EXHUMED

I feel safe under the Stag’s hide. It smells of mortality, a warm compound of flesh and earth. I let it engulf me; the way I’ve tried to surrender to your ghost, although I’ve outgrown both. I don’t fit into this moment. This costume Danny coaxed me into doesn’t fit: huge square glasses and thick woolen jumper squeezed under the gutted might of a Stag’s head and pelt. I can’t hold my head high enough for antlers. You’re laughing at me, as I squirm under the looks of disgust passers-by cast in our direction. Here we gather at the fringe of the woods, a jumbled freak show of fur and fury. Until Miranda, dressed as a badger, shrieks something – the comprehension of which is lost to her passion – and starts the march through the forest, thrusting her placard as she goes.

Is it contradictory for a group of environmentalist protesters to be dressed up in animal skins? This is my first protest so I hardly have the right to comment. We step from the concrete and rows of neat houses, into the pillaring trees, and these people become strangers. They are trespassers in a place that had once been ours. This is too similar to how it had been that night: the trampling reclamation of your body.

The forest is its usual watchful quiet over the shrieks for justice. You are everywhere here. Crouched in the high branches of the trees. Crawling through the undergrowth. You are in the soil. My grief is live here, not moldering with me in the dark confines of my flat, but something green and blooming with memories. We were scraped-kneed explorers with mud dried into our freckled cheeks. Everything was a precious discovery and we were the first boys on Earth. Every nest of bugs was a colony of aliens, toads were warted with jewels and dragonflies spat fire. We scaled mountains and towering trees, we dug trenches and buried any sight of bone or death. I’d have followed you anywhere, big brother. I tried.

Now I read about these things in books, try to study the beauty back into them. I have crammed my tiny flat with National Geographics and textbook upon textbook on Geology and Biology and Conservation. I can’t get back without you, they buried my childhood and wonder with you.

And now they want to chop this place down. Concrete over your grave. I lag a little behind the marchers, feeling entirely separate. I’m not used to so many people. I feel like they’ll see you in me and try to exorcise you. I’ve hidden inside my grief for so long I don’t think I can exist without it.

Danny clamps a sudden hand onto my shoulder and exclaims “Fuckin’ Outrage this!” Shocked by the abrupt contact, I nod, pushing my glasses back into the comfortable ridge on my nose. Danny grins, his tufts of matted hair sticking out from beneath the fox head, the ginger of his beard looking like the animal has possessed his face. “They won’t get away with it!” I already know that they will. Me, and Danny, and Miranda and the others will go on to the pub in a few hours, to have a pint in celebration of our tiny rebellion, and in a week they’ll rip this place down.

You’d like to have gone out like this. People making twats of themselves in your name. You’d be happy I’m talking to people again. I will start to leave the flat more, to meet Miranda and Danny, we’ll move onto the next ‘outrage’ and slowly, slowly you’ll crumble from my memory, and that’s how it should be. I’ll keep taking the pills. They’ll bury this place the way they re-buried you.

So I keep marching, with Danny happy to skip beside me in unassuming camaraderie. I ruined so much of myself trying to bury you here. I still smell the dark and the unturned earth: the rot, in my nightmares. Your eyes glazed open. I shouldn’t have left it until night to try to bury you, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help pretending for the rest of the day, piling interesting shaped branches, clumps of moss, fat toads and worms at your feet. We didn’t know they’d come for you. We couldn’t have known that they’d come with dogs, that they’d come like body-snatchers to dig you back up and condemn me in laws that weren’t ours.

You were so happy. So happy to not have to die in the clinical cleanliness of that hospital bed. I’d run like a thief down the corridor, you bundled like bounty in the wheelchair, a tired smile wisped across your cheeks. Mum would never forgive me. You didn’t want your corpse locked in a box, you wanted your beloved worms under your skin. You wanted to sprout flowers.

I want to find our names, I can remember which tree they’re carved into, just not how to get to it. I can remember the awe, as you moved the knife we’d sneaked from the kitchen with such skill. It glinted fierce in the sun as it sliced through to soft pale wood. You let me try but I slipped and cut my index finger, crimson welled. I tried to blink the stinging tears away, but you beamed down at me with promise of such care. You took the plaster from the graze on your knee, too much of your own blood still staining the gauze and wrapped it round my finger instead. Then kissed me roughly on the forehead. I could feel our blood mingling. The graze on your knee didn’t stop bleeding.

Mum finally found the bruises and must have realised then what it was that had leached all the health from you. She drove us silently to the hospital. I couldn’t even pronounce your diagnosis, and when the doctor tried he used words that sounded like he had dissected you. He talked hungrily of treatments and tried to hook translucent tubes into your wrists. Mum cried and we both got a lollypop each. The room they put you in made you look like an animal in a zoo, the same dull longing under your heavy eyelids.

I had never seen you so reduced. Your blood shrieked mutiny in your veins, and bruises, foreboding as fungi, had claimed your skin. You hated the life-expectancy you could count on one hand, counting down in captivity. You hated the chemicals they pumped into you, treatments that made you radioactive. Side-effects that made your fear and rage and illness morph into a sickening and overpowering exhaustion. You just wanted to rest in the forest whilst aliens crawled over you, dragons soared overhead glinting their brightness and the trees sang your eulogy.

So I had started digging your grave, a month before we’d need it. You told me we were digging for treasure, you even made me a treasure map, the exact spot you wanted. I knew what it was I was digging. So I spent days alone in the forest, unforgiving in your absence. I had only mum’s gardening trowel and for all the sweat and blisters: I didn’t dig deep enough.

So they found you, dug you out of your peace and burnt you to ashes. After doing more prodding examinations on your body, to make sure it was the cancer and not me who killed you.

That’s when I recognise it, the dip in the Earth a little way off the trodden path. I seperate myself from the others and walk towards it. I cannot comprehend. This moment lasts forever, my footfalls soft against the moss, everything else sinks away. There is infinity in this moment. Walking towards the plants that should have their roots through my brother’s child skeleton. I lie face down on the Earth. It feels like a melodramatic gesture, one that I would not normally make and am not sure why I do now. I am just so exhausted. I want to be under here with him. Where it is dark and cold and still and grief is beautiful. I press my face against the cold mud. He’d be so small in my arms now, I can’t imagine. So I lie here.

I intend to pretend I too am dead, but I can feel the trees breath at my lips. I close my eyes and make shapes out of the shocks of blue and spirals of red that paint the insides of my eyelids. I exhale my loneliness: let the trees digest it into a kinder material. I didn’t intend to find contentment here.

A few hours later the sun is swallowed by the clouds, and I let my eyelids crack open to reveal the evening’s grey light. I turn my head away from the light and am greeted by Danny’s face, his eyes rested shut, his chest rising and falling. I sit up and look around. Circling us are the rest of the marchers. I wonder if they’d known. I’d been in the papers as a child. My mum had thought it worth the money, so headlines condemned me for what we’d tried to do. Maybe they just think I’ve invented a new form of protest? There are no more cheesy slogans, no more stomping, but a solemn and shared silence. I don’t need to know what brought this on. It is what the funeral must have felt like. No, this is better than the funeral they exhumed him for, where strangers preached sense exclusive to adults. A unity of unspoken care so strong it would be uncomfortable if it weren’t so moving.

When the silence starts to get awkward, I stand and stare for a moment at where I’d been lying. I had left a silhouette imprinted into the moss. I watch it rise away before turning to leave.

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