“On Butchers”

As the first child, my brother came ripping out of our Mother, turning her insides out, but there he was red-faced, streaked in vernix. When the afterbirth came, there was still more blood. The doctors stitched quickly, but sometimes I wonder if this was when he first tasted it and liked its salt upon his tongue.

He was never an easy child, but certainly not one we thought to worry about. In his wake there are scorch marks, urine-stained sheets and that broken sparrow—harmless entities, but now it all seems so obvious. On the news he is “sicko,” a “psychopath,” and no one is digging up his science fair posters, or the photos of his baby face gleaming above birthday candles. Instead, there’s the ritual of picking our history apart and looking for triggers, for quantifiable evidence of blood lust, sexual depravity, for all those signs we missed.

One time after Sunday school, I peeled off my white stockings, a bibbed, watercolor dress and threw them in the corner of the room. I was almost-five, and he was almost-eight when we disassembled the old telephone. We gutted its circuit board, a thicket of wires and screws small as baby teeth. For our next project, we cracked the shell of a radio and tugged at its insides, though we were unsure what we were looking for.

Tell me, when was he no longer sated with fuses but found himself longing for fleshier parts? Perhaps he thought no one would miss these discarded people. I bet they all had that same sheepish look—the one his pubescent girlfriends had. Those girls beamed at him. It was a kind of awe really, like he was too much to be contained by any one room. And what did he find inside these women? Was there faulty wiring, or pieces of them that had wiggled loose, parts that made these wanderers more likely to follow him?

One time I came home early and saw him licking the vertebrae of a girlfriend’s spine like they were rosary beads. She was flopped over his unmade bed. I closed the door, knowing that was an intimacy I couldn’t understand yet. I remember watching these early girlfriends feed off him. The only other time I’d seen him like this, trembling in quiet concentration, was on the front porch with that crumpled sparrow. The broken wing and splayed feathers were assumed to be the work of a tomcat, but as he caged it with his dirty fingers he was breathless, and what I took for alarm I know now was really arousal. But how could we, any of us, have known the frenetic sensation that charged through him?

Maybe when he jacked off to them, or what was left of them, he imagined those hands weren’t his. Or maybe the rush of a brick connecting to a skull seemed somehow beautiful.

I sometimes wonder how we could be born from the same body—how we could have occupied the same cavity, wicking away nutrients, and awaiting the light of this strange world. Though we’re not cast of the same mold, surely a person like my brother needs some marker written on the body to warn the rest of us.

Does he remember when he tumbled off his bike and his knee rubbed bare? He pinched skin between his fingers and sucked blood clean from the wound. I can still see him hunched over the fold of raw skin. When I recoiled he said, “What? It’s just blood?” But for me blood was never “just.”

When he left we missed him more than he could have known. Mom still put his gifts under the tree each year, and left his chair vacant at dinners. The first time I brought a boy home she made her lemon bars. Now I know that while we were sipping decaf, dissolving the burnt sugar of that Christmas Eve, he was with the redhead from La Jolla. He was scooping out her kneecaps, splitting her tongue, tossing her ears into a box where they shriveled like sliced fruit. She was his third kill.

We figured he’d turn up eventually; by then he’d only been gone a couple years. Dad had softened after their fight, and we assumed he would too. So we waited it out. I got occasional collect calls, but his words were manic then, and eight months could pass between them. Those breathy exchanges were the kind that kept me in at night. Back then almost no calls went unanswered and even now, the ring of the phone snags my breath.

As they collected the pieces of all those women, stomach acid singed my throat. For months I couldn’t get clean. I scoured my body raw in the shower and scraped my fingers with the firm bristle of a toothbrush, as if I’d done it myself. As if my own hands were responsible for severing those girls, peeling skin back until they were just parts. Their names ricochet inside my skull: Regina, Clare, Imogene, Mary, Jenny, Susan, Erin, Kimberley and Rosalind. I hear the rhythm of them in my breath—women whom I will never know, but carry all the same.

I bullshit myself that I could have pulled him through the bowels of it, might have cleaved it from him like an organ, or scraped the taste of blood from his tongue. How are we to resolve the Dahmers, the Bundys, the Raders: needles and nooses and death row? These are our methods for healing wounds, and yet they are only comprised of salt.

So yes, Bobby is my brother. Or was my brother. Though he’s been dead a year now, he’s the kind that lives forever. Sometimes I pretend that my brother is the boy I left disassembling used electronics. If we had been the lucky sort, maybe that boy could have been hit by a truck, never making it to adolescence. While that boy who loved taking things apart would have been missed—spilled along the highway, killed instantly—his death could have been a miracle in its own right. I don’t want to want this, but I still do.

We’d have been rid of him without ever having to know.





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About Jennifer Popa

Jennifer Popa recently earned her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and now finds herself in Austin, Texas for a postgraduate thaw. Her work is forthcoming in Grist.