• 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 . . . ”

    “Cats.”

    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 you. And 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 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 the tech and telecom industry. 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 nightlight 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.

    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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