Tracings in Snow
“When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree…”
Happy Monday. As I type this, I’m sitting sit on my writing couch, staring out at a storm-swept sky, watching the dark silhouettes of birds swooping up and down in the wind. They always come to perch on the very top of the tall, leafless black trees across the street. If the top of one tree is occupied, a bird always moves on to the next tree, rather than deigning to sit on any of the lower branches. Then they all swoop off together, whirling away into the storm.
A minute observation to begin your Monday.
◊ Installment 4 ◊
When Matthew was fourteen, he went away to boarding school, at the prestigious academy his father had longed to attend as a child, but never could afford. The neighborhood fell into a depression. There was no one to organize ultimate Frisbee games or water balloon fights. No one was brave enough to crash a stolen lawnmower into the fire hydrant on a hot summer day, so they could all run around in the deluge. An entire generation of boys was growing up with no Matthew to model their behavior after, and girls with no Matthew for their first crush.
On the day Matthew was supposed to return home for Thanksgiving, Walter waited on the front porch all morning. The dust from the leaf blowers glittered auspiciously in the air. Walter’s nose wriggled like an expectant dog. When he saw his brother, he hurled himself down the steps at some danger to his limbs. It was only after he stepped back from a rib-cracking embrace that Walter really saw him.
“What happened to your hair, Matt?” Walter demanded, astonished. “It’s almost as long as Kalli’s.”
“I grew it out,” said Matthew. “I don’t know, I just got tired of cutting it.”
“In my day,” interjected their father peevishly, “schools would never have allowed that kind of thing.”
“It’s the new law, Dad,” shrugged Matthew. “They can’t force someone to cut their hair if they don’t want to.”
“What’s that around your neck?” Kalli said admiringly, fingering a smooth, white shell bobbing just below Matthew’s Adam’s apple.
“It’s a hemp necklace,” explained Matthew. “I’ll make one for you too.”
“And me?” said Walter.
“Oh, no!” interjected their father. “Boys don’t wear jewelry.”
“Matthew does!” protested Walter.
“Matthew is not the Messiah of this town,” said their father.
After lunch Kalli and Walter wanted to play in the tree house, but Matthew said he had homework to do. Walter and Kalli sat in the tree alone for a while. Then Walter climbed down and went inside to the room he shared with Matthew. The door was closed, and Walter could hear soft music pulsing gently on the other side. Walter opened the door and gaped. The room was filled with an unfamiliar, sweet scent. A thin spiral of white smoke curled up gracefully from the corner of Matthew’s desk.
“Dad’s going to kill you if he finds out you’re doing drugs!” Walter screeched.
“It isn’t drugs,” he said. “It’s incense. It burns off bad spirits. A girl at school gave it to me.”
“Is she your girlfriend?” Walter thumped over to Matthew’s desk and helped himself to a stick.
“I guess you could call her that,” Matthew shrugged. “She gave me this.”
Matthew opened the collar of his shirt, displaying a small, bluish mark on the back of his neck.
“A tattoo?” demanded Walter. “You let her draw on you with a needle?”
“It didn’t hurt,” said Matthew.
Walter looked skeptical.
“Well alright, it hurt,” Matthew admitted. “A lot. But you get used to it.”
“If you had to get a tattoo,” said Walter, frowning, “why didn’t you get something cool, like an eagle or a fish? Why did you get one that says ‘April?’”
“I guess everyone has his own idea of what’s cool,” Matthew shrugged.
“I’ll get one, too,” Walter announced.
“No you won’t.” Matthew frowned suddenly.
“Dad wouldn’t like it.”
“He won’t like yours either,” said Walter. “He’s going to murder you.”
“I had to do it,” said Matthew, “to express myself.”
“You wouldn’t be expressing yourself,” said Matthew. “You’d be expressing me.”
“If it’s you, it’s me, Matt,” said Walter, surprised. “We always like the same things.”
“Not this time,” said Matthew.
After that Walter began to vaguely resent the incense and the tattoo and the gentle, undulating music. Matthew made a necklace for him as well as Kalli, but Walter never wore his. He put it in a box and looked at it, sometimes. He considered growing out his hair, but he thought it would be annoying to have in his face when he played sports. But he still adored Matthew, and he waited patiently for the days when his brother would come home, swaggering and confident, like the sun coming out on a winter’s day. Until one day, he didn’t. ♦
(To be continued…)