The Other Hemisphere
When we were in high school, my older brother, Fields, had a sweater he could light on fire. He'd touch the hem with a match and the fuzz would burst into flame—then extinguish. I was always goading him to light it. Church, family dinner, a reception at the Army-Navy Country Club: what occasion couldn't benefit from combustible clothing?
The sweater itself was modest in appearance; its black-and-white pattern looked like the snow on an after-hours television screen. But we treated that sweater like a pet that needed to be walked and socialized. It loved parties, but was also interested in everyday activities like grocery shopping or waiting at stopped traffic lights with testy commuters.
"Tell me when he's looking," Fields would say, and I'd eye a man stopped in the car beside ours.
"Now!" I'd say.
We'd both keep our faces steeped in a look of utter boredom as the flames crested over my brother's shoulder, licked at the glass, and then vanished.
Growing up, Fields and I were opposites. He was loud, red-haired and athletic. I was a skeletally thin girl, introverted and anxious. He enjoyed leaping out of windows, driving too fast, and dropping acid before school. I liked to read, build dioramas and collect costumes from thrift stores. I loved the idea of being somebody else, and Fields couldn't help but be himself. When our parents tried to discipline him, he'd fall to the floor and hoot like a monkey, then rub food in his hair. It was a strategy I deeply admired.
I was never brave enough to wear the sweater, myself—not even when Fields departed for college and draped it over the foot of my bed. "I'm passing the torch," he said. I left it there for a long time, unnerved by its deflated shape, by the palpable absence of him. The sweater itself was depressed. It didn't want to see anyone. It didn't want to go the grocery store. Eventually, I put it away.
In 2007, my brother called to tell me he was marrying a Chilean toothpaste model that he'd recently met and impregnated. "Her name's Ma-bel," he said. "Like the phone company."
"Have you lost your mind?" I asked.
"I think you're supposed to say congratulations."
"Okay," I said, "If her family is holding you hostage just whisper Stockholm Syndrome and I'll come save you."
I'd been trying to sound upbeat and playful, to talk the way we used to. After his most recent breakup, he'd sent me a link to nomarriage.com—a website detailing the reasons why American men were better off exchanging their fat, parasitic girlfriends for compliant foreign wives—and it had made me nervous.
"Chile's a very Catholic country," I said. "Isn't there some kind of mandatory waiting period?"
"I'm not buying a handgun," he said. "People do this all the time."
"Okay, put her on the phone," I said.
"She doesn't speak English," he said.
"What?" Now I was really panicking. The last time I'd seen Fields his Spanish had consisted almost exclusively of profanity and phrases like please feel my iron buttocks, which no matter how sweetly said were not enough to inspire a marital swoon.
"I'm learning the language," he said. "I'm getting better. Now, I can tell her what I want for dinner."
"You are in so much trouble," I said.
"Kidding," he said. "I'm kidding."
The wedding was set for the third weekend of February. My itinerary—Portland to Dallas to Santiago to Temuco to Pucón—would take two entire days to complete. I met my parents outside the gate in Dallas. My mother had recently broken a toe, and though it was healing nicely, she'd insisted on a wheelchair. "It's a fantastic way to beat the crowds," she said and was ushered onto the airplane with the small children and the very frail.
Both of my parents were wearing khaki travel suits, the sort designed to look better than you do after a night on an airplane. They were nearing seventy years old, and I was always surprised to see their spotted hands and wobbly jawlines. In the months we'd been apart, they'd grown younger in my memory, sliding back through their fifties and into their forties. It bothered me to see them now accelerated through time, their thick hair turned to dandelion fluff.
Mom and Dad didn't seem to share my worries about Fields's wedding; in fact they were treating it like the birding adventure of a lifetime. They'd bought a book of Chilean birds, and they were frantic about their anticipated conquests. We were all seated on the airplane in a single row. My parents hunched over the book making little notes and citations.
"We'll see the Magellanic woodpecker," Mom said.
"And the Austral Pygmy-Owl," Dad added.
"And the Buff-necked ibis," Mom said.
"If he's in town."
Birds liked sewage treatment plants and graveyards, and as a result these locales were high on my parents to-do list. "You know a little Spanish," said Mom. "Maybe you could ask Mabel where to go?"
"No way," I said. My Spanish was a disaster, and I had no intention of cornering my future sister-in-law and demanding we all go to the place where the toilet ends. "What do we know about this girl, anyway?" I asked.
"We know that your brother loves her," Mom said.
"He just met her," I said.
Mom and Dad had been blissfully married for over forty years, and like any satisfied customers, they were big proponents of what had worked for them. They passed me a card to sign. It had two wedding rings on the front and the word forever written in ribbon. It looked as if it was going to fall to me to be the voice of reason. I didn't relish the role of shrewish nag, but somebody had to do it.
I stared at the card, and then, suddenly, Mom grabbed my arm. Her eyes were popped wide as if she'd received a shock. Her other hand clutched her heart.
"Are you all right?" I felt a surge of adrenaline and fear.
"Did you ever think you would see this day?" she said. "I was sure your brother was going to die, and now he's getting married."
"Jesus," I sank back in my seat. "I thought you were having a coronary."
"I'm just so happy," she said. "I feel like I can die now."
"Well, don't hurry it along." I pushed the call button and ordered her some red wine. "For your health," I said.
A few years ago, my brother had been seriously ill with ulcerative colitis. He'd wasted away and refused medical treatment. He spent time at various fasting centers where he could rest and sip unpasteurized juice. I'd endured his lectures about how strong gorillas became eating nothing but leaves. "If I get well," he said. "I'm going to move to South America and kayak for the rest of my life."
Maybe I thought he meant that metaphorically. Or maybe I thought he was aiming to visit for an extended period of time. I certainly didn't expect him to treat that statement as a sacred vow. I didn't know what I was hearing—a prophecy, a goodbye.
In Santiago, the baggage claim was a hot, windowless room. Our suitcases were mixed with those of passengers bound for a cruise ship. They milled about in their overly festive shirts and practical Dockers. Security dogs and their handlers climbed over conveyor belts and threaded through the crowds, looking for illegal produce. Pictures of suitcases with giant black scorpion tails hung on every wall. My mother—frustrated by the wheelchair but still unwilling to give up her handicapped status—called out instructions.
"I think that's our bag. That one there! That one!" She attempted small talk with the young man who pushed her chair. "Soy caliente," she said, fanning her hand in front of her face. "Muy caliente." Which, we later learned, means: "I'm horny."
With all the layovers, it took two days to get to Temuco, our final stop before the drive to Pucón. Fields met us at the airport. We staggered out of the terminal and into the hot summertime. The air was sweet with the smell of grass and warm earth.
"Over here!" Fields called. He stood in front of a silver Range Rover, waving to get our attention. He wore a stained yellow t-shirt, a ragged pair of cargo shorts and brown flip-flops that had once been white. Fields had grown up to become something of an absentminded computer genius. He gleefully picked his nose in public, wore the same pair of pants for three months, and was considered the family member most likely to leave a pot melting on the stove and burn down the house. In his spare time, he enjoyed kayaking over Chilean waterfalls.
Mom and Dad got the first hug, and then it was my turn. I hadn't seen him for over a year. The summer sun had left a dense mat of freckles on his face and arms.
"You look great," I said.
"Red Hulk," Fields said and then slipped into the grunting parlance of that childhood persona. "He ready load bag. He load good." Fields hefted one of our giant suitcases and pretended to bellow in rage as it refused to slide easily into the trunk of the Range Rover.
Mom rolled her eyes. "So where is she?"
"Where is who?" said Fields.
Fortunately, Mabel chose this moment to emerge from the terminal.
I recognized her from pictures, but in person she was easily twice as beautiful. She wore oversized, movie-star sunglasses and a sweatshirt covered with pink and white butterflies. Her long hair had been highlighted into a brassy blonde color and her teeth could, indeed, sell toothpaste. She was ten years younger than Fields. "Mucho gusto!" she said, kissing each of us on the cheek.
I examined her for signs that she was an amateur fortune hunter—perhaps one who'd made the rookie mistake of thinking my brother's torn clothing and penchant for a bare mattress and a sleeping bag were signs of careless wealth.
Mom kept patting Mabel's face, saying: "Look at you! Look at you!" And I knew Mabel had won her over. Here was the daughter she'd never had—the one that wore sparkly headbands, ruffles and little heart-shaped rings with lip-gloss inside.
Dad introduced himself as "Juancho," which he thought was Spanish for John.
"A juancho is an alligator," said Fields.
Soon my parents abandoned all attempts at Spanish and simply shouted truncated English sentences as if Mabel were both deaf and slow. "Happy," Mom shouted. "Very happy to meet you."
"Juancho!" said Dad, pleased with his newly distinctive name.
From Temuco we drove to Pucón. The car smelled like dog and mud. I was so tired that the muscles around my eyes were twitching and my face felt like a gooey substance over bone. We dropped our parents off at their posh, Bauhaus-style hotel. It rose from its densely wooded property like a child's plastic toy.
As soon as we were alone, Fields and Mabel began a heated conversation in Spanish.
"What's she saying?" I asked.
"Nothing," said Fields.
"She sounds upset."
"Everything's fine," he assured me.
Their house was one of hundreds in a sprawling suburb of identical homes. Most had bars on the windows, and in addition to installing these Fields had put deadbolts on every interior door. "Lots of thieves," he said and then grunted. "Red Hulk hate thieves."
I also had questions about Villarica, the giant volcano that loomed over the neighborhood and had a plume of smoke drifting out of its snow-covered summit. Fields, however, assured me it was extremely safe.
"When was the last time it erupted?" I asked.
"Twenty years ago," he said.
"And before that?" I asked.
Fields said that the fire station would issue three long blasts if there were an incident. "And that's it?" I said. We'd passed the fire station on our way through town. The facade had a giant mural of a fireman carrying an unconscious child from a hellish inferno. "They couldn't even save the child on the sign," I protested. Trouble was everywhere.
He showed me to my room. It was stuffy, full of boxes and clothes. I sat on the bed with the door open, waiting for Mabel to go to sleep. Even though her English was limited, I felt uncomfortable cornering Fields and asking questions when she was in the room.
I was always more anxious at night, and having a steaming volcano framed in my bedroom window was not ideal. I did a quick internet check and then snapped my laptop shut. Villarica is one of Chile's most active volcanoes—one of only four worldwide known to have a lava lake within its crater. This would account for the ominous red glow that I'd previously assumed was my imagination. I made a valiant effort not to see the volcano as a metaphor for a hasty marriage.
Growing up, our parents were convinced that Fields was a bad influence on me. Because he was wilder and a boy, they assumed he was the ringleader in all our escapades.
"It's one thing to make trouble," Dad would say to him. "But it's another thing to drag your sister into it."
It didn't matter that half of what we did was my idea. I was the one who suggested the family schnauzer could benefit from some lavender hair dye. I was the one who bought the green face paint that transformed a ho-hum family dinner into a touching story about two Martians newly arrived on Planet Earth, struggling to understand the profusion of forks beside their dinner plates, quaking with fear at the thought of the giantess who'd left her rings on the table, threaded through with napkins.
His bedroom had wallpaper along one wall: a repeat of sailing ships. And at night, when we were supposed to be asleep, we'd sketch all sorts of scenes in a glow-in-the-dark paint. They were invisible during the day, but at night the inhabitants of the ships came to life—whispery ghosts, sailors, travelers.
And yet my parents were right about one thing: I would have never bothered to do these things without Fields. He was fearless, and I was nothing but fearful, unable to really fit in at school, hiding little lumps of gum on the underside of my nightstand, leaving lipstick kisses and doodles on the bottoms of chairs thinking—when I'm older, I'll wipe them off, when I've finally kissed someone or when I've gotten into college, or when I've perfectly recited my lines in the play, or gone a whole day without embarrassing myself.
At night, I slept in an antique iron hospital bed that allegedly came from a Civil War era hospital. It had a metal undercarriage that groaned periodically, bringing to mind all the gangrenous solders who, I imagined, had died where I lay. I developed special prayers to pacify these men, to keep them from shuffling about or tapping me on the shoulder while I slept. If I had to get out of bed to use the bathroom after dark, I counted out the number of steps I could take on the carpet. I was allowed four steps, only just doable if I took big leaps to the bathroom threshold. Any more than four and the ghosts would spring forward and chew my feet to bloody stumps.
I always knew that the ghosts weren't real. I knew better, but deep in my body I felt the danger. The brain promises things will be okay but the body disbelieves. And so I invoked an old magic—the power of ritual, four steps to keep you safe, one prayer to pacify the dead—each an artificial threshold behind which I was protected.
Later that night I cornered Fields as he went to the kitchen for a snack. "Okay, genius," I said. "What's going on? Are you really in love with her?"
He shrugged, stuffing half an orange into his mouth. "Sure," he said.
I didn't find this especially comforting. "Prove it," I said.
"She's nice," he said. "She likes to kayak."
I didn't bother asking if the pregnancy was at the root of his desire to marry Mabel. This was their second pregnancy scare. The first one had resulted in the engagement and once it passed—he could have walked away.
"Tell me this isn't about that nomarriage website," I said.
"There is something to that," he said.
He grunted. "Hulk want wife."
I had never been particularly lucky in love. Despite growing up the product of my parents' happy union, I was more acquainted with all the ways things could go wrong. You thought you loved someone and then you had a silly fight about whether or not that person should wear a belt and the next thing you knew they had dropped their pants in the restaurant and were hobbling around in their boxers shouting, "Get a good look!"
"But all good things can turn," I said. "You have to get past the honeymoon to really know someone. Especially if they're from a different culture, especially here." Divorce had only been available in Chile for three years. It was the last country in the world to legalize it. Couples here relied chiefly on annulments. They purposefully botched the paperwork, got married outside their counties of residence, or had their witnesses intentionally misspell names and addresses. "I can be an unreliable witness," I said. "I'm really a bad speller. Just terrible. And I haven't memorized my home address. I always screw it up. And my penmanship is wretched and I lie compulsively."
"I won't want an annulment," Fields said. "I'm totally happy."
The next morning my parents arrived clutching the book of Chilean birds. They wore their binoculars clipped to an elastic contraption nicknamed the "birders' bra," an apparatus that created all the sartorial disturbance of an incorrectly layered brazier. "Where does Pucón treat its sewage?" Mom asked but Mabel didn't understand and Fields wouldn't translate.
Mabel had been up early cooking us all breakfast, and I felt slightly uncomfortable as we sat at the table while she served.
"Do you need any help planning the wedding?" my mother asked.
"It's all taken care of," Fields said.
"Maybe you need someone to sample different cakes?" Dad offered. "I'm very skilled with a slice of cake."
But my mother was skeptical that the details were well in hand. "Can Mabel work in her condition? How is she feeling? Any sickness?" And then she directed the question to Mabel, shouting, "Are you sick? Do you vomit?" She pointed a finger at her throat. Mabel looked concerned.
When people ask me to describe Chile, I have to start with the interior of my brother's car and the breath of his springer spaniel, Lucas. We spent a huge part of every day in that silver Range Rover. "Chile is upholstered in a rugged gray leather," I say. "It has a lot of nose prints on the windows and smells vaguely of mud and Nutripro kibble."
The writer Pablo Neruda once said that Chile was a country "invented by a poet." It is a narrow ribbon of land wedged between the longest mountain chain and the deepest ocean in the world. Eighty percent of Chile is arid desert and the remaining twenty is so lush it's almost unbelievable—sulfurous hot springs, hectares of fruit orchards, a canopy of rain forest, miles of bituminous, rocky beaches. Pucón itself was a Chilean tourist destination for families from the capital. The downtown was jammed with high-end eyewear boutiques and gourmet ice cream shops. A llama stood on one corner wearing a festive blanket and a miniature straw hat. He was available for photographs.
The local pharmacy had a large yellow and black sign that featured the silhouette of a person with three arms on one side of its body. Dad nudged me the first time we passed it. "What do you make of that?" he asked.
"Looks grim," I said. "Must be in the drinking water."
"But apparently," he said, "very treatable over the counter."
There were lots of peddlers crowding the street. Some Mapuche Indians displayed fresh fruit and honey. A street vendor sold brightly colored plastic shoes that hung around him like a cloud.
At one point, Mom grabbed my arm and gasped. "Now that's just offensive," she said. I followed her gaze. She was staring at the sign for a grocery store named Eltit.
"It doesn't mean what you think it means," Fields said.
"I'm going to pronounce it elite," Mom said. "The Elite Market. That's much better. That's very nice."
"But that's not its real name," Fields said. "You can't invent a new name for it."
"I just did," Mom said.
"But you shouldn't," Fields said.
"But I did," Mom said.
Later, when Fields dropped us off at Eltit, he forgot to pick us up. We had purchased a fifty-pound bag of spaniel food, and we stood in the supermarket parking lot, looking forlorn. Fields had said he'd be right back, but he'd never returned. Instead, he'd stopped by a friend's house, and then he'd forgotten all about us. We took a cab home. ╩
There was a chaotic aimlessness to our week in Pucón. We never knew where we were going or what we would do. I was unable to discover if Fields was misdirecting us through design or carelessness and not sure which was worse. Occasionally he'd have long heated conversations with Mabel when we were all in the car together. But Fields rarely translated, and as a result we were always a few plans behind the current one—believing we were headed for a hot spring only to end up at a Mapuche Indian village clutching our towels.
Once we piled into the car anticipating an asada—a word I knew from such menu items as carne asada. After a half hour in the car, we arrived at the remains of a house, which appeared to have suffered a catastrophic fire. "Looks like we missed the barbeque," Dad said.
Fields parked the car in the front lawn. "Everybody bring a swim suit?"
"No," I said. "I thought we were going to a cook out."
"Really?" Fields was perplexed.
"You said we were." I turned to Mom. "Did you know we were going swimming?"
She looked at me and sighed. "I have no idea what's going on."
"Where are we anyway?" Dad asked. "Aren't we meeting people here for lunch?"
"No!" Fields said. "There is no barbeque."
We got out and looked at the ruined house. It was a concrete pad with the remains of a chimney.
"I used to live here," said Fields and then, seeing the confirmation of all my parents' fears, he hurried to add, "I didn't set the fire."
"Mongo," said Mabel. She made a sound like an explosion.
"We call him the Mongoloid," said Fields. "One of my friends. You'll meet him later."
When my brother was sick, we were told the only cure was to remove his large intestine. It was a hard sell, but eventually he left the fasting centers. The juice had not turned him into a strong gorilla, and we were all relieved when he checked himself into the Cleveland Clinic. It was Christmas of 2003, and my parents and I rented a room in a hotel across the street from the hospital. Fields was high on morphine for several days after the operation. Every two hours we took turns walking him up and down the hospital hallway. Movement was supposed to speed the healing process and the nurses kept track of his walks. They drew little happy faces on a whiteboard for each successful lap. When we walked together, Fields would drag along his wheeled IV stand and all its swinging, plastic udders. He wore a thin hospital gown that tied in the back and failed to hide the bulge of his colostomy bag. Occasionally we passed other patients with their IV stands. They were all greasy haired and unshaven—staggering like zombies in the wheat-colored hallway where it was always daytime and smelled of canned food and antiseptic.
Once, we passed a darkened room where someone had just died. A shell-shocked relative stood at the threshold staring at the floor. Beyond him, a knot of people gathered around a bed. One of them wept convulsively. Fields was too drugged to notice, too intent on staying upright. His lips were horribly chapped, and he wore strange Band-Aid-like stockings to improve circulation. "I'm going to pee in the corner," he said.
"Let's find a corner with a toilet in it," I suggested.
"Nobody will notice." He started to pull at his gown. "I'm not embarrassed anymore."
"Even so, it's bad manners," I said, though of course the idea of manners seemed preposterous. I steered him back to the room where a perky nurse drew a smiley face on the whiteboard.
My mother hoped one of the nurses would fall in love with Fields. "Wouldn't that be nice?" she mused. "I like the one with the brown hair but the blond nurse seems rather sweet too."
In order to lighten the mood, Dad told stories about the ancient Druids. "Before Jesus arrived in England, everyone was a Druid," he said. "They wore bathrobes and carried great deer horns in each hand."
Fields looked at me through the morphine haze. "What is he talking about?" he said.
At night we stayed at a hotel populated by other families with loved ones in the hospital. There was a daughter in surgery, a wife with cancer, and a grandchild with no diagnosis yet. It was a beautiful hotel with a doorman and brass elevator buttons and fresh flower arrangements in the hallways. For the holidays, they'd hung evergreen boughs and tiny white lights throughout the lobby. At breakfast we got updates from the other guests and gave them the news on our own inmate.
"Our son's very lucky," Mom said and, everyone agreed. "We're very grateful." Everybody wanted to talk about their situation—the drugs, the uncertainty. The hotel was so different from the hospital—so elegant with its deep pile rugs and piano music. It was like belonging to some evil country club.
In the end we drove Fields back to Virginia. The doctor warned us that there would be a second surgery. He warned us of possible complications. My brother would always be at risk for cancer and arthritis. But despite everything, it felt like he'd been paroled from the land of the sick, and we rushed him home, driving all day without stopping. "I'm going to South America," he said. And he didn't look back. None of us did. We wanted to forget all about it.
By the day of the wedding, I was no closer to understanding who Mabel was or why Fields was marrying her. My brother's new plan was to cut winter and fall from his life forever—spend half the year in Chile and half in America. There would be no more dormant season, no more dying away.
The wedding itself happened in the Catholic church off the busy town square. There was no music, just the sound of vendors hawking ice cream and nuts, and the mournful toots of a little tourist train that scooted through the downtown. The afternoon sun slanted between the open doors, gilding everything it touched. Halfway through the ceremony, a girl padded down the aisle and presented Mabel with her forgotten bouquet of flowers. Mabel was radiant in a white, sparkling confection and Fields wore a mismatched suit—blue pants and a tweed coat. He stood at the altar looking happy and peaceful.
The ceremony was entirely in Spanish. I wondered if Fields knew what he was saying. I hoped so. I knelt when other people knelt and applauded with the crowd.
The reception was held at the Pucón School of Tourism. I had never heard of such a school and was imagining festive classrooms where students suffered boorish remarks and unreasonable demands. But we arrived to find a large, wood-paneled room hung with swags of white gauze. It looked on the verge of hatching butterflies.
Dinner was delayed because Fields spent the first half of the night struggling to set up a slide show. He went home to locate a certain cable—a decision that scandalized my mother. "Imagine leaving your own wedding?" she said. "Who does that?"
"As long as he comes back," Dad said. "That's the important thing."
After dinner came the speeches, then the dancing. Mabel's family handed out whistles and funny hats and the whole crowd hooted in unison. A young boy asked me if I would be his partner in the Cueca, a traditional Chilean dance that reenacts the courting ritual between a rooster and a hen. The boy was twelve and preening. I did finally meet Mongo. He was young, wealthy and British. His hobbies included collecting purebred Akita pups and drunk driving—an unfortunate combination that led to nasty car wrecks and shortened canine life spans. Only once did Mom seek me out to clutch her heart and pop her eyes wide and say that she could die now. She said, "Isn't it amazing that he's alive and somebody wants to marry your brother?"
At one point during the reception, I found myself standing with Fields by the cake table.
"Hey," I told him. "The sweater would love this party."
"What?" He leaned forward as if he didn't hear me correctly.
"You remember," I said. "The sweater we used to set on fire?"
He frowned. "What do you mean?" he said.
"You know," I said. "It looked like television static." I described it to him and then used my hands to mimic the pattern of the flames. "How can you not remember?" I said.
Mabel came up and hugged me. She wanted to know what we were talking about. I waited for Fields to translate, but he shook his head. "She's your family now," he said, "You have to learn the language."
Mabel smiled with encouragement as I struggled with my pidgin Spanish. "Brother take clothing," I said. "Give fire." And it struck me that I sounded like the Red Hulk. The Neanderthal voice my brother and I had invented as children was now the real voice I used to speak to his wife.
The next day, we were all deeply hungover. I stayed at my parents' hotel and spent the morning clutching my head and stealing ham from the breakfast buffet and throwing it to the feral kittens in the forest. A barbeque was scheduled for that afternoon. Fields had promised to pick us up and act as our personal chauffeur.
My parents and I hiked around Villarica lake, then returned to the hotel and dressed for the party. We sat on the back deck of the restaurant drinking beer and watching a plump, pink-bodied Banduria tugging furiously on a gigantic worm. "Wait a minute," Mom said, bringing her binoculars to face. "It's a piece of rubber tubing."
Dad shook his head. "That's going to be very disappointing."
It was three o'clock, then four and five. We waited and waited but Fields never showed. When we finally reached him on his cell phone, he was already there and the festivities were mostly over. He suggested we call a taxi. He claimed that he hadn't known where the party was and when it was starting, but this seemed impossible. We spent the ride there debating whether or not he'd somehow forgotten us. "I don't think they'd start without him," Mom said. "He's the guest of honor."
"He didn't want to deal with us," I said. "We don't fit in."
But Dad disagreed. "It's a busy time," he said. "He's got a lot on his plate."
"Maybe he has a mistress," I said.
"Maybe he's on drugs," Mom said. "We just have to thank God for Mabel. At least he has somebody." But this sentiment only irritated me. We were his family.
The taxi finally dropped us off at a tiny house in the woods. Used plates and cups were scattered across picnic tables. The food had been cooked over an outdoor grill. Everything had been eaten except for a single scorched potato in a pot. Dad speared it with a fork. "Halvesies?" he said. He took a bite and offered me some.
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry," I said, knowing that he was.
Mom and Dad passed the potato back and forth, gnawing it like determined mice.
I looked around. Here were the same friends who'd attended the wedding, the same ones we'd met throughout the week but seeing them all assembled, divested of their finery, I was struck by their appearance. The men were dressed in sun-bleached t-shirts, river sandals and cargo shorts. Most spoke English. Many were gringos. Most of the women were Spanish-speaking Chileans. They wore babydoll dresses and rhinestone-studded t-shirts with wide, gold lamÄ belts cinched tight. Fields and Mabel fit seamlessly into this crowd. They disappeared into it like birds from the same flock.
"You know," said Mom, "when we're gone, your brother will be all you have."
"Here we go," I said.
I hated when they dwelled on their own mortality, though I had to admit they did look a little frail clutching the potato. Dad's dandelion-fluff hair swirled in the wind. The pink, pearlescent sky arched high overhead, and the woods arrayed behind them were deep black, like some dangerous fairytale forest.
"It's very important that you stick together," Mom said. "We need you to maintain the family."
I wanted to point out that Fields had chosen to live on the other side of the world and speak a different language. "He's the one who forgot about us," I said.
Dad only shrugged. "Well, what are you going to do? At least he saved us a potato."
"Half a potato," Mom corrected.
When I finally found Fields, he was surrounded by friends and well-wishers. There was never a good moment to make a scene. And my desire for an answer to what happened suddenly seemed like a bad idea. Which was worse—to be forgotten or to be excluded? Perhaps I didn't want to know. Perhaps they were the same.
I found the table where the remains of the wedding cake sat in a runny heap of whipped cream and berries. I cut myself a generous slice. I talked with one of Mabel's friends who tried to sell me a pair of homemade earrings. I patted Mongo's latest doomed Akita and then I stood alone, listening to the wild cows crashing through the nearby forest. At some point I had to acknowledge that my brother had gone somewhere I couldn't follow—crossed some imaginary threshold. I looked down at the cake on my plate. I had divided it into three sections, each with a berry on top. I stared at the symmetry, thinking about those childhood rituals I'd created in an attempt to exert a little control over the wider world.
As the night deepened, the sky bloomed with stars and the temperature dropped. We were deep in the country, far from any city lights. I hunted for The Big Dipper, for Orion and Cassiopeia, but the sky was a jumble of unfamiliar constellations. It wasn't until I imagined myself as a person on a globe that I knew why. I was standing on the underside of the planet. In the southern hemisphere, the heavens would appear inverted. We were, all of us, upside down.
On out last afternoon in Chile, my parents and I went birding. We could not find a sewage treatment plant or a graveyard, so we contented ourselves with the extensive gardens that surrounded the hotel. I trailed behind them, picking wild blackberries, usually arriving after a bird had flown, in time to see only their expressions. "Try to keep up," Mom said. We were crossing the meadow where the hotel dumped its glass bottles. They glinted under the sun like a jeweled scab. Suddenly a pack of wild parrots split the sky. "Oh my God," said Mom. Both sets of binoculars lifted in unison.
There was something exhilarating about seeing birds so improbably green streaking across the air—pet-store beautiful but still wild—filled with urgent bird business all their own. "Get the book," Mom cried. "Get the book, I see green with a red breast. It's the austral."
"No, it's white," said Dad. "It's the monk parakeet."
"I saw yellow wings," I said.
It happened so fast we couldn't agree, and so we didn't sign and date the book. We just acknowledged that they were beautiful and fleeting—whatever they were.
-Peyton Marshall (from Blackbird)