originally published in Gulf Coast, reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011

 

Pleiades

Del

            My parents were geneticists.  They had a firm belief in the power of science to fix everything, to create everything.  This belief was their religion, and they liked to proselytize as much as any born-again Christians.  When they decided to have children they saw the opportunity to share their faith in science with the world.  They wanted to make miracle babies so unbelievable that people would stop and stare, their own organic equivalent of a billboard for Jesus.  Their original idea was to develop an in vitro procedure that would create identical twins.  But they decided twins weren’t spectacular enough, not enough of a challenge.  They settled on septuplets.  One fertilized egg split into seven pieces made seven sisters, all of us identical.  Pleiades, my father used to call us, after the constellation of seven stars. 

            All the major networks were shooting footage at the hospital the day we were born.  Protestors traveled from around the country to Los Angeles so they could picket outside, with signs that said “Seven Deadly Sins” and “Frankenstein’s Children.”  Even the doctors who delivered us expected us to come out with birth defects; half a dozen neonatal specialists were standing by.  But they weren’t needed.  We were small—about two pounds each—but other than that, my mother says, we were perfect.  Our lungs, our hearts, our brain activity were measured and found to be normal.  We all had a wisp of dark hair at the front of our foreheads, and eyes that would turn from blue to brown.  My parents didn’t want rhyming names or alliterative names but they liked to show off their knowledge of Greek, and so we were Leda, Io, Zoe, Helen, Cassandra, Vesta, and me, Adelpha-called-Del.

*          *          *

            My mother and father, in the magazine photographs, glow with a mixture of parental pride and professional elation.  Without scientific interference identical twins account for one in every 250 live births, identical triplets one in two million, fraternal septuplets one in every four million, and my sisters and I just couldn’t exist.  But science made us and there we were, pink-skinned and button-nosed, each swaddled in our own colored blanket—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, purple—a wriggling, blinking rainbow.

            The tabloids ran headlines like “Forced Septuplets Really Alien Babies!” and “Test Tube Septs Share One Brain!”  After our first birthday the publicity died down, although reporters came around now and then hoping to do follow-up stories.  In the scientific community our celebrity never waned.  Throughout our childhood we took trips to visit scientists whom our parents referred to as our aunts and uncles.  These people smiled at us and sometimes gave us hugs like real relatives, but they also liked to look at our skin cells under microscopes, or watch us play together through two-way mirrors.  My mother and father ran experiments, too, and by the time we were six we thought no more of giving a blood sample than we did of making our beds, picking up our toys, or any other chore.

            Our parents never told us which of us was born first because they thought it would affect our psychology.  We reached the age of eleven considering each other separate in body but not in anything else.  I have heard that twins, even identical twins with a particularly close relationship, like to emphasize that they are still individuals, but we did not.  There’s an old home video of us on the beach, eight or nine years old and wearing matching gold-spangled swimsuits.  We move across the sand like a flock of birds in flight, wheeling with each others’ movements, each head turned only a fraction of a second before the next so that it’s impossible to say where one motion ends and another begins. 

            Perhaps it was the circumstances of our creation.  Perhaps we were not truly separate people but parts of a whole, as a thicket of aspen trees all grow from the same network of roots.  And even now maybe it is no different.

            “You were so easy, really,” my mother said to me a few years ago in tearful nostalgia.  “You all liked peas, you all hated carrots.  No one would use the pink crayons.”

            Who knows what would have happened if we had reached high school together, been forced to deal with romances and social intrigues and the possibility of attending different colleges.  Perhaps we would have simply refused to be parted, clung together like a ball of ladybugs in winter.  Or maybe we would have adjusted, moved apart and away from each other.  But I doubt it. 

            We were eleven years old, doing a jigsaw puzzle on the living room floor of our beach house in Santa Cruz.  Vesta set a corner piece in its place, put her hand to the side of her head and said she had a headache.  We all looked at her and groaned; headaches had a way of catching between us, even though our mother tried to tell us that was impossible.  A few minutes later Vesta shook her head and complained again, and then she fainted, we thought.  But we had a horrible clenched feeling in our stomachs.  Leda put her hands on Vesta’s cheeks and Vesta didn’t even flinch.  We all went screaming for my mother. 

            At the hospital they said my sister had had a brain aneurysm, that she was dead.  We wanted to argue but we knew it was true.  We could feel it.  That night we all slept piled on the floor of our bedroom, holding onto each other’s wrists and calves and hair, terrified of losing one another.  For months after that we felt sick, but we thought it was just sadness.  We didn’t know yet that for us there was no such thing as just sadness, that our grief had a life of its own, an invisible mouth like a black hole that drew us inexorably closer.

*          *          *

            We were twelve when Leda got pneumonia.  She never recovered.  The doctors put her on every antibiotic they had, but she was dead in three weeks.  Again my sisters and I felt that same tautness in our bodies, that surge of poison in our veins, but we kept quiet about it.  We didn’t need to discuss it with each other, and our parents didn’t understand anything.  They were depressed, guilty, frantic for the solution they felt sure must be out there just beyond their reach, but that didn’t touch what we felt.  We were all thinking, without ever saying so, that one death might be a freak accident but two was not.  That we were all going to die.

            Reporters followed us everywhere.  There were internet betting pools about which of us would die next.  We started exercising, eating organic food, taking vitamins as if that was going to help.  Another year went by and we lost Io.  Anti-genetics protestors swarmed her funeral, glowing with self-righteousness.  One woman carried a sign that said “Science Giveth and The Lord Taketh Away.”  She wore a lime green sundress and stared at us through the wrought iron fence of the churchyard during the entire service, never making a sound. 

            The remaining four of us began developing bruises in places we couldn’t remember bumping.  We were flown to specialists around the country, circulatory doctors, immunologists, gene therapists; we gave countless samples of blood and urine and tissue, were prodded and analyzed without receiving any conclusive results.  They thought we had a new form of AIDS, or had somehow developed hemophilia, but none of the tests supported these theories. 

            Eventually our parents moved us to New York City so they could set up camp at Sinai Hospital and put all their energy into trying to cure us.  They weren’t medical doctors and didn’t really belong there, but I believe there was a bargain struck, something to do with donating our coveted tissue samples, the kind of utterly calculated and logical deal I didn’t want to know too much about.  I’ve always believed that the move had as much to do with getting away from their colleagues in California as it did with saving us; my parents were not so gracious in their defeat as they had been in their glory.

            When Zoe got sick the rest of us began to consider desperate solutions.  The three deaths we had suffered through were horribly painful, to be sure, but in a way the most difficult, the most shocking and surprising and worst thing was finding ourselves still alive the next day.  We felt mocked, being forced to face, time and again, this brutal proof of our distinctness.  We decided to bring it to a neat end, for all of us, if Zoe didn’t improve.

             By then were sixteen, old enough to be crafty, to filch chemicals from our parents’ lab that were sure to be fatal, keep them in little vials in our pockets as we stood around the hospital bed.  But at the crucial moment—heart monitor flatlining, alarms sounding, frantic nurses attempting resuscitation—we failed to act.  Not one of us so much as moved a hand toward the poison.  We still wanted to live in spite of it all.

            The next time we didn’t consider the plan again.  We just sat silently by Cassie’s bedside, kissed her tears, and watched her go.  Then it was me and Helen, and we were terrified and sick all the time. We kept wondering which one of us would die next, wondering whether it was worse to be dead or alive and alone. 

            We dreamed about the others.  Sitting down to dinner or choosing our clothes for the day, we sometimes hesitated, waiting for them without realizing what we were doing.  Their breath filled the room, their fingertips were on our skin.  Helen and I began to feel stretched, overfilled, oversensitive to everything.  Loud noises frightened us beyond reason.  The sound of our parents yelling or crying, both of which they did frequently, made us dizzy.

            Helen started having trouble breathing.  We were eighteen and it would have been the year of our high school graduation, but we’d long since quit school.  For the next five years she was battered by a drawn-out illness, waves of health and sickness lifting her up and throwing her down again.  My parents whisked in and out of our house like ghosts in their fluttering white lab coats, going back and forth to the hospital to examine cultures under the microscope, visit Helen, or meet with another doctor promising a cure.  By then I could have told them exactly what was wrong: the emotion and sensation of seven people condensed into two bodies was too much for the bodies to bear.  But that was an explanation that wouldn’t satisfy the rigors of science, so I knew it wouldn’t satisfy them.  There was nothing they could do about it anyway.

            Helen kept saying to me, “What will we do?”  Her skin looked like it had shrunk, tight and shiny across her bones.  There was nothing to say because we both knew the answer: “we” would not do anything.  She would die, and I would stand in the damp grass of the cemetery with no one to squeeze my hand at the graveside.  My parents were around of course, but I’d grown up without having to speak my mind, and I never knew what to say to them.  Besides, I was finding them increasingly hard to love.  I kept thinking about that protestor at the churchyard, years ago now, and an idea began tormenting me: maybe there was only meant to be one of us.  Maybe all that splitting had been a bad idea.  I missed my sisters, but it was more than that.  I could feel enough for seven people, as if my sisters wanted me to live for them.  I wondered if Nature, once she had pared us down to one body, would let me survive, or if it would just be worse for me in the end.

            My parents were desperate by now.  They began planning ways to cure me, clone me, freeze me if I died, plotting it in their bedroom at night, never thinking I might be listening from the hallway.  Despite their collusion they hated each other.  They both wanted me to love them, to forgive them for whatever mistake in their calculations had brought this on us, to forgive them on behalf of my sisters, too.  Surely I could.  Surely I was all of us in one. 

            But I couldn’t, or maybe I just didn’t want to.  I felt my sisters in me and around me and I knew that, whatever pain awaited me, letting my parents decide my fate was the worst choice I could make. 

            “Go,” said Helen, “Maybe you can outrun it.  If one of us is left, that’s enough.”

 

Rob

            A car comes down the road, an old blue hatchback covered in dust, and it slows down just when I’ve decided it’s not going to stop.  To my mind that always tells you the driver is struggling with himself, should he pick me up or shouldn’t he. 

            I’m pretty good at choosing cars by now; I can almost tell by the way they roll down the window whether to trust the driver or not.  But when I bend down to look inside it seems to me I judged wrong this time.  The girl behind the wheel looks like a zombie, skin falling off her, patches of hair missing.  She could be could be twenty, thirty, I don’t know; she’s so messed up it’s hard to tell. 

            “Where are you going?” she says.

            “L.A.”

            “I’ll be passing near there.”

            It’s something about the way she looks at me, not threatening but not afraid, that makes me get in.  Besides, it’s not often you find a ride that’ll take you through ten states, and I’m in no position to be picky.

            Two hours down the road we blow a tire and the spare’s no good.  We wait for a tow truck, eat supper at a diner in town while the tire gets patched.  I order chicken fried steak and she eats a fruit salad.  She saves all the grapes for last and slides each one over her tongue like a marble.  “I can taste the sunshine,” she says. 

            When she opens her wallet to pay the waitress it’s stuffed thick with cash.  She plucks off a hundred dollar bill to pay a twelve dollar tab, and there’s another hundred underneath.  It’s enough to tempt even an honest man.

            “You always carry money like that?” I say.  “It’s not safe.”

            She smiles a little, her lips full of cracks like old rubber ready to split.  “Neither is picking up hitchhikers, but that didn’t seem to bother you.”

            “Still.”

            She waves a hand at her blistered face.  “Look at this,” she says, “I’m past the point where I worry about something bad happening to me.”

            We pick up the car but it’s late to be starting out, so we get a motel room for the night, two beds, cable TV.  She falls asleep right away, and her breathing gets so quiet I worry a couple of times that she’s dead, and lean over her bed to check.  In the middle of the night, though, she begins to moan.  She’s still asleep, her eyes skittering back and forth underneath the lids, tears slipping between the lashes.  I turn the bedside lamp on but it doesn’t wake her, and I’m afraid to touch her now.  I sit on my bed with my hands in my pockets, edge of the headboard cutting into the back of my neck along the sunburn, wondering how long is the walk to the next bit of civilization.  Wondering whether you can really leave a girl to die alone in a motel room, or what do you do if you stay.

            She wakes up just after sunrise looking worse than ever, which I wouldn’t have thought was possible.  She sits on the edge of the bed with her face in her hands.

            “I don’t know if I can do this by myself,” she says.

            “Let me drive for a while,” I say.

            When we get on the road we talk a little, but I can tell she doesn’t like conversation much.  She starts peeling the dead skin off her arms, piece by piece like she’s stripping wallpaper, absent-minded the way that some people chew their fingernails. 

            “Stop that,” I say, and she looks up and kind of smiles, sheepish, and folds her hands in her lap.  “What’s wrong with you, anyhow?”

            “I’m sick,” she says, like that’s all there is to it.  “Don’t worry, you can’t catch it.”

            “Does it hurt?”

            “Usually.”

            “Don’t you have a doctor or something?”

            “Dozens of them,” she says.

            I look her up and down.  “Well I guess they aren’t worth a damn, are they?” 

            We both laugh.  She looks different when she laughs, like there’s a brightness spreading through her face, like the sound fills her whole self and not just her mouth.           

            “You should have flown, though.  It would’ve been easier on you.”

            “It wouldn’t,” she says, “It makes me vomit these days.  Besides, this was a last-minute decision, and now I get to see what’s between New York and California.”

            “I guess I don’t like flying much myself.  What are you aiming to do when you get there?”

            “Go to the beach,” she says, as if she was just another sand bunny in a string bikini, a bored college girl on spring break with nothing else to do.

We drive and talk about the music on the radio, movies, the weather.  She sleeps a lot, her head resting against the window, hands balled together in her lap, a pained look on her face the whole time.  I wonder if her body hurts even in her sleep, if she’s healthy or ravaged in her dreams. 

            Partway through Illinois we hit a nasty snarl of traffic, somebody sure enough dead up ahead judging by the number of cop cars and ambulances that go screaming past us along the berm.  We’re near an exit, though, so we escape after a few minutes, get ourselves onto 66 and stop for lunch at a roadside burger joint, one of those chains that used to cover the country but now only exists in a few God-forsaken outposts.  They have a picnic table to the side, wood gone grey and full of splinters, on a patch of dead scrub grass and hard-packed red clay.  We take our food out there.  Del licks the salt off her fries but doesn’t eat them, just watches me with my hamburger.

            “What’s the matter?”

            “I don’t eat meat any more,” she says.

            “Maybe that’s your problem.”

            She shakes her head, chews on the end of one fry while she stares at the ground between her feet.

            “You can have these,” she says, pushing the paper sleeve of french fries at me.  She gets down on the ground and starts scratching at the dirt with her fingernails, and at first I think she’s looking for something but then I see she’s just making a pile of red dust.  She scrapes some more, picks up a stone to do a better job, working with all her strength. 

            “What the hell are you doing?” 

            Instead of answering she takes her waxed paper cup from the table, dumps half the soda out of it and scoops the dirt in.  She sits down again and I watch her stir the whole mess together with her straw until it’s like pudding, and then she starts spooning that slop into her mouth.

            “Stop it or you’re gonna be sick for sure,” I say, but she keeps going.  I grab her arm and let it go again. Her skin is too hot.  Her bones feel like they could crumble in my hand.  The more time I spend with her the clearer it is to me that she should die, that dying would be good for her. When she can’t eat any more she wipes her mouth on her sleeve and leans her elbows on the table. 

            “Sometimes I feel like I’m just going to fly apart.  Like nothing in me is solid,” she says.  “Who’s to say what fixes that?”

            I throw the rest of my food away and help her back to the car, but I drive too slow, still picturing her in the hard prairie light with a mouthful of mud. 

            Del spins the radio dial, finds a rock song with a heavy base line, and she taps her fingers on her thigh in time.  Her eyes tick around in her face like they’re trying to see everything at once, until she closes them.  She rests the back of her hand on my knee and I can feel the heat right through my jeans.  Her palm is unnaturally smooth, without the normal lines that hands always have, and I wonder if it’s hard for her to hold things, if they slip off that skin like it was vinyl.  Looking at her makes it hard to think.  Death is in her and through her and all around her but she moves and breathes regardless.

            By eight o’clock it’s dark out.  Del is asleep, and with no conversation and nothing but dark highway to look at I get tired quick.  I find a motel and pull off.  Del stirs, lifts her head and leans it down again.

            “Why are we stopping?” she says.

            “It’s late.  I’m too tired to drive any more.”

            “I’m in a hurry.”

            “A few hours won’t make a difference.”

            She doesn’t answer but closes her eyes.  I check in, park the car near our room and help her inside.

            “Do you want to take the first shower?” I ask her.

            “No,” she says, but then she looks down at her clothes, smeared with mud. 

            She goes into the bathroom and closes the door.  I stand outside in the dark and listen to the sound of the water against the bathtub, against her body.  She showers for a long time, half an hour maybe, so that I start to wonder if something’s happened to her.  At last the water stops, and I sit at the foot of one of the beds and pretend to watch television in the darkness.  Del opens the door to the bathroom and steam and yellow light pour out around her like a magician’s cloud of smoke.  She is naked, standing up straight, and I see that she’s taller than I thought, taller than I am.  I look down at my feet and close my eyes to stop myself staring.

            “It doesn’t matter,” she says.  “I rinsed my clothes, and I wanted to let them dry.”

            She steps closer and I can smell her, mud and heat lightning, black pepper and rain, apples fermenting in the high grass, all of it compressed together.  She pulls the covers off the other bed and crawls between the sheets.  The darkness is filled with the smell of her. 

            Turning on her bedside lamp she says, “You can sleep here if you want.”

            She says it the way you might offer to lend someone five dollars, and somehow that makes it crueler to say no.  I want her to keep that pride.  Besides, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a hand to hold on their way out of this world, myself included.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should have to beg for.

            I sit beside her on her bed and she pulls my hand onto her forehead and closes her eyes.  On her chest, over her heart, is a fist-sized bruise, dark purple.  The flesh there looks like it would be soft and wet to the touch, like pulp.  Her body is marked with blisters, scratches, bruises, veins that look like they’re trying to come through the skin. The wholeness of my own body, even with all its wrinkles and scars, suddenly seems unfair; she’s just a girl after all.

            She slips a hand between the buttons of my shirt and moves her burning fingers across my chest.  I stretch out on the bed, the two of us shoulder to shoulder, and we lie there for hours.  Her body where it touches me is a razor.  The hours of the night stretch and blend.  I wake up next to her and find that I’m crying, that I’m clinging to her wasted body.  She smoothes her palms along my back and whispers to me, and all it does is make everything hurt more.  I want to chase the darkness out from under her eyes, breathe life back into her, fill her up with mud if that’s what’ll make it work.  I’ve never known a woman more painful, but I want to touch her all the same. 

            I say, “Look, let me take you home.  You’re too sick to be doing this.  We’ll go together.”

            She shakes her head.

            “Take a good rest then,” I say, “how do you expect to get better moving around all the time?  Stay in bed a couple of days, why don’t you.”

            “I don’t want to rest.  Let’s drive the whole way tomorrow.”

            “It’s got to be another eighteen hours.”

            “Please.  I’ll pay you if you want, let’s just go.”

            “For Christ’s sake, don’t get insulting.” 

            She wakes me up at dawn, trailing her fingers along my cheeks, and I’d wager she didn’t sleep the whole night.  As soon as I’m dressed she walks outside and gets in the car, and I don’t argue.

            By dusk my eyes feel like they’re made of glass, but we’re near the coast.  I shake Del awake and ask her where she wants to go.  She presses her hands against the window and squints into the darkness.  “It all looks different than I remember it.” 

            Whenever we pass someone on the street she calls out to ask for directions, and the people point and wave us along, if they answer at all.  We turn onto a bigger road with cars buzzing past, and as soon as we do I can smell the ocean.  Del shivers in the seat beside me and grips my knee so hard it aches.  It’s dusk, and against the skyline you can see the lights of a carnival turning on, first the ferris wheel, then the booths, sending up a blaze of bulbs and neon to replace the fading sunset.

            “This the place?”

            “I don’t know,” she says.  “I think so.  It was just an empty boardwalk last time I was here.”

            She leans against me as we walk down the midway, our arms looped together.  Del looks all around her, gawking as if she never saw a carnival before, like she fell asleep in her bed at home and woke up here and can’t figure out what the hell happened in between.  We come to an amusement stand and the barker starts in on me, Win a prize for the pretty lady!  He’s got to notice how she looks, but I guess carnies have seen just about everything.  He smiles at her like she was Miss America, and I give him five dollars for a stack of baseballs to pitch at the milk bottles.  I hate this game—they weight the bottles so that it’s almost impossible to win—but I do all right, two bottles down.

            “Anything in the bottom row,” says the barker.

            “Pick what you want,” I say to Del.

            She gets one of those glow necklaces and puts it on her head like a crown.  The strange light makes her look almost normal.  We buy an ice cream and a funnel cake and eat them next to the roller coaster.

            “This is almost like a date,” she says. 

            “I learned better than to date young girls like you; it’s always trouble.”

            “Do you date dead girls? I bet that’s even worse.”  She smiles, but it’s not a real smile, and she starts crying.

            “Come on, now,” I say, and I put my arms around her and hold her head against my chest, green light from her glowing crown climbing up into my eyes.  The roller coaster swoops over us, the people scream.  The merry go round stops and a bunch of kids climb off and run past, laughing as they go.  Del looks up and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.         

            “Sorry,” she says.

            “Nothing to be sorry for.”

            “I thought I was going to make it.”

            “Who says you aren’t?”

            “I want to go down to the beach.”

            We find the stairs that lead us to the sand, and as soon as we take five steps the light and the noise from the carnival start to fade.  I put my hand around her waist to help her walk.  The sand is white and fine and cool as Christmas, and it’ll turn your ankles if you’re not careful.  We go down to the water’s edge where the footing is better, where the waves sweep against our toes.  Del takes her shoes off and throws them into the ocean before I can stop her.

            She takes my hand and guides it in between the buttons of her shirt, over her breast, presses it against the bruised spot on her chest.  The flesh is even softer than I’d imagined; my fingers sink into it until I can feel her bones through her skin, and below them the shuddering of her heart.

            “This is what I feel all the time,” she says, “only it’s the whole world beating.”  She pushes my hand closer until I’m afraid my fingers will go right through the skin, and that heart sounds like it could devour me.

 

 

Del

            For a moment, with Rob’s hand against my chest, I can almost imagine a life all my own, almost understand how that could be fulfilling.  He holds me to him and I am alive wherever his body touches mine.  But ghosts with my face surround me, six other hearts beat in time with mine.  There is nothing I can give him because nothing I have is mine. 

            I step away from him, across the sand.  A moist breeze skims my shoulders and I feel myself dissolve, as if the salt air could unravel my genetic code like a piece of knitting.   Nature won’t have me, won’t let me buy my life with their deaths.  Aberrations, abominations, Nature wants us gone. Who knew the world was so unforgiving, so eager to cull?

            There are shells, says Helen, don’t cut your feet, and every shell touches the sole of my foot seven times.  There is nothing strange in this any more, that she can choke to death on her own blood while I sleep in a roadside motel, and yet still be with me days later, whispering in my ear.  Walk into the surf, my sisters say, the ground pulls out from underneath our toes; the waves are sevenfold in their coldness, the salt air seven times as pungent.

            The water sings between my fingers, surges around my knees and shins as they press into the sand.  Drink deep, my sisters say.  This is where things crumble irrevocably, where there is nowhere left to go.  We’ll become salt.  We’ll become storm clouds on the water.  And then emptiness, one to seven to one to zero in the space of twenty-three years. Science will have nothing to do with us any more, nor we with it.  We will be just a void in the cosmos, a dark place in the sky where there was once starlight.