After the Death of Sons

by | Dec 12, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Six

In a museum dedicated to man-made landscapes, a virtual elevator lowers one couple through Earth’s calibrated crust, temperature rising from coal mine to gold mine to deepest bore hole, heats verifieduntil they are safely in hell. Neither says a word about how terrible some deep and overheated jobs could be. Neither mentions how they were once taught the threat of eternal flames as if that lesson was essential as mastering cursive writing. What they both know is the elevator has not descended as deeply as “the death of sons.” 

After those sudden deaths, some of that couple’s acquaintances and friends chorused in-person condolences. Some called to try commiseration buffered by distance. Some texted their twice-removed sympathy. Some settled upon signing an attendance sheet of public tribute. All, by now, have been embarrassed to silence by helplessness, their well-wishing changing every one of those days
as little as prayer, their language unable to form an alibi for God or the school bus driver losing control.

One son, eleven, had been fascinated by the intricacy of knots; the other, twelve, had loved the strokes of swimming’s medley relay. One bedroom wall displays bowline and square, sheepshank, clove hitch, and tripod lashing, all those twisted cords arranged under glass like monarchs. The opposite wall photo-celebrates Michael Phelps X 4, the recent hero of butterfly, breast, back, and free.

Because the father listens to nothing else but the music of rage, his body sometimes clenches and stiffens, his blood thickening in his throat until he hurls and thrusts the closest object, whether book, chair, dish, or cue stick. Because he is often empty-handed, he settles for his fists, weapons he uses on his basement wall, refusing, afterwards, to mask the breakage, claiming that those scars are comforting, surrogates for the damage he dreams upon that driver.

Because the mother once listened to someone explain mindfulness, she keeps the silence of ghosts. Because that moderator, at last, asked her to write her thoughts in columns headed To be done. Maybe later. To delete. Because that mentor said, “Send those that are erasable into space to create the rapture for your distractions,” she refurbishes that year-old page like a failed mall, filling it with never.

Sometimes, a counselor tells them, a second language is necessary for what we suffer, the longing for impossible just beyond the borders of English. She offers Tesknota, ‘the pain of distance” in Polish, a longing, beyond nostalgia, for more than the past. Sometimes, the counselor does not speak because she is afraid she is about to lie.

Often, the father dreams of family, his wife a frequent character, the voice
of their daughter, nine, from the doorway after midnight, her questions progressing, phrase by phrase, from anxiety to dread to fear. His wife approaches like a survivor emerging from catastrophe, their street always behind her, its devastation obscured by swirling fog or smoke.

Often, the mother sees their sons in their former room, searching for things they hid when young, toy cars and tiny, coded, secret notes wedged in where they expected them to survive, untouched, forever. Both boys sleep as late as vampires. They return at night like livestock.

Always, late at night and still downstairs, the couple’s conversations end in limbo. Always, when they rise from their chairs at last, they approach each other with so much sorrow in their arms that they cannot lift them to embrace. Always, their daughter
cries and calls. Always, their sons are silent overheard, even as they move from room to room.

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