In a corner of the room sits an old man with sparse white hair, face of chalk, and fixed blue eyes. His body is as thin as a cadaver’s and his eyes stare out into the room as if they would seize everything in it and take it down into themselves.
The baby at the breast cannot see the old man sitting in the corner. The white slope of flesh is all she can see. And maybe, an awareness of the surrounding dark areola as the nipple slips from her mouth and is gently re-inserted.
But the old man in the corner sees her. His fixed blue eyes drink her down as she drinks down her mother’s milk. Later, she will wonder at his absence.
“Did I know him? What was he like?”
“He was a musician. He played the piano.”
“Did he love me?”
“He loved you.”
The boy’s room can be reached from his parents’ room by a path that runs through their closet. A secret path. He likes to think of it that way, secret, although he knows his parents know about it. They never use that path, but they know it exists. In fact, they were the ones who pointed it out to him. “Look,” his father had exclaimed, upon opening the door to the closet when they first moved into the old house. A house new to him but so old it creaked. “You can reach your room through our closet.” “Or through the door in the hallway,” his mother had added, always liking to give him alternatives. “You’ll have two routes,” she said. “One through our closet. The other through the door off the hallway.” His parents never mentioned the path that led through their closet to his room again. They forgot all about it. Or seemed to. And the boy allowed them to seem to forget. He went back to thinking he was the only one who knew about it. His secret path. His choice to use or not.
Midway on his journey, the skin will pull tight at the back of his neck, the flesh over his heart will shrink…
A path through a jungle, it might have been. Barefoot, he follows it. An ancient, overgrown path, old as the house itself. Dense foliage all around, shoes rough as stones beneath his feet. His father’s trousers hanging sideways like the edges of sheets. His mother’s skirts sweeping down to brush his face as he passes through. Wisps of cloth on his skin. Filaments of ghosts. Scrawny witches’ fingers reaching for him in the dark. In his sleep, gnarled branches come for him, twisted vines snatch him away. He dissolves in the tendrils of the overhanging brush. But as the baby’s older brother it is his job to protect her from such fearful things.
“What was he like?”
“He played the piano.”
Thin fingers white as bones clattering on the keys.
“His eyes were blue.”
And wide as the sea.
The boy would stand behind the old man when he played. Articulated bones running up and down the keyboard. Notes like demons screaming. He could grab his bat, step forward, take a swing. The white head would fall. Blood would splatter on the keys. The music stops, feet come up off the pedals, scrawny hips slide on the slippery bench. The chalk face sways like a lantern, bottomless blue lights within. Too late, the boy looks away. Magnets at the backs of the eyes drag him down into the sea.
“What are you doing there, Boyd?”
The voice is like something dying.
“You want me to teach you? Would you like that, Boyd?”
Something that has already died.
“For me to teach you?”
A hand reaches out. He jumps back, but not far enough. Bony fingers clasp his face.
His face is compressed. His lips pucker. The tender flesh inside his cheeks is forced against his teeth.
“And look at me when I’m talking to you.”
The old man’s eyes are drowning places.
Looking into them he felt something of what he would feel later when he let hookers — not girlfriends, not women he dated, only those he picked up and paid for a few hours of their time — suck him off. A fear that something essential in him, something he thought of as his essence, would be sucked down through the tunnels of their tongues and pass out of him and into them. Just so had he been sucked down into the sea of the old man’s eyes.
He has no trouble looking into other people’s eyes. His father’s, which are pale and brown and not a place to drown. His sister’s, which are small and new and have no power. His mother’s, which, like the old man’s eyes, are blue and wide, though not as wide. It’s natural, he supposes, for his mother to have eyes like the old man’s, for he is her father.
He would have thought his mother’s eyes, like her father’s, would be drowning places too. But that turned out not to be so. He would have thought that because she is his mother his eyes would be like hers as hers are like her father’s. But that also turned out not to be so. His eyes are like his father’s, pale and brown. He can look into his father’s eyes and into his mother’s and his sister’s without fear of drowning. But not into the old man’s eyes. He’d had to turn away from him as soon as his brain made the connection between the old man’s eyes and death by drowning. His mother saw him turn away and took it as an insult. She looked at him differently from that moment onward.
The old man has been living with them in the old house for as long as Boyd can remember. He is always there, in the house, in him. Sometimes he has a horror of coming upon him in the closet as he passes through. Midway on his journey, the skin will pull tight at the back of his neck, the flesh over his heart will shrink, and he will stop dead in his tracks, certain the old man is lurking there in the dark, thin enough to be concealed even by the sideways fall of his father’s trousers spilling from their hangers. Cautiously, he will assess his jungle, the sway of the vines, the density of the foliage, the curvature of the rocks beneath his feet, and only when he’s finally convinced he is alone, will he move on, keeping to the secret path that leads him to his room.
His sister sucks at their mother’s breast and he, not quite three, has been newly ousted from his mother’s lap by the baby’s arrival. He circles their mother’s chair, seeking a way up into it. His sister sucks first at one breast and then after an interval — during which she is made to sit up and be folded over herself and have her back rubbed and patted, and people in the room wait anxiously for the sound of a burp and exclaim in delight over it when it comes and sigh in dismay when it does not — at the other.
All during the time of the sucking at one breast and the interval of rubbing and patting and burping or not, and the sucking at the other breast, Boyd circles their mother’s chair, seeking and neither finding nor being offered a way up into it. With each revolution he makes, an explosive feeling grows inside him. It rises and rises within him, reaching now to the walls of his chest, now to the top of his head, now to the tips of his fingers, seeking escape. Blocked at every turn by skin and cartilage, bone and hair and muscle mass, the feeling grows desperate. Eventually, the force of its desperation shoves him up against a table in the center of the room. From there it propels him against a chair with thick wooden legs. He kicks at one of the legs, kicks again. Steam releases through his foot.
“Don’t do that.”
The voice like something that has already died comes from behind him.
He goes to another chair. A squat, fat one with upholstered arms and silly white things on the ends of them. He passes by one upholstered arm and then the other and dislodges the silly white things as he passes, shoving them to the floor.
“Pick those up.”
He walks on as if he hadn’t heard.
The voice reaches out for him from beyond the grave or wherever it went when it died. He turns and walks back and picks up one of the silly white things from the floor and returns it to one of the chair’s fat arms. He leaves it there and walks away without caring if it is facing up or down or is in the same spot it had been in when his mother put it there.
“Now the other one.”
The voice is losing strength, but he knows his mother is watching him over the slope of her breast, so he turns and walks back and picks up the other silly white thing from the floor and puts it back on the chair’s other arm.
Already at not quite three Boyd knew there was no escape. Not from the terrible voice. Not from the fixed blue eyes or sparse white hair. Not from the bones of the man himself. His form — the hair, eyes, bones, cadaverously thin body — was the last form of man on earth. The form he and all men and women too would acquire shortly before the end. He knew this even then, at not quite three. He took it as a premonition. Not of something to come, but of something already there. Sitting there in the corner of the room, living with them in the house, living in them, in him, inescapable.
Fate, he would later call it. But at the time he didn’t know what to call it. He could hide himself in his closet jungle for hours, once for nearly a day, but he would have to come out eventually. He would have to eat, shit, piss, sleep, perform his human functions, and then there it would be: the thing he would later call fate. There was no escaping one’s fate. He knew that all the things he would have to do — eat, shit, piss, sleep — simply to sustain life were the very things that would drive him from the closet to confront its end. Already at not quite three, he knew that.
The knowledge provoked a feeling of violence within him. He wanted to smash things, to be cruel to people, to make them suffer. What did it matter if he broke everything in the house, if he told his mother she was ugly, and his father he was stupid, and his baby sister she was an abomination? What did any of it matter if there was no escaping one’s fate?
Boyd was not quite four when his baby sister discovered his secret path. She had just learned to walk and had wandered from their parents’ bedroom, where he and she had been playing, into their parents’ closet. The door had been left ajar, but he hadn’t seen her go in. He was busy trying to make his red block balance on top of his yellow one. It was a tricky operation, for the blocks were slippery, being made of plastic, and the yellow block was balanced precariously, a little to one side, on the green one below it, and the green one was balanced just as precariously on the blue one below, so it required all of his attention to get the red block to sit on the yellow one without falling off or causing all the blocks beneath to topple over. By the time he had achieved this feat and looked around, his sister, who had no interest in his blocks, was gone.
He knew immediately where she was. He ran, but by the time he reached her, she was already on the secret path and halfway to his room. He could not let her proceed. He could not let her leave this place and take the knowledge of its existence with her. He stops her where she is, her body half concealed by their father’s trousers and belts and their mother’s skirts and dresses and long hanging sleeves of her blouses. He tells her she cannot leave. She is the goddess of the jungle, he informs her, and it is her sacred duty to stay and keep guard over it. He can see she likes the idea. Her chin lifts abruptly and her little head jerks from side to side on her neck like a chicken’s, so he tells her he will help her to stay where she is and perform her sacred duty.
“Hold your arms out like this.”
He says he knows it will be hard for her to remain in the required position, arms out, keeping guard over the jungle, for as long as she will have to. And so he will help her. To help her, he ties her up.
“This will make it easier.”
He takes down a few of their father’s leather belts and their mother’s silk scarves, hanging like foliage of various colors and density from hooks on the closet walls, and wraps them around his sister to hold her in place, arms out in an attitude of protection over the jungle. She doesn’t resist, for all the time he is doing it he keeps reminding her that she is the goddess of the jungle with a sacred duty to perform and that this is how she must perform it.
“Like this. Like a goddess.”
He doesn’t know how long she must stay there, he doesn’t tell her this, but he thinks it must be until the knowledge of the secret path passes successfully out of her and back into him, where it will once more become a thing known to no one on the entire planet but him.
It was worse than she thought. He never cared if she lived or died. If anyone did, really.
He understands it might take a long time for the knowledge to pass successfully out of his sister and back into him. He also understands that because she is essentially still a baby who has only just learned to walk but who cannot yet talk, she might grow tired of her sacred duty or even forget that she has one at all. She might completely blow off her task and try to walk out of the secret jungle and, finding herself restrained, might begin to howl in that infuriating way of hers that can go on for hours and would be certain eventually to reach the ears of their parents who, following the trail of her cry, would be led into the jungle where they would find her, tied on the secret path. He cannot let that happen, so he takes down one of their mother’s silk scarves and wads up one end of it and stuffs it into his sister’s mouth. He wraps the other end around her head and loops it through in front to keep it in place. She cannot get at the scarf because her hands are tied and her wrists attached by other scarves to nails he has found driven into the walls on either side of the closet, down low near the floor at about his sister’s height. These scarves will keep her in place, her arms spread in an attitude of sacred protection over the jungle.
Continuing along his secret path, he came to his room. Once inside, he shut the door to the closet behind him and walked across his room and out through the door leading into the hallway. He walked on a few steps down the hallway, turned and walked back into his parents’ room. He went to the closet and shut its door. He doesn’t remember exactly what he did next. He may have taken up another block, perhaps a purple one, and tried to balance it on top of his red one, now sitting more or less securely on top of the yellow one, or he may have gone out into the kitchen to see what his mother was doing. He thinks it likely he did both. First, he would have worked with the purple block, lifting it high into the air and positioning it directly over the red one, then, having made allowances for the blocks’ slippery plastic surfaces and the precarious angles at which each was balanced on the one immediately below — the red one on the yellow, the yellow on the green, the green on the blue — he would have lowered the purple block increment by increment, cautiously bringing the slippery purple and red surfaces closer and closer together until there was only a whisper of air between them, and then not even a whisper and they were joined, one on top of the other, purple surface to red surface. And then he would have gone into the kitchen to see what his mother was doing.
She was baking cookies.
“Chocolate chip,” she said. “Your favorite.”
She pulled them on the rack from the oven and placed the rack on the kitchen table. Boyd climbed onto a stool and put his elbows on the table and leaned into them to look at the cookies. His mother took a spatula and lifted one of the cookies from the rack and placed it on a plate before him. He loved the way the cookies came warm from the oven, and the way when he pulled one apart chips of chocolate turned long and fluid as threads and the threads hung in loops from one edge of the cookie to the other. He loved the feel of the warm chocolate threads on his fingers and tongue. He loved the soft sweet doughy taste of the cookie between his teeth.
“Where’s you sister?” the old man said from the corner of the kitchen where he sat.
Boyd went on eating his cookie.
“Go, bring Alma,” his mother said. “We’ll give her a little piece.”
The first thing he noticed when he went back into the closet and pulled the scarf out of his sister’s mouth was a bit of froth like baby spit-up in a corner of her mouth. As the scarf popped out, the howling came with it. He put his hand over her mouth to shut her up. It revolted him to touch her mouth because he didn’t want to have to touch that frothy piece of spit-up in its corner. But he went ahead and did it anyway, shoving his hand right down hard into the spit-up to shove the howling back down his sister’s throat.
“Cookie,” he said. “Chocolate chip. Mommy baked cookies.”
At the word “cookie” or maybe it was “mommy,” the howling ceased. But only for an instant. Then it started right back up again, gargled now, muffled as it was by his hand, and he thought what it would be like to shut his sister up for good.
He saw the tears in her eyes, the look of absolute terror on her face, and didn’t care.
“Cookie, Alma. Want one? I’ll take you to mommy. I’ll get you a cookie.”
He looked straight down into the terror on her face, and didn’t care. All he cared about was keeping her quiet.
“But you have to be quiet. You have to stop howling. Will you promise to do that? Will you stop?”
But of course she couldn’t answer. She hadn’t yet learned to talk.
“If I take my hand away, will you stop?”
He could do what he liked, and she couldn’t tell a soul because she couldn’t talk.
“Will you, Alma? Will you stop?”
All his life he would be safe because his sister hadn’t yet learned to talk.
And by the time she had learned, she would have forgotten. The scarf in her mouth, her arms spread wide, wrists bound, her terror, his heartlessness, all would be forgotten. For her it would be as if it had never happened. All she would remember of their growing up would be the big brother who taught her to play soccer with a balloon and come down a slide without holding on and to ride a bike and later drive a car and who gave her her first taste of weed and held her head over the toilet when she came home shit-faced from her senior prom. It would be as if she never knew him. The secret of what he has done in this moment in the closet, revealing more or less exactly who he is at his core, will be forever irretrievable to her, buried in the folds of her faded memory. But right now, in this instant, she knows.
“Nod your head if you’ll stop.”
She glares at him over the hand he has clamped hard on her mouth and for this one rapidly receding instant, knows him for who he is.
“Nod, and I’ll take my hand away.”
She nods, and he removes his hand, peeling it back from her mouth like he’s pulling off tape, but keeping the flesh of his palm close to her lips so he can press it down again quickly, should the howling resume.
Once his hand is free, silence reigns over the closet. She has succumbed to his will. He unties her wrists, smoothes her hair, tugs at her shirt, straightens her baby shorts that have been pulled to one side. He throws her a smile, suggesting she’s the one in need of forgiveness, and takes her hand. He walks her off the secret path back through their parents’ room, out through the door leading into the hallway, and down the hallway to the kitchen.
“What happened, Alma?” the old man says the minute he sees her. Boyd follows his sister’s eyes into the old man’s and sees the knowledge of what he did transmitted from her to him. The old man looks at him, and Boyd knows he knows. But he’ll never be able to prove it, for already that knowledge has begun to fade from his sister’s mind.
“Come to me, my pretty,” their mother says. “Why such a sour face? Here’s a cookie, Alma. Will that make you smile?”
And it does. She reaches out, grabs the piece of cookie their mother has broken off for her, and no sooner does her fist close upon the clump of dough and transport it to her mouth than the terrible, unspeakable knowledge of who her brother is fades forever from her memory.
Boyd was not quite five when his grandfather finally left the house. The piano playing ceased. The fixed blue eyes and terrible voice disappeared. The fingers white as bones, the pressure on his cheeks were no more. Yet he remained, a not-quite-five-year-old trapped in the certainty that the old man has seen into his center. He would have overcome that certainty in time, he imagined, and would have come to understand, were he given the chance to know the old man, that one mind cannot read another. But he was never given the chance. For one day the old man was there, the next day not. There was no time to adjust to his leaving or come to understand that he could not see into his heart. No time for the knowledge of the scarf in his sister’s mouth, her arms splayed, her wrists bound, to fade from the old man’s eyes where it never had been, as it had faded from his sister’s eyes, where, in actuality, for the briefest of instants, it had been. For years, Boyd would be haunted by the old man’s eyes and the knowledge he mistakenly believed them to possess. Those eyes and that presumed damning knowledge followed him through the house when he went from being five to six and from six to seven. They followed him from room to room at eight and nine, ten and eleven, twelve and thirteen, rousing him, trembling, through all those years from sleep.
Even now, today, when he looks into the sad, mute eyes of animals, the black orbs of chimpanzees he sees in zoos, or the dark glazed eyes of deer he now and then comes upon dying in the road, the knowledge he believed to lie at the bottom of the old man’s eyes leaps up at him, and nothing else in all the world but himself, heartless and uncaring and stone-cold cruel, is returned to him in their reflection.
Would it always be this way?
There was no one he could ask. The old man was gone. His parents, too. He could ask his sister, he supposed. But it was not quite dawn, and she lived in a different time zone and long ago had forgotten all about it.
But had she, really? Could he be absolutely certain of that?
It’s a bad idea, he knows, but once it’s in his head he can’t get it out.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes. I’m— ”
“Here, I mean. Do you know what time it is here?”
“I was just wondering— ”
“At this hour, you’re wondering?”
“If you remember the closet.”
Arms splayed. Wrists bound. Scarf stuffed in mouth.
“In the old house. I still live there, you know.”
“You called to tell me where you live?”
Goddess of the jungle. Howling in the closet.
“You think I give a shit that you still live in the same fucking house?”
“So, you don’t remember?”
“The closet. It had a secret path. From their room to mine. Nobody knew. Except them, of course. But then they forgot. And I thought, maybe, you.”
“What’s it been, Boyd? Seven, eight years? Not a word. And now you’re calling about some fucking closet. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Nobody. Your brother, I mean.”
“I don’t have a brother.”
“So, you really don’t remember?”
“I’ll tell you what I remember. You were a stupid shit all your life. Didn’t give a damn about anyone except yourself.”
“Okay, let’s leave it at that. Me, a stupid shit. You, a saint.”
“I never said saint.”
“So long, saint.”
“I never said saint.”
“Maybe goddess is more like it. I was right the first time. Goddess of the fucking jungle.”
“What are you talking about?”
He could tell her. He thinks for a moment he might. It would help her get her facts straight. She has his identity essentially down. He never gave a damn for anyone except himself. She’s got that right, but there was, he thought, a fundamental mistake in her assessment. It was worse than she thought. He never cared if she lived or died. If anyone did, really. Not mom or dad or the old man. But it was worse even than that. He’d actively wanted her dead. All of them dead and out of his way. That’s the god’s-honest truth, and why shouldn’t he be truthful now that he had her on the phone and wouldn’t live to see another day? He’d already picked out the bridge. All his life he’d wanted them gone, himself left alone. That’s who he was at his core. Now he’s almost got what he wants, himself the last one standing. Except for her. She’s still standing, even if she’s lying in bed, the phone in her fist, out there in the fucking golden state. The only one between him and his desire to be alone. He could come out there and put an end to her. Fly out and fucking drive a stake through her heart.
“What, Boyd? What are you trying to say?”
“I tucked your hair behind your ears to keep it out of the vomit.”
“You don’t remember, do you?”
“My mistake. I thought you would.”
The flight from the bridge’s railing would be short. He’d be unconscious before he hit the water. A good thing, because he couldn’t swim. But maybe the bridge was a mistake. He was making lots of them lately. This phone call, his guess as to what she’d remember, his idea of identity.
He lays the phone down then picks it up again and holds it to his ear. He listens to her breathing. “I’m sorry,” he says in a voice so low he knows she can’t possibly hear.