BENEATH THE BRANCHES
a storm has blown the leaves away and the cypress trees stand naked against the sky. Her face scrunches and flattens, his mother, the muscles contracting and expanding beneath skin as thin and pale as parchment paper. He watches his father’s arm wrapped around her and knows that were the father to make the smallest of moves, she would plunge towards the earth at his feet and stay there. The wide brim of his father’s hat keeps his eyes hidden but he can see the chin tremble. His grandmother, her narrow body wrapped in a grey shawl, is the only one crying, hushed heaves that rise and fall in whispers. A man he does not know pulls a lever he cannot see and he watches him lower his brother in a box of wood into the ground.
They get the mother home and he puts her to bed. Still she does not speak. Between her lips he presses a pill and holds a glass to her mouth, watches her neck ripple as she swallows. When at last her eyes close and her head rests flat against the pillow, he wants to touch her face but doesn’t, afraid she will disintegrate like a pair of moth wings beneath his fingertips.
Outside, the clouds hover low and heavy, pressed towards the land by an invisible palm. His father sits in an old rocking chair on the deck, his jaw deliberately working a wad of tobacco. He nods and sends a spray of amber-coloured spittle into an empty coffee can at his side. “How long you staying?” he asks.
Through the gaunt trees and hedges that frame the yard, the son sees the lights of other homes turn on one by one. “A few days.”
“She refused to come back to the house ’til you got here, you know. We stayed at your grandmother’s.” They watch a squirrel scamper across the grass and lunge headfirst into a juniper bush and disappear. A few branches rustle in its wake but soon they too become still. “Maybe it’s good you left.” The son looks to him but he is still staring at the bush. “I know I was against it then, but maybe Mazen oughta have left too.”
“He did, for a bit.”
“Well, he should’ve stayed away then.”
He does not like the way his father looks sitting in the chair, its varnish long gone, its curved legs creaking under the pressure of his body as he rocks. He wants to yank him right out of it, make him stand beside him and look at the cypresses. Were they always so bare this time of year? he wants to ask. Instead he says, “She’s asleep.”
The father struggles to lift himself out of the chair, and when his son holds out a hand to help him, he brushes it aside. Again the son reaches for him and this time the father nods and clasps his elbow. Through the cotton of his shirtsleeve, the son can feel the fingers shake.
They pass the mother’s room in silence and descend the stairs at the end of the hallway. Hung photographs of two young boys, on baseball fields, with ice cream cones, kneedeep in water at a river’s edge, pass them by. At the bottom of the stairs they stand in front of a closed door and the father’s fingers graze the cracked wood. His hat is off and with no more than a few silver strands to frame his face, his eyes recede further into his head as if he is to be swallowed by his skull. “Can’t tell you the last time I went in there,” he says. “He never did like anyone down here.”
The son opens the door and a sharp, sour odour, of rusted metal and ammonia, of rot and vomit, fills him. His eyes adjust to the dark as he makes his way around the foot of the bed to get to the window. The room is a converted basement partially submerged below ground and the window is high and wide. When he reaches up and pulls the pane open, cold air strikes his face and the sudden light burns his eyes and forces him to turn, to see the father still in the doorway and staring at the bed. He refuses to follow his father’s gaze and takes in the rest of the room instead.
A pile of books leans against the wall. Scattered magazines with covers bearing grand landscapes and half-naked women cover the floor. Open notebooks scribbled on in handwriting small and precise, crumpled pants and stained shirts, food containers with abandoned remains. An ashtray heaped with cigarette butts sits on the desk, another overflows on the nightstand. A few half-gallon bottles, plastic and empty, their identical red labels picked at with restless fingers, are strewn about. Filtered with charcoal, they say. Authentic Russian taste.
Again he looks to the father who does not blink and he follows the stare to the bed and sees where the smallest of indents lingers on the pillow, and to him it looks too small, as if it had cradled the head of an infant and not that of a full-grown man. The sheets are rumpled and stained with what looks like sweat and piss, with blood that once coursed through a child’s veins. A child that ran with him in the shade of the cypress trees outside.
He forces his eyes to move, lifts his hands and begins. Empties an ashtray into a bag and then another. He focuses on the trash, paper cups and Styrofoam containers, plastic wrappers and wadded tissues.
“She’ll wake soon,” he says and then says it again and at last the father steps inside the room and begins to gather the clothes, placing them one by one into a hamper, and to the son the father’s movements are too slow and too purposed, and he says, “I’ll clean the bathroom.”
In there, a mixture of shit and vomit float in the toilet and cause his throat to swell. He shuts the lid and flushes and works quickly. Throws away another empty red-label, gathers towels that smell of spoiled meat, sprays the counter with bleach. He stops only to track a few spilled pills to a translucent orange container on the floor, to try and read the label, but it too has been picked at and he gets down on hands and knees in search of the missing bits of paper and grows hotter and dizzier from the bleach. He tries to piece them back together, to match the tops and bottoms of words ripped apart and begins to laugh, a scraping, dry sound unfamiliar to his ears. There are too many missing.
He stands and again scrubs everything in sight, the tub and the sink, each wall and its corners. He steps onto the closed toilet and wipes the ceiling using a sponge so soaked that drops of soap and water fall and sting his face.
Back in the room, the father sits at the desk and makes his way through folders and notebooks and inspects each one. The son gathers the full bags and carries them to the doorway, gets new ones ready and walks back to the closet. When he opens its doors, he can do nothing but stand, his hands still and useless as dozens of plastic bottles tumble out and surround him. As they fall he notices the identical red labels of them all, sees the traces of fingers that touched, picked at them all. The father starts to rise but instead leans forward, cradles his head in his palms and begins to sway to and fro as if he were still sitting in the rocker on the patio.
that evening, the grandmother sits in an armchair beside the mother’s bed. Her fingers move along the wooden beads of her rosary and her eyes watch the mother as she sleeps. The grandmother’s thick silver hair is pulled into a bun and the skin of her face is taut around her temples and stretches over the sharp tip of her nose and sags around her chin.
Her fingers slide over each bead in turn as her lips move in quiet recitations from Arabic to English and back again: Ya, Maryam. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Through the window she watches the purple clouds drift south. The cypresses are darker now, reduced to silhouettes by the setting sun.
he sleeps and rises before them, takes the father’s keys and leaves. In the truck it takes him a minute to recall where the clutch is, how to shift between gears. He drives down the narrow road lined with barren trees and there is no movement but for a single chicken hawk circling in the sky ahead, its tail long and red. The clouds gather in
the distance, overlap and coalesce into one shifting mass. He knows everyone is praying for rain.
Soon, houses appear, and his eyes measure the spaces between them, miles of grass as long as football fields, laid down to separate one house from the next, and it makes his tongue and throat feel parched. The road widens and the houses give way to office buildings, brown stucco and tinted glass, and he slows down as he nears the high school, rolls down the window to look at the baseball fields and the aluminium bleachers with corners blanched a powdery white from summers unrelenting in their heat. Summers when the sun delivers rays that scorch and ravage, wither and devour.
He pulls into the main lot, parks and gets out, looks at the two-storey stucco buildings and tries to remember what it felt like to walk their halls, to sit in their classrooms. Though the paint is new, the buildings seem older or smaller and he can’t tell which. He walks through the courtyard between the buildings and through a window he spots the classroom where he met his friends and at the end of the hallway the locker room where they changed into baseball uniforms, gold-horned blue devils sewn onto the backs of their shirts.
He lights a cigarette and makes his way behind the buildings and toward the baseball fields. In the dugout, he runs his fingers across the rusted metal of the chain-link fence and tries to picture what his friends looked like in their bluestriped jerseys, too-big caps and worn-out mitts. He tries to picture himself with them and can’t. In the outfield, a group of teenagers still out from the night before take turns batting as music blasts from a car parked behind the bleachers, its doors and windows left open to let out the sound. They cheer each other on and laugh and he watches as they throw and hit and catch and run and open can after can after can. The marquee above them drowns them in shadows. IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US?
When his palm catches on a broken link in the fencing he sees the blood before he feels the pain. Watery and quick it runs from a narrow cut and he is fast to move his hand but two, three drops land on his clothes. The rest drip onto the ground and disappear. With his good hand, he reaches into his pocket and finds a tissue, pulls it out and dabs at the blood but it is too much and soon the tissue is soaked red. He takes off his jacket and uses it to wrap his hand and watches the blood darken.
in the house, he finds his grandmother asleep on the sofa with the Bible open on her lap. Her small body slumps into the cushions and her hands are clasped atop her stomach. The beads of the rosary intertwine with her fingers, wood that weaves around skin and bone.
He passes the kitchen and it is dark and empty and in the mother’s room he finds her sitting upright in bed. Her head is turned to the window but he knows that from that angle she cannot see outside. He stands in between her and the window and she looks up at him but her eyes do not focus. They glide back and forth as if he is a pendulum swinging closer to and farther from her in turn, though he is still and unmoving. He sits on the edge of the bed and watches her. She is skinny and her long and narrow neck now turned back toward the window should be too slight, too insubstantial, to balance her head and he wonders how it has managed to for so many years.
“Do you want some water?” he asks. She nods and he fills a glass from a pitcher on the dresser and starts to put it to her mouth but she takes it from him with unsteady fingers and drinks.
On the nightstand, the grandmother has built a miniature shrine. A Virgin carved of wood and chipped of paint, a copper crucifix leaning against it, and candles of different heights and colours and among them a photograph of Mazen when he was no more than five, six years old. His lips stretch into a smile but the lips are pressed together tight and his hair is long enough to cover his ears completely. He wears a red and white striped shirt, a shirt the son remembers being handed down and wearing and he can feel now what the cotton of that shirt, well-worn and washed so many times, felt like against his skin and there is no air whole or complete enough to fill his lungs. His breaths come close together, then closer still and he knows he must slow them down, do with less air if he needs to, but it is too late because she hears him and follows his eyes to the photograph and her pupils stop gliding and stare.
He reaches for the picture and he wants to move it or throw it but he feels her hand on his arm and stops. She pulls his head onto her lap and he inhales the scent of sickly-sweet lavender and aspirin and sweat as she strokes his hair with fingers shaking. For a while he does not look up at her, and when he does, her eyes are closed and he watches as a tear, thin and alone, rolls down her cheek and drops onto his.
When she falls asleep, he wipes his face and gets up slow and silent, so she does not stir, and leaves. He peers into the guest room but the father is not there and when he looks out the window, he can see the truck still there. In the garage, he switches on the light, a single bulb that hangs above the mother’s black sedan. His eyes move to shelves that line the walls and the boxes stacked above and next to one another, all numbered by year. He climbs a stepladder and brings down one box, then another and then two more. Sitting on the floor, he opens their lids one by one and the dust lifts and fills his nostrils and scratches his throat and he tries to cough without sound until he remembers it is only his mother and grandmother in the house and that even if he were to scream they would not hear him, that even if they did they would not come.
The first box holds mostly receipts and bills stamped “Paid”, papers yellow and filled with numbers faded. Report cards and school notices, half-used notebooks and graded homework are layered without order in the next box. He
looks through sheets of paper torn from workbooks, his name and his brother’s name written on the top corners, their answers marked and circled and darkened. His eyes seek Mazen’s name written over and over on pages covered with multiplication problems and chemistry formulas and physics theorems, on essays about the geography of Mexico and the history of California and the themes in Hamlet and the virtues of democracy. So many lessons completed and replicated and proven and demonstrated, and his name written so many times on sheet after sheet to be submitted and assessed and weighed and graded.
In his room, he lies awake on the twin bed, its mattress old beneath new sheets, the metal coils digging into his back and sides and though he is tired and his body weak he cannot sleep. The curtains are sheer and let in a light, colourless and flat, and on the walls he can make out the tape marks and the small corners of posters and pictures once put up and now gone. He tries to remember their layout but cannot. Framed drawings now take their place, of ducks and lakes and places no one has ever seen because they were imagined, and he stares at the ceiling instead.
the next morning, he finds his mother out of bed and standing at the window overlooking the yard. The sunlight shines around her and, through her thin nightgown, her body, lank and pale, is exposed. She turns for an instant when he enters and holds his eyes in hers but they are weightless and reveal nothing. She turns her head away and then back and he cannot tell by the movement of her eyes if they are there or elsewhere, if she sees him as he is, and he tries not to breathe in her direction so she cannot smell the drink gone stale in his mouth. “Where’s grandma?” he asks.
She sucks in her breath and parts her lips as if about to speak but she does not. She looks to him but does not reach for him, does not touch him, and instead turns back to the window, her eyes watching the trees. They are shaped like columns, the cypresses, with branches that sweep upward, and in the spring will carry leaves like scales pressed against each twig. Leaves that look soft and feathery from a distance but are coarse and prickly to the touch. In the fall, they are among the first trees to lose their leaves. They are bare now, the cypresses — all of them.
He stands with her for a while, and when she turns to go back to bed, she lets him help her. The skin of her arms feels cold and damp and when he releases her, the moisture lingers on his fingers. She pulls the covers high, above her chin, and shuts her eyes. On the nightstand the shrine is gone. The Virgin and the crucifix are pushed behind the lamp, the candles have been removed and Mazen’s photograph stands alone. He imagines his brother watching them, looking on as the mother shivers beneath the covers, as the son stands over her, then sits on the floor at her side, as he leans his head against the mattress.
When her breaths become shallow and he is certain she is asleep, he leaves. He takes a shower and lets the water roll over his head, down his shoulders, turns the knob until steam fills the bathroom and his skin scalds and glows red. Still it does not feel hot enough, the water, cannot penetrate deep enough or at all, and washes away nothing but dirt and sweat and tears.
His legs give way until he is sitting in the bathtub, the water dribbling down from the spout above. With eyes closed, he tries to picture his apartment thousands of miles away, empty and waiting but cannot. He tries to imagine the drive from apartment to work, from work to bar, and bar to bar, but as he begins to outline each street sign and signal, to shade in each building and tree he knows to fill the route, he is certain he will not glimpse himself among them, will not be able to create his own image in their midst.
Wrapped in a towel, he lies on his bed and listens to the first sound of thunder, the cracks coming closer together until they become a rolling rumble. The sun has long set and a thick darkness covers even the shadows. Through the window, lightning fills the sky like fire and sets the world ablaze for two, three seconds at a time.
He dreams that he is dressed in waders and standing kneedeep in water with Mazen to his left and his father to his right. A river, wide and rocky, stretches out on either side of them, its current placid and ripples shallow. Both Mazen and the father dangle their rods above the water and he watches the string on Mazen’s rod grow taught, watches as Mazen leans back and begins to crank the handle and reel in the line. The way Mazen bends, using all of his weight against the pull, suggests that whatever hangs on the end of the line is substantial, and he and his father come closer and wait in anticipation. Back Mazen leans, his hand cranking the reel over and over until out of the water he pulls a trout. But it is small and sickly and he helps Mazen unhook it and throw it back.
When they are out of bait the father sends them to shore for more. They are careful to step only on rocks stable in their beds and avoid ones thick with algae. On the sand, they open the bait box and find worms and caterpillars loose and crawling and realise they had forgotten to put lids on the plastic containers meant to hold them. Sensing air and light the insects begin to move toward the top edges of the box. He grabs at them, manages to get a few back in, but as a whole they are too quick and his hands too small. A few escape but with Mazen’s help he is able to shove the rest back into a container which, as soon as he stands, slips through his fingers and opens.
Mazen grunts and rolls his eyes, bends down and tries to collect the escaped bait. His father looks over his shoulder and yells something they cannot hear and he is gesturing, his free arm circling like a windmill, beckoning them to hurry. He watches as Mazen walks ahead, carrying the
container with crawlers holding on to its sides and bottom, and watches a worm fall and get crushed beneath his brother’s boot. As they move deeper into the water, Mazen leads and he tries to follow but steps onto a rock covered in slick moss and feels his rubber sole slip as the rock tilts. He yells for Mazen, who turns, drops the bait box into the water and reaches out his arm and he wakes up.
For a moment he keeps his eyes closed in some effort to hang on to the dream, to grasp at its images, but they are quick to dissolve. Only a feeling remains and in it he cannot see his brother but can feel him, swirling inside of him, around and around. He opens his eyes and rubs the sleep from them. The room is darker now, a grey that can pass for either twilight or dusk but he can still feel the drink working its way through him and knows that one day has not yet moved to the next.
In the kitchen, he looks through the fridge and then the cupboards and spots a bottle of sherry on a high shelf and brings it down. He pours its remainder into a glass but there is only enough to fill it halfway. He drinks it in one gulp and looks for more, but if the cabinets and pantry contain anything, they do not betray it, and after searching behind and beneath each box and can, every bottle and canister, he stops.
Down the hallway, the bedroom doors are shut and he wonders if they are asleep, his father and mother, his grandmother, or if separately they are lying still and quiet in the dark. He feels a sudden and urgent need to wake them all, to gather them in the same room so they can sit together even in silence until the sun comes up, but he does not. Instead, he finds himself at the end of the hallway looking down at the stairs that descend into blackness and this time makes sure to keep his head straight and his eyes away from the walls as he goes down.
At the bottom, the heavy door has been left ajar and he pushes wide and looks. Inside, the moonlight seeps through the window and it no longer smells like piss and vomit but is cold and bare and for a long time he stands there then sinks to his feet. In the doorway, he folds his legs toward his chest and holds them there, and the weight of his eyelids force them shut and leave him in a darkness between sleeping and waking and he feels the sherry travel through him but knows it is not enough.
He does not know how long he sits. Long enough for the thirst to grow and multiply and for him to believe that no drink will ever be enough. When he does move it is on hands and knees to the pile of books he had left bagged in the room’s centre and he takes them out and looks through them page by page and reads the words written in their margins. The handwriting is small and careful in its strokes, and with his fingers he touches the marks underlining sentences, the notes made and crossed out, and imagines the hand that held the pen and moved.
He stands and walks to the bed and looks, and even though the pillows and sheets are gone, the stains remain and they are deep and brown and he lies on top of them and shuts his eyes and inhales the smell of rot and sick and tries to picture him in this place, his brother, this house, this bed, so alone when he was not.
But instead he can only see him as a child, running outside, his arms extended, his eyes hazel and burning, and he is quiet, so quiet, even as he runs. He tries to reach for the root of that quiet, the birthplace of silence, and wonders when going quiet and pretending everything was OK had become the only thing they knew, the only thing to bind them all, even now.
the light seeps through his closed lids, pushing through skin and membrane and filling his eyes with whiteness. He tries to remain perfectly still and fall back asleep but the sound of shuffling feet, small and soft, is impossible to ignore and he opens his eyes. It takes a few seconds for the white to darken and for his grandmother’s face to fill in the space.
“Why are the drapes open?” he asks without moving. His eyes strain against the glow.
She opens his suitcase and unpacks it one item at a time and collects the dirty clothes in one stack at her feet. She looks to him for an instant but does not pause, lifts a shirt to her nose and sniffs it before letting it drop onto the pile.
“You’ve been asleep all day. You should try sleeping at night instead.”
He lifts himself until he is sitting at the edge of the bed and watches her. Her movements are slow and deliberate. With her palms she flattens the creases of a pair of jeans and slides them onto a hanger, adds more shirts to the others at her feet. She picks up and deposits boxers and socks, undershirts and shorts.
“You don’t have to do that,” he says.
Though his body aches and his temples pulse, he gets out of bed and begins to draw the curtains shut. When they are halfway closed, she says: “That’s plenty,” and he stops. The throbbing in his head does not cease even in the dimmed light and he knows he must lie down or be sick. He leans back against the pillows on the bed and watches her, as with fingers pale and wrinkled she continues to sort through the clothes. She stops only once and looks at him, gathers him with her eyes, and he has to look away.
“She’ll get better,” she says.
He lies back deeper among the pillows and pulls one over his face and shuts his eyes, but the sun still fills the room and there is no darkness.
“When Amer died,” she says, “I just wanted to crawl right under that dirt with him and hold him in that coffin.”
He opens his eyes and props himself up enough to watch her but she is no longer looking at him. She continues to lift clothes and fold them, to smell and drop them onto the
ground. Her words circle in his mind, conjuring up not memories but photographs of a black-bearded man dressed as Santa Claus. He does not remember his uncle, only that he was four when his uncle died and Mazen was six and that every Christmas before that he played Santa and bounced them on his knee on Christmas Eve.
“For months, I woke up, convinced he was still alive. That he was breathing and screaming beneath grass and mud and that I just had to get him out.” She looks at the shirt in her hands and stops folding it. “Many nights your father found me wandering the cemetery, searching for Amer’s grave in the darkness, digging at the dirt until the skin beneath my nails split and bled.”
She resumes folding the shirt and sets it down on the bed. Picks up another and starts to fold again. “But I got better,” she says. “Everyone gets better but the dead.”
Her face remains expressionless as she speaks but her fingers shake. She sits down on the bed next to him and he reaches out and touches her hand if only to still the movement. She looks at him, her eyes fixed until his relent and meet hers.
“This kind of loss you will have with you for the rest of your days, and most days you will have to bear its weight on your head and feel it press and push your shoulders toward the earth. I don’t need to tell you that, I know. But some days, some days it will hover beside you as you walk, never leaving you but carrying its own weight as it goes, and those will be the days you call life.” She squeezes his hand and he tries not to picture her wandering over bodies newly dead and long decayed, shakes his head to be rid of the image, but it lingers, and he knows it will remain with him even when all others fade.
He follows her to the kitchen and watches as she wipes down the counters and cleans out the fridge. One by one she takes out casserole after casserole, brought over by neighbours and acquaintances and now gone rancid, and empties their contents into the trash can.
“You can’t think with these in the house,” she says and he nods.
He helps her wash and dry the dishes, pack them in bags to be returned to those who brought them. When he takes out the garbage, he sees that his father’s truck is not there. He is gone and he knows that again, it will be for hours. He stays outside a while and smokes a cigarette in the hot air, the sun settling on his skin and warming his bones.
Back inside the house, his grandmother hands him a sandwich but he does not want to eat it. Again she holds out the plate and keeps her arm extended until he takes it from her and sits down. She watches him as he bites and chews, waits until he swallows the first bite and the next.
“When Amer died, for a long time I thought it was my fault.” He does not look at her as she speaks and he wants to tell her that he knows what she is trying to say, that he has heard the same words rearranged since he arrived, that he will nod to them if it will mean she will not speak them. It’s no one’s fault, he wants to say so that she will not, but she shakes her head anticipating his words.
“No, no. It’s everyone’s fault,” she says. “It’s everyone’s fault.”
He looks to her, at eyes older and more tired than his and tries to understand them, to read them in some way as her words pass through him, their meaning tangled and lucid and infinite and meagre.
in the kitchen, his father sits at the table and lifts his face to look at him as he enters. He shuffles his feet against the floor as if he will move but he remains seated, fingering a glass that he now picks up and sips from. Red surrounds his eyes and his lips are pallid, the cracks that line them deep.
The son shrugs and moves to the cupboards, opens one and takes out a glass. One by one he opens the rest of the cupboards, inspects every fridge shelf and drawer before he turns to his father, who moves his shoulders forward toward the table and keeps his head down. His glass is empty now but still he traces its rim with his fingers.
“Where is it?” he asks. He stares at his father long enough to know that he will not answer then moves back to the cupboards and again opens and slams them, over and over and harder each time, until the hinges loosen and the glasses and dishes rattle on the shelves. Still his father remains silent, moves the empty glass to his lips and drinks the drops.
His grandmother now stands in the doorway and looks first at the father and then at him, runs her hand across her forehead and pulls her shawl tighter across her chest. “Please be quiet.”
Again her voice pleads and still he grows hotter, can feel each heartbeat grow stronger, the spaces between them shrinking with each pulse. He curls his fingers until nails dig into the flesh of his palms and break skin and he can feel the small trickle of blood.
“You’re already drunk anyway,” the father says, still not looking up.
“Sure. And he’s dead anyway,” he hears himself say, his voice rising and thickening with each word, forcing his grandmother to lean against the door frame and grip it with her hand. The father motions as if to stand but the grandmother shakes her head at him and, again, he stops moving and remains in the chair. It’s only when the son throws the glass in his hand towards the sink and when it shatters against the steel and scatters chips of glass across the countertop, that his father stands. With one step he moves to meet him, stares directly into his eyes, into red lines like cobwebs sprouting from his pupils and ending at lids loose and folding.
“He’s dead anyway,” he says again. “Whether I scream or whisper or sit here mute like you, he is dead anyway and always will be.” He spits the words and his father does not
move. Only his eyes glide and return to him and glide away again. “He was close enough for you to touch and still you let him die.”
The father begins to sway, his legs bending and tilting towards the table as he reaches out for the chair. The son steps away from him and looks towards his grandmother in the doorway, her hands pulling at the shawl, her fingers tearing into its woven yarn. Behind her his mother stands in her nightgown, her eyes focused and looking directly at him, and he feels himself grow dizzy but he does not break her gaze. He watches her as she watches him and does not blink.
When he looks to his father, now sitting down and again holding his glass though still it remains empty, his eyes fixed on the table, and he realises now that his father cannot look at his mother, nor she at him, that he has not been once to see her, has slept in the guest room or not at all. Though husband and wife, father and mother, they have not spoken to one another since the funeral, have not been in the same room of the house where their first-born son lived his first days and his last.
His eyes move from his father to his mother in some effort to connect her eyes with his, and he feels his legs give as he leans back against the fridge, slides down and further down until he is on the floor. Only then does his mother move her eyes from him. She lets the grandmother grip her arm and lead her away, and he can hear their feet climbing the stairs. As soon as they are gone, his father stands up, puts his hat on, and leaves the kitchen, closing the front door quietly as he goes. He follows him outside and from the deck he watches as his father’s truck curves with the road and disappears.
The stars are faint and he knows that soon they will hover invisible in the sky, that again it is another day. He walks to the cypresses in the yard, heads to the one that faces his mother’s window and looks up. The curtain is drawn shut and remains that way. With his fingers he traces bark like scales, runs his hand up and down the ridges as high as his arm can reach. He circles the tree once, then two, three times until his eyes make out a small carving near its base. Squatting, he wipes at the bark and inspects the initials chiselled into the trunk. They are not his or his brother’s and he does not know to whom they belong and he moves to another tree and then another, inspecting them all, for what, he does not know. Proof that he was here, that my brother had once walked on land and earth before floating only in my mind.
For what seems like hours he walks, across other yards that look like his, with trees that look like the cypresses in his yard, until his eyelids grow heavy and at last he has to sit, allow them to relent against the weight, come together and shut. One final time he tries to force them open, tries to urge himself to stand, but he is dizzy and tired and the drink he has had day after day, alone and at night, when no one was watching, or watched and said nothing, circles and speeds, whirls and swirls, moves from head to ears to arms and stomach and legs and all he can do is wrap his coat around himself and go to sleep.
when he wakes, the sun fills the sky, its centre Herculean and blinding. It is only when he is halfway down his street that he notices that people, families, are gathered on each deck and patio, from house to house, each one looking down the road and towards his yard. He quickens his pace, his stomach growing tighter as he draws closer, close enough to make out the shapes and their movements.
In the distance, his mother stands, her skinny arms and legs visible through her thin nightgown, an axe handle clutched between her hands. It is heavy, the axe, and he can see how her muscles strain and pull as she lifts it and swings with all her might against the tree. The grandmother stands on the deck and he watches her lips move but he is too far to hear what she says or to make out if they only move without words.
The father comes out of the house and takes the steps two at a time and he is halfway to the mother when the son begins to run in their direction. Patio after patio of people stand and watch and he wants them all to disappear, to sink into their lawns and be swallowed by mud and leaves and worms. Everything, even his legs, seem to move in a motion slow and leaden, and he knows that it is the weight of the stares that slows him down, and that one by one he must shed them so he can move, lift his arms and legs and run. He turns his eyes to her, his mother, and to his father who is now behind her, one hand gripping the axe while the other holds her around the waist. But it is as if he is made of air as she pushes his body off hers and again lifts the axe and strikes.
A scream, loud and wretched, breaks through the stillness and she falls to the ground as his father pulls the axe and frees it from her hold. At last the son reaches her, as she bends towards the ground and another wail leaves her, her entire body heaving in surges.
He falls beside her, holds her shoulders in his arms and pulls her to him. His ears fill with nothing but the sounds of her and he holds her tighter as her wails turn to sobs. He cries with her, as people begin to return to their homes, to pull their children back inside. As they do, the father falls beside them, circles his arms around them both, the mother’s cries breaking through the hushed silence of the street, filling every crack in the pavement, burrowing between rocks and grass.
Only the sound of metal again striking wood rises above her cries. The son looks up as his grandmother swings the axe against the tree, sending scraps of bark raining to the ground. With her entire weight she tugs at the handle until the lodged bit loosens, her arms taut and slightly shaking. Without speaking she again swings and strikes the trunk in the same place, deepening the groove now visible and wide.