This is the beginning of Colin’s novel The Virtues of Destruction, now available on Amazon.
Hidden within one sharp and brooding snow-smothered afternoon, Jaime and I took turns practicing our own deaths while the other critiqued. I drew the dulled blade of my pocketknife up my wrists, the metal dark as the strangled sky, then across my neck, my thigh, my stomach, Jaime murmuring, “Don’t just slit yourself open, you have to push, you have to twist.” I held the knife pointed at my heart, wondering how hard it would be to penetrate the thick and faintly supple cartilage between my ribs, how far I’d have to slide into myself to reach those thumping chambers.
Jaime filled the upstairs bathtub with hot water and with a small sucking sound slid fully clothed beneath the glassy surface, faintly fuming with white steam. I counted the seconds off my wristwatch and watched him—silent, arms crossed over his chest like a drowned vampire waiting to arise dripping and wrinkled. He opened his mouth and a clutch of tiny bubbles spun themselves to the surface. His clothes tugged slightly to and fro around him, as if he were being buffeted by a strangely lethargic wind. He came up gasping and, rubbing his eyes with his fists, coughed, “How long, how long?”
I tied several nooses, trying out different knots and materials: the brown belt I wore to church, an extension cord taken from the garage, telephone wire, a blue-and-orange necktie (ditto church), and of course a thick, grimly confident hemp rope bristling with little frayed fibers.
Jaime lined up like a market merchant the array of pills and capsules he’d pilfered from his parents’ mirrored medicine cabinet, a dotted line of blue, pink and green, and somehow most menacing the glossy white buttons stamped PPP, as if spelling out the drooling sputter of their intended effect. He sat, legs crossed, chin in hand, pondering the ratios of barbital, amphetamine and benzo oblivion.
Hours, hours spent like this.
The sky opened wide its breath of snow, and the sun made its only appearance that day, blazing for a flash of minutes between the great iced planes of earth and cloud before sliding away again behind the hillside’s mute pine tree sentinels—somehow it knew, somehow that gentle break of light knew of the vibrant performance to come and was wishing us, all of us, this last serenity before the curtains rose. And then gone, golden god wheeling in his doomed dome, gone into garnet, then seashell pink-blue, a streak of jade, opal, amethyst, glittering coal, and then that weird jaundice of snowbound night cloud, lit from behind or within by that sharp, shining stuff which still leaks through from the stars.
Here on earth, night settled against the guesthouse like a soft, deliberate blow, and from within its velvet depths we heard the hoarse, crooning cries of our mothers calling us to dinner from the old house perched a little uphill. I almost held Jaime back from going out into the yard, distantly certain that these voices were the mimicries of some seductive ghosts awaiting our blind leap through the door and into…But out we went, bundled in our coats, Jaime wearing a dry set of clothes plundered from the mothy hallway closet (a pair of man-sized tan overalls and a limp white shirt still stiff around the gaping collar with the remnants of fossilized starch), hoods thrown over our heads against the increasingly heavy snowfall.
The lighted windows of the old house, each and every one ablaze, seemed poised in air, detached from the structure itself, the dark brick indistinguishable from the dark of night. From somewhere the sleepy coo of an owl waking up. Almost in response, again our mothers’ voices, “Boys! Boys!”
“Yeah, coming!” Jaime barked, and with a sidelong glance to me mimed cocking a pistol against his temple. “Pow,” he said softly.
His parents and mine owned and operated a bed and breakfast: the guesthouse contained four units, two with two bedrooms, and the basement was a full kitchen. During the summer months they came, grinning, scrubbed City people, the fathers with flower-print shirts open to the third button, mothers in white hats and linen pants, screaming toddlers and bored teenagers milling about. In “business season” Jaime and I were forbidden from invading the guesthouse with our games—not that we’d have wanted to, other than the dim childish impulse to upset the adults staying there—but in winter it was our domain.
Our fathers were friends, once. Evidence lingered in the smaller corners of the main house, in the library desk, where I found a photograph of the two of them standing astride the twisted bulk of a buck elk, rifles propped against their shoulders, and in the matching Celtic-style silver rings they wore on their thumbs in older photographs, purchased on some or other youthful adventure and now lying together in their drawer. But nothing of this closeness seemed to remain.
My father, Bernard Lemnus the Senior, was a quiet man, tall, with dark eyes and a throbbing vein at each temple, but given to sudden bursts of laughter directed at apparently nothing. His mind spun its turbines, worked its sharp and rusting wheelworks entirely independent of us—we baffled him, people baffled him, and driven by the mechanics of his head stamped the streets of our little out-town as if trapped in a curious, marvelous, not all that unpleasant dream: a nightmare too preposterous to be anything more than funny, with cartoonish monsters and ribald atrocities.
Bernard Senior had once worked as a dockhand on the City’s Seaport. The picture is difficult to conjure—my plumbous, dust-drowned father stage-posed on the end of a pier, his clothing palette of withdrawn blacks and browns stripped away and replaced with a blue-striped tee shirt, threadbare and smeared with the unspeakable bituminous mold that’s always oozing from things down at the Seaport, knotted kerchief at his neck, bracing round of shanty-songs with the swashbuckled mates—how easily the idea bends to parody. No matter, the picture has been altered by history for our convenience: a rack of PVC piping crushed his leg one careless afternoon, and finished for my father was the life of the stevedore. Now with a tremendously dignified limp, he balanced ledger columns and phoned reservations for Steven Kweller, Jaime’s father, at the house where we all then lived.
People said about me that I was my father’s son. I never knew what to feel about such a comment. At best an indifferent surprise, for I recognized no great similarity between us, and at worst, offense at the presumption, that an observation such as this would be made from anyone but myself or the man to whom I was being compared; who but either of us could see the mirror in the other? But say it they did, and I tried to see past myself, to catch my eyes off their guard by peering suddenly sidelong at the old scarecrow, and then maybe sneak some recognition of my father’s son rattling around inside his frame.
He greeted us at the door, standing beneath the metal skirt of the backyard floodlight and hugging himself against the cold. Jaime mumbled something as he passed inside, and Bernard Senior raised an eyebrow. “Hey,” I said, shrugging off my hood.
“Dinner’s been ready, boys.” He lingered as we slowly stripped off coats and boots, unwound scarves, pulled ice-crusted mittens from our hands. He looked as if he were about to say something, perhaps just laugh, but he tapped the doorjamb with his knuckles, grinned, and turned down the hall to the dining room.
Several rooms in the old house gathered about them certain atmospheres or qualities. Perhaps I could call them personalities, there were times they felt so distinct—for instance, the upstairs bathroom seemed moody and sulking, with its damp towels and loose grout, the walls exuding a steady, cave-like tackiness, and showers I took in that grey cell felt spied-upon and resented. Other rooms contained more aggressive sentience, which they nurtured and protected, so that any intruders felt immediately the clash of themselves against a vapourous insistent caul. The dining room was one of these places, hallowed out with an arch, cold attention. My mother’s best candles and a spread of serving platters lifting twists of steam could not divert its malevolent eye, and every Sunday our two families would bow over our plates and wait for a reprieve from scrutiny.
Mr. Kweller sat at one head of the table, a triangle of pork roast held on his fork.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he intoned, sliding his eyes from Jaime to me.
Mrs. Kweller brushed his wrist with a few fingers, “Hush, just eat.”
“Yes, just eat!” cried my father, settling into his seat and raising an empty wineglass in a toast. He giggled under his breath while my mother tilted the green bottle of cheap cabernet over his glass.
“Will someone say grace? Steven?” she offered.
Mr. Kweller, who had raised his fork to his mouth, sighed and lowered it again. “Bless us O Lord for these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord we pray amen,” he said without pause.
We all said, “Amen.”
The dining room seemed to be tensing and releasing the air around us like an angular lung.
A few steaming bowls of somesuch vegetable and meat matter lay in an off-kilter alignment down the middle of the long table, oversized serving spoons and forks stabbed into them like a matador’s killing spree against a slew of bulls.
“Are you wearing my overalls?” asked my father around a mouthful of meatloaf. Jaime tucked his thumbs under the shoulder straps and whistled a few tuneless notes. Bernard Senior snorted.
“What have you boys been up to?” asked Mr. Kweller after carefully, thoroughly, endlessly chewing and swallowing a crumble of chalky baked potato. My father chuckled, for one of his strange reasons.
“Dying,” Jaime said, low and dramatic, like one of the many tortured lovers in Donna Kweller’s afternoon soap operas.
“For Christ’s sake,” she said, blinking several times and wiping her mouth with a corner of napkin.
“That was the idea, yes,” Jaime said, and laughed, eyes kept carefully aimed at his plate.
His talent for infuriating his parents was well developed. Through the years he’d been stocking a funhouseful of sly impertinences (fully loaded butter-knife dropped on the rug), double entendres (“Is the sausage too hot to eat?”), nebulous betrayals (“Like when you were telling me about Dad’s first wife”), acid accusations (“You’re always punishing me for no reason—explain”), obstructed obscenities (“flock this”), and even outright if understated insults (he called his mother “porcine,” explaining it as a French term for epicures). Most often his mother proved the ideal target, though every so often, with elated success, he managed to push his father into bouts of ragged shouting while he, Jaime, sat back and let show the merest sliver of elfin smile.
I was a much more obedient son. Which is to say, my sleights were conducted with more secrecy, and upon being found out I would make a decent show of shame and atonement, perhaps letting some time pass before I felt again ready to misbehave.
“Good boy,” my father was fond of saying to me. “Done your homework? Swept the lobby? Wiped the kitchen counter? Good boy.” Or, when I’d be making strides to redress some misdeed, “You apologized to your mother? Good boy.” I imagined his own father saying the same thing to a junior Bernard Senior, patting with one spidery hand the dark, wavy top of his son’s head (in my head my grandfather had always, since birth, had spidery hands and a craggy, wind-blighted face, earth-old homunculus whispering his crazed strings of grandfatheresques like “good boy”).
“Steven,” my father said, tilting his head to one side to see around the three flickering pillars of candle. Mr. Kweller looked up, matching tilt. “What do you say we take the boys down to the Cabin this weekend? Do some fishing? The lake hasn’t frozen over yet.” Mr. Kweller frowned as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Sensing hesitation my father went on, “We only have the one off-season booking, a two-bed checking in on Saturday. Donna and Lacey can handle that, right sweeties?” He grinned at my mother, who raised an eyebrow but smiled.
“I suppose so,” Mr. Kweller said slowly while Jaime caught my eye and mouthed, Fishing?
“I have homework,” I offered, letting the words hang in the air for a moment as if to demonstrate a host of broad, vague obligations. I did have plenty of algebra to do, though it was already for me laughably easy, but my father simply grinned wider.
“I’m sure you could find time to work on that at the Cabin, Bern,” and he winked. I darted a glance at Jaime, who shrugged in a death-sentence sort of way, and then at his father, who had gone back to chewing, staring at his plate.
“Sure,” I said.
The Cabin was a few hours’ drive down a few wooded highways. After a cramped, humid ride in Mr. Kweller’s truck we’d descend into a shallow valley at the end of which a small lake gathered its stream runoff, and along whose slopes stood a dozen or so squat wooden structures. An attendant handled upkeep and the like, I believe his name was Rick or Nick, switching on power and water when one of the renters showed up. I liked the place alright, I suppose. There were effectively four rooms, loosely defined from one another by a kitchen counter and a large battered couch. The “bedroom” was two narrow beds near a wood stove in the corner, the “den” the couch, an easy chair and a low table. A porcelain nightmare of a bathroom behind a sliding door. A paled wooden deck stood out from the lake-facing wall, and it was my favourite part of fishing trips to sit in the easy chair and watch the afternoon scenery through the open door, mosquitoes be damned. But winter fishing was boring, and cold, and tediously earnest, and I couldn’t see the point.
Jaime hated fishing entirely.
The six of us resumed our dinner, lost ourselves to the clicking of forks, and finished eating in a silence broken only by the occasional snort and flutter of amusement from my father. A cat-burgling wind muttered in the frost-caught rain gutters.
Dinner swept away, candles out with a phut and sputter, the foul leftovers plopped into pastel plasticware, the fouler stuff mercifully discarded with a scraping squeal into the trashcan, plates rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher dripping choleric puddles, the savaged wineglasses upended and dripping sanguine, nearly clean placemats stacked on the sidebar to be laundered some other time. Footsteps, closet doors, sink taps (cold humming, hot rattling), bedsprings, bedroom TV sets, light switches: all the house sighing with satisfaction under the touch of its roaming tenants running their last rhythms.
I awoke sometime into the black morning to Jaime’s hand on my wrist, crouching next to my bed and lit from behind by the pale blue windowpanes facing the snow-swept yard. I groaned, started to say something as I struggled higher on the pillows, but he said, “Ssh, stop it, stop it.” I frowned, and sensing that I was waiting for him to speak he went on, “We didn’t finish, earlier. We didn’t do falling.”
I waited again.
“We did drowning, hanging, stabbing. We didn’t do falling. Let’s go to the ravine.”
His eyes were hidden in dark, but I saw him smile. “It’s witching hour. And we’ll be in the Cabin all weekend. Fishing.”
I’d started to like the idea anyway, so I slid from my blankets, rummaged through the piles on the floor for clothing, discovered Jaime was already bundled in several layers.
As we crept to the stairs I felt the bathroom turn its moping eye on our passing, the dining room bristled at our footsteps in the back hall. The only room whose sentience I did not mind was the coatroom. It emanated warmth and a faint mugginess, but turned inward, like pressure, mothering me into my coat and mittens before I plunged into the frosts, my boots before torrents, a hat and handkerchief before a summer romp, and welcoming me home again, exhausted, spent, taking the cumbersome clothes from my slack shoulders and nudging me inward for a nap and a meal. When Jaime and I had suited up for the short hike to the ravine, carefully holding the door knob so the latch wouldn’t click too loudly, the coatroom seemed to be smiling at us, already eager for our return to its gentle enfolding arms. It’s only my retrospect that it also smiled sadly, knowing that we never would return to that coatroom, that hall, that house, and was offering us a peace of mind that at least we would be okay, don’t worry, don’t…
The air had taken on that particular humid cold that flash freezes nose hairs, and I sneezed.
We angled toward the stand of trees that marked what we called “the woods,” but it was really just a scrap of land on which these birches’ and twisted pines’ slender roots found purchase near the ravine’s creek. The snow had sheered into what looked like sails in the lee of the wind, leaning against each trunk in the direction we were walking. Not much of an undergrowth here; in summer the thick canopy tended to stopper a long low vial of green vapour, choking out all but the hardiest ferns. Now the open sky startled above us, laced over with the naked staving fingers of these winter-stripped trees.
The same summers which greened the woods also made the ravine treacherous, an abrupt fall of about three meters, screened with the ivy thriving in the sudden break in branches. But in winter it was a well-visible gash in the earth, and we peered over the edge into a long trench softened with a deep swell of unmarred snow.
“How do we do it?” I asked, kicking a clump of snow over the edge with the toe of my boot.
“That’s the whole point, dummy. None of this is a question of ‘how.’ You just do it.”
He grinned and gave me a good shove in my arm, and I was too surprised to even yell. I hit the snow on my back, sinking in a good ways so that I was looking up at Jaime as he laughed through a me-shaped hole. I started to laugh too, but struggled getting back up, which sent Jaime laughing even harder.
“Come on!” I yelled, lying back down.
“One…two…” he leapt into the air, twisting around to land, like me, on his back, and with a soft crunch plopped with spread-out limbs next to me. We lay laughing, looking up at that clouded vault, until we caught our breaths. “Again?”
We did this several times, casting ourselves as far out as we could from the edge with arms flung wide, and the snow, once clean and glittering, had become pocked with our oblong impact craters. I perfected a somersault which landed me face-up but inverted, explaining the maneuver as a way to easily snap my neck. Jaime’s technique favoured the randomness of a true fall—he wrapped his arms around himself and launched forward horizontally, spinning himself as if on a lathe, so that he might land face-down, -up, or sideways, and as he spun his way downward I could see by turns his clenched eyes, his throbbing-red ears, his snow-matted hair, before he sunk into the snow.
It was funniest when his face hit first, and I watched laughing as he attempted to thrash his way back into sitting on his heels. One of these times, he was giggling, wiping snow from his eyes with the backs of his mittens, and looked up at me, already saying, “Your turn!” when he paused, frowned, looking past me up at the sky.
I craned my head around. The clouds were lit from beneath by an orange light, strangely inconstant, and judging from the low heighth of the clouds its source was very nearby.
Jaime had started climbing the stone ivy-clotted walls of the ravine when I turned back to ask, “What the hell is that?”
“It’s a fire, Bern. I think something’s on fire.”
I didn’t really understand. Okay, a fire. Someone’s campfire. But then Jaime was up and running, he’d scaled that last ledge of ravine rock at a mid-run, unfolded into a crouched mantis sprint and sprayed a fan of glittering snow in a slashing arc, and I at last found my voice, crying, “Hey, stop!”
I traced him back through the woods, his haggard breathing leading me like an asthmatic siren between the snow-ghosted trees. I didn’t know what was going on, but I felt Jaime’s panic, I had to see.
He ran like mad, ducking skeletal branches and leaping errant boulders, stumbling to stray knees on stray sails of snow. I had to follow, for the pale reason that I couldn’t just wait for the cataclysm into which he was throwing us to simply roll, lazily, flippantly over me in its own time. A twig slashed open my wrist, though I didn’t properly notice I’d been cut until we’d stopped, again breathless, at the edge of the woods.
The canted light cast against the sky came billowing in and out from the windows and the slanting, warped boards of the collapsed attic, aroil in several tendrils of flame. The lower floor raged an orange so bright it seemed simply white, threaded as it was with black soot; the upper was unsettlingly dark save for the odd burst of dull red from a nonexistent window, a gulp of grey smoke from the felled chimney: and all of it curled up around the structure like an exotic tulip, folded around the structure in grace, in glory, and here we stood, me and who was from then on my fellow sufferer, we stood with prayers which went unanswered simply because we could not fathom how to phrase them, stood watching the hell that had ignited itself on our lives.
More exactly, our parents’.
Learn more about Colin on the Contributors page.
- The Virtues of Destruction (Excerpt), by Colin T. Gilbert - November 19, 2020