My brother Jack woke me up. I lay half-asleep, watching him kick my bed. He kept kicking until I responded with, "Jack?"
He said, "let's go out."
I forced myself out of bed and dressed only in the pajamas I slept in; I followed him out our bedroom window. I followed Jack across our back lot and into the woods. He didn't stop once to see if I still followed. How I kept sight of him darting through the woods with barely a moon to light, I do not know. The woods ended about fifty feet from the river. Jack reached their edge, stopped, and looked up and down the river. I stopped behind him, waiting for some reasoning as to why he'd dragged me out of bed.
"What are we doing here, Jack?" I thought.
Jack went up to the river's edge, removed his shirt and pants, and went in the water. I stood on the bank, watching him splash around. After a few minutes in the water—with him constantly looking around to see if anyone else came along, I would have guessed—he got out of the water and dressed. I followed his march home through the woods and through our bedroom window. I lay in bed, awake, wondering what had happened.
We started going down to the river almost every night. Jack would be quick into the water with me, sometimes following him in.
I never much cared for going in the water. I never much cared for having my head underneath the water's surface, but I loved being out in the cool night air with Jack, my brother. I loved trying to match his pace through the darkened woods, with him walking determinedly and me half-running just to keep up.
I mostly sat on the bank at the river, watching the moon's reflection upon the water. I watched Jack too, wishing I could be enjoying the water, swimming with him. Jack loved the water. He probably would have chosen to live his life in the water if that had been a choice for him.
Our father took Jack and me to the river for fishing when we were young, starting maybe when Jack was 6 or 7, and I was two years younger. We'd go near the bridge that sat a mile or so downstream from where Jack and I went swimming in our late teens. The river was much wider and the water much deeper near the bridge, making the area a better fishing spot. The bridge ran east to west over the river. West of the bridge was West County; east was East County, the county we lived in. The river was the dividing line between the counties, and apart from the river and a small town that sat in the middle of each county; there wasn't anything to separate the two.
In the years between Jack and me being little boys to us becoming teens, the river went from being "the best fishing place in the state", to "the place where the coloreds made their pacts with the devil." Those were our father's words. "Stay away from that river!" he warned us.
His warning amused Jack. Jack would go into the water and start his rants; "Here I am Devil, your equal! Come on out and show your cursed head! Devil, I challenge you! I will show you for the lamb you are, for it is I, who is the true ruler of all that is unholy!" Yes.
Our father's view of everything in the world had changed, hardened. Jack's view was complex from the start.
I didn't go in the river the last few months we went down together. Jack was only two years older, but he always seemed to be four or five years bigger. Even in our younger days, you could tell he'd grow to our old man's size and I wouldn't. I was small, still am. I was afraid of Jack and he reveled in my fear. And he had a meanness in him he never hesitated in sharing with me. Anytime I wouldn't join him in his misdoings, anytime I escaped the punishment he never seemed to escape, he'd share his meanness, he'd share his punishment.
Money was missing from Mama's purse. I saw Jack's father, our father, in her purse. He was always in her purse; going through it, looking about him, as if he had something to fear from being caught. This time, Mama noticed there was money missing, and she chose to mention it to our father. He blamed Jack. Jack took our father's punishment. She let him blame Jack, and she let him punish Jack.
The old man whipped Jack as if Jack deserved it. Jack then took his turn on me. I followed him into the woods, I knew what was coming, but still, I followed him into the woods. I took my punishment well, as I always had, until I saw blood trickling down my shirt. Jack had always been careful not to bloody me up before, but this time, he punched me in the stomach, and I fell over. He was trying to punch me in the shoulder, in the chest, in the arms, but his next punches hit me in the face. Only twice, I think, but hard. I rose to my feet, and dizzily, I started for home. Jack walked along following me, saying he was sorry.
"I'll take it easier on you next time, Joe. You know I always take it easy on you. Let's stop and sit, and I'll see if I can stop the bleeding. You don't have to tell anyone what happened. You know I always get hit, and you never get hit. I didn't mean to hurt you. You know that. But you have to feel what your brother is feeling."
After my head cleared a bit, I started crying. I could feel my face warm with blood. I looked down and saw my shirt was half-drenched. I could see why Jack was acting so afraid. I'd never seen him act so frightened before than when he was talking to me this time.
Mama met me on the front porch. The old man was in the doorway behind her. She turned to him and "John," was all she said.
Mama put together an ice pack, gave it to me, told me to hold it to my eye, and the flow of blood seemed to slow. We went into town to the doctor. He replaced the ice bag and told me to continue to hold the ice in place.
I was still half dizzy, I don't remember him putting stitches over my left eye, but I remember him telling me, "you need to keep these stitches clean and dry. I fear this cut might leave a scar, but I'll do the best I can to totally clean up this mess."
He put a patch over my eye and made a joke, "be careful, folks don't mistake you for a pirate. You might find yourself in trouble of some sort."
I might have laughed at his joke or at the idea of a permanent scar across my eyelid, but my dizziness had been replaced by this almost overwhelming fear.
When we returned, Jack was in the room he and I shared. I stopped at the door and watched Jack for a few minutes. He lay face down on the bed, his feet shaking slightly. I didn't say anything. I went back into the kitchen, where Mama was preparing dinner. I sat quietly at the kitchen table, watching her. She looked at me once, smiled, and then resumed what she was doing.
When dinnertime arrived, it was just Mama and me at the table. The old man was not there. Jack stayed in our room. I didn't go back to our room until it was time for bed. When I reached the doorway, Jack was lying on his back with both hands propping up his head. His eyes were closed. Both appeared to be swollen shut. His face was a mess. I just lay on my bed without putting on my pajamas. I was as quiet as I could be so that Jack would not even know I was there.
The next morning it was Mama, Jack and me at the breakfast table. I saw one of his eyes when he glanced at me. I'm not sure if he could see out of the other one, it was so badly swollen. Not a word was said between the three of us while we ate. "Don't expect to see your Daddy here again," Mama said as she got up from the table. I never knew whether that was her idea or his. Maybe he'd gone too far with Jack this time or maybe he'd just had enough of us.
It was a few days before we went back down to the river. The color of Jack's face showed the beating he'd taken, but the swelling was pretty much gone. The swelling over my eye had gone down, but the stitches were still there, and the eye patch remained. I was sleeping in my bed when Jack woke me. "I'm going to the river, you coming?" he asked. These were the first words he'd said to me in a few days. He sounded very inviting. I nodded my head and followed him out.
This night Jack did no raving; he quietly waded in and began to swim on his back. He looked at me and smiled. I soon followed him in. I felt good, relaxed, and soon felt Jack's arm around my neck.
He'd grabbed me from behind and with one of my arms held behind my back, he held my head under the water. I struggled to get free, but it was no use. I must have been under for a couple of minutes, at least.
Jack let me up and whispered in my ear, "I got no use for you, it would suit me fine if you were dead."
That said, he let me loose, and he left the water. I made it to the water bank and just lay there.
This was more frightening than anything Jack had done to me, but I didn't tell Mama; she couldn't always be there to protect me. And I was too old to need her protection. I was sixteen years old. Sixteen years old and afraid of the world.
I stopped going to the river. I stopped sleeping in the room with Jack until Mama caught me sleeping in the living room one morning.
"Why are you sleeping out here, boy?" she asked.
I couldn't come up with an answer, I just said, "I can't sleep in my bed anymore."
She wrinkled her brow, and, "nonsense," was her response.
A couple of days later, Mama and I went back to the doctor and the stitches were removed.
"It's not a bad scar. You're lucky your vision is unaffected. Next time you need to duck faster so that you don't get hit."
This comment wasn't well-received by Mama, but she didn't say anything to him; she just glared at him, grabbed my hand and led me out of his office.
Jack continued to go out every night. I assumed to the river, but I wasn't sure where he was going. He'd get back a couple of hours before dawn, get a couple of hours sleep and then he was up and ready for a full day's work. I'd lay awake in bed the entire time he was gone.
We didn't see our father; he was out of the house for good. I was glad. If only Jack would have left as well.
I needed to know where Jack was going, and I started following him out again. With the distance I allowed between us, I can't really say I followed him, but I'd show up near the river, and he'd be there.
I'd watch him splash around for a little bit, but mostly he'd just lay out on the clearing. It was three days of my following him down before I was found out. He'd finished in the water; he looked into the woods in my direction and said, "come on out Joe, I know you're there." I stood still and held my ground. Jack lay on the grass, his head propped on his hands, his feet crossed at the ankle.
I didn't move the entire time Jack was there. I waited until he'd gotten up and gone home before I started aimlessly wandering through the woods. I didn't go home at all that night. I couldn't go back into Jack's and my room, and Mama would get on me about sleeping in the living room. I just wandered through the woods until I found myself at school the next morning. I slept walked through the day at school, and found myself back at home after the day was done.
Jack was in the kitchen when I entered the house. I stood in the doorway but didn't look directly at him. He walked past me without acknowledging me. He was back to ignoring me, which was fine with me.
My peace only lasted for a few months, however. Jack woke me like he'd done that first time, kicking my bed, and he said, "Joe, come with me, I got something to show you." I shook my head.
"Come on Joe, you'll like what I have to show you, I promise. I've been leaving you alone pretty well, haven't I? I won't do you any harm. Come on."
I followed him out the window and into the woods. It passed through my mind, how strange it was we were still, leaving through the window. I guess it always seemed to Jack and me that we were doing something that wasn't exactly right. We told ourselves we were sneaking out to conceal our misdeeds when we weren't really sneaking out and not really doing anything wrong. The old man had left, Mama probably wouldn't have been waked if we left through the front door; Jack was eighteen, old enough to come and go as he pleased. Still, he insisted we leave through our bedroom window.
We headed in the direction of the river. Every bone in my body told me to turn and run for home, but I didn't, I kept following Jack. When we neared the edge of the woods, Jack told me to stop. He looked around; he knelt and pulled me down next to him. He was waiting that was clear but wouldn't give me any indication what for. We knelt there for what must have been two or three hours. All of a sudden, Jack got up and walked into the clearing. He turned, looked at me, smiled, and removed his shirt. He made quite a splash as he entered the water. He swam about while I watched from the bank. I sat and just watched.
"Come on in, Joe, I won't bother you," he said. I shook my head. "Suit yourself."
I didn't ask Jack what it was he had intended to show me, and I hadn't a clue. When we got back home, I got in my bed, Jack got in his; I was fast asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next night Jack woke me again, off to the river we went. We once again stopped near the edge of the woods. I crouched behind Jack and we waited. This time, our wait was short. From the opposite direction from which we had come came someone else. There was this colored girl who looked to be about our age from her size. I'm not sure how I knew she was colored, with only the moon providing light, but there was something about her, the way she moved, maybe. Maybe it was something in her build. But I listened to what my mind told me.
She walked up to the edge of the river and pawed it with one foot. She slipped her dress over her head and, with a splash, entered the water. She was only in the water for a few minutes before she got out.
She picked up her dress and slipped it back on. She left the clearing and reentered the woods, going in the opposite direction from where Jack and I crouched. I turned to look at Jack, watching him watch her until she had disappeared into the woods. "This is what you wanted me to see?" I thought. Jack then entered the clearing and was quickly undressed and in the water. I turned and went home.
The next morning, Jack said we were going to the river that night. I told him no. He told me yes. Night came, and I lay in bed awake, waiting for Jack to rouse me. "Let's go," was all he said. I shook my head. He kicked my bed and left. I stayed in bed, but I didn't sleep.
A week or so passed without a word passed between Jack and me. He went about his business; I went about mine. I did my chores and went to bed early most nights. One night I decided to follow Jack out. I waited until he had disappeared into the woods and then took off behind him. When I neared the edge of the woods, I stopped and got into a crouch. Peering out toward the river there was no Jack; there was no anyone. I was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground as I rose. Jack had taken a position on top of me, with one of his hands covering my mouth. He looked down at me and let out a little laugh. He then pulled back so that I could gain a sitting position. He just looked at me and smiled his terrible smile.
He looked past me to the clearing and gave a nod in the direction he was looking. I turned my head to see the same colored girl as before. She didn't go right into the water. She sat on the bank. Jack and I watched her. She removed her dress. She stood there naked. Jack rose and walked past me. She was facing the river as Jack walked up behind her. I sat there quietly, watching them both. She entered the water before Jack got to her. Jack picked up her dress and held it up to his face, smelling it, I would guess. She turned towards Jack, saw him standing there holding her dress, and just froze. The water was about waist deep, but she made no attempt to cover her upper body. Neither of them said a word; they just stood there looking at each other. She turned and started to wade upriver; I guess she figured she'd be going home naked. Jack had other plans. As she neared the edge of the water, some ways up from where Jack had been standing, he started towards her. She tried to run, but Jack stopped her and pushed her to the ground.
"No Jack, don't!" I heard. It sounded like my voice. It was my voice.
"Shut up!" Jack threw in my direction.
She didn't yell, cry, or scream; she struggled but couldn't put up much of a struggle against Jack. I turned and ran toward home. I couldn't hold back the tears. I'm not sure if I was crying for her or for myself.
I stopped running and tried to calm myself. Where could I run? I turned and slowly walked back towards the river. When I reached the edge of the woods, I stopped. I didn't see any signs of the colored girl. but I saw Jack lying on his back, motionless. I tried to approach Jack as quietly as possible, but there was no way I could best Jack, who was lying with a dead man's quiet. I tried to rouse him. He lay motionless, but he was breathing. All I could think of was running away. I could never have made my peace with Jack after this.
I positioned myself above Jack's head, knelt, and raised him into a sitting position. I lifted us both, me to my feet and Jack to his heels. I started dragging him backward. I stopped when we reached the river's edge and looked around. I couldn't see anyone. Not the colored girl. Not anyone. I dragged Jack out till the water was about mid-thigh deep. I was about spent. I'm not sure where I found the strength to drag Jack's much larger body out into the water.
I looked over to the clearing again. We were being watched. The colored girl stood there, her dress clinging to her wet body. She didn't say anything. I went about my business. I turned Jack over and climbed on top of him. Much to my horror, he began to rouse. Even in his weakened state, he was too much for me to handle. "Help me!" I screamed. She nearly knocked me over, trying to get a hold of Jack. She managed to get a hold of one of his arms; I grabbed the other and held it out to his side. His struggle soon ended. We held him under for what must have been another five minutes. I loosed my grip and stood. She did the same. And as the colored girl and I stood there, side by side, watching him, My Brother Jack floated off down the river.