Moments later, the screen door banged open and Annie, Susu, Riona, Tommy and Marty filed out, leaving Mama alone in the house.
"Susu has some things to tell you," Annie said, directing Susu to the chair beside me and the others to the benches on either side of the old redwood picnic table. She took her post standing by the door--ears trained to hear any sound from within.
"Is Mama sleeping?" Phia asked.
Susu nodded. "Just breathing takes a lot out of her these days." She leaned toward Phia, placing her hands on Phia's knees. "Her liver is slowly fading." With those words, Phia felt like the wind had been knocked out of her. Leaning her head back, she focused on breathing--just as Mama was in that hospital bed--as the rest of Susu's words evaporated into the clear night air. Her tongue felt heavy, the back of her throat dry.
"But she'll get better?" Phia asked after a long silence, her voice distant and hollow, even to her own ears.
"For a while," Susu answered. "But--"
"Don't say the rest." Phia held up a hand and blinked back tears. "How long have you known?"
"Just after you left for Spain. She didn't want to spoil your trip."
"You know your mama," Tommy said.
"Three weeks," Phia said. "How could she have gotten this sick that fast?"
"She was thinner," Riona said. "But I was jealous." She patted her plump stomach.
"I've been busy with Justin and work," Susu said. "But I'm a trained nurse--should have seen it, and I didn't." She curled a fist to her mouth.
"She just keeps going," Annie said. "It wasn't your fault."
"We were all right here and none of us noticed." Tommy leaned over the step and put a hand on Susu's shoulder. "You're taking good care of your mama, Susu."
"I thought you'd all known and kept it from me." Phia said.
"We called the day after you got back," Susu told her.
"Vannah called me," Phia said. "She told me not to come home."
"She says things she doesn't mean," Riona said. "It's the worry."
Looking up at the sky, Phia found the North Star, then traced a line to the Big and Little Dippers, the only constellations she'd ever been able to find on her own. "So why isn't she here now?" she asked.
"I told you," Annie said. "She had to go home."
But Phia knew that Vannah was trying to avoid her--and she knew that they all knew it, too. She was suddenly so exhausted with the weight of all of this, angry at always being left out of things. "So how long have you been staying here, Uncle Tommy?" she blurted.
"I'd say more than staying," Riona laughed. "Staying you do for a couple weeks, maybe a month. Tommy's lived here for almost a year."
"Almost a year? No way!" Phia craned her neck to look at Tommy. His ears were bright red and the way he hung his head, she felt as if she'd kicked him. "Mama told me--this afternoon--" she stuttered--"I just didn't know--" With each word, she felt like she was swallowing water. She thought of Tommy in Papa's bed, curled iwth Mama under a quilt, that brown gash hovering over the doorway at night. She looked up at the LIttle Dipper again and smelled the crisp, dry air of the Palouse. "No one told me--no one ever tells me," she murmured as the moon suddenly broke over the tall hill, washing the back porch in pale, cold light. Her heart ached as she thought about how she'd shared so much about her life with Mama, realizing how little Mama had ever told Phia about hers.
Out in the yard, Harli barked at an owl swooping low over the back field and Sprint leaped off the porch. Phia looked again at Tommy, but he seemed more interested in the owl and the dogs.
"Annie thought you girls would have a problem with it," Riona said, folding her arms across her chest. "She convinced Dee and Tommy that it was better kept quiet." She nodded her head and, in the moonlight, her carefully sculpted hair shone silver, each curl a web of dew-hung gossamer.
"Things were fine as they were," Annie said, her lips a hard line.
Riona opened her mouth, but Marty clapped his hands on her shoulders before she could get another word in and said, "Let it be now, Ri."
Susu sat with her hands folded in her lap, staring down at them as if they held a secret. She looked so much like Vannah that it took Phia's breath away, but she still glowed with hope, whereas each line in Vannah's face conveyed bitterness and sorrow. Phia leaned toward Susu, waiting for the answer to her unasked question.
"We've know for a while," Susu admitted. "Since before Tommy moved in."
"If you'd come home more often, you would have seen how things were," Annie cut in.
"That's enough, Sister," Tommy said, and without looking, Phia knew that Annie had clamped down on her lip again, and would gnaw it until there was blood.
"It didn't seem our place to tell you," Susu said, breaking the silence that hovered between us. "Please don't be angry, Phia." She twirled her long hair around her index finger, a habit she'd picked up the year Papa died, whenever she was nervous or afraid, tangling the fine ends into mats Phia couldn't get a comb through. Phia hadn't seen Susu play with her hair like that for years and her heart tightened as she remembered holding her little sister the night after Riona had finally cut that hair into a short bob. Susu had put herself to sleep by wrapping her finger in Phia's hair, night after night of that long, dark winter, until her own hair grew long again.
"You know this family," Susu said quietly. "Sometimes I think there are secrets hidden in every corner. But who can resist Uncle Tommy?" Turning toward him, she held up her thumb, first and little fingers--the ASL sign for 'I love you,' just like Mama used to do when they were in public and she wanted to say those words without embarrassing her daughters.
Phia didn't answer, but when Tommy lifted his hand to hers, she let him pull her into a hug.
Then tommy went inside, lifted Mama into his arms, her nightgown floating behind her like a bridal train as he carried her up the stairs. Her bare legs dangled free, and Phia followed them up the stairs, surprised to see that the freckles covering those legs had faded to a dull beige. In Mama's bedroom, as Tommy held Mama, Phia pulled back the covers and watched at Tommy lowered Mama into the bed. "Bairn," Mama whispered over his shoulder. "You are okay, aren't you?"
Phia nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Mama closed her eyes, and as Phia left the bedroom, she couldn't help lifting her hand to trace the broad brown arc above the doorway, without touching the wood, shivering just as she had a thousand times before,
The back door slammed behind her as Phia ran up the deep gash on the side of the hill where the dogs met her, jumping and barking. At the top of the hill, she faced east, away from the house, and looked up at a cloud cutting across the starlit sky, a stroke as broad as the gash of blood above Mama's door. Phia remembered Mama standing up here the night she wiped Papa's blood on that doorway, remembered her shaking her fists at the darkening sky, the wind whipping her long hair around her face and the rain falling in sudden sheets as she crumpled into the earth. Turning a circle, Phia stared at the field that had lain fallow since Papa had died, the one he'd plowed that autumn day, the one Mama had insisted never be planted again.
Over the crown of the hill, Phia could see the light of a car winding its way toward town along the route her bus had taken all the years of her childhood. She thought of how lonely she'd been that fall after Papa died, before Annie had moved back to nurse Mama back to health, and help her and Susu navigate their first year without Papa--and Mama too. Phia remembered watching Mama walk this callous on the hill before supper as Phia tried to prepare dinner and how Mama would brush past her after coming back down the hill, as if Mama didn't even see her. Mama would just go sit in the rocking chair by the fireplace and some nights, when Phia took Susu up to bed, Mama would still be sitting there, silent and distant, her breathing absence more terrifying than their papa's death.
In bed each night, Susu would snuggle beneath the blankets and recite, "My mama's name is Deirdre Quinn Daly, my papa's name is Duncan Roy Daly, My sisters are Savannah Quinn Daly, Selena Bree Daly, Sierra Mor Daly, Sophia Rose Daly, and my name is Susanna Flynn Daly." Then she'd list all the uncles, aunts and cousins, as many as she could before she fell asleep, calling the world into an order she understood. Phia--the Sophia Rose of Susu's list-- would put her head down beside Susu's and her heart would tighten with every name.
Standing on top of the hill, looking down at the house, the memory of those days flooded over Phia. There was no peace in this darkness and the night sounds only hurt her ears.
Phia closed her eyes and walked slowly down the hill, the uneven dirt shifting beneath her shoes, trusting her feel to know the way home. She opened the door quietly and let the dogs in behind her. They padded up the stairs to the bedroom Phia had always shared with Susu. Harli stretched out in Susu's spot on the double bed and Sprint settled himself at Phia's feet. Phia thought of Tommy sleeping in the bed beside Mama, of the space he filled in her life. "Thomas Mitchell Daly," she whispered. "Deirdre Quinn Daly, Sophia Rose Daly." There were only the three of them in this big, empty house. The names of the dead circled her head and threatened to settle in the darkness--Papa, Selena, Sierra. Phia crawled under the covers, then reached behind her head to count the spindles on the headboard. Vannah and her family, Susu and hers. Aunt Annie, Auntie Riona and Uncle Marty, Uncle Philip and Uncle Ben and their wives, her fourteen cousins--beating back the shadows with each name until she fell asleep.