I came to the page this morning to write a review of Sing, Unburied, Sing. My intention was to discuss the way Jesmyn Ward used the tiniest edges of her fingernails to peel back our layers. Remember that layer of skin your mother used to peel off when she pinched the spirit out of you? Maybe that was just my mother.

She gave us mother-daughter issues, mother-son issues, prison issues, racism, drug abuse, magical realism, African spirituality, and most of all, there was a little nod to Of Mice and Men, or I’ll-take-my-own-before-you- can.

This is what came out instead:


I don’t know how old I was when my brother went away. It was like waking up from one of those long, afternoon naps where you are disoriented and think the entire day has passed, but in reality, you’ve only been sprawled out on the couch for a few hours. He was just gone. But not all at once. His existence had started to chip away earlier on. I can remember him jumping off a roof to get away from my dad at his apartment complex. I still see my mother hitting him with an iron. The time when my dad beat him for supposedly stealing a bike lives in the foyer of my memory. So does the little studio my mother rented for him to live in because he had a gun, and my mom didn’t want him in the house with us. It was always dark inside, and the two times I went down there, the bed was a cloud of sheets and blankets. When I used to tell people about that, I would feel so silly. For my mother. Not for me- all the while thinking, why would a mother let her kid keep a gun, much less allow him to live in the flat below her because of the gun? I think I might understand now.

Anyhow, he slipped away from me, from us, perhaps sometime before I was ten. She told us he was in a special school when we started to ask her. I believed her, even though the heave of her chest, and the aversion of her gaze said something totally different. I am connected to her in a special way, since I am her only daughter-but he even more so, since he is her first-born son. She wasn’t about to sell him out to me, or maybe she didn’t think I was old enough to handle knowing that my brother was locked away with other people being corralled like animals for whatever reason. He was young when he left, the detention center only a lily pad leading the way to prison.

My father was the one who told us. He had an emotional outburst one night at the dinner table. I am not sure what brought it on. We always had pleasant talks around the dinner table, who did what at school-who pissed daddy off at Tropical Kitchens-what patients shit themselves at Jenny’s job-which girls had better stop calling. This night, daddy probably had too much rum. The tears rolled down his face, and we were all confused, except my baby sister, because she was always smiling and happy to be around everyone else at dinner time, even if she never ate unless it was chicken nuggets and fries; this went on for years. My step-mom put her hand over his and called his name, but he snatched it away, and began a tirade that made all the hearts at the table bleed and fly away.

My son! They took my son, and his fucking mother lied! She lied to everybody! I could have helped! If she would have told me what was really happening, I could have helped! But she fucking lied, and now my son is sitting in prison! My son! My first son!”

By the time the curses and the yelling slowed down, his voice was a black and white fuzzy screen we were trying to make a picture of, and his body looked like a deflated balloon, slumped over the glass table. His eyes and face were swollen from the crying. I was crying too. But not because of my brother. I was crying for my mother who felt like she couldn’t tell us what really happened with my brother. I am crying now too, because I think I might understand.

He got out while I was still in high school. His eyes looked a little wild when he came from the back room to hug me, but I was so happy and so full of expectation. This was my big brother! The smartest, strongest (next to my dad) man I knew! And isn’t there something special about hugging someone with the same blood as you? It is fork-to-outlet electric.  We hugged and hugged and he smiled his broad, unzipping his face smile, and I drank him in for all the years I hadn’t seen him and asked him stupid questions. And I was happy, because he didn’t seem sad or crumpled, or broken. My head was fireworks.

He lives in Jamaica now, which I am so jealous of, but he deserves it. The story of how he came to be in prison is unclear to me. I won’t tell you here what I used to tell people when they asked where my big brother was. I told people what I overheard. I never asked him. And I probably never will.

But I think I might understand.