String Theory

In the years following my brother Jamie’s death, I sometimes left string in the street. It started out as a way to mark the paths I had followed and the places I’d been. I bought myself a spool of twine and brought it with me when I went looking for images. I’d walk down the twisting streets of houses and driveways filled with rusted 1950s Chevrolets and melted plastic trolls with blue spiked hair and frozen expressions. I started to tie my string around posts that led up the rickety stairs that led up to houses with the doors banged in and the shutters broken.

One winter night when the fog in the breath turned to icicles that hung like a braided beard from my red baubled Christmas sweater with the reindeer on it, I went down the rickety stairs with the cobwebs and spiders which leered with their pincers in the darkness. Clomp, clomp, clomp, down the staircase to the basement where the damp and the mold combined to make a stew: a softly simmering cauldron of appearances and deception.

I stopped by mailboxes covered in markings in a language I knew was spoken by the insecure. I climbed hills covered in mud after a thick springtime rainstorm. I tied string around wet, soggy boxes that had once been packages, but were lost now.

In the damp and musty boxes that lay like orphaned children making imprints in the dust, I found what I was looking for: a pair of white boots with blades so sharp they made my fingers turn red with bits of rubies and stinging nettle.

At the bottoms of these hills, I climbed down into the creek beds where the water slipped mistily over piles of polished stones and the stinging nettle thorns scratched my face and arms. In these creek beds, adventure, a desire for thoughts made me tie strings around the bridges that held up the driveways where husbands came home to dinner late and tired and angry for reasons they were too afraid to think about, as pots and pans hanging from the walls crashed to the floor.

On the way up the steps, I kept the hallway dark and the footsteps soft, but the door with the screen on it couldn’t be made to keep quiet and banged like a pot falling from the stove on the front door.

I tied my string around whispers that I heard when I was outside late at night, alone on the front porch beside the tomato plants.

And before I could run or even hide there was a cracking from the staircase and a whispered, “shhh,” and then a creeping around towards the side where there was no window and then my brother Jamie with his brown curls flopping and his hair tousled because of sleep and his sweater so large it fell over his hands looked at me and asked “what are you doing?” And to say something I held out the ice skates and my eyes went large and my feet went cold because of the thought of not being able to go. But my brother Jamie held out his thick brown hand, which smelled like pine needles.

I waited until my hair smelled of pine needles. Then I went back inside with my string.

Then there was the time I went to the beach in the moonlight, which reflected off the water, and confused my eyes into thinking seagulls were as inconsistent as shadows.

And in a moment we were skidding in the rough moonlight and the pine trees beside us stood tall like sentries at the gates of belief. And in the light of a full blooded, inky moon our feet crunched through the snow until we reached the place where the water turned to glass like a reflecting mirror and beneath the surface the fish glowed red, orange, and purple, and their eyes burned like coals in a fire pit.

On that night at the beach we brought out candles and we held them together in the center of the circle and let the light reflect off them like coals in a bonfire. We stayed there shivering because we thought the light would keep us warm. I brought out my string and tied it around the candles and the circle and saved it for the times of darkness.

I tied my string around the big, black, leather boots I wore for explorations.

As I began to lace up the skates, my brother Jamie took his big black leather boots and stepped on the glassy mirror-ice. Five steps forward, two steps back, side, side, back again. Twice.

I kept the string as I took step after step down the long, unpaved street.

“I think it’s alright,” he said, and the silver blades glistened until they slid onto the ice.

I tied my string around my lamp, which I kept beside my bed. But although I held it there longer and longer, I couldn’t keep the light from going out.

But then there was a crack like the pan hitting the floor, but louder, and the glass shook and I fell backwards on a piece of snowdrift and my eyes flew in circles until the lights went out like a match blown. Another bit of light lost.

And then there was the day I ended up in the freight yard where the trains come in with their coal deliveries— I tied my string on one of the nails that stuck out of the side, so my string could see the world even though I was stuck at home.

In the freight yard I saw him— with a brown beret cocked sideways, digging in the dirt with a nail that stretched larger than his hands and so deep into the ground it seemed it could wrap twice around the world before coming back up again. When I saw his nail, I thought of a giant system of nails that would intertwine like roots down into the core of the earth and they’d hold all the continents together in their iron fists. Seeing that, I knew I wanted to tie a string around them, to keep this image forever in the back of my mind as a memory of connection. So I climbed down by the side of the train tracks and lay down on my stomach and slid down into a small clearing of trees. I lay by the side of a rock beneath the green canopy of a redwood tree and watched. In my mind, I took one end of the string and began to weave it throughout the picture—across his hat, down his arm, to his wrist, through the nail, and back again. Then I started on the other string, because I wanted to tie it together, like a package left out on the doorstep in a cardboard box in the middle of a rainstorm, the kind that turns dark brown and squishy-soggy and smells like moldy paperback books when it is brought inside the next day.

But before I could complete the knot, a train came rattling by, full of steam and rusted iron and the screeching of metal on metal, and he jumped up. He dropped his rusted nail on the broken shards of grey-brown slate rock beside the track and ran down, past the yard full of abandoned freight cars to a place where I could not see him anymore.

My brother Jamie went to live with the multicolored fishes for so long that he forgot how to live without them. So the multicolored fishes brought him deeper, closer, so that he reached near the bottom so his glass eyes could deal with the darkness beneath the ice.

And the multicolored fishes kept leading him lower and lower down, until he forgot which way was up. That’s what happened to my brother. Maybe someday he’ll remember. Maybe someday…

I lost him like I lost my brother Jamie, like the thick brown hand that clawed at the edge of the ice before sinking down. I let the multicolored fishes take him because I was afraid of the cold and because I thought it was a game, that there’d be a second chance, that maybe he was just hiding beneath the surface for a chance to explore the underside of ice. I didn’t realize that there would be no second chance until it was gone.

Suddenly, I feel a crunch to my side. I roll over and look up. He stands next to me, wordlessly, quietly, extending a thick brown hand. It smells like pine needles. When I feel for the string next to me, it’s gone.

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