My poor brother: he was born a rat, a snake, a wolf, a roach. Our mother tried and tried for another child like me, a plain and smart child, a resourceful child, but it didn’t work out. Each time she birthed him, she cried out in terror and put him back, but he came out a different kind of disappointing every time.
“I wish you would have stopped at snake,” our father said before he packed his things and left.
“I’m not the one who wanted another mouth to feed,” our mother yelled after him.
I blame my father’s genes—he’s the sort of man who always keeps you guessing.
Our mother made herself a protein shake and took to her bed, where she cursed our father loud enough all the neighbors could hear.
I rocked my brother to sleep but could do nothing for my mother. She cried through the night, and in the morning her sheets were cold and damp, and her face had puffed like risen dough. She plucked my brother from my fingers and carried him to the backyard. She dropped him where the woods started and said, “Nature will take care of that. If he survives a day, I’ll reconsider.”
I followed my mother back to the house and made her a pot of chamomile tea. I wrapped her feet in a warm blanket.
“What I really want,” she said, “is a piece of chocolate cake.”
I baked the cake and frosted it as smoothly as I could. The trick is the crumb coat. We ate the cake together, slice after slice, until we were sick.
“What I really want,” she said, “is something for my sore stomach.”
I measured out medicine in a cup and watched her gulp it down.
“I’d like to see you try having a baby that many times. You don’t know what it does to you. I’m so tired,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek.
While she slept, I snuck out the back door to check on my brother. The boy who lived in the yellow house next door was watering his lawn, the hose coiled behind him.
“I always forget before school,” he said. “And the grass is always dying. I’m always killing it, I guess is what I mean.”
I nodded and kept walking. I never know what to say to the people who can see in our windows. What have you seen and what did you miss? I feel I should ask.
“Also,” he said, “I’m sorry about your father. I heard your mother say a lot of bad things about him.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
I hurried to the trees and called to my brother. He appeared from under a stone, small and shivering in the moonlight.
“Hey,” I said, “I brought you this.” I unwrapped the last slice of cake from my napkin and set it on the ground. He made a bed in the middle layer, and in the morning my mother found him perched on the porch light, a mouse-brown moth.
“Oh!” she said, “it’s you. I want to let you in, but look what you’ve done to me. Look how you’ve made me cry. Why can’t you frost cakes like your sister?” She swatted at him with her hands and chased him with a newspaper, but he flew back to the woods and disappeared in the trees.
“If he can last three days,” my mother sighed, “maybe I’ll let him in.”
I am my mother’s first child, and I’m told that’s why she loves me. When I was born my mother bragged to everyone that I was the smartest, the prettiest, the quietest. She said either it was a miracle, or I had come from another man.
My father was jealous of the other husbands on the block, who all had boys. He begged my mother for a son, and she finally agreed. She did whatever the other wives told her to do, my mother said. They’d had luck with eating only red meat, sleeping with pillows stacked under their knees, and letting the hair on their legs grow long. My mother sucked on cubes of steak, never let her knees skim the mattress, and threw her razors in the trash.
All week after my brother was born, she called the other wives to demand an explanation, and I listened on the other line, swallowing my breath. “I followed every rule,” she said. “See what you’ve done to me? I’m all alone, and I’ve got a daughter to raise.”
What did you expect, the women said. Your husband is a rat. Your husband is a snake. Your husband is a wolf.
As far as I know, my father was none of these things. As far as I know, my father is a ghost.
I whispered my brother’s name in the woods, and he flew to my side. With a piece of wool I coaxed him into a jar and sealed the lid.
“It’s for your own good,” I promised. I spread the branches of a blackberry bush and stashed the jar where the thorns would protect him.
Three days later my mother found him on our doorstep, a cotton-tailed rabbit. She lifted him by the ears, which I thought especially cruel, and carried him back to the woods. “If he survives a week,” she said to me, “I might change my mind.”
Between the pages of my mother’s romance novels, I pressed lettuce leaves for my brother, petals of spinach. After my father left, she’d passed the books down to me. Remember, she said, none of this is true. In the woods I tore out whole chapters and my brother shredded them for a nest. When he took the food from my hand, his teeth were sharp; his nose nudged my palm.
I gathered dead branches from oak and dogwood and pine. I piled them together as if I was building a fire, and I hid my brother from the hawks that circled overhead, calling and clawing at the sky. I felt their shadows tapping against the top of my head.
The first time I felt my father’s hands was in the kitchen pantry. He said he was searching for food. Cans rolled from the shelves and fell around our feet. Later, to make him angry, I stripped the labels and put them back naked, stacks of mystery soups.
The fourth night I saw my brother hop across the yard. He hunched under the light of a neighbor’s porch, thinking he’d been caught. The bulb’s eye was trained for movement, but he couldn’t understand that. Somewhere on the street a dog’s howl rumbled from its throat, and my brother was scared into running again, shot right back into the dark.
The family at the end of the street had three dogs, each houndier than the last. The sons loved their dogs; they fed them rats and squirrel tails; they trained them to hunt and tear and eat. All my dreams were of my brother’s flesh open, my brother’s throat in their throats, my brother’s bones shined pearly and wet with spit.
In the morning I found my mother sitting at the table with her robe wrapped tight, sucking another protein shake through a straw. She needed to get her strength back, she said. My brother had worn her down, and everything was his fault.
“My muscles are pudding, my body’s stretched out of shape,” she sang.
I made her peanut butter toast and hugged my backpack against my chest. I pretended to catch the bus but doubled back through the woods instead.
Behind all our houses ran a fence of trees; behind that a ravine filled with fallen leaves and poison oak, a thin stream one rainless month from evaporating. The boys played hide and seek down there. The boys played cowboys and Indians—they didn’t care which as long as they got to scalp. The hounds buried the bones of the animals they’d killed. Halfway to my yard I saw the boy from the yellow house. His jeans were smeared with mud; his hands were bound with a jump rope, and they’d taken his shoes and tied a bandana over his face.
“I didn’t want to go to school either,” I joked. He stumbled toward my voice.
“They did this,” he said.
I said, “Oh,” as if I didn’t know already what had happened, as if boys weren’t capable of everything I knew they were.
In the bathroom my father let the water run, a drop at a time in the tub. I put in the stopper and tried to drown him, but all that did was flood the floor. See the mess my father made? I complained to the mop. There are stains of him there that can’t be scrubbed away.
I don’t know why my father’s a ghost if he’s not dead.
The last day my brother was a rabbit, the weather turned bitter. The sky was one huge cloud, hoary and edgeless. I pulled on socks and mittens; I twisted a scarf around my neck and pretended it was my brother as a snake. The hounds refused to leave their garage, and my mother refused to leave her bed.
“You’ve been spending too much time outside,” she said. “In here it’s better. In here there’s a stillness. What I’d really like is some soup,” she said. “Maybe it’s only my soul that’s tired.”
I cut open one of the naked cans and heated it. I served it on a tray, breakfast-in-bed like, with a sleeve of crackers and a napkin folded into a swan. I lit ten candles on her nightstand.
“I made you a fireplace,” I said. “Can you hear it crackle?” My mother ate everything but the spoon.
She licked the cracker salt from her fingers and said, “I think I’m finding my appetite again. It’s been lost for so long. Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t want another child. I birthed him anyway, as many times as I could stand. I can’t take a rabbit in this house. I won’t allow a rabbit in our home.”
But I was looking past her, out the window to our yard, where the boy from the yellow house stood with my brother in his hands.
My father was a hunter. He needed no camouflage because his skin took on the color of every tree, his eyes the wild look of any animal. When he first brought me to the woods, the creek was full and glinting. I tried to catch minnows in my fingers, but they were too fast, too slippery, shimmering under the surface and then gone. My father and I walked along the creek for hours before the sun came up and after. The houses and our street felt far away, part of another world we might never get back to. When I was tired, my father cradled me in one arm, gun in the other. “We are listening,” he said, “for fear.”
I saw the shape in the grass first, a place where the growth had been pressed flat, folded against the ground as if by my mother and her iron.
“That’s a deer bed,” my father said. I lay on the ground and fit my body into the shape of a sleeping deer. “Stay there,” he said. “It’s close.”
When he dragged the deer back to me, I was still in the bed, waiting. The doe was young, not much bigger than me, and stunned by the wound on its neck. Her eyes were black marbles spinning.
“Piebald,” my father said. “I’ve never seen one.” He positioned the deer on her back and pushed the tongue inside her mouth. Her belly was white, a splotch of brown, a splotch of pink between the legs. “Watch this,” my father said, and sliced through fur from breastbone to tail.
My father’s ghost has held me in his arms, kissed me on my cold-chapped lips. I don’t want a son, I’ve told him. I won’t have a son.
I left my mother in her bed and ran outside. No doors or walls could stop me. The boy from the yellow house wrapped his fingers around my brother’s middle. He knelt next to our mailbox.
“He won’t stop kicking,” he said. “This rabbit bit me.”
“He’s mine,” I said. “He’s mine and no one else’s.”
“We all know about him.” The boy tightened his grip. “They want to see him. The other boys asked me to find him.” There were bruises up and down his legs, his shins rainbowed with blood stuck under skin. I could hear the boys hollering, yelping from some distant backyard.
“Hey,” I said. “I know you. You’re not the same. Please,” I said.
The boy held my brother close and ran. I chased him down the street, screaming at him to stop, but he didn’t until we came to the other boys. They stood in a circle, laughing, bandanas covering everything but their eyes.
“Give us that!” one of them yelled. His tennis shoes were pocked with teeth marks—he was one of the boys with the hounds. The pants he wore were cuffed and dragged against the ground, hand-me-downs from his brothers. Some of the boys carried sticks, and I knew I had come to a place I didn’t belong, to a ritual I couldn’t know.
“Just go take it from him,” another boy said.
The boy from the yellow house looked at me and looked away. “I did it,” he said. “I brought him here myself, and he bit my wrist.” He showed off his blood but none of the boys cared. The boy with the cuffed pants whistled and the dogs sat at his feet, whining and shaking, their jaws open and ready.
“Wait,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“Oh, she’s got a knife,” one of the boys said.
I imagined my father’s instructions: firm and quick. His ghost had become a butcher, too. I thought of the piebald pelt he’d taken with him when he left. He’d hung the doe by the head and started at the neck, peeling skin from skeleton like a piece of fruit. Half deer, half spilled stuffing.
I thought, this is not my brother—a rabbit, a moth, a roach—my brother is hiding inside. I held the knife in one hand and the rabbit in the other, and I remembered what my father had said about first stripping the silverskin to get to the heart of the thing underneath.
“Brother and Sister” was first published in The Mauve Issue.