My Brother in Purgatory
Alison S. Boyer
I hear my
mother digging fire rings in the garden. She has consented to
participate in a ritual my sister promises will cleanse our spirits and
unify us in familial love. The ritual will provide me with the right
amount of serotonin, my mother with fast movement through the stages of
grief, and Leah with whatever it is she needs-maybe a salve for
bitterness. My sister left home fifteen years ago when I was twelve.
She has visited us three times and then only because of need, food or
lodging. Her love is not familiar. As I walk down the stairs I realize
how convenient it is now with the thaw to keep the windows open as much
to let air in as to force it out. Sometimes our entire house feels like
* * * *
I steer our
Mother back into the house. She responds quickly and quietly to a light
touch, much like the blind. Another letter, this is the fourth, sticks
out of her bathrobe pocket. She keeps the letters on her person at all
times. They are letters from Leah to Aaron, her therapeutic response to
grief. She sends the letters to our house, addressed to him. The
letters recount our childhood, and are full of false accusations, trite
things, events that never happened. This is why her sleep cycle is
reversed-Mother prefers not to be awake when the mail arrives during the
day. We are on separate schedules: she sleeps during the daylight and I
keep a vigil over my own state of unconsciousness between ten p.m. and
six a.m. I rest, fall asleep, wake sooner rather than later, relearning
each night how later is the bad joke of relativity. All three of us
have engaged our own therapists and treatments, and while Mother and
Leah are making progress even if it involves recoding fact as
uncomfortable memory, I am lodged in something less than denial but more
than false hope. My doctor thinks this rates a six out of ten on the
grieving scale, but I think it's nowhere at all.
Mother and I
sit in the kitchen with cups of hot tea and cinnamon cookies. We watch
the farm report with the sound off, clouds over the Atlantic swirling
around their centers, blending with other patches of gray and white so
they absorb each other and a new center appears in the place where you
least expect it, five miles closer to shore. I turn to my Mother. Her
quiet hands are folded on the kitchen table, her eyes are aimed at the
TV screen. She sees nothing. I turn back to the weather, and watching
the white swirls, think how unfair it is that we coastal people,
grounded but just barely, always have to pay the price of weather for
God's indecision. We are only mildly Presbyterian.
the unopened letter from her pocket and sets it on the table. In the
fluorescent light her face is hopelessly gray, like her hair. She
reminds me of an aging geisha with coral lip tint, the type of woman who
would wear lipstick to garden.
"I should be
out of this by now," she says. "Beno says a lot of his patients prolong
I picture Beno
and his quiet movements as he opens and shuts each folder in his file
drawer, looking under tabs labeled 'D' and 'G' for patient-readable
literature on the grief cycle, those articles with enlarged type and the
pie graphs in red, black and blue ink.
"I think what
he means is grief is natural but you shouldn't use it as an excuse."
Mother takes a
sip of tea and waits, without looking, for clarification. There is
always this expectance in her gestures and her silences, the hope that I
will somehow clear things up for both of us. When Leah left home for
the West coast, Mother didn't talk to me for a week, waiting for me to
tell her what I knew, which was nothing. She still thinks that I am
"I mean stage
five follows stage four. There is something else to move on
to....whatever you're supposed to be doing in stage five."
"The only thing
I'll be doing is thinking about stage six," she says.
and puts the letter in her pocket. From here, the best view in the
house, you can see the garden and past it, skeletons of lilac trees.
The trees rest against the fence that divides our property from the
dairy farm. Barns and dead crops rise on two hills beyond our lilacs,
and in the late afternoon everything becomes inflamed by sunlight.
that Leah isn't seeing a Freudian." She pulls an afghan up to her neck.
"It isn't any
of Beno's business."
could really slow her down because you know how they fixate on
everything. Sex and mothers and how old you were when you ate your
first lollipop. And if you can't remember how old you were then, they
focus on that."
"What if the
patient has amnesia?"
"I guess it
would depend on whether you believed you had it or not. Anyway, your
sister doesn't have anything statistically wrong with her. We should be
grateful for the small things."
This is true,
that Leah has no quantifiable mental illness, only the disorder of being
so completely herself. This translates to me saying, "Get over
yourself" in most of our telephone conversations. Eventually I'm sure
she'll seek out a ritualistic cure for this, too.
The last day of
August, Leah came home to get her teaspoon of Aaron's ashes. "Why can't
we divide him up," she had said. One week after he died, and she
thought in these terms: division, grieving allowances, ownership.
* * * *
We stood in the
garden. Our mother was inside measuring the ashes into three separate
containers. Leah picked at a few stalks of broccoli that had bolted to
"It's better to
leave them there," I said.
Leah stood up
and nodded. She looked over at the potato rows.
"What is it
about potatoes having eyes?"
"I don't know.
They're supposed to be able to see in any direction, maybe."
"Mom said Aaron
had eyes in the back of his head. Do you remember that? Was that
because he liked potatoes so much?"
"I don't know.
Don't ask me anything, Leah."
"I guess it
wasn't true then. I mean he would have seen the other boat coming then,
I had been at
the dockside a week before when the Coast Guard pulled his body up with
a thick black net. Pieces of trash stuck to the body, a McDonald's
wrapper and shreds of pink tissue. A crowd gathered by the boat, the
friends Aaron left the house with that morning. I couldn't believe how
they watched. Seaweed covered the body's face. I remember thinking
this could not be the death mask of my brother, ocean weeds strung along
his skin, but then the body turned in the net and the cable pulling the
net groaned and I saw the long black ponytail clinging to his back, too
thick to be seaweed. A man in a white uniform uncovered the body's
face; I had never seen his face purple and white at the same time. Only
white, and only once, when I was bleeding heavily from what turned out
to be a superficial wound and he touched it and shivered as if my skin
had burnt him.
Leah left the
next morning saddened that our two lifestyles and belief systems were so
"We should be
like sisters," she said.
"I mean the
Leah made a
pouty face. It didn't suit her.
"You use too
many qualifiers for us to be related," I said as she loaded herself into
Leah and I are
facing each other with a screen door between us. She is desert tanned
and has dry skin that folds up instead of creasing at her elbows. That
smell still follows her, the smell of a Protestant mystic, warm
patchouli and Christ. She's only thirty-two. She lives in a cave in
New Mexico. I am intrigued by my sister the cave dweller. I wonder
where her smell goes when it's trapped in there, underground.
* * * *
"Do you have
windows in your cave?" I ask.
"Just a door.
If that's what you mean." She pulls a photograph out of her purse. The
cave has a white painted exterior that gives it the look of a typical
frame house. The mouth is covered by a knotted pine door. A shelf to
the right of the door holds a windowbox of cacti blooming in yellow and
exposure," she says. "It's great. When the sun rises I don't see it
I invite her
"Mom told me
the fire rings are done."
She carries her
bags to the kitchen. I still cannot believe our Mother has agreed to
take part in this ritual. I feel momentary guilt that she has been
forced into submission by the late January thaw and the strain of being
the solitary witness to my insomnia for five months and counting. I
pick up the fire extinguisher. Leah questions my refusal to
self-serving," I say.
the point, isn't it?" she says. "Come on, Annie. Don't tell me you
haven't ever burned old letters from your boyfriends or anything."
kitchen I watch as they embrace. It is quick and light, similar to
their speech. Our mother does not bend her body when she hugs but lets
the initiator come to her and apply all the pressure. She worries about
this, if her touch is too light or firm. She may lean her head on the
person's shoulder but will not fully acknowledge the other with her body
from chest down. Together, she and Leah visit the five different rings
Leah has created. Together, they choose the one closest to the pine tree
by the fence. Leah calls to me, "If I were as self-righteous as you,
I'd be a saint by now."
tosses back her long red hair. The strings in back of her dress are
half drawn, outlining her waist. She kneels and lights four matches
before the fire takes. The flames lick up at the letters and I wonder
if fire knows the difference between the textures of things it consumes,
like the thick paste peppermint of the stamps or the smooth onion skin.
Blue pages lose their edges to the fire then sear quickly into ash. It
takes a minute and half, maybe two. Leah bends over the ash.
"All gone," she
Our real father
died when I was ten months old, and as the oldest child and the only
boy, Aaron became our father long before my earliest memories begin. He
did father things, tended the garden, repaired our old station wagon,
put in a new mailbox when we needed one.
* * * *
The summer I
turned twelve, three groundhog families infested our property. Aaron
decided to use enviro-bombs to get rid of them, a decision that Leah,
our Mother, and I opposed. He planted seven of the bombs, lined a
wheelbarrow with an old sheet. He wore thick, scratchy wool gloves to
pull the small bodies from the tunnels, then tossed them on the
Aaron said. I stood a few feet away, speechless.
bothering you," I said. "I mean personally."
shrugged, waving a groundhog by its tail. "This is more than personal."
"They have to
live somewhere," I said.
so do I." Rodents were never safe in the yard.
curiously, seemed energized by the kill. Leah came upon us then, a
habit she still has of just coming upon people. Aaron said she had a
presence that preceded her but he was the only one who could sense it.
There had been a sudden tension between them around the time of Leah's
first romance, an event that had taken everyone by surprise earlier the
same summer. She fell in love with a Catholic boy by the last name
O'Shea and Aaron seemed quicker to sense her approach, looking for her
everywhere for no apparent reason.
"Hey mutt," he
top was inside out while an hour ago it had been tied on correctly,
before she and Aaron went to the shed to get the wheelbarrow. The inside
of her right thigh had a smear of blood. In the second it took for Leah
to turn from Aaron to me, I looked again at her thigh. There was a
distinct thumbprint in the blood, what could have been a deliberate
Leah said. "How would you like it if someone just gassed up your home?"
"I'd move," he
Aaron threw the
last corpse onto the sheet and folded the edges up to form a sack. He
smiled with one side of his mouth turning up higher than the other, the
closest we would get to an apology, and carted away the wheelbarrow
around the side of the shed. I went back in the house so I never did
see what he did with the sack of groundhogs. By May of the following
year the soil was dark and rich with a fetid, steamy smell that made me
get down on my knees and put my hands in the dirt until I could feel it
cake under my nails. By June Leah was gone.
Leah produces a stack of handwritten letters. Since the first burning
Mother has not slept at all. Leah claims it is the negative energy I've
been spraying at everyone. She and I argue over what to cook for
dinner, chicken or pasta, whether it is more socially acceptable to
answer the telephone after three rings or four. Mother is strained to
the point of not sleeping day or night. She is turning into me. Leah
tells us we can do a second letter burning to reinforce the
effectiveness of the first. A maintenance burning. Our fire rings are
washed out by rain, the circles indistinct moats of worms and mud, so we
move to the living room and put the letters in the fireplace. Leah
strikes a match, the letters are gone.
* * * *
feel good?" she asks.
hair is burning."
Leah pokes at
the charred letters. "Really, you should feel validated. Not everyone
has the pleasure of draining out poison like we just did. Couldn't you
just feel the suction-the air drawing from the flue? It was like, I
don't know, as if the universe wanted the words back. I really felt
"I'm happy for
Annie. You need to take something positive from this. Let's process it
process. I'm tired of processing," I say.
I'll ask questions. No burden for you, okay? When was the first time
you realized you hated him? For dying, I mean."
smoke I have inhaled and her question, I feel as if I'm about to enter a
semi-conscious state. I picture Aaron's photograph on my night-stand,
the one I stare at every night so he is the last thing I see while I
shut my eyes. I never hated Aaron for anything, but I decide to play
along with Leah, just to see how far she is capable of going.
called and said you weren't coming to the funeral," I answer.
"I had a good
reason. I really had a dream that the plane crashed." She turns to me,
suddenly animated. "The next day there was that hydraulic problem with
the San Antonio flight. Remember? It was in all the papers."
"I was too busy
hating him to read anything," I say.
"But then you
got over it, right? Fourteen, twenty-one days? That's the first stage
of anger usually. Then you go on to more positive energy."
haven't slept through the night."
Leah turns to
the fire, nurses it. "A hundred sixty-two hours. Something like that
you can go without sleep. But you've had some times when you've slept,
right? Like maybe an hour here or there?"
there," I say.
"Okay then you
can go a lot longer that way. At least you're managing some rest."
I am confused
that she thinks being unconscious is a conscious choice. This is what I
truly hate. Her nervous optimism, the sense that at any moment
something could go terribly right. She was never like this when we were
young, before she left. I stare at this second pile of ashes, our
maintenance burning. It makes little sense to me.
"I still don't
feel anything," I say.
"I hate to draw
your attention to this, but remember the first time you said I was
self-serving? You can't condemn me like that and expect to benefit from
it. Goddesses form safety rings around people who are empowering
themselves through grief."
Of course I
hadn't said she was self-serving; her act was self-serving.
"Are you seeing
a Freudian?" I ask.
"It's all the
same, isn't it? Jungian, Freudian. They hear only what they're trained
to hear. At least I've learned to write my feelings."
"But you lied
in the letters. You said he raped you."
mutable. Who said that? Whoever said that, I believe him."
didn't," I say.
"How can you be
"I remember the
poking the ashes.
"I wasn't old
enough to put it together," I continue. "I wondered about your clothes.
I wondered if you re-arranged them yourself."
"Well, I was
always fond of playing dress up."
"Even more so
then. That's when a girl becomes a woman. For me, it just took a lot
She looks at
me, poker in hand. Her pupils are wide, and I realize she is still a
girl who became a woman only in her imagination. She is a girl who
plays mind games with the dead, and who left home, I suspect, because
her brother found her less attractive than pathetic.
"How well do
you remember?" she asks.
"You know I'm
good with details."
"I suppose you
think I smeared blood on myself, then. For your benefit, of course.
Everything is always for one's own benefit when one does the
I gesture to
the fire, shrug my shoulders.
"Leah, I can't
sleep all right? This isn't helping."
belief about the truth, Annie. That's what matters."
"Mom's been up
for sixty hours straight," I say.
your problem. You'll have to figure it out."
Leah is gone
from her room in the morning. I think she is out walking, communing
with her spirits. The plane ticket is on her desk, luggage zipped and
waiting. I search through the large duffel bag for no reason at all,
going through the motions of simulated hope. I find a pack of incense
cones, a small Ziploc bag with dope or green tea. I open the bag,
sniff, and cannot place the smell. For a moment I wonder if it is the
teaspoon of Aaron's ashes. I'm folding the plastic baggie back under a
pair of jeans when Leah walks in behind me. She says nothing and lets
me walk past her.
* * * *
"You know why
I'm here, don't you?" she asks so quietly that I barely hear it. I turn
around and she's re-zipping her luggage as if she has not, in fact,
"It's because I
had this dream about Aaron. He was riding his bike down the hill on
Davidson Road. He told me that he didn't want you reading his mail. He
said specifically, "Don't let Annie read my letters. Whatever you do."
"Why did you
"I did it at
first to test you and Mom. Obviously you weren't strong enough."
"That was a
sick thing to do."
At the word
sick, she turns quickly to me. I am not afraid of my sister but I fear
the words she will choose.
"Then it just
became, I don't know, routine. You shouldn't open anyone else's mail,
Annie. It was my private thing with Aaron. You remember when you were
four, how I used to hide you? Under the sink? It was all premeditated
even though it looked like inspiration. Aaron always chose the place
and I took the risk."
"Tell me what
it takes to get you to admit to something and I'll do it," I say.
what someone else thought up in the first place, that's not
responsibility. It's denial. I thought even you were beyond denial for
the sake of appearances."
loved you. He loved both of us."
blown everything, Annie. Don't you know reading someone else's mail is
"You could both
be arrested. You and Mom. What if I called the police right now?"
dead." I turn the word over in my mind-dead. I hear the dull thud from
consonants of my own making, a cold lifeless sound between my teeth and
"Yes, he is,"
A taxi pulls up
underneath her window. Leah struggles by me with her bags, shaking her
head and whistling through her front teeth. The taxi chugs with a
steady rhythm until she slams the door.
something about the crispness of an ironed pillowcase, having it so
close to your cheek, the hard starch edge of white. I feel the weight
of my head drop into the cotton and let gravity do its work, nestling me
until the down feathers crinkle louder than the blood pumping through my
veins. I rest well then, when I consciously abandon gravity, accepting
sleep rather than falling into it. I drift into a dream, with some
hesitation from lack of practice. In the dream it is two o'clock in the
morning when the bonfires collapse.
"What good is a
curfew on a beach?" I ask Aaron. We are driving back from Rehoboth pier
towards home. I am half asleep, curling up near his shoulder, with my
sandy towel rolled up into a pillow. I think I hear the ocean from time
to time but it is only static on the radio.
point to a curfew. It doesn't matter where you are. It only means you
are expected to be at a certain place."
"Why don't you
have one?" I ask.
"Because I'm a
guy. And because mom trusts me."
"Why don't I
with me. When you're old enough to go places without me then you'll
"Why does Leah
help crazy people to feel less responsible for their own actions."
I turn to look
at him, the dark hair matted against his neck. He smells of ashtrays
and beer, the suntan oil worn by cheerleaders.
"You know that,
don't you? That she's nuts?"
I do not know
if my laughter is from recognition or embarrassment, but when I smile at
Aaron, he does not return it.
We are silent
for some time and I fall in and out of sleep. The tires hum and spit
over the cracks in the old two-lane highway. I smell hyacinth and for a
moment I think we are home and the window is open by the garden. I lift
my head and see we are still in darkness, moving forward. I lean my
head back on his arm.
"But what does
know what literally means? Literally, curfew-it means to cover fire.
In the old days it was a sign to cover fires and go in for the night."
I feel the
muscles in his arm flex when he adjusts the steering wheel at the bend
in the road. I lean further into him and his arm feels like wet sand,
responsive to the weight of my head, warm. I know he is the Sandman
mother used to sing about. He is good for nestling. He and I together
"How old were
the old days?"
Cave men. Cave women."
I ask if there
were any cave children back then, since it was so long ago and maybe
they hadn't been invented yet.
"They were just
like you. They got good grades in school and whined when their mothers
called them in from outside." He puts his arm around me and I feel the
sandiness of his fingertips on my bare shoulder. I can still feel his
hand on my upper arm gently pressing down as we pull into our driveway,
pressing until I rest my head on my own bleached pillow case. His sandy
lips whisper over my forehead, goodnight kiddo, just before the sun
I wake up
flustered at not knowing the difference between dream and memory. I
have not slept fully in such a long time that emergence is difficult-I
am not sure when to stop resisting the pull back toward sleep. I turn
my head and see my dressing table, talcum powder, upturned sheets where
I have kicked them off the side of the bed. My Mother leans in the
doorway, ready for sleep.
"Do you know
what day it is, Annie?" she asks.
I manage a
gurgle then swallow.
There is a
twitch in my head and I remember something about groundhogs, rodents
seeing their shadows, six weeks of weather.
shadows?" I ask.
"No," she says.
I roll over in
bed, tangled in the sheets. My eyes are closed and I think of my
sister, her free and self-contained spirit. Last night before bed I
wrote her a poison pen letter outlining her cruelty and manipulation. I
listed the barbs she made, suggested she omit them from her vocabulary.
I told her that I was not self-righteous, that I was still afraid of
fire. That whatever was between her and Aaron I didn't need to know.
"Of course this
will take time," I wrote. "I can't expect you to stop using these words
all together. Just don't use them in the same order you did here."
I included a
pink rabbit's foot to symbolize a ground hog's tail and said she should
feel free to consider me a coward since I didn't kill it, the rabbit or
the groundhog, myself. What I left out of the letter, the words fresh
on my tongue as I licked the envelope's seal, was my confession: I
believe everything Aaron ever thought above anything you ever did.
Now I like to
picture Leah out under the black night, performing naked, mooning her
gods and spirits and chanting energy back into the stars. She will hold
up the rabbit's foot and mourn this sacrifice of animal life for the
sake of human luck. With her hand she will sweep over and spread out
the facts of perception and belief. She will blade through them to a
flat stone, believe fully in the danger of her skill. The facts will
separate and they will fall to their respective sides like fairy dust.
But Leah will see the blade remaining sharp against the speckled
granite. This is all she has ever in her life wanted to witness-the
contact of hair-splitting edge against something that will not yield. In
her mind I am sure Leah finds this ritual cleansing; as ritual, she will
endlessly repeat it in the cycles of our three united lives. I believe
the stars, right now, are laughing back at her.
I mailed the
letter to her cave, addressed it to "Leah's Cave" and the name and zip
code of the smallest nearby town I could find in the atlas for the state
of New Mexico. Goddesses forgive me, I am sure she will receive it.
© Alison S. Boyer
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