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“Two faces, one nose,” Toby said. “A physiognomic curi
osity. Which ancestor did we get it from?” “Isaac Abravanel,” Angelica replied, though the family’s connec tion to that prominent Portuguese merchant had never been firmly established. The nose, whatever its origin, was a long thin wavy proboscis, rather comely. Except for this similar feature, the cousins looked nothing alike. Angelica had topaz eyes. Various dark colors shifted in her hair. Toby’s narrow eyes were gray, his hair a steady brown. They were sixteen. During the school year, at home—she in Paris, he in Connecticut—each kept au courant with songs, the proper placement of studs, movies; of course they carried cell phones and knew where to buy weed. But here in Maine they could be their true selves. Their true selves were variously described by the fam ily. Snooty agoutis, according to their younger siblings and cousins. Good sports, according to Gramp, a good sport himself. Too damned clever, said their mothers, who were sisters. The third sister, aunt to Toby and Angelica, complained that they breathed air rarefied even for this family, and we are already the most hyperindulged charac ters on the face of the . . . Her statement dwindled as always. As for Gran—tall, crophaired, paleeyed Gran—whatever she thought of these particular grandchildren she didn’t bother to say. They were enjoying exceptional educations, Angelica in her école, Toby in his boarding school. His French was almost as good as her English. Here in Maine they played tennis, hiked, swam.
Gramp taught them to drive, then told them not to use the car. “Selfrestraint is strength,” he explained. “Also you can be arrested for driving without a license.” “Selfrestraint is fear,” Toby said one afternoon as they walked to the little boathouse. “We are a terrified clan. Since Antwerp.” Seventy years earlier the family had fled Antwerp for Haifa. The details of the disembarkation had been repeated again and again. Angelica could have drawn the scene. The youngest child, a little girl, ran down the gangplank, a fortune in diamonds sewn into her coat. Her two brothers followed—the older would become Gramp. Greatgrandmother came next, face tragic above a furcollared coat. She had left the graves of two other sons in the Shomre Hadas Cemetery. Greatgrandfather brought up the rear. He had managed the departure from Belgium, he had swept his family to safety, his children now twice owed their lives to him. His portrait hung over Gramp’s desk in the Manhattan brownstone. “Greatgrandfather was a type,” Toby now remarked. “Cultivated European.” “Prescient,” Angelica reminded him. “Without Great grandfather you and I would never have been born.” “We were fated to be born.” “No, no, it was hap.” Yesterday she had won bonus points on hap in bilingual Scrabble. “Hap and heroism.” Their heroic greatgrandparents had settled in Jerusalem, thrived, worriedly saw the birth of Israel. Their grandfather, though, had remained only long enough to conceive a dislike for the coarse country. The end of the war found him on another ship, this one bound for Hoboken. (Two years later his younger brother emi grated to Cape Town.) The family had retained its banking connec tions: useful to both sons. In New York, Gramp made money from money. He was a dandy, he was musical, he married a renegade Yankee then working as a veterinarian’s assistant. Grace Larcom— Gran, now—was an only child, born late in the life of her parents. She insisted on converting, or at least declaring herself converted, though Gramp said it was unnecessary. This big summerhouse in Maine was all Gran’s straitened father and mother had to give her, and they gave it gladly. “They were relieved that I was chosen by a human being,” she’d said to Angelica in her dry voice. “They were braced for an interspecies liaison.” And decades afterward, summer
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after summer, Gramp and Gran’s three farflung daughters returned with their husbands and their growing families—Angelica’s beauti ful mother from Paris; Toby’s artistic one from Washington; the third sister, the one who rarely finished a sentence, from Buenos Aires. Angelica was a month older than Toby. That made her the old est of the nine grandchildren. This accident of rank brought little privilege—everyone had chores to do—though she did get her own room on the third floor. The third floor was reached only by a set of shabby back stairs, but rising from the spacious front hall toward the balustraded second floor was a handsome central staircase. It separated into two staircases halfway up, an enormous Y. “Fit only for an opera house,” Gran complained; still, she kept the carved posts in good repair. Except for this spectacular feature, the house was asymmetrical, and also disorderly. Parlor opened off parlor, and the pantry cupboards were decorated with stained glass stained more deeply by time, and a piano was covered with brocade edged in dusty fringe, and the whole place was strewn with heirlooms of little value if you didn’t count the occasional signed piece of silver. “Impedimenta,” Gran said. Dense pines protected the house from the prying sun. But here and there light unexpectedly winked—re flected from a copper shovel, from a chandelier long ago cut down from the ceiling and left unmourned on its side, from a decanter holding a cloudy amethyst liquid. “That purple stuff has gone organic,” Toby suggested. “One day a flatworm will crawl out of it and we’ll have a new universe.” Through the cluttered house moved nine adults and two teen agers and seven children, seeking each other, avoiding each other, carrying books wine rackets flowers teddy bears. The smallest ones liked riding on the shoulders of their fathers and their uncles. Sometimes Gramp played pony to one or another of them. “You’re killing me!” he complained, groaning with happiness. Every summer the daughter who lived in Buenos Aires drew up a detailed schedule for ridding the house of unnecessary items; sooner or later she abandoned the project. Meanwhile the once aweek cleaning was accomplished, more or less, by a mother and daughter from the nearby town. They had brown teeth. Meals were prepared by Myrrh, a large, hunchshouldered, muttering woman who was Gran’s second cousin with a few removes. Myrrh was paid
for her work, and she dined with the family—it was her family, too. She endured without comment the nightly dinners, everybody talking at once; she endured the endless Sabbatheve meal. Gramp had returned to religion in his later years, and he recited a long in dividualized blessing over the heads of each of his twelve offspring. The three daughters and the nine grandchildren took turns helping in the kitchen, obeying a complicated rotation devised by Gran. While cleaning up, Myrrh grunted an occasional brief command: “Here,” or “Discard.” Recently she had snapped “Cut that out” to Toby and Angelica, who were merely standing at the trash barrel hip to hip, scraping plates. Myrrh slept in the room next to Angelica’s. She spent most of the day in the house, though sometimes she took a walk with the youngest grandchild, who still spoke only her native Spanish. They came back looking peaceful, carrying pails of blueberries. They sat next to each other at the table. “Silent, depthful,” Myrrh said one dinnertime: an actual remark, apparently addressed to Gran. “Reminiscent of Abigail the lumber woman, our progenitress.” Gran nodded. At night the kitchen became Gran’s domain. Here she endured her famous insomnia. She read books about extinct mammals and examined her childhood collection of bird skeletons. “My cat brought me the corpses.” She smoked. She worked chess problems and played an old flute. By day the flute rested on a table in the big useless front hall; the instrument, too, caught the light. Toby and Angelica were drifting on the lake. He rowed from time to time. Her fingers trailed in the water. It was a cliché of a pose. Why strike a pose for this amusing relative, her favorite. He was like a brother, like a sister . . . “We are a terrified family?” she wondered aloud. A different fellow might have forgotten he’d thrown out the phrase. Toby remembered. He remembered the dates of kings and presidents. He remembered all their Scrabble disputes. Could you really add -tous to anathema? You could; anathematous was right there in the American Heritage. He could recite entire para graphs from the books they chose for the nine months each year they were apart. In Angelica’s Paris house, in Toby’s dormitory cell,
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the cousins read by arrangement Ransome, Colette, Naipaul . . . During the past year they’d read Russian novelists. They agreed to study Russian at university—no one in the family spoke it; it would be theirs alone. This summer Toby kept trying to Russify various words—Gothamgrad, the Volvoskaya, anathematouski. His gray eyes searched her face. He was not smiling. “Terri fied. Look at yourself, moy Angelica. You have every reason to be confident. Beauty—don’t shake your head, dushinka. Those ochi charnya, your eyes are yellow, not dark, but I don’t know the Rus sian for yellow”—as if he knew the Russian for everything else; the scamp had about five words. “You belong to a noble house . . .” “Don’t talk nonsense, Toby. Jews recognize only . . . nobility of purpose.” “Spiritual meritocraski, sure, but we’re a first family all the same.” “—okay,” she said, sighing. “And yet . . . our importance rests on sand, and we all feel it. You feel it.” “The diamonds, you mean?” “They’re carbon. I mean a metaphysical sand . . . no, metaphori cal,” he corrected, suddenly sounding very young. “It shifts, the sand. It casts us out, or accepts us unwillingly. We don’t belong anywhere, so each generation flees to some other place.” “Portugal,” she said. There was a shameful legend: some ances tor had advised the Portuguese king against sponsoring Colum bus’s voyage. “We started in Portugal.” “We started in the desert, like everybody else.” They had reached a cove. “Literal sand,” he said, hopping out, dragging the boat onto the tiny beach with Angelica still seated in its stern. He helped her get out; all the grandchildren had been taught good manners. They walked up a path, Toby leading the way. “Terrified was too strong,” he said over his shoulder, giving her a glimpse of his rippling profile. “Uneasy . . . that’s what we are.” But now she had indeed become terrified. His long straight hair, held back by a headband; his brown back; his buttocks taut within iridescent trunks. Like many Parisian teenagers, she found older men sexy. She planned to marry someone mature and experienced. She planned to teach in the Sorbonne like her father and his father.
She’d continue pencil sketching. Young men were a necessary fea ture of her life plan. She knew she would soon surrender to one, but this littermate? His shoulders, so bony . . . They stopped in a clearing. An old stone fireplace, stumps, an abundance of pine needles. He turned to her. “Will you, Angelica Laurentovna?” His voice was grave. Had he embraced her she would have spun away. But so respectful a re quest . . . “Yes,” she said, her terror melting. She stepped out of her bathing suit. His eyes widened. He flipped his trunks off, flung them onto a branch. She lay down. Needles stabbed her back, her nape. He knelt, she spread, this was how, wasn’t it; and he entered her like a . . . chemist, she thought, someone intent on transferring liquid from beaker to vessel with out accident. He frowned. Helplessly she whimpered. He looked at her with hungry eyes, merde, his desire was more painful than the pain, at last thank God he closed those ochi grayski. He thrust once, twice, and all of a sudden it was over. His head slammed onto the pine needles. “God,” he said. “Angelica, sorry, too soon,” he said. Poor boy, his first time, too. She turned wet eyes toward his bur rowing head. “Did it hurt a lot?” he mumbled. “Yes.” “It won’t next time, I promise.” It never hurt again. What a strange boiled stalk he had. It grew from fleshy mauve pads. Veins ran along it. It wore an opaque cloak during the few days each month they dubbed terafacient, though that their issue would be monstrous was not at all certain. “I think there has to be generations of inbreeding,” Angelica said one night. “We share approximately oneeighth of our genes,” he said, spent, garrulous, his familiar nose pointing toward the bedroom ceiling. “But that’s only statistical. We could share as many as half, our mothers could be as alike as twins, you never know, everything is chance.” “No, fate.” “And that hap of yours—whatever happened to hap?”
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“Shh, not so loud. Our fate was decided long ago,” she insisted. “Before dinosaurs, even before Jews.” They didn’t return to the clearing in the pines. They met here instead, in Angelica’s bedroom. Its furnishings had been flung up ward by generations of Gran’s forebears who never gave anything away, who never moved out of New England, who never had to flee to a new land with the family’s assets distributed about the person of the youngest child. Beside the bed a copper pheasant stood in a brass bowl on top of a skeletal night table. The deep reds and greens of the darkening wallpaper had run into each other and become one rich color. A glassfronted bookcase held medical textbooks. “They belonged to my greatuncle Jim,” their grandmother had said. “Good old Jim. Never too drunk to make a house call.” The windows on the third floor were shaped like lozenges, with smaller lozenges their panes. These windows opened outward on a hinge. Their screens had been made to order a hundred years earlier, and were now full of holes. “Ridiculous diamond windows,” Gran grumbled. “Maybe a century ago somebody anticipated my alliance with a great Antwerp house.” “I thought they thought you’d hook up with some inferior primate.” “My parents feared I might marry a monkey, yes. And maybe I did.” Gramp had a monkey’s long upper lip and wide nostrils. A tall, welldressed monkey, an organ grinder’s handsome pal. He and Gran were reputed to have had youthful arguments that involved broken crockery. But Gran’s remark was said softly. This plain stick of a woman loved her playful husband. He loved her in return. Their love brought the three daughters back to the incon venient summer house. “We are replicating an ancestral passion,” Angelica told Toby. “Any excuse will do,” he said, and grinned. In Angelica’s nighttime room, she and Toby, black marble stat ues, rubbed each other into life. The medical books were obscured behind the discolored glass, but the young lovers knew the titles by heart, knew even their order on the shelves. Principles of Otolaryngology, Textbook of Ophthalmology, Advances in Epidemiology . . . “Which epidemics back then, do you think?” Angelica murmured into Toby’s shoulder.
“Influenza, rheumatic fever, Jew hating.” Angelica looked past him at the copper pheasant in the brass bowl on her night table. “Rheumatic fever isn’t communicable.” In one of the Antwerp graves lay a little boy who had died of rheumatic fever: Jacob, a year older than Gramp, his constant play mate. “So many decades ago . . . and I think of Jacob every day,” Gramp had said in his monkey’s grating voice. “Siblings can be closer than spouses.” Angelica wondered if the pheasant could ever be separated from the bowl. “Some people are struck down early,” she said. The old truth seemed like new wisdom. “Little Jacob? Yes. Not the Nazi boot: a bacterium. Hap, dear girl.” On the fourth Thursday in August the youngest grandchild at last deigned to speak the language she had long understood, and demanded, in grammatical English, to be taken with the other kids to a traveling carnival. She came back happy, with cotton candy in her hair and vomit on her clothing. “Loop the Loop, it was a mis take,” her father confessed. She wisely refused dinner and allowed herself to be bathed by Angelica and put to bed by her mother. By chance one of Gramp’s business pals turned up and took the child’s place at the table. He was a Broadway angel; he saw the house as a stage set and the family as the cast of a threeact comedy and he said so at such annoying length that Gran put him on kitchen duty. Twice during the evening he draped his long arm around Angelica’s shoulders. “I’d like to give him a karate chopakoff,” said Toby, much later, and he sliced the air with his flat, rigid hand and knocked the cop per pheasant to the floor. The brass bowl shuddered for a while, as if thinking things over; then it fell, too. The rickety night table, deprived of purpose, collapsed. “Stop!” yelled Angelica’s brother from the boys’ room on the other side of Myrrh’s. He was subject to nightmares, and the three crashes might have had nothing to do with his cry. Shortly after midnight Angelica awoke to a different sound. Was it the wind in the pines, telling of autumn and separation? No: it was a large object being dragged along uncarpeted flooring. She heard grunts, also, and unpleasant words. Then she heard bumps.
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It was a crate, wasn’t it, perhaps with a frightened girl inside . . . It was a large wooden trough . . . After all, it was something ordinary, a suitcase, and it had reached the back stairs. It tumbled down. Toby slept. Angelica pulled on shorts and a Tshirt and sped down the back stairs herself. She opened the door to the second floor’s landing with its exquisitely carved railing. Myrrh was making her way down the rightmost branch of the grand staircase. She had her luggage in temporary control. What an oldfashioned valise it was, a hardened oblong with a chevron. It must have been elegant, once. Myrrh wore a yellow coat and a glazed brown hat, the outfit resembling a vile custard dessert she was in the habit of preparing. Her soliloquy had become louder. She reached the broad middle part of the staircase where the two large branches converged. She kicked her suitcase. It crashed into the front hall. Gran came out of the kitchen. Smoking, still in her daytime cos tume of pants and sweater, she looked up at her relative. “Myrrh,” she said. “What.” “Not another minute,” Myrrh said, clumping down the final stairs. “Decadence. Hospitality betrayed. Are youth and beauty al ways to have their way?” “The family is here for another two days, three at most.” “I am retiring to my brother’s house tonight.” Gran puffed. “The arrangement is that you will stay here for the summer. As always.” “Funk the arrangement.” “Fuck. The first bus isn’t until six o’clock.” “I am leaving this sinkhole now. I will walk if necessary.” Silence. “Do you hear my words, Grace?” Silence. “I am capable of waking up the entire dissolute, spoiledrotten household, aswim in its liquidity—” Gran sighed. Her gaze rested on Myrrh, then traveled upward to Angelica, then traveled upward farther. “Girls! Get back to bed.” Angelica looked over her shoulder in time to see three bedroom doors close, her own parents’ last—she got a glimpse of Mama’s interested dark eyes. Gran now glared at Angelica. “Shoes.” Angelica descended the stairs, edged around Myrrh, ran into the kitchen. Another cigarette smoldered there. She stubbed it out,
found her deck shoes, returned to the hall. Gran tossed her some thing. She caught the something—the keys to the Volvo. She had never driven at night, but it turned out to be easy to slip through the blacklacquer woods. There were some silver fila ments—pine needles picked out by the moon. The long road ahead of them, their road, was soft and gray, like the dust in the fringe of the scarf on the piano. Would Russian prepositions be sensible? There were about a hundred tenses, she’d heard: the iterative, the durative, the . . . They reached the twolane highway. In the back the elderly women were silent, the suitcase upended between them like a shared suitor. They reached the town. “Où doiton aller?” Angelica asked her grandmother. “Après la gare, au droit.” “Cut the frog talk,” Myrrh said, her voice piercing Angelica’s nape. “Yid. Incesticator. Won’t anyone outside do?” “Myrrh,” Angelica wailed. “Exocrat!” “Turn right here,” Gran said. “Here!” and Angelica had to step on the brake, and reverse, and go backward. Finally she was able to turn. A few hundred yards along this road was a sign—bill’s cabins—and an office with a porch where a weak bulb burned. A narrow figure appeared under the bulb. Gran opened her window. “Bill?” “Miss Larcom?” “Here’s Myrrh, for a night. She’ll take the 6:00 a.m.” She thrust some bills at Myrrh. “For the cabin and the bus ticket.” Myrrh dragged her suitcase out of the car and slammed the door and passed in front of the headlights—head bent under the hat, shoul ders rounded within the coat: a figure she’d like to draw, Angelica thought, and she’d leave the drawing untitled and some shrewd gal lery owner would call it Exile. Myrrh stopped at the porch. “Cabin three,” Bill said. “Okay,” Myrrh said. “Drive,” Gran said. The ride home was shorter than the ride there—an eternal truth of the spacetime continuum, Toby had once pointed out. Angelica and her grandmother went into the kitchen and sat down at the oak table. Gran turned off the lamp and lit a cigarette. Angelica handed Gran the keys, which caught the dull light from the window. The
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shadowy room slowly revealed its known treasures—pewter in a cupboard, the old stove with its cobalt pilot, some revolutionary’s portrait, several upended brooms flaring from an umbrella holder. “All in all,” Gran said without preamble, “a continued liaison would be a great deal of trouble. For you, for him, for all of us. Your greatgrandfather didn’t rescue his line so it could get tangled up with itself like rotten old lace, like some altar cloth from Antwerp. I suppose I mean Bruges.” “Bruges, yes.” Angelica swallowed. “You are part of the lace now.” “Not noticeably,” Gran said. “The Larcom influence has not made itself felt.” Was that any wonder? The Larcoms had no goldenage ances tors, no diamonds hidden in coats, no displacements, no rebirths, no tragedies. No money. Angelica said: “Consensual incest is not considered a crime.” “I believe you are quoting Toby. We’re not talking about incest as criminal. Funk that. We’re talking about incest as undutiful. Broadening the group to insure its survival—that is your respon sibility, yours and your coevals.” She lit a new cigarette, and in the flame of the match her eyes gleamed, the whites white, the irises almost white. “You will tire of this sooner or later,” she said. “Tire of it now, beloved daughter of my daughter.” For sixteen years she had addressed Angelica by name only. The sudden endearment—a declaration, really—was worth ten of Gramp’s longwinded blessings. What a rich phrase. You could live a life on the income it yielded. Angelica gazed steadily at her grandmother. “I will do as you say.” She offered her right hand to confirm the agreement. But Gran just continued to smoke. The next summer Gran lay ill in the Manhattan brownstone. Gramp crouched on a hassock in a corner of the bedroom. No one had the heart to open the house in Maine. The three daughters came, left, came again. Angelica’s mother brought Angelica from Paris. During their sad week in New York—Gran had stopped talk ing—Toby’s mother flew up from Washington with Toby. The two cousins were shooed out of the house. They sat in awkward silence at a delicatessen. They slouched through a museum.
“I have discovered astronomy,” Toby said. “Our stars are our destinies.” “That’s astrology, as of course you know. What you and I need is a bed.” What they needed was a bedroom full of castoff furniture and a diamonded diamond window. But one more time, why not . . . She allowed herself to be led to a grimy hotel where, taking off only their lower garments, they each enjoyed a brief spasm of relief—first Toby, then Angelica, taking turns as if under a nurse maid’s eye. “I will begin Russian next year,” Angelica said, adjusting her sandal. “Yes, well then, so will I,” he said without conviction. Gran died in August. An important rabbi conducted a dignified graveside ceremony. The Buenos Aires daughter began a eulogy of her own but broke down midway. Then prayers; then everybody wept: the three daughters, the three sonsinlaw, the nine grand children, the greatuncle from South Africa and his brood, the greataunt from Jerusalem. One by one they threw clods of earth onto the pine coffin. And the Presbyterian relatives, Myrrh in cluded, followed suit, and then offered condolences to speechless Gramp. They were odd, stubborn, unchosen: yet in Angelica’s veins their Maine blood kept company with the overwrought Antwerp stuff; and maybe someday she would have a stark daughter who collected beetles and preferred Route 201 to the Boulevard Raspail and played a flute that caught the light . . . Cousin Myrrh was ex tending her hand. Angelica took it. All of Greatgrandfather’s descendants stayed the week, and then returned home, if that’s what they called it. “Goodbye, be loved mother of my mother,” Angelica whispered to the thick indif ference of the Air France window. “Goodbye, Tobski,” she added, an afterthought.
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