Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue (Published in Weird Sisters: Lilac City Fairy Tales)
Regan and Gennifer loved their sister Delia, but she sure didn’t make it easy.
They were accustomed to having to work around her demanding diet at family gatherings. Delia would eat only eat cruelty-free eggs, laid by hens who lived in heated coops, where fowl whisperers coaxed the girls away with mealworms and coos and replaced the eggs with fake ones so the hens wouldn’t suffer post-partum.
Delia wouldn’t eat anything with a face, which ruled out mammals, fish, and lobsters and shrimp; scallops, clams, and oysters she’d devour with relish. She had never been a vegan; she had a weakness for Cambezola, mint chocolate chip, and hot cocoa with loads of whipped cream—if the milk came from cows with names. You couldn’t offer honey for her locally-sourced tea without receiving a hectoring lecture on hierarchical feminism and the oppression of drones.
Her antipathy toward gluten knew no moderation; a slice of bread would provoke a riff on the life-threatening dangers of celiac disease.
“But you don’t have celiac disease,” Regan pointed out.
“I experience sympathy pains,” Delia said.
“Oh good grief,” Regan said.
“Are you trivializing me—and the millions of others who suffer at the hands of fascistic bakers?”
Gennifer, the middle child, said, “Here. Have a sprouted hemp cracker with artisanally hand-creamed peanut butter.”
Delia refused to wear silk (the worms were exploited), wool (“You think those sheep can stay warm after they’ve been shaved to within an inch of their lives?”), leather (duh), and polyester. She had, she said, PTSD flashbacks to the 1970s when Huckapoo printed shirts were all the rage and their mother refused to buy her one. Cotton was okay if organically grown and harvested in small batches.
Delia could not tolerate the smell of perfume, shampoo, or laundry detergent. She asked her sisters not to bathe or wear clean clothes for three days before they saw her.
And they had to watch their language. Delia once pounced on Regan for the way she referred to the big metal disks on the street. When Regan’s husband Edgar heard his wife speak of “personhole covers” he laughed so hard he nearly gave himself a hernia. He didn’t understand why Regan and her Gennifer put up with the demands of their youngest sibling.
“It’s for Pops,” Regan explained. “Running the company has exhausted him. When he’s ready to retire, we want him to know it’ll be fine, that we can all get along.”
Regan and Gennifer drove matching Priuses, gave blood regularly, and lived in houses with passive solar heat and poured concrete countertops. They sent their kids to Quaker schools and they had each married men who always put the toilet seat down and squeezed the toothpaste from the bottom. Delia had never, to the best of their knowledge, had a romantic partner but she did have a parrot who went everywhere with her. Samuel Richard Benjamin perched on Delia’s shoulder like a big, colorful, squawking wart.
Regan and Gennifer worked for the family business. Their shrewd father had surrounded himself with smart executives, who, like Regan and Gennifer, earned MBAs from Harvard and Wharton but never dropped the names. The business blossomed into a vast empire.
Delia had failed out of art school. She’d traveled on the hashish trail through India and busked outside bars in the south of France. She’d collected bat guano in Costa Rica and lived on a kibbutz in Israel. Then, in middle age, she settled into a one-bedroom apartment whose floor was always lined with newspaper. “Birds aren’t meant to be caged,” she would explain to her rare visitors, warning them to watch where they stepped.
Nowadays Delia spent most of her time on social media. Her Facebook avatar changed to reflect whatever group was most downtrodden at the moment: the flag of a country that suffered a terrorist attack or natural disaster, a circle/slash framing a police officer after another shooting, an equals sign whenever there was a hate crime against the LGBTQIAPK community. Her posts consisted of animal videos and blistering attacks on people, corporations, and ideas.
As a major stockholder, Delia had to come for quarterly board meetings. She would show up with Samuel Richard Benjamin on her shoulder and sulk or argue with her sisters. Once, after a bruising discussion, Gennifer told Delia she had hurt her feelings.
“Well,” Delia said, “Your feelings are wrong.”
“My feelings are wrong?”
“Yes. Sorry if you took offense, but I am committed to the truth. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we stand up for what we believe in.”
“You believe that all of our employees need to hear the national anthem of their countries of origin and parade through the halls carrying flags?”
“We want them to feel welcome.”
Regan intervened. “You don’t think free healthy food, exercise classes, on-site medical attention, haircuts and dental cleanings, subsidized housing, free dry cleaning, and paying their kids’ college tuition makes them feel welcome?” Regan prided herself on how well the business treated its workers.
“Not enough,” said Delia.
When, on his eightieth birthday, their father called the board into executive session, he told his daughters that he was ready to retire and wanted to hear their plans for the company.
Regan showed a Prezi with detailed plans for growth, new revenue streams, and more and better employee benefits.
Gennifer gave an impassioned speech arguing that profit shouldn’t be a business’s only motive. She proposed setting up a foundation devoted to fighting for issues of social justice.
Their father turned to his youngest. “Delia? What have you to say?”
They all knew how this would go.
Their father always asked that question and Delia always made the same reply.
Delia would say, “Nothing.”
Then her father would say, “Nothing will come of nothing. Squeak again.”
And Delia would stalk off in a huff.
Regan and Gennifer waited for the familiar refrain.
Instead, Delia said, “Lamborghini.”
“What?” Their father’s face turned into a sine curve.
“I want a Lamborghini.”
Gennifer whispered to Regan, “Is that some kind of gluten-free pasta?”
“And a Rolex. The platinum one, with diamonds around the bezel.”
Their father clutched his chest and struggled to breathe. Regan and Gennifer rushed toward him but he held up a hand.
He looked Delia up and down. In a tremulous voice, he asked, “And new boobs?”
Delia’s face froze.
Then she smiled, showing most of her pointy, crooked teeth, and said, “Yes! And Botox.”
Their father stood and said, “My daughter! My one true daughter! And how about gold toilets, an espresso machine, and a jet. A Lear jet!”
Delia embraced her Pops for the first time in forty years, knocking Samuel Richard Benjamin to the ground.
From the floor the poor fool squawked, “Nuncle!”