My mother is crying so loud that at first I can’t make out the words. When I pick his name from the tinny sine wave of her wailing, I know my brother Lev is dead. My guts constrict, wrapping into a knot, and I the air rushes out of me. I let her go as I struggle to stand, eyes tilting skyward to stem the tears. When she’s out of breath, I hear my father’s cracked baritone mutter. After a while I start to hear his words, hear ‘shiva’, and my guts twist again, counterclockwise this time.
They want me to come home.
I land in time for the funeral, crossing the continent in a few bleary hours. At the cemetery, I still wear the sweaty reek of the plane’s cabin on my clothes. The coffin is in the ground before I fully grasp what it means: this is my brother’s body, and this is forever. I’m still spinning the thought like a smooth stone in my hand when we arrive home. I place my bags onto a familiar bed that looks smaller than I remember, and return to the ground floor.
I shake hands and nod to a swirling fog of faces from childhood, grown strange with age. I find the rhythm in answering the same questions, my work, my life, the past twenty years, and soon I no longer have to think about the responses.
The faces drift away with the daylight, and the house becomes dark and empty. Wherever I twist my eyes, something triggers a tiny explosion of memories. A dented baseboard. Dull silver on a salt shaker.
My mother and father sit side by side in plastic folding chairs across from the couch. For a moment I think about helping them to some relative comfort. The moment passes. I sit in my father’s overstuffed recliner, and try to keep my head above the flood.
The edges of my vision grow dim – there’s something odd about the light. I look to my mother, and see the shining chrome trim of her glasses, see the dark hollows of her eyes almost black. The contrast sharpens, and the uncanny light becomes too painful to look at, to even think about. I shake my head, and look back to the neutral tones of the embroidered couch.
My brother is there.
Dressed in funereal black, his hair is long and wild. He is staring at me, and beneath his uneven beard, his mouth moves. No sound escapes, not even the sibilant pops and clicks of lips and teeth. No breath.
Engines whir in my head, and I close my eyes. I’m tired. Under extreme stress. Still not quite well. I should have expected this. I press fingertips to my eyes, and focus on the purple and blue geometric explosions of false light. Count the angles and lines. Breathe.
Lev leans forward, reaching his arms across the table at our parents, and his lips continue to dance without sound. My parents look down, leathery faces impassive. My father is asleep.
Lev turns to me, and his bright eyes flash. He smiles. That wild, wide Lev smile. Mischief and revelation and something else. He speaks, and with a sudden snap, like the bursting of a soap bubble, I hear.
“The light, Ronen. Can you see?”
Breath escapes me like a pierced balloon, one long sigh until I am empty, and at last I begin to cry. Lev’s eyes are locked on mine, and I clutch at the moment, until the creak of my father standing breaks the silence.
“I’m glad you’re home,” he mumbles as he takes my mother and leads her towards the stairs. “Thank you.”
Irrational, childish anger wells up in me, and I turn to scream at him, but the strange light has faded. I am crying in an old chair in a familiar room on a warm, wet evening.
Lev is gone.
In the morning, I make breakfast for my parents. None of us speak. There’s language in the little looks, hands clapped on shoulders, the sad smiles. There’s comfort in presence. I wash the dishes, feeling the cool water over my hands, savoring the crash of white noise.
In the living room, the doorbell rings, and my father ushers the minyan in. There is hugging, and nodding, and they begin the mourner’s kaddish. The old itch flairs up at the sound, words whose sounds I know intimately but whose meaning I do not. Ignoring a dull knife glance from my father, I climb the stairs, and lock the bedroom door.
I make a few phone calls, to the lab, to my neighbor, to confirm that I will be gone another week, and make the arrangements to have my shifts covered and my mail collected. Then I shower, take the morning’s pills, and shave.
When I return to my room, Lev is sitting on the edge of the bed, morning sun painting his face. He turns to me and smiles.
“Ronen. I’m glad to see you again.” His voice is liquid and golden.
“Me too, Lev,” I manage, cracked and uneven.
“I will see you again. In God’s hands.” He turns back to the sun, closing his eyes. “He loves you, Ronen. Even when you hate him. Especially when you hate him.”
I remember why I hadn’t spoken to Lev in three years, and I’m as angry as ever. Patronizing shit. Condescending self righteous-
I’m staring at an empty space on the bed, motes of dust in a sun beam. The water in the bathroom still runs.
My parents and I reach equilibrium. I cook for them, spend long, silent hours cleaning the house, hold them when they appear close to breaking. They don’t ask me to join them for prayer, but I see the furrowing of brows when I leave the room.
Lev appears to me in the back yard, as I clip laundry to the rust-scarred plastic lines of the drying racks. He stands beneath the boughs of the old apple tree, dappled sunlight on his sallow face. His skin is waxy, his cheeks sunken. He no longer smiles, and beneath his bangs his black eyes are searching, flitting from me to the sky.
I turn to make sure my parents are far from earshot.
“Lev,” I say.
He runs his thin, bony hands against the bark of the apple tree in silence.
“How is Paradise?” I ask, and I am instantly ashamed.
On the first night, it was a waking dream. Yesterday, it could only have been Lev, infuriating, beloved Lev. Now, as his eyes waver and shine, I see in them not smug glory, but terror, kept barely at bay, and I regret my bitter words.
He opens his mouth long before he speaks.
“I don’t think that’s where I am, Ronen.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no one here.” He crosses his legs and sits beneath the tree, and picks up an apple gone soft with rot. “It’s warm, and full of light. But,” he waves his arm at the shining sky, “Perhaps it’s just summer.”
I sit in the unkempt grass, making a mental note to weed and mow tomorrow afternoon. I face my brother’s shade, seeing the gray, dead color of his taut skin.
“Why are you here Lev? Is this real?” On the last word, his face tremors, and I’m afraid the skin will split.
“I don’t know, Ronen. All I know is that I still am. Time, distances, they’re fuzzy. Mother and Father cannot see me. Just you.”
“More evidence that you’re a dream.”
Anger flares on his delicate, decaying features. “Why did you come home?”
“For them. It was important,” I say.
“But you don’t believe.”
“I let them. I’m not here for you. You’re dead.” I expect another surge of fury, but he nods.
“When I awoke, it was Paradise, because it must be. But, I was wrong. God wouldn’t leave me to doubt like this.”
“Not your god,” I agree.
He smiles at me, and now the skin does split at the corners of his mouth, widening his grin.
“It takes death to bring me to your side, Ronen.”
I bite back the expected retort of a hundred practiced arguments. I don’t want him to agree with me. I want to hear his rhetoric and justifications. Lev surrendering is not Lev.
“This is me,” I declare at last. “A shallow wish-fulfillment fantasy. This isn’t you.” I stand up, feeling the truth in it, and turn away. “It’s not fair to your memory, Lev. I owe you better.”
“Please,” I hear him say, but when I turn back, I see only ragged grass and rotting apples.
Thick clouds make the sunlight gauzy and the heat unbearable. My parents slip into a rut of familiar behavior, and the intimacy of shared tragedy starts to evaporate. I spend the afternoon plucking rotten fruit and weeds from the grass, and then push the old mower in a tightening spiral around the apple tree. I find the old rhythm easily, muscle memory taking over.
When I don’t see Lev that day, I decide that I must have come to grips with what ever I needed to say or hear. From a thousand arguments and interactions, some callow part of my mind dredged up a simulation of my brother and made him dance. It’s pathetic. I wallow in the shame of it until long after dark. When sleep does not come, I rummage in my duffel for the crooked joint I’d thrown in at the last moment of frenzied packing.
I find matches in the kitchen, and step onto the back porch. The parting clouds have let the night grow cool. The moon, a waning gibbous of cold blue light, swims among the pinprick sea of stars. I sit and strike a match with a satisfying sound, light the joint, and inhale. Acrid warmth fills my chest.
Lev sits next to me in the other ratty deck chair. I pass him the joint without stopping to consider.
“You’re right, of course,” he says, his voice strained to hold in the smoke.
“I usually am.”
“It’s all chemical.”
“Mmm,” I say, ashamed that some part of my mind still finds this charade necessary. In the moonlight I see that he is almost gone, his skin cracked and gray, eyes clouded and filmed. My vision swims, like ripples on water.
“I’m in a box, miles away, breaking apart, dictated by the interaction of organic molecules. You’re burning a plant to activate receptors in your brain to make you feel a certain way. You take a dozen pills to push the chemical systems in your brain back into alignment. The intersection between my body and that car were long ago prescribed by inertia. It’s just billiards.”
“Lev, you were never this bleak. It’s not amusing.”
“Lev is dead, Ronen. Your mind has stripped a gear. You’re experiencing phantom sensations, and you’re weaving it into a story. The uniqueness of man is not our consciousness, it’s our ability to tell stories. To lie to ourselves, and frame the random shuddering of the universe as narrative.”
“Shut the fuck up. Please, Lev.” I press the lit end of the joint into the plastic arm of the chair, and the plastic deforms beneath it. I want to stand, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to.
“Self-organizing proteins on an orbiting sphere of heavy matter around a second-generation star, we’re still ripples in the water from the first stone. Complex ripples. Ripples that tell themselves pretty tales before being subsumed in the unthinking sea of matter.”
I look at the rotting shade of my brother. His clouded eyes stare into mine. A dozen half-formed thoughts twirl in the space between my mind and mouth, and each one breaks apart and drifts away. So I say the first thing that comes.
“I’m going to bed, Lev.”
He nods, and raises his crumbling gaze to the sky. The moon paints high-contrast shadows in the cracks of his peeling skin. I leave him there, beneath the stars.
I sleep well.
I can’t get out of bed the next day. I flex coiled strands of muscles, clenching and unclenching, but I have no desire to co-ordinate them into actions. I tell my parents I am sick. My mother brings me lunch, pastrami on stale bread. She still hurts, but she is descending the mountain of her grief, self sufficient again. I hear my father downstairs, laughing at something, a booming sound of comfort.
I read a tattered science fiction novel long into the evening, coming down only to eat, and for a glass of water. When I return to my room, there’s a bird outside the window, perched on the eaves. I open the window, but he does not take flight, merely hops away on one clubfooted leg. Without considering, I heave myself through the window and squeeze out onto the roof.
Lev is there, leaning against the window of his childhood room, the pigeon perched between us.
I recognize Lev the way that you know a recording of your own voice, familiar and strange. He’s sketched in dull light, a shadow cast in warm tones. A camera out of focus.
We sit for a while without speaking, the way we did as kids on hot nights, until he fell and broke his leg, and we were forbidden to go out on the roof. Some part of me still expects my father to start yelling for us to come down.
“Ronen,” he says, breaking the silence, “I am sorry about last night. I know it doesn’t mean much.”
“It wasn’t a new idea a century ago,” I say with a wave. “The more we learn, the more it looks that anything but determinism is an illusion, and the less important it is for me to have an opinion. Whatever reality is, it doesn’t ask for your faith.”
“Touché,” he snorts a laugh. Or at least I take it to be one. I’m not really sure this hazy shape is even speaking aloud.
“The thing about free will is… it’s a useful illusion,” I say, the thoughts feeling clean and sober as they move from mind to tongue. “That feeling of accomplishment from doing something well is pleasant. Believing I learn from mistakes allows me to feel progress, which is also pleasant. It’s better to own a lie, than have no claim on the truth.”
“I missed you when you were gone, Ronen,” he says. “I missed talking. I think I fell into fanaticism without you to temper me.”
“I know you did, Lev. I saw your hair.” He laughs again. “So tell me, what is the world tonight?” He pauses, as if to consider the question.
“Free will is not on our scale,” he says. “Bacterium are creatures purely of impulse, no?”
“It would seem so.”
“So is man, as we’ve more or less established. But the universe, everything, tends towards complexity at larger levels. We are part of something greater. As particles create us, so do spinning galaxies sketch and describe great and complex entities. As millions of skin cells die when we embrace, suns snuff out and worlds boil in warfare at the subtle interactions of these massive beings. Each of our bright lives is a passing thought, and all human civilization, one complex emotion. If there is true free will, true conscious minds, it’s at their level, not at the level of solar systems and carbon life.”
“Big fleas have little fleas,” I say, the poem coming unbidden. “Upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas…”
“So on, ad infinitum,” he says, “Yes.”
“It’s a nice story, Lev. I like it. I really do. It absolves me of the guilt of my actions, yet preserves some sense of wonder. But like all your stories, it’s just a story.”
The pigeon takes flight, and although I cannot make out his face, I’m sure my brother is smiling.
“I’ve had a few thousand lifetimes since yesterday to come up with it.”
“You missed your calling.”
“I missed a lot of things. When I see you tomorrow, maybe I’ll have found the truth.”
“I’d like that, but I’ll settle for another story.” I stand, and turn back towards my window. “I’m only here for one more night, you know.”
“You always were a miserly shit with your visits.”
“Good night, Lev.”
I pack in the morning. I don’t want my mother to think I’m looking forward to leaving, but I’m already fantasizing about a shower with real water pressure, the sound of the ocean, and the antiseptic quiet of my apartment.
I don’t see Lev, but I’m under the shadow of his passing. The meals made by neighbors and friends in the fridge, the dozen copies of his memorial service pamphlets. My parents, never as pious as Lev, have broken most of the shiva prohibitions. My father spends hours on the couch in front of the television. After lunch, I sit with him, only speaking of the upcoming football season. My mother reads, small glasses perched on her nose to supplement her failing eyes.
Soon enough, I’ll be back here for one of them, or the other. That may be the last time I come home. The finality of this is comforting, a solitary path in a darkening forest. I love them both, tenderly, but I cannot fight entropy, and I will not rage at its unbreachable walls. The future is understandable, knowable, yet-
“It’s what’s beyond the future that scares you,” Lev says.
I’m in his room upstairs, untouched since his death. He is there with me, a painting of light, an impressionistic bipedal smear with onyx eyes. I’m dizzy with the shock of him finishing my thoughts, of finding myself in a room I haven’t entered in two decades.
The sensation becomes too intense to stand, and I go to sit on his bed, but it is gone. The walls follow, and I am alone in a black void with a star shaped like my brother.
“Lev,” I whisper, “What is this?”
“The truth, this time. When the universe first lived,” he says, his voice rolling across the dark, “It was everything we feared: cold, unfeeling, mechanistic. There were no stories, no dreaming, only the truth of matter and inertia.
“When the great chemical clock wound down at the end of a hundred billion years, as matter scattered wide and the suns cooled, Life rebelled. Life refused to be cast aside, to dim into galactic night. Despite the unending nightmare of the first universe, Life wanted more.”
My heart is in my throat, I can feel it thudding. When I press my hands against my chest, I see that I am made of light as well. In the distance, dim points pulse into existence, first red, then searing white.
“Life, the self replicating vehicles of protein and crystal, on a thousand worlds, came together and built great bulwarks of matter and energy. They rewrote the fabric of existence, and fought a fierce and hot war against fate.
“And they won.”
The points of light flare, wheeling discs of stars coalescing from the gloom. A thousand galaxies whirl with the sound of his voice.
“They broke the clockwork of time, shattered the bonds of causality, and anarchy flowed backwards like a wave. For a hundred billion backwards years, there was no reason, and no laws. Great, foolish kingdoms flourished, colonizing time and space. There was madness.”
The spinning galaxies dance above us, tear themselves apart, sketch profane and vulgar graffiti across the sky in blood and fire. The adolescent agony of an emancipated universe.
“The insanity was as undesirable as the mechanical world that it replaced. The great minds, now written into the luminous fabric of existence, rather than matter, conferred in a frozen moment, at the singularity of creation.”
The sky collapses, pulls us into a boiling white point, and our bodies vanish.
“Great accords were struck, prohibitions made, and freedoms guaranteed. The prime equation was altered. The world began again. The third universe. Ours.”
The moment contracts like a heart, and then expands. Explodes. Ignites.
It is shower of suns, blasting through me.
“Consciousness, sapience, is a rhythm in the music of the world, and the rhythm remains, long after the crude matter that pounded the beat for a few decades is scattered. It joins the great symphony of existence, free of time, mischievous and playful. We sound out and ring among you, giving birth to a billion stories.”
The music of the spheres rings in my nonexistent ears, the stinging fireworks of creation sear my missing eyes.
“We garden the universe with joy, Ronen. This is the gift of the first lives. This is what awaits, beyond your future, beyond the dark. Don’t be afraid.”
I am not afraid.
But I am crying, with an intensity of emotion that I haven’t felt since long before the pills, not since childhood.
My mother and father are beside me, and I am on the couch, sobbing into my hands. The sensation of having a physical body again is stunning, and somehow profane, wrong. My mother’s arms are wrapped around me, and my father’s outstretched hand strokes the back of my head, rough calluses catching in my hair.
“I know, Ronen,” he says. “We miss him too.”
My parents, having a child in need for the first time in decades, find purpose in doting on me. For a while at least, I do not deprive them of the joy it gives. The next day, I’m still a wreck, an empty shell blasted hollow by the day before.
I wonder if grief will always be this hard.
By the afternoon, I find the will to finish packing and I call a cab, despite their pleas to stay. I consider it, but the need to be alone, to rest in the neutral ground of my own home, is a magnetic pull.
A block away from the house, I ask the cab driver to stop at the park where we played as boys.
Lev is there, as I knew he would be. He is a child now, dark eyes alive with wonder, and he skips across the sand, scaling the wooden castles with the enthusiasm that marked all his actions in life.
“Hey Ronen!” he calls to me, waving his arms above his head. “You look exhausted.”
“I am.” I watch him mount the swings, pumping his legs to build momentum. The cab driver honks his horn.
“Time to go?” he asks.
“You want to ask me what it means. If it’s just another story.”
“Yes,” I say, before I even know what I want. He launches from the swing, hits the sand and topples. He lays on his back, panting and staring up at the sky.
“It doesn’t matter, Ronen. Either it is, or it isn’t.” His voice is hoarse, his lungs sucking air in gasps. “But get some sleep okay? You look like shit.”
“Fuck you, Lev.” I say with a tired smile, and he giggles, like a burbling stream of clear water. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Ronen.” My little brother vaults to his feet, and sprints for the hole in the fence, the one leading to the bike path and creek beyond. He turns sideways, and vanishes into the shadows of spruce trees. The driver honks again, and I mentally reduce his tip by a couple of dollars.
When the rumbling engine of the plane ignites at take off, I fall asleep instantly, lulled like a baby.
The dreams are vivid and wonderful – a garden of joy and awe. When I wake, as the plane lands on the other side of the country, the glowing warmth of it remains for a long time.
The final edit of this story appeared int the inaugural issue of Jamais Vu, available here from Post Mortem Press
This is a story I’ve been thinking about for almost half a year, and it took that long to work it out onto the page. It’s a self indulgent, sentimental conversation with myself, a story about stories, and one with very little narrative structure beyond the obvious formal shape. I’m curious to see what people think, because more than any other piece I’ve written, this was for me. If it’s not to your liking, fear not, there are another two stories on the way, more traditional horror stories in tone, if not structure.