While their mother and father kissed each other, swaying to their own invisible orchestra, the twin girls moved like little grey mice in the loft above their heads. Once they realized that their parents were oblivious to their movements, they shuffled in their matching woolen feet to the corner of the loft, to the trunk where their mother kept her private, secret things. It was their regular ritual: If the snow was too heavy and the air was cold enough to make their breath into ice crystals, they would explore the loft and spy on the ghostly remnants of their mother’s youth.
They had first found the trunk when they were eight, and were big enough to climb the ladder themselves and play in the loft without their mother or father. Underneath an old, musty camping blanket, the trunk had gleamed in the cold, dusty air of the loft. It was Grace who whispered, “Let’s see if we can open it!” and Mary, always wanting to go wherever Grace went, followed her over to the dark corner. The latch, cold and heavy, wouldn’t budge for a while. Both girls each pressed on the rusty metal sides of the latch firmly, denting red marks into their cold fingers, until they heard a hollow click. When Grace opened the lid, a noxious cloud of mildew and mothball swam underneath their nostrils. Mary tried not gag. “I’m not wearing anything in here…it smells gross!” Grace rolled her eyes and pulled out an old hiking boot, and Mary shrieked softly when flakes of dried mud fell from the treads onto some folded, olive drab fabric still in the trunk.
After lifting out and unfolding the heavy, scratchy material, Grace and Mary both ran their fingers over seven brass buttons with an eagle on the front. It was an army coat, and Grace muttered that she was sure it wasn’t their father’s. He had never been in the army. Mary whispered that maybe it was one of their Grandfather’s. The girls had two complete sets of grandparents who they never saw; all four still lived in their parents’s hometowns in the Deep South and couldn’t afford to fly to Alaska to visit.
Beneath the coat, surrounded by dozens of dusty, soft red and white ptarmigan feathers (Grace put a few in her hair), was a large manila envelope with nothing written on the outside.
Mary bit her lip when she saw Grace opening the envelope greedily, “Grace. We shouldn’t do that. She’ll know. We’ll get in trouble.”
But Grace couldn’t be stopped. Her grey eyes were filling with a quick-burning fire and she felt like she was discovering a pirate treasure. “Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s a check for ten thousand dollars!”
Mary’s shoulders grew tense and pushed up near her ears and she bit her lip and crept her fingers close to her mouth, a long-surviving habit from when she was a baby and had sucked her fingers and thumb constantly. “Why would mom hide money? She always spends her and Dad’s money fast.”
Grace didn’t answer. She had pulled a single, 8 1/2 x 11 photograph out of the envelope. Her eyes were round, and a few of the ptarmigan feathers fell out of her black hair. “Look.”
She handed the photograph to Mary, who blew on her fingers and wiped them on her tights to dry the saliva off. It took her eyes a while to focus on the picture; it was dark in the loft. There was one small table lamp up there, and it glowed only meekly. Once her vision pinpointed and she saw the picture, she started to feel itchy tears prickling behind her eyes. Her bottom lip, raw and red from her nervous habit of chewing on her fingers, started to shake a bit.
The photograph, which was black and white, showed their mother at around sixteen or seventeen. She was standing on a large boulder in a river and wore nothing but a pair of thin white cotton underwear. It was obvious that she had been swimming; her hair looked wet and there was a crumpled up towel on the rock by her bare feet. Her breasts were small, and round, and upturned.
Both girls hold onto a respective corner of the photograph, their heads bent in towards each other as they look quietly. Grace’s black hair mixes with Mary’s blonde, and the remaining ptarmigan feather on Grace’s head falls onto her sister’s. Of the two, Mary stares the most intently at the picture. She’s inherited her mother’s pale complexion and almost white, spiderweb gossamer long hair. She feels like she’s looking into a crystal ball that shows both the past and the future. Grace looks like her father: dark, olive-skinned, thick curling black eyelashes. She feels like she’s unearthed one of her mother’s big secrets, maybe the reason her mother gets so quiet sometimes. Neither twin speaks about what they’re looking at, though both of them starting to feel guilty and goosebumps are dancing across their skin.
They were too afraid to look at the rest of the items in the trunk that day. Mary pushed the photograph back into its envelope and placed it neatly exactly where they had found it. The army jacket was re-folded, and the lone hiking boot was placed on top. They swept away the dried chunks of earth, trying their best to make sure nothing looked disturbed. The lid was closed quietly. The girls left the loft, Grace going first down the log ladder, followed by Mary, who stole one last look at the trunk in the far corner before following her sister downstairs.
When they reached the kitchen their parents were sitting together at the kitchen table. Their father was looking out the window above the sink, a newspaper laid out in front of him. Their mother had a cup of coffee, which she held with both hands. When she saw her girls climbing down the ladder her red lips curled into a smile. “You’re just in time. It’s almost dinner.”