My first memory is of the three of us, still inside, impatient to be born. We were waiting, like at the top of those water slides you see at amusement parks on TV, slippery wet and sliding all over one another to see who got to go first, shivering, hysterical, mostly with laughing but a little with fear. The winner—me!—streamed away from the other two, excited to slide and smug because I got to be first but also a little scared to leave them and a little left out because of the time they’d get to spend alone together until it was their turn too. Not that I’ve ever been on a water slide.
School doesn’t start until tomorrow, and already I’m behind. Mrs. Shriver emailed us the prompt a month ago. “History and memory are unreliable narrators, especially in Bourne. Therefore, please write a 2-to-3-page essay on your earliest memory and its relation to what’s true.” You think I couldn’t possibly remember being born—that its “relation to what’s true” is something like third cousin twice removed—but maybe the reason most people don’t remember is because they were alone in there. We weren’t alone. We never were. Before we were our mother’s or ourselves, we were one another’s.
Mama was waiting outside, of course, so she can’t say for sure either. Most mothers of triplets don’t even try to give birth naturally. Most aren’t even allowed to try. But our mother is not like most mothers.
She remembers hours of screaming and pushing and pain, and she was alone then, after him, but before us. While she waited, she made a plan to give us all M names with escalating syllables so she would be able to keep us straight. She named me Mab—queen of the fairies, deliverer of dreams—baby number one.
Two came kicking and screaming a quarter hour later and needed two syllables. Mama must have been tired because she’d lost track of what day it was—evening had turned to night had turned to morning by then—and when they told her it was early Monday already, she named the baby that.
And then three came too slowly, no matter how our mother pushed. Typical, though none of us knew that at the time. Eventually, they had to go in and get her, but she got the good name, the normal one. Mirabel. It sounds like miracle.
It turned out we didn’t need such an elaborate system, though. No one has to count syllables to tell us apart.
When we were very little, Mirabel called us with her fingers. One for me, two for Monday, three taps on her armrest or right above her heart when she was talking about herself. Monday and I used these nicknames too after a while, since she and Mirabel can’t go by something shorter without invalidating the entire point, so that’s our triplet shorthand. One for me, Two for one, Three for the other.
Mrs. Shriver won’t believe the other part, though, that I remember being in utero. She’ll say, “I asked for an essay, Mab, not a short story.” But if memory’s so unreliable, who is she to say? If memory’s so unreliable, what’s the point of even asking the question?
Except I know the answer to that one. It’s important for us to exercise our memories in Bourne, to stretch and strengthen them—like brain yoga or mind aerobics—because one of the sad things that happens when almost everyone dies is there aren’t enough people left who remember why.
Even though it is summer still, it is raining so it is a green day so I take all the shades of green pencils—in alphabetical order: avocado, forest, kelly, mint, moss, olive—plus white paper, the cereal box I ate all the cereal out of, scissors, glue, and a ruler into the upstairs hall closet where I can be alone for the next twenty-seven to twenty-nine minutes until Mama gets home from work and says we have to hurry up and make dinner and eat it quickly and clean up fast so we can get ready for bed immediately and fall asleep at once as if school starts fourteen minutes from now instead of fourteen hours from now.
I cut a perfect four-inch-by-six-inch rectangle out of the cereal box which I can do without measuring but I measure anyway, and then I cut a perfect four-inch-by-six-inch piece of paper and glue it on top. If I ever went anywhere, I would buy postcards. In movies, you see people on vacation look at a tower of postcards and choose just one, but I would buy them all. Since it is more accurate to say I will never go anywhere though, I make my own.
On this one, I draw trees because that is one of the best things to draw on days when it is raining and therefore green. You could also choose frogs or grass, but frogs’ tongues are pink like most tongues, and grass is boring, both, like the saying, to watch grow and also to draw. But enough shades of green will make a whole forest of trees if you choose the right season (summer) or the right part of the country (the part with evergreens), and olive and forest layered on top of each other make a green-brown that works fine for trunks, branches, and green days. So that is what I draw on the front of her postcard: oaks, firs, maples, pine trees, pear trees, and one eucalyptus. I am not stupid—this will be an important point to remember—I know there are no real forests where those trees grow together. But it is not a real postcard so it does not matter if it is true.
On the back I write:
Wish you were here.
Which is true.
With two to four minutes to spare until Mama gets home, I leave the closet and slide the postcard, picture side up, under Mab’s bedroom door. It is more accurate to say it is also my bedroom door and also Mirabel’s bedroom door, and it is even more accurate to say it is no one’s bedroom but rather the dining room, which it used to be except now we sleep there. But I am certain that even though it is faceup, Mab will know who it is for.
And I am right because when we go to bed three point seven five hours later, I see it tacked up among the two hundred forty-six other handmade postcards I have sent her already.
When you’re a triplet, every night’s a sleepover. Maybe it’s not like this if you’re rich. Maybe it’s only true if you’re a poor triplet. There’s only one bedroom in our house and it’s Nora’s, not because she wouldn’t gladly surrender it to her daughters but it’s upstairs. And I cannot go up stairs.
Every day after school for a whole week of fifth grade, Mab went into our room and cut roll after roll of gold foil into stars. Soon they covered the beds and the floor and accumulated like snowflakes into piles which grew into dunes. Nora stood in the doorway and frowned at her eldest daughter—was she depressed? was she mad? was this unrealized artistic talent or latent obsession?—but didn’t say anything.
Monday never stops saying anything, everything, whatever’s niggling the inside of her head. Why are star shapes pointy but sky stars round and movie stars skinny, when “pointy,” “round,” and “skinny” are opposites? Why does “foil” mean a sharp metal sword but also a flat metal sheet when “sharp” and “flat” are also opposites? How can “round” be the opposite of both “pointy” and “skinny” when “pointy” and “skinny” do not mean the same thing?
At the end of the week, Mab swapped her scissors for a staple gun and made our ceiling into a sky full of stars. They’ve faded over the years, as if it’s perpetually dawning now, but we sleep beneath them still.
I didn’t say anything that week because it was not a good week for me, and this was before my Voice came. Out there in the rest of the world, the brazen, ignorant, nosy, rude, and clueless come right up to people who use wheelchairs and say things like “What’s wrong with you?” In Bourne, no one says things like that, not because we’re not sometimes brazen, ignorant, nosy, rude, and clueless, but because, at least on this front, we know it’s not that simple. “Nothing” would be a true answer. So would “Many things.” But it would never be a single fill-in-the-blank response. My muscles are spastic except for the ones that are hypotonic. My body is often too rigid though my neck will only sometimes support my head. I have no control over my limbs except for my right arm and hand which are as finely honed as something NASA built.
Plus idioglossia. It comes from the Greek—idio, meaning personal, yours alone in all the world; glossa, meaning tongue. If you’re a doctor, “idioglossia” means speech so unformed or distorted it’s unintelligible. I can’t articulate much more than a single, wide syllable, and even that you probably couldn’t understand. But if you’re a linguist, “idioglossia” means a private language, one developed and understood exclusively by a tiny number of very close speakers. The secret language of twins. It is raised, in our case, to the power of three.
My sisters can usually understand my speech. They get my grunts and expressions and hand signals nearly as well as I get theirs. They share my finger taps. And when I want to say something more complex, with my one very gifted limb and an app on my tablet, my Voice can tell them anything at all. It’s not fast. I can’t type like you can—not with all ten fingers, not seventy words a minute, not in that quick, deft way that sounds like pouring rain. More like a leaking tap. Drip … drip … drip. But if you stopper a leaky sink and give it a day or two, even at that rate, it will eventually spill over. And we are in no rush. We have plenty of time.
So every night, as we fade beneath our fading stars, my sisters and I discuss all the immensities and all the minutiae, the everything and nothing of our lives. But mostly the nothing. All the intrigue that happened here—all the intrigue that happened to us—happened before we were born. We don’t need something to have happened to talk about it, though. Teenage girls don’t get enough credit for this, their ability to see the potential import of everything, no matter how insignificant it seems, and analyze it endlessly. It’s written off—we’re written off—as silly, but it’s the opposite. We understand instinctively that, like me, change is slow. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it.
For instance, the night before school starts Mab is talking about her friends Pooh and Petra, which leads Monday to note that P is one of the few letters of the alphabet that is also the name of a food (along with T and, she considers, maybe U if you were a cannibal talking to your lunch). Mab talks about how Pooh was cleaning out her closet and gave her a pair of really cute black leather mules with silver tassels, and Monday informs us that before there were school buses kids got picked up in carts drawn by really cute mules. Mab muses with wonder that we’re halfway done with high school now, and Monday corrects her: we have been halfway done with high school all summer long.
And I tell them about what I saw on Maple Avenue this morning, the most astonishing thing: a backhoe. Maybe it just looked weird. Towering over the cars on the road, wings clutched up against its body like a bride keeping her dress off the ground, it would have been conspicuous in any town. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a piece of construction equipment in Bourne. Nothing ever gets built here. So maybe it’s no big deal, just more idle girl-chat.
Or maybe, like the second half of high school, something momentous is about to begin.
Copyright © 2021 by Laurie Frankel