Dark Brother

A story by J.D. Molloy

The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

It was shortly after Dark Brother bought the Sand Prince's pageant that he began to think about the Lady Dancer again. At this time, he had known her for almost twenty years.

Dark Brother had loved Dancer when they were students together. At least, he thought so, but Dancer didn't agree. "You are pretending to love me," she said. Dark Brother was very perplexed; his brow creased so that Dancer said she thought it would shatter. "I am not lying to you," he said.

"No," Dancer replied. "You believe what you say. But what you feel is not love; it is the desire to love."

From earliest childhood, Dark Brother knew he was destined to be a man of unusual intelligence and strength, and, when the situation required, ruthlessness. An oldest child, he resembled his compact, craggy father, a sand-binder known throughout the Kingdom as The Builder. The man himself had long since faded away, but lived on in folk memory as a near-mythological figure. Wherever Dark Brother went, people pointed out castles, halls and entire cities which they attributed to him, more than any one human could build in a lifetime. Dark Brother, who had researched the matter and knew exactly what his father had made, never corrected their errors.

Dark Brother had two siblings, a sister stolen by a passing band of shapeshifters in earliest infancy, and an indolent brother, the Sand Prince, who was a sand-binder like their father and made his residence on an Eastern beach. Alone of the family, Dark Brother had ascended from the family seat to the capital and moved in the highest circles of the Court. He had spent many years making his way, and of late had become the most trusted adviser of King Mog.

Dark Brother knew that every great talent is paid for with a fault, hidden in some people and blatant in others. He had kept his own flaw well-concealed from everyone but Dancer: he simply did not resonate on a certain human level at all. Others were color-blind; he was blind to human emotion. Dancer said he had no heart. Correspondingly, he became an eager and precise student of nuance: he knew, though he did not feel, all the shades of love, compassion, and regret. He took the best elements of everything he saw and assembled them into an image that he carried, the way others carry a locket in their purse: it was the secret portrait of the man he wanted to be. He had always been able to fool everyone, even his mother and father; he alone (and Dancer) knew that if he helped someone, it was not because he felt for them, but because he wanted to feel for them.

As the years passed, Dark Brother honed his performance, and said his lines ever better, so that most who knew him thought him at least an ordinary man, and in some respects extraordinary, when it came to friendship and benevolence. Since the most exacting critic for whom he performed was himself, Dark Brother carried out certain acts of charity anonymously. When they later came to light under surprising circumstances he could not have anticipated, earning him widespread respect, he was well satisfied.

At the university, he had proposed marriage to Dancer, but she had declined him. Nevertheless, Dancer was his friend, seeking him out if he did not look for her, always willing to spend time with him so long as he made no demands.

Dancer was tall and thin, with light brown hair and blue eyes. She was very gay and unreliable when young; once she did not show up when she was supposed to meet him at university, and he had poured down torrents of anger upon her which caused her to avoid him for many months. A hand-delivered note had arrived: "I may be a butterfly, but you are a bully." Later, she sought him out and they were friends once more. He was careful never to make the same mistake again.

Dark Brother worried about the greatest conundrum of a life he otherwise regarded as well-illuminated. "If I am as much of a fraud as Dancer says," he asked himself, "why haven't I given her up and sought out someone else who will be fooled by me?" He could think of three possible answers. It was possible that he was stubborn and vain and could not let go of a challenge; he had seen this in himself in other arenas of his life. The second possibility, and the one he preferred, was that he really loved Dancer, even if his emotions were vestigial and hard to detect. The third, and the one that frightened him most, was that his undying attachment to Dancer across the decades was his greatest performance.

Dancer ultimately married two other men and Dark Brother attended her three weddings (she married one man twice.) At the third wedding, Dancer eschewed all spectacle and Dark Brother was the sole witness. He brought a pocketful of rice and threw it over the bride and groom, feeling sad but pleased with himself. Whether his connection with Dancer was heartfelt or feigned, he had come to believe that it was an important accomplishment in his life, and one of the things of which he was proudest.

Dancer was a performance artist. She worked alone in her room before a huge mirror, practicing attitudes, effects, speeches, and dance movements which with fluid grace she wove into a tapestry. Once or twice a year, Dancer hired a hall, at school and then later in the capital, to present her latest to an uncomprehending world. Dancer's work was never popular; Dark Brother sometimes thought she fell squarely in the excluded middle between grace and explicitness, so that her work seemed to take place behind the curtain of her personality. Halfway through a performance, he would feel that he could dimly understand her, the same sensation he felt when he read a page of logic or philosophy.

Dancer never made a living from her work. When she was married, her husbands supported her; when she wasn't, she took private dance students. As the years passed, and he became richer, he came to respect Dancer greatly for her poverty. Dark Brother, who had been raised in a comfortable large house and had never been hungry, could not account for his own great avidity for money and material things. He had never seen any evidence that Dancer cared about either. She was an intelligent woman who could have made a living in business or law or by exploiting the intrigues at court. He had offered several times to set her up in commerce or to introduce her to influential people, but Dancer was never interested.

He thought that Dancer's judgment of men was terrible. She married buffoons who masqueraded as princes. Any man with a mysterious foreign accent, a bit of brocade and a sword-sheath could captivate her. (One of her husbands claimed to have pawned a sword. "Have you seen the receipt?" Dark Brother asked. "You are an animal," Dancer replied.)

Dark Brother made a study of other powerful men who had loved unattainable women over many years. He discovered that these men fell into two categories. Some finally attained the bodies of their loves through manipulation or threats. Others won their hearts through acts of courageous self-sacrifice. Dark Brother was not cruel enough to be interested in the former approach, and there was a scarcity of opportunity for the latter. He found a third way: he carved a terrible patience and kindness out of himself.

Dancer was never far from his thoughts except when he was concentrating on a deal. Later, he saw that their entire marriage, and the balance of Dancer's life, were bracketed by two transactions: the purchase of his brother's pageant and of the ice city for King Mog.

When he returned from the East with the Sand Prince's pageant, he found Dancer alone, divorced again, and suddenly curiously interested in his work. She had accompanied him to one of the many performances he had journeyed to the coast to watch, and the whole way back in the coach, Dancer had never stopped praising the unique and primitive scenes she had just witnessed.

Dancer had no project of her own at the moment--the last divorce had hit her very hard-- and she began turning up every day at the hall he had built to house the little automatons of flesh and sand which, prompted by a small electric charge, went forth to perform their pageant. In between, he kept them in a stone chest on blocks of ice. Dancer helped design and build the last portions of the hall and choose the furniture; she made costumes for the performers, and agonized that they could not be taught to vary the play. Sometimes Dark Brother caught Dancer looking at him in a new way. One time, when he challenged her, she merely said that she had not known he was so interested in art.

Dark Brother was a practical man, and he did not deceive himself that anything had really changed between himself and Dancer. He was the same man he had always been. Dancer alone had changed. She was losing her beauty, though he still found her very refreshing to look at, and she was alone. She had also stopped trusting herself where men were concerned. She had always chosen men with more fire to them than Dark Brother, but each time it had been false fire, and after each one she found herself more tired and lonely. Dark Brother would have been happier if Dancer had been practical and said to herself, "I will stop chasing ephemera and choose this solid man, my friend." But Dancer could not live without illusion; for an intelligent woman she deceived herself more than anyone he knew.

After performances of the pageant, he frequently walked her home. Of late she had acquired the habit of slipping her arm through his, so that they promenaded like an old married couple. One night, she turned to him at her door and said rapidly, "I've fallen in love with you at last," and then ran inside. He stood for a few moments, indecisive, thinking that she no longer knew him at all and had had a clearer idea of him at university. Now that he had what he wanted, he also found himself wondering for the first time whether he should take it. He asked himself whether he was loathe to accept her on terms of her self-deception, and realized that even if she were offering herself in complete honesty, he was no longer sure he wanted her. Horrified by evidence of a crack in his carefully constructed persona, he pounded as hard as he could on the oaken door. Dancer, who had been standing breathlessly inside, admitted him and they were married a week later in a small private ceremony attended by the King and a few courtiers.

In the initial phase of their marriage, Dark Brother, who had studied well, was just as romantic, affectionate and attentive as Dancer could desire.

During those same months, the pageant was beginning to decay as the little automata forgot their programmed roles. Then they started to die; each day more performers had stiffened in the ice chest into scraps of leather or decomposed into piles of sand. Uneasy because the pageant was so intimately wound up with his unexpected winning of Dancer, Dark Brother made a startling discovery: he was a hypocrite after all.

By this he did not mean, of course, that he had deceived others; this was not new, as he had always done so. But he had lied to himself, an astonishing realization for a man who heretofore believed that he saw himself in a cold light.

He had said that he could make the pageant last, but in his heart he had known that he could not. For the first time, he had lied to himself in order to deceive others; it had never been necessary before to do so. He was not sure why he had found it indispensable this time. It was possibly because the performers were constructed from his brother's flesh and that of the shapeshifter Thing.

The pageant had been a financial success; he had charged high enough prices that he had doubled his wealth in the few months it lasted. No-one he knew would have faulted him if he had spoken the truth, and he might even have sold more tickets, as doubtless some potential purchasers had procrastinated on the vain representation that the pageant would be there for years to come. He knew that if they could foresee the deaths of the tiny performers, Thing and the Sand Prince would likely not have sold him the pageant; on further examination, he thought they might have been as eager for self-deception as he was, so that the deal could go through. No, the final and irreducible reason that he had lied to himself was that the short-term exploitation of a collection of tiny lumps of flesh was inconsistent with the grandiose image of himself he carried in his most secret heart.

He began to see his marriage as a mutual lie which both parties worked hard to preserve. Dancer, with furious energy, spent most of her time agonizing with him over the loss of the pageant; but at intervals he saw in her eyes a questioning look which had never been there before. She had been certain of him always, both when she knew him to be incapable of love and when she convinced herself he could love. She had never doubted him until now.

After all the tiny players died, they occupied themselves turning the hall into a museum, and then Dark Brother began casting around for another project. Now that King Mog no longer had the pageant to distract him, he began to covet another wonder: a city of ice constructed in a northern neighboring country. As usual, it was beneath Mog's dignity to be a tourist, and travel anywhere else to see something which interested him. Instead, his best advisers and scientists were put to the task of figuring out how to bring what he desired to him.

Dark Brother reluctantly undertook the commission of traveling to the north, negotiating the purchase of the ice city, and transporting it back to Mog's Kingdom of Montauk. The planning of this project alone took more than a year. The city could only be moved across a carefully planned ocean route, where warm winds never blew. It was to be brought to the capital at the coldest time of year, so that the King could see it, and it must then be installed in the northernmost spear of land in the kingdom, the one place where the ice never melted.

The King gave Dark Brother a purse of ten thousand talents. He would pocket the difference between this amount and whatever he paid for the city; this was the usual arrangement. He said good bye to the weeping Dancer and took ship for the North on a day in early fall, when the leaves had already turned. From the departing ship, the shores of Montauk were a riot of bronze and gold.

Aboard the three-master, he soon noted a young woman sailor, Ardis, who glowed like the leaves. She was young, fair, and muscular and sought jobs high in the rigging. One night, when all had been drinking mead belowdecks, Dark Brother armwrestled Ardis and lost. She invited him to feel her biceps, and while he did, whispered that she would come to his berth if he wanted. Dancer seemed very far away, and as tame and pale as anything one had owned for a long time. Still, because the image of himself with Ardis didn't match up to the portrait of the man he wanted to be, he did not act right away. He didn't share Ardis' bed until after they arrived in the North and the transaction was encountering delays.

The sight of the ice city, with its towers and arches glittering in the weak sun, almost made the trip worthwhile. For a moment, he wished that Dancer was with him to see it in its natural surroundings. But Ardis was there instead.

All did not go well. The King of Far Goettal demanded too much for the ice city, more than the ten thouand talents, an absurd price. Then, when Dark Brother had closed the deal for seven thousand, it took weeks longer than expected to dismantle the ice city and stow it in the holds of five ships. For another month, bad weather kept them locked in port. Ardis, with whom he was not getting on too well, abruptly signed on aboard a coasting merchanter one day and vanished. At last they departed, but were forced to turn back by ice. When finally they set sail for the south, it was closer to spring than Dark Brother had expected. Usually a decisive man, Dark Brother raged with indecision: should he still sail to the capital, or take the city directly to the North of his own country? If he did, King Mog would be sorely disappointed--but it could be brought to him next winter.

The end came suddenly, before Dark Brother had decided. A day dawned warm and windless; migrating birds, prematurely heading south, passed them for hours. The ships were becalmed for a week, while the city melted away into water which was pumped into the ocean.

Dark Brother came up on deck holding a jagged piece of ice left from the melting. In the sea alongside the ship, one of the Otter People suddenly emerged and soundlessly bared its teeth in a perfect imitation of a human laugh. He hurled the ice shard at it, but it dived; and the ice fell far short besides.

Thing met him at the dock to tell him Dancer was dead. Dark Brother went directly to the King, to return the balance of the ten thousand talents, and then took his private coach eastward with the shapeshifter as his companion.

He learned part of the story on the way and the rest from his brother when he arrived. Some obliging sea captain, who had observed him with Ardis in Far Goettal, had stopped by to tell Dancer of his betrayal. She had taken his coach and gone to visit the Sand Prince. Thing and Ewas had made a bed for her in their little living room, and Dancer had stayed two weeks, taking many long walks alone. She did not tell anyone what she had learned until the last day.

Then she sat on the beach and spoke for hours with the Sand Prince. Listening to the tale of that conversation, Dark Brother heard the echo of a woman he had not known: he had been ignorant of his wife's loneliness and panic. He had said and done all the right things, by his own rulebook, but he had never learned to listen to someone who did not speak.

It was Dancer's last performance. After the long conversation lapsed into silence, she sat with the Sand Prince another few minutes. Then Dancer stood, and without another word, dove gracefully into the ever-moderate surf. She swam every day, and the Sand Prince didn't suspect anything until it occurred to him that Dancer was too far out. He couldn't enter the water himself--there was a serious risk it would spread his grains too far apart for him to bond them. After some useless shouting and waving, he ran up the beach to Thing and Ewas' house. The women ran out, but could no longer see Dancer anywhere. Thing transformed herself into an otter and streaked out to sea, and Ewas swam after, but they could not find Dancer. She had dived so deep that even the Otter People couldn't find her.

After hearing the end of the story from the Prince, Dark Brother ran down the beach until he could no longer see him. When he felt as if his heart would burst, he fell to the sand. The cold water came up and swirled around his body as he stared at the merciless gray sky. "I have failed at everything," he whispered to it.

There is an epigraph to Dark Brother's story. He stayed on the beach a month or so, then returned to the capital. War was brewing with a neighboring group of allied countries to the West. Dark Brother persuaded the king to give him an army, and began another career as a famous general. For months and years, he was unstoppable, winning victory after victory, pacifying local populations or putting them to the sword. Each victory cost a tremendous number of human lives, and then soldiers had to be left behind to hold the captured countries. Finally, he found himself alone again, when he had won so many victories that the army melted away.