He watched them playing a game of checkers in front of the fire, sitting close to each other on the rug, leaning over the gameboard so their heads barely touched. His brother and his brother's wife cast surreptitious glances at each other every now and then, touching a hand or finger with a deceptively casual stroke, like lovers unwilling to let the world know they are attracted to each other. He found it hard to believe they had been married for nearly fifteen years as he observed them flush with the anticipation of young lovers.
His brother and his wife had celebrated the births of several children over the years, as well as mourned the loss of two babies of their own. The death of his baby daughter, and so soon after that of his wife, had rendered him useless. Their passing from this world had brought him to his knees. He had cried like a child until he could shed not another tear, then drained of all emotion, he had given up completely. Nothing could penetrate the dark and desolate world that engulfed his very soul. He lay there, unresponsive, seeing nothing but his own blackness until she came and comforted him. His brother's wife somehow returned something of his lost humanity to him, her compassion dragging his useless life back from the brink. And so he recovered, in time, and found himself bound to her in a way he didn't quite understand. His brother and father stood close, their presence reminding them all of the ties that held the family together, through both good and bad times.
Their father, never one to show his emotions, was visibly shaken by the loss. He seemed to age before their eyes, taking every blow to his family as if it were a physical one upon himself. Their father rallied when his despondent son rose and decided to live again, but he too never fully recovered from the devastation of the emotional toil.
Looking at his brother and his wife relaxing here in the great room they retreated to every evening, he wondered if someone was keeping records of the checks and balances of life in their family. It seemed that for every joy there was an equally emotional loss. Both he and his brother had endured enough tragedy in their lives, far outweighing the pleasure, it sometimes seemed. When he had sunk to the depths of desolation it seemed impossible to see the light. The terrible despair he endured finally receded enough for him to start living again. He was consumed with guilt for being the one who remained alive.
Then my brother's wife looks up and I am shattered to the core by the way she gazes longingly at me. I am taken back many years to when I was a different man. Back to when I climbed down from the stagecoach and set eyes upon her for the first time. She introduced me to my fellow passenger as the other son of my father; to the young man who soon became my brother, and in time became my other half. And I can see her when she returned from that school, a woman grown with a light in her eyes which stirred my soul.
My brother's wife leans back, supporting herself with her arms on the floor behind her, smiling like a satisfied cat, her eyes still fixed on mine. Her smile is slow and intimate, as if she knows exactly what is on my mind. My brother makes his move on the checkerboard and glances up at me. For a moment I don't care that he sees the illicit looks I am exchanging with his wife. But I catch myself and yawn, stretching my arms above my head as if I don't have a care in the world. A smile crosses his lips, so slight it is barely discernable, and I know he isn't fooled. We play this dangerous game now and then, each testing the strength and resolution of each other. My brother leans over and casually rests his hand on the nape of his wife's neck without taking his eyes off mine. His act is one of possession, primal, warning me off. I am shameless and cannot help myself for coveting what is not mine. The game is over, so I say my goodnights and leave them alone by the crackling fire.
As I make my way to my lonely room, down the dark hallway where I can hear the children stir in their sleep behind closed doors, I think of my brother's wife. I think of her warmth and passion and of all the feelings she stirs in my mind and my body.
When my wife and child died, she moved in to fill that dreadful void as if it was her natural place. My remaining children accepted her as their mother and I accepted her as my surrogate wife. My brother seemed to understand his wife's maternal obligation and honored her instinct to give solace to me in that dark and desolate period of my life. She became a bridge between my brother and me, touching each of us with that poignant caress that somehow served to bring us closer together. We shared her love and warmth in joint tenancy.
As I lie in the dark of my room, I picture my brother's wife. I imagine how she will soon be lying with my brother in their bed across the hall, their bodies entwined in conjugal bliss. And I know she may be with my brother physically, but every time he caresses her it will be my hand touching her skin. When his lips touch hers, it will be my mouth she submits to. And when she looks into his eyes, she will not see her husband, but his brother's eyes. My eyes.
He sat in the saddle and watched his brother mount his horse near the front door of the large white hacienda. He was looking forward to spending some time alone with his brother as they rode around the perimeter of the property. It was a ritual as well as a necessity. The trip served as a reminder of the early days, bringing back memories of more turbulent times when violence and its consequences often reared their heads.
He watched his brother accept a kiss from his wife, leaning down from the saddle to cup the back of her head with a gloved hand, and looked away. For some reason he could not play their game today, imagining himself in his brother's place, and he gave them a moment of privacy. He turned back to tell his brother there'd be plenty of time for that later, and as he opened his mouth to speak he felt an enormous blow hit him. As if struck by a club, he fell from his horse and found himself face down on the dirt drive.
There was no sound, no feeling at first. He knew his cheek was lying against the earth because he could see the grains of soil before his eyes. He knew he was alive, but could find no evidence of his body being there. His brother rushed towards him, his mouth moving, forming words that he could not hear. He tried to reply, but he wasn't sure if his lips were even moving. His brother picked up his limp body, taking him into his arms, cradling his head upon his shoulder, crying out his name. He knew he should reply and sought out the blue eyes above him, silently pleading with his brother to hear him. There was a rushing noise, and from afar he could make out his name being called. The sensation of pain came to him as feeling returned to his limbs. Unable to move, he lay like a baby in his brother's arms.
He could see her kneeling, holding onto both her husband and himself, her face telling him all he needed to know. He wanted to tell her something, anything, but when he looked in her eyes, he realized she knew it all already. Behind her he could see could see the face of his father fading as he looked at him. It took every ounce of his strength to seek out his brother's blue eyes. He struggled to stay focused on them, battled the numbness taking over his body, robbing him of the ability to breathe. The tears falling upon his face from above intermingled with his own. He fought to speak to his brother, finding a terrible need to say something to him before it was too late. With a sudden burst of energy he managed to speak just as his brother did. Both uttered the same word at the same time, a unified attempt to stop the inevitable, one refusing to give in, the other in anguish as he watched his brother die in his arms.
The man who had killed the brother of my husband was tracked by a posse of our men and run to ground two days later. The men wanted to string the killer up from a tree, right there by the river, but the boss forbade it. My husband told me his father escorted the man down the valley himself, leading the man's horse as he rode ahead in silence. He said that his father spurred his horse ahead of the riders, pulling the accused with him. He was out of sight only for a few moments when they heard the shot. My husband said they found his father standing over the body of the man, rifle in his hands. No one said anything. The men rode on past, horses stepping gingerly around the body lying face up on the trail. They just tipped their hats to my husband's father, and quietly headed home.
My husband later told me the man had admitted to his crime when they caught up with him, but would not say what had caused him to do such a heinous act. No one ever found out why. Maybe this is why the fight went out of my husband's father; why he gave up after the death of his beloved son. Not knowing why someone, a stranger, would take the life of one of his sons. Would knowing the reason have made it any easier? I don't think so.
But he never really recovered. It was not just his son's death that made him wither up inside. I think it was because, for one moment on that trail he had sunk so low as to kill a man for revenge, and in doing so, broke every tenet he had ever lived by.
I told my father-in-law that I could now understand the consuming rage which caused him to take that man's life. I said that I could not tell him he had done the wrong thing. My own heart was so full of darkness, I could only take him in my arms and share his grief as we mourned in unison.
They laid her husband's brother to rest in the small cemetery; beside old friends, beloved wife, and the children they had all mourned so deeply. His brother's wife stooped to lay flowers on the freshly turned soil, her face a mask of grief. She would hold it in until she was alone, for the living needed her support now more than ever. She said a few quiet words over the grave, knowing that nothing she said aloud could adequately describe what she felt for the brother of her husband.
You know you'll be forever in my heart, my love.
hand at her elbow steadied her as she rose, and she turned to look up into
the blue eyes of her husband. Her living husband. She put her arms around
his body, offering herself to him as the only way she knew to give a vestige
of comfort. Burying her head in the cloth upon his chest, she held him
close, as if he, too, would be taken away from her. Her husband raised
her face up to look at his, a hand under her chin, and in his eyes she
saw understanding and grief. She saw both brothers in his eyes, the dark
one and the light one, her husband and his brother, intertwined so tightly
that through her tears she could not determine which one she was looking
at. Perhaps she would never know if she made the right choice all those
years ago. She knew she had a duty to love the living, and so she did,
taking his hand and gently leading him away from the gravesite and back
to the house, back to the people who needed her love, more than ever. She
did not look back.