Neck Between Two Heads

This happened shortly after his mother died, when he was seventeen-years-old and the real violence had not yet begun. The day after her death, he dropped out of high school and went to live with his half brother, whom he’d only met once, eight years before.

His half brother’s name was Jon. He lived in a shotgun shack between Nogales and Tucson, at the end of a sandy road immediately beyond which rose the Baboquivari Mountains. In the opposite direction, in the middle distance, there was saguaro and candlewood and a desert as wide and windy as the sea. Beyond that, very far away, slate-blue hills floated ghostly above the earth.

His mother had been sick for many months, but she refused to have herself treated. She was ready to die, she said. He could see in her eyes that this was true. Too much heartbreak and hardship in her life. She was still young — not yet fifty-five.

The sickness had started in her womb and then it spread throughout her whole body. She was at home the entire time she was sick, and he took care of her as best he could. In those final weeks, he asked her questions about her early years, the places she’d lived, her long-dead mother, her father, who was a decorated soldier and who was still alive but whom he never knew, and he asked her also about the things she had hoped for in her life. She answered thoughtfully. Then she drifted off into heartbreaking silence and stillness.

The day before she died, she told him he was to go live with his half brother. She told him that he could find his address in the little book she kept in her desk drawer.

The next day, when he went to her in the morning, she was unconscious though still alive. It was raining outside. The room was filled with a silver-blue light. His mother’s eyes were closed. A small breeze blew in through the window. The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin. Her breath was rattled. Her veins shone prominently, and he could see her heart beating in her neck.

He went to the window and opened it wider to receive more of the cool autumn air. Then he knelt on the floor beside her and held her hand, which was so dry and thin and bird-like. He stared long into her caved and wasted face, the veins on her eyelids like rivers on a map, and he was too tired to feel much of anything beyond resignation. The heavy blankets did not rise or fall beneath her tiny breath.

He thought of death.

He stared at the heartbeat in her neck. The breeze blew into the room billowing the thin cloth curtains and bringing with it the smell of dying leaves and foggy moisture. The curtains drifted like ghosts.

After an hour, she coughed and started to gag. She half sat up. Her eyes remained closed. She had not spoken since the day before, but now in a loud voice filled with finality and utter authenticity she called out his name:

“Kristopher,” she said.

“I am here, ” he said. “I’m right here.”

He squeezed her hand more tightly, and she responded to his grip by squeezing his hand with a strength he didn’t know his fading mother still possessed — her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying.

She lay back on the bed. Soon she stopped gagging and her raggedy breath stopped as well. He could still see her heartbeat in her neck — her neck between her own head and his head where he knelt down beside her. He watched her heartbeat for a long time. He watched it pulse. The pulse grew slower and slower. Her grip eased gradually, and gradually her body went slack, and then her pulse stopped altogether and she died.

He thought: death is not a thing to treat lightly.

He rose from where he knelt on the floor and gazed down at her one last time. Her wine-colored lips, the turquoise veins visible everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knitted into the fabric of her flesh above the bridge of her nose.

At last he covered her face with the bedsheet and called the coroner. When he was finished speaking to the coroner, he stood for a long moment with the silent phone still pressed to his ear. Beyond the rippled sway of the curtains, he glimpsed the watery world outside where the sun grew as bright as it was going to get: a muted and melancholy light of silvery-gray.

Finally he turned and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and then he left this small apartment home forever.

2

He’d come from the New Mexican village of Dulce, in the heart of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. His full name was Jonathon Silverthorne. He was a peculiar person. From the time he was a very young child, he existed in a kind of savage isolation, not involuntarily or unhappily, and not in a penitential way, but the opposite: serene and self-contained, who bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unfathomable in one so young. He left school when he was fifteen and went to work in the uranium mines outside of Grants, and for three consecutive years he worked doggedly in these mines and saved up his money.

After this time, when he was still a teenager, he came back to his childhood home on the reservation. His father was still alive but infirm, and he helped his stepmother take care of him. Here also Jon bought tobacco seeds through the mail, and in the backyard of this home, under the glass panes of a ramshackle hothouse he himself had cobbled together, he grew twenty-five tobacco plants, from which he proceeded to manufacture cigarettes.

He purchased five-thousand empty cigarette tubes which had filters, and he bought also a small hand-powered device that loaded and packed the tubes with his homegrown tobacco. He packaged his cigarettes in small cardboard boxes and wrapped the boxes in cellophane and then sold them off-reservation on the black-market, for a low price and a significant profit, which he then hid deep inside the earth, in a remote and cavern-laced sector of the New Mexican desert — until he was caught.

Shortly after, at age nineteen, before his trial, he slipped away from the reservation in the dead of night. Under blue starlight, he retrieved his money from the desert earth, and he saw neither his father nor the reservation ever again. Only his mother, who lived four-hundred miles away, in Flagstaff, knew of his whereabouts now, and this was because he went to her after he’d fled, and he told her where he was going and why, because he loved her very much. That was eight years ago.

Jon had good hands and dark hooded eyes and a slow articulate way of talking — a contemplative cast of mind with a disposition inclined toward silent observation. He spoke little and was calm. Women were drawn to him. He was wiry-strong and agile, but he was also relaxed. There was an odd ease in all his movements and in his gait.

He read a lot. He read and he thought.

He lived alone now on the fringes of the desert, in a stone shotgun shack, at the end of a sandy road that fizzled out into a low rise of boulder-studded hills. He rented this house and fixed it up and kept it immaculately clean: neat as a pin.

He worked sporadically in the copper mines, when they were open, and he saved his money, and then he bought this home and its small surrounding property. The house sat on a slight eminence of land above gullies of sand, southeast of which the low Sierritas stood raggedy against the sky.

Sometimes he’d meet a woman in Tucson, and she’d come home with him and stay for a few days in his dwelling among the cactus. These women were attracted to his calm and his silence. They all thought him not like anyone they’d ever known — though when one day his half brother Kristopher arrived unannounced, there was nobody else there besides Jon.

They shook hands in the desert twilight. It was early autumn. Ladybugs swarmed the greenish air. Gathering swallows twittered in the sky. Jon didn’t say anything, but the warmth of his kindness came off him like radioactivity, and he understood what this visit implied.

He knew their mother had died.

3

His half brother Kristopher Henley lived with him for the next year, after which a sequence of unexpected events occurred. But before any of that, in the weeks and months following his arrival, Kristopher dwelt quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. The two of them got along. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was well-mannered and polite. He never complained, never imposed, never sulked or disapproved. He ate whatever was put in front of him and was grateful for it.

Kristopher was just over average height and slender. His features were soft and handsome. He had brown eyes and wheat-light hair, which he wore cut high-and-tight, with a thick forelock that hung over his right eye. He was, from a very early age, both swimmer and runner — not doing either competitively but only as an outlet for his explosive energy, his young heart so strong that it had become overdeveloped and enlarged, his resting heartbeat thudding reptile-slow.

His mother had left him a small sum of money and a graphite-gray Mazda, and once or twice a week he drove into Tucson to take in a movie, or to just walk around. It seemed as though he were waiting for something to happen, and yet in actuality he was not waiting at all. He was thinking. He remained mostly in the desert. He watched for hours, day after day, the late-September butterfly migration, their jinking flight, the bull bats of twilight.

Little ladybugs, like miniature chopper fleets, banged into his body by mistake.

Sometimes, completely alone, he walked out into the inky black night and stood atop the sand gullies, beneath the desert sky. Here he’d listen to the Sandhill Cranes pounding blackly overhead. They flew high above, unseen, rocketing southward. He could feel the great hum of their unisonic wingbeat vibrating throughout his whole body, like an immense voltaic current coursing through the darkness and down into him. It galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing he could not name, or purge.

Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars and wondered who they were. Passing by, into what future?

Their headlights swept lunar-like through the night.

He began running in the desert.

In school, he’d not been a poor student: he’d just not done much of anything. Toward the end, after his father (whose first and last name he shared and whom he’d dearly loved) had one day without warning or a word of explanation vanished and then his mother got sick, Kristopher had grown even more apathetic and disinterested in school: sitting day after day with his head down on the desk, in the back of the classroom, eyes closed, migrainous and nauseated.

Yet he was privately pleased when without prompting now, Jon undertook the task of teaching him things. Jon taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited Jon’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.

Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, and Jon had filled this book with strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable script, small, cryptic, meticulous lettering, and Jon wrote daily in this book.

Kristopher quickly came to love his brother’s slow, patient voice, his methodical methods and manner of teaching, the absolute clarity of his explanations, no matter how complex the subject-matter — but even more than that: Kristopher came to love the sense of understanding and self-development this learning fostered within him.

Jon had an uncanny way of explaining even the most complicated ideas so that they became comprehensible and clear, and Kristopher recognized this as a rare skill, a gift — a gift to him and perhaps to the world. Rapidly Kristopher came to look up to Jon, and with his overdeveloped heart he grew to admire Jon — to love him — and profoundly so.

Outside, beyond the kitchen table where they often sat, off to their left and just behind the stone home upon their left-hand side, there was a once-dead water-well which Jon had resurrected, and through the kitchen window, they could see the bright ribbon of clean water that twisted through the rocky ravine, beside a stand of sunflowers and the small almond tree Jon had planted, near a thriving linden he’d also, for private reasons of his own, planted first and foremost of all. Around the front of the house were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus.

Above, at the end of the sandy road, the Baboquivari Mountains stood dry and purple and unreal, fold after fold, floating monolithic against the vast and distant blue of the desert sky, like an isthmus between two heads of water.

4

In the late autumn, on a Friday, a change blew in with the changing wind. A woman came.

It was early evening. Kristopher was outside, sitting on a stone shelf a quarter-mile from Jon’s home, his back against a flat slab of stone, which was still warm with the stored heat of the desert day. Low overhead, a red-tailed hawk drifted on the updrafts that poured down from the Baboquivari ravines. Kristopher heard his brother’s truck approaching. He stood and walked ten paces to the ridge, where he could see down to the house below. The truck kicked up a pall of desert dust which glowed blood-red in the long horizontal rays of the evening sun. The lavender mountains shimmered. The truck stopped in the small driveway. The engine went silent. A dark-skinned woman in a half-shirt emerged from the passenger’s side. She was rather full-figured yet also willowy, with a curved torso that was proportionate with the rest of her body. A golden star of sunlight winked from a hoop pierced through the delicate skin of her navel.

Jon saw Kristopher standing above, and he waved from behind his steering wheel. Kristopher waved in response and came down. His brother and the woman appeared on the trail, and here, amid ocotillo and cholla, Kristopher was introduced to a lovely blue-eyed woman, whose name was Justine.

“This is my brother Kristopher,” Jon said. “Kristopher, this is my good friend Justine.”

Justine extended her hand and they shook.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Kristopher,” she said.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Justine,” he said.

A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently Justine reached over and lifted it from his hair, and as she did so, Kristopher glimpsed a seam-like scar that ran down the pinky side of her right hand and went nearly to her elbow. He smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until the tiny creature took flight on diaphanous wings which were intricately veined and turned crimson in the last long rays of sunlight.

She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven-years-old. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently gotten her Masters Degree. She liked insects, she said, and arachnids, and she told Jon and Kristopher that ladybugs aren’t bugs at all but beetles. She said that in some places, ladybugs are actually called lady-beetles or even ladybirds, and that in Russian they’re known as bozhya korovka, which means “God’s little cow,” perhaps because they’re gentle, she said, and piebald. She said also that in several other languages, too, they’re known as the “little cow.”

She asked Kristopher if he knew that these little feminine creatures play dead when they feel threatened, and he shook his head and said no.

The more she spoke, the more lively and animated she grew, and Kristopher and Jon both watched her, and they both became captivated by her passion for her subject-matter and by her articulate and authentic manner of speaking.

In the end, she turned to Kristopher and told him that the “lady” in “ladybug” refers to Mary the mother of Christ, much as his name — Kristopher — means “bearer of Christ” and that in this sense, she said, the symbolic sense, his name had something in common with ladybugs and the sacred sect of motherhood.

Kristopher considered this in complete silence.

Justine stayed the weekend, and early Monday morning, as Jon, who would be gone for the next twenty days, was preparing to drive her back to Tucson, Kristopher awoke and came outside with them. They stood in the rising desert sunlight. Justine extended her hand to Kristopher in a gesture of farewell, and Kristopher took her hand and then asked her if she’d like to stay a little longer. He said that he’d take her back to Tucson whenever she wanted to go. Justine looked at Jon, who smiled. She kissed Jon’s cheek and then turned to Kristopher and said okay.

[This is the beginning of a two-part novel — a diptych, as they call it — and it represents many years of work. It just came out. It’s my best literature to date. Please leave me a review, and I am obsequiously, eternally grateful.]

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Creative director of all things delightful.