By D.C. Mason
The letter was typed out neatly on the letterhead of the church school in Knoxville and was signed by their dean of admissions in a black flourish above his name. I could not read the letter but Isaac could and when he had read it he unfolded an application enclosed in the envelope and took up a pen and began to fill it out. Our father got home just as Isaac was finished with the application. He walked in and snatched the letter off the table and had my brother read it to him and when he had our father took up the pen and slammed it down hard into the table with such force that had he not moved his hand Isaac would have been impaled. My brother tugged me by the arm around the corner towards the hiding place, application in hand, as our father raged behind us.
In the stoic tension beneath the house Isaac secured his application between the floorboards while above us we heard our mother calling for someone to take her to the toilet and further towards the kitchen we could hear our father shouting all the ways he intended to kill Isaac when he found us and further out between the trees the two tone call of some devious feathered thing.
Our father shrieked that he would find him and that it was not too late for them to play outside. He shouted how he would take him down to the clearing in the woods and they would play until the sun came up. My brother held my arm just a little too tight.
“What you reckon he wants to play?” I asked him, my voice a careful whisper lower than the whistle of the wind. My brother squeezed my arm. Already there seemed to be the force of another within him. As if he were already possessed by a movement that was not his own. Above us our father stomped and cried and slammed the door to our parents’ bedroom and my brother and I wordlessly shimmied out of the hiding place and quietly retreated to our bedroom.
The morning after I woke in my bed and when I opened my eyes my brother was sitting on the mattress with his hand resting on my cheek and his face close to mine and he told me that there had been an accident. My brother and I went together to fetch our mother from her bed. She lay in a thick pool of filthy soup since no one had come to take her to the toilet the night before. We transferred her dripping frame to her wheelchair together and Isaac wheeled her into the kitchen where our father lay before the bloodstained countertop like a stiffened doll with his pale blue eyes wide open. In my brother’s eyes were black pupils trembling like eggs cracking and ready to burst and that was the first I ever saw that he had our father’s eyes.
We lived far down a dusty dirt trail leading off one of the lesser traveled roads out from Creighton which is some twenty miles north of Knoxville. We had a phone that sat on our mother’s night table that was far enough out of her reach that—though she could answer it if it rang—she could not dial any number into its rotary, and we had a mailbox down at the very end of the drive that we checked twice a month. Save those things the world kept away so long as we kept to ourselves. That was why our father had come to live here. That was why back before we were born he built his home in the woods and sometime descended upon Creighton like a perverse god and wheeled away the first woman who could not escape him back to his wooden lair. He took our mother, whose illness at that point had only petrified her toes, and knocked her off her crutches and took her on his shoulder and threw her down in the back of his truck and drove her home and took her up on his shoulder again and plopped her on his guestroom bed where her illness turns more and more of her to stone and where she has remained to this day. And so after our father hit his head and perished it was me and Isaac only who had feet to walk on and it was up to us to bury our father and so we took him and a shovel out behind the house. When we finished Isaac hocked and spat.
“You still goin to mail that ply-ation?” I asked him as we made our way back towards the moldy logs of our father’s home. Isaac rested the shovel on his shoulder and the spade loomed behind his head like a black and rusty halo.
“It’s called an app-lee-cay-shun,” When he spoke he moved only those parts of his mouth necessary to make the sound he wished to make and so his words were always said as if they were the single most veracious thing ever spoken. “I ain’t sure if I will. It’s-a one-a ‘em rollin admission things. I can turn it in whenever I want and it’s just as good.” That was the last time either of us mentioned the folded paper between the floorboards for a very long time.
We stopped when we got to the house and he slid the shovel under the tarp where our father had kept all his tools. “Look at me lil brother.” I looked at him. He kissed my forehead like he had that morning. “It aint fair ye grown up with no daddy. I’ll do my best for ye. Promise.” And it was then that I knew I loved him.
My father’s death had little to do with me but Isaac, who had lived seven more years with him than I had, withdrew deep within himself. He started spending innumerable hours hidden between the branches of the woods. He would go out among the uniform trees each day when he woke and he would not return until the sky was black and sparking with stars. Often I would go to bed at night and he would not be there but when I would wake up in the blackness and roll over on my side facing his bed across the room I would see his eyes as vast and ubiquitous as the darkness between the stars smothering me with quiet contemplation. Blue eyes. Blue like the inside of a snowball. And somewhere within that gaze was an invitation.
It was the day after the remnants of what might have been a hurricane had passed through that I put on the radio for my mother and set out into the woods following the path that I had often seen him take between trees. Under sad and bare branches jagged and still like corpses frozen in the moment of their demise with their arms contorted and their mouths filled with silenced cries. Past rusted antique plough parts from times gone by and over stretches of stone walls erected in delineation of boundaries whose authority no longer held any consequence.
I creeped along the dead leaf pathways and stonewood corridors until I found him wandering around in the clearing. It was a place of solemnity and mystery and of an unspeakable significance. He squatted down on one knee and from where I watched him he seemed to be a shape hewn from a boulder whose shape had been negotiated in some glacial age before there ever were creatures bearing such a form as his. At his feet was a tight gnarl of twigs and leaves enclosed around four small eggs and he regarded that fragile quartet from some void behind his eyes as if appraising them of a worth only he understood. He crouched there for a while studying the eggs until finally he took one of them between his thumb and finger and held it before his gaze. I had never seen him smile before but he smiled as he let the egg disappear into the pit of his palm and he wrapped his fingers and thumb around it and held it hard in his hand until his hand became a fist dripping with oily yellow liquid and he exhaled as if releasing some invisible spirit trapped deep within himself. And he did this until there were no more ghosts within him.
“You come to play?” I did not freeze in place when he spoke because I was already frozen Instead his voice thawed me from my stillness and I approached him. He rose from the nest and he stretched out his hand to me. “This one is special.” I cupped my hands and upon the bowl of my open palms he placed a single white and speckled egg. “Ain’t no robin’s egg. This’n’s one-a them cowbird eggs.” And then he closed my hands around it and wrapped his colossal white fingers over mine. I looked up from our united hands and into his gaze to find him studying me from the vantage of some distant world that seemed to exist within the darkness of his pupils. The wind whistled in warped whorls in the treetops and between the blades of the long grass across the clearing where spindle-legged horrors sang a hymn of mystery and of a new order of things. And when he finally released me the yolk dripped from my fingertips and my hands bled from the cracked shells. I asked him what he wanted to play, and he smiled until his mouth seemed to tear at the corners.
The years that followed blur together in my mind as enharmonic intonations of his laughter and growls and of his sharp breaths and of a deep double-noise that came from the bowels of his throat like the vocalization of what it meant to be satisfied. We would play in the clearing often until I could play no more or until he tired of playing or until the world became too dark to see. Games that I could never remember playing. A bright pink bruise on my neck. I could never hide for long beneath the floorboards for he knew of that spot but I still sometimes would hide myself there and hug my knees to my chest and wait to feel his grip on my wrist just a little too tight. At night I would lie in bed and see him staring at me through the shadows and on occasion I would conjure a vision of his teeth bared in a smile as he fixed his gaze on me from across the room. Like a ferocious animal enclosed behind a chain link fence.
And I loved him even more. I needed him even more than ever and I spent as much time with him as I could for I believed that somewhere at the end of that terrible two-tone noise in his throat was the sound of the words ‘I love you’ and I believed that if I let him make that horrible noise to its ending, eventually, he would sound out ‘I love you.’ It took me three years to understand that such a sound did not exist. And that if it ever had it had been dampened into silence by some ghost in the wind above the clearing where Isaac would play.
And so, one morning, I crouched in the crawlspace and I heard his footsteps above my head and the roll of our mother’s wheelchair as he pushed her back to her room where she would stay for the rest of the day. As the floorboards creaked above my head a folded and yellowed paper fell from between them and onto the dirt before me. Fingers shaking I took it up and opened it and though I could not read it I knew that it was the church school application. Unmailed and undelivered. I took the worn sheet of paper in my hand and started on the long path up to the mailbox.
It was only a matter of time before he came down to the clearing one day forlorn and distant.
“She’s sendin me away.” His eyes looked out over the clearing into the trees beyond. I asked him what he meant. “Shoulda moved that goddamn phone years ago. The church school called and she done answered it. Done took my case and now I’m to go to’t. To Knoxville. Lettin me in on some outreach thin. Only I ain’t sent in no application. It been in the floorboards where we stuck it. Ain’t there no more. I done checked.” Finally his gaze found me but I was not looking at him. My heart beat in my chest as if it intended to bruise me from within. I was not looking but I could feel his eyes studying me. Appraising me. “Don’t worry.” He touched the expansive bruise on my throat and it tingled as if his fingers were charged with some divine spark. “If it’s the last time we play, I’ll play ye somethin special.”
A few days later Isaac was gone. The shuttle to the church school swept him away and he disappeared and he never came back. I have no memory of that last time we played. I have no memory of most of the days we spent in the clearing. Only vague sensations emanating from aches and burns like archaeological evidence clueing me to what games we had enacted.
His absence was as horrible as his presence. Living alone with my mother was a tortuous and silent pain. A lonesome pain. I did not realize until Isaac was gone how much unseen effort there must have been on his part to keep her alive. Weekly trips into Creighton to get groceries. Waking at dawn to clean her and to change her sheets. Each year more of herself was locked away within her body. Each year I devoted more of myself to her. At times it seemed like my body was an extension of her wills and that with each limb that she lost the use of she would gain possession of that same limb of mine. My arms and legs became her arms and legs as I transported her stone body around the house more like a bundle than like a person. My fingers were her fingers and they pushed plastic spoonfuls of applesauce between her lips. I only brought her to the old folks’ home in Creighton after she lost the ability to speak. To protest. After I left her there I drove back home in my father’s rusted truck that was now my rusted truck and when I got home I lay down on my bed and sighed out my solitude and my uncomfortable peace.
Even after I rid myself of my mother I still felt that my body was not my own and it was around then when I began to host Isaac in my dreams. He would come to me in the clearing in the shape of some winged terror with his mouth torn from his smile and his throat still scratching with that gnarling two-tone groan. He would swoop down from the twisting gray of the sky on sable feathers and fold his wings into his side as he landed before me. He would take from his sleeve a speckled egg of his own laying and push it between my lips and into my mouth and deep into the back of my throat where horrible noises such as his had their home. And when I woke, each time, I would feel that egg within me twitching as if it were moving itself towards hatching. Like somewhere deep within me was some lasting piece of Isaac pulling me back towards the clearing. Some strange ashen egg lain somewhere within me.
Years passed before I heard anything about my mother again and when I did get news it came in the form of a phone call from the old folks home telling me that she was near death and it was expected that I would be there when the priest arrived to say the prayer of the sick on her. I drove to the hospital to see her on the last morning that she ever woke and there she was sitting up in her mechanical hospital bed all draped in white paper-thin linen and decked in a polka dotted gown. We sat together in silence as we had lived together in silence. The skin around her eyes all puddled on her cheekbones. Her eyes could still see but her body could no longer move and all she could do was aspirate in her throat. Sometime the nurse came in and announced the priest was on his way and I thanked her. It was another half hour before the cleric tilted his head into the room.
I became rigid in my chair like a trembling stone as he stilted over the threshold atop long and thick legs stout as the thickness of uniform trees. He regarded me with eyes as pale and as blue as a sky streaked with the feathers of infinite clouds. He dressed all in black and his big white hands stretched from his tight sleeves and coiled around his prayer book. The white band around his neck only just fit his throat and his face above it was unsmiling and stern. He studied me as if I were a stranger and his pupils contracted inwards and outwards like the mouths of tiny birds opening and closing in hunger.
“I missed you,” he finally said. Words like strips of lace pulled tight from his mouth. Proper. I was still and silent. He closed the door. “I know what you did. After all I did for you. To send me away?” He stepped over to me and kissed my mouth. Our mother sat upright and silent. Breathing slowly he floated across the floor to her bedside and laid a diabolic hand on her neck. “I know you loved it.”
He remained there with his hand on her neck until he was sure she had died and then he turned back to me and his footsteps on the tile seemed to echo. He leaned down in front of my face and whispered, “Our Lady of the Assumption.” He pressed two of his fingers against my eyelids and rolled them down until my sight was wholly blackened. I heard him open and close the door and when I was sure he had gone I left the room and my mother.
I asked around in the lobby and learned that the church was in Knoxville and that they had a Mass at 4 on Saturdays and since it was a Saturday I got back to my father’s truck and turned over the ignition and drove south stopping only at the filling station to buy gas along the way.
The whole drive down I felt Isaac’s spirit with me as if he were projecting himself or possessing my body. As if it were his hands on the wheel and his foot on the pedal. As if I were an obedient golem animated by the magic of an invisible creator. The sky opened with rain and I flicked on the wipers and in each beat of the blades across the windshield I saw my reflection and I saw too a face which was not my own. And within me an egg that he had lain in some horrible and private recess of my flesh whose twisted yolks were known to none but the tall and preposterous cleric with hands the size of globes.
The church was dark and deep like a twisted fairytale woodland with strange and mazelike pathways poised to pulverize the wills of tiny heroes. The only light therein was the dim daylight that shone through the stained-glass windows and cast their unique tableaus in reverse upon the carpet floor. The loftiness of the cathedraled ceiling was buttressed and braced by cold steel beams whose two-inch boltheads bulged from their seams like the odd and visionary suckers of a tentacled sea creature. The heads of the altar boys fixed at a slant up at the Christ from whose porcelain dead-eyed visage seemed to perspire true streams of blood. I genuflected at the third pew from the back and sat on the end and when I had the organ stopped. I had not even noticed its dull electric hum until its song vanished and left the whole sanctuary silent with reverence and mystery. As if the church were challenging each of the drooped heads peering over its pews to break its silence with a wail sob call or cry and though the need to cry out pulsed between the walls like the tense thrumming of a dying heart that need could not be realized.
I did not kneel to pray nor did I stand for Communion. I waited the hour in that pew for Mass to be over and when it was I watched him disappear behind a wooden door to the sacristy. Only then did I pray. I prayed until the church was empty except for a few families whom I took to be the parents of the altar boys. I stood and I did not genuflect and I made my way to the front of the sanctuary and around the dais. I reached the door to the sacristy and its handle hummed with the pain of memories lost to his frenzies. Lost to his passion. In my mind’s eye I saw him dressed in his vestments back there like a canonized prophet and I saw too his eyes and the eggs of his pupils within them black with secrets. I could not bring myself to open the door.
But the door opened on its own. A small boy nudged his way between the door and the doorframe like a mouse. Changed out of his robes he wore a light green collared shirt and tan jeans. He lifted his eyes to meet mine for only a second. On his neck, hidden under his collar, was a massive bruise. Pink like a scab. And wet. He hurried to his parents who said their goodbyes and shuffled him off. Oblivious. I entered the sacristy.
My eyes met his after regarding two other altar boys standing in the corner of the room with their white angelic robes stained yellow and dripping at the hems. He opened his arms to me. He put his hand on my neck where my own bruise had nearly completely disappeared and he lowered his mouth towards it.
His hands. His eyes wide. His egg within me hatching and its yolks filling my blood and mending my oblivion. Restoring the rules of our ancient games. His arms. His noises. Over his shoulder the altar boys looking on in odd fascination. Eggs crushed within his palm. Within my bare hands. Hands the size of globes. The size of his hands.
Before I knew it I was killing him. And I kept killing him. The boys stood agape and wet with urine where they had been standing all the while and their parents burst in the door. Some cursed and some fainted and all cried out. I killed him until I thought at first that I was dead too, limp and red on the floor next to him. Breathless. I killed him for as long as my body had strength and force and life and I did not stop killing him until my hands were too sore to move. He lay with me and though his eyes were no more I still could feel his steady gaze as I had through all my dreaming and waking. And I did this until there were no more ghosts within me.
I lay in the soaking wreck of him all filthy with both his blood and mine. A memory of our hands wet and oily from a common yolk. A love and a violence that was ours and ours alone and that could not be reconciled with the gentle world. I felt hands wrap around my arms and pull me to my knees and then to my feet. They pushed me against the wall and I waited there for the world to come upon me and when it did it came with cold manacles closing in tight on my crusty wrists. I spared one last look at him before they pulled me away and looking at his fluidic and red shape I became certain that despite everything I loved him.
In some distant tree a bird lays her pale egg among a heap of light blue eggs and she calls in a two tone liquidous whistle. She flies off and in her wake is a nest of unborn robins who will wake to find a hulking older sibling among them who shall smother his infant brothers and cast those yet unhatched from their nesting. There was a time when I would have wept for such a nest. Now? I do not believe I shall. I have sat between the concrete and the steel and I joy that he is with me as he always has been. Huddled away together in this hiding place. He stands before me all pale and hot with his heart bursting as it pushes blood and love through his veins. His hands clenched into tight and pulsing fists and his eyes blue and bleeding.
His love is fearsome. His terror immortal.