Kestrel Slocombe '12
I met Jaime in the spring and from that first moment, I saw death retreating down the years like a deformed creature that doffed its cap to me. Jaime, my brother, my long-lost: he used to dance like a devil on the tables with the girls we’d meet down on the beach—like hungry children living by the light of dawn, we’d all cram into some vehicle with the top down. We’d have philosophical debates while we drove, sitting close as in a pew, only getting out when the wheels stopped spinning and Jaime started speaking Gaelic. He was speaking Gaelic when I met him. “Ishtar, Krishna, Orpheus, Osiris,” he said. And then something in Gaelic.
He was lying on his black leather couch when I first saw him, one leg thrown up on the back, like a weary marionette, with his long tweed limbs. He was surrounded by maps—his hobby, I was told. A bonafied cartophile. He had on a red hat, one of those Scottish hats, like a beret with a pom-pom in the middle. It was Christmas, the window was cracked open, the place was filled with Scots; a live band was playing murky hot jazz. Donovan, the red-haired cyclist, slung an arm around my shoulders and yelled, “Jack, old man. Have you met our host?” and that was when I saw him, there on the couch, not too tall, dark bright small eyes, a strong forehead, hollow cheeks. He showed me his map of India; I was drunk, but it made no difference, because he was too. He told me how the trains used to run hot and red as blood, metal hot in the sun, metal painted red, bright as a holy day, bright as that stupid red hat of his that he said had been passed down in his family; since the dawn of hats, he said.
All night I watched him: sometimes he walked like a king, a drunken king—but in the land without kings, the drunken king is still king. He could make a chair into a throne just by the way he sat in it; hold an apple and knife like an orb and scepter; bring a whiff of frankincense and myrrh with him. Watching him, I thought he’d shaken something off—that coldness you begin to feel after enough years have gone by. The presence of a certain being. Although no one else can see that being, you feel its hollow touch.
I had begun to feel it myself, just a year earlier, back on the east coast: when I walked up to that podium and Yale told me it was glad to see the back of me; when I threw two brown suitcases in the back of my sea-green ’51 Buick. This is one of the three stages, I thought. The three leavings. You leave home; then your kids leave home; then you leave this world. I’d just knocked number one off the list.
When I got to San Francisco, I told all this to a fortune teller. She listened, and then her eyes began to narrow and she dropped the persona—Madame Magdalena, or whatever it was—and told it to me straight: this happens to everyone upon leaving college. It’s called the quarter-life crisis. Get a job, you’ll feel better.
I lurked around my new rooms in San Francisco, avoiding the phone calls from home, the postcards, like cries from the grave: “Jack, you never said goodbye!” “Took me ages to get your address. How come you’re out there in California?” “Call me, Jack! What are you doing out there?” “Dead people,” I muttered. “Grave-people.” I could smell the gloomy East-Coast pine-trees when I thought of them—pine-trees and cemeteries.
Jaime smelled like smoke and gasoline. The wind at night on the summer highway. The unending sky. “You ever going back to Scotland?” I asked him sometimes. “Yeah, someday,” he’d say, like he had a thousand years to live. He was planning the trip to India when I met him—he said he wanted to sleep on the rocks where the gods slept, kiss the women the gods kissed. We stayed up all night, he dancing from map to map, scribbling, making notes, telling me things; sometimes we laughed, sometimes we stumbled sick and tired down the stairs at dawn, into the fog; Jaime still laughing, laughing like a seagull, Jaime on the stony beach with a bottle in his hand, unsteady in the tide with his coat flapping. Standing against the day, against the cold and gray, in his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow-patches, in his plaid pants, his Cuban boots, his goddamn hat. He told me, his strong brogue echoing out into the stillness, while somewhere behind us the sun was rising, “Some people hate this fog, y’know.”
“ ’S all right. Reminds me of home.”
Home of Jaime: somewhere at the ragged lip of the North Sea, where the land shook under the fearsome wind—quarries filled with rain, branches bleak and black, and Jaime just a young pup—I tried to see him, running sliding scrambling, panting, lonely, growing, rangy, lean, watching, waiting, waiting, howling.
“Show me,” I said, sitting at his kitchen table. “On a map. Where you lived. Where you came from.”
“Sorry, mate. I’ve only got maps of India.” He put the bottle to his lips.
“What? Only? But you collect—”
He swallowed, ducking his head. “Did, but I sold ’em. Only need the Indian ones now.”
“Once I’ve gone to India, I won’t need to go anywhere else. And I needed money for a ticket, as well. Why do you want to see, anyway? People hate Scotland. ’Cause it reminds them of death.” I could feel him looking at me. I tried to think of something to say, but he went on, “’Cause we’ve no sunlight, just rain, cold, and the smell of the dirt. But I’m going to India—land of Krishna! D’you know what he said? There are some things that never end, because they never began. Like being. Don’t you think that’s lovely?”
“Yeah, and they also have dead bodies floating down the Ganges, don’t they?”
“Exactly, and little children drinking out of it. The circle of life, mate! It’s grand!” He slapped my shoulder.
“Yeah, and then they die of some terrible disease.”
“Or they don’t. People die of terrible diseases everywhere. In India at least you see life first—really see it. You see gods. There are no gods in San Francisco—” He slapped my shoulder again and stood up. “Which is why I’m going to India, like a sensible person.”
“You won’t see their gods,” I called out to him, as he left the room. “You’ll only see their death.”
How much I didn’t see. How often I remember the wrinkles around his eyes, the way he’d bump into me while we were walking, how his voice began to get husky when we said goodbye in the airport. I only knew him eight months, but in that time he became my oldest friend. When I got the news I went to find somewhere to cry and feel like Someone was listening. While back in Connecticut my mother and father prayed for Him to make me good, Jaime was somewhere else. I never saw the green plants springing through the ribcage as it lay half-buried: the glory that never ended because it never began, it just was. But maybe he saw it, as he knelt there so close to his holy earth.
They burned his body—brother, you were always burning. Now the spirit and the body are one. Did they see the shapes of gods in the smoke? Would I? When I got the news, I touched the dry hard earth of America, and heard all the silence where once there had been singing. Was there anything here? Were there any bones left? Was it stupid to pray?
I did anyway, brother. I prayed you were floating down a river somewhere in India. Little children drink your body.
Kestrel Slocombe is a Massachusetts native who tends to write very long novels, but is learning how to write short stories like this one, thanks to Becky Godwin.