For the better part of my life, I have borne the circumstances of Avery Channing’s death in silence, at first because I wished to forget them, later because I doubted anyone would believe the truth, and later still because I feared I might suffer eternal damnation for my part in the whole terrible business. But time has worked a certain alchemy. I have no greater wish than to die with a clear conscience, and the prospect of confessing seems less awful now than it once did. I was only a child. When that is considered, what I did seems easier to forgive.
I was ten years old when, on the afternoon of November 13, 1925, we heard a shuffling on the porch followed by a scream and whimpers. I was in the kitchen at the time, arguing with my mother about Lon Chaney’s new movie, The Phantom of the Opera, which was showing at the cinema down the street. Mother said it was hideous trash, and no, I could not go see it. The house was warm and smelled of apple pie. There was a window over the sink, and the reds, oranges, and yellows of the leaves outside were so vibrant that they flowed into the room, permeating it with surreal color.
“What on Earth was that?” said Mother, and hurried toward the parlor, drying her hands on her apron. She threw the front door open, never pausing to look through the glass. The things we feared—wars, and sickness, and grief—could not be kept out by doors or locks anyway.
Before us stood a clump of sweaty boys. There were four at the bottom of the steps and three on the porch—Charlie Boynton, Will Lowder, and between them their friend, my brother Avery. All of them were scratched and streaked with mud. That wasn’t so unusual. They were twelve and thirteen years old, and boys play rough. The unusual thing was the silence. No jostling, no laughter. Just the whisper of frantic breath.
“We . . . we were only playing,” said Charlie. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault.” His face was tight with the effort it took not to cry.
Only then did I notice that Charlie and Will had their arms under Avery in a fireman’s carry. His hair hung over his eyes in dark, wet strings. His skin looked pale as bone. He was shivering, and grunting with pain. Blood soaked his right pant leg, drip drip dripping onto the gray painted boards in a crimson pool the size of a dinner plate.
Mother, it must now be said, knew what it was like to lose a child. My brother George, three years older than Avery, had died in the influenza pandemic at the age of nine. I was very small at the time. I didn’t remember much about him. But I did recall Mother’s eyes on the day of his death. Their emptiness had terrified me, as had the stillness of her hands when I tried to make them hold me.
She had the same look about her now, as if she were slipping toward the edge of the Earth, beyond which lay a great and nameless abyss. A lone crow yawped from the branches of the chestnut tree across the street. A gust of wind rattled the leaves, bringing with it the scent of fear.
“Mama!” I cried, grabbing at her dress.
But Avery wasn’t dead yet, might still be saved, and he needed her more than I did. She helped the boys lay him down on the porch, where the brightening red puddle spread around him.
“Hester, go get your father! Tell him to bring his bag,” she said, her voice so twisted with dread that I only knew it was hers by watching her lips.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, glad to turn away and run from Avery’s bone face and Mother’s eyes and the blood.
Gumtree was a much smaller town in those days than it is now. There weren’t but a few thousand people in all of Hamilton County, and most of those lived fifty miles north of us in Ferrensburg, which we thought of as “the city.” My father was Gumtree’s only doctor—a lucky thing, you’ll say. Perhaps. Perhaps not. If he had been a grocer or a haberdasher, I do not think the horror would have come to pass. Avery would simply have died, and very probably it would have happened right there on the porch.
As it was, I changed the natural course of things by making a headlong dash through the house and down the back steps to the small, separate cottage where my father saw his patients. I found him listening, probably in vain, to the black and shriveled heart of Thomas Thatcher, the owner of Gumtree Bank and Trust, whose flabby, hairy chest I remember to this day.
I tried to tell Father what had happened, but all that came out of my mouth was a mishmash of nonsense. It would have been easier for me to sprout wings and fly to New Orleans than it was to tell him to bring his bag. But I suppose my face must have told the story, for he took one look, snatched up his black satchel and tore after me as I headed back toward the porch, leaving Mr. Thatcher all a’sputter.
Father had spent time on the Western Front in the Great War, something Mother hadn’t yet forgiven him for. At age 32, he’d been too old for the draft. He didn’t have to go. He volunteered. When George died, Father was four thousand miles away in a hospital tent in Arleux, tending someone else’s son. The war taught him many things, but perhaps the most important was the value of his own children. The next most important was what to do with a leg that looked like Avery’s.
With a practiced hand, Father applied a tourniquet. He and the boys carried Avery around to the cottage, where Mr. Thatcher, still buttoning his shirt, beat a hasty retreat. There, they stretched my brother out in the surgery and tied him down while Father sterilized his instruments and scrubbed his hands. Mother scrubbed hers as well, for he had trained her to assist him with such cases, and like it or not, there was no one else who knew how to help.
The boys and I were sent out to wait in the little anteroom. There we sat in misery as the fearsome smell of ether drifted out from under the door. While the first hour passed, they told me the story in whispered gasps, their voices rising now and then in spite of them.
They had been playing, it turned out, in the Redfield house, long abandoned, boarded up and condemned. On a dare, Avery had crept up the broken, sagging stairs to the second story, where—it was rumored—the glowing ghost of old Mr. Redfield had occasionally been seen peering out a window. There in the shadowy master bedroom he was startled, not by a ghost, but by a large rat that ran out from under the bed. No doubt it had lived unmolested for years in the stuffing of the rotten mattress and was as electrified by the sight of Avery as Avery was by the flash of something horrid and alive festooned in cobwebs.
He jumped backwards, landing hard and off-balance on the termite-ridden floor. I have pictured the scene too many times to count—the boards giving way with a splintering crack, his hands scrabbling at wood that came away in them, his scream as he crashed down into the parlor, a milky dust of vermin smut rising around him, bats fluttering from their roosts in the corners of the high ceiling. And above all, how it must have felt when the bone of his leg split and came up like a knife through the muscles and tendons, puncturing the artery.
One by one, the boys left to go home to dinners that went largely uneaten. By dusk there was no one left but me. I thought of walking up to the house for some bread and cheese or an apple, but after all that I had seen and heard, monsters lurked in every shadow. So I sat rigid on a hard, white-painted chair listening to the rumble of my stomach and the wind in the trees till fear of the dark overcame my fear of moving, and I got up and lit a lamp.
I do not know what time it was when Father carried me to bed. He and our neighbor, Mr. Hoskins, had already moved Avery on a stretcher to a downstairs room in the house near enough to the kitchen so he could be easily nursed. By then, the artery and the wound had been cleaned and stitched closed, the bone set, and a plaster cast applied. And Avery had received a pint of Father’s blood topped off with an injection of morphine. Still, his groans echoed up the stairwell all night long as if from Hell itself.
Demons walked my dreams. I woke shivering a number of times. But no one came when I called out. Avery needed our parents more than I. It was to be the unspoken rule for some time to come.
Avery’s recovery went well at first. Within twenty-four hours, he was able to eat a little clear broth, and within forty-eight Charlie and Will were allowed to come for a brief visit. Within sixty hours, I was pressed into service reading pulp westerns and playing endless games of checkers with the invalid to keep his mind off the pain. And within seventy-two, Avery had homework from the inimitable Miss Miller, and he and I were quarreling energetically in the usual way. Things were going beautifully.
Then one evening he developed a fever. Father had left a hole in the cast so air could get to the wound where the bone had broken the skin, and by the next morning brownish, foul-smelling pus bubbled from it. Our patient lay tossing and turning in sheets soaked with sweat. I thought of Redfield’s house—the poisoned snow of dust laden with rat filth and dry rot sifting down over Avery’s opened skin.
Just an infection, you’ll say. Nothing a ten-day course of antibiotics couldn’t cure. But in 1925, antibiotics had not yet been discovered. We were still relying on carbolic acid, scalpels, bone saws, and hope in cases like Avery’s. The word “infection” struck the same fear in the belly then as “cancer” does now.
Father had to remove the cast and clean the wound with carbolic while Mother and I did our best to hold Avery still. Even after a dose of morphine and a shot of bourbon whisky, he thrashed and screamed. I held my eyes closed tight and prayed to be forgiven for quarreling with him, and I prayed he wouldn’t die—prayed so hard that for a time the rest of the world receded.
Someone called my name. The first time, I heard it as if in a dream; the second time more clearly; and the third time, as my shoulders were shaken by strong hands, I opened my eyes.
It was Mother. She pressed a quarter into my hand. “Run to Mr. Ursari’s,” she said. “Bring back a honey comb. Hurry!”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, and made a dash for the front door, leaping high over the place where Avery’s blood had pooled when they brought him home, traces of which remained.
A bank of clouds had rolled in from the north, and a cold wind moaned through the trees. I’d forgotten my coat. Goosebumps rose on my skin. Still I ran and did not turn back. Petrus Ursari’s place wasn’t far, just down the street and around the corner at the edge of town. He lived alone in a tiny house—little more than a shack, really—on three acres of land dotted with beehives, chicken coops, and peach trees.
I didn’t know him very well, though I felt as if I did, for my friends and I had spent many hours trying to imagine a history that might explain what had brought him to our town and why he stayed. Though the house was small, it was tidy, and painted bright, unlikely colors—reds and yellows and blues—irresistible to children. Flattened spoons and bits of glass hung from the eves so that every passing breeze made music from them. Mr. Ursari himself wore a braided beard that hid the chestnut brown of his face, and a leather vest incised with vines and flowers the same colors as his house. He didn’t speak much, and when he did, his words were so heavily accented it was hard to make heads or tails of them. His eyes lay like dark eggs in nests of wrinkles, though there was no sign of gray in his jet black hair. As far as we could tell, there was no Mrs. Ursari or any sons or daughters, nor had there ever been. But because of his taciturn nature, no one knew for sure.
People in Gumtree returned the favor by not having much to do with him. Mother said he wasn’t “our kind.” Yet he stayed. And everyone bought his eggs, peaches, and honey, for they were famous far and wide for their flavor.
You might think it odd for Mother to send me after honey while my brother lay on what she feared might be his death bed. Yet it made perfect sense at that time and in that place. The year Mr. Ursari came to Gumtree, Tom Mumford, a local farmer, sliced his leg with an ax. Father treated the wound in the usual way, but in spite of his best efforts an infection developed and spread. It looked as if Mumford would lose his leg. On the morning of the planned surgery, Father arrived with his tools sharpened and sterilized only to find the infection gone and Mumford seated in bed dining on ham and grits.
According to Mrs. Mumford, Petrus Ursari had stopped by the previous evening with a special piece of honeycomb and instructions to pour some of the honey into the wound and give the rest to Mr. Mumford by mouth. A miracle cure, said the wife. Father pooh-poohed this, saying it was more likely the carbolic acid and blind luck had healed the wound. He’d seen spontaneous disappearance of infections in the war, not often, but enough to know it sometimes happened.
The fact remained that Mumford’s leg was saved, apparently by gypsy honey, and the story traveled like wildfire. After that, as much of Mr. Ursari’s honey was used on cuts and scrapes as was used on griddlecakes. Not in our house, however, where Father denounced the practice as ignorant and harmful and lumped it in the same general category with the Scopes trial—a sorry illustration, he said, of how little respect his countrymen had for science and reason.
When I arrived at Mr. Ursari’s door, I pounded on it with both fists and called his name. But I got no answer. I opened it a crack and called again. Still no answer, so I stepped inside. The house was warm. Something savory simmered in a kettle on a small wood stove. A coppery beam of sunlight found its way through a break in the clouds to spill across a simple table cluttered with bread and green apples. I could not see a single square inch of wall space that wasn’t occupied by some object. Pots and pans hung everywhere, crucifixes, a violin, dried herbs in tied bundles, a mummified frog, a photograph.
I stepped closer. The picture showed a family—mother, father, and three children, one a babe in the mother’s arms. They had the stiff look of people dressed in clothes they didn’t wear often, intricate with embroidery and starched lace. The man was Mr. Ursari. Tucked under his arm was the violin. Who were they, I wondered, those others? And why were they not here with him now?
Not far from the picture stood a shelf that ran from floor to ceiling. Jars of golden honey were ranked upon it, glowing in the slanted sunlight, each one labeled in careful but indecipherable script. Some of the jars had beeswax combs in them. Others did not.
I was about to pick one, trusting to Providence, and leave the quarter on the table when someone behind me said, “Good day. May I be of service?” I knew before I turned around that it was Mr. Ursari. His voice was unmistakable—foreign, musical, tinged with the same sorrow as his eyes.
“Oh, Mr. Ursari! Thank goodness,” I said. “I need some honey for Avery. I’m in the awfulest rush.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” said Ursari, as if he already knew the whole story, and perhaps he did. In the town of Gumtree, we all knew each other’s business. It’s just that I couldn’t recall any visitors that day who might have carried news of Avery’s condition abroad.
He reached a jar from the shelf, not the one I would have taken, and knelt to fold my hands around it.
“It is made from the nectar of lilies in a place known only to my bees. This is the last jar. I pray it is powerful enough. But . . .” He held me in a gaze that pierced my heart, his face lined with some unspoken burden. “. . . know that if God wants him, it is best not to stand in the way.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I have a quarter.”
“Keep it,” replied Ursari. “Did you understand what I said?”
I nodded, though in fact his warning made very little impression on me at the time. “Thank you. I have to get home.”
I turned, back through the door and down the worn stairs, torn by a desire to hurry and the need to be careful of the treasure I cradled in my cold, skinny arms—the last jar of lily honey from a place known only to bees, and the last hope for my brother.
Somehow the jar made it home in one piece. My mother whisked it from my hands and administered the first of it to Avery the minute my father’s back was turned. When Father discovered what she’d done, he literally pulled his hair. He shouted at her till she shrank into a corner in tears. The honey wasn’t sterile, he said. It would just make Avery sicker, and she had done a stupid, stupid thing. In his rage, he went so far as to ask her if she wanted their only remaining son to die. Then he went to the cottage and got his instruments, and prepared to amputate Avery’s leg.
I hid in my room and sobbed. I did not want Avery to be crippled, nor did I want to be an only child. Neither did I want to think that I had made things worse by going to Mr. Ursari’s. Having been held in Ursari’s dark, sad gaze, I knew he truly thought the honey might cure Avery. A great confusion descended on my young mind, for I had hitherto thought of all adults as fonts of wisdom. Yet there was the wise, good man Ursari giving me honey, and there was the wise, good man my father raging at how wrong that was. Where had the truth gone? This I wondered often in the coming hours.
I must have slept awhile, for it was sunset when I awoke. Cherry-red clouds swirled across the sky. I cracked the door and listened for some sound—a laugh, a moan, a sob—that might tell me what it was for which I must now prepare myself. Someone was singing. Very softly.
I crept down the stairs, my heart flinging itself against my ribs as if they were a cage. For beneath the scents of cut roses in the entryway, the broth on the stove, the tart leather of Father’s favorite chair, and every other smell in the house, the stink of rotting meat lay like the low drone of flies.
When I peeked around the corner into Avery’s sickroom, I could not at first make sense of what I saw. His eyes, ordinarily gas-flame blue, were cloudy gray, staring fixedly at nothing. An ether mask lay on his pillow like some forgotten toy. Father’s instruments, spattered crimson, sat in a tray on a side table. Avery’s leg lay on the bed beside him. Below the scraped knee, it looked powdery and pale as an egg. Above, it looked like spoiled fruit. I say the leg lay beside him advisedly, for that is the literal truth. Father had succeeded in amputating it. But then something had happened—something that made him tear the ether mask from Avery’s face, forget to clean his tools, leave a surgically severed limb in plain sight dripping on the patient’s blanket. Avery had died.
Obvious though it was, Mother did not appear to believe it. My brother’s jaw had stiffened in death, but still Mother spooned honey into his mouth, wrenching his teeth apart to do it. “When you wake, you’ll have cake, and all the pretty little horses,” she crooned.
“Mama, what are you doing? Where’s Father?” I said.
She looked up as if surprised to see me. “Why, Hester, it’s you. I don’t know where he’s gone. Perhaps to see a patient.” She dipped the spoon into the honey jar. “I wonder, could you get me a cup of tea? I can’t leave Avery just now.”
I stared hard at the corpse, uncertain what to do. What made her think he was still alive? I leaned closer.
With a jerk, Avery’s arm rose two inches off the bed and an inhuman groan issued from his mouth.
I squealed and jumped back so fast and so far that I hit the opposite wall, where I cringed, gripped as if by ague.
Mother calmly reached out and pushed the arm back down onto the bed. “Yes, Avery, it’s Sister,” she said. “She’s come to see how you are.”
Avery moaned again.
Only then did it dawn on me that he was saying my name, or trying to.
“Hester, what’s the matter with you? Go get the tea, please,” said Mother, and held the spoon to her son’s gray lips. Honey ran down his chin in yellow rivulets, pooling in the hollow of his throat.
Picking myself up, I gladly ran for the kitchen.
There, I set about stoking the stove and checking the water in the kettle, trying hard to do the job Mother had given me and to think about nothing else. Still, my teeth chattered, and it was not from the cold. I was spooning Darjeeling into the blue china pot when the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs outside froze me in place. I could not turn to peer through the black glass panes of the door. I could not so much as squeak.
“Hester?” It was Father.
I threw down the spoon and tried to fling my arms around him. But instead of the familiar smell of his soap and the soft wool of his coat and trousers, my face met with hard, gouging corners. His arms were full of books. His hair, which he generally kept neat to a fault, stuck out at odd angles. His eyes were wide and red-rimmed. I took a step backward without meaning to.
“Something’s wrong with Avery,” I said.
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “You’re making tea?”
“Would you bring me a cup? I’ll be with Mother.” He moved toward the doorway.
I touched his coat sleeve. “Is he dead?”
He looked at me, the deep lines between his eyes growing deeper still, his nostrils large and dark, the corners of his handsome mouth drooping.
“I don’t know,” he said, and brushed past me with his burden.
When the tea was ready, I loaded a tray and carried it to the sickroom. Mother had fallen asleep in the rocking chair, just as well. The honey jar gleamed at her elbow, half empty. Father hunched on the edge of the bed with two books open on his lap and the others stacked at his feet. Now I could see their titles, gleaming gold on the good leather spines. Humphrey’s Remedies. Nature of Living Organisms. The Merck Manual. I poured him a cup of tea and set it in a saucer on the topmost book, Horner’s Physiology of Death.
The leg still lay on the bed. I saw quite suddenly that in all that sea of terrors it was the one problem I had the power to solve. That leg had carried me pig-a-back, walked me home from school, run from me in games of hide-and-seek, and climbed the stairs of Redfield’s house to seal Avery’s fate. It ought to be treated better than some forgotten piece of meat.
So while Father sought his answers in the written works of rational men, I took an old sheet from the linen cupboard and carefully wrapped the errant limb. I do not know how much a human leg weighs. Avery was not full grown, and what I carried was not his entire leg, some portion of which was still attached to his body. Nevertheless, it was heavy. It took me quite some time just to get my strange parcel out to the garden, and longer still to locate a shovel. The hardest part of all was the digging, which I chose to do in Mother’s rose bed, because I knew the soil was soft there. All of this took place by the light of a lantern in a brisk wind.
When I had finished, I removed my muddy shoes, came back into the house, and washed my hands in the kitchen sink. The exertion had done me good. The shivering had stopped, and my mind was clearer. I went straight to the sickroom to see what Father had found out.
The books lay scattered across the floor. A few were open, face down, the beloved spines cracked.
“Father?” I whispered. But he didn’t answer. He was far too busy spooning honey into Avery’s mouth and onto the open stump of his leg.
By the light of the coal oil lamp, I could see that Avery’s muscles had begun to relax a little. His eyes, deep in the sockets of his skull, were closed. His lips had slightly parted to reveal his strong white teeth, which I had long envied. His pallid skin lay draped over the bones of his face like a sheet of melted wax.
“Father?” I said again, a little louder. Still he did not respond. His arm moved again and again, spooning the honey.
I crept up close enough to touch Avery’s hand. It was cold as snow. It did not move, nor did any other part of him—no rise or fall of lungs, no flutter of veins, no whisper of breath. Surely I had imagined his crying my name, or merely wished it.
It was as if something broke loose inside me then. I put my hands on Father’s shoulders and tried with all my child’s might to shake him. I meant to speak in a normal way, but the words would not be spoken. They had to be screamed. “Stop it! Can’t you see he’s dead? Stop!”
At last Father responded. “No he’s not.”
“He is, he is!” I cried.
That is when Avery’s eyelids flew open to reveal the shrunken gray orbs beneath, which he turned on me like a stream of ice water. As I listened in horror, the effigy of a song began to issue from him. “Way down yonder in the meadow, there’s a poor wee little lamby.” I hesitate to say that he was singing, for it wasn’t a human voice. Rather it was a rattle that forced its way up through bubbles of honey. “Birds and butterflies pickin’ at its eyes, crying for its mammy,” he went on—the second verse of Mother’s lullaby.
At which point, words abandoned me entirely, and I ran screaming up the stairs to my room, where I bolted the door and jammed a chair against it.
After I had lit the lamp, I pushed my bed into the corner of the room farthest from the door, climbed into it fully clothed and pulled the covers over my head. I couldn’t stop shaking, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. The worst of it was that my parents frightened me just as much as poor, ruined Avery. My child’s mind parsed the situation out this way: either they had taken leave of their senses, in which case I was at the mercy of lunatics, or I had taken leave of my own and would be sent to an asylum as soon as someone noticed.
Like a dog with a bone stuck in its teeth, I worried the question of what to do, turning and twisting in the dark shelter of the blanket, wetting my pillowcase and my beloved rag doll with tears. I could go find a neighbor—Mr. Hoskins, or Will or Charlie’s mother perhaps—and place myself in their hands. But if I turned out to be the crazy one, this would only hasten my exile to Bedlam. I could run away. I had a small suitcase. There was a large piece of bacon and some potatoes in the pantry that I could take with me to eat. Maybe I could hop a train. But Mother said never to hang about by the tracks, for bad men sometimes idled there, waiting to make trouble for unwary little girls. And besides, there was no moon. The branch of a tree outside my window scritch-scratched against the glass like the bone of an amputated leg.
I do not know how many hours passed, for there was no clock in my room. I do not think I slept, lit up as I was with the peculiar energy of hysteria. I can only say that the lamp was still burning when I poked my head out from beneath the covers.
There was a sound on the stairs. Not an ordinary sound like Father’s footsteps or a mouse. No. This was a sound like the dragging of a gunny sack filled with things both hard and soft, slither, thud, slither, thud, coming closer and closer to my room. Something scratched at the door. Then the handle of the doorknob rattled. I could not help but look. I saw the knob turn.
“Hester, Hester.” It was the bubbling, honeyed voice of Avery’s corpse.
“Get away!” I screamed.
“Jesus, help me. Please.” This was followed by a heavy thump and a pitiful scrabbling against the wood. I pictured Avery there, having dragged himself up the stairs on his elbows because he had only one leg. Blind. Doing everything by feel, or by following the scent of his sister.
I felt as if a heavy board with rocks upon it lay over my heart. My breath came in gasps. I could not imagine how I might help him. I could think only of how I might help myself. Knock him down the stairs? He would just come back up. Cut off his head? It would probably still implore me.
It was then that Mr. Ursari’s words came back to me. Know that if God wants him, it is best not to stand in the way. Quite suddenly I knew what I must do. I leaped out of bed, grabbed my coat from the hook in the closet. I would not brave what lay beyond my door. I climbed out the window instead, hiking up my skirt to shinny down the trellis that, in softer seasons, supported the large violet blossoms of Mother’s clematis. Hence I ran through the moonless streets to the house of Petrus Ursari and pounded on his door with both my fists, shrieking like a child banshee, and weeping.
Lamplight flared in the window, the door opened, and there he stood, barefoot, lace-trimmed nightshirt stuffed into his trousers, his sad face creased and cloudy with sleep. “Child, what is wrong?” he said, and shepherded me into his dim abode.
Soon I was seated beside the stove, my hands wrapped around a cup of hot cider, telling him the whole miserable tale.
When I was finished, he said, “Ones you love, it is hard to let go.”
I knew somehow by the way he said it that he had done more than his fair share of letting go.
“Was it them?” I said, looking toward the photograph of the woman and children. “Were they who you had to let go?”
He nodded, gazing not at me but at them, or through them, to the faraway land where they all had once lived together. Without rising, he reached up and took a small, blue bottle from the shelf. He set it on the table before me. It was square like a medicine bottle, and corked. The wax seal was broken. Whatever the bottle contained, it had been used at least once before.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A liqueur, made from many things, living and dead.”
I was afraid to ask what those things might be. Mummified peaches from trees in graveyards? Mashed eyeballs? Toad claws? The water from some haunted stream in the Carpathian Mountains? But those abominations could hold no candle to what came next.
“You must rub it on his heart,” said Mr. Ursari.
I pressed my hand against the place under which I thought my own heart must lie. “Here, you mean?”
But he shook his head, and the lines of sorrow in his face deepened. “The heart itself.”
I squinted at him, trying hard to find some subtle and harmless meaning in those awful words, but there was none.
I stuttered. “Y . . . you don’t mean . . .”
He leaned forward, placed his palms upon the table, and held me in that powerful gaze of his. “The heart itself,” he repeated. “Tell no one. I am sorry. There is no other way.”
That is how I came to stand at the top of our stairs at sunrise on a November day, a kitchen knife in one hand and a small blue bottle in my pocket. Avery lay on his side, still as a winter-killed hare, his cheek pressed against the thin carpet. I suppose they had taken off his clothes before the surgery, for he was naked. There were big purple splotches on his back, which I later learned were probably from pooled blood. The stump of his leg was still unbandaged and unclosed, sticky with honey. It stank like the bin behind the butcher shop on a hot day.
“Avery?” I whispered.
He did not move. My spirits leapt at the possibility that perhaps he was dead well and true after all.
I called again. “Avery?” praying he wouldn’t answer. There was no response.
“Oh,” I sobbed, and went down on my knees in a paroxysm of pain and gratitude, the knife forgotten.
Imagine the purity of my horror when he rolled onto his back and a long, anguished groan escaped his throat. I scuttled backward, my own vocal cords shocked silent. Outside, the first little bit of sun peeped over the horizon. My bedroom door stood open, and through the window came a finger of light. Red as blood, it lay across Avery’s dead face, warming it. I swear a tear rolled glimmering down his cheek.
I inched back toward him, my arm stretched out for the knife, and when I got close enough I seized it. I held it in both hands. I still recall how the hard wood of the handle pressed into my skin. “Hold still,” I said, opened my eyes, and did what had to be done.
I will not leave you with the details, which are predictably grim, as my knowledge of anatomy was minimal at the time. There was a good deal of fumbling. I will say that when I applied Ursari’s potion as directed, Avery sighed. To this day I believe a pale, glittering shape drifted up from him to meet that crimson shaft of sunlight. Before my parents awoke and discovered my handiwork, I went back to Mr. Ursari’s and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so I left the blue bottle and its remaining contents on the porch, the cork stuck in as far as it would go.
My father, who was on good terms with the Hamilton county Coroner, arranged the legalities in such a way that no questions were ever asked. I became my parents’ only child, and the love they had once lavished on their sons was thereafter mine, and mine alone. We did not speak of Avery’s death except in the most general terms. Nor did we speak of Ursari’s honey, which we never tasted again, though Mother purchased his eggs—and in season his peaches—every week until the day she died.
All this time, it has been as if it never happened. My brother died of an infected wound, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Except for that which I have carried inside me like a heavy stone all these years, and now gladly lay down before you. May I rest as well as he.