Lords

We stood over Father’s open coffin.  The parlor director had done an excellent job with the blemishes, covering the cancer’s many touches with some kind of base or foundation.  The thought of Father wearing make-up was absurd enough to bring a smile to my lips, though I didn’t dare laugh.  It wasn’t a matter of impropriety.  I found it exceedingly difficult to care what any of the clucking chickens disguised as mourners thought of my manners.  But to mock the pale elegance of the body before me – the colorlessly dignified checks, the glowing pallor of his forever-balding scalp – to laugh at that would have been . . . well, difficult to capture in words.  Blasphemous is close.  Unwise is closer still. 

Not that I had any illusions about the practical nastiness of death.  If I peered at where Father’s right eye met the bridge of his nose, I could catch sight of a tiny black spot, the peeking head of a stitch.  I wondered briefly how long it took to sew an eye shut, how it sounded when the curved needled popped through each lid.  Did they use the same technique to create that tightly-pursed mouth, or was there some other method?  Glue, perhaps?  Knowing Father, mortar would have been the safest choice.  There was a small but significant danger he would grow bored during the service, prop an elbow on the edge of the coffin, and begin telling a joke whose punch line involved incest.

No, to paint the beginning decay of a meat sack as Proud would be even more disrespectful.  Like the chickens that surrounded me, crowing about better places and new beginnings.  Another laughable matter.  Poultry talking of transcendence. 

One fluttered up as if on cue, latching on to my right arm and rubbing vigorously.  It was Aunt someone-or-other, one of Mom’s sisters whom I had not seen since Mom’s own funeral. 

 “Oh Charlie, “ she crooned,“ oh Charlie, why didn’t he give them up?  Evelyn had always warned him.  She never liked those cigars . . .”

Jack stepped in, as I’d hoped he would, and made consolatory noises at her until she wandered off in contentment.  I kept looking down at Father, ignoring Aunt Someone.  Of course, yes, Mom didn’t smoke, and look how much longer she lived.  Oh, yes, she died fifteen years ago.  Cluck cluck cluck.

Jack turned back to me.  “Good ole Aunt Maggie.”“Is that her name?”

 “Not sure.  That’s what I called her.  Maybe that’s why she left.”

I chuckled lightly, and he grinned.  When Jack smiled, his whole face seemed to fill with teeth.  I’d always had difficulty trusting those impeccable incisors.  Judging from his suit, his investors had no such problems.  Jack had mentioned earlier in the viewing that he and his second wife – I never bothered to learn her name, nor the name of his first – were on a trial separation that was likely to become permanent.  I wondered what his wives had thought about that shark-like mouth.

Five inches taller, thirty pounds heavier, his stature had always accentuated the three-year age difference between us.  When we were children, when we still attended Mom’s family gatherings, we were always “ . . .and these are Ed and Evelyn’s boys, Jack and Charlie.”  Not even Charlie and Jack, and certainly never Charles and Jack.  Charlie: a horrific title, the moniker of dirty hands and snot-filled noses.  Father and Mom had always been good about calling me Charles.  Jack finally stopped goading me with “Charlie” when we were teen-agers.  He happened to be walking by the refrigerator – calling me that – when I flung open the freezer door.  His nose left quite a red smear across the white surface.  To the best of my knowledge, he could still wiggle a tooth affected by that incident.  He had never called me Charlie to my face since.

It was almost nine-thirty by the time we were rid of the last mourner.  She was a second-cousin of Mom’s who fancied herself psychologically savvy.  For twenty minutes she conducted a subtle assessment of how the two sons were handling this traumatic loss and vivid reminder of one’s own mortality.  She bored me to tears, tempted me to fake a grief-induced seizure just to have an excuse to strike at her.  Jack and his teeth handled it: yes, a very trying time but every burden builds strength; yes, we appreciate your support and concern; yes, we really should keep in touch.  Finally satisfied she could deem us of sound mind, she left.

For several moments there was no sound except for the quickly fading echo of the door.  Jack was still all teeth, looking as though he was going to wax nostalgic about “Good ole Aunt blah blah blah” again.  Instead, he blew out a harsh sigh, a breath heavy with finality even for a funeral parlor.

“Have you heard anything about the inheritance?”  He tried for nonchalant.

“Arthur says we need to meet with him.  The accounts will be divvied equally between us, but the stocks will require . . .”

“That’s not what I mean, Charles.” 

I knew what he meant.  My left hand appeared from inside my sport coat, the folded envelope wedged between my index and middle fingers.  I motioned him closer with it.

“I found this in his personal possessions from the hospital.  His doctor said that three days before the end, Father handed him this and said it was not to be opened until he was gone.”

I passed it to him.  The front read “Charles and Jackson” in carefully-printed block letters; I hoped the order of names irritated him. He turned it over.  Father had signed “Edward Rotter” across the back flap and then had sealed it with a piece of tape.

He was puzzled. “You haven’t looked at it yet.”

“I thought it appropriate we look at it together.”  Besides, I thought I knew what it said, and I believed Jack had at least some suspicions.  There was really only one proper way to reach the decision.

“May I?”

 “You’re the first born.”

He used his long index finger like a hook, ripping upward.  The slip of paper inside was heavily creased and small, barely three inches by five.  The writing inside wsa uneven, many letters trembling to their finish.  The message itself was concise:

To my little lords,

On the first full moon after the funeral, make your return to Winnica and race for the moonlight.  The winner will inherit the lake. 

                                                Until we meet again,

                                                Father

I read it twice before I spoke.  “The next full moon is nine days away.”

“I thought you hadn’t looked at it yet.”

“I hadn’t”

He waited for more.  When none came, he shrugged his shoulders and flashed his grin. 

“OK, fine”. 

Silence.  Jack was sly, good at feigning confusion, and he was first born; tradition placed a great emphasis on birth order in matters such as these.  How much did he know, and how much did he only think he knew?   I searched his teeth for hints or hesitancy but found only canines.

“Well, what time do we do this?”

“I think the beginning time is our decision.” I already had one in mind.

 “Midnight?”

“Trite.  I was thinking ten o’clock.  The water will be warmer.”

“Fine.  Ten it is.” 

We stood in more silence, each of us waiting for the other to fidget.  Jack abruptly stuck out his hand, as if he was sealing one of his deals. 

I snorted.  “Don’t point that thing at me.  I’ll see you tomorrow, brother.”  I ran my fingers along the casket rim.  “Good night, Father.”

I was across the showing room when Jack brayed out, “Good night, Charlie!”

I considered him, his statue-like figure planted next to our dead father, his hands casually thrust in his suit pockets.  But patience, supposedly, is a virtue.  I continued my exit. 


Nine days later, I was sitting bald and naked on the muslin-sheeted loveseat when Jack arrived.  The air inside the house smelled of mothballs, linen, and freshwater by night; it felt vacant and pure in my lungs.  Occasionally I thought I caught scents of lilac and lavender, but that was probably just a wistful imagination at work.  I hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights.  The north wall of the Grand Room was one immense picture window, and the full moon tinted everything dull black and luminous green. Whomever Father had hired to maintain the building had done an excellent job.  The furniture was spectral but had not been rearranged, and the hardwood floors had been oiled recently enough that Jack’s shoes squeaked as he entered.

I was gratified by Jack’s startled hop before he recognized me.  “Jesus.”  He flipped on the light and then stopped in the doorway, taking me in.

“Oh.”

Pause. 

“You’re all ready.  I wasn’t sure you’d go through with it.”

I nodded toward his own freshly shaven head.  “I see your faith held, at least partially.”      

“Well, it’s practical, regardless of the other – ” He stopped himself, as if suddenly hesitant to address the matter with me. 

“Yes?”

His voice was confident again, flippant.  “Less weight, less drag, more streamlined.  Not that I’ll need the advantage.”

Jack had won several regional medals during college in the fifty-meter freestyle.  I wondered how long it had been since he’d swum.  Still, his condescension bored me. I rose up, bringing my body fully into view.  “Practicality has little to do with it.”

His eyes ran over my plucked flesh, still speckled with brown pinpoints.  “Missed one between your legs.” 

When I didn’t react, he began to remove his own clothing, revealing the hard white hills of his torso splashed with razor marks.  The gentle paunch above the base of his penis blushed with rash.  He finished and stood before me, an Adonis tainted reptilian by the bumpy ridges of his skull.

“Wait a minute.” He stared at the strips of flesh where my eyebrows had been. “Are we supposed to do eyebrows?”

“The eyebrows were my choice.”

“Your choice.  Jesus.”

“Ritual does not forbid personal choice.”

“Yeah, sure.  What else did you do, shave your nutsack and asshole?”

I said nothing.

“Charlie, you’re sick, you know that?  Father should have gotten you some help a long ways back.  Drugs.  Laid.  Something.”  

The outside door had stood open this whole time, and the night was beckoning.  “Shut up. We’re ready.”

“Well, I know I am.”  His teeth emerged like waking predators.

I slapped the light switch off.  “It begins at the dock.”

“Let’s go,” the teeth replied.

We stepped outside together, Jack slightly ahead.  The bare soil of the front yard was dusty beneath my heels.  I picked my way through the feeble trees that poked through the soil.  They had been Jack’s idea, planted just before Mom’s death; they had not fared well in our absence.  I kicked at the scrawny tendrils that reached for my knees.  The August breeze played against my newly-bare skin, making it itch.  Beyond the saplings lay the soft lapping of Winnica.

It was dimly lit and gorgeous.  The moon painted a shimmering ribbon on the water, a thin road of lime-gold that seemed to end just short of the dock’s skinny finger.  Beyond the light the water stirred sluggishly.  Our house sat at the head of the harbor, so that the lake stretched forth from it in a narrow V.  Dense blotches of trees lined the opposing shores as the water slowly pushed them away from each other.  A mile or so out, the trees and land came to an abrupt end, the right side before the left, and the lake swelled into a pregnant teardrop. Even with a full moon I couldn’t hope to see the far shore.  When I was young and sleepless, I would crawl out to the darkened Grand Room and sit cross-legged before the picture window, imagining I was in a submarine, that the lake had spilled over, was drowning the trees, slopping toward the stars.      

 Jack’s pace quickened, and I followed suit, my head and shoulders dropping slightly, arms pulling back in anticipation.  I’m unsure whose foot struck the metal walkway first, but at the dull tone we immediately broke into sprints.  We left a wake of hollow drumbeats as we pounded down the dock.  Jack’s long legs easily outdistanced me; I was a full ten feet behind when he leapt into the air, arms and fingers splayed wide like the wings of a great white bird, before bringing his hands together and slicing through Winnica’s surface.

I heard him take a first big gasp as he came back up but didn’t bother to look.  My eyes were fixed on the last dock post on the left.  I made a grab at the thin object wrapped around the post, but I missed and was forced to a teetering stop at the dock’s edge.  Cursing, I reached back and ripped the twine from the piece of tape that had secured it to the post.  I tied it around my left thigh, snug enough to stay put, loose enough to allow blood to flow.  In the water, Jack increased his distance.  I was risking my inheritance, in more ways than one, but I had faith this gamble would be necessary. Then I launched myself off the dock.

The water folded around me with a cough.  It was cool and smooth, like a soft mouth with a slick tongue.  I took a gulp of air and then began kicking and reaching.  My limbs fell into a smooth opposition, right arm and left leg, left arm and right leg.  I stole glances as I sucked down air.  Jack was maybe ten yards ahead and still pulling away.  His strokes broke splashes – gold, green, black – as he aimed for the right side of the lake.  Against the light, the white flesh on his head looked like an exposed skull.

I could not worry about the distance he had gained.  This was to be a test of stamina, not speed.  And what is stamina, if not patience?  The ability to endure, to patiently withstand, to carefully wait.  Sometimes my whole life seemed to have been one long wait.  I strove to lose myself in the rhythms surrounding me. The crackling of water in my ears as my head swayed back and forth.  The prickling tingle of the hair follicles on my chest.  The almost erotic jostling of my testicles in the churning fluid. 

It wasn’t hard to imagine the lake of my childhood, the water soaked in the harsh yellow heat of long summer days.  I could almost hear Father bellowing encouragement from the dock.  He’d called them Sunlight Races.  His rules were simple: Swim as though you could catch the sun, and don’t stop until you can’t go on.  Whichever one of us outlasted the other was proclaimed Lord of the Lake for the day.  Jack had won that title probably twice as often as I had.  I’m sure that statistic was fueling his confidence.  On that assumption I was wagering a great deal, possibly more than I knew.  The Sunlight Races had taught Jack how to win.  They had taught me how to suffer, though.  Suffering was to be the more important lesson for this evening.             

The minutes slid by as we did, bringing with them the beginnings of protests from muscles.  I grew aware of my shoulders, and the knots in them that had started crowding my spine.  I was forced to slow a little, but Jack’s splashing form was a bit closer.  He appeared to have dropped his pace as well.  Jack was still cutting toward the right, even as the harbor started to recede at a sharper angle. The moon threw out shadows that sometimes blanketed the water, sometimes seemed to hover just above it. Behind us, the dock had shrunk to a driftwood plank, and the house had become just one more distant clump of trees.  I struggled to catch hints of the fresh night air between wet stings to my nostrils.                          

Jack had stopped.  I could almost discern the white snakes of his arms wiggling as he treaded water.  I took the opportunity to rest as well, shuddering as my breaths forced the oxygen down.  The vitality of childhood shouldn’t seem so foreign at thirty-two.  I strained to see or hear a sign of weariness from him. 

“Are you coming, Charlie?”  His shout was unnerving among Winnica’s silence.  I pictured a large, slumbering eyeball opening beneath us.       

He resumed, unanswered, and so I followed.  Stopping had been a bad idea.  I wondered if he had planned that.  My body fought the re-establishment of the punishing tempo, tugging against my urgings.  It wanted to drift through the lake, not pound at it.   I couldn’t afford to slacken my speed; it was obvious Jack had remained the physically superior.  Rather than ignore the dull aching of my lungs and limbs, I dove further into it, willing it to wash over me.  Pain was better than fatigue.  I pushed deeper, grasping at a sticky-sweet sharpness that drove me forward as though it were herding me. 

Images flickered toward me, beside me.  The lake, playing chameleon across the seasons, the water going blue to grey to white and back again.  Fifteen years of evaporation and rainfall, so cyclical it was as if the lake existed simultaneously on the Earth and in the clouds.  And from image into memory, into a vision of Father’s slack-jawed descent down the main stairs into my arms.  Mom lay in their bedroom, peacefully disrobed, probably still moist from the lovemaking that had claimed her life. 

His voice wouldn’t work.  He had licked his upper lip, then his lower, but no sound could come forth.  I had never in my life seen his eyes filled with such confusion before. Not grief or rage; those were coming but had not yet arrived.  At first there was just overwhelming chaos, writhing down the hall. He’d had plans, had just begun to give us hints of what was to come.  And then – this.  Unfair.  Against the rules.  It didn’t feel like a tragedy; it felt like the plot twist of a hack soap opera writer.  That was the last time any of us had set foot on the property at Winnica.

Father’s tight script swirled at me in the darkness, the words heavy with portent.  The letters began arriving every year, one a year, on the anniversary of Mom’s death.  They were filled with questions, half-clear instructions.  I had always assumed that Jack received the letters as well, though I never asked him. The only explicit aspect of Father’s letters was the warning never to speak of their existence with Jack, or even with him.  Discussion would violate EVERYTHING; Father had gorged that word into the paper.  As much as I would like to believe Father had singled me out to share in the knowledge, I know this is not true.  If I understood what his messages hinted at, their meanings peeking out from behind the loops and curves of the writing, the nature of this undertaking could not allow for any favoritism.  This was, above all else, a family affair.

I don’t know how long I swam like this, eyes closed or so blurred with water they may as well have been.  I may have even rested again; I think I remember the breeze against my face, but I’m not sure.  When I did bother to look around, I discovered the lake had opened on us.  The left side of the harbor was gone, as invisible and lost as the supposed horizon, and the right shoreline was twisting into the rounded hump that marked its end.  The moon seemed to spotlight Jack’s furious beatings of the water, and I couldn’t understand how he had that much energy left.  Then I caught sight of a swaying metal can, cast orange in the moonlight. The buoys Father had placed years ago marked the end of the harbor and the beginning of the lake proper; beyond them Winnica stretched to its full, bloated expanse.  Jack had spied the finish line, and he was sprinting for it.  But such an outburst was hardly necessary.  He was still thirty feet ahead of me as he gleefully slapped the buoy’s broad side.

Jack whirled, clinging to the buoy’s thick base with one arm and waving with the other.  “Charlie, Charlie, slow as ever.”  It sounded like a nursery rhyme.  His words were haggard but sure. 

I rolled over and stared up into the sky.  The few visible stars were dim freckles compared to the moon.  The water near the buoy was a translucent sheet under which my chest and stomach seemed to glow.  My arms felt leaden, but at least this new position allowed different muscles to work. I lazily back-floating towards Jack, turning my head to face him as I drew parallel, water brushing my check.  I was expecting more comments, but his only response was that maddening grin, draped across his face like a victory medal.  I slowly continued by him, not pausing.

The grin wavered when I was fifteen feet beyond the buoy, still drifting, still racing.

“Where the hell are you going?  The race is over.”

“No.  It’s. Not.”  In rhythm with my strokes.

Charles.“  He spit my name at me.  “The lake is mine.”

 I couldn’t continue talking and swimming at the same time.  “So prove it,” I called out, treading water.

“What?”

“If you have truly inherited Winnica, then claim it as your own.”

He stared at me. Then across the water, searching. Waiting.  Up to the sky.  Back at me.  The minutes plodded by as his features began to scrunch, first in bafflement and then in anger.  “Goddamnit, Charlie, why isn’t anything happening?” 

“You haven’t won yet.  If the race were truly over, there’d be no effort in claiming the lake.”

“The note said ‘race for the moonlight’.  We did.  You lost!”

“Where in the note was anything mentioned about the buoy?”

Jack was silent, a look of concern creeping across his face.  Father had never permitted the Sunlight Races to go beyond the buoys.  The four times we had made it this far – in all four cases, Jack had been first – he had forbade us from going any further. “The time isn’t right yet, ” was his only comment.  Mysterious.  Wistful.    Mom had died before he allowed us to go beyond the markers.  That was key, one of many points I had suspected Jack would overlook.  In games such as these, half-knowledge is worse than ignorance, and Jack had never been good at reading between the lines. 

He spoke rapidly, attempting to control his emotions.  “So how do we complete it?  Where the hell are we going?”

“To the moonlight.”

“ Goddamn you Charlie, where are –

I exploded, overwhelming his anger with the simple truth he had been unable and unwilling to discern.  “We have to die!” 

I let it wash over him, and then I delivered the rest, slow and vicious.  “The Sunlight Races were practice, Jack.  Dozens and dozens of practices, preparing us for this final competition.  What are we supposed to do, you ask?  It’s simple.  Like you, dear brother.  We swim for the moonlight.  We swim until we no longer can.  We swim until we die.  Whoever drowns at the furthest point from the house inherits the lake.”  

I didn’t wait for a response, turning from him and stroking away.  Seconds passed before the screams came behind me, desperate and betrayed.  “Charlie!  It’s mine, Charlie!  Goddamn you, I won! I WON!”

The water erupted behind me as Jack shot forward.  I kept my rhythm, breathing slowly.  The gamble was beginning.  A large hand snagged the lower part of my foot and yanked, twisting me around.   

“Jack, you know Father’s rules: no horseplay during the races”.

He could barely speak.  “You shit . . . you little upstart . . .”

“Upstart?  I’m impressed.  But really Jack, you’re wasting breath.  You’ll be wanting it soon – “

He sprang forward suddenly, planting his shoulder in my stomach.  It was like being hit by a torpedo, all my breath bursting out as his blow drove us beneath the surface.  I inadvertently took a gulp of water on the way down.  The gulp immediately began expanding inside my chest.  A hammer seemed to drop from the black figure above me, missing my nose but smashing into my forehead.  The pain branched into a web, coating my eyes.  I frantically kicked at him, hoping for scrotum, and the dark form seemed to jump backward in the gloom.  I thrashed toward moonlight.

I broke through the water, choking out a mixture of Winnica and saliva.  My eyes were throbbing with liquidy shock when a hand landed on my shoulder.  Jack’s fist smashed into my ribs three, four, five times.  I felt two snaps and cried out, still spitting water.  I swung a clumsy elbow backward and felt nothing except a lower blow, punching into my kidney.  I convulsed in a mushy agony that would have dropped me below the water had Jack’s grip not spun me around.

“You want to die, you little shit?  Here, let me help.”  Both hands went to my shoulders and shoved me down, two hundred pounds of muscle forcing my head beneath the water.

He’s breaking the rules he’s breaking the rules he’s breaking the rules.  The mantra seemed in sync with the maroon swirls squirming before my eyes.  My left hand drifted down, my fingers searching for the soggy twist of twine around my leg.  It slid along my fingertips, and I frantically began pulling the object at the end of the twine toward me.  There was nothing there.  It was gone, vanished into Winnica.

The few sounds I could hear were growing strangely muffled. Then I felt something brush across my knuckles, and I realized I wasn’t quite at the end of the twine. I twisted my hand around, and the object settled into my palm.  Holding the twine tight with my other hand, I flipped open the straight razor and sawed through the rope, freeing it into action. 

I grabbed hold of Jack and ripped upward.  It felt like tearing open a Christmas gift.  My hand was suddenly warm, and I was afraid I’d cut him too deep. The weight bearing down on me alighted like a giant bird.  I recoiled upward, entering the night air with sputters and gasps.  Now it was the air that wanted to choke me, trying to rush down my throat too fast.  My expanding lungs brushed against my broken ribs, and I sucked back a scream.  The sound thundered back into my ears, making my raspy struggles doubly loud.  Then I realized the rasping wasn’t coming from just me. 

Jack was staring down at himself in disbelief.  He was stuck in a strange pose, halfway between treading water and back floating, a brown stain spreading from him.  His right arm scooped at the water while his left one lightly touched the seven inches of parted skin running up the middle of his stomach.  Through his fingers I caught glimpses of yellow, gray, purple.  The blood wrapped around his hand, not wanting to be dispersed by the water.  He closed his eyes with a shudder, miming an inaudible noise.

I managed to reclaim my voice.  “Jack.  Let’s finish the race.”

He looked at me, his eyes beginning to glaze with shock.  “You . . . you shit.”  Breath.  “Cheated.”  Grunt of pain, and another breath.  “No horse play.”

“You started.  I had to level the field.  Besides, it has to be a race.  You can’t inherit the lake by killing me.”

“You . . . killed me.”

“No, I didn’t.  You’ll drown before you bleed to death.  The ritual will be satisfied, despite your efforts.  Let’s finish it.”

Jack looked back longingly at the buoy.         

“What are you going to do, Jack?  Cling to that can all night?  If you retreat now, you’ll forfeit the race.  I become Lord by default.” 

I held up the razor before him, then flung it away.  It plopped into the water and disappeared.  “Come on, Jack.  Don’t you want to at least see if you can catch me?”

He lurched forward, tears of hatred on his cheeks, and that was how the last leg of the race changed into a dance: two ungainly ballerinas, lethargically tip-toeing beyond the harbor and into the darkness that was truly Winnica.  My broken ribs made it impossible for me to swing my arm over my head, so I attempted to back-float, straining to move my arms and yet keep my trunk still.  My kidney pulsated with heat; I started to urinate once and almost doubled over as fire flared in my groin.  Jack was facing me, about ten feet back, pushing against the water with one arm like an old man struggling to use a cane.  Water sprayed behind him in intermittent spurts as he kicked, stalled, kicked, stalled.  We couldn’t keep this up for long.         

Something inside him must have let loose.  His kicking ceased as both arms dropped below the surface, attempting to hold his stomach together.  He began bobbing gently, water splashing in his mouth.

“Bastard, “ he gurgled.

Oh, how wrong.  I am, if nothing else, most certainly my father’s son.  I wanted to scream this at him, but I didn’t have the strength. I was treading unevenly, my chin just breaking the surface, my arms and legs beginning to flail in their exhaustion, but I had enough patience left to keep myself afloat and watch him drown.

He drifted maybe a foot closer to me before the water took him, starting with his right shoulder and pulling him down at an angle.  I heard a last sputter as his face disappeared.  I stared, waiting to see him resurface, waiting to feel his hands slip around my ankles.  But none of this happened after ten seconds, and then not after thirty.  By the time a minute had gone, it was clear the race was over.

I sucked in my last breath, held it tight, and shrieked it to the sky, my voice cracking. 

“I WIN!” 

In the distance, a flock of birds burst into flight in response to my call.  I lifted both arms and smacked them against the surface of the water, a happy two-year-old alone in an immense bathtub.  The flying water drops caught the moonlight and threw it amongst themselves, in celebration.  This sparkling display was my closing sight as I dropped backwards and under the water.  Winnica rushed into me again, and this time I readily took it in.  The moon was erased in a comforting wave of blackness.  Direction became meaningless.  The pain was quickly slipping away, dissolving into the cool currents that reached out like tender fingers.  I dropped my head and spread my arms, slowly spiraling downward, greedily sucking at the lake as it swallowed me. 


It was not difficult to locate Jack’s body.  I swept him up in my arms and hurtled back toward the house.  The small breakers that formed at my approach tumbled his body onto the land as I surged from the water, the ground strangely tough, the air acidic. 

I quickly dragged him by the feet to the pathetic little trees between the house and Winnica and stretched out this pinkish-white canvas, studying it. There had been no need for twine this time; the straight razor was already comfortable in my hand.  The wound from the lake served as a convenient starting point.  Perhaps I became a bit excessive in the distribution, but as winner I felt I could take certain privileges.   The trees frequently bent and bowed under the weight, so that some of the long, glistening loops almost brushed the ground.  What was left of the torso I planted amid a cluster of three saplings, resting it in their supportive triangle.    

As I was finishing, two figures shuffled around the corner of the house.  The one to the right was ivory and brown, as though soil had been packed around a bony framework.  She seemed to struggle, and not just physically.  It was understandable.  After all, Mom had only been human.  To awaken in such a body, probably never having suspected . . . well, I’m sure it was a shock.  The mound that served as her head jostled as she sobbed against Father’s shoulder.  Father was much easier to recognize, having not yet assumed a new form.  His most recent body had not decayed yet, though gravel dribbled from his lips as he attempted to comfort and explain.

The concept that even something like Father has rules to follow still strikes me as ridiculously archaic.  Imagine the frustration: to be Lord of Dust, Messiah of Dirt, cheated of your love and yet unable to take action.  Not even allowed to destroy your current body, but to have to wait for its natural failings.  No wonder Father smoked so many cigars. Fifteen years passes slowly, even for the immortal.  Seeing Father reclaim his bride was like bearing witness to a joyous reunion: our family, together again, reborn into its new generation.      

I heard a whimper behind me.  Pitiful, but to be expected; Jack had always been more like Mom.  I turned to watch as the Change commenced, flesh and bark seeping together like goo.  Jack’s head twitched once, then twice.  One eye opened.  It grew too wide, threatening to burst, and the other locked down in a squinting spasm.  The mouth slowly yawned, his jaw slopping from side to side, attempting to whine. 

I knelt before the torso, grinning into his open eye.  “Now, now, dear brother.  Even first-borns sometimes take second place.  What do you think?  Does Lord of Pathetic Shrubbery sound like an appropriate title?”

The response was a medley of crying and mewling.  I paid it little mind; he obviously was going to have difficulty adjusting to our new positions. 

I wondered if I appeared majestic before his single sight.  The flow of water that trailed from the lake into my empty eye sockets was increasing, as though I had been away from the lake too long and needed nourishment.  I looked down through blurry rushing at my lifelines pouring from nose, mouth, anus, even my pores; thousands of watery umbilici enveloping me like a shimmering cloak.  I receded to Winnica – to savor, to rest – and the waves kissed my sovereign feet as I entered. 

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