Three months before my brother was born, my mother became ill with a terrible fever. She lay in bed shaking and sweating with alternating chills and heat, and one night, when my father didn't know if the fever would ever break, she had a dream.
In the dream, my mother's walking through a vegetable garden. Along comes God. He's wearing a beret, smoking a Gauloise, looking very much a Frenchman. He comes up beside my mother and holds her arm as they walk together. He points out the firm fresh radishes, the sprigs of brilliant green parsley, the orange-domed carrot tops just barely peeking up below their bushy tufts of green. As they walk further, God shows my mother a brown dirt field full of dew-laden cabbage. "Choose your baby from over there," says God, pointing a nicotine-stained finger to the cabbages. My mother hikes up her long skirt and steps gently onto God's cabbage field. Sleeping behind the cabbages are baby rabbits. My mother squeals with delight and falls to her knees to decide just which of these sweet little rabbits will be her baby. She carries a small brown and white Dutch long-eared over to God. "Ah," says God. "You will not be disappointed. This one, I call Pierre."
Although she never told my father the dream, when my brother was born, my mother named him Pierre. This caused a stir with my father, who said what was the matter with the name he picked out? Harold was a perfectly fine ITAL American END ITAL name, for God's sake, and why did my mother want to give their child some foreign Frog name
Many years later, after I was born, my mother began telling my brother and me the story of our names quite often. Sometimes she would add my father's comments with a cool disdain. I thought my father was stupid for thinking Pierre was a frog's name, when God had quite clearly named my brother Pierre for Pierre Lapin, the small bunny in my nursery book who was also called Peter Rabbit. My brother found this acceptable at first, but as we grew older he denied it vehemently. Many an argument was further fueled with my taunts of a singsong tease --Pierre Lapin! Pierre Lapin! Hop on back to the cabbage bin!
When I first made the mistake of telling a grown-up that my brother was named after a rabbit, mother corrected me with a shocked face. "Why of course that's not true!" she said with a laugh and a look of mock distraught. "Wherever do children come up with these things? Pierre was named for the first pope of the Church, our blessed St. Peter." There was nothing I could say to dispute this confusing bit of patently false information, until I was 9 years old and discovered we weren't even Catholic.
As for my own name, it too came from a dream. In nearly the same month of pregnancy as my mother became ill with my brother, so also did it happen with me. This time my father hired a nurse, who came to our house and put cool, rosemary-scented compresses on my mother's forehead throughout the night. Still, the fever raged and mother had her vision.
In this dream, my mother is walking down a garden full of flowers. There are gladioli, daffodils, petunias, roses, morning glories -- all her favorites. The peonies are open wide and my mother cannot believe such colors were ever imagined. So too are there countless varieties of flowers my mother doesn't know and has never seen before. On one, silver-sheened petals grow large as dinner plates; on another, tiny purple and red hearts pulse beneath a shady cover of wary blue leaves. When God comes walking up beside my mother, she hardly notices him. This time he's dressed in a tweed suit and is smoking a pipe. Round, tortoise-shell spectacles rest upon his bony nose. "Ah, you again," says God, and my mother smiles. "You know, I usually make these choices myself, but since you're here ..." God guides my mother over to a trellis where there is one flower each of all those in the garden. They are still small, growing on a network of vines which is tended by a flurry of buzzing nursery bees. God tells my mother to pick a single flower, and she chooses one that is soft as baby skin and smells as sweet. It is exotic-looking, with a long plumage of purple-blue blossoms. "Why that's an interesting choice," says God. "I call that one Violet."
Although my father liked my name only slightly more than he liked Pierre's, I grew up loving my name. It was my mother's dream whispered to me in secret at story time that nurtured my fertile imagination for what that more-than-beautiful, exotic violet flower must look like. When I saw my first violet, at age 5, I cried for hours. I was outraged. This dark purple-petaled nub of a flower with the ridiculously tiny yellow center might be pretty, but it was hardly the image of the dream.
That night, mother held me close and told me that God's flowers were different from the ones on Earth. "Everything there is as it really is. Everything here is just a shadow." It's our job, she told me, to see through the shadows.
By the time I was 6, my father had almost totally disappeared. He left us gradually, piece by piece. As a tiny baby, I had known my father's arms as he enveloped me, his warm chest as he held me close, his dark chin whiskers pressed tight to the top of my little bald head. As an infant, the memories receded to his smile, a face looking down into my crib, a hand patting my back. By the time he left, all I could remember were a few stocky fingers, already distant and fading, waving to us goodbye, goodbye forever.
Two years after my father left, my mother took ill again with the fever. Pierre said she was going to have another baby, but Anna Louise, the lady hired to look after us, said that wasn't possible since our father had been gone far too long for that to happen. When mother told us she needed rest and was going to Florida to stay with Great Aunt Sisely for a few months, Anna Louise moved into our house. She was going to take good care of us, said our mother, and we weren't to give her any trouble.
Anna Louise was a large, doughy woman, with a dimple in her cheek and a laugh that fluttered, like butterflies dancing. As it turned out, our mother had to stay in Florida for almost half a year, but Anna Louise kept us happy with a daily supply of cookies, cakes and pies. She helped us with our homework, allowed Pierre to dig up part of the back yard for an underground fort, and shared her pink and purple cubes of fragrant bath salts with me so I could soak in the aroma of Lilac Dreams and Lily Splendor at least once a week.
When mother came back from Florida, Pierre and I could hardly believe our eyes. Her skin had grown leathery dark and her hair was streaked with strands of golden sunlight. She brought back a suitcase filled with oranges and a canvas sack stuffed with seashells. Mother had learned to sail, she told us. It was a marvelous sport that involved a long, sleek, white boat and big, flapping sails with special names like jib and spinnaker. You had to know when to lean with the wind, and when to pull against it. "Just feel my muscles," she said, and we pressed our fingertips to the upper part of her browned arm, which did indeed feel tight and strong.
Every year after that, our mother took a two-week health break from her work at the bank to visit Great Aunt Sisely in Florida, leaving us in the care of Anna Louise. Every year, mother returned to us tanned, toned and golden-sparkled a week before Christmas. If we were still in school, she kept us out for an early holiday. Pierre and I would spill open the new canvas bag and sort through the strangely curlicued, whorl-topped shells that still smelled of salt and sea. We would paw through the specimens, trying to match them with the pictures and names in "The Great Big Book of Shells," which mother had brought back after her very first trip.
While she baked gingerbread Santas and chocolate toffee squares, my mother related her latest adventures on The Delphine. This was the boat she sailed each year. As we grew older, the adventures became more and more daring. My mother learned how to snorkel, breathing air through a bent tube while swimming underwater for hours on end. She told us the fish had colors so bright, so unlike anything above the water, that you'd think you were in another world entirely. But it was the seashells my mother especially loved. She explained to us they were the discarded homes of animals that once lived and crawled upon the ocean floor. "Just think of it!" my mother would exclaim, leaving us to ponder the mystery.
For months after my mother's return, I would dream of sailing on The Delphine. I saw myself scouring the beach, finding my own pastel-colored moon snails, baby cowries, pearly abalones, and tiny starfish that would dry stiff and white in the sun. The very thought of leaving the frozen arctic blasts of winter behind and flying on an airplane to a place where the days were warm all year long was almost more than I could hold. Still, I felt sure our mother would take us there someday. It was our destiny, I told Pierre. There, we would sail The Delphine into turquoise-colored bays and catch sight of the wrinkly skinned manatee or, in open waters, a group of shiny black-backed whales. My brother and I would wear undersea masks, snorkels and fins and pulse through the ocean current with a mere flick of our flippered feet. We would watch the colorful fish of all shapes and sizes -- the neon-blue-streaked, the bulging bubble-eyed, the crusty spiny-haired monsters of the deep. Then my brother and I would finally come to understand the secrets my mother already knew.
The autumn I turned 9, my mother surprised us both by telling us the true story of why our father left us. We were in the kitchen, making caramel apples. Pierre had taken to telling his friends that his real father, Pierre Senior, was a member of the French Foreign Legion, whereas I was the child of my mother's second husband, a flower-grower named Francis. This was my brother's latest tale, and I was still enjoying the newness of imagining Francis, my gardening father, when my mother said, in the midst of stirring the caramel, "Well, I suppose I should tell you two once and for all." Then she sat down and told us the story of how our father, Harold Jamison, had decided life might be better in the East, especially if it was shared with a certain red-haired lady by the name of Lorraine.
Our mother went upstairs, hauled a dusty shoe box off the top shelf of her bedroom closet and brought it down for our inspection. Inside were an assortment of yellowed photographs There were wedding photos, baby photos and one small snapshot of my father holding Pierre and me. He had a tall, thin body -- not at all like I remembered him -- with dark hair and a wild grin. "I was sad to see him go," mother said with a sigh, "but I think it's worked out for the best, don't you?"
When my mother died, all three of us were sitting at the dinner table celebrating an early Christmas. There were baked ham, potato dumplings, green beans with slivered almonds, and Mom's special hickory nut cake for dessert. Pierre and I had each caught a flight home as our mother insisted we arrive before the big storm which, she predicted, was only a few days away.
We talked briefly about our jobs and Mom listened, though it was clear she didn't much care. Pierre was the head of a research lab in New Jersey and engaged to a petite blonde named Bunnie. I didn't think my brother was too keen on either of these things, but who was I to talk? I was living in Minneapolis in a dingy, third-floor apartment, working for an obnoxious, fox-faced man in retail sales.
As she was serving beans, our mother began telling us about the dream she had back in summer, back when she was picking the very beans we were eating just then. She was laughing about some part of the dream neither Pierre nor I understood. She was trying to explain why it was funny, and how the connections worked, when a mouthful of half-eaten green beans got lodged in her windpipe. This made my mother laugh harder. "Just like in the dream!" she wheezed, suddenly gasping with such a fury that the beans were sucked further down, and lodged more firmly. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her face turned the color of deep purple velvet.
My brother jumped up and pulled my mother from her chair. I watched him position his hands under her breastbone and heave upwards. Again, again. I watched for the beans, but they never came. I saw my mother's eyes turn distant and I think, as she was attempting to pull in that one last feeble breath, she was also waving goodbye. Her hand rose slowly to her forehead, damp fingers fluttered open in surprise, as if she suddenly forgot something, or perhaps just remembered. It was just the way I recall my father waving with his fading fingers: goodbye forever.
Pierre called for an ambulance, then shook his head with baffled finality as he kneeled beside me. "She's gone," he said. Perhaps I was hallucinating, but I could have sworn I saw her lips moving, although no sound came forth. While her living face was troubled, the face underneath was pleasantly amused. "You mean I don't get to choose?" I thought I heard her say as I pressed my ear to her lips. Then I knew she was not talking to us at all.
Two days after the funeral, my brother and I met at our mother's house to sort through things. We stood at the fish tank and Pierre said, "What the hell are we going to do with this?" The 150-gallon, saltwater aquarium was filled with a strange assortment of googlie-eyed, fat-lipped and bright blue neon-striped fish my mother liked to collect. There were even two small sea horses she had managed to smuggle home a few trips ago.
Pierre and I wandered about the house like little lost mice. I sat down to unwrap one of the presents under the tree. I knew it was a bottle of amaretto, since I was the one who had wrapped it. Then Pierre grabbed one of his and tore off the wrapping. Underneath was a big wicker basket full of foreign cheeses, sausages, crackers and chocolates. He built a fire and we sat on either end of the couch without our shoes or socks, eating Gouda and rye wafers, pinching gold-wrapped chocolates, passing the bottle between us.
Later in the evening, when I asked about wedding plans, he rolled his eyes. "Bunnie wants to do some ghastly yellow scheme right around Easter, but her mother ..." Maybe it was all the amaretto, but all of a sudden the notion of what my brother was planning to do struck me as outrageously funny. "Bunny!" I cried out and began to laugh so hard I shook.
Pierre screamed and jumped up right away. He undoubtedly thought he was cursed and that what had happened to our mother was now happening to me. I tried to push him away, but all my energy was spent gasping out a pathetically demented "Bunny! Bunny!" God, how could I not have seen it before? Bunny! My brother, Pierre Lapin, wanted to marry a little blond bunny!
It wasn't until Pierre socked me hard on the thigh that I was finally able to stop and explain. We laughed on and off for a good half-hour. When that was over, we cried. Pierre threw another log on the fire. "She was a good mother," he said and I nodded yes. "A bit strange, but that's what made her a great mother after all."
Pierre slid his hand over and I held it tight. We sighed simultaneously, and decided right then and there to quit our jobs. "Let's only do what we love," I said. "Only love what we do," echoed my brother. In his fit of drunkenness, Pierre also promised he would never, under any circumstances, marry some dumb bunny. We spit on our fingertips and pressed them hard together. Then I snuggled down onto one of our mother's petit point pillows and fell asleep in front of the fire.
Friday morning, Pierre and I overslept. We threw on clean clothes, jumped in Mom's Buick and sped downtown to meet the lawyer. Mr. Redman was a nervous man with pinched blue eyes under black-framed glasses, and a toupee that wouldn't lie flat. He greeted us with damp handshakes and a quiver in his voice. When Pierre asked if there was some problem, he assured us the will was very straightforward, having been carefully prepared years ago in this very office. "Still," said Mr. Redman, craning his neck to look past Pierre and me, beyond the open door. He coughed. "Ah, there is the matter of your sister."
"I'm right here," I said, thinking perhaps Mr. Redman didn't understand and had mistaken me for Pierre's ill-betrothed honey Bunnie.
"Yes ... but we really should wait for your sister. A portion of the estate goes to her as well." Mr. Redman cleared his throat, pulled at his tie, and shuffled some papers while my brother and I exchanged looks of incredulity. "It says here quite clearly that the will cannot be read until all three children are present: Pierre, Violet, Sirenia."
At the diner across from Mr. Redman's office, my brother and I argued while sharing a bowl of chili, a basket of corn bread muffins and a hot-fudge sundae. Pierre tried to be logical about it all, eating first the chili and the muffins, then the ice-cream. I simply didn't care and let my spoon dart haphazardly to chili, fudge, and back again.
"Sirenia! What kind of a name is Sirenia? I'll tell you, Pierre. Sirenia is the name of some tub of a manatee. A stinking sea cow! I'll bet you she's not even our sister at all. Maybe she's not even a woman! What about an insurance scam? It's possible, you know. Someone in Florida, someone who knew our mother. An impostor -- it could happen!"
"Vi-o-let," my brother said in the same singsong way I used to chant Pierre Lapin. "I'm beginning to think this all makes sense. Or sense for mother, anyway. I mean, those trips south every year. ... Surely this Aunt Sisely -- if there even was a Great Aunt Sisely -- died years ago. So just what was she doing down there? I never believed that sailboat story either."
"The Delphine? Oh, no, Pierre! You think mother made up The Delphine?" I opened my mouth for what seemed an eternity, then clamped it shut again. This had never happened before -- ever. I simply did not know what to say.
For the next two days, Pierre and I cleaned the house, drank and ate all the remaining Christmas presents, and conjectured about Sirenia. Although we knew she was a grotesque, overbearing, evil and nasty-smelling woman (or possibly man), both my brother and I were dying to meet our mysterious sibling.
When Mr. Redman called on Monday morning, the storm was already threatening a citywide shutdown. Streets were plastered down with icy slush. Snowflakes the size of pennies were dropping everywhere, smothering everything in their soft white lull. Mr. Redman wanted us to come over as soon as possible, as the office was closing early on account of the roads. Pierre hung up the phone and held his fist up to the window, up to the sky, up to the heavens. "Are you happy now?" he shouted to our ghostly mother, who probably was just now beaming down with excitement and pleasure. "Why didn't you tell us before? Why all the mystery?"
Despite all our preparations and promises -- we'd be a couple of hard-nosed, poker-faced inquisitors -- a smile sneaked over my face as soon as I saw her. Sirenia. I saw myself in her sparkling green eyes, her crooked grin, the way she wore the same semi-bewildered expression my brother and I had always shared in moments of uncertainty. Sirenia. She stood with her hands half-extended, palms up as if in question, not sure whether they would be taken or not. Without hesitation, Pierre gently raised one to his lips. I grasped the other firmly.
After all these many years, I'm finally sailing on The Delphine. It's a lovely old boat and the crew couldn't fit her better. Pierre works the main sail, showing off his golden, sun-toned body, and Sirenia glides from bow to stern, carefully eyeing the sky. I take my perch out of the way, always on the lookout for dolphins, sharks or a nice sandy bay.
In the afternoons, we cruise into sheltered coves and get out the snorkel gear. Sometimes, if we are lucky, the dolphins come close. Other times, there are sea turtles and, once, a pod of manatee. But always there are the fish -- the tiny black ones with the blue neon streak that Pierre calls zippers; the bright orange, white and black clownfish that dart between purple sea anemone; the box-shaped brown and white triggerfish that open their mouths in perfect little O's. I lose myself underwater staring at these wondrous creatures. It is, as our mother once said, a completely different world.
Our evenings are spent remembering. Sirenia tells us tales we sometimes have trouble imagining, and Pierre and I take turns telling stories that must seem just as strange to her. We've come to believe that in her own way our mother was trying to tell everything to all of us. For while she brought Pierre and I the big canvas bag of shells each year, she brought Sirenia presents of fuzzy stuffed rabbits holding bouquets of dainty purple flowers.
We often retell the stories of our names. Sometimes we tell the tales one right after the other, to get a sense of the flow, to find if there is any part still missing, or, if told together, whether these stories might yield something more than each on its own. When we first gave up our old lives to live on The Delphine, I would beg Sirenia to tell her name dream again and again. For me, it was the completion of something I had always known would happen. Sirenia has now told the dream so often it almost seems my own.
In the dream, my mother's walking through a garden made entirely of seashells. There are bright white slipper shells, spiral-topped wentletraps, glassy sea butterflies and multicolored keyhole limpets. My mother knows many of these shells and is pleased that those from so many different oceans are gathered together here. The shells seem to float, to arrange themselves in patterns that are almost recognizable. Then they slowly drift apart to reshape themselves once again. The sky is a deep aqua-blue that stretches on forever, becoming darker and deeper the farther away you look. My mother laughs when she sees at last that it is not sky at all, but water. She is walking through an underwater garden. Just then God floats by wearing red and white striped bathing trunks. He blows bubbles through his nose and smiles at my mother. She waves and God swims over to sit beside her, behind a large flat rock. He digs into his trunks and brings out three pale blue-rayed scallops. "Pierre," he says as he places the first, dome-side up, on the rock. "Violet," he says for the next. "And Sirenia," as he places down the third. "That's it?" asks my mother, who is disappointed because God didn't let her pick, like with the other two. God raises an eyebrow, then starts to move the three shells, one in front of the other, into its place and back again. He shuffles the shells, always keeping the ribs of the shell upward, and their pale pink undersides to the rock. "OK, pick one," he says finally to my mother, challenging her in some way she doesn't completely understand. My mother shakes her head no, and God turns over the shells one by one. "Pierre. Violet. Sirenia." Beneath each shell is a small white pearl. My mother looks up, astonished, and opens her mouth to ask whatever does this mean and should she keep the pearls? But God has swum away.
We've sold the houses and have pooled our money. There is still plenty of it, safe in the bank, if we need more. Who'd have guessed our mother had such a knack for investments? Three years before she died, she managed to buy the boat she loved. We're living the life she left to us, sailing The Delphine -- fulfilling a dream, you might say. Our destiny, I think.
Sometimes at night when our brother gets drunk, he stands below the starry skies and hurls questions at the heavens. "Why did you wait so long to tell us?" he calls to her. "Why couldn't we have all been here together?" he sobs. Sirenia and I lay atop cotton blankets spread open wide upon the deck and watch the diamond star lights quiver in the darkness. When Pierre gets tired, he comes back to bed and lies down beside us. We close our eyes and begin a voyage far away with sleep.
I look for God, but instead I see our mother floating above us in a shimmering silver light. She whispers through the foggy covers of our soft sea dreams, reminding us of all the things we always knew but forgot when we were born. "Look past the shadows," she murmurs, her outstretched fingers sweeping a starry trail across our dreaming eyes. "There are many mysteries in God's garden."