Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Glory 

 

The boys are staring at their dead uncle. They know they are supposed to keep their hands loose at their sides or clasped together, and bow their heads. They know they are supposed linger for just a moment with their church faces. And they are aware—though only dimly, only along the distant periphery of their thoughts—of the small bustle of activity around them. The older brother’s name is Jack, and he is nine, which is why he is standing closer to the casket than Austin, who is eight. The younger boy is half concealed behind his brother, going up on tiptoes. And behind them and around them are voices like a murmuring of birds. A Viewing is a somber place, they know, and not just because their mother told them. And what they are noticing about their uncle is the way his dark mustache seems, now, a strange creature in its own right, separate from the rest of him. And the skin is formed of wax paper. And the eyes are comprised of something that might congeal along the stagnant surface of a pond. This, it seems, is what death has bequeathed him. It is Uncle Jerry but stripped down, a hollow log at the center of the woods.

On the car ride home, Jack and his brother sit exiled in the back seat. Their parents, in front, speak of the Funeral Home, the last days of hospice, and a long-ago trip with Uncle Jerry to Mackinac Island. The words flit over the seat cushions and disappear, without fanfare. The boys are rocked by the movements of the Honda, feeling sleepy. Here the land is a kind of weightlessness. There are corn fields slipping past, the stalks as tall and straight as sentries. There are yellowing soybean fields bordered by distant clusters of trees. Jack is thinking about the deer he sees sometimes on their backs along the roadside, their white underbellies, their stiff legs. He is thinking about how the deer—before—used to leap fences or steal from their mother’s vegetable garden, in the same way that Uncle Jerry used to throw a football to them in the back yard or join them on the trampoline. But now both man and deer are only this one thing. And it’s hard to imagine that both weren’t always this way, weren’t preparing to be this way all along. Austin, beside Jack, is suddenly stabbing a finger to the window, pointing. A red-tailed hawk is perched atop a fence post as they careen past.

“Look,” Austin says.

Jack says, “You’re an idiot.”

 

The room the boys share is on the second floor, at the far back of the ancient brick house, which is more than one-hundred years old. They have lived here all their lives, have lived in Ohio on these same ten acres, inside these same narrow walls. The view from their bedroom, now, is of a sprinkler arcing first one way then the next, of their father’s toolshed, of the pond that extends nearly to the commencement of the woods. Most nights the waters appear, in moonlight, like the blown pupil of an eye, though in winter the surface freezes into a pale sheen. But now, as Jack and his brother are tearing off their Sunday ties, are changing into jeans and T-shirts, the pond appears gray and placid, a mute thing. Cattails wave their desiccated hands by shore. The small gravel beach close in tries to catch the evening light and make it glimmer.      

Supper is a time of muted voices. There are rules to be followed, weather patterns to watch for. Jack has learned to study the geography of his father’s mouth and eyes, to watch for any sudden twitching of the hands. Austin, he knows, is less adept, so Jack has learned to shoot glances his direction, as needed. Their father, now, is holding forth on how he has to stop by one of the constructions sites once they finish eating, how he will return before dark. He is saying to their mother how far behind these last few weeks have gotten him. The business he owns has their own last name as part of what it’s called, which seems to Jack a kind of magic. You say the name and somehow it’s outside of you, important. Their mother works for the company, too, answering the phone, keeping the books, and there is a cell she answers by saying the company’s name, and her tone always shifts into something formal, assertive. But here, at the table, she is listening, listening, and the boys, at the table, are eating, eating, adding nothing to the conversation, which is safer. And before them is the kitchen window where, just two days earlier, a sparrow came hurtling into the illuminated glass while they were just sitting down. First there was the glare of light, and then the thump, and then the creature lay twitching in the shrubs—which Jack could see clearly with his nose pressed to the window—until finally the spasms stopped and it grew still.

Now Jack wonders if the creature knew it was dying. He wonders if death somehow whispers to you, its warm breath against your skin. Or maybe death is a loud ringing in your ears, like standing before the railroad tracks past the county road. You can feel the vibration in your body, as though the train is tearing a fissure in the air, as though you are trembling into it, one becoming the other, everything becoming everything else.

“He looked different,” Austin suddenly says, his voice piercing the air around the supper table. “Uncle Jerry.”

Jack glares his way, glares warning.

 

The boys are throwing rocks at twilight, dirt balls. They are far from the house, on the far side of the pond, free enough, they assume, from their mother’s prying eyes. Sometimes the rocks they throw arc like missiles deep into the pond. There is a trajectory that the boys appreciate, the sense of the great sweep of a thing, the falling and the inevitable gravity, the rewarding splash. Once, along the edges of this same pond, they found a bullfrog with a severed head, which they poked with a stick. Other times they throw hornworms from their mother’s tomato plants into the gray maw. Bass rush to claim the green offerings, to swallow them whole. And sometimes they find crawdads in the mud that they beat to death with rocks.

Jack, bored, aims one dirt ball at his brother’s frame. It whips past, within inches.

“Stop it,” Austin says.

“Stop what?”

“Stop it.”

Soon they are both flinging dirt balls, rocks. Then Austin is retreating deep into the woods. In winter the trees are dead bodies with outstretched arms, but now they are a green canopy, blotting out sky. The woods are a place to feel at ease, to live free from all constraints, not like in the close confines of the house or even in the yard. It is from these woods where they once watched their father carrying a dead deer out into the back yard. He shot it with his rifle, carried it on his shoulders, the four legs draped down the front of his body. He carried it and carried it, the way he sometimes still carries the boys up the stairs to bed, and then dropped it near the back porch. He let them watch as he inserted the knife blade into the waiting flesh—which seemed to offer no resistance, the creature’s eyes open and motionless with alarm—cutting from sternum to crotch. And there was blood on the thin skin of snow.

“I’ll tell,” Austin says now.

“Run.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Run or I’ll aim for your head.”

Later, when the sun is a red inflammation on the horizon, they go wading. All is forgotten, forgiven. Jack teases his brother mildly about leeches, but it’s an old taunt and has lost its bite. The boys are talking now about Uncle Jerry, their voices existing beside the ripples on the pond, existing in angled sunlight. They visited him a few times near the end. The cancer, they were told, had oozed outward into everything, even his brain, which made him loopy, seeing things, forgetting names. And in the nursing home bed—there was a TV affixed high on the wall, blaring news—their uncle kept swallowing, swallowing, or then coughing and spitting what he’d coughed up into a plastic cup, which sat in plain view. It was the cancer that was floating there, Jack thought, congealing.

And there was a smell to the room and a smell to Uncle Jerry when their father forced them toward the hospital bed, and they were told to hug him. And suddenly, as Jack and Austin are climbing from the pond, are being called back to the house by their mother, Jack smells something similar in the air. Always when they go swimming in the summer waters, their bodies take on the fetid breath of the murky pond, its dank delights, but this is different, worse. And it is coming from his brother. He leans close, inhales. 

“You reek,” he says.

“I do not.”

“You smell like Uncle Jerry.”

“Shut up.”

 

At the funeral there is a sun so bright that everyone is squinting. It is like the sky is burning and the few stray clouds are smoke. There is an open hole in the earth, and Jack is leaning forward to peer into it. He is imagining being lowered into such a small space, holding your breath, and then forever passes. He wonders if it feels like a blink, or if maybe, instead, time slows like a church sermon, and the hardness of the casket is the hardness of a pew, and everything stretches out and out without end. And he is thinking, too, of a dream he had in the night that he was swimming in the pond and suddenly felt a bump. In the dream the bump was at first like a feather—brushing against him—but then it became adamant, insistent. And when he realized that it was his brother floating on the surface, face down, and when he realized he was going to be in trouble, he awoke suddenly and sat up in the dark. He could hear his brother’s breaths from the top bunk, a tide that filled the room like a strange mist. And suddenly, in that moment, he wondered if maybe Austin had breathed in while kissing Uncle Jerry’s cheek before he died, if he had inhaled the cancer deep into him, where it burrowed.

“You’ll be dead soon,” Jack whispers now to his brother on the walk back to the car,

“What?” Austin says.

“You’ll shrivel up.”

“Leave me alone.”

“You two hush,” the father says, and so they march in silence back to the car, march while watching in case their father’s hand swings back, in case the heavy beef of it comes whistling toward their heads like one of those stones.

“You have it,” Jack whispers while they are climbing into the car.

Austin blinks, perplexed.

“What Uncle Jerry had,” Jack says.

“Shut up.”

And then the car is a white noise around them, and the trees and the road and the buildings of town are slipping past, are blurry, indistinct. The outside is less real now than the inside. Jack keeps sneaking glances at his brother, and he wonders if death is a kind of glory, if it makes everyone look at you, study you, think about you. You are now the center of everything, and no one can deny it.

 

They are back playing in the yard, this time by their mother’s garden. There are two plum trees here, two apple trees, and four crabapple trees. The limbs of the plum trees sag with the globes of the fruit, burdened by fruit. They are weak trees, barely able to keep their limbs raised, almost giving up. But the apple trees hold the fruit more proudly, and it occurs to Jack that this is exactly right, exactly the difference between him and his brother. Austin, he notices, is ineptly throwing crabapples toward a squirrel high up in the trees at the edge of the woods. But the throws aren’t even close. The squirrel is lordly on its perch. The tail twitches its indifference. The animal is far above the efforts of a few errant throws.

The crabapple Jack throws catches his brother square in the back.

“I hate you,” Austin says, and then he runs toward his brother, tackles him.

Now the boys are wrestling. Their bodies are together on the ground, and they are rolling over and over, writhing. They once saw a black snake whip out from the woods on its belly, rustling grass, making a commotion. And they often see bats twisting through the dusk sky on hinged wings, flitting this way and then that. Soon Jack is sitting atop his brother, holding his wrists pressed against the dirt, and his brother is struggling and kicking and trying his best to scratch or even bite. And suddenly it occurs to Jack that maybe his brother will breathe on him, that his breath will form an invisible cloud that claims them both. And maybe that breath will be like Uncle Jerry’s. Contagion will float out of Austin’s mouth, some little death that clings to the spittle or the smell, that lives in the proximity, that seeps into your skin.

Jack, rolling off, says, “I’ll be the only one soon.”

“I hate you.”

“I won’t have to put up with you any longer.”

They lie there a long while, both on their backs, then Austin says, “You want to play cards?”

 

It is an obsession now. There is no other way to describe it. Jack, one afternoon, spies tiny grains of dirt in his brother’s hair. The two of them are sitting on the back porch, bored, their legs dangling, and the sunlight tumbling over the trees illuminates the short bristles of his hair—like a stiff brush—showing along their base tiny particles of filth. This is the dirt of the grave, Jack thinks. This is what the dead wear. And later when they are scaling the apple trees—each in a tree beside the other, going up and up in unison—two crows caw overhead, the wings making a slow oar. And the shadow of one of those birds passes directly through the body of his brother. Austin, as this happens, flinches, a minor convulsion of shoulders and torso, a little shudder. Then later when Jack and his brother are sitting on the couch, watching cartoons, Jack listens for his brother’s breaths, waiting for them to slow or even stop. And he pictures his brother lying back in a high metal bed and spitting into a plastic cup. And he pictures his brother at the Viewing. His eyes will be empty glass. His skin will be pale as grubs. It seems to Jack that death must grow inside you, a bulb planted deep. Out and out the shoots reach until they entangle everything inside you. Death is a geography, a secret, a living thing separate from your life, with its own rules.

Jack thinks about punching his brother suddenly on the soft part of his arm beneath the shoulder. He thinks about throwing him onto the floor and putting a knee to his back. He thinks about lying back on the couch and pummeling his brother with his feet.

But instead he sits, waits. Death is a kind of patience, a way of holding still, as though even the minutes and the hours around you are in abeyance.

 

Their father is yelling. It is a sound, at first, like the opening and closing of an insect eye, small and distant. But soon it lives inside the walls, in the floorboards. It rises up from the kitchen, trembling the house. Jack is sitting up in bed, and Austin is sitting up. Then both of them are dressing, and the words around them are furious in the air, jabbing. Once, Jack knows, his father went to slap Austin for being mouthy but struck Jack instead, by accident, and Jack’s nose became a faucet, even after he tilted back his head. Another time their father kicked them out of the house and told them to live in the back yard. He threw sleeping bags out the back door, and the boys lay looking up at the stars, which were dead bees in a great hive. The moon slipped over the pond and became the white head of a dandelion. Later their mother came out the back door and told them to go up to the room, to be quiet on the stairs, and they slipped into the house like ghosts, barely breathing.

Now, reluctantly, they venture down the stairs for breakfast, each step cajoled. But when they enter the kitchen, the normal world is back spinning on its axis. Their mother is frying eggs. The father is holding up the flaps of the newspaper, which hide his face. He drags it down to peer at them. And later, while they eat, their father sips his orange juice and talks about how he thought he saw his brother in line at Burger King the previous day, how strange it was, how he almost said something before realizing, remembering. And he stands at one point and kisses their mother on the side of her head, and her mouth lifts on its conveyor belt, and the boys realize they can breathe.

 

“What if you’re already dead?” Jack asks, “and just don’t know it.”

They are swimming in the pond, pretending they are soldiers. They are sneaking up on an enemy encampment, are planning to climb out with knives in their teeth. Blood will spurt everywhere. They will listen to death gurgles.

But Jack, whose vision is partly impeded by the wet hair sipping down into his eyes, stops suddenly and adds, “You could be dead.”

“I’m not.”

“You could be a ghost.”

“Shut up.”

“You could be a rotting corpse and don’t know it.”

“I’m not.”

“Look at you,” Jack says.

“I’m going in.”

“Why? You’re dead?”

“I’m telling Mom.”

“That you died?”


Austin is wading from the pond now, escaping, and Jack feels the impetus from deep within his chest, burrowed there. It is a kind of fury. It wants out. The aperture has opened. Suddenly Jack is gripping his brother by his shoulders, is holding on, pushing down. There is a buoyancy that fights the effort, a stubbornness. There is a thrashing of Austin’s arms, a kicking out with legs. Water splashes everywhere, sprays. Sometimes bass strike at the shallows where the minnows lurk, a sudden and startling seizure of motion. Jack holds on, holds on, and he sees a dragonfly flitting along the surface ten feet from them, and he thinks about how the moment is like the opening of drapes, of curtains, this letting everything in, stopping nothing. His brother is a dream now, a furious phantom, but then Jack lets go and his brother is out of the water and running toward the house, not looking behind him.

Jack pushes out with his legs and floats on his back. The blue sky is a canopy. It is an echo. It is as though you push your thoughts toward the sky but it pushes them right back, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

 

It is here beyond the old wire fence that they see it. The fence has fallen over in places, giving up. Fallen trees bend it down into submission. You can step over it like it isn’t there at all. And here, here, is a scattering of feathers. Jack bends close to look at the collection. They are white, like confetti, and scattered. They are an augury or an omen or an occultation. They are small feathers, delicate and fine, and redolent of something having died. But where is the bird itself? Did a hawk slam into a bird in midair? Did a raccoon or a coyote snare one? Austin is standing a little at a distance, peering down. The boys are on their way to the railroad tracks. They like to stand on the rails and see how far they can walk without losing balance. They like to look one way or another into the far distance, which stretches out and out into forever. There is something there that belongs to some other life, some other way of being, as though your thoughts might stretch out and out without end. But instead, now, they are stopped. The world around them smells of summer loam. The heat bears down with its bright eye. And the feathers are fluttering faintly on the earth, the wind drifting over them.

“Let’s go,” Austin says.

“Wait.”

“For what?”

“This.”

And suddenly Jack is gripping his brother and pressing him down toward the feathers, pushing him atop them, and Austin is struggling and then slipping free, and running, and Jack is running, and the field bounces beneath their steps, shudders, and the thud of their hearts is a drumbeat or a trill, and the sunlight holds them in its trance.

Eventually they stop and bend at the waist, grip their legs just above the knee.

“Maybe we’ll see a train,” Austin says.

“Maybe,” Jacks says, and they resume walking.

 

When they return to the house, they spy the squirrel. In Jack’s thoughts—he thinks of the strange route of dreams, how they twist around and around on themselves, tying into knots, or moving suddenly outward on their own volition—this squirrel is the same one his brother tried to pelt with crab apples. It is the haughty squirrel, the one on its high perch that believed it was beyond such things, safe. But his brother threw a few feeble crabapples and somehow killed it. It is on its side beside the base of a shagbark hickory, at the edge of the woods. It is stiff with itself, statuary. Its eyes are open to the world. What it sees is hard to know, but it doesn’t blink. And there is an offering of flies around it, hovering. And the creature is no different than a tree now, no different than a leaf, no different than the mud.

The boys pause, staring. And the squirrel stares back at them. And the flies are satellites in orbit around it.

Jack says, “I’m going to push you down on it.”

And then he is gripping his brother again, and this familiar dance feels something more ancient even than the sunlight, more ancient than the dirt beneath their feet. It is a waltz, small and staggering, a three-step toppling. And Jack does not feel angry toward his brother but the opposite. He loves his brother, sees him as his closest friend and companion in the world, the one true addition to himself. They are inseparable, the two of them, always have been, and Jack can’t imagine that ever changing, even were they to become ghosts, even if they are ghosts. He is pushing his brother slowly toward the squirrel and the tumult of flies. He is using his greater weight, his leverage. And Austin is grunting now, breathing loudly, but it does no good. There are things that are inevitable. They are unopposable forces. Austin’s shoulder has nearly reached the squirrel now, and he is pulling his head farther and farther away, his neck craning. His eyes are alive with it, wide, the little black seas of pupils at their center, widening. And suddenly something happens. It is out of the realm of things, out of nowhere. Austin’s hand is reaching out, reaching. He is gripping the squirrel, lifting it. The flies are in a frenzy, making a commotion, a whirling. And Jack is letting go now, and the hand with the squirrel is swinging outward in a compact arc, completing its orbit toward his body. And Jack is running now in the direction of the house, and Austin is coming after all, chasing him with the dead squirrel, the tail bobbing as he runs, dancing. And when they are close to the house, Jack turns, braces himself, and makes of his hands menacing fists.

“Touch me with that and I’ll kill you,” he says.

“I thought I was already dead.”

“I mean it . . . I’ll kill you.”

“I’m going to rub it in your face.”

And their voices are loud in the afternoon air, rupturing it, fissuring it.

Jack says, “Stay back.”

“No.”

“I’ll kick you.”

“No.”

“I’ll find a rock and bash your head in. Your brains will fall out.”

Austin waves the squirrel toward him, a magic wand, casting spells. He says, “I’ll throw it at you.”

Jack backs off even farther, nearly tripping over the hose. “You’ll pay for this.”

“I’ll throw it at your face.”

“You’ll die.”

Austin steps forward again, jabbing with the squirrel, a sword now, a parry. But suddenly he stops in place, frozen, his entire body going slack with it, a blown fuse, a switch turned. And Jack sees it in his brother’s expression, knows even before he turns that their father will be standing there, standing just outside the kitchen door. He knows they are doomed. Their mother sent them into the woods, after all, banished them from the house. Their mother said that only quietness was allowed, was demanded. Their father had one of his headaches—the kind where the lights have to go out, where even a whisper makes him furious—so out they had gone, out and away. But now, without turning, Jack knows. Austin opens his fingers and lets the squirrel slip free. The creature drops to the grass, landing on its head, then sprawling. The creature is on its back now, its little legs raised in supplication. And Austin is backing off, and he is staring just behind where Jack is standing, and Jack turns suddenly for a glimpse, turns to see his father’s white T-shirt, his boxer shorts, his bare feet, and a hand reaching out, grabbing, gripping, and not letting go.

 

The whacks are on Jack’s bottom, one after the other, a piston firing and firing. His father has one hand clutching his arm above the elbow, clamping down, cutting off circulation. And the other hand is descending and descending, falling out of the clouds beyond his father’s shoulder. The blows are great thumps, the force of them staggering Jack, sending him nearly tumbling from his feet. He has seen images in comics of men in electric chairs, the thrum of the electricity staggering through their bodies, making them no longer their own. Jack imagines the waves of it rushing through him, claiming him, owning him. He can barely breathe, think. But still he hears his brother shouting out that this wasn’t his fault, that none of it was his fault, that Jack had tried to press his face into the squirrel, that Jack had started it, that Jack kept telling him he was dead, was like Uncle Jerry. And the blows grow even more intense as Austin speaks, as though the words are a fulcrum, an accelerant. And Jack’s father isn’t speaking except in grunts of exertion, the blows coming down and down. A few strike Jack on his lower back, his thighs, and sometimes he is turned enough that a hip is struck, the side of an arm. But mostly they are on his rump, which grows more and more raw with each new pummeling. Jack is crying now, he knows, a great flooding in his eyes, a rush of snot pouring from his nose. His eyes blur and he doubts he can bear much more, is waiting for the world around him to blink out, for his brother to blink out, his father.

Then he is released and lies crumpled on the grass.

“You two be quiet,” their father says. “I won’t ask so nicely next time. And get rid of that damned squirrel. And wash your hands.”

Jack hears the metallic shutting of the kitchen screen door, the thud of steps. He is swallowing air, drinking it down, collecting breaths. And the squirrel, before him on the grass, is placid, unwavering. It is a small god. It is saying nothing, doing nothing. And his brother, beyond the squirrel, has his head bowed, his hands slackened at his sides. Jack thinks of the prayers their mother makes them speak at night. They are supposed to clasp their hands together. The words are supposed to make their way up through the ceiling, up through the clouds, up past the moon and the stars. They are supposed to flit outward on invisible wings, indefatigable, relentless. And God is supposed to tilt one great ear to them. And Jack thinks about Uncle Jerry in his coffin, his fake skin seeming no longer like his own, his fake eyes, his fake mustache. And someday, he knows, this will be his father or his mother or his brother. And they will lie so still, holding their breath. And family and friends will peer down. Jack is crying as he thinks this, crying now not just for the ache of his backside but for how much he loves his father, despite himself, loves his mother, loves his brother. It is a raw love, an ache, an emptiness, and he knows it will surround him someday in his own casket, will close in with its embrace.

 

 

 

Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. Black Flowers was recently published by LSU Press. Four books have received awards: The Owl That Carries Us Away (G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction), Original Bodies (Michael Waters Poetry Prize), Mechanical Fireflies (Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize), and Black Tupelo Country (John Ciardi Prize for Poetry). Individual stories and poems have appeared in journals that include The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. He is a two-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. A professor at The Ohio State University at Lima, he teaches creative writing.