My father is dead and the house is filled with people. Some of them are relatives that I haven't seen for years. My mother is sitting at the kitchen table, her coffee steaming untouched on the placemat. She is quiet, but her eyes are wild. My sister and I have been keeping watch and now it's Patty's turn. Pretending to do the dishes, she glances over her shoulder to see that our mother's face isn't cracking, that her wild eyes have not escaped. I can't be here anymore, among distant cousins and great uncles whispering over their paper plates. But there is no retreat, since everywhere is impressed and yellowed with my father's cigarette smoke. Smelling it will kill me; this nicotine trapped in curtains, bedcovers and hanging coats.
It's too cold outside, so I slip into my parents' bedroom to confront my father's things. I look hard at his paintings of landscapes, fruit bowls and grandchildren, trying to see something alive. It's unfair that these canvasses should remain so silent to me. Any trace of his voice seems imbedded too deep in a code of acrylic brushstrokes. So it's the theology books that I'm drawn to, stacked untidily on a shelf in the corner. They're old and musty, many of them passed down from my grandfather, with broken spines, unraveling covers and missing pages. When I open the moldy concordance on top, I can feel my father powerfully. It doesn't matter that I can barely read his smudged scribbles in the margins. I can see my father studying at the kitchen table, in the same chair where my mother sits right now lost without him. If I close my eyes he is there in her place, wearing thick-rimmed reading glasses and wreathed in smoke, a litter of crushed cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray. With my eyes closed, the light still shines on his devil-black curls way into the night. He's still there seeking God, his head bent close to the words.
I lift another book from the stack, a faded orange tome puffing up dust and trailing strings, and a picture falls out. For a long moment after it flutters to the carpet at my feet, I'm afraid to pick it up. It's a glossy Polaroid, gleaming in the lamplight. I know it instantly. I have seen it before, when I was much smaller. It was never kept in the family album but Patty once came to me, holding this Polaroid gingerly by one corner. My parents were outside doing yard-work and Patty whispered, "I think this is our sister." I was eight at the time. After staring at the picture for a while, I could vaguely remember my mother taking it. I could even remember the secret girl inside, leaning against our fence with the green hills unfolding mysteriously behind her. Patty was six years older and more aware of grown-up affairs. She had heard the phone calls before the visit; she had heard my mother crying. Now, in the time since I was eight, Patty and I have both overheard things about this picture-sister. We've gleaned stray details from rare conversations. But still, she remains an alien to us.
Holding the image close to my face, I realize that I have never examined her. I have never really seen her frizzy hair and unsmiling eyes. I have never noticed her breasts, straining big and heavy against her clothes, setting her apart from Patty and me. She might belong to our father but not to us; hers is a foreign anatomy. She has never heard my father's stories, of Okinawa and bar fights and wicked stepmothers. She doesn't even know the kind of blood that moves inside her, a violent mix of German immigrant and Cherokee warrior. She has never been pinned down in a backwoods church by the hellfire eyes of a preacher grandfather. She has probably never been told that her grandmother was killed by a drunk driver. She has never seen photographs of my father at fourteen, with an angel blonde mop that would darken each year, as if the innocence that died with his mother could be witnessed rotting to black in his hair. I have this picture-sister's history. I could tell it to her, but she will never come back.
Sitting on the edge of my parents' bed, I realize that the Polaroid is trembling in my fingers. I can't be sure what I'm afraid of. Looking at this picture makes a sick feeling in my gut, but thinking of my dead grandmother often feels the same way. Standing on my grandmother's grave, seeing her image in black and white, hearing stories of her sweetness at family reunions, I have grown strangely anxious. I think it's my fear of something ugly writhing behind the saint. Now this secret sister's face recalls the grandmother's presence, always rippling just beneath my father's skin. I wonder if the girl in this picture has been there too, crouching down inside him; if they have knelt together on the floor of my father, knitting webs across his heart. Maybe it has been this picture-sister raging over spilled milk, glowering at nothing, talking to herself in the creaky shadows, smoking silently under the trees. Suddenly they seem like an angry trinity to me, my father, his abandoned child and the grandmother I will never know. As I will never really touch this sister trembling in my hands. She's just another stolen piece, snatched away by my father rather than by a drunk driver.
I have learned, among other things, that her name is Brenda and that she now owns a printing press with her husband in another state. I'm a writer, and the cosmic implication of our intertwining professions does not escape me. Since I will probably never see her again, I can only imagine the alien girl who once leaned against our fence as she exists somewhere right now. In my mind she has acne scars and smokes a long cigarette, my father's favorite brand. Her voice has gravels that grind in her throat. She has kids like stair-steps, my nieces and nephews. Their coats are new but cheap, their clothes are out of style, and they never wear the right colors. She works with blank paper and ink, just as I do, so her fingers are always stained. She fries hamburgers after work and leaves the grease hardening in a pan on the stove. She has been and always will be coarse and troubling to a woman like me.
I hear strange relatives moving outside the bedroom door and want nothing more than to hide the Polaroid away again. I want to slip it back between the pages of my father's moldy book, between the pages of his complicated life, and dry dishes with the sister that I have always known. Patty, who rides her bike across my first memories wearing a candy necklace and pink plastic sunglasses. But now that I have entered this other sister's body, I feel almost powerless to leave it. Brenda drags me backward, to when my father was still alive and I was four years old. So that I'll know what it felt like, driving toward him and us on the day this picture was taken.
I can see her moving into the hills, rising and darkening around her the deeper she drives. There is no sound but the wind and the knocking car and her heart pounding in her ears as she grips the cigarette-burned wheel. Rounding a curve blotched with shade, Brenda sees a red fox dead beside the road. She has never seen such an animal outside of pictures. She feels achingly sorry for him, alone in these mountains. She tries not to think much, but there is a keener sense of her natural father's abandonment as the place where they both came from recedes farther behind. Theirs is a place where the hills are just a backdrop and houses are close together. Children play in glass-sprinkled lots and groups of black girls walk to the store. Men trudge home from work with their dinner buckets swinging, the smokestacks of dirty-looking factories looming over their heads. It's a little country town, but a town nonetheless, and nothing like this sighing green stillness.
She knows the father's boyhood life better than his other daughters could, because she has lived it herself; the balding yards enclosed with chainlink, the racket of arguments and babies crying and screens banging next door, the slow growl of traffic passing in the night. She has loitered on the same curbs and had the same fights and shoplifted the same gum and felt the same hot cement beneath her bare feet. Now she is driving as the father did, for whatever reason, into these hushed trees, not knowing what he will be like or why he really left in the first place. She tries not to predict how the father will look, or who these other daughters are that he has chosen to love instead. She won't consider yet how this wife will be better than her own mother. She hopes to see answers in his unimaginable face because she will not ask questions. She will be casual.
She consults the little paper with directions, growing more and more intimidated by this deepness. She feels enveloped in silence and shade and farms, long tobacco fields and seeming miles of corn. The closer she draws to this faceless father the more she worries about seeing his contentment and thinking that he was right to leave her. It is something that she fears, and something that she knows is probably true. By all accounts the father was mean and dangerous when Brenda was born, a violent drunk. But now he is a preacher with a good family in the hills. Now he has two other daughters that must have pleased him as Brenda couldn't do, when she was once placed on his lap in a brand new dress. She has been told that her chubby warmth and baby smells were not enough to entice him. She knows that she is not his missing piece, just a defective piece that was left behind.
Somehow I can't travel with Brenda all the way to our house. I can't imagine her arrival in our driveway, maybe because I have my own fragmented memories of that day. Thinking back is like blowing the dust off a mental scrapbook, a collection of blurry snapshots from Brenda's visit much like the one in my hand. The first frame is our dark-paneled living room, with bright daylight prying in at the windows. In the next, Brenda stands by the front door without ever sitting down, arms folded beneath her heavy breasts. For a long while she is watching me, a squirming monkey on the couch. Then she asks my mother, without averting her eyes, "Does she know?" And when my mother says, "No, we haven't told them," I am too small to wonder what is being kept from me.
On the next page of my memory we are all standing in the yard. My mother takes one picture of this girl posing against our fence, the hills vanishing into shadowed woods behind her, where hidden things crawl and rustle among the trees. Then, before Brenda gets into her car, my father embraces her stiffly. It is this frame that I linger over. My dad in his old blue workshirt, his aging belly and her nineteen-year-old breasts both straining against cheap fabric. I can't see his face, missing in the unruly circle of Brenda's hair, but there is something vulnerable in his posture. In this instant the secret sister knows the callused touch and the nicotine smell of a present father. In this instant my father owns the frilly baby he once expelled from his lap. Whatever might have passed between them is invisible to me, something nameless that can't be captured in a mental scrapbook. Because this image is too big in my head, like contemplating the vastness of the universe, I have to leave it behind. The way Brenda left us all standing in the yard that day and never came back. She only needed to look at us once, I believe. When she went, she was gone.
Patty and I have talked of finding our other sister someday, but I know that we never will. We can't risk cracking our mother's face. Looking down at Brenda's picture, the bleachy hair and the garage-sale jeans, I realize that I'm afraid to know her anyway. Maybe it's her alien maternity that disturbs me, the half where the defiant breasts must have come from. But I can still see that she is made of my flesh. It doesn't matter. Brenda pulled out of our driveway without looking back. Her fingers are ink-stained with the life she made somewhere else.
Now the door creaks open and Patty steals hesitantly into the bedroom. She crosses the carpet toward me on sock feet, as if reverent of the space where my father slept, where his paintings hang, where his books are kept. His absence is huge all around us. Patty lowers herself to the edge of the bed and looks at the gleaming Polaroid over my shoulder. I think I can hear her heart beating, or maybe it's just the alarm clock ticking on the nightstand. I think of Patty sitting beside me on the couch that day staring at Brenda, both of them quiet and still. Suddenly it's like the three of us are breathing the same smoke-thickened air again.
Patty takes one corner of the picture so that we are holding it together. I can feel some heaviness lifting. With Patty here, the secret girl's image is not so blurry. The landscape unfolding behind her doesn't seem as mysterious. Patty and I look up and when our eyes meet, I know what she is thinking. My father's funeral is tomorrow and both of us are wondering, sharing the weight of this other sister, if maybe she will be there.