I wrote this story a few years ago and recently edited it for submission. It isn’t hard to see why it isn’t a winner, but I like it all the same. Here it is for your enjoyment.
To explain how I came to be in this bleak institute, wrapped in a Posey jacket and carted from padded room to padded room by waspish old women, might demonstrate that I, in fact, belong here. Surely, some form of punishment was justified, however I question whether this was the correct course of action. No matter, I have no qualms with spending the rest of my days here. I’m rather content with this room and I’m sure this is a more comfortable stay than near those petty criminals in the penitentiary. The doctors, overworked as they may be, seem genuinely interested in my wellbeing. After the initial cocktail of anti-depressants failed to cure me of what the psychologists labeled dysthymia, the good doctor decided to put me on what I can only assume to be a powerful opiate. It was a good change. This magic morning pill has given me an effective means by which to rummage through my mind, content in my isolation, while the man in the cell next to me screams apoplexy for days on end. If he is, in fact, stricken with such impairment, I don’t suppose he’ll find relief before death. Our home has no support for things of that nature. Our home has no support for much of anything. Not that I’ve ever craved it, even in those quiet moments when I begin to question the validity of my actions, even when my mind leads me to that dark time before I killed my brother.
I have no regrets, but I must make it known that I loved my brother. He was my companion, one who many never be replaced. It is unfortunate that this will be the only record of what was truly a wonderful life.
He was the smartest man I’d ever known. I have no doubt in my mind that, had he put in the necessary effort and written even a sliver of his curiosities on a napkin, he may have been considered a necessary intellectual of our generation. It was a shame, then, that in all of his forty years he received little more than a snide glance from the academic community. In our youth he was recognized for his brilliance, but as he shed tutors and professors like old matted fur, he developed a reputation as a cynical misanthrope. What brilliance appeared on paper seemed a far cry from the strange shut-in of a boy they had brought to their campus. By the time he’d reached his early twenties, he’d grown disenchanted with academia altogether. He had become his label, and seemed happy to do it. Physically, he was always fit to play the part. His face was always locked in a scowl, even in our youngest years; it was the only thing our father ever gave him. His fists hung like heavy clubs on the ends of his wrists and, if one had not known him well, his speech could easily have been mistaken for indistinct grunts. I, however, often found myself in awe of his abilities. He had married when we were younger but that was, at best, a failed experiment. They slept in different beds, were never intimate, and entertained only the lightest of conversations. Still, she never left him and he never asked her to leave. For what reason I do not know, but it appeared as if women were the only worldly things of which he was never very curious. In all other pursuits he was relentless. Whenever he encountered a subject of which he had no knowledge, he would spare no time gathering and reading all prior investigations into the topic. If unsatisfied with his findings, he would conduct his own research into the matter (as was within his means, of course. We were never very wealthy.). Write a paper, I would tell him, submit something to someone of importance! Contribute something to the world! You have so much to give! But in stubbornness he etched his findings on the inside of his skull and shuttered the windows from anyone but his only brother.
His murder, and the trial that followed, were never concerned with my innocence in the matter. I was the one, who alerted the authorities, who confessed without any external incentive, who handed them the knife stained with his blood and my fingerprints, who stood alone above his coffin on the day of his burial. What spared me a lifetime in the penitentiary and brought me instead to this life of chemically induced aloofness, was my explanation. This I will recount for you, not as any form of justification, I have already been judged, but as a way of memorializing a discovery that should not be forgotten once I have also passed on.
My defense, in the simplest terms:
We found a gateway to death. It drove my brother mad.
I understand the reasons for my punishment. For most people, death is simple: people die and are dead. It is for this reason that no soul prior had accessed the gate; those craving death have proven content with tucking themselves under the cuff of her wing and melting into her feathers. We, too, had considered it, but my brother, ever rational, questioned if we would like it. I felt foolish, for I would never drive my car down a one-way street with a dead-end. I thought it a simple jest when, one night, after a few glasses of wine, he suggested we find a way to experiment with the infinite sleep. I have always enjoyed his intoxicated symphonies; it was not irregular for him to ramble in A Minor. By the next week I had gone back to work without giving it a second thought, and a month later I had forgotten that we had ever even spoken on the topic. What a surprise it was when he appeared at the door of my room, hair disheveled, eyes frenzied, muttering slightly as he let himself in. I thought him mad for a moment, but once I peered into those brilliant pomegranate irises I could see that he had scrawled something new around the windows to his skull. No, not scrawled, carved; carved into his cornea so that no matter which direction he looked, or whatever he looked at, all he could see was the vision he had so meticulously drawn out for us. For, as I should have expected, in the time since we’d last spoken he had researched, mapped, and used whatever magic lay within that graffiti-slashed skull of his to pinpoint what he came to call the fence. By the next year, I found myself clambering through an imperforate dungeon, hoping with all hope that I had not misplaced my trust.
The oxygen was thin in the caves, each breath more debilitating than it’s worth. Had my brother not been there, determinately, slowly, but confidently pushing on, I might have been content with drifting into the infinite opaque. What a relief it was when, after sliding naked through ancient formations of igneous rock, we came upon the fence; relief, because my brother’s work was not wasted; relief because we were finally at our destination; relief because, if I so desired, I could drift off and rest for the rest of time.
I am not a fool to think that anyone, much less a jury, would believe these claims. I was never the gifted one, and like most other people, I’d always regarded supernatural claims with healthy skepticism. Even as we stood at the foot of the picketed gate, I found myself doubting the legitimacy of my brother’s claims. Perhaps we had merely happened upon the site of an old hobble. Perhaps, after years of erosion, some formerly habitable land had been buried in the flatness of the Canadian Shield. This, of course, was a ridiculous idea, and it is for this reason that I do not fault anyone for thinking me mad, but once they themselves pass on they will see that I was not lying. They will see that I had no need to. Wooden and dead-bolted, we unlatched the fence and entered death together. As we entered, I left one foot in the world of the living, like the string of a yo-yo wrapped around a child’s finger waiting for a return.
There was no tangible transition as we crossed: no twisting of reality as we slid into the nether. One moment I was I was grasping my brother’s wrist as we stepped into the dark, the next we were a horse dancing across the ethereal plane, one consciousness uncontrolled. We were wisps, pulsating across eternity, absorbing, being absorbed by dark matter, by all matter. We could not see, nor feel in any physical sense, but we were there, always a part of something. We were nowhere, everywhere. We were devoid of the familiar senses and better off for of it.
As we flew, new memories trickled into our consciousness; conversations in voices I’d never heard with people I’d never met; they became clearer for every moment we lingered in the house of death. I was a young woman on a platform leaning over the edge in search of a train that was thirty minutes past due. I was a man on that train, contemplating the work of Miklos Jancso, his preference towards long takes and minimal editing, watching as the Hungarian puszta whipped passed by. I was Tchaikovsky on the premier of his sixth symphony, crying at the final morendo, bittersweet with the knowledge that this was my final performance. I was a boy, asking his mother about God in a language I never learned but understood entirely, and then crying when she answered because I couldn’t, or he couldn’t, rationalize death as anything other than infinite black. Do not fear, boy, I wanted to say to him, for now we are together and it is safe. I was my brother, watching myself weep as my mother’s coffin lowered into the ground all those years ago. I felt what he felt. He felt what I felt. It was exhilarating. We, who were always so isolated, always kept apart in some way from our peers, now joined infinitely with those of whom we so craved to be a part. What euphoria to be a part of everything, to be one with everything, to know and be known without posture. I wanted to stay forever. Soon, however, I felt my brother rearing, resisting what we’d found in that world. I would lurch forward, he would pull back. I would jut left and he would spin me around, tug me back. Soon, I could no longer feel my brother. I could only feel myself. Without warning, I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. My head came back to me, my hands and feet, my lungs, which felt stiff as a I gasped. Gravity slammed me back into the cave and my body seemed ill prepared. I buckled under my own weight, encumbered again with life.
We woke up side by side in the cave, chilly from the sweat that had accumulated on our wrinkled skin. My brother was gaunt, motionless but for the rise and fall of his chest as his body remembered how to breathe. We lay on that floor for some time, heartbeats syncopated. I did not resist when he rose, and moved quickly when he motioned to leave. We crawled out of the cave, and returned to escarpment from which we entered, dressed in the waning sunlight, and then marched back to the car we’d left in a ditch on the side of the road. I wanted to return but it was clear my brother had no intention to, so just as he had led me there, I led him out.
We did not speak on the experience on our return trip; we did not mention it to his wife, nor to each other in the days that followed. We were there together. I didn’t need to speak on what I felt, for he felt it to. My brother, however, barely spoke at all. When he did, his words were hollow, fragmented. He soon found himself out of work. Within the month he’d confined himself to his room. Moira was the only one allowed to see him, only to deliver food, which he seldom ate, and cigarettes, which he smoked voraciously. He locked the door from inside, and despite my attempts at persuasion he refused to let me in. I could not understand why, after all we had been through, he would choose to return a recluse. After all, it was he, not I, who forced his way back into the light. For the short time, we were united, consciousness combined in its purest form, I thought we were happy. Now, he refused to see me.
As time passed, he grew even further into himself. He carved a 1 x 1/2 ft rectangle in the base of the door, one meter off the ground, and installed a latch to allow him control over the access point. He boarded up the windows, his only light borne of a collection of wax candles placed haphazardly around the room. At night I could hear him pacing the perimeter, stopping to scribble on the walls, then start again; if I was lucky, the night would grow quiet enough to hear his utterances, to listen to the scratches and picture the letters he’d carve into the wood.
One night, once my fingers had grown tired of punching thoughts through ribbon, I found myself shaking rather uncontrollably. I’d gone to the cabinet to fetch a bottle of scotch but found it much too difficult to pour it into a glass. I had been worried for my brother. Moira had informed me the previous evening that he had, of late, been returning his meals. The tray would enter and, after a few minutes, return on the ledge untouched, not a mint leaf out of place. In the early morning she’d heard a commotion in the room, but frustrated as she must have been by his behaviour, she left for her shopping soon after. It occurred to me that I had heard nothing from him for the entire day. Odd as he had been acting, I did not know him to remain motionless for more than a few hours at a time. I worried, as most would, for the health of my kin, so I climbed the stairs to check on him. Ten raps on the door rewarded no response. My concern grew with each one. I called to him but, again, received no reply. It was not unusual for my brother to shutter himself from the world at a time of crisis, but his heightened desire for solitude and refusal of even the most basic sustenance had me concerned for his life. I returned to my office, retrieved a hammer, and cracked my way through the latch. The door landed flat with a thud. I could not see him at first, but as I stepped through the porthole he spoke to me.
“We are nothing, brother,” he said. The light from the hallway lit only a small part of the room, and he’d disabled the light-switch long before. Still, from his voice I could tell he was on the far side of the room, near the bed. “We die, and then we are dead.”
“What nonsense.” I said, at once relieved by his wakefulness but irritated by his having ignored my calls. “Could you not feel it? Were you numb to the euphoria? We die and we are one, as we must have been before!”
“Euphoria, brother? No. Too many voices, too much of everything.”
“Were you not the one who told me that everything is the universe and in death we merely return home? At mother’s funeral, no less!”
“Nonsense,” he said. “We die and we are dead. This life is but a ride. When it ends we will depart. We resolve to nothing.”
“For all of your genius, you are truly a fool to believe that, especially after such a union as we were permitted to join. There is beauty in homogeny-”
“But for how long, brother? I know the unity of which you speak, but how long were we there? A few minutes? An hour? A day? Even within such a short time we began to lose ourselves. I tried to call to you brother, to make you hear me, to make you understand what I wanted to stop. It was nearly pointless, like yelling over the roars of a crowded stadium in hopes that the one person who needs to hear it will. How long until we disappear? How long until the only thing left of what we once were is a memory upon which we stumble only once in an eternity?”
“Does this not excite you? Each person has but one life, much as a mosquito, a dog, a cell or its gametes have one life, but in death we are united. We have thousands, millions of lives, each life a vast well of memory.”
“A gamete dies and another one forms a zygote and it turns into a boy who lives and dies just the same. Regardless of the gamete, life continues without it. We were them, both the boy and the zygote, and we did not know them. They did not know us. Soon, we would not know ourselves. What kind of life is that? There is only one life: the one that we are living right now. When it is gone, there is nothing.”
“Then why must you waste it, hobbled up in this dark room? Do you desire to waste that life which you cling to so dearly?”
“It is not a measure of life experience, brother. How many men and women did you see who had wasted their time in search for experience? No, I care only to experience life in its most basic form; to feel the blood as it pumps through my veins; to feel my heart as it slows to a murmur; my breath as it dries in my throat and disappears in my lungs; my body clamp shut upon itself; this is the only thing left. The pain of life is life itself.”
“Your misanthropy I have endured for decades, and I’ve loved you in spite of it. Your nihilism, however, I cannot accept until you convince me otherwise.”
“Allow me some exposition, then.
“If our town were to die spontaneously, if you and I, our neighbours and c0-workers, Moira and the man who delivers our mail, were to die simultaneously, the world may never notice. If others do implore into our deaths, it would only be with regard to their own self-preservation. In time they will forget about us and live their lives and die. Life will continue. Man and woman will continue under assumption that their lives have intrinsic value.”
“And what will you suppose to do, wrapped up in this attic? Your life may have no value to you, but it has value to me.”
“And with selfishness you will force me to endure the world in all of the meaningless ways we were already averse to before we took our trip?”
“No, brother, I cannot force that. But with selfishness, I will help you reach your conclusion. If it is pain that you seek, I can help you with that. What difference would it make, to suffer and allow your body to whither away, or to experience the pain whole, sharp? I can help you with the latter, brother, and you can rest well. I’m sure whatever small pockets of the world hear of your death, they will be disgusted, though only for a few moments. When I am locked up, or even killed, they will feel safe from me and forget you, and when they think about how little such mutilation actually affects their life, they will understand your message. This can be your opus, brother.”
“Then let it be.”
My brother lay still and did not so much as flinch as I brought the knife to his skin. With each incision I felt his muscles tighten and release. He nearly let out a wail as I pushed my knife into his femur, but quickly swallowed it down. He never once asked me to stop. I didn’t stop until I heard that quiet, high pitched wheezing of the throat as he released his final breath.
In its own way, the slow, meticulous journey by which I shepherded him to death was even greater than our sojourn beyond the fence. We were together in life, in the most dolorous circumstance that may never be executed once we’ve passed on. What thoughts he had as I brought the final stroke to his aorta I do not know, but in time I will.
When I reached the stand, the prosecuting attorney asked me to recant the story of my brother’s death. I told him as I have told you, death drove my brother mad. Neither he, nor the jury, would accept my story as fact. For them, one dies and they are dead.
Now, despite my unfortunate confinement to this white room, built of metal-studded gypsum board and cotton-stuffed insulation, my opiate-induced euphoria provides an acceptable, albeit sterile, simulation of death. This is the life I will bring with me past the fence; the flirting, entrance into, and return from death, and the peace I’ve found in such a dire circumstance. It is with this understanding that I continue the rest of my life. I have no remorse for my actions, for one day I too will die and my brother will know well the life I’ve lived.