Butternut says if houses wore dresses, ours would have to lift up its skirt so rain wouldn’t soak into its ruffles. Cupcake says if our house’s joists were legs, the water would be past her knees. Puddleduck says by tomorrow the waves will splash up on our house’s panties. Butternut says, Your simile stinks; before giving a house panties, you have to liken her base floor to a lady’s snatch.
Tonight’s dinner is tulip wallpaper peeled off the master bedroom walls. We prepare it in a saucepan over a Yankee candle fire. When the candle gets melty, we drip wax over the tulips. That flavors them nice. The candle’s got a Holly Berry scent. Mmm, Mmm, Puddleduck says. Tastes like Mama’s earlobes. Cupcake says, Better enjoy these delicacies while you can. Sonny’s bedroom has sailboats on the walls. Butternut says, Please pass the yellow tulip with the mottled chartreuse stem.
Puddleduck wakes up from her nap in a fret because water’s soaked into her bum. Water’s soaked into all our bums. Best move our nap upstairs. Too bad. We liked taking naps in front of the fireplace. Even though there was no fire. Only ash. Now ash floats on top of the water. We pretend the ash is krill and open our mouths wide like whales. Rows of baleen line our jaws and filter the part that is fish from the part that is sea.
We try to remember Mama’s name. Butternut thinks it was Carol. Cupcake thinks it was La’Shawn Juanita O’Shea. Puddleduck thinks it was Benadryl. No, Butternut says. Benadryl was the name of your cough syrup. No, Puddleduck says. My cough syrup’s name was Luanne. Then she folds her knees into her nipply boobies and squeezes her teeth tight to remember how Luanne tasted on her tongue. She remembers how Luanne burnt her throat and made her tonsils ring.
Butternut made up a game. Here’s how it goes. Everyone closes their eyes and counts to a hundred. But Butternut only uses numbers made of glass. Cupcake only uses numbers made of ink. And Puddleduck only uses numbers made of snow. After we say all the numbers, we open our eyes and see which have managed to float. So far Butternut’s won the most games but only because she made up the rules herself.
The master bedroom has been mined dry of tulips, so we rip down some sailboats for lunch. Sailboat sandwich. White sailboats on top and bottom. Green and red sailboats between the bread. Condiments: wallpaper glue, aged to yellow flakes, slightly sour, a hint of salt. Like horse radish, Puddleduck says. No, mayonnaise. No, paprika pickle spread.
It’s too wet in the house now to sleep. Our hair is wet. Our toenails are wet. Our pee holes are wet. We haven’t slept in two days. Cupcake says all the sleep’s leaked out of the house. Butternut says we should sing a song to make it leak back in. What song? Puddleduck asks. The one about the peacock, Butternut says. How does that one go? It starts do-wee, do-wee.
Puddleduck calls the others to the bathroom window. She thought she saw a serpent sliding over the water. It had rainbow hair and eyes like fiery globes. Was it wearing a top hat and britches? Butternut asks. The one I saw yesterday looked like that. Serpents don’t wear clothes, Puddleduck says. Cupcake laughs, and Puddleduck swats at her sister. Shut up, she says. That serpent could carry us straight to Mama’s new home.
We try to sleep in the room with sailboats formerly on its walls. But the house is sloshing back and forth on wobbly legs. Cupcake gets the idea to string our sleeping bags up like hammocks. The mattresses are gone, so we tie our sleeping bags to the bunk bed frame, one on bottom, two on top. In our hammocks, we feel like caterpillars wrapped in cocoons. We pretend we are growing wings. Still we’re wet. Still we don’t sleep.
Tonight we eat Polaroid squares from the family album. Not our family. The Wilcox family, who previously owned our house. Our family’s all here except Mama. Mama set off to sea to find us a spot of land with fruit trees and a goat. She set off in an orange paddle boat propelled by her feet. We sent her away with blankets so she wouldn’t get cold in the wind. How many days ago did Mama leave? Butternut says twenty. Cupcake says eighty-four. Puddleduck says two thousand and three.
Five days and no sleep. Purple rings around our eyes. We call each other names. Raccoon breath. Corpse face. Battered wife. Puddleduck is delirious and says silly things. She says, Toothpick pirates kicked my thump. She says, Olive oil axed the kittens. And: Global warming ate Mama’s syrupy eggs. The eggs that were supposed to be our brothers? asks Cupcake. Puddleduck shakes her head no, then yes, then no.
Butternut found crayons stuck in a crack at the back of the closet. One stick blue. One stick pink. We take turns coloring each other’s teeth. Cupcake’s top teeth are all blue, her bottom pink. Boys on top, girls on bottom, she says. Butternut wants hers done every other tooth. Puddleduck’s favorite color is pink, so she sticks with that. We bare our teeth at each other and growl our ghastly grins. And all night while we’re awake and not sleeping, our tongues steal tastes of wax.
Cupcake says, Last night I dreamed Mama got swallowed up by a whale. How’d you fall asleep? asks Butternut. It was an awake dream, Cupcake says. It was the same whale as Jonah’s, and Jonah was still inside. You got it wrong, Butternut says. Jonah got out of that whale. Well, he must have got back in, Cupcake says. Now let me finish the story. Mama jumped Jonah’s bones inside the whale. And they both had little whale babies, two a piece, whale baby twins. And that’s where all our brothers have gone, Puddleduck says. No, Cupcake says. Our mama don’t bear boys. The whale babies were all baby girls.
The water’s halfway up the wall where the sailboats used to be. It’s washed out the bottom hammock, so Butternut’s bunking with Cupcake, and Puddleduck’s all alone. She lets her leg flop over the side of her hammock. Her toes taste the salty waves. Next to her, Butternut and Cupcake tangle their limbs around each other so they won’t knock each other out of bed. Puddleduck listens to their cooing noises as they nestle into each other’s skin. She hears them whisper. Cupcake says, Do it like the brothers. Do it like this. The salt on Puddleduck’s toes makes her shiver. She misses Mama’s kisses on her nose.
Mold is eating our nightgowns. Butternut makes a declaration: no more clothes. Not even our bathing suits? Puddleduck asks. You want a soggy crotch? Cupcake says. Puddleduck shakes her head no. They drop their gowns out the window and watch them swim away, jelly fish with lacy wings. Then they splash around on the stairs leading up to the attic. They climb to the top and leap into the hallway below. The water slaps their skin and it feels like a spanking. They run to the stairs and do it again.
We only have enough Polaroids left for one more meal. One a piece. Cupcake nibbles at a picture of three brothers holding a giant Hershey bar on their laps. She eats the heads of the brothers last. Butternut eats a picture of a man and woman holding hands in front of a train. Puddleduck eats a picture of a Mama with a baby on her lap.
Butternut has a new game. It involves holding our breath. We dive under the water and swim down to the first floor and bring up whatever we can find in our teeth. Today, Cupcake brought up a latch hook rug. Puddleduck brought up a water gun. Butternut brought up garden gloves. You dope, says Butternut. Plastic is inorganic. You can’t eat that. Cupcake and Butternut curl up in their hammock and share their snacks. Puddleduck fills the gun with water and aims it at their heads.
We had to abandon our hammocks. The water swallowed them up. At night we lie at the top of the attic stairs. Tell me a story, Puddleduck says. Which story? The one where Moses’s Mama splits open the ocean so Moses can gather pearls for his sister? No. Not that one. The one where Jesus’s Mama teaches him to do pirouettes on top of the water to impress his brothers? Un uh. The one where Noah’s Mama sings a lullaby over and over so the dove can find the Ark? Yeah, that one, Puddleduck says. I don’t remember how it goes, Butternut says. And anyhow, it was an ostrich, not a dove.
While Butternut and Cupcake scout out the attic, Puddleduck watches the window. With her head on the top step, the horizon stays in view. She keeps watch for the serpent or Mama or Jonah’s whale. The house rocks back and forth on the waves, then lurches and falls and hits with a slosh. Uh oh, Puddleduck says, sounds like she’s fallen off her legs. Good thing the fat lady floats. Then a wave comes through the window, carrying seaweed and plastic pellets and a lump of feathers and fur that finds a home in Puddleduck’s lap. She thinks it is a tiny brother’s head. And that means Mama must be close.
The attic has one tiny window and rafters and splintery walls. Boxes are stacked to the ceiling. Butternut and Cupcake rip them open. They are filled with seashells padded with foam. The girls tear at the filling and binge till their bellies are full and shards of shells circle them like the bones of a meaty meal. They lie on pieces of cardboard and stare at the light from the tiny window. When the house falls off its legs, Butternut says, Uh oh. Sounds like she’s gone off the deep end. Yeah, Cupcake says, She’s giving up the goat.
When Butternut and Cupcake come down with heavy bellies, they see that Puddleduck has found a pet. It’s a dove. No, an ostrich. No, Sleep’s washed back into the house. Can we hold it? Be gentle, Puddleduck says. Butternut and Cupcake take Sleep up to the attic and sit on a piece of cardboard with their new pet between them. They run their fingers through its fur. They pick seaweed from its feathers. Butternut tells it a story in French. Sleep climbs up her hip, then her ribs, and cuddles into her collarbone. Then they all shut their eyes and sleep. And dream dreams of buttermilk beaches typeset with footprints missing their toes.
When Butternut wakes up, Cupcake is rocking Sleep back and forth in her arms. She is telling it a story about a brother who raped a bird. She says, This is how he does it. Fly away to the land of the goat when he’s done. Butternut interrupts the story. Where’s Puddleduck? she asks. She went to the kitchen. Into the water? Where else? Cupcake says, that’s all there is. She go for food? No, Cupcake says. She heard Mama calling downstairs.
In the kitchen in the space under the cupboard under the sink, Puddleduck can hear her Mama sing. Mama sings the lullaby that brought the ostrich to Noah’s Ark, the ostrich with a fortune cookie in his beak. At the end of the song, Puddleduck is out of air. Time to kick to the top. She waves good-bye to the water. Goodnight, my little Puddleduck, Mama says. Sleep well. She rolls a bottle across the kitchen floor and leaves it at her feet. Puddleduck hugs it to her chest and kicks. One floor. Two floor. Three floors up.
Our fingers and toes are icky like prunes. They’ve sopped up so much water, they look like pickled grapes. Each hand bends into thousands of creases. We sit in a circle and read each other’s palms. Sleep perches on Cupcake’s head. Butternut’s palm says she will marry the king of equatorial guinea and give birth to Alaska. Cupcake’s palm says she will invent a uterus big enough to envelope the entire sea. Puddleduck’s palm is hard to read. Too many dangling modifiers, Butternut says. And a mess of incongruent verbs.
The water’s up to our knees. We fill the bottle with water and pour it out the window but the water level doesn’t drop. Pretty soon it will lap against our thighs. It will lick our vulvas clean. What’s the bottle for if not to drain the water? It’s for our sins, Cupcake says. What will we write them on? Butternut says. We ate the paper and crayons. Just whisper them into the bottle, Cupcake says. The glass will remember. Glass is good like that. They whisper, Bless us, Mama, for we have eaten the Wilcox family and stolen their house. We water boarded the beach. And overconsumed the well. We couldn’t birth any brothers. And we murdered Jonah’s whale. But if you come again to judge the waterlogged sisters, we will wish away the rain.
We pile all the boxes up and climb on top. The water’s made them wobbly, so we sit close and hold each other for balance in the dark. Cupcake’s boobies are getting big. They poke Puddleduck’s knee. Puddleduck shifts her weight and kisses Butternut’s cheek. Sleep hops from head to head and when she gets hungry slides down Cupcake’s shoulder and nurses at her breast.
Tomorrow we’ll go up on the roof if we can fit through the window. If not, we’ll call the obstetrician. Or start a synchronized swimming team. Or stir ourselves into starfish soup. While there’s still air, we take turns holding Sleep above the water. We take turns telling stories. And singing the lullaby that will make the ostrich come.