Lucia on Fire
My twin sister Kathryn has lived in France for almost fifteen years, in a small village west of Lyon. The last time my husband Jake and I visited, I watched her galloping across a field on her gray Selle Français stallion, Cascadeur. Meaning “double” or “stunt man” in English, the horse’s name is my sister’s joke on both of us. The image of her riding the stallion comes to me often, as if I’m really able to see her at any given moment through the window of clairvoyance given to identical twins. Everyone, they say, has an unconscious craving for a double, but only identical twins can have that strange desire so fully satisfied. When you see your double, you see your fate as paradox. So as a child I had to know whether Kathryn was a guardian angel or a menace. Whether she was my beloved sister or my nemesis.
My mother’s best friend called us “twinies.” We liked the same things, and everyone we knew thought of us as the same person. We sat together in school - which drove the teachers crazy, because we dressed alike every day. For a while, we had our own sort of perfect world. But despite our mother’s protests, and my distress over the matter, we stopped dressing in the same clothes when we were in the fifth grade. Kathryn was the one to end this practice suddenly one unseasonably warm Minnesota morning when we were getting ready for school. “I’m not wearing blue shorts today,” she declared, brushing her long, taffy-colored hair. It was just like my hair, except she said I didn’t brush mine enough to make it shine the way hers did.
“Okay,” already fumbling with my zipper. “I can wear something else.”
“No,” she said, her voice rising up with the vowel, making the word sound like two syllables. “You wear the blue shorts and I’ll wear something else. We have different personalities, Caroline, so let’s wear different clothes.”
The words hurt as much as if each was a match touched to my skin, but I was silent. Kathryn was difficult to argue with. When she was little, she had been fearless of punishment and would stamp her small foot and grow red in the face at even the mildest of Mother’s rebukes. Though I loved Kathryn dearly, she had things her way, and that was that. “Okay,” I said, shrugging my shoulders in the way she hated and putting on a blouse that was old and faded, something she wouldn’t have worn in public had she lived from the beginning to the end of time. That same afternoon, I walked home alone. Kathryn was staying after school, trying out for Flag Corps. Mother met me at the door. Her hands and wrists were streaked with paint. One of her hobbies was painting wildflowers, especially Swedish wildflowers.
“Where are my twins?” Mother asked, moving a strand of hair away from her face with the back of her hand and leaving a smudge of blue on her forehead.
“I’m here,” I said, holding back tears.
“Trying out for Flag Corps,” I said in my most sarcastic and impolite voice. I paused and twirled my hair around a finger. “She doesn’t want to dress alike anymore.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” my mother said, waving me into the house. “Come on, I’ll make you a sandwich and we can practice the latest Swedish lesson from the Vasa Star.”
“No thanks,” I said, stomping to my room. Our room. Maybe she’d have to have her own room now, too. I looked at my poster of a buoy floating in the Stockholm Archipelago and Kathryn’s poster of the Eiffel Tower. I hung my hands between my knees and thought of my sister, out on the playground, twirling her flag. Only the popular girls got chosen for the Flag Corps, so I knew what to expect when Kathryn came home. I heard her say the very words, as if I could foretell the future. “I made Flag Corps!” I rummaged deep in my drawer for my hidden book of matches, and slipped out the door. On the way to our playhouse, I broke a dried twig from our hedge of false aralia. I opened the screendoor and let it bang hard behind me. Our father had built the playhouse from construction scraps and painted it a vivid turquoise. I sat at the small table and lighted my “cigarette,” sucking the foul wood-tasting smoke into my mouth, and then letting it drift out again, into the shadowy air of the playhouse. I had to make a plan to get Kathryn back. That afternoon, I came up with three plans: I would be like her, I would be so different that no one would recognize us as twins, or I would kill her. I wasn’t me without her.
Later that afternoon I was back in our room reading on my bed. I closed my book when Kathryn came in, and looked up at her. Her face was streaked with tears. She threw her school satchel on the bed. “I didn’t make Flag Corps.” She came over and sat beside me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I want to be Kathryn again.” She twisted a strand of bright hair around her finger. “I can read your mind,” she said mysteriously. “I’ll always be able to, forever and ever.”
I scooted away from her and squeezed my eyes shut. “What am I thinking about right now?”
She grabbed my hand and held it. “You’re happy I didn’t make Flag Corps.”
“I am not,” I said indignantly.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I wish we could marry twins and live next door to each other in twin houses,” I said with excitement. I’d just read a magazine article about the Rickett sisters, who had never been apart in sixty years. “We’ll live to be a hundred and die on the same day. That’ll take care of everything!”
Kathryn looked at me for a long time, and I looked back at her, my mirror. She scrunched up her nose and mouth in a mean expression she’d tried suddenly to disguise with a smile. Before I could tell her she looked like a crazy person, she wrapped her arms around me.
“You’re so romantic, Caro.” She’d started calling me that after we’d used a bottle of Karo syrup to make popcorn balls.
“I hate that name,” I said, biting my lower lip and thinking I might cry. I was romantic. I didn’t want to live without her.
By the time we started middle school, we had different groups of friends, Kathryn and I. We never dressed alike. But we still shared the same room, test scores, grades, illnesses, and could read one another’s minds with ease. I was like her, and she was like me. I felt sure our fifth grade crisis had passed. We hardly ever played tricks on our friends and teachers, as we used to when we were younger, although most people still couldn’t tell us apart. Even when we did play tricks, like changing seats on April Fool’s Day, it wasn’t much fun, because no one noticed. When we were babies, even our mother and father couldn’t tell which of us was which. Each morning, our mother would look for the faint brown birthmark on my left thigh, and then tie a blue ribbon around my wrist, and a white ribbon around Kathryn’s. She told us how we’d soothed one another in the crib by sucking each other’s thumbs.
But at the beginning of tenth grade, Kathryn announced to our homeroom teacher that she wanted to be called Kate from now on - confirming my worst childhood fears that she and I would someday be parted. Our parents had given us tasteful, similar names. We had not been called by ridiculous rhyming names, like Meryl and Cheryl or Bonnie and Connie, but the difference wasn’t enough for my sister. Since I had no desire to be anyone but Caroline, and motivated more by vengeance than sincerity, I decided to work on being different than Kathryn in my own way. Much to my sister’s embarrassment and my parents’ pleasure, the next week I joined the Vårblomman Teen Club and applied to go to the Swedish Language Camp in Callaway, Minnesota, that coming summer. I wore the Swedish National costume to school, to show in our civics class, and started going to folkdancing lessons at Vasa Hall.
My father had been born in Sweden, as had both of my maternal grandparents. One of my parents’ few interests, other than going to church, was in all things Swedish. They were active members of the Vasa Order of America, the Swedish American Club and our house was full of Swedish knickknacks - Darlarna horses, Orrefors crystal, wooden candelabras, trolls, miniature maypoles and more. Kathryn and I - when we’d been close - were of a single mind with respect to our parents and their ways, their near-obsession with their Scandinavian heritage. They listened to Jussi Bjorling records. They spent their Saturdays going to talks at the lodge on subjects like “The Vikings of Cape Cod.” They were hopelessly geeky and boring. Now, I was like them. And while Kathryn became more and more popular - she was student council vice president and a member of the Pep Squad - I went my way alone. Only newcomers to the school mistook us for the same person anymore. But we still believed in one another’s clairvoyance. And after one gray November afternoon, one of a succession of Minnesota days filled with snow, ice and gloom, I knew we always would. I was sitting at the desk in our room, and Kathryn had stayed after school for Pep Squad practice. I was reading the part of Ethan Frome where the sled accident takes place and I saw Kathryn fall on ice. I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I got up from the desk and found my mother. She was in the kitchen kneading potato flour for kroppkakor. The tantalizing smell of the salt pork and onion filling drifted through the air. “Kathryn’s fallen on the ice and broken her arm,” I said calmly.
My mother peered at me. She had streaks on her face, from touching it with her floury hands. She knew to believe me, though we’d never had any crises to speak of. Our clairvoyance had focused on the mundane - Kathryn met a boy today. Caroline’s going to phone - and occasionally we were wrong.
“Are you sure?” my mother asked, running her hands under tap water.
“Let’s go find her,” my mother said, taking off her apron. “Where do you think she is?”
“Somewhere between here and school,” I said vaguely. I had no idea where she was, only the sense that she had fallen.
We put on our coats, boots, and scarves. The snow had grown heavier in the last hour or so, and it was beginning to get dark. We reached the end of the block and turned the corner. A dark figure approached us. Kathryn, walking slowly. When she was close, I saw that her left arm was under her coat. I tried to remember exactly where I’d felt my twinge of pain. Mother hurried over to her.
“Honey,” Mother said. “Oh honey, what happened?”
“I slipped on the ice,” Kathryn said.
When I got closer, I saw that she’d been crying. She wasn’t crying now, though. Her lips were downturned and her jaws clenched in pain. The silver light of late afternoon and the mounds of snow cast a shimmering aura around her. For a minute, she seemed brave and saintly. But if she was a saint, I was a saint, too. Inwardly, I scoffed at the idea.
“Do you think it’s broken?” I asked.
Before she could answer, Mother said, “We’re not going to guess about that. We’re going straight to the emergency room for X-rays. I hope Daddy’s home to take us.”
We made our way carefully down the glittering sidewalks. Soon it would be dark. The days were getting shorter and shorter. Mother led the way into the house, half-marching up the stairs, calling loudly for our father.
“Paul,” she called. “Paul! Are you home?”
My father appeared at the head of the stairs. He was wearing his undershirt and a pair of stained pants. He was an electrician. “What’s all the commotion about?” he said.
“Kathryn’s fallen and hurt her arm. It may be broken. Get into some clothes. We need to get it X-rayed at the hospital.”
My father disappeared down the hallway. He was a large, hearty man, who always looked at Kathryn and me in amazement, as if he were seeing us for the first time. Even after we’d ceased to dress alike, he continued to call us by one another’s names, sometimes turning to my mother for help. “How was school today, Kathryn,” he’d say to me, turning to my mother then and asking, “that’s Kathryn, isn’t it Anna?” At such times I could stand outside myself and wonder who I really was.
Our mother had rushed up the stairs, presumably to hurry our father along, because she was already dressed for the cold. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. Kathryn and I stood side-by-side at the foot of the stairs. I turned to her. “Does it hurt?”
“Yes,” she said solemnly. “Why did you come out looking for me? I wasn’t late.”
“I knew,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, her voice airy.
I waited, hoping for more, but she looked down at her injured arm, cradled in her good arm like a fragile newborn. She was no longer thinking of me at all.
Kathryn had broken her left radius, between elbow and wrist. She was to wear a cast for three weeks. Fortunately, she was right-handed, so the injury, though serious, would not be a major inconvenience. Since the night she’d fallen, we’d begun to talk more than we had in years - long, dreamy talks about what life held for us. Our fate. During this enchanted time, Kathryn was very kind to me and full of compliments. “Your Swedish is really getting good,” she told me. In the lunchroom she invited me to sit with her friends. “Carolyn is learning to do the hambo,” she told them. “It’s a Swedish folkdance.” I, in turn, was solicitous of her, tender in the face of her injury. Each morning, I helped her dress. I helped with any task that required two good arms. I was almost sorry when the time came for her cast to be removed.
Just a week after she no longer had a cast, we were getting ready for a birthday party for one of Kathryn’s best friends. Secretly, I believed I’d been invited only because Kathryn had asked Maria if I could come too. I looked in the closet for a skirt and blouse. When I turned, Kathryn was standing behind me. She was already dressed. She held out a pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt.
“Let’s wear the same thing today, just for a joke. We’ll have some fun with Maria.” She’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail, the way I wore mine.
I smiled at her and took the clothes. “What kind of fun?”
“Just like the old days,” she said brightly. “You be me and I’ll be you.”
Maria met us at the door. “What’re you doing?” she asked with a laugh. She peered at each of our faces. “All right,” she said. “Who’s who? I really can’t tell you apart.”
Kathryn pointed to herself. “Caroline.” Then she pointed to me. “Kathryn.”
“Okay then,” Maria said, grabbing my arm. “I have to talk to you right away.” She waved in Kathryn’s direction. “Everybody’s downstairs. There’s a ton of food.” As Kathryn walked away, Maria led me into her bedroom. She closed the door behind us. “It’s Bobby,” she said. “He wants me to have sex with him. What should I do?”
“You’re only fifteen,” I said bluntly. “Tell him you can’t.”
Maria turned away from me and picked up a tube of lipstick. She leaned forward, stared into the mirror and applied the lipstick until her full lips were a dark red. She looked at my reflection in the mirror. “That sounds like something your boring sister would say.”
I looked down at my feet, glad for the darkened room. I felt embarrassment burning on my face. I walked away, my back to her. “Go ahead then,” I said boldly, just as a knock sounded at the door.
“Hey, you two. What’s going on in there? Secrets?”
It was Kathryn.
Maria opened the door. She put her hand over her mouth and glanced back at me. “I can’t do this,” she said, laughing. “She told me to go ahead.”
Kathryn let out a shriek and looked at me. “You told her to have sex with Bobby Langersol? He’s such a moron!”
My heart thumped like a beached fish. “You told her we were going to switch,” I said flatly.
They were both laughing hard now.
“It was a joke,” Kathryn said breathlessly. “Just a joke.”
I stomped from the room and walked downstairs. The music was loud and some people were dancing. I didn’t recognize the group. Heads turned in my direction. A guy I didn’t know waved. I walked to the table where the food was and piled my plate high with potato chips. Tomorrow, my face would be broken out. I didn’t care. I wanted to die.
My sister’s friend Annie walked over. “Hey,” she said. “How’s it goin’?”
“Everything’s cool,” I said sarcastically. “I’m Caroline.”
“Oh,” Annie said, taking a little step backwards. “You guys really do look alike.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what it means to be identical twins.” I gave her a dirty look and walked away before she could see the tears rising in my eyes. Maybe that was all it meant, I thought. I walked up the stairs and down a hall, trying to find a back way out. I turned a corner, and there was Kathryn, standing right in front of me. I started to speak to her when I realized I was looking into a mirror.
Yesterday Kathryn had come home from the party about an hour after me. She told me she was sorry, but I didn’t look up from my book. Now it was almost dinnertime and she hadn’t come back from the library. Before she’d left this afternoon she’d asked me if I wanted to go with her. I’d shaken my head. While I was setting the table, I heard the door slam. Kathryn walked into the dining room. “How was the library?” I asked coldly.
“I wish you’d come. I wanted you to,” she said, taking off her coat. “Listen…about the party…”
“Don’t,” I said. “You said you were sorry. I don’t know how to take a joke.” I tried to laugh. “I should have known it was a joke when Maria said it was Bobby.”
Maria was popular for her good looks and her brains. Bobby was cute, dumb and conceited.
At the table Mother said she had something to tell us. “The Lucia festival is coming up at the lodge in just two weeks. It’s our family’s turn to have a Lucia.”
I saw myself then, in a long white robe, a crown of seven candles glowing in a wreath of lingonberry leaves, the lodge hushed as I walked toward the stage with my tray of fresh Lucia buns. A festival of light. A celebration of the end of darkness and cold.
“Since Kathryn is the oldest, she’ll be this year’s Lucia,” our father said proudly.
I put down my fork. “That’s not fair!” I cried. “She doesn’t even care about any of the Swedish stuff. She’s only two minutes older.”
My father looked confused. “Det ingen fara på taket,” he said quietly. Literally it translated “there’s no danger on the roof.” It meant “take it easy, calm down.” He said it to my mother all the time, mostly in the car. She was the nervous type, especially when it came to car trips.
My mother reached across the table to pat my hand. “Daddy’s right.”
I snatched my hand back as if my mother had been about to burn me and looked at my parents angrily. “It isn’t fair.” I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.
“It’s tradition, dear,” my mother said sorrowfully. “We thought you’d be happy for your sister.”
I glanced at Kathryn, who was sitting in silence beside me. “Do you want to do it?”
She nodded almost shyly and laid her knife demurely across her plate. “I’d be honored,” she said. “You can be the Midsummer Queen, or whatever.”
Her “or whatever” convinced me of how little she knew about Swedish customs. Lucia to the amorphous Midsummer Queen was saint against harlot, goddess against flower girl. The Midsummer Queen was pagan princess of the drunken goodbyes to the longest day. But St. Lucia banished the winter and brought the sun. My mind was a tangle. Did I believe in saints? Not really. But I believed in this ceremony and Kathryn didn’t. I wondered if she wanted to impress Anders Johnsson, who was eighteen and an all-city hockey player. He was from Stockholm. His father’s company had a branch in Minneapolis and they would be living here for two more years. He was bored and sulky at lodge events, so I knew his parents made him come, but he was always there.
“Maybe there could be two Lucias this year,” my father said timidly.
“That’s not the way it works, Paul.” My mother fixed me with her sternest expression. “I’m surprised that one of my twins would be jealous of the other. Surprised.”
My thoughts turned evil. I imagined hot wax dropping onto her wreath. Kathryn on fire. Then I hated myself. But couldn’t anything belong to me? Just to me and not to her too? “Excuse me,” I said, sliding my chair away from the table. “I have to do homework.” I went to our room and sat on my bed, opening and closing my biology notebook. Who was St. Lucia anyway? I didn’t even know.
The next afternoon after I came home from school, I apologized to Mother.
She put her arm around my shoulder. “Would you like to help with the costumes? The lodge has them basically in order, you know, but I think I’ll put a fancy collar on St. Lucia’s. I’ll make special hair bands for the two attendants. That would be you and Ingrid Berglund. I think the star girls and tomtar are taken care of.” She looked at me kindly. “I knew you couldn’t stay mad at Kathryn.”
But she was wrong. I had two weeks to plan my revenge. First, I had to know what I was up against. I’d gone to the public library after school and found several books on St. Lucia. I showed my mother. “I went to the library and checked out some books on Lucia.”
“That’s a girl. That’s more like it,” my mother said cheerfully.
In our room, I started right in with my research. I wanted to be ready when Kathryn came home from Pep Squad practice.
“How was your day?” I asked pleasantly when the door to our room opened. “I’m sorry I had a fit at dinner last night,” I said without waiting for an answer. “Actually, I’m glad I’m not going to be the Lucia after what I’ve read in these books.”
“Take your pick. Saint or evil spirit.”
“No way.” Kathryn looked at me with a half-smile, but I could tell by the way she was standing with her hands on her hips that she was annoyed. “You really want me to let you do it, don’t you?”
“Not anymore, not after what I’ve been reading.”
“Tell me about her.”
“One story said she was a martyr for celibacy. In this other one, there was a guy in her village who couldn’t stop looking at her beautiful eyes, so she tore them out and had them delivered to him on a dish. Gross.”
Kathryn looked uncomfortable, almost queasy. “There’s nothing wrong with being a saint,” she said testily.
“I didn’t say there was. I just wouldn’t want to play her.”
“What about the evil part?”
“Lucia…Lucifer? They both mean ‘light.’ I read a folktale that said she was Adam’s wife and the mother of vittra - goblins. Another legend said she had to do with the spooky, evil powers of winter - the dark, the cold, you know. It called her ‘the Devil’s handmaiden.’”
“What’s with the candles and all the stuff we’re going to do in the lodge? The cakes for everybody? What do they mean?” Kathryn asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. If she wanted to find out, she could read my books, although I planned to hide them way back in the bottom drawer of my desk. I didn’t tell her the legend that Lucia had appeared at the helm of a boat in the south of Sweden during a famine in the twelfth century. She was dressed all in white. There was a glow of light around her, like a pure fire. The boat was filled with food that she gave to the starving. I didn’t tell Kathryn half of what I knew about Lucia.
Except for the baking of the Lucia buns, which Kathryn was to do, we were all ready for the Lucia Festival. The night we’d talked about the Lucia legends, Kathryn had asked me again to trade places with her. “We’ll pretend I’m really doing it and no one will know,” she’d said. I’d told her no. “I’ll be the Midsummer Queen, like you said.” I had even persuaded myself that Kathryn was the better saint, and that I was the better pagan queen. I was starting to like my new role. According to the old calendar, December thirteenth was the longest night of the year, and that was when Lucia festivals still took place. The night before our festival, Kathryn was baking Lucia buns, all - according to tradition - in the shape of cats. I was helping her. But the previous night, after everyone had gone to bed, I’d replaced the sugar with salt. I knew Kathryn never tasted when she baked. She handed a spoonful of the batter to me. I smacked my lips with pleasure at the fiercely salty mixture. “Ummm,” I said. “Perfect.”
“I hope Anders will be there,” she said dreamily, stooping to put a tray of rolls in the oven.
Now my suspicions were confirmed. She had wanted to be the Lucia only because of a boy. Already I felt vindicated for my revenge. All but the last part of my plan was in place. I heard the wind shake the glass and I went to the window. “It’s snowing hard,” I said. “Everyone will be happy to see St. Lucia.”
“It’s just a silly myth,” Kathryn said.
“It’s part of who we are.”
“You’re all identified with it - being Swedish. It’s part of who you are, not me. I’m not into it the way you are.”
I looked at her hard then, my double, and I wasn’t sorry for anything I’d done or was about to do. I didn’t know who I was, but maybe I could learn. I wanted to see the future - my fate and Kathryn’s - laid out in front of me like a well-paved road.
Kathryn took the last tray of buns from the oven. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Are you coming?”
“I’ll wash the dishes,” I said, “so we won’t have to do them in the morning.”
“Okay, thanks. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” I said, running hot water into the sink and watching the window steam over. I listened to the storm as I washed, the wind turned to shrieking voices that wrapped themselves around the house. I turned out the lights and crept in the darkness to the hall closet near the living room, where I’d hidden my candles, tapers that matched the candles my mother had bought for Kathryn’s crown and for the star girls, eleven in all. Feeling my way along the wall, I made my way to the dining room hutch and substituted my candles for my mother’s. Mine were from the magic shop. Extinguishing candles. There would be no festival of light tomorrow, just sputtering wicks, darkness and beautiful-looking Lucia buns that would be spit out at first bite. I tiptoed to bed, relishing my evil self. I wasn’t like Kathryn after all. Now I could let her go, once and for all.
At seven, I peeked through the curtain. The snow had stopped and a dull light glittered across the drifts in our yard. Snow clung to the bark of trees and nested in branches. The day had a look to it of fierce cold. Perhaps this year winter would linger till people said there was something wrong. The rumor would go out that the Runeberg Lodge Luciafest was spoiled by a rotten, jealous girl who had made things bad for everyone. Now winter would go on forever. Ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha. I looked at Kathryn sleeping, then slipped out of my nightgown and into my white robe. My deeds were done. I walked downstairs.
The lodge smelled of evergreens, woodsmoke and dampness. People stamped snow from their feet and hung up their coats. The mood was festive. Mrs. Nilsson was already on stage, hammering out the processional song on the old upright piano. “Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia! When o’er the waters, light winds are playing, thy spell can soothe us, all care allaying.”
My mother placed the wreath of lingonberry leaves and candles on top of Kathryn’s head. The star girls held out their candles to be lighted. The lights in the hall were turned off. The procession was in line - St. Lucia first, then her entourage of the little tomptars - dressed in Santa suits - and the rest of us in white robes. The star girls wore pointed hats and carried star wands. We held out our candles to my father, who had matches in hand. He lit them and they sputtered out, one by one. He lighted the candles on Kathryn’s head and after a burst of flame, they each went out as well. He tried again with the same results. Ulla Erikson hurried to the kitchen to see if replacements could be found, but she produced only the burned-down stumps of festivals past.
Mrs. Nilsson had stopped hammering the keys. My father looked as if he were about to cry. My mother wrung her hands, and then reached up to put a lingonberry leaf back in place among Kathryn’s fresh new curls. “What should we do?” she asked my father in a whisper. People already sat in rows of folding chairs, twisting behind them for a look at what the problem was.
“Let’s go,” my father said. His voice sizzled with anger. It was a sound I’d never heard before. He threw up his hand and waved at Mrs. Nilsson, and the processional song began again. Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Anders Johnsson walked over to where my sister stood at the head of the procession and handed her a dozen long-stemmed roses. “Thank you,” she said with a radiant smile, as if not a thing were the matter.
We all knew our parts. We’d walk to the stage, to the right and left of my sister, as in a bridal group, sing a stanza of the Lucia song, have numerous pictures taken, and then drink coffee and eat Lucia buns and saffron bread. Maybe someone would get up on stage and recite an old poem about the tomptar - caretakers of time and the household. I remembered some lines from the year I was a star girl and had to recite them: “Time’s endless stream, where bound, where to be found? White snow on pine and fir.” Then someone else, maybe Mr. Larson the gardener would talk about the end of our grueling winter and the pleasures of seeing the sun again. I took up the rear of the procession.
My sister watched me intently as I slowly made my way to the stage. When I was about eight feet away, she screamed and pointed at me. “Look,” she said, her voice wild, “she’s the real Lucia! She’s on fire! She’s on fire but she doesn’t burn.” The roses slipped from her hand. Her knees buckled and she dropped to the floor. The wreath fell from her head and the trick candles rolled in all directions. I froze where I stood, and before the general turmoil began, everyone in the entire hall looked at me to see the Lucia on fire that Kathryn had seen. The only heat I felt as I stood there was of that collective, astonished gaze. Did some of them really see the aura of fire Kathryn had described? Would they tell the story from year to year, to anyone who would listen, about that cold December the real Lucia had appeared at the Luciafest? Time stopped and I stood transfixed by the stares and Kathryn’s prone, still figure. Then, at once, everyone was in motion, flocking toward the stage, bending down near Kathryn, hovering above her. Mrs. Nilsson clamored from behind the piano and stomped off to the kitchen. “I’ll get the smelling salts,” she called behind her. Momentarily, I was forgotten. I still stood precisely where I’d stopped when Kathryn screamed. Finally, I ordered my legs to move and I walked to where Kathryn laid moaning, my mother and father on either side of her. She was curled into a fetal position, her eyes closed. “The fire,” she said, “the fire. Lucia was on fire! I saw her.” My mother rubbed her wrist. People held their hands to their jaws in amazement and milled about, near the untouched buns and cakes. The little tomtars giggled and the star girls shared whispered secrets. Anders Johnsson stood at one side of the stage, watching my sister from a distance, his eyebrows knitted with concern. I wondered why, if I were the real Lucia, he wasn’t looking at me. In fact, no one was looking at me now. It was as if I had become invisible, or surrounded by some barrier of contagion. Mrs. Nilsson broke a glass cylinder of ammonia under Kathryn’s nose. Her eyes popped open and she sat up, wrinkling her nose at the odor. All the while, I watched her face. She did not as much as glance in my direction. Had she tasted the buns? Found my books and turned the trick back on me? I would find out if it was the last thing I ever did.
Years have passed and we both have children of our own, but no twins. In the car on the way home that day, my father exploded with an anger at us I had never seen before, and never saw again. “Jag inte den enda är den ena,” he said wildly, again and again. I’m not the one who is the one. It means, “No trouble for my sake.” My humble father had found his traditions violated, and his family in chaos, and he didn’t know what to do. This was all he could manage to say. I wished, that afternoon, that I was not a twin. The last wish, I realized, cursed me and Kathryn, and I soon coaxed the wish back from where it had come - that evil place I had found inside myself.
My mother held on to the car armrest and looked straight ahead as he shouted. She was crying.
“Do you think so little of my homeland? Of me? My girls, my twins. You have let me down with your tricks.”
My mother had been unusually timid in the face of my father’s unusual anger. “I think Carolyn should see a doctor,” she offered quietly.
“They both should see head doctors,” my father muttered.
Later, I was forced to tell about the salt in the buns and the extinguishing candles. The evidence was there and my guilt raged, for I loved my sister and my parents. But Kathryn never admitted that her vision had been a hoax. Our family was never quite the same. Though I became a gracious, perfect midsummer queen that June, somewhat redeeming myself and my family from the shame of the spoiled Luciafest, my father and mother took up new interests, and lodge events were all but forgotten. Some aura of magic that had characterized our lives had been forever dispersed. A spell had been broken, and I had broken it. The thought gave me power, until I asked myself if it had been Kathryn with the power all along. For months my relationship with Kathryn ran in cycles. Our bitter quarrels would be followed by moments of closeness no one but a twin could imagine. Who was I? Because of Kathryn, I feared I would never know what it meant to have a self. Yet, I will always be the Lucia on fire - Kathryn and Carolyn at once, living ecstatically in that transcendent moment.
I stand at the window, thinking of how Kathryn and I might have first touched each other in utero, through the membrane dividing us in that impenetrable world. Now we are in the next such world, where Kathryn rides her wild horse and I still remember in my flesh that tiny hand, that welcome reminder I am not alone. I curve into myself, listening. I look into the faces of the twinless, knowing they long for something they have never understood or missed, though it is locked away in their darkest dreams.
For more fiction from Eleanor Swanson, order her book Exiles and Expatriates.
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