Two Brothers Cut from Stars
Two brothers, Bull and Whip, hold unsteady the thwart of a boat in the rough waters of a great lake in the heartland. Bull leans over the hull and vomits. The vomit dissolves in the water like miracles. He presses his hands into the water. They will not dissolve. They ache. Splinters vessel through the skin of his fingers from when he feared letting go, from when Whip forced him to let go, prying his fingers from the bulkhead.
Whip demanded Bull stroke. Bull will stroke no more. “I’m sick of the water,” Bull says. Whip pulls Bull away from the hull. Bull collapses onto the bottom boards. “You don’t hurt me,” Bull says.
Whip kneels beside Bull. Whip touches Bull’s face. “Brother.”
“Where are we?”
“Won’t know for sure until Polaris.”
It has been three days at lake. Three days of clear as day, of night full of stars, of looking out, of feeling adrift, drifting, of cozying beneath the thwart, of lying back to bottom boards, of feet dangling over the hull, of pacing.
It is the fourth day and the boat is filling with water. It must have been the pacing. It must have been the bottoms of their feet made tough by the mountains. Where the bottom boards connect at mast there is a hole.
“How deep’s it look to you?” Whip says.
“I can’t swim,” Bull says. He tries to plug the hole with an oar.
“You’re making it worse.”
“No. It is worse.”
The brothers are sinking. They stand on their tiptoes until their standing becomes floating. The lake wraps around their necks. Whip reaches for Bull. Bull reaches for the buoyancy of the fish in the lake. Night falls on them like shot canvasback.
The brothers are all that is left of a name. Their mother aneurismed on the porch swing. Their father shotgunned himself the same evening. They buried them body on body in a hole they dug up in the backyard. It was Bull’s first time with a shovel. “It’s like rowing,” Whip said. And they rowed hard. The dirt kicked up and matted thick on their skin. They were blackened and browned when they had finished.
“It’s all ours now,” Bull said.
The brothers rinsed themselves off with the hose. The brothers stood clean the rest of the night in front of the grave.
The morning brought the sheriff with a notice.
“But it’s ours,” Bull said.
“Can’t be,” the sheriff said. “With what money?”
“I smell it. Can’t just bury folks with no permit. Was it even sermoned?”
“Just us,” Whip said.
“I see no collar on you boys. Makes you no more than I am. I wouldn’t bury no folks with no permit.”
“We didn’t know,” Bull said.
“No one knows, is the thing. No will, no nothing. It isn’t by birth anymore. It’s by law. You have to vacate. Your way or mine.”
They were given two days. Bull cried until the grave was mud.
“There’s always somewhere else,” Whip said.
“You don’t know it,” Bull said.
“I heard it on the radio.”
“You never been nowhere outside the radio.”
“We have to go.”
Bull tried to pull himself out of the mud. Bull was half-swallowed. Whip wrapped his arms around Bull and lifted. It didn’t work. Bull sank deeper. Bull was crying again.
“You aren’t dead,” Whip said.
“I’m touching them,” Bull said.
The brothers left for anywhere. Whip led. Whip could kill. Whip could make fire. Bull didn’t know east or west from death. Bull followed. The brothers crossed the plains and the shallow rivers with ease. Then came the mountain like fists. “We can turn back,” Bull said.
“To what?” Whip said. Whip lay his hands on the side of the mountain. “You climb first. I can catch you.”
The brothers climbed through the cold and into more cold. Bull doubled over on a ridge. Whip shook Bull by his shoulders. “We can’t stop moving.” Whip carried Bull up the mountain. The brothers faced the moon and stars at summit. “Dippers,” Whip said.
“Brothers,” Bull said.
Whip disappeared into the brush to gather boughs for the fire. Bull ripped the dead skin off his hands and feet. Bull had stones stuck inside his blisters. He shivered. “Fire.”
Whip reappeared. “I don’t see it.”
Whip pulled a spyglass from his pocket. The fire was in the valley. “A cabin.”
Bull saw clouds moving closer. “We’re not dead. Right?”
“You’re not dead.” Whip built the fire. The brothers lay together by the fire.
“Do you think they can see us?” Bull said.
“A hunter, is all. Or no one.”
“Or a family.”
“Nothing raised up here but stones and smoke.”
“You really think?”
Bull rubbed his hands together until the stones inside his blisters turned to charcoal. “I don’t believe you,” Bull said. “No one comes this far to be alone.”
Bull is beneath the surface. Bull is thinking death. Whip yells, “Rope.” Whip bandages it around Bull. Whip lifts Bull back to surface. The brothers are pulled to shore. Bull collapses onto the sand. Whip shakes himself dry. “Thank you,” Whip says. Whip is speaking to a girl in a sequin dress.
“My hair,” she says.
Bull has his hands around his throat trying to force breathing. “Whip.”
Whip puts his lips close to Bull’s. “I can’t. I’m blood.”
The girl in the sequin dress pulls Whip from Bull. She presses her lips onto Bull’s. She sucks the water out of Bull’s lungs. The water smokes out of Bull’s throat. The girl in the sequin dress’s eyes fill with water. Now she is choking. Whip takes her by the hair and pulls her close to his chest. Whip reaches into her throat and pulls out ribbons of smoke. She turns to Bull. “We’re not dead,” she says. She unties her hair from the brothers’ waists.
Whip combs through it with his fingers. “It’s beautiful.” Whip and the girl in the sequin dress coil it into two spools. She stands between the brothers tall as a needle.
Whip loosened the boat from the pier. “It’s fate.”
Bull was shaken by not being able to see across the lake. “If we don’t make it?”
The brothers pushed off. The brothers rowed towards the sun that lay on the surface of the water. Bull’s chest felt tight. “I can’t do it any longer.”
Bull looked into the water. Fish opened their mouths at the surface like beggars.
“Fine,” Whip said. “Break.”
“Who taught you swimming anyhow?”
“I learned with floats.”
“Dress up, is what it sounds like.”
“I cut them off when I got good.”
Bull dug his palms into the bulkhead. “Bullshit.”
“Bullshit yourself. Floats is something that’s always been. Dad said so. He learned that way too.”
“Before us happened.”
“Dad wouldn’t learn himself with floats.”
“It’s always been learning with floats. Long as there are people, there are floats. Same as anything else natural in the world. Same as hats, even. There’ll always be hats because of heads. And if even we lose our heads, if we turn into headless things, there’ll still be hats. We’ll wear them where our heads were. The nub of our necks. I bet you we call them hats heads. We’ll wear hats up on our hats we call heads.”
“Dad said all that?”
“I get to thinking sometimes. I think, sometimes, when you’re not looking.”
“Mom said when water’s above the knees, it’s over. I remember that much.”
Whip leaned in close to Bull. Bull’s eyes were welled up with water. Whip took Bull by the hair. Whip let Bull’s head near the water. “I have you,” Whip said. “If you’re sick, it’s okay. It’s just you and me.”
Bull vomited. The fish scattered. He wiped his face with his sleeve. “How far?”
Whip cupped his hands and drank from the water. “It ain’t an ocean.”
“Does that mean soon?”
“We haven’t eaten,” Bull says.
The girl in the sequin dress takes him to a stone. “Sleep.” She sets Bull’s head on the stone. She blankets Bull with sand and smaller stones.
Whip combs the beach with his fingers.
The girl in the sequin dress braids and unbraids her hair. Bull watches. Her dress is stars. Her body is moon. Bull feels adrift.
Whip tosses seashells and seaglass into the water. “It’s all shit.”
Bull shivers. The sand and the small stones isn’t enough. The girl in the sequin dress braids a blanket from her hair. She sets it on Bull. “Is this enough?” she says. “I’m no mother.”
“I’m no child,” Bull says.
“You’re the baby, aren’t you? Your brother is good for you.”
Bull closes his eyes thinking it might stop the girl in the sequin dress from speaking. She sings him a lullaby.
“I found a hook,” Whip says.
“I thought I had lost all my passions,” the girl in the sequin dress says. She begins her song all over again.
Whip crawls to Bull. Whip shakes Bull. “Look.” Whip digs the hook into his arm. It splinters out the other side.
Bull touches Whip’s wound. “It’s a good hook.”
“Is it enough?” Whip sharpens the hook against the stone. There are sparks. They fall hot on Bull’s cheeks.
“That’s enough,” Bull says.
Whip threads the hook with a strand of the girl in the sequin dress’s hair. She blushes. Whip casts the line into the lake. Bull casts his eyes upon the stars.
The swing stayed swinging. The brothers’ mother’s body dropped onto the porch. Her impact made the brothers quiet.
“Is someone trying to get in?” Bull said.
“Mama’s outside,” Whip said. The brothers went to the porch. The brothers lay next to their mother until their father came home. He stepped over their bodies. “Boys,” he said. He took the brothers by their hands. He led the brothers to their beds.
“But Mama,” Bull said.
“You be good brothers to each other,” their father said. “What’s important now is blood.” Their father’s blood covered the balcony and the body of their mother.
Bull found the shovels from when there was a garden. Whip pulled the bodies to where there was a garden. The brothers unsettled the dirt.
“Is this love?” Bull said.
Whip pushed the bodies into the hole. “I think so.”
“What about us?” Bull said. His crying dampened the bodies. “It isn’t love without all of us.”
“Caught one,” Whip says. Whip bassinettes a large fish with his shirt. The girl in the sequins builds a fire. She blows into it and the fire grows. Bull pushes the blanket off his body. Bull aches from the stone. Whip carries the fish to the fire. Bull carries the stone to the fish. “No,” Whip says. “Let her.” The girl in the sequin dress takes the stone from Bull. She lifts it over her head. Whip straddles the fish to keep it from moving. The girl in the sequin dress brings it down onto the fish’s head. The fish doesn’t die.
“I told you,” Bull says. Bull tries to lift the stone over his own head. Bull can’t. Bull loses his balance. Bull falls onto the sand. The stone falls beside him.
“No matter,” Whip says. Whip and the girl in the sequin dress switch positions. The fish quivers between her thighs. Whip takes the hook and latches it to the cord at the base of the fish’s throat, the tendon between the gills. Whip rips it apart. Whip bends the fish’s head back until it snaps off the fish’s spine. The fish squirts.
“My dress,” the girl in the sequin dress says. She takes it off. She sets it next to the fire to dry. Whip tears the fish open. Whip sets skin-side out it on the fire to cook. Whip removes his clothes. Whip gives it to the girl. She refuses. They stand naked near the fire.
Bull keeps his distance from them. “We should have kept going,” Bull says.
The fish’s bones crackle in the fire.
“It’s finished,” Whip says. Whip and the girl tear the meat off the fish’s bones with their teeth.
“We need to keep going,” Bull says.
Whip gives Bull the caudal fin. “Eat while it’s hot,” the girl says. “Things don’t keep so well around here.” She drapes herself over Whip. They are full. They fall asleep.
Bull fingers the caudal fin. It is sharp. It draws blood.
Whip and the girl wake entangled. The fire is dead. It is morning. The girl washes her hair in the water. Whip calls for Bull. There’s no answer but the water and the breeze lifting from the water and pushing through the trees. “He’s gone,” Whip says.
“There’s no way to be gone here,” she says. “The yonder is just thick. You can’t escape it.”
Whip goes to the thick. Whip looks through it with his spyglass. The girl pries the spyglass from Whip’s fingers. She buries it in the sand. She wraps her hair around Whip. “Stay,” she says.
“Let him come back. There’s nowhere to go but home.”
“This isn’t home.”
“It can be. You’re brothers.”
Bull is lost in the thick. The trees are sapping. Bull tastes it until his teeth ache and his stomach hurts. Bull wants to keep going. The only going left is up. Bull digs into the bark of a tree with the caudal fin. Bull carves his way to the top of it. Bull stands breathless on a bough. Bull looks out at what he is now overhead. His height warms his blood like look at me. Bull lies back. His comfort is broken by the shame he feels for the vastness that still hangs above him. Bull reaches for the vastness. There is so much that he wants to touch but can’t. The sun goes goodbye. Polaris goes this way. And the dippers go you can have all of what you can hold.
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