First appeared in 10Flash, July 2010.
Things That Matter
Amanda C. Davis
My brother Rory hunched in the mouth of our cave and cut a groove in his index finger, like a spiral, from nail to base. He crooked it like a crescent moon and looked it over for a while; then he grinned at me and licked off all the blood.
I said, “Why did you do that?”
“Because it’s snowing,” he replied. “It’s really important.”
He does this every year. We ran out of plastic bandages so long ago I can barely remember using them, but our box of books is still plenty full. I tore out page 130 of The Lovely Bones to wrap around his finger. He took it off before he went hunting, though. I burned the paper in the fire, blood and all.
When Rory came back after checking the traps, he had three birds in his hands and one on his head, turned inside-out, a red cone with dirty white feathers entwining with the black of his hair.
I made him take it off, but he made me leave it by the fire while we plucked the others and set their meat to boiling. He kept looking at it like he wanted to put it back on. I combed the blood and feathers out of his hair. He twitched under my fingers.
“Somebody is supposed to wear it,” he insisted, and since he’s seven years older and was around before the New Winter I didn’t argue.
We strung up his inside-out bird-hat to dry for sinew. Its meat wasn’t good by then anyway.
At sunset, he took the hat-bird’s boiled-off bones and stood them alongside each other like trees, and he wrapped them each in paper, and he lit them each on fire, one after another, until he had nine little white sticks smoking side by side.
The smoke wasn’t so bad, so I let them go until they burnt out. He watched them the whole time. When the one in the middle went out he said, “That’s not right,” and relit it. He smiled to see them all lit in a row. That was nice to see. He doesn’t smile much.
After dark fell and there was nothing left to do but sleep, he took me far, far up the mountain, and pointed out at the pinpricks of fire below. “That’s where the city was,” he said. He used to do it all the time–every night, almost–but now he only brings me here when it snows.
“You should have seen the lights,” said Rory.
He took one of his dull brown coins from his pocket, those things he carries around that have been useless almost my whole life, and rubbed it between his gloved fingers until it got back a little bit of shine. He handed it to me.
I said, “Thank you.”
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the metal in my hand. I rubbed it a little more, wishing I’d seen it when it was as bright as Rory says it used to be. Then I gave it back.
He clenched it hard in his palm, and then he started to cry.
He gets like this sometimes.
I gave him a hug. He’s much taller than me, so he hunched over to put his face into my shoulder. “It’s so important,” he said, into my scarf. “It used to be so important…to do this stuff, and do it right, right now, when it snows….”
I said, “We don’t do it anymore, and we’re still alive. So it must not have mattered that much.”
“It mattered a lot,” he mumbled through the wool. “You don’t remember.”
I hate when he says that, because I suspect he’s right: that there were things before the New Winter that I don’t understand and will never see, and that they really were important, not just in my brother’s messed-up brain but for real. I don’t like to think about a world where his dull brown coins were worth something, where people had to light bird-bones in a row every year when it snowed. I liked this world, no matter how cold or empty.
Rory sniffed back his shudders. “Let me show you something.”
Down the hill he pulled me to an evergreen tree. He had chopped down all the brush around it so that it stood alone with its branches heavy with snow. He gave it a shake, and the snow fell away.
“See how beautiful?” he said.
It was, it really was, lit by his lantern and the moon.
“Now watch,” he said.
He opened his lantern and held it to the lowest dead branch.
Fire took hold along the lower boughs and tickled up the trunk. Orange flame danced with green prickles that curled and blackened. The light was blinding against the dark forest. The green tree flickered into brilliant yellow.
He stood back with me, smiling. “This is the most important part.”
“What?” I said, pulling back. “Burning down a tree, or freezing to death?”
His brow crumpled. “No.” He took my hand: his in an old plastic glove worn nearly to shreds, mine in clean rabbit fur I made myself. “The important part is watching it together.”
“Oh,” I said.
He smiled and squeezed my hand. “You should have seen it in the city.”
We held hands and thought about a long-dead world with rows of bird-bones in real glass windows, strange hats in the winter, and pine trees that shone like torches in the cities where people used to be. The pine tree blazed and my brother stood calm. Strange things to long for in the snow…but his hand warmed my hand, and his smile shone. Maybe Rory had fixed his brain on something worth remembering after all.
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