When the woman was still a girl, and before the disappearance, she and her brother would play dead bodies. Dead bodies meant lying next to each other, silent and immobile, in the parents’ bed. Almost touching, but not touching. It was always afternoon when they did this and their parent’s bedroom was dim and empty. When you are dead, her brother said, it’s dark, but not too dark. At first they still wore clothes, but slowly they took them off until they were naked. Degrees of death, her brother said. The desire to touch him consumed her. Like there was an animal under his skin that needed petting. But touching was forbidden. What do you think about when you’re dead? she asked. Death means not thinking, he said. But sometimes ants and worms come to eat. And yesterday a crow pecked out my eyes. Much to her awe he could be dead for hours. But all she could think was the word “dead”. Dead, dead, dead, she thought, in hopes of making it work.
The problem was looking. Even though it was against the rules, she stole glances. This looking was a kind of touch. He would lie on his back in the middle of his bed, his eyes wide open, his lips bright. In the dim light his body was pale and delicate. She hoped that she was as beautiful dead as he was. He was perfect. Later she would lock herself in her room and remember him. In the memory he had no genitals. His arms were crossed gently upon his chest. His skin was the color of white dinner plates. Behind the memory was her hand, hovering and waiting for its chance.
But there is also this: she has a photo of the beach where her brother disappeared. In it she and her brother stand in front of their parents. They wear multicolor swimsuits and determined smiles. Behind them the ocean looks grey. The photograph was taken by a passer-by. He was a pudgy, sunburned man in a floppy hat and large sunglasses. What did this have to do with her brother? She remembers her mother running around kitchen table and throwing things. Things in this case mean dinner plates, pots, glasses. The floor was covered with shards and dust. But this is this only thing she can remember. If she had a picture of the beach without the family, or at least without her brother, she thinks she might remember differently. She might remember what her father did. She might remember where her brother went. Although she does remember that she had been collecting small rocks, which she later kept in a jar in the back of her closet. Occasionally talked to them as if they were her brother.
He came back four months later but it was not really him. He told her parents that someone had taken him and told him religious truths and that he had, for a time, believed them. This explanation satisfied her parents, but parents are easily satisfied. They merely wanted to look at him. Just look at you, they said. Let’s take a picture. When she held the two pictures next to each other the difference was obvious. Something about the hair and the eyes and the mouth. At night she would sneak into his room to watch him sleep. The way someone dies is like a fingerprint or a snowflake. His body splayed differently. Who are you? she whispered to him while he slept.