“It has been ten years since your last visit,” my brother said, “wait another ten and you’ll be tossing my ashes.” That’s how it’s done, twisting my arm into joining a family cruise through the Galapagos.
My brother is the champion of the family; he drives his body like the captain of the Titanic. Once, he bought a ship for scrap, repaired it, and set sail for the tropics. I happily waved goodbye, but he didn’t sail into the sunset; the keel caught on a sandbar. He has always captained our family ventures, in which we have managed to flip a flat barge. Another time, Jim made me dive for the anchor and then sped off, calling, “Swim faster, fatso.”
To let off steam, he drives back and forth across North America, sometimes in one of his Model T cars.
My sister bills herself as the spiritual seeker; we think her a bit of a bitch—she isn’t on the yacht—too rustic for her.
In the family hierarchy, as the youngest, I stake a claim for the intellectual property nobody wanted. Also, I’m the sneak—the only way I ever got anything in the family sibling rivalry.
But that version is a lie: we are four. One brother died young. He was the best of us, smart, generous, happy. I remember his laughter. We are clear that the finest are lost in the survival of the fittest. At my arrival from the maternity ward, he said that I was the best Christmas present ever—for my other brother and sister I was a horrible bundle of tears and fears.
When Jim met me in Quito, he told one of his twin granddaughters, “This is Aunt Carol,” which is not my name but the name of our daft maiden aunt.
“He said you’re an old maid.”
Here in the completely new venue of Quito, family ghosts trailed us.
Did my brother want his more masculine granddaughter to meet me because I’d been a tomboy? Did he think I’d be a good role model? I had jumped off the roof on a dare, bicycled to the Bronx from Connecticut one day without telling anyone; likewise, I’d sailed in a storm across Long Island Sound. No one was more surprised than my brother and I to find ourselves still alive.
I showed the two girls a video animation of 3.3 billion years of Continental Drift, in which the continents swim across oceans, and at the last minute of the video, a hundred million years ago, a chip off south Africa splits and careens up into Asian islands, shoving them with such velocity that they turn into the highest peaks on earth. On the Himalayan summits one finds seashells.
We couldn’t bear to watch the projected movement in the next 300 million years. We think the world has evolved to its final perfection, a done deal, now that we have invested in waterfront properties.
The ship, it rocked! It tossed me each time I stood up.
This Thanksgiving, shipboard and in rough seas, the chef presented a dressed turkey and we clapped, then ran to our cabins or the railing to be sick.
At Thanksgiving when we were young, my brother and I weighed in before and after we ate, awarding a prize to the one who gained the most weight.
One of the girls said, “This is the trip of a lifetime!”
I said, “You are seven. There will be a lot more of these for you.”
What does not kill me might kill you. That’s another Darwinian truth.
Odds are my brother will die in a spectacular accident, like a helicopter crash at a remote waterfall or an avalanche. Odds are I’ll die of fright in a bad dream or a fall down a basement.
In the Galapagos archipelago, my brother and I were blown away to find so little competition in nature that the boobies had no fear as we troop past them, while they cradled eggs between blue feet.
The Galapagos are so isolated; their ecosystems are distinct. No native primates. None of the creatures feared us. Sea lions peered at me through my mask, penguins swam past. At night, the lights illuminated sharks trolling; even they hadn’t heard how tasty human flesh was.
My brother had always been a creature I’d skirted gingerly. He was easily set off, like an electric eel. The thing about the electric eel is he electrocutes himself. My brother is alone a lot. Since he hates himself, that’s rough.
To let off steam, my brother drives back and forth across North America, sometimes in his Model T.
I was smart enough to avoid him most of the time. But now I wanted to be more than just the smarty pants of the family. When he touted my mental abilities, I said, “I’m smart at dessert,” ordering wine ice cream.
I have kept silent about my scars from him, scars made with words, which are invisible. I might flinch when you touch on the words.
Silence has been a homemade salve. Some shards remain in the wounds, but pulling it out would make the scars more jagged, and I’d have to explain it to the curious more often. Awful wounds require explanations, as the sight of them is painful and the viewer needs explanations to bandage them. Silence has cost me in hard words kept under the skin. How to translate pain into language, anyhow?
People have used the idea of survival of the fittest as a justification of cruelty. Could my brother and I evolve to be kinder? Could we shed anger like an old skin?
Late at night on the ship, my brother and I bickered over the rules to Old Maid, while the grandchildren watched.
One of them said, “If you play that way, it’s chaos.”
My brother answered, “We like it that way.”
And I added, “It’s not really a game.”
One of the girls said, “Let’s play Twenty Questions. You can’t cheat at that.”
“Oh, yes,” I warned. “He can change the thing he’s thinking of if you get close to guessing.”
My brother said, “I’ll start. I am thinking of something that no longer exists, that we both knew once, just the two of us.”
The other girl asked, “Is it a secret?”
He shrugged. “Nobody else cared about it.”
I consider the model ship that our late brother had glued and painted in his last, long hospital stay. “The battleship.”
Jim threw up his hands. “Lucky guess.”
“My turn,” I said. “I’m thinking of something you gave me.”
“Maybe I’ve forgotten.”
“That snake I caught.”
“What ever happened to it?”
“I let it go,” my brother said. “It was poisonous, you know.”
“Now you tell me.”
Our boat floated through lagoons where turtles coupled for hours at a clip. Explorers and pirates had scooped them up and carried them in the ships’ holds for food, or to sell as exotic specimens. One turtle in a zoo was the last of his breed. My brother’s wife said that at one zoo, an old female turtle decided after a hundred years not to have anything more to do with her mate.
“No sex for the next hundred years,” my brother wailed.
The girls covered their ears. We were in awe of their innocence and aware that we trampled it.
At the end of the cruise my brother mentioned in an aside that he’d had a stroke just before he flew to Quito. Much as I want to kill him, I don’t want him dead. My father had died at the age I’d reached this year; I sensed the expiration date stamped on the back of my head, though my brother was ten years older than that. What we didn’t see coming was that whoever won the survival game would be the loneliest.
There is one photo I want to show you—but nobody took it—of a highlands field veiled in mist, with thick, verdant grass through which processed enormous old tortoises, their progress so slow it was imperceptible, in their venerable two hundred-year-old shells, as our car sped past to the airport. To them, we were nothing but a passing blur. Gone in a flash. I wanted to stop the car to take a photograph. But we were late for our flights.
BIO: Holly Woodward is an artist and writer whose works have won over a hundred honors. She spent a year as a doctoral fellow at Moscow University; she also studied for two semesters at Saint Petersburg U. She served as writer in residence at Saint Albans, Washington National Cathedral. Holly was a fiction fellow at CUNY’s Writers Institute for the last four years.
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