BE­NEATH THE BRANCHES

Dima Alza­yat

Esquire (UK) - - JOUR­NAL -

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.”

“Al­right then.”

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.

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