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The Water Cure

by Sophie Mackintosh

Hardcover, 269 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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Book Summary

Raised on an isolated island where they are ritualistically taught to fear men, three sisters engage in a psychologically and sexually charged game of cat-and-mouse with three strangers who wash ashore during a blistering summer week. A first novel.

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Excerpt: The Water Cure

Grace, Lia, Sky

Once we had a father, but our father dies without us noticing.

It's wrong to say that we don't notice. We are just absorbed in ourselves, that afternoon when he dies. Unseasonable heat. We squabble, as usual. Mother comes out on the terrace and puts a stop to it by raising her hand, a swift motion against the sky. Then we spend some time lying down with lengths of muslin over our faces, trying not to scream, and so he dies with none of us women bearing witness, none of us accompanying him.

It is possible we drove him away, that the energy escaped our bodies despite our attempts to stifle it and became a smog clinging around the house, the forest, the beach. That was where we last saw him. He put a towel on the ground and lay down parallel to the sea, flat on the sand. He was resting, letting sweat gather along his top lip, his bare head.

The interrogation begins at dinner when he fails to turn up. Mother pushes the food and plates from the table in her agitation, one sweep of the arm, and we search the endless rooms of the house. He is not in the kitchen, soaking fish in a tub of brine, or pulling up withered potatoes outside, inspecting the soil. He is not on the terrace at the top of the house, surveying the still surface of the pool three floors below, and he is certainly not in the pool itself, for the sound of his splashing is always violent enough to carry. He is not in the lounge, nor the ballroom, the piano untouched, the velvet curtains heavy with undisturbed dust. Moving up the staircase again, a spine through the centre of the house, we check our rooms individually, our bathrooms, though we know he will not be there. From our scattered formation we come together to search the garden, search deeper, sticking long branches into the pond's green murk. Eventually we are out on the beach and we realize one of the boats has gone too--a furrow in the sand where it has been pushed out.

For a moment we think he has gone for supplies, but then we remember he was not wearing the protective white suit, we did not do the leaving ceremony, and we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity. And Mother falls to her knees.

Our father had a big and difficult body. When he sat down, his swimming shorts rode up and exposed the whiteness of his thigh where it was usually covered. If you killed him, it would be like pushing over a sack of meat. It would require someone much stronger than us.

The father shape he leaves behind quickly becomes a hollow that we can put our grief into, which is an improvement in a way.


I ask Mother if she had noticed any sickness in you. Any hint of your body giving way. She says, "No, your father was in fine fettle." Dark turn. "As you well fucking know."

Your body was not completely all right. Of course I would see that where she would not. I noticed a slight cough, mixed up a honey tincture for you the day before you died. Boiled nettles from the end of the garden, where we dump our rubbish and leave things to rot. My hands blistering as I pulled them from the earth in flat afternoon heat. You drank it straight from the saucepan. Sunburnt throat moving under the metal. We were sitting in the kitchen together, two stools pushed close. Your eyes were watery. You did not touch me. On the counter, three sardines spilled their guts.

"Are you dying?" I asked you.

"No," you said. "In many ways, I have never been better."


Confirmation comes in the shape of his bloodstained shoe washed up high on the shore. Mother finds it, but we don't salt it or burn it the way we would with other dangerous waste. "This is your father!" she screams at me when I suggest it. So instead we pull on latex gloves and we all touch the blood patch on the shoe, and then we bury it in the forest. We fling the gloves into the shoe's open grave and Mother fills it in with a shovel. I cry on to Grace's shoulder until the flesh of it shows through the material of her dress, but she only stares into the canopy above us with dry eyes.

"Can you feel something, for once?" I whisper to her later in the dark, sharing her bed without asking permission.

"I hope you die in the night," she whispers back.

Often Grace is repelled by me. I don't have the luxury of being repelled by her, even when her breath is sour and a gentle scum of dirt clings to her ankles. I take whatever contact I can get. Sometimes I harvest the hair from her brush and hide it under my pillow, when things get very bad.

Grace has a deep fascination with a pair of black patent sandals that one of the women left behind years ago. She straps them on from time to time even though the soles flap loose, the leather scales and flakes. One morning she puts them on and lies facedown in the sweating dew, right in the middle of the garden. When Sky and I find her, roll her over with our hands, she is motionless for thirty seconds or more. Her eyes are fixed. Her first movement is to rend at her hair, and we join in like it's a game, but it turns out it's a cue that I didn't even know I was waiting for. Then we are all just useless there on the lawn, already painfully overgrown, waiting for Mother to find us.

Because we are new to mourning, Mother is panicked. There are no therapies for this unknown crisis. But she is a resourceful woman, ardently repairing the broken her entire life. More than that, she was a woman at our father's side, absorbing and refining his theories. Her hands are bloodless when she lays them upon us. Soon a solution is found.

For one week, Sky and I share Grace's bed. For one week, Mother puts the small blue insomnia tablets on our tongues three to four times a day. Short and foggy breaks in the sleep to be slapped awake, to drink from the glasses of water that crowd the bedside table and to eat crackers Mother spreads with peanut butter, to crawl to the bathroom, because by the third day our legs can no longer be relied upon to hold us. The heavy curtains stay closed to keep the light out, to keep the temperature down.

"What are you feeling?" Mother asks us during those swims up to consciousness. "Good, bad? Oh, I know that I wish I could sleep through all of this. You are the lucky ones."

She monitors our breathing, our pulses. Sky throws up and Mother is there immediately to tenderly scoop the vomit from her mouth with her forefinger and thumb. When she puts her into the bathtub to clean her up we are dimly aware of the shower running like a distant storm.

All through the long sleep my dreams are boxes filled with boxes filled with small trapdoors. I keep thinking I am awake, and then my arms fall off or the sky pulses a livid green, I am outside with my fingers in the sand and the sea is vertical, spilling its seams.

After, it takes a few days for my body to feel normal again. My knees still crumple when I stand. I have bitten my tongue, and it swells and moves in my mouth like a grub against dry earth.

Grace, Lia, Sky

When we emerge from the lost week, we are surrounded by pieces of paper with Mother's writing on like reminders. They are pinned to the walls, slipped into drawers, folded into our clothes. The pieces of paper say, No more love! Her pain gives her the gravity of an oracle. We are very troubled by them. We ask her about them and she tells us a revised version.

"Love only your sisters!" All right, we decide, that is easy enough for us to do. "And your mother," she adds. "You have to love me too. It's my right." OK, we tell her. It is no problem.


Sometimes we pray in the ballroom, sometimes in Mother's bedroom. It depends on whether we need bombast, Mother on the stage with her arms raised towards the ceiling, sound bouncing from the parquet. In her bedroom it is a quieter worship, graver. We hold hands very tightly, so we can blur where the I ends and the sister begins. "Devotions for the women of our blood," we say.

It feels good to wish my sisters only well. I can feel them focusing on our love like a crucial piece of information that needs memorizing. "Sometimes," Mother tells us, when she is trying to be loving, "I can no longer tell you girls apart." Some days we like this, some days we don't.

The first time we gather to pray in Mother's room after your death, I broach the idea of drawing the irons again. When I say it nobody nods, nobody agrees with me. Our eyes go to where they hang on her wall. Five hooks, five lengths of iron. Five names above the hooks, but only four names on the irons.

"Once a year, Grace," Mother tells me. "Just because you don't like the result."

Lia looks sideways at me. She was the one who drew the blank iron, which meant that there was no specific love allocated to her this year. "Bad luck," we told her. She was stoic. All of us put our arms around her and told her that of course we would still love her, of course, but we knew it wouldn't be the same, that she would have to scramble more for the affection, that it wouldn't come as easily. We wouldn't be able to touch her so freely. You picked me, as usual, tying me to you for another year. You rigged it. The whole thing was a sham.

"My person is dead," I point out.

"Grief is love," Mother says. I expect her to be angry, but she looks panicked instead. "You could call it the purest kind."

So much for loving only my sisters.

It occurs to me that I would like you to come back to life so I could kill you myself.

"We always love some people more," Mother explained when we first drew them. "This way, we can keep it fair. Everyone gets their turn." It seemed simple, with those irons new in our hands and our names painted fresh upon them. Lia got me, that time.

We would all still love each other, but what it meant was: if there was a burning fire, if two sisters were stuck in the inferno and they were screaming a name, the only right thing would be to pick the one the iron dictated to save. It is important to ignore any contrary instinct of your traitor heart. We were quite used to that.