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The Taste of Water

by William Orem

It had been a slow day, recovering from the cold. The two women had already walked through the wintering gardens and around the brick path where a faint smell of jasmine kept returning to the air, a familiar, ghostly odor brought out by the rains on which they had both commented.

"I know a bank where the wild thyme blows," Katelin said. "Where oxlips . . . something . . . eglantine grows."

They sat at the little glass-topped table.

"I used that once in audition."

"Did you get the part? Of course you did."

Emilia smiled ambiguously and Katelin thought as she often had that her sister had that odd, picturesque quality that was the real key to beauty. Emilia seemed just to pop into poses, collecting things around her in a little unconscious symphony. For a moment she imagined her sister as the subject of an impressionist painting, slim pink hands, forehead bright against the sun. Katelin herself had always been pretty, certainly pretty; but Emilia was the one with that unconscious nimbus of light.

"You see, I know Shakespeare too," Katelin said, suddenly hating. "Did you know I took your collection into the attic the year you went to New Haven? I read all the plays, one after another, just to prove I could."

"You're serious."

"Yes. My genius sibling."

A waiter brought them ceramic cups on little round plates. Emilia had joked about how this was the only place in the city with real service, because if you aren't quick your customer may be gone. It was the kind of comment Katelin loathed.

"How long do you have today?"

"As long as I want," Katelin said, covering the watch face guiltily. "I have to pick up Effie at three fifteen. Three thirty is fine, the damned school is always late. And John is in Baltimore until, I don't know, Friday I think. But until then."

"John spends a lot of time away."

"It's fine."

Emilia was watching her like a bird.


"It's not . . . it's just . . . Christ," Katelin said. The cup overbalanced on its little saucer and she shook the angry drops from her fingers. "I was always jealous of you and I wanted to see you fail and now I want to help you. And now I can't help you. I can't."

"Hush, now," Emilia said. "Hush hush."

"And then you were an actress, an actual actress, making money, my God, like you didn't get enough . . . you got applause, you were so damned smart and now I hate you. I do."

"Hush hush hush. It's okay."

"I've stopped now. See? I've stopped. It's stupid."

A man in a white jacket was sitting alone at one of the nearby tables with a small open book. When Katelin's eye passed over him he looked at both of them intently.

"And I always thought you were the brainy one."

"A paralegal." Katelin laughed.

The man in the white coat set down his reading, stood up with a formal gesture and came over to their chairs. He produced a small vial from his pocket and set it shyly on the glass table. It was a round at the belly and tapered upward, about the size of three fingers.

"This isn't ours," Emilia said politely.

"Please," the man in the white jacket said. "This is water from Lourdes. I have been there myself."

He had a trim little beard that was only visible in proximity as its color closely matched his skin. At the ends of his jacket sleeves were slim hands with their carefully pared nails, a little effeminate; something about him seemed European.

"No, thank you."

"Whatever is your ailment," the little man said. He spoke almost contritely, his neat hands coming together like a penitent. "The cause does not matter."

"It is the cause, the cause, my soul," Emilia sighed when the man had collected his papers. "How do you think he knew? My hair isn't falling out or anything."

"It's evil. They should keep people like that out. There should be security."

"Katie, I told you to stop that."

"I'm sorry. I've stopped. See? I've stopped."

"Lourdes," Emilia mused, picking up the bottle. "I remember the pictures in National Geographic. All those discarded crutches with dirty cloths taped unto them, all up on the wall. They frightened me, they were like piles of bodies."

Emilia shook the bottle, grinning into the tiny end before setting it down again. Katelin tried to push her own chair back as her sister rose but the iron legs caught against the brick.

"No, it's all right," Emilia said. "There are some things I still like to do on my own."

Her sister walked out of the cafeteria space, Katelin watching her go from behind. When the strangely old-young figure had finally disappeared she was alone once more among the outdoor tables, feeling the cool air of the city, smelling the strange, ghostly odor of jasmine. One hand held the watch face covered with her sleeve. She hated her bitterness, hated the sound of her own voice at these times. And not just these times: more and more with John now, with both her children. What was it she wanted from her sister in her final days? Why did the feeling seem both so uncertain and so urgent? There was nothing to be done here; nothing to be said; nothing to be corrected. Nothing more, nothing more, nothing. She let her mind drift into the word until it was silent, feeling only the taps of the second hand speaking under her palm, bland and repetitive as a child's plea. When she heard the slow, painful steps making their way back into the garden again she reached out for the little vial, pulled it open quickly and splashed some in her sister's cup. Then she replaced it and put both hands in her lap.

"With sweet musk roses and eglantine," Emilia mused when she had gone through the process of seating herself once more. "Time to go?"

"Stay a little," Katelin said.

William Orem's first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, previously given to Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford and others. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in over 90 publications and have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His play "The Seabirds" won the Manduzmar New Plays contest at Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, NY and will be produced in the upcoming season. William currently is the Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston.