The twin sisters are fraternal to the sorrow of Peg, the eldest born just before midnight and therefore on an earlier day than Hillary. Their separate birthdays aren’t what riles her. When they were young, Hillary’s parties coming on the heels of Peg’s were forced reruns, neither child getting the celebration she wanted. The trouble is that Peg actually resembles a peg, the sort that are painted to look like squat little people and placed in toy vehicles while Hillary, who received a greater percentage of her mother’s genes, is tall and still beautiful well into her seventies. Hillary collects friends without effort. “What would I do without you?” she tells them. “Be bereft, that’s what.” While Peg’s conversations are marred by grievances. Hillary thinks it would help if Peg began conversations with, “Now, don’t take this wrong.” But Peg takes everything wrong and would bristle at Hillary’s comment. She feels gypped, overshadowed, mired in pain.
Their late parents, the painter Alma Frank and the writer Ezra Oppert are still world famous. The public accepted their idiosyncrasies and understood why they lived cloistered lives. Great artists must protect themselves from those intent on stealing their time. But Peg detested her isolated childhood and when she was in her mid-twenties and overwhelmed by disappointments, she took her mother to court for parental abuse. Her therapist suggested that her father had harmed her more but she didn’t dare to confront him.
The courtroom was packed when Alma Frank took the stand. She hadn’t been seen in decades. The art aficionados-cum-curiosity-seekers who’d lined up for seats, were shocked at how little she’d aged. Her ample hair was piled high on her head. She was tall and solid with the strong-featured face of a Roman goddess yet she sat bent at odd angles as though she was a moth that had been wrenched from its cocoon.
“I understand why my child has accused me of harming her.” Alma’s words emerged in stops and starts. Everyone but Peg leaned toward her, rapt and saddened, wishing they could help her along. “I require an empty sky, pine needles underfoot, absolute quiet especially when I work—more unnerves me. Still, I fought my nature and joined the twins for dinner. I left my studio door open. As a young child Peg once completed a piece that had stymied me. I watched awe-struck and learned.” The spectators wondered what she’d learned. Children were messy while Alma Frank’s wall-sized paintings, soberly lit by faint iridescent ovals, were known to send viewers into exalted states.
Peg jumped up from her chair. Her dress was as red as her rage and she’d slathered on garish makeup, a remnant of her former attempt to be creative. “We wanted normalcy. To be like other kids, not live behind iron gates.” She could tell the room was besotted with her mother. Gone from sight was the egocentric one-pointed workhorse. “We never saw other children. We rarely wore clothes. She painted our bodies. He…” She was afraid to say what her father had done. “And then they banished us without warning. We had no choice where we went. Can you imagine?”
Her mother wept into her scarf. “Peg of my heart, I’m sorry I wasn’t the smiling woman on the cake-mix box. I couldn’t be. We don’t choose who we are. I console myself with the thought that I gave you life. Or was that also a crime? Doesn’t my love count for anything? I offer it yet you refuse. I hadn’t planned to be a mother, didn’t think I would be good at it. While Oppert… But this isn’t about him.”
The judge adjusted his glasses. “The plaintiff enjoys a generous income that allows her to follow her whims however misguided. Life isn’t easy for anyone, although you,” he glowered at Peg, “appear to be more fortunate than most.”
Declared innocent, Alma Oppert-Frank left the courthouse surrounded by well-wishers. Peg stormed out alone. Hillary had holed up in her Maine cottage in a fetal position with her hands over her eyes while an old chum from Vassar looked after her. “How could she do that to us?” Hillary wailed at the news of the acquittal. Given the family’s insistence on privacy, the friend didn’t dare ask which “she” Hillary meant.
Unlike the twins, who aside from their parentage, never excelled at anything (and why should they, friends asked, wasn’t it enough to be raised by two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and have more money than you could ever use), their father had been a prodigy who at the age of two had dictated a story to his nursemaid about disembodied eyes that witnessed secret goings-on. Horrified that he’d watched her have a go at herself in what she’d thought was the privacy of her room and was able to repeat what he saw in great detail, the nursemaid amended the plot to that of a naughty boy who splashes in mud while dressed in new clothes. A year later, able to read and write, he filled his journals himself. At five, he asked for binoculars and peered through them even if he was only an inch from his subject. As a teenager he stared so intently at lovers he saw their hearts contract in their chests. By 1938, hemmed in Europe’s traditions, he left Prague for New York, financed by his father who’d instructed him to buy into industries that were about to take off. Instead he invested this fortune in himself, buying a large apartment and self-publishing his books. He was past thirty and spoke nine languages, two of which he’d invented.
He viewed life as a matter of either-or—a tangle of paths that converged or lured the person into a clump of nettles or rose until the ground disappeared.
The men in Oppert’s family were hard-core philanderers. He lacked their appetites and still he described himself as the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” powerful, given to trickery and a fan of young girls. He was also short and balding with a disproportionately large head and bulging eyes. Women saw him as a pompous toad rather than a beast on the prowl. They ran from him until he met Alma Frank at an ad hoc art exhibition in lower Manhattan. The other artists were drunk and merrily arguing, only Alma stood alone, her face drained of color, her anxiety palpable to anyone who was brave or distracted enough to enter her energy field. Oppert vibrated at the same prickly speed. He felt at one with this stranger and struck by her height and her classical features, he began a story in his head, “Miss Liberty, Brought Low by the Modern World.” Her work at the time was composed of pinhole views of Teresa of Avila’s visions.
“We both see what others miss,” he said. “Harrowing scenes you try to escape by climbing into your paintings. Even so you’re undone. I’ve just moved to the mountains. Let me offer you seclusion.”
He’d bought two thousand acres in the northern Adirondacks. Like other male writers of his era, he’d built his studio himself, dubbing it his screening room, the place where he projected the bloody chaos that ran wild in his brain. He erected Alma’s, a carefully measured three miles away, and equipped it with a small kitchen, a bath and an enormous glass workspace. She waited to join him until the building was finished.
The property came with an old farmhouse. “We’ll keep it as is,” he said, as they toured the slanting rooms with their outdated wallpaper. “Here our children will live simple wholesome lives. Fresh milk, home grown vegetables.” They’d hire a groundsman and a housekeeper who, he didn’t say this to Alma, needed money more than self-respect. He’d seek mutes with blinders, three-dimensional shadows. “I’ll insist that under no circumstance are they to bother us.”
She balked at getting pregnant, given how distressed she became away from her work.
“Please don’t ask me to split my focus,” she said. “I can’t promise a good result.”
The Oppert name stretched back to the Přemyslid Dynasty. He convinced her to give it one try and if she didn’t conceive he’d never ask her again. His faith in his sperm was complete when she learned she was carrying twins.
“Quid agis?” he said, his mouth to her belly, transmitting his knowledge to his as yet unborn sons, Josef and Vladimir. He imagined them dressed as little Hussars in plumed hats with gold braid sewn across their fitted jackets. “Werde ihr der kavallerie beitrenten? Éalons ou juments?” he asked, questioning their equestrian preferences while switching languages to keep his floating progeny on their toes. Not one to care about being a good sport, told he’d fathered girls, he took off on a book tour.
Alma named the babies Hillary and Peg. The birth had gone smoothly yet she refused to hold her infants, afraid she’d squeeze the life from their fragile bodies or smother them with her enormous breasts.
“They have to be nursed,” the housekeeper said. The second of twelve children, the housekeeper saw mothers as perpetual spouts.
“I can’t.” All she could do was to document the way their tiny fingers straightened as they reached for more than she could give them. In the name of hygiene, she sat at a safe distance, her sketchbook propped on her knee while love left her heart, travelled down her arm, her hand and through the charcoal stick until it spread across the page. She filled book after book with these drawings, hid them until she was alone and desperate to kiss her paper babies, afraid the real twins would flinch at her touch.
Oppert ignored his daughters until they were old enough to engage in logical conversations. At that point he wrote a fairy tale about an evil rutabaga child and her army of radishes who try to kill a beautiful corn silk princess. Oppert read the story aloud to his girls with great theatricality, standing on a crate, gesturing and changing his voice to fit the characters. “Rutabaga child, why do you want to hurt me?” he trilled, jutting out a hip and tossing his imagined blond hair. “Is it because the flowers smile at me and wilt when you pass?”
Peg was seven by then. She ran to her mother’s studio. “I’m not a cruel rutabaga child, am I?” she asked. Her mother put down her brush.
“Of course not. Who said so?”
“Daddy. In a story.”
“Your father’s stories have nothing to do with you.”
“The princess has Hillary’s hair.”
Peg had her father’s features. He obscured what he could of his with a mustache, a beard and long side swept bangs.
“We’ll make up our own story,” Alma said. “Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a forest.”
“I don’t know.” She’d given a cruel man children and saw the near impossibility of correcting her mistake.
“Peg needs indulging,” she told the housekeeper.
The housekeeper had spent much of her childhood eying the brother or sister who took the last bite. Told to spoil Peg, she baked a cake with the idea of letting her lick the bowl, a treat she’d yearned for at Peg’s age.
“Aren’t you the lucky girl,” she said, her envy masked until she caught sight of what she saw as Peg’s increasingly greedy face. “Or maybe,” she said, as she scraped all of the batter into the pan. “You’re just a spoiled brat.”
After a heavy rain, Oppert ordered the groundskeeper to help him and Hillary count the mushrooms in the woods. The groundskeeper was the Oppert of Oppert’s dreams, tall and broad-shouldered, with huge hands and feet, a man who chopped wood with less effort than Oppert could cut through a butter-soft steak.
Hillary wore a sundress. A strap slid down her shoulder. She skipped ahead.
“I fathered a sunbeam,” Oppert told the groundskeeper. He lowered his voice. “She’s delicious. I know it for a fact and that you want her too.”
The groundskeeper reddened. “What are you saying?”
“She’s yours. I won’t tell.”
“Oh come on, I see how you watch her. I’m proposing we both indulge ourselves. Hillary, darling?”
She turned toward them. The groundskeeper grabbed her and ran toward the house, dizzy and tripping over roots while Hillary, in her confusion, fought to free herself from his hold.
“Kidnapper,” Oppert shouted. “Pervert. Where the hell do you think you’re taking my daughter?”
The groundskeeper kept running.
“I’ll call the police. Who will they believe? The famous father or the iffy hired hand?”
The groundskeeper let Hillary go and lurched toward Oppert.
“Marvelous,” Oppert said. “I’ve just watched the next scene in my novel. You knock the father unconscious. It’s just you and the child. Will you or won’t you?” He took a check out of his pocket. “Five thousand dollars, if you keep this between us. I may call on you again. Or not. I’d say not. Still one can’t be sure.”
The groundskeeper who’d left juvenile detention with a permanent record, took the money and hobbled home spitting curses into his employer’s soil.
The twins needed an education. Oppert refused to send them down the mountain to sit among blue collar children. Instead in an homage to his homeland, he built a wooden schoolhouse replete with scalloped siding and a steeple. True to his taste in employees, he hired a teacher who was debt-ridden and had difficulty raising her voice.
Peg took to reading with ease. Hillary didn’t. Soon Hillary was seated in the teacher’s lap, miserably sounding out T’s and B’s while the teacher stroked her long hair.
Peg ran to her mother. Halfway there she tore off her clothes. If it were possible, she would have also ditched her face and her body.
The door to the studio was open. Alma was absorbed in painting the bottom third of a canvas she’d provisionally titled Waxing Crescent. In a departure from her usual palette, she’d streaked it with cobalt and wide swathes of purple.
“I hate my teacher,” Peg said.
“What?” Alma rubbed out the gray she’d just added. “Do you think it’s too melancholy?”
“She hates me.”
“Who?” Alma tried a thin band of orange.
“How could she hate you?” Alma turned to Peg. “Where are your clothes? Cover yourself.”
Peg picked up a can of tinted primer and poured it down her chest. The primer moved slowly, bubbled in places. She spilled more of it in her hair. It edged down her face, stuck in her eyelashes, she licked her lips, expecting a creamy flavor rather than the metallic chalk that clung to her tongue. But no matter, she had a job to do and she rubbed her newly silvered stomach against her mother’s work.
“Is that better? Did I help? Should I do more? Are you happy with me?”
From the start, Oppert spent his nights in his studio. Alma and the girls ate dinner together, meat and a canned vegetable the housekeeper left for them.
“A red and black polka-dot frog hopped across my feet,” Hillary told her mother between bites of cubed beef.
“If I’d been there I would have caught it,” Peg said. “I catch hundreds of frogs a day.”
“Not this one, you couldn’t. It made itself as thin as a piece of paper and disappeared into a crack.”
“Frogs don’t do that, do they Mommy?”
“What?” Impatient for the vivid blue sky that came just before nightfall, Alma rushed outside and sank into a lawn chair, everything else forgotten. Later the stars absorbed her attention. She dozed and woke at dawn, as wet as the grass.
The groundskeeper saw her and dropped a key in her lap.
“Use it,” he said and hurried off before she could ask what door it opened.
She had a show in New York. Reviewers called it the closest they’d come to exploring a distant galaxy. Within hours every piece sold, several to top museums. As instructed, the money was deposited into Oppert’s account.
“Good for you,” he said.
Alma stiffened. Something dark and razor-sharp had flickered behind his smile. “Do you mean it?”
“Of course. What are you insinuating?”
Chameleon-like, she flattened herself against the landscape.
After a spate of books written in code or in reverse order or with the pages cut into small squares and sold in a box, Oppert told a reporter, “Today I return to more accessible formats. Paradoxically, I’ve freed myself from all constraints.”
Hillary wanted to go to boarding school. She was fourteen by then, with an affectionate nature, an interest in boys that at present could only flower in her imagination. “Peg and I need friends,” she told her mother. “It’s not fair we have to live like this.”
If Alma had been allowed a wish, it would have been that her girls never feel what she felt, that everything and everyone had the potential to turn on her. She sent a note via the groundskeeper inviting her husband to tea at her studio. “Oppert,” she said, when he arrived. She’d written her speech on a sheet of newsprint and stood while she spoke to summon whatever authority she had. “The girls’ education is inadequate. They’re too sheltered. This life doesn’t suit them.”
“How about this?” He was shockingly jovial. “I have to make a speech in Frankfurt. I’ll take the twins and give them the grand tour. If they like it, I’ll enroll them in the Gymnasium Stift Neuzelle where my sister studied.”
“Not someplace closer? I was thinking they’d be closer. In Massachusetts or Vermont.”
“You want the best for them don’t you, to be worldly, not a panic stricken …”
The trip was months away. Until then he’d teach them German. Or might a series of language records be better? He had deadlines to meet.
A caring, if unavoidably busy father, he helped Hillary when he could. They sat outside, their legs covered by a single blanket, his hands on her lips to correct her pronunciation.
This was in 1957. Transatlantic flights took eighteen hours. There’d be no hopping back and forth should loneliness arise.
The girls were thrilled. “Guten Morgen,” they chirped to the housekeeper. “Wie geht es dir?”
Alma felt differently. Gymnasium Stift Neuzelle was unacceptable. The girls could go to Dana Hall or Emma Willard and come home by train.
It was nearly midnight but she’d never lived by the clock. Wild to insure that her daughters stay near, she grabbed a flashlight and in a sudden impulse, the key the groundskeeper had given her. For the first time she walked the three miles to Oppert’s studio.
“Allow me this favor,” he’d said, when they’d married. “I need to keep something of my old self alive and to let it live privately.”
“So do I,” she’d told him, relieved to have something in common with her husband.
She knocked and got no answer yet light shone from a high window.
She tried the key. The door opened to an empty room. She heard voices, saw another door, pushed it and found herself at the top of a staircase assaulted by stale air.
“Go away,” he shouted from below. “You have no right to be here.”
“I have a right as a mother.” She started down the steps, stopped midway.
Oppert stood in an extravagantly furnished fin de siècle salon replete with chandeliers, tufted divans and Persian rugs. A family sat at a dinner table, her family as seen through a funhouse mirror. A perverse Hillary, heavily made up, wantonly seductive, her gauzy dress unbuttoned, her long finger in her mouth, rolled her kohl lined eyes at Alma. Next to her sat a malformed version of Peg—a stunted hydrocephalic who could barely hold up her head. Two young men, one blind and missing an ear, the other whose left side was paralyzed, were dressed as Prussian soldiers, the names Josef and Vladimir were elaborately embroidered on their jackets in gold.
“My God,” Alma cried.
The enormous wife, her face was even stronger than Alma’s, her jaw squarer, her nose more aquiline, her cheeks higher although both had been gouged and starbursts of scars ran from them to her lips, held out an empty goblet. “Vἱce vἱna, nwo!” she brayed to an arthritic woman in a parody of servant’s uniform.
“Co?” The servant straightened the pleated cap that had fallen over her eyes.
“Vἱce vἱna!” Her glass filled, the wife gaped at Alma, lauded it over the interloper that she, the Queen, was lavish in a fur-edged robe.
These people were sallow, their skin pitted, their hair thin and missing in places, their remaining teeth black at the gum line.
“Who are they,” Alma stammered.
“My family,” Oppert said. “The few on earth who, in their devotion, allow me to dissect them at whim, squeeze their hearts like a lemon and describe the secretions. They cry out for my love, fall for my threats. Would you do that for me? Would the twins? Is there even something inside you worth finding or are you made of Play-Doh?”
Amid the stench and the pathos, Alma realized that these captives had been starved at one time, beaten for their deformities, stomped on, locked away.
“I would have given birth to them if I could,” he said. “My need was that great. Instead I had to smuggle them out of the hell that was Europe, save them the way I saved you.”
Alma sank to the step. “Do they ever leave this building?”
“Why would they? They exist inside this tableau to star in my fantasies. Beyond that they have no purpose.”
“Who’ll believe you didn’t know? Expose me and the shame will fall on your children. Go back to your studio.”
“And forget this?”
“Why not? All that happened is that you entered my mind. You looked out through my eyes and saw what I see. I stand exposed but not sorry. Leave us alone.”
“And let my girls live amid evil.”
“There is no evil. Don’t you understand? They’re me in my brokenness. Slit me open and they’ll tumble out. The difference is, I have the means to remain safe in this world while horror galloped toward them. Their past fuels my imagination. Where once I felt depleted I wake eager to write stories for them to act out. And if the plots aren’t above board? Nothing sinks to what they did before.”
“What are you saying?”
“They pair up when I tell them to, turn on each other at my command while I sit at the typewriter and pound the keys.”
“The police won’t think your books are worth it.”
“Don’t tell them. Where will they go? Or you? Your studio is your refuge. The girls, yes. Send them to whatever school you choose.”
Aside from the times she’d drawn her newborns, Alma had struggled to capture something older and more elusive than the human form. “The origin of color, if that makes sense,” she’d once told a critic, cringing at her hubris. Now with the twins in boarding school, the tougher decisions on hold (should Oppert be jailed, his victims sent to a facility), she began a portrait of Ivona, the other wife, using charcoal to sketch in the woman’s rectangular jaw, her smashed cheeks, the elegant shape of her nostrils. Where had he found her? She was Alma, patched and inflated, allowed to be or had she been forced to be the kind of brazen sensualist that Alma, who lived behind walls of her own making, wouldn’t chance.
“My mother abhorred me,” Alma said. “A string of harsh comments and I was finished by second grade.” It was mad to talk to a painting but wasn’t Ivona a calamitous version of herself? As she drew Ivona’s deadened eyes, she saw past their willed blankness to the pile of bodies Ivona had been part of when a soldier smashed her face with his gun. Yet, despite her disfigurement Ivona had held onto her vanity and reveled in the status she thought she had. “Oppert is entranced by your beauty,” Alma whispered. “Let me restore you to health, be your plastic surgeon. On canvas, I mean. That’s the extent of my skill.”
It occurred to her that the groundskeeper knew Oppert’s secret. Why else give her the key? She sent a note through him to Oppert saying, “Move your family into the farmhouse. Let them live normally.”
She watched as they shuffled to their new home, squinting against the light while the scent of pine swirled around them and the servant clucked at the resemblance between these woods and those she’d known as a girl. Later, she heard laughter and saw Vladimir peek through the window, his face lit with curiosity.
She approached them while they sat in the sunshine. “Halό. Jsem Alma.” She wanted to kneel at their feet like a novice kneels in front of the Virgin. Too shy for such a naked gesture, she gave each of them a candy.
Weeks of this and the family called out “Halό Alma,” when they saw her and she gained the courage to cradle Eliska’s distended head and croon to her the way she wished she’d been able to croon to her own children.
“You’ve prevented an ending where dragons burn me alive,” Oppert bellowed at Alma.
The twins wanted to visit. They were now in college, leaping from boyfriend to boyfriend, Hillary choosing earnest sorts while Peg chased after men whose only interest was in the bragging rights that came with dating the daughter of a famous pair.
“This isn’t a good time,” Alma said, and hung up.
“Whoa. She sounded like I wanted her to drop acid,” Hillary told Peg. “Should we be worried?”
“No. It’s simple. They don’t want us and never did.”
Alma called back. “Let’s meet in the city, at the Saint Regis on Thursday.”
The trip took eight hours. The groundskeeper drove, urging her to stay calm. A feat she managed until they were halfway across the George Washington Bridge, bumper to bumper. She glanced at what looked like a defective cable and started to scream.
The groundskeeper left the twins a message from a convenience store on the New Jersey side where Alma had just downed the largest recommended dose of aspirins in an effort to gain control of herself. “Your mother,” he said, “sends her apologies.”
With the groundskeeper again at the wheel, Alma made further attempts at a reunion, getting as far as the Westside Drive one year or to the Ninety-sixth Street underpass the next or even through the entire park to Fifth Avenue before she panicked and begged him to turn around.
She tried to make it up to her daughters through letters. “I miss you girls terribly. In dreams we sip tea and talk for hours. Tell me everything you’ve been doing, don’t skip a single detail however small. On my end, I’ve changed to a degree. I’ve learned to swallow my shame and be more gregarious.”
“Then show your face,” Peg snapped. As part of her search for a way to make her own mark on the world, she’d enrolled in acting school. Asked to perform a monologue, Peg donned a frizzy rainbow wig, gigantic overalls, size twelve shoes and a round red nose. The mood established, she stood center stage and read her mother’s letters aloud. “‘Dearest daaarling, heart of my heart,’ lub dub, lub dub,” she said and pulled on the bib of her overalls to connote a beating heart. “‘I’m taking Deprol and Pentobarbital to lesson my anxiety although they slow me more than I’d like.’” Peg threw yellow mini marshmallows into her mouth and swallowed them with the help of a clown sized seltzer dispenser. “‘I sleep more, zzzZZZ, zzzZZZ, worry less.’” She flung herself about like a ragdoll. “‘I miss,’” said in a high voice, “‘miss, miss, miss you,’” said in a baritone. “‘Don’t ever lose your spunk.’” She put her hand to her brow and searched for it like a comic explorer would.
“You know who her mother is,” classmates whispered, thrilled to be let in on the truth about Alma Frank.
Peg kept one of her mother’s letters private and still carries it with her, carefully folded and placed, for protection, inside a gold cigarette case.
“My dearest, darling Peg, pride of my heart,
I want you to know that you are perfect and beautiful. Nothing was or is your fault. You were born whole, a marvelous, light-filled creature. Your father and I were inadequate parents in a world where much damage occurs and yet repair remains possible. I send you a million kisses. May my love heal the hurts we inflicted on you.”