(Originally published in American Short Fiction, and collected in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us)
My brother entered my room at dawn. He wanted to show me the hole outside our building. I got out of bed and he drug me through the blue-black light of our basement apartment. He was twelve, although most people thought he was younger. I didn’t tell him I was already awake, lying on my back and gazing at the ceiling, trying hard to return to sleep until my alarm sounded, trying hard to be normal.
The streets were quiet, the slender trees dusted in a papery fog. It was warm and humid, the beginning of summer. Denver crouched behind a car. He was wearing swimming trunks and a Superman cape. “Look at that.” He pointed to a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged. “I found it when I was patrolling.”
The patrolling started shortly after the school year ended. Denver walked the sidewalks in the early hours to make sure there was no spilled garbage and all the cars were where they should be, no loose pets or broken windows.
“That’s just a crack,” I told him. “It happens.”
“No, Shelby. It’s a hole.” And to prove it, he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow.
“Okay,” I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers. “You’re right. It’s a hole.”
He pulled out his arm and rocked back on his heels, satisfied.
It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda. I kneeled on the concrete and peered into the opening. I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.
Denver produced a large flashlight from underneath his cape. He pressed a button and for a moment his face was washed in an eerie whiteness.
“You shouldn’t be playing with that,” I said. “It’s for emergencies.”
“What kind of emergencies?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “Snowstorms, blackouts. That sort of thing.”
“But I see emergencies all the time.” He cradled the flashlight protectively, as though it were a pet rabbit. “So doesn’t it make more sense to keep it with me?”
His hazel eyes widened and his mouth tightened. He was starting to get anxious, which meant this was not the time to force adult logic. “Okay, Denver. That’s a good point.”
He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows. “There’s no bottom,” he said without looking up.
“Of course there’s a bottom,” I replied. “We just can’t see it.”
“It’s weird to have a hole without a bottom,” he continued, ignoring me as he always did when I contradicted his imaginings. “Maybe it’s some kind of tunnel.”
A terrible image came into my mind: Denver slipping underneath the street and getting stuck in some dark, underground compartment of the city. I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.
“Come on.” I felt the heat of the sun, which had risen above the rows of brick buildings. “Let’s go inside. I have to go to work.” Soon the neighbors would be out and I didn’t want them to see Denver like this, dressed in swimming trunks and a cape, shining his flashlight into a hole. They already thought we were a strange pair, brother and sister living alone together. We’d been on our own for just over a year.
I told my brother it was time to put on some regular clothes.
“I’d rather not,” he said.
“Please, Denver.” I yawned again and rubbed my forehead. “I’m tired.”
He hesitated for a moment, then clicked off the light and followed me to the apartment. He thanked me for looking at the hole and apologized for waking me so early. I told him it was okay, I was glad to see it. We closed the door just before a car passed on the street.
Our parents were killed in the Amazon. Their guide, Lugo, sent me a letter after the bodies were brought back to the States. It was tradition, he told me, to tell the oldest child the story of their parents’ death. In the opening paragraph, he’d mentioned spending time in Cape Town and learning to speak and write in English. He described the libraries he frequented while abroad and getting hooked on English novelists and, after returning to South America, squeezing copies of Jude the Obscure and The French Lieutenant’s Woman into the backpack he carried on expeditions. He lived in a floating house along the banks of the Amazon River. I could tell from the tone of the letter that he was fond of my parents.
My parents were scientific explorers. They specialized in terrestrial primates and had discovered several new species: a long-tailed monkey in East Africa, a macaque in India, a highland mangabey in Tanzania. Their expeditions were featured in National Geographic and Time Magazine. They co-authored six books and delivered lectures at Ivy League universities. My brother and I spent most of our childhoods in boarding schools—his in New Hampshire, mine in western Massachusetts—but sometimes the spring and winter breaks coincided with lecture circuits and they’d take us along. I remembered sitting in the front row of auditoriums, Denver’s legs barely long enough to reach the floor, and hearing the thunderous applause when they appeared on stage. After they died, my mother’s sister came into their house, a pale blue Victorian in Lowell, and threw away all the articles and photographs. This is what got them killed, she shouted when I objected, waving a picture of my mother standing with a crocodile at the Great Barrier Reef. Aunt Lucille had been angry because she thought she was going to have to take Denver. The day he heard about our parents, he defaced a statue of the school’s founder with black spray paint, and Aunt Lucille received a call from the headmaster, who suggested boarding school wasn’t the best place for him right now. I was three semesters away from finishing an art history degree at a college in the Berkshires, but insisted my brother live with me. I left school and took Denver to Boston, where jobs were easy to find and nothing was familiar.
My parents had gone to the Amazon in search of the mapinguary, a giant primate that was nicknamed the sasquatch of Brazil. In his letter, Lugo talked about floating away from the jungle city of Iquitos, the muddy water, tarantulas, bats, and tree frogs. The shade of the massive canopy leaves. The isula ants—so toxic, a single bite could cause hallucinations—that coated the low-hanging vines. The heads of alligators that, from a distance, resembled floating wood. My mother was skilled at imitating animal calls, particularly birds and monkeys. She had a special empathy for the howler monkeys, he wrote. He said the dangers were too numerous to list and my parents had fallen prey to the greatest: beauty. The Amazonian coral snake was one of the most stunning in the world, black as coal and vividly banded with red and yellow. My parents and Lugo were on land, following a set of unusual tracks, when the coral snake slunk into their path. My mother leaned down to take a picture and the snake leapt forward and bit her wrist. As my father rushed to her side, the snake lunged at his ankle. There was nothing to be done. Not even the river people had developed a remedy for this kind of snakebite. They were both dead within an hour. In my mother’s last minutes, she shouted a man’s name over and over. Calvin, Lugo said. She kept screaming for Calvin. And it was the most tortured sound he’d ever heard.
I’d looked up from the letter then. I had no idea who Calvin was. In fact, I was positive I had never heard her utter the name before. Perhaps it was a blessing your father died first, Lugo wrote next. And then he signed his name. He listed an address where I could reach him if I wanted to know more. I wrote back right away, filling page after page with questions. I needed to gather the details, to be able to picture the entire story, but Lugo never replied. I’d always intended to let my brother read Lugo’s letter—after we moved, after he was settled at his new school, after he stopped waking me in the middle of the night to listen to the noises in the wall. But none of that passed, and I knew he might never hear the whole story. I didn’t think it was right, but it was how it had to be.
I worked at a bookstore downtown, a thirty minute ride on the T from our apartment on the outskirts of Cambridge. The shop specialized in antique books and we averaged about five customers a week, but combined with my parents’ estate, doled out in small monthly payments by Aunt Lucille, the salary was enough. The owner had said other employees developed mold allergies and subsequently quit, but I was determined to stick it out and never left home without a bottle of Afrin tucked inside my purse. The bookstore reminded me of my first year in boarding school, the year I ate my lunch in the library while reading The Count of Monte Cristo or Wuthering Heights, the year books taught me to not be lonely.
Work became harder once it was summer and Denver was out of school. He was attending a day camp at the Cambridge YMCA, where he played tennis and swam, but after finding the hole, he had refused to leave the apartment. They wouldn’t have made me go to camp, he’d said. They wouldn’t have liked me hanging around with philistines when I could be exploring instead. He was referring to our parents—he had stopped calling them Mom and Dad when we moved to the city—and I was pretty sure “philistine” was a word he’d picked up from our mother (she often used it in reference to Aunt Lucille) and that he didn’t even know what it meant, but I was too tired to request a definition. We finally agreed on some guidelines—no going outside the neighborhood, no games involving superglue or fire, no bothering the people next door—but I felt uneasy leaving him alone. He was only twelve and I never knew when he would invent an urgent reason to break one or all of my rules. Still, coming into work had its perks. The Public Gardens were across the street and some afternoons I saw squirrels chasing each other up sycamores, picnickers spreading their blankets across the grass. And this guy dropped by every Wednesday, looking for a first edition of Moby Dick.
Jordan was older than me by five years. He always wore jeans, a black tee-shirt, and brown leather sandals. He was clean-shaven and smelled faintly of citrus. We talked whenever he visited and I liked to think that was why he kept coming back, seeing as we’d never had a first edition of Moby Dick and had no hope of acquiring one anytime soon. Jordan knew my parents were gone and that I was looking after my brother. I had told him it was a car crash—my standard line because it didn’t lead to more questions.
I hadn’t spent much time with anyone but Denver since we came to the city. My last encounter was right after the funeral, with an ex-boyfriend from high school. It happened in the attic of my parents’ house, while the wake was bustling downstairs. When it was over, I cried for hours and after trying to console me for a while, he put on his clothes and left. Sex and dating just weren’t practical now, with my job and Denver and the violent sadness I was trying to keep from breaking through. And yet today passed slowly because tomorrow was Wednesday and that meant I would see Jordan.
I spent most of the afternoon in the back of the store, the office door cracked so I could hear the bells that jingled whenever someone entered. A Gorky print hung on the wall behind the desk; it was a painting of the artist and his mother, billowy figures done in whites and tans with a single jolt of maroon, the faces round and smudged. I liked to pretend they watched over me while I worked at the computer, which I’d been using to research all the universities where my mother ever lectured or taught, looking for someone named Calvin. During the spring, I exhausted all the places she and my father visited after they became successful, plus Syracuse and Brown, where she’d been an adjunct professor before she married. But this morning on the T, I remembered one place I hadn’t checked: a university in Michigan that gave my mother a fellowship after she finished her graduate work. She had talked a lot about winter in Michigan, the pointed icicles that hung from tree branches and the blue gloss of frozen lakes. She had an office on the top floor of a stone building, where she researched her first important papers. It was during that winter in Michigan when she realized she didn’t want to be a laboratory scientist, but an explorer, a time before she met my father, a time when she was still discovering who she wanted to be—or had decided to become someone else. I was hopeful as I scanned the roster of current and former faculty, but didn’t find what I was looking for. I went through the entire list a second time to be certain. No Calvins.
I leaned back in the chair and looked through the doorway. The air was warm and thick with dust. There was an air conditioner, but it rattled and sputtered, so I kept it off. One section of the store consisted entirely of antique maps. I liked to find maps of the places my parents had been and study the geography, imagining them crossing the blue lines of the Kalambo River in Tanzania or climbing the brown peaks of Mount Abu in India. The phone rang. I ignored it at first, then realized it might be my brother and answered. It was Denver, calling to tell me the hole in the street was actually a tunnel that led to the other side of the world.
Denver greeted me on the sidewalk outside our building. He was dressed normally—corduroy pants and a striped polo shirt—and holding a bright blue yo-yo. A pair of swimming goggles hung from his neck. He told me about the tests he had performed, how he lowered the yo-yo all the way into the hole and still didn’t find the bottom, how he put on his goggles and stuck his head underneath the street and saw an endless channel of black.
“That’s when I realized it was a tunnel,” he said.
He had that steely look, standing with his legs parted, squeezing the yo-yo so hard his knuckles whitened—the same expression he had when the school counselor asked me to pick him up one afternoon in April and on the way home, Denver explained that, while watching a war movie in history class, he had become so convinced the soldiers were going to march through the screen and overtake the school, he ran into the hall and hid in the girls’ bathroom so he’d have a chance to escape. When I went to see the guidance counselor the next day, a tall man with a gray beard and pointed ears, he talked about generalized anxiety and object-related fixations and I imagined paintings from the abstract art class I took in my freshman year, the swirls of color that spiraled together and apart.
I leaned over the hole. “Can I see?”
He handed me his goggles. “Go ahead.”
I put on the goggles and kneeled on the sidewalk, trying not to care who might be watching. When I ducked underneath the street, the darkness was cool against my lips and forehead. I caught the faint odor of gasoline, saw a quick movement. Just a shadow, perhaps. Or a rat.
“What do you think?”
“It could be a tunnel.” I stood and removed the goggles. “But I doubt it goes to the other side of the world.”
He pulled the goggles from my hand and looped them around his neck “Where do you think it goes then?”
I tilted my head to the side, pretending to consider his question. “New Jersey. I bet it goes to New Jersey. Maybe even Rhode Island.”
“Don’t tell me that,” he said. “Don’t talk to me like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
When I suggested he spend more time with neighborhood kids and take a break from the hole, he stormed into the apartment. He should be thinking about girls and sneaking his first beer, but that’s not my brother—or at least not the boy that emerged from Aunt Lucille’s phone call to the boarding school and the two-coffin funeral. She was the one who drove up to New Hampshire and collected him, while I took the train into Lowell. They were waiting outside my parents’ house when the taxi dropped me off, Aunt Lucille standing on the edge of the driveway, her posture rigid and square, Denver sitting on the front lawn, pulling up fistfuls of grass, the gray house looming behind him. Since then, he’d come to believe in magic, in making the unknowable knowable. I viewed him with equal doses of fear and admiration.
Inside I found him sulking on the pullout sofa in the living room, his makeshift sleeping quarters while we saved for a larger apartment. He had lined the shelves of our bookcase with toy dinosaurs and science books, taped a pink and yellow map of South America to the wall. The last book he read was about scientists digging to the center of the earth to study the rocks and molten core, but it seemed he’d settled for reaching the other side of the world.
Denver told me that he was going to the community pool to swim laps, which I knew was a lie. I didn’t know where he really planned to go, only that he wanted to be away from me. When the front door closed, something deep in my body ached.
After my brother had been gone for a while, I found a message from a neighbor on the answering machine, complaining that Denver had spent the day running up and down the sidewalk in his Superman cape, shouting about emergencies. I worried someone might call Children’s Services and that Denver would have to go live with Aunt Lucille. I called the neighbor back and told her I had talked things over with Denver and he had promised to not be such a nuisance.
“And the costumes,” she pressed. I’d seen this woman around, in her running pants and sweatshirts and pink hair rollers. She smoked skinny cigarettes and owned a black Pomeranian. “What are you doing about the costumes?”
“You mean the Superman cape?”
“It’s not normal for a boy his age.”
“Listen.” I leaned against the kitchen counter, the speckled Formica edge digging into the small of my back. “We’ve had a hard year, Denver and me.”
“You’re not the first person life has been unkind to.”
I wanted to tell her that she was right in saying we weren’t the first to suffer, but sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping, and that we could both use a little understanding. I didn’t say any of this. I thanked her for her time and offered another apology. She reminded me the recycling was supposed to go out on Wednesday, not Tuesday, and hung up the phone.
My parents weren’t getting along the year they died. I was away at college, studying to become an art historian, and never knew all the details. But I could tell when I came home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and spring break that things were not as they always had been. From eavesdropping on late-night arguments, I was able to determine my mother had gotten the credit for discovering the highland mangabey in Tanzania and had been approached by several prominent scientists planning an expedition to Indonesia. My father had not been invited.
It was his idea to go to the Amazon to look for the mapinguary. My mother had argued it wasn’t the best use of their time and research grants, that the creature probably didn’t even exist. But in the end, my father convinced her. I could imagine his thoughts as he retreated to his study at the end of their spats and slammed the door: returning from the Amazon victorious, giving interviews to top magazines and talking about how my mother hadn’t even believed in the mapinguary and without his intuition and savvy, they never would have located this remarkable specimen.
I took out Lugo’s letter and sat on the edge of my bed. I re-read the part about the snake and my mother crying out for Calvin. Sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t just trying to ease our grief by giving us an interesting story, a history to carry. Surely my mother, with all her knowledge and experience, would have known better than to get so close to a deadly snake, and I recalled reading that poisonous snakes only struck once before retreating. But perhaps they had gotten too casual and confident after so many years of successful travel. Perhaps this coral snake, for the first and last time in its life, possessed the energy to bite twice. It was a place where people lived in floating houses, amongst giant spiders and toxic dart frogs and carnivorous plants. A land of treachery and mystery. I would never know if Lugo’s story was what actually happened. If my parents died from the coral snake or yellow fever or something else. If my mother called for Calvin. If my father went first. If they reached for each other at the end. How long it took them to die.
At dusk, Denver came home with two skinned knees, though he wouldn’t say how he earned them. He refused my offers to make macaroni and cheese or read aloud from science books, and fell asleep much earlier than usual in the living room. I sat on my bed, holding Lugo’s letter, until the apartment was dark except for the orange glow of my desk lamp. Denver’s body was so quiet that I checked the rhythm of his breath as I slipped outside, where I stood on the sidewalk and stared at the hole. The streetlights gave the perimeter a pale gleam and in the darkness, it seemed deeper, more magnetic. I kneeled and rested my hands over the hole, and felt the heat rise from it like breath. I called into it, softly, and there were no echoes.
The next day, Jordan appeared in the bookstore at his usual time, just after twelve. I was finishing lunch: a cheese sandwich and a can of iced tea. When I heard the bells, I brushed the Wonderbread crumbs from my shirt and dabbed the sides of my mouth with my thumb, then walked out of the office. I had dressed up a little, a white blouse and a loose black skirt, silver bracelets on my wrists.
He was standing at one of the bookcases, examining the spines. The same floppy dark hair and easy posture, a hand in the back pocket of his jeans. He faced me and smiled broadly, his teeth straight and white.
“Nope,” I replied. “Still haven’t been able to get a copy.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “I had a good feeling about this week.”
“You must be an optimist.”
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
I told him I had some business cards in the office, stores in New York that specialize in rare books and might have what he needs. “I’m guessing you’d be willing to travel for it.”
“Sure,” he said, still smiling. “Maybe I could even get you to come with me.”
“Maybe.” When I stepped into the office, heat moved across my cheeks and down my neck. This was the first time we’d ever left the open area of the store. I sat in the chair and rifled through the desk drawer, pushing past paperclips and pencils to look for the business cards. Jordan leaned against the desk and crossed his arms.
“So what’s with Moby Dick?” I peered into the back of the drawer. “Some kind of phallic obsession?”
When he didn’t answer, I looked up from the mess of cards and papers. His lips were bent into a frown.
“Joking,” I said.
“I know.” His expression softened. “It’s just that the book belonged to my wife.”
“Well, she’s not my wife anymore,” he said. “But she had the copy of Moby Dick. A first American edition with green linen binding. It belonged to her grandmother and her mother. She kept it in the drawer of her bedside table, where some people might keep a Bible. One of her favorite things.”
“What happened to it?”
He took a pack of Camels out of his pocket. “Mind if I smoke?”
I shook my head. He lit a cigarette, took a drag, then exhaled through his nose. “After she served me with divorce papers, I took the book to a pawn shop and told the man across the counter to sell it for whatever he could get. Or give it away. I really didn’t care. I just never wanted to see it again.”
I accidentally squeezed a card for a bookstore in Chicago, the sharp corner pricking my skin. “She must have been upset.”
“Devastated. Totally broken up.” He stared at the end of his cigarette for a moment. “Got an ashtray?”
I took the empty iced tea can out of the trash and placed it on the desk.
Jordan ashed into the small opening. “So a few months after we split, she’s driving with her new boyfriend. They were going to the airport and had to pass through this long tunnel. You know which one I mean?”
“I think so.”
“He was speeding. I imagine they might have been arguing. Of course, no one knows exactly how it happened. Just that they crashed in the tunnel and the man died on the spot and my wife a week later, in a hospital. And ever since, I haven’t been able to think of anything but that first edition of Moby Dick.” He dropped the cigarette into the can and it made a hissing noise. “Your parents died in a car accident too, right?”
I resumed looking for the business cards. “Sort of.”
“Let me guess. The crash came first and then they were in some kind of vegetative state for a while, right? In a coma, like my wife was?” He whistled. “That must have been tough on you and your brother.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “It was pretty awful.”
I found three cards for New York stores and handed them to Jordan. They had strange and elegant names, like Gotham and Hagstrom. He thanked me and slipped them into his cigarette pack. I tipped back in my chair and stretched, raising one arm over my head.
“Whose work is that?” He pointed at the wall behind me.
“Gorky.” I’d asked my boss about the print once and he said it had come with the shop.
He walked over to the picture. “He had a funny first name.” He touched the edge of the frame. “Archie, was it?”
“Arshile.” I watched him from behind. I did not go to him. “He killed himself, you know. A hanging. His wife left him, his studio burned down, and then he was in an accident that paralyzed his painting arm.”
“I remember hearing that story. He left some kind of weird suicide note.”
“He wrote it in chalk, on the crate he used to reach the rope.” In college, the art students loved to talk about famous artist suicide stories. Malaval’s gun and Rothko’s knife and Gorky’s rope. “‘Goodbye my Loveds.’ That’s what he said.”
Jordan came over to the chair. He kneeled at my feet and rested his chin on my leg. My fingers disappeared into his black hair. I leaned in close and asked him to shut the door, my lips grazing his cheekbone. He closed the door, then resumed kneeling in front of me. His hands began at my ankles and glided up my calves and thighs, coming to rest on my hips. My body turned feverish. I had not felt this kind of exhilaration in so long, the subtle thrill of being overtaken coupled with a complete possession of self, when the giving in was both deliberate and desired. I wanted to tell him the truth about my life, but he gently squeezed the sides of my waist, as though he was sculpting my body, and I stayed quiet. I was reaching for the collar of his shirt when I heard the phone. Five rings passed before I answered.
I touched Jordan’s chest, then brought the phone to my ear. The voice was unfamiliar and I had trouble making sense of the words. The police. Calling to tell me they had Denver at the station. I told them I would be right there and dropped the phone.
“Let it go, whatever it is.” Jordan’s hands were still up my skirt. “Stay a little longer.”
“I have to leave.” When he didn’t move, I nudged his leg with the toe of my shoe. “Now. I have to go now.”
“Someone in trouble?”
“My brother.” I gathered my purse and the keys to the store. I bumped against a stack of magazines and they flew off the desk. I left them scattered across the carpet.
When we stepped outside, I smoothed my hair and straightened my blouse. The sidewalk was crowded, the street clogged with cars. It was hotter than it had been in the morning and my thighs were sticking together. He stood with me while I locked the door, shadowed by the purple awning. I told myself to keep moving, to stop thinking about how I wanted Jordan to continue, about how a part of me wished I could leave Denver in that police station until he snapped out of it and started acting like a normal kid. I was about to walk away when I turned and told Jordan there was something he should know.
“My parents didn’t die in a car accident like your wife.” I dropped the store keys into my purse and zipped the bag. “They died in a jungle. I’m sorry for the lie. I won’t ever know what really happened to them, so we still have that in common.”
He didn’t reply right away. He slipped his hands into his pockets and looked at something in the background. His eyes narrowed; his mouth and jawline hardened. “The first time I saw you, I thought you looked like a mess,” he finally said.
A group of students brushed past us, carrying backpacks and bottled sodas. I stepped out of their way, trying to decide if this was the moment to say everything or to just let it go. I thought of Lugo’s letter arriving from South America, the green stamp in the right corner of the envelope, the musky scent of the paper. I wondered what would have happened if I’d shown Jordan the letter, if he would’ve believed the story. After a few seconds, I wished him luck with Moby Dick because if I said anything about myself, about Denver or Lugo or my parents, I felt like I would start talking and wouldn’t be able to stop. Jordan sighed and walked away. I watched until he disappeared into the swarm of bodies. I knew he wouldn’t be back next week. For an instant, I forgot all about Denver. When I remembered, I began to run.
The last time I saw my parents was over a year ago, during my spring vacation. They had rented a little house in Wellfleet, a white one-story with navy blue shutters. The interior smelled of seawater and on windy nights a humming sound rose from the tiny holes in the wood planks. On Saturdays we had lobster and corn on the cob, and some evenings my father played Moonlight Sonata on the piano while the rest of us sat on the sofa and listened. When I wanted to remember my father as being graceful and kind, I imagined his hands moving over the piano keys like pale stones skipping across a lake. Everyone loved the house except Denver, who had always been frightened of the sea. But even he was content to sit in the dry sand and arrange silver-gray oyster shells in large and intricate patterns, as though he was signaling a rescue plane.
This wasn’t long after the expedition in Tanzania and my mother had recently published several articles in major academic journals. My father spent most of the daylight hours locked in the spare bedroom, working feverishly on a paper of his own. He would emerge from his office around five o’clock, eyes bloodshot from staring at the computer screen, his skin sallow and droopy. You should get more sun, my mother would say, walking over and placing a hand on his shoulder. He would shrug away her touch and ask Denver if he wanted to play Frisbee on the beach.
One evening, while my father was grilling sausages and Denver was working on his shell patterns and I was setting the table, my mother came into the kitchen and asked me to walk with her on the beach. She was wearing denim shorts and a sleeveless blouse, her hair pulled into a loose ponytail, her feet bare. I nodded and stepped outside, leaving a heap of silverware and paper napkins on the red tablecloth. We chatted for a while about my courses in Renaissance architecture and Middle Eastern woodcarvings and my roommate, who was majoring in discrete mathematics and always leaving formula-covered sticky notes on the bathroom mirror. The house was a white speck in the distance when my mother stopped and said she wanted to tell me a story.
She and my father had traveled with a small group of scientists in central Vietnam, through the province of Quang Nam. They trekked across valleys and green hills, toward the tropical forests, where they studied the endangered Crested Argus. It kind of looks like a peacock, she told me, only lower to the ground, with violet feathers that grow so long they leave drag marks in the soil.
“But the story isn’t about the bird,” she said, pushing her toes into the wet sand. “The story I want to tell happened before we even got to the forest, when we camped at the bottom of a hill, near a temple called My Son.”
My Son, an L-shaped structure with towers and tunnels, was built in the twelfth century, during the reign of the Champas. She had read a little about the Champas and knew some of the temple’s history. The fire that damaged a wall during the sixteenth century and the bombs that toppled one side during the Vietnam War and the symbolism of the towers. They all had three levels: the lowest represented the human world, the middle was for spirits, the top for all things close to humans and spirits.
She hiked up the hill early one morning to see the temple. It was not yet dawn. The rest of the party was still asleep in the tents. There were no villages on the surrounding hills and the rises looked perfectly smooth and dark. She entered My Son and walked down a long tunnel until the path stopped and she saw, through the shadows, an enormous stone face with round eyes and fangs that resembled spears. Sort of like a gargoyle, she said. But different. More frightening. She reached out and touched the mouth. Green moss had grown between the teeth. The stone was cold and rough. She smelled the earth in a way she never had before.
When she came outside the sun was rising between two hills. She saw a figure walking towards her. The silhouette was dark and wavy, the face obscured. For a moment, she believed it was a stranger coming to tell her something, to show her a secret part of the land. But as the person drew closer, she knew from the height and shape of the head that it was her husband. And that was when she felt it: the flutter in her chest and the voice inside her, unmistakable as the whiteness of the morning sky, telling her to run.
“I almost did,” she said. “I almost turned and ran down the hill, through the valley and into the jungle. I can’t say what stopped me. Common sense, I suppose, although I’ve come to believe that’s an overrated quality.” She bent over and reached into the water. When she stood, a red starfish with two missing tentacles was cupped in her palm. “It’s dead. See how the color has lightened?” She pointed to a spot that had faded to pink, then tossed the starfish back into the sea and continued with her story.
“The rest of the trip passed without incident. We went to the tropical forest and studied the Crested Argus. We went home and wrote our papers. And a few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with you.” She rested a hand on her stomach. “But I never forgot that moment by the temple and the voice inside me. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” She touched my chin with the tip of her finger. “You’re getting older, Shelby. And one day, you’re going to have such a moment.”
The sky was colorless, our dusk-washed conversation turning more surreal by the minute. My mother had never talked like this before. I had always known her as a pragmatist.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“You will. It’s a fact of life. Just believe me. And when you do, I want you to run. Even if you’re in a forest or in the middle of the ocean. Even if you don’t know where you’ll spend your next night.” She squeezed my elbow. “Do you understand, Shelby?”
“Yes,” I said, even though I did not. The beach was dark by the time we turned from the water and linked arms and walked back to the house with blue shutters and gaps in the wall, invisible to the unassisted eye.
A woman from Children’s Services met me at the police station. She was dressed in a navy pantsuit that had the sheen of polyester, her gray hair twisted into a bun. When I asked how she got involved, she said a neighbor had called the police and they had called Children’s Services. Your brother is a case now, she told me. She said we had to find a place to talk and led me to a bench in a hallway. After we sat down, she took a legal pad and a pen out of her briefcase. I was still thinking about Jordan, the closing of my own little rabbit hole, when the caseworker asked if I understood what would happen next.
“I ask questions and you answer them.”
“What exactly did my brother do?”
“He assaulted two city workers repairing a hole in the street. Hit them in the legs with a flashlight. One of them will have to see a doctor. And when the police arrived, your brother was very upset about losing his tunnel. Does this make any sense to you?”
“He was wearing a red cape and swimming goggles when he came into the station. Does he always roam the neighborhood in costume?” She pushed the dark tip of the pen against the paper.
“Not always.” I was trying to be as truthful as I could without making the situation worse. “But sometimes.”
“We can discuss the incident later,” she said. “First I need to get a family history.” She looked up at me. One of her blue-gray eyes was cloudy. “The only relative you’re in touch with is an Aunt Lucille?”
“What happened to your parents?”
“It’s a little complicated,” I said.
“Car crash? Sudden illness?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh.” She lowered her voice. “Was it a murder-suicide? A double suicide?” She reached across the bench and patted my hand. “It’s okay, dear. We see that kind of thing all the time.”
“No.” I rubbed the back of my neck. I was so tired of people getting the story wrong. “That’s not it at all.”
“You really want to hear the whole thing?”
“I have to.” She tapped her pen against the legal pad. “For your brother’s file.”
I started from the beginning. I told her about our parents’ expeditions and the packed lecture halls and the glossy photographs in National Geographic. About the floating villages and the howler monkeys and the snake coiled in the grass. Lugo’s letter and how I was thinking of writing him again to say please answer me or don’t tell me anymore or give me the truth this time. And Calvin. I told her about Calvin and how I had been looking for him, peering into the eyes of strange men, imagining a part of my mother living inside them. I told her about the bookstore and Jordan and his dead wife’s first edition of Moby Dick and what it was like to feel his hands on my legs. I told her how I even messed that up, how my life messed it up, how it seemed like there was no room for anything except staying above the tide. I went on about everything that made sense and everything that didn’t. When I finished, I felt like I had been talking for hours.
“That’s quite a story,” she said, her fingers loosely holding the pen.
“Yes,” I told her. “Yes, it is.”
“Would you like to see your brother now?” She stood and tucked the legal pad underneath her arm.
I couldn’t tell if she was being kind or if she thought I was out of my mind. I pressed my fingertips against my eyelids. It was becoming clear that none of this was going to be taken care of easily—more than an apologetic call to a neighbor or a chat with the school guidance counselor. I followed her down a long hallway. The clicking of her shoes reminded me of crickets in July.
Denver was sitting in a dark and windowless room, resting his arms and head against the table. His cape and goggles were missing. The largeness of the space made him look small and pale. As I stood by the closed door and felt the weight of his stare, I remembered the instant in which I realized my brother was going to live with me. That I was going to leave school, my thick art history texts and numerically gifted roommate, and might not ever return to any of it. That I understood everything my mother had said on the beach. That I was having my moment.
Aunt Lucille was driving us back to the house after the funeral, my brother and me in the backseat. He kept tugging at the tight knot of his black tie, and my mind emptied as I gazed into his eyes, finding nothing but sadness and wants. The voice came as we passed a park, empty save for a gray pack of pigeons, but instead of leaving, I tracked down an old boyfriend and pulled him into the attic and then wept for days. My brother would hug my knees and tell me not to cry and I would feel ashamed for even thinking of leaving him. It still came on every now and then, when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Hours,” he said. “They gave me a Coke a little while ago.”
I sat across from him. “Is what they’re telling me true?”
“What are they telling you?”
“That you hit two city workers in the legs with a flashlight.”
“And I pushed one of them into the wet concrete they were using to seal the tunnel. I wonder if he got stuck there.” He sighed and I smelled the sweetness of soda on his breath. “Then the police brought me here and said they had to call my parents or guardian and I told them I only had you.”
“What did I say about using that flashlight, Denver?”
“It was an emergency,” he protested. “They were filling up my tunnel. I spent all morning drawing a map of the other side of the world. I was going to find important things there.” He rubbed his elbow and sniffed. “I heard this grinding noise and I went outside and these guys were making my tunnel disappear.”
“Fuck, Denver.” I cradled my forehead in my palm. At the funeral, the family members had taken turns sprinkling dirt onto the coffins. When it was my brother’s turn, he whipped a rubber dagger out of his suit jacket. He raised the slate-colored blade towards the clouds, then dropped it into my father’s grave. They’ll need it, he said before skulking over to an oak tree on the edge of the cemetery, where he remained for the rest of the service.
“Am I going to jail?”
“No.” From the shrillness of his voice, I could tell he was about to cry. “Or at least I don’t think so. We’ll probably be fined or something. We can ask Aunt Lucille for extra money.”
He nodded. We were quiet for a while. He kept wiping his nose on the underside of his wrist. I was waiting for someone to walk into the room and tell us what we needed to do in order to leave, but no one came. I wanted to see the sky again, the tree branches and the leaves that were beginning to curl from the heat. I wanted to lead us away from here.
“Question.” I pressed my hands against the table. “Do you know anyone named Calvin?”
“A kid in my second grade class went by Calvin.” His face tensed with concentration. “Is that who you mean?”
“It would be someone older, someone Mom and Dad knew.” His posture stiffened when I mentioned our parents, but I kept going. “Do you know who I’m talking about?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
I stood and paced in slow circles. “I might have to find a new job.”
“It’s too hard to explain.”
“You always say that.” The high pitch returned to his voice. “You never want to explain anything to me.”
“I know,” I told him. “I’m sorry.”
He covered his face with his pale forearm. I continued walking in circles. The floor was gray and sticky. When the door opened, I stopped and looked at Denver. He was still shielding his eyes, oblivious to our new company, the social worker I had spoken with earlier and a police officer. The social worker glanced at my brother and told me to sit down. I stayed on my feet. She started talking about paperwork and evaluations and probation and I struggled to grab her words. They bounced around the room like echoes in a canyon. Or the lightning bugs Denver and I used to chase in the backyard, our parents’ silhouettes filling the tall windows of the house, our fingers reaching for the glow that came and went.
Photo by Bree Mc on Flickr
© 2012 Laura van den Berg. All rights reserved.