The summer the boy turned nine, he would visit the three sisters at night. There was ivy growing up the wall of the middle sister’s bedroom, and he would climb it to her window. Her name was Marion. Her eyes were brown circled with red, and her hair was the same.
The boy would slip through the crack she left in the window, the sill pushing against his stomach like a cramp from swimming. He liked the pain. He would crawl on his belly to her bed and slip in, raising the sheets and watching her breathe.
Later in the night, Marion would wake up and watch the boy sleep. She would touch his arms and his legs and his behind. She would wake him and tell him her dream.
You were a pirate, and I was a pirate. Our ship sank, and the Octopus came up from the sea. His eyes were red and blind. He had a beak like a parrot. He ate us, and then I said, “I have to wake up.”
She would go to sleep then.
“Dream some more,” the boy would say.
On some days, that were not Wednesdays, the boy had many names. He was called the name of the day, and he was called Tree Leather because he rescued cats. He was called Bat, and he was called Bark when he swam and sounded like a seal. There were other names that he was called too: they were hurtful names given to him by other children, and they will not be mentioned in this story.
The names the three sisters used were all made up by Marion, except for the name “One,” which was the name Alice, the youngest, used with the boy. She called him “One” because he was the one who got her something to drink, the one who got her something to eat, the one who let her hit him. Early on in the summer the boy learned to avoid Alice as much as he could.
She terrified the boy, even though she was smaller and younger. She would take his hand and not let go. She would lead him into the bathroom and take off her clothes. They would get into the bath, and she would make him wash her hair. Her hair was blonde and as long as her body.
She would mix her hair up with his. The boy would imagine that his hair was an animal and that Alice’s hair was another animal. The two animals were fighting, and, in the end, the animal that was Alice’s hair would swallow his hair.
It was this about Alice that terrified him. She seemed ready to swallow all kinds of things, to take them into herself and destroy them. Many people said that Alice was the most beautiful of the three sisters, but he could not see it. She was too cruel. She would kill animals she found in the fields. She would cut herself and tell her mother that Roberta did it. She would throw steaks to the sea gulls so they would fight. For that much food the gulls would fight viciously, stabbing each other’s eyes.
Roberta was the oldest. Everything about her was big. Her shoulders were big, and her teeth were very large. She could break marbles with them; Marion stopped her from doing this because once she cut her tongue that way. She would lift other people up. The boy didn’t like that because it made him think that Roberta was stronger than him, but then her breasts would rub against his belly and he would forget about strength.
Roberta and the boy would climb the roofs of houses together; they would spy on adults sleeping after sex. When the boy asked Roberta to take off her shirt, she did. When he asked her if she could fly, she jumped off the roof and broke both her legs.
There were times when Roberta required stories. She would point to her teeth, which meant that the boy was supposed to tell a story.
The one tooth said to the other tooth, “What are we?”
The other tooth said, “I don’t know.”
The one tooth said, “I will tell you what we are. We are stuck in this pink cave. I don’t like it. We look like all the other teeth. When we are yellow, they are yellow. When we are white, they are white. Enough is enough.”
“What do you propose?”
“Let’s go to New York.”
They left Roberta in the night.
One of the teeth returned, but the other was gone forever. Roberta got a quarter for the tooth. All the other teeth missed the one tooth. They had sex, and soon there was another tooth growing in Roberta’s mouth.
Always get the last word.
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Sometimes the three sisters would go to the old bridge where the creek flowed into the lagoon. Most of the year, the bridge was above water, but the ground was always wet and smelled. Parents told their children that The Strangler lived under the bridge. A girl’s body had been found there the year before. No one knew her name, or what she looked like, but her silhouette had been drawn on one of the pylons of the bridge; the only detail inside it was of her vulva.
The three sisters would go under the bridge at night to talk to the silhouette. They would ask it questions. Sometimes the boy would follow. He would sit on his haunches, not quite under the bridge, so he could still see the sky.
Sometimes Roberta would walk up and put her body into the drawing of The Strangler’s bride. She would open her mouth. She would pretend to sing.
One night when Roberta did this, Marion became angry. She tried to get Roberta to leave the drawing of the body, but Roberta would not.
It was a full moon night. There were egrets out on the lagoon. One of them had died and washed ashore. The boy went over and touched its body. It was incredibly soft, like Alice’s hair.
Behind him, the boy could hear Marion talking. Her voice was angry. The boy wrapped his hand around the dead egret’s neck and tossed it into the water.
“If you’d let a little bit of the dead girl in you,” Marion said to Roberta, “then maybe you could talk. Maybe some of her brain would go in you. Would you like that?” Marion asked.
What Marion said scared Roberta, and she tried to go deeper into the silhouette. She pressed into the pylon; the boy imagined he could feel the pylon shudder.
It was getting late. The boy was worried that his father would start looking for him. Alice walked deeper into the forest of pylons. The boy could not see her anymore, but he could hear her footsteps; she was stepping into the puddles.
She began to walk back. She was carrying an old coat that she had found. It had been filled with a soft stuffing that was now the color of rust and was slowly falling out.
“There are dead people here, Roberta. We have to go,” she said.
Marion began to sing. It was an apology song. Roberta listened. She thought she could feel the dead girl: the girl wanted her to stay with her, to marry her, so that Roberta would be the husband, instead of The Strangler. Marion walked up to her sister and put her hands up against Roberta’s ears.
“Listen to my hands,” she said.
Roberta listened and heard the air swirling about. It made her feel sleepy. She walked out of the drawing and went home with her sisters.
The boy followed them back to the road they all lived on. A bunch of high school boys on bicycles were trying to catch bats. They would throw their baseball gloves up into the air, and the bats would fly around them.
The boy watched the three sisters walk down the road to their house. The house was on a stretch of road that wasn’t even a road anymore. The sea and the rains had washed away the land underneath the asphalt. Soon the area was going to be developed into a marina. The three sisters’ mother was going to sell their house.
When the boy got home, his parents could tell that he had been under the bridge. His mother undressed him and washed the smell of the bridge off him. His father watched the washing, then he pushed his wife out of the bathroom and lifted the boy out of the bath and beat him.
At midnight, after praying that his father would die, the boy crawled out onto the roof of his house. He climbed to the balcony of the house next to his and jumped to the roof after that. It was cold; a storm was coming in. The boy went from roof to roof until the houses ended and there were only fields turning slowly into beach. The boy walked through the fields till he came to the house of the three sisters. He crawled up the ivy, pushing through the crack in the window, the sill hurting his stomach.
“I want him dead,” the boy whispered.
All over the boy’s body there was a sweat. It covered him with goose bumps. Marion was asleep. The boy watched her and shivered. Then he took off his clothes. The sweat and the shivering went away.
Marion woke up and looked at him.
“You’re naked,” she said.
“Is that O.K. ?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but if you’re going to be naked, then I’ll be naked too.”
She took off her pajamas.
The boy crawled into bed with Marion. He began to think that he could hear Alice screaming, but it was only a sound in his head. He began to think he could hear the bats screaming, but that too was a sound in his head.
The boy took his finger and touched Marion’s chest. Marion took his finger and tugged on it.
“I dreamed about the Octopus again,” she said. “The Octopus was growing inside me the way the girl was growing inside Roberta. When it gets big enough, something will happen.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He scooted down under the covers and looked at Marion’s chest and stomach.
“Tell me more,” he said.
“Are you going to touch me some more?” she asked.
“Just talk. If you talk, then I won’t touch you.”
“But I like you touching me,” she said.
“Then I’ll touch you later, but talk now,” he said.
She said that the Octopus grew on pain. She said it was blind from pain. That was why its eyes were red. They were always crying.
The boy touched Marion’s eyes. They were crying. He cried too. She said that there were invisible people. They thought in music. They had hearts of glass.
“I don’t want to be like that,” Marion said.
“You won’t be,” said the boy. He kissed her.
That night the boy dreamed: he was going to eat an apple.
“We’ll have a contest,” Alice said. “Whoever gives you the best thing, gets the apple.”
“O.K.,” the boy said.
Alice gave him a punch in the stomach.
Marion told him a secret.
Roberta gave him an apple.
It was days later, after the storm was over, that the boy remembered this dream. The storm had brought in animals from the bottom of the sea: sea hares and squids and blue jellyfish the size of quarters. The sea hares were all turning green as they died, and the jellyfish had lost their tentacles. All of the squids were already dead, killed by the storm. Their bodies were a dark pink covered in gashes, but their eyes still looked alive.
There were gulls everywhere, eating the dead animals. There was so much food on the beach they didn’t have to fight. The boy walked through the dead squids and sea hares looking for the three sisters.
He walked out into the water. There were sandbars going out a long way. The boy pretended they were islands, and he walked from island to island looking for the three sisters.
Finally he found them. They were standing in a circle looking at something. The boy could hear a flapping noise in the water.
Marion waved for him to come over.
When the boy joined their circle, he saw they were looking at a stingray that had gotten lost in the maze of the shallows. A spear was in its back, and it was dying.
The ray had been swimming for a long time, looking for a way to the deep water, but now it was too tired and too hurt to swim.
“What should we do?” Marion asked.
“It’s dying,” he said. “It’s suffering—we have to kill it.”
“We should burn it,” Alice said.
The boy grabbed the broken piece of spear and dragged the ray up onto one of the sandbars. He dug a grave and put the ray in it. The ray flapped around in the hole, trying to get out, but its wings were too weak to fly on land.
The boy imagined the ray feeling the sand falling on its back. He pretended he was the ray trying harder and harder to fly as it was being buried alive.
“It’s going to die slow in the sand,” he said to Marion.
Marion said nothing.
The boy dragged the ray back to one of the shallows. He pulled the spear out of its back. It swam in the water very quickly for a moment, as if everything were all right. Then it became tired again.
The boy picked up the spear and walked out into the water. He drove the spear into the ray’s back. Alice screamed. Roberta ran back towards the beach. Marion said nothing.
The boy could hear Alice screaming, and Roberta running, and Marion saying nothing; he tried to ignore them. He put himself into the killing—into bringing the spear down against the tough flesh of the ray again and again until it died.
Then he buried the dead ray.
Marion was standing on the island of sand looking at him. Alice had already run off after Roberta. The tide was coming in, and the island was slowly being eaten by the sea. The boy looked at Marion. She turned around and walked back to shore. They were very far out, and she was just a little dot by the time she reached the beach.
That was when the boy remembered the dream. He remembered the contest for the apple. He remembered the ache in his stomach, the taste of Roberta’s apple, the sensation of Marion’s breath in his ear as she told him a secret. She was always telling him secrets. She told him that breathing was reading the air, that dolphins have two souls, that eating flowers makes your breath taste good. She told him that children are the ideas of their parents, that you learn everything in sleep, that jellyfish sting each other when they have sex, that people die when you forget them.