Chapter 1 : Go Softly
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My brother and I climb up the mountain, fording the streets like a pair of pilgrims.
He’s got spiky hair and a whole lot of anger which he holds inside a cavern within his chest. Sometimes he feels the monsters clawing at him, snagging their talons in the gaps between his ribs. Sometimes he feels very thin and breakable when I wrap my arms around him.
I am a mirage of uncertainty. I am special but I don’t yet know how to show it. Sometimes I look in the mirror and see a uniquely different person, see my very essence and identity shifting like wet watercolours on a windy day, when the canvas is blurred with the lines of faces I will never own.
The mountain is steep and my breath feels thick. My brother holds my hand, winks at me, tells me to keep up. I huff and I push my legs to trot along and keep pace with his longer ones, stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk with deliberate dignity. The hills here in Wicklow have long ago been covered in houses and streets. I’m wearing my favorite trainers, the navy-blue ones with the gray laces I begged my mother for because my brother has some in his size and I want to be like him, sometimes I want to be him even though I know he is roughed up and hurting inside and nobody is sure why.
My name is Thackeray Doyle and my brother is Swift, Swift Doyle. My parents named us both for poets, and he’s named after my father’s favorite satirist and nobody can ever spell my name. The teachers look up in confusion from the class list, uncertain whether to put me where the girls or the boys hang their coats and backpacks, and I shrink down in my desk and wish my brother was there to set them straight. My bedtime stories are those of my namesakes, of a large man being tied down by tiny people the length of his finger, of urchins stealing from the rich and hoarding for the poor, and of little girls who find keys to secret gardens.
And both Swift and I love my parents, we do, I know that he does, but though they try and fret and consult their books they don’t know how to fix the hole in his spirit, they don’t know how to pull him up from the depths of his own mind and make him happy again, the way he was happy when he was a cheeky-grinned young boy who liked to make forts in the living room and set traps for the babysitters.
But he knows I love him, and that’s enough, most of the time.
I climb the mountain and huff and puff up the final lengths of the green hill, looking out at the sunset which spreads across the town below, touching on the Irish channel. Hills of green and a bloody history. The stories my father tells makes me proud to be Irish. I grew up singing Thomas Moore’s mournful melodies – The minstrel boy to the war is gone… sung in the slowest and quietest of voices.
Nobody can see us or hurt us on top of the hill. The horses set out to graze are shaggy and plump, their mouths stuck to the ground as they chew and chew. I grin, turn to my brother, hold out my palms.
“Watch,” I say gleefully.
I close my eyes for a moment. I think of wonderful things – Christmas mornings, books, the smell of the cleaning solution that hangs in the air when the cleaning lady has come by. Opening my eyes, I see the sparkling lights, the fairy lights glowing in a glorious spectacle around me. They float, bright and promising in the air, like tiny fireworks which I can touch. Magic. I read about it in books, I read about magic wardrobes and creatures in gravel pits and genies in lamps. This, here with Swift, is so much lovelier.
My brother laughs, and the fairy lights dance to the sound of him. Together, I try to gather the lights in the dusk. Nothing can hurt us here. There are no screaming cars or scornful children here on the enchanted hill.
One Friday night in Temple Bar in Dublin I’m leaving dinner with my family when I see her. She’s tall and leggy in a formfitting dress, head held high, walking tall despite the chill of the winter air. But she’s holding back something. I stare at her, transfixed, as I watch the men in the pub drunkenly shouting at her, hurling insults made of glass as the shards sprinkle across her skin, bits of glass clinging to her hair. Her legs are a little blue from the cold wind.
The men shout something horrible to her. She doesn’t reply. They tell her she’s not a real woman. They tell her she’s disgusting. She doesn’t cry. She walks away.
In the car on the drive home I ask my parents why the men were shouting at the tall girl. They exchange looks. My mother takes the lead. She explains about gender, about a person’s right to identify and present themselves with the gender they feel fits them the best, no matter what parts they might have been born with. She says that gender is a fluid thing, something which can change and shift within an individual. She says the men didn’t understand what the tall girl felt was right for her.
“They were fucking idiots,” Swift tells me. He ruffles my hair and grins across the backseat. “Bullies. Nobodies.” My mother tells him not to swear. She says swearing lowerclass, that he should be setting an example. He rolls his eyes and mouths Oh, shit where she cannot see him.
“They were nobodies,” I repeat firmly, fixing my hair beneath my tuque. I’m glad I have Swift there. If the tall girl had a brother like Swift with her, then the men who had shouted would all have broken noses. This thought comforts me. I watch Swift as he blows some air onto the window, then draws a shape with his finger.
I’m in the schoolyard and the popular kids are teasing me.
“Why are you such a nerd, Thackeray?”
“Wacky, tacky Thacky – really, you're icky.”
“I saw you looking at Clara today in class. You like her, huh? You love Clara…”
The words fly through me and cling to my heart. I know the words are true. I feel them beating inside my chest, faster and faster and faster. I close my eyes, my face a deep, hot red, and feel the wet tarmac beneath my shoes, the hint of rain in the air, the clouds casting long, ghostly shadows between me and the others.
The magic boils out of me like an overflowing pot. I feel it, taste it in the air. I want to hurt them. I want to hurt myself. The skies open and the rain pours down upon me, beating itself into my skin. The other children scream. A bolt of lightning – closer than I've ever seen, leaving bright imprints across my eyes – strikes a tree closeby. Will it strike me next? Then they’ll be sorry. Screams. The teachers usher everyone inside.
Later, the news reports with dutiful curiosity how strange it was, how the rain only fell upon the square of the schoolyard. The clothes of the children who were cruel to me do not dry throughout the day, though they try changing into things from the Lost and Found. The teachers think they are joking, and send them to the principal's office.
I cannot wait to tell my brother.
But when I get home he’s slouching on the couch, head in his hands, staring at the dark leather of the sofa. I deposit my backpack on a chair, recycle the remainder of my lunch – the school doesn’t recycle properly so I save the rubbish for home – and tentatively go to sit next to him on the couch. The silence in the room is so heavy I feel I could touch it.
Swift doesn’t say anything. Today is one of his bad days. I want to tell him – about the other kids, about the rainstorm, about the lightning. I want him to tell me that I’m special, lovable, that he loves me and he’ll protect me, promise. But I know he’s in that dark place.
So I sit and accept his silence. It is enough that he is here.
My parents sit me down after dinner one night. I ask if Swift can stay and listen, and they exchange those knowing looks and say he might. He sits, rigid and wary, ready to be my champion if I need him. He’s always on the offensive these days, brittle and angry with my parents, distancing himself from his friends. He skips school because his heart is hurting – I don’t quite understand it, this beast which lingers and keeps him from doing the things he used to do. I know he hates himself sometimes.
My parents tell me about verbal bullying, and how damaging it is. They ask me, kindness etched into their faces, if anyone has been treating me this way.
“Please, my love, I know I can tell us anything,” my mother says.
“Let us help you, if I need it, Thackeray,” my father says. He’s hesitant, sensitive.
I look at Swift. He’s staring at his knuckles, white and tense against the table.
I wonder what to say.
Why did you give me a name which could be so sorely manipulated and turned into cruel things? Why did you raise me so clever, clever enough to understand the nuances and the rude things which they whisper about me? Why did you let such an ugly child enter this world – why couldn’t you have been better, have made me better?
They’re concerned. They love me, these three people here. But I am nor ready to admit it – that I’m a failure, different, that I hate myself sometimes. That I don’t deserve their love and protection.
“Everything is great, guys,” I say instead, and smile at them. Swift drapes a protective arm around my chair. Instinctively I lean against him, his comforting smell reminding me that I am loved.
Swift is different as well. We deserve to love one another.
On the last night I see my brother alive, he’s shaking, his hands are shaking, like he’s filled himself with too much of the bitter coffee he’s addicting to pouring, hot down his throat.
“Where are you going?” I ask, sitting cross-legged on his bed. There are two weeks to my eleventh birthday, and Swift has told me that he’ll take me out in a boat and we’ll glide halfway to England! I've been counting down the days.
The car keys jingle in his unsteady hands. “Just out with some mates, Thackeray. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
“I thought we were going to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tonight,” I say, pouting. It’s taken my father a while to approve the bloody tale of Camelot. Somehow my love for listening to him read has not faded with the years. As I watch my brother slip away, like butter in my fingers, I wish I could keep him closer. The world feels a dangerous place for somebody fragile and special like Swift.
He hesitates – he glances around his room furtively. He clenches the keys in his hand, so tight I can see red marks.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and gathers me up in a warm hug. I’m annoyed with him, but I hug my brother back anyway. I’ve reached the height of his heart. He’s so thin, I can hear its irregular beat through his frail ribs. “I love you, Thackeray. Be strong, alright?”
I naively assume he means while hearing the tale of the green knight. Sir Gawain goes on a suicidal mission to have his head cut off by a mystical green knight. I roll my eyes as his back disappears down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
The story doesn’t frighten me when my father reads it to me that night. But a strange dream will haunt me for months to come.
The green castle rising from the forest... and then, the winding, treacherous roads which surround Wicklow, leading up and down the mountains. The girdle of the lady, tied tightly around his arm, cutting off circulation. The whinnying of a horse – the screaming of a car. The sound of a body breaking into pieces, held together by a thin shell of flesh. The green knight’s taunting words sound oddly similar to those of the surgeon in that room which smelled of burning meat.
And Sir Gawain, his voice – his lilting, chivalrous voice is that of my dead brother.
I wonder at what a terrible thing it is, not to have a brother. This thought stews and toys in my mind. I help my mother clean out his room. I find the half-empty bottles filled with foul-smelling things. I find the half-finished letters, the apologies, the goodbyes which he could never quite complete, never quite destroy. I find the tools with which he made criss-cross patterns across his arms, decorating them in infinite X-marks-the-spot, treasure maps to the fragments of his soul. Swift raged and fought against the dying light in life. He burned up so quickly in death, leaving ashes in his wake.
Swift’s darkness is spread in a thin layer across his room, clinging to the remnants of his life, bearing witness to the unexplainable weakness that fed upon him with sharp teeth, shredding his happiness into strips and stripes.
Among Swift’s things I find a book a poetry, his favorites marked by well-worn magazine pictures of beautiful women. My mother rolls her eyes when she sees it, on impulse, and then recoils, horrified with herself for the irritated action. She cannot bear to think ill of the dead. I open the book and read Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott aloud to myself, liking how the round and soft words sound on my tongue. In the poem, the lady, longing for Sir Lancelot, floats out along the river, knowing she will die, loving him all along. She floats out on the river to Camelot – singing in her song she died, the Lady of Shalott. Sitting on my dead brother’s bed in a river of memories, I rub a hand over my heart and feel both dammed and damned. Damned. The word suits me. I whisper it to myself, and I put the picture of a voluptuous blonde back in the book where Swift had left her, cradled next to the Lady of Shalott.
The next day, I get a letter. It is accompanied by a visitor who tells me wonderful things, marvelous things about myself. There was a reason for the storm in the schoolyard, an explanation for the glowing lights on the hill. I am special, just like my brother promised.
The visitor turns the kettle into a cat. My parents are shocked but delighted. My life is beginning as my brother’s ended. I wonder how he knew.
The investigation helps pass the months before I leave for this wondrous new school of magic. The police question me, kind, curious looks piercing through their odd professionality. I wish Swift was here to protect me. I remember that I’m an only child now.
People stare at me in school. Teachers treat me like glass and ice.
Why was he alone? He said he was going to meet his mates. Why was he driving back alone in the middle of the night?
Were you aware your brother was drinking that night?
The girl he hit on the road survived with a settlement. Swift isn’t a killer, not even in death. My mother cries and she's that she is glad of that. He isn’t accused of manslaughter even as he lies in a coffin in the local churchyard, in the old family plot of my father's where Swift and I used to sit and read and pretend we could speak with the dead. He has a shining grave with his name carved upon it and a blank space beneath it, for my parents cannot decide on an inscription or quote to commemorate the boy who loved so many books. He is only a name, but they comfort themselves - he is not a killer.
I don’t tell her, but I know this is a lie. Life is simple and bare like bones on a skeleton. Words don’t come easily like they used to. The magic I so loved is silenced within myself, churning round and round. No pretty fairy lights float out when I close my eyes.
I don’t tell her, but I know my brother was a killer.
My brother slaughtered himself.
Sometimes I hate him, like the Lady of Shalott could never hate Sir Lancelot. He was her death, she died out on a lonely boat. He said she was beautiful in death – no soul is beautiful in death. I saw my brother’s body, torn and ripped and splayed. His cold face is emblazoned on the back of my skull. Why did he leave her alone?
One day, I go into his room and I take a pair of scissors with me. I stand in front of the little mirror and, not really caring if I nick my scalp or not, I cut off all my dark hair. The hair sticks out in odd bunches and piles. It’s not enough – I want to do more. I want to cut off my eyelashes, so I lean in closer to the mirror. Do eyelashes grow back? I wonder if I care.
My mother comes in, snatches the silver scissors away. She starts to shout. I cross my hands across my thin chest and glare. She calms down – she never was a shouter, not really. She sighs and gives me a hug and says she’ll let me skip school and go to the hairdresser tomorrow.
The appearance in the mirror might be strange, but it is me. I start wearing Swift’s old shirts every day, covering my body. They’re a little long and baggy on me but they’re comfortable. I wonder if we look alike, if my parents might see me in the kitchen and think I am truly their firstborn, when he was eleven, before he hurt so badly.
In the summer, my parents bring me to London and we buy wonderful things – a cauldron, for brewing potions, and a wand, for making beautiful things happen. I bite my tongue from telling the ancient shopkeeper that I’ve already done magic without it. I laugh at all the people dressed in cloaks – in summer! – and pointed hats. I wonder what Swift would say about all of this.
The books tell me that a generation ago, these strange magical folk who are now my people were caught up and nearly destroyed in a terrible war. I devour the tragedies of the past, I swell with the injustices of the present. There is work to be done, here, even in this fantastic world out of the storybooks I loved as a child.
I go away to school with my robes and my wand. I begin to grow up.
Years later I meet a beautiful girl and I bring her to the mountain and watch her warm breath swirl in the Christmas air. I press my lips against hers and feel… happy, so complete as if my soul has flown up through the clouds to a place where my face in the mirror doesn’t change anymore, or where there is no mirror to act as proof.
She leans her head against my shoulder – her sweet-smelling hair tickles my neck and a wild curl finds its way into my mouth. I’m happy and for a moment I see my brother there, grinning from ear to ear like his face might split in two. And part of I wants to scold him and tell him to leave us alone but the other part knows he has been summoned by my happiness and his translucent features are emblems of the sense of completion which I feel here, on the mountain, with the girl who has the most beautiful soul in the world. The second-most beautiful soul when I count the dead.
So I tell her about him, about Swift, who was killed in one of the alcohol-fueled incidents which are so common around these parts with smashed up metal dark against the trees and his body sliced into ribbons and the silence, the silence of the soul flittering in that cavern in his chest, free at last.
Another twisting country road through the mountains and hills, another broken neck, another dead teenager.
“I used to come here with him,” I tell the girl, and she holds me because she loves me and she understands that instead of healing the hole in my soul it can only be tended and softly touched.
Author’s Note: Thank you for reading. This was quite different for me – a more sensitive theme, but it was the kind of story which gave birth to itself in a Word Document and kept tugging me back to it. I hope you enjoyed. Also, I translated this from second person so if you see any typos or slips into Yoda-speak let me know. 'Command-Replace' is my friend and proof-reading is not, so any help is appreciated. :P
The quote from ‘The Minstrel Boy’ belongs to Thomas Moore. The book ‘Five Children and It’ by E.B Nesbitt was also referenced. The quote from the poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and all references to the poem are the property of Alfred Lord Tennyson. ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is by an unknown poet, but he is called the ‘Pearl Poet.’
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