Drew Knapp is currently working in a communications support role at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. He has previously published work in Hobart, Thought Catalog, Corium, Eunoia, Maudlin House, and others. His piece “A first rule for sons still engaging in fistfights” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by the Citron Review. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached via Twitter @tha_god_thoth.
There had never been churches in our lives, but there had been church, and this is how we found ourselves daylong in the saddles of foaming opal riding cars to the coming of the funeral—to cauterize a thing babbling to be healed. Sunlight—crossfire of rays and shadows, lit up the small town, houses built like temples. A half-sister barely known told fortunes and might have prophesied a love letter, though not one like I had received. That seed had since become a world of blossom and bark that hid in the hollows of my day. In the hours between its arrival and the procession I had alternately ravished and disowned the thing—but here and now I had quenched that iron lest it outglow the hovering radiance shielded by the envelope tucked within my pocket. Like a mirage, if seen from a remote stand the lover was refreshing, and like a mirage, only dust and heat lied at her center.
Citrus was a county full of fierce Christians and when a storm came through it left the creeks swollen like fat veins and the Clovis farm streaked with after-rain. It had poured the day before the funeral and the cows had set—swaying and wheezing—in the thick, murky puddles and lost themselves to mute philosophy. The dead we gathered to celebrate was none other than Jackie English, the late wife of my brother Zeb, and Mother: preface me with only was the prayer loosed this morning. “Gone are the black yards of lovers,” roiled on the preacher, “the days of no texture, replaced with a mustering of stark and diagonal violence—the use of ‘earnest’ as a slur. The mind will not cradle too much of any given sadness before it chokes and spits up, before it reconsiders.” And this is how we found ourselves—standing to the left of a wye oak, over the body of Jackie the dead—the living brother beside me a bitter thing who whistled like wind through teeth, his pale, simpering body bent in arcs, unforgiving, forgetting to take over for the suit he’d spent so many months’ rent on, unaware of the deep invalidation I carried in my pocket.
I sat with my mother, and Lord, there’d been a time when she’d cared. Wept hot tears like a wooden Virgin in some church in Mexico—believed in miracles—but the death of her husband years back had turned the farm into an incoherent kingdom, played out for crop, but good land for sitting and staring. She’d acquired the morals of a shark over a series of decades then tuned them down again to static, waiting—most days—for the first drink or the next cigarette, while she watched the summers fever-peel paint from post and wondered what to do with the two mottled, maculate angels left in her charge. She’d raised us right—me and Zeb—been there for each deferential sir, each honeyed ma’am, and on the occasional heavy, drowned-washrag nights she’d sat in the dark with us and tested the blindness of our faces. As we grew and our sandwich crusts gathered next to greasy sink broth, we’d learned to work the farm and—in a generation—begun to turn around the sandbox where a few tarry bushes had run aground and been abandoned by our elders. Together today for the first time in half a decade, she and I watched the line form for the whispering, a tradition whereby people recite some last goodbye to the dead and leave a token of memory in the empty space around the body. Zeb went first, kneeling to the casket in silence beneath two dead trees soldiering up a rise to the right. Above him, birds made childlike arcs through their branches, back dropped by dark smoke curls from a fire valleys away and the great brocaded curtain of the sky in semaphore. A tin wind chime shifted occasionally, making bugs of light dance across the backs of onlookers. His mouth next to her ear moved in a practiced way. He finished by removing wedding band from ring finger and stringing it into her hair. My mother stood, coughed twice and wobbled, then motioned for me to join her in line.
Two cousins and an uncle back from the casket, my mother—who often looked at Jackie the way she would have watched a body pecked apart by all things flying and found it beautiful—began to cry. A vortex of eyes formed, tracking to the sound of sobbing, mother and I at its nucleus, the whole palace of poverty and pride lit up in a blaze of heat and pestilence behind us. She was handed sunglasses by some caring pair of hands and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. At the casket, she knelt like Odysseus before the blood-filled pit, the ghosts streaming out, anxious for news pleading, pleading—she folded the tear-soaked cloth into a row, and placed it over the closed lids of Jackie English, whispering, “There are all sorts of Gods and Devils in these mountains, and your husband worshipped you more than any one of them.” I looked up at the old ranch house—losing its siding absentmindedly, unpainted wood scorched to lifelessness—above it a pair of frothy clouds following the long mellow hallway of the season until its great hip leaned toward the horizon and turned against our county line like a rough caress.
In the time between Jackie’s death and funeral I found myself deepened but immune, a non-revelation, a non-symbol. Ever the pilot of empty spaces, I worked to work like a crate buoyed by its cargo. I was not deeply saddened for my brother; he was the type of man that remembered to pull hard at the cupboard door, its stubborn latch, even once the latch had been oiled, even after the brain had scolded the arm, elbow, and hand—so long as the need was slender, we got along fine. And while his life thus far had mostly been an exchange of containers, hers brought to mind a fish, out of air, in the grip of talons. The in-between had been a falling of petals, a garden that grows in a day, a music like skates across weather-thick ice, like climbers on a slope. In short, I was distracted by the truer problem—the way a man might lose first a thumb then index and approach the doctor about an issue with his hand. Some nights there came a dream in which she looked for him and found me, bright among her ghosts, pushing through them, thin scrap of three-weave over her eyes, embroidered with the flowers of an extinct tree brought by mariners from Hunan to Peru in a clay pot. Jackie English was risk’s golden daughter and beauty’s creamy find. She was glistening and bright matter. Like any shine-monger, she was arc and heat, she was hunger sliding on its own melting, she was tallow and sheen and she was snuffed out.
In the casket she looked like a Gerrha matron copied in lard and horsehair. Behind her, down a run to the creek, the stones of kin and friend stretched off into a trembling, sweat-like haze. Swaddlings of this whole civilization buried in these coffins—prayers, accounts, long priceless scroll, smells of violets and gasoline, blown-out speakers, metallic honey, neo-brutalist, a still life of scents, my sister’s doll in a miniature leather vest, down to some last lost comedy, all that fine love being unwound in my heart. My eyes brimmed with past evenings, querulous temper, lucid shame, my brother’s pistol-and-carriage jaw watching on, thin fuse of cigarette in his hand, standing like a coin long out of circulation, quiet in the earth’s pocket—and the understanding was implicit: that we must guard each other, this brother and I. And so, when it came time for me to kneel and I felt the envelope rustle in my pocket, I fought off the practiced visions of leaving the letter with this woman and instead removed my watch, an old, ether-polished thing of tin and gears, and placed it over her heart.
I found myself alone many hours later. Somewhere above me a tow-plane’s old engine ripped the sky in two. A brief catch of its miraculous underbelly and its elegant fin and it was gone. Monstrous bats, fatter than crows, with tissue-paper wings, calmly sailed around me through the dusk, home to tighten their hooks for tonight. I found a pocket of soft earth beneath one of the few outcrops on the property that had survived the Dutch elm disease and scooped out a small hole with my hand. The envelope was warm with my body—nine-times-read, the thing was memorized. I set it into the hole, covered it with rocks, then dirt, until the land looked as unmoved as always. I prayed then, in the muck, like my father was prone to do those many days ago, talking as a bat navigates. Not to hear myself but to know where I was. A man not indigenous to Citrus County, wracked wig of stems and roots exposed, with closed inflorescent eyes, staring out over that great grass river, wind sines silvers. I waded in and ran my hands through the ground’s limpid hair like a lover. She was of here, I said out loud with an empty tone from a deeper generation that rose up through my windy bootprints and went whistling away from every inch of me. I kicked at a scatter-plot of deer pellets and my mask of seasons changed to a mask of years. Dusk brought cracks in the glaze of this brittle blue skybowl lately unearthed and somewhere in town mother genuflected: old symmetry, easy beauty, let me be. Birds in thankless brevity raced their shadows over concrete and in a wave the dead woman’s imprint was blown out of the background and replaced with patchworks of silvergreen blades floating away with news of this great grass river. The skin of this place was disappointing and dirty, all mud and water pump, no hideaway crevice full up with hip-shaking, this was the sadness of a dustbowl—a place never fed. Dead relatives kept track of it from the mantle, ghosts in dwarf sateen and miniver. The fireplace was long dead, rocked to sleep years ago by salt chords from snapped strings on a cornered three-legged piano like a thing out of a riddle. In the holler orchard, stout fellows went about their closing tasks, leaning ladders against warped trunks, pulling crab apples, sour but irradiant in presentation. Most were weather-beaten. The trees themselves were rather short, gnarled and undistinguished.