The service at the crematorium was, by design, a godless affair. Daniel’s slender body was consumed in an eco-friendly cardboard coffin to the accompaniment of Heaven 17’s Temptation, one of the few hits that had ever ignited in him the courage to dance. My heart is on fi-ya, the backing singers chanted. It is only now, more than a decade after his death, that I spot the irony, and wonder if I am the last to have seen it.
My mother was given no say in the form or content of her son’s send-off. My sister, who had for years taken care of him, became the arbiter of what Daniel would have wanted. Daniel wouldn’t have wanted that, Anne said, insisting that our mother omit from the poem she had chosen to read a line that made reference to God and prayer. My mother, cowed equally by sorrow and remorse, obeyed and skipped the stanza, stumbling over the missing rhyme. Like a weary dog with a bone beyond its means she took it to a therapist and gnawed away at the injustice of it. And she lamented to me. The funeral is for those left behind, she said. Not for Daniel. He wouldn’t have cared. I couldn’t help agreeing with her on both counts, and was disturbed by the ferocity with which attachments to faith had been forbidden.
But I did nothing to support her. I stayed out of it. It was easy enough to do so: Anne was managing Daniel’s sudden death—as she had his rehearsals for it—a continent away, on the south coast of England. I had several years earlier remarried, left England and moved to Cape Cod. I was nursing a nine-month-old baby, and sleepless or keening with grief through the hours he slept. I hadn’t the stomach for a coup, and Anne had more than enough to handle with police and press and coroners.
I hadn’t the heart for a funeral either: I didn’t go; hard as that is to admit. I couldn’t conceive of making real my brother’s absence by witnessing his slow slide toward the flames. I reasoned that Daniel was beyond being troubled by his funeral, that he’d admonish me to spare his baby nephew the journey, spare myself the anguish. I chose to believe that he was finally where he wanted to be, and spoke silently to him as though he were. But I fretted over how my family would receive my decision. I need not have done. Yes, of course, they said. You must stay with the baby. While it came as a relief to have their blessing, I heard in it the echo of their own relief: we are safe from the question of faith. I wrote a eulogy of my own, to be read aloud by the secular woman who had been hired to officiate. You are free of your demons, Daniel, I wrote. God speed you Home.
So many people showed up for the short service they spilled out of the open doors. I pictured them clustering like geese on the concrete threshold and wondering if it would be OK to smoke there, ahead of the wake at the pub. Daniel would have been incredulous at their number, would have assumed they’d come on the wrong day, mistaking him, even dead, for someone else—someone infinitely more memorable than he’d ever believed himself to be. Oh, he knew he was loved. He’d felt that love as a burden even, like a foot caught, tethering him to an earth he’d been for so long bent on leaving.
Ten years after Daniel died, I was visiting my mother in England, as I did every summer, and found among the remnants of childhood a ragged, yellowing composition book from elementary school. The cover was missing—a few tiny fragments of blue-grey paper caught still under rusting staples—so it wasn’t immediately obvious which of us, the five children, it might have belonged to. I sat on the low camp bed my son Felix used in the tiny room where the toys are kept, and leafed through the flannelly pages. There were stories, notes, lists, and drawings, all executed in colored pencil, the margins spattered with a teacher’s red corrections. Before long I realized that the notebook was the work of Daniel. It spanned the fall of 1967 and the summer of 1968, a time when he was nine and I was eight. Sown among his own stories—a field trip to the Tower of London; wildflowers gathered on a walk to the river; cavemen trapping bears; the eruption of a volcano; the monitoring of sprouting bulbs—were quaint re-renderings of Old Testament tales: Moses in the bulrushes; Gideon questioning God; the Ten Commandments, and several devotional prayers. What moved me most were the I like musings on things that nine-year-old Daniel apparently had a fondness for: fire, bluebells, and, curiously, the dark.
Do you like fire? I do. I sit and wach the colourfull flame’s wich leap up in the
air and with flameing arms that fly about in the air. Yes I do like fire so shoud you.
How was it that through successive summer visits, Felix playing in this room, his emptying of all the drawers, I’d never before come across the book? Was it another of the memento mori my mother rescued after Daniel died, then needed to put away? I took the book to her and she seemed unaware that it was in the house. She showed, surprisingly, no interest in it. I held it open to Daniel’s comical drawing of Gideon crushing grapes, an overweight angel beside a tree, waiting to surprise him. She stared at the picture for a moment through the bottom of her bifocals, then returned to the crossword. She had become newly unsentimental in her dotage.
Take it if you’d like it, she said.
Gideon was crushing graps when he saw a figure under the oak tree, he stopped work and had a closer look and it was an angel sent from God, and he heard a voice and it said Gideon you are the leader of your army. then Gideon said in his mind I am a bit suspicious about this.
Daniel heard voices, though it was years before any of us knew this. At first they offered only opinions. In time they began to make suggestions, and then to give directives. By the time he turned thirty his mind was forked like a river, one tributary pooling in manageable shallows, the other roiling in perpetual, terrifying motion. Unemployed, he left his long-time girlfriend—a shy and studious model—and moved into a basement apartment close to Anne. Though he made a number of close friends and entertained occasional girlfriends—he was strikingly handsome—he continued to live alone but for the company of the voices, some silky, some despotic, none benevolent.
One day we had some bowlb,s and we planted Them. and gave Them some buwlb fibre and we gave Them some water. then we put them in a dark cupboard.
His small, lackluster space held him in a measure of safety, but only inasmuch as a shell holds its vulnerable mollusk. The apartment was beneath a narrow home in a long row of conjoined narrow homes, all without yards. He scratched out a tiny flowerbed beside the basement steps and planted a dozen daffodils, a freak of nature on the treeless, car-lined street. He had no car himself; he’d never learned to drive, lacking whatever it took to navigate in a sea of strangers propelling steel caskets helter-skelter. As a young man there had been periods when he’d shed pretty much everything, made himself homeless, drifting for several seasons and then settling again, like a detached leaf. Now, his world became as contained as it had once been borderless.
Dark is a black mist that covers my bedroom at night.
He saw Anne almost daily. She oversaw his regimen of medications and clinical appointments, his social security checks and parched bank account. Daniel’s apartment belonged, conveniently, to Anne’s boyfriend, who’d lived in it himself before moving in with Anne and her two young sons. The arrangement worked well until Daniel spoiled the mattress. It was the second apartment in which he’d lain in bed and cut open his wrists; the second in which he did not die. Under the cover of darkness Anne dragged the crimson futon up the basement stairs and into a nearby dumpster.
She is made of stronger stuff than I.
The next time, a year later, Daniel was careful to open his wrists in the bath. I picture Anne on a bitter winter morning plunging her arm elbow-deep into water chilled more by the depth of its color than the hours he’d lain in it. She was there to clean up. She’d made the late night call to the paramedics but had not seen them lift Daniel from the water, nor heard the sloshing, the giving and taking of his weight—the slightness of him. Red Rorschach enigmas ranged over the rim of the enamel tub and dried into jellyfish-shaped filigrees on the grey linoleum floor. But still he had not died. Not yet. I see her standing, numb, in Daniel’s dim hallway, waiting for the locksmith to come and fix the kicked-in door, a trash bag of soiled towels slumped at her traitorous feet.
Next time, she found him at the mirror over the sink, working the blade like a trowel. He was talking to himself and seemed not to know she was there. She coaxed him away and dressed the wound in his neck as best she could. But without stitches it healed to a ragged round scar a few shades lighter than the skin surrounding it, puckering like a bullet wound, as though he’d been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time one day. Or his entire life.
I like dark. Do you. When I wake up in the morning when it is still dark I lie and look at the ghosts that go by and make faces at me. some times I make faces back.
I have never been clear what marked the beginning of Daniel’s slow slide towards insanity. I can think of no single moment, event or season in his unfolding that might have given the first hint that his path would one day deviate sharply inward and downward. I wonder, was the seed of such a schism in him from the start? Or did it plant itself only later, sprouting from circumstance? Nature or nurture?
And does it really matter now, anyway?
Still, I scour the notebook, looking for clues.
What I remember of Daniel from childhood is, I’ve come to realize, discomfitingly little. I wonder whether I haven’t so much forgotten the child he was as neglected in those early years to pay the kind of attention that might enable me to remember that boy now. Five children born in as many years: A good Catholic family, for a while at least; my father left when the last baby was six months old, and divorce in those days warranted all but excommunication. When I wade into the pool of the past, lie back and scull, what rises to meet me is the muffled din of so many lives playing out under the narrow roof of our childhood. The only voices I hear are my mother’s, the voices of her two lives, the one before my father, and the one after: the woman she had once been, and the person she became. Riches to rags, sweet to sour, light to dark, her stories of all she gave up, all he took or stole. She inhabited two unpredictable extremes: Pity me and How dare you pity me. In any given moment she might come from either place. It was hard for her to choose, harder still for us to predict.
Once not long ago there was a little Boy he was only 2 years old. and his name was Jhon-Jhon and his daddys shed was up the garden and the baby whent up into the shed and looked at the lawn-mower. he found a string so he tried to pull it. but the string was not pulled hard enough so he tried again. and the lawn mower started and the baby put his hand in the cutter. and Just at that moment his daddy came home. and Just stoped the baby. and when his mummy heard of that his mummy told his daddy to keep the shed door locked.
Our father was The Invisible Man, entirely absent and unknowable, but living among us in his spurned wife’s tales. I was three and Daniel four when our father finally stopped coming home. The police, my mother told us, were the only people interested in finding him. Reminders of his legacy and her reduced circumstances hung over us like damp shirts she’d pegged up and he’d left behind in his rush to flee the plague of babies. She never so much as lunched with another man in the decades that followed. Nor did any man mow the lawn. As we left home each of us carried skeletons from the closets, Daniel more than his fair share, You’re just like your father ringing in his ears.
Daniel moved away as soon as he could, fleeing the constraints of our mother’s depressions and her sporadic, crazed insistence that he was the devil. In later years, no longer crazed, she theorized that Daniel’s illness was genetic. Unaccountably skipping a generation she cited the case of her Uncle Jack who, it was said, returned from World War II so shell-shocked he was committed to an asylum. There he died, very young, very handsome, and mute with terror. Given that he was buried at a discreet distance from the family plot, she long ago surmised that the story of his war psychosis was conceived to mask his suicide. Either way, the tale is one of Jack losing his mind and my mother finding the likely explanation for her son’s appearing to have done the same.
I have a penny that mrs whitney gave me. and it is 1 inch across and there is a picture of the queen and king and the edge is smooth. And the peopal are a bit blak around the edges.
What did he do with his penny, I wonder. Daniel was never the acquisitive type—though I’m forgetting the time when he was nine, maybe ten, and took the money our mother set aside for coal. He bought the Batmobile that had called to him all week from the toyshop window. A friend gave it to me, he told our mother. You are a dirty thief, our mother told him. Just like your father.
Around that time he acquired and nurtured an ancient cactus, Spike. It was one of the few things he held on to over the years, fostering it out while he was wandering and reclaiming it each time he blew back in. It must have been a repository of something, this beloved, untouchable thing.
The place I would like to live in
I would like to live in the country because it is quiet and there is know traffic
about and there is a lot of nacher about. I like nacher.
When Anne’s boyfriend decided to sell the apartment—I’ve had enough of him fucking trashing it—Anne hastily found Daniel another. It opened directly onto the road, with no prospect of a flowerbed. There was little to pack. By then Spike had been with him three decades, an upright, arid and noble thing, grown over the years into a caricature of itself. It would start to die in the new apartment, withering with a speed it never attained in its years bent on growth, dying from the inside out, a rot radiating from its core, its suffering held in secret beneath a scarred skin. One day it was engaged in living, the next given over to giving out. It is the nature of things to die, even unexpectedly. Perhaps Daniel took it as a sign.
We went on a bus to the train station. then we went on a diesel to London. it was very nice on the train and I sat by the window. I put my head on the window and it looked very much as iff we wear going very fast and the rails got thiner and thiner. When the bus came I was sorry that we had to go home.
For a while Daniel seemed to improve. Against all expectations he died right when it seemed he was beginning to regain a foothold on the earth. In the end we lost him not by the knife but by the ironic sleight of someone else’s hand, someone who, even now—and I am guessing here—feels in his sleep the twin shudders that rose up through his air-compressed seat as, too late to brake, each axle of his red double-decker bus moved over the slender, running, falling man.
It was a Tuesday morning when my mother called to tell me that Daniel was dead. He died two days ago, she said. For two days Anne had been calling his friends, the hospitals, the police, searching for him. Nothing. Only a dead man a decade younger than the one she was describing: Daniel’s youthful good looks ever a brilliant disguise. He had lain unidentified in the chiller at the city morgue, no one knowing who he was or where he came from. He had been carrying nothing that conferred on him a name, a home, a history. He was a puzzle to be solved.
At the inquest, the judge, a sensitive mother of adult sons, returned an open verdict. She determined that despite the level of alcohol in Daniel’s blood (exhibit A), and the weight of his mental health record (exhibit B), and the police records of each of his attempts at suicide (exhibit C), there was insufficient evidence to conclude that his death had been anything other than unintentional, a tragic accident.
Irrespective of whether Daniel left us by mistake or by design, all the angst with knives seemed unnecessary: Had he only known it, Daniel could simply have waited for the bus to take him to where he had for so long wanted to go.
JESUS, Friend of the friendless, Helper of the poor, Healer of the sick, Whose life was spent in doing good, Let me follow in they footsteps. Make me loveing.
One night, in the first weeks after Daniel died, I lay awake in the dark turning over something he’d said about God. A year or so before he died he told me he had no wish to believe in a God who lacked the will to save his so-called children from their suffering. I tried to remember what it was we might have been talking about that could have led us to the question of faith. Everything I was taught about God is a lie, he’d said. I’d felt unequal to responding, my own life so free of the terrors that lay siege to his.
A memory returned to me as I lay there: Daniel at seventeen, in the common room of a monastery he was living in while—a surprise to us all—he considered a vocation. The whole family has gone to visit him. There is a youth retreat in progress and we sit in on one of the sessions. The retreat leader, an affable, bearded Franciscan, invites everyone to think of the one thing most essential to survival.
Water, the teenagers call out. Air, food, they say. Shelter, I venture.
And Daniel, sitting opposite me, says with quiet, self-conscious conviction, Faith in God: Without these other things, we die. But if we have faith in God, we live forever.
I was dazzled by this new depth in him. Where had it come from?
And where did it go?
A few weeks later he’d abandoned the idea of a vocation. In time he’d come to believe that there was no salvation. And that nothing could ever be more terrifying than the idea of life everlasting.
I pictured him lifted from the bath, limp but saved. This is my body, this is my blood, Daniel consigned again and again to life, seemingly unable to escape it.
The next day God spoke to Gideon and Gideon said prove to me that you are really on my side.
In time I would discover, hidden along the dim corridor of mourning, an inner confessional where grief sits awhile like a solitary traveler in a priestless airport chapel. When I arrived in this scarcely lit place I confessed, if only to myself, my despicable sins against Daniel. The first: that I was relieved he was no longer alive. In the moments after I’d first learned of his death, I’d secretly rejoiced for him; rejoiced that he was finally free, that he’d been wrong about there being no salvation. But I was relieved for myself, too. Later, I told myself that when this grief passed I’d feel a new lightness. It would be the absence of worrying about him, and it would be freedom from guilt: Daniel’s suffering would no longer stand at my side, a starving dog watching me eat from a full table.
Once there were to cave men hunters and they saw a bear. so they dug a hole and they whent up to the Bear with a stick of fire and chast it to the hole.
When Anne set to clearing Daniel’s apartment our mother was with her, picking out a few things to take home. She packed the dying cactus, Spike, its withering spire shrouded in a white t-shirt she’d taken from Daniel’s bag of laundry. The shirt smelled keenly of him and had the scuff of his neck on the inside seam. It was one of many identical cheap white t-shirts he bought in bulk, wearing one always as a first layer, a second skin, a tattoo of himself unblemished.
Daniel’s old stuffed panda, grayed, eyeless and balding, went into our mother’s box too. She’d been stunned to discover it sitting on his bedroom chair, this one other relic of his childhood.
However deep the sentiment that urged her to save the panda, once she was home she found herself uneasy seeing it sitting on her own bedroom chair, a refugee in an unfamiliar country: all it might have born witness to, but for its unseeing eyes. After a few troubled nights she took a wad of white tissue paper up to bed, swiftly wrapped the panda, and put it behind the blankets in the guest-room closet.
Strangely, it was Spike, the cactus, she would have held to her if she could. She stood it in the living room window alongside the geraniums and African violets. She spoke to it, willed it to return, watched it fail even so.
The bear bothered her at night, even from the dark of the closet.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
When I visited my mother the following summer the old cactus was there still, a fading sentinel amid the lush plants. And it was there the summer after that, still upright, but vacant, hollow and dry, its pallid carcass shamed and diminished by the flowering plants. It was somehow holding on to its needles. But now its presence burdened her.
“I can’t face burning him,” she told me, attributing a personality to the cactus, as Daniel had. She envisioned the anxiety that would come with lighting the living room fire and consigning the desiccated plant to the flames.
“This spiking plant is died, Granny,” Felix would tell her each time he climbed up onto the window seat and she stood by, guiding the spout of his watering can between the pots on the windowsill.
“Yes, darling,” she’d say, and still he’d water it, his face a knot of concentration as he focused on holding his tender fists away from the spikes.
“What about burying Spike,” I ventured, “and letting him decay into the ground?” My mother has a teeming cottage garden, an idyll of overflowing flowerbeds, ancient roses, misshapen apples trees. “Down by the pond, perhaps, where Daniel liked to sit?”
I watched her lift, as though in the updraft of a longed-for liberation.
And the bear fell into the hole when it was dug and the cave men were glad.
I was not there to see her let the cactus go, but by our next summer visit it had vanished. I imagine my mother taking herself and the shell of Spike to the edge of the pond, kneeling, and pulling away the soft mat of moss at the stone feet of the Buddha Daniel had given her. It is dusk, a warm August evening, the sky beyond the yew hedge threaded with pink. When she has dug a hole the size of an infant’s grave she hesitates, rises, and goes back to the house. She reaches behind the blankets in the guest room closet and heads back downstairs with a bundle swaddled tightly in white tissue paper.
It is growing dark as she returns to the pond, the air entirely still, silent but for the last cooings of the doves settling in the tower of the church behind her house. She kneels, and lays within the hollow two gray relics, one spiky, one soft, and with her liver-spotted hands she slides clods of cool, moist earth into the hole, the lucent paper disappearing bit by bit like a waning moon snuffed out by clouds.
This wasn’t how it happened at all. One evening on my next visit, my mother told me how, in the end, she did put Spike in the fire. She planned a cremation of sorts, laying a fire, lighting it, letting it grow, then laying the hollow cactus on top of the logs.
Her palms went to her cheeks as she related the tale. “He wouldn’t burn,” she whispered. “He just lay there and wouldn’t catch fire.” We both stared into the empty fireplace. “It was awful,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. It’s not what I thought would happen.”
I didn’t ask her what, in the end, she did with his remains.
The bear was still in the closet. I think she hoped I’d take it.
It’s there still.
We took the bowlbs out of the cupboard and some of them had shoots and only one of them had roots. But it was not mine.
On my desk is a dwarf teacup of the size you might find in a child’s tea set. Daniel gave it to me when he was twelve. He gave me, too, one of the tiny bristly globes that had recently sprouted near Spike’s tip. We spooned a little of Spike’s sandy soil into the cup and I set the baby cactus in it. For a while it seemed to thrive, growing ever so slightly elongated, losing its infant roundness. And then its progress halted. When I poked it gently to see if it was firmly settled in the soil, it dropped to one side, its base bare of any roots.
At a certain time of the morning the sun glances off the pottery glaze, betraying a snail-trail of petrified glue from an old, inexpert repair. The glue bisects the head of a primitively-rendered blue flower. The cup had been in two pieces when Daniel gave it to me. He knew me to be a keeper of things beautiful and imperfect. A thimbleful of dry, sandy soil still sits in the bottom of the cup. It had once been filled to the brim, but over the years most of the dirt has been spilled and lost in the bottom of packing cases as I’ve moved from place to place. Sometimes the wobbling cup tips over as I dust around it. Now, since the grains can almost be counted, any that scatter I slide to the edge of the desk and return carefully to the cup. What tips out too is the all but weightless shell of a cactus no bigger than the nail of my little finger, its fuzzy spines still in place. It rests on top of the soil, faded to the frail husk of a moth.
It was bound to die, of course, struggling as it was in the wrong kind of soil, in too harsh a climate, its uncommon needs neglected.
A year or so before Daniel died, the thick file of papers that made up his case history was lost. The psychiatric nurse who visited him at home—a tender, loyal man whom Daniel loved—set the file on the roof of his car while he took off his coat. He remembered it when he got back to the hospital. It was never found. It likely flew open and blew to the four corners of the earth, or fell under the wheels of a passing bus. But I can’t shake the feeling that it was picked up close to Daniel’s city home, and thumbed through by someone who never even knew him, someone who came to know more of what ailed him than I ever will.
I would like to go in the woods and pick bunchs of flowers. I like bluebells.
It was bluebell season when Daniel died. His ashes were sown by Anne and a stiff breeze in a bluebell wood beyond the city park. By the time he was cremated the tender blooms were over. Anne chose the spot where she and Daniel stood together only weeks earlier swooning over the wood’s carpet of purple-blue. I picture her letting loose the dust of Daniel and imagine how he might have blown back, clung to the hem, the sleeves, the lapels of her coat, how she might have had to brush him off with the flat of her hand: Go. Rest now. Enough.
I lie and look at the ghosts that go by and make faces at me. some times I make faces back.
It’s eleven years since Daniel died. As each spring comes around I find myself perplexed by the anniversary of his death. Is it May 17th, the day he died, or two days later—the day he died to us?
For a long time after he was gone I could still picture the nape of his neck, his beautifully proportioned ears, the first furrowing of lines at the outer edges of his eyes; his thumbs, so like mine and so unlike our mother’s that we knew they must have come to us from the father neither of us had known.
But I’m starting to forget.
On a sideboard near the table at which we eat is a picture I took of Daniel the fall before he died, when he had mustered all it took to travel and visit us on Cape Cod. He is sitting in the back of our little powerboat, Zelda, the autumn sun full on his face, his thick dark hair blown back off his forehead by the wind. Beyond him is the vast blue. And trailing in our wake I see what was not apparent to me at the time: the faint trail of something shimmery that we are leaving behind us. Perhaps it is the vapor of all Daniel’s voices, expelled by the unalloyed delight he’d felt while laid bare to the elements in such blessed detachment. I remember how the home-rolled cigarette between his fingers burned down so fast to ash in the warm rush of the wind.
One hot day I went down a volcano and it was like a frying-pan. wile we were clmbing down the rope it snapted and luckily I fell on a
Fell on a what? This is all there is of the story, only its beginning. Daniel leaves us hanging, waiting for him to fall.
What had that boy in mind to fall on to, I wonder. What was it that he’d imagined might luckily save him? Could he think of nothing? Or had he simply run out of time and had to stop there?
Of course, the story of his precipitous fall towards a fire is only fiction.
Or an allegory.
Or a premonition.
As in all the stories in the coverless book, Daniel’s teacher has corrected his misspellings, writing over his penciled words with red ink. Her red words are larger, bolder than his faint grey ones, and there are places where I can no longer see him at all. She had a heavy hand, Mrs. Fricker; and an insistent voice. And were she not long dead I’d slap her, hard. It is that boy’s imperfect efforts that tell the real tale. His voice, once faithful to him, rings through these prismatic fragments of prose. I hear its redolent chords as he speaks to me of fire and flames and dark, of God and Gideon and bears.