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The International Writers Magazine:Life Stories

Little Brother
• Wayne Shannon

I used to think he’d always be there. His voice rumbling like a Harley-Davidson engine idling, his red head and freckled white face beaming. Elephant size stories about elephants, knives bigger than swords, airplanes painting smoke-stream pictures in the sky over the Zambezi Valley.
Barbecues at our place always ended up in a corner of the garden with the guests hanging from his words, or rolling around the lawn in laughter. He’d swallow his beer and bellow on about "jumbos" and "kittens" and "hippos," and how learning to water-ski in "flat dog" infested waters was the preferred method amongst "real men." I used to think there was no end to him.

Once, he and I took a Piper Cherokee into Ficksburg—home of the Cherry Festival and Eastern Free State Airshow—and damned near flew the thing head-on into the Northern Drakensberg granite. It was a miserable day for two boys to be out flying and we’d been showing off our newfound flying skills in Johannesburg earlier that morning before heading out to the wet and washed-out mountains. We popped out of the clouds at around four hundred feet and a half-a-mile from the Franshoek Mountain Lodge.
"Fuck me," I said pointing at the mountainside we’d missed crashing into by nothing more than luck and around a quarter-of-a-mile. "Look at that!"
"Good thing you flew around it," he said. And then he said, "I bet you couldn’t do that again," and he smiled that smile that said he’d sit there next to me whilst I tried it if I wanted, and if it killed me trying, well then he’d be right there at my side. I can see the grin on his face right now.

I wrote a poem about him once. It wasn’t much of a poem. Well, perhaps it wasn’t that it wasn’t much of a poem. Perhaps it was more that he was just so much bigger than any of my poems could presume to be—bigger than literature. In any event, I never imagined that the day would come when he would no longer be there.

Sometimes, he would talk so loud I used to imagine that his voice could blow doors open or burst open windows, or even send whole towns flying the way they did in those old black and white movies made about when the U.S. was testing the atomic bomb. I even told him not to bother calling anyone up on the phone when he was like that, because they’d hear him talking without it anyway. He said it was a gift and that God had given it to him and there was no way on earth that he was gonna throw away a God-given talent. I can still hear his voice when I’m flying alone, and when I’m doing the things that we did.

Nowadays I crack myself up when I suddenly remember the shit we used to get up to, like running away from that restaurant in Hillbrow after scoffing down their steaks and then not paying the bill, or sneaking up on those lions in the Okovango Delta with blankets over ourselves, and then jumping up and screaming and running around and scaring them shitless—they scattered like an Italian platoon under fire. I could never have thought that it would ever end.

I fished him from the river. I wish I never had. I didn’t want to remember him that way, but I had to find him. We couldn’t find him at first. We searched from morning till dark for five days, the way you search when you know it’s about death. And then, it was a Wednesday, and I saw his shoe floating amongst the reeds on the Zambian side of the river. It was one of those trail shoes, made by Caterpillar, and it had a heel that looked like The Incredible Hulk smiling. Only he wasn’t smiling. He was lying face down in the water and when I reeled him in a part of him rolled over slowly until he was face down again. I recognized the freckled white skin on his back and his leg.

They said he died happy. They said he’d died doing what he loved doing most. My little brother: dead at age twenty-eight on July 23, 1994. He’d been painting smoke-trailed images over the Zambezi River, in a Beechcraft Bonanza, outside Chirundu. They said it was quick. They said he didn’t feel a thing.
I can still feel it now.

© Wayne SHANNON September 2007

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