When I returned home as usual from yet another ridiculously mind-numbing day at school, I noticed a linen sack on my desk. In the blink of an eye my grandmother, who looked as though she’d been around for several hundred years, appeared behind me and said, “Look what I found.”
“Open it and see,” she said.
I opened it.
Dust danced out of the sack, trailed by an unhealthy stink of mold. From deeper inside, I pulled out a frighteningly ancient stack of notebooks. I froze, standing still for some time before mustering a reply.
“Grandma, these notebooks . . . are they . . . ?”
“Yes,” she answered, walking out of the room. “They belonged to the boy,” she continued, without turning to look back at me.
She didn’t have to tell me. I knew. The boy she was referring to was my brother. I once had a baby brother. An oh-so-very strange one at that. But I loved him dearly; there was no question about that.
I stretched out my right arm and felt my fingertips go tingly and numb. I don’t think I was feeling anxious. It was more like something cold and rubbery had enveloped my hand. Some time had passed before I even realized that I was touching one of the oldest notebooks.
I have no way of knowing how long I stood there frozen with my hand on the notebook.
He had written the date on the cover, drawing the numbers clearly and quite large, as if typeset. It was hard for me to believe that he was only four when he had written it. But doing the math puts him there—at age four, two years before the accident took his voice away. Four. Just a baby, really.
I remember clearly how he ran into the kitchen when he got his first notebook, tumbling over himself with joy, then falling and letting out a wail. Back then you still heard the actual cry. He held onto one foot of the table, scrunched up his face, and cried like a monkey, bright red in the face.
I was happily munching on some perfectly popped popcorn when he started crying, and I recall clearly how the crunch in my mouth fell flat. What a pain, I remember thinking. This thing, this little brother–big sister thing, wasn’t working out for me. When my mother leaned over and whispered something softly into his ear, my brother pulled himself up on his stubby legs, hiccupped as he held back his cries, and marched down the hallway, notebook in hand.
I chuckled at the bizarre expression on his face. And then, as if my chuckle was contagious, my brother let out a strange, gurgly laugh from the back of his throat. That was when his voice still sounded like it belonged to a human being.
Having grown up with him, I understood best how smart my brother was. He was three years younger than I, but there were times when he appeared to be more mature than both our parents.
Books. I mean it wasn’t just children’s books that he read. He devoured all books, including those written for adults. I’d sometimes see him tummy-down on the living room floor with one of the odd-looking books that our grandmother had mail-ordered from abroad. He would dive into the books until dusk. And my brother was such a good listener. He collected stories from everyone that crossed his path, piling them mile-high in his perfectly shaped head. Like from the older guys at the market and factory. And the drunks. Or the cab driver from a town far away.
He seemed to get along with most of the neighborhood kids because his overgrown intellect had little use at the playground. He may have been a smart cookie, but that didn’t matter so much when the stakes were a game of kick-the-pebbles or toss-the-stuffed-animal. He chuckled when tickled, whimpered when he fell and nicked his knee, and bled an identical color red, no different from the other children, all peas in a pod.
As for myself, I couldn’t help but think that my classmates were brainless twits. Come to think of it, my so-called friends always treated me with reserve and a certain level of aloofness. I must have stood out on account of being related to a genius. The fact that I wasn’t an A student didn’t bother me at all because I had a brother who read to me at night. When he didn’t read from a book, he told me fascinating stories. Things I learned at school were simply not fascinating enough. And so I based my assessment of school on this very point—that if it wasn’t fascinating, it had no business being in my world. In fact, I believed that the world should be composed of fascinating things only.
“Why don’t you write something yourself,” I told him one night. “Write your own story and read it to me.”
My brother let out a huge, exaggerated sigh and said, “Sure,” trying to suppress a smile.
Here I am today looking down at his notebook. The thick black letters of his handwriting still look as if they could leave imprints on my fingers. And boy oh boy, how I remember. Without a doubt, this was my brother’s first story.
“Heyyyy, typhoon’s a-comin’!” said a man in a portside village. A huge typhoon was about to land. It was moving closer to the coastline. The fishermen anchored their boats, fixed their rooftops and hammered wood planks into doorways and walls.
But one Mr. Twisted stood up and declared, “I ain’t afraid of no typhoon.”
And he alone took his boat out to sea.
That night, the typhoon changed course and landed directly on the fishing boats. The boats, rooftops, houses, people and dogs were all blown sky high and away during the night.
The following morning, Mr. Twisted returned to his village.
And there he found that nothing remained.
From that day on Mr. Twisted had to sleep, brush his teeth, and eat all his meals alone. He kept looking up at the sky as one lone thought circled his mind.
The next time a typhoon comes, I must make sure to be blown away.
Since I was still in primary school, the story left me speechless for quite some time. “You didn’t find it interesting enough?” my brother asked.
I replied hastily. “No, that wasn’t it. I mean, it’s a really sad story. Mr. Twisted ends up all alone, forever, doesn’t he?”
I think my brother replied with an uh-huh, that’s right, and maybe even laughed a little.
As I read the story today some ten or so years later, a similar sadness creeps up inside me, but it is in fact a deeper version of that original sadness. I reread “Typhoon” two or three times. It’s as if I can hear his voice once again.
A voice so soft.
A voice so comforting.
A voice that would be snatched away just two years after this story was written.
The Trapeze Theory
The lady from the post office offered us four tickets to the circus.
My mother mentioned her dislike of crowds and a lingering cold and gave a faint laugh. “Plus,” she said, “there are some pieces I have to finish this week.” I was a bit let down that she wouldn’t be coming, but the thought of going to a real circus for the first time gave me butterflies in my stomach. It wasn’t just that we were going to the circus. Going out meant dressing up and dressing up meant that my black velvet dress, which left the closet only twice a year, would be making its appearance. The thought of pushing my arms through those sleeves made me want to twirl around on my tippy-toes.
My brother cried, refusing to go. On the day of the event, he bawled as he held on to the central column in the house. “I don’t wanna go! Nononononono, never, never!!,” he screamed.
It was Grandma’s fault.
Even before he started primary school my brother was a little prankster, ceaselessly playing practical jokes on her. Each one of his tricks was so imaginative that I couldn’t help being impressed, but for Grandma, he was just a little devil. A nuisance. If her heart wasn’t as strong as it was, she probably would have died five times over. One morning when she looked at herself in the mirror and saw that her face had been painted into what could only be described as a theatrical explosion, she stomped over to my brother who was eating breakfast and threw him into the closet. My five-year-old brother wrote about it in his notebook.
Grandma is the worst. She grabbed me by my neck and pushed me into the closet and when she let me out it was already dark outside.
This was wrong. I remember Grandma opening the closet door after about ten minutes. The makeup on her face was cracking off, which made it look like her face was falling apart. Appearing as though she had risen from the muddiest swamp in hell, she leaned in and threatened my brother. “You!” she boomed. “If you ever do that to me again, you know what’ll happen to you, don’t you?”
“What’s going to happen to me?” My brother quickly wiped away his tears. It was obvious to me that he was putting up a brave front. He was terrified.
“If you ever do this again,” she said, bending over and pushing her cracked face into my brother’s, “I’m going to force tons of vinegar down your throat to turn you into a lump of dough so I can sell you off to the circus!”
My mother, father, and I chuckled at this joke, but my brother stood frozen, blue in the face. He didn’t touch his breakfast, and later, at the dinner table, he poked at the food on his plate as he stole glances at Grandma. When I told him that there was no vinegar in the food, he barked back angrily that he knew and forced a bit of spinach into his teeny mouth.
The story he read to me that night was in the notebook.
The trapeze differs from other swings. It is not made of wood nor is it made of metal. It is made from a human being. In other words, it is one of the ends of the road for human beings.
Circus people kidnap children and make them drink bucketloads of vinegar.
At first, the changes are not so obvious. But at an unexpected moment, you notice that a leg is upside down. Like an octopus. Even after its effects are clear, it is vinegar, vinegar, vinegar every single day. Not only does the body bend and contort but it grows and shrinks and in the end turns into a shapeless blob. The strongest man at the circus collects all the shapeless children and rolls them into one big ball; then he stretches and rolls, stretches and rolls the ball until it is finally ready for the spray which helps maintain and hold the shape. After a spritz, voilà! A trapeze is ready for action!
During the act, when a trapeze artist notices that he needs an extra two centimeters to reach the hand of the lady trapeze artist swinging on the other trapeze, he kicks his own trapeze. Then the trapeze inflates its soft belly to give his artist the extra two centimeters needed to reach the beauty. Rah-rah. Standing ovation.
So the question is this. Is the trapeze alive? Or is it dead?
I told my brother, who lay belly down on his bed, that I didn’t think the story turned out so well. He sounded let down as he replied that he knew and pulled a blanket over his head. After this day there are many entries in his notebook that deal with the complexities of the circus.
The circus stands at the end of the world. The tent and the yellow light and the murmuring crowd. It is just like a train station in the evening. The circus is like a terminal that takes you to the other side.
The trapeze which swings back and forth in the space between this world and the other side is itself the spirit of the circus. As things take their place on the trapeze, they become shapeless. That is the truth about the trapeze but damn it, I can’t seem to explain it well enough.
I don’t think he seriously thought that he would be sold to the circus but reading his notebook now shows me that he feared the circus. That was why he clung to the column as my father attempted to peel him off, after which I tried tickling him off.
Grandma walked toward my brother. Her outfit was perfectly put together. When she made herself up like that she looked as though she didn’t belong in the family. With her black feathery coat she looked instead like a rich lady visiting from a wintry and faraway land. She leaned in toward my brother, just as she did a few days earlier by the closet, and placed her face right in front of his. Her makeup was immaculate.
“I’m not selling you off,” she said. “I’d have to be crazy to sell such a wonderful boy.”
My brother shook his head. His eyes were brimming with tears. Grandma ruefully furrowed her brows and stroked his hair. My brother hung his head down low. Grandma kept moving her arm in a light stroking motion until suddenly she began nodding at a thought that seemed to have jumped into her mind.
“Say honey, I hear there’s a lion at the circus.”
“A lion?” My brother looked up, wide-eyed.
“And zebras too. I also hear that the bears blow on trumpets and ride bicycles.”
“Bicycle? A bear?” He regained his composure and faced us all.
My father responded to my brother’s silent plea with a look. “Yes, your grandmother’s right,” he said. I joined in just for the sake of it and told him how amazing it was going to be to see a bear pedaling away on a bicycle with his front paws as his hind legs clapped away like there was no tomorrow.
He pursed his lips. Though he was only five years old, his face conveyed an adult-like conviction. He then swiftly stood up and walked to his room. When he returned five minutes later he looked like a rich boy from a wintry and faraway land. Passersby stared and wondered what in the world was going on as Grandma and he paraded down the street, side by side.
Hold My Hand
The circus was just as I had imagined. It exists right in between this world and the other one. Many times during the evening I was almost pulled over to the other side. But my sister stayed right by my side, casting ever the watchful eye. There was always a safety rope behind me. I felt safe. Watching a circus under such intense security measures was hair-raising and heart-thumping at times. Let me not forget to mention Grandma’s outfit, which was perfect for the circus. A picture-perfect ringmaster.
I never knew that he had felt this way about it. My brother who had appeared giddy with excitement about going to the circus had, in fact, still been afraid. When he stood up at full tilt after hearing that lions and zebras were going to be there, he was perhaps already aware that after some time passed it would all return to haunt him.
Not that he had written a word about this.
When I think back to the time when he teared up as a clown nose got pushed onto his, it wasn’t as my father made it out to be. It wasn’t excitement that was making him cry. I think he was genuinely frightened and that was why he kept turning back to check whether we were still in our seats watching him.
At the end of the page dedicated to that day, my brother wrote a story in tiny letters. It looked like he jotted it down as it came to mind. I don’t remember him ever reading this to me. It ended up being the last story he ever wrote about the circus.
Hold My Hand!
The two aerialists lived somewhere in midair from the day they were born. They studied, ate, and slept on the trapeze. As a matter of fact, their wedding was held at the tip-top of the tent. Just once, at the end of the ceremony, they leaned in for a perfectly-timed and soft kiss.
The upside-down wife was a very good cook. As he waited for the circus to open its doors, the husband killed time reading the paper or playing tarot cards. It was a stormy evening when the wife hung upside down from her trapeze with worry clouding her face and looked down toward the ground.
“Boy, are the animals restless tonight,” she said.
“Can you not rest?” The husband directed his eyes at the tigers and bears in the cages down below as one would look up at mice in the attic.
“It’s the storm that makes them behave that way. We’re safe up here on the trapeze. But for them, if the wind blows, they’ll be blown away and if a fire engulfs the place, they’ll burn to a crisp. Honey, would you please hold my hand.”
The husband folded his newspaper and stretched his spine and began to swing toward his wife. He reached for her hand, held it for a second, swung away and returned to hold her hand again for a second, then swung away.
“My love,” the wife said, still upside down, “I guess it’s in our stars that we can’t hold hands forever.”
“Because we’re trapeze artists,” said the husband, swaying to and fro. “It’s our destiny to keep in motion. But the fact that we can hold hands just a little bit at a time,” he continued as he reached for her hand then released it, swinging back to the other side, “to each risk our own life to hold hands like this. I think it’s lovely.”
The trapeze swung back and forth all night long. Even after the storm went away and the animals got to sleep the trapezes continued to sway to and fro as the couple held hands in the pitch darkness.
As if in exchange for ceasing to write his circus tales my brother dove head first into the swing. We all assumed that his swing mania related to his passion for the circus and didn’t give his behavior much thought. My father even built him a swing out of thick straw rope and a wooden board which he hung in the garden. Truth be told, we were all probably just relieved to see him shift his interests to something uncharacteristically childlike.
“What a magnificent swing,” my mother said, beaming. All four of us were in the garden, where the soft spring breeze toyed with my mother’s hair.
“You think so?” my father responded shyly, tools still in his hand. “It’s kind of in the rough but well, I can only, you know, give it my best…..”
“Now, now,” my mother interrupted. “Look at that beautiful arc. He can sure ride a swing, that boy. And my, what a lovely swing set.”
When our eyes met, my father laughed out loud, then squatted down to pick up the scattered nails on the ground. My mother just stared at my brother on the swing.
In April, he was starting the first grade and I, the fourth.
I think it was about a week after the commencement ceremonies when I heard my brother proclaim how bored he was with school as he sighed in bed.
“It’s as if,” he said, “the teachers don’t want us to think, especially not about anything remotely interesting.”
My brother was never the odd one out at school, and neither was he the target of much bullying. His knack for speaking in a tone that projected a confidence and certainty that even the teachers did not possess endowed him with a heroic air that made him popular among his classmates. From an adult perspective, my brother may have been a nuisance, but from my brother’s perspective, the teachers appeared to be placed on a pedestal for no reason at all. He told me once that teachers who regurgitated words from a textbook like a mantra came to school to work for money because they needed the money to buy food. They were tape recorders that needed to eat.
Soon, as if my brother had started a craze, the swings became the it-game among first graders. It became so popular that there was a rule that designated only twenty back-and-forths per person. Every recess, swarms of kids snaked around the three swing sets in the school courtyard, but even from far away I could tell when my brother got his turn. Nobody, and I mean nobody, compared to him.
One day during math class the boy I had a crush on asked me whether I thought there were good and bad swing riders.
“What in the world do you mean?” I asked him.
“During lunch recess I saw a skinny little boy on the swings,” he said. “He had perfect control over his body as if he were a gymnast.” He continued, his voice churning with excitement. “It was much more than a simple swing ride because he seemed to merge with the swing.”
I felt as if I was being tickled in the stomach. Then something deep in my throat fell even deeper down into my throat. I gulped down some air and blurted out that he was talking about my brother. He looked at me with eyes as big as oranges.
“Yup, that’s my brother you’re talking about!”
“Be quiet back there!” Our bald teacher rapped a stick on his desk.
It wasn’t news to me that my brother was amazing on the swing. I mean, he’d come home from school, jump on his swing, and just sway back and forth making the tree branches sing until it was time to go to bed. And that’s not even the whole story. In addition to the swing set our father made, there was another one higher up in the tree that my brother had made himself, snugly situated on a tree branch about two stories high. When he got on that swing high above us, you could hardly distinguish his body from the swing as he disappeared into the shadowy thicket of leaves up above. He even slept up there on warm nights.
One morning I heard his voice from in between the greenery above. Why don’t you come on up, he asked. I told him it was too high up for me, not to mention the caterpillars. He responded by calling me a wimp and a scaredy-cat and weirdo-pants and a slew of other things. So I went up. I placed one foot in what looked like a dent in the trunk and reached for the three-pronged branch then, clawed my way up holding on to pieces of sap-drenched bark. As the smell of foliage cast a dizzying spell on me, I poked my head out from the cloud of green and was greeted by my brother. His face lit up with a bright smile as the morning sun beamed through the leaves, showering him with beads of light. He pointed to the branch above his head and told me that he picked the thickest branch. There was no need for me to worry. We wouldn’t fall.
His swing, which I saw up close for the first time, was ridiculously enormous. It looked like four thick ropes were attached to the frame of a couch. Seated on his swing which swayed softly to and fro, my brother reached out his hand toward me.
“Here,” he said, “take my hand!”
He looks like an angel, I remember thinking. Like an angel that hops around in worlds invisible to us. That’s what he was.
I reached for his hand and held it as if it were too precious for my world. It felt cool and dry.
We sat on his swing and dangled, our legs letting the tree squeak and the swing creak as we slowly swayed back and forth.
It felt good. Soon, I noticed the sunlight gradually brightening. I could hear the crisp and clean song of the breeze, which was a sound I didn’t pay attention to on the ground. It’s difficult to explain, but it felt as though the universe was capable of holding me close and embracing me. Could it have been because it was morning? Was it because I was up in a tree? Or was it because I was sitting next to my angel-like brother on his swing?
Even when our father called us for breakfast, my brother and I sat, hand in hand, swaying in the cool morning breeze, lulled by the soft creaks and groans of the swing.
That night, my brother wrote in his notebook using all caps.
MY SISTER CAME UP TO MY SWING FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER! TO MY SWING! MY SISTER!
Reading this, I get the distinct impression that my brother was indeed of this world and not an angel. Such silliness. He wasn’t an angel. My brother was a living being who was very much a part of this world back then, wanting desperately to hold on to the many bits and pieces of this very world.
Tears of a Ghost . I think it was October when I first heard the rumor about the River Ghost.
Our sewage drained into a dirty river at the southern tip of town. We grew up being told to stay away from the river because there were all kinds of things that flowed into it. Wrecked boats, scraps of food, stuffed animals with missing limbs, detergent and factory waste. Sometimes, dead something-or-others came floating down from way upstream. Even my brother stayed away.
“Did you hear about the ghost?”
“I heard it comes from the river.”
Everybody was talking about it at school. No matter the time of day, strange things were happening all over town. Like the pent roof at the post office that suddenly cracked open or the dent in the hood of a randomly parked car or the hole in the sandbox at the park. Puddles of water marked each one of these peculiar incidents, leaving but a drenched circle in its aftermath.
There was one kid from class who had actually heard the terrifying sound of an attack. “At first it sounded like a high-pitched cry and then I heard something like a boom! Then I looked out into my garden and saw that one of our potted plants had shattered to bits.” As she relayed the story, she started to bawl.
All the adults were mystified and wondered who could be playing such a trick. There were some who pointed their finger at my brother. Fools. My brother would never break anything. Through all the commotion my brother remained unfazed and instead grew even more contemplative until one night he confided in me.
“It’s strange, don’t you think,” he said. “If it had come from that river, the water would be much dirtier.”
“What do you mean?”
“I asked the policeman,” he continued, “and he told me that the puddles of water splattered around the areas of the alleged ghost-attack were clean and had no smell. It could be that the ghost has a different story to tell.”
The next night, my brother read me the final story in his first notebook. Now that I think back to that evening, it was an awfully windy night.
Tears of a Ghost
The River Ghost could never return to its river. The reason was no different than how people, once dead, could not return to this world.
The River Ghost lived happily in the river. It talked to the broken toys and poop as well as the dead animals and chuckled a lot. Once it fell in love with a soot- and grime-stained pebble but it was an unrequited love affair. A toy car missing its wheels and a patch of grey peat moss threw a party to help cheer the River Ghost up. They all lived together as equals in the dark, dark river.
“I don’t understand how I ended up like this.”
The River Ghost had turned transparent, like air. It looked itself over and let out a sigh. Now, the River Ghost found itself floating in the sky. There were no pebbles or junk or animals to be found. It was surrounded by absolutely nothing.
I believe it happened like this.
The River Ghost grew up being told to stay away from the surface of the river. But one day as it comfortably floated in the dark oily waters of the river carried by a particularly powerful current, it noticed something above its head. Something shined and sparkled through the mounds of garbage. Though a bit scared, the River Ghost decided to explore what was shining in the distance and made its way toward the beckoning white light. The swell of a wave pushed its head out above the surface of the water and in the blink of an eye it was pulled up into the sky. The River Ghost became dizzy and lost its equilibrium. It felt like its body was turning over unto itself. When it finally came to, it was floating high up in the sky, staring down at something that looked like a flat surface.
The River Ghost had memories of its time in the river. It wanted to go back. But it didn’t remember where the river was. It was pretty cold way high up in the sky, in stark contrast to the warm waters of the river. When the River Ghost thought about the river, its body squeezed into a tight knot, as if its body had turned into a sad and cold heart.
When the River Ghost spotted something that looked like the broken toys and pebbles in the river there was no holding back. The sad and cold heart squeezed out one teardrop after another which descended to the ground, one heavy drop after another.
Ka-boom-splat. Ka-boom-splat. The teardrops fell onto cars and fences.
The tears of the ghost fall to the ground breaking one thing after another.
“So it’s because the River Ghost had never seen light,” I said.
My brother nodded in silence.
“And so when the potted plants and flowers . . . ”
“I think,” said my brother, “that they remind the ghost of the weeds and moss in his river, which make it cry.”
The two of us stayed up into the wee hours talking about how best to comfort this lost soul, the River Ghost. But we couldn’t come up with any good ideas. We talked about collecting leftovers and building a mountain of food waste in an empty field or upturning all the garbage cans around town. We realized, though, that doing so would appear far more malicious than what the River Ghost had already done.
The winds were still blowing strong the next morning. The tree branches in our yard buzzed as they shook in the wild wind.
That day, we had science class during the fourth period before lunch. When our teacher entered the classroom I noticed that he was smiling as if in response to a private thought. He placed his hands on his desk and then with a smug smirk told us that he was going to reveal the true identity of the River Ghost.
“It’s not a ghost,” he said. “It is hail.” He then drew a wobbly circle on the blackboard. Inside the wobbly circle, he drew dizzying concentric circles, much like the lines you saw in baumkuchen cakes. “Hail is created when dust combines with water vapor in the air, which basically forms a clump of ice. The recent hoopla surrounding the ghost can simply be explained as very large pieces of hail falling on rooftops and fences. Even though it all appears very mysterious to the naked eye, hail melts as soon as it lands. The high-pitched wail or cry you hear is the sound of hail slicing its way through wind.”
Each and every one of my classmates stared wide-eyed at the teacher. As for me, I was reaffirming just how impressed I was with my brother’s ingenuity. His story had been right on. Actually, my brother’s version of the story was far more interesting. My teacher explained hail to us as if he was the proud owner of a coveted piece of knowledge, but actually, he had learned it from someone else and was just regurgitating information. He was indeed a tape recorder that needed to eat. My brother, on the other hand, was amazing. He came up with his very own story.
Someone from class asked the teacher what the concentric circles were about. Our teacher cleared his throat and pointed to the blackboard. “The concentric circles you see here in the cross section of the hail ball are created in a cloud called the cumulonimbus. This phenomenon occurs when drops of water freeze at a high altitude and get weighted down. Once the drops of water plummet they melt just a bit and ride an ascending air current until it freezes again. Then it falls and repeats the same movement upward and downward while growing in size and creating this pattern here. It looks like a fine piecrust, doesn’t it? So can you see how a stronger ascending air current would create a bigger ball of hail?”
Having been told that the River Ghost didn’t exist, the gray cloud hanging over the entire school seemed to lift, brightening everybody’s mood. During lunch recess, more than the usual number of kids ran into the schoolyard despite the harsh winds and started jumping rope, kicking ball and, now that I think of it, behaving as though it were summer again, quickly crowding the schoolyard. I, too, changed into my gym clothes and ran out into the schoolyard with some friends.
There was a large group of kids gathered around the swing, calling out “Eleven! Twelve!” and making sure each rider got off after twenty swings. I turned around when I heard a group of kids gasp out loud and saw that my brother was just about to get on the swing. He reached for the chain links bashfully. With a kick, he was off the ground and in full swing. There was no doubt that he was in a different league. It appeared as though he was going to extend his legs and walk across the sky. He swung back and straightened his body into a perfect line then swung forward. And there he was, high above our heads.
“Three! Four!” The kids were already being whipped into a frenzy. Students all around the schoolyard were watching my brother.
Nobody else could ride the swing the way my brother did. I was actually kind of jealous. Without realizing I had moved even an inch, I found myself standing behind the gathered crowd bobbing my head up and down to the rhythm of my brother’s movement.
Suddenly the swell of his swing dipped a bit. As the crowd murmured its disappointment I saw my brother look over at me. With a look of incredible joy he called out to me. “Hey Sis!” My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe that he spotted me in the crowd. “Make sure you keep watching!” he called out as he bent his knees and dipped down to give the swing a bigger push. As he flew up into the sky the crowd roared, but all I could hear was the creak of the swing growing louder each time he swung forward.
Even after his twentieth swing, my brother showed no signs of stopping. He kept flying higher and higher into the sky. He was probably swinging the highest he’d ever swung, putting himself basically parallel to both ground and sky. Sparks of excitement flew among the gathered students as they called out the numbers with all the energy they could muster. It was as if they were helping push my brother higher up into the sky with the sheer force of their collective voice.
“Twenty-two! Twenty-three!” They cheered and clapped to the rhythm of the swing.
“Enough! Enough already! Be careful!”
Needless to say, my calls were drowned out by the thunderous cheering and clapping. The sound of the feverish creaking flew into my ears like darts.
CREAK. CREAK. CREAK.
“Twenty-five! Twenty-six! Twenty-seven!”
Then suddenly, an unfamiliar sound joined the raucous chorus. It was a sound I had never heard before that came from far, far away. It sounded like two pieces of metal rubbing against each other or the sound of wind blowing from a deep crack in the earth. Now that I think of it, it was the sound of the River Ghost weeping and calling out to my brother from the other side.
My brother reached his legs out toward the sky and stopped midair. His body looked as though it was glued to that position for a second or two. Then only the swing flew backward at an incredible speed. Still in midair, my brother’s body folded into what looked like a lump of dough and dropped to the ground with a thud.
Not quite able to figure out what had happened, all the students stood in silence. I let out a hysterical scream and ran to my brother. His neck was drenched. When I touched his throat, it was so cold it stung. Around his chest and clinging to his shirt was a bunch of pulverized ice, sparkling in the light.
“It’s the River Ghost,” somebody mumbled in a shaky voice. And as if on cue, all the students screamed and ran into the school building. It was just my brother and me left by the swing, which continued creaking back and forth idiotically. I sobbed and heaved, brushing off the pieces of ice from my brother’s skinny chest. As soon as my fingers came in contact with the hail, it melted into drops of water which, one after another, dropped onto my brother’s shirt only to quickly disappear.
Half a Dog
My brother had not woken in two days. Just as the doctor said, he was breathing steadily and quietly in a sound sleep. The hail that struck my brother’s throat was the size of a thumbnail. Did luck have anything to do with the fact that it was the size of an eraser and not the same size as those that left dents in the hood of cars and holes in the ground? My brother broke the twenty-times rule to show me how beautifully he rode the swing. He swung his body until it was parallel to the ground and looked up at the sky only to have hail strike his throat. Hail just a bit bigger than your everyday kind. And for this, can I really say that my brother was lucky?
“Who are you kidding. It’s not luck! It’s a miracle!” said Grandma.
Right. I agree. As I watched my brother sleeping peacefully I began to think about how the River Ghost may have dealt my brother a good hand on purpose. I know it sounds silly, but I think the River Ghost knew that my brother understood how it felt, all alone up there. They understood each other. Had my brother not written that story I think he would have been set ablaze and reduced to a pot of ash by now, hanging out with the River Ghost in the sky, floating above us all.
I saw my mother and father sitting on the couch in the hallway. A troubling air had settled around them. When my mother caught sight of me she gasped, then quickly covered it up with a forced smile and told me that my brother had woken up. “But he’s not able to speak yet,” my father quickly added. Upon hearing the news, I was overcome with joy and jumped up and down yelping about how lucky he must have been, but when I tried to enter my brother’s room, my father told me that he had been moved to a different room for some tests. “What about Grandma?” I asked. “Where is she?” When my mother told me with downcast eyes that Grandma had gone home, I knew that something was definitely wrong.
After about an hour I saw my brother walking toward us down the hallway and decided that I had worried needlessly. He was sporting a smile and waving at us from afar. The long nap that he had taken seemed to have given his skin a rosy glow, and save for the bandage around his neck, he looked a lot healthier than any of us lining the couch. I searched in vain for the right words. “Took a long nap didn’t you,” I finally said to him.
My brother coyly reached behind him and ruffled his pajamas to scratch his butt. He pointed toward his room, so I followed him in. The room seemed entirely different from the day before. I couldn’t remember the room ever being filled with sunlight but sure enough, on that day, the fruit basket by his bed appeared to be embraced by the setting sun, making the pears and apples look as shiny as they did at the market. Even the bedsheets looked special that day. I remember thinking to myself how I could probably sleep for three days or even a week in that bed. My brother reached for a tangerine in the basket, swiftly peeled it, and ate the whole fruit in two bites.
“You must be really hungry.”
My brother nodded vigorously, his cheeks filled with fruit. He reached out to grab his second tangerine, all the while keeping his silence. I thought back to my father saying that my brother was not yet able to speak and reached for my school bag and pulled out a memo pad. I handed the pad to my brother with a pencil. He immediately lit up and started to write.
“My throat is swollen. I’m not supposed to use my voice. Using my voice will slow the healing process.” He tapped the bandage around his neck with the pencil and put on an exaggerated frown.
I sat on the bed and asked, “Do you know what and how it all happened?”
My brother drew circles on the pad and wrote “hail” beside it. And then after a beat, he wrote with slight trepidation. “The ghost saw me and cried.”
Four days after the accident, I got out of school early and went to the hospital with my mother. As soon as we handed him a change of clothes and the brand new notebook we picked up on the way there, my brother’s face lit up. The gray clouds overshadowing his sleepy face lifted to expose a bright new face.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was my father, who was talking very solemnly with the doctor in the hallway and looking like an old bristly sponge with little stubbly hairs poking out all over his face.
“It’s the environment that’s most important. Once you get him back into his old environment,” the doctor’s hushed voice traveled toward us. “Because we couldn’t find anything the matter with him.”
In the waiting room, I told my brother a story I had heard at school: The River Ghost Redux. Once we all figured out that the River Ghost had actually been hail, someone got it in them to start playing a new prank.
“The owner of the candy store stepped outside this morning and there, directly in front of the store entrance, sat a huge chunk of ice. There was no way any one person could possibly lift it alone. And it wasn’t just in front of the candy store. Similar chunks of ice sat in front of the gate at the junior high school, the market, and the police station. They are appearing out of nowhere.”
My brother sat, biting his fingers trying to hold in his laughter. As I watched him, it occurred to me that perhaps he had played a role in this affair.
“Hey, you didn’t leave the hospital last night, did you?”
Looking as though he were initially surprised at my question he copped a perturbed look, then quickly shook his head no, no, no. The big iceball caper had my brother’s touch, but I guess I was wrong.
The security guard held the glass doors open as all four of us left the hospital together. My brother, who had been asleep for three days, stood at the top of the stone stairway and tested his body alignment, lifting his head up high and stretching his back before hopping down the steps one at a time. As my parents watched my brother, their eyes crinkled up.
My brother stood still at the third from last step when he spotted a light brown bundle in the distance that seemed to be rolling toward him. A funny-looking dog with hair only on the left side of its body wagged its tail furiously as it jumped into the arms of my brother who sat squatting on the steps. As the dog licked my brother’s face up and down, he turned his head and peered over his shoulders, looking a bit embarrassed.
“Do you know that dog?” I asked.
My brother smiled and shook his head no as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tangerine. The dog stopped moving and stared intently at my brother.
My mother was the next to speak up. “It won’t eat tangerines, honey.”
My brother stared into the dog’s face. After a while he nodded three times and magically peeled the tangerine with one hand. The dog just sat there drooling. My brother split the tangerine in half, then split the halves into quarters. He placed a section in his mouth, tore open the skin and then hung the piece directly in front of the dog’s nose. I was taken aback. The dog looked like it was bowing to my brother.
Each time my brother held out a tangerine section, the dog sat prim and proper, then munched away. Watching it made my mouth water.
Having eaten all the tangerines, the dog returned to its former scraggly self and began running around in circles, yelping for no reason and drooling all over my brother’s arms. Your hands got itchy by merely touching the half-hairless body which, even on the furry side, had a strange cluster of long and short hairs sprouting every which way. And let me not forget to mention the color, which looked like the shades of brown you saw in a field after a fire had ravaged the greenery, leaving a field of dusty browns and burnt yellows. Its face was elongated as if it had been stretched out without its consent and I couldn’t for the life of me believe that this dog, though a few times removed, was descended from the wolf. It had to be related to some kind of bony hippopotamus. Or better yet, I bet it’s the offspring of the skinny hippo that married a donkey or some kind of equally odd-looking creature.
Because I was busy contemplating the dog’s origin, I couldn’t understand what was going on when my brother handed me the notebook in which he had scribbled out a few words. All I remember is being surprised by my mother’s yelp after she read my brother’s words. If I recall correctly, I think she stood straight up and said something like this.
“Only if you promise to take care of it yourself!”
“Hey, what should we name the dog?” I asked.
Mom had probably been thinking all evening about how to come up with the best name for the puppy because, well, honestly, she just loves that kind of thing. But that evening, she sat quietly at the dinner table with a smile on her face. Dad proclaimed that my brother would have to be the one to name the dog. My brother, feeling uneasy about all the attention being showered on him, squeezed his right eye shut. My brother took out his notebook. “I’m thinking,” he wrote. The freshly-bathed but nameless dog was now chomping heartily on a bowl of dog food, courtesy of my father. Its fur seemed extra fluffy after being washed, which in turn emphasized the hairless side of its body. But it looked, just like my mother had said, more like a dog with a unique hairstyle than a mangy dog. Grandma set the rules. The dog could spend time indoors but it still had to sleep outdoors overnight. “This is my house,” she said, “and dogs are supposed to sleep outdoors. Why? It’s been that way from long, long ago. That’s why.”
Grandma kept flashing me looks, so I got up and opened the glass door in the living room to let the nameless dog out into the yard. I gave the dog a push from behind, patting it a few times on his butt until it suddenly shook itself and jumped directly into the shadows along the hedge and began to whoop.
“Shut up! Stupid dog!” I slid into my sandals and sped out into the front yard. The dog ran toward me at first but quickly turned around and ran back toward the hedge, then back to me and back to the hedge again, repeating this motion over and over. It even pulled at my socks a couple of times.
From behind me, I heard Grandma mention a stick and a whipping in the same breath so I quickly ran toward the darkness in the hopes of getting the dog to quiet down. That was when I saw what was causing the dog to whoop.
It was about my size and certainly big enough to flatten a dog in one go. It was an enormous chunk of ice. It had somehow managed to travel over our hedgerow and had plunked itself down in a corner of our yard as if it were the most natural place for it to be.
I was pretty sure that this thing had not been in our yard before dinner. The ice was perfectly white. It looked just like the kind you made in the freezer. You had to wonder who in the world would waste their time and energy, and I mean waste their time and energy on hatching such a ridiculous stunt. I wondered how many days it took to make the ice and how much water they needed. And for god’s sake, what kind of container did they use?!
I started to laugh. I was laughing so hard that I began to cough. The dog cocked its head and looked up at me wondering what was going on. Stop it please, no more! I wanted to say to the dog, but I couldn’t stop laughing. It felt like my intestines were about to come twisting out of my belly button.
I placed my arms over my stomach and waddled back toward the living room, and there by the glass door I was met by my father, mother, and Grandma, all sporting worried looks, wondering what on earth was happening in the yard. It’s OK, I’m OK, I tried to say, but the sound that spilled out of my mouth ended up sounding nothing at all like words. I squatted in place trying to contain myself and waited for the havoc-wreaking laughter to subside, but just as I felt somewhat in control I saw my brother poke his head out at the end of the hallway.
“Hey!” I gestured for my brother to come closer and felt the tide of laughter returning. “Come over here. Just for a second. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you go to bed without checking this out.”
The dog ran around the both of us in circles, bow-wowing with joy. My brother was barefooted but I didn’t give it much thought as I grabbed his arm and pulled him out into the yard.
I looked down at my brother with an expression similar to the one the dog had flashed earlier. His mouth hung wide open and in a matter of seconds, his lips began to twitch. Stop it! I heard somebody yell out behind us. It could have been Dad. Or maybe it was Grandma. But there was no stopping what had already been started.
“How many of these do you think they made?” I said in a low, hushed voice. It was the voice I used during our tickle-fests.
“I bet you this one is bigger than the one at the candy store . . . ”
Desperate, my brother covered his mouth.
” . . . bigger than the one at the police station, I bet . . . ”
He started to bunny-hop, unable to contain his excitement. I should have stopped right then and there but I continued, putting on my best Grandma voice.
“What do we have here?” I said, pointing to the dog. “Take a look at the dog sucking on that big chunk of ice as if its life depended on it.”
It was then that my brother let out a laugh. Yes. He finally used his voice.
And what a voice it was!
I remember how the dog whimpered as it ran into the house. As for me, after I felt shivers rush up my spine, I glanced over at my brother’s mouth. I was certain that the noise I had just heard had come from his mouth. It was a painful groan combined with the razor-sharp and piercing sound of something scraping glass. Actually, no. It was worse. It was an unfathomably revolting sound you could not possibly imagine coming from a human being. But the sound had indeed flown out of my brother’s little mouth that remained wide open.
I crouched down to the ground and tried to keep it all in, but couldn’t. I heaved and threw up. It was as if some kind of poison in my brother’s voice had traveled through my body. I didn’t want my brother to have to watch me react this way. No, it was wrong. But I had no control over my body.
The laughter quickly died down and a dark and muddy river flowed through me. Upward and downward it flowed as I kept vomiting my all-time favorite home cooking from dinner that night.
“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” His bloodcurdling voice continued its assault. Each time his voice entered my body, something deep inside my inner ear was set ablaze. But at least my brother seemed unaffected. I was relieved to see him behaving as though nothing extraordinary was happening.
“Damn it! What happened to my voice!” he yelled.
I wanted to give him some sort of answer. But I couldn’t. I somehow managed to stay in a crouched position and get up onto my feet to turn around and face the living room, where I saw my mother stretched flat out on her back on the couch. Dad and Grandma were out in the yard but were both on their knees, immobilized.
“I’m sorry, Sis.” My brother did his best to whisper with his monstrous voice.
“Don’t speak! Not with that voice of yours!” I wanted to scream over and over but made certain to swallow each and every one of those unspeakable words.
I have no idea how long we were out there. When I came to, my brother was no longer by the ice. With both ears buzzing I finally realized that Grandma had been the first person to hear my brother’s voice when he had had awakened at the hospital. The dog was beside me looking up at the cluster of trees branches, whimpering through its nose. Behind the heartbroken dog stood my father, grandmother, and mother, who was wrapped in a blanket.
We all knew.
He was up there, all alone above the trees, sitting on his swing.
That night and how my brother spent it on his swing remained a mystery for a very long time.
He had climbed down before sunrise and faced all four of us who stood speechless before him, incapable of finding the right words to greet him. Because he was pretending as if last night hadn’t even happened, I became even more self-conscious, which in turn caused me to stand completely immobilized. Seeing me in such a state, my brother scribbled out something in the corner of the page.
“There are three things pretty girls aren’t supposed to do in front of others. One, dig a piece of peanut skin stuck between your front teeth with your fingers. Two, dig a piece of peanut skin stuck between your molars with your fingers. Three, stick your finger in too deep and cause yourself to vomit.”
From behind me I heard my mother giggling softly.
Then my father jumped in. “I’m sorry. I should have explained it to you. The doctors are all saying that it’s just a temporary setback and that once you return to your old life, your natural voice will come back.”
Grandma stood at attention beside my father with the most solemn expression on her face.
My brother used the notebook. “Did the doctors and nurses throw up too?” he wrote.
Though hesitant at first, my father replied yes.
My brother used the notebook once again. “Too bad for the dry cleaners behind the hospital. Had I stayed a few more nights they probably could have made enough to afford a new iron or something.”
As the morning sun rose up in to the sky, the chunk of ice in the corner of our yard began to melt bit by bit. Lit by the soft morning sun, the ice sparkled and shined beautifully. Looking over at the silly dog hungrily sniffing around the yard, I suddenly remembered. “That’s right. We have to hurry up and give the dog a name!” I said.
My brother grinned and wrote in his notebook. “I’ve decided already. A name easy for myself and all you guys.” He then snapped his fingers. The dog perked its head up and looked over at my brother. He snapped his fingers again. The dog quickly ran over and my brother greeted it by dangling last night’s chicken in front of its nose. As before, the dog sat prettily, bowed, and then scarfed the chicken.
“So what name did you decide on?” I asked.
My brother pushed his notebook toward me. “Snap of the Finger” it said.
He then snapped his fingers over and over again while the dog, full and happy from the chicken, ran around my brother.
Snap of the Finger. I thought it was an odd but perfect name. Just for kicks, Mom and Dad called out Snap of the Finger, Snap of the Finger, and wouldn’t you know, the dog perked up and flashed us its awfully sweet face as if Snap of the Finger was its god-given name or something. The five of us spent the rest of the morning until breakfast teaching the dog some tricks with the help of some salted crackers. My brother snapped his fingers up high then down low while Mom, Dad and I called out the dog’s name in full. Grandma called out to the dog with a hey, silly-thing, or you-there, basically giving the dog a whole range of names but somehow, the dog managed to respond to us all. We ran around the yard all morning long until the ice had all but melted. Thinking back, that morning was the first and only time all of us had spent together, running around till we were glistening with sweat, panting and laughing at it all.
Here I am today, turning the pages of this notebook. To be exact, it is the first section of the second notebook. Though I had suspected all along, my brother had spent that night up on his swing, writing this story.
The boy had debuted at a very young age. His ability to hit notes precisely on the mark as well as his ability to belt out the high notes for what seemed like forever spawned a reputation that caused people to proclaim the birth of a genius.
The boy loved to sing.
He also loved the people that came to hear him sing.
The boy lived in an old house with his sister. Every morning, while his sister fried him an egg, the little singer sang a song to usher in the morning. After the song, the sister always clanged the frying pan and fork together to applaud her brother. The fried egg never came out right because of this but the boy so enjoyed the applause.
“Another song please,” said the sister.
While the boy sat wondering which song to sing next, the sister began to hum a tune, unable to wait for her brother’s selection. She was completely off key. The sister was tone deaf. But the boy believed that he sang his best when accompanied by his sister’s humming.
One morning he awoke to find something strange going on in his throat. It felt as though a big glob of saliva got caught in his throat and gone was his crystal clear voice.
“It could be a cold.”
The sister boiled some ginger in hot water for him. She added some other ingredients which made it smell like the drain of a hot springs spa. The boy took one sip and sped out to the recording studio.
Upon hearing the boy’s changed voice, the adults that had gathered at the studio called an emergency meeting.
“I knew this day would come,” said a producer, massaging his own scalp. “I hope you have a follow-up boy genius ready to go.”
Without missing a beat, the manager replied yes and pulled out a resume. “This is him.”
“Well, this one is much cuter, isn’t he?”
“He’ll be a big hit, a huge one.”
The boy was sitting quietly in a corner. “Excuse me, sirs,” he called out softly. “Will we be recording today?”
“Oh. You. You still there? You can go now.”
At home the following day, the boy received a letter that stated that his contract had been cancelled. The sister tried her best to cheer him up.
“It wasn’t your songs,” she said. “All boys go through a voice change.”
But it was a huge shock for the boy. He even secretly taped himself singing and listened to it, amazed at how horrible he sounded. The beautiful voice everybody had loved and applauded for was now lost forever. The boy then closed up like a clam. Even when his sister hummed a tune he just told her to shut up.
Even to such a sad sack household, the seasons pay their visit.
The boy grew up and became a postman. Each day he started drinking before the sun set. Each night he fell into a drunken stupor and stumbled home only to plop onto the floor by the entrance like a sea cucumber. The sister had gotten married and moved away but wrote him letters every so often. The boy never wrote back.
While biking along his mail delivery route in the late afternoon one day he noticed an envelope addressed to him amongst the bulk of mail. Thinking it was from his sister, he took the envelope out and was about to stick it in his pocket when he realized that the return address was not a familiar one. The letter was from his sister’s husband. With a sense of dread, he parked his bicycle on the side of the road and tore open the envelope. His sister was on her deathbed, it said.
“The hospital has given up on her. She stays in bed all day long and sometimes listens to your old records. She is lucid only when listening to your songs. And she hums along happily to them. The doctors tell me that she only has a few days to live. I was hoping that you could come out and visit. Perhaps you could sing to her and cheer her up a little before she goes.”
The boy had long since given up on singing. He had not intended to sing at all. Regardless, he sped back home on his bicycle and started to pack when a fellow postman and good drinking buddy turned up at his door. “I’m busy right now,” said the man. “I need to leave right away.”
“No, it’s not that” the fellow postman replied. “I have a telegram for you.” Trying his best to control a dizzy spell, the man reached for the telegram. There spelled out in clear letters was what he feared most. His sister had passed.
After the funeral the man returned to his house and realized that the rooms were emitting a stink. He opened the windows to let in some fresh air. I wonder how many years it’s been since fresh air blew in through these windows, he thought to himself.
That night, he didn’t go out to drink. He stayed home alone in a dark room listening to his sister’s treasured records echo in the fresh air. And before he knew it, he was quietly humming to the tune of his own youthful voice. Just as his sister had done.
Tears welled up in his eyes. He had lost many things. What was I doing during it all, he asked himself. Absolutely nothing. I sat back drunk as can be and watched everything be taken away from me.
The man let out a gut-wrenching cry. He hoped in vain to be able to hear the off-key humming accompany his voice flowing from the record player. He wasn’t ever going to hear it. He kept on singing even after the record had stopped spinning. And for some reason, none of the neighbors complained about the noise.
The man returned to his mail delivery job the next day.
“I know you’ve got a lot going on but it’s crunch time over here and we’re completely understaffed,” said the Postal Director.