“The Triplets” originally appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees, Vol. 7 (March 2017)
Their mothers had been careful to conceive the girls under the same blue moon. Kaylee’s mother had heard from her sister-in-law, who had heard from her tennis partner, who had heard from her hairdresser that there was an old Chinese or Japanese or possibly Cherokee legend that girl children conceived under a blue moon would be born exceptionally beautiful. They figured the story unlikely, but what could it hurt? Each woman had seduced her husband in identical red lace teddies under identical suede capes in the barely autumn air on plush microfiber throws put down under the moon in not-quite remote areas in the same municipal park. The tale supposedly went that the perfect conceptions could only be had out of doors, with the woman on top, her body perfectly silhouetted and bathed in the silver light of the knowing moon. Each husband wondered what had come over his wife, and each never suspected that two other men were being simultaneously treated to identical fellatio performed by similar women who had all read the same recycled article in that month’s Cosmo. Each husband culminated in the similar orgasms had by circumcised men, and in that way, three girl children were conceived by three women with similar goals.
The girls were all born during the first week of June, which the mothers found to be an ideal time for girl children to be born since you could wrap their heads in satin scrunchy bows and not have to worry about too much heat escaping. They crammed their daughters’ feet into tiny strappy sandals and paid $10 apiece each week to keep their toenails polished in the fashionable colors of the season. Crystal’s mother also wanted to do the girls’ fingernails, but their joint pediatrician suggested that since babies put everything in their mouths, including their fingers, this was not a good plan. The same pediatrician didn’t really want the mothers to have the girls’ toenails painted either, for the same reason, but each woman exclaimed no daughter of hers would ever dream of placing a toe in her mouth, regardless of what the writers at Cosmo might suggest on the topic.
The women hired identical Slavic nannies for the girls, a rare find of triplets, and congratulated each other that though the young women were not unattractive, their dour expressions, unplucked eyebrows, and jeans-and-t-shirts wardrobes would simultaneously make the mothers look better and keep the nannies focused on what mattered, which was the upkeep of the mothers’ children and homes. They hoped the nannies were lesbians, and something about the way they didn’t shave suggested this might be so, though of course, none of the mothers asked and none of the nannies ever said a thing to the mothers that wasn’t the response to a command.
The three daughters also looked very similar, though they had small differences: after all, a truly beautiful woman is unique in her own beauty while hitting the major markers spot on. All three had pale eyes since all three mothers had judiciously only dated men with pale eyes and light hair, and were, of course, married to men with pale eyes and light to medium hair. The mothers hated biology, the way hair normally darkens and loses its luster in adulthood and skin loses its vibrancy and elasticity—unless the necessary precautions are taken, which all of the mothers took with their hair and skin and breasts. Only Lila’s mother had gotten a single stretch mark during her pregnancy, through carelessly neglecting her preventative routine one weekend, but she’d had that corrected within two weeks of Lila leaving the womb.
The infant girls had intuited what was expected of them by the time they could hold their heads straight on their wobbly necks. They smiled and cooed and cutely patted peoples’ faces when within reach. They accepted the itchiness of lace tights and the pressure of too-tight shoes. They learned to appreciate the stinging pull of hair being yanked and molded and dominated. They giggled, but never guffawed, learning early to always feign delighted surprise, but never be too surprised by anything.
In this way, they also learned to accept their due of fawning and smiles and compliments that dripped or gushed from adult mouths, like a slow honey or a rushing rapid. They knew their place in the universe, their role, and they were comfortable enough with it, having given little thought to the possibility that there were other places, other roles that girls like them might take, different landscapes and horizons, different shapes of existence.
There was only one thing the girls did that secretly disappointed their mothers, and that was their refusal to maintain a cold indifference toward their nannies. In public, the girls adopted the appropriate air of the attended to being taken care of by their marginally compensated attendees, but in off-camera moments, when the girls didn’t know their mothers were nearby, the mothers witnessed small demonstrations of tenderness between their daughters and their help. Once, Kaylee’s mother declared she’d even seen a hug between Manya and Kaylee, but Lila and Crystal’s mothers assured Kaylee’s mother that such was impossible since Slavic women were known to lack anything resembling warmth.
Naturally, the beautiful daughters were very popular at school and other little girls wanted to sit with them during lunch and breaks and be their reading partners and science buddies, even though as early as kindergarten the girls were known as “the triplets” and no principal had power to separate them into different classrooms and no teacher could likewise split them, no matter her reasons for wanting pairs instead of threes. No one could deny the girls had something of a magical power. Even when their mothers weren’t in the wings, demanding their daughters receive their due, no one wanted to deny the girls anything.
Their primary caregivers were, of course, their nannies, who lived in small guest bedrooms in the backs of their respective houses on the first floor, out of the way in rooms they were to spend as little time in as possible. Manya, Maryia, and Marusya kept to themselves. They did their jobs, and did them well. They met when they could, understanding the necessity of family in a hostile place full of technicolor people eating technicolor food and living technicolor lives. Had they not elected to each care for one of the triplets, they wouldn’t have been able to see each other at all, but since the girls were in the same dance, art, and manners classes, they saw each other regularly, retreating to back aisles and hallways to speak to each other in low voices in words incomprehensible to those around them.
Mostly, they saved money and bided their time. Their mistresses did not know much about them, not even which country they came from. They certainly did not understand that these women had chosen their names, abandoning their given names at the border of their homeland. Their mistresses neither knew nor cared that the women came from a land where the death rate had outstripped the birthrate, where hunger and desire were ways of life. They hadn’t even bothered to notice that the women they’d hired were girls themselves.
The triplets shot up from infants through toddlers through elementary kids through middle school. None of them ever seemed to go through an awkward stage where the proportions of her face or body went a little off. They stayed perfect, perfect, beautiful little creatures. Perhaps they were a bit more reserved when the lights weren’t shining on them than their mothers may have wished. Certainly, their mothers didn’t want banshees for daughters, but the girls never raised their voices, never demanded their own way, never demanded anything.
Manya, Maryia, and Marusya surprised themselves with the genuine care and concern they felt for their stoic charges. They hated the women who paid them a pittance for work they should have done themselves, but they found their hatred could not touch the girls given over to their care. They grumbled about the frilly clothes and silly hairstyles and perfumed lotions and dance classes and quarterly portrait sittings, but they loved the girls and wanted to see them happy.
Kaylee, Crystal, and Lila did everything expected of them and little unexpected until their twelfth birthday, which was to be celebrated together, as it had been every year since their birth, on a day near, but not exactly on, any of their respective birthdays. Typically, the girls participated in identical activities (but never anything that could be considered a “sport,” since none of the women wanted a sporty girl: they weren’t even allowed to learn tennis), but in the world of music, they had each been assigned their own instrument at the age of 8. Kaylee’s mother had insisted on the piano, since she swore her daughter had the longest and most graceful fingers. Lila’s mother had wanted piano for Lila, who might have the slightest case of allergies or asthma and couldn’t possibly play an instrument that used the breath, but she conceded that her daughter’s fingers were slightly shorter than Kaylee’s, though mostly she conceded to not piano because if both girls played piano, one was certain to be better, and she could not risk this advantage to Kaylee over Lila. So Lila learned the violin, which had pleased her mother until she saw the marks the violin left on her daughter’s chin, but by then it was too late to switch since Lila would have been far behind the learning curve, so her mother bought a series of luxurious chin rests and convinced herself that the semi-permanent tilt of her daughter’s head made her seem a little confused at all times, which could be nothing but a plus in the pursuit of a suitable husband, since wealthy men demand witless women.
Crystal’s mother had missed the day at the spa when the others decided on instruments. She was enraged since piano and violin were also her first two choices, but she said nothing since the reason she’d missed that spa day was that she had been recovering from a certain elective surgery about which she didn’t want the other two women to know. Upon hearing the news and being asked which instrument her own daughter would play, Crystal’s mother discharged her ice shard laugh and declared that of course Crystal would play the flute, there was no question, and she already had a person finding out which flute was the best.
This was how the triplets came to be a musical trio and how each of their houses developed a soundproof room in which each girl spent more time practicing her instrument than her mother could have predicted, which was a serious source of pride and concern in each woman. And since the mothers had no real appreciation of music themselves, and since they paid no attention to what the girls learned or what music they practiced, none of them knew that their nannies had spent part of their hard earned wages to purchase certain music from their homeland for the girls to play.
The only unexpected thing that the girls did before their twelfth birthday, was that when asked what she wanted for her birthday, each girl responded that she only wanted to perform a song with her trio. Since it was the first time any of the girls had really requested anything, each mother was taken aback. None of them had any idea what the girls sounded like when they played. The girls had been receiving private lessons, solo and as a trio, for four years, but the mothers had assumed it took much longer to play an instrument decently and had never allowed their daughters to participate in any recitals, much to their music teacher’s angst and despair. Besides the obvious job of turning their girls into perfect paradigms of womanhood, the mothers took seriously their charge to avoid any and all embarrassment, which could taint their daughters and follow them through their lives like shadows plucking at their limbs.
The mothers agreed to the performance anyway, since how could they deny their daughters their single request? They were now very interested in hearing their daughters play. The daughters smiled their practiced coquettish smiles and said it should be a surprise, after all, the mothers had waited this long, what was one more week? The mothers each tried to sneak up on their respective daughter’s practicing, but the contractors had done too good a job and the practice rooms were truly soundproof. They tried to sneak by the trios’ weekly rehearsal, but when they showed up to the music space and heard half a dozen children squeaking and squawking on their instruments—because somehow the nannies had confused music practice with dance practice on the calendars—a chill ran down each mother’s perfectly cracked and decompressed spine, because what if their daughters’ sounded the same?
Fearing the worst, the mothers went directly to their personal shoppers and acquired the most tasteful and “in” outfits possible for their daughters for the event (and for themselves, of course) banking on the magic of beauty and the keenness of the eyes to erase any unpleasant sounds picked up by the ears of the hundred or so people who would be present for the triplets’ celebration.
The mothers had no way to know that on the other side of town, Manya, Maryia, and Marusya were also choosing clothes for the girls’ big day. The chosen clothes were special gifts to mark the last year of childhood in the girls, which was well-known to be the 12th year, even if a technicolor country might deny as much while doing everything in its might to turn girls into women by age ten. In their own country they had seen children turned to whores, but not in the manner they witnessed everywhere in their new land of endless opportunity. They often joked about this among themselves and nodded and spit in ways that people in the new land did not recognize as laughter.
On each girl’s actual birthday, she woke in the morning to sweet milky coffee and pastries and fruits and buttered potatoes and pickled herring and varenyky with various fillings, savory and sweet, and a slew of other delicious treats. Each nanny looked down on her charge lovingly and recited a series of well wishes for the following year. Manya wished for Kaylee all the love a life could hold, good health, much laughter and warmth, piano songs to make her cry, a special boy or girl, a long life, the best fruits, fulfilling work, and protection from things that wanted to harm her. (Here Manya was thinking of Kaylee’s silly mother.) Maryia wished Crystal health, a long life, good friends, a loving family (she said this with no hint of irony since she was thinking of herself, the other girls, her sisters, and Crystal’s future husband and children, not Crystal’s ridiculous mother and blind father), satisfying work, a comfortable home, dexterous fingers and lips and mighty lungs for her flute playing, wealth, happy days, and children with beautiful souls. Marusya wished for Lila a strong back, a quick wit, thick and serious eyebrows, the love of a good dog, the right soul for a violinist without the devil’s hand, a healthy body, a clear mind, and the sort of spiritual wisdom that comes through hard work. As each woman recited her expansive list, she looked into her girl’s eyes, holding her hands and stroking her hair, and she did not abbreviate her list in the manner of native English speakers, but instead said fully each time, “I wish for you x. I wish for you y. I wish for you z.” By the time each nanny was done, each girl was in joyous tears of despair at being loved so well and fully and being known so well and fully by another person in this great, cluttered world.
On the afternoon of their 12th birthday, which was the day after the last girl had had her real birthday, since their mothers agreed that it should be after and not during or before, because that would mean each girl had at least a day shaved off her actual age each year, the cumulative effects of which were assumed to be much greater than simple math allows, the triplets each found laid out on their cotton-colored beds two outfit choices for the day. One outfit, curated right down to a pair of thong panties, which the girls found frightening and absurd, was a series of expensive items procured by their mothers’ personal shoppers especially for the occasion. In addition to the clothes were fancy envelopes for a spa day that included “daughter’s first waxing” services. These piles took up half the bed, but each girl instinctively moved toward her pillows where there were white shirts and skirts, embroidered in bright reds and oranges and trimmed in white lace. On the floor they found matching red boots and shuddered to see the mini sparkling heels at the other end of the bed.
Their nannies knocked and entered to find their girls decked out in their festive costumes. Smiling, they expertly pulled the girls’ hair back and added the final touch of flowers and ribbons that each had made herself for her girl for the occasion. The triplets glowed. None wanted to visit the spa, so the six went instead to a park to dance, then to the practice room to rehearse the music for the celebration.
The mothers were none the wiser. They were at the spa and assumed their girls were too. They never thought to inquire, occupied as they were amongst themselves and their bodies and images and also their quiet concerns that their girls’ might develop moles or lose their thigh gaps. They’d agreed upon the various personal trainers and dieticians and guards (if necessary) they might employ in the unfortunate circumstance that one or more of the girls might start to lose her figure. They discussed possible skin disasters with their estheticians and signed their daughters up for biweekly treatments through their eighteenth birthdays. There was some debate about which year was best to begin Botox as a preventative measure, but the estheticians insisted they couldn’t possibly begin before the girls were sixteen, which made the mothers frown, not that anyone noticed since their foreheads and cheeks stayed smooth.
The mothers arrived to the rooms of the rented hotel ten minutes early to ensure the caterers and decorators and various other employees were properly doing their jobs. Everything was as it should be except they saw no sign of their daughters, who they assumed were backstage getting ready for the recital. Kaylee’s mother grabbed a vanillatini from the nearest waiter since it was now after 1pm. Crystal and Lila’s mothers sipped champagne from delicate flutes, shooting ugly looks at Kaylee’s mother. All were worried about this very important day and how their daughters would look and be received. Children and adults began filling the white folding chairs lined up in the garden, directly in front of the small white stage that was ready with the piano and microphones.
At exactly 2 pm, the girls walked onstage and all three women gasped from their positions at the back of the crowd. Each chided herself for being so unaware of junior’s fashion that season, and none could figure out how such quaint peasant clothes could possibly be in, down to those ugly, ugly boots. The hemlines were atrocious, falling down past the knees. The flowers and ribbons seemed the worst touch, reminiscent of decades gone by that the mothers had been sure would never resurface. Each made a note to herself to fire her personal shopper. As the girls took their positions, Kaylee’s mother hissed “haaaaaair.”
It was true, each girl had a fine blond down on her legs that glittered like gold in the sunlight. The mothers darted glares toward the large speakers in front of the stage, behind which they expected the three nannies to be inconspicuously huddled.
Lila waved her bow in a few short flicks of her wrist, and the music started. First Kaylee twinkled out a few notes on the piano, then Crystal twinkled in on her flute, then Lila joined with the same twinkling sounds on her violin. The music had a light and whimsical quality of a sort the mothers had never heard before. It seemed to shimmer in the air around the girls, who smiled into their instruments and swayed, eyes gently closed, looking so much like young angels, like little girls. The music seemed a prayer or celebration, with a note of longing murmuring under the surface.
The mothers were each transported somewhere else, some time ago, to younger versions of themselves they had locked away. They each felt brimming with possibility and curiosity, as if life wasn’t laid out, as if there weren’t a set of rules they had to follow. They lost themselves in the song, not looking at their daughters or trying to gauge the response of the audience. They each closed their eyes and breathed in the summer air and smiled smiles that reached all the way to their eyes, not giving a damn about wrinkles.
With their eyes closed, the mothers failed to notice that the other members of the audience likewise had their eyes closed, all gently swaying where they sat or stood. No one noticed the nannies take the stage, each garbed in outfits to match their charges, true reds and oranges and yellows that looked young on the girls, yet appeared almost fierce on the nannies, as if they were not exactly engulfed, but rather enwrapped or perhaps buoyed by flames. They performed a slow, graceful dance as a trio, coming together, then breaking away, spinning when the music picked up, flowing with sinuous arms and elegant tilts of head. Had anyone’s eyes been open, they would have become entranced, had they not already been entranced by the ethereal music.
Once the girls’ song was done, sleepy eyes throughout the audience cracked open, unsure what world they might only now be discovering. They’d barely had time to expel dreamy breaths and register the presence of the nannies onstage before Marusya spoke softly yet firmly into one of the microphones, “And now for our gift for our girls.” Maryia placed an oboe between her lips as Manya lifted a French horn to her own. They began playing, Manya producing long then short tones of longing, Maryia’s oboe slithering around the middle register. Moments later, Marusya’s soprano came clear and strong, crooning and accusing in a language no one in the audience knew.
The girls swayed on stage, their arms linked behind each other’s backs. The audience found themselves holding their breath, mesmerized. Each person felt a gentle tugging in their chest, an insistent longing. The charm and whimsy of the girls’ song was displaced by something raw, urgent. They found themselves wishing they could check their pockets for the cure, the thing that was missing. Something was missing. That was clear. The members of the audience felt stuck in place, frozen. They could not so much as scratch an itch.
The music slowed.
The girls swayed and bobbed in their tight circle of three that took center stage. The nannies encircled the girls with their own bodies, a ring of flame, instruments and voice facing out, a wall protecting the delicate creatures contained within. Marusya hit a final, slow trebling note that rose over the sustained breath of Manya’s horn. Maryia’s oboe darted around their tones, tying a knot inside a knot.
Later, some audience members claimed there had been a fire. Others said a shimmering puff of smoke or a swirling mass like a tornado. Some suggested a gaseous attack; others claimed the party must have witnessed an event of incomprehensible horror. Everyone knew they were forgetting something very important. The mothers became internationally famous, pleading, begging, with wet eyes and trembling lips: someone, bring our daughters back. They had professional dressers, stylists, and personal assistants for their TV and radio tours. Late at night, each woman sat alone in her hotel room, lit only by the moon’s insubstantial beams. They clawed at themselves, at their arms, stomachs, cleavage, digging for the missing thing they could no longer abide.
The only ones who never spoke of what had happened were the children who’d been there, whose eyes no longer focused on adults, but instead, drifted far away, watching the luminous grass as it grew or the erratic birds as they ate and danced and played, wandering each night to the knowing silver moon in all her different phases. They hummed or whistled a foreign tune and smiled the secret smiles of children everywhere.