By Julia Holmes

Small Beer Press
July 2010, Paperback, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-1931520652



Early on the morning of Independence Day, I lay awake on the pile of old coats—castoffs from the Brothers of Mercy—and watched over my brother. We were still living in the small windowless room by the train station, a room to which electricity was so feebly supplied that we actually conducted our lives within an even smaller circle of light in the center of the room and used the grimy corners for kicking our boots angrily into something when we returned home from a day of work as civil servants. I worried that my brother and I were becoming just like the two brothers in the famous story about the two brothers marooned on an island together.

My brother was sprawled naked under the kitchen table; his face was swollen and dark with dried blood. The pliers lay nearby. The portrait of Captain Meeks gazed down disapprovingly from his place above the door. Empty bottles stood around my brother’s head like concerned towns-people who had found their king unconscious in the street.

I could hear the boots of the Brothers of Mercy coming down the hall, kicking at the doors of civil servants throughout the building. Thanks be to God! It’s Independence Day! I twisted the sleeve of my gray smock around my head in an effort to make them disappear, to unwind time and go back go back, and then I heard them drop the coil of rope outside our door. My brother’s eyes slid open. He spewed vomit across the dusty floorboards and then closed his eyes again. The flies that had been studying his face jumped up and hung in the air, presumably full of hope.


I cleaned my brother’s face with a damp cloth. Where the rotten tooth had been, the jaw radiated heat. “It’s all this drinking,” I whispered soothingly, in a tone that I hoped reminded him of our mother. I helped him into his gray smock and settled him in the kitchen chair, so I could work the air-dried, crusted socks of the workingman over his ice-cold feet.

I divvied up the last of the tea between our cups, filled the empty tea envelope with gunpowder, and then filed it away in the tea box. I turned back to the gas stove to light it. I listened to the tick, tick, tick of the sparker clicking, and I studied the wooden tea box, now packed with gunpowder.

“Today is the day, Brother,” I said and smiled conspiratorially at him. He was hunched over the table, dribbling blood. Yes, a brother is a wonderful thing! But one eventually wants more out of life. I poured scalding water from the little pot we shared over the scant tea leaves and let them steep. How is it that the human being outgrows new pleasures so quickly, yet he can settle with such conviction into the most intolerable arrangements? I watched the steam rising from our cups; I heard a train, bound for the Sheds, picking up speed along the rickety tracks. The radio buzzed vaguely in one of the black corners of our room. Consider the unlucky housefly born to die in this room, never to know more of life.

My brother struggled to his feet and searched the dark corners of the room cursingly for his boots. I wrapped the tea box carefully in a canvas sack and pushed it to the bottom of our workbag. I put the fuse I had made from the laundry cord in my pocket and gave the box of matches to my brother, as a precaution.


We made our way to the execution. The streets were filling up with other civil servants, all of us pouring out of our gray holes into the austere blue light of the city in early autumn. Out of the catacombs, here we come, an army of the dead resurrected to pour the punch!

Every few blocks, my brother spat a wad of blood-soaked cloth from his mouth and replaced it with another. Whenever the heavy coil of rope began to hurt his shoulder, he shifted it to the other. I carried our workbag, the tea box knocking ominously, awkwardly against my leg.

We hit the outer ring of heavy industry. The factories were operating at full power on Independence Day, and a thick white smoke chugged out of the old stacks and spread into a thin fog over the city. The factory courtyards were strewn with pink and yellow flowers blown from the embattled trees and ground into the asphalt by marching feet: the bedraggling of the living world come autumn. In the distance, I could see the high wall of the prison and beyond that the black-green line of the river.

The closer we marched to the heart of the city, the more beautiful the world was: the smell of the ash-dusted loaves of bread cooling in the bakeries; the crisp, clean autumn air and the harmless bell tones of the shop doors opening and closing block after block; the halved blood oranges arrayed on wooden spikes by the fruit vendors; the cherry-red taillights of industrious trucks idling in the street, the roadside weeds capped with sweet little flowers—even the garbage-eating birds were puffed up with health and self-love. Our luckier brothers and sisters swarming around us now, bright-faced and in a rush, chugging out plumes of phantom breath as they hurried toward the park. Boys and girls were chasing after the cake carts as they rumbled down the street, the police horses shaking their harnessed heads, jostling the silver-threaded tassels braided into their forelocks for Independence Day. Whenever a young woman passed, a surge of atmosphere . . . perfume or powder . . . and my brother would turn his head to watch her go, a deposed king sniffing the air, dragging his chains. I carried our workbag; my brother hauled our rope. Young women watched us indifferently: Two Civil Servants Doing Their Work. I shifted our workbag on my shoulder and felt the reassuring knock of the gunpowder box. 


My brother and I climbed into the Great Tree and out onto the Reynolds Branch. As someone with a lifelong interest in the theater (I’m an artist, myself), I had already spent long hours thinking about Reynolds, the man who had carved his name into the living wood. Why had he done it? (Motivation) Had they hung him for his act of vandalism, or had he been the hangman? (Backstory) I touched the raised scar of Reynolds’s name for luck as I crawled over it. Poor Reynolds, whoever he was . . . in our world, his name meant death.  

My brother stowed the coil of rope, and I wedged our workbag carefully between two smaller branches. I could smell burned sugar and woodsy smoke, as if secret, smoky fires had been lit in the damp woods: the last of the icing pots being doused. I watched the families, those inviolate clusters of serene and healthy human beings who practice their craft in the spacious workshop of the family home and whose members boast expertise in all extremes—jealousy, resentment, devotion, concern—while my brother and I were two amateurs obliged to keep these emotions running on our own in a windowless room by the train station. I gathered all my worries to the lathe so that I could turn and turn and turn on myself. Was brotherly love enough—was it a sufficient source, or could a man such as myself, even burning the oil of it frugally and with utmost care, exhaust it? Would I end up alone? God, what had happened to us? We were ordinary boys! Raised to be ordinary boys. We saved coins in the old coin box under the stairs so we could visit the cake carts in the park every Sunday; we pretended to hunt down the Enemy in the yard; we pledged our soft hearts to the Captain. Only this spring, my brother and I were among our brothers, in our pale suits. How had brotherhood collapsed to a mere pair of brothers? I scanned the crowd for bachelors so that I could stoke the hatred in my heart.

“Look at them,” I said, spitting the words.

My brother shrugged.

I pretended to watch the Founders Play from my branch. I fixed an insipid, play-enjoying smile on my face and held the workbag casually in my lap. I worked the fuse slowly into the clamp I had fastened to the outside edge of the tea box. Though the air was cool, my undershirt was soaked in sweat.

The Chief of Police appeared onstage, and the people fell silent. The actor playing Captain Meeks started up the steps to the stage. I could hear the thunk, thunk of his boots on the hollow stairs. I touched my brother’s arm, and he turned to look at me—oddly—as if we were becoming reacquainted after a long estrangement, and I showed him the fuse snaking out of the workbag and under my gray workman’s smock.

“What are you doing?” he said, holding his jaw in agony as he spoke.

“I’m doing this,” I said matter-of-factly, but I felt suddenly adrift. There’s a kind of narrative discontinuity (at least in one’s family) that can make a person feel that he is suddenly on the perilous outer edge of his sanity. What was I doing? I was doing this for my brother, for myself, in memory of my mother and my father. Check. I was doing it to make the guilty pay. I looked with disgust down on the people staring slack-jawed at the stage. Check. Then I glanced over the great gleaming length of the Independence Day cake, as wide as the park path and snaking for hundreds of yards through the park. I imagined the feel of the soft, white flesh of the cake against my tongue, the surge of sugar against my brain. I revolted myself: the hour of death was building my appetite. I laid my hand over the canvas sack, felt the edge of the tea box. All of us would simply have to be destroyed.

“Give me the matches,” I said to my brother. He ignored me. “Matches, matches,” I repeated in an intense, persuasive whisper, but he ignored me. I reached toward his pocket, where I could see the outline of the matchbox, and he slapped my hand away, and I reached again, and he hit me much harder, and I nearly fell from the branch. A few people had started to watch us and were laughingat our antics, laughing at us as if we were clowns—I mean, professional clowns.

“Fine,” I said, “Let’s just sit here and watch an innocent man get Reynolds’d.” I hardly recognized my brother. He had the eyes of a viper and the soft, bloated face of a sick child, and I tried to remember that he was once a good-looking man with a sweet and forgiving nature. “Well, I won’t let it happen,” I said, but I wasn’t sure what I was really capable of without him. Maybe my brother and I were just two ancient and retarded animals, new to New Creation but anciently equipped, warped only to each other. The actor playing Captain Meeks was deep into the standard patter now, and I was impatient for them to pull some poor condemned man to the stage so that everything else could happen.

I heard the condemned man gasp for breath as a policeman pulled the black bag over his head, plunging him into darkness. The Chief of Police glanced up at us, and my brother began lowering the rope. I held the coiled fuse in my hand as if it were a dead mouse that I had rescued and cared for and grown to love, and I whispered, “Matches, please, Brother, matches.” He ignored me. I tried to think of all the things two industrious brothers could make from this enormous tree. I tried to calculate how many boards could be milled from the trunk, tried to remember how many floorboards were in the front room of our mother’s house (I used to lie there for hours and count them). 

It occurred to me that, momentarily, I would cease to exist in the mind of the condemned man. I was willing to blow my brother and myself into oblivion, but the thought of my extinction in this stranger’s brain flooded my body with fear. “Matches, matches, matches, Brother.” I was near tears. My brother ignored me. I begged the truth to come into my mind, and I promised to do whatever the universe required of me if only it would show me the way. The Chief of Police lowered the noose over the condemned man’s head. My heart—that once-powerful organ!—pounded indecisively beneath my gray smock, and the evening bells filled the air, solemn and beautiful to all of us, and I saw that the condemned man tilted his head to listen.