The Two Sisters
The little woman took refuge in that great thoroughfare between our dingy world and the valleys of Faery and Death, Bedlam. Madness did not follow her in, being rather terrified of the great black dogs that prowl its tear-stained corridors with Despair toddling in their wake.
The little woman took to making jute dolls. Gazing upon their squat faces with anxious care, she forgot her own two children, who sat solemnly upon her table and gaped at her.
One of them had lamp-like eyes and was sweet and easy to please. Even the most dour of nurses —and the nurses of Bedlam are a dour breed—would fall in love with her innocent ways and would ferry her about the disinfected wards in their scarred, forbidding arms. Soon, she had the run of the place.
No one much cared for the other girl, who had sullen eyes and something of the aspect of a firecracker about to explode. In any case, she made it clear that she preferred to be left alone, to gape at her oblivious mother as she tended to her jute dolls.
And one day, the girl with lamp-like eyes discovered Sinbad crawling out of a psychiatrist’s handbag and through a tiny hole in the wall. She followed her into Afghanistan and shook her fists with great delight as Sinbad lectured an assembly of women on the finer aspects of Egyptian handlooms. Much perplexed, Sinbad journeyed with her into the valley of the children and placed her on the overflowing desk of her best friend, the headmistress. And then, she leaped through the window into the Queen of Taiwan’s bedchamber. The Queen was about to have a daughter.
The headmistress, a very wise older child, knew that the girl was like that wildflower best left to itself in a glass bottle. She gave her a darling little room to herself and the free run of her library and the girl was as happy as that stray wraith of fire that discovers it can stretch its frail arms into the ever-accommodating air.
The other girl, in the chaos that followed her sister’s disappearance, plodded silently out of Bedlam and into the harsh brilliance of a street unaccustomed to the full majesty of summer. She waddled past undergraduates in various stages of undress and came across a raven nibbling with great seriousness upon a chocolate slab. They stared at each other blankly.
Eventually, the raven grew rather tired of the chocolate and meandered slowly from the sun-filled streets into the darker lanes where Care blots out the most bellicose assaults of the sky. The little girl followed her and found herself in that shattered row of council flats where Vice is a drug lord with a Harvard degree and an entirely dispassionate passion for murder and mayhem.
Vice picked up the little girl by her hair, sniffed into her mouth and peered through her ears. Contemptuously enchanted by her stolid innocence, she kept her on her desk as a kind of pet. And so the little girl grew slowly as a sort of barely animate doll with the Romany of the dealers as her music and the fickle raven as her one true friend.
When Vice was finally thrown, battered and almost blinded into that deep, feces-stained pit that is the best and worst prison upon earth (only to escape again), the little girl found herself in the abrasive care of a scarred and violently pessimistic nun who was convinced she would come to no good.
But the little girl didn’t try to escape. She followed the nun about on her shrill errands of mercy. And occasionally, the raven would affectionately drop in to shove stale biscuits and rotting bananas down the front of her dress.
When the girl was twelve, the nun dropped her in the valley of children and left her in no doubt that she was born to Sin and would soon find her way back into the entrancing sliminess of her taffeta lap.
But the little girl persevered. She brought all her dour determination to the hockey field and the books she couldn’t quite understand. She was the one girl truly in love with the valley of the children, the headmistress and the gentle girl with lamp-like eyes who could often be found reading in happy solitude under an oak tree. She didn’t know they were sisters.
The girl that was like—and would always be like—a firecracker loved the girl with lamp-like eyes for the effortless kindness of her ways. And the girl with lamp-like eyes looked into her sister’s eyes and fell deeply in love with an honesty that was all the more beautiful because nothing had managed to tarnish it.
One day, when they were musing silently together on a bench as the other girls thronged to the tea shop, a beautiful woman with eyes that had the pained clarity of the night, passed their bench. None of the other girls seemed to notice her, but each of the sisters was convinced that they belonged to the slender, raven-like figure.
“Will you take us with you?” they begged, running into the melting folds of her dress. The Angel of Death caressed their heads and shook her own gently. “Not yet,” she replied, “But one day I will come for you and I will take you to the valley in which I live.” And then she kissed them and went noiselessly away.
The firecracker’s great love for the valley of children and her almost unfashionable sincerity won over the initially reluctant admiration of the children and she was befuddled to find herself both their adored leader and beloved object of ridicule. She had less time to spend with her sister, even if they managed to share a precious few minutes each day.
The girl with lamp-like eyes didn’t mind too much. She had her books and her dolls and the headmistress, whom she regarded merely as an oversized and unpredictable doll. And every now and then, a raven would tap dance in the ancient, mossy courtyard outside her little writing desk, its head tilted ingratiatingly to one side. And Sinbad would roll out her cupboard with a little wooden boat, or a fountain pen fashioned from the tears of women who no longer wonder at the brazen beauty of the dawn. She grew to beauty, a tall and slender wildflower.
And on their last day in the valley of children, the two sisters danced joyously through the courtyard, warming the rather tired heart of the headmistress to youth again.
But the little girl with lamp-like eyes returned two years later to the valley of children. She had been unhappy in a college rather blind to unhappiness and the other girls had made fun of her bookish ways and almost incoherent fascination for dolls. She returned to the only refuge she had ever known, her book-filled, doll-strewn room. The headmistress was rather relieved. She felt incomplete without her daughter.
The firecracker grew to a stunning and child-like beauty in her college years and in her simple clinging to the wisdom of her years in the valley of children, she won over even the most hardened of her college mates and students and brought them great happiness. Passionate about hockey, she attempted to teach it to those children who have no real homes, but merely run repeatedly headfirst into the arms of Anger. Instead, she entranced them into the lap of that rather irresponsible and carefree creature known as Life.
Eventually, the firecracker fell in love with and married a potbellied writer with a great fondness for Indian sweets and Belgian beer. They had two children, a daughter who was as sweet as she was quietly good and another daughter with hair the shade of fire awakening to the call of Life who was mostly naughty, but ever so often wise and good in startling and heartrending ways. But like the brightest of fires, she was as fragile as she was brave. And the Angel of Death came soon for her and carried the sleeping child away, leaving the ornamented dagger of Heartbreak lodged in the Firecracker’s heart.
The writer, who had been called to Life from his manic speculations by the gleeful intensity of his younger daughter, shut himself in with a crate of beer and a carton of cigarettes and began to write furiously. He was blind to the sadness in his wife’s gentle arms as they slid around his neck and even the meals she would cry over as she made them.
Wisely, the firecracker left her husband to his frenzied scribbling and Sinbad’s clandestine visits and doted upon her older daughter, who grew to a mature and kindhearted loveliness. And one day, she fell in love with a bear-like, mumbling professor who adored her with an intensity quite like Madness. And the Firecracker gave her away with a joy that was really Heartbreak.
And as she stumbled through the quiet white corridors of a home that had once been so happy, the Angel of Death appeared at her side. “Come,” she said gently and she carried the sodden Firecracker to that little black boat where her younger daughter was waiting in a gown woven from the night to the Valley of Death. And in that tea shop where the quietly happy men and women of the valley go, an extremely stout woman in a creaking armchair bullied her into a disbelieving happiness.
And with her sister’s death, the girl with lamp-like eyes suddenly felt incomplete. She had always been quiet. And now she grew sad, tracing her fingers across the faces of her many dolls with great anxiety. And when the headmistress tried to console her, she sent her away with a cold tenderness. She was unhappy and thus the Headmistress and the Valley were sieged by a great unhappiness.
And as the girl lay on her bed gaping at her dolls with the once-sullen eyes of her sister, the Angel of Death glided in and sat down beside her.
“I don’t want you anymore,” cried the girl vengefully. “I know that, child,” said the Angel sadly, “But your sister is waiting for you.”
“My sister!” cried the girl with delight and the gentle fire of the lamp that hangs outside earthen homes at night to usher in weary men and women burnt to ecstasy in her eyes and laughing, the Angel of Death took her into her slender arms.
And that little room where resided the Headmistress’ greatest joy transformed into a dark meadow of wildflowers melting into the opaque blackness of a lake. And the Angel of Death carried her gentle friend into the little black boat where a woman with flame-colored hair sat waiting patiently in a gown fashioned from night.
And in the Valley of Death, at the feet of that fearsome, half-angry woman harshest to those she loves most (she loves nobody), two sisters with eyes that are light sit cross-legged and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes as they sip cold chocolate and nibble on potato cakes between slices of bread.
They are oblivious to the gentle admiration of the men and women of the valley. Some of the women have the faces of the dolls the girl with the lamp-like eyes loved all her life.