Published in Issue #50 of Hayden's Ferry Review, May 2012
Mateo fell into the water. At first he was a small hunched shape moving across the rain-slick wood of the bridge, and then he was gone. He was only a shout in the storm. He was only a rock dropped into the river.
Elias called his name but there was no response. Mia stood beside him, her fingernails digging into the flesh of his arm.
"He'll come up--” said Elias, staring into the white rushing water. He kept waiting for Mateo's head to break the surface. The forest and the sky and the muddy bank seemed to disappear, the world centered on the place where his brother fell.
Mia squeezed Elias' arm. "Where is he?"
"He'll come up!" Elias lunged forward, but Mia held tight and he could not move.
"Stop it," said Elias, struggling against his sister. "I'm gonna go in, I'll get him-- Mateo! Stop playing! Come up!"
Elias pulled free of her and ran to the edge of the water, his bare toes sinking in the mud and making him slow. The river was fuller than he'd ever seen it, white and churning, overspilling its banks.
“Please! Mateo!” he yelled.
The rain slapped the river and fell in rattling streams through the pines. The chaos of sound was deafening. Elias stepped into the waist-deep water, his toes curled into the slick riverbed as the current tried to pull him towards the valley.
“Be careful!” Mia stood on the pine-needle dirt up above. She tugged at the hem of her dress, kneading it, smearing it with mud. “Eli, be careful!”
Mateo had crouched on the railroad bridge only minutes before, but now he was gone like a ghost. Elias could not see him anywhere. The force of the water pushed the air from his lungs. He shuffled forward, trying to keep his footing.
"Mateo! Answer me!"
And then he saw something far down the river, half-under the water, like a big fish that didn't move. He lunged towards it. The current caught him and he struggled to stand.
Mia leaned over the bank, screaming. "What is it? What do you see? Is it him, is it him?"
Elias kept going towards it-- a shape in the water, caught up against two rocks.
"Is it him?"
He saw it and touched it. He felt the whole world sink through him in one terrible swoop.
- - -
Flashlights swung over the fields in the long sleepless night that followed. The neighbors shouted, convening and diverging like crows in a flock, as Elias watched from his bedroom window. He thought he should be out there, pretending to search, but he knew that his father was right-- he would only get in the way. He looked back at Mia, who lay curled with eyes shut. He knew from her breathing that she was awake. They won't find him, thought Elias, his throat tight. They can't.
Unfamiliar voices floated up the stairs throughout the night, and strange boots ground mud into the kitchen tile. Elias' sister Alicia made endless pots of coffee. Doors creaked and slammed and now and then Elias could hear his mother crying in her bedroom at the end of the hall. His muscles were tense, seized up; every time a noise echoed through the house he thought it was his father, come to thrash the life from him and reveal his awful lies. Eventually he tried to sleep. In the swinging alien search-beams that illuminated his eyelids he relived the moment of discovery: Mateo's eyes, empty; the stark swirling red washed away in the current but still endlessly blooming from his temple. His waterlogged clothes, so heavy. Elias sat up and drew his knees to his chest and listened to the neighbors outside, the slow rhythm of his sister's breath, the hum of the crickets, the rumble of a car on the road. So this is how it is, he thought. This is what happens.
- - -
In the morning Elias' brothers stumbled bleary-eyed to breakfast, smelling of the rain. Their mother looked crumpled, red-eyed and vacant, and Alicia darted around with the dishes. Elias and Mia sat down in their chairs.
“Where's Papa?” asked Mia.
“He's talking to the sheriff,” said their brother Oscar, his face wrenched into its usual scowl. “They ain't found him yet.”
Alicia stood at the counter, spooning atole into wide mugs. She did not turn and admonish Oscar. Elias felt hot and sweaty; the sheriff was outside this very house, making footsteps in the dust, and this knowledge caused Elias' insides to knot up. He looked over at Mia. She sat very still, gazing at the tablecloth.
Alicia set a cup before Elias. The smell of the food made his stomach clench harder. Alicia sat down, finally quieted, and Elias waited for his father to begin saying grace before remembering he was not there. No one spoke. Outside the window Elias saw another storm cloud coming, drifting slowly over the valley.
When breakfast was over, no one seemed to know what to do. It was Saturday, but Oscar and their father did not drive into town. Juan did not go outside to work on his car. Their mother did not sit in front of the TV, knitting useless strips of fabric. After their father came back he sat at the table for a long time, staring at the newspaper. Elias drifted around the perimeter of the house, catching scraps of action, conversation; Juan and Oscar talking in hushed voices, saying “You know sometimes coyotes-- they just snatch a kid, that's what I heard”; Alicia on the telephone with vague, half-formed phrases, trying to deflect the gossip of the party line; “we just don't know-- just gone...” Their mother prayed the rosary all day and every now and then she wandered into the kitchen and opened the back door, looking out.
Elias wanted to sink down deep to a place where he could hang in half-sleep limbo, forgetting about the world. He wanted to wind back time to the moment when he urged Mateo to cross the bridge and instead tell his brother it was okay, to come down, that it didn't matter if he wasn't brave. Halfway through the afternoon Elias shut himself into the pantry and sat there among the cans of peas and condensed milk and dried bundles of chiles, his knees drawn up to his chest. No one looked for him, not even Mia. Strips of light came in through the high-up window and he watched them shift with the passing of the sun. He spent a long time staring at the dried-out bodies of three flies. They lay beneath a shelf, thin and delicate as ashes, their tiny feet sticking straight up in the air like somebody dead in cartoons.
That night he found himself crawling into Mia's bed again. It brought relief, a warm familiarity, but at the same time he knew that he was too old for this and that his father would be furious if he found them. He lay on his back, unable to relax his body. His teeth were sore and he rubbed his cheek. Mia rolled over to face him.
“Don't make any noise,” she said. “Don't make Papa come in here.”
“I won't, okay?”
Mia sat up, leaning her chin on her knees. “They'll arrest us,” she said. “We'll go to jail and we'll die.”
“They don't make kids go to jail.”
“We'll go to Hell.” She fixed her eyes on his.
“Papa would kill us,” said Elias. “You know he'd kill us if he knew-- I mean really, really kill us, Mia--”
“They're looking, Eli. They'll find him.”
Something started squeezing Elias' chest. “I want it to stop,” he said.
Mia buried her face in her arms. “No, no, no,” she said. “It won't ever stop.”
He tried to touch her arm but she pushed him away. She turned and lay back down, facing the wall and making sad, quiet noises. Elias rested his head against the pillow and thought of a scrap of lullaby that his mother sang long ago, before she was too sick, when he and Mia were very small. He remembered a bar of melody, a string of words, the brush of his mother's hand across the blanket. He replayed this in his head over and over, until Mia stopped crying and his chest stopped burning. He breathed in deep and the air felt cold. He could hear a faint conversation from downstairs, his father's voice, one-sided-- someone on the telephone. It sounded stiff and urgent. He tapped Mia's arm.
“I'm sorry,” he said.
“I don't want to go to Hell,” said Mia.
“It's my fault. You didn't do it. I made him go across.”
“We should have told the truth.” She stared at him, in that piercing way of hers that made Elias feel like a ghost.
“Papa would kill us,” said Elias. It started to rain.
- - -
Elias stood in the nighttime shadows of the upstairs hallway, staring at the painting of Jesus on the cross. He thought of Mateo, who always covered his eyes as he passed beneath it, afraid to see the blood and Jesus' pain-holy face. It was an image that had been there since Elias was born—it could almost be part of the wallpaper—but now it seemed to be a message for him.
“Go on, Elias,” said Alicia, behind him. “Clean yourself up.”
He didn't listen. She shouted.
“Clean yourself up!”
The moon glowed through the window at the end of the hallway like a light left burning for a child. Elias moved silently to the bathroom. His mind was full of the dream of drowning-- the dark pressing under, the panic and the fight, the dead open eyes that were no dream. He shut the door.
When he came out again, a tall shadow fell across the hall from their open bedroom doorway, blocking the lamplight. Elias felt his palms sweating and he wanted to go back and lock the door, but his feet carried him on through that darkness and into the bedroom, where he stood and saw his father.
“You come here right now!”
Elias did not move. Mia sat on Elias' bed, staring at the sheets. Alicia faded into the corner. All the light and all the shadow swam around their father, the darkness in the center of the room.
“I said now!”
Elias walked forward. His father's hand caught him up. His father smelled like the fields, the rain, and drops of water were caught in his hair. “Look what you did. What the hell did you do that for?”
Elias braced himself, and his father hit him. He looked at Mia's bed, where moments ago he had slept strangled beside her. He looked at the pile of wet sheets on the floor. His father hit him again. “Ya estoy hasta la madre! Ten years old! You are too old for this! You woke your mother with all this noise and now she is crying again--”
“I'm sorry,” muttered Elias.
His father shoved him away and kicked at the pile of sheets. Elias could smell them from where he stood and his face felt very hot. “And now your sister has to clean this up,” said his father. “On a night like this!”
Elias felt like he was under a vast depth of water, like falling in the swimming pool when he was three. “I'm sorry,” he said.
“Alicia,” said their father, and Alicia's eyes darted up. “Clean up this mess. Mia, you take Elias' bed. Everybody go the hell to sleep.”
Alicia began to gather the sheets. Elias sat down on the floor, tears stinging his eyes.
“I don't want to hear another sound from this room tonight,” said their father, and slammed the door. Alicia waited for the footsteps to subside before she left with the washing.
“Look what you did,” muttered Mia, when they were alone.
“I didn't mean to.” He could not look at her. “It was an accident.”
For a long time he sat there, thinking nothing. His body burned like he had a fever. Finally he lay down, but when he shut his eyes he heard the rushing water again and saw his brother bobbing, so instead he stared at the patterns of moonlight on the ceiling. He felt the weight that lived inside him. He listened to the myriad night sounds and watched the shifting shadows and finally, near dawn, he slept.
- - -
Their mother would not come to mass on Sunday, refusing to leave her bed. As the rest of the family entered the churchyard, silence seemed to encompass them; people stopped talking when they came nearby, casting glances their way; some came up and apologized and shook their father's hand. Elias and Mia stood stiff and awkward in their good clothes. When everything was over they trailed behind their family on the walk back home, stepping around puddles in the road to save their good shoes.
“They'll find Mateo,” said Alicia, when she saw the twins' faces. “They'll bring him back safe and sound.”
Elias looked down and saw two specks of mud on his shoe.
“I know they will,” said Alicia.
Elias threaded his way between the puddles and Mia came up beside him, taking his hand in hers. Her palm was hot and dry. His family moved ahead of him, his father striding purposefully in front, his brothers silent with their hands in their pockets. They had gotten to the age where they had strange moods and few words, and Oscar's temper showed through in the tightness of his stance, the way he brought his feet down heavy in the mud. Elias looked behind him and there was no little brother trailing. The world was bewildering and new.
“You're gonna get dirty,” said Mia. “Watch where you're going.”
Elias watched the edge of his pant cuff dip into a puddle. Mud soaked the side of his shoe. Alicia turned and scolded him but he hardly heard her words. The town receded as they made their way upwards, the valley sinking as they climbed until there was nothing but the pale rolling land and the vast, cloud-specked blue of the sky. Their house lay up ahead. It perched alone, waiting, stark against the hill. The twins were falling further behind as Elias dragged his feet. Mia leaned into him and whispered.
“Let's go live with the coyotes.”
Elias looked up at the house. “They'd eat us.”
“You don't know that.”
“Don't be stupid.”
Mia tugged on Elias’ arm and he and saw that she was looking up towards the forest. “You don't even know,” she said.
In another lifetime, when everything was brittle and dry and the late summer storms had not yet shaken the world, the twins ran through the crackling grass along this same road. They dropped and rolled down the slope as stalks scratched at their arms and a truck rumbled by with a long swirling tail of dust. They lay there bathed in the heat of the sky, and everything had shimmering sun-sharp edges. They had not yet learned the land without drought, the masses of clouds that could come and swell the river; in all their lives the rainy season had only widened it from a trickle to a stream.
“Let's not go back for lunch,” said Mia, in the white light of the sun.
“Let's not go back ever,” said Elias, and laughed. He shut his eyes and could see tiny capillaries against the thin red veil of his eyelids. He heard the grass rustle as Mia sat up and he felt her small shadow fall over him.
“Let's go up the hills,” she said, and Elias looked at her, and she grinned wide.
On secret summer afternoons like this they would sometimes walk through the warm red hills to the edge of the county, where they would sit and watch the cars pass on the highway and gaze at Rio Arriba across the asphalt and think about other worlds. They would talk and imagine the day they could drive; they would see themselves piloting those magnificent sun-struck beasts and winding their way up into Colorado or down through the plains into mysterious Mexico, where they could become like ghosts. On other days they would find their way into the forest and there they would be the only people in the world, rulers of a vast and empty kingdom, strong and feral and free. Sometimes Mateo would wander up and they would have to play with him, until he fell and cried or his breath ran out and Mia had to carry him back home-- but here in the grass they were hidden where he could not find them; they were fully and truly alone.
Elias rolled over and grabbed at Mia and she laughed and dodged away and started running, and he chased her, through the tall yellow grass and the simmering heat. He imagined he was King of the Coyotes, a boy raised by beasts, sprinting through the land. He caught her and they fell again. She carried the smell of the earth.
“I can run faster,” said Mia. The bright, bright light of the white hot sun seemed to swallow them into its glow. All Elias could see was the thin stalks of grass cutting stripes into his vision.
“So can I,” he said.
- - -
“Come here,” said Elias' father, when Elias walked past the living room door. His father sat in the armchair, the newspaper unfolded on his lap.
“Come here and sit down.”
Elias sank into the upholstery of the sofa. “Did I do something?” he asked. As he heard his own voice he was afraid.
“No,” said his father. “I want to talk to you about Mateo.”
Elias sat with his hands under his knees.
“If you know anything,” said his father, “tell me now. We just want to find him. We all want your brother home.”
Elias was unable to open his mouth. The muscles of his jaw would not move at all. He thought of his father's heavy shadow in the doorway on the night he dreamed of drowning. He smelled cigar smoke, thick and heavy.
“Elias,” said his father.
It was me, thought Elias. I did it. He's in Heaven. He's under the cottonwood tree, but nothing came out of his mouth.
“If you know something you're not telling us---”
“I'm sorry, Papa,” said Elias, finally. “I don't know.”
“You're always hiding something. You and your sister. I can't understand you.” Elias' father leaned towards him, the newspaper rustling. “I can't make any sense of you.”
“I don't know,” said Elias.
Elias' father fixed him with a long gaze that seemed designed to pierce his mind. Elias looked away and studied the pattern of threads in the rug. From the way his insides felt he was sure he was going to die. He was going to fall over and never get up. He thought about spending eternity being forced across a half-rotten railroad bridge, being swallowed by the river and spit back out, being dragged to the place between the cottonwood roots where the water had carved a deep hole. He thought about the terrible things that would have happened if he ran down to the house when they pulled Mateo from the river, making his mouth form the words, he's dead, he's dead; he felt the primal gut-deep fear of his father's rage, the pain of impact, the knowledge that he was the one who had killed his baby brother.
“There is something wrong about you,” said Elias' father.
Elias didn't speak.
“If you know something about your brother-- if it's keeping us from finding him--” Elias' father stood, the tallest man Elias knew. “I swear, if anything has happened to Mateo-- ”
“I don't know what happened,” said Elias.
“You know something,” said his father.
Elias felt frantic words push themselves up inside him, but he remembered what Oscar had told him, long ago, about lying: if you say too much, they'll know.
“We just turned around, and he was gone,” said Elias.
His father gave him that silent look again, and Elias braced himself but his father did not grab him. He just stared for a moment, the newspaper clutched tight in his fist, then turned and left the room.
Elias felt like he was not really there, though he could feel his limbs and the ache in his stomach and he knew his sweaty palms were lined with ridges from the fabric of the couch. The memories of Mateo now seemed to be part of a different world. Mateo, little brother, laughing as much as he cried; Mateo who ate everything with a spoon and loved Davy Crockett yet was afraid of horses, seeing them in feverish nightmares that shook him at night. Mateo who Elias loved, who Elias kept expecting to see in the moments he let down his guard. Mateo who had once dangled from the branches of the lowest trees, his shoelaces swinging. Now he was nowhere, leaving a gap; he was nowhere and everywhere at once.
- - -
Elias dreamed a terrible storm, a slamming of rain and wind that made him think the sky was caving in. When he woke up sweaty and tangled in his sheets he realized the sounds hadn't ceased; the world really was in chaos. A thick sheet of water cascaded across his bedroom window and he could barely see out into the night. Mia was missing from her bed. His heart pounding, he went out onto the balcony and looked below into the darkened living room; it was empty, streaked with pale light that twisted slowly through the pouring rain. He paced the upstairs hall, looking into the bathroom, then traversed the downstairs rooms and found her nowhere. The kitchen door hung slightly open. He stood in front of it, remembering the hour when he and Mia had burst through, soaking wet, with Alicia's voice piercing the rain-- “Where's Mateo? Elias, where's Mateo?”
He took his raincoat from the hook by the door and went outside. The world kept tearing itself apart. He pushed forward into the driving rain, shielding his eyes as if it would help him see.
“Mia!” he shouted, but his sound was swallowed up by the storm. The downpour drummed against the hood of his coat, and his bare feet sank into the dirt. The cuffs of his pajama pants clung to his ankles. He tramped in circles around the house, searching for his sister. She was not in the shed or the garage; she was not hiding in the space beneath the wood hutch as she did when she was small. Elias made his way up to the forest.
“Mia,” he shouted again, and his words were thrown back at him like paper into wind. The forest looked strange and unfamiliar, all dripping boughs and rain-darkened bark. The dank smell of soil hung in the air. It flashed in his mind, digging-- strange white roots that looked like bones-- Elias and Mia panting above the churned-up soil and the wriggling worms, clawing at the carved-out hole between the roots of the cottonwood tree. Elias swam, lost, in the distance between then and now. He kept falling back to the dirt between his fingernails, and the heaviness of Mateo, and the way that he dropped curled into that water-carved space like he was only sleeping-- and Mia crying, and Elias shivering, and Mateo lying in the arms of the earth, wrapped in the cradle of cottonwood.
Elias was still not sure that it had really happened. The effects of Mateo’s death were already spreading in uncontrollable ripples through the world but in a way it seemed like a fever dream, a nightmare that would take hours to shake off when he finally woke. He thought of the summer when he and Mia had an unrelenting fever. He thought of clawing at his sister’s arms, crying, sure that the sky was crashing down, sure that the sun would grow and grow until it swallowed the world and scorched all the flesh from their bones. Elias pulled his raincoat closer around him. More than anything, he wanted to be back in his bed, in his warm home with the hall light burning and the sound of his father snoring. He wandered along the paths, listening to the storm slap through the canopy, periodically calling his sister's name. He began to feel sick and foolish. After a while he sat down on a soggy, half-rotten log, feeling it give beneath his weight. He bowed his head and rain sloughed in sheets off his hood. He gave the log beneath him a swift kick with his bare heel. Bits of wood broke off. He kicked it again and again until sharp shards started tearing at his skin; he looked down to see a little trail of blood running down his foot and mixing with the dirt below.
For the first time in his life, Elias could feel the vastness of the world beyond. It was not just the county, his Coyote kingdom. The forest reached all the way up the mountain, and the land spread out past that to form other states, other countries, stretching itself out finally to meet the ancient shining mystery of the sea. Elias thought about all that water, unfathomably deep. His eyes stung with tears. He started to kick the log again, feeling it scratch his skin.
Hail Mary, full of grace... He remembered hearing his voice shake, disembodied, as he spoke those words beneath the cottonwood tree with dirt ground into his face and knees. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep the tears from falling. In the hour of our death, he thought. In the hour of our death.
Mia was not here this time, and neither was Mateo; he was somewhere down below, twining himself into the roots. Elias squeezed his hands shut, then rolled them open again and stared at his fingers. They were clear in every minute detail: the whorls of the tips, the red folded joints. Every breath he took was thick with the smell of pine and loam. He wondered if this was how he could expect the rest of his life to be-- fragile, full of landmines, always overshadowed. Even here in the forest, it was like his father breathed down his neck, more present than the threat of God-- and yet it was the weight of his own self that pressed the hardest, burning inside his ribcage. He was awful, unforgivable, and now even Mia was gone. He breathed hard, clenching and unclenching his hands. The panic and fear began to writhe together and transform themselves into a terrible rage, and Elias screamed at the rain and shot upward and tore at the branches of the trees above him, scraping his hands, wrenching boughs and needles and then falling onto the ground, panting, watching the world spin. He tore at the dirt with his fingernails, fighting hopelessly against the ground. He crawled back to the rotten log and kicked it, smashing it with his heels until tiny bugs came bursting out and spilled over his pant leg. He could hear his own voice and it was hoarse and strange. He pulled himself up on a tree trunk, kicking at it frantically with feet and knees, somehow hitting his head against it, and for a second the world went black. When it came back his face was wet with tears. He hugged the tree trunk to keep the world steady. He made himself breathe like he was sleeping. He pretended he was back in bed, beside Mia, with no rain against the window. Everything drained out of him until he was empty inside, just a void, and when he started back down the trail he felt like he was floating, like he was not himself at all. He watched these feet that were not his trample on the pine needles, little ponds springing up beneath their weight. The wind tore in gusts through the trees. Elias looked at his hands and they were still shaking.
When he broke through the treeline he could see something white against the side of the house. Halfway through the field, he realized it was Mia. He ran.
“Jesus,” he said, as he came to her. Her braids hung limp and her nightgown was soaking wet.
“What are you doing?”
“I was looking for you,” said Elias.
“I tried to go to the river.”
Elias felt water streaming from his fingers. “I wanna go in,” he said. “I wanna sleep. Please.”
She looked like a ghost, glowing. She turned her eyes up to the forest and there was something lost in her gaze.
“Please,” he said.
When he took her hand she did not resist. They went back into the kitchen. They dripped puddles onto the floor. Elias helped Mia wring out her nightgown and then scrubbed the floor with rags as she stood, watching and silent. Upstairs, he turned his back as she put on dry pajamas.
“Don't do things like that,” said Elias, when they were back in bed. “Please. Don't ever.”
“I'm sorry,” she said, but her eyes were somewhere else.
- - -
The phone rang before the sun came up, pulling Elias out of shallow sleep. He looked at Mia beside him, and her eyes were open.
He went and cracked the door open, making no sound. He saw shadows moving, heard his father's footsteps on the stairs. The ringing stopped. His father answered.
“Oh, Christ.” A pause. “Yes. I understand. I'll be right there.”
Elias heard the click of the phone in the receiver.
“Was that the sheriff?” whispered Mia.
“How should I know?”
There was a long, empty silence from the kitchen. Elias strained his ears. He heard the kitchen door click open and shut, and then the sound of the car engine turning over and the crunch of gravel under tires. Nothing else happened. Eventually Elias went back to Mia's bed and they sat there huddled close, the sheets draped over their shoulders.
“It was about Mateo,” said Mia.
Elias squeezed the blanket in his fist.
“They found him,” said Mia.
“No. Shut up.”
“You know they did.”
“Because of the rain. The river washed him away--”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Elias shoved his hands over his ears. He heard his rushing blood. Mia pried his hands away and stared at him, her eyes dark, her face framed by loose hair unraveled from her braids. “You wait and see,” she said.
Elias felt his heartbeat vibrate through his bones. He knew that Mia would be right, because she was always right, because she seemed to hold some kind of key to the world. All of a sudden it hit him that there would be a funeral. Mateo would wear his best suit and he would lie in the coffin with his drowned skin and gashed head and he would no longer be encircled by the earth, but would be held away from it by planks of pine. Elias had been to funerals before, but never for someone he loved. He could not conceive of how it would feel. A little brother, dead before his seventh birthday. Elias would sit up front with the others and they would cry and the room would fill with the smell of incense and he would hold that moment inside of him for the rest of his life, trapped beneath the knowledge.
After a long passage of silence and shadows came the sound of a car on the driveway, the rumble and cease of an engine. Elias went to the window and looked out. In the pool of light that spilled from the kitchen windows he could see his father's figure at the wheel, straight-backed, no hat on his head. Mia came up beside him.
“What's there?” she whispered.
The shadow of their father bent over, like he was praying, and put his head into his hands. He stayed that way a long, long time.
Elias stood at the window, paralyzed, wet palms slippery against the sill. His stomach felt like he was falling from a terrible height. He watched his father unmoving and felt all those cruel new moments that had been waiting in the rafters fly down into their lives.