Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
You go along and go along, busy with work and friends, one week flows into the next. Everything seems fine.
Then one day—for me it was a Friday in March, 20 years ago—without expecting it, you change.
It’s not like getting hit by lightning, or falling down a forgotten well, though that’s part of it, at the beginning.
It’s more as if your heart has shifted in your chest. It tilts and locks that way, like a compass. You move in another direction and want to, quickly, to make up for lost time.
For 19 years I’ve been married to Jean. We went together for a long time. When we dated, I didn’t love her, though I thought I did, I told her so often enough. I didn’t know what love was.
Now I do.
I have for a long while, even if sometimes I’m not able to reach it and can only make out something bright and vague, shining far in the distance.
We have a girl and a boy, Rosemary and John. When they’re old enough, I’ll tell them the story about the two roses, not for fun or instruction, strangeness or wonder. I’ll just tell it the way I heard it. I won’t explain.
Then I’ll recite the poem my great-aunt wrote to go with the painting of the hummingbird, which made me begin to understand, if I do understand—
I hope what happened to me will happen to my children, but earlier, when they’re younger and have a chance to develop it further, to go farther along the path.
If there is a path. And only if they want to, if their hearts tend that way.
Looking back at who I was that day, I suppose I expected the usual reminiscence: A childhood memory of a distant raisin harvest with wagons and teams of horses in the vineyards, or a buggy ride to Fresno halted by an endless herd of pronghorn antelope crossing the dirt road in a cloud of antlers and amber dust. Most of my interviews with our older residents, people born before the turn of the 20th century, were based on such firsthand accounts of early days in the San Joaquin Valley.
I still write my weekly column, “O Pioneers!”, after the Willa Cather novel, which she named after the Whitman poem. If the psychologist Jung was right, as Mrs. Whitcomb suggested, if somehow an effect can precede its cause, then maybe all along I’d taken “O Pioneers!” from Mrs. Whitcomb and my aunt.
At the time, I didn’t know about that, about meaningful coincidence, what Jung called “synchronicity.” I thought everything was ordinary, random, and routine.
I had a personal interest when my great-aunt Mary called me that March day in 1980, telling me she had a wonderful story I had to write. My aunt was a very private person. I’d never heard her tell much of anything about herself or her experiences.
She’d grown up and lived in Acacia, 30 miles to the south. It was only in the last few years, since she’d moved to Lemas to be nearer my grandmother, that I’d got to know her at all. Now my grandmother was gone and my parents had moved to a retirement community in Arizona. Aunt Mary’s children, long grown, lived in other states. I was her only relative in California.
She lived on B Street, in the old section of modest homes built in the ’20s, white stucco houses with wide airplane roofs and open, covered porches, and a picture window facing the front lawn. She spent most of her time alone, working in her garden, composing poems and painting watercolors.
Hearing her voice on the phone, I felt guilty I had missed my weekly visit. On Saturday, a former local high school baseball player who had made it to the major leagues had returned to town to receive an award, and my editor had asked me to cover the story.
I was a reporter then, and handled city news in addition to my column. For 15 years I’ve been managing editor of the Irrigator, Lemas’ weekly paper. The athlete, a pitcher, later became famous and had a long career with the White Sox. He was killed in a private plane crash two years ago.
On Sunday, selfishly, Jean and I had driven to Harris Ranch near Coalinga for lunch, without asking my aunt if she wanted to join us.
“No,” Aunt Mary said, after I’d asked about her health. “I’m fine. Do you think I’m sick, because I call you?”
“No,” I said, though I felt relieved. This was the first time she’d ever called me at the office. “It’s just that I’ve wanted to interview you for years and you’ve always turned me down. I’ve always suspected you’re a storehouse of knowledge.”
As I spoke, I glanced at the old clippings on my desk, at a picture of a young aviator with a leather helmet and jacket. I was finishing a story about Lindbergh, how once, short of fuel, he had landed in a plowed field outside Lemas.
“No,” she said, a little impatiently, I thought. “It’s not me.”
“It’s Mrs. Whitcomb.”
“Oh,” I said, turning over the yellowed newspaper. “Mrs. Whitcomb.”
That made more sense. Mrs. Whitcomb was my aunt’s next-door neighbor and close friend. I’d interviewed Mrs. Whitcomb six months before, in my office, about a collection of old children’s books she’d donated to the library. She was the retired town librarian I’d known since I was a child.
I wondered if maybe Mrs. Whitcomb would remember Lindbergh’s visit and thought about holding the story for a week. Mrs. Whitcomb had a good memory.
“She wants to tell you all about it,” my aunt said.
Aunt Mary hadn’t told me what the “it” was and I didn’t ask. I said I’d drop by on Friday, in the early afternoon, after the issue had gone to press. Would that be convenient for Mrs. Whitcomb?
“That’s fine,” my aunt said, “she’ll be waiting.”
Without saying goodbye, she hung up.
I put the appointment on my calendar and thought no more about it. I could talk with Mrs. Whitcomb and afterward make my weekly visit to my aunt. That Friday evening, Jean and I were driving up to Sierra Summit by Huntington Lake for what might be the last good skiing of the season.
Now I was glad my aunt had called, otherwise I would have missed two visits in a row.
Friday was a sunny, windswept March day, with scattered chains of black, low-hanging clouds that briefly blocked the sun as they crossed the Valley to pile up in dark towers against the Sierras. The radio was predicting thundershowers for Fresno northward by night, and a foot of fresh snow in the Sierra Nevada.
Both Jean and I liked to ski powder and I wanted to get an early start, before the highway patrol required chains or closed the road.
I shivered, realizing how cold it was in the shade as I stood on my aunt’s porch and rang the bell again, then peeked through the picture window. There wasn’t any answer and I went along the side of the house, up the driveway past her neatly pruned rose garden.
I found her in back, wearing a faded, plaid flannel shirt and a navy blue stocking cap, brush in hand as she leaned toward her easel.
She was watching an emerald-throated hummingbird that shot back and forth in green and scarlet streaks between an early-blooming honeysuckle vine and a feeder with plastic blooms which hung from a leafless walnut limb.
“What’re you working on?” I asked, walking up.
“Shhh,” she said, without turning, moving the brush. “Just a second, I’ve nearly—”
She bent forward, intent, as the hummingbird buzzed its wings, sticking its bill into one of the feeder’s pink flowers.
“Looks like it’s coming along,” I said, over her shoulder.
She was really an artist, though an amateur.
But what separates the professional from the unknown? Skill? Dedication? Payment? Vanity?
The picture she painted that day is on the wall above my desk. Her watercolors hang in our home and in the local library. I donated them after her death, though an art dealer from San Francisco had seen a photograph of one in our paper a few years before, in an article Mrs. Whitcomb had written, and he was eager to buy them all.
I was always trying to get my aunt to exhibit, to let me call the Bank of America and have her works displayed in the lobby. Or enter a picture in the yearly contest at the Fresno Fair. She always turned me down.
She already had the shifting colors—the different greens, the red and a flashing gold—of the hummingbird’s iridescent chest. And the blur of its moving wings, the way they looked like 10 or 20 instead of two.
“Have you got your rhyme to go with it?” I asked.
My aunt often made up little verses with her pictures. She was also a poet, as I mentioned before, a gifted one.
“Not yet,” she answered, with a deft sudden stroke adding to the beak’s narrow rounded curve. “You better run along. Mrs. Whitcomb is waiting.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll stop by when I’m finished.”
My aunt kept painting.
Now I felt irritated, that she couldn’t even turn to face me, or offer me a cup of coffee in the kitchen, after I’d agreed to do her a favor.
A cloud bank covered the sun and the wind was sharp. I shivered in my light jacket. But then I remembered how it was when I worked on a story and was interrupted.
“Run along,” my aunt said, “it’s rude to be late.”
—Later, when it all came clear and I retraced my steps, I remembered her words and wondered if she’d only been kind, if she’d really meant “a waste” instead of “rude”—
I turned and walked back obediently down the drive. I cut through the raked ground of the rose garden, across Mrs. Whitcomb’s lawn and the bed of tall camellias, to the front step.
Instantly the door opened, before I could push the bell.
“Come in,” Mrs. Whitcomb said, stepping back. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“I stopped to check on Aunt Mary,” I said.
The house looked forbidding, like so many houses of the elderly—dark and quiet and spare, it seemed a neat, quiet waiting room for death.
“Can I get you some tea?”
“Yes,” I said. My voice sound too loud, almost harsh, in the silent air. “That would be fine.”
Mrs. Whitcomb had aged since I’d seen her last, at a Sunday get-together only three months before at my aunt’s.
Her face was thinner, her step less certain. Her shiny blue dress, patterned in white moons and ringed planets and shooting stars, looked too big for her.
I remembered her at 50—40?—how pretty she had been when I’d first checked out books at the library, and later, when she’d encouraged me to become a writer.
“Sit here,” she said, holding out a bony, speckled hand. A worn, thin gold ring slid loosely on her finger. “I’ll sit there.”
A tea service waited on a narrow table between two facing wing-back chairs. Suddenly the silver and china glowed as dazzling sun flooded the lace-curtained windows.
On the sideboard, below the glass-doored cupboard of plates and crystal, stood pictures of her family. In the center was a photograph of Mrs. Whitcomb and two attractive, middle-aged women.
“Are these your daughters?” I asked, sitting forward in my chair as Mrs. Whitcomb shakily poured the tea, spilling a bit on the blue-edged saucer.
“No,” she said, setting down the gleaming pot. “Nieces.”
She lifted her hand, stretching out one finger, as if pointing at something in the distance. “That’s Alice, and Kay on the right. I had a boy, Charles. He was killed in the war. On Tarawa, in the Pacific. That’s him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, as Mrs. Whitcomb nodded at the studio portrait of a handsome young man in a Marine corporal’s uniform. In death, he would always be 20, with rosy cheeks and close-cropped sandy hair.
I saw no picture of a man who might have been Mrs. Whitcomb’s husband. I glanced at a plaque she had on display, whose bronze label thanked her for many years of service to the library and the children of the town.
“You must read a lot,” I said, smiling at Mrs. Whitcomb.
“I used to,” she said, “but not so much anymore. I’m having trouble with my eyes.”
With her fragile hand she adjusted her glasses on her nose. The sun reflected off the thick lenses so I couldn’t see her eyes.
“Your aunt reads to me a lot,” she said. “And she tapes things for me. You know, I used to have her come down all the time, to the library. She read aloud to the children.”
“I remember that,” I said, then took a sip of tea. It was only lukewarm, but then I’d been late. “She used to read to my grandmother. And sing,” I said, putting down the cup. “My grandmother always thought she had a beautiful voice.”
“Yes, she does. Beautiful,” she answered.
I returned her smile, then looked back at the cupboard, realizing it was more like an altar or museum, even the plates and cups were like relics.
“Well,” Mrs. Whitcomb said, straightening the hem of her astronomical dress, as if perhaps I’d spoken too much about my aunt. “Shall we begin?”
“Of course,” I said. “Any time you’re ready.”
“I’m ready now,” Mrs. Whitcomb said. She rested a hand on either arm of the great chair, so she looked like an aged child sitting for a portrait.
I reached into my pocket and set the recorder on the table, flipping on the switch.
It was only after she’d spoken a few minutes that I understood she had all of it memorized. She’d worked it out beforehand, on paper or in her mind—she knew exactly how she wanted to tell her story.
The softness of her voice I remembered from childhood, when one whole summer, chapter by chapter, she’d read Robinson Crusoe. I watched dust motes and the play of warm sunlight and stark shadow cross the pink, flower-patterned rug, tasted the mint tea. Everything lulled me into a kind of trance.
I’ve transcribed the tape, but I’ll only summarize here, though now and then I’ll use her exact words, so you can catch some of the flavor and tone of what she said.
In a small San Joaquin Valley town, at the end of the last century, twin boys were born to a farmer and his wife. The boys were the couple’s only children—they had lost a six-week-old girl eight years before. Since that time they had tried to have other children but had been unsuccessful. Though they were only in their early 30s, they had reconciled themselves to a life alone, so the birth of two strong, vigorous boys was an occasion for joy and celebration.
The woman’s husband immediately named the infant boys Paul and Lloyd, after his two favorite uncles.
Twins were a rarity in a pioneer town of 500.
For the first weeks, the sister of the harried young mother sat guard in a rocking chair on the porch, dissuading curious neighbors and friends from visiting the babies.
Soon, there was such a rush of people that the newborns were placed in the front room, by the window, so visitors could peer in without exposing the boys to infection.
The two baskets sat side by side on the table. Sewn to one basket an embroidered green cloth said “Paul.” On the other, a brown cloth with red stitching said “Lloyd.”
The boys were of course identical, but more than that. They were exactly identical, what might be called identical identical twins.
Each had blondish, sandy hair, at first just a few tendrils at the front of his head, then all over, in thick curls.
And brown eyes and arched brows, straight nose, a tiny dimple at the chin. Each had a brown mole on the left temple.
The mother had hoped the mark would tell the boys apart, but when she had first turned each child on his side, carefully measuring with her finger, she saw the moles were identically situated.
She tied a green ribbon to Paul’s wrist and a brown ribbon to Lloyd’s.
When her sister had gone back to her family, the mother was careful to wash, powder, and dress one baby at a time, then return him to his basket, before she even thought of ministering to the other, despite his cries for immediate, equal attention.
And yet she sometimes wondered, as she watched them sleeping in their baskets, if already she hadn’t confused them.
She knew there was nothing to be done—if Lloyd was Paul and Paul was Lloyd it was too late, all she could do was try to prevent further mix-ups.
From the first days after their births, it was also apparent that the boys were similar in ways beyond mere appearance. When one cried, the other cried too, in the same pitch, for an equal duration. Then silence, until again the single, simultaneous wail.
They held their fingers the same way, squeezed their eyes shut with an identical curling of the nose. The mother confided to her mother-in-law that they suckled just alike, that she had to keep careful track that they received the same amount of milk, so one wasn’t left hungry. The situation, to anyone who saw it clearly, was more than unusual. It was uncanny, a freak of nature. The twins cast a light of unreality on a world everyone had taken for granted.
What else might occur, or had already happened? What old wives’ tales were true? To the morbidly religious, it was proof of a plethora of things, from the Great Flood and Noah to the parting of the Red Sea.
Others, perhaps more balanced, smiled inwardly to themselves, reassured that all of life was a secret miracle.
Even the Swedish Lutheran preacher was ecstatic, concluding a long, involuted sermon with a sudden deep-chested laugh that at first shocked the congregation.
“At any time,” he ended, in jubilation, raising his arms, “Christ could have walked on water, or raised the dead. And yet he performed each act only once, just once, reluctantly displaying his immense power, to remind us that only He is real and that all else, the semblance of each wave or gravestone, is imaginary!”
But life went on. Reverend Stroinheim was transferred to another parish. Gradually, the singular became part of the family’s, and then the town’s, accepted daily life.
As young boys, Paul and Lloyd walked alike, talked alike, fought alike, spit alike, sang alike, climbed alike, swam alike, threw baseballs with the same fluid movement. Their voices were the same tenor, low and deep, and each had one slightly yellow tooth, the incisor on the right side.
At their mother’s insistence, the boys continued to wear the colored ribbons around their wrists, which she meticulously checked and replaced, so the ribbons were always clean and new.
Their parents and the town felt a kind of relief when at age ten Paul fell from the hayloft and broke his right arm. The bone wasn’t badly broken, but he had to wear a cast, and for once the townspeople could tell the two boys apart on sight.
Then two days later Lloyd was thrown from a pony. His arm was broken in nearly the same place, and now both boys wore similar casts.
The mother would have suspected Lloyd of breaking his arm on purpose, so as not to disturb his perfect identity with Paul, except she had been a witness, heard the dog bark and seen it shoot out from behind the wagon as the cottontail ran in front of the horse’s feet.
The day Paul had broken his arm and that night groaned in bed, unable to sleep, Lloyd had done the same, as if feeling Paul’s pain, or perhaps having a foreknowing of his own accident.
It had happened before. Usually the boys were sick at the same time, but if only one were ill, the other became languid, listless, and had to take tonic and go to bed.
It was all strange and a lot of work. Their mother didn’t know what to think. Nearly once or twice a week, the boys would say or do matching, insignificant things, out of the blue.
“Is the sky bluer than the ocean?” Paul would ask, then Lloyd would ask the same question a few moments later, running into the house to learn Paul’s opinion.
As soon as the twins had grown old enough to go to school or walk around on their own, to become junior citizens of the town, people accepted them as a unit, as a kind of dual person. It was the only way to handle the situation.
No one worried about scolding or thanking or warning the wrong boy—if Paul had done something bad, and Lloyd was the one blamed, it didn’t matter, Lloyd would soon commit a related offense. Or perform a similar good deed, if Paul had helped a woman across the street or found a child who had wandered off.
“Paul-or-Lloyd, how’re you doing today?” people would ask. “How’re your folks?”
Of course the boys were famous, everyone from the surrounding towns knew about them. It was not unusual for people to stop at the house and ask to see the twins, to stand and stare as the boys stood side by side on the porch.
Finally, at their mother’s instigation, their father posted a “No Strangers” sign out by the road. When people the family didn’t know still came to the house, they were politely but firmly ordered to leave. Some out-of-town visitors then offered to pay to see the boys and their mother would angrily slam the door.
In high school, when they played sports, the boys were gifted, identical athletes—
In one game, against the traditional rival, they each caught passes, made tackles, chipped a tooth, then were knocked briefly unconscious on the same play. The stretcher took one, then the other, to the sidelines.
On waking, they each described the same experience—they were on an island, walking on a beach of black volcanic sand, near swaying palms, with the sea crashing loudly against the sides of a metal-hulled boat at anchor within the reef.
Their unconscious experience reminded their father, who had read The Spiritual Life of Lincoln, of the martyred president’s recurring dream of the ship trying to reach port.
In baseball, they played right and left field. One batted .324, the other .325.
In a series of four games against Fresno High, they each hit two home runs, a triple, two doubles, and a single. Each made two errors, caught six fly balls, threw a runner out at the plate, though Lloyd walked twice more than Paul.
The two umpires traded off behind the plate every inning, and Coach Peterson decided it was the difference in the different umpires’ view of the strike zone, and not the brothers, which accounted for the discrepancy.
Peterson explained the phenomenon to a pro baseball scout from the St. Louis Cardinals, who had watched the boys and jotted down each play. Though promising, neither Lloyd nor Paul was offered a contract.
Both boys were excellent riders. Lloyd chose a paint horse and Paul picked a sorrel.
The differing horses were a hopeful sign. At least on horseback the boys were identifiable.
—After school each day, when the brothers approached their mounts and reached for the reins, watching classmates felt a wave of satisfaction, a fresh sensation that a baffling conundrum had order and a pattern after all—
The horses marked the first slight alteration in the boys’ perfect identity with one another. As they grew older, though still indistinguishable in physical appearance—more strikingly so, in the way that two identical 17-year-olds are more unusual than duplicate babies—there developed other minor divergences in taste.
Abandoning an attraction to blue, Paul had begun to like brown, Lloyd green, colors opposed to the ribbons they wore on their wrists.
They both loved philosophy and history, though Paul was attracted to Socrates and Julius Caesar, while Lloyd admired Cicero and Alexander the Great. One boy idolized General Grant, the other General Sheridan.
If the Dean brothers had been playing professional baseball then, Lloyd would have preferred Dizzy, Paul idolized Daffy, or the other way around.
The twin boys didn’t argue, they just had slightly differing opinions. Their views were not opposite, but congruent, the way that two halves of a circle are the same yet opposed, in the sense that one half can only be its own half at one time if the circle is to remain intact.
To complicate matters—the color preferences had been a precursor—the shades of their contrasts began to reverse themselves, so that their father suspected there was an element of contrariness in the boys.
Lloyd, who had always liked white meat, started asking for dark. Paul changed to white. It just happened, one Sunday over supper. They both reached for the platter of chicken at the same time, each lifting the wrong piece.
“Paul,” their mother said, “you’re sitting in Lloyd’s place. Lloyd, you’re in Paul’s.”
“No, we’re not. We’re sitting right.”
Then she glanced at their ribbons, she saw it was true. The day before, without their parents’ knowledge, they had switched horses.
“I don’t know about you boys,” their father joked, for his wife’s benefit. “What’s going to become of you when you decide to get married?”
Now Paul and Lloyd’s story begins to turn toward its decisive moment. Everything that follows is an unfolding of what later was to happen. Or what was about to happen was a result, a mirror, of what happened later—
Marriage was something not a few of the neighbors and people in the town had worried about. Some assumed the boys would always live together as brothers on the farm. Or only marry sisters, or at least cousins, as other twins often did.
No doubt there were fears that certain taboos might be broken—if twins married twins, would the children be twins too, then marry their first cousins, who were closer to siblings? Would the town be affected? Where would it end, except in some horror, an awful, Egyptian dilemma?
The boys had been the town’s uncrowned mascots, the core of its identity and its only claim to fame, but also, in a way, its albatross.
Whenever the boys had been seriously ill, the townspeople were prone to neuralgia or other ambiguous symptoms of distress, according to Dr. Hillgrave, who no doubt would have found things in Jung’s works to puzzle about.
Though kindly and polite—the boys got it from their mother, people would say—and brave, unselfish—it came from their father—the boys began to fill the town with a kind of dread.
Perhaps it was people’s knowledge of the Bible, of Cain and Abel. Or of history, Romulus and Remus. Or of the Dumas novel, The Man in the Iron Mask, about the twin kings of France.
But the discomfort and foreboding went deeper, it was visceral. There could not be two Lincolns, two Grover Clevelands, any more than there could be two Quantrells, two Cole Youngers, two Jesse Jameses. If there had been—it was common, unspoken, unconscious knowledge—then one of them would have had to die . . .
If Moses had a twin, he perished at birth, or later his basket sank, or was swallowed by a crocodile. The same with Caesar’s, or Hannibal’s, identical sibling. Even if the boys should live lives of obscurity, like the lives that most people led, their unidentical destinies cast a pall of doom. They could not merge, become the same person—one of them must fail.
No one ever alluded to this uneasy sentiment, not in public anyway, though it must have been in people’s thoughts when they saw the handsome young men walking toward them on the sidewalk, or passing in their wagon, sitting together on the seat, wearing straw hats in summer and dark stetsons in winter.
It was obvious and troubling. The boys were an anomaly, a sport of nature that nature wouldn’t tolerate. There couldn’t be two Earths, two moons, two suns, any more than there could be two Gods, both loving and good.
It was something fundamental, in the way people thought and felt and even moved, the way one foot followed the other instead of both feet hopping together, like a kangaroo’s.
The whole situation was confusing and odd, it was somehow almost indecent, as if the veil had blown from the altar and revealed not the unspeakable face of the One awesome Deity, but instead the horror that the Holy of Holies was a pair of terrible mirrors, turned toward one another forever.
As the boys grew to men, people weren’t as happy or interested to see them, as when Paul and Lloyd were small and the town had worn them like two brilliant feathers in its cap.
No one could have said later with any certainty whether the misfortune of one of the boys was finally brought on by the rising expectation of disaster in the air, or whether it had been bred in the bone, at conception, as in the twisted strands of a hemp rope. Or before conception, like the idea of the rope which precedes the rope and hovers like a ghost above the fingers that braid it.
At first, to the relief of everyone, their courting had gone well: Lloyd liked Theresa Beecher and Paul liked Florence Coats. Both girls liked the boys, or rather “her” boy.
Though Theresa and Florence resembled one another—they were friends and people often asked if they were sisters—no one mistook them for twins or confused the two. The people of the town were happy, beyond the boys’ happiness, which suddenly seemed a certain reflection of their own.
The girls were like the ribbons the boys’ mother had tied to their wrists. Marriage would solve the problem, and the boys would be not only identifiable but different. Their wives would look different, if only slightly, their children would appear dissimilar, the sameness would have a life span, begin slowly to dissolve and dissipate with the years, until finally in a family crowd at a picnic or at Christmas, only the two elderly men at opposite sides of the table would stare at one another like aged bookends.
In the mass, the crush of young, ever-evolving and more individual faces, who would notice or care?
Then, as people had secretly feared, disaster struck.
A girl named Rose moved to town with her father, who was an employee of the railroad, the stationmaster. Her mother had died three years before of pneumonia, her older sister was married and lived in another town.
In some minds, this lack of maternal supervision was blamed for the catastrophe. Rose was a senior in high school, the new girl who caused a stir.
Though not classically beautiful—her hair was unfortunately curly, but radiantly auburn, with copper streaks—she was striking. Her nose was too large, but shapely, somehow matching the line of her mouth, which was wide and full. Her straight white teeth were slightly parted in front. Her hazel eyes looked at everything with directness and an alert, interested intelligence, and her freckled skin burned with a deep, golden sheen.
She was charming because she was imperfectly dazzling, and yet she was perfect—perfectly imperfectly gorgeous. Paul and Lloyd immediately fell hopelessly in love with her and she with both of them.
Rose’s attraction to both boys wasn’t precipitated by cruelty, coquettishness, or vanity.
For a reason unknown even to herself—perhaps because her many talents were only so many veils hiding a shadowed mystery she could only intuit and try feebly to express, or simply because, like the twins, she herself was incurably different from anyone she had ever met—Paul and Lloyd captured her intense, undivided attention.
As well as being beautiful, in her singular, unorthodox way, Rose was brilliant, not in a logical, rational sense, but artistically so.
Rose could draw, and shape things out of clay, little birds and animals, or farm figures, minute wagons with teams of horses in harness and teamsters holding delicate reins. She modeled a statuette of Lloyd and Paul together driving their team, each boy identical from his Western boots to the downward-bent brim of his hat.
And Rose could sing and play piano. She wrote a new school song, “Leaf andBough,” that’s still sung today. The three formed a trio and introduced the anthem at the Raisin Day celebration, to great enthusiasm and applause.
Rose could talk to children and adults on any subject, from Civil War history to whittling and marbles or how best to make a raisin pie. Everyone loved her, even Theresa Beecher and Florence Coats, who after the first sting of the brothers’ rejection, realized only such an oddity of a girl could hold the strange twins’ fascination. It was chemical, like water, hydrogen and oxygen.
Lloyd took Rose out Friday nights, Paul met her on Saturdays, and together they escorted her to church Sunday morning. One walked her home on Monday and Wednesday, the other on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday afternoons Rose insisted on spending with Theresa and Florence, who quickly became her closest friends.
When Rose gave one brother a kiss, she told the other, not flirtatiously but as a matter of simple fact, to be honest and spare the neglected brother suspicion and greater hurt. But then, having confessed, she grew amorous, absorbed in the other brother, and kissed him too.
The whole town was talking and watching. Though the boys’ mother loved Rose and would have prized her as a daughter-in-law, she knew the three of them were living in a fool’s paradise. Townspeople were in a state of high anxiety as graduation approached, the time when lovers traditionally announced their engagements.
The crisis came a week before school was out, in a way no one could have foreseen.
Paul, who was interested in elocution—he had a strong, resonant voice, though no stronger and clearer than Lloyd’s—had signed up for a correspondence course from Los Angeles.
Pamphlets came to the farm, with exercises and diagrams with arrows that charted the flow of air from the diaphragm and the correct posture of the shoulders and back. Paul declaimed the “Gettysburg Address,” Washington’s “Farewell to the Troops,” Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, passages from Shakespeare and poems and selected psalms from the Bible.
All year he had practiced speaking to the cows during milking in the evening, or in the mornings, when Lloyd milked them at night. He delivered his speeches alone in the vineyard, on those days when Lloyd walked Rose home from school or took her out on Friday.
Now Paul had to travel to Los Angeles for three days, to meet his professor and take the examination, which included an original speech before a panel of judges and the gathered Elocution Society.
Paul considered postponing the trip until after graduation, until after he had asked Rose to marry him, but his mother urged him to go, the school principal insisted Paul leave school for a few days, the preacher of the Christian church offered to help Paul draft his address and even accompany him on the train.
An unknown citizen—was it Rose’s father, the stationmaster?—slipped a first class ticket into Paul’s coat in the cloakroom at a dance.
Only Lloyd warned him.
“I’m going to court Rose even harder, while you’re gone,” Lloyd told Paul as they saddled their horses that June morning. “I love her more than you do.”
“Maybe so,” Paul said. He yanked the cinch tight. “But I love her enough to want her more than anything I’ve ever wanted.”
“Let her decide for herself,” Lloyd said. “In the end, it’s up to Rose, not you.”
“Or you,” Paul said. Both boys knew the decision rested with Rose, that she would choose.
“Wish me luck?” Lloyd offered, looking at his brother, into the brown eyes that mirrored his own.
“Why not?” Paul said. “You’ll need it.”
They shook hands, smiling.
That night, after Paul returned from walking Rose home from school, Lloyd took him to the station.
Paul had been tempted to propose before he left Rose alone with his brother, to ask her father for her hand. But his last afternoon with Rose she had seemed evasive, preoccupied with a painting of a blooming blue and purple iris, and Paul had deferred.
The brothers didn’t speak as they sat on the long bench in the empty station, waiting for the rumbling quake of the wheels and the sharp whistle. They knew their lives were changing, that soon nothing would be the same.
They heard a phone ring, twice.
They turned and at the same instant saw Rose’s father.
Behind the counter, through an open door, he sat at a desk. He wore a visor and didn’t glance up from his schedules as he spoke into the phone.
“No,” he said. “Not yet. I’ll see you in half an hour.” Then he hung up.
His visor glowed green in the lamplight. Neither boy approached him to say hello. Now the station windows rattled and a whistle blew. They stood up. Lloyd lifted Paul’s bag and they went out the double doors to the train.
“So long,” Paul said. He gripped the handrail and climbed up the iron steps.
“Good luck,” Lloyd said. He handed up the suitcase. He backed up as the whistle blew again and from the bottom of the car a sudden hiss of white steam came between the brothers.
Then Lloyd turned, walking back along the tracks toward the wagon.
When Paul returned three days later with his diploma and a medal—his speech on Romeo’s fickleness had both disturbed and impressed the judges—he realized immediately that Rose had chosen Lloyd.
Paul had come home early in the morning, after getting off the train and catching a ride with Roy Phillips, who went from farm to farm collecting the cans of fresh milk.
The house was still quiet and dark and when Paul stepped into the bedroom he saw the wine glass on Lloyd’s night table. It was one of his mother’s crystal tulip glasses that they used at Christmas for wine.
A single long-stemmed red rose rested in it.
Paul stared at the flower on its thorny stem. It was the Lover’s Rose, the eternal pledge of faith and desire and surrender. The rose suddenly was all roses—the red rose of Robert Burns, and Waller’s “Go, Lovely, Rose,” and Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rose-Buds While Ye May.”
Through all time, from the lips of ranks of ghostly poets Paul had studied and memorized, the red petals told him “No.”
Then he stared at his sleeping brother. Paul fought a terrible urge to lift his hands, to clamp his fingers around Lloyd’s neck and grip him tighter and tighter, until Lloyd’s breathing stopped and the image of the rose in the wine glass was obliterated forever from both their memories.
But Paul knew it would be the same as killing himself, watching his own face and eyes go blank after Lloyd’s first shock of recognition, then the endless reverberating horror of betrayal.
Paul turned away, stalking out into the kitchen.
In her robe, his mother was waiting.
Paul didn’t speak to her. He stood still, staring at her with blame.
“Paul,” she said, “something had to happen. It couldn’t go on. Lloyd and Rose are getting married next week. The reception will be in Fresno, at the Gaither Hotel.”
“I should never have gone,” Paul said. He turned away from his mother. “I was a fool.”
Then his mother came to him, she put her arms around his neck and held him as he wept.
“You’ll see, Paul,” she murmured in his ear, her hand stroking his cheek. “It’ll work out for the best.”
But it didn’t.
It was a disturbing sight, Lloyd the groom, Paul his best man, one holding the ring, then giving it to the other so he could slip it onto Rose’s finger and kiss the bride.
At the reception, things might have been worse, if the boys’ mother had not insisted that Lloyd wear a white boutonniere, Paul a red.
Still, when Rose was surrounded by Theresa and Florence and a circle of excited schoolmates, and Lloyd was being toasted by his father-in-law’s friends at the far corner of the room, a number of confused guests congratulated Paul on winning the rivalry, complimenting him on his choice of girls.
“Lloyd, it was clear as day,” Porter Hamer’s wife insisted, patting Paul’s arm, “we could all see she had her eye on you.”
Paul drank too much punch, he refused to shake hands with Rose’s father. Then he declared to a school friend, the catcher on the baseball team, that he hadn’t loved Rose but another girl, whom earlier he had spied across the ballroom. He swiveled on his heel, he marched over and grabbed Hilda Allen away from her escort and forced her to dance, which started a fight.
Now Paul didn’t need his red carnation. With a bleeding nose and a blackening left eye, no one would have mistaken him for the groom.
The next day, as Lloyd and Rose boarded the train to San Francisco for their honeymoon, Paul made his way along the early morning city streets.
In a store window, Paul saw his reflection and cursed, tearing the wilted boutonniere from his lapel, throwing the red flower into the gutter. He turned this way and that, searching for something to quell the pain, for oblivion, perhaps a prostitute or poison or a dark cellar smelling of opium, before he stumbled upon the enlistment center.
Paul stared at the framed poster in the window, of the soldier in wool olive drab with the rifle and helmet and behind him, in the clouds, looking down, Civil and Revolutionary War soldiers bearing outdated arms and wearing bloody bandages. Paul felt his throbbing eye.
It was time to take his own life into his own hands, to establish once and for all his own separate identity. He needed to get far away, to leave the Valley for a while, to put land and water between his brother, his brother’s bride, and himself.
On the wedding night, as Paul slept in a room a floor below the honeymoon suite, he had awakened from his drunkenness in a confused ecstasy of passion for Rose, then found his bed empty, hearing his brother’s whispered name in his ear.
Now he drew back his cuff and broke the green ribbon from his wrist.
Paul was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for boot camp. He tried to transfer to the cavalry and thought his chances were good—one night on guard duty he had held his fire when a drunken officer stumbled through the perimeter.
There was a spy scare and sentries had orders to shoot anyone who couldn’t give the password. The captain was profusely grateful, and promised to see to it that Paul’s request for transfer went through.
But Paul was an exceptional marksman; he had qualified as Expert and was forced to remain in the infantry. The Lusitania had been sunk. When war broke out, Paul crossed the country in a troop train, to New York, where he took ship for France.
There was an extended period of training, Pershing’s troops were untested, there were disagreements with the French and English over command.
In a village outside Paris, Paul met a French woman, a black-haired, happy girl named Joisanne. She laughed easily and smelled sweet, of vanilla. Her father was a farmer.
Paul ate rabbit stew and drank wine and sang with the family as he held Joisanne’s hand at the table. The last evening, she hugged him tightly, kissing him goodbye again and again in a storm of tears that he answered with a class ring, chocolate, and his few words of broken French.
The American Expeditionary Force had been called to the Front, and were immediately thrown into trench warfare.
Until then, Paul had written only to his mother. Now, looking death in the eye, as he had seen it one early morning in the face of his own sleeping brother, he wrote to Lloyd, declared his love and loyalty and best wishes. He asked for forgiveness and sent his affection to Lloyd’s wife.
The letter was answered by Rose.
She was expecting a child. Lloyd was gone—
For whatever reason, family loyalty, the bond of twinship, the prevalent war fever and Lloyd’s romantic urge to serve his country, perhaps Lloyd’s realization that he wasn’t truly in love—Rose wasn’t sure, she was confused and burdened by guilt—Lloyd had volunteered and trained and was already bound for France.
Suddenly, there was another heartbeat on the continent. Paul sensed it immediately. Lloyd was here—had been here—a week or more.
Paul knew it, beyond hunch or guess or intuition. Lloyd’s presence was a natural truth, the way the sandhill cranes returned each spring to the Kings River, or the Santa Rosa plums bloomed with white blossoms in late February, before the vineyards leafed out.
Paul’s company was under constant bombardment, the regular artillery barrages interspersed with shells of poison gas. He lived minute by minute, hour by hour, day by night.
To keep his sanity and to function at all, like the other soldiers he wrote himself off, considered himself dead, a walking, fighting corpse that he fed biscuits and water to like a horse.
Now Paul’s fellow ghostly soldiers were his brothers, his twins in death, and fiercely and loyally he fought at their sides, not to kill Germans but to spare his comrades who were himself, if only for another night.
But always, in uneasy periods of rest, or in those terrible instants of murder, as he fired, thrust with his bayonet, advanced, then fell back, quickly pulled down his gas mask at the tearing whoosh of incoming shells, Paul heard a whisper at his ear, felt a faint invisible apparition at his shoulder—
Lloyd was there with him, Paul always knew that. At night, in broken snatches of sleep, he dreamed of the three of them, of Lemas, when he and Lloyd and Rose stood before the town and sang “Leaf and Bough” on Raisin Day.
On the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War came to an end.
At the Armistice, Lloyd was recovering from dysentery and gas burns in a field hospital in Germany, when he received word that Paul had fallen in Bellieu Wood.
Lloyd’s division had fought there too. Unknowingly, he and Paul must have been close together, must have seen the same smoke-shrouded trees and deadly fog, before one fell, and the other marched on.
This was how Lloyd related Paul’s death in a letter he wrote to his parents. At the end, Lloyd added a short note to Rose, with a poem by Robert Burns:
And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!
When Lloyd’s train pulled into the station in Lemas, his mother and father and Rose and her father were there to meet him, with the baby boy.
Tall and white and 60 pounds lighter, with a cough, Lloyd looked like a specter of himself.
Later, at Paul’s funeral, after Paul’s remains were shipped back in the metal casket, Lloyd looked like Paul’s ghost as he stood at the foot of his brother’s grave.
Lloyd delivered a short, moving elegy, spoke it with as much authority and feeling as Paul with his elocution study might have done. He talked of the hellishness of war, and of the sanctity of brothers.
Then Paul’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Lloyd dropped a handful of rich Valley loam onto the steel lid. Rose approached him, holding their son. Lloyd didn’t look at them or reach a hand to Rose, but only stared up at the cloud-streaked winter sky.
For a year or more, Rose and Lloyd lived like strangers, hardly speaking, barely looking at one another, seldom touching, never mentioning Paul or what had happened or why. They never mentioned the past, their meeting and romance, or Paul’s subsequent heartbreak and enlistment and departure.
Then Rose had another a baby, a girl, and three years later a boy.
Lloyd appeared to come back to life, to have risen from the dead, from the grave where now his brother lay alone. He began to pay more attention to the oldest son, whom Rose had named Paul.
Lloyd and little Paul became inseparable, the boy following at Lloyd’s heels as Lloyd plowed and pruned and supervised the harvests. It was as if in his son Lloyd had found his brother again, as together they went about the chores which the twins had once worked at together in the barnyard and fields.
There were still wounds—once or twice a year Lloyd grew suddenly morose and sat alone for a day at Paul’s grave—but they were healing.
Five years, then seven, 10 years went by. On Christmas and Easter and on his birthday Lloyd and Rose lifted a toast of wine to Paul’s picture, which rested on the mantel beside the statue of the two brothers driving the wagon.
Lloyd and Rose became a popular and well-loved couple. They had many loyal friends and received constant invitations to dinner and parties—it became commonplace that no gathering was complete without Rose and Lloyd.
They were active in Farm Bureau and Masons and Eastern Star. Rose founded the Art Club and the Browning Society. Lloyd was a Toastmaster, and on the 40th anniversary of the Armistice gave a memorable speech to the American Legion which was later printed in the Fresno Bee.
Lloyd had taken full control of the farm when his father died in 1920. He sold the dairy herd, keeping only a single cow for milk, and farmed the 80 acres of vineyard and tree fruit for 45 years, his mother living with them until her death in 1952.
Lloyd got them through the Great Depression, paying off a double mortgage with the help of the new Gower nectarine, then bought an adjoining 40 acres from the neighbor. Lloyd always kept abreast of the latest farming techniques—he received pamphlets and newsletters from the country farm advisor and the agricultural college in Davis. He subscribed to nursery catalogs that advertised experimental varieties of peaches, nectarines, and plums. The farm was a model to other growers. During Word War II, Lloyd worked for the Home Farm Administration and received a commendation from the government.
Finally, at 75, suffering from congestive heart failure, and respiratory problems resulting from his exposure to mustard gas in 1918, Lloyd lay dying in the Veterans’ Hospital in Fresno, among the wounded and disabled soldiers from Vietnam.
Lloyd had Farm Bureau insurance and Medicare. He could have gone into the hospital in Lemas, but he insisted on the military hospital where he paid his own way.
In the waiting room, at the end of the hall, Rose sat with Hazel and Lloyd Jr. Paul had relieved her and sat at Lloyd’s bedside.
Rose stared down at her hands, at the fingers which had played piano and painted and worked the moist clay, which had plucked a rose from a rosebush one June evening. Rose was still a youthful-looking woman, but she knew with Lloyd’s passing that her world was irrevocably changing, as suddenly and drastically as it had years before when she had married Lloyd instead of Paul.
Rose had sometimes, in the intervening years, wondered with anguish what her life would have been like with the other brother, if Paul had lived and Lloyd had been the one to die as a boy.
Would it have been different, better or worse, or exactly the same? She had not complained, she had always loved Lloyd and admired him, and together they’d had a full life.
And yet she felt part of her had never unfolded, never bloomed. She wondered still why she had chosen one and not the other brother. She didn’t know, except that she had to choose one, Paul was in Los Angeles, she loved Lloyd as dearly as she loved his brother.
And Lloyd was close, on the porch, it was night, late spring, the roses were blooming. Now again she got up from the swing, she leaned over the railing and bent to the rosebush. She snapped off one red rose, quickly, just one.
“Mother, Dad’s asking for you,” Paul said. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
When Paul led her in, Rose saw Lloyd was raised up in bed. From behind the oxygen mask he was trying to speak. He was agitated, his hand trying to dislodge the mask as tears streamed down his face.
“I better get the nurse,” Paul said.
“No,” Rose said, “leave us for minute. Let us be alone.”
Rose remained for two hours. Three times Paul went to check on her, but when he cracked the door she raised a hand, motioning him away. Lloyd lay back on the bed now, with his mask off, speaking quietly to Rose.
When Rose came out, her children looked at her expectantly, making room for her on the couch. But she turned to Paul, her oldest, her first son.
“What’s wrong?” Paul said. “Is he worse?”
“Your father passed away,” Rose murmured, looking into Paul’s eyes. “He’s gone.”
She began to weep.
“He’s all right now,” Paul said, his own voice cracking. “I’m sure he is.”
“All these years,” Rose cried softly. “Gone. Nearly 50 years ago. He died. It’s like a dream.”
Then she came apart.
For the next two days, Rose locked herself up. She wouldn’t receive her many friends or her cousins or any of the neighbors who brought plates of food to the door. She stayed alone in the guest bedroom, she wouldn’t sleep in her own bed.
Only her older sister, the one who years before people had blamed for Rose’s involvement with the two brothers, could do anything with her, get her to eat broth or take something to drink, tea, or a little warm milk. The bedroom door remained closed and there was only the occasional murmur of voices as the sisters talked alone.
On the third day, the day of the funeral, Rose got up and bathed, then put on a gray wool dress. She came into the kitchen where Hazel and Lloyd and Paul were having breakfast. She went to each of them, telling one and then the other that she loved them all the same, differently but the same.
Later, she spoke to all of her friends and relations when they came to the house.
At the service, after the minister had finished, Rose got up. She glanced over at Paul’s headstone, then back at Lloyd’s coffin. Without tears, in a resonant voice, she recited from “Leaf and Bough”:
When falls the leaf that holds the bough,
Since far and near are only now,
You hear the voice that sang to thee
In summer shade of greeny tree,
The song that endless summer knew
Before the leaf, before the dew . . .
She plucked a red rose from one of the standing displays and then dropped it down into the grave.
There was silence in Mrs. Whitcomb’s shadowy living room. She looked up at me. Her face was pale in the dim light. Then she leaned forward, beginning to serve me a slice of cake from the uncovered silver platter. I realized it was starting to rain. I turned off the recorder.
“It’s raining,” I said, in the still house, with its pictures of family on the darkened sideboard, her unused dishes behind the glass doors of the cupboard. I could hear the rain hitting the roof, first the spaced individual drops, then all of them together, in a sudden rush like a waterfall.
“Yes,” she said, nodding to me through the gloom, “we always need the rain in this Valley of ours. Except in the fall, when the raisins are on the ground.”
“Yes,” I agreed, taking the plate, “it’s not good then.”
“No,” she said, “but now, this is fine.”
I took a bite of cake and set down my fork.
“Well,” I said, “I want to thank you for having me over, for telling me the story of Paul and Lloyd. And Rose.”
“You liked it?”
“I find it—”
“Odd?” she said quietly, from behind her dim glasses. “Unsettling?”
“Yes,” I said. She was right. That was it. I hadn’t put my finger on it. “I’m glad it happened a long time ago.”
“Why?” she asked. “So it can’t happen now?”
“Yes,” I said, suddenly, looking at her. “That’s exactly it.”
“But it isn’t true,” I said. “I wish it were.”
“What’s not true?” she blurted out. She looked shocked, her white face leaning toward me in the dark.
“Things do repeat themselves, over and over,” I said quickly. “When a thing happens, you can be sure it’s happened before and will happen again.”
“Or happened only once, but keeps happening, all the time?” Mrs. Whitcomb added. She smiled. “Even now?”
I didn’t understand what she meant. But she appeared relieved, for a moment she had thought I had doubted her story.
“I knew you would appreciate this story. You’re an artist, a writer.” She said it with a tone of certainty. “I can tell. Remember, years ago, when we used to talk?”
“Well, thank you,” I said. I felt self-conscious, embarrassed. “Your story impressed me. It’s a wonderful story, especially the way you told it.”
For over two hours she had spoken with feeling, in detail, without a single stumble or revision, without pausing for breath or searching for a misplaced word.
“You understood, didn’t you, at the end?” Again she leaned toward me, expectantly.
“Yes,” I said. “It was vivid in my mind. And very touching.”
But she remained insistent. “When Rose picked the rose, there at the cemetery?” Now she reached up with a hand, snapping on the lamp.
I felt moved by her intensity. Again, she looked almost childlike in the big chair, gazing up at me, her glasses reflecting the lamplight. I thought she was waiting for my approval, for me to compliment her on the rose, what a good touch it was, one writer to another. It was as if she’d made the rose up herself, it was her creation, even if she were only narrating what had happened.
“You mean it was like the rose—” I stopped. “It was the same rose that she had given Lloyd so many years before, when she had chosen him. She had overcome the moment of doubt the night he died, she was reconciled to her fate and to her love. In a way,” I said, “she was happy.”
Mrs. Whitcomb’s face darkened. “Oh no!” she said. “That’s not it at all!”
She lifted a hand to push her glasses higher on her nose. Her large, magnified eyes stared out from behind the thick glasses.
“Oh,” she said. I noticed a slight tremor along her jaw. “I haven’t told it right.”
Her voice, just minutes before so confident and strong, now was low, uncertain. She looked confused.
“I thought I had, but I haven’t. I see that now.” She stared up at the pictures on the sideboard.
“You told it beautifully, Mrs. Whitcomb,” I tried to reassure her. “I couldn’t do it nearly as well. It’s a fascinating story. You should be the one to write it, not me. Or maybe we could write it together,” I said, to soothe her. “Why don’t we do that? Then you could hand it out to your friends. I think maybe it’s too personal for ‘O Pioneers!’”
“Could we?” she asked, turning, staring at me again, then blinking, as if to see more clearly who I was. “You could get it right? Help me bring the ending to a better point?”
“I think it’s fine the way it is now,” I said. “It’s very moving.”
“You think so?”
“What’s wrong with the rose?” I asked, trying to smile, to understand.
“No,” she said, sitting back straight in her chair. “There’s nothing wrong with the rose. It’s a matter of emphasis, of what it signifies. Signifies,” she insisted, again her voice trembling.
“It signified her love,” I repeated, “her faith in love, in life, her faith in time, in the healing, redemptive nature of time,” I said. “Doesn’t it?” Now I wasn’t sure.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Redemption is the word. That’s the way I’d put it.”
I didn’t speak.
“Rose came to terms with a terrible insight, not immediately, not there at the hospital that night, but later, in the days that followed. At the funeral.”
“Sure she did,” I said. “It took time, to face her loss.”
“Insight!” said Mrs. Whitcomb, almost bitterly, as if I’d interrupted. “At the graves. When she picked the rose.”
We were back to the rose. I wondered briefly if Mrs. Whitcomb were forgetful, whether her long recitation had tired her out.
“What insight is that?” I asked, half-unwillingly, looking at Mrs. Whitcomb.
“Revelation, I’d say,” she said sharply. She was stern now, the old librarian. “Revelation,” she repeated. “At the hospital.”
“What revelation?” I asked. I sat back in my chair. I felt myself losing patience. Again I realized how long I’d been there, that Jean would be irritated at my delay. Was the road to Sierra Summit still open, clear of snow? Mrs. Whitcomb’s crankiness had broken her story’s spell.
“About her husband, of course,” she said. “What else would it be?” She frowned at me.
“What about him?” I asked.
“What about him?” she shot back. “Who he was!”
“Who was he?” I waited to hear.
“That he wasn’t Lloyd, of course! He was Paul!”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes behind the lenses.
Now something was wrong. In the house, among the empty tea cups. In the staring photographs and the still china in the cupboards. In the sound of the rain.
“Lloyd was Paul?”
“That’s the whole point of the story, of the rose at the end. When she drops the rose on the grave, she’s giving it to him.”
Mrs. Whitcomb had moved to the edge of her chair. She leaned toward me with her unsettling intensity.
“I didn’t see that,” I said, after a moment. “Good Lord,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“When she goes to see Lloyd, when he’s calling for her in the hospital. When he wants to see her alone?”
She was reminding me, but now she was also pleading.
“And afterward, when she doesn’t want the others, but only her son Paul? When he asks about his father, Rose tells him, ‘All these years. Gone. Fifty years. He died. It’s like a dream.’”
“Yes,” I said, watching her. “I remember that.”
“Then, when she comes out of the bedroom, after she’s locked herself up with her sister? She tells her children that she loves them the same, but differently?”
“I remember,” I said.
“And the Burns poem Paul wrote at the end of his letter, when he became Lloyd, the one about the red red rose Paul had remembered, when he saw the rose in the wine glass on the night table and wanted to kill Lloyd?”
“I see,” I said. I hadn’t made that connection. It seemed slight.
“He told his parents that he and his brother must have been very near to one another in the fog and poison gas, the day Paul died.”
“And it was Lloyd.”
“Yes. That night in the hospital, that’s when Rose’s husband told her he wasn’t Lloyd, but Paul.”
“At Bellieu Wood, in the battle, Paul had come upon Lloyd. Lloyd was dying, shot in the side. Paul had sensed it, felt a pain above his right kidney. If he moved a certain way, it was stronger, another way, less. It was like a compass, like a homing device. He knew Lloyd was nearby, maybe badly wounded. When Paul found him among the dying, he knelt at his side.”
Mrs. Whitcomb paused. I waited. Rain beat against the roof in a broken, ghostly rhythm.
“It was then that Lloyd begged Paul to take his place. It was the only way he would see Rose again, that his love wouldn’t die. Through his brother his love for Rose would have no end.
“Paul resisted, but his brother entreated, clutching Paul’s tunic. ‘I knew you’d come,’ he gasped, ‘I was waiting. Now let me love her,’ he pleaded, ‘through you.’
“So Paul switched their dogtags. Paul would live as Lloyd and Lloyd would die as Paul and only God would know the difference.”
Mrs. Whitcomb shook her head.
“‘Till a’ the sea gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.’”
I stared at her. I felt uncertain. Frightened.
“Poor, poor Rose,” Mrs. Whitcomb said at last. “God help us.”
Now something in her tone sparked my anger, broke through my anxiety over her strange behavior and my disbelief at the way she’d ended her story.
“What about Paul?” I started to say. “He had to pretend for 50 years that he was Lloyd. Or Lloyd, who died—”
I checked myself, watching Mrs. Whitcomb’s large, watery eyes.
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” I said finally. “For the brothers changing places.”
Now I saw the whole thing was false. It had been all along. But she had gilded the lily, overplayed her hand. The last bit about the brothers’ secret pact on the battlefield had dropped her story into the realm of cheap melodrama, of ’30s war movies. Her upset, real or feigned, made it worse, more hollow.
Suddenly, I felt misused, almost hurt, as if I were a child and she’d lied to me. Then again I wondered if Mrs. Whitcomb were unbalanced. Then about my Aunt Mary, if she knew her neighbor was failing badly and had asked me to visit her as an act of compassion and respect for the past.
“That’s why the rose is important,” she continued, she was still trying to explain. “At the end, she knows and it’s all right. She gives Paul the rose, the rose she gave Lloyd 50 years before.”
I felt sorry for her. For whatever reason, it was important to her that the story end this way. And it was a story—for a while, the easeful, self-evident unfolding of her words had taken me in. I remembered her age. She was like a child.
“Ah, I see now,” I said. “That does make a difference.”
“Yes,” she said, beginning to smile. “The rose is the key.”
“Rose’s rose,” I said. “That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Rose’s rose,” she agreed. “Or roses. Remember, there were two.”
Mrs. Whitcomb sighed. “She was married to both brothers, bore both their children, buried both brothers.” She spoke now with detachment, matter-of-factly, as she looked away again at the sideboard.
I felt a shiver, then a trembling that began in my calves.
I felt an uncomfortable, rising excitement, as if I sat beside Greta Garbo, or Madame Bovary, someone fictional, a made-up character come to life, a strange survivor one had assumed was long dead and now saw for the first time in the flesh with all her past and fame and tragedy pressed inside her.
She was Rose! It was her story. It was true, every word, or parts of it were, however tangled the real incidents had become in her mind.
But just as suddenly I saw again the picture of Mrs. Whitcomb with her nieces, the one of her boy killed in the war. Rose had three children, two boys and a girl, Paul and Hazel and Lloyd Jr.
Where were the pictures of the twins? Why weren’t they here, if she’d gone to the trouble to spin it all out? Did she keep them hidden, in a special place? Where was the statuette, the figurine of Paul and Lloyd riding in the clay wagon?
I remembered then that Mrs. Whitcomb’s husband had been killed in a fishing accident years ago, before I was born. He had slipped from a stone in the Kaweah River and hit his head and drowned. She had never remarried. My mother intimated once that Mrs. Whitcomb had had a breakdown over it, before she became the librarian.
Of course the story of the roses wasn’t hers, or anyone else’s. Did Mrs. Whitcomb imagine it was autobiography?
“Well,” I said. “I’d better be going.”
We’d sat for a few minutes in silence, looking at one another, listening to the rain. I tried not to let on, to end our visit on a disbelieving note.
“I need to think about this,” I said. I shook my head. “It’s quite a lot to absorb.”
“Yes,” she said. “It is. Think about what I’ve told you.”
“I will,” I said. “I’ll be contacting you.”
I got up, again thanked Mrs. Whitcomb for the tea and cake, told her I’d let myself out. I left her there, sitting in her big chair by the lamp, her glasses two bright disks in her upturned face.
I did see her again, many times in the next few years. We became warm friends before her death, closer than we’d been when I was a boy. She showed me her wedding pictures and other photographs of her husband that she kept on the bureau in her bedroom.
She gave me books to read which we discussed once a week over lunch— she was interested in Jungian psychology, Christian and Eastern mysticism, ESP. She suggested topics for “O Pioneers!” and other pieces I did for the Irrigator.
Mrs. Whitcomb wrote the long, lucid appreciation of my Aunt Mary’s paintings and poetry which appeared in the Irrigator and caught the attention of the art dealer in San Francisco.
Jean and I sometimes play the tape recording she made just to hear her voice.
But I couldn’t have foreseen that. I never wanted to see her again. When I visited my aunt in the future I planned to carefully avoid Mrs. Whitcomb.
I stood out in her front yard for a moment, standing in the rain, looking up at the drops becoming big and silver as they fell through the light from the street lamp. I let the rain strike my face. It was good to be outside in the fresh air, away from the crazy old woman and her stuffy house and her involuted, strange romance of two brothers and a girl named Rose. As she’d told it, it had seemed real, too real, and now I wanted to wash the images from my memory, to clear my mind.
I hurried across the lawn, through the rose garden, toward my aunt’s kitchen steps and the awning.
My great-aunt was standing at the door, in the porchlight, looking at me through the rain that fell in silver lines.
“Come get some coffee.”
I moved down the drive and climbed the steps. In the kitchen, to the right of the table, I saw her painting on the easel.
“It’s raining hard,” I said, wiping my feet on the mat.
“It’ll bring up my bulbs in April,” she said. “We need the rain.”
“That’s what Mrs. Whitcomb said,” I said. I took off my sport coat and tried to shake off the water. “Among a lot of other things.”
She didn’t answer and I hung my coat over the back of a kitchen chair, then stepped over to her watercolor.
Again I saw how expertly my aunt handled brushes, her hand capturing the shimmering change of the hummingbird’s breast feathers, from green to gold to red and back again. She was a master of color, but also, I saw again, of form and volume created by its absence. A cunning wash of paint, a space of white, suggested roundness and depth, movement, more effectively than any shading of line. The wings seemed to flash and whir, manifold, to leap from the paper.
“It’s very good,” I said, looking closely at the bird’s black and green helmet. “It’s really fine.”
I remembered her bending forward, squinting at the tiny buzzing real bird, as she’d rendered the splinter of light that touched its slender bill.
It seemed like years ago, and again I thought of Rose and Lloyd and Paul, heard them singing “Leaf and Bough” together from the bandstand on Raisin Day. Unfortunately, Mrs. Whitcomb too was able to etch a vivid image.
“Thank you,” Aunt Mary said.
There was something in her voice, something strained, which made me look up. She was at the window, watching the rain fall past the glow of the porchlight.
“Have you thought of a verse?” I asked, to say something. “To go with the picture?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes I have. I wrote it while you were talking to Mrs. Whitcomb.”
“May I read it?” I asked.
She turned now to face me, in her flannel shirt, her arms at her sides. She looked like a nervous child at school getting ready to recite. Then she proudly lifted her chin. Her eyes looked into mine as she began:
Little lord of my garden,
Your heart too fast, now faster
In breast of resplendent armor
As you string jade and golden filament
Between star jasmine and blue peppermint
And jasmine, in a blur,
Always arriving or just having been
To drink the bloom in a shiny whir—
Toward what mysterious, Ultimate Flower
Are you flying
My knight, Sir Hummingbird?
After the word “whir” she paused, looking at me harder, before she said “I wonder” and went on, in a lowering, lilting finish full of emotion.
The poem was a criticism, a rebuke, a warning to wake up, an encouragement, a promise. All of these.
And a question, that had the silver lining of an answer. What “Ultimate Flower”?
All I felt was a praise and tenderness, a praise of all earthly beauty and a tenderness toward me and herself and everything that lived and had to die to know and live again.
I was the hummingbird and so was she and all of us were also our Other, our Double, the Other Rose, whatever shining flower or bird, woman or man, stood beyond us yet achingly and forever close at hand.
Under the kitchen light her white hair glowed in a circle around her face. I had seen old pictures, of her and my grandmother when they were young. But had I looked closely, really seen?
For a second, I had a glimpse of what her beauty was 60 years ago.
Her red-haired, space-toothed, smiling, imperfect perfect beauty.
My throat tightened.
In her kitchen on B Street that March night, I saw what Lloyd and Paul must have seen, and felt and understood their passion. I imagined the brothers beside me, one at either shoulder, as love struck and transfigured them, as Dante tells us Beatrice’s beauty did him.
It had all been laid out at my feet, all of Mrs. Whitcomb’s hints that weren’t deceptions but clues, little puzzles or passwords along the way through the maze to the solution.
I felt like a man awakening from a dream into a dream that was real. I felt ghostly, dead, yet more alive than I’d ever been. This was different and strange, a joy and heartbreak that was grateful relief. Everything fit forever and could never be lost and never had been or would be. It was there all the time and no one knew. The infinitely disordered perfect order was love, but also a different order of love.
“Well?” she asked, without smiling.
Then, as in a vision, unsummoned, not consciously recalled, for the first time in 20 years I held the thick book, I felt its flimsy, ripped paper cover.
I saw the early Kodak picture of a girl with curly hair and full lips and smooth skin. Her eyes were smiling as she stood beside an easel and a watercolor; it was Paul’s purple iris. Below the photograph I saw my grandmother’s old-fashioned handwriting, the white ink on the album’s page of black construction paper.
“It’s lovely,” I said. “Aunt Rosemary.”
A smile flickered at her lips, then she glanced out the window at the rain. I stood still, mute, exuberant, and dumbfounded.
“Let me get us some coffee,” she said after a while, then went quickly toward the stove. “It won’t take a minute.”
“I need to call Jean,” I said.
“She already called,” my aunt said. She turned on the burner under the kettle. “She’s coming over.”
“Yes,” she said. “She’s bringing dinner.”
“Does she know?” I asked.
“About Rose?” I said softly. “About Lloyd and Paul?”
“About who?” she said, turning to face me.
And then I knew it was a secret, between her and Mrs. Whitcomb, and my grandmother who was dead, though she wasn’t dead, not really. And me.
Until now, I’ve never written down my aunt’s story, though in 20 years I’ve written nearly 1,000 weekly columns and innumerable features and news stories.
I wasn’t supposed to tell the story, not yet. My aunt and Mrs. Whitcomb had pulled back a curtain, showed me the gulf between journalism and the stark, limpid nakedness of art. They had shown me that history is an illusion, and that only identity persists, but as a mystery.
But more than that. That night in March I saw how love blooms out of pain and confusion and loss, out of broken beauty, that something needs to die or fall away, before a different love blooms, darker and stranger, yet more personal, with thorns that cruelly ravish as mercifully they save us from ourselves.
For years I’ve had a recurrent dream, of a midnight scene at the opening of a grotto which is both a crypt and a secret passage.
From a distance, I watch three elderly women holding lit candles approach the natural door in the rock wall.
“‘O Pioneers,’” one of them whispers.
“Yes,” say the others, “‘Leaf and Bough.’”
Before my eyes, as if their words have triggered the change, their faces turn to those of young girls, they have been girls all along, as they lift their heads and enter the flickering cave.
Mrs. Whitcomb died three years after our interview.
Aunt Rosemary lived to be 85.
They’re buried not far from one another, near my grandmother, in the Lemas cemetery with its border of Italian cypresses and black iron picket fence.