My brother first came to inhabit my head the day he died. That was four days ago and people have found my composure in the matter unnerving. I am sitting here at his memorial service and it is my own private irony that Mason has been sleeping through his own funeral; this—his bodily internment.
We were born, thirteen minutes apart, into the morning of a Sunday. We were perfect replications of one another, each a copy of the other. In the beginning, there had been a third but he disappeared into the walls of our mother’s womb while yet little more than a faint, red beat.
As children, we were indistinguishable from one another: we harbored no differences. On our eleventh birthday we received a pair of knives from our father and sharpened a length of pine from the woods behind our house. Out in that cloistered forest, it was accidentally driven into my left eye, leaving the iris a violet amoeboid shape. That was Our First Distinction.
When we returned from the hospital that night, our parents put me in the guest room to avoid infection, frightening us with a story of another boy and an old man removing a patch from over his eye each night, placing it on the bedside table.
Falling asleep that first night back, I could hear a pacing movement out in the hallway, back and forth in the dark. I was half asleep when I saw his body curled up by the door, his blond curls stood out white in the dark hall. I fell asleep like that.
In the morning I asked Mason about that and he started looking the way he did when we shared a secret. He told me the same story, how I’d slept there curled up like a Good Animal at our bedroom door; how he didn’t move.
We were quiet as our mother made us breakfast, looked at one another over cereal. I remember the sounds of my mother’s hands in the sink, the clinking of our spoons upon the bowls, the clinking of her rings against a plate. As I remember these things, I can hear Mason roll over half-sleep behind some fold of my mind; there is a sigh. In his dreaming, I can feel occasional echoes of sensations. The smell of pine…sap sticking to fingers.
and the smell of sap sticks to things, sapling fingers of pine define the edge. God cause you know that past the edge there is the same walk in pine needles and the quality of shadow is the same. Same moment where we put our hands in our pockets, still behind the stream, and recognize the warm pommels in our hand. Sharing glance. Fingers sappy and sticking to warm pommel.
There is primarily the smell of pine and sap sticking between my fingers as i take the likely left foot step where my foot is half in shadow under the burnished leaves of a sumac. i take this step, anticipating the sensation of stepping under the burnished leaves of a sumac but, knowing it, there is only the fact that i have stepped.
It is always like this here and there is our path through taller pines and the floor is soft needles. Sometimes it seems like a few steps into that moment but I have dreamt hours of walking, waiting to think to slip my hand into my pocket. Sometimes the trees seem to repeat themselves. Sometimes i feel like we are looking at each other for so long in that moment when the warm pommel of the knife is felt sticking to the fingers, Clay’s eyes still looking like my own
Mason and I had always known about the knives. Our father had shown them to us when we first began to ask for stories at night. The pommels were the yellowed ivory of some kind of bone; on each, a pair of horses frozen in the gesture of a leap were carved in with fine red lines. The thought of them inevitably came up every Christmas and every birthday, so when my father placed them in our hands, our fingers shook. There was so much ceremony in it. They were only buck knives, but they had seemed so handsome and powerful that morning. He slid the knife-blades out together, moved our hands over the steel and bone. They were smoother than the rough texture of his palms. He taught us how to unlock the blades.
We spent the first weeks of that summer out in the fields and the woods. Behind our house, we had fifteen acres of pine and hickory trees. Somewhere in there, past a stream, we had found a path leading to a clearing in the woods we claimed as our own. Past the stream, the ground was damp and green under the shadows of thicker trees. In that quiet glade, Our Clearing, we opened our knives, thumbed our imperfect reflection on the blades.
I remember we threw them into the trunks of pine trees until the tips of the blades were gummy with sap, and the trees trickled thin, translucent lineations that reflected the modest light of the clearing back to us. Mason pulled a branch down from one of the slimmer pines until the wood bowed down and the green of its truer skin showed and split away from the main. I repeated the act upon another branch.
We dragged them into the middle of the clearing, stood there with our knives together. The grass was long and bent over itself in yellows enlaced with green. Mason and I lay one of them out and with our knives nicked at the several switches growing from the main until we had a single, rough length of wood. Those pine switches lay like fans across the grass.
I stood it up on end and Mason held the base steady. Mason held the base steady. I had one hand on it. It stood up to my chin. I drew the knife up and against it in slow successions. Slim curlings of wood circled the base, one stuck out from between two toes. Here it gets confused. At one point, the knife swung too high, glancing past my ear, and we both agreed to turn the blade down on it.
I drew the knife down upon the edge. I had one hand on it. The tip approached a point. Mason held the base steady. The knife came down. A slivered curling of wood pealed off. Something shifted. The knife slid down, the sharpened tip was driven up.
of all, of all of them. This one. This is the one that could like do me in.
It’s my hands are there and my cheeks are trying to blow something right out. My fingers slide down the keys. And i’m blowing something out and it’s sounding into something. Blowing long like that. Sometimes longer than this one though. That’s all i can really pay attention to in this one is that sax in front of me, the imperfect reflection coming back at you like sideways off the curved brass.
No turning around, with what’s those things showing from behind in that bronze distortion of me blowing the cheeks out like that. But seeing the lighting shift on the sax in front of me it’s always obvious, how could there not be all of them and their cigarettes smoking the place and in that general hum rumbling.
i got this feeling between where i’m thinking and my lips when i’m here and i can feel myself going after something, something like i might almost heard before.
i’m blowing it out and its moving through these corners and stops and i can feel like there is something around some corner, like if i keep chasing it i might start playing it– and i think i can hear Clay back there in the audience–hold that bass…steady…curling…–It’s lost under the rolls of the crowd shifting in seats. And that sound i was almost maybe catching to starts going out and my fingers press down and the sounds are all mismatched and it seems like i’ve forgotten to play and that sound is just my memory of another dream like this one, where i have to wake up and am that much further from what I’m trying to play to.
worst of it all is that the crowd doesn’t even know that i’m chasing my own Questing Beast. Maybe Clay. Maybe Clay talking from the crowd in a voice like a chant—slide down…tip the drive up.
I can hear Mason murmur sounds through my mental space like the high, wavering notes of his saxophone. I can feel him shiver for a moment. I myself shake under these felt reverberations.
We were beautiful as children and we looked like none of our relations: our eyes were too wide and held in them those stark, purpled centers; we lacked our father’s small, thick frame; our mother’s broad nose and hollow cheek-bones. Our uncle called us The Changelings for the disparity.
We were both quiet at that age, and private. Other children did not know our games and parents found us unsettling or, perhaps, merely strange, quixotic curiosities. It can be hard to qualify all of the various uneasy reactions.
But always, more than anything, it was the eyes—the particular violet intensity of them. It’d always been hard for people to maintain eye-contact with us; anyone who caught our shared glances from the corner of their vision and then the fixed attention of our gaze.
As my eye all healed up, people began to treat us differently. They seemed to be trying to read things into it, when they registered the broken iris, the purpled azure contents spilled out across the white of my eye, it seemed as though they saw in the anomaly of it some gesture of the uncanny and, when I was older, something of a quiet, secret confidence, in the exchange.
It became one of our games. I would peer, not just back at them, but right into their own stare and Mason would begin to giggle and we would break from the game. It is something that makes me smile still and I can hear some crooning noise of Mason’s sound from somewhere in my interior.
We shrugged off the difference they tried to mark between us. Our parents made no mention of this changed treatment towards their sons, or their own small changes. And with the two of us always close and talking low to one another, the effect was our further withdrawal into our own private company. Eventually, we came to spend most of every day in or around that clearing, cloistered by the pines. In the uncanopied center, we drove that sharpened stick through the grass and into the dirt. I almost feel again the act of holding the wood tight, pressing my weight down, the earth giving way to the sharp point.
never remember that that was just before and in this dream i am always just in that dodging of the knife swinging down slowly.
Each time i am here again the stranged moment stretches out. My hand begins loosened. i begin in the memory of having just registered a loss of control, not sure if it is mine or his or what. Clay reels back, still holding the wood tight with one hand he doesn’t make any sound in particular and just goes and bends down into the ground. He’s gone limp and i have to pull him over my back. Passing through and into the trees, i hear a cough from behind us.
i can only just watch my foot twist under an outgrowing hickory root and feel Clay’s weight on my back succeed over my efforts, and we are both sprawled there and he is asking where we are and i am fixed in my position under him. There is no pain in the twisting of ligaments as i fall down, the act is too redundant. The clearing still feels close behind me and i have the sense, every time, of having left someone behind—unsure of whether we are being pursued or in the act of abandoning and my shoulder is wet with something i can’t ever make out between blood and tears. In another dream someone has whispered their name into my ear and into Clay’s ear, and we have always forgotten.
Occasionally, we would find the traces of someone else’s presence in our closed haven: vague, circling trails in the grass from where small feet had pressed the blades flat against each other. At other times, we could hear quiet movements back in the shadows of the pine trees. The presence drove us, one evening, to curl up in the center of that clearing, and wait for morning, listening to a quiet pacing around our perimeter. Mason seemed to read danger in that sound of footsteps moving through the brush.
Waking up, cold and wet with dew and the forest finally still and quiet, we stumbled through the shadowed morning dampness of the woods. A week later and we were both sent off to music lessons every day, separated for four hours of every day.
for every day, four hours. For every day, four hours of lessons separated.
For weeks, four hours of blowing hard on those green cheeks. Afterwards, a quiet standstill in our terms of gaze. Wanting to know what his fingers had pressed upon, pressed into ivory and ebony keys. A means i felt i knew, sore cheeks but something just starting anyway. Blowing into that horn trying to visualize maybe just see those keys smashing in my own warped reflection on the brassy curve of the sax’s lip. So there are those keys showing in the sax and i don’t know what i’m doing but i’m hitting some notes. And it seemed, after some time, that we weren’t losing anything for it. After some time, we played together in front
The eye had gotten it started in a way, people shying away from eye contact, but really it was the music that set the first distinctions into motion. It wasn’t really anything… those people. I was just the stranger twin to them. But when we started doing things with those instruments, Good Things, there was Clay and there was Mason and whatever we may have been the two of us, there was just something we couldn’t say. By the time we were thinking about going off to college, I was composing and Mason was improvising. He was more than that though. There was something in his playing, some action you couldn’t quite put out there.
From somewhere behind, there is his exhale and a fleeting recollection of sitting in front of a piano on a stage, the two of us playing together.
But someone is stepping up to the podium now—here in this white-walled Episcopalian church—and the funereal audience is shifting in their pews. Someone I have never met is standing in front of the podium. My parents are sitting in the front row and my mother stoops over, shakes across her shoulders. I am having trouble keeping with his words and my mother continues to weep. Her shoulders continue to shake, my father places his arm around her shoulder. The man I have never met walks down from the stage and my father brings her up and into the aisle and people begin to search for their bags and coats from under the pews.
Mason mews quietly from inside.
* * *
I lay in bed upstairs for a while, in that old guest bedroom, until the last sounds of the reception came to a close. The memory of the sound and the shadowed passage of whatever that was that bandaged night from our childhood began to loop over and over in the empty room like the sounds from a radio tower invading an amp that’s been left on, and it was an effect that was doubled…that is, I could hear it replicated, muted from Mason within me. An old alarm clock by the bed flashed a green 12:00 in rhythm to the sound of that shuffling presence that had frightened the two of us so much that night and I lifted myself up.
When I make it to the bottom of the steps, I see the girl sitting at our couch with her face intermittently lit a pale blue, a white-yellow, a flashing of red from the television that dimly sounded in front of her. She is still as gorgeous as I remembered her being.
I had heard of Cynthia from Mason back when he had been playing regularly. I met her once at a bar Mason was playing at perhaps five, six years ago. I was in an unfamiliar city and had not seen my twin brother in months, had heard a few words. We sat together and you could see her eyes go wet watching him up there, and my eyes were wet. I wanted to get up there and play something with him, almost did before convincing myself my fingers had grown too stiff. The piano looked like it might have been out of tune.
I remember more than anything the way she spoke to me. It seemed as though she trying to find something about him from me. She never mentioned the obvious—the replica of this man she was tearing over and the one clear difference of our eyes. I valued that from her, and the way she sought out particular phrasings from me, tried to catch me mirroring him. But I was not a jazz musician, I wasn’t even a musician anymore, and she knew things about him I did not. I remember there was a flicker of jealousy towards her for qualities I was incapable of imagining.
Thinking of these things, how I so wholly stole him away from her that night, and seeing her here now, I think I am rousing him from his dormancy. As I walk to the kitchen and pour two glasses of water, I can hear, from the television, the voice of a woman describing how a lottery winner’s grandchild has just been found dead. And also, I can hear him stirring in alto-rumblings.
I sit down next to her against the light of the television as a commercial floods over the screen. There is no sense of what the product is, only this strange self-depricatory reference that’s supposed to indicate something reliable. She takes the extra glass from my hand, smells of whiskey. She asks me how I am holding up with all of this, where was I the whole time tonight.
I tell her I was with my brother and her face screams quietly in itself. She looks away from me.
She is telling me how much he spoke of me; how much the same and how he felt himself a dragged imitation; how she should catch me at a piano sometime. In this opposition she is describing, I feel a sense of shared quality, more on his side of the fence, how I’d always felt that way—the confused imitation, always only almost for the immediacy of ourselves as same in our childhood; later, in the distance of space, time shared, for the inability to apprehend difference, to conceive of it, the inability to evaluate ones own form, the underlying faith in a common form for which we are.
Mason is trying to warn me of something, but the shaping of words seems to have become unfamiliar in his deep slumber spread across the filaments of my mind. He is trying to say a name to me, whispering from within. His or mine, I don’t know but there is a heart beating skittish and fast.
We have been talking for some length of time, she has been talking, and I have been unable to register but small fragments. “He always claimed there was this thing that he was chasing after, trying to catch and something hanging behind him in its own chase. He told me once, he was lost on something or other so he talked a little, more to get the fear out from his system. He said he wasn’t sure sometimes if maybe one was just the reflection of the other. He said there was a name. He tried to say it was just some kind of disembodied tonal phantom, but that’s shit. He would have nights where he couldn’t be alone. Not about sex or anything…his eyes would water in mid-sentence.” And her eyes are watering and I can tell that Mason is cowering somewhere behind me, closer.
People might think you’re making contact when you’re up there playing your whole breath, finding your heart in your lungs and jetting it out, but if that was really the case, then you’d be able to stop and stopping wouldn’t be such a failure. Like an arrow after a target that’s always just ahead and never has to stop like the arrow. You might think, Cynthia might have said, Well, at least you don’t lose that target forever when your arrow slides into the grass and at least the flight of that projectile is something to moon over. But, if that were only peace… to always feel that thing that you can’t get to is always out there in the periphery…to always want to chase it, like Charlie Parker chasin’ his own Bird… and to always know that you can’t ever touch it and you can’t ever rid yourself of it… because it’s not like it didn’t come from you…to see something beautiful and bleary in the one mirror you can never touch and double fingers against.
I don’t know any terms to put this in but—I don’t know how, but I can feel Mason trying… to have arms around me. From inside.
I am not aware of the decision, but I have just asked her to watch a home video of us as children. And her eyes are watering as they were when we watched Mason blow his heart out that night. And there is a heart rate’s racing and he’s shouting sounds at me—did you do that?—and she’s laced her fingers through my hand, her palm is moist or mine is, the feeling seems familiar. She has taken the State I am in like half of me were dead. She is crying and maybe thinking she is sharing something with me.
And then I am witnessing my left foot stepping towards the television, sliding a tape into the VCR and falling back into the couch. She has composed herself to some extent, a last finger fixing hair behind her ears.
In television, the two of us come into focus and we are hammering in the last stakes into a tent. I have begun talking, but I am not talking. Mason is trying to whisper a name into my ear if he could just think of it right. It is then that I can first perceive this other intentionality in the shadows of my mind. He is talking to her, she wants to know about piano, how ‘I’ played it. I cannot understand the words of His response.
On the television screen, at least, there are the two of us there, talking to each other in lowered voices. Mason is loosening his shoes, unzipping the door. This girl and I are still talking and my brother is shaking somewhere behind my eye. I try to concentrate upon the video. It was more than compatibility. We aren’t talking, and our parents filming respect that. There is just the background conversation bleeding in here and there. Cynthia is smiling when she is not being spoken to.
In the television, the two of us are pushing our shoes under the tent and there is a cut on Mason’s finger, a small spot of blood.
I reach out to see how deep it is and feel it to be only the red mud from the dirt around there. Mason laughs at me and then I am laughing with him. As we crawl into the tent, zip up, the noise seems to settle down. We lie down. We curl up against one another, close our eyes. I curl up against my brother, close my eyes. From outside the tent somewhere, I can hear a girl asking a boy if he’d play something on the piano, it’s just over there? Mason shifts his back, readjusts. I hear someone familiar tell a girl He doesn’t know any songs to play. Mason’s breathing falls into intervals of regularity and I put my arms around him as I loosen myself to sleep.