sister Emily practiced suffering as if it were an art form. She liked
the clean lines of pain and would often lie, arms folded over her chest,
as if she were dead or dying. Long hair held back by a wide black headband,
a large silver cross on her chest, she looked like nothing so much as
a nun although, if you’d asked her, she would have said that Catholicism
was corrupt. No mystery or mysticism for her. No metaphors, thank you.
The word of God was in the Bible and all you had to do was believe it.
Even her bedroom was spare and fundamental,
a line drawing in progress. Danish, that’s what she liked. When she was
eighteen, Emily had insisted our mother remove all the antiques she’d
spent years refinishing—cherry dresser, four poster bed, oak rolltop desk—and
replace them with the sparest, geometric furniture she could find until
all of Emily’s room had sharp edges. Light wood, sculptural shapes, tubular
lamps, a woven mat to cover the wooden floor. Blinds, not curtains. No
comfort. When I looked in her room, I froze, felt like I was in some icy
Ingmar Bergman film—white, black, and tan with a few red accents pulsing.
Emily lying straight-backed on her hard bed, arms folded across her chest.
Was she asleep or pretending? Her bed was never rumpled. Perhaps she slept
without breathing, I always wondered. Above the bed, one of her own drawings,
as simple as the sparest Matisse. A few curved lines suggesting a face,
crescent moon eyes, lifted, of course, toward the Lord. Two lines, which
were hands pressed together in prayer, intersecting two shorter lines,
which were lips, also pressed together. A cross. Silencing her.
This was the last time I would see her before she disappeared.
She opened her eyes.
Little did I know she was emptying herself to see if God would enter.
Of course, my vision of her is tainted and diminished by time, reduced
to the most essential details. She disappeared into the Sonoran desert
to the south of us when I was sixteen. She was twenty and headed, I guess,
for her own brand of sainthood. Why else make the trek across the desert,
Emily knew the desert. Perhaps the geometry of it appealed to her. The
sloping curve of hills on the horizon, angular volcanic outcroppings to
the west, the smooth disks of the prickly pear, phallus of saguaro, the
long skinny fingers of the ocotillo, crooked elbows of cholla. Everything
pierced by spikes and thorns. Earth, caliche, hard and parched, dry sand,
no water, that was the desert to the south of here. Forbidding and hostile.
It was not the lush desert full of mesquite and palo verde we grew up
in. No. That would’ve been too easy for Emily.
And June? In other parts of the country, June might be June moon spoon,
long walks in the pastoral twilight, damp evening air cool and fragrant
with alflafa, but June in Arizona is one word: hot. Hold your hand over
the burner to feel the way the sun sears the skin at noon. Waves of heat
radiate up from the asphalt, even from bare earth. Dry June air bakes
the tissue of your lungs when you inhale. June light bleaches the color
out of the mountains and sky; even mesquite leaves fade to a dull gray
and wilt. Midnight is a dark furnace. Everything, everyone waits for the
clouds to build in the sky, for the monsoon rains, for relief. June is
stasis. Limbo. Only the cicadas, in their incessant chirping, move.
They say the Apache could run through the desert all day without water.
They’d disappear into it, then reappear like a mirage. That was how I
imagined Emily’s exit. She just began walking into the wilderness of the
desert and, as she walked, she slowly faded until she disappeared altogether.
Like a camera trick. Fade out. Perhaps she held a small blue stone in
her mouth and from it sprang forth a trickle of cool water, a miracle
stone, that’s what she would have needed.
But it couldn’t have been easy. Emily was no Apache. She knew the gruesome
details, how every summer, poor Mexicans fried to death in the desert:
their thirst compelling them to drink their own urine, the sun so hot
it boiled their brains inside their skulls, their tongues swollen black,
their bones eventually picked clean and bleached white. Surely the irony
of her crossing, of going against traffic, occurred to her.
When Emily disappeared, my mother, an ex-hippy who wore Birkenstock
sandals with wool socks no matter what the season, occasion, or rest of
her outfit demanded, became a Buddhist. It was the only way she could
deal with it, she said. Emily’s room became a shrine where my mother would
retreat when she was feeling stressed. I’d hear the bell and know a clear
space was opening up in her heart, a space she was making calm and quiet
so she could get a transmission from Emily.
After a few months of not-knowing, my mother decided to build a garden
for meditation in the back yard. Maybe she thought it was too difficult
for Emily’s spirit to come in through the walls of the house. At any rate,
she mortared stones together to make a small pool and fountain; she made
a tiny shrine on one side of the pool and planted small palms, weird cacti
that looked like they were from outer space, and other geometric plants
Emily would have liked. It had the same ascetic quality as Emily’s room
and often, when I stood in the window of our air conditioned house and
watched my mother meditate in her garden, it would occur to me that Emily
was more real to her than I was. I was the child who was never missed
and not grieved, who paled in her physical realness while Emily began
to glow incandescently in her absence.
Shortly after the garden was built, Emily began to visit our mother in
the middle of the night, like a vision. She’d float through the air to
her, surrounded like la Virgen de Guadalupe with tongues of light, and
then pause right before my mother’s eyes and say, “I am whole.”
“I swear,” my mother used to say to me the next morning over coffee and
a bagel, her eyes moist with gratitude for Emily’s thoughtfulness, “it
wasn’t a dream. It was her and there was this glowing light all around
her. It wasn’t a dream, it was her spirit, she came to me, and I was filled
with warmth and a feeling of complete well-being.”
One morning, after the umpteenth vision, I couldn’t help it, I said, “Maybe
she said, ‘I’m a whore.’ Not I’m whole. That’s why she has to keep coming
back. Because you don’t listen. You never listen.”
My mother was not amused. “That’s it,” she glared at me. “You’ve always
But jealousy wasn’t it and she knew it. Emily and I had always been on
two different trajectories. For as long as I could remember, Emily had
tortured herself by trying to figure out what God wanted from her. She
couldn’t even eat a candy bar without His blessing. Okay, that might be
an exaggeration, but if one could flagellate the spirit, that’s what Emily
did. Lying still on her bed, she took out some interior cat-’o-ninetails
and flailed away. What had she said that might offend the Lord that day?
What were her impure thoughts? What scripture should she turn to? And
when she had driven her own voice from inside her head and another voice
entered, she was never sure if it was the voice of God or the devil.
On those days, she was so weak she could scarcely crawl from bed. We would
bring her water, juice, vegetable broth, lift her head to help her drink.
My mother bought air purifiers, removed yet more objects from the room,
drew the blinds lest the light motes contained something undetectable
by anything less sensitive than Emily’s spirit. The doctors were perplexed,
one specialist said perhaps she was allergic to certain chemicals or gasses
in the atomosphere around her, but I knew it was paralysis. Emily wanted
so badly to believe God had chosen her that she would bring suffering
upon herself to prove it.
The way I tortured myself was much simpler. I carved the names of boys
I liked into my thigh with a razor blade. If Emily’s domain was the spirit,
mine was the flesh.
Not long after my mother had finished building her shrine, we got a visit
from Emily’s boyfriend. He wanted to know if we’d heard from her. Rick—that
was his name—was a revelation. We hadn’t known Emily had a boyfriend,
for one thing, and for another, I would have thought, had she had one,
his name would’ve been Meshack or Esau or Obediah or one of those other
so-and-so begat so-and-so names. But, no, he was Rick, a regular guy,
baseball cap, majoring in business management, drove a little red truck
and ate at McDonald’s. They’d met one another at church, so he was a Christian
but, as he would later tell me, not devout enough for her.
His appearance was, in some ways, a set-back for my mother. At that point,
we didn’t know Emily had disappeared into the desert. My mother had assumed,
wrongly, that either Emily had finally been overcome by passion and run
off with the love of her life—as my mother had done at her age, mistaking
the summer of love for the real thing—or that she had run off with a group
of evangelists and was trailing some preacher around the country—much
as my mother had trailed the Grateful Dead. Either way, my mother had
cherished the idea that Emily was following, if only vaguely, in her footsteps
and was off on a trek to find herself.
Rick’s appearance disabused her of the first notion and of some others
as well. It seems my sister not only had a secret amour (sans sex, of
course) but she had invented a secret life (sans my mother and me). She’d
told everyone at church that her parents were missionaries in Indochina
and she had grown up there surrounded by infidels. She’d told Rick my
mother was her crazy sinning aunt and her parents had sent her here to
save her soul. She had never mentioned me: I was not a sister left back
on some island, nor was I the sinning aunt’s daughter. I did not exist
in her invented universe. I was not even worth a lie.
What was it that plunged my mother into despair? That she didn’t know
Emily? The thought that the heart and mind of her own flesh and blood
was foreign to her? This was Emily, the daughter she had created inside
herself when everyone was advising an abortion; Emily, her oldest, the
one she had sacrificed her own hopes and education for. To hear her tell
it, she had given up everything: Emily’s father because he was dealing,
peace marches, smoking dope, dropping acid, grooving with the Dead and
the Airplane because, after all, she had lived in the Haight. No, that
scene was getting too weird, violent, and so she had opted for motherhood
as activism, nurturing life in a world bent on destroying it. And now,
now, not only was Emily foreign and mysterious, but closed. Willfully
closed. My mother’s heart was broken. The ringing of the bell in Emily’s
room didn’t help. The cooing of the mourning dove in the garden didn’t
heal. The space cleared in her heart was not expectant. It was empty.
While my mother was busy retreating inside herself, trying to undo the
knots of Emily’s betrayal, I was busy snooping. Sure enough, I found her
journal stashed away between her spartan mattress and the wooden platform
of her bed. In excruciating detail, her love aflame: Rick’s eyes locking
on hers when she was supposed to be deep in prayer; in meetings, his hand
brushing against hers made spasms in her heart; the heat from his breath
as he sang hymns was like the summer wind. Who could have known Emily
was filled with such passion? The problem was, she wanted to be filled
with compassion, in the Biblical sense, as in filled with the passion
She asked God for a sign. She emptied her heart, her mind, for God—but
Rick kept entering. His voice, his smell, his skin. He was distracting
her from Christ. His reassurances of love and fidelity were like whispers
from the devil himself. And when she gave in, let him hold her, felt the
heat of his body through his shirt, felt his breath in her hair, his lips
on her forehead, then she knew she couldn’t trust him. Every molecule
in her body was saying yes. Sin, sin, sin, it was so clear, Rick was the
way of sin and, everyone knew what the wages of sin were.
No wonder she took off through the desert: she wanted to deny the body,
to scourge it with heat and thirst, to vaporize her flesh and become air,
But if the desert was Emily’s test, then I was Rick’s. It was inevitable
that, under the blade of my razor, little bloody Ricks would begin blossoming
on my thighs before I went to bed each night.
Only when Maria showed up, did we realize what had really happened to
Emily. In Spanish, sprinkled with equal parts Spanglish and broken English,
Maria told us that Emily had been found lying in the desert hills near
the small town of Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico. She was past delirious—in
fact, they’d thought she was dead at first—her lips so parched they were
cracked open, her body temperature off the thermometer. And, sure enough,
Maria said, when Emily woke up, she was muy disorientado. Knew not where
she was, nor who she was, nor why she didn’t know. When she opened her
eyes, it was as if she were still asleep or dreaming. She didn’t seem
to see anyone who was in the room, was staring instead at some interior
apparition. She didn’t seem to hear or understand what anyone said to
her and, when she tried to speak, all that came out was fragments of prayers.
It was as if she were not there. No hay nadia pa’dentro. Very creepy.
Maria had thought she was possessed.
Emily had been taken by the men who found her in the hills to the hacienda
where Maria worked. It was owned by a strange rubia, or blonde woman,
the daughter of a wealthy Spaniard who was not all there herself. In fact,
according to Maria, this woman was muy loca. It happened when she lost
both of her children in a car accident. They were on their way to visit
her when their car rolled three times, killing them both instantly. After
a period of intense grief, where la señora shut herself up in one
wing of the house and refused to see anyone, she emerged dressed all in
white and, like la llorona herself, floated down the halls of the hacienda
in an unworldly calm. She had the bodies of both children exhumed and,
just as Father Kino’s bones lie in a glass case in the town square of
Magdalena, the partially decomposed bodies—Maria shivered—of la señora’s
children lie in their own glass cases in the central courtyard of the
Every morning, as soon as Emily had recovered, she and la señora
would kneel and pray before the caskets of the dead children. This alarmed
Maria so much that she went through Emily’s things, found her i.d., and
decided she must find out if she had a family.
“If you don’t go down there, she will be lost to you.” That’s what she
told my mother. “La señora keeps her up late at night, every night,
praying. When she starts to fall asleep, she wakes her up. Sometimes she
doesn’t let her eat. They spend all day together, sitting in the garden,
reading the Bible, praying in the chapel. Always your daughter has to
stay at la señora’s side.” She shook her head and whispered. “Sometimes
she opens the glass and makes your daughter kiss her daughter’s hand.
It isn’t natural.”
No surprise, then, when my mother loaded Maria and a few of her things
into her old Volvo and headed for Magdalena. I immediately called Rick
and told him I had news about Emily and, just as I’d hoped he would, he
hopped in his little red truck and was standing on my doorstep in no time.
He had on a white t-shirt, blue jeans, no baseball cap. His hair was cut
short and I knew, under the palm of my hand, just what his head would
feel like. His eyes were hazel and while, on the way over, they may have
been visualizing Emily, once I opened the front door and smiled at him,
he only had eyes for me—and, in them, I could see: I was as luscious as
Now I am not saying Rick was a man of few convictions and I am not saying
I seduced him because Emily had erased me. Both of those things may be
true, of course, to some extent, but all I know is what happened. Not
why. All I know is that I stepped forward. I put my hand on his cheek
and I said, “Rick. I don’t think Emily’s coming back.”
“Where is she?” he said and, as I watched his lips move, I could see why
he had become her personal demon.
“Over the edge,” I told him. “For sure.”
I took his hand and led him into the house, taking him on a little impromptu
tour. First we visited Emily’s room. We sat on her hard bed and I told
him all about the crazy señora in Magdalena and how Emily was kissing
the bony hand of a dead girl.
He seemed very sad in that room, but I wanted him to remember Emily, her
arid surfaces, the edges of her fear. The way she would never be able
to give in to this messy life.
Then I led him into my room. The soft rumpled bed, the feather pillows
you could plump up and then sink into, the fat plum comforter, the window
full of green leaves and sunlight. We sat next to each other on the bed.
He sighed. I put my arm around him. “I’m sorry you’re sad,” I told him.
I put the palm of my hand against his head and rubbed his skull. I loved
texture, the downy texture of his hair, the bristles on his cheek where
he hadn’t shaved yet. I knew his chest would be smooth, there would be
a line of hair above his belly button.
He looked at me. “She was so pure of heart,” he said, but he didn’t mean
it. That’s not why he was sad.
I just smiled. I put my other hand on his knee.
“I’m not,” I said.
As if it were a sigh, we fell back onto the bed together. For a while
we just lay there. We sighed. We were quiet. Emily had left an absence
in each of us.
Then he leaned over me and said, “I know you’re not Emily. I’m glad.”
He kissed me and I put my arms around his neck and felt myself rise to
meet him. We began comforting each other over the loss of her, and while
it was comforting to feel him in ways she never would, I was also thinking
how she was right: we couldn’t complete one another. One person can’t
fill the holes in another’s heart. For an instant, I became her, terrified
nothing could ever fill that essential alone-ness.
My mother returned without her, just as I had predicted she would. She
said the hacienda was a beautiful place, an oasis set back in the hills
of the desert. The high white walls had disturbed her, at first, because
it looked like a fortress, a fortress from which Emily would never escape.
But then, she sat me down and took both my hands in hers. “It isn’t a
matter of escape,” she said.
In a way, my mother’s worst fear had come true. Emily was not herself.
Maybe the heat had boiled her brain, maybe she had hit her head when she
fell from exhaustion, but she no longer spoke much English. She was wan
and timid, as if she were much younger in some ways, but her eyes seemed
ancient, my mother said, they shone with fever or with some unworldy wisdom.
“She is not the same person,” my mother shrugged sadly. “I don’t know.
Maybe she saw something or something happened in the desert that changed
her. But,” and here she covered her heart with her hand, “she barely recognized
me. It was as if she hadn’t seen me for years. For us, it’s been months.
For her, it’s been a lifetime.”
She went on to tell me that when she first arrived, Emily had seemed
frightened of her. She’d clung to la señora as if she were a child.
When my mother held out a picture of me, Emily had smiled and said I was
pretty. Simpatica. But when my mother asked her if she wanted to come
home, she started quaking and crying. She seemed to believe that if she
stepped over the threshold of the hacienda, out into the desert, she would
fall off the face of the earth and go straight to hell.
“There was nothing I could do to reassure her,” my mother said. She said
Beatrice, that was la señora’s name, could not reassure her, either,
and so my mother had come home alone.
My mother had said nothing about the dead children in the courtyard.
And she never did. Ever. She retreated into her room and grieved. For
a few months afterwards, she toyed with the idea of visiting again, of
sending psychiatrists to Mexico, doctors, priests, or preachers. Who could
best untangle the mysteries in Emily’s mind? My mother couldn’t decide.
She seemed to lose her will. She spent hours in Emily’s room, hours in
the garden; she turned inward, like Emily had, trusting that some vision
would come and liberate her from her own indecision.
Finally, on the anniversary of Emily’s exit, she showed me a picture taken
in the garden of the hacienda. It was true, Emily’s eyes burned with a
fever I’d never seen in them. She was a different version of herself,
at once paler and yet more intense, as if the flame of her spirit was
consuming her flesh from the inside. Then my mother showed me photographs
of the retablos Emily had been painting for la señora. They were
beautiful. Not the primitives that most retablos were. Instead, in hers,
the madonna and child had delicate faces, elongated bodies, gauzy, ethereal
gowns. They were other worldly. Almost Byzantine in their simplicity and
She said, “Emily has chosen.”
Of all the things my sister ever read to me, the Song of Solomon was
the only book in the Bible I’d ever liked. Sometimes, in the afternoons,
when Rick and I were in my room, I would look out the window and see my
mother in her garden and realize she was turning ever more inward, seeking
some sort of Nirvana which was in this world although not of it. Then
I would think of Emily, how she had entered another world altogether.
Sometimes, when Rick touched me or as my
hands wandered over him, I would remember phrases. It was as if his body
held a kind of braille that only my fingers could read and I’d remember
the song: this is my beloved, this is my friend, his mouth is most sweet,
his eyes as doves, his cheeks a bed of spices, his lips like lilies. And
I’d think how it was true, our bed was green. And how, if there was a
God, He had made the fruits of this world so sweet—and wasn’t it some
kind of sin, to turn your back on them too soon?