Would he be content to arrive at nought?
Consider the happiest he’s ever been. The white-heat concussion of mindless joy. The serotonin spike.
Consider for a painful moment his lowest point. Shiver under the fleeting shadow of that memory of despair.
Call the former plus ten and the latter minus ten. Add them together and divide by two to end up at an average and call it nought.
And stay there forever.
These little thoughts are thought by Gabriel-who-wanders. Gabriel who places his bare feet one before the other in the squish of the swamp and the beetles in the mud scutter over the tops of his toes. Gabriel who should be home by now, should have been home long before now.
Gabriel who wears a white basketball shirt with a faded number 30 and a pair of his brother’s jeans cut off above the knee and who cuts his own hair with the scissors from the kitchen drawer. Gabriel-who-wanders talks to sprites and comes home late.
Gabriel knows the lows and the white hot joy. But mostly Gabriel knows waiting for the day to end. He thinks that nought, that perfect mean of glee and gloom, would be preferable to his itching, impatient everyday which hovers somewhere in the upper-minuses. He walks far into the swamp in search of ignorance.
As soon as he comes home from school, on days when he even goes to school, he dumps his bag on his bed. He takes off his stupid suffocating tie that was his oldest brother’s and then his other brother’s before it was his. He kicks off his scuffed, tight school shoes and pulls on his number 30 shirt and without speaking to anyone he walks out into the swamp. Sometimes his mother keeps some food on the stove for him, and sometimes his brothers don’t eat it. Other nights she doesn’t or they do and he is hungry.
Gabriel looks for the clearings where the sprites gather thickest.
Mist-pawed, they gather for him.
He finds a space between mangrove roots and sits to wait. His legs are crossed and he breathes comfortably. He closes his eyes and rests his hands, palm-upwards, on his knees. His breathing slows and liquid minutes pass before he feels a tickling on his palms. He smiles but keeps his eyes closed and waits a while longer. More tickling as curious snouts brush his bare calves and nibble his hair.
He opens his eyes and he is cloaked in sprites.
Their eyes are bulging globes, bubbles about to burst. Their bodies so thin that they fade into marsh-gas at the edges. Translucent, friendly, inquisitive and bright. The sprites gather to him in silence and he feels his anxieties lift. Gabriel-who-listens spreads himself thin over the silence. No bigger than kittens, the sprites speak to him of inarticulate calm.
Bubbles drift away from him one at a time: the clamour of the school, where an overwrought teacher is bullied by forty devilish children into lashing out cruelly. This bubble drifts high and bursts and is in Gabriel no longer. The danger of the journey home, when he clutches his few meagre things – his bag of tattered notebooks and sweat-stiff gym shorts – tightly to him as he runs headlong down the alleys which are the quickest and quietest way home. Detouring only to avoid the worst blocks, where it is not his possessions that the old boys with cold voices might accost him for. This bubble drifts high and bursts. The fraught air of home, where he dreads that he will see anyone before he can get out to the swamp. Up; burst; gone. The sprites are silent music which slow Gabriel’s breathing.
He laughs aloud softly and the sprites are startled. They flicker away in fright, then move cautiously back to him. He extends his thin arm to the boldest sprite. It snuffs his fingertips; pauses; snuffs again and moves closer. It winds snakey around his forearm and nestles in the crook of his elbow. It blinks the slow transparent membranes which cover its bulbous eyes. Its companions follow and they coat Gabriel again. Gabriel-who-listens. Gabriel-calm.
Gabriel who has one bubble left, one bubble huge and red and scarred with guilt and reluctance. This bubble cannot rise so easily away from him because it must take some of him with it. This bubble is skinclad. It is deeply enmeshed in his heart and his gut. The sprites are balm on his skin and they begin to coax it out. It rises from his heart. It passes into his mind. The sprites whisper encouragement and Gabriel lets it. He allows himself to remember.
Around the hollow, the day hangs between afternoon and dusk. Stars begin to glimmer between the lengthwise fingers of cloud. The sun is somewhere gone, behind the trees and beyond the swamp. Oils in the air are heady; some foul, some sweet. Around the hollow, there are rustlings in branches as birds return to root. There are burblings as cooling mud releases pockets of warm gas. Indigo infects the sky.
And Gabriel remembers.
Remembers why he flees. It is not just his oldest brother’s quick scorn hey runt get me a beer from the fridge. I said get me a beer, Jesus, get a move on willya? Hey, runt, duck! and it is not just his mother’s slow exasperation Gabriel I swear to god I don’t have time for did you do your homework? Baby I can’t help you with it I’m trying to keep a roof over and it is not just his oldest brother’s friends who come by and say things to make him blush awkward and sweaty and then they laugh and he wants to be anywhere else or five years older, either one.
It is Dani, his other-older brother. The middle son.
It is Dani sitting wide-legged and salivating in the corner of his room, from which the TV and the stereo have disappeared. Dani beckoning Gabriel in saying come in, come in little bro, we’ve always been friends, haven’t I always been your best friend? And Gabriel too scared to say no. No, never. Dani saying just take this, I just need you to take this to a guy, it’s not far. You’re fast little bro, it’ll take you no time. Dani saying you get money, hey bro, for lunch yeah? Hey you don’t need that money right bro, you don’t mind lending, I’ll pay you back double. Dani furious the one time Gabriel asked where his trainers – his white ones, only second-hand – had gone. Dani spitting: don’t you fucking talk back to me you little…Dani apologetic the next day: I won’t, I’ll never again, bro, I didn’t mean to hit you like. Hey try this bro, come here and try this.
The swelling in Gabriel’s head. The cloying sweet need to neveragain notknow it.
The swelling now, of the bubble. Through his gut it must go before he can release it; through his gut it rises. Through his heart it must go, through his mind and away. Before he can find himself at nought.
The sprites coax him onwards like new fathers at birthside. Push and come on and it’s nearly there.
Dani catching him on his way home from school the next day, and the next. Hey bro you liked it the last time didn’t hey you know I can get you some more if you, hey, you, if you, hey I need you to take this to a guy, and then you can
Through his gut it rises and it
Learning to dodge Dani but not wanting to, learning to get out of the house as soon as he’s home but not wanting to, sometimes giving in and letting Dani bribe him but not
Learning to dodge Dani as Dani gets angrier, feeling more like a tool every
Through his gut, up, up into his mind the bubble, and it
“Jesus, bro, the fuck are those!?”
The words so solid and aloud clang into the hollow. The sprites flicker and fluster and are gone. Dani stands at the lip of the clearing.
“It’s midnight, bro. Ma sent me out to …hey, bro, while I’m here I …the fuck were those things?” Dani eyes dart nervously, chasing sprites.
Gabriel smiles a thin smile and his voice comes out thin too. It sounds like Dani’s.
“Come down here, D, I’ll show ya. You’ll like it, it’s real good. I’ll show ya.”
Gabriel walks back to the house in his white number 30 basketball shirt. He seems to walk a little taller, or maybe it’s just that he isn’t looking out to see who might spot him, any more.
The sprites have been sated and are back in their burrows. The sun is long-gone and the swamp is a riot of beetles. Gabriel’s last bubble has passed through his mind, and up and up, and burst. Gabriel-who-needs-the-sprites-no-more.
Gabriel-who-takes-control, Gabriel-cruel, finds himself at nought. simple and stable, at nought. And nought is a little higher than before.