By Goldberry Long
Published by Scribner Paperback Fiction
July 2002 (trade paperback); 0-743-22211-3; 464 pages
New Year's Day, This Year, Santa Fe
Before he kidnapped me from my own wedding reception, Sunny Boy Blue -- that little prick, that darling Backwards Boy -- he nearly skipped the Big Event altogether. He was scheduled for Christmas, but to the tune of my mother's tears, he missed his flight. Then he missed another, and it seemed that Russia was holding him back, like honey, or a fly trap. Alas, he pulled free with less than twenty-four hours to spare, time enough to wreak a little havoc, assassinate my New Year's Day, my birthday, my wedding day, all my big holidays clustered together, a gaggle of ducks waiting to be shot down by this drunken imposter flown in from Russia. By the reception dinner, I wished him dead.
Such a lovely scene, white linen tablecloths, candles, turkey and all the fixings. Any idiot with a camera knows it when he sees it: a bona fide Photo Opportunity. The Bride and Groom with their families, the Wedding Party, seven of them at the table. I, Jennie, the Bride, had no choice in this; one cannot have a Wedding Party Table without the Family of the Bride, after all. Self-educated in protocol though this Bride may be, she knows the names of things, the proper and orderly procession of ceremony and event. Her brother at her table is the price this Bride pays for normalcy.
I am the Bride and Chris is the Groom. The Happy Two, sitting like figurines at the table of honor. The room smells of the garlands of pine hung everywhere, from the vigas, around the doors, at the bases of candles on each table. Never mind her lumberjack shoulders and hulking seventy inches, this Bride, in her getup -- elegant forties-era satin gown, red lipstick, hair in a French twist -- she looks like a period piece. The Groom should be wearing a crisp uniform; he should be on his way to war. The photograph should be black-and-white. There should be officers making an arch of their swords, and the Happy Couple should pass beneath it. Or, at the very least, the Wedding Party should all be laughing, leaning over to exchange pleasantries, lit by candles. She has left disposable cameras on every table for the guests, and later she can study photographs of the Wedding Party Happiness in a Wedding Album.
Instead, before I could even take a bite of food, the Brother of the Bride pushed back his chair so hard it clattered to the floor. "Time for a toast," he shouted, raising the silver flask of vodka he'd been waving around since he got off the plane. The general murmur of conversation died down. People tittered nervously. What would the misbehaving brother come up with next? His curling black lashes hung low over his eyes. He looked not so much drunk as sleepy. "Gorko! Gorko!" he cried. "Which, for the uneducated, means Bitter! Bitter! Russians yell it at weddings to make the newlyweds kiss, to sweeten the wine. So everyone, all together now!" He didn't even wait for them; he tipped back that flask and took a long, thirsty gulp.
"Gorko," the guests cried, out of embarrassment or pity or even good humor. "Gorko!"
Trapping me from behind, my brother wraps his arms around me, his chin on my shoulder, his cheek to mine, and I steel myself against the stink of his vodka breath, the cigarettes, the odd underlying whiff of gasoline on him, and I smile broadly. A flurry of flashes comes from the tables, and I smile, smile, smile.
At last I can pull away, and my brother catches my look. His eyes are pale green, so light they almost seem transparent. See-through eyes, I've always called them. These are my father's eyes. See, there's old Daddy, Father of the Bride, sitting at the table too, in a tux, for God's sake, a cummerbund holding in his round little belly, his wild hair pulled back, looking practically normal himself, his eyes so sad and lost they almost break me.
The Brother straightens. It seems his toast, if that's what it is, will go on. "Juniper boughs for Juniper's wedding," he says to the room, pointing his flask at the centerpiece. "In Russia, this is called Troitsa. Branches all over the houses, maidens' panties in the trees." He tells the guests all about Russians. He says that Russians eat lard like Americans eat peanut butter, on spoons, straight from the can. To roll a joint, they shake tobacco from a cigarette and use the paper; they'll even use a ruble. He's funny, charming, in the way loud, charismatic people are. The guests seem to be enjoying him; they laugh, listen, laugh again. The Mother of the Bride is beside herself with adoration. The new In-Laws, the Bravermans, sit straight and determinedly serene, eating with neat polite little bites.
Let him die, the Bride thinks, then takes it back, though God isn't listening anyway. God seems to have gone fishing, so the Bride prays to the God of Vodka, to the Minor Deities of Other Foreign Chemicals. Please, take him out of the picture for the night. Please, the Bride prays, I'll take drool, vomit, anything, just shut him up, silence him completely. She says, "What, exactly, is the point here?"
"The point!" the Brother announces to the room. "Juniper wants a point!" He leans over her shoulder and breathes his smoky vodka breath into her face. "Am I getting on your nerves? Am I pissing you off?"
She looks into his see-through eyes. She tells him no.
His nose touches hers. He whispers, "Liar, liar, Juniper Tree on Fire." He straightened. "The point," he said, raising his flask again. "To Juniper Tree Burning, the lovely bride!" I stared down at the boots he wore with his tuxedo, heavy black combat-issue storm troopers. He leaned around me and pointed the flask at Chris. "To her brave groom, Mr. Braverman."
"I'll drink to my bride," Chris said, raising his glass. "To the lovely Mrs. Braverman." He was smiling, playing along with the joke, only his eyes in my direction were checking on me, saying, I'm on your side, Cinderella.
Then Sunny looked straight at my groom. When he spoke, his voice was cold, sober, hateful. He said, "Here's hoping she doesn't leave you like she leaves everyone else."
For a beat, a second split down its middle like an atom, the room was still. Then my new husband, Mr. Prince Charming, smiled and said to the room, "Too late. She's already left me several times. She leaves me every day for work. Let's drink to her always coming back." And the crowd, relieved, laughed and drank and went back to their food, and my brother righted his chair and sat down.
The Bride, meaning me, this Ugly Chick all gussied up in the fancy dress. Nothing extraordinary about her at all, this Bride; she's commonplace, ordinary, in fact, the I-do, the Yes, the Kiss. Line her up with fifty others, their trains fanned out on the altar steps, the half-wistful, romantic gaze the photographer instructs them to hold. She's not the Bride; she's the bride. I had been waiting all my life to step into her outlines.
I have always known my rightful place in the world, which was not in New Mexico, not with my parents in a mud house without running water, and most of all, not with a name like Juniper Tree Burning. I was not meant to live like that. Even a kid knows when she's in the wrong place.
I wanted to be the bride. I wanted to fall backwards into the comfort of normalcy, like a child in the wilderness who nestles into the the snow and sleeps. I don't understand those people who want to be outside the universe of the ordinary. I was the bride, and this was enough for me. It was not snow, but a featherbed, gloriously warm and safe: it was rest.
But Sunny would not allow me to rest. He kept pulling me back into the wilderness, calling me Juniper, trying to make me be what I am not.
The bride glares at him. A flashbulb explodes. The crowd sets off a strobe of flashes, catching not the couple's kiss but their faces, the bride's angry, the groom's startled, cake still on their fingers. Here, in the Wedding Album, it will say, Another Moment Stolen by the Brother of the Bride.
"I know a joke," my brother said, raising a champagne bottle. "How does it start?" The people clotted around him raised their champagne glasses, obedient sheep, and waited for the next commotion. "Let's see," he said. "In the last thirteen years, my sister -- what is her name now? Oh, yes. Jennifer Braverman. It's hard to keep track, isn't it?" He lit a cigarette and used his cake plate for an ashtray. "Anyway, I've seen my sister, Jennifer Braverman, five times since I was six years old." He held up his fist and unfolded it for them, middle finger first: "When she first went off to college, at the Taos Inn, for both our high school graduations, and now. Five times. And that time at the Taos Inn doesn't really count, since she sent me away." His hand, fingers splayed, out like a traffic cop stopping a wayward motorist. He sucked hard on his cigarette. "Isn't that right, Juniper?"
"More than that," I said. I held myself at a distance -- watching this woman, this bride, suck cake off the tip of her finger. She is happy. See, in the Wedding Album, you'll be able to tell: she's happy. Even as I spoke, the guests busily flashed away, recording proof of said happiness.
"Trust me," Sunny said, and took in another ravenous lungful of smoke. "It's five. Isn't this funny? I knew you wouldn't believe me." In the dim reception hall, so artfully candlelit, the cigarette glowed and faded. "So the joke goes like this: my big sister works in Taos for the summer, and I'm twelve, living in Santa Fe. All summer long, she promises to visit me but never shows up. Must be truly busy or something. So one day -- I'm thirteen years old -- I get up early and ride my bike seventy-nine miles, all the way from Santa Fe to Taos. Española, the canyon. Shit, you know that hill coming out of the canyon? It's August, and hot as hell. Thought I'd die. So I ride all the way to Taos, and I go straight to where she's working at the Taos Inn, and I'm standing in the lobby, thinking she'll be so impressed, so happy to see her baby brother." His cigarette glowing, fading, marking the progress of his story, his audience waiting for the happy ending. He continued on the exhale, smoke with his words: "But the joke's on me, because my sister -- God bless her, always looking out for my best interests -- she tells me, 'Go home.' That's the punch line, folks: go home."
My brother drank from the bottle, and when he slammed it on the table, foam rose over its lip and slid down its neck. Everyone followed his lead, draining their glasses as anyone should at the end of a toast, but their eyes were troubled, as if these were not drinks they offered but needed.
Sunny started away, finished with us, I hoped, but then he turned, slapping his head as if he'd forgotten the punch line. There were guests passing between us. He looked around them and over them and through them, and locked his see-through green eyes on me.
I thought, Now, isn't this downright exciting. Just exactly what else will he do for revenge? Beside me, Chris took my hand and squeezed it, to anchor me, or maybe to hold me back. I'm here, his fingers said, fondling my ring, stroking my palm. Right here.
"Five times," my brother said. He spouted some Russian, and then he said, "Ain't life a cocksucking bitch."
Chris, my groom, my gallant prince, whispered, his lips moving against my ear, "Right now, I'm saying exactly what you need to hear, and now you can laugh and show him he isn't winning." I smiled as if he had done his job, but I thought, Is there nothing else you can do to help me? What kind of Prince Charming are you? Over Chris's shoulder, my brother smiled back at me. I see you, his eyes said. I see right through you.
Every time I remember the way he ruined it all, meaning everything that mattered to me, I find myself sucked into the scene as if it were unfolding again, as if this time I can change its inevitable conclusion. But this is history, Jennie my dear, and so it will happen the same way every time. Even you cannot revise it. Even God.
© 2001 Goldberry Long
Juniper Tree Burning is a dazzling meditation on legacy and legend, rebellion and renewal.
When Jennie Braverman, formerly known as Juniper Tree Burning, gets news of her brother Sunny Boy Blue's suicide, she flees her new husband and embarks upon a mad dash across the American West toward the site of Sunny's death. Forced to confront the past, Jennie must face the shame of the childhood name she has been so happy to shed. Only after she weaves her way through a tapestry of family sorrows -- poverty, a spider-infested adobe house, and the legacy of her hippie parents -- will Jennie be able to take on her greatest challenge: accepting love.
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Goldberry Long, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and a James Michener Fellowship. A native New Mexican, she lives in La Jolla, California and Toronto.