promised their father he could take the afternoon off to ski. But the twins’ father assured their mother that he would enjoy nothing more than carrying his daughters up the hill; while their mother zipped the girls inside their snowsuit, he turned to Heloise and shrugged.
The six of them—Mitch and Heloise, with Eunice on her back, and Deb and Hank with Inga—spent the next few hours skiing. Heloise enjoyed the way Eunice caught her breath and screeched and grabbed Heloise’s ears whenever they skied downhill. And something about the melancholy landscape—the bare apple-trees, as hunched as old women, surrounded by rows of firs like pinheaded guards just waiting, waiting, waiting, their hands behind their backs, for someone to escape—moved her more deeply than the magnificence of a vista from a mountain might have done.
Around and around she skied, and each time she and Eunice circled back, Heloise saw Vincent carrying his girls uphill, hugging them awkwardly to his chest like bags of groceries. Up and up, like Sisyphus. Alice pulled her own sled, looking wistfully at her sisters, and if Mitch could extrapolate from Meribeth’s blue lips the twins’ future, or rather, their lack of a future, Heloise could look at Alice’s expression and imagine the story she would one day tell her therapist: I once had twin sisters. They weren’t ordinary twins. They were conjoined twins. I loved them. I really did. It was just that I was jealous of the attention and love they got. The grace they had that I didn’t have.
The irony, Heloise thought later, was that she and Mitch had one of their best afternoons ever. Mitch plodded around the trail, and whenever Heloise and Eunice lapped him, he would lift his fist and curse. “You miserable rutabagas! You bungee jumpers! You foghorn leghorns!” He took to weaving among the apple trees, and every time their paths crossed, Mitch would snowplow around Heloise’s skis, kiss her, then kiss Eunice, who bounced happily in her backpack.
When they stopped for hot chocolate, Mitch leaned against a stump and poured two steaming cups. Just as Heloise took hold of hers, Eunice began to whimper. “Mumma, dog!” Heloise turned and saw a fox quivering at the forest’s edge. It lifted one paw daintily and sniffed, like a society queen uncertain if the party she was about to enter was beneath her pride, then flicked its tail and trotted off.
“It’s good luck to see a fox,” Mitch said.
“Aren’t fox’s feet lucky?”
He was so pleased with himself that Heloise didn’t have the heart to say he meant rabbits.
“Why don’t you go for one last run, without us slowing you down?” Mitch said.
She felt as if he were sending her off to sleep with another man. “You don’t mind?”
No, no, go on, Mitch said. He took Eunice from the pack— getting the baby out of that backpack required more effort than the doctors had required to extricate Eunice from Heloise’s womb. She kissed Mitch and took off, legs pumping as strenuously as if, even without the aid of gravity, she might yet achieve the blind happiness of flight.
Near the woods she stepped off the trail to catch her breath—literally, her breath was curling past her face and she snatched at it with her glove. The sun was watery pink and blue, like the colors in a nursery. Vincent passed her hiding spot, skiing backwards, encouraging someone to try to reach him. Alice plodded around the bend, red faced and out of breath. “You can do it,” he kept repeating. “Slide those skis. Skate.”
Heloise waited to give Vincent and Alice a decent length of time to ski back to the lodge, but she came upon them not a hundred yards down the trail, Alice frozen at the top of a tiny incline, her father at the bottom.
“I can’t, Dad. I can’t! I’ll give you fifty dollars if you don’t make me ski down this hill!”
“Damn it. Why can’t you be as brave as Sarah and Meribeth?”
He might as well have shot her, that’s how quickly Alice crumpled. She must have been crying, but Heloise didn’t hear a sob; the child was crying in that way that goes beyond mere sound.
Vincent sidestepped up the hill, took off his skis, and held his daughter in the snow. At first she writhed away, but then she let him comfort her. He helped her take off her skis, then carried the skis downhill and went back for Alice. He helped her put the skis back on, then towed her by her poles, bent double, like a horse. His suffering wrenched Heloise’s heart. But it also turned her on. And what did that say about her? If you fell in love with a person’s suffering, you’d never try to cure it. Deb, Hank, and Mitch weren’t nearly as shaken as she was by suffering, but neither were they attracted to it, and that allowed them to get on with the business of easing people’s pain.
No wonder she couldn’t bring herself to finish her degree. If she had ever found the courage to state her thesis clearly, it would have been this: Suffering is erotic. That was at the heart of her attraction to Christianity. Maybe it was true of most people’s attraction to Christianity. Why build an entire religion around Christ’s suffering on the cross, instead of, say, His miracles? Why the whips and thorns, the punctured ribs and palms, not to mention all the martyrs His suffering had inspired, all those men with pierced chests, the women with hacked-off breasts, the smiling, genderless innocents, flayed alive or burnt?
She shook her head to clear the images. Wasn’t that a howl she heard? It couldn’t have been. But the woods’ shadowy darkness filled her soul with dread. She forced herself to give Vincent and Alice a while longer. Even so, when she reached the lodge, he was still hauling Alice, trudge by laborious trudge, up that final hill.
By the time Heloise and Mitch had showered and dressed, everyone but the twins and Alice were downstairs waiting for their meal. Heloise and Mitch had just settled beside Deb and Hank, with the kids on their mothers’ laps, when the door at the top of the stairs opened and Alice and the twins came in.
“Watch what we can do!” they cried. With a little help from Alice, the twins ended up on the banister, not straddling the rail but side by side. Their mother shouted “No!” but Alice gave them a push. The twins slid a few feet down the rail. Then one twin tottered backward and the other twin slid forward, arms and legs flailing.
Their father leapt the stairs three at a time, scooped the twins in his arms, then sat cradling them on the step while Alice threw herself across her sisters’ backs, crying, “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!”
Everyone tried to get back to normal, but the mood was too subdued. Deb suggested charades. Carol and Kim declined so they could take their turn in the hot tub, but the twins and Alice were all for it. The problem was that Sarah and Meribeth performed their clues in unsettling synchronicity, and when it was their team’s turn to guess, they shouted “‘Over the Rainbow’!” and “‘Willie Wonka’!” in such eerie unison that the game ended after only a few rounds and each family went up to its room far earlier than was normal even for parents with children that young.
Heloise liked to think she fell asleep that night with the intention of staying asleep until morning, and it was only a case of nerves that made her startle awake at two and led her outside to the steaming tub. But when she saw no one was in the water, she admitted that her nerves had been crying out for more than relaxation. She passed the indentation in the snow where the twins had made their angel. “Baa,” called a sheep, or maybe it was a goat. How odd that the two creatures sounded so much alike in the dark.
She slid down the hill on the soles of Mitch’s boots, then headed toward the woods. Not twenty yards in, she saw Vincent against a tree, wrapped in one of the heavy blankets the innkeepers kept beside the hot tub. With his raven-black hair and the wings the blanket gave him, he looked more than a little vampirish.
She walked over and leaned against him. He moaned, then wrapped Heloise in his blanketed arms and held her. She rested that way, breathing the horsy odor of the wool, the sandalwood of his skin. Then her mouth found his chest, and—she hadn’t planned this—she slid to her knees in the snow. The cold seeped through her leggings, but the pain was almost pleasure. A few minutes later, as Vincent lifted his arms above his head and cried out, Heloise turned and saw the fox’s eyes glittering in the moonlight not fifteen yards away. She gasped and struggled up. Vincent remained against the tree, eyes closed, arms lifted as if someone had pinned his wrists to the trunk.
The fox shook itself like a dog and trotted off. Panting, Heloise looked down and saw a steaming clot of her menstrual blood. Had the fox scented it? Was that why it had come? She was tempted to reach down and taste her menses. Instead, she lifted her chin and howled.
The marriage didn’t end that winter. After they left Sunshine Lodge, Heloise never saw Vincent again. But once she started hurting Mitch, she couldn’t seem to stop. A year after their divorce, she read about the twins in the Sunday supplement of the local paper. As Mitch and Deb had said, the girls shared a single heart—a defective heart at that; it had only three chambers. Meribeth died first. Sarah survived another hour. Most conjoined twins died at birth, the reporter wrote. The luckiest lived a year. But Sarah and Meribeth had celebrated their eighth birthday a few weeks earlier.
“They had the sunniest disposition,” their mother was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it bothered them a bit. On alternate days, Sarah or Meribeth got to make decisions. They argued, but they made up. If you’re attached to a person, you have to figure out a way to get along. You can’t just stay mad.”
The girls died at home, surrounded by their parents, Kathleen and Vincent Black, various grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and their older sister, Alice. They were buried in a single casket. Donations could be sent to build a playground for disabled children in a park near where they lived.
After reading the obit twice, Heloise picked up the phone to call Mitch. Then she remembered that Mitch had asked her never to engage him in conversation unless it concerned their daughter. If Heloise tried to talk about that weekend at Sunshine Lodge, Mitch would hang up. Her infidelities had made him suffer, and his suffering had turned him into a person she could love. But Mitch couldn’t forgive her disloyalty. He refused to take her back.
She put Eunice to bed, patted her on the back until she closed her eyes, then tried to write her homily for the week. Since finishing her degree and taking her first assignment—as chaplain at a women’s college outside Schenectady—Heloise had fallen into the easy routine of using an incident from the news or her personal life to serve as a guiding metaphor for a larger spiritual truth to be explored in that week’s sermon. She wanted to compose a tribute to the twins. But what kind of metaphor could Meribeth and Sarah provide if not, as Deb had said, a reminder of everyone else’s sublime good luck at not being them? Maybe what they symbolized was the beauty of suffering gracefully. But the twins hadn’t suffered. Not until the end. Their father and sister had suffered, but not in ways that seemed particularly enlightening.
No, the twins stood for nothing. Maybe nothing stood for anything. Pain was what it was. The pieces of people’s lives fit together to make a pattern like the puzzle of that town, the central piece of which Heloise now discovered in that long-neglected vest. But there was nothing beneath the surface. No deeper, third dimension. She was left with nothing from Sunshine Lodge except a lost-and-found of images: a two-headed angel; a fox’s glowing eyes; a dark red clot of blood steaming in the snow. And she knew it would be a sin to stand before her congregation and try to weave these images into a symbol for the perversity of a woman who, for no reason she could defend, would destroy her marriage to the man she loved and, in the process, condemn herself to spend the remainder of her life with the corpse of her better self joined to her like the angelic twin sister with whom she once had shared a single three-chambered heart.
*Eileen Pollack, “Uno” from In the Mouth – Stories and novellas. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
Photo: Sharon McCutcheon
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.