AT FIRST, the two sisters thought the news was funny. It wasn’t until later that the other feeling began, not exactly shame, but still one of those hot-hard-stomach feelings which was close to shame. What did their grandmother mean by getting married?
Married! Their grandmother! Their very own father’s very own mother! And after all those years of living as a widow in her big house, living perfectly at ease — so it seemed — with the roomers overhead and the grandchildren on vacation for company.
“And what about the trunk?” Milly said, turning accusing eyes on her older sister and trying, unsuccessfully, to hold her cat — Vinegar — who was about to have kittens again. “You’d think at least she’d have thought about the trunk!”
Ruthy shrugged her shoulders and wriggled into her slip. At fifteen, Ruthy shrugged her shoulders often. To Milly, it seemed like the same sort of negative gesture as shaking the head, only it didn’t make the shrugger look stupid. It just made the one being shrugged at feel that way.
Milly let go of Vinegar and smoothed down her own slip. It was all very well for Ruthy to shrug, but being two years older didn’t mean she knew everything. What was their grandmother going to do about the trunk?
The trunk was in another town in the attic of the grandmother’s house, and it held all that was left of the grandfather. In fact, to the two sisters, it held the grandfather himself. They had raised him, a sort of Lazarus, from the trunk during many childhood summers. And because they felt they had made him, bit by bit, out of old army puttees, a poppy from France, a faded American flag, and their own dark delight in imaginary tragedy— he was more real than reality. He had the terrible strength of a recurring dream; the enduring vitality of a make-believe lover.
“And to go and marry Dr. Jenkins, of all people!" Milly said, thrusting her elbowy arms into her blouse and tugging it down over her head. “Anyway, they probably won’t be here for hours!”
She looked at the white curtains hanging without a stir at the open windows. They were newly washed, as was everything else in the room, for it was to be used by the grandmother and Dr. Jenkins when they arrived. Through the curtains Milly could see the veranda, on one portion of which she and Ruthy would sleep that night. On the floor of the room Vinegar breathed heavily. From the yard the rackety sound of a circular lawn sprinkler repeated itself endlessly.
“Sticky weather for a honeymoon,” Ruthy said.
Milly giggled and then stopped. The hot-hard feeling swelled again in her stomach. She thought graphically and luridly of the medical book she had seen at camp. “Honeymoon,” she said in a whisper and moved away from her sister. She wondered if Ruthy, like herself, was remembering that long night when they had talked, piecing together their staggering bits of information? Not the little-kid stuff about the female egg and how it was fertilized, but the real information that nobody talked about — not even a modern mother — no matter how many times she kept saying, “It’s certainly different now than in my day. I tell my girls everything!”
Milly grinned and reached for her skirt. Ruthy had finished dressing and was already brushing her hair in front of the mirror.
“She must be sixty!” Milly said.
“Fifty-eight.” Ruthy had a clip in her mouth. She took it out and pinned back her pony tail. “I counted it up. Dr. Jenkins is sixty-two.”
Milly stepped into her skirt and felt the giggles beginning once more. “Sixty-two!” she said and flopped down on the bed, not caring whether she got wrinkled or not.
Dr. Jenkins was a philosophy doctor, and Milly had known him forever, had even heard him lecture once or twice at the college in her grandmother’s town, but on what subject she couldn’t possibly remember. She had been much too fascinated by the way his finger tips had moved over the watch chain on his vest — like a many-legged circus performer on a high wire — advancing, retreating, swaying, and then rushing confidently to the other side. She had become obsessed with the idea that without those trotting fingers on the chain, Dr. Jenkins couldn’t talk. He was the only man Milly knew who had a watch chain, or for that matter, the only man she knew who wore a vest. Outside of those two things, he looked pretty normal, she supposed: gray hair cropped short, eyes of some indeterminate color which could look quite steadily at a fidgeting girl. And now, unbelievably, all of these things had become her grandmother’s husband.
“Are you going to call him Grandpa?” Milly asked and was rewarded by a spiteful snort from Ruthy and the clattering sound of brush and clip being banged down on the dresser. One thing about Ruthy, she could get so beautifully mad. Milly always found that getting mad was terrifying work and she usually ended up by crying. But Ruthy was wonderful!
Milly sat up on the bed, now, and watched her sister — dark hair flying, circular skirt swaying in a self-made breeze. “I damn well am not going to call him Grandpa! I might not even be here when they come to call him anything at all! The old goat. The old stupid horrid goat!”
Milly swung her legs off the bed and stood staring at her sister, for Ruthy wasn’t mad. She was crying. It took the moon to make Ruthy cry, and yet there she was — crying.
This sudden reversal of their roles shook Milly more than anything since the news had arrived. “I hate them both,” she said, kicking out at some shoes on the floor. “What in the world is the matter with them, anyway?” She kept waiting for her own tears to start and when they didn’t, she kicked out again at the shoes, sending one of them sailing across the room.
Vinegar spat and ran under the bed.
“Hey,” Ruthy said, putting out her hand and beginning to pat Milly on the shoulder. “Hey, Baby, hey!”
It occurred to Milly that she should be doing the patting, for after all it was Ruthy who had cried, but everything was so mixed up anyway, what difference did it make?
THE two girls finished their dressing in silence. It would be different, Milly thought, if it were anyone else but this grandmother, even if it were her other grandmother, who wore red shoes and sometimes got her hair too blue. But this one — well, her hair was white and never had been cut. That fact alone greatly impressed Milly, who was always chopping at her own and living perpetually between bangs growing in or out. And this grandmother would never think of wearing red. In the summer it was gray and pink; in the winter gray and purple — lovely things and soft, not ever quite in style but always stylish, a difference which Milly noted and admired. But most of all, this grandmother seemed to have a stillness, a kind of circle of charm in which she moved, a space as self-contained as a pebble ring in a quiet pool. And in this ring a grandchild, if she dared, might also move, at special hours and after standing long outside gauging the way of entry—like figuring the right time to jump in beside a rope already turning. Not that the grandmother made it hard to enter the ring. She just didn’t seem to notice when someone was standing on the edges. But once inside, Milly always felt that the grandmother had been waiting hours and hours for her to come.
When she was very small, Milly thought nothing about this circle, except that she liked to be there. Later, she connected it with the trunk. This was the space where he walked with her, and the reason she didn’t notice grandchildren on the edges was because she was noticing him. But once inside, all things were loved, for inside was the very special space of love — the ring. But it should be kept special!
Milly leaned down and began straightening the spread on the bed. She shouldn’t let just anybody in — not Dr. Jenkins! Milly pulled at the spread.
“They’re coming,” Ruthy said, and Milly jumped.
“Yes, it’s them, all right,” Ruthy said.
Milly could hear the clatter of her mother’s heels crossing the porch and she could hear the surprised-glad voice of her father calling out, “Well, welcome! Welcome!” It was the same voice he had used when the letter arrived, when he said, “Well, good for them. Mother’s still young, you know.”
Young! Milly felt the giggles rising once again. Was the whole world going crazy?
“We’d better go,” Ruthy said, and her voice was grim, “or they’ll start to call us.”
“Does she have on pink?” Milly asked.
IT HADN’T been too difficult until after dinner. There was so much talking and laughing and giving of gifts. It seemed to Milly they were laughing all the time, especially her mother. Milly felt definitely outside of things, and because of this she seemed to see much more clearly than usual — why, she didn’t know. But take her mother now — all afternoon the short hair of her mother’s bangs had stuck close to her forehead in little fish-hook curls, and they were really black because of being damp. Milly couldn’t remember ever noticing that before. But now, out on the porch in the evening, they were fluffing out again and were back to being brown.
Because of the June bugs they were all sitting on the veranda without a light, just the fading twilight, the glow of her parents’ cigarettes, and the fitful red blotch from Dr. Jenkins’ pipe. Soon the lightning bugs would come, Milly thought.
And this afternoon, besides noticing her mother’s hair, there had been the soft prettiness of the back of her neck. Of course, Milly might not have noticed that if she hadn’t watched her father kissing it, planting his lips smack in the little hollow while her mother had her hands full of ice trays. Milly had peered at the spot closely after that, and it looked like a good place to kiss. And another thing, her mother had seemed not like a mother at all when the back of her neck was being kissed.
She figured she was seeing her mother so closely because she tried to keep from looking at her grandmother and Dr. Jenkins, although she saw them, just the same. And Dr. Jenkins could talk without the watch chain, because he took his vest off in the heat and it hadn’t stopped his voice. And the grandmother’s face looked flushed, pinker than the print in her dress, but whether from the warmth or from being ashamed, Milly couldn’t tell. And her father kept running around, pumping Dr. Jenkins’ hand and pouring out beer and kissing people on the back of the neck as if he were no older than Emmet Jones who came by on Saturday nights and called for Ruthy. In fact . . .
There were many lightning bugs now. On the porch it was almost dark. Dr. Jenkins was talking about the Black Hills, where he and the grandmother were going next. Milly heard his voice as from a great distance. She seemed very far away from everybody. She wished that she’d sat down on the steps with Ruthy. She also wished there was a light—June bugs or no June bugs — because an amazing idea had occurred to her. Maybe, without her knowing it, time was going backward. Grandmothers on honeymoons. Grown fathers believing their mothers were still young. Grown mothers with backs of necks like girls and not acting a bit like mothers.
Milly reached out for a firefly and caught one, buzzing in her hand. The act had a tangible reassurance, because if time had turned around, she, Milly, as the youngest, would be the first to go. And she did feel far away. She kept the firefly close within her hand so she could see the cracks of her fingers lighting up each time it flashed. Of course, she wouldn’t mind going back a little bit, to last summer, maybe, when she had the tree house.
The memory of the house came startlingly clear, sharp as a side stitch and as painful, because until this moment she had forgotten the tree house. It seemed impossible, but it was so. From one summer to the next, she had forgotten. Forgotten the challenge of each rung of the climb; the giddy sense of being something more than human because of neighboring with the birds; the wonderful smell of the leaves and the delight of seeing their veining when the sun shone through; and almost the very best, the light, free feeling of not being definitely a girl.
Not that she had felt like a boy, Milly thought. It wasn’t that. She just hadn’t felt like one thing or another.
A nostalgia for the neuter welled in Milly like a song. Last summer, she hadn’t yet seen the medical book at camp, and all the other things she had been told were as unrelated as beads without a string. Last summer, she hadn’t talked all night with Ruthy, branding her own gender into her consciousness with the heat of whispered secrets. Last summer, her grandmother would never have gone on a honeymoon with Dr. Jenkins.
The sense of loss was so acute it was almost a pleasure, for Milly knew that even if time began to spin like a top, she could never go back to the summer of the tree house. That time, when everything she did or felt or saw had a single quality only, was a lost time, a dead time, and she could but mourn and remember. Remember the singleness of things in all their purity; the way one leaf in the tree house could consume an hour of her contemplation without once getting mixed up with twig or branch, without ever being concerned with treeness. The way the smell of a summer morning could be sliced off like a loaf of cheese, saying, this is last night’s rain on the dust; this, the green juice from the new-cut lawn; this, the burst buds on the summer stock; and that, the first hint of the noon to come. Sliced off like cheese and left there, separate, piece by piece, not bound together again within the loaf.
But now, that singleness was gone. All things ran into other things, bumped and jostled and got confused. Two separate thoughts colliding made something new entirely, so a girl could never know quite what to feel, could never quite be sure of anything.
WE WONDER, now, why we didn’t do it before.” The grandmother was speaking, sending cleartoned sounds into the dark. “I think we both had got so used to being lonely, we’d forgotten that it didn’t have to be.” She laughed, a startled little sound, full of surprise and hope and gentle selfreproach. The sound pushed through the dusk toward Milly and circled there, repeating itself again and again.
“And then we wondered, of course, what other people would think.”
A buzzing of talk cut in on this. Milly heard her father and mother protesting, and even Ruthy saying clear, “Oh, other people!”
Milly felt farther away than ever, distant and yet drawn close, another merging that she could do nothing about. Oh, her lost time, she thought, her dead time that she could but mourn and remember! She would make of it a shrine. She would pack the memories of it all into a box.
Milly stood up from her chair. The soft breeze of the summer evening blew on her skirts, cooling the stickiness of long sitting. She would pack them in a box and they would be of no more good to her than the trunk in the attic was to the grandmother.
Milly wanted to throw her arms out to the night, wanted to do something big to show the pity of this insight — run and cry and fling herself upon the earth. Instead, she stood where she was on the porch, shivering a little as the breeze fanned the dampness of her underlegs; stood, cut off from the rest as if a circle had been drawn around her.
“But you’ve all been wonderful,” the grandmother said, and the little laugh was also like a sob. “And to think that, before we came, I was afraid.”
The buzzing started again and over it was Ruthy’s voice, strident and clear. “It’s you who’s wonderful, I guess. That’s who it is!”
Milly didn’t stir. So, Ruthy had crossed on over. Well, she wasn’t surprised. She knew, now, that she had been expecting it for some time, and now it had happened. That was all.
Milly would have been happy to cry, but she didn’t know anything about the kind of tears needed for a time like this. Her eyes were hard and dry. Her circle had ringed her tight, and she was lonely and alone.
Oh, I know! She wanted to shout the words to her grandmother across the dark. I know what it is to lose something and to stand in the circle of in-between. I know, now, how it was with you when you didn’t notice people on the edges and why, when I stepped in, you had been waiting for so long for me to come. Oh, I know! But what was the knowledge worth, Milly wondered? And how long did a person have to stand ringed in by what was gone?
“Well, I’m for bed,” Dr. Jenkins said. “This day’s been quite a day, and that’s a fact.”
The murmuring began again. A porch swing squeaked, and Milly’s mother’s shoes began to click across the porch.
“I’m really glad,” Milly whispered. “I’m really glad that you’re not lonely any more. I know inside that I’m glad. You know I know inside that I’m glad.”
Dr. Jenkins knocked his pipe against the porch railing and yawned out loud. They were all going away. Milly thought. Nobody seemed to know that she was there, or seemed to care. She wanted to reach out toward them, but what was the use? And to whom would she go? Not to Ruthy, that was sure. Her mother? Not this night. The grandmother? Oh, no.
“I need somebody,” she said. “I need somebody to love!”
At first she didn’t feel the fur against her legs, but when she did, the softness seemed to melt her down and, as she knelt, she felt the tears begin to flow — warm and slow and soothing to her face — new tears, the kind she needed for this time.
Vinegar had come across the circled ring, Vinegar, purring there, between her legs. Milly threaded her fingers in the fur, rubbing at the strutted sides. The night was very soft; Vinegar, a contentment at her feet. Milly picked her up, cradling her in her arms, and stepped out on the lawn. It felt good to move out of her position on the porch. Her tears were drying on her face as she looked up at the stars — each one single, but all of them making the night.
“How long?” she whispered, rocking her cat in her arms. “How long?”