Alta Journal is pleased to present the fourth installment of a five-part serialization of the opening section of Properties of Thirst, the new novel by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Marianne Wiggins. The book is a multigenerational saga of California in which rancher Rocky Rhodes battles the Los Angeles Water corporation against the backdrop of World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the death of his wife.
Each week, we’ll publish online the next portion from this first section, titled “The First Property of Thirst Is an Element of Surprise.” Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
In the house someone was running, then he heard the sound of women’s voices and, Cas running with her, Sunny burst into the portales. Wise child, she had always been wiser than her age and Rocky could see, now, in the terror on her face that she understood the larger sadness in this news unfolding, elsewhere, in the world—until she spoke two words which made no sense to him:
—two words, to Rocky’s mind, that made no sense, together, in a sentence.
“Stryker. Stryker’s at Pearl Harbor.”
It seemed to take a while before he answered, accusingly, “But you told me he was with the fleet. In San Diego.”
“I told you…” Words slowed, but her voice got higher: “Don’t say I didn’t tell you, Tops. The fleet was moved last year.”
He knew that.
—he knew that, it had been reported on the radio—last April—Roosevelt had ordered the Pacific Fleet from California to Hawaii as a warning to the Japanese but stubbornly or blindly Rocky had allowed himself to think “Pacific Fleet” did not mean Stryker—“Pacific Fleet,” to Rocky’s mind, was a code word, a specific cover, for all those other fathers’ sons.
Not Sunny’s fault—not Cas’s either—he had made it near impossible for them to talk to him about his son.
Cas stepped forward, brought out the envelope she had been fingering—hiding—in her pocket. “This came yesterday.”
She held it out to him and when he hesitated she said, “You need to have a look. He’s married.”
That caught Sunny by surprise.
Rocky took the letter and scanned it for a return address—there was none: only “USN, Honolulu” in Stryker’s adolescent penmanship—then he opened it.
Sunny could see the letter was a single page and that a photograph was tucked inside.
Behind them, the man’s voice on the radio halted, then started up again, recounting what sounded like a lesson in geography, an atlas of the Western states—Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah—until she realized he was naming ships.
She watched her father give her brother’s letter a quick read with no change in his expression. Then she saw the muscles in his face go slack as he examined the photograph. He looked up, locked eyes with Cas and held her gaze for what seemed to Sunny time enough to write a treaty. Twins. She felt left out: at an instant when the world, as she had known it, seemed in pieces, when she needed both her father and his twin the most.
She couldn’t stop herself: “Are we under attack? Are they going to bomb us next?”
Rocky folded the letter back into the envelope and handed it to his own twin before he answered. “Put that from your mind, honey. California is too far away.”
“But they got Hawaii—” She took his arm. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Rocky laid his left hand, with its missing fingers, on top of hers. “You want to ride with me to town? Phones’ll all be down. I’m going into Lone Pine to the Western Union.”
“Everyone will be in church,” Cas warned, and then Sunny took a few steps back from them and said, “Someone please explain to me what’s going on—”
The last time death had felt this close inside this house she’d been three years old.
And her father had rung the bell.
“Let me go and try and find some facts about your brother,” Rocky told her. “Come and ride along. Do you good to be with other people.”
Sunny shook her head.
After Rocky left, Cas put her arm around her shoulder and handed her the letter. “I was going to show you this, regardless. There aren’t secrets between you and me. Who knows why Stryker does the things he does. I don’t know why he didn’t want to tell you first.”
It had been because of Stryker that her fiancé had fled the county. Stryker was the reason Sunny wasn’t married.
She turned the letter over in her hand, hesitating, as Rocky had, to find out what it was, exactly, Stryker had in store, this time, for them.
The first word was written large in capitals and jumped off the paper:
T W I N S !
Sunny’s eyes ran down the page—great kid named Suzy—Stateside, Christmas—relatives in Sacramento—then: “Named the 1st 1 Ralph the other Waldo, that should score some points with the ol’ man. (Emerson, get it??) Don’t tell Sunny cuz she’ll flip, me getting hitched before her! Imagine me a Dad! Times 2!!”
His handwriting hadn’t changed since he was ten.
—and no she couldn’t imagine him as a husband or a dad.
But there he was, in the photograph, a tall blond handsome Navy ensign in his starched whites leaning over the shoulder of the small woman looking up at him, her face partially obscured by a pair of aviator sunglasses, her very dark hair coiled along her forehead like a wad of cash or a fat sausage, lips pulled back in a smile. She was wearing a light-colored dress with large, darker flowers on it—big flowers, the kind they have in Hawaii—and she was wearing silk stockings in the sun (the light diffused along her calves). She had tiny feet in tall black pumps and tiny hands, although Sunny couldn’t see the wedding band.
Stryker had landed in Hawaii over a year ago and Sunny had received half a dozen letters from him in that time, none mentioning the “great kid Suzy” who looked half his size, Sunny had to admit, and top-heavy, balancing in her arms two identical shapes that looked like swaddled torpedoes. Ralph and Waldo. Third in line of consecutive twins in the family—Rocky and Cas, Sunny and Stryker before them. But these two had broken the mold, Sunny thought. Unlike herself and their father, these two would be identical. No one but themselves—and not even they—would ever be able to tell them apart.
Sunny took her aunt’s hand, nearly twice the size of her own. Since their mother’s death Cas had been the defining woman in Sunny’s and Stryker’s lives, arriving to help her grief-stricken brother and sacrificing her own chance at parenthood. There was no woman Sunny loved more. No one more greatly trusted. “If something happened to Tops,” Sunny said. “If you and Tops weren’t living near each other, if he was living far away from you and something happened to him, if he got sick or had an accident—or died—don’t you think you’d know it?”
“What do you mean?”
Cas stiffened, somewhat. Sunny felt her aunt’s attention drift to the radio.
“—I mean don’t you think you’d feel it, like a premonition…”
“Oh for christsake.” Cas withdrew her hand. “What’s the matter with you, button…?”
“—as a twin, I mean.”
“Where are you picking up this garbage?”
Where?—the first distinctive sound Sunny had probably ever heard in life must have been the sound of Stryker being born, the sound of Stryker screaming. Whole years had gone by when she’d believed Where’s your brother? was her name. She’d walk into a room alone and the first thing she would hear was Where’s your brother?, raising the alarm that Stryker had escaped again, somewhere on or off the premises, unaccompanied, unattended, untwinned. Where’s your brother? meant You’re not doing your job: every time he gets in trouble, so do you. Every time he gets in trouble it’s your fault.
Sunny’s life had been engineered by others to the service of her brother. Who could blame her for the habit of surveillance, for the guilt she experienced when she didn’t know where Stryker was?
“I don’t have the feeling Stryker is in danger. I don’t have that feeling at all. I don’t feel like Stryker’s…dead.”
“—oh for godsake don’t be asinine—the nation’s been attacked, boys are dying and you’re behaving like some walk-on seer in the First Act. Premonition my ass. Pull yourself together. Your mother would be ashamed to hear you talk this way.”
—big gun, Cas’s invocation of the artillery: Sunny’s mother. What would Sunny’s mother have thought or done? How did Sunny measure up against her unknown mother’s dreams for her?
Cas could see she’d landed a hit and instantly regretted it. She patted Sunny’s hand. “Let’s focus our intelligence on doing something useful. Despite what your father says I’m going to man the telephone. We must know someone who knows someone high up in the Navy. I’ll make the calls. What are you going to do?”
Sunny stared at her. Everybody in the family had the same blue eyes. Different pieces of the sky.
“Cook, I guess. Start to make a lot of food.”
Neither of them dared to turn off Rocky’s radio so they left it there, echoing in the empty portales as Cas went toward her appartement, and Sunny walked, with no real thought or plan, from habit, to the kitchen.•
TO BE CONTINUED
Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.