Maggie Nicholson


My brother never put a finger against a creature. The yard of his home was rageful with sting bees, cucumber spiders, black haired vermin living in old shoes and car parts.

He lived alone. Memory of the depression was an umbrella in his mind, opened and spoked there.

Our parents sold insurance. White shirts tucked at the waist. Crawled in and sat still in a brick building with a window out front. Air conditioned. Green ivy coughed the walls, trailed up and spooned the top.

Our mother Susan had maroon glasses and hair tangled from lack of brush. She had skinny legs, low breasts, and shoulders that were creamy and rounded like white flowering hills.

Our father was a boarded house. Arms nailed at shoulders. Knees of brass doorknobs. When the war came, Susan became management at the insurance company. Vagina non grata. Men stomped the country, rifles at the necks. Black lights at the airport made teeth glow.

When my brother, Yann, turned sixteen, I was already out of the house. Working on my music. I was a violinist. The word was on everything. Business cards, letters. It was stronger than my name, and I knew it.

I took my brother vegetables, rabbit, lamb, and fruits, for cooking. Susan was running marathons. She ate and slept in brown suits, too tight on her. She liked the restriction. When she was a child, she was in special classes. Her aid held her in the chair to keep her still. It calmed her into adulthood to be held like that.

During the depression, metal was rare and expensive. Junk men on every corner hammered crooked nails back, and good wood scraps were piled there. Yann went weekly and bartered such goods.

Blackberries, too, were a commodity. They grew like a rash. Children ran barefoot in snake grass, fingers staining red as they stored them. Grandmothers canned for winter fruit stock.

My brother was modest. Still, it was hard not to notice him. He was always smirking and wearing bright colors. He studied the ecology of people. His dream was to study garbology. To climb trash heaps and swat at sea birds scavenging for meat.

He had a girlfriend named butter. She had fox eyebrows and dark hair. She was a beauty. They discussed psychology, gnats, and nicotine fingers. They smoked tomato marijuana on a patch of land that ran into a suburban lake.

Then our parents were dead and hadn't left us money. Butter said au devoir, left for school, and Yann drove to Yakima. He worked in a hotel along a downtown strip near the university. He delivered newspapers to pay for schooling and slept in a tiny room in a big hotel that rented out cheap to students.

I was still playing violin. Now for my baby. At night with the windows open. Softly not to disturb the neighbors. Sometimes we heard the next door dog killing baby raccoons. Outside was milky black, snarling of dog, tooth sounds, and the high-pitched squeals of dying.

Men didn't like Yann. He had a big mouth. In college, his face swarmed green with alcohol. His irises went blot-dark, filled with images of bouncing breasts and bar toilets. He returned to the town we grew up in and moved into a greenhouse behind an apartment building. He moved out ferns and orchids and tomatoes. He moved in a crappy mattress.

Yann let his bushes grow vicious. He got into people's faces with complaints. Acorns were in his yard. Rotting apples blinded him. Wasteful brown flowers made him want to puke. He tried to clean against nature.

In autumns, he burned the near plants. Ritually. Smoke rose so thick the town filled with it. Hands an inch away were covered in it.

Butter returned a woman with a kid and no husband. Like me. She was more beautiful with child fat. She moved into the apartment in front of where Yann was. Took a job at a member's only club with an iron fireplace.

In it were men of middle ages. Lonely. They took pride in being the nonprofit organization of the small town, which once was tourist ridden, when people came for the lake. The lake was filled with medicine water. That was years back. Now the town was abandoned and filled with wind. Wind in the doorways and waiting like an animal in the closets.

I was too young to remember when the town was full. Our parents told us stories of those who came for it. Swam in the lake surrounded by pea green rolling mountains. Brown and wide-humped like buffalo.

The huge lake was shallow to the ankles the way across, with black sulfur mud. Tourists dug it up, put it on their wrists and faces and let it harden in the sun. They gagged of the smell and held up pools of clear water between their palms to see the millions of tiny red brine swimming in it.

Women rubbed it on each other's backs. Cold water warm hands. The mud from behind was soft. Air clear.

Butter said she was happy. I knew she was seeing my brother. But she didn't say it. There was shame in her for returning. Yann was spinning too much to care for such a thing.

In him, it was enough to burn plants and sleep on a cushion. His throat was

filled with honey wine. His tongue lolled in heavens.

Butter's daughter was named Mary. She had rose cheeks and sulfur eyes that matched the mud at the bottom of the lake. Butter kept to herself and kept to seeing Yann, whose stomach rose up like a yellow balloon. Likely his spleen was withering. His hands were drenched in tobacco.

We saw each other on and off for years. Sometimes he really saw me. Sometimes he talked at the side of my face. Often he was incoherent. In the bars he told strangers about his brother taking a shotgun to his head. I mention the story of our brother killing himself because he told it so often and never got any of the details wrong, despite that we didn't have a brother.

He frequented the three bars of the town. The workers let him keep to himself. When he told his stories, strangers and tourists come for the medical lake, went to the bartender to ask if he was all right.

“I don't know,” the bartender would say.

I hated when Yann looked me in the eyes. There would be years between it. Of him looking around me. To the side of my face. When his eyes moved to meet mine, it felt like being shoved off a ledge into some dark water.

I had dreams about our imaginary brother killing himself. Yann would say, “the dog doesn't know.” In the story, he was always caring for our brother's dog.

In the story, it always happened that very morning. And Yann was just in town visiting.


Maggie Nicholson studied literature and anthropology at the University of Albany in New York, linguistics and cognitive psychology at the New York Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, media and creative writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and archaeology in Las Mercedes, Costa Rica. She has worked as a journalist for WTEN ABC News, the West Seattle Herald, and her fiction won the 2010 and 2011 Leah Lovenheim Award. 



Posted on May 14, 2015 .