THE TROUBLE started when Margot bought Daniel the new bed. Her other, living children recognized the gift for what it was—an act of love—and demanded new beds for themselves.
“But you have not grown so tall as Daniel!” Margot told them.
“But Daniel does not live,” they said, and then they added, “here,” because Margot looked with unbearable forlornness at the king-sized mattress she had dressed with such hospital-corner precision that the children expected someone to die in it.
Though the children had each been sleeping on the slim twin box springs of their youths, they briefly dropped the question of beds, fearing that they had made a dire mistake. Eighteen years ago, the four siblings had told their mother that her youngest son had died. They worried that the truth would kill her: Daniel had not died. He’d met a woman in the wilderness, learned the trade of axe-carving, foresworn the family, and refused to come back.
And yet: Maybe their mother could have withstood a traitorous child more easily than a dead one. They first suspected it years ago, at the funeral they staged for their youngest brother. The funeral home had offered an unmourned male body as the heft in the coffin. Tossing in the dirt, each sibling had turned the shovel upside-down. Immediate family buries their dead reluctantly,the rabbi had said. To show her extra reluctance, Margot threw the shovel itself into the pit, where it landed with a thunk so deep they all feared the casket would split open and reveal their lie.
At that point, Abby had been the only child living at home. Benjy refused to fly in for a fake funeral, and their mother so rebuked Abby for planning the event without him that Abby left the house for a period of seven years—during which first Benjy, then the twins moved back to their childhood bedrooms. The twins shared a room. Daniel’s, they were instructed, would remain empty in preparation for his return.
“He’s dead, Ma,” said the twins, not knowing whether Margot sensed their lie or simply refused to accept an unspeakable truth.
Six children, and Margot did not feel she had a spare.
And then Margot bought Daniel a new bed, big enough for a man of six-feet four-inches and two hundred ten pounds of pure muscle, as if knowing that Daniel had at that moment taken the final step in his year-long plan to come home.
I WAS at the time of the bed-buying seventeen and the youngest of my siblings. Following their examples, I had not made any plans for a futile attempt at leaving home. They have married each other, whispered the gossips around town. It wasn’t true, though I never bothered to correct them.
I alone had never met Daniel. My mother and I lit the yearly yahrzeit candles and recited kaddish until at last, just after my thirteenth birthday, Caroline took me roughly by the elbow and explained the ruse. Caroline had been rough since an event around the time of my birth, when her twin brother Charlie nearly got her run over by a freight train. Our mother had insisted he drive her to the next train station, fifteen miles from town center, sure she’d seen my brother in a passing locomotive. Charlie was so nervous that this would be true—spectral Daniel, alive and whole, chugging past his grieving mother—that he accelerated beneath the falling gates. The gate smashed the back window where Caroline sat, permanently blinding her right eye.
Daniel had been falsely dead for half a year by then. The terror of the event pushed me four weeks early into the world, weighing nearly a stone. What a monster I’d have been had I spent a full nine months with her, my mother is fond of saying.
I have now spent thirty years.
MY MOTHER had been old when she had me, and as far as anyone knew alone, so the town rechristened her Sarah or Mary, depending whether they worshipped Friday nights or Sunday mornings. I had never had an interest in who my father was. This was not the central mystery I was suckled on. The central mystery was: Daniel. Though not phrased as a question, I was born understanding that it was. Daniel, Daniel, the unsolvable problem.
AT THE time of the new bed, the answer to the problem had been trying for a year to extricate himself from his life. He had a willowy wife who lived in a cavity he’d axed from a tree, and four feral young children whose howls he could not distinguish from the wolves, and he had started to suspect that he was going crazy. By night, he thought he could hear the soft splats of his mother hollowing gigantic vats of ice cream into the letters of his name.
My mother sold flowers, plucked from our backyard, in the cemetery where she thought her son was buried. But Daniel’s mother had owned the first ice cream shop in the town of Valley Mount. She had raised her children in a sticky-sweet apartment above the store, fed them ice cream every meal, and instructed them to run the long street that gave Valley Mount its name four times daily after school. By consequence, the children were athletic and slim, and also the happiest and most enterprising group of siblings Valley Mount had ever reared. Come winter, they started a sledding service from the top of the road, returning the sleds by turns along their four uphill laps. The twins purchased wooden sleds on runners to replace the frisbees with which the business had started; Abby dispatched riders two-by-two at regular intervals from the top of the hill; Benjy oversaw the first-aid kit for sliced hands and the sewing kit for sliced mittens. Five cents per band-aid, he told me proudly that winter we revived the sleds, twenty per overnight glove repair, twice that for repairs in time to go home to irate mothers.
Daniel, born five years after the twins, sat regally in the sleds that Benjy pulled uphill, waving or scowling at the downhill customers according to his caprices. Reportedly, he became the sledding hill’s star attraction. Children spent their long days at school hoping for a smile from Daniel on his ascending throne, or stewing in the memory of a snub. Benjy didn’t mind the extra weight, because Daniel had been my inverse: he’d clung to our mother an extra month and come out five pounds even, clenched fists the size of walnuts. He grew sluggishly until the age of twelve, after which he seemed to double in size every few months. He leapt from Charlie’s hand-me-downs to Benjy’s in a season, then outpaced them both.
That was the logic behind our mother buying the new bed. Daniel had been seventeen when he disappeared, and still growing at a phenomenal pace. Who knew how big a mattress he would fill two decades later?
“We could use the space, Mom,” the twins appealed. Like the rest of us, they were sleeping on slim mattresses on the floor, worn low as tatami by years of their weight.
“So buy yourselves a bed,” said our mother.
If there had been little doubt before, now there was none: Margot missed one lost son more than she loved five remaining children.
AS MY siblings trickled back home after Daniel’s abandonment, one after the next foregoing promising careers in law, banking, medicine for the decrepitude of our tiny town—farmland and ice cream shops overtaken by identical condos and fenced-in nursing homes—those who remembered the glory of the fatherless ice-cream family first offered help, then diagnoses. Finally, they stayed away.
By the time I came along, four weeks ahead of time beneath the clanging red lights, my family was friendless. The sledding service had been so long defunct that no one remembered it until my sixth winter, when I struggled downhill on the lid of a garbage can.
“What happened to you?” said Benjy, the most solicitous of my siblings, pointing to the bruises at the backs of my thighs while Caroline gave me a bath. Upon seeing the rusty lid coated with melting snow in the garage, he briefly restarted the sledding service. He even named it after me, but no one had their heart in it. Charlie had grown squat and fat years earlier; he agreed only on the condition that he taxi-drive the sleds uphill, Caroline at the dispatch office calling him away to convey passengers from the bus stop to the bowling alley. Abby returned from her seven-year exile too tired to buy new runners. Benjy grew greedy, overcharging my friends to the point that Lucas—he had a tail of curlicue hair at the back of his neck, which I too often saw flying in the wind; he was the only boy in my class faster than me, though my match at checkers—refused to ride. The rest of my class soon followed. After only a fortnight, I was back to trashcan lids alone.
THE WINTER before my high school graduation, in the midst of the bed-buying stand-off, some frost-thawed nostalgia compelled me to the top of that old hill. I stood at the crest, looking east. I could see the whole town: my house, my high school, the elementary fields where I used to trail Luke’s curlicue hair, the leveled spot where my mother’s ice-cream shop once stood, marked by a small cross Benjy had chiseled into the curb of the bus station parking lot.
That was the day that Daniel came home. I found him first, at the peak of the hill, rising from the west. It had never occurred to me to search the other side of the hill, the one we didn’t sled down. Why not? To this day, I ask myself that question. Everything might have turned out differently if any one of us—Margot-called-Sarah-or-Mary, Abby or Benjy, the twins, me—had simply thought to turn around. The wilderness, we were told. Our own backyard.
From the first, I felt a fear of him. He was nothing like my siblings, who had bathed me and dragged me up frosted slopes. He was an enormous stranger, top-heavy, like an oven on stilts. He stared at me, impassive. I understood instantly why the kids at school had craved his smile; I thought his contempt might be strong enough to kill me.
Daniel didn’t smile, or sneer. He twisted one side of his mouth into the strange, sexless leer I still see in my fretful dreams on floor-low mattress cotton.
“You must be my sister,” said Daniel. Perhaps there was no one else he could imagine at the top of that hill, which the first iteration of my family had conquered.
“Mom bought you a bed,” I said. By saying it, I recognized him as my brother.
I trailed him home, watching his tangled black hair leap with every step, knowing he was a miracle. Some kind of dark angel. When our mother saw him in the kitchen, she pressed one hand to her left temple, another into the air before her. Her palm faced Daniel’s chest, her fingers spread. For a moment, I thought she might push him away. Stay back, I half-expected her to stay.
But Daniel clasped her fingers in his, and then our mother pulled him to her breast. She wept. Among the siblings I recognized, a deliberation took place in furious whispers.
“A miracle,” they decided to confirm.
Our mother decided to attend Friday-night synagogue for the first time in my life, praying and praying. As soon as she was out the door, Daniel turned on my siblings and said, “You buried me, didn’t you?”
I had been wondering whether my brothers and sisters would have love remaining for Daniel. Did they miss their long-lost brother, or hate him for leaving? Did they recognize him any more than I did?
Abby said, “You buried us.”
THAT NIGHT, I watched my mother watching Daniel sleep in his grand new bed. Benjy stood behind her in the hallway, looking through the open bedroom door with murderous intent.
“Consider college,” Benjy said to me, his eyes strange.
The next morning, Benjy was gone. He even took the bedding off his twin-sized mattress. We found the worn-thin jersey cotton in the kitchen trashcan, wet and smelling of alcohol, an empty vodka bottle crowning the set.
“He didn’t have the heart to burn the sheets,” said Charlie, to comfort our mother.
Margot commenced cooking Daniel a breakfast of scrambled eggs and—I had never seen it in the house before—vanilla ice cream. But she was saying, “Benjy, Benjy.”
“He just wanted to make a scene,” said Caroline. “He wanted us to wake up and beg him not to go.” She extended a spoon toward the ice cream, but our mother, taking advantage of her blind eye, slapped her hand away.
ONCE DANIEL came home, my mother and I were haunted by a trickling-away. First one, then the next of my siblings left us. They used to think that, without their presence to sustain it, the lie of Daniel’s death would evaporate; our mother would wake one morning knowing she’d been duped. But with their youngest brother home, they no longer felt themselves necessary. They returned to careers in law, banking, medicine. They told me to come with them, but they forgot that I had nothing to return to. I had grown up with the mother who sold flowers in the cemetery, not the one who launched them uphill on the energy of ice cream.
My mother bought her absent children enormous new beds, one larger the next, until I alone retained the single doll’s bed of my childhood.
That was when Daniel asked to see his grave.
I didn’t want to take him. I still feared this brother, the last one left to me. But I admit that I hoped for a smile from him, just once. I sensed it might assuage my fears. He had never scowled at me, but he kept searching my face as if for some congenital defect along my hairline or the inclines of my temples.
I took him to the cemetery. Our mother had abandoned her post selling flowers, but her frost-coated wooden sign and a few wilted stems poked like pitchforks from the frozen earth.
Daniel considered his gravestone. What was he thinking? Was he sorry toward Abby, for having kicked her out by virtue of his fake death? Was he grateful to her, for trying to spare our mother pain?
“Beloved brother and son,” he read. I nodded. Someone who called him brother must have loved him, at some point. He slowed his fingers deep into the inside pocket of his jacket. He could have withdrawn anything. A quill. An axe.
He took out a penknife, which glinted silver for a moment before the snowfall dulled my view. Then he knelt to the stone—my brother Daniel, on one knee atop his own burial mound—and began to carve.
His strength was inhuman. A machine must have inscribed the stone the last time it was altered. F, he carved. Was someone Daniel’s friend? Had he returned to find some long-lost schoolboy partner in stickball, gum-spitting, and other minor mischief?
A,his hard hands drew.
I watched him, snowdrifts freezing on my eyelashes. “I have nephews, then?” I said.
“You left them, too?”
Daniel turned on me, knife in hand—and, at last, he smiled.
I can’t explain it: I ran. I slipped. I skidded down the hill on a bruised tailbone, then stood up at the bottom and kept running.
On the track behind my high school, midway across the schoolyard, I got outrun. A coiled tail of hair blew before me like bait on a stick. It was so close. I reached for the lock of hair and tugged.
Lucas stopped dead. My momentum propelled me past him, and I found myself ahead of him for the first time, looking back. His hands were on his upper thighs, his gaze on his knees, his back parallel with the track, every last bit of the landscape and his body one thing dusted white.
He raised his head to look at me. His mouth was gaping open under a thin bronze moustache. He was breathing hard. The gasping sound close to my ears told me that I was, too.
“I’ve been waiting ten years for you to do that,” said Luke.
He arranged his teeth into my second smile of the day. “Grab me.”
LUKE CAME to the paradise of beds. “Which one, Goldilocks?” he asked me, standing in the hall, five open bedroom doors arrayed around him, one closed. Abby, Benjy, Caroline, Charlie: all of their enormous unslept-on mattresses and delicately inlaid headboards pointed at us through the doorways. I caught Luke by the eyes. I nodded to my own bed, the only low, thin mattress on the floor.
He looked at me with the sorrow of his knowledge: you’re loved least.
He took me by the hand. He laid me down.
IN THE morning, my mother opened my bedroom door to find bearded Luke in my childhood bed. To my surprise, she grew hysterical. She pulled the covers off of Luke and pushed him naked onto our front porch. She pointed to Daniel’s bedroom door, still closed. “He encouraged this, didn’t he?”
I understood her, with such ease I could not believe I’d failed to understand before: my mother wanted me to stay. She could not bear the thought of my leaving her for Luke, leaving her alone with her last and favorite son, back from the dead.
My mother shut the door on Luke. For drama, she threw the bolt. For drama, he banged a few times, fruitlessly. I watched through the window as he ran naked to the mailbox at the end of my driveway, raised its red flag, and disappeared around the corner.
The silence in the house seemed heavy and eternal. My mother stared hard at Daniel’s bedroom door, still closed, as if unperturbed by or unaware of the scene that had just passed. My siblings had had to stick around to keep Daniel dead. Perhaps our mother sensed this. She said to me, only seventeen years old: “Kill him.”
BEFORE I could, we had to excavate the grave.
My mother and I trudged to the cemetery at midnight. We spent hours digging the snow, frost, and dirt with our hands, until I felt something cold-stiffened and flat. If not for the ice, the casket would have been soggy with age. The wooden box was exactly as old as I was.
The shovel was already there, wedged into the splintered lid. We used the blade to pry the coffin open. The man inside was only a skeleton by then. His left temple had been smashed in by something that might have been the blunt side of an axe. My mother sighed a sigh of romance, a tune I recognized from my wondrous agonizing night with Luke.
I was afraid. Given the savagery yet to come that night, I am surprised that I was afraid of this, some old bones in a rotting box of wood. But maybe I was only fearing my own newborn suspicion: that my siblings had been less than innocent, allowing me to ask the wrong central question of my childhood. Where was our father?
“Mom?” I said.
“Your brother didn’t like a man to come lying in my bed,” she said. “He was always a strange one, Daniel. Thought he was a king, with a king’s authority.”
“That he was alive?” My mother contemplated the skeleton in the casket, snowdrifts blurring her profile as night gentled to dawn. For one final moment, I could see her lovely as she must have been when she sold ice cream and conceived me. “What does anyone know? I preferred him dead, of course, to the alternative.”
We took the bones in hand and collected them in the burlap bag my mother used to use to throw away dead flowers. Perhaps I knew, even then, that I would never leave my childhood home the way my siblings had. Perhaps I knew that Luke could run and run, knock and knock, again and again lay me down on my too-small mattress, but he would never snuff the horror growing already in my mother’s and my hearts. Bone powder settled on our hands. Soil dusted our hair. The wooden planks grew ever emptier, ever cleaner. Together we were clearing out the casket, thin and low: together, we were making a new bed.