8   +   8   =  

My brother is the only boy. He inherits our family name, humor, and wariness of strangers. Like the prince in the stories, he is tall and golden haired. He should be the third son. The first inherits; the second fights the wars; and the third pursues art or God. That’s the role he should fulfill. His fingers are long and tapered. I can’t always picture his face, but I can always see his lithe arms holding a guitar, a kitten, my hand… He paints with his elegant fingers, makes music with confidence, and nurses animals and people back to health. He, more than my sister or I, has our mother’s kindness. The world haunts his eyes. He should be allowed to retire from it. He should be given the time to rediscover beauty. He would save all the baby birds fallen from their nests. He’d kiss all the skinned knees. He’d be a heroic, if secondary, character.

The air in Central Florida is a presence. A character. It can become so thick it chokes you. The air is palpable in the summer, and Floridians build arm strength from swimming through it.

Our grandfather is the patriarch and, some even whisper, a prophet. Even those of a skeptical and cynical nature trust his wisdom. He mixes tinctures and tonics. Cures blights. Grafts new life from old lines. Raises sweet corn in the Florida sugar sand. He shapes wood and molds young men. In blue jeans and work boots, they leave their sweat-stained hats on my grandmother’s scrubbed table. When I am grown, they will tip those hats at me like they do to her. “Ma’am,” they’ll say. Soft like a caress. Like they talk to their horses. Older men stop too—like the young men but more stooped from years in the hot sun—and men in suits and ties. His pastor and ours. They stop with their Bibles, though none are as well-worn from reading or as marked from studying as his own. They ask my grandmother for refreshment and wait until she leaves the room. He answers their questions on doctrine and life. Our grandfather is a patriarch, a prophet, a wiseman.

So many plants that flourish here don’t belong: Brazilian pepper, Melaleuca, air potatoes, water hyacinth. They displace the native species. Animals too. Pythons eat their way through the everglades. Lionfish spawn quickly in the warm ocean and even adapt to river water. Feral cats decimate native wildlife and eat heartily on our doorsteps.

My cousins live right next door. Their father calls my mother a witch because she can cure a headache by rubbing your feet, and she brought my dog back from death with nothing but charcoal and water. She mixes and bakes love into all her dishes. Children grow strong from eating her meals, but his cooking burns all the way through them. Her garden is overgrown. Nettle and cactus thrive there as well as petunias and clover. “Ingredients for her potions,” he says. She spins a web of contentment around all those in her care. He spits the words at her like a curse for there is a power in her kindness, one that he cannot understand.

The thunderhead builds behind the loblolly bays. The green of their leaves is waxy and dark. In the spring and summer, the white of the blossoms stands out in sharp contrast. During the rare winter storm, there are no white flowers with their yellow centers, and no sweet scents to break the beautiful monotony and menace of dark green leaves blowing against angry clouds. Nothing except the leaves’ silvery undersides; a startling softness in the storm’s brutality.

My father picks up hitchhikers. Regularly and with little thought for his own safety. He mostly picks up people who have broken down or run out of gas, trudging to the nearest gas station. He occasionally finds someone who is traveling far from home. He will take them to the bus stop, the train station, his church. Once he mistook a prostitute for a hitchhiker, and twice he has invited genies into his truck. All three asked him the same thing: “What do you want? More than anything? I can give it to you.” But he knew they couldn’t. No love and no resurrections. They are both too messy. For prostitutes. For genies. Maybe even for gods. For months after my sister dies, he walks everywhere. Afraid who he might meet on the road, and with what they might tempt him.

The tickweed blankets the horse pastures. Yellow circles balance on the end of spindly green stems. They sway drastically in the slightest breeze, bobbing and weaving. Only the smallest butterflies can land on the flowers without bending the bloom to the ground.

My grandmother grows African violets. She starts them on her windowsills from leaves plucked off flourishing plants. The pots are small, and she covers them with clear plastic cups. There is nothing special about the pots, or the windowsill, or the plants, but there is something special about her. Under her care the violets grow large and strong. Surround her home. Climb its walls. Hang from its windows. And those are just the violets. Imagine what she does with trees and vines. Imagine the thorns and roses, the overwhelming scent of the orange blossoms. When she walks in her gardens, the flowers bloom in her wake, the vines thicken, and the fruit grow heavy.

The sugar sand is deep and fine. It fills the wheel tracks and the pastures. Dogs dig shallow pits into the damper, cooler, and tighter-packed sand below. They flop in the sweet relief it provides. Walking through the sand is difficult. In the height of summer, even the red-orange clay of the dirt road loses its elasticity and becomes a loose drift of baking hot earth that you must wade through. It dyes everything—shoes, socks, even skin—a burnt umber.

My uncle names us all. Not our common, run-of-the-mill names that we write on school assignments and government forms, but the important ones. Our family names. Our binding names. He is the middle brother. Quiet and less assuming than my father or their eldest brother; he’s gentler and angrier too, and he names us all. We grow into our names or they grow into us. Like seeds planted and well-tended. He has always been his mother’s favorite. They grow in us and thrive. The good parts and the ill. Because he names us, he holds power over us, and he shares it with all he deems worthy. Any he claims as family. “Blessed be the tie that binds,” he says. Not in Christian love, but in darker and more ancient rites—those of clan and blood and land.

The Peace River looks like sweet tea, like weakly brewed coffee, like a small river in Central Florida. In many places it is only ankle-deep, and the sun shines off the water and the rippled sand beneath. In other places, the water is deep; it hides alligators and snapping turtles and dead trees waiting to tear out canoe bottoms. It smells of the cow pastures it wends through and the swampy soil that forms its banks.

My father’s eldest brother married the woman who trains the wild animals that live in the scrub around our small town. They visit me while my mother visits my sister’s grave. My mother plants moss roses to try and keep weeds from swallowing everything. When the caretaker mows, he runs over the toys left in lieu of a headstone for the infant buried next to my sister. When my mother returns to work, years after my sister’s death, my aunt begins visiting her grave.

My aunt does not drive, so she hitches rides. She doesn’t tell my uncle or my mother. This is something she does on her own. Before anyone visits, she makes sure there are fresh flowers. “I don’t want your mother to think our little one has been forgotten,” she says.

“How do you know when to go?” I ask.

“My birds tell me. They haven’t forgotten either.”

Fire regenerates scrub. The sparse forest of my childhood burns naturally. It chokes back the underbrush and adds much needed nutrients into the thin soil. Fields of palmetto interspersed with cypress domes burn black. Ash-coated and barren until the new growth breaks through—green and shocking against the char—stronger than before.

My sister is the eldest, not just of my siblings, but also of our cousins next door. She takes care of us. During my aunt’s divorce, she finds my cousins at their recess every day to check on them. It’s not a maternal instinct, but a fraternal one. An instinct bred in a foxhole. She’s the consummate, stoic survivor, and she’s going to bring us with her if she can. She drags us behind her on a makeshift gurney or carries us on her back even though our weight changes her gait. Bends the curve of her spine. “You’re fucking heavy, but you’re my brother,” she says. Or we say it for her. She probably won’t say it unless she’s drunk. She’s laconic, like our brother and father. The armor she wears, the brave soldier’s façade, keeps her intact. It enables her to lead both the van- and rear- guards.

The tin roof echoes the sound. Rain bounces off it in a steady rhythm. Squirrels and cats skitter by on soft paws. Acorns and hail ping off the corrugated metal—louder than I think should be possible for such small objects. The tin roof communicates each sound and allows the world in.

My father’s eldest brother is baptized twice. Once by water and once by fire. Two men pull him from his burning pickup truck. Their girlfriends beg them not to, beg them to just leave him. The heat burns the hair off their arms. His skin comes off in their hands, but their bravery or his must appease the gods because he lives, and the truck’s gas doesn’t ignite until all three men are clear. In the hospital, he is a changed man. His beard—a lifetime’s growth—is gone, and his skin—stitched together by miracle workers—is more fragile than an infant’s.

In the spring, the front pasture is full of small white wildflowers. They are called hatpins, and on Friday afternoons, we collect them by the handfuls-make tiny bouquets for mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. The women place them in milk glass vases and jam jars. They kiss our sticky faces and thank us for our thoughtfulness. Some weeks, in early fall, the hatpins and goldenrod bloom together. The goldenrods make the bouquets brighter and remind the transplanted women of scenes foreign to their sweat-soaked, Florida-baked babes.

My cousins are opposites: Lizzie a peacemaker and Jennie a disturber of the peace. Lizzie, with flaxen blonde hair and clear blue eyes, is born beautiful and calm.

“Such a little princess,” the women at church whisper. Just loud enough for us to hear. “And not just pretty, but so well behaved!”

She grows tall like my siblings, and like them, her hair is golden. In private, Lizzie is funny like the uncles, but in public she lives up to the princess title. Afraid to disappoint, I think—demure and shy, regal and tall, beautiful and poised. Unobtrusive, except in her loveliness.

Jennie stands stiffly in her good shoes and shapeless, Sabbath dress. “Too smart for her own good,” the church ladies say. Loudly and directly at us.

“Too big for her britches,” our grandmother says, even though Jennie is short. Her brown hair, storm gray eyes, and direct gaze aren’t endearing, especially not when there’s a doll of a sister to gush over.

“Perhaps she’s a changeling,” someone mutters, but never in church and never to her face.

The blue jays screech. The woodpeckers cry. The hawk’s call is loud, and all the books agree, quite distinct. It holds its red-tinged wings wide as it swoops low and lazily climbs in circles back into the blue sky.

When he is very small, a baby in our mother’s arms, lightning strikes him. A side flash probably. Later fire ants and then scorpions pierce him. Banana spiders bite him. The scrub poisons and immunizes him. When he is ten, the lightning strikes again. He comes to flat on his back with summer rain kissing his face. He awakes new and invincible—an island self-contained and removed from us.

Prickly pear grows in abundance. It thrives in the heat. Add it to the list of things that cut and scrape and make the scrub a small bit less inhabitable. Every child has a story of the prickly pear and its thorns—gouging through shoes, lodging between knuckles, sticking deep enough that the whole cactus pad waves like a flag from the flesh. Don’t even get them started on the hair-like thorns, so small they are barely visible. How they itch and infect. But the cactus is good to eat. It stores water like the desert plant that it is. And the flowers, waxy and soft, flout the austerity of the environment.

When our mother tickles our sister’s back before our nap and at bedtime, she can feel the beginnings of wings. Small, sharp nubs. When they break the surface, they are hard and velvet-covered, like a calf’s horns and just as itchy. She rubs her back against anything stationary—fences, trees, and me as we fall asleep. She is five when the car hits her, and the delicate bones in her wings are still visible through the taut, translucent skin covering them. “God must have needed his smallest angel home,” they offer. The words are meant to be comforting, but the hitch on “angel” reveals their uncertainty. It shows in the way their eyes slide away, in the way they pull their children into their arms, distancing them from us.