Mary Dale had always hoped for sons. In 10 years of marriage, she had had 5 miscarriages, 2 stillbirths, and 3 daughters, but not a single boy to carry on her husband’s name or serve as a check on the young suitors who would one day come seeking her daughters’ favor. Joseph Dale, long since resigned to living in a house full of women, had met his end peacefully, going to bed one night and refusing to wake up the next morning.
But even with her husband gone, Mary ached for a little boy to run her ragged. She would watch with envy as other young mothers scolded mischievous sons in church, wisps of hair slipping out of their hats as they struggled to keep the boys in their seats. Compared with the strength and vigor of those young boys, Mary’s well-behaved daughters seemed like lifeless dolls, their hair perfectly plaited, their dresses neatly arranged, their hands folded in their laps as they listened intently to the sermon. While the mothers of precocious young sons prayed for a child that would simply sit for five minutes together, Mary longed to be agitated.
The Dale sisters were each too enthralled with their own hopes and frustrations to notice their mother’s. The eldest was Anita, who at 12 years old had just discovered that she was beautiful, and was relishing the attentions of boys her age, and, to her mother’s dismay, some much older. With this new discovery came a new world of concerns that had never occurred to her before. Suddenly her dresses had to always be spotless, pressed, and cut just so to show off the figure that was just beginning to reveal itself. Anita devoted hours to maintaining her dresses, cutting and sewing and starching and bleaching them to perfection. Her shoes were similarly buffed and carefully protected from the perils of marching up and down the Island’s dusty roads. Each week, sitting in church, Anita sat up straight, head tilted to show off her long graceful neck, eyes slanted to determine which boys were giggling in her direction.
At 10, Cloey was less interested in attracting boys than she was in making them bleed. Short, square, and powerful, she was able to out run, out jump, and out punch nearly every boy under 11 on the island. The few who were stronger than she was usually succumbed to a lack of daring, as Cloey would tempt Death himself, rather than be shown up. While her older sister surveyed the pews for signs of attention, Cloey surveyed them for her next conquest.
Little Yola was not terribly interested in anyone at all, boys or girls, young or old. She lived her life almost entirely in her own head, indulging fantasies, picturing her future, and quietly observing the voices that would occasionally invade her inner world with warnings, tall tales and vague prophecies.
Every now and then, while acting out a game as Queen of the Island, her dolls serving as loyal subjects, her favorite hog playing the part of the dim-witted but kind-hearted king, Yola would suddenly feel as though she had been ordered to sit in silence. Immediately upon doing so, the voices would come, soft, insistent whispers as vivid as her mother’s commands. They would let her know that she should not walk along her usual path that day, because there was a rattler waiting on the side of the road. Or they would tell her about other worlds, big cities with paved roads and thousands of cars, and families packed into tiny little boxes, living on top of one another without knowing each other. Sometimes they would tell her stories about people she would never know, the lives of grandchildren and great grandchildren, some of whom would do great things, most of whom would do nothing in particular.
The voices would weave in and out of each other, one beginning a story before the last had finished, sometimes for hours, before finally fading away. When the last story had been told, the last voice silenced, Yola would return to her games.
Yola was the one sister who was actually as attentive as she appeared in church, closely studying the minister’s sermon for clues as to why the voices came to her, and hoping for some sign that, though no one else ever spoke of it, others were visited by such voices as well. She knew that speaking to the dead was a sin, but what if they spoke to her? And were these the voices of dead folks? How could she know? They never introduced themselves, never explained themselves. All they ever did was sit her down and tell her stories.