The Son's Complaint
A boy toboggans down a white hill. The red slash of his coat rushes past trees. In the deaf world, he encounters nothing living but himself and the solid trees.
So began the recurring dream of the child of the family, who, when awake, sat in the insulated basement reading his books and papers. The books were scientific treatises that he pored over, for he'd been taught they were keys to enlightenment. He sought to uncover the epistemological bases of abstract systems. He pondered tragic error. His mother, who aspired to be the guardian of genealogical record, had assembled the papers, which were the surviving documents of the family's history. In old photographs, he studied the dour images of his ancestors. Their faded correspondence, detailed with inventions and projects, became his basement bulwark. The ceiling vibrated under the heavy steps of his brothers. Heat rose in the thick pipes.
Can the lost son be restored?
The father's hobby was collecting measurements and statistics on animals. They were published in an elaborate book with painted illustrations of their living or extinct subjects. Turning the gilt-edged pages of the book, it was impossible not to notice the contortions each beast assumed to fit the page. In the unfilled spaces floated islands of numbers.
Attached to themselves, the numbers squirmed and wriggled. Once they had been fixed and black;now they paled, grey as lint. They were growing invisible.
The father pretended he could still see them, but his children believed he was lying.
As the numbers evaded him, the father persisted in his claims. Only the bright illustrations still riveted his eyes. Before their gay colors, he grew morose. He grasped a leaf of the book, his arm jerked, and a jagged tear grew down the page. His hand curved like a claw over the ruined picture.
One by one, he tore the pages from his book. They settled like chips on the scratchy plain of the rug.
All this time the child of the family had remained below. He imagined the cries of the lost animals.He despaired of changing anything. He believed he was the unexcavated heart whose ticking kept the house whole. Above him, his father stamped and raged.
In his dream, the bushes stick out of the snow like wires. He skims over the world, past the dense black trunks of trees. If only he could evade it all, nothing to touch him or make him stop. Eventually the landscape blots out, and he travels with only the swoosh of his motion and the snowspray falling back into his face. Behind him, his blue shadow, longer and soundless.
He has always been smaller than everyone. At first he was ashamed of his weakness, of his skinny arms that curled like ribbons. He never thought they could hold onto anything. He tried to cultivate his mind as compensation.
He believed his position was inevitable. The bare light bulb trembled above his head. He was wrapped in blankets, lying on a couch, and the rough texture of the material irritated his frail neck.
Would the words in his books prove as elusive as his father's numbers? He tried to fix them with a look, with a will that surprised him as much as his father's rage, but it seemed to him they devoured him, like tapeworms feeding on his brains.
He read the accounts of his ancestors, who once had advanced their monologue against the wilderness. He imagined the purple smoke from their riverbank campfires in rich autumn and their hands stained from the forest berries.
One man carved bowls from solid oak, some big enough to hold a baby, which he peddled downstream in his canoe. Once he hit a floating log, the boat overturned, and the bowls floated away from him, their hollowed crescents facing skyward like lily pads. Some he retrieved; some filled with muck and were caught frozen till spring; others perhaps washed ashore at a stranger's landing.
After these vagabonds, the son stayed put. Wandering was useless when wide paved roads divided the continent. No matter where he might move, he would find the land already owned and parceled, so he contemplated the vanished past and read the diaries and letters of his dead, distant relatives.
On certain fixed occasions, the family gathered for a ritual meal. Small talk and clinking glasses filled the living room, where, under a flower-printed sofa and chairs, the green lawn of a rug covered the floor: domesticated outdoors. The grown children balanced on the edges of their chairs, sipping fiery drinks that brought on thirst. When the gong rang, they removed themselves to the dining table.Steam rose from the uncovered dishes and slowly worked into their eyes. The father had lounged while his wife shopped and cooked; now the rites were all his.
First was the ceremony of dismembering the meat. The side of an animal dominated the table. Brown juice ran down the crinkled fat and over the ribs that once had protected the animal's heart. The father wielded the steel; the brown-crusted slices piled up on the plate. He apportioned the servings of the expensive meal his earnings had purchased. Except for the last son, the children's growth surpassed their parents'. They required more sustenance than formerly; still they did not enjoy the thick meat. The chewed fibers caught between their teeth, but they ate more. Their lips glistened, dark wine shone blood-red on teeth and palate and stained the corners of their mouths.
Outside the snow seemed to drop from nowhere. It settled and whirled up and settled again in the same place. As the children ate, they recalled the names of extinct animals, they described the poisoning of marsh and forest, lake and river, as if they were discussing a patient whose prognosis they'd already judged fatal. It could be argued that even the food they were eating had been poisoned. Under their clothes, their skin was blotched with sweat; the house's painted walls were warm to the touch. They criticized the interior heat that made an artificial summer in the winter's midst. Rinds of fat curled on their plates. Licking their forks, shaking the last drops of wine down their throats, they decried the flagrance of their father's waste.
A hum vibrated in the mother's throat. She wanted to drown her children's accusations. Her nervous smile never reached her eyes. In a high, piercing voice, she tried to coax her family into agreement.The ruby jelly quivered in the glass.
But the father would not be placated. He reiterated his rights. Once his large children had cowered before his will; now they felt a sadness beyond rancor. Although he fed them, he still denied them.
Like his brothers, the child of the family had eaten. He laid his silver across his plate. He looked outside: the mercury had climbed, and a hesitant rain fell on the snow. The others left the table, their big feet printing the rug's pile. Worn out by the meal, the father napped on the couch. Alone, the son stood in the empty dining room.
No one living wanted to know him for what he was. He thought he forgot himself, just as he'd thought, after his long basement sojourn, he no longer recalled the sound of rain falling on the roof. Yet, he found he not only remembered but anticipated the animal-like hiss of the dropping rain. He felt an earlier self listening, too, more timid and capable of wonder, watching the blank-windowed houses, the round bushes, the poles of trees, and unrelieved flatness of the yard and the street. A lattice of branches veined the sky. The windless rain left pockmarks in the melting snow.
It was then that they came back, the dead relatives, while his father slept in the living room, the dishes clattered from his mother's fingers into the dishwasher, and his brothers took their boisterous ire into another part of the house. A man in a stovepipe hat stood under a lantern in the yard; the light fell in slanting rays on the snow, illumining the gentle, silent rain. The man was smoking an elaborate, curved pipe. The son recognized him from photographs: inventor of several useful machines, entrepreneur and family autocrat, from whom survived a long, vitriolic letter, wordy with self-righteousness, reproaching a wastrel younger brother. Through the window glass, the son heard him tap his pipe against the steel lamppost. A faint pink haze hung in the air, perhaps a reflection off the snow. The man was silent, as befits the dead. After emptying the bowl, he slipped his pipe into his breast pocket and, looking left and right, crossed the empty street and disappeared from the son's view. A woman came next, running, almost tripping on her long skirts. She carried an umbrella that rose and fell with her exertions. She, too, paused under the lantern. Oval raindrops slowly slid down the hollows between the umbrella's ribs. She was looking at the house. How close she seemed!The son saw how the loose wisps of her hair had collected droplets of moisture. She turned toward the window where he watched, his nose flattened against the glass, his features dark, the light behind him. She nodded. He couldn't mistake her invitation. He didn't recognize her face from any family album, lovely in a soft way his people never had.
Her cheek glistened; he was utterly still. Her face was near, but her smile was as distant as pale spring. She seemed about to step toward him, when, from the periphery of his vision, the man returned, walking with a swift frontier gait. He took her arm, whether lightly or cruelly, the son couldn't tell. Just once, she glanced back at the pure circle of light on the shrinking snow.
He didn't mean, at first, to go outside; he was wearing tennis shoes. Like a sponge, the snow had filled with rainwater. He sloshed through the front yard, under the wet maples. How quiet it was,even his footsteps. Thick clouds hid the moon; the rain had turned to mist.
The night had found him; he no longer wanted to pursue them. This was the whiteness precipitated in the year's black core. The cold soothed his eyes, weary from reading. When his brothers had said that the world was poisoned, he had believed them and participated in their indictment of the parents. Now he found the world held in a spell-like paralysis, nearly stilled to the immobility of a photograph, inhospitable, still beautiful.
In the mist, not a star was visible. No longer certain of his brief visitors, he went inside. No one saw him. He crept down to the basement, and fell asleep.
He dreamed again of the toboggan flying down the white hill. He lunged in a pure ecstasy of motion, and this time the slope flattened, he went farther, he reached the end, and the world returned to him in its sharp detail. Abruptly, the toboggan stopped, mired in level snow. He got up,brushed the loose snow off himself, shook his muffler and emptied his cap. The toboggan's rope in his mittened hand, he trudged past a frozen pond, blurred as bottle glass, and into a wood whose twisting contours were as familiar as the lines across his palm. His hands and feet were freezing. The woods climbed a hillside; a woodpecker bored into a dead tree so nearly above him that his wool cap caught a falling chip.
He emerged into a field rutted by absent wagons. The sky was an intense blue, absolutely empty. No plants had broken through this snow. He had grown smaller, a small boy. From here it was not too far to the street of ranch-style houses: past a ravine, a creek still flowing under a skin of ice, and then the fenced, familiar backyards--corner gardens lumping the snow, the frosted poles of swing sets and the slick, dangling seats.
In the house in front of him, a door opened. A woman's back pushed out a second screen door. She was only wearing an apron over her house dress, and she staggered with a full tub, which she heaved and emptied out onto the yard, a little waterfall of grayish, sudsy water. They both watched the water sink in the snow, leaving bubbles like spume on a beach of white sand. As she turned back to the house, he heard his own voice call her, "Mother."
She stopped and waited, seeing him. He unlatched the gate and pulled in his toboggan behind him. She knelt so they were eye to eye in the doorway, touching. She removed his cap, unwound his muffler to a long red strip, and unfastened his coat, button by button. While she unlaced his boots, he gripped her shoulder for support. One at a time, she slipped them off his cold feet. She took off his shirt, his pants. He trembled in the open doorway, and she hugged him around his waist. The cotton and woolen garments piled softly on the floor behind her. He stood naked in her grasp that wouldn't let him into the warm house, the cold breath of the snowy backyard tingling his bare back.
He awoke twisted in blankets, fretful and frightened. He shivered, remembering the dreamt moment of his exposure.
He heard his father, his mother, his brothers calling him.
His mother saw the extending family as figures blurring into each other, inexact yet authentic reproductions. She loved finding similarities over breached time. Her children were inextricably connected, not only to her and to their father, but to the long procession of the family's past.
His brothers were waiting for him around the cold fireplace, their arms folded across their chests in disapproval. A shifting alliance was now ranged against him. He looked up to see if his brothers' faces were joined by those of his parents, but his mother and father were missing. Slowly he grew aware of them, standing behind his turned back, watching dimly from the hallway outside the room.He didn't know who had initiated this summons.
"You were never with us," his brothers complained in unison. They enumerated his sin of neglect, his preference for solitude, his lack of familial ties, and, most grievous of all, his flouting of duty. He stood before them on the green rug, head lowered and hands clasped behind him like a prisoner. What divided him joined them. Outside the window--darkness, the lantern and its misted penumbra, the dissolving snow. His eye went from that scene to this scene surreptitiously, for his brothers were still talking and expected his attention.
In his mind he saw again the torn pages of his father's book, tropically bright. He heard the beating of wings, a wind through leaves, water rippling. He saw the sun on the rocks and felt the radiant heat.
His power existed because it was unknown. In the basement, under their echoing steps, he had his secrets, and in the winter night, he had them, too. When his brothers ceased talking, he sat down and stared into the empty fireplace. He could picture the licking flames in his head; he could conjure anything.
About the Author: Poet, fiction writer, journalist, and critic Anne Whitehouse’s books include poetry collections The Surveyor’s Hand (Compton Press), Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press), One Sunday Morning (Finishing Line Press), The Refrain (Dos Madres Press), Bear in Mind (Finishing Line Press), Meteor Shower (Dos Madres Press) and Fall Love (novel). Recent poetry and fiction publications include The Write Place at the Write Time, Works & Days, Oddball Magazine, Art from Art (anthology), Istanbul Poetry Review, Pain and Memory and Being Human: Call of the Wild (anthologies), riverbabble, Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, and others. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University. She lives in New York City. Visit Anne's site here.