“We have to be the best we can be!” Pen always said, and she should know. She was the one who brought home all the trophies, going way back to first grade when she was given a blue ribbon for best behaved at recess. She had broken up a fight by hugging an angry boy who started the fuss. After that, there were awards for reading excellence and penmanship, followed by tennis and debate team, then four years on the honors list. Finally, all the commendations garnered a scholarship for the top rated teacher’s college downstate. In 1949, three years after she began her career at North Village Day School, she was voted Teacher of the Year of the entire county, so was being sent to a state education conference in Five Lakes, an idyllic resort town. And that is where her sister, Bree, lived. Perch Lake, the largest body of water, clasped to its shore a rustic though well appointed conference lodge. There were events all year round, including that conference.
Bree was nervous about seeing her. She used to think they had been close siblings, four years apart but thick as thieves as children–“best friends, not thieves!” Pen corrected. They’d stayed in touch the last six years by letter and had seen each other at the homestead, as they called it, for their parents’ Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. These were arduous for Bree. In fact, she hadn’t gone often the last few years. There were brief phone calls every now and then. Pen filled creamy linen-like pages with rhapsodic descriptions of teaching experiences and little else. Maybe a brief description of a possible suitor, a recipe she’d tried, the undependable weather. Lately, notes about pieces she was trying to learn (“how time consuming, even painful it can be”) on her new (“aged, really, and I suspect out of tune, you should come and report on its condition”) upright piano.
Bree was jolted by this news. It was surprising that Pen would study piano after years of refusing an offer of lessons alongside herself. She’d also demonstrated a lack of natural rhythm when they had dance classes together. Pen could not even, if one was frank, carry an agreeable tune. But she loved music, that much was true. There was always had good music on the radio or record player. Their mother was abashed to admit she idolized opera singers though for her husband popular music called.
Music, in fact, was Bree’s specialty. Her one saving grace in a family where the older sister collected awards as if trinkets. For Bree began singing the moment she registered the robins outside her nursery window. Her mother still noted this as if it was a miracle a baby cooed in response to feathered warblers. But true, she sang without hesitation from the start, mimicking each sound she heard, later absorbing tunes and lyrics. Bree was born with a musical talent that surprised her musically untalented though otherwise capable parents. So they put her in a church children’s choir where she might elevate the congregation. They instructed her to sing when visiting the pharmacist, Mr. Gundell, himself a fine singer who pronounced her a marvel. She was lauded in school music classes. Given vocal lessons early. And at home soon was paraded in front of visitors like a show pony. There was a girls’ quartet in early adolescence, her soprano ringing bright and true. Solo recitals elicited large enthusiastic audiences. She learned how best to bow and smile with appreciation. For she was appreciative–to sing was her life; to hear applause, a lovely bonus.
The “Culture and Lifestyle” section of the newspaper had a loquacious reviewer who noted her vocalizing held “a certain piercing quality for mind, heart and soul” and “the range of a far more seasoned vocalist, according to this impressed reviewer and Solomon Hastings, Professor Emeritus of Music, Arbor-Kessling Conservatory. Breeanna Irving, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Reynold Irving, is in truth bound for great things.” She began to give recitals around the state a few times a year and participated in singing competitions. And won. Then she was courted by Arbor-Kessling, among others, before she was seventeen.
Bree mused over her sister’s piano and their upbringing while she misted lacy ferns on a side table. Her past. What she’d given others were the fruits of studying voice, the endless practicing, performing, competing. She’d wanted, yes, to attend a top notch music school, to study and perform more and then–if fate allowed–become a full-time concert soprano. To honor the greatest music with the best she could give.
“But get your degree in music education,” her father had advised one evening as they lingered after dinner.
“I don’t want to teach,” Bree insisted. “I’m singing or I’m doing very different.”
Her mother tittered. “What? Please let us in on it.”
Pen piped in. “You do want to be able to provide for yourself, right? I mean, in case you don’t catch a good man. It is, after all, the twentieth century, nearly decade four.”
“Is that why you’re going to college? To be able to pay your way in case you can’t snare the right man?”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Bree, it’s reasonable and I’m glad of her ambition,” mother inserted.
“Well, fine, but I’m going because of my passion for my art.”
Pen spoke with her usual authority. “Of course, and I shall want to teach even if I marry, otherwise it will be a waste.”
“You may decide differently, dear.” Mother was bent over a darning egg, one of dad’s heavy sport socks pulled taut around the wooden shape. Her stitching was so expert we could never feel the repair work.
“So, Bree, you will consider a practical degree to pull your head out of the clouds? It’s a necessary asset, even for one such as yourself. ” Dad smiled at her with a wink to cajole her into it.
“I’m either singing for my supper or going off to the pristine wilderness and living off the land, ” Bree pronounced. “If there isn’t singing I may as well leave civilization. I’ll commune with birds and swim naked. But I will not teach or get married for no good reason.”
Pen shook her burnished auburn head of hair, her hair ribbon awry, and sighed. “Don’t be so terribly dramatic, so–radical!”
Mother and Dad simply ignored Bree. The family was used to such pronouncements. Both parents thought them harmless if oddly idiotic (“eccentricity is a part of musicianship” Mother assured Dad after another odd statement), whereas Pen found them mildly alarming if annoying.
“You two are my good luck girls,” Dad said, not for the first time. “You’ll both do fine work, you’ll make us even prouder. We’ll be fulfilled in old age, to know we raised such capable young women.”
“And you will marry, too, have wonderful grandchildren!” Mother hastened to add, then bit off the thread under the knot and tossed the sock to Dad.
Bree knew she would attend music school, but the back-up plan was just as she said. Leaving behind the city for somewhere beautiful and wild. She only could enjoy cities if she sang in them.
And it was a good thing she had such a thought. In her third year at the music conservatory she contracted infectious tonsillitis and had a tonsillectomy. She did not rebound well or quickly. Her father felt helpless to work miracles but her convalescence finally ended. Then, as she was working on limbering up her voice for the umpteenth time, it became apparent she could no longer replicate those superior tones that drew an audience to their feet. The resonant, shimmering notes that lived in her higher range had vanished; the lower rich and warm ones faltered, sank. Bree could not coax them with skilled commands, not even her talent. Her vocal teacher worried some as weeks and months passed but reassured her it would take time, that was all.
Bree knew differently. Much had changed during feverish days and nights as rawness took over her swollen throat. The scalpel sliced away her tonsils and left her weak, almost empty. It was not the life for her now. It could never be the same after such a moratorium on singing. No amount of persuasive debates from her mentor and teacher or others, no pleading from her parents changed her mind. There was nothing worse than being a pitiable has-been trying to re-establish worthiness. More than that, she was utterly bereft. Bree would rather be that musician who once delivered flawless music full of heart, but then just no longer sang. Soon people would forget what was.
But Pen didn’t. And her parents never quite forgave her.
The sun slipped behind the rim of the earth and Perch Lake was splashed with golden and orange hues. Bree heard the low growl of a car engine, light rattling as it shuddered over the gravel road. It had to be Pen. She was given a raise so bought a good used Buick.
Bree didn’t have a car. There was Hardy’s work truck, and that was it; she drove it well after a time. He liked to see her behind the wheel, enjoyed being driven to town where they loaded up plumbing supplies for the business as well as their pantry. He’d taken a ribbing the first times she’d driven, as if giving her the keys made him a soft-touch or a fool. Soon residents saw Bree MacIntyre as Hardy’s indispensable right hand and a good woman, at that. She helped run Mac’s All Plumb Repair as expertly as she directed the Young Artists program at Five Lakes Retreat and Conference Lodge. The town was delighted to have someone who cared for their children’s artistic side and handed them over for a few classes each year.
Bree swatted at her neck. It was getting warm already; mosquitoes were hatching. She pulled her shoulder length hair back and slipped a rubber band around a neat ponytail. There was no time to change into a dress but her blue blouse was clean as were the tan slacks. She stared out at the lake. Languorous waves slapped against the shoreline a few hundred feet from their front porch; she listened to the water’s depths. Her heart beat harder though her mind told her all was fine, it always was in the end when they met up.
A car could be seen around the last bend now, the blue Buick. Would Hardy make it in time for dinner? It might be better if he did not, but Pen had said she’d be glad to see him. He’d had an emergency call at 5:00 at the lodge, of all places. Pen might have run into him there as she checked in. Bree laughed at the thought of Penelope Irving crossing paths unexpectedly with her husband in soiled work clothes. High heels clacking against the wood floor, her skirt too tight to make fast progress, wavy hair swinging. Then Hardy: high cheek boned face and powerful shoulders, clear but questioning eyes, broad, often dirt-smudged hands. Few words fell from him. She would have dodged his path, yet tried her best to be mannerly. Pen wasn’t fond of his country ways, the animal grace and strength as he moved and reposed. His pithy observances. Neither were her parents the three times they visited after the elopement. Hardy was nowhere close to what they’d wanted for her.
As with her singing, she had made a terrible choice, they’d all agreed.
The Buick honked twice and soon Pen, suit jacket off, shirttail hastily tucked in, was out of the car and up the steps. The sisters embraced.
“I thought I’d never get here! I nearly ran out of gas. How was I to know? Last time I visited I took a taxi from the train station, remember?” She held Bree at arm’s length. “My, you look healthy and gorgeous as ever, you get such sun!” Pen gazed at the lake, then blinked as if trying to break the spell before it interfered with her consciousness. She did not love the outdoors except from a good view indoors, but she did like Bree’s welcoming log house and this lake at sunset. “Lovely.”
“Of course, the sunset is courtesy of nature, just for you! Let’s go on in. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I hope Hardy can make it. Want a beer?”
“Do you have a little scotch? Mmm, pot roast or beef stew.”
“Stew, I know you enjoy it.”
Bree got herself a cold beer and a scotch on the rocks for Pen. After they settled on the sofa Pen swept her gaze over the room. It had been repainted. New curtains with vines and birds were hung. A rectangular antique mirror gleamed above the sofa. She noticed they had a television on a painted bench in the corner. The business was going well.
Pen slipped off her heels and threw her head back, then spread out her hair along the back. She turned her neck and met her sister’s pensive eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, Bree. It has been such a year! I never expected that award and now I have to make a speech and talk on that panel. You know I don’t like public speaking. The stage was your venue, not mine.”
Bree took a long drink and licked her lips. “It’s a learned thing. I got better as I got used to it. When do you get the trophy and give your speech? Should I sneak in?”
“It’s at the banquet dinner on Saturday night. It’s not a trophy, it’s a plaque of some sort, not showy. The presentation is tomorrow, too. I attend workshops all day, then the panel, then speak at the end. Exhausting. Success in teaching should be a humbling thing, less fanfare!” She said it lightly, as if she didn’t mean it, then sat up and faced Bree. ” Anything new since we talked a couple months ago?”
Bree knew this was a hint about the possibility of pregnancy but that hadn’t happened. She and Hardy were busy with their business. Bree had an affinity for numbers and organization, as well as outdoor life and her fledgling youth arts program. Not necessarily having children. Hardy was okay with that for now, too.
“I’m finding work satisfying on all fronts. My arts program is getting better monetary support and kids keep joining! Hardy and I are growing the business. We’re done with cross country skiing for now but fish, boat. Soon we’ll water ski, swim, hike. You know all this–how I love it here.” She tucked her lower lip under the upper a moment, then blurted it out. “Nope, no kids for now. I’m tied up with projects, Pen. Mom and Dad will have to wait.”
“Well, I’m not dating since Ted and I broke up.” She looked at the drink in her hands. “I guess they’ll survive.” She took a gulp. “We sure have lived lives other than what they imagined.”
“Not true, Pen. You’re the teacher they hoped–you hoped–to become. You’re more visible with this award. You’ll likely do much better as you pioneer those methods you keep talking about. A real educator. That’s what you want, right?”
Pen’s fine eyebrows rose, then settled. “You know, I do like teaching, implementing my ideas. But I enjoy public notice and want to research modern educational practices. I was to forge ahead! I’m pretty happy so far.”
“Losing Ted was tough. But I know you’re darned good on your own, too. Funny how I turned out to be marriage material, though!”
Bree brushed a dark lock from glowing skin, her eyes radiating pleasure. Pen thought again how extraordinary her sister was, how impressive she would have looked on the nation’s stages, even the world’s. With her face and that voice, what might have come to be? It pained her to think it.
Shifting against a plump pillow, Bree said, “Well, my ambitions took a turn. We all end up with quite curious lives.” She touched her sister’s forearm. “Say, what’s with the piano playing?”
“I adore my piano! It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself! I got it tuned last week and it sounds good. I think. It brings back good memories…”
Bree was silent. Glancing out the front door, she hoped it was Hardy’s truck she heard as dusk gathered and spread itself over trees, water, cottages and creatures. She thought of the bats swooping and darting by the pole barn, their electric cries. She hoped the barn owl would visit again.
Then she spoke carefully. “I admit I was surprised. Are lessons harder or easier than you expected? What is your goal?”
Pen grinned, her large eyes brightening.”The lessons aren’t so bad, it’s the daily practice that taxes me. I have much to learn as fast as I can. I plan on playing a few things for the parents by Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to see their faces, they’ll love it, won’t they? And I hope you’ll be there.” She took her sister’ s hand and squeezed it.
A charge of cold energy erupted in her spine, traveled to her neck, then spilled over her. Playing piano for their parents like she, herself, did long ago? A family performance. Would they expect her to play, try a song? Like when the girls presented a dance routine or a play. Or when Bree sang the newest tune. That house had a large space that only masqueraded as a family room; it was really a theater for their parents’ and their friends’ entertainment. For their pride to bloom with each new trick the girls learned.
She pulled her hand away, hoping her shudder wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re enjoying learning how to play.” She felt heat erase the chill as her heart pumped faster. “Are you playing for your own enjoyment? Or to please Mom and Dad? Or trying to rectify things somehow?”
Bree looked into her sister’s face, saw the deep blue irises and the pupils expand as she sank back, frowning.
“Maybe you’re trying to make things perfect, even now. That thing I dared do that hurt them. The disappointment I caused you all. Such a career I might have had, right? Perhaps even fame, likely some fortune, child so-called prodigy makes good and the family is lifted up in the eyes of all beholders. Isn’t it enough that Dad is a fine doctor? No, Mom and Dad had to preen at the supermarket, at church, at concerts.” Bree felt her voice as roiling steam trying to push out of her throat with a screech.
Pen pressed her lips into a taut line. After a slow, steadying breath Bree stood. She didn’t want to be so near her sister, nor look at her. Her eyes welled with forbidden tears. She never cried about this anymore, she rarely even thought of it. It was done with. But there it was, subterranean all this time, now rousing itself from a sleep in dark places where it had lived, now forcing itself into this tender spring light. Bree leaned against the doorjamb as Hardy’s truck pulled in. He sat in the cab, looking down at something. She took a deep breath.
Pen came close but not too close. “Bree, I can barely play right now and it isn’t about that. I knew you were the special one… I was the ordinary girl who worked damned hard to get what I wanted…” She reached out and touched Bree’s back but her sister’s shoulders hunched, recoiling. “Yes, alright, I wanted to do something for them, why not? They do like music, they miss it in the family! I can learn for myself and others, can’t I? I had no idea this would bother you so. I thought it would please you! That we could enjoy a little music with them again…Bree, look at me.”
But Bree didn’t want her sister’s words. She kept her tears at bay by watching cottage lights undulate on the lake, hearing the rhythmic rushing forward and falling back of water in a dance upon good earth. It was not so much Pen playing, it was the reminder of all that was lost. Her parents’ easy appreciation. Her sister’s pleasure and admiration. And that music that owned her, body and soul, oh dear God the feel of that music welling up from mysterious places and entering the atmosphere of the world like a healing thing. Making its primal, ethereal life deep in her blood, her being. It was what she had to offer them, as well as others. It had been almost the whole of her. And then it was gone.
Bree pressed her fingers against hot eyelids as Hardy got out of the truck, willed her heart to lie down and rest, her mind to uncoil. She turned back to Pen, who stood with arms crossed and her brow furrowed in anger.
“I don’t get you, Bree! I come to see you, we’re just talking and you have to pick this time to do this–”
“No time is a good time, is it? It was me who lost something, not you, not Mom and Dad! The one passion of my life. You had so many. I had one, Pen, one, and it carried me, fed me, loved me, transformed me–it shaped my every moment. And then, it was taken. That’s what I have wanted to say all these years. It wasn’t about disappointing any of you or my giving up or casting aspersions on more good fortune we might have had. Not being able to sing as before was…it was like dying. It was a terrible death. And no one came to pay their respects or offer true condolences, because no one really saw it my way. I let others down? The ruin of that passion was what was left me. And I was alone with it.”
Hardy waited on the porch as his wife finished speaking. He heard her but had sensed what it was about as he stepped down from the truck. He felt her pain, caught its signal of grief, and he knew to wait, be still. He clutched a bouquet of daisies in one hand and thermos in the other. When she was quiet he said her name and she opened the door. Bree stepped outside, sank into a rocking chair. Hardy went to her, put the flowers in her lap and his thermos on the floor. Then he knelt down and took her hands and kissed one palm, then the other.
“Hello love. Smells good, dinner,” he said.”Pen staying?”
Pen was passing them, then stopped and raised her hands in the hushed spring evening as if in surrender. “But we lost the real you, Bree. I lost you!”
Bree touched Hardy’s bushy head and he lifted it to see her. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m still here, sister, just changed.”
But Pen was already in her car. As she backed up the tires spun against rocks and dirt. She turned the Buick around and sped down the country road.
Hardy walked to the top step of the porch, sat as Bree joined him. They put their arms about each other’s waists. Watched the lake change from a deep bruising blue to a swath of silvery black, as if the stars had fallen in love with water, spread themselves over its buoyant surface. And Bree sang a wordless song to the lake, the night, to him.