Chapter 12

Lore is midway between thirteen and fourteen. It has been months since Oster and Katerine have spoken to each other about anything but business. Now it is late spring and all of the immediate family except Greta are gathered together at Ratnapida for the first time in almost a year.

“I’ve ordered a picnic,” Oster tells them all. “We’ll take in the grounds, sit in the sun and relax together. No,” he says to Tok who is folding up his screen to take outside, “we’re going to leave all the bloody paraphernalia in the house for a change.”

They walk single file behind Oster, who is carrying the rug, to the pond, the ornamental one with the fountain. Lore assumes he has chosen this one, the first in a series that becomes progressively less formal, because Katerine hates the casual disorganization of nature. Lore knows they do sometimes think of one another, try to please each other, to find common ground, but they are like two planets following separate orbits.

It is a beautiful day; the sun is lemony and light, not too hot, and the grass is that particular lush bright green only seen when the first Rush of spring growth is ending. Everything should be perfect, and everyone tries—lots of oohs and ahs about the food, some conversation about the two-year lawsuit against the company, which is nearing its climax in Caracas—but it is an effort. Lore watches Katerine stare into the distance, then reach to her belt for the slate that is not there before she remembers she is supposed to be relaxing. Tok sits on the grass, just outside the intangible circle of family on the rug. Every now and then he reaches to the plate in front of him and picks up some rice salad between his fingers, but most of his attention is focused on the pile of twigs and leaves and a pebble before him. Lore wonders what he is making, but Oster is in the way.

Oster is talking to Stella, who is sitting on the stone rim of the fountain, drinking straight from a bottle of vodka. This month, Stella’s hair is layered: bruise purple on top and underneath—when she lifts her head to swallow—red, then ocher, then white. Unnerving, like splitting open a bruise with a scalpel, seeing blood, fatty tissue, bone.

“So, tell me how you managed to stay out of the scandal at Belmopan last month.”

Oster’s words suggest he is tolerant of and mildly amused by Stella’s increasingly wild exploits with her set of friends, but Lore can tell—by the way his fingers are pick-picking at the cloth of his shorts and the glances he shoots up at Stella from under his brows when he thinks she is not looking—that he does not understand his daughter any more than he would if he had planted a potato and grown a rose.

“I wasn’t there that night.” She pauses to suck at her bottle. “I was passed out in my room.”

Lore wonders about that. She thinks either Stella drinks less than she pretends to or she is extraordinarily lucky. For while Stella appears to go through the motions—driving recklessly while under the infiuence of various drugs, swimming with sharks while drunk—the accidents she has only ever seem to involve property or the occasional species of wildlife not on the endangered list.

“I assume you have at least six people who are willing to back you up on that,” Oster says, trying for irony, but sounding waspish.

Stella laughs, and Lore wonders if the rest of the family understand how shrewd her sister is. In the last four years of wild behavior, she has never injured herself or another person, nor been the subject of any scandal that would have a negative impact on her character. Media-literate people on five continents probably know her name, but they speak it with a smile and a shake of the head, not with a spitting curse. Lore has always wondered why Stella does nothing with her intelligence and wit but travel from one party to another with as much fanfare as possible. She wonders for the first time whether or not Stella has a purpose, but cannot figure out what it might be.

It is getting hot. The sunlight makes Stella’s upturned bottle sparkle. “I think I’ll take a swim.” She sets the bottle down on the rim of the fountain and stands up. She has unbuttoned half of her dress before Lore realizes she has no clothes on underneath. Oster is a little slower.

“What are you doing?”

“Preparing to climb into this nice cool water with the fish. Who probably have more feeling than some people.” She glances over at Katerine, who pretends not to notice.

“But…” Oster seems to know he has missed something.

Stella pauses, dress halfway off her shoulder. “What’s the matter? Don’t you want to see what a fine figure your daughter has?”

Katerine simply ignores them.

“Stella! This is not appropriate-”

Stella laughs, a great, brittle shout. “Appropriate? Since when has this family ever been appropriate?”

Oster is looking confused and Katerine still staring at nothing when Stella lets her dress fall from her shoulders and steps into the fountain. The dress catches on the vodka bottle and as the material sinks, waterlogged, into the fountain, the bottle teeters, then falls towards the pool. Katerine and Oster dive for it at the same time. Lore is not sure who actually catches it, but the bottle comes up out of the water grasped by two tanned and streaming arms. Oster relinquishes it to Katerine. He wades into the fountian and shouts. “What are you doing? I don’t understand you. Why are you doing this?”

But Lore is watching Tok, who is looking at Stella, and his expression is terrible, as though some huge revelation has fisted into his face and crumpled it like tin. He has a twig in his hand and Lore can see how white the skin is where he grips it. She wants to rush over there and cry Tok! Tok! but quite simply dares not. She thinks that if she called him back from whatever horror he has seen he will return without some vital part of himself. She has read many fairy tales, and understands instinctively that those who are dragged places unwillingly must find their own way back. She wonders what place he has found, what he has seen.

But then Oster slips and falls to one knee. He stands up making cross sounds, and sloshes his way back to the edge. “I’m going inside to change,” he says to Stella, who has her face tipped up to the sky and seems to be smiling. “When I get back, I expect you to be sobered up and decent.” He stalks off. “I will not be mocked in my own house…”

Katerine is examining the vodka bottle, seemingly unperturbed. Lore glances back at Tok, who is now sitting still and sad by his pile of twigs. She catches his eye and he shrugs slightly. Lore does not understand, but she knows no one will explain; she does not even know the right question to ask.

When Oster is out of sight, Katerine, still not looking at Stella’s body, says, “Your father has asked you to be decent by the time he returns.”

“Does my body offend you, Mother?” The words are a challenge, but the tone is tremulous, as though Stella has gone much, much further than she intended, and does not know her way back. Katerine turns slowly, deliberately, and looks at Stella.

Lore wonders what Stella sees in her mother’s eyes. Her sister goes utterly blank. She steps from the pool mechanically and reaches for her dress. No one says anything while she fastens her buttons. She looks at the bottle, but Katerine is still holding it. Lore understands that Stella is unwilling to step any closer to her mother to reach for the vodka.

Stella, hair dripping, uncertain whether to reach for the bottle or leave without it, looks like a whipped dog.

“Your father will want to see you here when he gets back,” Katerine says. She smiles, and Stella sits abruptly, leans back against the stone fountain rim, and closes her eyes. Just like that, she absents herself. Gone. Lore has seen Greta do that: just disappear. Tok returns his attention to whatever he is building from sticks.

Katerine lifts the bottle from the stone rim, checks to make sure the cap is secure, then looks at Lore speculatively. “Tell me,” she says, “if Stella had dropped the bottle in the fountain and it was, by some miracle, both uncapped and full, how would you have gone about the remediation of the pond system?”

Water tinkles, the sun beats down, and Tok strips the bark from a twig while Lore tries to work out the approximate flow per minute in gallons from this fountain to the next pond and the next; the effect of about a pint of raw alcohol on the flora and fauna; the breeding rate of carp…

Tok makes some involuntary movement.

“What?” Lore asks.

He sighs. “It’s a trick question, Lore. We were taught that the first thing to remember when faced with-”

“The first thing to remember when faced with a problem,” Katerine interrupts, “is not to make the problem more complicated than it is. With this surface area,” she gestures at the series of ponds, “and this heat, a pint of vodka would evaporate before it did any damage that would not remediate itself naturally in a week or two.”

Lore digs a hole in the turf with her finger. She feels stupid, the idiot younger sister, the one who never knows what’s going on, the one always left out of the joke. But when she looks up, Katerine is smiling at her and it’s a nice smile, not cruel at all.

“You looked like you were working out some pretty complicated reactions. Had you considered and included the lethal-fifty dose for fish?”

“Yes,” Lore admits shyly, “except I don’t know the alcohol concentration L-fifty for freshwater fish so I was going on the figures I read in that report last year on the spill of ethanol in the salmon fishery in Scotland, so –”

“You read that?”

Lore nods cautiously. “I try to read as much as I can.”

Katerine smiles. No, she beams, and Lore cannot remember getting that kind of approval from her mother before. She smiles back, tentatively.

“That Scottish job was complicated by the fact that the ethanol was contaminated by printers’ ink.” Katerine absently fills a plate, hands it to Lore.

“I know. I tried to compensate for that. But it was mostly guesswork.”

“It often is, at least in the evaluation phase of a project.” Katerine begins to fill another plate for herself. “Did you try for a differentiated flow rate or go for a median rate?”

Lore sits up straighter. “Wouldn’t a median rate defeat the object? I mean, when Willem took me round the plant in Den Haag he said the whole point was to calculate and bear in mind the different rates at which living things speed up or slow down flow.” She gets a nod and an encouraging smile for that. “And that’s not even taking into account the different ways those plants act on the contaminant…”

And Lore finds that she is enjoying herself. Her mother is talking to her as an equal, not as the family pawn, the commodity to be traded on for points. When she is the center of attention she does not have to think about Stella, does not have to worry about Tok and what he saw. And she finds that while she talks of flows and systems, she has images in her head of bright water and cool colors, of sunshine and green plants. It is a miracle to watch phenol turn to carbon dioxide, to see metal absorbed by moss and made harmless, to see a natural ecosystem survive because someone, somewhere, bothered to sit down and think about a way to design a biosystem to augment it.

As the sun begins its downward slide and the blades of grass cast longer shadows, and she and Katerine continue to talk, she wonders if her grandmother—the rich one, the one who was stupid enough to spend money playing with their genes but smart enough to also tailor bacteria that made her family’s company possible—ever saw whole systems shining in her head that way Lore does that afternoon.

When Oster gets back wearing his clean, dry clothes, Lore looks up and is about to smile at him, happy, when she realizes Katerine is grinning, hard, in triumph, as if to say, See? Her heart is mine!, and Lore’s smile falters and she feels the shining systems in her head crack and tarnish.

Spring is long gone and the summer grows tired and hot and brown around the edges. Tok suddenly announces that he is ready to take on more responsibility and leaves immediately for Louisiana to take charge of the family’s ongoing remediation project in the bayous. He has avoided everyone since the picnic, even Lore, and she suspects he wants to work harder not because he wants to assume the burdens and privileges of adulthood, but because he does not want to have time to think about the place he went to, the thing he saw, when he looked at Stella in the fountain.

Lore spends some time with Oster, trying to count the number of fish species in the azure and turquoise waters off the island. Her hair turns gray-white, like ash, and her skin darkens. Oster gets more pensive.

The water is as still as glass, and Lore is staring out at the distant horizon, thinking of nothing, when he asks, “Has Stella talked to you?”

Lore does not turn to look at him and does not ask what he means. “No.”

“She must have said something.”

“She didn’t. She never talks to me.”

“What about Tok?”

“What about him?”

“Don’t be difficult, Lore.”

Lore feels something rising up inside her, hot and empty, like an air bubble. “Tok hasn’t said anything, Stella hasn’t said anything. Nor have you or mother, not even Willem or Marley or Greta. No one ever really says anything.” As she lists the family she notices how easily they slat into subsets, all but her.

Oster has the grace to look down at his feet. “It’s just that I forget you’re not little anymore. I’m used to you being the baby of the family. I think of you as being seven, of sitting up in bed demanding to know why your hair is gray. And it’s still gray.”

“What do you mean?”

He opens his hands, pleading for understanding. “Stella started dyeing her hair when she was eleven. Tok when he was twelve. Yours is still gray. I look at it and immediately think: Still too young to dye her hair, thank god.”

Lore touches her white-gray hair self-consciously. Her youthful vow to never dye it now seems childish, as irrelevant as milk teeth.

Lore is fourteen two days before term begins. She arrives at school in Auckland with hair dyed in black and white flashes, like a head of lightning.

Lore is someone else and it excites her. She wonders why she didn’t start dyeing her hair years ago. Now when she looks at herself in the mirror she sees a young woman who has designed herself. She can do anything she wants. She toys with the idea of wearing lenses but decides she likes the gray eyes and black and white hair. It gives her a cool, distant look, like the faces of dead heroes buried under ancient ice. It is a face that knows.

But what Lore knows is only through film. The time has come to discover with her body.

She calls up her anonymous friends on the net and asks about sex clubs.

The films Lore has seen and made are hard-core, not glitzy, romanticized versions of the truth, but, even so, the truth is more than she expected. The bar seems bright and friendly from the outside, as though there is nothing to hide, but the people Lore watches as they go in pay the cover using temporary debit cards, probably bought from one of the score of midtown dealers who convert PIDA credit to anonymous cards for a two-percent commission. Lore waits until they have disappeared inside, then offers her own card.

The hot, crowded bar smells. Beneath the high tickle of perfume and the raw throaty sting of alcohol lies the heavy, deep scent of bodies clothed and unclothed: leather, latex, the tang of sweat and excitement, and older smells, the kind that come from the stains the dim lighting is designed to hide. A thick bass line slides between and through the bodies standing at the bar, sitting at the tiny tables, dancing on the floor. It pushes against Lore’s abdomen, like a hand.

She heads for the back room.

A woman at the door stops her, hands her something. A leaflet. In the back room it is too dark to read anything but the header: Safer Sex Guidelines. Lore puts it in her pocket and heads for the scene room.

There are about a dozen women there. Some are engaged in sex, some are watching. One woman with long hair and fashionably loose muslin clothes stands by the wall. She is petite but not frail and there is a bag at her feet. Lore knows what she should do: she should catch the woman’s eye, walk over, and lay her hand on the woman’s arm; she should look into the woman’s eyes and say in a voice that means Let’s pretend, “I’m Star,” or Jade or Ellie, “a helpless, nervous virgin,” and then they would just… do it. She has seen pictures of everything. She knows how it goes. But life is different from pictures.

She does not know what to do.

The woman sees her, smiles. Lore smiles back, then blushes. The woman pushes herself off the wall, hesitates. They both walk toward each other at the same time.

“I…” says Lore, and feels paralyzed.

“I’m Anne,” the woman says, and takes her hand.

It is like the closing of an electric current, and suddenly Lore knows everything will be all right. They move off into a corner where a woman nods them to a stairway. Lore knows she climbs the stairs, but all she remembers is the feel of another woman’s hand in hers. And there is a bed and some words but Lore barely pays attention. For years her want has been undirected, amorphous, aimed now at some figure on the net screen, now some character in a novel, but for the first time she knows exactly who will touch her, will kiss her, will make her sweat. This woman. This woman with her long hair and small hips will ease inside her clothes; this woman with the New Zealand accent will open her legs and smile conspiratorially when she finds Lore wet; this woman will slip her fingers inside Lore and talk to her and encourage her and fuck her until her tendons strain and she starts to thrash and then cries out until her throat is raw.

Lore feels her need boiling up inside her like lava in a bore. “Now,” she says, “now,” and pulls Anne to her, not knowing whether to laugh or cry with wonder when soft breasts touch hers and that beautiful mouth, soft as plums, fastens on her neck. She comes as soon as Anne touches her through her clothes, and feels a string of orgasms waiting to be told off, one after another like beads.

“Again,” she says into Anne’s neck. “Oh, again and again and again.”

* * *

Lore is fifteen. It is summer once more, and she has been at Ratnapida for nearly five weeks. She is being driven, demented by the constant push-pull of her parents. She wishes Tok were coming—but he is on a project on some island chain or other and will not be there for three or four days.

She digs out her camera again.

She has gone beyond putting her parents in fantasies, and now that she has the real thing, library sex is not much fun. So she uses the camera to make herself real. She takes it into the garden and films trails of ants moving endlessly as a stream between a fallen mushroom and their nest. At night, she plays the sequence to herself: only she has seen this. It is her vision, unique. No one else has seen these particular ants in this particular lighting. It is something to hang on to.

Something to hang on to becomes a genuine interest. She takes the camera down to the most secret of the carp ponds and finds that seeing through its lens makes her a more disciplined observer. She sees a frog, and films it carefully. Later that afternoon, she goes back, gets the frog in her viewfinder, and realizes it is a different frog. It is a revelation: frogs are not all the same. This one has a dull patch under its throat where shadows gather as it waits patiently for a fly to pass by close enough to hook with its tongue. She is fascinated by its eyes, the nictitating blink.

Hours later, when she turns the camera off and stands, her knees are stiff, but she is happy. She has discovered a whole new world: frogs and mosquito fish, caddis flies and damselflies, cattails and duckweed and the slow, stately open and close of water lilies. She smiles as she falls asleep that night.

One evening Stella and a horde of her friends descend upon the island, glittering with jewels, their clothes and hair shimmering like peacock feathers. As far as Lore can see, they do nothing but change clothes, party, and boast of who has given how much to what charity. They watch the net, and when charity commercials run, they transfer money via PIDA to the charity accounts. And they do it fast. Seconds count—microseconds, even. They have asked the charities to provide official lists of who has given what to whom and when, and the charities, being practical about money matters, have obliged. It is now chic to appear as the first donor to any charity, even more so if the unknown fledgling organization grows into an international institution or becomes popular with average people. Stella and her friends call themselves the Almsgivers. Although no doubt various of the agencies are glad of the largesse, Lore finds it mildly disgusting that it is nothing but a game to these people. Sometimes it is hard to believe that Stella is Tok’s twin, her sister.

She is glad when Stella leaves and takes her crowd with her, but then there is nothing to come between Lore and the rest of her family.

Six of them sit down to dinner: Lore, her parents, Greta, and Willem and Marley. No one speaks while they shake out napkins and servants bring bowls of cold consomme. Fans turn slowly over their heads. Lore feels like an alien.

The others all seem to be in their own private worlds. Greta as usual is almost Zen-like in her invisibility. Lore often thinks of her as being gray and somehow shriveled, but her skin is fine and close-pored, soft, like a honey glaze. Her eyes are deep brown. Lore wonders if she gets that color from Katerine, or from her father, the man Katerine divorced ten years before Lore was born. Willem too, has dark eyes. Lore decides that Katerine’s eyes must be brown, but brown, she decides, is not enough. She is Katerine’s daughter, she has a right to know.

Just as she opens her mouth to ask, the butler appears at her mother’s elbow with a silver tray. “A letter from Mr. Tok,” he says.

“He always did like to do things the old-fashioned way,” Oster says as Katerine opens it. Across the table Willem picks up his spoon and sips at the soup. The others follow suit.

Katerine folds the letter carefully and tucks it under her plate. She picks up her spoon. “He’s not coming.” Her voice is steady, but Lore hears something, the slightly faulty note of a cracked bell, and is immediately alert.

Willem must have heard it, too. He leans and slides the letter free. He scans it quickly, then reads aloud. “Dear Everyone, I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it to Ratnapida as promised, but I’ve taken an opportunity I wish I had taken years ago. Mother, I’m sorry, but I’ve resigned my job as project manager and don’t intend to take it up again. Sahla is competent until you find a replacement. I’ll be in touch soon.” Willem puts it down. “It’s just signed, Tok.”

Everyone is looking at Katerine. She seems calm, but Lore understands that she is devastated. It means the world to her that her children work in the family business. For the first time in years, Lore feels something for her mother apart from the urge to please. She feels the need to protect her. Katerine looks so fragile.

Oster sighs. “He’s probably decided to go study the flute, like he was always threatening to do.”

“What?” Katerine looks dazed.

“The flute,” Oster says again. “He has always loved music.”

Lore is staring at the table, watching dozens of tiny fans turn the wrong way in the spoons, trying to understand. Music. Her brother, Tok, has always loved music. How had she not known this? She looks at her father. And how had he known? She looks at the family, at Greta and Katerine, Willem and Marley, and wonders what else she does not know.

Why did Tok say nothing? Why did Oster not tell her? Something inside her twists just a little.

“… working on the phosphorus problem in the Lau Group islands,” Greta was saying.

Katerine seems to have moved out of her daze. “Is Sahla up to that?” she asks Marley.

Marley shakes his head thoughtfully. “I don’t think so. No.”

Katerine wipes her mouth decisively and drops her napkin on the table. “Then I’ll fly out there tonight.”

“Katerine,” Oster says. “For god’s sake. You can call him instead. And he knows how to ask for help. He-”

“Who knows when Tok wrote that letter-”

“It’s dated three days ago,” Willem says.

“-how long Sahla’s been out there alone, making who knows what kind of errors. Costly errors.” She pushes her chair away from the table.

“It’s not a big project. Not that important-”

But Katerine is already standing. “I’ll fly tonight.”

Lore finds herself standing, too. “I’ll come with you.” She tries not to see the hurt in Oster’s eyes.

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