Libby waited for her dead husband in the woods, her breath making clouds in the cold night air. Her hair was cut short above her ears, and her neck was cold. Her wool uniform itched. She had not slept in two days. She leaned against a bay tree as the fog moved through the woods. She closed her eyes and began to drift. She heard the crackle of a footstep and opened her eyes. The fog cleared and Arden stood in front of her, pale and somber, the red stain of his stomach wound still fresh and spreading out across his gray jacket.
She was exhausted from the march, and the sight of him no longer caused the shock and dread of the earlier encounters. She had resolved that there must be a realm, when the fractions of night and fog reached some magical equation, where the living and the dead could coexist. Arden, though, had grown increasingly moody and demanding.
“How many have you killed?” he asked.
Her fingers shook as she counted them. She had known the answer at noon but had forgotten it with the coming of dusk.
“I’m trying, Arden.” She looked at the blood spreading over his shirt.
“And your sister. How many has she killed?”
“I don’t know.”
He leaned in close.
“You’re a liar. You do know. And you know who else she killed, don’t you?”
They were sisters, the pretty one and the one who lived in her shadow, a pale, chip-toothed, uncertain girl who made too much noise while eating celery. They lived on the outskirts of Winchester, in a house owned by their father, a dentist by trade. The fields behind their property grew wild with evening primrose and goldenrod. Near the cornfield on the east side of their property stood an apple orchard, and it was here that golden Libby and chipped-toothed Josephine, Libby’s elder by a year, made their sanctuary, taking refuge from everything: the yelps of children during tooth extractions, the peskiness of a little brother, the swift, severe gaze of a mother, general pangs, harsh sunlight, and chores.
The other children in town courted the affections of Libby, but she preferred the sweet mixture of orchard and sister, all that shade and adoration.
When Josephine was thirteen, a shadow trespassed on that filtered light. The family next door had moved from a small town near Fredericksburg called Shiloh, a young couple with three sons. The oldest was named Arden. He came strutting into the yard on a warm spring day, when the leaves in the orchard were curling tendrils, and the shadows hung dark, waiting for May to lighten them into the brown of an Angus bull. He wore a pair of corduroys and a shirt with a Western design; his hair was almost as light as Libby’s and his face just as angular. His eyes gave off different inferences that depended on the angle of approach. Libby saw wildness and sweetness and a deep capacity for sorrow. Josephine saw arrogance and entitlement and a lack of respect for elder sisters.
Soon Arden’s feet were swinging from the branches, and the quality of conversation was forced into a different season, one that incorporated boys. Now Indian talk pierced the orchard, fishing lore, legends, and brutal accounts of cats killing birds. Pirate stories and secret caves, the challenge of breaking a colt. Even the drifting scent changed from the faint lavender of girls to the sweat of a hot boy. Something was unnatural here, like a tree that fruits before it blooms. Josephine was gently elbowed out of the shade until she no longer entered the orchard at all but lurked at the perimeter.
She didn’t understand how to be alone. She felt insubstantial, impermanent as silence in a room full of women. There was some kind of secret to making friends, and, denied this, she began to spend her time in her father’s office. Children cried and teeth flew.
“Hand me the laudanum,” her father said.
She watched him pour the opiate onto a spoon to numb a patient’s pain. She imagined the bottle held to her own lips, pain declining, pleasure growing. The sweetness of a watermelon, the dreaminess of a summer afternoon, the cool water of a fishing hole, the softness of ferns.
Hostility toward the whole led to belligerence about the fractions. His laugh. His haircut. The shape of his arms. The blue of his eyes. The way his pretty face resembled Libby’s.
“You spend so much time with him,” she complained to Libby. “How about me? I thought I was your best friend.”
“Don’t be silly. You can sit in the orchard with us anytime.”
“That was our orchard!”
“Oh, Josephine. Orchards belong to everyone.”
When Libby and Arden weren’t in the orchard, they would disappear into the woods and stay gone for hours, returning with new secrets, certain stories exchanged, pebbles gathered, sparrow eggs rescued, snakes slain. The sight of the interloper drove Josephine to distraction. She had nightmares in which he fell from the branch of a tree or from the top of their house, grasping her sister’s hand and pulling her down with him.
A year had passed. Autumn had arrived. The apples were heavy in the orchard, weighing down the limbs. Flowering weeds turned colors or withdrew their blooms. The sky was white in places, sweet blue in others.
Libby’s illness began as a weariness, a desire for naps. Quickly it grew a fever, then chills. The orchard sat empty. Libby lay in a dim room, her face flushed and skin perspiring. Arden visited her at first, but when she grew worse, he could not look at her without bursting into tears, and Mrs. Beale sent him away.
“Get ahold of yourself, son. You aren’t helping matters.”
Despite the protestations of her mother, it was Josephine who took over, fetching teas and applying poultices, whispering, singing, telling her own tales, finally. She wiped down the floors with lavender water so that Libby could awaken to the fragrance of flowers. She brewed tea, heated soup on the fire in the kitchen. Her nursing skills defined her, made her whole again.
A framed tintype sat on the night table. Two little girls stared out from it, one with golden hair and the other with bright eyes and a contented smile. Their father had taken them down to the studio at the Taylor Hotel as a birthday present for Josephine a few years earlier. She couldn’t help staring at it now and remembering those days when Libby was healthy and belonged to her.
They would speak to each other, sister to sister, Libby’s voice dreamy and hot, a breeze coming through the open window, a pail of water on the nightstand, a gingham cloth dripping water on the floor.
“Hold still,” Josephine said, as she applied the compress.
No sign of Arden, whom their mother would no...