by Sarah Helen

Hansel said to Gretel, "We will find our way," but they did not find it.

-Hansel and Gretel, 1857

Tell me a story, Jones said as he reclined in his favorite chair, old, blue, plush, inherited from his father's father. And I think of that in the days after his death, as I stand on the stair banister, a cement block with an inch of wood covering, at the topmost flight, all eight flights, on my tiptoes, looking down, thinking of falling. It is then that a thought blossoms, an idea, almost a conclusion, though I have never been theological, nor a believer in much of anything, that my dead brother Jones is there, molding with my feet, through my legs, and forming a hard lump of twisted cells, but not rotten cells, that cling to each other like a forest burning. And if he is there, as I imagine, this means that it is not quite too late.

And so I told him that once upon a time I had a mother of my own who left my father and I abruptly the month after my fifth birthday. Though I visited her every summer, in my thirteenth year these visits stopped and she disappeared entirely. My poor father refused to explain where my mother went—although he knew the wondering kept me awake at night. Instead, each summer after, he would whisk us away on unannounced vacations, for example: to The Ocean Dome of Aberdeen, South Dakota, The Craters of the Moon just north of Arco, Idaho, and, my favorite, The Poison Gardens in Ocala, Florida—all along calling them family tradition. For though he remarried, my poor father never fully recovered. So that it took many years and one late night before he finally blurted out the truth of my own mother's disappearance—and that was the last I heard of it.

But between that? Jones asked. And between that there was Jones and me, me and Jones, watching each other from the corners of our eyes, as his mother and my father cuddled over pizza, kissed through their straws, and fell quite in love. Both of us were seven, although Jones was precisely seventy-six days older. Our parents? Out on their sixth date. The one—they decided—where their children should meet. Jones and I took off, almost instantly, on the best foot, when he sacrificed bacon so that I could have mushrooms, and later on guarded the door of the men's bathroom, so that I could practice peeing while standing up. A goal I'd had since the boys in my class had told me that if I wanted to play with them, I'd have to write my name in urine. This was not as simple as I'd originally imagined, even when Jones had told me it wouldn't be. Stand still, he said, between his laughter, but I couldn't quite keep my balance, and I left that pizza parlor covered in my own pee and grounded forever from boys' bathrooms.

Some months later our parents kissed while Jones and I dueled with swords of gardenias, dressed in ribbons and taffetas we weren't supposed to touch. But before Jones and his mother came to live with us I had led a lush life, cradled and coddled, spoiled to the core—or so my own mother often said during the long phone conversations that she had with my poor father.

She is terribly accident prone, my poor father pleaded into the phone each month, which would immediately bark back, no! she is prone to intention. And Jones' mother avoided these calls, never offered her thoughts. After all, she had never raised an accident-prone girl before. A girl who, when she was six or so, slipped from the tallest of the jungle gyms on the playground, falling through the steel bars—wet from recent rain—putting out no hand to cushion the blow, and instead finding something soothing in the ground rushing towards her, forever and ever after, finding something inviting in the fall.

Indeed, Jones' mother would have been a perfectly fine step-mother had she not been so determined to remain uninvolved. As such, she began every conversation with me, I am not your mother and would never presume to be—followed by no buts, no exceptions to the rule. So that the most interaction we ever had was deep in the grocery aisles, when she forgot the breadcrumbs, or something else just as simple, and I ran off, eager to be helpful. It was in those same aisles that we touched, only on the most noteworthy of occasions. Such as when I first began my period, and, sent to investigate Ten, became quite lost, until Jones' mother appeared and gently nudged the box she thought most suitable.

Of course Jones' mother feared me, found me formidable. Even though she never said so. I could hear it in her voice the many times she said to Jones, Why don't you two play apart for a while?

Always the theorist, Jones once accused me. Always overthinking everything, he said fondly.

She's a walking disaster, my mother proclaimed through the phone the year I was twelve. And indeed I rarely went a month without falling, or bruising, or cutting myself. Or, for example, the year I strung myself up from a jump rope—not by the toes, but the throat: the sweetest part, the most kissable. And Jones' mother must have been terrified that something of me would rub off on Jones, who was a particularly easy child, on a constant lookout for danger which he never truly found. He settled somewhere between karate classes and classroom brawls; duct-taping his entire face; eating eleven double-cheeseburgers in one meal. He did everything he was dared: ate barkchips, jumped from roofs, swam in the puddle-of-a-lake behind the abandoned paper mill. Even so, though Jones was always rock-climbing topless, running into wasps' nests, and falling from the tops of mountains, he always came out beautifully unharmed. Without wound. So then even when the third tumor blocked off his intestines, and the drinks he drank leaked out of the hole in his stomach, it was easy to imagine that he knew no pain at all.

Memories make heroes of the dead, Jones once told me, with our cheeks in the grass, as he told me tales of animals and princesses. But Jones himself was far from perfect. And I do not mean to grasp at flaws, but one year he forgot to call—almost—three hundred and forty six days. Not even on my nineteenth birthday. Yet, he never treated me as if I was anything in need; and he knew of my love of stories, and would give them to me. Did you know, he once asked me that crows are the smartest birds in the whole animal-bird kingdom? The fact is, he explained, that crows have been known to change their entire migration patterns, their entire life-paths, just to avoid places where even one single crow has been killed.

Killed? Or murdered? I asked. And the problem was that Jones and I had taken to watching soaps in the sunny afternoons.

Does it matter? he asked. Dead's dead. And they remember faces too. The crows he meant, if not the dead.

So surely then, my own mother, a woman and not a crow, already knew that death ran through our family, if not by blood, then through limbs and chests and insides. My mother, whose own departure I imagined repeatedly: death by poisoning, trampling, a late night robbery. Or perhaps, choking. Crashing. Drowning. There are so many ways to kill a human body. Motherhood is difficult, she used to say, and this seems true of loving anybody. My final birthday with my mother falling on my grandfather's death, her own poor father. And the day came and went, not without gifts, for upon his passing my grandfather left me his razor set, not formally, but upstairs in the attic, where I hid, with my headphones at their loudest, whenever my grandmother took to mourning, tight-faced and hard-lipped, demanding that clothes be put in order, and arrangements be thrown out. The set was nice, as I recall, old-fashioned, white, long, stained handles, engraved, and worn smooth as butter. And there, with the smell of dust and cardboard, knees tucked up, head bent crooked against the angle of the roof, I traced those handles over my fingertips, my palms, my wrists, and arms. And the blades, not well-cared for, but had been once, were still sharp, and slipped through me the way one might cut an apple.

Are you ever happy? my own mother used to wonder, head raised towards the ceiling as if she was asking it, and not me. I wonder now if my mother always felt that there was something more within me. Because she would demand of me an answer: Must you break everything? And she would spank me for the dishwasher, washing machine, lamp, china cabinet, lawn-mower blade, I had almost broken, had broken, because I never remembered not to turn, move, walk backwards. It's a fine line between deliberate and accidental, she would scold me every summer. So for a long time I would not touch Jones' IV pole, with its candy-colored bags, at all. And I do wish my own mother had seen me amount to anything; had seen me turn sixteen; had seen me dancing, before Jones died, in the hallways of hospitals, him and I and his IV bags, from room to room. With colors like Waste, Bile, Nutrition, and Chemo, I couldn't resist for long. The key to story-telling, Jones told me, is like dancing. You just have to find some feeling, some feeling to hold onto.

I feel, I told him. I feel so happy I could just die. A joke that hit too close to heart. For when the doctors told him the news and suggested their treatments, Jones was forced to decide between dying and being dead, and informed them, in return, that he refused to live in a hospital. Of course, at first they insisted, those doctors and specialists, he must have faith, they implored, have heart, if not kidneys and stomach, they demanded, all the while subjecting him to a whole assortment of cures that took as much of Jones as his illness did.

So then who must I follow? My own only mother? Who left me with a legacy of leaving? Who—my father finally told me on the night of Jones' death, in an effort to console me, to calm me—simply went to bed, went to bed, shot herself in the head, and that was the end of everything. For her, if not also for me.

Don't you see? my poor father demands. You and her are the same. And though he regrets the words as they leave him, he cannot find a way to call them back into himself.

Are you finally happy? Jones' mother demands, breaking her silence at last. And I am not. For though I can forgive my mother, I cannot forget the way her absence feels inside of me. And besides, I can still only imagine the details: what type of gun, what time of day, what was she wearing, and so on. These are the questions, I tell myself, you are not allowed to ask, and yet they haunt me relentlessly. Tell me more, I want to scream. Tell me if I could be like her, so narrow; standing here on the banister, with my arms raised above my head, or even better, fingers pointed towards the ground: straight as a ruler, as a pencil, as an arrow; not a jump, just a slip, a slight misstep. For I have never been a stranger to slip ups—I who spent much of my childhood with plastic bags wrapped fearlessly around my mouth; I who caused most of the medicine in the house to be kept behind padlock.

Can't you just once, my mother asked me, not make it all so much about you?

But Jones, who speaks for his cells even as they lay dying, answers: Stupid, he says, as the lumps of himself make a maze of his throat. You can't decide things like that. So when his lungs had filled, and the air he sucked he had to suck in sips, it must have taken him quite a bit of effort to open his eyes, obstructed by the tubing and the oxygen and the pain medicine, but open them, not wide, just barely, and with them ask me the same question he used to call on the phone with after we both left for college and got on with things that were ours and such: you still here?

Today, I have always said. But brothers are risky, not like mothers, who simply disappear, leaving only loss. The best part though, I'd like to think anyway, is that even as that final lump ate his final breath, his stomach and kidneys last month's meal, his intestines, his bowels dead and collapsed, even as he took in and never let back out again, Jones was content. I know this because in the days before his death, I would sit in his room, against the inherited, blue recliner that Jones himself died in, and though sometimes he woke, smiled, squeezed, the recliner had become so much a part of him that I often forgot which I was holding, stroking, and I knew that very soon it would no longer matter. But in that moment some part of the chair still moved and breathed, ever faintly, and so I told it, I wish we could trade places.

Not for anything, it said, not whispered nor mumbled, but said quite clearly. And I saw that Jones was never anxious to die, but saw something about life that I had not yet. And Jones slipped away after that, not for the last time, that came later, but for the last time I looked at him and he at me and we saw each other. Then it was much too quiet and much too much, and so I loudly told myself, everything leaves. So I climbed the railing, and got ready.

Just stand still, Jones told me. But it's not so easy for girls. Just don't fall down, he told me. But he finally had to give up anyway.

Yet, not for anything, he told me. And once upon a time I had such a delicate family that I can still feel the loss within me. So I held on to that as I hovered between: railing and cement, flying and fall, waking and sleep. A taste, sweet, like candy on my teeth. For a moment my feet and legs almost escaped me, almost slid away from me, but still they kept. And as I dared to climb back down, I looked into the center, through all of those stairs, perfectly aligned, perfectly underneath each other and still all visible, down through those I could see, in the middle of it all, at the heart of it, at the sweetest part, there was a dark grey hint of concrete. And even though I have heard it, that heart, calling, I am filled not with nothing, and I still stay standing.

BIO: Sarah Helen completed her M.A. in English in 2015. She now lives in Portland, Oregon and teaches writing as an adjunct instructor at Portland State University. Sarah is very excited, Bartleby Snopes is her first publication, and she looks forward to more exciting publications in the future.