I wonder, then, if people work the same way. If our experiences are like a liquid poured into the cask of our being, and slowly, ever so slowly, we begin to lose some of these moments; until we are left with only the strongest, most precious, of memories.
Remember that time, walking to school, the tiger chained in the back of the pickup truck? It stood there, its head rocking back and forth as if we asked it a question and it was answering ‘no’. We talked about what it would be like if the truck got into an accident and the tiger escaped; if it had been able to break free and it ran away and hid in the orchards behind our house. That we would find it in an apricot tree, licking its paws, tail hanging down swishing from side to side.
I said that I would run and you said that you would walk up to it and give it a candy bar and make friends. I laughed at you because I knew a tiger could eat you up and that would be the end. You reminded me that it had to have been put in the truck to begin with and that it was probably tame. You were right, and so together we figured out a plan to keep the tiger safe from hunters, building a shed in the orchard or fake wall in the garage. The truck long since gone from our view.
People have asked me, “Was the bed of the truck covered?”
And I tell them, “No, it was open. An old blue ranch truck. Almost too small to hold something that big.”
They don’t believe me. Of course not. Because that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not real. I remember. But you were there, too. You saw.
I remember the time when you came home from school in tears because of the picture they had drawn of you in one of your classes. It was passed around, and comments were added. I never knew what was drawn or what was said. The kid who started it, he lived three streets away from us and I did know who he was, what house he lived in. I know you watched me walk out the front door, you sat huddled against the living room wall refusing to talk, to show any understanding of what was around you. Like you were numb and lifeless, like you wanted to die. But I know you watched me leave. I went and knocked on that kid’s door. I wondered what I would do if his parents answered, my fears mixing and sloshing in my head, making all my attempts at reason muddy. But he answered, and I pushed my way toward him swinging.
When it was all said and done, I had a broken nose and I could not see out of my right eye for days. I sat with you on the curb across from that kid’s house, listening to him cry about how it wasn’t his fault. Our parents were talking angrily with his parents, a conversation heated and burned, and you said to me, “Get your ass kicked for taking on someone who’s older’n stronger than you.”
But you woke up out of that numb he put you in. You gave me that look and I just mumbled you’re welcome under my breath.
I think it was a few years later, I held your hand. That one night when you were afraid the doctors were going to come and take you back to the hospital. You didn’t want Mom and Dad to know so I crawled down from the top bunk and told you it would be ok. That the doctors were trying to help. But you said they were killing you, nobody understood. It was hard, you were so much bigger than me, what could I do? You leaned over and cried into my shoulder because it hurt so much. And I just sat on the floor as you lay in the bed curled in pain, with your head resting on my shoulder. I cried too.
You shook when you cried, until there was nothing left.
I tried telling Mom about that night, now that I am older, how afterwards you left for a few months and I could not see you, but she said that it never really happened that way.
But you said it did… You said it did, you repeated it back to me, and I remembered with you - just before…
When we went to church that one time and afterwards you showed me the secret rock where you hid your Shadowman cards. We were not allowed to see R-rated horror movies, and when Shadowman came out, the closest we could come to seeing it were trading cards that had pictures from the movie. Your first pack was taken away, but your second pack was hidden under a rock in the bushes in the church playground. You were sure that no preschooler would find them - and you were right. We sat with other kids and went through the stack of eight, holding each card as if it were our first time seeing it. It wasn’t our first time, you had them there for a month, four Sundays of contraband. We strained over each one for fear of forgetting, even though we had looked at each card enough we could describe it in detail, and remember it perfectly. You said there was magic in just being able to hold them. The perfect gloss of each cardboard slowly getting rubbed away until each picture was a ghost of what it was.
I don’t remember his name, but I saw one of our Sunday school friends not that long ago. He had recognized me, though when we were catching up he had no recollection of ever looking at Shadowman trading cards at church. Which was weird because, the more I tried to remember, the more it seemed he was the one who was most excited about seeing them when we were excused. He didn’t have anybody to share in the memory with, I guess.
That is, until he started talking with me; but, by then it was too late and that memory had evaporated.
There is still the binder in my closet, where we kept the cards long after Mom and Dad gave into letting us see the movie. It might be the only proof, as I can still pull out the age worn cards that were hidden under a rock, eventually lost in the mix of the rest of the collection.
You know, I think we were allowed to go see that movie once the news was delivered. Nightmares, the real ones, were what we saw when we were awake - so Dad was perfectly fine with letting us watch the make-believe. And because there was something to celebrate. How could one forget the smiles on Mom and Dad’s faces when the doctor came into the hospital room and said one simple word? Remission. We all smiled and he patted you on the shoulder and told you to “keep tough.” The sounds of footfalls echoed when the nurses walked past, in another room a young child was screaming, outside a car honked. But in our little space, we just looked at each other smiling. I can even remember the art on the walls, simple crayon drawings on white paper. Simple suns illuminated a world of stark greens and browns and blues and that dark place that once filled our hearts.
And that was a nice memory, but I still go back to the time we went camping. The four of us. It was the last time we ever went anywhere as a family, our last vacation. We were sitting at our campsite table as Mom and Dad packed up the car. Both our sleeping bags were soaking wet – mine after trying to wash off some honey smeared on the inside, yours because revenge tastes sweeter that honey. We were being forced to forgive each other, and were relegated to the table until we were talking civilly. You had nothing to say, you had already said it; I was not allowed to speak or you would have punched me… and then things would have really started. Yet Mom and Dad did not want a fight in the backseat and figured we could sort it out before leaving. If the bags were dry before the two of us had reconciled, we were both going to be sorry.
So we sat there staring at each other and I could tell you wanted to hit me, which is always a good thing for me, because I knew you wouldn’t. I reached across the table and flicked your hand, subtle.
But then, in the midst of our anger, you looked up at me in a way I had never seen before. “Do you hear that?”you asked me. And for a moment I did not. I looked around and heard campers, Mom and Dad, car tires on the gravel road. But then, above all the typical noises, I did hear it. A murmuring, spoken so quickly I wondered if it was another language. As I listened closer it sounded like a room filled with people, each one carrying on a conversation. Every now and then I was able to pick a word or two; however, there was no way to follow any one voice, no way to understand what was being said. I looked at you, “I can hear it. But what is it?”
“Do you remember that field we passed yesterday?”
“It’s kind of close? The one with the graveyard?”
“Yeah. I heard the same thing when we passed it. Except it was louder.”
And then you smiled at me. A slow mournful smile that was supposed to tell me something; but I didn’t understand. You asked if you could go to the bathroom, and our parents looked at me to see how the lesson in forgiveness was coming along. I gave the thumbs up and you were allowed to go. You looked back like you expected me to follow; when I didn’t, you turned and kept walking.
You didn’t come back.
We waited for a few hours before the panic in Mom and Dad finally boiled over and they called the police to report their missing child. I hung back, next to the patrol car, waiting for one of the officers to ask me some questions. I closed my eyes, felt the sun on my face, and heard someone whisper, This way. Upon opening my eyes, I saw there was no one around me. The command was such I did not think to ask any questions, but to do as directed. The voice was easy enough to follow. And as I looked in the direction the voice came from something inside me became lighter.
So I went that way, past the bathrooms, past the group campsites, and into the forest. There was a small trail, easy enough to discern, and the moments when I thought I might lose it I was redirected with that feeling. It was like nothing I had ever felt, addictive. At times I would look down at my body, or lift my hands to my face just to make sure I was not disappearing. This had to be what it felt like to vanish into nothing, a calm fading into the unknown. The moment it felt like I would lose it, I did everything in my power to keep it.
In that euphoria, guided by voices, I stumbled out of the forest and into a field. It was easy enough to recognize. Had you not mentioned it earlier, I might have never given it a second thought. Like any piece of farmland in Vermont, this field had a specific line dividing it from the forest, the graveyard was nestled directly across from where I stood just at that line. Rounds of hay dotted the landscape like carcasses of some ancient beast, small yellow flowers, continuing to bloom, speckled the field. The grass came up to my shins, sometimes tangling me, forcing me to take it slow. There had to be a farmhouse nearby, I was just too busy to see where it was, and didn’t really care. I had a purpose I was still trying to figure out.
It took a while to cross that open space, but there was no question where I was being guided.
The gate was left open and I entered. There were sounds all around me, their voices deafening. Until then the murmuring had been a background chorus to the one voice; once I entered, the conversations boomed and the solitary voice became silent. Five gravestones stuck out of the ground, the dates and memories sloppily etched into them. They barely crested the overgrown grass and weeds. In the back, just beyond the stones, she stood there, on a podium, with her arms stretched out. The sleeveless gown she wore was draped over her and delicately hung in ripples and folds over her perfect body. Her hair fell over her shoulders, her wings outstretched in preparation for flight. In her arms you slept and she looked down upon you with a kind benevolence, almost sorrowful.
While I wanted so badly to approach you, to wake you, there was something about the concrete figure who held you that kept me rooted in place. I wish I could say it was knowing, in some weird way, that she was what kept you safe. However, it was fear that kept me from moving any further. The realness of the circumstances had caught up with me; while I was not completely sure of the voices I was hearing, I was growing more confident it was not the voices of the dead.
How strange it truly was: There was my brother asleep in the arms of a concrete angel who lovingly looked down upon him.
It was when she turned her head to look at me I began to walk towards the two of you. I kept waiting to watch a tear run down her cheek, but she just stared at me, blinking. Those few short steps it took to get to you were the longest steps of my life. Sometimes, in the midst of all the strangeness, one understands the peculiarity of the situation. Statues do not move, and my heart beat faster knowing that.
She knelt down, presenting you to me. When I touched your hand, you became… I can only describe it as transparent, yet your outline was still visible. The only thing I could see were the veins and arteries of your system, a road map of the body. Within the blood lines, there were glowing dots traveling up and down. They would split and multiply, continually moving through the blood stream. They were so bright.
How it occurred to me, I may never fully understand, though I have my suspicions. In looking into your body, I slowly began to understand what I was seeing. These dots were seething up and down the blood lines and the more they spread the brighter everything became; until it all ended in a brilliant flash and there you were laying on the ground as real and solid as you had ever been.
I met her eyes. Though made from stone, they carried the depth of the heavens and the universe. They sparkled, yet carried a weight unmeasurable. I understood so much and so little. But also, within that gaze, she answered the thoughts I was too scared to speak. Instead of witnessing a miracle, I had been chosen to bear witness to your fate, to understand there are some things even heaven above can’t alter.
Because some things just were.
And there she left us, standing erect on her pedestal, arms at her side, head turned to look down at the grave she presided over. She never flew away, she just became… still. A concrete angel in a small graveyard, as she always was.
We were found a few hours later. The owner of the field had watched us enter and called the police – something kept him from going to speak to us himself. I wonder, did he ever see the spectacle of stone? Could I talk to him today and share this memory? I sat with you and held you close to me, refusing to let you go even under the watchful eye of our parents. Even though you were bigger it seemed easy enough. You woke later that evening, remembering only the voices at the picnic table, the strange dream that you confided to me later....
The dream where I confirmed it was really no dream at all.
There are so many things which have happened later. Sometimes I wonder how much of it was through guidance, someone watching over us. I’m not one for the idea of miracles, no tampering with the inevitable. But perhaps–just maybe–there is the intervention in easing the pain as it comes along.
So it was, months afterwards, during a scheduled doctor’s appointment, you and I looked at each other knowing what he would tell us. Our need to deny was no longer allowed, a privilege we could no longer indulge in.
That was the night you cried into my shoulder.
How long did we live like that? The pain and the needles and the doctors?
And then, for someone who had always been in my life, from the day I was born, you were gone. I could no longer find you when I needed to rant and rave, to vent and fight against the world. No longer could I seek you out for the firm touch of reality when everything seemed so abnormal.
But, just as bad, when you left, you took our memories with you. That was part of the tragedy, wasn’t it? That I was now left to revel in my childhood alone, wondering the reality of it. Memories became stories when there was no longer anybody to share them with. Nobody who remembered. What parts of my memories had become the angel’s share?
You took our childhood with you in your passing.
Copyright © 2014 Devin Bradley
Devin Bradley is a middle school teacher in the foothills of northern California. He spends much of his free time with his two sons, wife, and two dogs. When there are free moments in his life, he has found a few hobbies that distract him from much needed chores around the house. He has a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing through Southern New Hampshire University.
Writing has been a long time passion of Devin’s. He is excited to have his story "Angel’s Share" published by The Tower Journal.