If you really want to know about my sister, we have to go so far back.
It’s why I have this resistance around mentioning her. Ever.
Quiet observation tells me that there was never a more complicated story: the Pandora’s box, the inescapable Labyrinth of my sister’s very life.
Trying to make sense of it—to give it perspective— feels like running a child’s delicate fingers along the unseen bottom of a swamp, searching for some tiny lost thing that actually might just belong there.
So maybe it is better to let it rest, leave it alone.
Let the sediment covering it grow heavier, the murky waters deepen.
But you can’t, can you?
There is some part of you that feels you have to hold it up to the light, isn’t there? If only ever one final time?
Well, fuck you, and damn your perpetual curiosity.
You’ll never learn.
(But for what it’s worth: whatever it is for which you’re searching in this story? I do so hope you finally find it.)
Matters are going to be complicated by the fact that I’m going back in.
My penchant for drama is such that I view it as some journey from which I might not even return.
As such, I triple-check my equipment for potential vulnerability: my emotional maturity, my recently-earned stoic strength, my much-needed objective perception.
Were I lying, I could say my goal is to return with my sister’s story, in its pure and undiluted form.
But I’m well aware that it will be filtered through me, whom simplicity evades.
So really, to be honest: it will more likely be the story of sisters.
In one last desperate attempt to understand.
The story of sisters.
From beginning to end.
(Because now, finally, we really are at the end.)
Being five years younger, you weren’t there for Celia’s beginning.
Luckily, your father covered that part:
“I call it ‘Life’,” said Morgan Dubois. He held a painting, red and blue and black and several other colors. It wasn’t finished—the lower right corner was just canvas; but the rest, one saw, was largely full. It was a beautiful picture. Morgan held it in the back of his Altavista, Virginia apartment, right above a sloping woods where he sometime went but where his wife didn’t, at least not too much, because she would, in two months she’d been told, have a baby. Morgan’s picture was actually too dark, black and blue almost everywhere, but the side and middle, its focus Morgan knew, was brightly curving for something—one wasn’t sure what, but there it was and bold. Sometimes it looked like a bloated banana peel; sometimes, about the same but tighter, it looked like a fire bellows, something Morgan himself had never seen; most often it looked like a short loaf of bread that hadn’t quite made it to market, had been dropped off a Mick or Mack truck somewhere in Campbell County. But Morgan knew better. He knew, in some vague yet definite way that what really lay on his canvas, put there by hands that had never before drawn, was the inside of his wife Ann Catherine, where a baby grew. That didn’t embarrass Morgan, though he didn’t and wouldn’t tell anyone save Ann, who guessed herself one day.
She was wearing a blue house dress, or a blue nightgown, or a cotton sun dress. She wore it often this spring, for it was loose and she was big. Ann’s hair was long, the longest in years, and beautiful brown and black. Ann claimed it was ratty. But Morgan knew better, and sometimes when Ann Catherine was sleeping he would rub the folds of her long hair. She was 19 years old, not too old one knew, but to Morgan, because he loved her and bought her pickles at Mick or Mack, she was any age. They’d been married one day in Lexington, Virginia, before a large crowd at Lee Chapel. It was June, and night: Ann helped Morgan put the ring on. She was wonderful and slender and gentle; to Morgan’s disbelief, she was now Mrs. Morgan Dubois. The next day, in a highway restaurant maybe fifty miles south of Wytheville, he believed it less. He saw her ring, his ring and thought: “I’m married.” But there she was, Ann Catherine Dubois, right at his table and smiling, his wife.
The couple honeymooned, after Wytheville, on the California cost. Morgan was rather well fixed, so they stayed six weeks, saw all of the coast and nineteen states besides. They met various people, including Mrs. Helen Dobis and two or three personnel men, but soon it was time to return to Morgan’s home, in northern Virginia. They drove much by night, through butte lands and, it seemed, the whole Midwest. But the Duboises had been refreshed by a stay with friends in San Francisco, and drove endlessly homeward, tiring only in Twin Falls, Idaho, where they rested at what was, in truth, a very nice motel.
It was July when Morgan and Ann came to Virginia. Morgan had no job and a B.A. in Independent Studies, which meant something to someone but not to many employers. The problem might have been Morgan too—he was narrow on preference tests and vague and overeager at interviews; no one hired him. The Duboises did have some money though, and could rent, at least for a while, in their two-room apartment at Carrollton Court in Charlottesville. Morgan applied to the University of Virginia; he was rejected. At last, having borrowed two hundred dollars, with no other income in sight, Morgan hired on with a Charlottesville hamburger concern. Nights, when Morgan came home, he’d bring Ann milkshakes. She’d be beautiful, dressed beyond reason, as though Morgan wasn’t a hamburger man really but a young vice-president maybe, ready to take her wherever Ann might wish.
But Ann only wanted, as far as Morgan could understand, two things: contentment, and a child. Their bed was a fold-out; sheets caught on the edge and tore. Morgan and his wife were sometimes crowded at night. They used a Hudson Bay blanket and spent much of their time there, not only because they loved each other but also because the bed was the sofa and, as such, the most comfortable furniture in the room. In September, when Morgan was making fifty dollars a week, their baby was conceived there. He knew it at the exact time, was certain: Ann, his wife, and he, Morgan Dubois, would have what they both now wanted—a girl, or a boy, and something Morgan knew, but could not explain, would in some way be eternal. He loved Ann.
It was January when they moved to Altavista. Morgan had been given a teaching job, with the 7th grade at Huddleston Elementary School. He’d visited there; the girls in the room had giggled. Morgan was ecstatic, and so was Ann—it was, after all, the first real job her husband had had. They moved quickly, and with fortune. There were no apartments in Huddleston, worse than none in Bedford, and few in Altavista. But one Saturday, when they should have found nothing, the Duboises rented, on the top of a hill, a new paneled apartment with two bedrooms and a landlord named Mr. R.A. Stevens, who couldn’t read and soon lowered the rent. He and his wife were the best landlords they would ever have.
So there Morgan was, with a baby four months inside Ann and frequent snows and driving too fast, at three o’clock, from Huddleston Elementary School. Ann was often sick, had been so too in Charlottesville. Morgan didn’t help, though he tried. He was scared perhaps by Ann’s pain, but he told her poorly. He was, in a sense, oblivious to its fullness, not because he wanted to but because Morgan was happy and proud; the man had never been a father, and he was married to Ann Catherine Dubois. He started to paint.
“Interesting.” That’s what Ann’s brother Paul had said about Morgan’s picture. Not to Morgan but his sister. Ann was painting too, a vase which she redid three times and at last put aside. “It’s terrible,” she said. It wasn’t, but she knew how to paint and wanted more, or maybe another picture completely. She let Morgan continue.
It was April, I think, when Ann guessed what Morgan was doing. He told her first, in their living room, on maybe their brown love-seat. They had too a twelve-foot bookcase and, on it, a television; at the side of the room was a child’s paper chair. Ann smiled when he said it, not shyly or broadly either; she was glad, that she’d understood and, when Morgan painted, in the sun of Altavista, it was—however freely or even badly—their child. She was as soft as life; her hands were warm. This woman, with the blue house dress and long dark hair and child’s eyes, was here, and knew him.
May came, and June. Ann gained eighteen pounds and more. She ate what she should. Morgan kept a food chart, and marked it every day. Ann was the best expectant mother in Virginia, and maybe anywhere; she ate many small potatoes, fruits and raw or cooked vegetables. Weekly they’d drive to Lynchburg, those last two months, to see Ann’s doctor. His name was Dr. Lippard, and he had a partner, Dr. Driskill; both were good, but Ann preferred Dr. Lippard, who calmed her better, even when it was June 25th and, both Ann and Morgan feared, much too late. Three weeks before Morgan had flown to Dallas, wishing a second job, with Greenhill School. Ann didn’t really want him to go, or to move away—even though, right now, Morgan had no job for September. She liked Altavista, but she knew Morgan was excited. She would follow him to Dallas, whatever she felt. Ann didn’t tell Morgan this, but she hinted it; Morgan was worried, remembered Charlottesville, and flew to Texas, unsure too, for the baby was due daily. He returned home at three-thirty a.m. and kissed his wife; it is coming home, finding Ann there, this night and all spring, that I think Morgan remembers best.
They tried many things. Ann worked hard in their rooms. She hung up clothes. They saw “King Rat.” But the baby didn’t come, and it was already June 30th. Morgan’s parents had come and gone, had stayed in Danville, awaiting the birth. Ann’s mother, in Connecticut, was waiting to ring the town bell, but it was, by now, decaying. Nobody understood and July, the tenth month, was coming. It was time for action. Ann scrubbed the floors. Morgan beat his chest and invited Ann to the movies again. “The Collector.” Ann was frightened throughout, by the madman Terrance Stamp and his prison cellar. That night, still trembling, in their small hallway, she told Morgan: the baby was coming, was free. Maybe they should wait till morning? Morgan woke the Trammells, three apartments down; he called the doctor, who wasted no time. The Duboises should go to Lynchburg.
I’m not certain how Ann felt that night. She appeared, in some ways, very calm. That’s what the Trammells said, and the Goodwins too, who lived next door and were watching through their window. And she was quiet all the way to Lynchburg, driving in darkness with Morgan, talking yes but in muted tones that were raised only as they neared, more and more, Virginia Baptist Hospital. They parked far beside and entered there the emergency door. The next thing Morgan knew, because of wonder not fear, his wife was gone, and he was in—alone—the waiting room. He couldn’t help. The last vision had been of Ann, going; it had been, it seemed, too sudden. He didn’t know. For the first time, perhaps, Morgan was afraid. “You’ve got a wait,” said the nurse. “It might be till noon.” Morgan nodded, smiled.
It is this I don’t understand. For three hours Morgan slept and read—forcibly—Holiday Magazine. For three hours Ann was in labor, bearing Celia Dubois. They didn’t see each other. Ann can tell him, but Morgan will never really know, what happened. And he saw Celia before Ann, wrapped in a nurse’s arm, unlike any child he’d ever seen. He held her. “We’re going to wash her,” said the nurse. “You may see her again very soon.” A girl, which was, though Ann had never believed it, what Morgan wanted. She was infinitely small; Celia Dubois. Her hair was dark, he would see her soon, he would see her always. “Yes,” he said. He held her still.
And Ann; on stretcher, incoherent but saying, “We had a girl, Morgan.” The smell, the smell of Ann, of birth, of love known and final. This woman below, Celia’s mother, who was someone not him and yet him, who had given him this, the feeling, the love, the eternal time, because that’s what it is. “I love you,” Morgan said. And Ann smiled, heard without maybe knowing, the words just a tone she understood. Ann, mother, wife, this blurred world of love. Morgan watched her, Ann Catherine, and all before him, his past, his life, was here.
Morgan saw Ann once more that morning. He came from Altavista afternoons and saw her twice, then and at night. He saw Celia through the glass, touched her too in Ann’s room, knew her. That feeling never lapsed; it became firm, sure. He saw Ann, he saw Celia, he understood. The fourth day he would take them home. And maybe, in time, Morgan would grow hard and selfish and always brusque. Maybe Ann would be lonely and unsure and, one day, lost. Maybe Celia, dancing in the mountains, would start an avalanche, and destroy them all. It was hard to say. But the moments were there, the days; and whatever people might say next week, or in a hundred years, they were Ann’s and Morgan’s and, though she couldn’t know, Celia’s; and Lynchburg, Virginia, in the green Morgan saw, was a good place.