Ever since Father went to war, Eliza had been in charge of the whole house. Being ungainly and feeble of wit, it wasn’t expected Father would last out the first week. Sure enough, the Tuesday after he left, Eliza received a telegram: Father had choked to death on a flag. A small piece of that flag was all that came back by way of remembrance.
Eliza was the prettiest of all the sisters. That was until the other sisters were born, each emerging from Mother more pleasing to the eye than she. Eliza grew unrelentingly, and by 17 she was so tall she had to fashion all her clothes from bedclothes and unspun flax.
The second born, Marina, was fair of face and large of bosom. Then came the only boy child, Gene, who had sweaty palms and a bosom to rival Marina’s. Theodora was almost sweet looking, in a sickly, dying way.
The final emergence from Mother’s exhausted womb was Brevillia. Her sharp corners made her a great challenge to birth, and once she had arrived, Mother died immediately. Brevillia was sleek, white and metallic in nature, with a long black cord and two rectangular slots in her back. Her physical qualities and ambivalent emotional responses made her difficult to raise, and by 12 she was no more than ten by four by six inches.
As the seasons passed by, the sisters and Gene learnt to darn trousers and press flowers between the pages of A Modest Proposal. When Father went to work, they’d climb trees and dress up as Mother and bury each other in the garden. The big decaying estate was a trove of delights for the imaginative children, who had incorporated as a small theatrical society before maturity had befallen any of them.
Their first production was an abridged retelling of ‘The Second Nun’, their very favourite of The Canterbury Tales. Eliza had directed the production at the age of 11, staging it al fresco in the sprawling, tumbling grounds. Marina and Gene had shared the role of the second nun, for efficiency of line learning and their physical similarities. Brevillia had played the second nun’s habit, and Theodora had acted as production manager, being too sick to perform a role in the play proper. The production was deemed to be of critical importance and modest commercial significance by the society in the minutes of their first general meeting post bump out.
‘It simply isn’t fair,’ said Theodora, crying yellowy tears into the settee.
Many years had passed since that first memorable production. Eliza was charged with the doing of everything around the house, and Brevillia and Marina, the most attractive of the set, had begun their first emergence into society. Theodora spent her days idly dying, and Gene was slowly fashioning himself into a replica of their useless late father.
‘Why should Brevillia go to a party, leaving me at home, when I am her elder? This is, why, it’s horrid!’
‘Oh, Theodora, don’t swear!’ said Eliza, who then bellowed at the fire, ‘Catch, you disobedient fire!’ while her backside wiggled in skirts she’d sewn from a brown tablecloth. ‘I know it seems unfair, but as the prettiest among us all, she has surpassed your natural birth-order superiority, just as Marina did mine with her bosom.’
‘I should like to take you to a party,’ said Gene, placing his fat pink hands on Eliza’s backside.
‘Goodness gracious, Gene!’ said Eliza. ‘I should take my hand to your backside with vigour!’
‘I should like that greatly,’ said Gene, as a drop of saliva fell out of his open mouth onto the fire.
Eliza could have sworn that the big open fire shuddered in disgust. Silently and in earnest, she apologised to it and to the great dark parlour, to its velvet curtains, to the paintings of ancestors and bowls of apples lining the walls, and to the leather-bound maps on the bookshelf for the fluids of her appalling brother.
Eliza spent her days preserving oranges and avoiding the forthcomings of her brother, Gene, who, in a cruel twist of irony, was the only man who would ever truly desire her as a woman.
‘Eliza, let me list the ways that I can make you happy. In skip rope, I can jump just as high as half the boys at the academy, and I once threw a blackboard duster at an old dog and got away! And I am ever-so resourceful. Why, just last week I split my pants and so I just sat on a beehive until the wax sealed them up. And my prospects are better than yours. Once the lawyer comes back with the paperwork, this whole estate will be mine. And you know what I shall do? I shall kick you out unless you agree to be my wife and all that entails. And, to whit, I am nice!’
Eliza looked at sickly Theodora coughing on the couch, then thought of her other sisters and the things in the room she loved so dearly, and briefly considered the prospect. Then she spotted the outline of Gene’s scrotum pulsating like a heart through his britches and felt ill.
‘Gene, did you mean it when you said you’d do anything for me?’
‘I don’t recall saying that.’
‘Well, I should like you to go out into the snow and cut down the cherry tree so I can make a pie.’
‘Might I simply pick the cherries from the tree?’
‘No, for this recipe requires seven ounces of cherries, two ounces of bark and two pounds of inexplicable suffering.’
‘Also, we pledged all the axes to the war effort, so you must use this butter knife to complete your task.’
‘Well, I once jammed a scone with a butter knife, proving that it can be used for non-butter-related tasks. I shall do it, Eliza. I shall do it and prove my worthiness!’
And with that Gene put on Marina’s favourite housecoat, which he shared with her because of their improbable equi-bosom, and took the butter knife into the snow.
‘Eliza,’ said Theodora, phlegmily, ‘it isn’t cherry season.’
‘I know, but I painted some red dots on a wolf. Now get out your slate. It’s time for today’s philo- sophy lesson.’
‘Can’t we do a science lesson so that I might learn how to not be sick any more?’
‘Healthy mind healthy body. Write that down. That concludes today’s philosophy lesson,’ said Eliza.
‘I wish I was well enough to return to healthy people’s school,’ said Theodora, handing her the agreed-upon shilling.
Eliza and Theodora heard a carriage pull up by the front gate. Moments later, Marina and Brevillia entered the lounge room.
Theodora suddenly remembered how angry she was that she couldn’t go to the party. ‘How was your awful party?’ she said, crying again.
‘Theodora, don’t swear!’ said Eliza.
‘Defrost,’ said Brevillia.
‘Brevillia, what language! Who taught you that word?’
‘Well, I accept your apology. See, Theodora, you could learn a lesson or two from your little sister. Now, Brevillia, Marina, come, come sit down and tell us all about your party.’
‘Do we have to sit next to Theodora? Can’t we get a sort of partition?’ said Marina.
‘I told you when we did last month’s budget, it was apples or a partition, and you chose apples. Now, Theodora, be a good girl and turn your head so you’re breathing your plague away from everybody. Sisters, tell us of your evening!’
‘Oh, it was splendid. Simply splendid,’ said Marina. ‘I feel as though everything in the world was leading up to this night, and nothing need come after. If I should die in my sleep, it would matter not a jot.’ She sighed and swooned over the chair arm.
‘You would not believe what happened at the party. Brevillia and I were standing at the buffet with Henry Swizzler, Wallace Huffington, Flemington le Courboisier and Richard Snarfuckle. Everyone was admiring our party dresses, and Brevillia told a most wicked joke.’
‘Reheat,’ said Brevillia, and Eliza and Marina laughed, knowingly.
‘I don’t get it!’ said Theodora, her head still turned away from the group.
‘You will when you’re older,’ said Eliza.
‘But I am older!’ said Theodora, coughing a little bit of blood onto a hanky.
‘Don’t get mad, Theodora, you may die.’
Theodora began to hiccup acid.
‘At any rate, after the joke, Flemington took Brevillia by the cord and asked her to dance. And Wallace, me to dance. That left Henry and Richard to dance with those hideous McGonnigal twins with the expected inheritance. We danced two Viennese waltzes, a polka and even a tarantella. Then we took a break for some guinea-fowl skewers. And after that we danced the mazurka, and by the time it was finished, well, would you believe it, but we are both engaged to be married!’
‘Oh, splendour! Terrific! Simply wonderment!’ said Eliza, overjoyed with happiness for her beautiful sisters and driven to ecstasy by the realisation that she may not have to marry Gene to save them all from abject poverty.
‘No!’ said Theodora, expelling particles of lung from her mouth. ‘No! No! No! Brevillia cannot be engaged before I!’ And with that Theodora stood up from the couch.
‘Theodora, you mustn’t stand up!’ said Eliza.
‘I believe I will take a turn about the snow with Gene,’ said Theodora, with the calmness of a hatchet.
‘What on earth is Gene doing out in the snow?’ asked Marina. ‘If I cared more for his welfare, I would have mentioned earlier that Brevillia and I saw his britches outside, dangling from the mulberry tree.’
‘Well,’ said Eliza, ‘I thought it might be best for everyone, by which I mean myself, if Gene were to spend a long time outside.’
‘I’m going outside!’ rasped Theodora, ignored by all.
‘He is rather fat for a boy. Perhaps he will look leaner without those britches adding to his girth,’ said Marina, and Eliza swallowed a tablespoon’s worth of vomit.
‘Six, Five, Four, Five, Six,’ said Brevillia as she coiled her cord around her two favourite sisters.
‘Oh, Brevillia,’ said Eliza. ‘Do you really mean that?’
‘Oh, what a lovely thing to say!’ Eliza gave her a big hug, and Marina started to tell them both about Wallace, who had inherited a clock-making business from his father. While she was explaining how his delicate passion for time had made him an excellent dancer, Theodora mustered all her strength and walked towards the door. Her palsied fingers could not quite turn the handle, so she fell on it and, as her scabrous body slid off, the handle turned and the door opened. With that, Theodora crawled out into the blistering snow.
Within moments, her knees and elbows were wet and the snot, permanently dribbling between her nose and mouth, had frozen stiff. She started to grunt as her vocal cords seized and the tallowy hairs on her head became angry, thin icicles. The garden sloped ever downwards, and soon enough she began to roll, further and further, deep into that untamed place, over brambles and briars, tearing her nightdress and scratching her face. Eventually, she came on an embankment.
She had crashed into a lugging wet creature. At first, she thought it was a small, fat bear, but then she listened to the shallow breaths coming from its great body and felt its smooth, naked, babyish skin.
‘Can’t talk,’ it said, spitting out a chunk of wolf, which landed in Theodora’s gasping mouth. ‘Give that back,’ it said slowly between whistling inhalations, ‘I ate that first.’
Theodora returned the piece of wolf flesh to her brother’s mouth.
Back inside the house, the three happy sisters held a late-night rehearsal for their upcoming production of Hamlet, to be staged in the pantry that coming spring. Eliza was tough but constructive with her criticism of Marina’s breastful leading man. As for her other sister, she lavished the highest praise on Brevillia and her thought-provoking portrayal of Yorick.
Meanwhile, in an effort to warm herself, Theodora stuck her hands as best she could under the feverish, warm body of her brother, where she found, nestled between his swollen buttocks, the butter knife.
Back in the house, Eliza pulled out the scrapbook of programs, reviews and memorabilia from their productions, including the famous School for Scandal, where Brevillia stole the show as an extremely convincing inkwell. Then there was the re-enactment of the birth of Christ, where Brevillia played a bale of hay with the tenderest sincerity, and who could forget the stage production of Jane Eyre, in which Brevillia played a stoic Mr Rochester?
Outside, Theodora reefed the knife from its fleshy knife block. Once in full possession of it, she stood up and channelled all her sopping jealousy into the courage of a walrus, then floppily edged her way back to the house.
Inside, Eliza had taken Marina into another room to go over her ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech, while Brevillia rehearsed being Yorick alone on the settee. Brevillia was just practising how to evoke a sense of the inexorable passing from this life to the next when Theodora burst through the doors bloody, phlegmy and angrier than a wrinkly redcurrant.
‘Brevillia! You will listen to me.’ Theodora kept perfect, steely eye contact with her sister as she panted in the doorway, supporting herself on the frame with one hand, the other pointing the butter knife at Brevillia. ‘I find your engagement to a gentleman discourteous’ – she began to inch closer – ‘impertinent’ – closer still – ‘and untimely!’
‘Shut up shut up!’
At this point, Theodora was right on top of her. ‘Say goodnight, Brevillia!’
And with that Theodora plunged the knife right into one of Brevillia’s rectangular back slots.
As the knife went in, Theodora began to shake. She shook and shimmied and her insides went blue. Her wet clothes began to smoke and her hair shot up in flames.
‘I. AM. THEODORA!’
And with that she fell backwards like a plank of wood and died on the floor.
Eliza and Marina had rushed back down, having heard the kerfuffle from their rehearsal room. They stood in the doorway, frozen.
‘Brevillia!’ cried Marina. ‘You’re okay? And your beauty remains!’
‘Oh, Brevillia,’ said Eliza, hastening to her side and wrapping her lovingly in a tea cosy, ‘this was not your fault.’
The next day, Brevillia, Marina and Eliza took Theodora outside to bury her in the garden next to Father and Mother under the mulberry tree, where they conducted a short service.
‘It is a shame Theodora mysteriously conflagrated. But if there is a blessing to be had, I believe she will be less scrofulous in the afterlife,’ said Eliza, concluding the ceremony by throwing Theodora’s snot rags and bedpan in the ground with her. The other girls nodded in solemn agreement.
On the way back, the sisters stumbled upon the lifeless body of Gene next to a clump of wolf bones; dead from over-consumption, the newest variety of consumption known to medical science. Eliza put the wolf bones in her mourning apron, and the sisters vowed to remember to bury him in the spring when he decomposed to a manageable carrying size.
Marina married Huffington the clock-maker and they had efficient synchronised relations for many years, spawning three OmegasTM, two boysTM and a SwatchTM. Brevillia, having turned down Flemington because of his views on the nationalisation of the banks, married a Rockefeller. Eliza made a potent wolf-bone stock. Upon eating it for the first time, an ingrown hair on her chin disappeared. She patented it Grandma Killgene’s Miracle Science CompoundTM, grabbed her carpetbag, blew out the fire and left the estate to begin a new life with a travelling medicine show.
And the leaves changed from green to red to brown to rot to whit to woo. Goodnight.