Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?
—from Lavengro, George Borrow
Some things fall, some things do not. I notice today huge columns on the ground, others still standing. Can a monument be built that will never fall?
“They can double stack the coffins,” the grave broker said. “Double stacking reduces the price. Cuts it by half. If we move your mother over here, you can lie on top of her when your time comes. Your niece can rest on top of her Daddy.”
On the hill above my mother’s grave is a live oak tree, thick with branches and leaves, its trunk fat.
“We could move your mother to the new plot,” my sister-in-law, Cheryl, explained. “Then they’d all be together.”
“But there are no trees over there,” I said, looking toward the bare hills of the new development.
“We’ll plant trees,” she said. “We’ll plant a lot of trees.”
Suddenly, the sound of men crying. One man, then another, then another; sobs rose from throughout the church, from right behind me back to the last row. I was embarrassed. I’d never witnessed anything like it at a funeral and couldn’t look around, but stood staring at the ground red faced, as if I had been caught laughing or talking out of turn.
* * *
The pink light of a setting sun is the light in which my brother died, I notice as I walk through the gate where the accident happened. That sun, that sun just over there, I repeat to myself. Five days ago, but right about now. A pink happy light. An afternoon in early May. I want to remember that. The grass all around is green. Wildflowers everywhere. I have never seen so many flowers in the fields.
* * *
Wine cup, marigold, gay feather, Indian paint brush, blue bell, primrose, false purple thistle, blue bonnet, meadow beauty.
I was small once and lived on a large property. Living like that, I felt huge, enormous with possibilities. Each day, I set out exploring and rarely repeated my adventures. Under the footbridge the stone wall was slimy. I sat with my feet in the creek defying the water moccasins I knew were there just under the surface.
* * *
“Bright as can be,” my father said after I recited the poem. “Bright as can be.” He shook his head laughing. “Lordy. She’s a pistol. Yes, she is.”
I glanced at my brother playing by himself in the corner. “He knows a song,” I said to my father. “He knows a good song.”
My father didn’t answer. He was reading his newspaper again, lost to us.
“Daddy,” I insisted.
My brother looked up.
“He wants to sing you a song,” I said.
My father shook his head, retreated. I looked at my brother.
“Sing,” I said.
My brother shook his head, his eyes down.
* * *
You are nowhere to be found but I look for you anyway. Open closet doors, peer beneath beds, behind the house, down by the stable. You are nowhere to be found, but I run everywhere, looking up in the oak tree, up in the tree house, up in the barn loft and down below the bridge. I’ll find you, I know. I will and I run calling your name, listening for your sobs, the sound of your gasping breath.
“Don’t be afraid,” I call out, “I’m coming. I’m coming.”
And there you are in the garden curled in on yourself like a cat asleep in the sunlight.
I sent a postcard last month from Belize to my brother. I wrote him about the horseback ride we took in the rainforest there. I wrote that I missed him. Especially on that early morning ride when we heard the mating calls of toucan parrots and watched our horses step in the fresh tracks of mountain lions.
Another world. Brilliant or dim, wild or tame, red, yellow, dear, foggy,
messy. I can only guess.
* * *
In my mind, it is a crisp spring day. In the broad field by the waterfall, young boys and their fathers prepare to go fishing or riding. The Mexican cooks have covered long tables in bright serapes. Ranch hands have lit large fires where heavy slabs of meat roast on grills and where skewers, holding whole chickens or baby goats, turn slowly over glowing coals.
The west to the right, sun low over the hills, almost red, the color of a sun before it sets. Scattered high clouds, like today. Perhaps, the wind blew steady and warm from the direction of the sun.
Several abrupt turns left and right, but mostly left. The last turn, when the four-wheeler, the “all-terrain vehicle,” left the road and headed across open pasture along a barbed wire fence, was a right turn. What’s hard to comprehend is the carelessness that caused the accident.
* * *
Last Christmas, Uaughed in his kitchen every time I opened a drawer or a cabinet door and found a label pasted there—can opener, cork screw, scissors, 8”, 10”, or 16” frying pan, colander, salad spinner. Rows of plastic containers labeled: granola, crackers, flour, coffee. In his dressing room, black shoes arranged on a shelf, blue shirts carefully folded, encased in plastic in one drawer; blue jeans ironed with long creases on each leg from crotch to cuff, belts coiled, color coded in slender drawers designed for them alone.
Once, this was my father’s dressing room. He had a drawer of small leather cases, some meant for cufflinks, some for tuxedo studs, others holding brass buttons or collar stays. There were leather manicure cases and silver hairbrushes. Carefully, I’d retrieve a tweezers or a nail clipper, and inevitably, I’d forget to return them.
We are very little, so small we are bathing together in a large bathtub, old-fashioned with legs and deep sloping sides. We are in a hotel in North Dakota where my father has moved to find oil. Someone, one of the people who is looking after us this summer while our parents work out their problems, has put us in the tub together. We discover a bar of Ivory soap that will not sink. I hold it down, try to glue its gushy underbelly to the bottom of the porcelain tub, but it pops loose and surfaces, making my brother giggle. The 14 months that separate us usually give me an edge that I enjoy, but tonight I am tired of this game. I glimpse something else beneath the water and reach my hand down and pull on my brother’s penis. He squeals and I laugh. My fingers dose around his testicles and squeeze the little balls inside. He laughs louder until it sounds like a cry. Does this hurt? I ask. I squeeze harder. Behind his head floats the bar of Ivory soap, my fingers imprinted on its soft flesh. The babysitter scoops him up and slaps my hand away, but my brother and I are laughing too hard to care.
Late at night when I heard their voices rise in anger from behind the dosed door to their room, I slipped into my brother’s bed as silently as I could and waited until he woke. I held him against me, holding him harder when he began to cry. When I couldn’t quiet him, I got out of bed and walked down the long darkened hall and knocked on their door and told them when they opened it that they’d made him cry again.
* * *
Just last month, you sent me a card from one of your trips and signed it, “Your little brother.”
The all-terrain vehicle was not traveling fast There were two boys in the car, neither one his son. He was not going more than twenty or thirty mph, we deduced. How? This part is easy. Had he been traveling faster than that, I mean, with the wire stretched across the gate above the hole dug there for a cattle guard, and unmarked by flags or bits of doth, had that wire dug into his cheek and broken his neck, he would have been decapitated. He was not decapitated.
“Wire was all over us, then it was gone. I crawled in front to stop the car,” the older child said. “When I pulled on the brakes, Tom fell out onto the ground. But his boots stayed inside. I saw the gash on his cheek. He wasn’t bleeding much. His eyes were open, then they dosed. I lifted his boots out and laid them onto the ground.”
The child ran a quarter mile to the ranch house to call 911. The operator wouldn’t order an ambulance unless an adult was present.
“There aren’t any adults,” the child said. He hung up the phone and walked outside down a dirt road to the electronic gate where he waited by himself until the ambulance arrived.
I inspected the site. I drove the dusty road, made the left-hand turns, then turned right, saw the deceptively welcoming gate, the heavy, hewn boulders on either side, looked beyond to the field of wild flowers I hope my brother saw before he turned around to speak to the boys riding in back His hair was blowing, his finger pointing somewhere. He was about to say something to them when the barbed wire dug into his cheek and snapped his head backwards.
Fog, rain, whirlpool, tornado, raging river, fire, silence, blackness, numbness, all that.
If I’d called you on your birthday instead of sending the funny cards, would that have disrupted the pattern of your life enough to make you take those boys fishing instead of touring the ranch in the four-wheeler? If I’d called you that day or the day before out of the blue, would you have been hungry by then and stayed behind to eat cabritos or gotten a headache and wanted a vodka and soda instead of a ride? I left you alone these last years because I thought you needed the distance. You wrote me notes from airplanes. I took up your habit, but I wish I had followed my instincts and broken the rhythm of your days.
My father sat at the kitchen table. He spoke slowly as if each word he uttered hurt to pronounce.
“I thought I would be next,” he said. He spoke the words so carefully, he could have been laying stones. “But the good Lord didn’t see it that way,” he continued. By the time he completed this sentence, he had screwed his face up into a tight knot of wrinkles. His lower lip covered his mouth.
In the middle of my grief, business picks up out of the blue and suddenly I have a lot of money. After his funeral, amidst moments in which I grieve (sobbing, drinking, smoking, pacing), I pay off creditors one by one. What the hell, I think, empowered by the worst thing that could happen. I negotiate. I’m tough. “Take it or leave it,” I say. They usually take it.
I cannot stand the refuge my friends take in laughter. Giggles get on my nerves. I want intimacy, some stranger in my bed. One night at a party a man whom I’ve never liked gets up from a crowded sofa and walks over to me. He puts his arms around me and holds me there. I am prepared to forgive all enemies if they embrace me. But I can scarcely bear the laughter of friends.
Last night, my nephew told me of plans for a cookout next weekend on my brother’s ranch. My son will fly down to Texas to join them. I said they were nuts. Wasn’t it a cookout that got us into this mess? I regretted saying that, but not really.
At first, my sister-in-law thought about burying my brother on the ranch. But when she realized visitors would need special permission to visit the grave site, she changed her mind. Instead, she will place a plaque by the gate where he died, and plant some trees there.
“I want to plant a tree there,” I tell my sister-in-law, “One that will grow tall.”
I always wanted to place an upright tombstone at Mother’s grave. I thought of asking an artist to design it, but I never did. And I only visited her grave once, the day my niece was buried.
“We won’t drive the four-wheeler,” my nephew said.
Some days, walking outside among the tall buildings of this city, when there’s a warm bright sun, I feel good, great, happy to be alive. Then I suddenly remember what has happened. It’s as if I had cancer or some other incurable disease and suddenly, in the middle of a fine afternoon, I remember I’m dying.
I run into a friend whose sister is ill. When I ask after her, he grows somber.
“She’s not well at all,” he says.
I reach impulsively to hug him, then tell him what happened to my brother. We stand there dumbfounded, the two of us.
Heels down, digging into the stirrups, the weight there and in the lower thighs above the knees, buttocks off the saddle, his eyes watching the calf in front just out of the picture. He holds the reins loose, clasping only the ends. The horse directs every action as he canters back and forth turning without warning to lope beside the calf and inch it slowly away from the herd. Tom looks very handsome in the photograph taken at the Amateur Cutting Horse Championship he won a month ago in Jackson. He was a fine rider.
* * *
Daddy stood behind me. I imagine him there, his eyes shaded by his hand as he squinted to watch. The horse reared and turned abruptly. My brother, holding only with his knees, moved in sync loping his body with the horse as if they had planned it together. I shivered as I watched them move in unison back and forth, knowing they couldn’t anticipate what the calf would do. My brother was 15. He beat the other competitors before they ever rode out. Everyone recognized this. I looked around at my father as the applause started. He was staring behind us at the horse barns. He held his hat in his hand.
“He’s won,” I said. “You know he’s won.”
A nervous laugh escaped my father.
“He can’t ride like you,” he said. “No one sits a horse like you.”
I stood up and sidled along the bench. My father did not look around; between us silence fell heavy, like sleep or weight.
As I started to descend the stairs, he called out, “Congratulate him for me.”
I reached the bottom of the steps. Without stopping there I turned and began walking back up.
When I reached our tier, I touched Daddy’s arm. “Come on, you tell him yourself.”
I was packing when I heard the noise.
The wind had picked up, branches swiped the guesthouse where I was staying, nuggets of hail bounced off the roof. I thought it was the sound of thunder, or of wind howling as I slid the glass door back and found my nephew outside in the rain.
“Can I come in? I want to be here with you,” he said. He walked inside.
Round pellets of hail smacked the flagstone patio. I’d been in and out of the main house all evening. I’d stood behind his mother’s friends in the den as they watched the forecast on TV. My nephew and I waited out the storm in the guesthouse, sitting in two chairs in front of the open window. We sat there listening.
I grinned at him as it began to thunder.
“Fuck,” he said grinning. He tilted his head back. “Fuck!” he screamed.
I could barely hear him through the hail.
Once I’d taken turns screaming with his father into the bottomless pit of Carlsbad Cavern. We had shouted out all the dirty words we knew, emboldened by the echoes that drowned out each word as we shouted it.
“Fuck!” my nephew screamed again.
“Fuck!” I screamed back, gripping his hand tight as the sleet, driven by the wind, pounded at a hard angle into the roof.
The morning after the funeral, I awoke at 5:00 AM unable to fall back asleep. I had a headache. The night before old friends had come over and I’d drunk too much with them, laughed too much. My sister-in-law had called out from the hallway, “Could you get everyone out of my house? I just want everyone to go home.”
I couldn’t sleep anymore. No lights came from the house, but a soft light began illuminating the sky. I made coffee in the little kitchenette in the guest house and carried a cup outside. I sat in a chair by the pool. Once I’d lived in this house with my brother. Our mother had planted the trees around the pool, the bamboo, the ferns. My brother and I held all our teenage parties in the guest house; our romances were played out around that pool. In the moist soft quiet of the spring dawn I began to weep and for the first time, no one was watching. I cried and cried.
A few weeks before my brother died an old friend, Dick Bellamy, died. The day I met him I remember writing about him in my journal. I described his eccentric elegance. The wrinkled linen and cotton fabrics he wore, finely woven but frayed at the collar and cuffs. Large safety pins, fastened through the button holes as proud ornaments. He died suddenly in bed of a heart attack, propped against pillows as he read Proust. I thought at the time that he died in a beautiful way. I would like to die like that, I thought.
I think all the time about how my brother died. “Wire all over us.”
One afternoon my brother and I went riding together with our children. The creek was swollen from the heavy rains that autumn. My youngest niece’s horse, Candy, shied at the rushing water and would not cross the creek. My niece began to cry. Tom handed me the reins of his horse and mounted hers. He took one rein in each hand and pulled down hard on them as he stuck his spurs into her sides. Candy dug in her heels, but my brother spurred harder until suddenly the horse reared and galloped across the stream.
“She has to learn what is dangerous and what’s not,” he explained to my niece.
At the top of the hill, we cantered together into an open field where we came upon a herd of deer making their way across. Tom pulled up on his horse, and turned him around, leading us back around inside the thicket. He stopped there, holding his fìnger against his lips. We looked at the deer. They continued unaware of us to the stream we’d just crossed. As they neared it, they began to lope.
“They’re not running from us,” I whispered to my brother.
“No,” he said, “They aren’t frightened. They don’t know we are here.”
At home, Tom took a tooled leather notebook off the bookcase and opened it. He wrote on one of the blank pages, “Fine ride today with my kids and my sister and nephew. We saw a herd of deer and I taught Candy to ford a stream.”
When I was little and life became messy I would see my mind as a row of bookcases with all the books tumbled out of their places into a pile on the floor.
My son has been to Texas twice since I left. He and my sister-in-law have grown dose, my nephew explained.
“How are you?” I asked.
“It’s awful here,” my nephew said.
“Remember how our house used to be on Christmas Eve?”
“When they’d play ‘The Messiah’ and no one would speak above a whisper?”
“Exactly. Well, that’s how it is now. Only about a thousand times worse.”
* * *
“How are things?” I asked my niece the next day.
“Things are okay. We’re just waiting.”
* * *
“We wonder what’s going to happen,” my son explained on the phone tonight “Cheryl’s completely shattered. You and she don’t really get along. Cheryl and Granddaddy don’t like each other. I don’t know how to help Daniel.”
* * *
Tom couldn’t kill an animal, not even insects when he was small. But later, he learned to hunt. Friends he liked had a ranch. “I shoot pretty well,” he told me once. “But someone has to get the birds for me. I can’t do that.” Music pounds across the floor of my loft. Alone here, sometimes I dance to it. When the song is sad, I play it over and over. I hurried home from a party to do this. Smoking a cigarette or two I bummed from someone, I drink a strong drink late at night, pick books at random from the bookcase and flip through them. My brother left a mess, I think.
Yesterday, a man a block from my new loft, asked me the time. He was young, wore blue jeans, his hair cut short. But something felt a little wrong with him. He stayed apace with me until I ducked into a bank to use an ATM machine. Leaving, I saw him waiting outside, leaning against a column, while he smoked a cigarette. He walked just in front of me down my street. As a precaution, I continued past my building and ducked into the drugstore next door. I saw him look around as I did this. I didn’t see him outside when I came back out, but I couldn’t be sure. I have felt unsafe since this happened. I’m thinking of putting bars on my windows.
My cat sleeps all night with me under the covers. Tonight, he is still in the same place. I checked on him once today to make sure he was breathing.
Once, when I was young, my mother sent me to my room as a punishment. My room was the smallest bedroom and it had the most doors, one of which opened into the den where my father watched television each evening. I sneaked into the hallway behind and took copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica down from the shelves. As the hours passed, the volumes accumulated. Piles of books lay around me. When it grew dark, my mother found me fast asleep, surrounded by discarded volumes.
I’m almost through mourning, I believe. I can go nearly a whole day without thinking about you. But, sometimes I feel a little strange, as if I’ve misplaced something, my handbag maybe or my notebook. That happened today at an open-air market and right after, I bought two pairs of sunglasses.
* * *
A story you used to tell: the day before surprising me with a pony for my sixth birthday, Daddy strapped you into the saddle and led you into the riding ring behind the stables. He released the pony with you strapped there and took a whip out and beat his flanks to make him buck. He continued beating him until he wouldn’t buck anymore but ran around in circles. He did this, he told you, so the pony wouldn’t throw his little girl.
The first time you told me this story was the weekend Laurie was killed. Laurie was my older niece, your daughter by your first marriage. A sweet girl, but fat and not too bright; she was killed when she flew out of her drunken boyfriend’s car on her first date. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. That weekend, you wouldn’t talk about her. Instead, you repeated the pony story over and over again as you sat cross-legged on the floor of the den. Your eyes widened in astonishment each time you told it.
* * *
Last Thanksgiving Tom held a photograph in his hand, a map spread out on the table. He showed me the spot where a waterfall flowed into the arroyo that snaked through the new ranch. He drew his finger across the map to indicate a mountain, Comanche Peak, named for the Indians who used to live there.
“In front of the mountain is this huge meadow that goes on for miles,” he said, pointing to the spot where he would die.
My brother visited my mother’s grave often, although he never said this to me. He drove through the gates of the cemetery whenever he needed her and pulled his car up next to her grave and walked over and talked to her for awhile. He talked about work mostly; sometimes he talked about his children.
* * *
I know Mother is really gone now. It took your death to kill her off. Mother was hard to kill off. You’ve been dead 24 days.
Today, I am driving with my friend in the country. We see a dead deer on the side of the road. My friend stops the car then backs it around.
“Look at that.”
I stare away at the field next to the road. I notice the wild flowers, then I notice the deer.
She parks the car and opens the door, craning her neck to see out.
A stake rises from the ground, as if someone has placed its point in the heart of the deer.
I focus on the wild flowers. So many wild flowers grow here, on Long Island, I think. They resemble the ones I saw last week in Texas, wine cup, blue bells, daisies, thistle, to name only a few. But then, I can’t avoid the deer.
My friend starts up the motor. “Let’s get out of here.”
Unable to take my eyes away, I turn to get a better look. The deer lies on its side. The stake which I think is in its heart, is pounded into the earth next to it The deer’s head has fallen back. I dose my eyes. Then I put on my sunglasses. The deer’s stomach has completely rotted out.
“How long has it been dead?” I say. I keep my eyes shut.
“Oh, surely not long,” she says. “No more than a week.”
“That is a short time,” I say. “That really isn’t very long at all.”
—Anne Livet, founder and President of Livet Reichard Company, Inc., an arts marketing and public relations firm, is the author of Contemporary Dance (Abbeville Press), and a number of essays on contemporary art. She lives and writes in New York City.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.