The Bird Sisters (5 page)

Your elder daughter believes she can save what’s already dead. I admire her as much as I pity her; not so long ago, I felt precisely the same way
Milly’s mother sat at one of the long wooden tables. She put her head down, even though the surface of the table was wet. Her hair had come out of the neatly pinned bun she usually kept it in, and the backside of her best dress, the light green one she’d picked out of the charity bin at the Catholic church two towns over to show the Sewing Society ladies she wasn’t a charity case, was stained with her monthly blood.
“I’ll never make it to France again, will I?” she said.
Milly thought about the partially baked cake sitting on the counter, the construction paper card she and Twiss had started but never finished:
Happy …
Milly untied her apron and wrapped it around her mother’s waist to cover the stain. She tucked a loose strand of hair back into her mother’s bun and secured it with one of the bobby pins from her own, letting her hand linger longer than was necessary.
“One day,” she told her mother, “you’ll sip Château Margaux on the Seine.”





efore Twiss took the goldfinch up to the barn, she put on her muck boots and walked the perimeter of their property: a half-mile loop that had seemed large when she was young and large again now that she was old. She followed the tractor ruts, weaving around anthills and snake holes, breathing the first real air of the day. Twiss had never been able to stand being in the house longer than eating or sleeping required. When the end came, she hoped she’d be struck by lightning or whirled up into a tornado. Dying inside was to her a misery that couldn’t be borne; she’d made Milly agree to wheel her onto the porch if she couldn’t manage it herself.
A windstorm had passed through the night before, breaking off oak branches and leaving impressions of the debris in the sandy soil. Still, no rain. Not a drop had fallen all summer, a cyclical happening according to the 2006
Farmers’ Almanac
, a fact that eased everyone but the land, which had begun to bristle under the stress. The air contained all of the water the land needed to flourish, but wouldn’t let go of its claim either to the sky or earth; it hung between the two like a curtain. Twiss cupped at the air, half expecting to feel something solid in her hand. Though it was early, she could feel the heat coming. The
had predicted temperatures in the triple digits—LOCAL WARMING! the front page said.
“Promise me you won’t play today,” Milly had said before the mother arrived with the goldfinch, which now sat in Twiss’s front pocket, yellow as a tape measure.
Although the goldfinch had done nothing but linger in the middle of the road for too long, and she knew he deserved a resting place as fine as that of any other bird they’d been unable to save, Twiss didn’t go after the trowel just yet. She’d heard what the mother had said to Milly—
Only a person without children would say something like that
—as if she’d known exactly how to sting Milly in a way that wouldn’t allow Milly to sting back. If it had been Twiss and having children had been important to her, she’d have slapped the woman’s face.
Shame on you
, the outline of her hand would have said.
“Play what?” Twiss had said to Milly.
“You know what,” Milly had said.
Twiss walked around the pond, pretending to look for golf balls in the reeds when she was really looking for Snapper, a forty-year-old turtle that lived in the pond. When she found him, she tapped on his shell with a willow stick. The last time, he almost lopped off her toes just like his mother had almost lopped them off when Twiss was a girl.
In his effort to attack her, Snapper tipped over and couldn’t right himself. Even with this disability, he snapped at her in a wild, entitled way. Though Twiss had the opportunity to win their ongoing war, she used the stick to hoist him back onto his limbs.
“You owe me a bucket of Dunlops,” she said to Snapper, whom she was certain could understand her but chose to ignore her. Twiss had always been jealous of the snapping turtles that lived in the pond. When their plans were thwarted, they made new ones. When the new ones were thwarted, they swallowed a few golf balls and went about the rest of their day as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “Stop eating up my game,” she said.
The game, which Twiss played on most days, took place in the barn and consisted of a bucket of balls and Persy, her father’s old No. 1 driver. She’d line up the balls at the threshold and aim for the pasture. Most of the time, she’d hit the roof of the henhouse or, worse, one of the windows. Twiss had always lacked the concentration—the stillness—to launch a ball with any real accuracy. She’d square her shoulders and position her feet, but the moment she went to swing the club, a gnat would land on her neck or a bee would buzz in her ear, and then the ball would lurch off in whatever direction it wasn’t supposed to go. Of the two of them, Milly was the better golfer, though neither of them took after their father, who’d held a club as though it were an extension of himself. Twiss often wondered what would have happened if he’d lived his life as gracefully as he’d played golf.
She walked the length of the pond, up to the woodlot and shed, and back down through the meadow, which was crowded with prairie onions and bluestems that rose to the tops of her muck boots. Every day of her life Twiss had walked through the meadow, and still the beauty of it caused her to linger longer than she intended.
This morning, she broke off the stem of a prairie onion and chewed on it like the cowboys chewed on stalks of straw in her childhood adventure books. She loved the taste of onions; the bitter and the sweet on her tongue always brought her back to a vision of her father before the Accident, sitting at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, sketching out strategies to shorten his game. In front of him would be a stack of scoring cards, which he used the way Milly and Twiss used flash cards in school. But instead of memorizing the multiplication tables or the meaning of the word “onomatopoeia,” he memorized the steps to achieve a perfect hole in one. Most people believed holes in one were perfect by their very nature.
Their father believed differently.
On the days he wasn’t giving lessons to the wealthy members of the golf course, members who came from Chicago and Minneapolis, who’d done well in the stock market or the steel industry and needed to learn how to play golf to make their money seem older than it was, Twiss’s father would bring her along while he played the back nine. Though she wasn’t strong enough to be his official caddy, he’d let her carry his old putter and whack at whatever mushrooms had popped up on the green. Rollie, the groundskeeper, would give her a nickel for slowing their proliferation (except for the morels, which Twiss was supposed to save for Rollie’s wife so she could make soup out of them). After she and her father had finished playing the course, Twiss would use the nickel to buy a cream soda from the clubhouse.
Milly would stay at home because someone had to stay with their mother, who didn’t like to hear about golf, think about it, or dream about it. She said golf gave her heartburn.
While Twiss and her father drove to the course on Sunday afternoons her mother would listen to
A Day in the Life of
 …, a radio program that was supposed to illuminate what it would be like to drive a train across Colorado or to sing on Broadway in New York City. She’d sit down at the kitchen table a whole hour before the program started. Every fifteen minutes, when the wooden bird sprang forth from the cuckoo clock, she’d jump a little.
“How would you like to climb Kilimanjaro?” she might say to Milly, if Milly happened to pass through the kitchen while the program was on. “I don’t think I’d like to wade through all that snow, but it might be worth it to see the view from the top.”
“I’d rather look up than down,” Milly might say back, which would commit her to listening to the rest of the program.
Milly never said whether she liked
A Day in the Life of
 …, but the way Twiss figured, she still had to sit down and not play golf for an entire hour, an eternal afternoon.
Countless ticks. Endless tocks.
Twiss didn’t remember most of those Sundays with any real individual clarity, but she remembered one of them—when she was nine years old—photographically well.





hat Sunday, Twiss was too sick to play golf, and her mother compelled her to listen to the program with her while Milly accompanied her father to the course. Once or twice a year Twiss caught a cold. To account for her sneezing, she’d pretend she had allergies. Ragweed, she might say. Hay fever, when she couldn’t think of anything better.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, she said
just a little sick?
when she meant … she couldn’t think of what she meant. Her head felt like a ball of dough.
“Oh, no you don’t,” her mother said, when Twiss dressed in her golf clothes and went to the front door to wait for her father. “I wouldn’t hear the end of it at our next Society meeting. They already think I didn’t donate enough fabric at Christmas.”
“But I meant the yellow stuff,” Twiss said.
“Pollen,” her mother said. “If you’d said mold, I might have let you go.”
Twiss appealed to her father when he came down the stairs in his golf shoes, which her mother was always trying to get him to put on outside since the metal spikes on their soles left polka-dot imprints on the wood floors.
“Looks like your mother may be right about this one,” her father said.
“Milly thinks I look fine,” Twiss said.
“What do I think?” Milly said.
“It’s only
day,” her mother said. “That’s what I think.”
Her father took the putter from her hand and replaced it with a cherry cough drop. “You can be a champion next week. Give your sister a turn.”
After he and Milly drove off, Twiss tried to slip out of the kitchen and up to her room. When her mother asked her where she thought she was going, Twiss coughed a little.
“I should really be in bed.”
Her mother motioned to a chair. “You should really sit down.”
A Day in the Life of …
began, she fixed a cup of tea for Twiss and one for herself. Into Twiss’s cup, she drizzled honey. Into her own, she drizzled milk. Then she pulled out her secret stash of sugar cubes from the back of the cupboard, which Twiss had ransacked on more than one occasion because she liked to see how long the cubes would take to dissolve on her tongue.
“Looks like I have to find another hiding place,” her mother said, amused rather than angry. She dropped a cube into her cup. She said that was the way the English took their tea. Twiss wondered what people who spoke other languages did with their tea.
Her mother looked at the cuckoo clock, and then turned up the radio. “This one’s about a man who lives with polar bears.”
Twiss said, perking up.
“In the vicinity of,” her mother said, and Twiss slumped back down in her chair.
The program announcer introduced the day’s story by saying there were three kinds of people in the world: the kind that respected animals, the kind that got killed by them, and the kind named Hux. “No one ever dies on this program,” her mother said. “Although there was a near death once.” She took her tea bag out of her cup and placed it on the tiny plate beneath it.
“That’s better than nothing,” Twiss said, taking hers out too.
She looked out the window to make sure her father was gone before she crossed her legs the way her mother had crossed hers. She didn’t altogether hate acting ladylike, but she could only act for so long before her instincts took over. In school plays, she was cast as a tree or a lamppost, whatever could appear or disappear without wrecking the show.
“It’s called gunpowder,” her mother said.

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