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White dogs.

When Sophie was just barely five and I was a year younger we lived in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in a white Georgian house on a hill. One afternoon in late spring our mother put valium in our ice cream, then finished off the bottle of pills with a pint of vodka. Most of what Sophie and I know of that time in our lives comes from what our father has told us, or what we've imagined and called memory. Still, Sophie claims to remember every moment of that last day we knew our mother as if it were on film.

Mother had tears in her eyes the whole time she was building the fire in the woodstove. She wasn't exactly burning furniture, but there was an owl carved in driftwood and two weathered duck decoys that mother must have hated because she went to them before she went to the woodpile. The doors were all open. We'd finished our ice cream and sat on the couch. Sleep wandered down from the pasture and into the hallway. The smell of woodsmoke and wet sweaters filled the room. Then our father came home and saw the empty pill bottle, saw the empty pint. He pulled my sister and me out of the house and lifted us into to back seat of the convertible. Then he brought mother out, carrying her over his shoulder like he did sacks of feed, and dropped her into the passenger seat.

In Sophie's memory of that day our father has begun to cry. At the bottom of the Old Drove Road mother opened her door. Our father reached across her body and pulled it shut, and the car swerved onto the gravel shoulder. Up ahead, just to the right, was a NO PASSING ZONE sign. We weren't going that fast, but just as we were about to pass the sign, mother reached out as if to grab a maple leaf from a nearby branch. I believe my father tried to swerve away but couldn't. My mother thought she might brush the sign like it was a cymbal. Instead the post caught her arm and broke it. I could tell you how one of the bones pierced the skin and blood was everywhere, or I might try to describe the noise she made before she fainted, but in truth I've no memory past the sound of mother's arm breaking and the thunder of the sign shuddering.

Mother never lived with us again. She moved back to New York City. Returned to her life without children, without a husband. There are people like that. I'll never have children, I'm sure, and without children why would anyone ever marry. So father moved us out of the Kingdom, down to the village of Putney, in southern Vermont. He bought an orchard and bred sheep and was the doctor for the Putney School. I skipped ahead a grade to be with Sophie.

White dogs in the barren orchard. Snow settling in Sophie's black hair. She's sixteen and smoking cigarettes she rolls by hand. We're walking along the perimeter of the pasture, fence mending. Father is down in the orchard, pruning the older trees. The dogs have no names because they are White Maremas: Italian sheep dogs bred to live with sheep and protect them from wolves and coyotes and bears and packs of wild dogs. They're bred to be the color of cream so they'll blend in with the flock. As soon as White Maremas are weaned, they are separated from their natural mothers and bedded with ewes. The dogs shy away from humans. It would confuse them if they had names. When it's time for worming and shearing to be done, they bark until they foam at the mouth.

Circling Disease wiped out our small flock that year. Even in sickness they followed one another, sleepwalking counterclockwise in an ever tightening round. The vet came and put the sheep down. Sophie sat on the stone wall and smoked. I called out here boy and here girl to the nervous dogs. Father said we'd have to wait till spring to buy lambs, and since he wasn't sure the dogs would stay, he'd given them to a neighbor whose sheep were still alive. I remember the day. I saw a black crow fly against the pink sky. The farmer came with two ewes in the bed of his truck to coax the dogs. Sophie and I walked down to stand with our father and wave at the nameless animals. Then we helped him wrap the trunks of the apple trees in burlap against the coming snows.

Later that night, after father had gone to bed, I heard Sophie crying. I came to the kitchen. I surprised her, and the teapot dropped from her trembling hands. "It's the first time since mother left we haven't had sheep or dogs," she said. I picked up the broken crockery and put it in the sink, still full of warm, steaming tea bags. She was staring through the double glazing looking at the snow in its fall. "Stupid isn't it. I mean it's all gone and past now. We'll never find the beginning." She turned and faced me. "We'll always be too late. The only thing you'll ever find is the end of things. Whatever happens it's what you didn't want to happen." I stepped forward and touched her lips with my fingers. Then we held one another and rocked gently side to side. I put my hands under Sophie's sweater, felt her ribs as I moved my hands up. I don't know who I thought she was then, or what I wanted. For the teapot to mend itself, or the snow to cover us in a pure white blanket, or simply to hear the dogs again as they moved the sheep toward the old barn? Time seemed to collapse. I felt my own pulse in my neck. It seemed like Sophie had thrown her eyes out of focus. Then I kissed her and tasted tobacco, and moved my lips against her teeth. I started to shiver but Sophie held me tight. "If I never see her again," she said, "I'll die."

When we turned eighteen a lawyer contacted us, informing us that mother's parents had set up a small trust for us. Through the lawyer, Sophie got hold of an address: Mother was living with a man named David Oppenheim. We'd just moved to Chicago where Sophie enrolled in art school and I'd started college. We shared an apartment. The thought of seeing mother again had left me years before. I only wanted to be near my sister. But Sophie was charged by the address, and she began to spend whole nights composing letters, and sent pressed roses in old leather-bound books. A year went by without a reply. Finally a letter came from the man, Oppenheim. "I put your letters in with your mother's mail. I'm not certain that she reads them, but I do notice her mood changes in the days after their arrival. She never talked to me about you or your brother, except once, a long time ago. And that confession put her in hospital for two months. I don't know what else to say on her behalf but that she is a woman of conscience, I think, a tortured woman who struggles every day under the shadow of what she did with her life. Forgive her if you can, as it seems to me unlikely she'll ever forgive herself. Yours, David Oppenheim."

Sometimes Sophie and I would walk for blocks, each of us on our separate side of the street, the crowds unaware. I thought we could communicate without speech, across bookstores, through glass. I'd come to believe that nothing could touch us. But of course I was wrong. Those hours Sophie used to spend writing to mother she started to spend lying on the futon under the skylight, smoking opium and heroin. She began to take cabs into south Chicago looking for drugs, and it became clear that the promise she made to me the night the dogs left was one she might see through to the end. You can live a long life being a chipper, snorting on the weekends, even shooting up once in a while, but Sophie wasn't looking to live with it.

I remember a night, on the verge of spring, when I'd been to an Antonioni movie and walked home in the rain. The apartment doors was ajar. Inside the lights were out but the big windows were open. I took off my wet shoes and walked back through the kitchen towards my bedroom. One of the burners on the stove was lit, and a candle; the cotton and the spoon lay next to it. I kept walking, saw faint light coming from Sophie's room. I heard the creaking of the rocking chair. They sat in the chair. It was Sophie's junkie friend Roswell underneath and beside her. Sophie was facing him, with her back to me. She hadn't taken her white shirt all the way off, and it lay on her shoulders like a yoke. Roswell's dark hands gripped her under the arms, as he lifted her limp body up and down, the chair rocking. I turned on the lights. He lowered her to the floor, but from Sophie there didn't come a sound. Then he stood up, squinty-eyes under the lights, and covered himself with his clothes. Sophie just lay there. I lifted her up, brought her to her bed and pulled a sheet up to her chin. She called out my name, half saw me as she tried to hold my face in her hands. I'm here, I said. I started running water for a bath and went into the kitchen. Roswell shut the front door behind him; I could hear him dressing in the stairway. I turned off the burner on the stove. The drapes moved in the wind.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, pulling a comb through my sister's hair. Sophie was thin now, her eyes shot through with blood and her skin the color of blue milk. She was happy after her bath. She murmured the strange last lines of an obscure song in my ear as I wrapped her in a towel and picked her up. I stepped onto the scale with her, then put her to bed. Then I got back on the scale without her and made the obvious calculations.

In the morning I told Sophie that if she wanted to kill herself she should jump in Lake Michigan or drive one of her friends' cars into a bridge abutment, but that I didn't want to be the one to find her body. Let Roswell call 911, I said. Then I packed a bag of clothes, gathered a box of my books and moved to the Hotel Julian up in Wrigleyville.

After I moved out we didn't see much of one another for most of a year. But we began to meet at the pier for lunch, or we'd go see an old movie. Then mother's picture and an article about an upcoming show of her paintings appeared in the Times. Sophie said she was going to New York to see her.

We flew into La Guardia and took a cab to the Gramercy Park Hotel. Sophie had called mother's gallery and found out the opening was at eight that night. Sophie wore an ivory silk dress and put her hair in a chignon. In the last year she'd gotten a Japanese tattoo of a serpent, and it wound its way from her elbow to her neck playing a game of hide and seek with her dress. She'd gained some weight since I moved out and there was a hint of color in her face.

We had the cabby drop us at Washington Square park. Then we walked arm in arm down La Guardia Place until it turned into West Broadway again beneath Houston. The gallery was at street level. We could see the crowd gathered inside. I told Sophie that we didn't have to do this but by then I could not have stopped myself. We walked across the street to gather our breath and watched another half-dozen people go in. "If she doesn't want us here, we'll leave," said Sophie. "I just have to see her and know that she sees me. Then we can go." We crossed the street again and I opened the door for my sister.

Mother's paintings were mosaics of small canvases that shared borders just as fields share fencelines. Hopscotch drawings and broken crosses. At first glance they looked completely abstract, just blocks of color. But beneath the storm of brush strokes, the layers of varnish and washes, were the faintest images. Of beehives, of ponies, of a couple dancing, lost in a funnel of shadows and clouds. Sophie had broken away from me and was standing at the edge of the back room, looking in. I came and stood next to her. People holding wine glasses surrounded a small woman in a black dress. When they parted slightly to point to one of the canvases hanging on the wall near us, I could see her. I remember focusing first for a brief second on her face, to make sure it matched the image in the Times, and in that instant I thought she was almost as beautiful as Sophie. Then my eyes fell to her right arm and tried to find evidence of the accident. She saw us and stood there, transfixed. Her friends followed her eyes; when they saw Sophie, the room fell silent. Then mother began to walk slowly towards us. Just out of arm's reach she stopped. Behind her I saw an older man put his wine glass down and move toward her. She canted her head upwards and sighed, trying hard, I think, to overcome her emotions and speak. Sophie took a step forward, reaching out to touch her on the arm, "It's all right," she said, "You're beautiful, mama. I'm sorry, but I had to see you." Then mother started weeping and saying, "I'm so sorry. I can't..." Soon she couldn't talk at all.

The man behind her led us to a back room where mother could sit. Then he ushered Sophie and me back out into the gallery. He was David Oppenheim. He asked us where we were staying and suggested that we return to the hotel. Maybe mother and he could meet us for lunch the next day, he said. We agreed, but before we left we went separately into the back room and said what we could to her, quickly. It doesn't bear repeating. I believe I said the only things I could. That I loved her and missed her, but that nothing she'd done had hurt me as much as she'd let it hurt her. I wanted to lift her up from the chair and hold her tightly, or kiss her on the cheek, but I felt so sad that seeing us had done this to her that I just touched her silver hair and said my goodbye.

My beautiful sister Sophie surprised me. I wept and couldn't stop myself, but beside me my sister seemed almost to smile as she led me back toward the park. We sat there on a bench. Gray squirrels worked the park, ravenous after winter, rushing to stuff themselves again. Kids on skateboards skidded over curbs. And when the wind blew from the north the smell was of burning chestnuts. "You didn't expect it might be like this?" Sophie asked. I confessed that I didn't know what to expect. "It was seeing her, I suppose," I said. "I should have known from the photo. Still... Do you think we'll see her tomorrow?" "No," she said. "I think we can leave her alone now." We walked back to the Gramercy Park Hotel, then, asking strangers along the way if we were headed in the right direction.

The next spring Sophie got married to a Brit named Ian Blackburn. He had a three-year-old son named Alexander, nicknamed Winky. Sophie was great with Winky. She never talked to him like he was a child, and there was nothing he could ask that she wouldn't try to explain. They were married on the shores of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago. I gave Sophie away. After the wedding a Jamaican steel drum band played Caribbean music, and all our friends danced and made comments about how traditional the vows were. "To have and to hold. In sickness and in health." Late in the evening I smoked a joint with some of the band members. Then I walked to my car, rolled all the windows down and drove us fast as I could over back roads until I got lost. The center line was double yellow, and I let the car wander over it again and again as I tried to find my way back into the city.

That night I wrote my one and only letter to mother. I told her all about the wedding, how beautiful Sophie looked and how much I liked Ian and Winky, and how good they were for Sophie. I told her how sorry we were for coming to New York unannounced. Then I told her how much I'd liked her paintings and how I still hadn't gotten Sophie and Ian a wedding present. I asked her if she would give them one of her paintings. I read the letter over and knew that if I didn't mail it right away I'd never do it, so I walked down the street and put it in the mailbox.

When the crate came weeks later, I brought it over to Sophie's, where we unwrapped it together. I didn't remember the painting from the show. Veils of autumn colors obscuring a charcoal sketch of horses, all standing on three legs. On the back of the canvas she'd written, "Dover Ponies. Sleeping." And underneath it the inscription: "For Sophie and Ian. Take care of your Alexander, and your brother Martin. My love always, Katherine." We hung it above their fireplace, where even in the late afternoon the light is good. For a long time we didn't say anything, or move at all. We just sat there and stared up at the image. Then Sophie gave me a kiss on the forehead and asked me if I'd like a glass of wine. When she turned and walked back toward the kitchen she reached out and brushed the wall with her fingers. I remember another time, right after we'd moved to Chicago, when I'd seen her make the same gesture. Only that had been a winter afternoon. We'd been standing in the front room of the apartment, looking out the windows at passersby when, suddenly, a flock of pigeons had come piercing through the alley across the street, heading straight for the glass. All the birds dipped and banked away but one. It hit the window, and fell to the sill. We opened the window and I tried to put the bird's wing back in place. Its body was warm but it shivered from the shock of the impact. I lay the bird back down on the sill. Sophie started away toward the back of the apartment to get some water and bread for the bird and I turned to watch her. When she came back, we went to the window, but the sill was empty, and the bird had either fallen, or flown away.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Mark, Curt Leigh
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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