blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




The whole family, it seems, is sad, or irritated. The bubbling anticipation of beginning a new life in Canada has somehow gone flat. Mum now cries at the slightest thing—the mention of a feast day for which she'll be absent, the sight of pickers moving through the rows of tea bushes—or sometimes for no reason at all. Aunty Mary and Aunty Beryl follow Mum's cues, erupting in supportive tears quickly and heartily. Cousin Roger, the closest of Beryl's brood to Rudy's age, is sullen and bossy. Susie creeps about like a frightened animal, staying out of everyone's way, doing as she's told, consoling Mum when necessary. Even Grandpa, proud host and monarch of the tea estate, seems small and uncertain. Dad is behaving strangest of all—one minute playful and boisterous, rounding up the troops for a game of cricket on the lawn, then, next, wandering silently into the tea fields, not answering when Mum calls.

Sitting cross-legged on the cool floor of Grandpa's verandah, Rudy scratches mosquito bites and observes an army of small red ants transporting the corpse of a cockroach across the polished cement. The collective strength and cooperation of the ants is astonishing—comparable to, say, a dozen or so men carrying Grandpa's bungalow down the long drive without any machinery to assist them. Rudy has been watching the ants long enough that he has a certain sympathy for their cause. Each time Appu, his grandfather's cook, passes by with a fresh pot of tea or a plate of biscuits for the adults on the lawn, Rudy shelters the ants with his hands. On one of his return trips, Appu hitches up his sarong and threatens to crush the ants under his bony foot. His wide grin suggests he has no intention of actually harming the creatures—still, memories of Appu flattening huge, hairy spiders with the palm of his hand tell Rudy that he should be wary of the old man.

Out on the lawn, next to the murunga tree, the adults are seated in white cane chairs, drinking their afternoon tea. Mum and Dad, Grandpa, Aunty Mary and Uncle Eugene, Aunty Beryl and Uncle Fred are there—the usual gathering. And yet, nothing at all is usual. Over the course of the weekend, the once-ordinary events of a visit to Grandpa's tea estate have been given special titles, each of them beginning with "The Last." The Last Tour of the Factory. The Last Milk Rice Breakfast. The Last Trip to the Nuwara-Eliya Market. And now, a cloud of stifling sadness hangs over The Last Afternoon Tea on the Lawn. Next week, there will be a last Christmas at Aunty Mary and Uncle Eugene's house in Wattala, and by New Year's Day, the Van Twest family will be carving a new life from the ice and snow of Canada. For a long time, the excitement of this new life was all anyone seemed to talk about. But in these final days, the word "Canada" has taken on a new, taboo meaning, like Uncle Eugene's illness. Something that shouldn't be talked about.

In contrast to the gloomy gathering on the lawn, the day itself is bright and airy, a welcome change from Colombo's heat. Mum has brought along her fancy turquoise sari, to wear one last time (since Canada will be too cold for saris, Rudy assumes). She's wearing it now, its gold embroidery gleaming in the afternoon sun. Dad says she looks like she's off to a bloody Kandyan wedding, but Rudy thinks she looks beautiful.

As his ants disappear into a crevice between the verandah floor and the white plaster wall, he breathes a sigh of relief, then one of boredom. There's nothing to do. Susie has disappeared somewhere; Roger is begging his mother for one more piece of cake; the girl cousins are having a pretend tea party of their own on the other side of the lawn. For the first time ever, Rudy finds himself wishing for a cousin or a brother his own age to play with—or even a younger one he could boss around, the way Roger does. His parents have told him he'll make new friends at school in Canada—a thought that right now makes him wish he were there already.

For a change of scene, he goes into the bungalow. It's quiet and dark inside, and it takes a while for his eyes to adjust. When they do, he goes to the sitting room, where Susie can sometimes be found giving the elephant figurines a ride on the turntable of the antique gramophone. But Susie isn't there. He's a little disappointed, as he'd hoped she'd go with him to Grandpa's study to look at the crocodile lamp. But, thinking it over, Rudy decides that a six-year-old who will soon be going to school in Canada doesn't need his sister's protection to look at a dead crocodile.

He heads down the hallway to Grandpa's study, his bare feet making sticking sounds on the wooden floor. Past the dining room, he reaches the study door and pushes it open. The room is dusty and old-fashioned, but bright. Its white walls are ribbed with slats of sunlight from the window's louvered shutters. As his eyes readjust, Rudy scans his grandfather's things—the tall shelves crammed with leather-bound books, the framed certificates and photographs, the brass ashtray stand, and the mounds of documents on the massive teak desk. Finally, he zeroes in on the lamp.

The crocodile lamp is Grandpa's prize possession—"a taxidermic abomination" Dad calls it, impressively. Grandpa hunted the beast himself, in India. "Shot it from a distance of twenty yards, right into the creature's open mouth," he often boasts. Dad snorts whenever the story is told, as if he doesn't quite believe it, but the existence of the frightful lamp is proof enough for Rudy. It stands next to the white fireplace, seemingly balanced on the curve of its tail, though a pair of metal supports drilled into the hind legs provides the real stability. At night, when the lamp is on, the animal's ivory belly reflects the soft glow of the electric lightbulb that has somehow been rigged to its head under a small shade of army-style khaki. Stunted forearms and chipped claws are frozen in a perpetual snatch, while the mouth is fixed in a toothy grimace. The eyes are glass and disappointingly artificial. Since his very first encounter with the lamp, Rudy has been afraid of it, and, because of that, he loves it.

But, standing before it now, he feels his family's cloud of sadness descend on him. It is The Last Meeting With The Crocodile. He isn't even particularly afraid, which only heightens the sadness. He touches the creature's shoulder and watches it teeter back and forth, from one support to the other, more lamp than crocodile. He steps back, tries to be afraid. But it's useless. His eyes wander.

On the wall above the lamp is a framed black and white photograph of two young men. They're standing against a brick wall over which a bell is suspended. One of them—too dark to be a Burgher—looks as stiff and lifeless as the crocodile lamp. He's dressed in a plaid sarong and a long-sleeved dress shirt. His hair is parted in a straight line, and his serious mouth stretches straight across his face. The other fellow, in trousers and a polo shirt, seems to be part of a different photograph altogether. He's leaning away from the serious boy, not even looking at the camera. His eyes are fixed on something, or someone, off to his left, and he's laughing. His arms are folded across his chest, though the right arm is lifted slightly. Rudy wonders—cleverly he thinks—if he was about to brush away the hair falling across his forehead when the photo was taken.

Absorbed in the picture, in questions about the young men, and the bell, Rudy fails to notice his grandfather towering in the doorway of the study, smoking his pipe. Never having been granted official permission to enter the room, he's unsure what to say when Grandpa asks him what he's doing. Fortunately, he doesn't seem angry. He comes to stand next to Rudy, and together they stare at the photograph in a silence broken only by the sounds of Grandpa's thin, brown lips pressing together then pulling apart around the stem of his pipe. Old-man smells of tobacco and shoe polish fill Rudy's nostrils. The silence drums his ears.

When he can bear it no longer, he turns and says, "Who are those two people, Grandpa?"

His grandfather extends a long index finger toward the photograph and points to the fellow in the sarong.

"This chap is the best tea taster I've ever encountered."

Rudy stands on tiptoe and cranes his neck.

"Does he still work here?"

Grandpa lowers his hand and rests it on Rudy's shoulder. It feels too warm and heavy, but Rudy knows better than to pull away.

"No, Son. He left a long time ago. Long before I became P.D." He pauses. "This was back when I was Tea Maker, in charge of the factory."

Grandpa's pacing suggests there's a story coming, and Rudy wishes he could sit down. Grandpa's stories are sometimes dull, often confusing, and always slow. The best place to hear them is out on the lawn, in the shade of the murunga tree, where at least there are insects to watch and grass to pull. Resigning himself to further boredom, Rudy fixes his eyes on the tea taster in the photo while Grandpa continues.

"The tasters played a crucial role. Amitha Jayasuriya here was my best taster."

"What happened to him?" Rudy says.

The hand on his shoulder lifts and Rudy steps aside. Grandpa exhales audibly.

"I had to let him go. It irked me to do it, but I had no choice. He might have gone to another estate." Sounds of laughter—children's—tumble through the shutters, beckoning, but Grandpa carries on. "The planting life has lost the discipline it once had, Rudy. Mental and physical discipline, like in the army. That's what it takes to make things run—factory, estate, country. When Jayasuriya left, things were already starting to fall apart. Even first-class chaps like him fell victim to the lack of discipline, the moral degeneration." Grandpa emits a gravelly sound not unlike a sigh.

In Rudy's head, unanswered questions about the photograph battle his urge to go outside and play. To his own surprise, curiosity triumphs.

"Who's the other man, Grandpa?"

"That's Ernie. He would have been seventeen or eighteen at that time. His first climb up Adam's Peak. Amitha's too, I imagine."

Rudy wants to ask who Ernie is, but Grandpa has turned to his desk where he's rummaging under papers, saying "I've got something here I want to read to you." The book he promptly locates is fat, with a plain black cover. Edging toward the window, Rudy cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of bails and stumps being set up on the lawn.

"Are there mountains in the part of Canada you're going to?" Grandpa asks, leaning against his desk, flipping pages. His pipe lies on the green blotter, smoldering.

Of Canada, Rudy knows only that it will be cold. He shrugs. Wriggles his toes in imaginary grass.

"Well," Grandpa continues, "if there are any mountains, I can assure you they wouldn't match up to that peak in the photograph for splendour and significance." His palm slaps the open book. "Here it is. Come, Rudy. Sit here in the chair. I'm going to read you what I wrote the day after that photograph was taken. It might be a very long time before you have the opportunity to climb Adam's Peak for yourself, so listen closely. This is part of your history."

While his sister and cousins begin their cricket match, Rudy slips behind the desk and boosts himself into the padded leather seat. Grandpa stands next to the window, his oiled hair catching the sunlight. He runs the heel of his hand down the center of the book then coughs into his fist.

"'Seventh of February, nineteen forty-four,'" he begins. "'Yesterday took Ernie on the annual pilgrimage to the summit of Adam's Peak. Alec peeved, but still too young to withstand the ordeal, I feel.'"

Rudy giggles at the mention of his father's name. Grandpa looks up, makes a sound as close to a chuckle as is possible for a man such as he, then carries on reading.

"'Jayasuriya inquired if he might join us. The chap seemed eager for, and certainly deserving of, a brief holiday. Not to mention his own Buddhist reasons for making the pilgrimage, which I was certainly willing to oblige, under the circumstances. Left early in the day, to be at the base for midnight, the summit by sunrise. The usual mob of devotees made progress slow, but we reached the final steep ascent in good time. Expected complaints from Ernie, but the boy surprised me and proved himself up to the challenge. Up top he and Amitha disappeared to ring the bell and look at Lord Buddha's footprint, while I went to my customary spot to witness the appearance of what I maintain to be the most spectacular vista in this entire country, perhaps the entire world.'"

Without his grandfather needing to elaborate, Rudy sees in his mind the spectacular view from the summit of the peak—sparkling rivers, flowers, waterfalls, all nestled in a rolling green landscape of tea fields, with a perfect rainbow arching overhead.

"'Moments before the sun lifted completely off of the horizon,'" Grandpa continues, "'I went to find Ernie. Wanted him to grasp that the true grandeur of Adam's Peak has nothing to do with the bloody footprint of Buddha or Shiva or whatever the hell that slab of rock up there is said to be. The greatness of the peak lies in our ability to conquer it, and, in so doing, to conquer our own weaknesses. The magnificent sunrise is the reward we earn for attaining that goal. This is what I wanted Ernie to understand, but didn't I find the bugger hidden away with Jayasuriya—'" Grandpa stops reading and coughs into his fist. "Yes, well, you get the idea, Son. To climb Adam's Peak is to fight your own demons."

He closes the book. Rudy imagines a mountain overrun by armies of Buddhists and Hindus doing battle with fearsome demons. Leading this battalion of the Good is his grandfather, silver hair shining in the rising sun. His eyes wander back to the photograph on the wall.

"Do you ring the bell when you win the fight?" he asks.

Again Grandpa makes a chuckling sound. "I don't know if the average Sinhalese chap would agree with you, but yes . . . yes. That's one way of looking at it."

The old man places his book on the desk and lets his fingers rest on the cover several seconds before reaching for his pipe.

"Why is it called Adam's Peak?" Rudy says. "Who's Adam?"

Grandpa taps the bowl of his pipe into his cupped palm, then deposits the powdery mound into the marble receptacle of the ashtray stand.

"The Adam from the Bible, of course. The British named the peak after him."

And with those words, the conversation closes. Grandpa waves Rudy off the chair and out the study door, back into the long hallway. Following, he shuts the door with a decisive clunk. Appu is in the hallway, refastening his plaid sarong around his waist. As Grandpa strides past, he instructs his cook to wear a white sarong for dinner that evening. Appu nods, his bland obedience betraying not a hint of the trickster known to Rudy.

Out on the lawn the cricket game has dissolved into squabbles. In an uncharacteristic lenience, the adults are ignoring the ruckus. Dad has set his chair aside from the others and is gazing across the rolling landscape that surrounds Grandpa's property. The rows of tea bushes give a combed appearance to the hills and are vigorously green with health. Dad, in contrast, is looking pale and weary. Seeing Rudy, he summons the boy with a sideways tilt of his head. Rudy pulls a face but goes to his father, dragging the tops of his feet across the warm grass. He deposits himself next to the chair where he proceeds silently to scavenge dirt from between his toes. His father, he can tell, is drifting, much the same way his grandfather did after the diary reading.

After a dreary length of silence, Dad finally says, "You missed our big news earlier."

Rudy, only mildly curious, looks up. "What news? About Canada?" he says, risking the forbidden word. "I already know everything about that."

Dad smiles. "Well, it's going to happen in Canada."

Rudy surrenders his toes to the grass. "What is it?"

"You're going to have a new little brother or sister. At the beginning of August."

Rudy's eyes widen. Never before has anything he's wished for come to him as quickly as this. His heart races as he imagines himself leading his brother on expeditions through the Canadian snow.

"We'll be getting him in Canada?" he says.

Dad, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, fingertips pressed together to form an arch over his lap, frowns in thought. "The baby is growing inside your mother's stomach. The doctor will take it out in August. And don't forget, it might be a girl. Susie has her heart set on a little sister."

This, Rudy knows, will not happen.

"Can I choose his name?" he says, remembering that Susie, having named the pet dog that would have to stay behind with Aunty, was promised the same privilege for their future Canadian dog.

Dad rises slowly from the chair and presses his palms to his lower back, like an old man.

"And what name would you choose, Rudyard Alexander Van Twest?"


A telling smile curls one corner of Dad's mouth. "Adam," he repeats. "The first man. The first of our family to be born in the new country." He takes Rudy's head in his hands and tousles the boy's hair. "That's not a bad idea, Son. We'll see what your mother thinks of it."

Over by the murunga tree, Uncle Eugene is gathering everyone together for one Last Family Photograph. Rudy ducks away from his father's grasp and runs, brimming with excitement, to join the others.


The dulling humidity of the day reminds him vaguely of Ceylon, although his old home now seems to him like a dream. After the hardships of their first Canadian winter, Rudy thinks his mother should be enjoying the heat, but she isn't. Irritable and sluggish in the final stage of her pregnancy, she urges him to go outside and play with the group of children running through the sprinkler across the street, so she can get her housework done. Rudy, flopped over the back of the living room settee, glances out the window at the Frasers' front lawn. Mrs. Fraser has just set out the sprinkler for her own children and the few others who've joined them. The water surges up in a high fan, waving lazily back and forth as the children run, squealing and pushing, through the spray.

Mum abandons the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the living room and comes to the window, one hand pressed against her lower back, the other holding her belly like a sack of groceries. Her voice is distant, as if she is speaking to someone else altogether.

"Rudy, don't be shy. Go and play with the other children."

Rudy slides backward into the settee, its coarse red velvet rubbing his arms. "I don't want to. I want to stay with you. Dada said I have to take care of you while he's at work."

Mum smiles and sighs. "Go outside in our own yard, then. I'll be close, close. Too hot to be in here, no?"

The house is indeed stuffy and hot. There are no ceiling fans, like there were in the bungalow in Wattala. Dad says that people here have air conditioning for the summer but that he can't yet afford it. Wondering how long it will be before his family can afford things like air conditioning, Rudy takes his Tonka dump truck to the back yard, where he begins hauling dirt from one end of the flower bed to the other. Susie, coloring pictures on the patio, pays him no attention. In time the flower bed loses its appeal and he drifts around the house to the front yard, where he crawls between two shrubs underneath the living room window and sits cross-legged on the ground. Across the street the Fraser children and their friends take turns standing in the spray. Like a spy, Rudy watches them, his intimidation gradually dissolving in drops of sweat that trickle from his temples and forehead. The air even smells hot. When he can bear the temptation no longer, he goes inside for his swimsuit.

Mum is in the kitchen, talking to someone on the telephone. She is sitting at the table with one forearm across her enormous stomach. Rudy tugs at her dress.

"Mum, I want my bathers. Where are they?"

Mum ignores him. Her conversation consists of meaningless grunts which, thankfully, culminate in an abrupt hanging up of the phone. Rudy tugs again.

"Mum! Can I have my bathers?"

Still she doesn't answer. She is breathing heavily, strangely, and the distracted look in her eyes tells Rudy that his question is not important. Frustration bubbles inside him. He hops sideways to position himself directly in front of his mother, and his bare foot lands in something wet. He looks down and sees small puddles trailing across the linoleum floor from the oven to the chair in which Mum is sitting. A few streams are running down her legs. Embarrassed on her behalf, Rudy backs silently away from the table. He assumes that as a result of Mum's tiredness from the baby, she has failed to reach the toilet in time. He turns to go look for his bathing shorts by himself, a new concern building in him that if he doesn't hurry, he'll miss his opportunity to run through the Frasers' sprinkler.

But Mum stops him. "Rudy," she says, close to a whisper, "go get your sister. It's time for both of you to go to the Pereiras."

Rudy's heart startles like a poked grasshopper. Going to stay with the Pereiras, Mum and Dad's only Burgher friends in Montreal, can mean only one thing. Sprinkler forgotten, he bounds back across the kitchen linoleum.

"My little brother is coming!"

In her strained condition, Mum doesn't bother reminding him, yet again, that the baby might be a girl. She struggles to stand, waving Rudy out the back door to get his sister. Susie receives the news with a spark of excitement, which she hastily stifles before steering her brother back into the house like a benevolent but practical schoolteacher.

An anxious half hour is spent preparing for the departure and waiting for Dad. Twice during the commotion of putting on shoes and combing hair, Mum is forced to sit down. Her strange breathing and grimace of pain cause Rudy and his sister to eye each other nervously, but on each occasion, Mum recovers and returns to the double-checking of everyone's suitcase, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. When Dad arrives, strangely breathless himself, Mum has changed her dress, put away the vacuum cleaner and lined the three small suitcases up at the front door. Dad makes a hurried inspection of the kitchen and the living room, as if the family were going away on a holiday, then shoos Rudy and Susie out of the house in order to help Mum down the stairs from the door to the driveway.

His parents make an odd team, Rudy thinks, watching them from the lawn—Dad so thin and agile, Mum round and sturdy as the lady on the bottle of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. The two of them move very slowly, more as a result of trying to navigate the stairs together than of Mum's pains. As she descends, Mum calls out to the family in general not to forget the suitcases. Seizing this opportunity to be useful, Rudy returns to the front door by hoisting himself up the side of the cement verandah and squeezing between the wrought iron railing supports. The cement grazes his knees, but he doesn't bother checking the damage. He tosses one suitcase over the railing to his sister then drops his own and his mother's onto the grass. On his return, feeling especially heroic, he climbs over the railing and leaps to the lawn.

As he hauls the bags to the car, he looks across the street at the neighbors' children and, for a brief, regretful moment, pauses. The Pereiras live in an apartment and have no need for a sprinkler. Worse, they are old and boring. Turning back to the flurry of activity at the car, Rudy feels a pinch of annoyance toward his unborn brother for interrupting the flow of an otherwise calm, pleasant day.

By nine o'clock that evening Rudy has given up asking Mrs. Pereira how much longer it will be before the baby is born. He suspects it is past his bedtime and desperately wishes his pretend aunty would send him off to the cot in the den, releasing him from the old-people mustiness of the living room and the agony of Mr. Pereira's stories from the days of the British Army in Ceylon. But no one seems to be taking any notice of bedtimes. Rudy looks with envy at his sister, curled happily at the opposite end of the settee. Susie is able to read, a secret power that Rudy resolves to unlock as soon as he goes home. For now, he sips his sweet, lukewarm tea, imagining he is an expert taster, like the man who used to work on Grandpa's estate, and cheers himself with the hope that in spite of the five pairs of underpants packed in his suitcase, the going-home might happen as early as tomorrow.

Sometime after dark there is a phone call.

Rudy wakes up on the cot, not remembering how he came to be there. Someone has dressed him in his pajamas—light blue cotton trousers with a matching button-up shirt, purchased especially for staying with the Pereiras. Hearing his sister's voice, he goes out to the living room, where he squints against the brightness of the lamps. And something else. There is a feeling in the room that seems to have an existence all its own. It hovers in the air around Mr. and Mrs. Pereira. It isn't a happy feeling; but apart from that, Rudy can't say just what it is. Susie too seems confused. She is seated lengthwise on the settee in baby-doll pyjamas the color of daffodils, her lower half covered by a bedsheet.

"Did Mum have the baby?" she says, in a tone implying that the question has already been asked once.

Mrs. Pereira smiles, but the feeling around her distorts her expression such that the smile doesn't look right at all.

"Yes, Susie, your mama had a little boy. He's very—"

"Is his name Adam?" Rudy interrupts.

"We don't know his name, only that Dada said he's very healthy." Mrs. Pereira looks to her husband, holding his gaze even as she speaks to the children. "It's very late now, isn't it. Time for bed. We'll see your father tomorrow."

The conversation draws to a close, without celebratory remarks, or phone calls to Sri Lanka, or glasses of special drink for the adults—things that Rudy had been subconsciously expecting, though he now has to consider the possibility that the arrival of a new brother isn't such an important event after all. He returns to bed, vaguely anxious, and excited, but too tired to let either emotion take hold of him.

The next morning, during a milk rice breakfast cooked in honour of the new baby, Dad arrives. Rudy, a little reassured by Mrs. Pereira's cheerful, if somewhat awkward, behavior, falls victim to a sure and mighty worry at the sight of his father. Dad is barely recognizable. His clothes and hair are disheveled, his face the color of over-milked tea. He nods wordlessly to Mr. and Mrs. Pereira, whereupon the elderly couple leave their breakfasts and retreat to the bedroom, telling Dad to take as much time as he needs, not to worry about the children at all. At this, Rudy's heart begins to pound for fear of the mysterious dangers that he and his sister are clearly in.

Dad sits at the table between them, in front of Mr. Pereira's bowl of unfinished rice. He massages his forehead with the fingers of one hand, his elbow resting in the palm of the other hand. He inhales deeply, exhales loudly, then rests his palms on the table, on either side of the rice bowl.

"Your brother was born last night," he says. "He's strong and healthy."

Rudy stares into his own bowl, appetite gone. The visit to the Pereiras is unfolding like a bad dream, where monsters hide behind seemingly innocent faces and nothing makes sense.

"There were problems with the birth," Dad continues, his words barely afloat in his exhaustion.

Rudy looks up. "But you said the baby is okay."

Dad hesitates, turning first to Susie, then to Rudy. When he answers, it is as if he has jumped from a cliff, or a high diving board, hurtling straight-on, with no possibility of turning back.

"The problems were with Mum. She suffered terrible bleeding after the baby came out. The doctors weren't able to save her." Then, like a slap against a hard sheet of water: "Mum died last night."


For one week, Rudy and his sister stay with the Pereiras, in an other-world of awkward conversations and wordless exchanges. Susie reads aloud from their Winnie the Pooh collection, hours each day, the rhythm of her voice and the innocence of the story itself providing shelter from the awful feelings hovering about the Pereiras' living room. By the middle of the week, Rudy has begun to read passages of the story himself.

On the seventh day, Dad comes to the apartment with a small, wailing bundle, and Aunty Mary. The suitcases are repacked for going home. Rudy watches his aunt collect his grubby clothes from the floor, shake out his balled socks and strip the bedding from the foldaway cot—just like Mum would have done. He observes the fleeting but genuine smile on his father's face as Dad holds Adam in his arms, stroking the baby's cheek with his finger. Adam will make everything better, Dad says.

Mum is buried in her turquoise sari. The family drives home from the funeral in pelting rain—a furious monsoon, with rumbles and cracks of thunder, and lightning that shatters the green-tinged sky. Baby Adam screeches in Aunty's arms. Rudy stares out the car window, enthralled. As they pull into the driveway, he looks back over his shoulder, at the Frasers' lawn. There's no sign of the Fraser children, or their mother. The sprinkler scene of one week ago seems as far away as Grandpa's tea estate. Rudy opens the car door and steps into the rain. He stretches out his arms and spins slowly around. The whole street is being scoured and stripped, and nothing looks the same.


It's the lull after eleven o'clock mass, that Sunday-slow time when, church clothes shed, sins forgiven, the body feels lighter. Rudy takes his new library book, Robinson Crusoe, to the living room, where Susie has stretched the hallway telephone cord so that she and her best friend can both listen to the Beach Boys album playing on the record player. Rudy can't actually read with the music playing. The book is an excuse for him to sit near his sister, listening to the giggles and mysterious codes of her conversation. He sits sideways in the armchair, tapping his bare foot against the shoulder of the crocodile lamp, shipped over after Grandpa died, and the crocodile teeters back and forth to the beat of "Help Me Rhonda." In a mood of Sunday benevolence, Dad hasn't complained about the volume of the music. He is in his study, sipping arrack. Aunty Mary, still burdened by piles of dirty laundry, is wanting to make lunch, but Adam is in her way.

"Rudy!" she calls from the kitchen. "Come look after your brother."

Guessing from his aunt's tone that complaint would be useless, Rudy stifles a whine and goes to the kitchen, where he finds his brother kneeling on the floor, directing a G.I. Joe action figure up the oven door. He decides to take Adam outside. Being seven years older, he knows that outside air is healthier than the stuff in the house, which at the moment smells of vacuum cleaner bags and laundry room products.

"Come on, Adam," he commands. "We're going out."

Leaving his doll on the floor, Adam bounds ahead of Rudy, through the laundry room to the back door, like a puppy anticipating a walk. A puppy, in Rudy's opinion, would be better than a brother. At least he'd know what to do with a dog. Out in the backyard, however, the question of what to do with Adam leaves him baffled. Babysitting has always been Susie's department. She used to be good at it, until she became a teenager with more important things to do, and Adam loved all her games. But going through Susie's repertoire in his mind, Rudy scowls. He has little interest in playing school, or doctor, and the dress-up skits that Susie used to orchestrate with Mum's old saris or her own outgrown ballet costumes are out of the question. He scrutinizes his brother, a wide-eyed imp in yellow shorts and a Cookie Monster T-shirt, and gives up.

"Go play in your pool," he says, then dashes back to the living room for his book, praying Adam won't bawl.

He doesn't. Back on the patio, Rudy installs himself in a reclining plastic chair and opens his book while his brother carries a pail to the inflatable wading pool. Content to be a surveillance officer, he opens Robinson Crusoe to reread what he missed while listening to Susie's phone conversation. The shipwrecked man has built a fantastic shelter all by himself, but now he's just sitting around, thinking—boring things about God's providence. The book is harder than Rudy had anticipated when he signed it out. Put off by words like "iniquity" and "repine," he looks up often to watch his brother, eventually abandoning the reading altogether.

Out on the lawn, Adam has filled his pail with water from the pool and is walking lopsidedly toward the flower bed, spilling and splashing along the way. "Use the watering can if you wanna water them!" Rudy calls, but Adam ignores him. He sits down next to the stone retaining wall that borders the flower bed and begins scooping dirt into his pail, stirring the sloppy mixture with one hand. He digs far down, eventually burying his entire arm to collect the last handfuls. As he digs and stirs, globs of mud stain his yellow shorts. Rudy imagines the fuss Aunty Mary will make, but as he watches, his attention is drawn more to the contents of the plastic pail. When the temptation to feel the mud flow through his own fingers becomes overwhelming, he leaves his book on the chair and crosses the lawn. Crouching beside Adam, he immerses his hands in the pail. The mud is a thick, cool mixture of greyish clay and black soil.

"What are you gonna do with this?" Rudy says.

"Build something," his brother answers, matter-of-factly.

He's curious to know what Adam plans to build, but doesn't ask. While he wipes his hands on the grass then reaches for the aluminum watering can to wash up more thoroughly, Adam turns to the pile of flattish stones left over from the retaining wall and begins sorting them. Aunty Mary has been nagging Dad to get rid of the stones ever since he built the wall, on a whim, in early summer. But Dad's interest in anything to do with the flower bed seems to have dwindled, and the stones, as a result, have become playthings.

With an air of confidence and expertise that Rudy finds surprising, Adam selects seven or eight stones from the pile, weighing them in his hands, tracing the uneven textures and bands of color with his fingers. When his collection is complete, he squats next to it, pointy knees aimed skyward, and experiments with different structures, each one vaguely resembling the human-like figures built by Eskimos in the Arctic. Having learned about these at school, Rudy watches, fascinated. He'd like to join in, but the intensity of his brother's concentration makes him hold back. Finally, Adam settles on a design. He dismantles the model then sets to work fixing the stones in place with the gluey mud. He spreads it thickly on the surfaces to be cemented, occasionally massaging his forehead with his fingers. As he works, his face and hair and the Cookie Monster on his shirt disappear behind grey-brown splashes and smears. The sculpture, when finished, is as high as Adam's knees. It has a mysterious look, Rudy thinks—as if it were alive. A silent, solitary observer.

Adam backs away from his work, wearing a critical frown, then turns and skips across the lawn to the sandbox. Rudy returns to the chair on the patio, glancing up now and again from his book to admire the stone sculpture. Only when his father appears at the laundry room door to call the boys for lunch does he begin to worry about his brother's muddiness. As Adam jumps out of the sandbox, calling "Look, Dada! Look!" Rudy braces himself against the possibility of a scolding. But Dad, stepping barefoot onto the concrete patio, just laughs. Dressed in his weekend clothes—white shorts and a plaid, short-sleeved shirt—he looks unusually relaxed. His strong, spindly legs are tanned very dark; his calloused feet are inured to the baking hot patio.

"Look at you," he says, taking Adam's head in his hands like a supermarket melon, ruffling the mucky hair. "You've been playing in the mud, just like your dada used to do." With a wink in Rudy's direction, he adds, "I noticed your big brother was in on the fun, too. Good, good. I remember—"

He seems to be on the verge of telling a story, but Adam, squirming out of his father's grasp, interrupts. "Dada! Look! I built a Chinese warrior like the ones we saw on TV!" He bounces up and down like a Super ball, while Rudy squints at the stone sculpture, re-imagining it as one of the famous terra cotta soldiers dug up by archaeologists in China.

Dad looks in the direction Adam is pointing, but Rudy can tell his father isn't really paying attention. His eyes drift back to the little boy, studying him, examining him, in that curious manner he often has. It's a special kind of attention, never accorded to Susie, or, Rudy is certain, to himself. "Very good, Son. Very good," Dad says, then he steps back to assess the condition of Adam's clothes. "We'd better get you out of these things, or you'll have your aunty to answer to."

Dad tows Adam by the forearm into the shade of the patio umbrella, where he strips the boy down to his brand new, ready-for-kindergarten underpants. Further invigorated in his near-nakedness, Adam bounces into the house, while Dad shakes out the muddy shirt and shorts and drapes them over his arm with a long, contemplative "Hmmm." Rudy, detecting the signs of a nostalgic mood, folds the corner of his page and stands. A story from Dad's childhood on this flat, hot Sunday afternoon would be almost as tedious as Robinson Crusoe's worries about the future of his soul. But Dad approaches and places a firm hand on his shoulder, preventing escape. For several seconds he says nothing, while Rudy, feigning preoccupation, tries to hold his balance standing on the outside edges of his feet.

Eventually, Dad speaks. "I know your brother's young," he says, "but it pleases me when you spend time with him. He needs to spend more time doing boy things, if you know what I mean."

What Dad means is that Adam is a sissy, Rudy thinks. But he says nothing. It occurs to him that a story about life on the tea estate might have been better after all. As his father carries on, he rocks back on his heels.

"I was thinking that perhaps Adam could join you and the Heaney boys for baseball or street hockey one of these days."

The Heaneys are the only other boys in the neighborhood who go to Catholic school. They're stocky and foulmouthed, and they insist that only girls go to the public library for something to do.

"He's too little, Dad," Rudy protests, forsaking his balance. "Besides, he doesn't like those kinds of sports. He'd just get in the way."

Dad's shoulder grip tightens. "A brother is a valuable thing," he says. "Family bonds—that's what keeps the world from collapsing into utter chaos." His grip lets up a little. "Someday you'll wish you'd spent more time with Adam. He looks up to you, you know. You could be an excellent role model for him."

It's the sort of advice that can't be argued with. Still, ducking from his father's arm, Rudy says, "I should talk to your brother. He was way older than you. I bet he'd agree with me. Little brothers are a pain."

"My brother and I had very little to do with each other," Dad says, his tone peculiar—guilty almost. "That's why I'm telling you these things."

Frowning, Rudy tries to remember a story his grandfather once told him about Uncle Ernie—something about climbing a mountain. An important, beautiful mountain. But it's no use. The memory has slipped out of reach, if it was ever real to begin with.

Inside the house, Aunty Mary's voice rises, questioning Adam's state of undress in her tone of perpetual but mild exasperation. Lunch, Rudy guesses, will be late. He plants his feet in the patches of shade offered by a pair of potted azaleas, allowing the sun to continue warming the rest of him. Staring at Adam's sculpture, he says, "Where is your brother anyway? Why don't we ever see him?"

Dad goes to the patio table to collect Adam's muddy shoes. "He left home when he was eighteen. He and your grandfather had some . . . difficulties. We lost touch with him. But I imagine he's still in Ceylon ."

Pondering this, Rudy corrects his father absently. "Sri Lanka, Dad. They changed the name. Remember?"

Dad smiles. "Why do I need to remember? I have a son who knows everything. He's going to be a very wise teacher one day."

Rudy makes a face. "I'm going to be an archaeologist," he says, and Dad tousles his hair.

They go inside, where Rudy notices that the vacuum bag-laundry room smells have given way to Aunty's chicken. After lunch, in deference to his father's wishes, he suggests to Adam that the two of them go back outside to check on the warrior sculpture. Adam, dressed and clean, beams with an enthusiasm that Rudy finds both heartening and embarrassing. He watches as his brother slides down from his chair and bolts toward the back door, only to be intercepted by Aunty Mary's washcloth. Observing the struggle that takes Aunty and Adam from the kitchen sink to the laundry room in an exchange of physical and verbal tugs—"You didn't eat any Jello . . . Don't want any . . . Stand still; your face isn't clean yet . . . Yes it is . . . Do you need to use the toilet? . . . No . . . Put your shoes on"—Rudy is struck by a realization that thanks to his brother, he himself has been spared the worst of Aunty Mary's suffocating attentions. Of course, if it weren't for Adam, he then thinks, Mum would still be around. But this latter thought is confusing and frightening, and he pushes it away.

In the laundry room Adam slides his feet back into his muddy sneakers then slaps open the screen door. "Come on, Rudy!" he calls over the metallic squeal. "Hurry! Do you think it'll be dry yet?"

Rudy strides importantly to the laundry room and out the back door.

At the flower bed, Adam comes to an abrupt halt. "It's wrecked!" he cries. "It's all wrecked!"

Rudy crosses the lawn with deliberate calm, spikes of freshly mown grass pricking the soles of his feet. He reaches the sculpture and sees that two of Adam's stones, presumably the head and one of the arms, have toppled to the grass. Adam's face is a crumpled mess of tears and flecks of yellow gravy that escaped Aunty's wash cloth.

"It's wrecked," he repeats through his sobs.

Rudy crouches beside his brother, like a grownup would. He places a hand on Adam's quivering shoulder. "No it's not," he says. "We can fix this. Don't cry. We'll just mix up some more mud and stick these back on." Basking in his newfound maturity, he reaches for one of the displaced stones with further consolations of "No problem, men" and "This'll be a cinch," then he freezes as Adam kicks the warrior, first with one foot, then the other.

The remaining arm lands next to Rudy with a soft thud. He scowls, incredulous, as his brother moves in for another go. "Adam! What're you doing?! Stop that!" Still crouching, he lunges to protect what's left of the warrior, but a vigorous kick knocks him back. In the seconds it takes him to stand, his brother, sniffing and grunting, sends stones and dried mud flying across the grass. When nothing remains of his sculpture, Adam stops. His face, though still messy, is no longer distressed but, rather, nonchalant. Rudy, examining the debris before him, clenches his hands to keep them from smacking his brother.

"You idiot!" he squeaks. "We could have fixed it! It was good. You're not going to get it to look like that again. Why do you have to be such a baby?"

His big-brother maturity hopelessly deflated, he picks up a stone from the ground and fires it at the wooden fence. He expects more tears—theatrical wails that will bring Aunty Mary out to the boy's defense, maybe even Dad and Susie, too. But Adam says nothing. His eyes are downcast. Bending for another stone, Rudy glances at his brother and notices then the stream running down Adam's leg into his sneaker.

"Adam . . ." he groans.

The boy's expression, when he looks up, is one of surprise—a wide-eyed innocence suggesting he has no idea how this came to happen. Nevertheless, it seems to Rudy, in the heat of his frustration, that Adam has peed his pants deliberately.

Turning to the house, he calls out. "Aunty! Adam needs another pair of shorts!" Then he collects his book from the patio chair and goes inside.

Upstairs, from his bedroom window, he looks out at the backyard, at the ruins of his brother's sculpture. Adam's Peak, he suddenly remembers. The mountain his grandfather climbed with Uncle Ernie was Adam's Peak. A place where people go to conquer their weaknesses and prove their self-discipline. Rudy closes his eyes and concentrates, but he can't conjure up a picture of the magnificent peak, or of his grandfather, or his mysterious uncle. All the images of that long-ago world seem lost. He crosses the room and flops down on the bed with his book. In his mind he is Robinson Crusoe, alone on a flat desert island. He tries to read, but inexplicable tears blur his vision. He wipes them furiously with one hand, holding the book open with the other.  

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