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 a bellows.

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.

Mother pulls 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 stage four."

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 withholding information.

"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.

Mother yawns 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.

"Beno hopes that Leah isn't seeing a Freudian." She pulls an afghan up to her neck.

"It isn't any of Beno's business."

"A Freudian 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 seed.

"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, wouldn't he?"

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 incompatible.

"We should be like sisters," she said.

"We are sisters."

"I mean the real kind."

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 the taxi.

* * * *

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 pink.

"Western exposure," she says. "It's great. When the sun rises I don't see it until afternoon."

I invite her inside.

"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 participate.

"It's self-serving," I say.

"Well that's 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."

From the 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."

She laughs, 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 says.

* * * *

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 wheelbarrow.

"Rodents," Aaron said. I stood a few feet away, speechless.

"They weren't bothering you," I said. "I mean personally."

"This?" He shrugged, waving a groundhog by its tail. "This is more than personal."

"They have to live somewhere," I said.

"Unfortunately, so do I." Rodents were never safe in the yard.

Aaron acted 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 said.

Leah's halter 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 smear.

"Murderer," Leah said. "How would you like it if someone just gassed up your home?"

"I'd move," he said.

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.

* * * *

After dinner 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.

"Didn't that feel good?" she asks.

"My nostril 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 it."

"I'm happy for you."

"Come on, Annie. You need to take something positive from this. Let's process it out."

"I can't process. I'm tired of processing," I say.

"Okay then, I'll ask questions. No burden for you, okay? When was the first time you realized you hated him? For dying, I mean."

Between the 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.

"When you 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."

"I still 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?"

"Here and 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."

"Truth is mutable. Who said that? Whoever said that, I believe him."

"But Aaron didn't," I say.

"How can you be sure?"

"I remember the groundhogs."

Leah stops 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."

"You were sixteen, Leah."

"Even more so then. That's when a girl becomes a woman. For me, it just took a lot of practice."

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 remembering."

I gesture to the fire, shrug my shoulders.

"Leah, I can't sleep all right? This isn't helping."

"Only your belief about the truth, Annie. That's what matters."

"Mom's been up for sixty hours straight," I say.

"Then that's 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, spoken.

"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 send them?"

"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.

"Admitting to 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."

"But Aaron loved you. He loved both of us."

"You've really blown everything, Annie. Don't you know reading someone else's mail is illegal?"

"I've blown everything?"

"You could both be arrested. You and Mom. What if I called the police right now?"

"But Aaron's 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 tongue.

"Yes, he is," Leah says.

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.

* * * *

There's 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.

"That's the 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 have one?"

"Because you're with me. When you're old enough to go places without me then you'll have one."

"Why does Leah have one?"

"Well, rules 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 curfew mean?"

"Literally, you 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 obey gravity.

"How old were the old days?"

"You know. 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 comes up.

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.

"It's February 2nd."

There is a twitch in my head and I remember something about groundhogs, rodents seeing their shadows, six weeks of weather.

"Morning 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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