The Dunlops Are Drowning
The water welcomed me
Into its overwhelming arms,
Unlike any love I’d ever known.
I don’t call it drowning—
I’ve been drowning my whole life.
I’d never thought of vocabulary as being my strong point, but when I first met the Dunlop boys, the word “pompous” immediately jumped out of my syllabus-stricken brain. I shouldn’t call them boys since they were nearing their mid-twenties (as was I), yet what they had in wealth they lacked in wisdom.
Their mother was religious, but not religious enough to know she had made a fatal error when she named one son Cain and the other Caleb. I could barely say their names without mashing them up into “Cable.”
They were twins and had two defining characteristics: they rarely spoke (least of all to me), and they always wore suits. It didn’t matter if they were going for a picnic at the beach for Uncle Sam’s birthday. I always made sure they had a fresh supply of navy blue suits pressed and hung up in their closets.
Oh, me? Yes. I was one-third secretary, one-third babysitter, and one-third manager. I’d made the hideous mistake of allowing their mother to “grow up” with me throughout church life: she’d changed my diapers in nursery, taught me about Noah leading the Israelites to Eden, served me pizza at the youth group graduation ceremony, and then sat next to me in choir. While Mrs. Dunlop always gasped and declared it was all a coincidence, my mother was certain she’d been hoping since my diaper days that I’d end up with one of her bonehead (albeit rich and beautiful) sons.
I had never even met them until we were all out of college and still single. Their mother had shipped them off to some European boarding school for the majority of their blossoming years, yet not a single Italian model had been wooed by their painfully perfect suits and horror-movie-esque empty eyes.
So, their mother had handed them a solid gold block each like they were in The Apprentice and told them to go make something of themselves. Which, of course, they didn’t because they had the personality of a . . . solid gold block.
And that’s where I came in. Mrs. Dunlop started a business under their names and attempted to spur her sons on. But it’s like biking up a hill for someone else and then hopping off and expecting them to jump on upon descent. Neither gravity nor hard work are in favor.
We operate from the Dunlop’s expensive white mansion, set just a short jog away from a cliff as if tempting fate. Apparently, fate even obeys the rich. The house peers down at me every morning when I come to work, with its black toupee roof, bulging window eyes, and thick pillared arms. It certainly isn’t what I would’ve chosen to live in.
Mrs. Dunlop has a schedule all set up: clients, spreadsheets, meetings. It’s my job to keep the boys on target and mark things off as done. But, honestly, I run the business. I also make sure their suits are ironed because heaven save us if there’s a wrinkle under Cain’s armpit.
But something wasn’t right, and I felt it. The shadows in that house didn’t fall quite right; the windows shattered the light. Mrs. Dunlop claimed it was Mr. Dunlop, on vacation from Hades, attempting to remind his sons to do taxes.
I didn’t like it, whatever it was. The whole household seemed to look at me as if they knew something I didn’t.
But man, I made more money in three days than most people did in a whole week. Sure, it wasn’t exactly easy, but there was air-conditioning and paid vacations. Plus, Mrs. Dunlop treated me like the smartest, prettiest woman in all of Connecticut.
So every time I saw that new deposit into my bank account, I just grinned and shoved down the eeky feeling to whatever paranoid part of my body it had come from.
The girl, that girl—
Firecracker in a pencil skirt.
What is her name?
Do not forget, dear brother,
It is Winnie, like that of a horse.
Horse, of course,
I like her much, don’t you?
I cannot rightly say.
There is something
Otherworldly about her,
Something that doesn’t
Quite sit right
In the dead of night
Dark of night
Full of fright
Turn out the light—
Do not let this reality
Trick you, prick your heart,
Tear us apart.
She is otherworldly.
Mother is not happy with us,
I am afraid, unstayed, dismayed,
We’re on parade for the whole world
Giver of futures,
Does she know?
Does she know . . .
Oh, yes, I’d near forgotten
What we, what we see,
The free, the free,
What we have to do,
I will not regret—
But you’re sure?
Not in the least
In the end,
Will it matter
When we scatter?
It is done, then.
It was Monday, the day I most dreaded because of all the work that had piled up over the weekend. The Dunlop boys did nothing during their time off but listen to The Wreck of the Hesperus on their mother’s vintage gramophone and scribble nonsense on pieces of paper.
I requested that they assemble in the Great Room an hour earlier on Mondays to plan for the week, and they usually slipped in exactly on time, carrying cups of Earl Gray tea.
But, today, it was five minutes past seven and they were nowhere to be seen. I walked over to the gaping windows, unconsciously avoiding the shadows that would have painted slats onto my body. Perhaps the boys were outside taking a walk quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley or other such nonsense. But only the overgrown grass waved at me. The Dunlops are so rich, you’d think they’d employ a gardener along with all the maids and butlers and window washers.
The door opened, and I turned to give the twins a high-and-mighty glare. But it was only Urial, the Dunlop’s dog-like cat. I must have left the door slightly open. Urial was really a cat, but so kind and loyal and un-cat-like that I wasn’t so certain he actually was a cat at all.
The canine cat let out a mewl as if updating me on where the twins were.
“Now, dear Urial,” I said, picking up the puffy vanilla-and-cinnamon animal. He looked left and right, continuing to chatter. “You know I can’t understand you.”
Urial suddenly stared straight into my eyes. The slatted shadows of the house stared back at me, and they flickered and changed to prison bars, to gnarled arms, to—
I dropped the cat, who screeched in dismay. “Urial!”
But the cat hissed and, with a disdainful glance, scattered back out the way he’d came.
I blinked a couple times. Suddenly, I didn’t feel comfortable being alone anymore.
I too fled out the door. “Mrs. Dunlop! Mrs. Dunlop!”
There were no maids, no butlers, just glistening wooden floors and cold portraits interspersed with mirrors to compare yourself to people who are richer than you are.
I finally ran out the front door; I could have thrown my high heels off, jumped in the air, and flown away . . .
But there was Mrs. Dunlop. And there were the maids and the butlers and . . . and there were fire trucks and police cars creating a racous symphony of warning.
How had I not heard any of this from the house?
I stood on the white marble steps, shadows growing inside of me.
“My dear, dear Winnie,” cried Mrs. Dunlop, barely making it up the steps. She grabbed at her scarf and sobbed into the expensive French fabric, her arms all helter skelter.
“What happened, Mrs. Dunlop?”
Her eyes gazed into mine.
“Cain is dead.”
How was it, brother?
Ah, just as father said:
“The water welcomed me
Into its overwhelming arms,
Unlike any love I’d ever known.
I don’t call it drowning—
I’ve been drowning my whole life.”
Ah, I am glad to hear it.
Did you see mother drowning,
Frowning in the crowds
Crowding the house?
Why yes, but I am now a ghost,
A host of forgotten almosts.
It is for their own good,
I will do what I must.
I will miss the good life
But I part with a kiss,
I have done what I must
Now I trust, I’m dust,
Mother is dust,
Rust, my dear brother.
That’s why she shines.
After Mrs. Dunlop’s initial meltdown, she became creepily ambivalent. Life seemed to go on. She marched into the house and divided the work up into two shares instead of three, requested bacon and then remembered she doesn’t like bacon, and scurried up the stairs.
Urial had disappeared. I was afraid I’d insulted him, but I hadn’t told anyone that I had dropped him.
My first thought when Mrs. Dunlop told me about Cain’s death was: “How ironic; Caleb murdered Cain.” I was shocked at myself for such a thought.
Caleb had explained everything to the police, using more words than I’d ever heard him speak since I’ve known him. After that, apparently he’d met his quota for the year and has been dead silent.
And the shadows in the house have . . . have shifted. I see them on the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Rick-rack pattern, that’s what they are. Criss-cross, always two, never one. The sun is playing tricks with my eyes, bordering the blackness with a second grayish shadow. I try to adjust to get rid of the shadows when I can.
According to Caleb, they’d been taking a walk before our meeting, trying to recite Old Ironsides. Cain, carried away by Oliver Wendall Holmes’ personification of the ship, had peeked over the cliff to recite his stanza.
He peek, peek, peeked . . . and plopped. Slipped right off the cliff and fell, his “shattered hulk . . . sink[ing] beneath the wave.”
Dying of improper poem recitation? No, thank you. Truly, Cain’s death was tragic. Both family members didn’t seem to take it as badly as I did. I was a mess for the rest of the week, what with only one set of suits to iron and one book to set out for nightly reading and one boy to boss around.
Not to mention that the majority of Cain’s workload fell to me. I now could “feel the victor’s tread,” what with three hours of sleep nightly. While I wasted away, Mrs. Dunlop and Caleb thrived in silence. Mrs. Dunlop was polite enough to attempt conversation, but Caleb still refused to answer my questions.
I asked Mrs. Dunlop if he was suffering from depression or shock, but she glazed right over it like a horse over a hurdle. “Let’s go over tomorrow’s schedule again, shall we?”
No, we shall not. The lack of sleep was getting to me; I was making all kinds of errors. While Caleb was walking by me, I noticed a giant, laceration-level wrinkle in his pants and I almost wept. Before Cain’s death, I never would’ve allowed a wrinkle that size . . .
Meanwhile, at night, everything was shadows. They dripped over me like syrup on pancakes in a southern diner. I got less and less sleep, and meanwhile the shadows drip, drip, dripped on top of me.
It is about time, brother.
Ready the waves,
Rehearse the lyrics,
Listen to the tune, the rune,
Of the clouds, the moon.
“Aye, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high.”
She is wasting away,
I believe you are
I only wish
Her heart had
Held out longer.
Me as well, for a spell,
But now let me tell, let me tell
You of the plan.
“Set every thread-bare sail,
And give her to the god of storms—”
“My dear, what is wrong with you?” Mrs. Dunlop asked. There was a sharpness in her eyes which I didn’t recognize, but I blinked and the glass was gone.
Everything is wrong, Mrs. Dunlop. Everything.
I was sure I looked like something the ocean had swallowed and then spat out again. My eyes were tattered by lack of sleep, my hair some wild flag whipping in the wind. My body was absolutely thread-bare, malnourished by paranoia and stress and lack of sleep.
“Why don’t you take a walk before you start work?”
I was such a workaholic, usually I would refuse her. But the shadows in that house . . . I couldn’t watch them any longer. Couldn’t let them accompany me, couldn’t listen to their dark lyrics.
“Okay. I’ll be back.”
I wrapped my shawl closer to my shoulders—a shawl? I don’t remember owning a shawl. I spun around and the house already seemed miles away.
“Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow.”
The wind sung the words, gentle yet robust, and I wondered where my father was. I’d never thought about him before now. Or had I? Did I have a mother?
Everything was so bright, so light out here. There could be no shadows, could there?
With every step, I felt more and more safe. Perhaps Urial was out here; perhaps Mrs. Dunlop, even. Sweet Mrs. Dunlop. Sharp Mrs. Dunlop. I see her eyes, darkness hidden underneath the light, and grow confused.
I longed to watch the waves pummel the cliff, their shade of blue so similar to my own blue eyes.
“The beakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.”
“Keep singing,” I whispered to the gale effortlessly as if I were breathing. Nearer, nearer, and the wind whipped around me. Maybe a storm was coming; maybe I should head inside. But the shadows were behind me, only brightness ahead.
There was something lovely, something I knew beyond the cliff. Cain? Had Cain survived, perhaps fallen onto a part of the cliff? I could save him, I could save myself.
I was just a step away. The blue bled on for eternity, a liquid wound pouring across the earth.
I leaned over and thought of Cain for only a moment, how he foolishly had leaned over a cliff. And yet, when I leaned, I saw someone below. But it wasn’t Cain; no, this man was kind and old and had a beard made of clouds. He was half-immersed in the water, and his eyes were so familiar and blue and—
My father? I turned back for a moment, sanity rushing back to me—and yet there were the shadows, those terrible, terrible shadows in the house, doubling and tripling and growing inside of me. Only the water was sanity.
“Dear, sweet Winnie!” Said my father. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“Forgive you for what?” The water leaped up towards me, waving me closer.
“My sweet daughter, you do not remember? What have they done to you? Ah, but we went boating for your twenty-first birthday. I miscalculated and . . . and we struck a rock.” I was still on the cliff, but it was as if the water below were rushing over me, running its fingers through my hair, reassuring me and reminding me of what I’d lost. “I died, but you were . . . well, how did your brothers explain it? You were suspended between life and death on that boat. Somehow, you’ve ended up here. You needed to remember who you were, but it wasn’t working, so we sent your brothers to get you.”
“But . . . but . . . Caleb and Cain are my brothers?”
“Yes! I’ve been visiting as well, in the form of a cat.”
I grin. “Urial? No wonder I loved him.”
My father rubs his backside. “You could have been a bit more gentle with him, no?”
“You can come join us, but you must jump.”
A head emerged from beside him, and hands wiped water from liquid blue eyes. Cain! “Yes, sister! I had to die again to get your attention and return to father. Now, jump!”
“But what about Caleb?”
“He will be coming soon; his time has not yet come.”
Father and Cain glance at each other with understanding only available postmortem.
“People like her stay here,” Father finally declared, his voice wavering.
“People like her?” I’m dripping. Drenched. Drowning. I’m not even in the water, yet tears fall from my eyes, my ears, my arms, my legs.
“Come, sweet girl. Come join us.”
And maybe I leaned too far on purpose, because I wanted to go to Father; maybe I couldn’t hear Father and I leaned closer to hear. Whatever it was, I let go of my shawl and it whipped off as I toppled, tumbled, and flew for a moment, into the water with my father and brother.
All memories dripped away.
I hit the water.
Brother, did you tell her?
No, she is too excited,
Too delighted, ignited,
Her eyes are on fire—
I cannot destroy her like that.
And you think that is wise?
Yes, and father does too,
What’s best is best for the rest.
When are you coming?
I may have secrets
Of my own.
What do you mean?
Mother knew what we were doing
She wouldn’t let Winnie leave
Unless I stay.
Brother! No, you can’t,
That’s wrong, so long,
I will come for you.
Don’t! She is waiting for you.
I will be fine, do not worry,
Just tell Winnie I said hello—
Our firecracker, our freckled
Friend, dearest sister.
You are brave.
No. I am a slave.
EPILOGUE — MRS. DUNLOP, THE MATRIARCH
The shadows have almost reached the front of my black high heel, my leg lying in front of me as if daring the light to leave.
Caleb slithers into the room.
“What do you want?” I thunder. Swirling cumulonimbus memories vibrate inside of me, anger flaming within me. It smacks against my icy façade, conceiving a storm. I am the storm.
“Mother, please. Just a drink of water.”
I jolt in my chair, lightning in human form. “You disgusting child; get back in your room. You took my daughter from me.”
“Father wanted her.” He sounds tired, defeated. I grin, my power feeding off of the pain I’ve caused.
“Your father always wanted something. I gave him the world, yet it was never enough.”
“He wanted your heart.”
I snarl. “And that is one thing I can never give.”
Because you have no heart. The unspoken sentence hangs in the air. I want him to say it, to spit the words at me, to hate me so I can further break him.
My son is silent. That works too.
He stares at me a bit longer, sending a message which I block out.
I know I am a monster. I am content with it. I have been broken so many times in my life that I am made only of shards, which poke and prod and break others.
Caleb lowers his eyes to the ground and retreats.
I lean back in my chair. The sun has set further, sending shadowy waves across half of my body. I lean further into the chair, willing myself to melt into it.
In the darkness, when I am small and alone and nearly unseen, I almost let myself feel my pain.
But not today.
Instead, my eyes drift to the walls, where the shadows are now threefold.