n i n i    b e r n d t

Parable

 

I had a brother, and then another and another and another and another and then it stopped. And the youngest brother was sick, and the father, who was also my father, was singing halleluiah. And that sound filled the biggest house. And the brother's sickness filled the biggest house. And when both quieted, secrets filled the biggest house, filled so that they were pushing at the windows and doors.


"The world is big," my father said when finally my brother's sickness left. Always his voice came through like a church choir. "We need to get out of here." It had been three years inside. Three years since the mother, my mother, forgot to come home. We, my brothers and I, always said forgot, because we couldn't conceive of it any other way. My father did not say forgot. He said he didn't invite her back, that she no longer had an invitation in this house. Her place in the marital bed was taken by a pair of kitchen shears. At night, I could hear their snapping, like the overgrown teeth of a metallic bear.


In childhood, before the mother took it from us, all five of us sang. The middle brothers did the harmonies. The youngest brother had trouble annunciating, but hit the high notes. His mouth quivered when he sang, as though always about to cry. We pity him still, the youngest brother. But it is the oldest brother that is our pride. I've never heard such a singer as the oldest brother. Of us, he is the one most destined for greatness. Is it because he had more good years than the rest of us? More time with the mother? I cannot say. But I know these years inside have been hardest on him.


After the mother left it was difficult to remember the notes. We tried. The father, who we looked to as our leader, could hardly whistle. "We will try again in a little while," said the father at our last rehearsal. But he forgot, or was embarrassed, and when my oldest brother asked to sing in the weeks that followed, the father placed a reed between his lips and told him to blow. That sound made each of my fingertips tingle.


Our mother had been a seamstress. The townspeople called her Sally and they envied the way she wore her hair. They envied the curve of her body before she bore too many sons. The day she left, I decided I needed to undo the work she had done, and so I wore seven scarves and no shoes and my pants rolled up to mid-calf and the brother's laughed, because still they are brothers, and I am their sister. "She would know you if she saw you," said one of the townspeople, thinking I was in disguise. This was in the days we still went outdoors. What they do not understand is we are not in hiding. We are staying right where our mother forgot us.


That ended though, the dressing up, and now I am so naked I could never put anything on. I think this is what it means to be a tree, to be the earth. "Put some clothes on," my father says, but won't look away. When I look at him, I see and hear a created cosmology I could never repeat. It is like he is Lot and I am his daughter, and we are just trying to trust each other, wondering when some new order will come from above. But all that comes is rain.


After a time, the oldest brother left. Upon returning, he stepped into the house still ringing halleluiah, shouting, "Where is everyone?" but nobody came, because they were in a closet, and I had locked the door. So he fell asleep and I watched from the back of the house, always looking towards the front of the house.


The older brother awoke to the family shouting, "Let us out!" He laughed when he realized what was going on, that his whole family was trapped in a dark closet. I felt like the mother, like my mother, outside the house with all of us trapped inside, waiting, knowing release would not come.


"You seem skinny," my brother says to me, but won't look at me because my clothes are on the floor and all I am wearing is the dress my mother wore when she fell in love with another man. "He was probably a very beautiful man," is what my youngest brother said. "Men are not supposed to be beautiful," my father said. "I disagree," I said, and thought of a lover I had never seen, someone with hollow bones and a crooked face and the bottom half of a Yellowlegs.


The brothers were very cranky when they emerged, but happy to find the older brother. Though they couldn't say for certain, everyone knew I was to blame for locking the closest door. Everyone knew I was the only girl, and so always an outsider, always part of the mother.


My father fell to his knees, knowing he had caught the sickness of the youngest brother, and rubbed my feet. "I'm not mad," he said, but his eyes said he was mad but his palms said he needed me, because I, being the girl, would be the one to nurse him. The sound from the back of his throat was less halleluiah. This, more than anything, pained me.


The father grew sicker and sicker. The youngest brother wanted to help, but could hardly stand after his own bout with the sickness, the name of which we never knew. The oldest brother wanted to go back outside, as the house held too many secrets. The windows were always shut keeping in the bad air and the smell of a meal my mother used to make. He took the middle brothers by the shoulders, shaking them a little. "Come with me!" he said, shouting. I shook my head, and my father shook his head, but they went anyway. Because they, being boys, were still free to come and go as they pleased.


"Don't go," I said.


"Don't stay," said the older one.


"What if she comes back?" said one of the middle brothers, whose name I am forgetting.


"She won't," said my father.


For this, I was grateful.


"Good luck," said the youngest brother, still in the house, still wrapped in the comfort of his sickness.


"Goodbye," said the brothers, and my father closed his eyes so he would not have to see them go.


"No man has the legs of a bird," said my father, finding the drawings of my imagined lover. "Some man might. You haven't seen all the men," I told him. "I have not," he said, sad. It was quieter in the house after so many brothers left, and we had more time to examine each other. For instance, now I know that the youngest brother has a different nose than the rest. His makes the shape of a P, whereas mine and the other's, ours are more the shape of an L. I wonder if my father has noticed this.


We open our windows, slowly, window by window, day by day. The youngest brother calls to the others. The father rests his feet. They have been resting now for many months. He keeps them covered first in gauze and then in heavy socks. He tries to remember the name of the sickness. I try to remember the names of the brothers, and the way they wore their hair, the way it felt when one of them touched me between the shoulder blades. I try to remember where they went, and how long they have been gone. The youngest brother keeps marks by the bathroom door. Some days he makes one mark, some days more. I cannot know what he is counting, but I can guess the mood he is in when he does it, because he makes the marks with one slowly sharpened fingernail.


Outside, our yard is covered in sparrows. The youngest brother says he will buy a cat if they do not leave. This is no place for music, he says. He forgets the sound my father's throat used to make. He forgets the oldest brother's voice, the harmony of the middle brothers. I try and replicate those noises, to show him what we have been missing, but all that comes is laughter. The brother covers his ears to keep out the sound.


The townspeople try to pity me, because they know they should, but it lacks authenticity. The town still moves like it did before. Money is exchanged; people whistle and smoke fat cigars; young people sit knees-tight in restaurants. Bicycles ride from block to block. As for me, I do not remember even the shape of a bicycle. Sometimes, after great loneliness, I can recall the motion, the gentle rhythm of the transportation of childhood.


An old man stops by from time to time, carrying his dog, a shorthaired breed with tufts from his ears, much like the man's, but he pities only the brother and the father. He changes the bandages on my father's feet. He pours a little wine for the brother. He tells us that his wife died before him, that she left him only this dog. "You are good company for each other," I tell him. The man pours himself some wine. He pulls the hairs out of the dog's upturned ears.


When the man leaves, the last brother leaves with him. "The man is lonely," explains my father. "He needs help, a companion. He is so old." The brother cries as he leaves the house. He makes a final mark by the bathroom door.


One by one, my father and I re-shut each window. "Do you think they will come if I sing to them?" my father asks, fear in his eyes. He is counting each brother on a finger. I am the thumb. "Girlchild," he says when he gets to the thumb. By now all his hair is gone. I cannot tell if it is the kitchen shears or plucking fingers or just age that has done it. He is not handsome bald. "I do not know," I tell him. "But I wouldn't try. It would be worse to try and fail than to not try at all."


As for me, I have no use for feet and so I remove them. I begin to redraw my body, this time with hooves. Settle in, I have told myself. The winter is long in this house.

 

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NINI BERNDT is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in PANK, WordRiot, and Timber.


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