By Klaus Nannestad
We’re standing at the back of the room, shrouded in white noise. People are dancing, laughing, and drinking. They seem to fit the scene so perfectly, so effortlessly. I can feel my brother’s discomfort. Neither of us have ever learnt how to be part of the crowd. At parties like this we both tend to treat the room as a whirlpool, never moving towards the centre where we could be swept up in the momentum and lose our control.
We both know the other feels this way without voicing it. But this time I feel there is a heavier note to Michael’s silence. Maybe it’s the way he is gripping his drink like a prisoner grabs the bars on their cell, maybe it’s the ever so subtle slumping of his shoulders, or maybe just the delicate sense siblings have that helps them sense subtle shifts in each other’s emotions. This time I feel he is looking at the crowd not only with discomfort but with melancholy. There’s a heaviness to him. I search for the words to lift the invisible weight from him but find none. And so, we stand there and watch the crowd, the noise they make not nearly as loud as the silence between us.
Michael’s no longer in hospital, but where I visit him there are still nurses and the lingering smell of disinfectant. Seeing Michael in hospital had been difficult but seeing my older brother in a mental institution filled me with a sadness that reached right down to the pit of my stomach.
I don’t think those of us with older siblings ever believe they are anything but invincible. While I had seen Michael in moments of weakness, the realisation he was as fragile as any of us only hit me when I learnt his collision with the oak tree on the edge of the road had been intentional.
“I’m sorry Sal,” he said to me, unable to meet my eyes.
Not knowing what to say but determined not to let silence fill the space between us I stepped forward and hugged him tightly. I stayed there with my arms around him and my head on his shoulder for some time, worried that if I let go the silence would push us apart and take him away. But eventually he gently pushed me back.
“Sal, I… it was nothing you could have prevented,” he said, barely whispering.
“I know,” I said, not knowing whether my lie was to protect Michael or myself.
We spoke for a while about things that seemed almost comically mundane given the circumstances. We did our best to not to mention it, and to instead create a façade of normality, as though that could protect us from reality.
I said goodbye to Michael and smiled when I left, then began sobbing as soon as I reached my car.
Feeling a certain listlessness after my pathetically insubstantial conversation with Michael, I decided to visit the oak his car had wrapped itself around, perhaps hoping that the scene of the incident could provide me with some answers or insight.
The oak stood proudly on a quite road just out of town. It was a beautiful old tree with a thick canopy of leaves. I wondered how many torrid droughts and freezing winters it had endured, what sort of changes it had witnessed in its surrounding landscape. Then I saw the scar in its trunk where crumpled metal had bitten into it and wondered how many seasons that scar would remain visible for.
I gently traced the cuts in the trunk with my fingers as if I was tracing the wounds in Michael’s heart. I desperately wished I could heal them, or even better, turn back time to when they never existed, though I did not know when this would have been.
The months pass. Michael and I speak intermittently, but when we do it is like we are speaking across different sides of a chasm. We never mention the void between in conversation, but this does nothing to mute its presence.
I wonder if he still thinks of it, I wonder if he is doing better, if he feels himself, if he remembers what feeling himself feels like. I wonder these things, but am too afraid to ask them, too afraid of what his response might be. So, I take these thoughts and I throw them in the chasm.
I wonder if Michael wants to talk to me about these things, if he wants someone to be fully open to. I wonder if he has also thrown these longings in the chasm.
It’s three years on. Some cousin we don’t really know is getting married. Michael and I are at the edge of the room once more. Parties involving family make the whirlpool all the more vicious.
I’m aware now is an odd time to address it, but a it of alcohol and the memory of the silence I let fester three years earlier is all the push I need.
“Michael.” My brother turns to me, immediately sensing something different in my tone.
“Are you doing alright?”
Michael inhales as if preparing to answer, then simply lets out a tired exhale, and for the first time since I saw Michael at the institute I understand just how vulnerable he is.
“I’m getting there,” he says in barely a whisper, before adding with a smile “thanks for asking Sal.”
I feel the chasm shrink. By the end of the night we both find ourselves speaking to our relatives in the middle of the room, though I can’t remember how we got there.
On the drive home that night I take a detour and stop by the oak.
It’s dark, so I use my phone as a torch to inspect the grand old tree’s trunk. The scars are still very noticeable, but they no longer seem as raw. The seasons have weathered them, and they now are a similar colour to the rest of the trunk. In some areas, it is even difficult to see where they begin. They scars will be there for a long time, maybe forever, but I leave comforted by the thought they are slowly healing.
Klaus Nannestad is a media advisor living in Victoria, Australia. He has previously had short stories feature in Theme of Absence, Defenestration, Little Old Lady Comedy and Darkfire Magazine.