The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth
It’s been a month since we buried my brother. I was a pallbearer. I even threw a shovelful of soil on his grave. Mama was bawling her eyes out; Dad just stood there with his head down, staring at the frosted ground like he could see through it, see down through the frost and the grass and the red clay, like he was watching worms. The preacher asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say, and some of my brother’s buddies shuffled up and said they couldn’t believe it, and what a great guy he was. Mrs. Johnson, his science teacher, reminded us that he had so much potential, and how it was a terrible loss. Vera got up to talk, but she started crying and sat down. I hate seeing Vera cry. She’s prettier now than ever; her hair’s longer, and it curls down her back. Preacher came up and asked me to talk, but there was no way in hell that was gonna happen. I had nothing to say.
Eph was born when I was two years old. When I was old enough to catch tadpoles, he’d tag along and he’d wade out up to his waist chasing frogs and get stuck and start crying. Mama would yell out the kitchen window that he was my responsibility, so I’d pull him out. Summers before we were big enough to help with the haying, we’d take our ponies out into the fields and fencerows—we’d be gone all day. I was the cowboy waiting to round him up. I’d sneak up on him and break into a lope; he was the Indian trying to get away. When we got tired of that, I’d be the sheriff and he’d be the bank robber, his horse’s hooves pounding through the cornstubble, trying to make it back to the hideaway, kicking up doves and Killdeer as we flew. I guess Eph was fine being the Indian and the robber. I let him get away sometimes. If he minded, he never said nothing. He always did what I told him to do. There’s a picture of us boys in the upstairs hallway on our ponies in cowboy hats and bandanas. Hard to believe that was ten years ago.
Boy did he love to read. From the time Mama taught him, that boy had a book in his hand. If you wanted to find Eph, look in his room; he’d be stretched out on the bed, reading. He was always showing me pictures, and wanting to read to me. Another thing about that boy: he loved science. I mean, he devoured science, he ate it up. Even when he was little, he’d see a tomato hornworm in the garden and, instead of crushing it, as he should have, he’d put the damned thing in a jar. He’d poke holes in a piece of tinfoil, and put a piece of tomato plant in there with it, and he’d watch it. He had a hardback book Mama had given him one Christmas, and he was always wasting my time looking shit up with him.
Now, I’m not saying my brother was lazy, but by the time he got to be about twelve, about the time a boy should be doing real work around the place, he wasn’t doing his share. Funny thing was, Mama and Dad kept cutting him all kinds of slack. They’d make excuses for him like: “Ephraim is very conscientious about schoolwork”, or “Ephraim has a big exam coming up”, and even “John-Lee, you’re so much better at stacking, let Ephraim throw the bales off the wagon. You stack.” Basically, what it meant for me was that I had more work. Don’t get me wrong, Eph and I got along good. But to be honest, it kinda pissed me off that just because he always had his head buried in a book, they made me pick up the slack. I could tell they thought he was special. Eph still said “I love you, too” when Mama told him she loved him. Not me.
I grew out of that; I stopped years ago. I loved her, but she knew it: I’ll be damned if I’m going around telling her. I guess maybe she got tired of me not answering back. Maybe that’s why she stopped telling me she loved me.
I’ll never forget one time, right around Thanksgiving, we were cutting firewood. Of course I’m cutting, Eph is stacking. And this bigass blacksnake comes out of the pile, heading straight toward Eph. He didn’t even see the thing, he was too busy daydreaming. You can’t do that around equipment like that, but try telling that to Eph. So this snake’s coming at him, and I mean, this thing has gotta be seven feet long. It’s so thick one hand won’t reach around it. And I just I reach down with the saw and, just like that, slice its head off. That’s how quick I was; that snake didn’t even see me coming. And do you know, Eph had the balls to tell me I shouldn’ta killed it! He said blacksnakes eat mice, and that they’re beneficial, or some shit. I am talking about a seven-fucking-foot blacksnake here. I didn’t miss a beat; I just started the chainsaw and went back to work. And you know what Eph does? He stands there watching that headless snake writhing around on the snow, black on white, as the blood makes a little red stain. You know, snakes will keep moving like that, curling around, even without their heads? Eph read that in a book once, and it is true.
By the time we’re in high school I’m failing most of my classes. My teachers say it’s because I don’t try, maybe they’re right.
“Why can’t you be more like Ephraim?” Mrs. Johnson asks, as if I wanna be like my brother.
For one thing, I intend to make my living farming. I don’t have time for homework, I can make ten bucks an hour stacking hay for the neighbors, and I do every chance I get. At first I tried to get Eph to come, but he made some excuse about a research project. For another, I never was that good of a reader, sometimes the words kinda jump around on the page. I never told anyone, but if a line says, “The laws of motion,” I’ll read, “The motion of laws.” If I’m gonna get blamed for not trying anyway, why should I bother?
I don’t know why girls like Eph better than me. I can stack five hundred bales, and it shows. My hands are like iron, and Eph’s are “artistic.” I’m tan and my hair’s bleached from the sun. Eph spends all his time in the science lab. His hair is darker and he’s lankier than me. When he and Vera started dating and they asked me to tag along like a third wheel, of course I said no. Eph said it was Vera’s idea. She is nice like that.
“Come on, we’re going to see Apollo 13,” Eph tried to convince me.
“Nah, you all go ahead.” I wasn’t especially interested in some guys almost dying in a tin can a million miles out in space. I was just fine sitting on a snag over the creek at night with my coondog, looking up at the stars from down here. That was the difference between us; I could appreciate things from a distance. Something in Eph made him have to try things himself.
It was a perfect fall Saturday when Eph and I jumped in the bed of the truck. The leaves were turning, and it had rained the day before. The air smelled fresh and sour, that smell it gets in early fall when the apples are ripe and start to drop. Empty apple crates shifted as Dad accelerated down the gravel lane and turned out onto the paved road toward the orchard. A few apples rolled around the bed of the truck. I remember bright red leaves littering the wet black pavement. Eph was sitting on one wheel-well and I was opposite him on the other.
The sliding rear window to the cab was open, and we could hear Dad singing along with Ralph Stanley on the radio. It was Angel Band. I put that slider in a while back when some two-by-fours shifted toward the cab and broke the original window. I installed it myself. I loved that old blue Chevy truck, and I was working on Dad to get him to sell it to me. I figured I could go in the firewood business when Eph went to college.
Eph was all fired up about something he’d been learning in science Friday. Something about Newton’s first law of motion, how stuff that was moving kept moving until some force caused it to stop. He tried to explain it to me. I kind of remembered something about it from school, something about gravity. Eph said it was really this guy named Galileo’s idea, that Newton was born the year Galileo died, and that he really just built on the older dude’s work. Eph puffed his chest up, and he started goofing on Newton. He lifted his curly brown head high, and said real slow, in his deepest voice, “The laws of motion in the heavens and the laws of motion on the earth are one and the same.”
“Get outta here,” I laughed.
“I will now proceed to test my theory.” Eph was laughing, too, and then his eyes narrowed, and he kinda cocked his head to one side, and I could see the wheels turning. I knew that look.
“No, seriously, this truck is moving about thirty miles an hour,” he guessed, “and we’re sitting here in the bed, so we’re going thirty miles an hour, too, right?” He picked up an apple and tossed it to me. It arced up into the air and straight across the bed of the truck. I reached up with one hand and caught it. He picked up another. This time he threw it straight up, and it came down in his hand. He looked at the apple and smiled. “See, John-Lee, that’s Galilean relativity,” he explained.
I turned and threw my apple at a big sycamore tree as we went by, and nailed it. It was a good throw; we could hear it hit with a loud crack. “And that object just came to a sudden stop,” I said, grinning. Eph laughed.
“Knock it off,” Dad yelled through the open window.
“So what would happen if I jumped up?” he wondered out loud, “Just like the apple, right, I’d still be moving thirty miles an hour?”
“Hell if I know, Eph,” I shrugged, “Try it.”
And he did. It happened so fast there was nothing I could do. My little brother, with the artistic hands and the questioning mind, jumped straight up into the air. The tailgate banged him right about his knees. He bounced over the gate and hit the wet black asphalt at thirty miles an hour. I tried to scream but my throat was full of lead. I turned and saw the back of my dad’s head. I scrambled forward in the truck bed, banging my fists on the glass. Dad turned around, and when he saw my face, he slammed the brakes on. My head collided with the glass, then I flew back. The truck skidded sideways, tires screeching on the wet asphalt before it came to a stop. He got out, and we looked back and saw something in the road about two hundred yards back. It wasn’t moving.
I don’t remember how I got from that truck to my brother. I beat my dad there, and I was gulping for air and shaking. I stood there paralyzed, watching my brother curled up on the wet asphalt, making little jerking motions, opening and closing his mouth slowly. Then I kneeled down next to him, and I watched the life go out of my brother.
Vera came over today. She says she’s checking on Mama and Dad and me, but I think, really, it’s because we remind her of Eph. We walk toward the board fence where the horses are. We each hike a foot up on the bottom board, and wait. They come over to nuzzle us, and we stroke their soft faces. I pull a peppermint out of my pocket and unwrap it. They prick their ears at the sound, and Eph’s gelding nickers. I give it to Vera to give him. We stand there, listening to the hard crack of candy between the horse’s teeth. She’s wearing this Indian necklace Eph gave her, called a squashblossom. A silver chain circles her neck, and she keeps sliding her fingers over it. “You know, you really should talk to your Mama,” she tells me, reaching out to brush the roan’s forelock out of his eyes. She doesn’t look at me when she talks.
“Why? She doesn’t give a shit about me.” I say that ‘cause since Eph died, Mama pretty much doesn’t even look at me. She cooks and does dishes and then she just sits at the table. She won’t touch Eph’s room or let anyone else go in it, but I did. His backpack is on the floor where he left it. The pillow on the bed is dented in where Eph’s head was, and there’s a book next to it.
“She does, John-Lee. It’s just hard for her.”
“Aw, shit, Vera. She always favored Eph. Now he’s gone, she won’t hardly look at me. Goddamnit, I’m still here. I’m alive.”
“It’s hard for all of us. Just talk to her, will you?” She turns to look at me.
“Now that he’s gone, he can never screw anything up. Ever. He’s perfect for-fuckin-ever.”
I’m pissed, I’m hurt, and I’m sad. I feel terrible about what I said to Vera, but I can’t take it back. And I don’t know what makes me do this either, but I walk over to the silo. I haven’t climbed it since the silo fire, when we lost the roof. I reach one hand up and grab the lowest iron rung, about eight feet up, and swing up. I start climbing. Hand, foot, hand, foot, I go up. It’s cold outside and all I have on are my jeans and a flannel shirt, but I’m sweating. My hands slip a little, but the rust on the rungs gives me traction. When I reach the top, eighty feet up, I turn around and sit on the tiny platform. I bury my face in my hands and let the warm, salty tears run down my face. I can hear Vera’s car start and tires crunching on the gravel as she leaves.
I sit there probably ten minutes before I finally move my hands away and look around. Everything feels different when you’re this high. It’s like looking down on a picture, but you’re not really part of it. I can see all the places I know, but they look small, like pieces of something bigger. If Eph was here he’d say something about astronauts. I wonder what Eph sees. I wonder what it all looks like to him way up, past the orbits. I exhale and my breath rises up in a cloud and then it’s gone.
To the west, acres of red and yellow leaves blur together in a rectangle—that’s our woodlot. Beyond the big woods, straw-colored cornfields fringed with cedars stretch out in front of me till they’re too small to see. The late beans are mostly off, but, far away, there’s one tiny combine crawling along through the fields. The mountains to the east are piled up in purple mounds, and the sky thins to the color of a pale piece of turquoise. I see the seam of trees where the creek runs along our piece of bottom land, and I can see on the other side, too, where it turns the bend on our neighbor’s ground and runs toward the river where Eph and I fished. Cows graze the pasture along the creek bottom like tiny statues. Our farmhouse and outbuildings are white boxes with red roofs, tucked in by Mama’s flowerbeds. Everything looks clean and bright like it does after it’s been washed by a rain. I spit and watch it fall.
The screen porch door opens and swings shut, and Mama comes out shaking a dishtowel. My coonhound eases out the door, too, and it bangs shut again after him. Mama looks around. She’s looking for me. She calls my name, and her voice sounds small and far away. She looks over at the barn, and then in the machine shed, calling me, but I just watch. Finally the dog finds me. He puts his nose to the ground and tracks me over to the horsebarn, then turns and heads right straight to the silo. He looks up and gives a sorrowful yelp. Mama follows his eyes up to the top where I am. She sees me, and starts screaming.
“John-Lee get down here this instant! What are you doing up there? Get down this very second!” She yells, but her voice is cracking. The noise spooks a barn owl off the silo wall, and a puff of feathers rise and settle on the air, rocking back and forth toward the ground. I watch them till I can’t see them anymore. Guess I might as well go down too; my wet shirt is giving me a river chill.
Mama is pacing under me, yelling. My dog is hammering ‘cause she has him all fired up. He’s circling Mama like a satellite. I don’t look down till I’m about fifteen feet off the ground. Mama gets real quiet then, and backs up. Even my dog sits down and hushes. I push off and fall through the air, and while I’m falling I see the ground coming up fast, and I’m thinking maybe I should’ve climbed down a little further; this is gonna hurt, but it’s too late. I land on my two feet, hard. I stagger a little and turn to face Mama. Her grey eyes are brimming, and she’s biting her lower lip. She looks at me like she’s looking for something, but, whatever it is, I guess she don’t find it. She turns and goes back to the house, and the door bangs shut behind her.
I head to the barn, where it’s warm.