What You See
What you see, in the end, can never be unseen. Forgotten, yes—or softened by the passage of time—but not unseen.
Forty years ago, when my friend Cassie and I were eleven, we found a dead body in the canyon behind her house. I don’t know how many times I’ve told this story over the years. Only a dozen, I hope, perhaps fewer.
I usually break off near the beginning. I’m ashamed of myself for trotting it out, always to make some point about myself, as if I am the central character in the narrative: to prove that I am tortured at heart, or haunted. In college, after smoking a little pot, I had the idea that it made me seem deep, and at a particularly low point in my life, I took a boy I met at a party back to my dorm room and whispered the words as he lay in my bed.
But that is neither here nor there.
I usually don’t mention that the body was her brother’s, because that makes it all too sad, or that her mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner at the time, humming as she walked from the counter to the refrigerator and back.
There are certain close relationships—twins, say—where people see a psychic connection when perhaps there is none. If one twin has a heart attack on the east side of town, and her sister at that moment feels oddly and unaccountably stricken, is it a coincidence, or a certain filling in of the blanks? Or is it possible that two women can be, in some mysterious fashion, bound together, even over oceans and continents? There is a whole mythology surrounding this idea.
But what relationship could be closer or bound more tightly than that of a mother and her child? So I don’t know how to account for the fact that Cassie’s mother went on slicing apples and rolling out a pie crust, humming, happily unaware that anything in her world had changed, or was about to go on changing.
It was summer, then, but not a hot day. Cassie and I were exploring in the woods behind her house, between her parents’ back porch and the empty ravine. It had been a dry spring, and the wildflowers already looked weak and withered.
Are you sure you want to hear this? I can stop at any time. I don’t know why I keep bringing it up, what I hope to accomplish in the telling.
But Cassie was walking in front of me, in those tiny shorts that everyone wore at that time, her legs like two sticks underneath. We were growing too old for our usual games, for building forts in the trees and trading Archie comics back and forth.
I loved her then, almost more than anyone, and she was the last person I thought of at night before I fell asleep. What I would tell her the next day, what she would say.
I will never forget that: the sun on her dark hair as she walked in front of me, that long shiny hair that I envied so much when she gathered it in one hand at school, bending over the water fountain and tilting her head toward the water. Her hair, hanging halfway down her back, the look of her shorts and the backs of her legs, the way her sneaker slipped that day as we walked along the rocks toward the edge of the cliff, and she mimed a big, theatrical attempt to right herself, and we both laughed.
It wasn’t only her mother who continued on, untroubled, oblivious.
We reached the edge at almost the same time, and she caught my hand. We had climbed down these rocks a hundred times. I can’t explain now why our parents allowed it. All I can say is that we live, now, in a different time.
Cassie’s brother was older than we were; how much older hardly seems important anymore, though age had so much relevance to us then. He was a teenager, about to start his last year of high school, and I’d had a vague crush on him for years, though that was a secret even from Cassie. Her brother had driven us to the movies a few times, letting me sit thrillingly in the front seat next to him, and he brought us home two cold bottles of root beer one afternoon, when we were sitting bored on Cassie’s porch. He was shy and too skinny, but he had the kind of soft eyes that I’ve never been able to resist, not then or at any age of my life.
Cassie caught my hand at the edge of the canyon, and I have to think that we saw him at the same time. He was standing on the opposite side, facing away from us, and he was still alive then, though this is the part I’ve never told, not to anyone, ever.
We had walked straight out from the house, but he had gone much further along the edge and, at some point, crossed to the other side. He was quite distant from us. His red shirt was bright against the dry brush as he turned and walked further away yet. And then we watched as he backed up, got a running start, and leapt into space.
Cassie cried out, but it was too late.
We scrambled all the way down to the bottom of the ravine.
For all the time it took to reach him, I still thought he would be breathing, that the damage would be limited to bruises, cuts, broken bones. His head had hit a rock. There was not as much blood as you might expect, but there was enough.
Later, I thought he must have taken something, though I don’t want to speculate too much, or embroider the details of the story. Later, it occurred to me that one of us should have turned in the opposite direction and run for help. Instead, we sat with him, each of us crying and holding one of his hands.
Hours must have passed, but the summer sun was still bright. We climbed, slowly this time, back up the side of the canyon, scraping our palms on the jagged rocks and brush, struggling for each foothold. Our legs were scratched and bleeding. We could hear Cassie’s mother calling our names from the back porch, but we continued up the side and toward the house in grim silence, walking side by side, not looking at each other or touching.
Her mother was in the kitchen again by the time we reached the house. When the back door slammed, we heard her say, “There you are,” her voice matter-of-fact, pleased. “Take off your shoes and go wash up for dinner,” she said, and we obeyed again without speaking, taking turns with the soap, dawdling in the bathroom for as long as we could.
My sleeping bag was in Cassie’s room, though I usually slept in her bed. We used my roll to keep warm in the living room when we stayed up late, watching old movies and eating popcorn we’d popped in a pot on the stove. My parents were going to a party that night, or the theatre, or somewhere. That part doesn’t matter, in the end.
At the grocery store a few days earlier, my father had bought me a whole stack of Archie comics, the thicker collections, not the little comic books. He had recently lost his job and was overcompensating, I think now, proving to both of us that he could still give me what I wanted or needed. I didn’t know about the job, and I just felt—standing in line at the store, looking forward to spending the night and sharing the books with Cassie—happy and lucky. It is true, what they say—that ignorance is bliss.
Cassie and I turned off the light in the bathroom and walked soberly to the table. Her father had come home and was sitting at the table in his shirtsleeves. He seemed more relaxed that night than I had ever seen him, and I had the sickening thought that maybe the absence of Cassie’s brother had something to do with that; Cassie had told me that her father and brother often fought.
But Cassie’s mother was smiling as she carried dishes to the table. She wiped her hands on her apron and said, “I made your favorite, apple pie,” and laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder. There were flowers on the table, and I knew that it was the last tranquil night they would have for a very long time, maybe forever, so I laid my napkin on my lap the way my mother had taught me.
It was a light summer supper, a green salad, strawberries, a meal I couldn’t possibly remember. Still, it all comes back to me periodically: the same combination of colors on my plate, something about the scent or the light in a room. The food stuck in my throat, but I ate everything that Cassie’s mother spooned onto my plate.
She was looking at the clock by the time we finished dessert. The fifth plate on the table remained untouched, the silverware shining in the late summer light. As Cassie and I took our plates to the kitchen, we heard her parents’ voices—his annoyed, hers worried—from the other room.
Cassie and I went back outside, and it was mutually understood that we would return to the edge of the canyon. It took us a long time to pick through the brush and reach a spot where we could look down and see the body. It was still there, red shirt, blue jeans, and I have no way of knowing what Cassie was thinking, but for me it was such a disappointment to find him there again. Some part of me must have held out hope, even then, that the whole episode might have been fiction; the earlier part of the day already had the feel of a long, bad dream, in the way that they can be so intense and lifelike.
We didn’t climb down again. There was no need. Instead, we returned to the house and Cassie told her mother in a small, scared voice that we thought we had seen her brother lying on the floor of the canyon.
Her mother’s hand flew up to her mouth, and she was tearing off the apron, pushing us out the door. She yelled back to her husband to telephone for help, half-running as she followed us out behind the house, then taking the lead, so that she was the first to reach the lip of the canyon. Cassie pointed. I had thought that her mother might fall to her knees or scream out in anguish, but instead she called down to him. She called to her child, as if it were still dinnertime, and she was calling him back to the table.
I have often wondered, over the last few years, what I was doing when my husband died. He was on the other side of the world, with men I will probably never meet, when the last breath left his body. Was I sitting at my desk at work, typing numbers on a screen? Or at home, standing in the light of the kitchen, wearing an apron and humming?
All I know is what I was doing later, while phone calls were being made, when other people already knew that I was widow. I went on eating dinner, washing the dishes, laughing at something I saw on the television, unaware yet of the turn that my life had taken.
There are nights when I would give anything to go back, to sit on Cassie’s porch and drink a bottle of cold root beer with her and her brother. Cassie and I were never quite the same after that day in the canyon, as you can imagine; I wanted to blame some external force, prying us apart like a wishbone, but the truth is, even if that had never happened, we were getting older, and we couldn’t lie on her bed reading comic books forever. She joined the youth group at her church, and I started playing softball, and we gradually grew apart. It was easier that way, to find ourselves in new places, to make new friends who had never met Cassie’s brother and didn’t remind either one of us of anything.
It doesn’t seem possible that forty years have passed. I traveled in Europe and Asia and then back to North America, finally settling in the east. I am a mother, an aunt, a woman who once buried a husband and woke up the next morning and went on living. Sometimes, we go on because we have to; that is the only choice available to us. And sometimes we don’t, for the same reason.
Cassie moved to California, near the ocean, last I heard. She is an artist of some kind, but I can’t say any more about that. We haven’t kept in touch.
Still, last night, she was the one I thought of when the pain first struck. I held my hand over my heart, as if I could stop what was happening, and for a moment, I was alive, and I was dead, and all the while I was in pain, and I thought, Cassie, can you feel this?
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens. Her third chapbook, In the Chair Museum, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013, and her fourth is forthcoming. Browning’s fiction and poetry have appeared in publications including The Citron Review, Fiction Southeast, Queen’s Quarterly, Bluestem Magazine, Cape Fear Review, 300 Days of Sun, Storyscape Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, Glassworks Magazine, Blood Orange Review, Heron Tree, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, Salome Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, The Blue Hour Magazine, Per Contra, and Corium Magazine, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards and bookmarks from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in several anthologies. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at leahbrowning.com.