I follow the woman in a blue dress; the blue of my brother’s eyes.
She has come early, walking up the long driveway, her eyes cast down. She does not seek the faces of the other visitors scattered, petal-like, around her. She does not pause by the guest book. She walks through the house. I watch the color as she moves, carrying all of him in her form as if she knows. Stopping before a photograph, she meets my brother for the first time. Propped, he is supported by a slim frame of wood, reduced to a single moment in a four inch by six inch frame, laughing.
He is twenty-four today. This is his birthday. This is his wedding day. This is his everyday for the rest of our lives. Her dark fingers touch my brother’s likeness and the sun of that afternoon overtakes her and me.
“Jesse, move over! I want to get a picture of Nick alone.” My mother’s voice, rising and falling across the open field.
“But I want Jesse in the picture, Mom.” He holds onto my hand.
“We’ll take another one with your brother, Nick. I just like the way the light picks up the colors in your hair.”
It did. The light. The way it never could reflect off my black, uncooperative head. Nick is looking over his shoulder at us in the picture. There is sunlight streaming behind him, the rays straight and visible as if he had been delivered to us by a munificent sky. The back of his hair is golden, the front in shadow. His chin is lifted in defiance: that was a first for him, and I loved him for finding a way to put me into my mother’s photograph. I remember how I smiled, then aged as my mother turned to me, her face closed, but it was a small price to pay for my brother’s gift of inclusion.
The woman’s dress is long, the neckline high, the blue fabric a smooth and liquid peace that I want to touch. I rub my fingers together, imagining.
She stops by the basket of envelopes. Some are cards, some charitable donations to a freshly discovered cause, a new purpose that came into being with the treasonous night-time curve of a back-of-hand familiar, cherished road. Her dress brushes the old sideboard. My father made that, his hands covered with the unctuous kiss of fresh pine from our land, his eyes limpid the way they got when he worked with wood. We played in the trail of sawdust our father left between the kitchen door and the back porch when he carried that piece inside. My brother and I. Us.
She stands by herself in the room-without-purpose off the kitchen and sips from a clear plastic cup full of warm cider, long black hair falling in a nun-like veil around her face. Nobody notices her: her thoughts so quiet, she is absent. A still, blue story; she at her window, and I outside. I lift my eyes skyward to the clear day and the sound of trees in the wind. The mountains hold on in the distance and there are no clouds to blur the lines of our home. The roof is sharp, solid, mirroring the steep descent into the valley beyond. I see the once-possible future: grandchildren walking up the slope to the orchard that my brother loves, their parents, themselves barely grown, behind. My mother laughing, my father too. I see myself watching them from afar.
Someone approaches me. I do not want to turn my head and become available. I do not want touch, one hand extended, the other resting on my shoulder. Always the right shoulder. My brother is, was, shall always be, left-handed. Last night he flung his arm around me. Last night I had teased him, my brother, my baby. Tomorrow you get married, I murmur the words again to myself, and from tomorrow you are Katie’s to mind. It was a wedding present that I gave him, allowing him to be me; yes, I had wanted that giddy generosity before I had to let him go.
I walk outside with the man at my side. We stand by the rock wall bordering our driveway and I listen to his regrets. His left eye pulls down slightly further than his right and there’s a scar through his eyebrow. Perhaps he had an accident. Maybe in his younger days. Sports, perhaps? Football? He has big hands. He must have looked handsome with that injury. Some girl cheering from the stands, Coke in a sexy glass bottle in her fist, bobbed hair, some girl fainting in horror when he fell. Where is she now? How old is this man?
My brother is, was, shall always be, left-handed. Last night he flung his arm around me. Last night I had teased him, my brother, my baby.
“Jesse, is there anything we can do for your family?” he offers, his hand insistent on my right arm now. He is slack lipped. Perhaps they didn’t get married after all, that girl and he. Maybe his friend took her home after the game that night, and maybe the friend looked too whole and perfect and present and she forgot her boyfriend. So whom did he marry, this old man? “Do you need any food? Any other arrangements?” he says, staring at me now.
“No, I think”
“Well, not now, but if you think of anything, anything at all, let us know.”
“I will,” I say, and still he waits. He starts to shake his head and I am certain that he will begin to talk about losses he has experienced, and surely he has had many, his hair so grey. Maybe that girl’s name was something like Lara or Sophie and he will start talking about her. How she came back to him and how she died in his arms after thirty-nine years of marriage. “Thanks,” I add quickly.
“Okay, son, okay. Take care of your mother. She’s a lovely person. Just a wonderful woman. And your younger brothers too. Take care of them.”
“Why?” the word escapes from me and hits the man. Who is this man?
“Just take care of them,” he says, frowning a little. “It’s your job.”
I say nothing and he lets his hand fall away from my shoulder.
“Laura!” The woman he hails is compact and attractive in the usual sort of way. She looks up at the sound of his voice. Laura. Well, close enough. He goes to her without another word. I watch how he puts his arm around her, sheltering her, as if there were something coming after them. But I do not follow.
In the left-behind quiet, I remember her: my woman. But she is not by the window; the blue is gone. I want to go in to look for her, but my mother comes out. I step over the rock-wall and walk backwards towards the first trees. My mother stands uncertainly on the doorstep. She has risen, as has always been her habit, to the occasion. She wears blue jeans and a close-fitting shirt. She is beautiful, full of grace, even now. Alone in a sudden lull, she seems lost, my mother who knows only how to comfort, how to give, how to receive need, keep safe. She does not see me and I back further to stand behind the trees now. As if invisibility can protect me from my mother’s eyes and from them, these strangers I will never see again, their curiosity about our lives, our losses, our withheld grief.
I see my brother now, standing beside my mother. He hugs her, his breath warmed by the Moët et Chandon that he sipped repeatedly, flute after sweet flute with each ribald rehearsal-dinner toast. I refused to make one, though he begged. I’ll get you tomorrow. That’s what I said. He is pointing to the sky. He is warm, demonstrative. He says what I cannot, does what I never learned to do, is light within the darkness that I bring. My mother smiles; she kisses him and pushes his hair off his face. She has to reach up to do this. He is tall. Taller even than I am.
It is late, but the moon is full. I sit on the rock wall waiting for him. I am home for his last hurrah and this is enough for him, something to celebrate, to memorialize with some shared caper. It is our way. It has always been our way. Ever since he turned two and I held his hand and helped him walk the circumference of the raised well at the bottom of our father’s land.
Someone greets my mother and it is daylight again. There is no moon, I am not sitting on the wall waiting for him, I am behind the trees. Hiding.
After my mother leaves, I slip into the house to search for the woman, looking for the forbidden color she has brought into the house; something small, something larger than her slight frame. She is leaning against the side of the back deck, gazing at the view.
I walk past her and up onto the low ridge behind the house. I see our land through her eyes. The stark, solid, that’s-enough-of-that beauty of Central Maine, the idyllic setting loved into being by my father’s ancestors; how it must have appealed to a young carpenter with a new wife. My mother, elegant and full of longing. My father, like me, awkward and so in love, the children coming in unplanned succession: me first, my brother next, the twins five years after. My mother blooming among her thorns, all of us men adoring her in our own way, mine perhaps the least known.
I see him running for the first time up the hillside to where I stand now: my brother on the fleeting short legs of toddler-hood. He giggles, stumbles, falls, looks up at me from the grass. I laugh at him, refuse to help him up. “You can do it! C’mon! You can do it! Stand up. Like this” Showing him how by lying down next to him and leaping up. He struggles to keep up with me. I am three years older. I know how. I am proud of the things I can teach him.
The blue fabric lifts in the breeze and she folds her arms across her chest, holding on to the warmth of her own body. She presses closer to the wood behind her. Becomes a stain. Smudged.
Blue eyes turn brown when they are shut. He is all brown as he lies sleeping, naked but for the shorts he wears, touched by the sun of an outdoor summer. He is twelve. I nudge him awake, a finger to my lips. Long lashes open and in the flashlit dark, I see them: the blue of the cornflowers, of the sweet new berries on the fringe-fields of this vast haphazard land we call home. A living color. Great moving pools that he carries carelessly on his little-boy face. He puts on the clothes I hand him and follows me down a staircase we have learned to keep quiet. We are outside, cold. We stumble past the fruit trees, letting the fragrances cling to our jackets, eat through the fleece lining, anoint our still-warm bodies. He goes where I go, not needing to know why I must or why I choose these paths: ruts over grass, rocks over paving, over the mountain never around it, unable to take things as they are, unwilling to let go of choice.
I came first, I go first. He follows.
We walk through the night and he says nothing, able to trust me, not knowing that it is his quiescence that gives me courage. When I stop he raises his eyes to mine, waiting for instruction. It is not enough that the great panther skin stretched overhead is pierced all over with stars, or that he can hear the relentless sound of the water flowing, falling and meeting the rocks below in a single movement. We both hear the wild call of an owl on his wing, and still he stands, looking up at me, waiting for the invitation, to be told my rules. I shrug off my jacket and he understands. He shakes his head, shivering in the cold, small bumps sprouting on each surface that he exposes. I am already at the water’s edge. I take his hand and we step in together. I feel the tight squeeze of narrow fingers clutching mine as we wait for a moment for the numbness to take hold; then we are submerged, swimming along the bank to the place where the water grows silent before the fall.
I see his eyes, widened by the moon, shadowed by the night. Terrified. He follows me down to the rocks below, letting me guide his feet, showing him safe places on the sharp edges of the descent as we climb down. An eternity with the water around us, on our heads, in our eyes, mouths, cold bodies moving within a cold tomb. We stagger out at the bottom and I can’t tell if the wetness on his face is from his tears or what we have just conquered. His smile comes to me on a moonbeam, warms me, warms the salt in my own eyes, dissolves it. I take his hand and we climb up the slope, dodging dry branches, hanging on to the roots of trees planted by our grandfather. When we reach the top, we are sweating. I help him with his jacket. I hold him safe beneath my arm. We walk home together, never having spoken a word.
The woman in blue is standing where we had stood that night before we went in, at the side door at the back of the house, the place where we found my mother waiting for us, no secret in the world ever wholly hidden from her.
She says nothing, my mother. She holds out her arms and my brother folds into her, everything that I gave him gone, the heat of my body lost as he is consumed by the fire of my mother’s love, her eyes burning with the never-asked, never-answered question as she leads him indoors, almost shuts the door. I stand and watch the halved light. It seems to utter a conditional welcome I cannot abide. I turn and face the mountains again, think of the passionate sting of freezing water.
A long while later I hear my brother’s voice floating prayer-like from the window above me. A whisper: Jesse! Are you there? Come on up. Hey Jess? It’s all right Mom’s gone to bed I go inside, creaking my way up the stairs not caring whom I offend. I go only because he has called me in.
There are others arriving and I see the woman glance up at the sky and then at the flash of silver on her wrist. She presses her fingers to her eyes, lowers her head. I see the tiredness creep slowly along her body as she curves her shoulders inwards, a flower fading out of reach of the sun. A door slams and she jerks upright, steps forward away from the house and into the light. The blue pours forth again, diminishes her, raises him up, makes me stumble in my stride. She goes inside.
I move quickly through the thickening stream of visitors, trying to catch up. My head bent low, eyes averted, I charge between them, walking down the slope and back to the house. It keeps them from approaching me, even those who do not know enough to blame me.
His eyes meet mine over the wheel and we both smile, a familiar giddiness enveloping us, bringing us together again. Then, he is gone, the lights illuminating the road ahead, leaving me behind with the night.
Katie stops me.
“Jesse, could you brew another pot of coffee?”
“Sure,” I say and start towards the kitchen, but she pulls me back by the sleeve of my shirt. She looks at me with such kindness, this almost-sister.
“Are you okay?”
Am I okay? This was to be their wedding day. In the foyer there is a large serving dish with a pen that writes on glazed pottery. People dressed in gowns from TJ Maxx and rented tuxedos were supposed to have signed their names on it while a band played country music in the background. That’s what Nick loved: country music. Katie didn’t, though. What were they going to play? I don’t remember now. Only these facts have strayed to the surface of my mind:
that the serving dish is covered with condolences; and,
there are wedding favors stacked by the door for our visitors to take with them when they leave; and,
in the next room are all the platters of hors d’oeuvres re-routed for delivery to our home, where they wait like pretty flower-girls, so colorful and so edible that nobody has touched them.
But mostly that serving dish with its grand size and delicate edges, the vine pattern along the handles. Where did Katie plan to store this iteration of their hope? Who would she serve off it now? What?
“Katie,” I start, but then I stop. She waits for me to say something, do something. To stroke her cheek perhaps, or ask her for a favor. She continues to look at me, her face tilted as if for a kiss, hopeful. Of what? “Katie,” I say again.
“It’s okay, Jess, I’m okay,” she says, lowering her head, nodding, and then falls forward into my arms. She is sobbing. I put my arms around my brother’s love. His love since he was thirteen years old. She wipes her face on my sleeve and rests for a few moments against me and then she cries some more. She cries until everybody has heard it or of it, and of my dry, unrepentant face, too, perhaps. My mother comes in. Katie passes from my arms to hers. From stone to warm, undulant clay.
“We need more coffee,” I say to my mother. “Someone needs to make more coffee.”
“Go make some coffee, Jesse,” she says, her tone soft.
I shake my head, then leave her and go upstairs as if I had been interrupted in an errand, as if there is anything worth needing now. I pass the bathroom so I use it. I hear footsteps on the landing outside: the twins trying to find a quiet room to smoke. I come out and motion with my head towards Nick’s bedroom: nobody has gone in there but me, and it is my lot to give them permission to encroach, to defame it even if only with their own, unoriginal insurrection against our home. They acknowledge me with a joint declaration from their tawny heads as we cross on the narrow passage that has connected all our nightly trespasses; my parents unnaturally adoring of each other, the twins in their world, Nick and I in ours, linked by a closet whose crawl-way we never shut even in adolescence. No, not even when we had to, simply had to put our hands down our pants.
I press my back to the wall to let them pass. We stop moving for a short moment. It is almost an embrace. We turn our faces away, all three of us, unable to make it last, unable to say anything more. Nick took up my heart and I had no room left for these younger siblings; I had nothing left to give after him. What words should I use now? Now that there is nothing between us?
I feel dizzy as I stand at the top of the staircase looking down at the crowd below. I see the flash of color and she is suddenly in the middle of the room. The center of a flower where only the center has meaning.
He was not first, would never be. What did he want of me? Or I of him? Nothing, surely. And yet and yet that untapped joy within him. I wanted it to pour forth. I wanted it to bear me. A stream along which I would not have to swim, a fall that would still hold me up, weightless till it placed me upon the foaming rocks below, everything turned to a bright red flame, the dark ice gone. Oh to be worthy of that! My midnight journeys, the lost days of my youth, battering the iron carapace of winter with my pick axes, looking for fish I bloodied and returned to the deep lake waters, the speed of the trucks I grew up to drive, all the girls and women I would never bring home to my mother, all of them worth something. To be adored. Not because I had come before him but because I had given my life for him. Existing in the half he would not visit, cavorting in the wilderness of my own making, wooing the things he could not understand. All for him, keeping him safe. My life a movie he could watch from afar, enjoy, criticize if he must, but never join. How could I have grown tired of my charge? When did I decide to end my stewardship?
I wanted us for one night to be two people, not one. I wanted to be a whole beside another, not a half.
Blue. Blue. Blue. One color that weaves through the shades of gray and black, the hues of mourning. A way for people to die just a little bit, draw less attention to life. And the absence of it. Why has she worn blue? She who has never beheld the brilliance of his eyes? She is searching for someone. She talks to my mother, their arms around each other. They move away and are gone from my sight. The room is empty once again. I climb down carefully. No sound, a quiet absorption, resisting the temptation to sit down and rest my head against the wall.
I sweep the pictures and paraphernalia into the drawer below the sideboard and the display is done. The construction of a life for anonymous sorrow-seekers, we owe them nothing my brother and I. He is mine! His blood is mine! Spit. I want to spit upon them, shoo them out. Fruit flies! Maggots! Feasting on his flesh. I cannot breathe. Someone helps me outside. I hear their voices, low, comfortable, generous in their non-lost world. I shake off the hand at my elbow, stride away with purpose, make it to the crest of the hill, turn the corner and catch the branch of the first apple tree in my brother’s orchard before my legs give way.
The grass below me is still green. Newly mown. I smell the fresh scent of my labor as I watch him walk over to me, his feet dancing from the drink. Out of the home-lit warmth, the embrace of my mother, and forward into the dark. His body alert, his eyes awash with a keen-sensed thrill, the anticipation of something new. The me-too delight of a second son. For a few seconds he is shorter than I am on the slope, and I smile and ruffle the hair I had just seen my mother smooth back over his forehead. He clasps his hands together.
Yeah, I’m ready. Mom says I should rest for tomorrow, but tonight’s my last night, right? Last night to cut loose. He hugs himself and shivers a little grinning childishly. He sways a little. He is two again. He is eight. He is twelve fifteen sixteen eighteen he is twenty. He is waiting for me to show him how I live. He is twenty-four.
I stand up and he follows me to where I have left it. The machine looms up suddenly. I know it scares him, but he feigns confidence. Yes, he is just like me. I watch him assess his skill against the uneven construction of the vehicle. A stupid invention, driving over terrain that we should feel with our feet, trapping us with its noise where we should run in silence.
Ready? I ask again though I know both answers. The right one and the wrong.
So? I listen to his questions, give him a quick overview.
It isn’t that hard, I tell him, as long as you keep it steady.
His eyes meet mine over the wheel and we both smile, a familiar giddiness enveloping us, bringing us together again. Then, he is gone, the lights illuminating the road ahead, leaving me behind with the night.
The roar of the engine fills my head. I open my eyes wide to watch him go but I do not see him. I am shorn of all memory, naked in the light of day. A firm hand touches my forearm. On my left. She stands before me. The blue intensity fills my head. Her voice is deep. Her eyes stay level with mine. She touches me as if she knows me, stays, though I offer her no respite from the task of comforting those who refuse to be comforted. Kill yourself a brother I have said, wordlessly, to all who came near. And only she has heard. She tells me her name. Nothing more. Her eyes do not leave my face, nor mine hers. We stand there in silence. This blue, I want to say, this blue is
But she has turned away. I watch her go. Her dress catches on the rose bushes by the fence. She bends down to yank it free and it tears. She winces and she brings her fingers to her mouth. I see the swift, sure ooze of living blood, taste it in my mouth pressed against his. Breathe! Nick! Breathe for me! I shake my head, run to catch up, but someone calls her name and she leaves me behind. I crouch beside the bush and remove the piece of blue from the thorns: just as much as could be held in two eyes.
When I stand up again I see her walking away from the house, her step as steady as when she came. How long ago? How long? I start towards her. My mother stops me to ask if I have seen my father, to stroke my cheek, to smooth my hair. I linger in this transplanted act of love. Over my mother’s shoulder I see her car move out of the line of others still parked, still waiting for a pre-timed end to ritual. The rutted road slows her and the car dips and climbs around the first bend. I turn my back on my mother and try to follow her, run, nearly catch up. She reaches the second bend at the same time as I do.
This is as far as I can go.
My steps slow down; her car speeds up.
I dare not turn my head.
I smell the already decaying flowers and the fresh blooms neatly laid by anonymous hands. The skid marks are already filled in. There is no trace of him. But I see him. I am still and I am running away from our house, towards the sound of things ending, towards crushed metal and wheels going nowhere, towards myself, my brother, my life. I hold him in my arms, his crooked, all-wrong body and my mangled soul clinging to each other through heaving breaths and the howling madness of my voice raging at the night. He has no face. I taste the blood in my mouth.
Nick. My Nick. What do I have left to trade for you? I fall to my knees. I press the shredded blue into my eyes but it is not enough. Somewhere further along the road down which I will never go again, I hear her car come to a stop. The door slams. I stay. I stay.
Ru S. Freeman is a Sri Lankan-born writer. Her political journalism has appeared internationally in English and in translation. Her fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Writercorner Press, Story Quarterly, where it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, will be published by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster in July, 2009.