Everyone has secrets. Even me. We carry them with us like contraband, always swaddled in some sort of camouflage we’ve concocted to hide the parts of ourselves the rest of the world is better off not knowing. I’d write what I’m thinking in a diary if I could believe others would stay out of those pages, but in a house like this there’s no such thing as privacy. If you’re going to keep secrets, you have to learn to write them down inside your own heart. And then be sure not to give that away to anyone either. At least not to just anyone at all.
Which is what bothers me about him, the guy my brother is apparently going to marry. Talk about secrets. Off Tommy goes to New York City for college, begging my parents to help him with money for four straight years, then after graduating at the top of his class—in studio art, of all things (not even a degree that will get him a job to help pay off the loans our parents took out for his education)—he comes home to tell us he’s gay, and before we can say anything, good or bad, runs off again and won’t return our calls. And when he did start talking to Mom and Dad again, it was just short phone conversations and emails, asking for help, for more money.
Five years of off and on silence and here he is, bringing home some guy named Tristan who plays the piano better than my mother and has never seen a cow except on TV. We’re supposed to treat this casually and not bring up the fact that he ran away without letting us say anything at all four years ago, and to try not to embarrass him. That’s Tommy Terlecki, my big brother, the gay surrealist Americana artist who got semi-famous not for the magical creatures and visions he paints, but for his horrifically exaggerated family portraits of us dressed up in ridiculous roles: American Gothic, dad holding a pitchfork, mom presenting her knitting needles and a ball of yarn to the viewer as if she’s coaxing you to give them a try, me with my arms folded under my breasts, my face angry within the frame of my bonnet, scowling at Tommy, who’s sitting on the ground beside my legs in the portrait, pulling off the Amish-like clothes. What I don’t like about these paintings is that he’s lied about us in them. The Tommy in the portrait is constrained by his family’s way of life, but it’s Tommy who’s put us in those clothes to begin with. They’re how he sees us, not the way we are, but he gets to dramatize a conflict with us in the paintings anyway, even though it’s a conflict he himself has imagined.
Still, I could be practical and say the American Gothic series made Tommy’s name, which is more than I can say for the new stuff he’s working on: The Sons of Melusine. They’re like his paintings of magical creatures, which the critic who picked his work out of his first group show found too precious in comparison to the “promise of the self-aware, absurdist family portraits this precocious young man from the wilderness of Ohio has also created.” Thank you, Google, for keeping me informed on my brother’s activities. The Sons of Melusine are all bare-chested men with curvy muscles who have serpentine tails and faces like Tristan’s, all of them extremely attractive and extremely in pain: out of water mostly, gasping for air in the back alleys of cities, parched and bleeding on beaches, strung on fishermen’s line, the hook caught in the flesh of a cheek. A new Christ, Tommy described them when he showed them to us, and Mom and Dad said, “Hmm, I see.”
He wants to hang an American Gothic in the living room, he told us, after we’d been sitting around talking for a while, all of us together for the first time in years, his boyfriend Tristan smiling politely as we tried to catch up with Tommy’s doings while trying to be polite and ask Tristan about himself as well. “My life is terribly boring, I’m afraid,” Tristan said when I asked what he does in the city. “My family’s well off, you see, so what I do is mostly whatever seems like fun at any particular moment.”
Well off. Terribly boring. Whatever seems like fun at any particular moment. I couldn’t believe my brother was dating this guy, let alone planning to marry him. This is Tommy, I reminded myself, and right then was when he said, “If it’s okay with you, Mom and Dad, I’d like to hang one of the American Gothic paintings in here. Seeing how Tristan and I will be staying with you for a while, it’d be nice to add some touches of our own.”
Tommy smiled. Tristan smiled and gave Mom a little shrug of his shoulders. I glowered at them from across the room, arms folded across my chest on purpose. Tommy noticed and, with a concerned face, asked me if something was wrong. “Just letting life imitate art,” I told him, but he only kept on looking puzzled. Faker, I thought. He knows exactly what I mean.
• • • •
Halfway through that first evening, I realized this was how it was going to be as long as Tommy and Tristan were with us, while they waited for their own house to be built next to Mom and Dad’s: Tommy conducting us all like the head of an orchestra, waving his magic wand. He had Mom and Tristan sit on the piano bench together and tap out some “Heart and Soul.” He sang along behind them for a moment, before looking over his shoulder and waving Dad over to join in. When he tried to pull me in with that charming squinty-eyed devil grin that always gets anyone—our parents, teachers, the local police officers who used to catch him speeding down back roads—to do his bidding, I shook my head, said nothing, and left the room. “Meg?” he said behind me. Then the piano stopped and I could hear them whispering, wondering what had set me off this time.
I’m not known for being easy to live with. Between Tommy’s flair for making people live life like a painting when he’s around, and my stubborn, immovable will, I’m sure our parents must have thought at some time or other that their real children had been swapped in the night with changelings. It would explain the way Tommy could make anyone like him, even out in the country, where people don’t always think well of gay people. It would explain the creatures he paints that people always look nervous about after viewing them, the half-animal beings that roam the streets of cities and back roads of villages in his first paintings. It would explain how I can look at any math problem or scientific equation my teachers put before me and figure them out without breaking a sweat. And my aforementioned will. My will, this thing that’s so strong I sometimes feel like it’s another person inside me.
Our mother is a mousy figure here in the Middle of Nowhere, Ohio. The central square is not even really a square but an intersection of two highways where town hall, a general store, beauty salon, and Presbyterian church all face each other like lost old women casting glances over the asphalt, hoping one of the others knows where they are and where they’re going, for surely why would anyone stop here? My mother works in the library, which used to be a one-room schoolhouse a hundred years ago, where they still use a stamp card to keep track of the books checked out. My father is one of the township trustees and he also runs our farm. We raise beef cattle, Herefords mostly, though a few Hereford and Angus mixes are in our herd, so you sometimes get black cows with polka-dotted white faces. I never liked the mixed calves, I’m not sure why, but Tommy always said they were his favorites. Mutts are always smarter than streamlined gene pools, he said. Me? I always thought they looked like heartbroken mimes with dark, dewy eyes.
From upstairs in my room I could hear the piano start again, this time a classical song. It had to be Tristan. Mom only knows songs like “Heart and Soul” and just about any song in a hymn book. They attend, I don’t. Tommy and I gave up church ages ago. I still consider myself a Christian, just not the church-going kind. We’re lucky to have parents who asked us why we didn’t want to go, instead of forcing us like tyrants. When I told them I didn’t feel I was learning what I needed to live in the world there, instead of getting mad, they just nodded and Mom said, “If that’s the case, perhaps it’s best that you walk your own way for a while, Meg.”
They’re so good. That’s the problem with my parents. They’re so good, it’s like they’re children or something, innocent and naïve. Definitely not stupid, but way too easy on other people. They never fuss with Tommy. They let him treat them like they’re these horrible people who ruined his life and they never say a word. They hug him and calm him down instead, treat him like a child. I don’t get it. Tommy’s the oldest. Isn’t he the one who’s supposed to be mature and put together well?
I listened to Tristan’s notes drift up through the ceiling from the living room below, and lay on my bed, staring at a tiny speck on the ceiling, a stain or odd flaw in the plaster that has served as my focal point for anger for many years. Since I can remember, whenever I got angry, I’d come up here and lie in this bed and stare at that speck, pouring all of my frustrations into it, as if it were a black hole that could suck up all the bad. I’ve given that speck so much of my worst self over the years, I’m surprised it hasn’t grown darker and wider, big enough to cast a whole person into its depths. When I looked at it now, I found I didn’t have as much anger to give it as I’d thought. But no, that wasn’t it either. I realized all of my anger was floating around the room instead, buoyed up by the notes of the piano, by Tristan’s playing. I thought I could even see those notes shimmer into being for a brief moment, electrified by my frustration. When I blinked, though, the air looked normal again, and Tristan had brought his melody to a close.
There was silence for a minute, some muffled voices, then Mom started up “Amazing Grace.” I felt immediately better and breathed a sigh of relief. Then someone knocked on my door and it swung open a few inches, enough for Tommy to peek inside. “Hey, Sis. Can I come in?”
“It’s a free country.”
“Well,” said Tommy. “Sort of.”
We laughed. We could laugh about things we agreed on.
“Sooo,” said Tommy, “what’s a guy gotta do around here to get a hug from his little sister?”
“Aren’t you a little old for hugs?”
“Ouch. I must have done something really bad this time.”
“Not bad. Something. I don’t know what.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Tommy sat down on the corner of my bed and craned his neck to scan the room. “What happened to all the unicorns and horses?”
“They died,” I said. “Peacefully, in their sleep, in the middle of the night. Thank God.”
He laughed, which made me smirk without wanting to. This was the other thing Tommy had always been able to do: make it hard for people to stay mad at him. “So you’re graduating in another month?” he said. I nodded, turned my pillow over so I could brace it under my arm to hold me up more comfortably. “Are you scared?”
“About what?” I said. “Is there something I should be scared of?”
“You know. The future. The rest of your life. You won’t be a little girl anymore.”
“I haven’t been a little girl for a while, Tommy.”
“You know what I mean,” he said, standing up, tucking his hands into his pockets like he does whenever he’s being Big Brother. “You’re going to have to begin making big choices,” he said. “What you want out of life. You know it’s not a diploma you receive when you cross the graduation stage. It’s really a ceremony where your training wheels are taken off. The cap everyone wants to throw in the air is a symbol of what you’ve been so far in life: a student. That’s right, everyone wants to cast it off so quickly, eager to get out into the world. Then they realize they’ve got only a couple of choices for what to do next. The armed service, college, or working at a gas station. It’s too bad we don’t have a better way to recognize what the meaning of graduation really is. Right now, I think it leaves you kids a little clueless.”
“Tommy,” I said, “yes, you’re eleven years older than me. You know more than I do. But really, you need to learn when to shut the hell up and stop sounding pompous.”
We laughed again. I’m lucky that, no matter what makes me mad about my brother, we can laugh at ourselves together.
“So what are you upset about then?” he asked after we settled down.
“Them,” I said, trying to get serious again. “Mom and Dad. Tommy, have you thought about what this is going to do to them?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what the town’s going to say? Tommy, do you know in their church newsletter they have a prayer list and our family is on it?”
“What for?” he asked, beginning to sound alarmed.
“Because you’re gay!” I said. It didn’t come out how I wanted, though. By the way his face, always alert and showing some kind of emotion, receded and locked its door behind it, I could tell I’d hurt his feelings. “It’s not like that,” I said. “They didn’t ask to be put on the prayer list. Fern Baker put them on it.”
“Fern Baker?” Tommy said. “What business has that woman got still being alive?”
“I’m serious, Tommy. I just want to know if you understand the position you’ve put them in.”
He nodded. “I do,” he said. “I talked with them about Tristan and me coming out here to live three months ago. They said what they’ll always say to me or you when we want or need to come home.”
“‘Come home, darling. You and your Tristan have a home here too.’” When I looked down at my comforter and studied its threads for a while, Tommy added, “They’ll say the come home part to you, of course. Not anything about bringing your Tristan with you. Oh, and if it’s Dad, he might call you sweetie the way Mom calls me darling.”
“Tommy,” I said, “if there was a market for men who can make their sisters laugh, I’d say you’re in the wrong field.”
“Maybe we can make that a market.”
“You need lots of people for that,” I said.
“Mass culture. Hmm. Been there, done that. It’s why I’m back. You should give it a try, though. It’s an interesting experience. It might actually suit you, Meg. Have you thought about where you want to go to college?”
“It’s already decided. Kent State in the fall.”
“Kent, huh? That’s a decent school. You wouldn’t rather go to New York or Boston?”
“Tommy, even if you hadn’t broken the bank around here already, I don’t have patience for legions of people running up and down the streets of Manhattan or Cambridge like ants in a hive.”
“And a major?”
“Ah, I see, you must think there’s something wrong with you and want to figure out how to fix it.”
“No,” I said. “I just want to be able to break people’s brains open to understand why they act like such fools.”
“That’s pretty harsh,” said Tommy.
“Well,” I said, “I’m a pretty harsh girl.”
• • • •
After Tommy left, I fell asleep without even changing out of my clothes. In the morning when I woke, I was tangled up in a light blanket someone—Mom, probably—threw over me before going to bed the night before. I sat up and looked out the window. It was already late morning. I could tell by the way the light winked off the pond in the woods, which you can see a tiny sliver of, like a crescent moon, when the sun hits at just the right angle towards noon. Tommy and I used to spend our summers on the dock our father built out there. Reading books, swatting away flies, the soles of our dusty feet in the air behind us. He was so much older than me but never treated me like a little kid. The day he left for New York City, I hugged him on the front porch before Dad drove him to the airport, but burst out crying and ran around back of the house, beyond the fields, into the woods, until I reached the dock. I thought Tommy would follow, but he was the last person I wanted to see right then, so I thought out with my mind in the direction of the house, pushing him away. I turned him around in his tracks and made him tell our parents he couldn’t find me. When he didn’t come, I knew that I had used something inside me to stop him. Tommy wouldn’t have ever let me run away crying like that without chasing after me if I’d let him make that choice on his own. I lay on the dock for an hour, looking at my reflection in the water, saying, “What are you? God damn it, you know the answer. Tell me. What are you?”
If Mom had come back and seen me like that, heard me speak in such a way, I think she probably would have had a breakdown. Mom can handle a gay son mostly. What I’m sure she couldn’t handle would be if one of her kids talked to themselves like this at age seven. Worse would be if she knew why I asked myself that question. It was the first time my will had made something happen. And it had made Tommy go away without another word between us.
Sometimes I think the rest of my life is going to be a little more difficult everyday.
When I was dressed and had a bowl of granola and bananas in me, I grabbed the novel I was reading off the kitchen counter and opened the back door to head back to the pond. Thinking of the summer days Tommy and I spent back there together made me think I should probably honor my childhood one last summer by keeping up tradition before I had to go away. I was halfway out the door, twisting around to close it, when Tristan came into the kitchen and said, “Good morning, Meg. Where are you off to?”
“The pond,” I said.
“Oh, the pond!” Tristan said, as if it were a tourist site he’d been wanting to visit. “Would you mind if I tagged along?”
“It’s a free country,” I said, thinking I should probably have been nicer, but I turned to carry on my way anyway.
“Well, sort of,” Tristan said, which stopped me in my tracks.
I turned around and looked at him. He did that same little shrug he did the night before when Tommy asked Mom and Dad if he could hang the American Gothic portrait in the living room, then smiled, as if something couldn’t be helped. “Are you just going to stand there, or are you coming?” I said.
Quickly Tristan followed me out, and then we were off through the back field and into the woods, until we came to the clearing where the pond reflected the sky, like an open blue eye staring up at God.
I made myself comfortable on the deck, spread out my towel and opened my book. I was halfway done. Someone’s heart had already been broken and no amount of mixed CDs left in her mailbox and school locker were ever going to set things right. Why did I read these things? I should take the bike to the library and check out something Classic instead, I thought. Probably there’s something I should be reading right now that everyone else in college will have read. I worried about things like that. Neither of our parents went to college. I remember Tommy used to worry the summer before he went to New York that he’d get there and never be able to fit in. “Growing up out here is going to be a black mark,” he’d said. “I’m not going to know how to act around anyone there because of this place.”
I find it ironic that it’s this place—us—that helped Tommy start his career.
“This place is amazing,” said Tristan. He stretched out on his stomach beside me, dangling the upper half of his torso over the edge so he could pull his fingers through the water just inches below us. “I can’t believe you have all of this to yourself. You’re so lucky.”
“I guess,” I said, pursing my lips. I still didn’t know Tristan well enough to feel I could trust his motivations or be more than civil to him. Pretty. Harsh. Girl. I know.
“Wow,” said Tristan, pulling his lower half back up onto the deck with me. He looked across the water, blinking. “You really don’t like me,” he said.
“That’s not true,” I said immediately, but even I knew that was mostly a lie. So I tried to revise. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t like you. I just don’t know you so well, that’s all.”
“Don’t trust me, eh?”
“Really,” I said, “why should I?”
“Your brother’s trust in me doesn’t give you a reason?”
“Tommy’s never been known around here for his good judgment,” I said.
Tristan whistled. “Wow,” he said again, this time elongating it. “You’re tough as nails, aren’t you?”
I shrugged. Tristan nodded. I thought this was a sign we’d come to an understanding, so I went back to reading. Not two minutes passed, though, before he interrupted again.
“What are you hiding, Meg?”
“What are you talking about?” I said, looking up from my book.
“Well, obviously, if you don’t trust people to this extreme, you must have something to hide. That’s what distrustful people often have. Something to hide. Either that or they’ve been hurt an awful lot by people they loved.”
“You do know you guys can’t get married in Ohio, right? The people decided in the election a couple of years ago.”
“Ohhhh,” said Tristan. “The people. The people the people the people. Oh, my dear, it’s always the people! Always leaping to defend their own rights but always ready to deny someone else theirs. Wake up, baby. That’s history. Did that stop other people from living how they wanted? Well, I suppose sometimes. Screw the people anyhow. Your brother and I will be married, whether or not the people make some silly law that prohibits it. The people, my dear, only matter if you let them.”
“So you’ll be married like I’m a Christian even though I don’t go to church.”
“Really, Meg, you do realize that even if you consider yourself a Christian, those other people don’t, right?”
“What do you mean?”
Tristan turned over on his side so he could face me, and propped his head in his hand. His eyes are green. Tommy’s are blue. If they could have children, they’d be so beautiful, like sea creatures or fairies. My eyes are blue, too, but they’re like Dad’s, dull and flat, like a blind old woman’s eyes rather than the shallow ocean with dancing lights on it blue that Mom and Tommy have. “I mean,” said Tristan, “those people only believe you’re a real Christian if you attend church. It’s the body of Christ rule and all that. You have read the Bible, haven’t you?”
“Parts,” I said, squinting a little. “But anyway,” I said, “it doesn’t matter what they think of me. I know what’s true in my heart.”
“Well, precisely,” said Tristan.
I stopped squinting and held his stare. He didn’t flinch, just kept staring back. “Okay,” I said. “You’ve made your point.”
Tristan stood and lifted his shirt above his head, kicked off his sandals, and dove into the pond. The blue rippled and rippled, the rings flowing out to the edges, then silence and stillness returned, but Tristan didn’t. I waited a few moments, then stood halfway up on one knee. “Tristan?” I said, and waited a few moments more. “Tristan,” I said, louder this time. But he still didn’t come to the surface. “Tristan, stop it!” I shouted, and immediately his head burst out of the water at the center of the pond.
“Oh, this is lovely,” he said, shaking his wet, brown hair out of his eyes. “It’s like having Central Park in your back yard!”
I picked my book up and left, furious with him for frightening me. What did he think? It was funny? I didn’t stay to find out. I didn’t turn around or say anything in response to Tristan either, when he began calling for me to come back.
• • • •
Tommy was in the kitchen making lunch for everyone when I burst through the back door and slammed it shut behind me like a small tornado had blown through. “What’s wrong now?” he said, looking up from the tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches he was making. “Boy trouble?”
He laughed, but this time I didn’t laugh with him. Tommy knew I wasn’t much of a dater, that I didn’t have a huge interest in going somewhere with a guy from school and watching a movie or eating fast food while they practiced on me to become better at making girls think they’ve found a guy who’s incredible. I don’t get that stuff, really. I mean, I like guys. I had a boyfriend once. I mean a real one, not the kind some girls call boyfriends but really aren’t anything but the guy they dated that month. That’s not a boyfriend. That’s a candidate. Some people can’t tell the difference. Anyway, I’m sure my parents have probably thought I’m the same way as Tommy, since I don’t bring boys home, but I don’t bring boys home because it all seems like something to save for later. Right now, I like just thinking about me, my future. I’m not so good at thinking in the first person plural yet.
I glared at Tommy before saying, “Your boyfriend sucks. He just tricked me into thinking he’d drowned.”
Tommy grinned. “He’s a bad boy, I know,” he said. “But Meg, he didn’t mean anything by it. You take life too seriously. You should really relax a little. Tristan is playful. That’s part of his charm. He was trying to make you his friend, that’s all.”
“By freaking me out? Wonderful friendship maneuver. It amazes me how smart you and your city friends are. Did Tristan go to NYU, too?”
“No,” Tommy said flatly. And on that one word, with that one shift of tone in his voice, I could tell I’d pushed him into the sort of self I wear most of the time: the armor, the defensive position. I’d crossed one of his lines and felt small and little and mean. “Tristan’s family is wealthy,” said Tommy. “He’s a bit of the black sheep, though. They’re not on good terms. He could have gone to college anywhere he wanted, but I think he’s avoided doing that because it would make them proud of him for being more like them instead of himself. They’re different people, even though they’re from the same family. Like how you and I are different from Mom and Dad about church. Anyway, they threatened to cut him off if he didn’t come home to let them groom him to be more like them.”
“Heterosexual, married to a well-off woman from one of their circle, and ruthless in a board room?” I offered.
“Well, no,” said Tommy. “Actually they’re quite okay with Tristan being gay. He’s different from them in another way.”
“What way?” I asked.
Tommy rolled his eyes a little, weighing whether or not he should tell me anymore. “I shouldn’t talk about it,” he said, sighing, exasperated.
“Tommy, tell me!” I said. “How bad could it be?”
“Not bad so much as strange. Maybe even unbelievable for you, Meg.” I frowned, but he went on. “The ironic thing is, the thing they can’t stand about Tristan is something they gave him. A curse, you would have called it years ago. Today I think the word we use is gene. In any case, it runs in Tristan’s family, skipping generations mostly, but every once in a while one of the boys are born . . . well, different.”
“Different but not in the gay way?” I said, confused.
“No, not in the gay way,” said Tommy, smiling, shaking his head. “Different in the way that he has two lives, sort of. The one here on land with you and I, and another one in, well, in the water.”
“He’s a rebellious swimmer?”
Tommy laughed, bursting the air. “I guess you could say that,” he said. “But no. Listen, if you want to know, I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to tell Mom and Dad. They think we’re here because Tommy’s family disowned him for being gay. I told them his parents were Pentecostal, so it all works out in their minds.”
“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”
“What would you say,” Tommy began, his eyes shifting up as if he were searching for the right words in the air above him. “What would you say, Meg, if I told you the real reason is because Tristan’s not completely human. I mean, not in the sense that we understand it.”
I narrowed my eyes, pursed my lips, and said, “Tommy, are you on drugs?”
“I wish!” he said. “God, those’ll be harder to find around here,” he laughed. “No, really, I’m telling the truth. Tristan is something . . . something else. A water person? You know, with a tail and all?” Tommy flapped his hand in the air when he said this. I smirked, waiting for the punch line. But when one didn’t come, it hit me.
“This has something to do with The Sons of Melusine, doesn’t it?”
Tommy nodded. “Yes, those paintings are inspired by Tristan.”
“But Tommy,” I said, “why are you going back to this type of painting? Sure, it’s an interesting gimmick, saying your boyfriend’s a merman. But the critics didn’t like your fantasy paintings. They liked the American Gothic stuff. Why would they change their minds now?”
“Two things,” Tommy said, frustrated with me. “One: A good critic doesn’t dismiss entire genres. They look at technique and composition of elements and the relationship the painting establishes with this world. Two: It’s not a gimmick. It’s the truth, Meg. Listen to me. I’m not laughing anymore. Tristan made his parents an offer. He said he’d move somewhere unimportant and out of the way, and they could make up whatever stories about him for their friends to explain his absence if they gave him part of his inheritance now. They accepted. It’s why we’re here.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there. Tommy ladled soup into bowls for the four of us. Dad would be coming in from the barn soon, Tristan back from the pond. Mom was still at the library and wouldn’t be home till evening. This was a regular summer day. It made me feel safe, that regularity. I didn’t want it to ever go away.
I saw Tristan then, trotting through the field out back, drying his hair with his pink shirt as he came. When I turned back to Tommy, he was looking out the window over the sink, watching Tristan too, his eyes watering. “You really love him, don’t you?” I said.
Tommy nodded, wiping his tears away with the backs of his hands. “I do,” he said. “He’s so special, like something I used to see a long time ago. Something I forgot how to see for a while.”
“Have you finished The Sons of Melusine series, then?” I asked, trying to change the subject. I didn’t feel sure of how to talk to Tommy right then.
“I haven’t,” said Tommy. “There’s one more I want to do. I was waiting for the right setting. Now we have it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to paint Tristan by the pond.”
“Why the pond?”
“Because,” said Tommy, returning to gaze out the window, “it’s going to be a place he can be himself totally now. He’s never had that before.”
“When will you paint him?”
“Soon,” said Tommy. “But I’m going to have to ask you and Mom and Dad a favor.”
“Not to come down to the pond while we’re working.”
“He doesn’t want anyone to know about him. I haven’t told Mom and Dad. Just you. So you have to promise me two things. Don’t come down to the pond, and don’t tell Tristan I told you about him.”
Tristan opened the back door then. He had his shirt back on and his hair was almost dry. Pearls of water still clung to his legs. I couldn’t imagine those being a tail, his feet a flipper. Surely Tommy had gone insane. “Am I late for lunch?” Tristan asked, smiling at me.
Tommy turned and beamed him a smile back. “Right on time, love,” he said, and I knew our conversation had come to an end.
• • • •
I went down the lane to the barn where Dad was working, taking his lunch with me when he didn’t show up to eat with us. God, I wished I could tell him how weird Tommy was being, but I’d promised not to say anything, and even if my brother was going crazy, I wouldn’t go back on my word. I found Dad coming out of the barn with a pitchfork of cow manure, which he threw onto the spreader parked outside the barn. He’d take that to the back field and spread it later probably, and then I’d have to watch where I stepped for a week whenever I cut through the field to go to the pond. When I gave him his soup and sandwich, he thanked me and asked what the boys were doing. I told him they were sitting in the living room under the American Gothic portrait fiercely making out. He almost spit out his sandwich, he laughed so hard. I like making my dad laugh because he doesn’t do it nearly enough. Mom’s too nice, which sometimes is what kills a sense of humor in people, and Tommy always was too testing of Dad to ever get to a joking relationship with him. Me, though, I can always figure out something to shock him into a laugh.
“You’re bad, Meg,” he said, after settling down. Then: “Were they really?”
I shook my head. “Nope. You were right the first time, Dad. That was a joke.” I didn’t want to tell him his son had gone mad, though.
“Well, I thought so, but still,” he said, taking a bite of his sandwich. “All sorts of new things to get used to these days.”
I nodded. “Are you okay with that?” I asked.
“Can’t not be,” he said. “Not an option.”
“I need no authority figure on that,” said Dad. “You have a child and, no matter what, you love them. That’s just how it is.”
“That’s not how it is for everyone, Dad.”
“Well, thank the dear Lord I’m not everyone,” he said. “Why would you want to live like that, with all those conditions on love?”
I didn’t know what to say. He’d shocked me into silence the way I could always shock him into laughter. We had that effect on each other, like yin and yang. My dad’s a good guy, likes the simpler life, seems pretty normal. He wears Allis-Chalmers tractor hats and flannel shirts and jeans. He likes oatmeal and meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. Then he opens his mouth and turns into the Buddha. I swear to God, he’ll do it when you’re least expecting it. I don’t know sometimes whether he’s like me and Tommy, hiding something different about himself but just has all these years of experience to make himself blend in. Like maybe he’s an angel beneath that sun-browned, beginning-to-wrinkle human skin. “Do you really feel that way?” I asked. “It’s one thing to say that, but is it that easy to truly feel that way?”
“Well it’s not what you’d call easy, Meg. But it’s what’s right. Most of the time doing what’s right is more difficult than doing what’s wrong.”
He handed me his bowl and plate after he finished, and asked if I’d take a look at Buttercup. Apparently she’d been looking pretty down. So I set the dishes on the seat of the tractor and went into the barn to visit my old girl, my cow Buttercup, who I’ve had since I was a little girl. She was my present on my fourth birthday. I’d found her with her mother in a patch of buttercups and spent the summer with her, sleeping with her in the fields, playing with her, training her as if she were a dog. By the time she was a year old, she’d even let me ride her like a horse. We were the talk of the town, and Dad even had me ride her into the ring at the county fair’s Best of Show. Normally she would have been butchered by now—no cow lasted as long as Buttercup had on Dad’s farm—but I had saved her each time it ever came into Dad’s head to let her go. He never had to say anything. I could see his thoughts as clear as if they were stones beneath a clear stream of water, I could take them and break them or change them if I needed. The way I’d changed Tommy’s mind the day he left for New York, making him turn back and leave me alone by the pond. It was a stupid thing, really, whatever it was, this thing I could do with my will. Here I could change people’s minds, but I used it to make people I loved go away with hard feelings and to prolong the life of a cow.
Dad was right. She wasn’t looking good, the old girl. She was thirteen and had had a calf every summer for a good ten years. I looked at her now and saw how selfish I’d been to make him keep her. She was down on the ground in her stall, legs folded under her, like a queen stretched out on a litter, her eyes half-closed, her lashes long and pretty as a woman’s. “Old girl,” I said. “How you doing?” She looked up at me, chewing her cud, and smiled. Yes, cows can smile. I can’t stand it that people can’t see this. Cats can smile, dogs can smile, cows can, too. It just takes time and you have to really pay attention to notice. You can’t look for a human smile; it’s not the same. You have to be able to see an animal for itself before it’ll let you see its smile. Buttercup’s smile was warm, but fleeting. She looked exhausted from the effort of greeting me.
I patted her down and brushed her a bit and gave her some ground molasses to lick out of my hand. I liked the feel of the rough stubble on her tongue as it swept across my palm. Sometimes I thought if not psychology, maybe veterinary medicine would be the thing for me. I’d have to get used to death, though. I’d have to be okay with helping an animal die. Looking at Buttercup, I knew I didn’t have that in me. If only I could use my will on myself as well as it worked on others.
When I left the barn, Dad was up on the seat of the tractor, holding his dishes, which he handed me again. “Off to spread this load,” he said, starting the tractor after he spoke. He didn’t have to say any more about Buttercup. He knew I’d seen what he meant. I’d have to let her go someday, I knew. I’d have to work on that, though. I just wasn’t ready.
• • • •
The next day I went back to the pond only to find Tristan and Tommy already there. Tommy had a radio playing classical music on the dock beside him while he sketched something in his notebook. Tristan swam towards him, then pulled his torso up and out by holding onto the dock so he could lean in and kiss Tommy before letting go and sinking back down. I tried to see if there were scales at his waistline, but he was too quick. “Hey!” Tommy shouted. “You dripped all over my sketch, you wretched whale! What do you think this is? Sea World?”
I laughed, but Tommy and Tristan both looked over at me, eyes wide, mouths open, shocked to see me there. “Meg!” Tristan said from the pond, waving his hand. “How long have you been there? We didn’t hear you.”
“Only a minute,” I said, stepping onto the dock, moving Tommy’s radio over before spreading out my towel to lie next to him. “You should really know not to mess with him when he’s working,” I added. “Tommy is a perfectionist, you know.”
“Which is why I do it,” Tristan laughed. “Someone needs to keep him honest. Nothing can be perfect, right, Tommy?”
“Close to perfect, though,” Tommy said.
“What are you working on?” I asked, and immediately he flipped the page over and started sketching something new.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, his pencil pulling gray and black lines into existence on the page. “Tristan ruined it.”
“I had to kiss you,” Tristan said, swimming closer to us.
“You always have to kiss me,” Tommy said.
“Well, yes,” said Tristan. “Can you blame me?”
I rolled my eyes and opened my book.
“Meg,” Tommy said a few minutes later, after Tristan had swum away, disappearing into the depths of the pond and appearing on the other side, smiling brilliantly. “Remember how I said I’d need you and Mom and Dad to do me that favor?”
“I’m going to start work tomorrow, so no more coming up on us without warning like that, okay?”
I put my book down and looked at him. He was serious. No joke was going to follow this gravely intoned request. “Okay,” I said, feeling a little stung. I didn’t like it when Tommy took that tone with me and meant it.
I finished my book within the hour and got up to leave. Tommy looked up as I bent to pick up my towel and I could see his mouth opening to say something, a reminder, or worse: a plea for me to believe what he’d said about Tristan the day before. So I locked eyes with him and took hold of that thought before it became speech. It wriggled fiercely, trying to escape the grasp of my will, flipping back and forth like a fish pulled out of its stream. But I won. I squeezed it between my will’s fingers, and Tommy turned back to sketching without another word.
• • • •
The things that are wrong with me are many. I try not to let them be the things people see in me, though. I try to make them invisible, or to make them seem natural, or else I stuff them up in that dark spot on my ceiling and will them into non-existence. This doesn’t usually work for very long. They come back, they always come back, whatever they are, if it’s something really a part of me and not just a passing mood. No amount of willing can change those things. Like my inability to let go of Buttercup, my anger with the people of this town, my frustration with my parents’ kindness to a world that doesn’t deserve them, my annoyance with my brother’s light-stepped movement through life. I hate that everything we love has to die, I despise narrow thinking, I resent the unfairness of the world and the unfairness that I can’t feel at home in it like it seems others can. All I have is my will, this sharp piece of material inside me, stronger than metal, that everything I encounter breaks itself upon.
Mom once told me it was my gift, not to discount it. I’d had a fit of anger with the school board and the town that day. They’d fired one of my teachers for not teaching creationism alongside evolution, and somehow thought this was completely legal. And no one seemed outraged but me. I wrote a letter to the newspaper declaring the whole affair an obstruction to teacher’s freedoms, but it seemed that everyone—kids at school and their parents—just accepted it until a year later the courts told us it was unacceptable.
I cried and tore apart my room one day that year. I hated being in school after they did that to Mr. Turney. When Mom heard me tearing my posters off the walls, smashing my unicorns and horses, she burst into my room and threw her arms around me and held me until my will quieted again. Later, when we were sitting on my bed, me leaning against her while she combed her fingers through my hair, she said, “Meg, don’t be afraid of what you can do. That letter you wrote, it was wonderful. Don’t feel bad because no one else said anything. You made a strong statement. People were talking about it at church last week. They think people can’t hear, or perhaps they mean for them to hear. Anyway, I’m proud of you for speaking out against what your heart tells you isn’t right. That’s your gift, sweetie. If you hadn’t noticed, not everyone is blessed with such a strong, beautiful will.”
It made me feel a little better, hearing that, but I couldn’t also tell her how I’d used it for wrong things too: to make Tommy leave for New York without knowing I was okay, to make Dad keep Buttercup beyond the time he should have, to keep people far away so I wouldn’t have to like or love them. I’d used my will to keep the world at bay, and that was my secret: that I didn’t really care for this life I’d been given, that I couldn’t stop myself from being angry at the whole fact of it, life, that the more things I loved, the worse it would be because I’d lose all those things in the end. So Buttercup sits in the barn, her legs barely strong enough for her to stand on, because of me not being able to let go. So Tommy turned back and left because I couldn’t bear to say goodbye. So I didn’t have any close friends because I didn’t want to have to lose anymore than I already had to lose in my family.
My will was my gift, she said. So why did it feel like such a curse to me?
When Mom came home later that evening, I sat in the kitchen and had a cup of tea with her. She always wanted tea straight away after she came home. She said it calmed her, helped her ease out of her day at the library and back into life at home. “How are Tommy and Tristan adjusting?” she asked me after a few sips, and I shrugged.
“They seem to be doing fine, but Tommy’s being weird and a little mean.”
“How so?” Mom wanted to know.
“Just telling me to leave them alone while he works, and he told me some weird things about Tristan and his family, too. I don’t know. It all seems so impossible.”
“Don’t underestimate people’s ability to do harm to each other,” Mom interrupted. “Even those that say they love you.”
I knew she was making this reference based on the story Tommy had told her and Dad about Tristan’s family disowning him because he was gay, so I shook my head. “I understand that, Mom,” I said. “There’s something else, too.” I didn’t know how to tell her what Tommy had told me, though. I’d promised to keep it between him and me. So I settled for saying, “Tristan doesn’t seem the type who would want to live out here away from all the things he could enjoy in the city.”
“Perhaps that’s all grown old for him,” Mom said. “People change. Look at you, off to school in a month or so. Between the time you leave and the first time you come home again, you’ll have become someone different, and I won’t have had a chance to watch you change.” She started tearing up. “All your changes all these years, the Lord’s let me share them all with you, and now I’m going to have to let you go and change into someone without me around to make sure you’re safe.”
“Oh, Mom,” I said. “Don’t cry.”
“No, no,” she said. “I want to cry.” She wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands, smiling. “I just want to say, Meg, don’t be so hard on other people. Or yourself. It’s hard enough as it is, being in this world. Don’t judge so harshly. Don’t stop yourself from seeing other people’s humanity because they don’t fit into your scheme of the world.”
I blinked a lot, then picked up my mug of tea and sipped it. I didn’t know how to respond. Mom usually never says anything critical of us, and though she said it nicely, I knew she was worried for me. For her to say something like that, I knew I needed to put down my shield and sword and take a look around instead of fighting. But wasn’t fighting the thing I was good at?
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry, dear. Be happy. Find the thing that makes you happy and enjoy it, like your brother is doing.”
“You mean his painting?” I said.
“No,” said Mom. “I mean Tristan.”
• • • •
One day towards the end of my senior year, our English teacher, Miss Portwood, told us that many of our lives were about to become much wider. That we’d soon have to begin mapping a world for ourselves outside of the first seventeen years of our lives. It struck me, hearing her say that, comparing the years of our lives to a map of the world. If I had a map of seventeen, of the years I’d lived so far, it would be small and plain, outlining the contours of my town with a few landmarks on it like Marrow’s Ravine and town square, the schools, the pond, our fields and the barn and the home we live in. It would be on crisp, fresh paper, because I haven’t traveled very far, and stuck to the routes I know best. There would be nothing but waves and waves of ocean surrounding my map of my hometown. In the ocean, I’d draw those sea beasts you find on old maps of the world, and above them I’d write the words “There Be Dragons.”
What else is out there, beyond this edge of the world I live on? Who else is out there? Are there real reasons to be as afraid of the world as I’ve been?
I was thinking all this when I woke up the next morning and stared at the black spot on my ceiling. That could be a map of seventeen, too. Nothing but white around it, and nothing to show for hiding myself away. Mom was right. Though I was jealous of Tommy’s ability to live life so freely, he was following a path all his own, a difficult one, and needed as many people who loved him to help him do it. I could help him and Tristan both, probably just by being more friendly and supportive than suspicious and untrusting. I could start by putting aside Tommy’s weirdness about Tristan being a cursed son of Melusine and do like Mom and Dad: just humor him. He’s an artist, after all.
So I got up and got dressed and left the house without even having breakfast. I didn’t want to let another day go by and not make things okay with Tommy for going away all those years ago. Through the back field I went, into the woods, picking up speed as I went, as the urgency to see him took over me. By the time I reached the edge of the pond’s clearing, I had a thousand things I wanted to say. When I stepped out of the woods and into the clearing, though, I froze in place, my mouth open but no words coming out because of what I saw there.
Tommy was on the dock with his easel and palette, sitting in a chair, painting Tristan. And Tristan—I don’t know how to describe him, how to make his being something possible, but these words came into mind: tail, scales, beast, and beauty. At first I couldn’t tell which he was, but I knew immediately that Tommy hadn’t gone insane. Or else we both had.
Tristan lay on the dock in front of Tommy, his upper body strong and muscular and naked, his lower half long and sinuous as a snake. His tail swept back and forth, occasionally dipping into the water for a moment before returning to the position Tommy wanted. I almost screamed, but somehow willed myself not to. I hadn’t left home yet, but a creature from the uncharted world had traveled onto my map where I’d lived the past seventeen years. How could this be?
I thought of that group show we’d all flown to New York to see, the one where Tommy had hung his first in the series of American Gothic alongside those odd, magical creatures he painted back when he was just graduated. The critic who’d picked him out of that group show said that Tommy had technique and talent, was by turns fascinating and annoying, but that he’d wait to see if Tommy would develop a more mature vision. I think when I read that back then, I had agreed.
I’d forgotten the favor I’d promised: not to come back while they were working. Tommy hadn’t really lied when he told me moving here was for Tristan’s benefit, to get away from his family and the people who wanted him to be something other than what he is. I wondered how long he’d been trying to hide this part of himself before he met Tommy, who was able to love him because of who and what he is. What a gift and curse that is, to be both of them, to be what Tristan is and for Tommy to see him so clearly. My problems were starting to shrivel the longer I looked at them. And the longer I looked, the more I realized the dangers they faced, how easily their lives and love could be shattered by the people in the world who would fire them from life the way the school board fired Mr. Turney for actually teaching us what we can know about the world.
I turned and quietly went back through the woods, but as I left the trail and came into the back field, I began running. I ran from the field and past the house, out into the dusty back road we live on, and stood there looking up and down the road at the horizon, where the borders of this town waited for me to cross them at the end of summer. Whether there were dragons waiting for me after I journeyed off the map of my first seventeen years didn’t matter. I’d love them when it called for loving them, and I’d fight the ones that needed fighting. That was my gift, like Mom had told me, what I could do with my will. Maybe instead of psychology, I’d study law, learn how to defend it, how to make it better, so that someday Tommy and Tristan could have what everyone else has.
It’s a free country, after all. Well, sort of. And one day, if I had anything to say about it, that would no longer be a joke between Tommy and me.
Spread the word!