My brother is a good man, a strong man, a dependable man. My brother is a quiet man. My brother, deep down, is broken.
He’s often there, staring out across the lake, not moving. If you didn’t know him you might wonder what he’s watching for. A change in the weather? An approaching boat from a distant verge? Doubtful though as there’s nothing there to be coming from, unless you’ve been hunting in the woods on the far shore. But I know him; he’s my brother Amos. Four years older, strong and broad. Thirty-three summers under his belt, stooping under a weight he can hardly bear to carry.
He often ends his days there, on the rocky spit of the Summer Meadow, hunkered down in a smooth dip, a mass of brambles rising behind him. It was one of his favourite places as a boy, where he went to escape the day; not the farm nor the town, just his.
I watch him now as the breeze plays with his course, dark hair, never quite tamed as I recall. His long arms are wrapped around his gathered knees, drawn into his chest as he leans slightly forward, his gaze somewhere along the foreshore where the water laps onto the sand, away in thought or memory. My big brother, Amos. Lost.
The horse pulls up on the reins I’m holding as I stand beside it, impatient to be moving on again. I call out to Amos and he slowly unfolds himself, stepping off the rocks into the shallow water and onto the sand, his boots slung over his shoulders. I walk towards him, a tall, soulful man and it occurs to me that he hasn’t trimmed his beard in a while.
“You comin’ then?”
He digs his hands into his pockets and falls into step beside me as I lead the horse towards the path home through Taylor’s Wood, the smell of horse flesh and leather more company to me than my brother, more quiet than I have ever known.
The farm has been in our family for generations, passed down father to son, brother to brother. It’s not a big place, simple like the folk that have lived in it, never expecting too much, never asking for it. It’s changed some I guess, especially when more grain was needed a few years back, but we still have hogs and a cow, and we always put in a root crop to help the soil along.
There’s an orchard stands behind the house; climbed all those trees when I was a boy, some so old now, they’re twisting themselves back towards the ground with their age, stooping over like they’re reaching out for something to hold onto.
As me and Amos turn in from the track, I can hear a great rumpus of noise from the children in the barn. There’s only two of them, but they make disturbance enough for ten when they want! I smile to myself. I wasn’t too quiet as a boy myself! Never still, always talking. My Ma used to say there was never a boy so enthusiastic for the word “Why”! God rest her; she had such hopes for her boys. I guess time and events have cured me of the need to fill the space left in the air by others.
Margaret is round the back of the house under the shadiest tree, enjoying the last light of this late summer’s evening. I’ve known Margaret all my life, or should that be she’s known me all of mine? No difference, I guess. She came to the farm before any of us were born, kin to my Ma. Her mother was cousin to my mother’s mother, or some such connection. Anyway, she’s family. Cleaned up all three of us when we were young bawlers, a quiet, steady hand beside my parents until William stole her away. I wonder how it must be for her to be back here again after all this time? Right though, as Eliza’s here too. Ma’s been gone two years now and Pa not six months past, so it’s left to Margaret to see my kids grow.
She sees us coming and waves a hand before hauling herself up and heading back inside.
The kitchen hasn’t changed much with time, except perhaps what the family may have called it. It’s still a warm and welcoming place as Amos and I come in and heave off our coats and boots. There’s a rich smell coming from the hearth. I search out the coffee pot as Amos lowers himself into a chair.
“That all you fetching?” he asks nodding at the pot in my hand.
“Could be…,” I reply, not looking back at him as I put the pot down. “You wantin’ a little something more?” I glance back and he lifts his chin towards the cupboard in the corner.
I try to keep it at the back where Margret and Eliza won’t see it too much, though they know it’s there. Ain’t nothing wrong with having it here; this side of the lake who’d know anyhow? Still, William felt real strong about it along with the Reverend, and I guess there was some merit to what they’d said. Can’t say we’ll ever be “dry”. Still…
Amos took the drink then closed his eyes, sliding down in the chair some as Eliza came into the room. He covered the small glass with his earth-worn hand, tucking it into his body, taking what warmth it could give him. Needs all the warmth he can find, my brother. Seems the cold of winter been slowly consuming him near fifteen years, even on the brightest of days when the light dances off the lake and the lazy summer heat wraps itself around you. It took his heart and soul that first day and piece by piece he’s slowly freezing up, like frost crystals creeping up a pane in winter, reaching into every part of him. Each day I lose him just a little bit more. My Amos, strong, dependable. My Amos, gone.
There were many things that were different about Nell, that set her apart whether she wanted it or not. Amos found something in her that shone out to him and he grabbed hold and started to plan around it. I’d often tease him for it, too young to really know. Four years of laughing. So young. Four years of growing close and the whole town noting the walks as the light of the sun dipped into the hills beyond. Nell had a look about her that was almost celestial and while it had taken some smarter than me time to understand and value her, Amos had taken her hand and walked into the world.
It was at the end of a winter that had been colder than most. No one paid much mind to the cough, even William was not concerned. It was probably still too cold to walk too far, and yet he’d not seen her so tired before. When the fever came, it took hold fast. The girl that was so different left in a few short days; it was the one thing that showed her to be the same as everyone else that took her away. Amos has been following on ever since.
Eliza looks over at me from her place at the hearth, stream rising into her face as she takes the lid from the worn black pot that sits over the heat. She has a quiet strength that she shares with her mother and I have never known this world without her in it. Didn’t pay her much mind as a boy; there was always other things to take up my time. But, as the colours and seasons changed on the lake, William, Margaret, Samuel and Eliza were always there, a constant with the town and its rhythms, woven into the life of my family and the farm. There are those would say that Eliza and Margaret share a pain much greater than most, but they’d never let you know – book-ends leaning in on each other, holding up what little they have left between them.
A gentle click of the latch brought Margaret into the room with the smell of the fresh laundry she’d just finished folding. She could cross a room as quiet as you like, but you’d always know she was there. She could knock the worry out of the air just by moving through it. A small leaf is caught in the top of her shawl, hinting at her time out back under the apple tree; she doesn’t know it’s there. Not quite two years since William and Samuel left us; father, husband, brother. It cuts them both in different ways, deep cuts and slow to heal.
“I expect you boys are hungry.” She smiled to Eliza who was wiping her hands on the corner of her pinafore. They shared the same colour hair, though Margaret’s was streaked white with age and as they stood side by side, there was more to show their relation than not. But Eliza had her father’s eyes. My Eliza’s eyes are the deepest, calmest pools of kindness a man could ever hope to look into.
“I’ll fetch the children in.” Margaret stepped out onto the back porch, softly pulling the door closed behind her.
My brother was a bad man, a weak man, an unreliable man. My brother was a selfish man. My brother, deep down, was broken.
He could have been the best of us, but something in him steered him wrong. He was the black cloud always rumbling on the horizon that left a tension in the air, like a thunder storm that promised but never broke. Couldn’t say why. Stopped wondering many years back. He was my brother Caleb, one year older, wiry and lean. Just twenty-eight summers behind him before he finally lay down and left us that last time.
He was named for our grandfather Caleb Taylor, as I was named for his son. Born of the woods and lake, there was nothing in his nature that was not savage and wild, a storm that whipped the waters into dark crests and left those around him shaken and torn. All boys know how to brawl, weren’t nothing wrong with a split lip for the sake of young pride. Most would grow past that, advancing years bringing some measure of sense, but not Caleb. He was like a dark rock left out in the blazing sun – you could feel the heat of rage radiate out from him. Doors would slam, curses spat and Ma would cry. He saw no need to put his weight behind anything that was not going to be of benefit to him. As a boy he often left his chores, returning past dark, uncaring, unaware. No amount of strikes from a stick, a harsh crack across torn knuckles, could change what he became. As a man it continued: absence and return, strong drink and black looks, fights and lies and wanderings, until he didn’t come back at all. His drawer was empty, what little he had he took, and for the first time in many seasons the light on the lake was a little brighter, the breeze in summer a little cooler and our small world turned on for near eight years.
Some days in summer can be so still – it’s like a warm blanket has been laid over everything to stop it being carried away on the soft breeze that comes up the lake in the evenings. The scent of sap hangs heavy and you can taste the dust that kicks up as you walk along. There’s a gentle hum of insects and the rhythmic sound of the animals chewing on cud. It was a day like this, three years back, Eliza and me just one year married. The afternoon light was drawing out across the horizon and the swallows had begun their darting dance through the buzzing clouds of bugs near the water’s edge; and there, on the track, was Caleb. Just the clothes on his back, a half empty bottle of whiskey in his hand and hiding behind his travelled stained, torn pants, the only gift he’s ever given.
They were so small; I guess he’d carried them most of the way from town. Ma had cried more for their helplessness than the sight of her son. Ragged and worn, two mahogany dolls in need of home and care and love. Pa had not got up from where he was sitting. Amos had walked away.
We’d heard about East St. Louis and all its pain; never thought on it having anything to do with our community, least of all our family, but I guess life has a way of circling back on you when you’re looking the other way. Came back round on those folks, hard and cruel. No justice to be found there, death taking more than his fair share, which brought two more to our door.
Caleb always called her “their mother”, never named her or spoke of her in any other way. Couldn’t say if he loved her or was obliged by circumstance. Most likely there was some convenience in it for him, until there wasn’t! Imagine he came and went as he often did here, took without giving …hope for her sake I’m at least at little wrong. It’s a past I can’t change, but the future, well that’s in my gift now and I aim to use it well.
Said he wanted them to know his family; more like he needed another to carry a load. Thomas had a look of his father about him, his hair curled tight to his head, his smooth, dark skin ashen from hurt and hunger. Cora, so delicate and frail, looked out on the world with frightened, green eyes, the looser curl of her hair forming a curtain behind which she hid, a year older than her brother, lighter in complexion, though both heavy in heart. Eliza opened herself to them that day as they slept a grateful sleep in her arms. Caleb shrugged them off as easily as he did his coat, burden past, moving on.
The children came in fresh faced and noisy, jostling as they tumbled through the door. Amos sits up in his chair some, pushing the empty glass to the centre of the table. Eliza quietly gathers it up so the children don’t see. Margaret ushers them over to the pan of water standing by the sill, much as she did when I was a boy. They plunge their hands into cool water, shrieking, laughing as she rubs their faces over with the wash cloth before they dive to their seats at the table and the fresh bread that Eliza is laying out. It takes a minute to quiet them as they wriggle and squirm and smile. There is more light in those children’s faces than a thousand long days on the Summer Meadow. We join hands in a moment of silence and give thanks for all that we have.
I gaze round the table at our small family. We’re Mama and Pop now, Eliza and me. Never had more of our own; don’t know as we tried. Still, life has a way of moving you forward and moments like these make me glad. It’s taken time; trust is not a thing that is easily given. Those first weeks of coaxing and the gentle steps that let them know they had nothing to fear. And together we watched them, grow, blossom, knowing they should be no other place but here. They’re for school in the fall, treading the same path as I did; just a shame that Charity Stanford is no longer there. Marriage obliged her to give up her schooling, she’s taken her life elsewhere. Any thoughts or memory they have of Caleb have passed on, just as he passed on from our lives.
The six months he stayed at home were hard, not that he noticed or cared. Pa could have used an extra pair of hands on the farm, gathering in and preparing for the seasons to come. Caleb spent more time in town than home, slotting back into those well-worn ruts of drinking and cards, stirring the pot and leaving it stewing. Truth is we all knew he would be leaving, just as soon as it suited him to go. The pain came from his dragging Samuel with him, careless to the end with any who showed him heed.
They weren’t obliged to join, no one was obliged. Caleb went though, towing Samuel with him, looking for a fight. He’s been looking for a fight since he was five years old. Town got too small for him and he’d thought he’d found a good reason to leave. They went in the night, no word of a plan, just a scrawled note to William from his son. Margaret sat quiet for most of that day. Eliza stayed in town with her ‘til late into the evening, no-one knowing what to say. Ma cried once more for her son who was always leaving, running. Pa just turned away.
It was March before we heard from them again. They’d moved from Camp Devens on down to Upton and it seemed that there was no coming back from there. By the time William reached them, the whole place was locked down. William, being who he was, talked his way in; they weren’t in any position to turn a doctor away. He was too late for Samuel though, already gone to fight another man’s war. Caleb he found with many others, all fighting, all losing, soon gone. More men were lost to sickness that year, than were ever lost to a gun. The worst was yet to come. It took them both, quite quickly and we couldn’t bring them home. Caleb turned as black as his insides. William still caring ‘til the end. We know that Samuel made France, but saw no more of it than the two short days he had left allowed. Persuaded there by a man with no conscience, taken from us by another who’d been told he shouldn’t care. They each have a place marked out for them at home, so they can be remembered with the others that lie there. The sun still warms them in the summer and the winter snow lays its white quilt down. If you sit there of an evening and gaze out across the water you can see them all in the rippled reflections of the lake, as they once were, as we all hope we will once again be. My Caleb, weak, selfish. My Caleb gone.
I look over at Amos. He has drawn his chair up to the dying heat of the hearth. His eyes are now closed, but the rise and fall of his chest and the way he grips his slender fingers around his glass lets me know he’s still awake. He sits there most evenings, quiet, contemplating.
“‘nother one, Amos?” I say, holding up my cup. He takes a while to answer then slowly looks over, pauses, then shakes his head. He drains what he has and pushes himself up from his chair.
“Night, Seth,” he mumbles as he goes towards the door.
“Night, Amos.” I know he’ll be up early, always is.
Not one for saying much, my brother, but the silence in the room, without him in it, is just bigger somehow. A small spiral of smoke creeps out from the embers of the hearth. I can hear the soft pad of someone crossing the boards above. My brother didn’t go to war, but he might as well have. He began dying a while before and now he just walks beside me, living in the shadows of life.
Stepping outside, the warm dusty air catches at the back of my throat. I can just make out a faint glow from the town further along the water, beyond Taylor’s Wood. My world, familiar, hopeful. My world forever changed.
Both my brothers have left or are leaving, one running, one hiding, both gone. Left me standing on the shoreline of our childhood, looking out into the night, waiting for the dawn.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Set in 1920, “Brothers” is the final story of the “Wolfe Lake” series.
Kate Aranda Nye is a British writer of short stories and poetry. Growing up in Gloucestershire (UK) with her two brothers and an array of pets, she was often found in a comfy corner with her head in a book, and would now describe reading as one of her greatest pleasures. After achieving a degree in English Literature, she spent many years living and working in France and Spain before returning to the UK with her family, and is now settled in the beautiful Lake District in the north west of the country. Much of her work is inspired by the landscapes around her. She often collaborates with her older brother, the composer Richard Nye to produce scored audio versions of her stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in "Writers' Forum" magazine (UK) - "Jenny Hyde" from the "Wolfe Lake" series of short stories - and she has collaborated on winning entries for "15 Minutes of Fame" and the "Kernow Awards" with her poems "John Marrack" and "The Bal Maiden". Most recently her short story "The Corpse Road" was the winning entry in a Christmas Ghost story competition, the audio version of which was published on Facebook.