Lily of the Valley
by Andrea Hansell
I’m famous, and my sister Christine is ordinary. Saying it straight out like that feels strange, but it’s true. We’re identical twins, a fact that fascinates people. When we were little, they’d ask us the craziest questions, like, “When you wake up in the morning, how do you know which twin you are?” Now the persistent hounds who sniff around my past want to know about her, about how she feels about her sister being in the spotlight. No one yet has caught the faded scent of the real story, the one about how Chrissy was almost the famous one.
As children Chrissy and I laughed at the same jokes and hated the same vegetables. Both of us were fascinated by snakes, especially the giant black cobra in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” though we were unreasonably afraid of the tiny centipedes in our basement. We shared our father’s love of music and often entertained family and friends with Chrissy-and-Marie shows featuring Broadway show tunes in two-part harmony. Most of those friends and relatives could not reliably tell us apart.
We had more differences than people noticed, though. Chrissy was more focused than I was, more diligent about her school work. Our mother attributed this to the fact that I had gotten stuck in the birth canal, and the doctor had to grab my skull with metal forceps and yank me out, allowing Chrissy to slide out behind me untouched. People don’t understand this, that from the moment you enter the world you become more than your DNA. I alone bear the marks of those forceps, but Chrissy’s case of chicken pox was worse than mine and she has pox scars where I don’t. Both of us lost our father in an accident when we were ten, but Chrissy was the one in the car with him when he died because I had to stay home and finish my science project. As close as we are, I don’t share the pictures she can see in her head, of my father’s twisted neck and the blood pouring over the steering wheel.
In high school we grew apart. Chrissy took AP classes while I struggled to get C’s in regular classes. She sang in the honors choir and was friends with the good girls. I sang with a heavy metal band, smoked a lot of weed, and hooked up with a thirty-year-old bass player in the garage where we rehearsed. Chrissy and I still told each other everything, but what was new was that we had to tell it, we didn’t just know it.
Mom re-married during our senior year and brought her new husband Mike, who we had known for a while and liked OK, to live in our house. Right after the wedding Chrissy found out she’d been awarded a scholarship to SUNY Binghamton, the best college in the New York State University system. My grades left me no choice but to stay home in Albany with Mom and Mike and go to Hudson Valley Community College.
As different as Chrissy and I had become, each of us felt that first fall like the torn off half of a single person. We called each other first thing every morning to relate our dreams from the night before, and then again in the evening to share the events of the day. I told Chrissy about my crush on Jake Kreamer, the drummer for a new band I was singing with. She briefly spoke of a boyfriend named Brandon, then said it was over and never mentioned him again. When we talked I tried to picture her new life, the dorms and the playing fields, the sororities and a cappella groups. She tried to envision my daily routine, driving to class and coming home again to do homework, sitting down to dinner with Mom and Mike before my band rehearsals. She was jealous when Mike’s son Joe, a recent college graduate who was trying to find a direction in life, moved into the house with us. She didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t like Joe much, that I found him slick and self-promoting, and that Mom was polite to him but not, well, motherly. Chrissy said she was afraid the four of us who now gathered around the dinner table together would become a new family, one in which she had no place.
When Chrissy came home the summer after freshman year she seemed changed—painfully thin, joyless, and quiet even with me. “What’s going on with Chrissy?” our mother would ask me, whispering in the back yard while we watched Chrissy’s outline through the kitchen window, her head bent over a book, her hand clutching a glass of iced tea, always iced tea, never real food. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, Marie, if there was something I should know?” I was still Marie then, not Peaches.
I probably wouldn’t have told our mom if I’d known anything. I’d have stayed loyal to Chrissy. But my sister, for the first time in our lives, would not yield her secrets to me. “Nothing’s wrong, Marie,” she assured me. “It was just an intense year, and I’m a little burnt out maybe.”
She went back to school in the fall, and when she came home at Thanksgiving she had lost even more weight. Mom took her to our old pediatrician, who was shocked by her jutting ribs and the cross-hatched cuts she’d been making up and down her arms. She didn’t return to Binghamton. Mom drove her back and forth to a shrink’s office in downtown Albany, and mostly she watched TV and slept a lot.
I wasn’t around much that winter. I was still taking classes, and by now I was seriously dating Jake Kreamer and was starting to collaborate with him and his sister Amanda on songwriting. It was easier to sit up nights with Jake and Amanda, humming melodies and searching for rhymes, than it was to be with Chrissy. Looking at my sister was like seeing a starved, dull-eyed version of myself, something from a nightmare or a horror movie. For the first time in our lives, I had trouble thinking what to say to her.
A few articles about me have mentioned the two tragedies in my life, that my father died in a car crash and my sister almost died in one exactly ten years later. It’s no secret that my song “Winter Roads” is about those crashes. What they don’t know is that Chrissy’s crash was no accident—no ice on the road, no drunk driver like the one who took my Dad out, just Chrissy slamming my mother’s Toyota Corolla full force into a tree.
In the ambulance, when Chrissy’s heart stopped, she had a vision. She whispered it to me the next day, while I sat by her ICU bed holding her hand, Mom briefly gone to the cafeteria to get some coffee. “I saw him, Marie,” she said. “I saw him, and he sent me back.”
At first I thought she meant God, but it was our father she had seen, his neck straight, his body whole again. She had floated through a tunnel of warm light scented with a sweet fragrance—Lily of the Valley, she thought—and then Dad came and held her in his arms. “It’s not your time, honey,” he said. “You need to go back. You have work to do there.”
Chrissy clung to him, but he pushed her away gently and said, “Keep me in your heart. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Then she floated back down the tunnel and saw the ambulance below her, speeding along the dark roadway with the snow banked on either side. As she tumbled out of the tunnel and back onto the gurney, Nana Bridget, our father’s mother, came running after her, wearing her favorite cherry-print apron and holding a wooden spoon. “Eat, Christine!” she yelled over the wail of the ambulance siren and the electric zapping of the defibrillator paddles. “You make sure to eat, now!” Then she was gone, and Chrissy was back in her body.
Chrissy giggled when she told me about Nana, though I could tell it hurt the new rods in her tractioned leg, and the stitches in her belly where they’d removed her ruptured spleen. “I can’t promise to eat hospital food,” she said. “But if you bake me some of Nana’s molasses cookies, I’ll do my best.”
Then she touched my arm. “Don’t tell anyone about me seeing Dad and Nana, OK?” she said. “Not even Mom and Mike.”
Chrissy threw herself into recovering from her injuries with an energy and determination characteristic of her old self before college. In between her physical therapy and psychiatry appointments, she’d ask me to go walking with her. She’d slowly circle the block, first with a walker, her head bowed into the March wind, and then, as the days grew milder, with a cane. She liked to walk past the woods near the elementary school, watching for the first green shoots coming up between the snow patches. There was a bed of Lily of the Valley there, and when it finally bloomed it drew her like the Pied Piper. We picked sprays of it and tucked them in our hair. We filled bud vases and juice glasses with the delicate white blooms, perfuming the whole house with the sweet, heady fragrance.
“It’s poisonous, you know,” I told Chrissy. “I saw a detective show where someone put Lily of the Valley in a rich old lady’s tea and killed her.”
“How can anything so beautiful be poisonous?” she said.
One warm afternoon Chrissy begged me to walk to the woods with her. “We’ve already gone twice today,” I said. “Your doctors don’t want you to overdo it, remember?”
“But Dad wants me to go,” she said, looking right into my eyes, testing me. “He tells me things there.”
“Chrissy,” I said. “Are you telling me, like, I see dead people?”
“I hear them more than I see them,” she said. “But yeah. Do you believe me?”
Did I? Looking at her face, I believed she believed it, but that wasn’t the same as believing it myself.
I clearly remember Chrissy standing at the edge of the woods with the sun on her face, looking ethereal, fey. I’m pretty sure she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that day, but when I picture the scene I see her in a long white dress. “He’s here, Marie,” she whispered. “And he says he’s brought others. They have messages for people.”
“Do any of them have a message for your twin sister?” I asked. I meant it as a joke, but my throat was oddly tight. I shivered in the warm spring sunlight.
“Yes,” she said, in a slow, breathy voice that was not her own. “That song you’re writing, about Lily of the Valley. It will be your break-out song when your time comes around. But not yet, so be patient.”
I hadn’t told her I was working on a song about Lily of the Valley. But I figured she knew me so well, she might possibly have guessed that.
Then she laughed, and spoke in her normal voice. “Nana Bridget’s back, too, Peaches. She’s saying she wishes spirits could bake molasses cookies.”
“Did you just call me Peaches?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. That’s what Nana just called you.”
“Nana never in her life called me Peaches,” I said. “I don’t know why she’d call me that now.”
A few days later Jake Kreamer said he had a band name for us. It had come to him in a dream. Peaches and Kreamer, he said, what did Amanda and I think? Amanda said she loved it.
At first Chrissy didn’t tell anyone but me about her spirits. But they came to her more and more often, in greater numbers. They kept coming even after the Lily of the Valley blossoms wilted and crumbled to brown dust.“I don’t need to be near the flowers anymore,” she told me. “The spirits come to me everywhere now. They come when I’m showering, when I’m on the toilet, and they’re not even embarrassed. They’re getting impatient. They want me to pass on their messages.”
A few weeks later she decided to reveal her secret to our mom and step-dad. Mike’s grandfather’s spirit had told her that Mike needed to get his heart checked. When she ignored the spirit, he became more aggressive and insistent. She showed me the faint purple marks on the soft flesh in the crook of her arm. “The old guy won’t let me sleep,” she told me. “His spirit pokes me all night long.”
She told them one night over dessert, her face flushed. “I know this sounds weird,” she said. “But Mike, he said I should mention the book about the planes, the one he gave you, so you’d know it was really him sending the message.”
“Great Fighter Pilots of World War II,” Mike said. “A Christmas present. I read it a hundred times when I was in fifth grade. But I must have told you about that, Chrissy.”
Chrissy shook her head no, and Mom said, “I’ve never heard you mention that book, before, Mike.”
Mike scheduled a physical so Chrissy could see how silly this was. It won’t surprise you to hear that he needed triple bypass surgery. He’d already had a silent heart attack. She probably saved his life.
After that you couldn’t shut her up. In the grocery store she told a passing stranger, “Your little daughter says thank you for the unicorn on her headstone. She’s over there right now, by the Lucky Charms. That was her favorite cereal, remember?” The woman wept in the cereal aisle, and said that Chrissy was blessed.
After Mike’s surgery our Mom told her friends about Chrissy, and they started coming over on summer evenings for readings out on our deck. Afterwards they sipped wine spritzers in the living room and said that Chrissy had told them things about their lives, their dead relatives, that she couldn’t possibly have known.
Eventually Chrissy started getting phone calls from strangers who had heard about her, people who were grieving and were seeking messages from the departed. “I feel so responsible,” she told me. “These people need to hear from their loved ones, and the spirits themselves want to speak to the living. But it isn’t … precise. Sometimes a person can be really desperate, but their loved one won’t come through for me. Sometimes a spirit keeps telling me, I have a message for Lucy, but I don’t know anyone named Lucy and no Lucy comes forward.”
I told her that sometimes that happened when I was writing a song. I’d get a lyric with no tune, or a melody with no words, and then get stuck. “But it comes together,” I said. “Eventually. If I’m patient.”
“I’m not sure it’s the same thing,” Chrissy said. “But thanks.”
It was our step-brother Joe, freshly enrolled in a local business school, who got the idea of holding scheduled group readings and charging admission. “You can reach so many more people that way,” he told Chrissy one night across the dinner table.
“I know,” she said, “But I don’t want to make money off this.”
“The money will just pay for renting the space,” Joe assured her. “And some advertising, to get your message out.”
Chrissy’s eyes went blank with the faraway look we were all starting to get used to. “Yes,” she said quietly, “they’re saying they do want me to get their message out.”
“Are you up to this, Chrissy?” Mom asked worriedly. “Should you talk to your therapist about it?”
“I’m up to it,” Chrissy said, her eyes re-focused and her voice strong. “It’s actually just the thing I need, Mom.”
“This is going to be great,” Joe said, and he high-fived Chrissy across the dinner table.
They started small, in libraries and school gyms. Chrissy would walk up and down the aisles among the audience members, and then she’d stop suddenly, and tell someone, “That little soul, the stillborn baby you lost, he knows how much you loved him, and he’s sorry he couldn’t stay.” Joe learned to place boxes of Kleenex at the end of the rows of folding chairs.
The local newspaper did a story, and Chrissy was interviewed on a radio show. “Hey,” Amanda joked. “Can she sneak Peaches and Kreamer onto the radio show? You know, as background music so we can get discovered?”
Amanda was fascinated by Chrissy. We talked about her a lot, which made me feel guilty. For my whole life it had always been Chrissy and me talking about other people. Was my sister really being visited by spirits, we wondered. Amanda was more skeptical than I was. She thought Chrissy was probably delusional. But if she was delusional, I argued, how could she get so many details right? Was she somehow reading what people wanted to hear with some super keen intuitive sense she didn’t know she had? Had she picked up that Mike was not healthy, sensed a subtle change of skin color, or the faintest of body odors? One of the callers to the radio show had accused Chrissy of being a fraud. He said anyone could tell a roomful of people, “John says you should keep the ring,” and have it mean something to at least one of them. But I argued that Chrissy wasn’t conning people, at least not intentionally. She had never been manipulative, and her belief in her spirits seemed so pure, so genuine.
Though Amanda and I viewed Chrissy’s spirits differently, we agreed in our envy of her success. The two of us and Jake were getting gigs at bars here and there, but we weren’t earning enough to keep us in quality guitar strings. Meanwhile, Joe was renting bigger and bigger venues for Chrissy’s readings, and he started talking about becoming Chrissy’s manager for a national tour, getting her on Oprah or the Today Show. The ticket prices went up, and though Chrissy was still not taking any profits, I thought that Joe must be quietly stashing some good money away.
With each reading Chrissy seemed sadder and more listless. I noticed that she wasn’t eating again. “Eat, Christine!” I said to her one day in the kitchen, holding up a wooden spoon as our grandmother had in that first vision.
“It’s not funny, Marie,” she said, though she had laughed in the ICU when she told me about it. Then she said, “Remember that lady in the grocery store who told me I was blessed? The Lucky Charms lady?”
“I’m beginning to wonder if I wasn’t actually cursed.”
“Why?” I asked her.
The spirits, she told me, were getting more restless, more insistent. But at the same time, they were getting less clear. “It’s like a whisper I can’t quite make out,” she said. “Not straightforward like Dad and Nana were at the beginning. They try to tell me things, and I think they’re saying flower, but maybe it’s power, or flier. It’s like playing telephone.”
“Can’t you ask them to speak up?” I said.
She shook her head, tears in her eyes. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said.
We hadn’t gone to church much after Dad died, since Mike wasn’t Catholic and Dad’s tragic death had led Mom to question her faith. Still, Chrissy decided to go see our old priest. Father Quinn was perturbed by what she told him. This wasn’t the same, he said, as having visions of Jesus or the saints. When people die, we are supposed to trust God to care for their souls, and not try to wrest that control for ourselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly condemns mediums who summon spirits and predict the future. In trying to hold power over time, over history, over the living, and most especially over the dead, mediums disrespect God.
Chrissy was deeply distressed by what Father Quinn told her. “I’ve been trying to shut them out,” she told me. “But they keep coming. They want to be heard. It’s not me grasping for power. It’s them.”
On the day of the reading at the Paramount, which was to be her biggest show yet, Chrissy told Joe she couldn’t do it. The spirits were being rude and pushy, she said. There were too many of them, and the few voices she could make out in the throng were fuzzy. Joe said she couldn’t back out now. The newly renovated theater was sold out, and the local media all had passes. “If you don’t get clear messages,” he said, “Just make them up. You do that sometimes anyway, don’t you?”
“No,” Chrissy said. “Never. I thought you knew that.”
“I think,” said Mike carefully, when my parents were consulted, “That Chrissy should take a few weeks break after this reading. But she has a commitment to honor tonight.”
“Mom?” Chrissy said. “Marie?”
“I think you have to try,” Mom said. “Just for tonight. We’ll all be there supporting you, honey.”
I should have stood up for Chrissy, insisted that they cancel the show, but instead I said I agreed with Mom.
I went to the fancy new ladies’ room at the Paramount before the reading got underway. Seated in one of the stalls, I listened to some women talking as they washed their hands at the shiny marble sinks. Under the stall door I could see only their high heeled sandals and their painted toenails.
“I hope my husband comes through to her tonight,” one woman said. “I went to her reading at the library, and she just walked right past me. She told the man next to me that his dead dog was sending a message. You’d think dead husbands would take priority over dogs.”
I heard her yank the paper towel roll, hard.
“That’s a shame,” said another woman. “I’ve been to see her three times, and my grandmother came through twice and once my cousin who died of liver cancer.”
“Good for you,” said a third woman. “Maybe you should stop coming to readings and give someone else’s spirits a chance to come through.”
I stayed in the stall till they left, thinking that this conversation, the self-righteousness of it, the bitchiness, would have broken Chrissy’s heart. Then I went back into the theater and took my first row seat next to Mom, who was dressed like the mother of the bride in lavender georgette. I looked around at the shiny wooden floor of the stage, the restored gold leaf on the ceiling, the newly painted white pillars. A geeky-looking tech guy came out and did a sound check, and I could tell the place had killer acoustics. I couldn’t help but picture us up there, Amanda and me with our guitars, Jake on drums behind us. I felt a surge of resentment towards Chrissy and her spirits.
Then the lights darkened and she walked out alone onstage, pale and small in a voluminous blue dress, her hair tied back with a matching blue ribbon. She held her arms up dramatically, and it struck me that she looked like a combination of a Greek oracle and a scared little girl on her first day of school.
“Oh, spirits of the departed,” she began, using the cheesy phrasing that Joe thought audiences liked. “I summon you here.”
I could tell right away that she was off tonight, that the spirits were overwhelming her. She made odd swatting motions with her hands, as if she was waving gnats away in the back yard.
“Goodness,” she said, forcing a smile. “There are so many of them tonight, and they have so much to tell you all. They don’t seem to want to wait their turns.”
“Is my husband there, Chrissy?” shouted a woman.
“Your husband…” Chrissy said, closing her eyes. “His name was Ben, right?”
“Oh, my god,” cried the woman. “Not Ben, but close. Ken, his name was Ken.”
“He wants you to remember the tulips,” Chrissy said.
“Thank you,” the woman said, weeping.
From another part of the hall someone else called out. “It’s not her Ken, it’s my Ben! He died of a heart attack, planting tulips last fall.”
“Were they pink?” Chrissy asked. “I’m seeing pink.”
A third woman leapt up. “It’s my son Ben,” she shouted. “He brought me pink tulips every Mother’s Day until he killed himself.”
It went on like that. When Chrissy sensed the spirit of a man in a white lab coat, twenty people claimed him. He was someone’s dead son who’d been a dentist, he was the doctor who’d told someone else their child was dead. Two men almost came to blows when Chrissy said a female spirit was whispering the number twenty-one. One man’s daughter had died of alcohol poisoning on her twenty-first birthday, and the other man’s wife had choked to death on a piece of steak at their twenty-first anniversary dinner.
“Tell, us Chrissy,” one of the men said. “Which one of them is it?”
“I don’t know,” Chrissy said. “Maybe it’s both of them.” She batted again at those invisible gnats, looking strained and puzzled. “I know they don’t want you to fight, though. They love you.”
The air in the theater had the taut electric feeling you sense before a storm. The desperation of the crowd, their raw grief, their need for Chrissy to plug the holes in their hearts, became increasingly palpable. She looked out over the faces in the audience as someone holding a single bag of rice might look at a thousand starving children. Then she put her hands to her neck and grabbed her silver locket, the one Dad gave her, the one I have the twin of. “Daddy!” she called, her voice high and thin, a child’s voice. “Daddy!” And then she fainted.
Mike climbed over me and caught her as she went down, cradling her head. Mom had her phone out, dialing 911. Joe ran out in front of the curtain, yelling ridiculously, “Intermission! Intermission! Refreshments in the lobby!”
The audience buzzed like a nest of angry hornets. “She’s a fraud!” someone yelled. “I want my money back!”
“Forget the money!” sobbed another woman. “I just want one minute with my dear little Laney. One minute, Chrissy, please!”
I couldn’t control myself then. My heart pounded so hard I thought my chest would split open, and I felt a flaming heat in my face, in my head. I climbed up onto the velvet seat of my chair and stood above the crowd. “Get out!” I screamed. “Get out, all of you! She isn’t yours! Leave her alone!”
People in the audience moved nervously away from me. On the red carpeted floor of the aisle, where Mike held her in his arms, Chrissy opened her eyes and looked at me. “Thank you, Marie,” she said. “They’re listening. They’re listening. They’re leaving.”
Chrissy said she never heard from a spirit again after that day. Even Dad and Nana Bridget stayed quiet, but she told me she was content to wait until her time came to be with them again. “Hopefully when I’m ninety and a great-grandmother,” she said.
Chrissy started eating again, and eventually finished college at SUNY Albany and got a teaching degree. She married a gentle, down to earth music professor she met in a coffee shop, and moved with him to Indiana when he got a job at Ball State. She still lives there now, teaching third grade, singing lullabies to her babies, going into Indianapolis for date nights with her husband. She calls me every morning, sometimes evenings, too, when I’m not doing a concert. The last time I saw her I realized she doesn’t look like me anymore. She looks older, and it’s not just the school teacher glasses and the weight she gained with the pregnancies. There’s something wise and settled about her face, something I lack even when I wash off the make-up and glitter.
And me? That’s the part of the story you know already. A week after Chrissy’s failed Paramount show, the producer at DiNova Records listened to our demo tape of “Lily of the Valley.” It was my turn then. For the clamoring crowds, for the glory, for the sweet, heady fragrance of fame that can poison those who don’t know how to handle it.