Prologue – one word
When Jack and Judas were very young and each was struggling to understand the sudden disappearance of their mother, the father found himself for the first time in his life uncertain. Judas was not yet two. He could speak, if only enough to convey his wishes, and he seemed to understand simple directions and certain basic concepts—yes, no, up, down, in, out, here, gone—but could not seem to grasp the fact that his mother no longer existed. Jack, exactly one year older, was quick to learn he was not to ask about her—he had had it explained to him from this angle and that, in a language so simple he could not have misunderstood. He stopped asking, but continued behaving as though he expected her to reappear, as if his mother had just stepped out for a few minutes—gone to the store, the post office, or something.
Pushing to meet yet another deadline, the father was working at the desk in his office, down the hall from the boys’ bedrooms. The annoying mutters and squawks of a childish disagreement flitted in and out of his mind like two drunken fruit flies. He cocked his head, squinted, but could not make out the gist of it, and was tempted to ignore it. But then Judas appeared in the doorway mumbling and sniffling. He took a step back as his father’s eyes fell upon him.
The father raised a hand to his forehead. “Why is this so…?” A huff of frustration blew past his lips. Could it be, he wondered, that there’s something wrong with the boys? Were they infected by their mother? He closed his eyes, shook his head—a low nearly inaudible moan left his throat.
He had work to do, a livelihood to maintain, but his two boys were eating up nearly all his time. Judas was excessively whiny—Jack seemed constantly distracted, messing with things he shouldn’t, dangerously curious. Why, after so thoroughly and clearly laying it out, were they not getting it?
Nearing wit’s end, the father strapped the boys into their car seats and headed for the local library in search of answers. He led his boys to the library’s nursery, found an appropriate book for each, and then assured them they would not be there long.
“Jack, listen to me. You are not to leave this room. And do not let Judas out of your sight.” He threw a distrustful glance toward the young attendant whose job it was to keep watch over the children in the room. “When I am done here we will go to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, all right?”
Jack gripped Judas’s hand a little tighter. He looked up at the father and nodded his understanding.
The father searched among the few dozen books on child psychology. He’d select one, reading first whatever he could find about the author, flip through several chapters, read a few paragraphs, judge it mostly worthless, then shove it back onto the shelf and go on to the next. Rubbish, he thought, just a bunch of educated shysters. This is why we have lying politicians, crowded prisons, and homosexuals running amuck. He slid another book from the shelf and opened it randomly to a page toward the middle. He read:
‘If you were to choose one word, a word that best sums up who you are, what would that word be?
One word? The father rolled his eyes. Who writes this crap?
A minute or two later, he stepped from the door of the library, carrying Judas in one arm, holding Jack’s hand, no books, thinking, one word … one word … Noble.
And then, while standing in line at McDonald’s: One word … Loving. Or maybe, tolerant. No, no … One word ...
Years later, while in his second year of high school, Jack would sum up his father this way: self-righteous, over-protective, manipulative, inflexible, and jealous—curiously jealous. But there was something more, something he could never quite define. Perhaps because he was afraid to.
Perhaps, but then this is the skewed opinion of a teenage boy. If one wanted an objective opinion—say, from an outside perspective …
One word? Mysterious.
It could certainly be said that the father was secretive. Perhaps the most curious among his secrets was his name. “Father,” is how the boys knew him. They’d actually reached adolescence before discovering their father had a name that predated their existence.
Of their mother, they knew even less. Jack and Judas eventually forgot about her. They’d lost touch with all memory of her. They of course knew they at one time had a mother. They didn’t talk about her, as their father most clearly disapproved of the topic. They had no way of knowing if she was alive or dead, had not once seen a photo of her, and were never permitted her name. If either of the boys had any memory of a mother, it would have been Jack, but he had none. The closest he could get to her was a memory from when he was four, and his mother wasn’t in it. It involved an incident which took place in the spring following the boys’ third and fourth birthday—both were born on the twenty-fifth of December—a year apart. Jack can still remember his father taking him and his little brother to the zoo, walking alongside his father, his hand in his—Judas, perched upon their father’s shoulders grasping two tight fistfuls of dark brown hair.
“Look boys, over there in the shade.” Their father pointed into a large open habitat. “What is that?”
“A horse,” Jack said.
“No, no, not a horse. Do you know, Judas?”
Jack would later recall the incident and remember his father laughing, but the picture in his mind seemed somehow unnatural—perhaps contrived. His father did not laugh. “It’s a baby giraffe,” he had stated matter-of-factly. “See, it has a very long neck. That’s its mother standing over there.”
Jack said, “That’s its mother?”
Jack surveyed the other spectators: kids being pushed in rented strollers, some, holding the hands of their parents, and others, curiously, wandering about as though they belonged to no one. There were fathers, but mostly mothers—a lot of mothers—which made him wonder. The question was right there at the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t ask. He knew the answer. Well, not ‘the’ answer, but an answer. Just behind a thin veil of uncertainty was an older memory—the reason he did not ask. In time, the veil and all that was hidden by it faded away, leaving him with only a vague idea of something unpleasant. Over the years, that vague unpleasantness became a normal state of being like a low-level pain, which he would grow used to—always there, but hardly noticeable.
No matter how hard he tried, Jack could not produce a memory of his mother. Though it wasn’t so much a fond memory, nor was it particularly unpleasant—the day at the zoo had, for whatever reason, stuck with him—it was just there. If one were to ask him to share a fond memory, he would vacillate, searching his mind for something that might qualify. It would likely be more recent, from his teens—a make-do memory, perhaps a wee bit modified—and would probably include a certain girl. On the other hand, if one were to ask Judas to share a fond memory, his fondest memory ever, he wouldn’t hesitate in replying, “The mountain of leaves.” He couldn’t say with any certainty just when it was—perhaps the autumn of that same year, his third, or possibly the next—but it was the memory which most endeared his father to him.
The father had raked up a huge pile of leaves in the back yard. Judas remembers it being a sunny day, though it actually wasn’t; there was a soft gray blanket of clouds stretching from one end of the sky to the other. It was flannel-shirt cool—not yet hat and glove weather. He remembers being lifted by his father, tossed high into the air, and landing with a splash of leaves flying up around him—as gentle as a mountain of down filled pillows—laughing, loving it—a smile in his father’s eyes—Jack’s turn, and then his again.
Was it really like that? It’s how he later remembered it.
Curiously, Jack could never recall the mountain of leaves. He could get close, however. He could recall an incident from earlier in the summer of that same year; though it would not rank among his favorite memories. It, like the zoo memory, was one of the few that remained accessible.
As he remembered it, the day was sunny—and it was. He and Judas were in the backyard playing on the swing set their father had erected for them just a few weeks before. Jack was pumping himself higher and higher, intent on breaking a world record. Has anyone ever jumped from a swing as high as this before? He turned to his brother as he worked his swing still higher.
“How high can you jump?”
“A hundred feet,” Judas replied.
“No you can’t.”
“I’ll bet you can’t jump this high.” Jack stopped pumping, readied himself for the right moment, then leapt from the seat of his swing, landed on his feet, and collapsed to his knees. He stood, brushed the grass and dirt from his knees, and then turned. His brother was still pumping.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you.”
With an impending sense of liability, Jack watched his little brother leap from the swing, land bare heels first, toes pointing up, then slam butt and back to the ground. All was quiet for a moment, but then, three seconds later, Judas was grimacing and moaning.
“Are you all right?
His brother squeezed his eyes tight and groaned.
“You all right, Judas?”
“Oh, you’re bleeding.”
Judas’s eyes popped open. He brought his fingers to his lips, pulled them away, and gazed at the blood on them as though searching for the logic behind it being where it shouldn’t. He then scrambled to his feet and ran for the backdoor of the house, working himself up from a whimper to a wail along the way.
Confused, Jack stood there searching for a connection between the facts and his possible guilt. And then, realizing his hesitation could possibly be perceived as a confession, he tore off after his brother.
“Wait! Wait! Wait, Judas!” But it was too late.
“How did this happen?!” His father had Judas by the arm, dragging him toward the bathroom.
“We were just jumping from the swings,” he cried.
“Jack! Get in here! Now!”
As Jack entered the bathroom, his father was dabbing at Judas’s mouth with a white, wet, blood-dappled wash cloth. “You think I have time for this? You think I just sit around all day waiting for my kids to break their necks?” He turned to Jack. “This reeks of competition. Did you challenge your brother?”
Uncertain of his father’s meaning, and afraid to ask, Jack searched for a way around the question. At the moment it seemed denial of anything and everything was the safest stance to take. “No, Father.”
His father stopped for a moment and glared at him.
“Judas, were you having a contest with your brother?”
“No, he just bet me I couldn’t jump as high as him.”
The father quickly unbuckled his belt and with a few impatient jerks freed it from the loops surrounding his waist. “You little liar.” He folded the belt and gripped the two ends with one hand and Jack’s arm with the other. Slap! “You know better”—slap!—“than to lie to me—ever!” Slap! “You don’t lie to anyone”—slap!— “especially me! You understand that?”
That night, after his father had tucked Judas into bed, he came and sat at the edge of Jack’s bed, bent down and kissed him on the forehead and said, “You know I punish you because I care about you. I want you to learn to be a good boy. Have I ever punished you for being good?”
Jack shook his head.
“No. You have to learn to be a good boy so you can grow up and be a good man. Otherwise you’ll end up having to go live with your Uncle Lu. It’d be too late to be good, then. Uncle Lu would punish you regardless of whether you were good or bad. You don’t want Uncle Lu to get you.” He gave his boy a gentle pat and a smile, then reached over and pulled the blankets to his chin. “Sleep tight now, son.”
Hours later, a noise crept into his sleep and woke him. Jack lifted his head from his pillow. He stared into the dark corners of his room and listened … but there was nothing to hear. He lay back down, pulled his blankets up over his shoulder and squeezed his eyes shut.