a short story by
J. L. HIGGS | Banker + Writer
Cold, cold water surrounds me now,
And all I’ve got is your hand
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Or am I lost?
–Damien Rice, Cold Water
DYING ITSELF ISN’T EASY, I thought, picking up the framed photograph. It just is. Picture a house. All the lights are on, ablaze, and there’s a smooth electrical hum filling the air. Now, somewhere in the house is a light on a timer. You don’t know where it is or when the timer will click, turning off the light. But at some point, it’s gonna happen. The click. And the light turns off. That triggers a cascading daisy chain reaction. Another light turns off. Then a group of lights. This continues on until, CLICK, the last light turns off, leaving nothing but darkness and an empty quietness.
Realizing your dying is different. The desire to survive is a basic instinct. A fundamental law of nature. Even before your brain realizes what’s happening, your heart beats faster. Adrenalin saturated blood races through your arteries and veins. Your lungs expand, trying to grab every bit of oxygen they can. Fear and panic register in your brain and it fires microbursts of energized messages across synapses to try to keep you alive. As your body’s systems overload, the realization sets in. You can’t save yourself. You surrender. There’s no “rage against the dying of the light” shit. You give in. You give up. You let go and slip away. The difference between the two ways of dying is nothing but awareness. What’s hard is living.
We never spoke of it. Their fighting. Doing so would have meant having to acknowledge it. It was easier to just keep silent and pretend it didn’t happen. That was how all black people acted back then, “you never wash your dirty linen in public.” But this time it had dragged on for over a month, the only break coming on Sundays. Church day. Everyone attended church on Sunday and listened as Reverend Jones told us to cast our burdens on the Lord. All I know is, their truce only lasted as long as it took us to make the trip to and from town as a family.
I doubt either of them even remembered what started it. But whenever they were home together and not working, they were fighting. While they didn’t get physical with each other, there was always lots of yelling, seething looks, and long stretches of brittle grave silence. It was like living beside an electrified fence. You quickly learned to avoid anything that might place you in direct contact with it.
I’m sure there must have been times when they weren’t fighting, but I can’t recall any. If you live with anything long enough it seems normal, even if it’s not something you’d want to live with or find a way to be comfortable with.
That week, it had rained for days. Michael and I had been stuck inside, walking on eggshells, doing our best not to set either of them off. When the sun finally reappeared that summer afternoon I knew I had to get out. It was a given that Michael would go with me. I’d had it drilled into me that I was responsible for him and living a fair distance from town, there weren’t really many other kids around. Still, that didn’t really matter. Though he was two years younger, we had each other.
When I said to him, “let’s go”, they’d been so busy screaming at each other that neither of them noticed us leaving. There’d been no, “what’d I tell you about letting that screen door slam” or “take care of your brother and don’t come home without him.”
Michael had wanted to take the Rollfasts over to Supersonic. Pedaling up to the top of that hill required as much determination as it did strength. But once you got there, the thrill of fighting to avoid crashing as you streaked downhill made it worth the effort. But riding the bikes wasn’t an option. I hadn’t yet fixed the flat rear tire on the Red Rocket. Michael tried to convince me to ride with him on the Blue Knight, we were about the same size. He offered to pedal with me on the seat holding his waist, but I said “no way.”
So, instead, we headed over to the old Willow Tree. Crossing the field, we swam through the tall blades of grass. Our passing created rippling waves that caused butterflies and dragonflies to abandon their perches and rise before us on their paper thin wings.
When we reached the willow, I grabbed hold where an ancient, gnarled branch joined with the trunk, and hoisted myself up. Then I climbed higher before sitting down.
As my feet dangled, I shoved a hand through the waterfall curtain of leaf-covered tresses. Spying on what was going on while hidden from view was one of the things I liked best about the willow. The other was the steady comforting drone of the insects sheltering from the sun in the shade of the tall grass.
“You think they’ll get divorced?” asked Michael, emerging from the leaves. Arms extended outward, he walked toward me like a tightrope walker.
“Nah,” I said, ignoring the urge to lecture him about not holding on.
“How do you know?” he asked sitting down.
“Duh… ‘Cause I’m fourteen and you’re twelve,” I said. I closed my eyes, drifting on the sound of the insects.
“But if they did divorce,” said Michael, “what would happen to us?…Well?”
“What, Michael?” I replied, annoyed.
“What would happen to us?”
“Nothing,” I said. “We’d stay together no matter what.”
With that seeming to have satisfied him, we sat awhile without speaking. At some point, Michael started whistling and I gave him a look so he stopped. He let some time pass before getting to his feet.
“This is boring,” he said. “Let’s go to the river.”
That was his favorite place. He loved the whoosh of the water rushing over the rocks, the grunting frogs, paddling turtles, and leaping fish. I’d have preferred to continue hanging out in the willow, but I knew Michael would go to the river even if I didn’t. So, I got up and climbed down after him.
The sound of the river could be heard well before it was in sight. Because of all the rain it had swollen into a raging torrent that was higher than I’d ever seen before. The water was slicing into the riverbank ripping loose dirt, gravel, and young trees and whipping them downstream. I looked toward Michael and saw him step onto the downed tree that bridged the two sides of the riverbank.
“Not a good idea,” I called above the roaring water.
“You’re such a wuss,” he said, edging out onto the tree’s trunk.
“No,” I said sharply. “I’m just not stupid. C’mon back.”
He dashed across the remaining length of the tree and jumped, landing on the river’s far side bank.
“You coming?” he called, smirking.
Not that I was afraid, just cautious. Well, maybe more than cautious. Taking risks, like breaking rules was just not me. But Michael? Taking chances and flaunting rules was as natural to him as breathing.
After a brief hesitation, I started across the tree. Carefully placing one foot after the other, I focused on the tree, balancing myself after each step. Beneath my bare feet, the wood felt slick and smooth where the tree’s bark had cracked and broken off. Though I was nervous, I was damned if I was going to show it. After all, I was older than Michael. But inside I knew I would’ve crawled across that tree if I could have. I had just about reached the midway point when the tree suddenly bounced.
“Cut it out,” I said, to Michael. He laughed, standing on the tree a slight way out from the far side bank. I steadied myself and as I resumed creeping forward, the tree jounced again. I pitched forward, slamming against the tree and as I grabbed on, I saw Michael tumble into the river.
The current swept him away from the bank and into the middle of the river. As he disappeared beneath the foaming white water, I let go. While the surface of the water appeared only to be running swiftly, the world beneath it was rampaging chaos. Unsure which way was up and which was down, my back slammed into submerged rocks and I was pummeled by debris. When I surfaced, I saw Michael, sputtering water from his nose and mouth as he tried to fight the current. Lunging, I grabbed his hand. Together our bodies created a temporary dam. The water rammed against us, spinning us out of control. We were repeatedly swept under, yet somehow we kept our hands entwined. Finally, we crashed into a pile of branches stuck at a bend in the river. Battered and exhausted, I had no voice to ask Michael if he was OK. So, with my strength fading, I pulled on the branches, dragging Michael behind me. Reaching the bank, I shoved Michael onto it, then collapsed.
My body fell onto some of the branches, dislodging them. No longer anchored, they released me back into the river’s grasp. With only my eyes and nose above the water, I could see Michael on his hands and knees on the riverbank. He was vomiting water, an arm tucked against his belly. My arms felt heavy and numb and my legs leaden. But Michael was safe on the riverbank. So, surrounded by the cold water, I closed my eyes and let go.
Three full days passed before they recovered Michael’s body. It had gotten trapped in a pile of debris further downstream. They told me they’d found me lying unconscious on the riverbank. When they asked what had happened at the river that day, I told them everything I remembered. Then how’d you end up on the riverbank they asked. And I told them, I didn’t know.
On the day of Michael’s funeral, I put on my Sunday suit, good shoes, and was about to go downstairs when I heard my parents whispering outside my bedroom door. When it opened, my father stood there, blocking the way.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m ready to go,” I said.
“You’re not going…”
“Your mother and I discussed it. You’re not going and that’s that,” he said. “You stay home and rest.”
I stared at him.
“You heard me. It’s settled,” he said, slamming the door behind him.
For a while, after Michael’s death, our house was quiet as a stone. No one spoke about that day, Michael’s death, or me being alive. There was nothing that could fill the huge yawning hole that had opened in all our lives. In the room we’d shared, Michael’s bed remained unmade, the sheets and bedspread knotted up as they’d been that day. Some nights, alone in our room, I’d talk to Michael. I asked him how we’d switched places, him in the water and me on the river’s bank? I asked what it was like to be dead? And about Heaven. But he never answered. So, I added those questions to the list of questions I would live the rest of my life without knowing the answers to.
One night, after making sure my parents were asleep, I got the Blue Knight from beneath the porch and rode it to the cemetery. Under the full moon, I searched among the headstones and graves, before finally finding Michael’s. Standing there, I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I laid the Blue Knight against the stone and left. When I got back home and opened the door to my room, sitting on Michael’s bed was my mother. Her face was a mask in the moon’s light. Without uttering a sound, she stood up, walked past me, and left, quietly closing the door.
Shortly after that, I began sleepwalking. Many mornings I’d awaken curled up on Michael’s bed, having no recollection of leaving mine for his during the night. Though the quiet in the house endured for awhile, eventually, their fights started up again. This time, the cause remained consistent—who was at fault for Michael’s death. My mother would scream about her baby being gone and dad would shout back she’d killed his son. Unlike their old fights, these sometimes got physical. She’d rush him and pummel away with her tiny fists until he tossed her aside like a tiny doll. There were a few times I tried to break it up, but all I got for my trouble was a broken nose and a black eye. So after that, I stayed out of it until finally, they split up.
Neither of them wanted me and the feeling was mutual. So I went to live with my mother’s sister, my Aunt Sally, and I never saw my parents again. It had taken the death of a child to end what we never spoke of.
Living with Sally I got to be in a different town and attend a new school. That was fine with me. I’d tired of the constant odd looks and whispers that followed in my wake. Since Sally was a widow and had never had any kids of her own, she was happy to have me. She was kind to me and never yelled. Not when I skipped school, got in fights, stole, or got delivered home courtesy of the town police.
Now, with many years having passed, I’ve learned to talk less and listen more to Michael. He often speaks when I least expect it, reminding me to leave much of what we were exposed to as kids in the past. My wife, Caroline, is patient and a good mother. Anytime we’re unable to resolve our differences, she and I agree to disagree, keeping things civil. Our sons, David and his older brother, Michael, are as inseparable as I once was with mine.
“Dad, we’re going out.”
“To the high school. There’s a game tonight.”
“OK,” I said, placing the photo of my brother and me back on the end table. “Drive carefully, Michael, and take care of your brother.”