My Brother - Reyah Martin

My other brother is not whole.  When he was young he had one leg shot off, and now he pulls down his trouser legs to cover the stump.  He polishes his boots in a chair, and walks with a stick the distance between the upstairs rooms.  He cries a lot, and he won’t look in mirrors.  My mother covered them with dustsheets when she read the letter.  Not that you’re supposed to know.  No one does except us.  If you ever come you can’t say anything.  You can’t point out how strange it is.  And you mustn’t tell him he’s looking better.  You’re stupid if you say things like that.  He’ll ask you how you’d feel, if you were Legless and you couldn’t walk to the window.  
Don’t say a word.  
And don’t ask him what happened, he hates telling people.  If he’s not sleeping, he’ll sit and make them guess, his eyes running down their faces.  He doesn’t say anything, but that makes it worse.  They shift their feet and shuffle around and don’t know what to do, because their stomachs are squirming and he hasn’t even moved.  My mother gives him into trouble once they’ve gone away, but he laughs in her face.  He laughs and laughs.  He laughs so much that sometimes he falls asleep with his mouth gaping, his teeth caught like criminals in the lamplight.  I’m frightened of him, but only at night.  

Mother puts him to bed.  You’ll hear her if you come home, sighing and whispering and weeping.  I go to help her; she says not to.  She closes the door, but there’s always a chink where the light seeps through, and you see her bending over to help him out of the chair.  You see her undress him, take the weight of him pressing down on her shoulders.  You hear the bed sag beneath him, her hands on his forehead
back and forth and 
back and forth 
until he falls asleep.  
Don’t let it get to you.  
That’s what my mother says when she comes in.  She sits and asks for tea.  You must always make her tea; she doesn’t ask for anything else.  Michael presses her to talk about him.  Michael is the whole brother.  You’ll remember him; he’s got one of those faces.  He still talks about you.  So does she.  They don’t say they miss you, but they remember you.  
If my mother gets upset, you don’t have to say anything.  Still, if you take her hand or something she’ll take yours.  She doesn’t know she’s doing it, but it helps.  She squeezes round the palm, runs her thumb up and over your knuckles.  She closes her eyes and drinks, and for a second she stops thinking about him.  It makes her more like before. 

She forgets to kiss me sometimes, at night when I go to bed.  I mean it’s alright.  It’s not all the time.  Like she forgets to go to church, or buy cigarettes for the soldiers.  It makes her feel like she’s doing something, for the men who’ve gone and all that, and all the times she didn’t do anything for anyone.  
You don’t have to stay, but you can if you want to.  She says you can.  As long as you don’t mind sharing with me, and with Michael.  But then, don’t feel like you have to. She doesn’t want you feeling funny about it.  The whole thing is funny enough as it is.  Not funny like you can laugh at it, funny like strange.  If you laugh at my other brother he might cry.  But don’t worry, he won’t say anything.  As long as you don’t talk to him.  And don’t look at him.  And don’t talk about the war.  
Please don’t talk about the war.  

My mother named me after the apostle who doubted that Jesus rose from the dead.  She showed me the Bible story before I could even read.  I asked her why.  She told me not to ask about what mothers did.  When I asked Michael, he said go down and read the story with her and one day I’d get it.  I didn’t.  Then he told me that before me she’d lost one.  A baby I mean.  I thought he meant the soldier, but he didn’t.  There was one she visited every time she was in the church, right beside the graveyard wall.  She knelt down and prayed, and cried a little on the soil, and she wouldn’t go home till she ran out of things to say.  She often gets like that, worries, over-thinks it all.  

She doesn’t often go into the village, because all the women have a lot of children and bring them everywhere on their hips.  It makes her sick with jealousy, which makes the madness come.  I think it’s the madness that made people stop visiting her, but she thinks it’s because none of her children are young anymore.  She can’t carry any of them in her arms, and she can only explain the things they don’t understand.   Michael understands everything, so I’m the only one she talks to.  It makes her different; she doesn’t have a lot of friends.
That’s also because of my father.  He ran away when he found she could have children.  Michael says I don’t need to know anything about him, but I do because he was mine and he is the only thing that makes us alike.  I have his nose.  Mother tells me all the time.  And Michael looks like him without meaning to, when he’s saying something or looking at her a certain way.  She sees it; she knew what he was like.  

Every other woman has a husband.  She tells me hers went off to a foreign country to make his fortune, but he never sent any of it back.  She tells me he was handsome, and someday I’ll grow up to be like him.  I don’t want to be like him.  I hope he’s dead.  If he’s not dead I hope he dies, and all the fortune he ever made is left to my mother while she’s pretty, and she finds someone else to love her.  I don’t tell her though, in case it upsets her.  There’s a lot that upsets my mother, some of it you wouldn’t even think about.  

My brother who is whole is Michael, because he didn’t go to the war.  He tried but people laughed at him, and old ladies patted his head.  He was too young.  When James left there was a page in the paper with the headline, because he’d knelt in the road on the way to the boat and hugged Michael in the street, made him promise to look after Mother.  It was a noble thing to do, a kind thing. The kind of thing kind people do when they see someone who needs them.  We knew a few kind people.  Then, unkind people.  Then people who wanted nothing but peace, with regret ground into their faces.  

We watched them from the cliff top, in the house she said my father built, and took my legless brother in from the rain. The women who never visited leant into their walls.  They listened for his cries in the night, the tormented screams that sent my mother to his side.  They clutched their hearts and held their breaths and let the sound drift out to them, like tempest waves keeping the boats forever out of reach.  They cried at night.  We were, each of us, frightened at night.