Madonna and Child
  Kelly Jarman

“Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man.”
- To George Sand, A Desire

Robert's room was empty. That's what my father said as he stomped up the stairs. We lived in an old Victorian mansion converted into apartments; my room was on the third floor. I liked to sit in the bay window looking down at the street. My father stomped to my room and yelled come on. Most of his face was covered in a black toque, except for his eyes. We got in the van without talking and found my brother two blocks away. Dad opened the door and yelled at him to get in. Robert accepted his fate. We drove away and I turned to him and asked, “What were you thinking?” He just glowered at me. He was in cadets, and his dream was to be a sniper. He had on a bright orange toque that I'm sure my father saw blocks away. It was for cadet survival weekends, so he wouldn't be shot by hunters.

I spend a lot of time staring out the bay window. There's nothing else to do at my father's. The window has a bench built into it. Robert is really my half-brother. I spend half the year with him. He’s the one who tried to run away. I’m fifteen but people say I'm old for my age.

That was back when I saw Robert regularly, before he went with my father and I had to share our parents. He was having "growing pains" and was counting down the time until he could go to boot camp. There was this other time when we were playing guns in the backyard. It was getting late and Mom put the porch light on for us. It was me, Robert, the professor's daughter Mina, and two other boys. The two other boys were brothers; we thought they were weird because they didn't know anything about guns. Religious maybe. We didn't have enough people for SWAT versus Terrorist so we ran around shooting each other for fun. We were kind of old for this, but the two other boys were younger. It was stupid but fun, the kind of stuff you get to do when you have to take care of kids. Then it happened. I had been standing behind a tree away from the light when I saw Mina on the ground. She was struggling and Robert was standing over her, gloating. I ran toward them. There was plastic or something tying her hands together. It wouldn't come off. The adults had to cut them off, the bracelets. Military-grade zipcuffs.

***

I met Mina during a band trip. We both played clarinet. We saw a lot of each other and traded books occasionally. My mother kept me in good supply. I loved John Dos Passos and Mina loved Rohintin Mistry.

I took clarinet as an elective in high school because I thought it would be easy. They put me in a prop closet. Most everyone had guitars and I couldn't hear myself. I would spend an hour alone with a clay head staring at me while I practised. When the teacher came to quiz me I would always mess up. I'd tell her that she was ruining my future, and she'd laugh in response and close the door behind her as she left.

I think my thing for Mina all came from this one band trip. We had to show up at school early in the morning and wait in the parking lot for the teacher to pick us up. We would stand in a circle shivering, and my hair—I hadn't bothered to get a haircut in months—was frozen together in clumps. Mina and I quietly manoeuvred next to each other. We couldn't reveal ourselves or admit what we were doing as we nervously slid into the backseat of the teacher's car, trying to keep out the other gangly guys. It was an hour-long trip and I spent it staring out the window at the forest. Occasionally I could see a tank crashing through the woods, and I wondered what Robert was doing.

We did pretty well in the competition. As I packed up my clarinet I savoured the loose feeling that flows after accomplishment, the slow dimming of the world around our car as we bitched about the private school that took first place. I couldn't shake the feeling that I never played as good as I did sitting in the closet at school. Mina and I smiled at each other, and I had to get out of the car to let her out when we got to her house. I hugged her goodnight, feeling the softness of her sweater, and she acted surprised. I got back in the car and everyone was silent. I had asked her if she wanted to come hang out the next day.

She arrived a bit late, smiling meekly as I let her in the back door. We ended up having tea in the living room, my idea of what people did when they hung out. Robert walked by and looked at her and then looked at me. He walked into the kitchen, and I could hear him making something to eat for dinner. I asked Mina about her favourite part of “A Fine Balance,” just for something to say, and she told me she loved the part where the three girls hung themselves from a ceiling fan. I told her I didn’t like that part because I thought the ceiling fan would break. She laughed and asked me if I’d tried to hang myself. I stammered in surprise that I hadn’t, that I just liked how they all lived in one apartment—them against the world. She smiled and said no, that’s not it at all. She told me to reread the parts where the lawyer speaks.

It was beginning to get dark. She asked me if I wanted to walk across the train bridge, since she never had a chance to go downtown anymore. We snuck through the kitchen. Robert was oblivious to us, blasting bad rap on his headphones. It was right at that point of the day—the cooling wind and lengthening shadows—when my dad and I usually ended our bike rides. Mina and I walked in silence and you could only hear the crunch of the gravel under our feet as I desperately reached for something to say. Mina spoke first and told me that one of her friends, a total brainer, had taken her out to the bridge and offered her weed. Mina had politely declined but sat with this friend, who stuck her head into an iron girder to try and light the joint away from the wind. Then they both watched the sun set. Mina was nervous as hell the whole time, and when they saw someone coming down the bridge they hid the joint. This strange guy stopped to talk to them, calling himself Mr. Green. Mina and her friend ran away as fast as they could, and sat in a park to wait for the smell to disappear.

We walked back in silence to the house. My parents had friends over. Robert was already outside, looking indignant at being locked out with us kids.

***

I avoided Mina in class after the incident with the zipcuffs. We’d pass each other in the hallway without acknowledgment. At the end of term she saw me by the cafeteria and asked me to write in her yearbook. I stared at it, not knowing what to write. “Can't think of anything to say?” she asked, and I said yeah. I couldn't write something beautiful; I could only think to tell her about the boring details of my day. I signed my name and laughed nervously, and she looked at me strangely as we walked down the hallway together. I asked her if she hated having to read “Frankenstein,” and she said she thought Mary Shelley was awesome, and I agreed yeah she was pretty good. We walked out into the parking lot to wait for our rides. Mina got quiet again. I said, “It won't work out. I mean, we work intellectually, but we can't work.” She had tears in her eyes. “What is wrong with you?” she asked. Then she flipped me off and yelled fuck you and walked away from me, crying.

I wasn't seeing much of Robert. One day over the summer, my mother led him into our kitchen. His head was shaved and he was wearing glasses. They looked huge on his head. He carried a paintball gun still in its box and a duffel bag. He was smiling ecstatically. I laughed at his shaved head, but he told me that it was way easier to wash this way and that he could yell at the guys in the other platoon who kept their hair long. He led us to the computer where he put on a DVD he’d made. Loud rap music pummelled us from the speakers, and Robert appeared on screen firing an automatic assault rifle, squeezing the rounds out in short bursts. You couldn't see his eyes behind his glasses. He looked tiny with his head distorted by the too-large green helmet. My mother grimaced and walked out of the room while Robert stared excitedly at the screen and beckoned me closer. This is where we blow up a watermelon with an arty sim, he laughed, as chunks of pinkish-red flew everywhere.

I had a problem sleeping that night. I stared at the wall, watching the patterns of moonlight creep across, and thought about everything wrong with the world. Robert was still up too. I could hear him talking on the phone, laughing occasionally. Eventually I gave up on sleep altogether, pulled a book off the nightstand, and opened it to the dog-eared page. My head pounded. I couldn’t even scan through a few pages before returning to stare at the ceiling again.

The next morning I was exhausted—the kind of tired where your cheekbones feel strained from frowning and your legs are achy, but you can't sleep. I couldn't get out of bed. The more the hours drifted by, the more I watched the clock, until I ended up throwing a shirt over it. An email arrived from Mina, telling me that she'd read Hardy for the first time and was feeling like a ruined Victorian maid, seduced and then forgotten. It didn't make sense. That day we got the news that Robert was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan. From my room I heard him leap down the stairs, a car engine revving in the driveway, bad rap music blaring.

***

The heads, on screens in a row in front of us, were about a metre wide. A voice boomed from the loudspeakers as the heads talked in turn. One talked about how much he loved his family and it just went on like that. There was no way to leave; I was cemented in place while the heads talked to me.

Robert was sitting on the podium beside a group of old veterans. Looking at twentysomethings next to men in their eighties is depressing no matter what. Robert took the podium and told us about how he and his friends had been blown up in an armoured car during a patrol. Everyone had made it out but his best friend, who had been standing up to look out from a hatch. Robert had found him lying face down on the road with his neck broken. He started to cry, and then sat back in his chair.

I didn't get to see Robert afterward because I had to go to class. A blue wall of cadets prevented me from seeing him leave. We were herded out by our teacher, back through a sea of fellow teenagers, disappointed to open their binders again. I sat down in my seat feeling sick. In English, we were going to start with grammar, but the teacher called a couple of the students up to the front of the room. She announced that these students had decided to send a piece of creative writing to the annual legion contest and that one of the pieces had won. I never win and had stopped trying.

The winner was asked to read his piece. He leaned against the blackboard and began describing a battlefield full of death and gore and bullets zooming every which way. I asked to go the bathroom and sat in the graffiti-covered stall that reeked of pot. I couldn’t breathe properly, then I could barely breathe at all. I fell to my hands and knees and stared into the toilet, but didn’t throw up. So I went home.

Robert was lying on the couch under a blanket watching television. As I sat down across from him, he limply waved hi to me, staring at the screen vacantly as the news program repeated itself.

***

This other time I took the family kayak up the river. First I had to carry it up the street and drag it across the park on the water. You were never as alone as you were while stuck out in the middle of a river on a hot day. Waves would splash over the front and by the time you got to the other side your pants were soaked and you were sweating like mad, and you were still alone. I always went up a smaller river that went through an old factory town. The route took a couple of hours, but that small shallow river was worth it, the way it coiled back and forth and looked like the everglades with tree roots sticking out of the bank.

She looked like the Lady of Shalott, the way her long black skirt drifted in the grey water. I kayaked past her, and she didn't seem to notice me. I swung the kayak around and asked her if she was okay as we drifted back down the river.

She took off her skirt and I stuck it behind my seat. She was wearing only her tights and a loose shirt with a heavy metal band on the front. Her hair was wet at the bottom, but it was long and flowing and her face was incredibly pale. I rocked the kayak closer to the shore and she stepped lightly over it and sat down behind me, hugging me to keep onboard. She felt warm but I was terrified of flipping over. I paddled slowly, sticking close to the shore but not too close so that she would drag her feet. The river was quite shallow and littered with rubber tires and forgotten lumber. We had to get out and walk over to where the river veered into rapids on one side of the bank. She watched, completely soaked now, as I dragged the kayak across the pebbles and rocks. We got back in and floated down the river with the late sun throwing the shadows of the trees across us. You could see a slight haze over the river and the white dancing specks of bugs.

We beached at the mouth of the river, and I decided to walk across the train bridge as she paddled below to the south bank. I would rush down to the shore and then we would walk to get her some clothes from my house. I waded into the water with my jeans rolled up, helped her into the kayak, and showed her how to paddle. I strapped the life jacket onto her, and after she paddled up and down a few times, I ran up to the train bridge and watched her paddle underneath me.

It was after dark when I got back home. I usually started out this late. No one cared in the summer; they were happy I was outside. We snuck up to my room, and I did a load of laundry with her clothes, giving her a Michelangelo fresco t-shirt and my old jeans that didn't fit me anymore. She was tired, and I led her to my bed. She got in and went to sleep with the light on. I slept on the floor.

I woke up early in the morning and found my bed empty and a trail of bright red drops of blood on the floor. I figured she had jumped onto one of the miniature metal spearmen Robert used to collect. There was a lot of blood in the room, and the drops lay on the floor in perfect tiny circles of red. Robert stood in the hallway and told me that he had cleaned up the blood there and went back into his room.

She was gone just like that. Not quite—she’d taken sixty dollars with her. I let my parents believe I’d taken it. I wondered to myself why I didn’t try to fuck her, to at least get something out of the ordeal. Robert laughed at me, but the smile he flashed when he peeked out from his room held a hint of respect.

***

I couldn't go back to band. Mina was still in the clarinet section, so I stopped playing altogether. My family went to see a travelling medieval art exhibition downtown. I wandered between each painting dutifully, reacting to the painter’s names, and found Robert staring at the single Bruegel that had been loaned to the exhibition: a line of blind men with the first man falling into a ditch. The horrified expression of the second man as he’s pulled down by the first. The rest, oblivious in their sightlessness. And that bleak, depressing landscape. Robert was enchanted.

He found a job as a construction worker a couple of weeks later. Soon he was apprenticing as a stonemason, working on gravestones. After he’d finally managed a whole stone on his own, I decided to walk to the graveyard to see it. It was in the newest section of the cemetery. As I neared the plot, I could see four young men leaning on their shovels next to a pile of dirt, staring at an open grave, a pickup truck lumbering through the graveyard behind them. They didn’t seem to notice me. I found a fresh grave, my brother’s headstone. The stone was small and rough. It looked like it had been there for hundreds of years. It included only two dates, about three years apart, and the name of a girl.

Nearby there was a huge granite grave with a picture of stairs ascending into the sky, the ground beneath cluttered with flowers. I read the inscription, a bad poem dedicated to the only person in our town who was killed on 9/11. Everything about it depressed me. I watched the gravediggers. There was a long blast of a car horn and some raucous yowling—some kids in a car raised their middle fingers at us and drove past laughing. I walked home.

***

My mother invited a woman from work over one afternoon. She brought her two daughters, one a baby that she rocked in her arms as we ate in the dining room. Her kids were dark skinned and she was pale. Robert came up the stairs with a blanket draped over him. His eyes immediately widened at the woman with her breast out to feed her daughter. I glared at him, feeling embarrassed, but he walked straight toward us and sat down at the dinner table, the blanket staying in place. He stared at the woman's breast. She ignored him, and he stood up and left the room. My mother was mortified, as if she’d been implicated in a crime.

Another soldier who had been in the armoured car with Robert had gone on another tour to “The Stan,” as they jokingly called it. The soldier bought a large chunk of lapis lazuli rock from an Afghan. He kept it tucked securely between his legs on the flight home and didn't have to go through customs. He even held on to that chunk of unprocessed rock throughout the welcoming ceremony. The following week, a truck backed into our driveway to meet Robert, who stood in the snow with a wad of cash in his hands. The stone sat on the patio like a monolith. Robert spent months carving it: a likeness of the Madonna, the bright lapis lazuli blue shawl, Christ at her breast. I knew why his eyes had widened at my mother's friend. The statue stayed with him in the basement. He always stayed down there.

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