This three-part novella first appeared on Faith Hope and Fiction in 2007 under the title, The Legendary Storyteller Sisters. We are pleased to share a slightly updated 10-year anniversary version here, which will be serialized over the next few months.
They were legendary in the family as much for the contradictions in their life stories as for the facts that were indisputable. We knew for sure that they were old, their names were Bess and Lillian, and they told stories. What we didn’t know for sure was whether they were eccentric, crazy, or gifted (not that these are mutually exclusive traits); or whether they were con artists or good-hearted souls who wanted to impart help and hope to the discouraged, broken-hearted, and lost.
The family story I’d heard was that Bess and Lillian only were children when they got started in their “business.” They discovered they could mesmerize their friends in the schoolyard with stories about their lives and predictions of what would or might happen. My mother was in the minority of the family that revered The Sisters for “their gift”—or at least their resourcefulness. The majority opinion was that they were cranks. Either way, the reputation made them legendary, at least in the family. Adding to their mystique, no one had seen The Sisters for twenty-five years or so. But once a year or so my mother heard from them, usually a letter and sometimes a Christmas card that might arrive as late as February. So imagine my shock when I received an email from them. The subject line gave me quite the jolt: From Your Fifth Cousins, Bess and Lillian MacDonegal. I read the message four times, marveling that they owned or had access to a computer, that they had heard of me, and that they had my email address, which, I later learned, they had found on the web site promoting my book. The gist of the message was that they had recently learned of the publication of my first novel, Grande Dame of the North Woods, historical fiction woven around the true story of French aristocrats with ties to Napoleon Bonaparte, who came to the Adirondack Mountains in the early 1800s.
In their email, Bess and Lillian pronounced my novel to be a “worthy undertaking,” pointed out a minor historical inaccuracy (the name of one inconsequential towns, which had changed over the years), and asked when I could come to visit. Stunned, I didn’t know how or what to reply. So, I called my mother and read her the email.
“Kate, you’ve got to go,” Mom insisted. “Bess and Lillian haven’t invited anyone to visit them for as long as I can remember. Your being a writer must have really impressed them.”
I grumbled that I had never met these women and, given my book-tour schedule, I didn’t see how I could possibly find the time. As a self-employed writer living in New York City, in the same one-bedroom apartment-turned-condo on the Upper East Side that I’ve occupied for the past eleven years, I have to be busy in order to make money. Publication of my first novel brought more intrinsic rewards (meaning satisfaction and relief) than financial ones. Truth is I still make most of my money editing other people’s manuscripts for publishers.
“Well, if they want to see you, they must know that you’ll be able to make it,” my mother replied. “I believe they have a real gift.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head, gestures that my mother couldn’t see over the phone, of course, but which she surely heard in my voice. “I doubt that.”
The next day, though, my publicist emailed me a list of upcoming promotion dates for my “southern tour,” which would start in Atlanta and hopscotch down to Florida, ending with two book signing appearances in Palm Beach. She put a little asterisk next to the Palm Beach event and noted that a lot of “snowbirds” from New York State would likely turn out for this one.
The Sisters, I should add, lived in West Palm Beach, just over the Intercoastal from Palm Beach. I owed my mother the satisfaction of being right, and so I called to tell her the news.
“Didn’t I tell you!” she squealed into the phone. “They must have known you were coming.”
I called my publicist, thanked her for the bookings, and then sat down to reply to The Sisters.
“Thank you for your note and your kind words about my novel. As it turns out, I will be in Palm Beach March 8th-10th for publicity events. Perhaps we could get together then.”
Their reply was nearly instantaneous: They would be delighted to have a chance to meet me, and suggested that I stay an extra day and leave on the eleventh. I agreed, and made the change, figuring a little more time on the beach would do me a world of good after a New York City winter.
Palm Beach was summertime warm when I arrived, the glare of sun in a blue sky like an advertisement for some upscale liquor that could only be drunk by fashionable people tippling from crystal glasses. The whole town looked too perfect to be real: the tastefully appointed shops and galleries, planters spilling over with flowers, even a City Hall that was too charming to be a functional municipal building. The bookstore signing was a four o’clock, which I thought was an odd time since most people would still be working, but I was thinking like a New Yorker. This was Palm Beach, where many people had made money the old-fashioned way: they inherited it.
Ceiling fans beat a steady rhythm overhead in the bookstore where a couple dozen chairs were arranged in an intimate cluster around a display of Grande Dame of the North Woods. I always dressed for these occasions in my best artsy-chic ensembles of soft and flowing fabric: a skirt to my ankles, a silk shirt, and a pair of hoop earrings. When the Palm Beach audience arrived, however, I was the worst dressed one of the bunch. Women wore expensive cruise wear with matching everything, and diamonds glittering on necks, earlobes, and multiple fingers. The few men in the audience wore neatly pressed slacks and blazers. One man had an ascot.
As the store manager introduced me, I scanned the audience for two older women who, I imagined, would be sitting primly with cameo broaches at their throats. I didn’t see anyone who fit that description. There were several attentive women in the audience who asked questions about the real Grande Dame—Giselle du Mont, a wealthy member of Napoleon’s court and rumored consort to more than one nobleman. I was the author, but Giselle was the real star of this show. When my talk was finished, they applauded politely but warmly, and then queued up for me to sign their books.
Two elderly women were the last to approach the autograph table. “Would you like me to personalize this?” I asked the first woman. She was the taller of the two, her features sharp and angular.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked, her eyes narrowing mischievously.
The back of my neck prickled. I wrote, “For Lillian, with best wishes from your cousin, Kate Conrad.” I took the other woman’s book and signed it “For Bess.”
The taller woman smiled, and the shorter, rounder one clapped her hands. I had picked them out as The Sisters, but had gotten them switched around, and made a mental note: Bess taller and seemingly more reserved; Lillian shorter, more effusive. Still, I was thrilled that I hadn’t been totally wrong; otherwise I’d have to pay for two books to correct my error.
A disjointed conversation followed as I thanked the store owner, signed a few more books for the display, and made small talk, interspersed with answers to the questions that The Sisters peppered me with, from my mother’s health to why on earth I live in Manhattan. In between, the store manager figured out that they were my relatives. She offered to put their names on the mailing list for future events.
“We never come to these things,” Bess explained coolly. “Kate’s our cousin.”
The flustered manager thrust a calendar of events at them; Bess ignored it, while Lillian took it and promised to have a look. “You know we won’t go,” Bess told her as they ushered me out of the store.
“But what’s the harm—and you never know,” Lillian said.
“Lillian, we do know.” Bess turned her attention toward me. “You’re coming to our house tonight for dinner.”
After ten days of travel, my agenda called for a bath and room service, but I accepted, in part due to politeness and curiosity. Mostly, though, as I would soon experience, when The Sisters spoke, things went their way.
I was not prepared for their car: a vintage Rolls Royce, butter yellow, with an off-white interior. The Burl wood on the dashboard and door panels was finer than my best furniture. Bess drove and Lillian sat beside her. I occupied the back seat. “This is some car.”
“A gift,” Bess said.
Recognizing the opening line of a story, I waited to hear more. The Sisters just watched the street.
At the first stoplight on the way to their house, they began filling in the details of their lives: They were not sisters, as everyone thought, but first cousins. Lillian’s parents had died when she was young, and she was raised by Bess’ family. Neither had married—not that they didn’t have many chances, Lillian interjected—because they wanted to remain independent. They took care of Bess’ parents until her mother and then her father died.
“All the while we made a nice living with our stories,” Lillian said proudly. “Later we moved to so many places—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey. We came down here about 10 years ago.”
By this time in the story told tag-team style (which, I could tell, was how they communicated most things), we were in the middle of the Southern Boulevard Bridge that connects Palm Beach to West Palm Beach. We made a left turn and the Rolls glided down Flagler, and then into a narrow driveway beside a beautiful old stucco home with a tile roof and a wrought iron balcony on the second floor.
“Here we are,” Lillian sang out. “Our home.”
“Be it ever so humble,” Bess joked.
I took in the hibiscus hedges and two graceful palms beside the house. Walking across the coarse grass, I marveled at a bush bearing a bird-like blossom that looked so real I expected it to take flight. A deep-toned clock chimed six times as we entered the foyer, where a slightly faded Oriental runner led from the front door and down a hallway toward the back of the house. I followed Lillian into the kitchen, past a formal dining table set for three.
“Dahlia made dinner for us,” Lillian explained. “She’s a dear—worked for us for twenty years, ever since Massachusetts.”
“Connecticut,” Bess corrected.
I excused myself to wash my hands and got a good look at myself in the powder room mirror. My hair, not quite blond and not exactly brown, has never been my best feature. It’s too fine to be permed and mousse and gels only make it limp and sticky. The bigger problem, though, was that I must have rubbed my eyes at some point, because I had two gray half-moons under my lower lashes. I prayed that this had happened after the book-signing. My long neck is my best feature; it goes with my height of nearly five-foot-ten in my bare feet. But nothing else seemed redeemable about my appearance. Chin up, I pushed open the bathroom door and rejoined The Sisters.
Bess handed me a frosted glass with a swizzle stick topped by two chunks of pineapple and a slice of orange. “It’s strong—stronger than you think—so don’t drink too fast.”
I stopped the glass halfway to my lips, saluted them with a few words of thanks for their hospitality, and drank. It was fruity and sweet and went down like water, and two big gulps later I realized it had enough white rum it in to knock the wind out of a sailor. “Wow,” I murmured.
Lillian passed a tray of little puff pastries filled with crabmeat and gruyere cheese, and I restrained myself from popping handful into my mouth to quell my hunger—I had eaten breakfast, but skipped lunch—and soak up the alcohol. We passed a few moments of polite conversation, mostly connecting the branches of the family tree leading from them to me. They were my grandfather’s third cousins, and all of us shared a common ancestor many generations back. They asked me my age, and I told them I was 39. They asked me to guess their ages, which I declined to do, and told me proudly that they were 87 and 89, Lillian being the elder.
They looked much younger, and I told them so, my compliment accepted with well-practiced graciousness. Both had thick, white hair, which Lillian wore short and curly, and Bess rolled into a French twist. Lillian’s eyes were dark and darted about merrily, like a small bird’s. Her quick gestures that made her seem smaller than she was, when, in fact, she was probably five-foot-five and slightly plump. Bess looked more like me, tall and thin with sharp features, but with piercing blue eyes, whereas mine were ordinary brown.
“So, Kate, as you can see it’s time for us to retire,” Lillian explained. “Not that we don’t love what we do, but we can’t assume that we’ll just keep on doing it forever.”
“We have been doing it forever,” Bess interjected. “We started when we were what, six and eight? That means we’ve been doing this for eighty years. My God, we’ve been in business almost as long as U.S. Steel.”
My head had cleared sufficiently from the infusion of rum to ask an intelligent question: “What exactly do you do?”
Lillian winked at me. “The same as you, dear. We tell stories! That’s why we wanted to meet you.”
Bess interrupted that we shouldn’t talk business over dinner, and we sat down to enjoy the meal Dahlia had made for us and left with serving instructions: hearts of palm salad, grouper filets baked with butter and shallots, garlic mashed potatoes, and baby carrots with sweet glaze on them.
When we had finished eating, The Sisters began their explanation. Lillian started the story while Bess added details. They talked in tandem, never interrupted each other, a monologue of two people speaking as one.
Soon after Lillian came to live with Bess’s family, they discovered their gift of storytelling was not limited to tales that entertain. They told people the stories of their lives, often with prophetic accuracy. It began one day on the playground at school when some saucy girl had tried to boss them around. They countered with a tale of what would happen to her, not just that day, but the next day and one after that. When it all came to pass—from a face-first fall in a mud puddle to a case of chicken pox—The Sisters gained instant status among their peers as well as a good dose of healthy, fear-based respect.
From a brisk schoolyard business, they branched out to adults who’d heard of their tales, no doubt from their children. By the time Lillian and Bess were teenagers, they were regular advisors to women with wandering husbands, old maids who longed for love, even a man with a failing business. People relied on them to be discreet; not even their parents knew about it at first. But anyone who had trouble—financial, emotional, health, or otherwise—sought them out for the stories that they would tell.
Every story had some kind of happy ending, or at least one that was plausible: the young widow would have solace in the baby that had just been born, or a new love would be in her future. The mother whose son came home from the war without a leg or an arm would know how much he needed her, and what it would take to make him feel whole again.
They never charged much for their stories, but they were always paid. A few pennies at first, then a dollar, five, ten, twenty, and later, a hundred. Many years later, The Sisters confided in me, a woman paid them much, much more for a story that changed her and her son’s lives for the better. But it was never about the money, they said, although it certainly didn’t hurt. People love a good story in which they are the star of the show.
A long pause followed and I knew I was supposed to speak next. I had no idea what to say. “So you basically tell prophesies about people’s lives, like an astrologer or one of those psychic advisor people?”
“Heavens no!” Bess thundered. “Haven’t you heard a word of what we said? We’re storytellers. When we tell people the stories of their lives, they make it all come true.”
Lillian reached over and patted Bess on the forearm. “Perhaps she needs a sample.”
I nodded and reached for my watery rum punch, needing its soothing anesthesia before hearing the story of my own life.
Bess cocked her head toward me, those blue eyes of hers boring right into my core. “You are the youngest of two, with an older brother and two babies lost before you were born. After such disappointment, one might think that your parents would have doted on you, but instead they treated you as something to be wary of, like a porcelain piece that would easily break. Your brother was well on his way when you came along. Even now he seems to slide easily through life. More’s the pity for him, though, because he has chosen the easiest path, and his is a life of mediocrity.”
“David is very successful,” I interrupted, defending my brother more on principle than sibling loyalty. We were hardly close and, well, yes, his life has been rather mediocre, although he probably earns four times what I do.
Bess held up her hand. “Perhaps, but David would have benefited from a little challenge and a bit more adversity.”
Lillian picked up the story: “You’ve lived in your head since you were little, entertaining yourself with fanciful tales to pass the time and to enchant yourself at night when you were supposed to be asleep. You recognized your ability as a writer long before you put your stories down on paper, and when you did you found a way to attract the positive attention you had always longed for. From newspapers to magazines, you followed the logical path of writing, escaping northern New York as quickly as you could and living in New York City, largely because you think you’re supposed to if you’re going to be a writer. You wrote Grande Dame of the North Country to capitalize on a story you grew up hearing about, and your work as a freelance manuscript editor gave you an inside track on how to get it published. But it’s not the book that you were born to write, and you know it. That book is big and grand and risky, it is peopled with quirky, flawed characters like you. Whenever you contemplate that book, it scares the living daylights out of you.”
Suddenly aware that I was gulping only shallow breaths, I pressed my fingertips against my sternum to make sure my heart was still beating. I felt light-headed, which had nothing to do with the alcohol, but the strangeness of having my own life told to me as if I were a storybook character. Listening was spellbinding.
“You’ve known what passes in this world for love, and almost got married in your late twenties, but the engagement broke off when he began seeing someone else,” Lillian intoned.
“Your mother told us that,” Bess interrupted. “It wasn’t fate—just the wrong guy.”
I caught the disapproving look Lillian gave Bess before continuing, “The drama of it gave you an excuse to escape a relationship that you really didn’t want. Now you can’t wait until you turn forty because you believe it will give you permission to live life on your own terms, and your mother will stop asking if you’re getting married some day.”
“A very accurate story.” My voice quivered a little.
Bess closed her eyes and shook her head. “But that’s not the story.”
Lillian brightened and leaned forward. “Just the preamble.”
The flames on the candles danced on a sudden breeze through the house. I worried my fingers into the palms of my hand, making a scratching noise with my fingernails.
“You, Kate Conrad, are now at the crossroads of your life.” Bess announced. “You’ve reached your goal of getting published, and think you can settle into your life. What you don’t know is that you’ve only taken a few steps along a path that could lead to many different things: love, loss, anguish, success, fame, and the kind of deep happiness that comes from a life well-lived. To do this, you will have to escape the predictable groove that runs deeply through your life.”
“Heavens, yes,” Lillian said, “Kate, you are one of the most predictable people.”
This time, Bess nodded appreciatively. “You’ll have to give up much that is familiar, including that little condo you think of as your sanctuary, when really it’s more like a prison cell.”
My condo was not a prison cell. It was small, but in a great neighborhood; I could walk everywhere. I’d been there forever, and the doormen were more than happy to do anything for me. My neighbors were great—like family almost, at least some of them. I tried to protest, but Bess and Lillian pressed on with every cliché about sprouting wings, learning from failure, getting up twice as many times as you fall down… Blah, blah, blah.
Then Lillian landed the verbal punch: “Kate, you don’t take risks, and you always keep score: failure on one side, success on the other. Yes, it’s true that more risk means a greater chance of failure, at least at first.”
Somehow Bess became Lillian in a transition so smooth I hardly noticed the one telling the story had changed. “But you could know a love that challenges you, too.” Lillian said. “Will you risk it? How much you love depends on how much you keep score.”
By the time they stopped, my heart was thundering in my ears.
“So how about coffee?” Lillian asked.
The story was over.
“Well, that was certainly—” I wet my lips with my tongue—intriguing. I was spellbound. I hope I do half as good a job in Grande Dame…”
Lillian stopped me cold, this twittering little woman suddenly all business. “You do well in several places in your book, which makes us care about a woman who lived nearly two hundred years ago, a woman who came out of Napoleon’s court and made her home in the muddy North Woods, infested by bugs most of the summer and besieged by loneliness and bitter cold all winter. You made us care about Giselle du Mont because she was living her life and making an adventure out of everything that was handed to her. There is only one kind of person who could create that dramatic tension and empathy for an historical character, and that’s a woman who finds the same things in herself.”
I stared into the tan mixture of cream stirred into my coffee. “I don’t think I’m anything like Giselle du Mont. She was much more adventurous than I am, although we do share a realistic streak. Everyone else in her circle had dreams of establishing a New France in the North Woods with the Bonaparte brothers. Giselle, however, always saw it for what it was: an escape plan to save their necks, and she was determined to make the best of it. That’s why she stayed after most of them had left, drifted off to other parts, or returned to France, and why she eventually married well and became an empress in her own right—even if her empire was only a thousand acres of woods and a couple of small towns.”
The Sisters listened politely while I cowered behind my favorite details about Giselle du Mont’s life. Looking at their serene faces, I knew they were used to such diversions when the going got tough in the “crossroads of your life” part of the story. They’d shaken me—and they knew it: from the rum punch to the amazing dinner and then a fanciful version of my own life that left me feeling rather restless. Oh, these two old women knew how to manipulate! I tried to stir up some anger, the fastest way back to my rational self, but the effort fell flat.
“I’m sure you’re tired after a long day,” Lillian said.
Bess suggested we skip the plan to take an after-dinner walk along the Intercoastal, saying we could do that another night. They called a taxi to take me back to my hotel, reminded me of our lunch the next day, and asked me to come early, around eleven-thirty. They were having some friends over who would like to meet me.
I wasn’t sure I wanted another dose of their company. I had agreed to meet them and I had accomplished that. But I wasn’t interested in hearing any more of their prognostications, which made me feel lacking in accomplishment compared with what they felt was my “potential.” As they bade me good night at the door, Bess took my hand in both of hers and Lillian rose up slightly on her toes to kiss my cheek. After that I couldn’t gracefully back out of lunch the next day.
Back at my hotel, I took a long, hot soak in the tub, spoke briefly to my mother who was clearly disappointed I was too worn out to relate every detail of my visit with The Sisters, and sank gratefully into a bed littered with pillows of various shapes and sizes. I read until my eyelids would not stay open. Somewhere in the middle of the night, a dream took hold of me, a kaleidoscopic slideshow of random scenes from my evening with The Sisters and then to a cabin in the North Woods where I had supposedly moved to write my next book that was to be a sequel to the Grande Dame. Suddenly Giselle du Mont appeared at my side as I wrote, looked down at reams of pages, most of which were blank. Tearing them in two she began berating me for “stealing her life” and admonished me to “go write your own!”
I woke up with the sheets twisted around me and my head spinning a little. After an hour of tossing, I managed to fall back to sleep. At eight in the morning, I got up stiffly, grateful I had managed nearly a full night of sleep, something that doesn’t come easily for me while traveling. The dream continued to trouble me, and I realized The Sisters and their story had taken deep root in my subconscious. Their expertise in the power of persuasion had me questioning not only my literary accomplishment but my entire life! Slamming bureau drawers and the closet door, I took out my clothes for the day and laid they on the bed. There was no way I was going to their “luncheon.” Let these two cook up their schemes or somebody else.
I fumed as the steam from the shower billowed up around me, emboldening me to contemplate just how I would tell them off when I called to cancel. Beyond the fact that they skinned people for money by telling them nonsense tales or planting ideas that were only what they wanted to hear, they were manipulative and calculating. On look at their opulent lifestyle and it was clear how they’d enriched themselves by bilking poor souls with their fanciful tales. Maybe they hadn’t committed any crimes, but they made their money immorally, off the vulnerability of people’s pain, anguish, uncertainty, and despair. They sold hope and happy endings—no better than snake oil. How dare they criticize me and my book! No one could take that away from me, certainly not them.
And what next? The question popped into my brain unbidden and refused to be dismissed.
Shampoo and soap crawled down my back and slithered down the drain, taking with it my indignant fury. I was 39-years-old and would soon go back to how I’d been living for the past eight years. Maybe I would write a second book, although I did not have any good ideas. Since I had milked the Grande Dame for all it was worth, a sequel was out of the question. I spent so much time working and writing, neglecting most of my friendships until only the most diehard kept in touch with me. I had no social life to speak of, and hadn’t had a date, let alone a romance, in over a year.
The Sisters had stirred the pot of my own thoughts, but they were not responsible for the stew of feelings inside me that morning. I was the author of my own dissatisfaction, which I had managed for months—maybe years—to push down so deeply that I’d almost forgotten it. They simply brought to my attention what I had known all along: I had masterfully written about someone else’s life to escape from living my own.
Turning off the shower, I stepped out into the steam-filled bathroom and wiped a swath of moisture from the bathroom mirror. I stared at my naked self, looked into my own eyes, then at my unclothed body. I fought the urge to cover up in a robe or wrap up in a towel, which I suddenly recognized as a bigger metaphor for my life.
I would go to The Sisters’ luncheon after all.
TO BE CONTINUED
Videography by Pat Commins