When I was eight years old, my brother Mark, then four and a half, followed me everywhere.
We had a game where I would stand inside the yard of the play-house in the corner of our living room, and he would open the mailbox, and peer inside, shout (loud as if I wasn’t right there) into its milky dark tunnel, “I’m home!”
And there’d be a back flap of the mailbox I’d open and when I did that the light would pour in and he’d see my face and shout “I see you, let me in!”
And I’d put my face to the hole and block out all the light again. I’d say “I’m right here!”
And that’s how it would be—both of our small faces pressed into the open ends of the mailbox, close enough to feel the heat of and smell each other’s breath, both blocking out all light, unable to see each other, but oh so incredibly close…
He’d pull away from the mailbox and I’d see his face in the light, he’d say—“I’m coming in!”
And I’d jump over the playhouse’s pretend fence and hide behind it, then Mark would enter to the spot I had just been, and he’d say “I’m home, where are you?”
And I’d come around to the outside of the mailbox and look in. But then he’d say, “Stop running away, Jacob, I just wanna play with you.”
And I wouldn’t know what to say, so I’d run outside of our real house and he’d chase me but I’d be hiding in a bush and as he ran blinking into the sun I’d jump out and scare him and he’d start to cry and I’d say “please don’t cry, I love you.”
After our grandmother died a long month after a cancer diagnosis, Mark started to get terrified. Suddenly, everything, including himself, was mortal. He lay in bed, eight, and I sat beside him, eleven and a half, and he asked quivering questions to the ceiling, no light except for the occasional blue blinking of his computer’s power button:
“What does it mean to die?
“When will I die?
“When will you die?
“Where do we go when we die?
“Why do people have to die?”
And to all these I would answer, “That’s very, very far away, don’t think about it now.”
Then I’d go back to my own bed, walking through the hallway with my eyes closed, in case I saw her ghost. Some nights I would have nightmares.
The worst dream I had I was in Mark’s room with Mark, and he was asking those questions, and then her ghost appeared, suddenly, leaning over a lamp. I pointed to her, and Mark turned around, but he didn’t see her…
We were like turtles in the dark, wanting to swim up towards the moon’s shape on the surface of water. But we kept mistaking each other’s pale lit shell below us for the moon, and so we’d spiral back, and back.
Here is a poem from the collection, which I set to music: