Fiction / JD Scott
:: Their Sons Return Home to Die ::
A tableau vivant: the sky like toy stuffing, polyester dyed sea foam, like goose down, like loose down, and when the plush clouds open, their sons descend down. Their sons come with wings too small for their bodies. The wings are costume, but also attached to their skeletons. The bones are part of their bodies. The wings are real too.
The families do not look at the theatrical sky when the sons return from the place they went—the place that is here—the place we look down from with our inversed telescopes pointed toward the earth. The families looked the other way when the sons first adorned themselves with wings and ascended.
Two thoughts occur simultaneously:
1) The wings were always there.
2) For a while, there were no sons across the earth.
Like a political cartoon our cumuli are solid sidewalks we walk through. One thousand meters above them—this is where we live now. Avenues we cross in long white robes jutting out at our ankles, a gilded sash around our waists matching the halo that hovers above our heads. The halo as a piece of copper attached by wire. It is an ensemble, but it is also sincere. If we look familiar, chock it up to coincidence.
Their sons are dying. The sons did not choose to die like they did not choose us, like we did not choose each other, although we did: a dummy blood, a counterfeit family. The sons return to their first families, the ones who inhabit the earth. The sons believe in a responsibility. The sons believe they need to go earthbound for their deaths to have meaning. We are the families of the sky. We are the ones who come second.
If the families looked, just for a moment—up—they would see scintillation in the darkness, the ultraviolet outline of blacklights. Glow, glow, fog rolling out of fog machines. A discothèque that rivals the sun with its glimmering void. Drops of beer leak from our impossible province in the sky. They could even be mistaken for rain. Their sons descend on a welkin beam. They return to the place the families inhabit, a clay and muddy place where the only gaze is inward. A place of gravel.
They are sons because they had parents, not because they are young, although some still are. Some have boyish features. Some could even be described as cherubic—the round curvature of the face. We are one Cupid after another: is this is how you want to imagine us?
The sons have returned because: pathology. Because: experience. Because suffering. The families do not have wings, never had wings, do not want to gaze upon the careful fan of feathers, two from each shoulder because the body was created in symmetry, the body was created perfect, although it’s not.
The families live in a variety of small towns. Some have one gas station that serves as a general store, sells fried chicken: and that’s it. There’ll be a post office, maybe a Walmart, but everything else is tree, tree, lake, tree, tree, lake, beating forth across the landscape in a careful rhythm. It is a familiar country, refusing its own diminuitiveness.
Each house holds an oldness to it: the faux-wood paneling shooting up and down like a heavenly beam. Linoleum flooring, formica counters. The sons have returned home to die. Their parents call them Michael, call them Gabriel, call them Raphael, but those are not their names. The longer the sons stay, the more the lights dim, the more the houses shift into something funerary. Not funerary. An actual funeral home.
Notice the word: home, as if a funeral home were a permanent dwelling, as if it were a proper place to do anything but yearn. The families wake up one day and their houses are longer, corridors that go to dead ends with red velvet curtains swooping inward. Urns appear, waiting to be filled. Tall bookcases disappear. The books remain at awkward corners until they do not. Glass figurines and paintings, too, go. The house is becoming elemental, becoming a vacated stomach, becoming a place between the past and a future notable for its casualty. A simple carpet, flecked, equally red, replaces all the shag. There are uncomfortable couches and fake flowers in vases. From somewhere unseen, a church organ plays.
Their sons have good days and bad days. Their rooms have not changed since they first ascended. The rooms stayed the same, dripped in a molasses of age eighteen—younger. The worn-out football poster, the supermodel tear sheet, the concert tickets attached to the headboard of the bed with thumbtacks pushed deep. Their sons return to a mental space they once inhabited. It is a young space, a teenage space of anything. The thin wisp of hope moving across the horizon. The ingenuity of desire, of looking at a mirror so close that the enlarged eye is all that can be seen. Under the sheets they dreamed of a thing. Imagine two doves folded into a shoebox together, the four wings frantically beating into each other. It would be like this.
Their sons tie their wings with childhood shoelaces, with package string; they slip them inside of their bleached robes and sit at the kitchen table, laughing. The families laugh too. It could be like before. They could love each other. They could be the same. They could time travel to when everything was simple. The families serve pancakes as tall as a torso. It’s comedic, the giant cube of butter, the way all that syrup slides down. Get it? The food is life, the food is symbol, the food is continuation, but the sons can’t keep it down all the same. Corn syrup and corn starch and the starched sleeves of the robe refusing to fold. There’s the body getting weak, throwing up an ooze over itself. The discharge. The vomit leaking down the chin. Couldn’t the sons make it to the bathroom first? But they are so weak. . . .
Everything stinks with a pock of nursing home, with a pock of things-to-come. There are facades of stained glass windows in the long hallways, LED lights behind them pretending to be sun. No one asks where they came from. They feature saints that no one can name.
The sons feel good and go for a bike ride. The sons feel good and go to Wednesday service with their families and read black books in small rooms that also have wood paneling, that also feel ancient, feel funerary, feel small.
Their sons feel good and miss us, and we miss their sons.
Up here we gallop and we mourn, we turn the knob of the music up and ugly-cry in the bathrooms of the vault of heaven. We make cocktails called Obituaries—two parts gin, a quarter absinthe, a quarter vermouth—dry—we dry our wet faces on our sleeves and guffaw through our morbidity and dream of descending to the other small towns where we are not their sons, but we knew their sons, we are their sons, we love their sons with a complicated blood.
Their sons get better and worse, better and worse and worse and worse. Pews appear in the garage. The sedan parked in the driveway becomes plumper, longer, taller, resembling a hearse. The sons walk through fields of mayapple, ragweed, heal-all, goldenseal, cat’s ears, bluets, bellwort, bloodroot, trillium, liverleaf, blazing star, verbena, snakeroot, Queen Anne’s lace. We play our trumpets, we hark, we send a tiny song through the breeze that reverbs on all the wildflower petals. It is overwrought, but we are overwrought with this sad devotion that throbs through us.
The sons feel good, for a moment, and then: the bed. Death not a noun, but a verb stretching out. Although certain. Their sons are blue-black, are a yellow-white, are a pink and a red and a green and the opalescent refract of a seashell. Their sons, no matter the color, pale. The familiar sight of cheekbones sinking.
The bound wings flake as aged doilies. They yellow. They rot. Still, they are beautiful to the eyes of us who watch from the empyrean.
The families decide. They sit at the edge of the deathbed with garden shears. They trim. Like a plastic Christmas tree disassembled. Like a hobby, a craft. The blood is not one color. It is dark and thick and leaks like ancient simple syrup. There are horseflies caught in the sweetness. Gnats. They stink and buzz and flap their tiny wings as they fall out of the bonetubes which once were the sons’ wings. Wings inside wings inside. . . .
The bone at the base of the shoulder blades is too hard. It can’t be trimmed. It looks fake. It looks like someone attached PVC pipe to skin with Sculpey, applied SFX makeup for the blend between avian and human. Although, can the hollow bones of birds ever look real on the anthropoid?
Most of the parents cannot gaze at their sons anymore. Most of the parents cannot stand to watch them die like this. But didn’t they deserve it? Didn’t they tell them not to go? Even if words like retribution and discipline cross the minds, no one wants to see a son suffer, not fully.
One of the parents puts an ear up to the bonehole. They expect to hear an ocean. They hear panting. They hear a scream. The son lays quietly, as skeletal as the bone that protrudes. Essential. Reduced to anatomy without meat. There is no strength in the body, but in the noise that comes from inside the son there is a terrible life. It is a voice that is echoed, distorted in a strange way from within. It is louder and bigger than a body. There are snare drums and moans and laughter. It is the laughter of the son, it is certainly his voice, but it is not a laughter the parent has ever heard. It sounds like joy.
The parent puts a parent eye up against the keyhole of the son. Something ichorous is leaking. Something gilded and fluid and almost possessing a scream or song of its own, even as a liquid. It sticks to the face, the parent face is screaming, but still the eye pushes up flush and gazes into the son as if he was a View-Master toy:
It is a blur of arms. It is robes and lipstick and dollar bills. It is a choir, a chandelier, a leather sofa where we throne ourselves. The parent looks through a reel, through a glorious portal in the son’s body and sees us looking back. Through the disease they don’t even have a name for they see us, not as they think we are, but as we actually are. For one fragmentation our eyes meet in the dark room of the son’s body. Then, the room: obscura, closed, empty, unlit, rayless, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.
Wherever the sons depart to, it is not here. The fake flowers are replaced with real flowers. The parents get their sons’ favorite flowers wrong, but we are not there to correct. If, only for a moment, we close up the sky. For once, for the burial, for the open casket, we do not look down. We do not want to see what we knew already. We do not want to see this unfamiliar thing that serves their parents, but not us. We do not look down at the corpses of their wingless sons.
We say their sons, but they were our sons too. They were our brothers and our brothers and our brothers and we had to pretend to be fathers and we had to pretend to be other-sons and we had to hold each other in this place where we created a new people, a new household, a new home. Yes, a home, some idea of permanence. Some idea of inhabiting that cloudy firmament we reside in until we too may have to return home to die. We fear this death that went through them and took them from this place that is here. They were our lovers and our lovers and our lovers and we would turn our backs to salvation in a second to love them again.
We will open up the clouds again. We will hold this impossible ground in the sky until their parents come out in the field and stare up. We will meet their scrutiny without our sons in the middle. We will connect somewhere between earth and air. They will acknowledge, and we will nod from the edge of our sky-stage, but we will not descend. We will look down long enough, if only for the angle of our haloes to catch sun. In the flat copper: a tiny refraction of light that looks like the faces of all those who left. The molecules of our sons inside the ashes scattered at sea, their atoms decomposing in wooden boats beneath the earth. We will let the reflection of that star beam down hotly. How fast light moves through the air! If only to blind them for a second. If only so we can be petty, if only so we can not forget. That deciding glare, descending, determining, the harsh light coming down to nick each parent in the eye and remind.
From the writer
:: Account ::
One of the word-of-mouth narratives I encountered frequently after moving to Alabama was the story of the sons who returned home to die. There is something seemingly site-specific about the young gay men who could not find acceptance in their small Southern towns, so they moved away to bigger, urban areas—many up North. They replaced their families of origin—who rejected them—with their families of choice. When the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s, many of these men ultimately decided to return to their places of birth to die. As the stories go, many of these men were rejected by their original families upon returning home. Ruth Coker Burks, known as the cemetery angel, took care of hundreds of gay men who were dying in and around Hot Springs, Arkansas. She buried dozens of them (in a cemetery plot she inherited) with her own two hands after their families refused to claim their bodies. Pride events are still very new to where I live in Tuscaloosa. Last year, we stood in a plaza and various members of our community came forward to speak. One woman, an older woman who could barely stand, was the one who said we Tuscaloosans were the ones who had to watch our men return home to die. Her refutation—the mournful, bitter fire in her throat when she spoke—this is what stuck with me, giving me the punitive voice to create a chorus of winged beings.
The South is both imaginary and real. Its borders are in flux. Its people are not the same. I have no interest in taking easy pot-shots at a place like Alabama, a place like the South, because these are not the only places guilty of rejecting loved ones, of thriving via religious zealotry, of denying queer people their humanity. Yet, still, the story of those who returned home to die is embedded into this geography. It’s here. It’s in the land like the bodies Ruth Coker Burks buried. I’ve always had a fondness for angels, finding them strangely transgressive, both in their androgynous features and in their homoerotic iconography. In my process, it made sense for me to feel out these images of angels, cemeteries, funeral homes, homeish homes, religious iconography, the AIDS crisis, afterlives. . . It all made sense to load up the strands and weave some fabulist retelling of this story that is ingrained in this place I currently dwell in.
In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando—my home turf, my first adolescence—the way I represented heaven as a kind of nightclub takes on another level of meaning. While I originally wrote this to be a fantastic reimagination of the AIDS crisis, I now hope the story of the men who left the earth for heaven, only to return to that same terrestrial world to die—I hope the icon of the angels can do more work—speak to the sadnesses and rages that continue to rise out of our guts.
JD Scott is the author of two chapbooks: FUNERALS & THRONES (Birds of Lace Press, 2013) and Night Errands (YellowJacket Press, 2012). Recent and forthcoming publications include Best American Experimental Writing, Salt Hill, The Pinch, The Atlas Review, Apogee, Winter Tangerine, and Tammy.