This is how I remember my brother Jacob at Festus Lake: burnt skin, like the clay of Greek pottery; ink hair, floating like seaweed when he pretended that mermaids drowned his scrawny frame; a tempest for a face, morphing from grin to scowl to chortling laughter that harmonized with the lake’s gentle push and pull of sand. This is my Jacob, with his tiny beak that he didn’t realize could unhinge and let forth sonorous siren screams. A temper like a Florida thunderstorm: umber clouds manifested from nowhere, temperamental and nasty, but ephemeral. Even as a baby, he had a rage that matched Achilles’. Mom would laugh about it as I changed his diaper: “He’s Irish and Italian – what do you expect?”
Yes, this was him – he had our mother’s fault of extremes: there was no happy, only jubilance; no sad, only sorrow. This was him: all bark and no bite; all flopping around in the lake like a fish, never wanting to leave until the moon reflected in the water. And even then, he would sit on the very edge of the shore, his heels dug into the sand as if willing himself to melt into it, always asking for five more minutes, just five more, Cameron, c’mon, five more!
At dinner in the cabin, Mom and Dad would ask Jacob about the beach, and he would tell them about the naiads he saved, the sea serpents he grappled with; about Big Foot, who he saw between the trees of Blackwood Forest. “Cam, we need to look for him tomorrow!” he would implore. “He’s probably tired and hungry and lonely!” All kids worried for others; they took the world to heart. Any poison or drug he touched leapt from his arteries to his tiny heart.
“Oh, what a wonderful imagination!” Mom would say. “Isn’t he just brilliant?”
Dad would agree with a hearty laughed and pinch Jacob’s cheek until it flushed.
Before we fell asleep, I recited the Greek myths I could recall to him. I told him of Achilles’ insatiable fury after Patroclus was murdered at Troy; of Heracles and Hylas; of Zeus kidnapping Ganymede to act as slave and wine bearer, much to Hera’s chagrin. He must have enjoyed them, because for once, his speech slowed to a trickle, like a showerhead not fully shut off, instead of a waterfall.
I was at a party with Nora when I got the call. It was the first time in months that I choked down shot after burning shot of vodka in some stranger’s kitchen that Nora dragged me out to. I thought I imagined the vibrations on my thigh at first, and almost ignored it. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I said to Nora. I pushed my way through the kitchen crowded with drunken strangers to the back door. Winter’s hoary claws lacerated my cheeks.
“Hello?” My cheeks were already numbing, and the snow sucked the heat from my feet.
“Hey, Cam.” Dad. His voice sounded strained, almost, but I could barely hear him over the vicious wind. Snow came down around me like a veil; I could hardly see beyond the back porch. “Jacob got a reply from that college he wanted to go to.”
“Oh?” I sucked on my teeth; I sat in the snow by a violet bush; the wind halted for a moment. “Did he get in?”
“Well,” he said, “no. No he didn’t. But he’s fine, I think. He’s having a nap right now.” I shook the snow from the rose bush and the wind started up harsher than before, whipping snow into my face like a slap.
“Did he apply anywhere else?”
“No. Seems like he’ll be ending up at the community college.” There was a pause. “Which is fine! I’m sure he’s fine.”
Had I not been drunk, maybe I would have known not to trust him. But I was, and cold; I wanted to return to Nora, and forget that I had to work in the morning. “Tell him I’m sorry,” I said, which was the worst thing to say to someone when what happened wasn’t your fault.
“Oh, while I have you: are you coming to Blackwood with us this summer?”
I looked through the glass window to Nora in the kitchen, and she smiled at me. She stood under the light, as if her skin absorbed it all, dimming the rest of the room. “I don’t think so.”
Before I went back inside, I picked one of the violets that grew despite the snow and stuck it in Nora’s hair.
I was fifteen, with acne and books; he was ten, with no pores or worries. The sun bathed the land in light, creating a million tiny stars in the sand. He splashed around in the waters, calling out every so often. “Watch this, Cam!” he yelled, and did something underwater as if I could see him. He surfaced, water dripping like heavy tears from his hair and nose and toothy grin.
“Good job!” I called back, without looking up from Sappho’s poetry.
It was only when the water stopped splashing that I realized something was wrong. I looked up, and he was in front of me, his knee crooked to not touch the sand, and a trail of ruby leading to the lake. “Cam, I need a bandaid,” he said. “Some glass hurt me.”
I scooped him up before he could protest. I carried him from the beach to our cabin. He growled and snapped at me, his face twisted like a tornado, but I refused to let go. “I’m fine!” he said. “I’m fine, I’m fine, let me walk, I’m fine! I just need a bandaid!”
Mom and Dad agreed: just a bandaid. But as the sink rouged with his blood, pallor corrupted his clayish skin. “I’m fine,” he kept muttering. The storm was diminishing, and when he had none left in him, I carried him like a wounded pup to the closest ranger station.
He got three stitches and a tetanus shot. He didn’t scream or cringe or cry, but I could feel the pain in the way he formed a fist around my hand. If someone had been watching him, they would have thought he felt no pain.
When I entered the house, Mom took me aside. “What a pretty flower,” she said. She hovered her hand over the violet in my hair, as if afraid to touch it. Nora had put it there. “Jacob doesn’t want to go to Blackwood with us. Would you mind checking up on him every so often?”
Of course I agreed.
They were leaving in the morning, so they wanted to have a dinner to say goodbye for a month. Mom and Dad sat adjacent to me, and Jacob sat across from me. It looked like he had been sitting there for an eternity, like a painted pot in a museum, staring down at his plate. He occasionally picked up his wine glass and sniffed the bloody content, but never drank from it. The wind was gone from his face, as if it had never been there in the first place, and his jaw was more defined, jutting out like a sheer cliff. I noticed how strikingly white his skin had become, so pale against his seaweed-black hair: no longer burnt like pottery, but instead, statuesque white with specks of dirt, specks of freckles, like the decrepit sculptures of Apollo. I didn’t know he had freckles.
“So Cam,” Mom started, and I tore my eyes away from Jacob. “Are you going back to Mongolia any time soon?”
“Turkey,” I corrected. She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t get much time off from the new museum now that we have a new exhibit coming in.”
“You’re gonna become one of the exhibits if you keep at it there,” Dad said, and barked out laughter that Mom replicated.
I looked back at Jacob, expecting to meet his eyes, but he kept his eyes to the wine. I frowned at him – there was something on his cheek, something brown. I reached over and pulled it away. He didn’t even flinch. “What is this?” I asked. It was rough and ridged, almost like tree bark.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Mom said. “Oh, I’m so glad Jacob won’t be going away to that crazy college. Did you know they had a club for communism? That place was much too liberal for our sweet little Jacob.”
“Full of hippies,” Dad supplied. “All they wanted was the liberate the homosexuals and smoke weed.”
Jacob shrank. Where was the storm he was supposed to create? In the past, he would have conjured a tempest in the middle of the kitchen, even with just his eyes. But now he was a disintegrating monolith, sniffing at the bloody wine and then dropping it all down his throat. His marble cracked in jagged lines, and chunks fell to the floor.
While Mom cleared up the dishes and Dad went to watch television, Jacob looked at me for the first time all night. For a moment, he paralyzed me. It’s disturbing for a statue to look at you. “Nice violet,” was all he said, and he went to his room for the rest of the night.
After the sun retreated under the horizon, and the stars poked holes in the canvassed sky, sometimes I would take Jacob back to the beach with a telescope. It must have been after my second year of high school, which would have made me seventeen, and him twelve.
He lay down at my feet and started telling jokes he had learned at school. I searched for the Jovian moons, and almost instantly found Jupiter’s humongous form in the eyepiece. I laughed at his jokes at the appropriate spots where he paused, and I wish I had laughed more at the pure light spilling from his mouth. Jacob was a monolith of crystal in the sand; the light he spoke could have been mistaken as simply reflections of starlight, but I know its origins were his ferocious lungs. He was Apollo, alive.
“I found it,” I sad. One of the moons, against the dark backdrop of overbearing Jupiter. “Do you want to see it? It’s Ganymede.”
Jacob moved a bit, but he didn’t stand up. “Nah,” he said. “Just tell me his story again.”
When I went to the house to check up on Jacob, he wasn’t in the kitchen, where cups were piled up in the sink; he wasn’t in the living room, where the ceiling fan circled listlessly; he wasn’t in any of the bedrooms. For a moment I paused in my old room, looking for something indescribable. Possibly some solid symbol of my childhood, an object I could pick up and measure and embraces; say, “Yes, this encapsulates my adolescence.” At my bookshelf, I ran my finger along the spines, leaving a trail of clean surrounded by accumulated dust.
I stopped at a gap in the books – it seemed like something was missing. Everything was organized by author’s nationality, and the Greek section seemed fairly deficient where once it thrived.
“Jacob?” I called out. “Jacob, are you here?”
There was no answer for a moment, and then a muted voice replied: “I’m in the bathroom.” I walked down the hall and paused at the door. He must have heard my footsteps, because he said, “I’m taking a bath. I have the curtains drawn; you can come in.”
I opened the door expecting steam, but the room was chilly. The black bathtub curtain was drawn from wall to wall, so I couldn’t even see Jacob’s face. Next to the tub was a book – something by Sappho, I saw, and I realized where my books had gone. On top of it was a glass of nearly depleted water, impossibly clear so that light barely refracted.
Jacob shifted in the water. “What do you need, Cam?” he asked, his voice limp, monotone. It was echoed, and each reverberation sounded emptier.
“I just came to talk.”
A hand reached out from behind the curtain, almost ghostly with how it moved and looked. For a moment, I thought I saw something brown on the underside, but it retreated with the cup too quickly. “About?”
“I have – Nora’s my girlfriend.”
The words had tumbled out of my mouth before I could think of the consequences. Jacob sputtered and coughed the first reaction I had gotten out of him in weeks. He kept coughing, and then silence ensued. The air in the room stilled, and I thought I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I thought I had made a mistake. But finally, finally he spoke, and he said, “How is that supposed to help me?”
I couldn’t answer him with all the blood rushing away from my heart. I kept expecting him to say something else, to admit something, but we were silent, except for the quiet slosh of water, back and forth, like the miniature waves at Festus Lake.
“I’m so tired,” he said, and then started to make a nose that I couldn’t distinguish as laughing or crying. I heard the water in his cup slosh up again, and he coughed more. His arm jutted out from the bathtub, long and thin, the skin gripping dangerously to his ulna and radius, jagged points threatening to pierce through his delicate skin. And all along the underside of it, something brown, something rigid grew. “I can’t rip it off,” he said. “It bleeds if I try. It’s part of me.”
“What is it?”
His arm retracted. I heard him drink again, cough again. “Tree bark, I think.”
In the February of my last year of high school, there was a ferocious blizzard that raged for three days and nights. I was supposed to find out if I had gotten accepted to a college I had applied to, two hundred miles away. But the internet was down, and the mail was halted, so I was left with only prayers.
A week after the storm, a lone mailwoman appeared down the street, trudging through the knee-deep snow. I watched her trek up the street from a window, already dressed in a coat and boots. When she neared my house, I raced out to greet her. In her hands was a week’s worth of mail, but I cast it all aside for the giant letter: acceptance.
I made an angel in the snow, all of it melting around me until the green grass underneath shined bright. I melted into the snow, into the angel, and I only had wings for appendages.
Jacob’s storms came in vicious throes and paroxysms after that, always catalyzing in my presence. There were floods in the kitchen and thunderclouds in the bathroom. I never asked why. I was too afraid of the answer.
The next time I visited, there were still glasses in the sink, in the same exact position as last time. Beads of liquid clung to the bottoms of the glasses. I didn’t realize how inertia really worked until then.
In his room, Jacob was a lump under his covers. I didn’t see the sheets move at all. “Jacob?” I said, quietly. Goosebumps appeared on my arm – the room was freezing, much colder than the rest of the house. The window curtains were drawn, so that not even a trickle of light could warm it. I moved closer – he still hadn’t moved. “Jacob?”
He had the sheets drawn up to his forehead; all I could see was a tuft of his black hair, poking out from the very top.
I sat down at the edge of his bed. My hand hovered over the blanket, waiting for some movement, but nothing happened. “Jacob?” I whispered again. I pulled the blanket away from his face, and his eyes were shut and relaxed. “Jacob.”
All at once his eyes opened. His pupils enlarged, consuming his dark irises, and then contracted to pinpoints. I never noticed before how dark his eyes really were, dark enough that I could see a clear reflection of my worried face.
“What are you doing here, Cam?” he asked groggily. He didn’t move at all.
“I brought a telescope. I thought it’d be fun to look at the stars a bit.”
“I’m tired, Cam.” It looked like he had trouble keeping his eyes open, but it was only 9:00 pm. “Maybe another night.”
“Oh, c’mon. It’ll be nice!” He flinched when I raised my voice. “I just… For a few minutes at least, Jacob. C’mon.”
He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, as if trying to rub away his freckles. I stared at his arm, and when he noticed, he shoved it back under the sheet. “It’s getting worse,” I said. “Shouldn’t you go see a doctor?”
“Whatever will happen will happen,” he said, and got out of bed slowly. I lead the way down the hallway, into the kitchen, and out the backdoor. He was still in his pajamas and barefoot.
“That’s a bit stoic,” I said.
He sharply turned his eyes to me, and for a split second, I could see a storm about to take shape. But it disappeared from his eyes so fast that I thought I had imagined it. Jacob sauntered over to the telescope I had set up and lay down next to it.
We were silent as I searched the vastness for something, but everything was gone. Even the brightest stars were dimmed to nothingness by the city’s lights; suffocated by the thousands of people trying to outdo the celestials. Twenty minutes must have passed as I searched in a futile attempt to find something to show to Jacob. “They’re there,” I told him. “The stars are there, I promise.”
“Cam,” he said, “just tell me Ganymede’s story again. I don’t care about the stupid stars.”
And so I did. I told him about the little Trojan boy cowering behind Zeus’ throne. He offered up cup after cup of sweet wine to the king of gods, all while Hera crossed her legs on her ivory throne and went on and on about those hippies stirring up trouble in Troy.
I ended up carrying him back to his bed; he had fallen asleep.
The summer before I left for college, Jacob and I decided to go camping in Blackwood Forest instead of simply sleeping in our parents’ cabin.
We explored the dense foliage of Blackwood. The canopying trees created a garden of twilight for us: Eden in shades, with berry bushes instead of apple trees; Hesperides in shadows, with sparrows instead of dragons.
I taught him which berries were safe to eat, which plants he could boil and make tea with. I taught him why moss usually grew on the east side of trees and rocks, why sap oozed from trees when they were wounded. He told me about Luke, who had been in his English class, who knew everything about Greek mythology. “He wants to study Greek stuff, like you,” he said. “You’d love him.”
When we were done hiking for the day, we would set up the tent and relax. Sometimes I would tell him stories, but mostly I would let him tell me jokes. I didn’t like to break the ringing silence of the forest, with its melodious birds and dinning bugs. Even Jacob kept his jokes to a minimum, apparently not wanting to defile the holy noises either.
Sometimes while we hiked, the light caught him and illuminated his frame. His hair turned to flames; his body became entrenched in shadows. He looked like a hero depicted on Greek vases, ready to destroy monsters and villains. But then Jacob stepped out of the light, and he was boyish again – young, with spindling arms and sticks for legs that could barely support him; with skin like plaster of Paris, seeming like it could never crack, that it would exist for centuries without a single blemish.
On the last night, we slept outside of the tent. We could barely see the stars between the trees, but we knew they were there, blazing and luminous, but fragile.
“I want to leave,” James said barely loud enough to break the din of the forest. “You’re so lucky. You get to get away.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.
His jaw clenched and unclenched, as if he were chewing up storm clouds. He wanted to unhook his jaw, I could tell, and blow away the entire forest. He could raze every tree, if he set his mind to it, just so he could see a single star up there. He would reach up; he would pull them down; he would swallow the fiery denizens one by one, without fear. Jacob was dauntless.
But instead he swallowed the storm, and I think that’s where it all started. He swallowed the storm whole, and it festered in his stomach until it developed into this. “I know,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Just tell me the story of Ganymede again.”
I would have told him that story until dawn, if he asked.
From the beginning, I always expected a final, torrential storm that ripped up his throat. I wanted him to spew out thunder and hurl down lightning, give the explicit reason for it all. But when I entered the house on the third night, I felt change. The air was stilled, as if it were underground, and completely silent. Even though the air conditioner wasn’t on, goosebumps erupted on my flesh like volcanoes.
“Jacob?” I called out. My voice echoed back at me.
My feet guided me slowly through the house, into the kitchen. Everything was in a palpable stasis, and I had to push my way through the coldness. “Jacob?” I said, muted by the austere air. I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I imagined him in front of the refrigerator. Once, when he was only three or four, he had opened it and dropped egg after egg, one at a time, ever so slowly, upon the ground. At his feet, the yolk pooled, all the white congealed, and he glared furiously because we wouldn’t let him go to the park alone.
I stopped at his open bedroom door. From there, I could see into the bathroom, where Sappho’s poetry still sat dejectedly next to the bathtub. I wondered how he reacted to it. Did he scream at the ancient scribbles, feeling some inexplicable connection? Did he take it all silently, like he seemed to be taking everything lately? Even the bath water would not have crested over the ledge of the porcelain, like he loved to do when he was younger. “I’m making tsunamis!” he would yell, and I had to hold his wrist to keep him in place as I washed his hair. His tiny body would shift this way and that in the tub, imagining airplanes and speedboats. But the tub was empty now; the moment dried.
“Jacob?” I repeated, but I was no longer looking for him. I crossed the threshold of his room and stared at him in his bed. Blankets no longer covered him.
“I’m so tired,” he said, but his mouth barely moved. His lips and one of his eyes were the only things I could see on his face; the rest was covered by dark tree bark. He was being restrained, one moment at a time. Where had it started? “Cam, I’m so tired.”
I crossed the room to his bed. The bark pressed up again his face; curled hooks into the bed to lock him in; reached deep inside the cavity of his chest. I imagined them embracing each rib and reaching for his fragile heart. It covered up his freckles, and compared to the darkness of the wood, his lips appeared colorless. I didn’t know where to touch him to comfort him, so I sat beside him.
“Does it hurt?” I asked. I could almost see the bark shifting, starting to cover the other eye.
His one eye, all black, all ready to release a flood, met mine. “Like nothing else in the world,” he said. Would I have submitted to this, if I had stayed at home? “Why did you leave me alone, Cam?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“I thought that maybe reading about other people would help, but –” He started coughing, but couldn’t move his shoulders or chest. “I’m so tired, Cam,” he said. The bark almost completely covered his eye, forcing his lid closed. I wanted to grab his hand, but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t grab the bark advancing over his eye – I would crush it. “I lost it. I lost the war. I never thought it’d come to this, you know? I thought at some point I would be okay. I kept promising myself that it’d get better, but I just couldn’t stand to wait.”
“Are you scared?”
He pursed his lips as the bark completely covered his eye. He was blind. “No,” he said. “Just tired. I’m so, so tired, Cameron.”
“Can I help you?”
The bark advanced over his mouth, threatening to reach inside of him. “Ganymede’s story,” he said, drawing towards his last breath. “I’ll be able to hear you.”
Robert Esposito is a freshman at The College of New Jersey and is currently a prose reader for The Blueshift Journal.