Home > Essays > Dream of the Subjunctive
Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 91 Crime Family Loss
Dream of the Subjunctive

For some months after my brother’s sentencing, I had trouble driving home. It was only a few miles from the university where I taught, but I’d find myself unable to keep my eyes open, having to pull over to the side of the road, lock the car doors, and rest a while before I could make it back to my family and cook dinner. If I fell asleep, I’d wake alarmed, half-remembering my back pressed into a different vinyl seat, afraid of what might’ve happened while I wasn’t aware, and gradually I’d note the change in sky, the shush of cars passing, blurred faces going by—once a man staring out his passenger window directly at me, then gone. Sometimes driving I’d have to force myself not to imagine veering off an overpass or ploughing into a stone embankment. I didn’t know what I needed or who could tell me how to understand or relieve the dread or guilt or rage I felt in that period after my mother died and my brother was sent to prison. Then before very long my brother was gone as well, and there was no one left whose trouble might shield me from my own.

Today I heard a man on the radio, a teacher of Latin and Greek who was born in Saigon, explain that there’s no subjunctive mood in Vietnamese. Can that be? I wondered. How does life feel lived if you don’t ask what might’ve been? If only the long winter were over by now, or had never arrived. If only my brother were still alive. If I’d been born with his blue eyes instead of the muted hazel ones I’ve always seen through. If I could have protected him more from the angers of our house. Or what if he’d been the one born first? He might have protected me—told me what could happen, for instance, if I got into that grimy pickup Uncle Norm walked me out to. If Brad had seen us through the window and known to call out, NO, turn around and run back NOW—wait ten years for a different truck—if only I’d waited for Ben Rowan’s pickup that I was old enough to drive too by the time Ben gave me a ride home from school, Ben who taught me how to work the stick shift, who was kind, my own age, who touched my hand, looked into my eyes to see if it was all right to touch me when I decided, in the dimness of his room, to let him: window open to the evening breeze, his mother and father at the other end of the trailer, his older sister kissing her boyfriend at the back door across from Ben’s room. Everyone in the Rowan house safe that night, having driven home from the airport that afternoon, where the whole extended family had waited to welcome Ben’s young uncle home from Saigon. He was the last one off the plane, in uniform, the co-pilot helping him make his way down the stairs on crutches and one leg. Saigon, that smoking city where the man I heard on the radio today had waited just a few years later to leave as a child, his mother and father and grandparents and aunts and uncles and all their belongings lined up, ready to board a bus that would take them out. Except that the boy began crying—he doesn’t remember, he said, but has been told—shrieking uncontrollably, in such a panic that the entire family decided to wait for the next bus. They watched as the bus they’d been meant to take pulled away, then got struck by artillery fire—blown up, no survivors. Years after, when the boy tried to talk with his aunt about what they all went through there, she could only repeat the story of what she knew about that day and the days afterward, in the U.S., where at last the boy’s father was able to get the family to a new home and support them, not as the lawyer he’d been in Saigon, but by driving a cement mixer—unlike the cousin who never made it out, and spent years in a reeducation camp enduring hard labor and torture.

What are the categories of trouble from which nothing but chance can protect you—not mother or brother or locked car doors, not armies, oceans, time passing, not the question what if, not a language seeming to limit the imagined alternative. One night a part of you is gone, can’t be wished back. If you speak, any sentence forms around not asking what was taken.


My earliest memory can’t be mine, exactly: two lamps on either side of the bed switched off and the door closing on the room’s knotty pine paneling, chenille bedspread pulled up neat, blue Chevy’s engine warming outside beneath the shadows of pines, two suitcases fitted together in the trunk. End of a Black Hills weekend, late September, my parents’ hurried honeymoon. Or maybe it was just that way: maybe Dad had borrowed his brother Norm’s movie camera, and the camera created a memory for me.

Another day I have evidence of, but no feeling of memory: a photo in which I wear a little navy nurse’s cape trimmed in red, odd bit of costume entirely forgotten. From one end of the hand-hewn bench outside the barn, I’m squinting up at the camera, my hand in Grandma Elsie’s hand, my cousins sitting between Grandma and Grandpa: Lizzie twisting sideways, sucking her thumb; Laurie grinning uneasily, impatient at holding still. Lizzie and Laurie’s parents, Jane and Dad’s other brother Marvin, stand, not touching, at Grandpa’s end of the bench. Norm, who still lives at Grandpa and Grandma’s farm, has to be the one framing the moment. You hardly ever see him in family photographs; he was always the one watching, as if never really a part of what took place. We girls are too young, by at least a year, for my little brother to have arrived yet, but where are the mother and father who’ve left me here? I look too small to imagine being a nurse, which I don’t believe I ever did. A nurse’s cape, especially out at the farm, makes no sense, yet it’s the kind of thing Uncle Norm might’ve given me for Christmas or my birthday, like the manicure set I never opened or the expensive white fur muff and stole I wouldn’t wear unless Mom made me, little animal face biting its own tail to latch the stole around my shoulders—it remained hidden at our house in town, at the back of my dresser’s bottom drawer, eventually blackened to nothing when the house burned down.

That house was where our whole family celebrated Christmas after Christmas—Norm taking movies of silent exclamations and colorful paper ripping, new pajamas and transistor radios held up, tricycle pedaled down the hall. Every year, after presents and fruitcake, we turned off the lights to watch his film ticking fragments of family history across a sheet hung up in our living room, with animals and crops and irrigation plans spliced in. Every time, the earliest reel begins with a toddler, the oldest cousin, me: naked in the rust-stained tub at the farm, mortifying child making noises nobody can hear, splashing artesian well water pulled up from some deep-down layer of the land my dad and his two brothers grew up on, the sulfurous smell unforgettable. No question or comment, only laughter in the room as the film starts, then cuts to a flash of me eating one of Grandma’s tulips, more laughter, some bloody melted streak along the side of the film, then a flicker of me creeping behind Shep into his doghouse—camera following the furtive first kid of a generation beyond the Depression, after share-cropping and handout-taking shame and the war that brought the family through it, to owning land again, a herd of cattle, Norm back from Europe with his uniform and cameras. First this squinting child who doesn’t want to be watched or followed, and then the antics of Laurie and Lizzie who ham for Norm’s camera, and finally my little brother’s appearance: Brad, the one everyone’s been waiting for, the boy to carry on the farm, the name. My memory begins with Brad, his conspicuous actions allowing mine to fade from the choppy films, though the films trail off around that time for reasons only Norm could explain.


Most of the corn we grew was field corn, but every year Dad and Norm planted the strip above the river with enough sweet corn for the family, and some to sell. When it was ripe, Norm piled all the cousins in the back of the pickup with baskets and bags, and pointed us down rows of stalks twice as tall as we were, reminding us to pull open the silk on the low ears to check for damage or smut. He’d get the higher ones. We carried load after load to the truck, picking what we’d eat or prepare for freezing at home, or sell for fifty cents a bushel from our backyards in town.

Norm showed us girls this and that—how to test a kernel and know when the grain was ready; which cow might be inclined to take an orphan calf—but when Brad was big enough, he was the one Norm started teaching everything there was to learn about farming. Dad didn’t have the patience. With us girls, it was play—Norm let us take turns riding on his lap in the pickup, helping him steer, knocking out across the fields to check crops or cattle, or looking over the bluffs to see what kind of weather might come from the west. Writing our names with sparklers—Lizzie, Laurie, Debbie—in the dark of the front porch. Once, riding back alone with him to the farmhouse after dusk, having spotted a broken fence and helped track the cows that had gotten out, naming them silly names, I told him after some silence in the cab that I’d found the Little Dipper outside my window. He stopped the truck and leaned close to me: “Let’s see—show me.” I pointed up and explained where to focus. “Well, some call that the coyote’s rear end,” he said, and I felt his breath warm on my cheek, not sure we were watching the same piece of sky.

Those were the days before seatbelts, our car one in which the father’s arm came slicing into the back seat if chatter or bickering behind him interfered with the scratchy World Series broadcast, or headlines, or whatever he was focused on—the mother begging “Not on the head, Bob, please—” but at his abrupt “Look at that—” and his veering off the road, rattling across a field toward the edge of the bluff to follow a band of antelope turned and fleeing, the mother and kids would grip armrests, keep silent, then gasp as the car accelerated, heading right off land into the sky, it seemed. The mother’s sharp “Bob, please!” along with unrestrainable screams from the back made him laugh and at last brake hard, car’s nose just over the edge where clouds retreated as though complying with what they knew better than to question. His laugh like the kind of kick he might get setting a cat down in a barn stall face-to-face with the dog, just to see what would happen.

Back on the road, daylight dimming, everyone silent again. Dusty car tunneling another hot summer night after a day at the farm where Dad helped move cattle, Mom canned tomatoes with Grandma Elsie, we kids ran loose with cousins across fallow fields. Country station on low under darkening air shuddering through the car and dispersing sweat, manure, tomato, tobacco, as above my open window, stars and moon looked down. Off to the south, a row of radio towers’ slow-blinking red lights signaled some feeble alarm: Morse code or flickering augury, warnings I didn’t know how to read, an omen matching the red tips of the cigarettes our parents smoked up front, not speaking.


I was eight and Brad four when Dad brought home our first TV—brilliant, flickering surprise—you never knew what Dad might do. My favorite show was I Love Lucy. It countered Dad’s insults about Mom’s harebrained and lighthearted moments—tossing kernels of corn to the geese at the lake, then getting chased by them back up the bank; knocking her wedding ring off the windowsill into Dad’s birthday-cake batter and forgetting, baking it in; jitterbugging with her twin brother Bud at his farm, in the pig-pen mud.

When I Love Lucy got switched off, though, TV-dark became the shadow of Mom’s other side: sleeplessness, or too much sleep with the pills, silence, vigilance, fear that she’d married a man whose sudden rages might one day destroy us, like the neighbor’s barn left shredded by a twister that came out of nowhere. Forty years on, after Mom and Bud have both passed away, Bud’s daughter Kerry will tell me that her dad once urged Mom to do what I often wished she would: pack my brother and me into the car and take off for good. Mom told Bud she was more afraid of being found again than of staying.

For months after her own mother died, Mom spent every afternoon down in the basement painstakingly going through Grandma Hazel’s things, trying to figure out what had been meant for whom—handmade quilts and knickknacks, costume jewelry, embroidered napkins and sheets, shawls, letters, lace, pheasant-feather hats, all the old black-and-white photographs of relatives whose names might have been forgotten had Grandma not carefully printed them on the back. Mom seemed to be searching for something she couldn’t name, or just lingering, in that space below her own house where she had once felt safe.

After Mom was gone, fire destroyed everything above ground, and I realized that, long before it happened, I’d dreamed over and over of the house disappearing into ashes while I shuffled room to room ahead of the blaze as if directing it, thinking Does anything need to be saved of this? The fire’s source was never discovered; the basement alone remained, smoky but untouched.


Even now, I don’t know when the meth started. Perhaps it was after the second large neurofibroma was found in his head—the one Brad told almost no one about. He’d taken over the farm during a long spell of drought, had lived through divorce, his wife and kids moving out, endured Dad’s hectoring every day about what hadn’t yet been done in the fields, but the tumors’ pain wouldn’t quiet down even with sleep, and there was no treatment.

And so the boy who showed up on ninth-grade picture day with a black eye, after a fight at home, became the man under house arrest for more severe crimes than he’d committed, too stubborn to follow his lawyer’s first advice: give the prosecutor some names and cop a plea.

“I’m ashamed, but I ain’t gonna be that ashamed—I don’t know the names they need anyway,” my brother said when I begged him to make the deal. He lifted his palms and stared at me. “Yeah, What if I were just to make up some names? I swear to God, they all but invited me to.” He closed his eyes, turned his head away.

“First in to plead, first out” is what I’d been told about how the system worked, but I knew him, I’d seen him take punishment too harsh for the crime since he could toddle across a room and bump an open bottle of soda off the coffee table onto the rug. Maybe I’d been the one to knock it over, stumbling backward to catch him before he fell.

“It’s too much time for what you did—they’re using you to fill out a story they don’t have the answers for,” I said. “You know, Canada’s four hours away. I could drive you.”

“Lawyer says just talking about something like that could make you a co-conspirator, if they’re still out there listening for me on their receiver. Five more years, and five for you too, you dumb shit. I love you, Sis, but leave the foolishness to me. You got no experience with it.” He pulled from his pocket the pack of smokes with his Bic tucked into the cellophane and laughed. “Maybe prison’ll cure me of these too,” he said, tapping a cigarette on his knee. “Time to fuckin’ rock’n’roll. I’ll be back; it ain’t like I’m goin’ to Iraq.”

He flicked cigarette ash to the concrete step below the one we sat on, the same step we’d shared more than twenty years before, the night he’d stormed through the back door. I’d been out here listening to tones of argument rise from the kitchen and had grabbed his hand as the screen slapped shut behind him. After a while, I’d gone inside, come back with a bowl of ice and a washcloth to try and prevent the black eye from coming. “Ít’ll be okay,” I kept saying, knowing we both knew better; I was ashamed for saying it, but didn’t know how to stop.


After Brad was taken into custody, Uncle Norm, whose writing anything at all surprised me, wrote a letter to the judge: My nephew’s a model for the community, served on the Co-Op Board, the School Board, he’s a farmer that plants his rows of corn so straight you can shoot a bullet down between two and not graze a stalk either side. I pictured birds scattering above a perfectly ordered field. In school Norm had been called “Ghosty” by kids who thought his sometimes-vacant gaze was strange. He’d been held back a year, so he and Dad were always in the same grade, and Dad took it upon himself to defend, sometimes physically, the brother who was bigger than he was. For Brad, Norm stood up, at least this time.

Dad’s letter, once he relented, was terse, but finally stated: I share some of the blame, since I expected excellence in school, sports, and life, and Brad did not think he was up to my expectations, which resulted in what some tell me has been an inferiority complex in him. Only the lawyer and the judge, and maybe Brad, saw my letter, and the one I sent for Mom from the subacute ward where she spent her last week and where I slept on a cot beside the high-tech bed that shifted her slight weight every few seconds as she drifted and the window brightened, then shadowed over again. “If I could just know Brad’s going to be okay,” she kept saying at the end, when she could still say anything. I promised he would be, as if her wish or mine might determine his sentencing hearing.


As I look through years of letters, notes without dates, statements, obituaries, court proceedings, I find, to my amazement, that Dad at times kept a better record than I did. Postmarks from jail and prison, envelopes bundled together—I can only read a few at a time, trying to match events and months, then have to break off. There are moments I’m sure Brad must have been at Mom’s funeral, but that’s wrong, the jail wouldn’t let him out. Or was it that he couldn’t bear to have an officer present at the ceremony because of him? My husband tells me no, Brad wasn’t there, but would’ve been, he’s sure, if an accompanying officer had made it possible.

The narrative seems to skew from the moment of Brad’s arrest. Mom dies before she knows if his sentence will be five years or twenty, and why; then he’s held month after month without sentencing, the year expanding like a ghoulish accordion playing nothing but minor notes—discovery transcripts and photographs of grimy buildings and trailers crawling with tubes going every which way, trashed rooms and peeling basements Brad’s sure he was never inside, taped conversations of people he never met; the hearings postponed again and again by the prosecution as they wait to see if some evidence might turn up after all, to reveal Brad as the big fish they apparently need. Each time I go back to visit Brad at the jail and touch my hand to his at the Plexiglas, I drive out with Dad to check the farm and look in on the empty farmhouse, stay in town at Dad’s place of anger and unspoken grief—both houses holding shadows that begin to terrify. Dream-scraps, muscle-twitch, arm raised, face turning away from something coming toward me, flinch and wrist-burn, door closing, lock-twist, dusty oil smell of a farmhouse closet, musty cellar-dark muffled by baskets of potatoes and onions and jars of tomatoes superimposed on meth-lab scenes, windows covered with black plastic garbage bags. Thunderstorms rolling over night sky. Girlie magazines. Gritty vinyl of pickup seat against my back. Silent screams and body-splitting panic as I fill a grocery cart or watch Iraq War news with Dad, or put away dishes in my own home, listening as my daughter finishes homework and unmutes the TV to root against the bully paid to insult American Idol contestants. Then the nightmare torture pictures from Abu Ghraib are on the news and I’m afraid for her to watch any TV, can’t even wait for her school bus on the same side of the street as the other parents. Scent of tobacco mixed with spearmint gum as I hear my lost mother open her purse for me, say there’s a kleenex in there somewhere if I can dig around and find it.

Finally, I find the folded-up email I printed out, Brad’s lawyer saying he thinks he’s got a sentencing date the prosecution will follow through with. After Brad’s nine months in custody without a hearing, the lawyer decides to argue prosecutorial abuse against the government, and miraculously the judge agrees: habeas corpus rights—the question of who “should have the body,” my brother’s body—have been violated. The Latin, the judge says, commands that a detainee be brought without excessive delay to a judge, to determine if the person—the body, corpus—is being held legally. “The Constitution protects a person’s right to a speedy trial. That right was not protected here,” he rules. Brad’s given four years, with nine months served already. Then the prison transport takes him, and time collapses again.


Flames erupted from the house in town and blackened it to extravagant lace a few weeks after Brad was processed into the federal facility at Yankton. I went back to help sort through smoky remains left from the basement; Dad’s lungs, too compromised from decades of cigarettes, couldn’t handle the task. In the hidden bottom drawer of Mom’s scorched hope chest, amid old photographs and report cards and a tiny blue sling for a tiny arm, I found a handwritten note to Brad and me, and an old Blue Cross–Blue Shield booklet, Why Not to Choose Suicide. I boxed it up with her note and the pictures from Dad’s basement and took them home, put them in my own attic above the bedroom. At night, they drifted down like soot into my sleep: family Christmases shadowed by Lucille Ball’s grin and a scattering of tie-off bands and foils, spoons tinged with burnt meth residue, the newly painted barn smelling of cow breath and grain dust, machine oil and the dirty fur-scent of Grandpa’s dog Shep hiding under the tool bench with me, nibbling marshmallows. Pictures of Lizzie and Laurie making goofy faces for Norm—cousins I’ve not kept up with, though perhaps I should have. The next time Brad called, I told him about Mom’s note, read it to him, and for weeks we talked it over in our ten-minute phone calls, trying together to take in this darker picture of her. If I could tell you what’s been the most important thing in my life, she’d written, it would be you kids. We speculated, and wondered—if we could know when she wrote it, would we want to?—until the “Your call will end in one minute” warning broke in, and then we rushed our affections and promises before the line went dead.

It wasn’t the right thing to have told Brad. Week after week his words grew more and more grim, and my desperation to pull him back from remorse and shame sometimes made me half-wish the “one minute” recording would hurry—relieve, then compound my own confused shame. My brother, whom I loved, was frantic to save, apologized over and over while I begged him to hear what he’d asked me before not to say—It’s not your fault, Sweetie, it will pass, it will all get better, I promise, as if I were talking to myself. One night, hanging up the phone in the dark, I heard the sounds of geese traveling north above the house, calling the same plaintive message I remembered from when I was a kid far west, wishing I could follow.


For years, when we were young, Mom wore special gloves to bed. Sometimes her hands were so swollen she couldn’t bend her fingers without the cracked skin opening again and weeping. “Nerves,” the doctor had said, giving her a lotion she kept on the kitchen counter by the door, where she could reach for it after raking leaves or scrubbing the floor. Neighbors commented, my grandmothers, my aunts: I’d hear them sympathize about the pain. No one asked what made her nervous, except when Dad shouted “WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO BE NERVOUS ABOUT?”—as if even skin could be frightened into behaving. Yet I remember him now and then down on the linoleum with a rag, times she couldn’t manage.

When in my thirties I told her over the phone I was leaving the man I lived with, a man she’d hardly known, Mom asked only one thing: “Did he hit you?” I explained that he saw other women all the time, that he couldn’t control himself, that he was molested as a child. But I didn’t say that I remembered how, as a kid, like a trainer readying a boxer, I’d help pull her gloves on before bed, over fresh lotion, covering the defiant flesh.

If somehow she could be here again, after all that’s happened—Mom, her brother Bud, Brad, even Norm now gone, whose funeral I didn’t attend—it’s just Dad and me left, and we don’t speak about any of it—if she were to turn and face him, would she tell him exactly what it was she’d had to be nervous about? Our home wasn’t a war zone to be lifted out of, it was just ordinary heartbreak, each of us with fragments of the story. For a small child the size of the one who helped pull Mom’s gloves on before bed, or for a smaller one, too, the self is the body. When that sense of self is violated, the mind breaks off what there’s no narrative or even language for, what can’t be factored into an understanding of reality. It’s a matter of survival, especially when survival depends on adults who aren’t always dependable.


On one of the Saturdays in March when inmates with even-numbered serial numbers were allowed visitors, I flew home again to drive with Dad to the prison at Yankton. It’s a long ride; the wait to get inside was also long. Ahead of us, waiting to enter too, a young woman of about twenty balanced a sleeping baby on one shoulder, a diaper bag hanging from the other. Her older child, a girl of maybe four—bored, weary of standing in one spot—hopped back and forth across a line of white tile perpendicular to the window where our papers had been taken in, a single stripe on the floor separating us from those whose papers were still in their hands. Inside the wall of bulletproof glass at the front of the visitation room, two guards stood watching everyone waiting; then the bald one moved away. A sudden screech of metal, an unlocked door opening, and the bald guard shouted, “STAY ON YOUR SIDE OF THE WHITE LINE OR YOU’LL BE TOLD TO LEAVE!” Startled, the girl stopped hopping and stepped back next to her mom, who pointed inside, saying, “Watch through the glass, at the back—that’s where they’ll bring your daddy up.”

At the security entrance to the visitation room, another uniformed man examined the girl’s backpack. He pulled out a stuffed cat, a balled-up sweatshirt, pens, tablet, SweetTarts, and plastic barrettes, then pushed them all to the other side of the counter, where another officer picked up the cat, squeezed it, and took everything but the sweatshirt, which he handed back to the girl, saying they’d return her other belongings when she was finished inside. Dad wrote Brad’s serial number on a list next to his name and mine. He straightened again and clenched his jaw as he stepped to the metal detector and waited to be told to walk through. I looked up to see Brad moving toward me: gaunt, smiling, arms open for our one hug permitted. My brother—not just a voice—his actual warm neck, broad shoulders, still strong, shaking a little.

Inside, the men in tan fatigues talked and played cards with their families, gazed together at the TV bolted up high; some kids took board games down from shelves, others lay sideways across plastic chairs, letting the adults do whatever needed to be done in this place. I bought Cokes and chips from the machines, then Brad led us to the door of the fenced yard, where a guard allowed us through. Outside, prisoners and family members sat on cement benches at cement tables; one guy and his wife or sister sang spirituals together softly, another argued with his mom who looked exactly like him, another’s daughter turned cartwheels on the grass between tables, as though understanding that everyone needed something to focus their attention on.

The only gift a visitor was permitted to bring in was a sealed carton of cigarettes. Brad opened up the Winstons that Dad had bought at the gas station down the road, and like the other smokers, they stepped up to the metal stand with its small burning glow inside, each guiding a cigarette with his mouth into the little hot hole, to puff a light. We talked about the farm then, about Brad’s kids’ visit, about his cell and block, some jokes about the guards and hair-raising tales of guys Brad didn’t name, saying the stories might or might not be true, since you could be anybody or nobody here. He was all right, he said: clean, getting straight, trimming down on the jailbird diet.

“What happened to your forehead? You get in a fight?” Dad asked after a while.

“Not with anybody else.”

Dad sauntered over to light another cigarette for each of them, and returned voicing once again the complaint Brad and I had both heard from him over and over—I’d listened to it in lawyers’ offices, government offices, halfway there in the car—about Mom’s will. She had left the land from her mother not to Dad, but directly to Brad and me.

“Brad can’t do a damn thing with it now!” he groused for the millionth time, and as his voice rose, I looked across the yard and saw the girl whose stuffed cat had been taken from her. Kids are the only visitors that prisoners can touch more than once, but she was squirming off the lap of a man, yelling “No—NO!”—finally tearing loose, running toward the gate still screaming, and I heard the sound of a door locking, felt a body-splitting pain break through me, then jumped up and started to move toward the girl at the same time her father did, but Brad stopped me—“Sis, we can’t interact with other prisoners’ families.” I stepped back and sat down, my wrists pricking, looking over for the girl again—then started to cry, apologizing to Brad, pressing my hands flat against my thighs to steady them.

“It’s okay, it’s a prison, it’s not like serenity’s the rule here,” he said gently, but Dad interrupted:

“What’s the matter with you?”

I looked up, my face wet and hot, stared straight at him, and was startled to hear myself say slowly, tersely, “I was abused when I was little.” Then I heard my brother:

“What do you mean?”

And at the same time, Dad said, “Well, it wasn’t me!”

Dad’s face had changed, and mine had too. For a moment, amid all the other prison-yard chaos, I could hear nothing but the silence at our table.

“Did you ever care about anyone but you?” I yelled, understanding then, as I drew attention to us, that he couldn’t do anything here to retaliate.

Brad tried to calm us both, but Dad ignored him and stood abruptly, spitting: “You better watch your step, girl—” Eyes flaring, jaw set, looking around, he grabbed his jacket and turned to storm past the guard at the door, apparently heading the four hours back to Pierre without me. We let him go.

Weeping, I apologized—we had come here about Brad, not me—but he asked me to tell him what I’d remembered. The substance-abuse counseling he received at the prison was all about leaving the past behind, but he listened, trying to understand as I told him how I was having trouble driving home from work now, as though I were moving through water, or some ancient, straw-stifled cellar dark I couldn’t see my way in, couldn’t tell what was coming toward me—how I had to stop, try to think to the edge of the wide pasture overlooking the river below the farm where I used to go alone when I was small, to the big white stone I’d hide behind—not hurting then, just watching the high grass bend as I had been bent down, waiting for it to lift again with the wind.

“I’m sorry to be telling you this in here, Brad. At least I do get home.”

“It kills me to have you right in front of me and not hug you,” he said, his hands fisted.


Our letters and calls were different then. In spite of whatever monitor might have been reading or listening in, in spite of the abrupt cutoffs, we got to know each other, needed each other more, more openly than before. I dreaded less his dark jokes, self-punishing guilt, and he began to feel it less, I think, when he could listen to me too. At first I hated using our precious ten minutes of phone time on my fractured memories, but gradually I understood that it helped Brad to help me; I realized he welcomed a subject that wasn’t his own confinement and shame. Sometimes we teased each other about whether being the boy or the girl was worse—kept running lists of things at home torn or thrown and broken, evidence that could back up our arguments, if the house hadn’t burned. But then Brad talked about guys he knew who’d be happy for our kind of trouble, like his pal Roger down the corridor, who was there on good behavior after seven years in maximum—he had been a meth cook, had burned up not just his house, but his best friend, and injured two neighbors next door.


Three more years, then the halfway house—finally Brad made it back to the farm. Supervised release, tentative equilibrium, but sky and prairie were all around him again, fields to tend, the Missouri down the draw to walk to when he wanted, phone he could talk on anytime, though he seemed to need less talking.

After a while, a bender, a night he couldn’t be found. The parole officer didn’t hear of it, didn’t notice the wrecked truck or ask about his bandaged shoulder, Brad told me matter-of-factly, then said he’d just finished watching The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV.

I let him change the subject—I helped him change the subject. “Do you remember going out to see it at the Sioux Drive-In with Mom and Dad?” I asked. “That whistling song comes right to mind from way back then, even though the story’s a blank for me.”

“I’m the youngster, Sis,” he said. “You must’ve been all of three when it was made. But yeah, I remember going out there with the folks sometimes. I think they stopped taking us because I couldn’t ever keep my head under the blanket in the back seat when Dad tried to sneak us past the ticket booth. You, though—” he laughed, “you were great at hiding.”


It’s strange that what I remember first is the graduate student’s thesis I’d been reading: poem after poem about being lost in the mountain forests of Bulgaria. I remember wanting to be lost in a way, in a place I’d never been but felt I could enter through those poems, feeling the pull of absorption into unfamiliar landscape—canyons woven by shadows and fog, the air thin, dark trees surrounding, dense—from inside of this, I heard the phone ringing.

It was Dad, calling from the farmhouse. His voice sounded strange, hesitant. I’d never heard him say before “I don’t know how to say this.” Then, after a few seconds, he told me he’d found Brad there in the kitchen, on the floor. I listened, feeling myself touch the screen door, trembling, looking in, seeing Brad’s little dog beside the chair fallen over, the cigarette next to him, burned all the way down.

The ambulance had gone, Dad said, no lights or siren. I closed my eyes, thought down the road below the house, along the big river—thought of everything the river had reflected, taken in, allowed at last to surface again—thought that not all of it could be carried away to sea, that my brother’s laugh, his quick glance, would stay.


More than once Brad had said he’d go with me to the nursing home, but I told him I’d manage it myself when I was ready—yet I never went to talk to Norm, whose memory would no doubt have been more tattered than mine, whose face I could hardly bring to mind anymore, even though I’d gone through so many photographs, looking for what they hadn’t revealed before. Norm, always behind the camera, seemed not to have been there at all. The shards of memory don’t appear in any pictures’ backgrounds—there is no pattern to fit them to, like parts of a donated jigsaw in the prison visitation room that someone must have put back hastily in the wrong box—no telling where the pieces that might complete their scenes could’ve disappeared to.

Today one of my students showed me a YouTube video she’s been trying to write about, and now I can’t get it out of my mind, either: hundreds, maybe thousands of starlings lifting above a field—swarming, flaring like a veil, then turning together, darkening the air, swirling as if answering all at once a song they’ve been listening for, a need echoed over and over. Wings veering, the flock tilting toward invisibility, then returning—you watch and wonder how something can happen like this, a wheeling simultaneously reenacted by each bird’s rising and shadowing, tipping, disappearing. In the field a little girl stands alone, looking up from the ground—maybe it was her presence that startled them, but she’s not responsible, what’s happened is beyond her.

My student and I have different words for the scene, this murmuration, and for the wish to see it again and again, as though we haven’t already watched it many times. Some say starlings are dirty birds, greasy-looking, mean creatures, but their name reflects shining wings dissolving—light taken into sky, gone as if they’re not bodies at all, absorbed like faint stars at morning, or like sparklers waved briefly and extinguished, having spelled out a child’s name one summer night.

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Debra Nystrom is the author of four poetry collections: A Quarter Turn, Torn Sky, Bad River Road, and Night Sky Frequencies. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Conjunctions, AGNI, Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, Slate, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Virginia. (updated 4/2020)

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