That summer, the heat sat on us like a second skin. We had moved to the Fields for the peace and quiet my father missed in the City, and for the fresh air my mother hoped would whisk the quickly establishing staleness out of our adolescent minds. To our collective surprise, a three story house out here still cost more than our apartment in the City had, and my mother, who disliked cars but whose feet would only carry her so far, declared this an outrage. “They should be the ones paying us to live this far from the post office.” My mother liked to accompany her correspondence on its way to the stamp and seal, and believed it would only arrive where it was headed if she personally told the cashier how and when it was meant to get there. Another extravagance the increase in rent cost us was our habit of dining in restaurants, and within the first week we were bored out of our skulls.
Like an island, the Fields were surrounded by the ebbing and tiding of fog. Every night, the fog rolled down from the hills enclosing the valley, and every morning at sunrise it rolled back up, uncovering a crawling heat as if someone had lifted a doormat. It radiated from beneath the grass, fed by the sunlight the valley caught like a funnel. In the midst of it all, my brother and I, relieved from our scholarly duties for the summer, lounged like washed up corpses amidst the clusters of furniture that seemed out of proportion in the vastness of the new house. The house itself was relatively cool, my parents kept it dark until sunset, and while this shut out the heat, the lethargy summer brought with it found a way in nonetheless. Like an unwelcome guest it sat between us on the couch, spread its glaze on our eyeballs as we were watching TV, and laid its fingers between the pages of our books, blurring the lines we were trying to read.
After weeks of our sighing and moaning demonstrations of boredom, our parents pulled a tent from one of the boxes in the garage and exiled us to the edge of the Fields so they could finish unpacking in peace. Being our parents, this impromptu camping trip came with a set of rules: access to the house was denied, except in the case of emergencies and uncontainable bowel movements. “Emergencies are for people who can’t deal with the pace of life,” said my brother and during our three days of exile I saw him occasionally emerging from behind a bush, wiping his ass with a fern.
I went back into the house once during our three days, while my brother was snoring at the wall of the tent. I had to flush twice and tried to muffle the sound of it the best I could. When I got back into our tent, the night’s cold had crawled under my clothes. I slipped into my sleeping bag, pulled my legs to my chest and held my wet feet with my hands.
On the last morning, I woke up to my brother sitting up in his sleeping bag. “I’m so bored,” he said, rubbing his palms on his knees.
“What time is it?” I plucked sleep crumbs from between my lashes. The fog was still clinging to the tent and the fabric hung low over our heads, heavy with moisture. From below, I could feel the heat gathering in the grass.
My brother shrugged.
“There’ll be breakfast inside,” I said, but he flicked a finger at the wall of the tent, sending drops rattling back into the morning air.
“Too early,” he said.
“I thought you didn’t know what time it was.”
He reached into his bag, pulled out his wristwatch and without looking at it, threw it into my lap. “It’s too early,” he said again.
I patted around the tent for my socks. When I had unraveled and pulled the left one up to my ankles, he said: “How do people live like this?”
I shrugged and said: “So leave.”
He nodded, then he reached out and slapped the back of my head.
Outside, the fog started rolling up the hill, nestling in the treetops like clouds of bats, and the sun that had climbed the sky behind a screen of moisture threw itself into the valley with full force. My brother opened our tent to let some air in and started packing up his sleeping bag. I knelt down to shake dust and potential spiders out of my pillow.
“I’ve got it,” he said, and sat on the fat roll he had turned his sleeping bag into.
“You’ve got what?”
“Give me your towel.”
He grabbed my bag and threw its contents on the floor of the tent. I quickly reached into my unraveled sleeping bag and pulled out my towel. “Here.”
He took it and frowned. “What’s it doing in there?”
“Keeps it warm,” I said, gathering the things he had scattered and put them back into my bag.
He sat cross-legged and put the towel on his lap. He watched me collect my things for a while, then pulled his right foot up to his face and examined the sole, the nails, the few black hairs growing out of each knuckle. Then he rubbed it vigorously between the toes with my towel.
“Hey,” I said, “you’re going to wash that.”
He pulled out some dark grime from under his nails with the towel.
“You’re definitely washing that.”
“Shut up,” he said, and examined the foot some more, turning it in his hands. Then, pulling his calf up to his face with both hands, he gently started to nibble his toe.
I made a retching noise. “You’re gross,” I said, but got no reaction.
He took his toe out of his mouth and wiped his spit off it.
“Do we have a – “
I followed his gaze to the tent wall. “Do we have a what?”
He shook his head and pulled his eyes from the wall. He looked at the foot he was still holding with both hands, then lowered his face toward it and bit into his toe.
It came off with greater ease than either of us expected. There was the sound of someone stepping on a twig, and my brother’s head flung back with a toe between his teeth. We both stared at his foot and saw no blood, no broken bone, no carnage of any sort. The toe had simply come loose, and in its stead was a smooth flat surface crowned with a minuscule flesh-coloured cylinder. My brother coughed with surprise and the toe landed in his lap.
It just lay there on my grey bath towel, and where my brother’s teeth had snapped it off the foot, we saw a round opening the size of the cylinder. Finally, he picked up the toe and held it over his foot, pressed it down onto the cylinder. It fit, but there was no clicking noise, which, somehow, I had expected. It just sat on its former place a bit loosely, and when my brother flexed his toes toward the ground, it slipped off and fell to the ground.
From the house, we could hear our father call us for breakfast.
“Tell them I don’t want any,” he said, picking up the toe and holding it up at eye-level.
“You tell them,” I said. My spine was so tense it itched. The hand I was sitting on was falling asleep.
He shrugged and closed his fist around the toe.
“Does it hurt?”
He looked at me. “Does what?”
“Your foot,” I said, “does it hurt?”
“No. Doesn’t feel like anything, actually.”
“What about your toe, does it – you know, can you feel anything?”
He opened his fist. The toenail had turned dark brown and looked like velvet, or maybe mould. The skin around it was taut and pink.
“It looks like a mushroom,” I said.
He nodded and threw the toe into his open mouth like a peanut. In my head a voice yelled “What are you doing” but it didn’t quite reach my mouth, and he bit down. It sounded exactly like biting on a peanut, and the tightness in his eyes gave way to a glint of excitement. He opened his mouth wide and bared his teeth at me. Large strands of pink were sticking to his teeth, stretching between his jaws like taffy. He closed his mouth again with a satisfied smacking sound.
“What does it taste like?”
He grinned, and the bright pink made his teeth look whiter, and somehow bigger than usual.
“Just as expected,” he said.
On our way back, he made me carry both our backpacks and the bag I kept my towel and spare clothes in. “We’ll get it later,” he said when I tried to pack the tent into its sleeve. The straps of the backpacks cut into my shoulders and the extra weight pulled me backwards. He walked next to me, slowly, balancing on the heel and side of his foot and occasionally holding on to my shoulder for stability. When we reached the house, the skin around my ribcage felt tight as a stocking.
At the breakfast table, my mother poured us each a glass of orange juice and made us eggs and toast. After three days of water and salted crackers, I was licking my plate within a couple of minutes. My brother sat there, looking past us all, with what appeared to be simultaneously a frown and a grin. Occasionally, he took a sip from his orange juice. “Eat your food,” my mother said, and he just nodded without touching it. I drained my glass of juice and asked for another one, which my mother poured me with a smile. “Well at least someone’s hungry.” My brother into the distance and said: “Can I have some coffee?” My mother looked at my father and raised her eyebrows. Then she smiled. She reached into the cupboard, pulled out a mug and placed it on the table in front of my brother. My father poured coffee into it. They both watched him drink and smiled at each other. I sipped my orange juice loudly, and the acid felt like sandpaper on my gums.
Now that we were back in the house everyday rules once again applied, so when our mother sent us upstairs to brush our teeth, we did so. The mid-day air came into the bathroom through a crack in the window and ricocheted sluggishly off the tiles like the bubble in a lava lamp. In the mirror, my brother’s chin twitched with the back and forth of his toothbrush. Right next to it, my forehead crumpled with each stab the bristles of my toothbrush took at my sore gums.
For the next twenty-four hours, the toe travelled through my brother’s intestines, big and small, and came out at the other end looking no different than any other piece of meat consumed and digested by a human body. And then there it was, in the toilet bowl in front of him, and he called me into the bathroom and said: “Look.” I looked and said “what?” “Look,” he said again, “that’s it.” I held my breath and moved closer, worried for a moment this was a practical joke at my expense. “How can you tell?” He grinned and flushed with one hand in his pocket, like a man about to close a deal.
It took him almost two months, but eventually, piece by piece, limb by limb, my brother ate himself. The majority of that time he spent in the bedroom we shared. Our parents were apprehensive at first, but with a characteristic stubbornness, he quickly won them over. His investment in what they came to call his “project” was reason enough for them to leave him be. Occasionally, my mother would attempt to lure him to the dinner table with dishes that had been his favourite, but after the consumption of both his feet and his right leg up to his knee made using the stairs difficult, she allowed him to stay in his room during meals. The bedroom was on the second floor, and while the use of stairs was out of the question, I still wanted my brother to be able to move around. I offered him my old skateboard, so that he could use his hands to pull himself forward, but he refused. My father, who had overheard the conversation, told me not to treat my brother like an invalid. “At least he’s working on something. You would do well to do the same.” He took my skateboard away and locked it in his closet. The same night, my brother ate both his hands, making the skateboard useless anyway.
From then on, my parents decided I was in my brother’s way. They took my few belongings out of our room, leaving behind only my unmade bed, and put them in a cupboard in the living room. One of the downstairs sofas could be turned into a bed, and I was to spend my nights there, so that my brother could work undisturbed on his project, and perhaps complete it should he choose to do so. The house was big, but we’d been used to a small apartment, and my parents weren’t quite used to the freedom occupying the upper floor of the house had given us kids. They could have allowed me to stay in the small guest room next to theirs, but they insisted the living room was a more suitable place for me. They said it would do me good to rise and retire with the natural flux of the household, and that being more aware of other people’s daily routine would remedy what my mother called my “constant attention-seeking.”
The nights in the living room were brighter than what I was used to. At night, my parents turned off the light in the living room and went upstairs, and I laid down on the makeshift bed shaded my eyes with a hand. The room upstairs had heavy curtains allowing us to sleep in near total darkness, but downstairs, the room was flooded with the yellow light of the porch, and until the embers in the fireplace expired, their glow served as an unnecessary nightlight.
While everything else in the house was changing, the Fields didn’t become any less boring.
Upstairs, my brother had now eaten both his arms to his elbows, and was experiencing difficulty holding on to things. He found it almost impossible to read his novels about people lost at sea. On most nights, I could hear my mother make her way to his room to read to him, and in the beginning he let her, but more and more he started chasing her away, and sometimes his refusal extended into a shout that came tumbling down the staircase and slid underneath the door into my ears. I would lie awake then, with a hand behind my head and think about the voices he had used to read me stories that would keep me awake at night when I was still too young to make out the words on the pages.
My brother’s project continued in this manner until nothing was left of him but his head. He had been all head for three days when he called me into his room.
I sat on the bed next to him. His hair was greasy, but he didn’t look tired. His skin was rosy and clear, and his eyes were gleaming.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
He grinned. “Pretty good.”
“You look different.”
“That’s because I feel different. I’m so close now.”
I nodded and looked away. “What are you going to do now?” I asked.
He bit his lip. He sucked it in as far as he could, then let it slide back out.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m not sure how to finish this.”
He furrowed his brow and his pupils widened like they had in the tent when he first bit off his toe.
“Do what you just did, and pull,” I said.
He looked at me. I shrugged and raised my palms. “I don’t know. It’s your project.”
“Damn right,” he said.
He bit his lip again, and instead of pulling it into his mouth through suction, he bit further and further, until his lower lip had disappeared and his teeth were biting down on his chin. It looked very strange. He kept biting and biting until his head folded back in on itself and disappeared between his teeth.
It took him ten minutes, and when he was done, I hadn’t moved a muscle. The only thing that was left on his pillow was some of his hair, which he somehow hadn’t managed to eat, and his teeth, white and hard and smeared with pink.
I got up and walked out of the room to call my mother.
When he had been gone for a week, my mother cleaned out my brother’s room, burnt incense to scare away the moths, and put a lock on the door. She mounted his teeth and what remained of his hair onto a styrofoam head and put it on display on the mantlepiece. “Where’s your boy,” guests would ask, ignoring my presence in the room, and my mother would point to the mantlepiece and say “This is what he left us.” My father, sitting in his chair would add: “Went out there and made something of himself. He’s making us proud.” And my mother would nod as the guests said “Aaah” and admired the faceless grin above our fire. If they had brought their own children with them, the story of how my brother had gone out there and made something of himself was repeated to them in a tone caught between pride and bitterness. My brother’s teeth grinned over the scene from above a spitting and cracking fire.
Though my brother had, boredom never left. In his absence, his boredom was handed down to me like a heavy pair of shoes. When I complained, my mother would point to the mantelpiece and say, “Look at your brother. He went out there and made something of himself. All you ever do is complain. Maybe one day, when you’ve achieved what your brother has achieved, you’ll have something else to say.” Then she would turn off the light and close the living room door behind her. I would get up and tap my finger against my brother’s teeth, then against mine. While mine felt soft and porous, his sounded thick and full, and their corners were as sharp as a saw. I would turn around and sit back down on the couch, and pull my knees up under my chin.