‘‘Oh, I’ve never seen his real face,’’ my youngest sister says. ‘‘He only comes to bed in the dark, and he turns off the electricity at night, so….’’ She shrugs and takes another sip of coffee, just as if she’s reporting a normal relationship quirk.
I stare at her, my coffee mug cooling in my hands. ‘‘And you never even thought to light a candle?’’
‘‘I can’t,’’ Jane says simply. ‘‘He told me the first night—it’s not allowed.’’
Not allowed? I share a wide-eyed can-you-believe-this look with our other sister. Bree sits back, looking horrified but letting me take the lead, as usual. I am the eldest sister, the one who’s always had to take the bad-guy role to keep us all afloat.
I set down my coffee and lean my elbows on the table, forcing Jane to look into my eyes.
‘‘Look,’’ I say, ‘‘this is simple. Man, bear, whatever he is, he has to sleep sometimes, right? All you have to do is wait until he’s snoring, then—’’
‘‘Oh, no!’’ she says. Her cheeks pinken with distress, and she clutches her coffee like a shield. ‘‘He wouldn’t like that, Cassandra.’’
He wouldn’t like it. God, she’s Mom all over again. Is there a real curse on the women of this family?
‘‘What about you?’’ I say. ‘‘Don’t you have any curiosity of your own? Don’t you want to know exactly who you’re sleeping with at night?’’
‘‘Why would I?’’ My baby sister looks at me with calm, placid, blue china-doll eyes. ‘‘He might turn out to be ugly, and then I would be sad. Everything’s so good now. I have my beautiful house and gardens in the day, and the man I love in my bed at night. Why would I want to ruin all of that?’’
Because it’s important to know the truth! I want to yell. But Bree shakes her head at me across the table, and I sag, understanding that she’s right. There isn’t any point, not with Jane. And why would she think any different?
‘‘Your father loves us all so much,’’ Mom always said. I could recite the words from heart, she said them to us so often over the years. ‘‘He can’t help that he isn’t with us. It’s the curse holding him captive to the evil queen. We just have to be patient. We only have to wait until the curse is ended and he can be with us forever.’’
Yeah, right. Just the memory of it makes my skin burn as if it’s stretched too tight around me.
I wasn’t more than eight by the time I lost my faith in that story…but the few times Dad did bother to come, for a night or even just an afternoon, our mother glowed brighter than the sun. She’d given him her swanskin long before I was born, chopped off her wings and given up her freedom, but you could tell in those moments that she’d never regretted it. She was his, forevermore.
I can see the same expression on Jane’s face now.
You couldn’t save Mom, and you can’t save her. It’s the cold, clear voice of truth inside me, the voice I learned to listen to in my childhood, to keep us all alive.
But I have to at least try.
‘‘Look,’’ I say. ‘‘You can do what you like, but I’ll pack a candle and a box of matches in your suitcase when you leave. It’s up to you what you do with them once you get there.’’
Jane smiles at me pityingly. ‘‘Oh, Cassandra. You just don’t understand.’’ She looks from me to Bree, then around the small, dark-toned kitchen of our mother’s house, the house our father bought her all those years ago. It looks even darker and more depressing than usual, under Jane’s sorrowful gaze. ‘‘Someday you’ll find your own prince,’’ she says kindly.
In her eyes, I can see us reflected: the ugly, carping older sisters, jealous of her happiness.
But she loves us anyway. Jane has always been sweet-hearted. She kisses us both goodbye the next morning in front of the sleek, black limousine that hovers low and predatory outside our house, sent by her lover to carry her back to him. Through the tinted glass, I can’t make out the driver’s face, but my sister is warm and soft in my arms. She might be clothed in Versace now, but she hugs me as tightly as ever.
‘‘I love you so much, Cassandra,’’ she whispers. ‘‘All I want is for you to be as happy as I am.’’
I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of her hair. I remember how it smelled when she was a toddler cuddling into my lap for comfort while our mother lay in darkness, weeping for endless hours in her room beside the silent phone.
‘‘Please,’’ I whisper. ‘‘Don’t forget the candle.’’
‘‘Oh…!’’ Jane shakes her head at me as she pulls away. But I see her brightening again as she slides into the long, low seat of the limousine, as graceful and impatient as a princess on her way back to Happy Ever After.
The tinted windows turn her into shadow, slipping away from us even before the limousine disappears down the street.
Bree and I look at each other.
‘‘Maybe she’ll light the candle,’’ Bree says.
But we both know she won’t.
The house feels smaller and darker than ever that winter, and my skin itches constantly, so dry and tight that I can barely sleep. I bring home free moisturizer samples from my shop, and I slather them onto my arms while I watch hours of television to fill the endless nights. Bree joins me sometimes when she’s at home, but more and more often, she’s called back to work in the evening, leaving me alone to itch at my stretched-tight skin and worry about our youngest sister, somewhere out there in the darkness.
Jane emails us photos of her house and gardens, like photo-spreads from one of those glossy magazines she used to sigh over when I took her to the library during Mom’s bad spells. The photos are beautiful and stylish…and utterly cold. There are never any people in Jane’s photos, no friends who’ve come over for coffee or dinner. But then, when does she ever see anyone but him?
Jane is warm and perky in each message, but after a few months, she stops talking even vaguely about the possibility of any visits. Her lover likes his privacy, she says. He’s a very private man. Or bear. Or whatever the hell he is.
She is thinking of redecorating the living room, again.
She misses and loves us very much.
I mail her another candle, but the package comes back unopened.
Not known at this address, reads an impatient scrawl across the mailing label, in slashing, unfamiliar handwriting.
I’m still staring at the package on our kitchen table when the front door opens. The tone of Bree’s voice is so unfamiliar, it jolts me out of my sick misery.
She’s…is Bree actually giggling? My sister? She’s speaking in a low, intimate murmur, words I can’t make out. And then—yes!—she giggles again.
She snaps her cellphone shut as she steps into the kitchen, but she’s still, God, yes, she’s glowing.
I know that look.
I know our family.
‘‘Who is he?’’ I ask flatly, and my skin burns like fire, like a warning come too late.
‘‘And hello to you, too.’’ She rolls her eyes, but I can see the color creeping up her cheeks. ‘‘What’s put you in such a good mood tonight?’’
I’m too busy thinking hard to answer. I’ve been so distracted, worrying about Jane this winter, what haven’t I noticed about my other sister? All those nights she came home late because of work, or had to go back to work when the phone rang…
More secrets, I realize, and I collapse onto a chair. ‘‘My God, Bree. Just how long have you been seeing this guy?’’
‘‘What are you talking about?’’ Her cheeks are red as flags now, her chin jerked up defensively. It’s the same look she wore when I caught her hooking out of school at fourteen to do joints with her scabby older friends.
I stopped her then, and I can stop her now. That’s what I tell myself as hot panic races across my skin.
She didn’t flunk out of school, she went all the way through college. I got her through college, even though it took two jobs and a load of debt I’ll never pay off.
I’ve lost one sister. I will not lose them both.
‘‘Just tell me,’’ I say. I can fix this. ‘‘I need to know what’s he said to you, to make you keep him secret all this time. What exactly are you trying to hide? Everything’s going to be okay, Bree, but you need to be honest with me now.’’
‘‘Are you kidding? Can you even hear yourself?’’ Bree drops her briefcase on top of the package, covering up the address label. ‘‘God, Cassandra. Are you so bitter you can’t even imagine anything good happening for any of us?’’
She shakes her head. ‘‘Don’t you think I wanted to share this with you?’’ she asks. ‘‘Don’t you think I wanted my big sister to be happy for me?’’
‘‘Then why didn’t you tell me about him?’’ I’m on my feet now, too, my hands braced on the table. ‘‘Why didn’t you bring him home to meet me, if there’s nothing to hide?’’
‘‘What, bring him to this house?’’ Her laughter grates against my skin. ‘‘You haven’t even changed the sheets in Mom’s room. Are you surprised Jane ran as far away as she could go? Who would bring a man back here, to this…this mausoleum?’’
I can’t breathe. Not known at this address. Did Jane run from me?
I close my eyes, swallowing hard. I can’t stop to let it matter, not now. Otherwise I’ll lose Bree, too.
‘‘We can go out for dinner, if you don’t want to bring him here,’’ I say. ‘‘Pick a restaurant. I’ll be nice to him, Bree. I will. All I want—’’
‘‘Just forget it,’’ she says. ‘‘I know exactly what you want—and I’m not letting you ruin my life, too. Just because you chose to wrap a shroud around yourself all those years ago doesn’t mean I have to, too!’’
Her running steps crash against the stairs, hard enough to shake down our house. A moment later, I hear her voice from her bedroom above the kitchen, first loud and upset and then quieter, comforted….
My skin itches until I want to scratch it bloody. I walk to the refrigerator instead.
She appears in the kitchen doorway twenty minutes later. I turn from the oven, trying to smile as if it were natural, and not a cracking clown mask. I’m halfway through cooking her favorite soup, chicken and stars. I made it when Dad forgot her seventh birthday, and her eighth, and I made it when she lost her first job. ‘‘Dinner will be ready soon, hon,’’ I say.
‘‘I won’t be here for it. I’m sorry.’’ It’s only now, as she shifts uncomfortably, that I see the suitcases at her feet. ‘‘I’m leaving.’’
The wooden spoon bites into my hand. Your dad has to leave us again, he can’t help it… ‘‘Have dinner first.’’
‘‘There’s no point,’’ she says. Her face is pale, but her voice is steady. ‘‘You’re right, there is a reason I haven’t told you about Jack. You’d want to know all about him, where he went to college, what his family is like. You’d want a whole job history, with references.’’
‘‘And…?’’ I fight to keep my face calm.
‘‘I can’t tell you,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s the one thing I promised him, the first time we were together. He’ll do anything for me, give me anything I want, but I can’t ask him anything about his past.’’
‘‘What?!’’ I clutch the wooden spoon like an oar in a vast black ocean. ‘‘Bree, that’s crazy. He could be anyone. He could be a criminal, he could be…’’ The word married is too harsh to speak out loud in this house, with Mom’s bedroom locked and silent upstairs. I shake my head helplessly. ‘‘How can you not think that’s crazy?’’
‘‘It’s called faith,’’ Bree says. ‘‘You wouldn’t understand, because you’ve never loved. But do you know what?’’ Her lips twist. ‘‘Believe it or not, it’s actually easier this way. It means I don’t have to stay trapped here in our past, with you.’’
A car honks outside, and Bree’s face relaxes. ‘‘I’ve got to go,’’ she says. ‘‘Goodbye.’’ Unlike Jane, she doesn’t hug me.
I stand in the kitchen, shaking, as my second sister walks away.
The house closes in around me.
‘‘Your father loves us.’’
Mom crying in her room, the curtains drawn for days. Me playing with my little sisters, cooking them soup and promising I would always keep them safe.
‘‘It’s not his fault. It’s the curse…’’
The notice in the papers, his face beaming next to another woman’s; the children from his first marriage gathered around them.
‘‘We just have to wait…’’
Knocking on Mom’s door when I got home from my first shift of the day. Bree was in college by then, Jane at a friend’s house after school. I opened the door when there was no answer…
…and saw the pill bottles sprawled empty on the floor; the dried-up old swanskin on the bed beside her, spilling out from the package in my father’s writing.
A scream is rising up through my chest as the memories explode, overwhelming.
My mother’s beautiful, peaceful face. The letter on the pillow—addressed to my father, not to us. I still love you, and I understand…
There’s a terrible, roaring sound filling our kitchen. My clothes are sopping wet, scalding my skin. There’s soup everywhere, the pot thrown across the room.
My skin is so tight. It’s itching, burning. I stumble through the kitchen, scratching frantically, ripping my plain, sensible clothes off to reach bare skin.
It’s been shrinking all these years, getting smaller and smaller around me until I can barely breathe.
The package falls to the ground as I bump against the table. Not known at this address.
I have to get out, have to escape. This house is too hot, smoke billowing behind me. Did I remember to turn off the stove? Who cares?
Let the whole house burn. Curses and evil queens, true love and fantasy.
Three sisters. I know all the fairy tales. The eldest sister is never the heroine. And the younger sisters never, ever listen.
I fall onto the front step. The sound that is coming from my mouth is not a sob. It’s a harsh, animal croak, the truest core of me fighting to finally escape after living trapped inside me all these years.
I could never leave my mother. I could never leave my sisters.
Magic and curses and fairy tales and secrets.
‘‘You wouldn’t understand, because you’ve never loved.’’
The caw that emerges from my mouth is a hoarse, broken cry of pain as my skin finally sheds away, the skin my father left me that’s held me trapped so long.
A swan’s wings burst out from my shoulders. My legs shrink and my head spins. Feathers sprout across my skin. My mother was strong and free like this, once, before she gave away her wings. I never even knew that I had locked mine up inside me, the day my first little sister was born.
Somewhere in the darkness, my sister Jane is lying beside a man whose face she’s never even seen. Somewhere, my sister Bree is kissing a man she’ll never know, so she can pretend that her own past—our past—never happened.
Somewhere in the darkness, my father is sleeping beside his second wife, while my mother sleeps in her grave.
If I ever meet a man who makes me want to believe, I will light every candle I can find. But my sisters were wrong about me: I have loved.
I raised my sisters while our mother yearned after our father. I loved them and I lost, but now I’m free.
I spread my wings and launch into the darkness as my house turns into a candle behind me.
Stephanie Burgis is an American-born writer who lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and mountains, with her husband (fellow writer Patrick Samphire), their two children, and their border collie mix. Her trilogy of fantasy novels for children begins with the book Kat, Incorrigible, and her short stories for adults have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction and Willful Impropriety (edited by Ekaterina Sedia). To find out more, please visit her website: www.stephanieburgis.com