• Ugly Sister

    Anna Caritj

    Summer 2022

    Alison’s niece, Aya, was going through a puppy phase. She whimpered for food. She barked for attention. She painted her face white every morning, thickly, inexplicably. She’d even been asking to nurse, though she was already four.

    Alison had been warned, so she pretended not to be surprised when she spotted her howling niece in the terminal of the Esquel airport. She embraced her sister, Valerie. After nearly fifty hours of takeoffs and touchdowns and layovers, it almost felt good to see her.

    “Look at us.” Val squeezed Alison’s shoulders. “All grown up.”

    It was supposed to be summer in this hemisphere, but outside there was still snow on the mountains, and the red van that Val had driven all over South America was crusted in salt. Aya pawed the neck of her mother’s shirt as she buckled her in.

    “I swear I weaned her,” Val said, plucking the little hands from her breasts. “I wanted my body back. I wanted my boobs back.”

    Alison grinned against the girl’s high whine. “I guess Aya wants them back too.”

    “Remember the bras I was wearing the last time I saw you?” Valerie continued. “Each cup was practically a bonnet.”

    “Uh-huh,” Alison said. “Huge.”

    The last time they’d been together, Valerie had shown Alison her bra, peeling off her T-shirt and hefting the contraption with both palms. It’d struck Alison as adolescent. Aggressive.

    Val drove with two fingers on the steering wheel. The road was sometimes paved, sometimes gravel. There were plains in all directions, and the jagged mountains on the horizon never got any closer. Sometimes they passed charred hillsides or abrupt formations of wind-carved clay, but what lay ahead was always the same.

    Val’s house, she explained, was still another hour away. She’d lived with her husband and daughter in Chubut Province, Argentina, for years now, but this was the first time Alison had visited. After years of delay and dissimulation (on Alison’s part), Val had bought Alison a ticket without even consulting her. Alison was up for partner at her firm in Palo Alto. She was busy. And yet, here she was.

    The house was on the outskirts of a flat town that looked as if the sky were pressing it down. It gave on to a sweeping view of the plains and mountains, but the house itself seemed to crouch, showing only thick brown walls and a glinting glass facade.

    “Here we are,” Val singsonged.

    Outside now, the wind hit Alison. Aya dashed off on all fours, impervious to the cold. Inside, the house smelled of sweetgrass and Play-Doh.

    “It’s an earthship,” Val explained, pointing out a wall of south-facing windows. “The windows and walls regulate the ambient temperature. Meaning it always feels nice in here.”

    Alison pretended interest, following her sister into the kitchen. The house was nice—palatial compared to Alison’s Spartan South Bay apartment. Exposed beams ribbed the ceiling between walls of thick adobe. The floor was burnished concrete. A radiant slab, Val called it, as she boiled water for tea—a picture of civility.

    Valerie’s husband, Jake, had built the place. Together, they’d started a backcountry fishing company just before Aya’s birth. In the years since, he and Valerie had developed branches in Montana, Kamchatka, and the Bahamas, with plans to expand into Brazil and Iceland. But of all places, Alison thought, they’d chosen to settle here, in the middle of the desert. It seemed an odd place to fish. She had yet to see any water.

    But Val seemed to know what she was doing. Despite her enlightened exterior—despite the yoga teacher certification and the forays into Reiki and massage therapy—Alison knew her sister could be practical. She was a natural manager, and years of vagabonding had given her an intuitive grasp of the tourism industry. She knew what people wanted. In particular, she knew what men wanted.

    Valerie filled a thermos with hot water, preparing a strange, dusty tea. She plated a golden-brown cake, recently baked. Alison hadn’t eaten in what felt like days, but she insisted she wasn’t hungry. The tea was served in a brown gourd with a metal straw. Apparently, she and her sister were supposed to share it. On the first sip, the straw burned Alison’s lips, and her mouth filled with grit. She fought the urge to spit.

    Not long after they sat down with the bitter tea, Aya blustered in, panting from exertion. Though the place felt isolated, there were neighbors not too far away. They had a young daughter too, Val explained.

    “They probably encourage each other,” she said, “pretending to be dogs.”

    “You think it’s normal?” Alison asked, though she shouldn’t have.

    “Oh, what is normal? You and I loved animals as kids. I had a horse thing, and you were into . . . ”


    Val nodded. “Maybe I’m a bad mother,” she said lightly, looking down at her daughter. “I mean, I loved horses, but I didn’t lift my tail to take a piss.” She mouthed the last word.

    Alison lifted her eyebrows. “Does she . . . ?”

    “Well, she squats. She doesn’t do the leg thing.”

    Alison startled herself with a sudden cough of laughter. Valerie joined her.

    “And thank God she doesn’t actually tinkle when she squats,” Val said. “She uses the toilet when nobody’s looking, I think. So it’s all pretend. Right, sweetie? Anyway, it’s just a phase. A blip in the grand scheme.”

    That word—phase—distracted Alison. Their mom had used it, back when things had gotten bad between her daughters. She’d used it again to minimize the fact that Val took a gap year to travel before even considering college. According to their parents, Val could do no wrong. By the time Alison was at Stanford Law, Val claimed to have been kissed on every continent.

    Alison let the bitter tea fill her mouth. The truth is, she thought, nothing is a phase. Everything you do says something about who you are. Once you’re the girl who fucks your older sister’s boyfriend, you are always that girl, even after you birth a child who behaves like a dog.

    “Just a blip,” Val repeated, and she laughed again. She reached across the couch and squeezed Alison’s knee. “I’m so glad you’re here, Ali. It means so much to me. Really.”

    Aya scrabbled over, seeming to sense that the conversation had shifted away from her. She had a stuffed dog in her hands, and Alison recognized the dingy thing. But before she had a chance to comment, Aya seized her aunt’s hand and, with surprising strength, towed her up. Alison played along, making a face at Val, even as the child tugged her through the kitchen and out a back door. Aya glanced back once, her blue eyes wild against her white face, before she started to run.

    Alison felt responsible now, watching the girl plow through high grass. She followed her.

    The neighbor’s house was hidden below a little rise. It was more modest than the earthship, more lived in. A sheet of metal—a piece of the house’s siding, it seemed—buzzed and moaned in the constant wind. A pair of mud-caked boots had been ditched beside the storm door. The windows were lightless. Aya cut through their yard and into a dim, slouched barn. Alison stopped at the door. Somewhere in the darkness, she heard Aya bark. She followed the sound, squinting, her feet sinking in rotten straw.

    Her niece had crawled into a stall in the back of the barn. Alison cracked the door, her eyes not yet adjusted to the dark. Impatient, she took out her phone, turned on its flashlight, and started. A fat white dog lay in the straw, flanked by a litter of pale pups. Their eyes weren’t even open. And there was white-faced Aya among them, wriggling up like one of the litter. She nuzzled and whimpered, pushing her face between the pups. The girl seemed to be nudging the puppies out of the way, worming toward one of the dog’s enlarged teats, her lips already pointed. Before she could get there, Alison reached out and pulled the girl’s shoulder.

    “Whoa,” Alison said. “Let’s just look, okay?”

    Jake came home late from the lakes and cooked dinner. He had dark hair and kempt, outdoorsy stubble. He and Alison had only met once before, back when Aya was an infant. Tonight, they ate rainbow trout, farro, and greens—the adults at the table, Aya at her dog dish.

    “The puppy refuses to eat off a plate,” Val explained.

    Jake shrugged good-naturedly, chewing as if in a rush.

    Did they know about the dog in the barn? Alison hadn’t planned on keeping it a secret, but her sister had been upstairs behind a shut door when Alison had come back with Aya. A gong had rung out, and Alison had heard a long, nasal aauummm. And now, with her niece listening, it didn’t seem like the right moment to bring it up.

    She looked across the table at her sister’s husband. He was talking about the trout. His guided fishing tours were catch-and-release, but this one had taken a hook to the gills and they’d had to put it out of its suffering. It was nearly thirty inches—a monster, according to him—filleted and served on wilted spinach without its tail or head.

    “Our fridge is full of monsters,” Val said.

    “Are they that delicate?” Alison asked. “The big fish?”

    “They’re all delicate.” Jake nodded. “It’s stressful to be caught. They use all their energy fighting the hook. Especially on a warm day like today, some don’t recover even after they’re released.”

    “So do you avoid fishing on warm days?” Alison asked, though the day had seemed anything but warm.

    “Well, no . . . but it’s not that I don’t think about it.” Jake refreshed everyone’s wine. “Whether it’s through warm water or asphyxiation or a swallowed hook, I make my living torturing fish all over the world. There’s no way around it.”

    “But consider it more generously,” Val cut in. “Our clients would be catching fish anyway—if not through our company, then somebody else’s. Why not be the guy to supervise and ensure they’re pursuing their sport as responsibly and humanely as possible? I mean, nobody cares about the fish or their habitat more than youAnd we give a percentage of each trip to a local conservation group.”

    “Sure . . . ” Jake jiggled his foot.

    “And it’s not just fish our clients want,” Val went on. “It’s an experience. They want to feel both pampered and rugged. They want to struggle, but they don’t want to fail. And after a long day of fishing, they want to tie cute flies by the fire, like a knitting circle.”

    If Jake took offense, he didn’t show it. He proposed that Alison come along to the lake in the morning so she could see for herself. “It’s beautiful,” he said, “even if you don’t fish.”

    “That sounds fun,” Alison said.

    After a moment’s hesitation, Val agreed.

    “Up early then,” Jake said. He cleared the plates and Aya’s dish, insisting that Val and Alison sit. He was one of those tall men who slouch, too used to dodging and ducking. Valerie couldn’t be easy to live with. Still, he seemed kind and patient. Handsome too. All of Val’s guys had been, with the one exception.

    Valerie tipped the last of the wine into Alison’s glass. Alison thanked her, but Val didn’t seem to hear. A line had appeared between her brows—the same worry line that Alison got sometimes. There was something new, something human about her little sister now.

    Despite being a year younger, Valerie had always managed to be one step ahead of Alison. Even when they were kids, Val had carried around a stuffed animal (the dingy dog that now belonged to Aya) that knew everything Alison didn’t, according to Val. If Alison came home excited about something she’d learned in school, the dog considered it old news. If Alison started reading a book, the dog had already read it. And not only that, it hadn’t been impressed.

    This dynamic hardened over time. Any success of Alison’s was somehow less significant than Val’s. The day Valerie had called to tell Alison she was pregnant, for example, Alison had just been hired as a first-year associate. It was a big career step—a reputable firm in the heart of Silicon Valley—and she’d been excited to get experience in tech and telecom. But instead of telling Val about it, Alison had found herself listening to the story of how Val and Jake had met.

    Their paths had crossed in Iquitos—a tiny town in the Peruvian Amazon. Val had gone to meet a different love interest, who’d somehow missed his flight, and Jake was there to fish peacock bass and arapaima. They’d stayed in the same hostel. Their hammocks were hung so close together that they’d literally bumped into each other.

    “There’s no road that goes to Iquitos,” Val had said, breathless. “It’s so remote that you have to fly in. The universe brought us together.”

    The two had taken an ayahuasca journey together. (Apparently what the town lacked in roads it made up for in spiritual infrastructure.) During the journey, Val said, they visioned a child. That was why they’d decided to name her Aya.

    “Wow,” Alison had said, when she could get a word in. “Well, congratulations.”

    But there was a lot about the story that Alison still didn’t get. The journey. The vision. Even all these years later, Alison still wasn’t sure if visioned was just a euphemism. Did it mean that Jake and Val had simply engaged in stoned sex? Or had the decision really been as intense and romantic as it sounded?

    The universe, she thought, watching Jake swipe fish bones into the garbage disposal.

    Alison’s love life could never be described as romantic. She’d downloaded a dating app a few years back, fussing over her profile and rejecting most of her matches. Even when she found someone in whom she was halfway interested, she always left the encounters feeling stunted.

    After dinner, Val brought out the cake Alison had refused earlier, slathered now with pale lemon icing. It was similar to one their mother used to make. Val set it in the middle of the table, swiping a finger across the icing and slipping it past her lips, tasting before cutting it.

    “Yum,” Val said as she handed a slice to Alison.

    “None for me, actually,” Alison said, staring at the place where Val’s finger had been.

    At Aya’s bedtime, the girl was given a choice between Mommy and Daddy. Separate beds, Alison couldn’t help but notice. It seemed impossible. But Aya was used to the routine. She chose Mommy without question, agreeing to PJs but growling and snapping when Val suggested she wash her face.

    “Your aunt still hasn’t seen you, baby.”

    But nothing would convince Aya. Could you get a disease from drinking dog milk? Alison wondered. Should she say something? But already Val was wishing her “blessings” in the hall, hugging Alison too close and too long.

    That night, Alison slept in Aya’s big girl bed. She stared at the beams in the ceiling, listening to the fitted plastic crinkle under the sheets. Voices murmured, low and lilting; the bed springs creaked. Eventually, she kicked off her blankets and went to stand in the earthship’s long glass hall. The wind pressed the windows and a chill rose from the concrete floor. A small shrine stood at one end of the moonlit hall. A dark figure presided over sacred miscellany: a half-burned smudge, a naked geode, a cup of brown plant matter. There were also a few kid-made additions—a blobby pinch pot, a bead on a string, and an uninterpretable scribble that the child had titled MI FAMILIA.

    On the way back to her room, Alison hesitated in front of Val’s bedroom. The door floated open when she touched the wood. The room was night-light blue. Valerie lay on her back, asleep. Alison blinked. Val’s breasts were exposed, pale and misshapen. Alison moved to shut the door, but then she discerned Aya’s long legs tangled with Valerie’s. The shapes slowly clarified, and then Alison understood. The child’s white lips were working at her mother’s milkless tit.

    As soon as Alison got back in bed, she saw that mouth again—her boyfriend’s mouth on Valerie’s breast. The first mouth Alison had ever kissed. He and Val had been on Alison’s bed, on Alison’s blankets. Val was in his lap, her nipple in his mouth, heaving up and down as his moans leaked out. Alison only barely understood what was in front of her. She stood there in the open door with her backpack still on her shoulders.

    Later, Alison’s boyfriend explained apologetically that he was in love with her sister.

    It turned out to be uncomfortably intimate, listening to men catch fish. They coached themselves in third person. They baby-talked their catches. Some even gave their dry flies voices, like children making toys speak.

    Eat me,” a large man said in a falsetto voice, dragging a colorful fly across the water. They’d risen in the dark that morning, driving twenty minutes to the fishing lodge to pick up Jake’s clients (most of them Americans) and then proceeding to the lakes, where the women boarded one of four drift boats with a young Argentine guide named Lionel. He stroked them out across the water. He had broad shoulders and strong arms.

    The wind had died sometime in the night, and the lake was white glass. Gunmetal mountains loomed behind the mist, nearly translucent. Val, Alison couldn’t help but notice, looked beautiful—flushed and effortless, her blond hair stirring. She chatted and joked with Lionel in convincing Spanish as he rowed, her windbreaker open.

    They’d dropped Aya off with the neighbors. Alison worried that the two girls would be allowed to stay with the dog unsupervised. She couldn’t wipe the previous day’s visions from her mind: the bitch with her squirming puppies; her sister topless on a cold night; her suckling, grown child. And now, witnessing Val’s easy rapport with Lionel—her loud laugh, her compulsive flirtation—she began to suspect that something else was not right.

    A man hooted in a nearby boat. He’d snagged a big one. When he towed it out of the water, it bulged and glittered—enormous, prehistoric. He hooked his finger into its lip and posed for a picture with the gasping fish. The other men congratulated him. For a moment, Alison imagined herself in that rainbow skin, the men’s brutish hands on her body. Then she chastened herself. It was a disgusting sport, if you took any time to think about it. 

    “It’s actually not that hard,” Valerie whispered to Alison, as if she’d read her thoughts. “Jake shows them where to put it in.”

    When the sun was high, Jake produced sandwiches and light beer from a cooler, passing the bottles between the boats. At the near shore, tributaries leaked away from the glacial lake, dribbling gin-clear over blackened stones. The men kept hauling in trout, whooping and measuring their catches once they landed them. Jake jawed at his clients as he rowed—which fly to tie to which tippet, which mayfly species was hatching from which reeds, and which were laying their eggs (and then immediately dying). As Jake went on, discussing the cycles of a mayfly’s brief existence, Lionel caught one by the wings and pressed it into Alison’s palm. It was dazzling up close—a lichen green fairy, strange and intricate—but its wings were now crumpled, and instead of flying off, it twitched.

    “Do they just die, Lionel, really?” Val was asking, impish, half-mocking. “Do they choose to die?”

    “This is what happens,” Jake joked to his clients, “when you bring your wife.”

    “He’s handsome,” Alison said later, peeling off her life vest on dry land.

    “Who? Lionel?” Val snorted. “He’s practically a child.”

    “How old is he?” Alison pressed, as if Val would admit to the affair right there. 

    “Twenty.” Valerie arched an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’re interested.”

    Now it was Alison’s turn to scoff. “Jesus, Val. Are you kidding?”

    “You’re lonely,” Valerie asserted. “I feel it.” 

    “Please.” Alison sighed. Same old Val, leaking wisdom. “Who isn’t?”

    Surprisingly, Val made a face like she agreed. Everyone is lonely, even me, she seemed to say. They laughed together, a sisterly feeling rising between them unexpectedly. It felt good—bright and fleeting. 

    It felt like it’d been years since Alison had really connected with anybody. Even something as simple as this. It was partly a function of her career; rarely did she interact with anyone who wasn’t a client or a colleague. In the office, she often thought in terms of spectrum—the frequencies across which wireless signals travel, one of the most basic units of communications law.

    Now, standing on the big lake’s lapping bank, feeling laughter ripple out from somewhere deep inside her, she found herself thinking that everything was a vibration, a wave, from a pinging cell tower to a whale’s infrasounds to the lake reeds’ vibrant green. Even Alison—even Valerie—vibrated constantly. This resonance might have created consciousness; she’d read an article on it, on the brain’s tiny oscillating neurons, vibrating in sync. Vibing, or something equally silly, Val might call it. But the question remained. Could people sense one another’s vibrations? Could people sync?

    Despite her skepticism, Alison found herself believing it. Perhaps you could connect with another human on a wavelength beyond the visible spectrum. Then she considered an even more radical possibility: perhaps repentance and absolution could be achieved without one word being spoken. A plucked chord of mutual understanding.

    The lodge was situated on a hill with views of the mountains. Though Alison had never set foot in a hunting or fishing lodge, it was obvious that the place checked all the boxes. Enormous trout were mounted on the wood-paneled walls. A long table surrounded by rustic benches dominated what Jake called “the Hall. Clearly, a team of staff had been busy here for hours. There was a fire on the stone hearth and candles illuminating a feast straight out of the Icelandic sagas. There were heaps of cheese and charcuterie, pâtés and sausage and duck confit. (“There are no limits on ducks,” Jake was saying, apparently referring to hunting.) And these were just the hors d’oeuvres; the main tonight was wood-fired pizza.

    The rooms were upstairs—just glorified dormitories, Val explained. “They like smelling each other’s socks, actually,” she whispered. “It’s like college again. Or so they tell me.”

    Around them, men recapped the day’s historic catches, showing off photographs. Jake got the pizzas into the oven before going to pick up Aya. Val seemed to be everywhere at once, overseeing the kitchen, fielding an issue with a leaky faucet, flirting with everyone. Alison occupied herself at the fly lords wall of fame, featuring photographs of men gripping open-mouthed fish. keep ‘em wet! the center of the collage commanded. 

    As soon as Aya arrived at the lodge, she squatted, pretending to pee in front of the hearth. When she was done, she howled. Not far off, Valerie whispered something in Lionel’s ear, her eyes clipping Alison’s. Alison looked away, vindicated. She went to the communal table, lit by deer-antler chandeliers. There, a bulbous, red-faced man held forth.

    “A nice fat one,” he was saying, his drawl louder than necessary. “A great big dino. Turns out that I hooked her too deep, though. She was too eager—she just swallowed.”

    “What did you do?” Alison asked, politely, when he turned to her and showed her a picture on his phone.

    “I tried to get a finger down her throat. But look at these sausages.” The man wiggled his digits. “Even my little pinkie wouldn’t fit down in her.”

    Alison glanced around the room, but Val had vanished. Even her little sister would be better company than this man, showing off his asphyxiated fish. A gasper, she heard him call it. Why am I even here? she wondered. She wished she’d never come.

    Someone took the empty seat beside her. It was Lionel, drawing a cork from a bottle.

    “You look guilty,” Lionel said.

    Alison blinked. “I’m sorry?”

    “Some people,” he said. “They pity the fish.”

    “Oh.” Alison laughed, a little stiffly. “I guess I do feel bad for them.”

    Lionel poured her a glass; Alison accepted the wine and sipped. Mendoza was no Sonoma, in her opinion, but she surprised herself by liking it.

    “These men”—Lionel gestured around them—“they love the fish.”

     “If they love them so much,” Alison said, remembering Val’s tone when she’d flirted with him on the boat, “then why do they want to torture them?”

    “They don’t want to. But sometimes, accidents happen.” 

    “Hmm.” She took another sip. “You don’t think there’s some small part of you that wants to hurt the fish?”

    “No, no, I don’t want to.” His expression was serious. “But maybe”—he thought for a moment—“maybe some people want to hurt the thing they love.”

    Alison pretended like she didn’t get it. “And why would someone want to do that?”

    “I don’t know. My father would say it’s weak to love. He has always lived in the pampa. In the pampa, you have to prove you aren’t the weak one.”

    “It is a harsh climate.”

    “I love it,” Lionel said. “My father doesn’t.”

    “He must love you,” Alison said, swirling her wine.

    “Oh.” Lionel laughed. “I don’t think so.” 

    Alison made sure Val wasn’t around. “Have you ever been in love?”

    Lionel shrugged. “Maybe once.”

    “You don’t mind being the weak one.”

    “No, no.” He laughed. “For me, I think it’s romantic.”

    She took a mouthful of malbec. “Is this person here in town?”

    Again, he shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

    “What does he or she look like?”

    “She.” Lionel giggled. He topped off Alison’s glass. “Maybe she looks a little like you.”

    Of course, Alison thought. Her face went hot. It repelled her, the thought of Valerie with an employee, a boy too young to legally drink back in the States.

    “And you?” Lionel asked.

    Alison shifted in her seat. “What about me?”

    “Have you ever been in love?”

    “Oh, no,” Alison said, though she hadn’t meant to respond so quickly.

    He nodded. “It is safer not to.”

    This time, she felt herself blush.

    “You are lonely,” Lionel said, echoing Valerie.

    Alison faltered. She looked at him closely. “I’m sorry,” she said eventually, standing. “Excuse me.”

    The room swiveled. Lionel steadied her hip, his hand lingering for a moment.

    The bathroom door locked with a hook. Alison’s urine was dark and fragrant; she must be dehydrated, she thought. She sucked some tap water and came up dripping. In the mirror, she looked unexpectedly beautiful. Sometimes even a little bit of alcohol did this. She could never tell if she looked objectively better—looser, lighter—when drunk, or if her perception was that warped. Maybe she was too used to being the ugly sister.

    She bared her teeth at her reflection. Someone knocked.

    “Just a minute,” she called, frowning, straightening the underwire of her bra.

    But there came another solid knock. She opened the door an inch. Lionel stood there plainly, as if she’d be expecting him.

    “Yes?” The backs of Alison’s calves grazed the toilet’s porcelain.

    Lionel gestured into the small space, hardly big enough for one person. “Can I come in?”

    Her arms weakened against the weight of the door. “I’m not quite done.”

    “I know.” Lionel looked like a boy when he grinned.

    She knew better than this. And yet somehow, without even giving it a careful thought, she opened the narrow door wider. He stepped in, latching the hook behind him. Then he placed his hands on either side of her face and guided her against the wall.

    After he kissed her, she couldn’t surface. The air seemed to have been let out of her. For a moment, she let him hold her, envelop her, until something sparked deep beneath her ribs and she seized his body with equal power. She was like a starved person. Her stomach churned. Her heart pushed blood into every toe and finger. When her hand found the top button of his jeans, she imagined Valerie gripping him slightly less confidently.

    A gasp that had been trapped in her body rose like a bubble in her. Her eyes fluttered. The pleasure was so internal, so consuming, that she was almost surprised to see Lionel here with her—the ear her sister had whispered into, the lips that had whispered back.

    You are lonely, he’d said with his awkward, endearing accent. Val and Lionel had said almost the same thing. Even as Lionel pressed his body to hers, a horrifying thought occurred to her. What if Valerie had put him up to this? Talk to my lonely older sister, she might have said. I don’t think she’s been touched in a long time. Maybe you could lend a hand—or a finger?

    Lionel passed his tongue over hers. His mouth was sweet. She thought of the pale lick of icing on Val’s finger. She pictured it spattered all over Val’s knuckles and fingers. All at once, she wanted to shove him. She wanted to scream.

    Instead, she stuttered. “No. No, just stop. Please.” 

    “No?” He leaned back, taking in her face fully. 

    She turned away, humiliated, and glimpsed herself in the mirror. The beauty had drained from her.

    “No, it’s okay,” Lionel said. “I understand. Don’t worry.”

    He pivoted from her, buttoning his jeans, and let himself out quietly. When he was gone, she sat down on the toilet, face in hands. Was it possible she’d misinterpreted? Had she sabotaged her own enjoyment? She had been enjoying herself, hadn’t she? Valerie would’ve said that she needed to relax, join the flow of the universe, or whatever. But how could she? It had never been that easy.

    Jake made paw-print pancakes the next morning, forming each toe pad with neat batter dabs. He served Aya hers on the floor beside the kitchen table. Valerie still hadn’t emerged from her bedroom—she often had a hard time sleeping, according to Jake—so he went ahead and brought Alison a plate and a tiny pitcher of maple syrup. She found it touching that he’d also made hers in the same shape.

    “So,” Jake said, setting a glass of orange juice beside her pancakes. “How’s it been, hanging with your sis?”

    “Just like old times,” Alison said.

    “Val’s loved seeing you.” He sat down across from her with his own plate. “It sounds like she’s got a girls’ day planned.”

    Alison’s hand trembled as she took a sip of orange juice. “What about you?”

    “You really want to know? Let’s see. I’ve got clients going to lakes three and four today, plus two west-flowing drainages. They all want something different. That guy from Texas, he’s going to throw a fit if he doesn’t land a hook-jaw brown out of a spring-fed creek. Mind you, he’s already caught one out of a lake. Then, I’ve got half a dozen calls scheduled with guides in all different places, with all kinds of logistical problems.” 

    Alison swallowed a bite. “So . . . not your idea of fun?” 

    Jake rolled his eyes back, letting out a dramatic sigh. 

    “If you had the day off, what would you do?” Alison asked.

    “Oh, jeez.” Jake leaned back in his chair, thinking. “Well, there’s this pool way up in the mountains. Four-hour hike to get there. No path. Beautiful waterfall. Monster fish—very spooky, very difficult to catch. I haven’t been there for years, not since the business got crazy. I might be the only living person who knows about this place. I haven’t sold it out. I’ve never taken a client. So, yeah . . . I’d go up there.” 

    It occurred to Alison that he might’ve at least said he’d spend the day with his wife and daughter. “Would you ever take Val and Aya?”

    “Eh.” Jake didn’t seem to take the question too seriously. “I’m not sure it’s Val’s thing.”

    Alison made a face. “Would you take me?”

    “You?” He laughed, a little taken aback.

    “Why not?” She shrugged. “I think we’d have fun.”

    She was flirting, she realized. Flirting with Valerie’s husband. It hadn’t been her intention when she’d sat down to breakfast. And yet, she couldn’t help but imagine the uncharted land. The pristine water. The monsters dwelling just under the surface. She imagined tying a seemingly harmless fly before casting her hook and feeling a tug at the end of her line.

    But before she could say more, Val walked in.

    “Most guys would kill to make a living running a fishing company,” Valerie said, yawning. “But he’s always complaining.” 

    Alison’s throat went hot. Val had been listening to their conversation. She’d been right there in the hall. Jake took a sip of orange juice as Val placed a kiss in his hair.

    “And you know,” Valerie went on, knotting the sash of her kimono bathrobe, “it was my idea. Not the company, necessarily, but going international. Kamchatka. The Amazon. Bonefishing in the Bahamas. I knew it’d be wildly successful from the very beginning. It came to me in a vision, actually.” 

    “She always has ideas when she trips,” Jake said flatly.

    At that, Valerie stopped, dazed by the comment. She looked around the sun-soaked kitchen and then down at Aya, her daughter’s hair in pigtails, her face painted perfectly white. Alison remembered what she’d said about visioning the child.

    “It’s how the universe talks to us,” Val said slowly. There was a look of consternation on her face. She took a deep breath, eyes turning to half-moons, before snapping out of it. She faced Alison. “It asked me to bring you here, you know. It’s time we sat together, Ali. Just you and me. Please?” 

    Aya raced forward then, shoving herself through her mother’s ankles. Alison thought the girl would howl or bark or whine. But instead, she sat back on her haunches and pointed a wide-eyed, baleful look at Alison.

    After Jake left for the lodge, Val prepared that same dusty tea. She suggested they sit together in the warm windowed hall, in front of the altar. Alison waited while Val lit candles and positioned two cushions before the sacred things. She heard the back door slap as Aya went outside. When they sat, Val offered the first sip of tea to Alison, but she politely declined.

    “All right.” Val cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter. “Would you breathe with me, Alison? Please?”

    Alison shrugged. Val led the way, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She played a note on the crystal bowl. The sound started out shaky but built to a loud, monotonous tone.

    “Thank you,” Val finally spoke, and her voice was so clean and raw that Alison looked up. But Val’s eyes were closed, letting the bowl ring on its own. “I want to thank you, Alison, for sitting with me today.”


    But without opening her eyes, Val put up her hand, palm-out for silence. Again, she struck the bowl. “Breathe,” she said. “Just breathe with me.”

    Val demonstrated. Alison shifted on her cushion. It didn’t take two hundred hours of yoga to see where this was going. She didn’t see how a resonating bowl and a few deep breaths were going to change anything. Still, she played along, trying to be the mature one. She’d just have to bear her sister’s little ritual, she resolved. She inhaled until her lungs were full.

    “Hold at the top.”

    Alison tried, though it was painful to hold it for even a moment.

    “Now let it go.”

    Alison heaved out her breath. “Val,” she said.

    “Inhale . . . ”

    “Val, I can’t do it.” Alison had wanted to keep her voice calm, but her words were already taut. “I can’t do this.”

    The cold wind pressed the windows and leaked in.

    Valerie let her eyes open. “Is there something wrong?”

    “Of course there is,” Alison said, incredulous, but she had no idea what to say next. “There”—she stumbled over her words—“there’s a dog in the barn.”

    Valerie paused. “A dog?”

    “That’s where Aya goes,” Alison said. “She’s nursing off of a white dog in the barn.”

    “Alison.” Valerie laughed. “That’s the neighbors’ dog. I think it’s just pretend.”

    “It isn’t,” Alison said. “I saw . . . ”

    “Maybe,” Val interrupted, “you didn’t understand what you saw.”

    Alison blinked. “Excuse me?”

    Val shrugged. “Maybe you are not the best judge of what’s right and what’s wrong.”

    “You don’t mind that your daughter is running off, sucking milk from a dog?”

    “She’s a child.” Valerie started. “She’s my child—”

    “Of course! She is your child. I don’t know why I’m surprised. You. You ran off all the time. Who knows what you were doing.”

    “What do you think I was doing, Alison?”

    “How should I know?” Alison laughed. “Maybe you were out fucking dogs.”

    “Ha, ha.” Val sipped the tea through the metal straw.

    “Even when we were kids”—Alison knew she should stop—“you were always running off.”

    Val’s mouth twitched. “You want to know what I was doing, Alison?”

    “Yes, I do.” Alison was almost shouting. 

    “You want to know what I was doing when I was a little girl, Alison?”

    “I do. I want to know what you found so stimulating.”

    Valerie’s voice was weirdly calm. “I was waiting.”

    “Waiting for what?”

    “I was waiting,” she softly replied, “for someone to say, ‘Where’s Valerie?’ For someone to come looking for me. Usually, I was right there in the yard. And you know what? No one even noticed I was gone.”

    “I noticed,” Alison said.

    “Then why didn’t you look?”

    “I don’t know. I guess I had—”

    “—more important things to do.” Val smiled.

    “How was I supposed to look for you if I didn’t even know where you’d gone?”

    “That’s the point of looking,” Val said, her tone unaltered. 

    Alison felt a spike of shame and confusion. But it was just like Val to pretend innocence, to act like she was the victim. “So—what—I was supposed to follow you to Europe?”

    “No,” Val said.

    “Then what are you saying?”

    “I’m saying that no one ever asked me to stay.”

    “I find that hard to believe.”

    “Then don’t believe me.”

    “You have never in your life been alone,” Alison said, her voice low.

    They sat in silence then, the tea gone cold between them.

    “I wanted to see you,” Val said quietly. “I thought that things could be different between us.”

    “Well,” Alison said. “I’m sorry.” She wanted those words to hurt. Instead, they sounded awkward. “I am,” she said. And suddenly she was. She was sorry.

    “Please.” Valerie scoffed. “How old are we? It’s a little too late for sorry.”

    Alison blinked. This was the last thing she had expected from this trip—that she would be the one to apologize, only to have her sister rebuff her.

    “Then why am I here?” Alison asked.

    “Because you’re my sister.” Val sounded bitter. “And sisters sometimes spend time with each other.”

    “There’s nothing you want to say to me?” 

    Valerie looked amused. “What is there to say?”

    But Alison couldn’t make herself say it. It was as if every year of silence had built and balled to the point in which Alison could neither cough nor swallow. Her blood lifted into her head, like that bubble last night with Lionel. From there, it dripped down her throat and pooled in her gut. She pushed herself off the cushion and fled, knocking the tea as she went. The floor bucked under her, and she almost tripped, running now, slamming out of the house. 

    The clouds sagged overhead. The long grass whipped her bare shins. A rise in the land revealed the neighbors’ house. Alison skirted the building, avoiding the windows. She ran to the barn and felt her way inside. 

    Alison could smell the mother—grassy, milk-sour. It was only then, out of the wind, that she realized she was whining like Aya. The whines turned to cries by the time she reached the back stall. She got down on her hands and knees and felt around the straw. She heaved and wept and gulped for breath. She tried to soothe herself, as she had when she was a girl. She reached out for the warm animal, touching its flank in the darkness. But the hackles stiffened under her fingers, and the dog growled.

    Alison pulled back, frightened. The mother growled again, and the pups stirred under her. It was then that Alison saw the white oval of her niece’s face, staring at her through the dark.

    She hurried out of the barn. She wiped her face, walking back toward the house with a strange sense of purpose. Jake’s truck was gone from the driveway. Inside, Val had closed herself into her bedroom. Before the shrine, the empty cushions faced each other. The spilled tea had pooled and spread on the tile.

    Alison looked at Aya’s squiggled family. Then she unbuttoned her jeans and peeled them down to her knees. She squatted on the cold concrete, took a deep breath, and relaxed. She’d told herself to hydrate last night, but she must have forgotten, because her pee came out dark and pungent, pooling between her ankles and running along the contours of the radiant floor.

    Alison was in the kitchen, eating a piece of the lemon cake, when Valerie shrieked. When Alison reached the living room, she found Val facing the altar. The piss puddle had spread, forming strange patterns on the floor. There was a noticeable spike to the air. Alison took a bite of cake. It was good, actually—moist and sweet.

    Alison tongued a crumb from her lips. “What happened, Valerie?”

    Her sister wheeled. She came toward her—for her—and then past her, down the hall toward Aya’s bedroom door.

    The girl had been napping, apparently. She sounded confused and sleepy.


    It was the first time Alison had heard her niece speak. But Aya’s voice cut off as Val carried the girl out of her room and down the hall. Then there was water running. The bath or the shower. Aya’s babble went louder. Then the sound lapsed, submitted. Alison stepped toward the silence. 

    The bathroom door was open. Inside, Valerie crouched on the tile, her daughter over her leg. At first, Alison thought Aya was being spanked. But Val had the girl’s head under the tub’s stream of water. She was scrubbing her face, a bar of black pumice soap in her palm. Suds streamed into the girl’s eyes as Val leaned in, elbow raised. Aya’s mouth opened like one of those gasping fish, just as a curtain of water rushed over her forehead and past her lips.

    When it was over, she came away from the tub sputtering, barefaced and dripping. Her skin was now raw and blotched. She looked from Alison to Valerie, wild with betrayal. But instead of running—pleading to her aunt, perhaps, for comfort—she gripped Valerie harder, weeping now in her mother’s arms.

    “There she is,” Val said, pushing the hair out of Aya’s face. “She’s a girl after all.”

    Anna Caritj is the author of Leda and the Swan (Riverhead 2021). She holds a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied English and Spanish literature, and an MFA from Hollins University. She lives in Virginia.

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