"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"> Frigg | Spring/Summer 2023 | The Brother | Mary Kane
artwork for Mary Kane's creative nonfiction The Brother

The Brother
Mary Kane

She thought it was a scab at first. Or a mole. Or one of those patches of darker, rougher skin the dermatologist had told her not to worry about, barnacles. But then she noticed how regular its shape was, a perfect rectangle, and that it had a knob, and barely visible hinges. It was, she had to admit, a door in her brother’s forehead, small but not too small. Anyone could see it, she said to herself, it’s obvious enough. The door was about a quarter-inch high, an eighth wide, a little to the left of center on his forehead, and close to the hairline.

She hadn’t seen him in awhile, a fact she’d felt a little bad about, but they’d spoken on the phone. And in all those months, he’d never once mentioned anything about a door in his head.

The sister didn’t say anything. But while they sat there, at their other brother’s kitchen table, drinking tea and talking, she kept an eye on the door. She wanted to know if anyone used it, if there were people moving in and out of her brother’s forehead, and if so, were they people she’d recognize. And who had they voted for and were they NRA supporters and did they read poetry and did they eat Danish and did they take sugar in their coffee.

For most of that visit, there wasn’t any activity involving the door. No openings, closings, entries or departures. Close to when she was getting ready to leave, to make the few hours drive to her own home in her own town, she asked him, “So, what’s with the door?”

“What door,” he asked back, not brushing his forehead with his fingers or the back of his hand, focusing instead on his thumb, where he’d been picking at a piece of dead skin during much of their conversation.

Before she could say, “The one on your forehead,” the brother launched into a description of his plan to earn loads of money tiling bathrooms for the rich on some island she didn’t catch the name of—focused as she was on the door—and buying land in Indonesia for his retirement.

Around the time he began listing the fruits native to the particular Indonesian island he planned to move to, and their health benefits, the door on his forehead opened and a little man stood there, on the threshold, his face a mix of fear and anger, pinched, old-fashioned, but young-seeming at the same time. He took a scroll from his jacket pocket, unfurled it, read what appeared to be a long and detailed numbered list, and then crumpled it up, and tossed it back inside, into the brother’s head. The sister had no idea what had been on the list, what the man had been reading, but she didn’t get a good feeling, and he’d tossed the crumpled list into what looked from her vantage point like a thick darkness. The man stepped back inside and closed the door, as if he were merely a cuckoo in a clock, unable to go anywhere, but required to pop forth periodically.

When the sister, days later, spoke on the phone to another sister, the other sister asked her if she’d noticed that their brother had a door behind his right ear, just behind and beneath the lobe, sort of a blood color, and locked. How did she know it was locked, the sister asked her sister. I tried to open it while he was napping, the sister explained. Had she seen anyone come in or out, the sister asked. Well, not exactly, the sister said. I mean, someone opened the door from the inside, a guy, with a gun and big beard, but then he tossed the gun inside, sniffed the air outside the brother’s neck, and closed the door again, backing himself in first. Yeesh, the sister said. Guns and lists and small, angry men. That’s a tad alarming, don’t you think? I do, the sister said, and he doesn’t seem to notice they’re there.

The brother had had skin conditions before. Psoriasis, ganglion cysts. No acne to speak of. Dry patches, dandruff. So perhaps the doors seemed to him just another variety of lesion-like anomaly.

Still, the next time the sister saw him, a few months later at a summer barbecue, to which he wore shorts and a tank top, she noticed doors all over his arms and legs, and even a couple more on his neck and face. At one point, when she was standing behind him in a line at the grill, each of them holding an empty hotdog bun on a white paper plate, awaiting dogs that were very nearly done, she saw several doors swing open at once. Things spilled out. Trash bags, a broken chair, a couple of surly-looking men with what looked like froth around their mouths. A moment passed and then, almost as quickly as things had spilled out, everything was pulled back inside. She guessed they’d been reeled in on invisible threads though she couldn’t tell for certain. Someone, she couldn’t see who, had pulled the doors shut.

On the long drive home that evening, she’d practiced little speeches, hoping she could ask the brother if he’d allow her or someone to examine the doors for him. She’d ask if he’d seen or would consider seeing a doctor, but what type. This didn’t seem like a case for your average dermatologist.

The sister did some research but found nothing about the appearance of doors on the body. She meditated, she walked, she prayed, she consulted collections of stories. Perhaps the world of the imagination could help here. Nothing. She found tops of heads coming off and many references to activity occurring inside people’s hearts, springs breaking out, hives filled with bees, suns, gardens, islands, and lake waters. She called the brother regularly, asked how he was feeling, if he’d seen a doctor recently, but he hadn’t. His insurance had lapsed, he said, and anyway, he felt he was in pretty good health.

One day, the brother called and asked if he could come to visit. The sister said of course. She went to the grocery store and bought apples and pears. She bought zucchini and cinnamon swirl bread and ravioli. She felt a little confused and bought accordingly. She was certain of only one thing, that she would purchase tea since the brother had always liked tea, even when they were children. Black tea with milk and sugar. That is how he used to like his tea anyway. She wasn’t sure anymore.

On the day he was to arrive, the sister vacuumed and dusted and chopped carrots and celery, made hummus and tapenade and chocolate cake. She set soup to simmer and sliced thick slabs of sourdough bread she’d bought from her favorite baker. And then she sat back in her reading chair and stared out the front window, wondering how she’d broach the subject of the doors, which by now, she imagined, had become even more numerous. What could she say? Perhaps he would arrive doorless. Perhaps it had been a passing condition brought on by a new detergent. She thought she’d be able to tell by a quick glance at his face and neck. Perhaps, she hoped, he’d be ready to talk about it.

The brother arrived in the late morning. The sister, having been up and busy since before dawn, had fallen asleep in her chair but awakened when she heard the brother’s car in the driveway. She sat up, wiped a bit of drool from her cheek, looked around the living room and kitchen, and pushed herself out of her chair. She went to the door where she stood waiting to greet him.

The brother looked for the most part pretty normal as he approached the house. It was November and chilly so he was wearing a jacket and a knit cap, long pants, and boots. Not a lot of him was exposed. He walked, as she’d remembered him walking, with short quick steps, though perhaps, she noted, his steps were slightly slower. He faced straight ahead, head held up, a look on his face of seriousness, as though he were concentrating on a single thought, or deliberating on whether or not to bring up an uncomfortable subject, she thought, though perhaps she was projecting. The brother enjoyed laughing as much as anyone, but he had, throughout their lives, tended to appear more serious than jovial. His lips were often pressed tight together, his brow slightly lowered, as if he were examining details in a specimen of snake or weasel.

Was there something perverse in her, the sister thought. Did her interest in the doors outweigh her concern for her brother? For as he came into her home and she welcomed him, taking his coat, offering him the sofa and a cup of tea, her curiosity practically clawed its way out from within. She felt as though she were inhabited by hungry squirrels that were ready to leap out from inside her shoulders and skull, where they were right that minute scratching crazily for release. Was there something of this same feeling in her brother, she thought. Not squirrels per se, but the feeling of being inhabited. Did he feel pressure build within him, behind each of the many doors that marked his skin, so that only opening all of the doors would relieve the uncomfortable sensation? Or was one door, when opened, minuscule as it seemed, enough to alleviate any mounting internal pressure?

Deciding she needed to address the situation head on, she blurted, “So, have you spoken to anyone about the doors on your body?”

The brother’s speech sounded at the same time both slowed and backed by steady pressure. Each individual word was slow enough even to contain a hint of slur while the stream that flowed from him, that stream of words linked to each other in ordered sentences, had the force almost of a river. It was as though, if not dammed in some way, the river would rush on and on interminably, and the sister would find no place to enter. She sat for a long while and watched and listened as the river nearly gushed through the house.

It turned out the brother had been aware of the doors for a long time. Even before the one the sister had noticed on his forehead, the brother had discovered them—one on his scalp hidden by his thick black hair, one under his armpit. Those two had been there a long time, months, before any others had appeared. They had itched a little at first but hadn’t actually hurt. He’d tried scratching them off. He’d tried squeezing each like a pimple. He’d tried pulling them off with tweezers. The brother was not without his own curiosity.

After his attempts at removing them had failed, he’d tried forcing each door open. And even though the doors were so small and he was a strong man, he hadn’t been able to break them in or tear them off their hinges. And at only a quarter-inch high and an eighth-inch wide, the doors had such small knobs they were nearly impossible to grab hold of, like deer ticks. Picking the locks hadn’t proved possible either.

The brother had found that he could, if patient enough, stand guard, awaiting the moments when the doors opened, and on a few such occasions he had managed to wedge them with a cardboard match so they stayed open long enough for him to see inside with the use of a flashlight and small handheld mirror of the kind used by dentists. Which was ironic, the brother explained, since inside one of the doors he’d seen a small dark room lined with shelves and on each shelf an open, drawer-like box with a mesh bottom, like the kind one used for sifting dirt. In each box he’d seen scattered piles of decayed teeth. Collections of decayed teeth that must have fallen or been pulled from numerous infected mouths. It had unnerved him, and he’d slammed the door shut, but he couldn’t help it; when he closed his eyes, he could see that dark space, that little closet-like room inside him just on the other side of that door, and all those rotten teeth.

He’d finally put epoxy around the edges of that door so it’d never open again, so he’d never have to witness all those brown and crumbly and blackened teeth, but now he almost wished he hadn’t because with the door sealed closed, he could still see and even sometimes hear the teeth rattling in that darkness. And he’d no idea if there were other rooms, on the far side of that room, with their own collections. In fact, inside one door, he’d caught a glimpse of a long dark corridor, with a rank odor, like in a bad hotel with old, stained, damp carpets, lined on each side by door after closed door. The corridor stretched on until it disappeared into the darkness, but he suspected it was never ending.

As the brother spoke, the sister could hear a story beneath his story happening inside him, could hear inhabitants multiplying and taking up residence, could hear how each door led to a room which led to other rooms and chambers, many of them connecting at busy intersections and public meeting places. She could hear the low grinding sounds of excavators and front-end loaders tearing up the earth that was her brother’s inner body and cellular and spiritual existence.

Not all the spaces inside had been frightening, he said. There’d been a girl inside one door, sweet, small, far away, and kind. And men on a boat, fishing, inside another door, the sea around their boat freezing and rough, but in the men’s movements a sense of competence and camaraderie and trust. He’d even seen in one door the house they’d grown up in, all decorated at Christmas time, filled with people and warmth and greenery, the smell of boeuf bourguignon, cooking inside what must have been the smallest casserole dish in the world inside an oven the size of a fingernail, the warm savory flavors filling the space. And music playing. He’d not seen actual presents under the tree but he’d glimpsed the big wooden box they’d kept by the fireplace, that they’d filled with wood for the fire, each of them taking turns going out to the woodpile, stacking their arms with as much wood as each could carry and then dumping their armloads with a tumbling thud into the box.

Inside one little door he’d seen their father’s face in death. Inside another the big room of the institution where their other brother had lived so many years, their brother smiling, though fastened into his chair for safety, the space filled with the inarticulate noisiness of those who can make sound but lack the power of speech.

The more the brother spoke, the more the sister felt her heart twinge, as if pricked over and over with small sharp pins. No single pin hurt terribly but she began to feel she couldn’t manage too many more pricks in one sitting. She asked the brother if they might take a break, and without speaking, without answering her, the brother closed his eyes, and fell asleep, his body slumping into itself on the sofa.

The sister walked over to him and stood there, listening and looking. She saw how the brother seemed turned almost to lace, as if he were being consumed from within. The doors were not simple superficial openings but connected in a warren of tunnels that interrupted his nervous system and even his circulation, not to mention his soul’s byways and forests and meadows. The sister leaned over and covered the brother with a blanket, the brother and his doors and all the inhabitants within as dark and still as a slumbering neighborhood some late autumn evening near midnight, and underneath it all a quiet, steady crunching.

Mary Kane’s Comments

I’m no expert on creative nonfiction, and in fact, I submitted my piece under that designation because I thought Ellen might like the story and I (mistakenly) thought the only category at Frigg that accepts longer works is creative nonfiction. Still, once I thought about it and began to look at my story as CNF, I got to thinking. I write things, and I don’t set out to write in a specific genre because the work that I respond to almost never seems particularly genre specific. Like I love Anne Carson’s Short Talks which are categorized as poetry on the book cover but are called talks. And I love her “Glass Essay,” a long poem that calls itself an essay.

What I like especially is invention. Like Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a gigantic wonder of a book that calls itself a novel but doesn’t really use any of the novel’s conventions and is so filled with energy and humor and wisdom and peculiar ways of expressing experience. That book is the kind of thing that gives me, as a writer, a sense of permission to invent whatever I need to invent in order to write. Which is what those Carson works also do.

So maybe the part of CNF that seems most important to me is the word “creative,” since it suggests room for invention. I’m unable or uninterested in delivering a story that offers straightforward narration of events, since what I want is a story that is more like poetry, that evokes an experience in the reader and in myself that we might not have words to describe. Preferably, rather than an explanation, the response to the story would be another story, or a poem, or a poem that calls itself an essay, or a story that calls itself an essay, or a discussion of the history of dentistry that evokes an experience that makes the reader understand their life in a new way. Or a painting. Or a sculpture. Or a stew. Maybe what I’m getting at is that I like when something created begets more creativity because ordinary language can’t respond successfully to it. Without invention, I can’t really create the kinds of experiences I’m interested in.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 61 | Spring/Summer 2023