Jad’s spine stung in the low wind from the burnfields in no light. Black sun on black sky, black hidden half-moon, the black air bending backward all that black year. Jad had held the torches at right angles for eight hours, and eight hours, several days now, waiting. He’d burned the celebration flares. The ash fields sucked the light and color from the burning. The stretched air ate the sound.
For weeks now the only word that would come out when Jad spoke was brother. “Brother, brother,” on and on. There was no one to say the word to, and so he said it on and on, into the ash, watching the far lip of the flat fields for any chip of movement, any blur. His twin was out there somewhere. His twin named like his name, if just off, one line in one letter tugged taut to change the middle sound. Jad’s brother Jod. Jod who had still not come back out of the ash there since last leaving. Jod with the birthmark underneath his tongue, which at birth had been the one thing that kept them separate, even in their mother’s eyes. Otherwise they were a matchless match, a replication. Mirrors mirroring their brother selves.
About the birthing Jad could still recall certain things—the suck of sound before the exit, the peeling of their two twin skins, the drawl—and then suddenly his mother’s fingers, scissors, the light inside that room.
Jad on the porch for hours watched the light come in and out around him, growing from nothing where nothing grew. The bird bins around the yard from all the fall out stunk like money, someone’s sores.
In the house’s glass, holding back their home’s light, Jad could see straight on into his own face. He tried to see the image as his brother, back there inside, waiting that he’d come in and go to bed soon. Thinking this way only made the returning truth bruise worse—his backbone vibrating down the middle of his body with his inhale and his thinking. The false brother image blinked each time he blinked.
In those thrown years the fields came forward, their flat face etched black and gray in endless char. Whereas before it might take more than an hour walking to where the ash was, Jad now could see it from the front porch. In light breeze like this night’s—like someone’s breathing—the field blew its crap out onto the closest homes. Dust would cram down in the gutters, ruin the paint. At night it beat the house in want. Sleep was hard—sleep had always been hard—it was harder now. The light had nails.
When not overtime at work working for money meant to move the family somewhere else and far away, Jad’s father would fight back in what ways he could. Countless hours on the roof bearing the shovel, paring the very air down with a sickle or a hose. Any sleep the family did have was not the father’s. His arms and legs and neck were thick with throbbing vein. Jad could see in his father’s eyes that there would never be enough money to get somewhere, and by the time there might be there’d likely be nowhere else outside the ash to go. By lengths the struggle mattered very little. In most directions the cinder went on as far as one could wish to walk.
One did not wish too walk too far too often. The gloaming coals would seem to cling against the feet. It itched to even sprint into the fields for too far. There was tell of longer term effects—hair stopped growing, minds would wipe out, ash would appear in your blood.
These admonitions had not stopped young Jad or Jod from sneaking off into the spread. Some days they’d gone till they could not see anything in all directions but the burned black flat of destroyed loam. That was a sight, there. That was something. It stirred a weird light out of Jad’s bones. Something wrong about the air there. Stuttered, strummy. Gone.
Each time, even in daylight, for each inch further they’d go on into the ash, Jad could feel a terror slipping in him, a loosening all through his skin. It would sometimes become as if to go another arm’s length would rip his hull apart. And yet Jod, older, stronger, managed to coax him into coming. One more time. What if we’d find . . .
Jad found it more often easier to let his brother take the lead in most things, as he himself could not remember much of where he’d been. Beyond a certain point, around the age he first began fervently reading, he’d had his head knocked hard in his sleep. In the house he’d walk between the walls unending, seeing fake doors, seeing bodies walking where his would too, dreamrooms fit in the room the house made. He would speak out loud in tongues. They weren’t sure what he’d battered into—his mother’d found him bleeding in the hall, the blood around his head in a dark oval. Perhaps a wall beam or a doorway. The blow had blushed his mind. He had a long blue mark now along the left side of his forehead from where the doctors had cut in, fixed the flesh, and sewn him up. He could not remember now before that, though he’d seen pictures, he’d been told. It’d taken so long to explain his twin, his brother, to him—his eyes, his mouth, his hair, his voice, all already there—and yet in time it was a comfort, having that double, his moves made for him, and he could copy, as in the house the rooms began to take on their new day’s shape.
Likewise, what had stood there on the fields there before the burning was not apparent beyond infrequent strips of structure sometimes find crushed into the comb, most of which were hardly dust. Jad and Jod had once come across what appeared to be the bottom and there, that night, they’d even briefly slept, suddenly exhausted layer of a lighthouse—a rounding room burnt of all else but a window and a bed—but even that careful place they’d not been able to come back to, as in the fields it was mostly impossible to tell what or where you’d been.
Their parents would not have wanted them going into the fields in this way, but there was not enough time for them to notice. Besides the family income, and their home’s constant upkeep, their mother had come down a thick fever that would not leave her, a neverending slow-set shaking to her head. She found it often hard to speak even, to look Jad or Jod clean in the eye.
Often for hours, then, uninterrupted, these brothers would find they’d gotten lost in the weird unfolding—though finding the way home, for Jod, was half the pleasure. There was a way the thick air began to settle in your, clustered warm inside the lungs. It at once got you high and kissed a terror. Time inside the field would slur. A minute might be a minute or a weekend. Sometimes it would seem they had returned home hours earlier than the time that they had left.
No one Jad had ever asked could or would tell him where the fields came from, what had been there, what had burned. As each inch encroached even he could not remember what had once stood where the ash went—though you could smell the residue of burning, something misplaced there on the air. Once brushed, nothing there regrew. Quickly too they’d found no homes or other structures could be built back on the surface, as each, no matter how fine, toppled over, burned, or sunk down in.
Sometimes in the dust the brothers would find strange trinkets—long keys and door knobs, woodwinds, bulbs—each cut as if from the same dark shale, ash-colored. For some reason it did not seem right to take the objects with them, though they could not quite say why.
The closer the fields got, the more Jod wanted. He would try to drag Jad by the hand. The look in his eyes deriving pleasure from itself, it seemed, but wanting more.
At night, though, no matter what Jod said or offered, Jad refused to let himself be swayed. The fields were practically unnavigable under darkness. Sight would not reach more than several feet, even by lantern, so that even from the safety of the porch the darkened air around the house would in that direction hide the horizon and the moon.
When he could not coax Jad into joining, Jod would go into the darkened fields alone. He would wait until their parents had also gone to bed, and then he would dress himself in all black also—to blend in, he said, to become. He would climb out through their shared room’s only window. Then he would be gone.
Many nights Jad had stayed awake well into the evening, fighting the cursor of exhaustion from his mind, wanting to wait to see his brother came back safely before he rested in their room, but despite such wanting, he could never make it so long. His body did well resist the call of sleep. He would black out, drone through no dreams—he had never—waking finally, hours later, to find Jod passed out facedown or curled fetal in his bunk.
Later, when he woke too, for those first times, Jod would tell his brother what he’d seen. How in the night the fields seemed different, wider. There were things about the fields that when the ground and sky turned the same color held a different kind of light—light in which you could not see as you would usually, with your eyes, but in the bending of your blood. You would walk towards where you saw yourself already. You would go there, and you’d go.
Jod could not think of a better way to say what he’d said in saying it this way, he told Jad, who did not at all understand. Had Jod seen other people out there? Buildings? Houses? Walls or lights or money? Bones?
Jod just shook his head and asked again for Jad to next time come, but Jad did not want to and so Jod continued going out alone.
As he became more comfortable with the night fields, Jod’s expeditions became more frequent. The time between his going out grew closer together, punctuated only by the evenings he would pass out after dinner. He stopped recounting for Jad even abstractly what he’d felt out there, or seen. He stopped bothering Jad to come with him, and when Jad changed his mind himself, would go, Jod shook his head. He’d changed his mind. The fields didn’t want Jad. They were not a thing he’d understand.
Instead of sharing then, with his young brother, each night while waiting for the right hour, Jod would write for hours of the prior night. He had a large blank snakeskin journal he’d been given years ago—he could no longer think of who. He refused to let Jad see any bit of what he was writing, holding it fast again his chest anytime the younger brother tried to move where he could see. He kept the journal always with him, on his body, sleeping with it in the bed.
Each of the nights alone, between the time Jod left and before he passed out, seemed to Jad to become longer, adding extra minutes in their width. By the third week, a night might seem to contain several nights at once, all smushed together, before the weight overwhelmed his eyes.
As more time passed, Jod quit speaking, answering questions via nodding, a glaze laid in his eyes. Sometimes would make a small sound through his front teeth in a whistle. He would never smile. His body began going dappled, blushed in patches across his chest and back and arms—discolorations that turned soon into huge blue bruises where the skin would peel up and go thin, revealing underneath another shade. Jod hid the bruises from their parents under extra clothes he wore around the house. The clothes Jod would wear into the fields would often come home ripped. Jod warned Jad in writing that telling him about the bruises would mean trouble. There was an odd light about his eyes’ wetness as he held the pad up to let Jad read this. Something in the skin about his face.
Quickly the bruises began spreading up his body, long dark shifts formed in his face around his eyes and up his cheeks, which he hid by wearing his mother’s cream foundation. The bruises began to take on stranger shapes—long looping strains of symbols like hieroglyphics, which on the skin would shift over the hours till at last they sunk into his skin. Jod would sleep so hard he could not be woken, even with Jad screaming in his face. There sometimes seemed a sound coming slow off him, a groaning. His gums were getting dark. During the sleeping Jod would clean the black out from underneath his brother’s nails and comb his hair clean. He tried to treat the bruises, though they seemed to reject the medical cream. Sometimes he would beg into his brother, Please to stop this. He would squeeze his brother’s hand.
Their parents still unknowing under the cloak of what had to be lived through in these days.
Another night with Jod knocked out, Jad fished the snakeskin pad from Jod’s blue bruised arms. He took the book into his bed, hid underneath the thick sheet and with his back turned to his brother in case he woke quickly. In the book he found, as well, the same shape’s that would appear written along the width of Jod’s dry skin. The glyphs went on for pages, scribbled out in black ink. In some places Jod had annotated certain symbols with long sheaths of writing, his script so tightly cramped it took up most all of the white space on the page. Though these words too were mostly garbled, some of them could be soused as English from the mess, if still entirely unclear:
Gob would that clock would be where we were through the door into the door
Seeing the full words made the skin around Jad’s mouth and hands begin to itch, a warm slow kind of strumming, like something in him turning on.
through the further of the further where the wet is I am I and we are we, both in one and one and oneing
He had to cough, choked in the lungs a little, a crumbling stretching in his reach.
please do not delete me
what weeks ive ripped from anyone at all
Later in the book, among several pages almost entirely rendered black from all the scratching of the ink, the pages in fact in spots ripped through, ruining others, Jad found a reference to his own frame:
soon there will be sooning with the gift key given for the locks lit in my paltry brother’s mind
Seeing this, the word of brother, there, Jad felt something crumble through this blood, a warm flushing fluted through him, the flesh around him broke with itch. The paper stuck soft to his tips.
He closed the book and threw it from him, heard it flutter on the floor, heard someone moving in the room outside his blanket, his brother, likely now finding that the journal upended on the floor, though perhaps, Jad thought, his brother would imagine he’d dropped it in his sleeping and would pick it up and go back to bed. He waited, nearly shaking, for his brother’s shouting, for Jod to come and demand him from the bed, inflict whatever sort of reparation for the encroachment—but nothing came. Jad waited stock still with his eyes closed for the moment, holding the breath hot in his lungs, each passing second slightly shorter still unseeing, a reversal of the recently increasing night, until finally, in his position, by loosening lengths of smoothing breathing, Jad deconstructed into sleep.
In the morning, when Jad woke up, Jod was no longer there, the book was gone.
© by Blake Butler. Used by permission of the author.
Today, There Is No Year goes on sale. Read more and buy it here!