Someday you will want to know why. People will ask you: What was I like? Was I weird? Forgetting that you were only three and cannot be expected to remember your father.
I cannot write to you because I am watched. They monitor my calls, go through my papers. So I lie here silently, composing invisible letters to you. Like secret messages in magical bottles, I launch them into the ether and hope they wash up on your shore.
It is quiet here. No clanking chains, but the whirr of rubber wheels on tile floors; no lashes with the whip, but a cup of bitter pills; no latrine stench, but air that stings the nose with fierce cleanliness. The guards are fat and diffident; the food so bland as to be offensive.
Last night, from my narrow window, I saw a star fall, streak across the sky and plunge into the black trees on the Islet, where the old graves are. Do you remember picnicking with me there? You scampered and frisked amid the ferns and unmarked stones, innocent of the criminals and lunatics resting below. We ate sandwiches in the fresh salt air.
I think about the dead men on that island. What if, one night, they came back, following the reflection of the Milky Way across the harbor? What if they massed upon the shore, riddled with otherworldly diseases and purposes? Lost brothers and uncles, dazed and angry, whistling beneath our windows, rustling in the grass, scraping long nails upon the glass?
Your Uncle Martin and I were twins.
Why, then, did we look nothing alike? I am plain and he was handsome; I am strong, he was lithe; I am dark and thoughtful, he was talkative, gingery.
We used to climb trees, pretending they were ship masts, navigating with a compass and surviving on hardtack and lime-water (i.e., crackers and juice boxes). Loyal servants of the Crown, we took turns being captain of the HMS Ash Tree.
The rift between us began when, one hot autumn morning, I saw that Martin was not playing ship with me at all, but rather leering into the window as our sister, Tullah, pulled off her little nightgown.
I shoved him. One moment he was there, my first mate — the next a pale flash and tumble through the branches below. I climbed down to find he’d broken his arm. He swore at me, wept. I mentioned Tullah. He became sullen. In the end we both agreed not to tell on the other, beginning our lifelong detente. He never forgave me — but I never stopped watching him.
Eventually we grew up. I married your mother, Martin slept around. I became a full professor while he remained an adjunct. (The man couldn’t get tenure if he sold the soul he hadn’t got.) Every holiday he came home angrier, with a new tarty girlfriend and shinier wingtips. Smart, but not deep. Great shallows of loud, splashy intellect. Oh, how he hated me!
And oh, how his eyes lit up when he saw you for the first time! You, the apple of my eye. My pride and joy. My baby.
I have an assignment for you: define taboo (ask your anthropologist mother for help).
Examples? Certainly! Cannibalism. Fratricide. Incest.
Things that make people ask why. Why would anyone do that?
Why did Alexander Pearce the cannibal turn his companions into pies not once, but twice?
Why did white people cross the globe to kidnap black people, and work them to death?
Why, I ask, did nice Uncle Martin think he could take you out for “ice cream” and NOT GET CAUGHT?
Your mother didn’t see the danger. She didn’t grow up with him like I did, but I told her! I said even a dog could see what kind of thing he was, you could smell it on him, it’s as if he wore a flashing neon PERVERT sign on his head and why would she not believe me?
She laughed, called me paranoid. It’s just ice cream.
But I knew. I knew and I went looking for you.
You see, Martin wanted to have — no, take — something perfect. It is an ancient urge, one that predates humankind. (I am referring here to Satankind, and how it, in its rovings, happened upon Eden.) It is the urge that says to itself, as the colonists did, licking their collective chops, “That’s lovely and succulent and defenseless. I’ll have that.”
Dearest — do you remember the ice cream trip? I hope not. There was, in fact, no ice cream when I got there. And so, as I explained to those nice officers later, yes — being of sound mind, etc., I did throttle and bury, etc. That isn’t a secret.
Where did I bury him?
Now that would be telling.
On the Islet of the Dead I watched you perform a dance on the freshly patted-down earth. The dance, one of your own devising, was long and aimless, accompanied by tuneless da-da-da’s and lavish pirouettes. You explained that it was a ballet about princesses and pirates. I applauded. You curtseyed. I swooped you into the air and we laughed.
The orderly taps his foot. It is time for therapy.
Darling, please believe me when I say that having an insane father, locked away, is infinitely preferable to having your uncle alive and prowling by your nursery door, polishing his teeth, testing the locks and sniffing out the scent of the sweet, pristine wilderness that is you. I am mixing my metaphors and my history here — I think it is the pills. Forgive an old man.
And — if you get this — don’t tell them where he is buried. I like him lying there, with the other reprobates, where I can keep an eye on him. But now and then, if you can, come out and perform a little ballet on Uncle Martin’s grave by starlight. It will do my heart good.
Shelley K. Davenport lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her flash fiction stories have been published in Everyday Fiction and the Eastern Iowa Review. A short story recently appeared in the themed anthology COLD HARD TYPE: Escapements, and her poetry has been featured by Ariel Chart. She is working on a hard-to-explain alternate-history gothic mystery novel with Faeries.