Their Sons Return Home to Die

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.