The New Leader

Then we crossed the bridge. Our mother was going to show us the river, how it had risen almost up to the path where we walked single file, the water nearly up to our feet, first my little brother Derek, then our mother, then me. As we walked we knew something would happen to one of us, but not this.

It didn’t seem so much that Derek fell. He just stepped off the path, as if the path took a turn — into the river — that only he could see. And of course the water couldn’t hold him up. He sank instantly, making the slightest sound as he disappeared, the slightest wake in the moving water, the river deep and green and fast and powerful, more powerful than we could imagine, and our mother seemed to swallow the sound of Derek’s fall, reaching out into the air with her hand and swalling his name sharply — “Derek” — saying it but not saying it because there was no time to say it. She dropped to her knees, then flattened herself onto the path, thrusting her hand into the water, reaching as far as her arm would reach. She seemed to be reaching impossibly far into the water, and I remember thinking that she was going to fall in herself, that she would lose her grip on the bank of that river and then I would be alone there.

You know, of course, that a story like this does not always have a happy ending. In a story like this there are almost always search parties. There are parents shouting and crying and losing their minds with the thought of their drowned son. There is blame, divorce, lawsuits. The surviving brother spends the rest of his life wondering why it wasn’t him, wondering what would have happened if he had been first in line, the leader, if he would have taken the same step, if he would have been able to swim up to the surface, to find the shore. The surviving brother becomes depressed, alienated, drug addicted; he nearly becomes a spelling bee champion, but loses in the final round; he becomes a mediocre chess player; he becomes a toll booth operator, but spends his off days at the Museum of Natural History. The surviving brother remains the survivor, alive but unable to outperform the memory of his drowned brother.

But this is not that story.

A reminder: Our mother was lying on the path, her arm beyond the edge, plunged into the water where it seemed to disappear, the world turned inside out as if she was the one drowning, waving for help, thrashing and drifting in the current of the fast-moving river, saying a kind of desperate prayer and knowing that she has breathed her last breath of air, and that all breath now will be wet, terrifying and deadly.

Perhaps he was caught in an eddy, circling there in that spot, circling back and under, forward and up, backward and under. Perhaps he simply went beneath the water and stayed there near the bank. Perhaps Mother’s prayer — “Derek, Derek, Derek” — pulled him back toward us, put his collar into her hand.

I waited. I kept a secret. As the water swallowed my brother, I felt alive. There wasn’t time for the reality of what was happening to make sense to me, but it was somehow thrilling. As my mother caught Derek by the collar, pulling him up from the water and dragging him on the bank, drenched and coughing, I cannot deny my disappointment. When he finished coughing, he let out what sounded like an abrupt laugh — a single “whoop!”

“Jesus,” said Mother. “Derek.” She wrapped her arms around him and gripped him so tightly I thought he would tell her to stop, but he didn’t. He and she just lay there on the muddy bank of the abrupt river.

My memory of this event is as vivid as it is abstract, and I worry at the details, as if not getting it right will cause the fabric of my life to unravel. But the one thing I know, the one verifiable thing that I want to share with you is this: What my mother did on that day was absolutely impossible. You can perform this same act a million times and never save Derek’s life. He will drown. There will be a search. There will be danger signs posted near the water. My parents will divorce (they divorced anyway but Derek’s death would force their hand). And the surviving brother will tell the story again and again, and the story will never change, as if it were the one story that could explain his life, why nothing significant had ever happened in his life, why he was a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History and nothing else — no hobbies, no motivation, no sex life.

Instead, both boys survived. My mother stood and lifted Derek from the bank and carried him, turned us all around to get us back up the path, away from the water, the single-file line reversed toward the bridge. I was now at the front, the new leader. The closer I came to safety, the harder it seemed to keep my balance, and my mother whispered at my heels, “Hurry up, now, we have to get Derek dry.” I could feel them at my back, my brother so completely filling our mother’s arms that I knew, should I fall, there was no one left to rescue me.

Originally published in Book Magazine.