The Twilight Alehouse: Literature: The Nature of a Union

The Nature of a Union

October, 1995


I cannot stand Herschel. Or rather, it is his mien which I hate. It scorns me, although what harm ever I did him escapes me. It mocks me. There is something about the man, a certain purposefulness in his walk, the frequency at which he shakes his head at me, that denies me.

Yet I am forced to abide him! He is married to my sister, and as I have never married, I dwell in the basement of their home, which is undeniably a good home, outside the town, distant from neighbors, and well-built. My rent is one-half my salary, as I am fed at their table; I sit to his right, and he never speaks to me except for orders to pass him various condiments. My sister fails to notice any tension; and while she is kind enough to me (and I to her), the house reeks of Herschel, not simply in odor but of the quiddity of severity- for all that he is to me is a beast. He approaches the evil deities of Hindu lore in callousness. Yet there is no-one in all the town who denies his greatness! For he is wealthy, certainly, above the means of the average man. He advocates the church, he gives to charity, and, if proffered one, would give anyone but me a friendly wave in return.

I have lived in this basement for six long years now, and my relationship with Herschel has not altered. I certainly cannot feel any love for him now, after such a period of stagnation. It no longer drives me to tears- I am hardened now- but I yet feel the hot beating in my chest, the anger manifesting in my sweat.

My mother, who had long ailed with illness undiagnosable, finally passed this last month. My brother-in-law feels some compassion for his wife, my sister, about the matter and she and I spend long evenings and nights shut up in a spare room discussing things relevant to our mother's passing. It has been during these times that Herschel, by necessity, became at least civil to me, in acknowledging the great loss that my sister and I had experienced.

As my sister is away with relatives this evening, Herschel and I are home and as usual, we ignore each other. He maintains an aura impenetrable, and his eyes never open as far as they could. I am sure he would be cold to the touch, but of course I dare not test him.

On this particular evening, we dine in silence and drink fine wine, a gift of condolence from a vintner family friend. As we each consume close to a bottle ourselves, his eyes gradually relax, and his skin takes on a more human pallor. Not quite human- but more human. I know not what to think of these developments, so I keep silent, and wary. And before long, he takes our plates to the basin, returns to the table and sets out cigars for the two of us. It is clearly an act of kindness; and I, needless to say, still know not what to think about these developments. I conclude that the worst camaraderie was better than none at all, and so I ready myself for that worst.

He begins with a gruff little recount of his own day, then asks me for the same. I am shocked- astonished- unprepared for this. I begin in a nervous tone and carefully chose only the most benign anecdotes to relate, for fear of offending him. And when our little discourses are done, he picks up his cigar and taps it ritually on the table; I follow his lead. Then he produces an ornate matchbox from his coat pocket, and methodically lights my cigar, then his own. We smoke in silence for a time, and upon finishing the delicious tobacco, he stands up and not unkindly bids me goodnight.

From this day on, Herschel softens toward me, and I guardedly respond in kind. Through these months, we have begun to chat lightly at meals, and to drink together after supper. My sister, of course, is pleased with the change- she knows little more than I to what to attribute this newfound comradeship. It seems to come from Herschel's will, and from there alone; and like the rest of the town, I follow along. I admit to enjoying, cautiously, some of our conversations; his manner is without relapse, smooth, and calm. He belies his intellectual heritage before even opening his mouth, through the manner in which he looks one right in the eye, and the fact of his shaving twice a day. He is the epitome of a gentleman, and I curse myself for not having known it before! Why did I not attempt civility with the man in the past? Subsequently I think, I had, and he rebuffed me. But it seems that my memory of his unkindnesses is fading rapidly- I am taken up by this formerly forbidden companionship.

We begin to be seen together in public, once or twice; the three of our family, as I began to think of it, attend the theater, and laugh together, and eat supper at restaurants fancier than I knew Herschel could afford. He sits in the middle, with my sister and I on either side. I admire the man, for once.

As our mealtime conversations grew more personal, and less guarded, I look carefully for a sign that my brother-in-law desires no more partnership, that he wishes to be alone with his wife; but such a time has never come. Us three are like lovers in our intimacy, and what a figurative lover was Herschel. He admires the day's President; as did I, as well as the rest of the town. When Herschel disagrees with something, be it a property dispute, or in a foreign policy, one can expect to find the signatures of every man and woman in the town on any petition he endorses. I am in his shadow, yet I do not feel repressed or unvalued; indeed, it is in our parlor that he and I discuss the critical issues of the town, and I always feel heard. I cannot disguise my wonder of why such a man finds it appropriate to consult me- but his friendly glance is all I ever need to continue on a discourse, no matter how relevant.

And things have come to pass such that I spend more time with him than does my sister- the spouses see each other only at mealtimes, and sometimes not even then- for Herschel has taken to treating me to the theater and supper and leaving his wife behind. Now, this is not more than a petty annoyance to her, of course. She continues to work in the household, and has joined more than a few ladies' societies to pass her evenings. The walls are now rather overtaken by her mellifluous woven work. It is not unpleasant, but it is rather a departure from the past decor. Her bright oranges and greens give the place a bawdy air, which contradicts the philosophical talks of Herschel and me. The fabric implores us to speak of the circus, and to hire violinists and demand that they play rapidly, out-of-tune, and backwards. Considering the undesirably gay air which the art lends to our discussions, they therefore migrate into my quarters, the basement.

At this my sister is even more distant. She begins to long for her husband's company, though he seems determined to disregard her cries and remain with me. For this, she blames me- but I feel obligated to Herschel. He is the most esteemed man in the county, and his comradeship is worth much. At length, she spends this night out until two o' clock in the morning. At this, Herschel is harsh with her, smacking her face in a most unjustified manner, and banishes her to the bedroom.

The next morning, she is wan, pale, and seems elsewhere, not rising from her bed. My brother-in-law, recovered from his anger of the previous night, is doing his best to comfort her, to assure her that he does indeed still love her- as I believe he does-, and to serve her; he brings breakfast, fresh milk, and clean clothing to her bedside, and leaves them. She eats, and regains a little skill at communication, but soon she is again lost in ponderance. Herschel and I then spend the afternoon in a pub, playing at darts and chess, and sipping ale.

I am awakened from my slumber- it must be well after midnight- by tapping upon my forehead. "Wake up," she whispers. I do, concerned and unsure why my sister stands before me in the dead of night, without her husband. But in moving to face her, I discover that my limbs were tied- yea, held as firmly to the bed as could be, by masses of colorful yarn. My upright head is restrained as well, by some ingenious contraption of my blanket, and only my face is visible to the room."Don't bother to shout," she warns (much too calmly for my liking), "for I have sealed the ears of my husband with wax, and there is no-one else for miles around."

With that, she draws from the floor a box of plaster powder, the type which dries in instants and cannot be thenceforth removed, and proceeds to pour the powder into a small bowl, which already contained water. After stirring the vile-smelling mixture, she dips a finger in it, and nods in a satisfied way, though she is clearly nervous. The bowl is placed upon my chest- of course I cannot move to spill it, for my legs are tied at three points each, and myself not being of great physical stature, I could not break the bonds- although I admit it was never before this that I considered yarn so durable.

My sister leans over me, and pours a bit of the liquid plaster into my left nostril, until it overflows. I am surely not going to ingest the slime to get air- yet I know not what else to do! I thrust as hard as I could to force it from my sinus, but it had already set, and all that I accomplished was a few bubbles. "Dear," I protest, "you cannot be doing this! I am your own brother! Please, in the name of God, cease this unmitigated torture! I implore you!" but she continues, and fills my other nostril. I become frantic, still unable to move myself, and jerk violently. She withdraws and waits for me to calm, as much as calm was possible in those circumstances.

"My dear brother, as much as I love you, you are a traitor to me. You could not share the companionship of my beloved husband- your relationship with him was worth more than his relationship with me. And now, my relationship with him is worth more than your life." she explains.

Having lost half of my breathing orifices, I resolve not to sacrifice the other, but it is an uphill battle, as I need yet to breathe. I allow slight slits in my lips, at the very sides, and draw in precious air from them. My sister yet sits at my bedside, awaiting God knows what, and then: "Open your mouth." Of course I refuse. She continues stirring the plaster, then: "Open your mouth."

"I shall not!" I mumble through these minute holes. She pauses, shrugs, and draws up my razor, stolen from my bath. She proceeds to cut through my moustache, down to my gums, severing the upper lip from the face. I involuntarily scream in agony, and she frowns at me. She then removes my lower lip in the same fashion, and though horrified and disgusted, as well as in considerable pain, I do not open my jaw.

She draws up a pair of the town mechanic's largest pliers and proceeds to remove my central incisors. I gnash and try to bite the pliers, but to no avail- she had swathed them in terrycloth, for a better grip. It cannot be avoided; and onto the floor go my largest teeth. She reaches for the plaster, and stirs it more, but I plug the hole with my tongue. She pokes my tongue with a sharpened darning needle, and pins it down. I cannot stop her pouring it into me, even as I see the pasty liquid rolling down this needle and feel it meeting my flesh on the inside. Naturally, I convulse again- trying to eject the foul fluid from my orifice- but as I first open my teeth, she forces the toe of her boot into my mouth, preventing me from reclosing my mouth. The mixture is too viscous to swallow, and I cannot move my tongue to do so in any case. Nor can I ejaculate the poison, and it becomes harder and harder to try. At length my gums are stiffened, and my sister removes her boot from my face. I struggle to hold my breath, as it is my last; and she leans over me, and tells my sweating, terrified countenance that it was all for the best, and kissing me lightly on the forehead. She then rises, and leaves the room, glancing back one time before closing the door gently behind her: leaving me to stare at the ceiling for the last minutes of my natural days, to ponder what it was that prompted the murder. But as you know, thought processes are greatly hindered when oxygen cannot reach the brain, and I find myself unable to follow a train of thought, unable to comprehend a motive, unable to remember a prayer though I supposed it appropriate to say one. And so, without fanfare or recourse, I