I followed my older brother home, down steep hillsides with gravel so loose it was like sledding down winter hills as children and up again through shallow valleys with green light streaming cross-ways. It seemed very far, but that was the nature of the terrain. Enough up and down, up and down, and even a few miles’ walk becomes a journey.
We didn’t speak much—or rather, I didn’t speak much, and he didn’t speak at all. The air around us was dense with silence broken only by our unstable footsteps and by the sharp clacks of something shifting inside the sack he carried over his shoulder. Its contents seemed heavy from my position behind him, but he carried it as though it were light. Too light, his head-up posture seemed to say.
How he could walk so tall with a gash in his head and a bone-deep hole in his shoulder, I couldn’t understand. Though repelled by the way the sack’s contents made rigid bulges in its sides and the odor of burnt meat trailing after it, I offered and asked and tried to order him to let me carry his burden. Regardless of my tactic, I might as well have been silent. The most he would do was pause and shift his shoulders and roll his neck beneath all the bandages, then straighten his back again, and walk or hike or climb on as the terrain dictated. He cherished that burden like he would a child riding on his shoulders, small and precious and half-asleep so that his steps fell in odd places to compensate.
Each night, when the peril of continuing in the dark forced him to stop and rest, he collapsed into himself as though the force of gravity had doubled, tripled, the moment he sat down. The sack rattled and deformed as it settled on the ground, always within arm’s reach. From the beginning, its bottom had a rusty, caked-on discoloration, and it didn’t take much contact with the damp earth for it to turn mottled brown over-top of the original reddish stains.
I sat near him, my own back rigid, watching for signs of pain, of weakness, ready to spring up if he needed me. Not that I’d have any idea what to do. Even wrapping a bandage was beyond my skill, and besides, since leaving the scene of so much violence, my hands and fingers seemed incapable of doing anything that required much dexterity. From shock, I thought. Just the heaviness of what we’d survived, and the heaviness of having to leave it behind and go back to the world we’d come from. I think we both feared that when we reached home, there would be nothing there we knew or that knew us. Perhaps there had been no home in the first place and it had all been a dream we’d used to lie to ourselves.
When the heaviness got to be too much, when I could see his straight-backed posture bowing and warping, I began to talk. It became incessant, the sound of my voice, weaving scenes of what we’d do at home with all the time we would have, what we’d eat until we made ourselves sick, who we’d meet and embrace and try not to cry into while their eyes filled with relief and with pride.
Most of the time, it didn’t help. For him, my voice may have hung heavy in the air like the smell of blood in the air behind us. But I kept on talking because sometimes, just sometimes, he’d take a deep breath and straighten up, and force more energy into his step. That made a throat sore from chattering worth it, even if it was chatter about something that might have been a fantasy to begin with.
Sometimes, the bag chattered along with me. It just had to remind me of what I didn’t want to recall.
It can’t have been as long as it felt when we slid down the last gravelly slope, me nearly tumbling down on my head, and he arriving on flat ground like his father had been a mountain goat. I made a bleating sound at him, just to try and get a smile as we both turned our eyes to our home. He should be smiling when he saw it. I was. I’d never smiled so wide.
But when I glanced at him, he wasn’t smiling and then I couldn’t either. I watched him put his expression through its paces: relief to fear to uncertainty to resignation. He was grim when he finally moved. I remained—I couldn’t go with him, I understood that now—and watched as his posture bowed forward again, because now, with home and family in sight, the clacking, shifting contents of that sack had become much, much heavier.