When he was young, my brother David was the most beautiful thing: his long, girlish eyelashes; his pale, pink lips parted like a wound in need of healing; his lean body too fragile for this world.
We were military brats, Irish twins — me born in February, him, just ten months later — but when I looked at him I saw only myself. With Dad in Kuwait and Mom busy somewhere on base, with Jim Beam and her undiagnosed darkness, we had just the dogs to keep us company, those left behind when their masters went off to war. We would practice our German on Herr Schmidt the bulldog, and teach him to beg. Nancy’s coat would shine beneath our brushstrokes, and Lucky finally learned to fetch.
Oskar the blind Shepherd would curl up beside us in bed and we’d feel his breathing like a blessing on our young skin. There was always an ache inside me, the need to return to David, to be whole again, and we slept with clutched hands, our hearts beating against each other, our breath mingling in the stillness of sleep.
I was thirteen and he was twelve and Dad was in Kosovo advising NATO on their bombing campaign. My brother’s long black hair had grown to the middle of his back and nobody could touch it but me. We communicated wordlessly; a look, even a thought, could light me up like a bonfire. We both knew at the same moment that Herr Schmidt had died, and in our grief David fit his body neatly into mine, pressing himself so deep I knew I would never die. Ich liebe dich I thought the entire time, Ich liebe dich. The sweet pain of him pulsing inside me was the most natural thing in the world.
In the woods a few kilometers from base we found a shaded spot beneath a Linden tree and buried Herr Schmidt there. But my brother was distracted and for the first time I didn’t know what he needed. A stag had shed its antlers nearby and my brother picked them up, caressed them tenderly, the way he had touched me. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came.
My brother grew ugly. His shoulders broadened, a smudge of fuzz appeared above his upper lip, he cut his hair short and carried with him the unashamed tang of burgeoning masculinity. My breasts came in small, a pair of dove’s wings grounded from flight. He wouldn’t look at me while we undressed, but we continued to experiment, tasting each other’s salt, filling each other with our needs, but never again did I think: I love you.
He kept the antlers at the head of his mattress and he would cut himself with their sharp points, awaking with a pulsing star of stigmata on each of his palms, a slash on his wrist.
I knew when I woke alone that winter morning that he was gone for good. He had been hurting himself more and more — whittling away at his skin with the rough edge of the antlers, impaling himself upon them until his skin broke. When I finally found the voice to ask him to stop, David placed the antlers on his head, turned his back and left me alone in our bedroom.
Jonathan Papernick is the author of two collections of short stories: The Ascent of Eli Israel, and There Is No Other. His fiction has appeared in Post Road, Green Mountains Review, Nerve, Blunderbuss, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, Confrontation, and elsewhere. He is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College.
His novel The Book of Stone is out this month from Fig Tree Books.
To learn more, please visit jonpapernick.com