Again he could not sleep after the dream. It was cooler on this night, with an edge to the air, so Erlon stayed inside, gazing out the front window at the barely lit oak and pines in his yard.
He had always thought of the night as something dark and uniform, but he could see now that it was a tapestry, rich and subtle, of many varying darks, and that even to call it dark was reductive. It was dark, true, but there were so many shades of it, even though all the things you could call dark were endlessly different than anything you could call color.
He breathed deep, resting his sleepless eyes. His anger had washed away. It was a costly emotion, one Erlon could not sustain for long. The feeling from his dream, outrage at the senseless riddles, seemed as much a phantom of memory as the talking trees themselves. The riddle was at best a riddle, at worst meaningless dream-stuff. So he didn’t think on it for long.
Except for one thing: he had a feeling that he knew that place. It was a dream, yes. But a real place as well — couldn’t that be true?
He wondered. He couldn’t escape the sense that the round lake was real, though he had no idea how to find it.
Why, though, had the tree sent him away when he stepped in the water? Both times it had done that. It was the tree that had done it, he realized, not simply the dream ending on its own. It had expelled him as if he’d broken a prohibition. Adam flung from the garden.
His cheeks flushed with shame. He was not ready to touch the water—the tree had said it. What did that mean? What did it mean to be missing a pixel? How could one lose a part of their own self?
* * *
Erlon didn’t know. So his thought turned in the coming days to what he could fathom, what his mind could wrap itself around with ease, though with no semblance of pleasure.
If a part of him was missing, he decided after days of thought, it had vanished long ago. He simply hadn’t noticed, or maybe had forgotten. It had to be her; there was nothing else that made sense.
He flinched, seeing in his mind the photo in his brother’s house. He swallowed, clenching his fingers. No—he would have to think about it now. Except he’d spent so many years avoiding it he wasn’t really sure how.
“You never met my sister, did you?” he asked Anette in the evening after work.
She had nearly finished her wine, and they were sitting out on the deck together, drinking in the evening song of mockingbirds and wrens dueling from across the yard. Sunset came later every day, and the two shared their gratitude by sitting outside, feeling the warming air, basking in the singular quality of spring evenings, like a promise being slowly fulfilled. The pale pink sky seemed higher than it had in months.
Anette sat her glass down on the table between them with a soft clink. She didn’t answer. It wasn’t a real question, after all. Both of them knew she hadn’t. That tragedy had been over and done a few years before she’d moved to the Lowcountry with her father and his second wife.
“All these years we’ve been married,” she said instead, “I’ve only heard you mention her once or twice, three times maybe.”
He nodded. She watched him awhile then took another drink. “Tanisha, wasn’t that her name?”
“Tannile. We called her Nene. Or I did…Oscar, you know, I can’t remember. He wasn’t around much when I was young.”
She watched him. He didn’t meet her gaze but he didn’t seem distant, either, as he often could. Anette thought for a moment before she asked in a soft voice, “How did she die?”
Erlon’s brow stiffened. It was the only sign he gave that the question affected him, but Anette knew him better than that. So she let it go when he didn’t answer.
There had been a time when she might have prodded him, seeking an answer or any other word from him, but not needing to fill every quiet moment was one of the ways she’d come to understand him. Now, though, Erlon wished she would try to draw him out. He wanted to speak, perhaps even needed to. But his silence was so comfortable it was hard to break, and he couldn’t find the words on his own.
So he, too, let the subject pass. The hour faded, the dark coming on slow again as a warm breeze made the candle flame waver.
* * *
In lieu of words, he turned to memories. Once, at the church he’d grown up in, the pastor had said that the ancestors were always here, forever a part of us. That our lives flow out of theirs. Was that true? he wondered now. Did a part of Tannile really still dwell in him?
The memories, at least, were still there, waiting to be recalled in spite of all the time he’d spent suppressing them. The two walking barefoot in the yard together, summertime, her holding both his hands as he walked idly in front of her. The quality of the light, a pale just-before-sunset light. The touch of her skin over his, the scent of fireflies on their hands. She was always there for him, always kept him safe. As close as a mother, since theirs had died years before, and their grandma was usually off at one of her two jobs, especially after Oscar left for Chicago.
She had called him Early. “I’ll always protect you, Early,” she had said.
On weekends, back when Oscar was still there, they would wander off into the woods looking for honeysuckle and scuffadines, which Nene and Oscar called bullets. They would eat the grapes and the honeysuckle nectar with equal joy—but blackberries were the real treasure. They held a special thrill, since the old folks warned them away from the thorny bushes, saying snakes lived in them and would bite you if you took the choicest ones.
It was not true, though. Young as he was then, Erlon could see that much. Snakes did not eat blackberries. Yet he never spoke a word contrary to it.
Their bellies would ache afterward, and they would creep home slowly, going around the churchyard to seem as though they came home from town, not the woods. That had been Nene’s idea. She was clever that way. The woods, she said, were their hush harbors, the flowers and fruits their secret prayers.
And always when they walked he would hold his sister’s hand.
He became lost in the memories, some only images, flashes of fragmented moments. Tannile taking him to buy seafood one day, the smell of the fish and crabs and shrimps even from outside the little cinderblock building, the way Tannile stared at the dog behind the counter as they waited in line. Or dancing with her in front of the radio, the two at home alone, to music their grandmother forbid them to listen to.
There were other memories, too, less simple and good. Once she had been walking him home from school, and he had gazed up for a few minutes at leaden clouds with a river of bright white sky running through them. Then he had looked around and she simply wasn’t there anymore. He had cried silently, tears streaming down his cheeks but without a single sob, until he caught up with her unexpectedly as she chatted up one of the neighbors—she was leaning back into a spindly yard tree under vivid bursts of kudzu flowers, smelling their wide fresh leaves. He remembered how pretty she looked. How scared he had been that she’d left him.
And her anger…it was a living thing, coiled and sleeping in her belly, though it could strike at any time, and who knew how hot its venom would burn? She was angry with their grandmother often, though by now he couldn’t recall why. But she would come into his room at such times to tease and hassle and razz him until she laughed, her mood softening again. It put a strange feeling into him, the way she used him like that, as a pillow to yell into, almost. But he saw even then how it made her feel better, which meant—he’d told himself—that he made her feel better.
But mostly she was happy. Full of zest and joy. She had been his whole world inside a much larger, wider one that didn’t often feel like home.
* * *
She hadn’t always wanted him around; he remembered that much. Especially the older they both grew. Tannile had six years on him, and that difference showed more as time passed. She had few friends living nearby on the island, so she began to haunt juke joints, looking for men to dance with her and buy her drinks.
That was how she met Shem. He was two years her senior, but that hadn’t bothered her—it only pulled her further into his charm. Though Erlon, in the few times he’d met the man, could not see what charm he had. He wondered what his sister saw in Shem, with his stolid manner, goofy humor, fitful levels of confidence. That bad hand of his he always held up near his chest. She couldn’t seem to see that, or else loved him for it: a singular part of him.
These were things Erlon had long ago locked away. Now that he was opening it all up, allowing himself to think of her again, all of the bad came flooding back with the good. Erlon didn’t know much about Shem, or his time with Tannile. To him it only felt as though the man had stolen her away. He’d felt abandoned. Adrift. Alone. The only shelter was his self, his own thoughts, his uncertain ability to understand the world and the people it held. He sank deeper into himself, hanging back, unable to act without observing, studying, wishing…
Empty rooms. A quiet house. Even when his grandmother was home between jobs, Erlon had spoken little to her in those days. Another thing he would later come to regret.
One day, Tannile was just gone. His grandmother did not call the police: Tannile was a young Black woman, after all, and it would only make things worse. A few of the island men went looking for her, took their boats out into the marsh, combed the river banks, searched the woods. They even went talking to Shem: a confrontation Erlon knew had been grim and tense.
He did not know what Shem had said to the men, but it had been enough that they no longer came knocking on his door.
He barely remembered the wake—old ladies’ sympathy, sweet strawberry candies slipped into his hand—hiding in a metal chair in a corner from their smothering attention—and even less of the funeral.
Erlon blamed Shem. He always had. He never had an idea of what exactly the man had done, but he knew Tannile had come to her death through Shem’s fault. And from that day on, in all of the decades since, even after moving to the mainland and marrying Anette, Erlon had never once set foot inside the diner where Shem worked, out on the western edge of town off Sixty-one.