Fiction: “His Brother’s Keeper”

By John Andrews

   “I see your brother outside,” David said. “What’s he doing?”                 
   Colin went over to the window to see what Mike was doing. Supposedly he was chopping wood. They’d thought they had plenty to last the winter, Mike and Colin, but this was the coldest February on record, and they’d finally had to admit the need to lay in a renewed supply.
     Mike was usually good at farm chores. A muscular six -foot-three, he seemed younger than 50. He’d finish whatever needed doing as quickly as possible to make time for things he loved — fishing and hunting in season, watching sports on TV and reading Field and Stream at other times of the year.
     Now, though, instead of attacking the pile of stumps in the small area in front of the barn that they’d cleared of last night’s snowfall, reducing them to stove-sized logs, he simply stood, tugging at the bib of his Carhartt overalls.
    It occurred to Colin that his brother looked thoughtful. Had he been sitting on a rock with his chin in his palm, he could have been Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Colin imagined him dumbstruck by some Great Thought, and he wondered what it might be.
    It didn’t last. Mike turned toward the stumps, picked up the double-bladed axe he always kept sharp as a . . . as a razor, Colin was about to think, but something in him censored the cliché, and it came to consciousness as Toledo steel.
    Mike as a Medieval knight wielding a sword struck Colin suddenly as funny, until he realized that his brother would have made the ideal knight. Fearless, eager for battle, uneducated except in the arts of war.
     Colin, of course, would have been a monk, wearing out his eyes in a dimly lit scriptorium, illustrating with fine strokes of red and green and gold the Bible verses that other monks had dumbly copied.
     “I can’t understand why you’re throwing your life away up here,” David said, apropos of nothing that had been said up to now. David was not waiting to open the magnum of Italian wine he’d brought in along with his camel-leather overnight bag.
    Colin turned away from the window and faced David. “You don’t waste time, do you?”
     “No,” David said, pulling the cork.
    “Well, it just so happens I’m not wasting my life. I’m a tenured art teacher in St. Johnsbury. I’m good at what I do. And I have to say I’ve been good at the political side, too. I’m still employed, at a time, I hate to say, when friends in other districts around here have been excessed. There’s a lot of folks who don’t appreciate the need for art education, especially when it raises their taxes, by however small an amount.”
     David had poured himself a glass, which he held in his left hand. He raised his right, palm out. That’s one beautiful hand, Colin mused.
    “I’m sorry if I was rude,” David sort of apologized, “but it had to be said sooner or later. I thought we might as well get it over with. You had real talent, Colin. Sorry. You have real talent. I’m sure you do some good among the Philistines up here, but how many converts have you made? And what do you do for company? You said yourself that all the other art teachers have been sent packing. I see you’re not married, though that’s no surprise. You’ve got your brother, I suppose, but just from the look of things I doubt there’s much in common, unless you’ve developed a taste for beer and Doritos and Monday Night Football.”
    “My brother’s a war hero,” Colin said quietly. “He served in Iraq.”
     “The first Iraq war,” David said, as if this needed pointing out. “C’mon, Colin. That war was a cakewalk. We ran over Saddam’s forces like a steamroller. Literally, I guess, considering what we did to those bunkers. How many Americans died in that war? Six?”
     “Three hundred, actually,” Colin said, “but that’s not the point. He served.”
     “And now he has post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why you have to stay up here with him.  Colin, you’re 42. You’re not getting any younger. You need a career. And you need love.”
     “And you’re here to offer me both. I appreciate that, David. I really do, more than you can know, but I have to stay here with Mike.”
     “But . . . why?” David held out his hands in supplication, palms up.
     “You wouldn’t understand,” Colin said.
     “Wanna bet?” David said quickly. “Try me.”
     “Did I ever tell you about Frances?”
    “Sure. She was your little sister. She died, an accident with a tractor.”
    “Mike thought it was his fault. He’d pulled Frances up onto the driver’s seat with him — she was only eight years old — and then the engine conked out. He jumped down to see what was wrong.”
    “And the tractor rolled down the hill with Frances and pitched on top of her at the bottom. I do remember, Colin. It must have been terrible. But why was it your fault? You weren’t even within earshot at the time, as I recall.”
     Colin’s shoulders went strangely limp. “I was supposed to fix the hand brake, but I’d forgotten about it. My dad was a stickler about chores, and I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t gotten to it. And anyway, it didn’t look in such bad shape to me.”
     David sat down on the old sofa. “You never told your brother. I see.”
    “Everyone thinks his blue spells are because of the war. But that’s not it at all. I’m afraid that if I leave, he’ll kill himself.”
    “Why don’t you just tell him the truth?” David offered.
     “You don’t know how many times I’ve tried,” Colin said. “I just can’t.”
     They sat quietly then. The only sound was Mike’s chopping, which rattled the front window that hung loosely in its track.
     “Do you still love me?” Colin said softly.
    “I do,” David replied, even more softly. Then he rose and shouted, “I do! I do! I do!” He walked over to Colin, pulled him up out of his chair, and hugged him. The two stood there, so equally matched in height and build that they might have been twins, locked in embrace.
    Then Colin stood back. “You could stay here. Mike would never guess about us. There’s plenty of room in this ramshackle house. The back room, under the lean-to — it’d be a great studio. Maybe I could start painting again. And you — it doesn’t matter where you sculpt. The demand will be the same. And there’s a train that runs straight to New York City.”
     David looked into Colin’s eyes, and Colin was sure that he was going to accept. But then David walked to the front window. Mike was still outside. He’d finished on the last stump and was walking back toward the house.
     David put his finger to the glass. Colin could see that it was hopeless.

    John Andrews is a retired energy researcher who also writes fiction. He has had several short stories and essays in The Star over the years, and the author of a novel, “A Viking’s Daughter,’ which was published by Doubleday in 1989. He is currently president of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, and lives in Sag Harbor with his wife, Carol.