My brother Jack and I started going down to the river in the middle of the night. Jack woke me up, kicking my bed. I laid half asleep watching him continue to kick. He kept kicking till I responded with, āJack?ā He said, āletās go out.ā I forced myself out of bed, and dressed only in the pajamas I slept in, I followed him out our bedroom window.
I followed Jack across our back lot, and into the woods. He didnāt stop once to see if I still followed. How I kept sight of him darting through the woods with barely a moon to light, I donāt know. The woods ended about fifty feet from the river. Jack reached their edge and stopped and looked up and down the river. I stopped behind him waiting for some reasoning as to why heād dragged me out of bed. He removed his shirt and pants and walked to the edge of the water.
āWhat are we doing here, Jack?ā I thought.
I stood on the bank watching him splash around. After a few minutes in the water, constantly looking around to see if anyone else came along, he got out of the water and dressed. I followed his march home through the woods, and through our bedroom window. I laid in bed awake wondering what had happened.
I never much cared for going in the water, I never much cared for having my head āneath the water, but I loved being out in the cool night air with Jack, my brother. I loved trying to match his pace marching through the darkened woods, with him walking determinedly and me half running just to keep pace. Mostly I sat on the bank watching the moonās reflection upon the water. I watched Jack wishing I could be in the water swimming with him. Jack loved the water. He probably would have chosen to live his life in the water if that had been a choice for him.
Our father took Jack and me to the river, for fishing, when we were young. Weād go near the bridge that sat a mile or so downstream from where Jack and I went in our late teens. The river was much wider and the water much deeper, making the area near the bridge a better fishing spot. The bridge ran east to west over the river. West of the bridge was W. County, east was East County, the county we lived in. The river was the dividing line between the counties and apart from the river and a small town that sat in the middle of each county, there wasnāt anything to separate the two.
In the years between Jack and me being little boys, and our becoming teens, the river had gone from being, āthe best fishing place in the stateā, to āthe place where the coloreds made their pacts with the devil.ā Those were our fatherās words. āStay away from that river!ā he took to warning us.
His warning amused Jack. Heād go in the water and start his rants; āHere I am devil, your equal! Come on out and show your cursed head! Devil, I challenge you! I will show you for the lamb you are, for it is I who is the true ruler of all that is unholy!ā
I donāt know what happened with our father, I donāt know where his mind went, where his interest went, where his life went, but it happened with Jack also. Jackās mind went somewhere I never could go.
I didnāt go in the river the last few months we went down together. Jack was only two years older, but he always seemed to be four or five years bigger. Even in our younger days you could tell heād grow to our old manās size and Iād be left the runt of the litter. I was afraid of Jack and he reveled in my fear. He had a meanness in him he never hesitated in sharing with me. Anytime I wouldnāt join him in his doings, anytime I escaped the punishment he never seemed to escape, heād share his meanness with me, heād share his punishment.
Money was gone from Mamaās purse. I saw Jackās father in Mamaās purse. He was always in Mamaās purse. Going through her purse, looking about like he had something to fear from getting caught. This time she noticed what was missing, or this time she chose to mention it. Jack took the blame. Jack took his fatherās punishment. Our father punished Jack.
The old man whipped Jack, as if Jack deserved it. Jack then took his turn on me. I took it pretty well as I always had, till I saw blood trickling down my shirt. I ran home screaming bloody murder. Mama met me on the front porch. āJohn,ā was all she said, looking at the old man. She took me to the doctor, I had to get my lip stitched. When we returned Jack was in the room he and I shared. I stopped at the door and watched Jack for a few minutes. He just lay face down on the bed, his feet shaking slightly. I didnāt say anything. I went back into the kitchen where Mama was preparing dinner. I sat quietly at the kitchen table watching her. She looked at me once, smiled, and then resumed with what she was doing.
When dinner time arrived it was just Mama and me. The old man was not there. Jack stayed in our room. I didnāt go back in until it was time for bed. When I reached the doorway I saw Jack laying on his back with both hands propping up his head. His eyes were closed. Both appeared to be swollen shut. His face was a mess. I just laid on my bed without putting on my pajamas. I was as quiet as I could be so that Jack wouldnāt even know I was there. I would have given anything to have had somewhere else to sleep, but there was nowhere else.
The next morning it was Mama, Jack and me at the breakfast table. He could see out of one of his eyes, Iām not sure whether he could see out of the other one, it was so badly swollen. Not a word was said between the three of us while we ate. āDonāt expect to see your Daddy here again,ā Mama said as she got up from the table. I never knew whether that was her idea or his. Maybe heād gone too far with Jack this time or maybe heād just had enough of us.
Our father always talked about what a perfect family we could have been. When he married my mama he had these hopes of my mamaās father taking him into their family business. My grandfather never gave him a chance though, according to my father.
Never gave him the chance to prove himself not only to my grandfather, but to the town as a whole. He proved himself to us all, he just never realized.
It was a few days before we went back down to river. The color of Jackās face showed the beating heād taken, but the swelling was pretty much gone. I was sleeping in my bed when Jack woke me. āIām going to the river, you coming?,ā he said. These were the first words heād said to me in a few days. He sounded very inviting. I nodded my head, and followed him out.
This night Jack did no raving, he quietly waded in and begin to swim on his back. He looked at me and smiled. I soon followed him in. I felt good, I felt relaxed and soon I felt Jackās arm around my neck.
Heād grabbed me from behind and with one of my arms held behind my back, held my head under the water. I struggled to get free, but it was no use. I must have been under for a couple of minutes, at least.
Jack let me up and whispered in my ear, āI got no use for you, it would suit me fine if you were dead.ā
That said he let me loose and he left the water. I made it to the water bank and just laid there.
I didnāt tell Mama about this, she couldnāt always be there to protect me. I stopped going to the river. I stopped sleeping in the room with Jack until Mama caught me sleeping in the living room one morning. āWhat are you doing sleeping out here boy?ā she asked. I couldnāt come up with an answer, I just said I couldnāt sleep in my bed anymore. āNonsense,ā was her response.
I started sleeping in our room again, it became clear to me that to Jack I no longer existed. He didnāt say anything to me or even look my way. He just went along in his cold manner. He never said much of anything to Mama even.
Jack continued to go out every night. I assumed to the river, but Iām not really sure where he was going. Heād get back a couple of hours before dawn, get a couple of hours sleep and then he was up and ready for a full dayās work. Iād lay awake in bed the entire time he was gone.
We didnāt see our father, he was out of the house for good. I was glad. If only Jack would have left as well.
I started following Jack out. Iād follow him through the woods down to the river. Iād watch him splash around for a little bit, but mostly heād just lay out on the clearing. It was three days of my following him down before I was found out. Heād finished in the water, he looked into the woods in my direction and said, ācome on out Joe, I know youāre there.ā I stood still and held my ground. Jack laid on the grass, his head propped on his hands, his feet crossed at the ankle. I didnāt move the entire time Jack was there. I waited until heād gotten up and gone home. I didnāt sleep at all that night. I couldnāt go back into Jackās and my room and Mama would get on me about sleeping in the living room. I just stayed up. I didnāt stay up for long after I got to school. The teacher woke me and offered to send me home if I couldnāt stay awake. I struggled through the day, but I made it without further incident.
Jack was back to ignoring me, which was fine with me. This lasted for a few days. Another night came, Jack decided to wake me and said, āJoe come with me, I got something to show you.ā I shook my head.
āCome on Joe, youāll like what I have to show you, I promise. Iāve been leaving you alone pretty good havenāt I? I aināt going to do you no harm. Come on.ā
I followed him out and into the woods. We headed in the direction of the river. Every bone in my body was telling me to turn and run for home, but I didnāt, I kept following Jack. When we neared the edge of the woods Jack told me to stop. He looked around, I had no idea of what he was looking for. He knelt down and pulled me down next to him. He was waiting, but wouldnāt give me any indication what for. We knelt there for what must have been a couple of hours. Jack got up and walked into the clearing. He turned, looked at me, smiled and removed his shirt. He made quite a splash as he entered the water. He swam about while I watched from the bank. I sat and just watched.
āCome on in Joe, I wonāt bother you,ā he said. I shook my head. āSuit yourself.ā
I didnāt ask Jack what it was he had intended to show me. I hadnāt a clue. When we got back home I got in my bed, Jack got in his, I was fast asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next night Jack woke me again, off to the river we went. This time he once again stopped near the edge of the woods, shushing me at the same time. I crouched behind Jack and we waited. This time our wait was short. From the opposite direction from which we had come, came someone else. There was this colored girl who looked to be about our age. She walked up to the edge of the river and pawed it with one foot. She looked all around, but didnāt see anyone, including Jack and me. She slipped her dress over her head and with a splash entered the water. She was only in the water for ten or fifteen minutes before she got out.
She picked up her dress and slipped it back on. She left the clearing and reentered the woods going in the opposite direction from where Jack and I crouched. I turned to look at Jack, watching him watch her until she had disappeared into the woods. āThis is what you wanted me to see?ā I thought. Jack then entered the clearing and was quickly undressed and in the water. I turned and went home.
The next morning, Jack said we were going to the river that night. I told him no. He told me yes. I laid in bed awake, waiting for Jack to rouse me. āLetās go,ā was all he said. I shook my head. He kicked my bed and left. I stayed in bed but didnāt sleep.
A week or so passed without incident between Jack and me. He went about his business, I went about mine. I did my chores and went to bed early most nights. One night I decided to follow Jack out. I waited until he had disappeared into the woods, then took off behind him. When I neared the edge of the woods I stopped and got into a crouch. Peering out toward the river there was no Jack, there was no anyone. As I rose I was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. Jack had taken a position on top of me, with one of his hands covering my mouth. He looked down at me and let out a little laugh. He then released me, pulling back so that I could gain a sitting position. He just looked at me and smiled his terrible smile.
He looked past me to the clearing and gave a nod in the direction he was looking. I turned my head to see the same colored girl as before. She didnāt go right in the water. She sat on the bank. Jack and I watched her. She removed her dress. She stood there naked. Jack rose and walked past me. She was facing the river, as Jack walked up behind her. I sat there quietly, watching them both. She entered the water before Jack got to her. Jack picked up her dress and held it up to his face, smelling it I would guess. She turned towards Jack, saw him standing there holding her dress, and just froze. The water was about waist deep, but she made no attempt to cover her upper body. Neither of them said a word, they just stood there looking at each other. She turned and started to wade up river, I guess she figured sheād be going home naked. Jack had other plans. As she neared the edge of the water aways up from where Jack had been standing, he started towards her. She tried to run, but Jack stopped her, and pushed her to the ground.
āNo Jack, donāt!ā I heard. It sounded like my voice. It was my voice.
āShut up!ā Jack snarled.
She didnāt yell, or cry, or scream; she struggled, but couldnāt put up much of a struggle against Jack. I turned and ran toward home. I couldnāt hold back the tears. Iām not sure if I was crying for her or for myself. I stopped running, and tried to calm myself. Where could I run to? I turned and slowly walked back towards the river. When I reached the edge of the woods I stopped. I didnāt see any signs of the colored girl. I saw Jack. He was lying on his back motionless. I tried to approach Jack as quietly as possible, but there was no way I could best Jack who was lying with a dead manās quiet. When I was within a few feet I could see the gash over his left eye. Blood seemed to still be flowing from it. I tried to rouse him. He laid motionless, but he was breathing. All I could think of was running away. I could never have made my peace with Jack after this.
I positioned myself above Jackās head, knelt down and raised him into a sitting position. I then lifted us both, me to my feet, Jack to his heels. I started dragging him backwards. I stopped when we reached the riverās edge and looked around. I couldnāt see anyone. Not the colored girl. No one. I dragged Jack out till the water was about mid-thigh deep. I was about spent. I looked over to the clearing again. We were being watched. The colored girl stood there, her dress still clinging to her wet body. She didnāt say anything. I went about my business. I turned Jack over and climbed on top of him. Much to my horror he began to rouse. Even in his weakened state he was too much for me to handle. āHelp me!ā I screamed. She nearly knocked me over trying to get a hold of Jack. She managed to get a hold of one of his arms, I grabbed the other and held it out to his side. His struggle soon ended. We held him under for what much have been another five minutes. I loosed my grip and stood. She did the same. And as the colored girl and I stood there side by side watching him, My Brother Jack floated off down the river.