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The unfading scar

April 16, 2011 11:29 PM
I was not there when the brothers squared off for the fight.

From stories passed down I heard they cautiously circled one another in the kind of way that signaled theirs was not to be a brotherly tussle of pinches and pokes but serious combat. They took careful measure of one another, sizing up advantages and disadvantages. One was a little taller with a long reach, the other more robust in the torso. Their hands sported blisters and callouses from manual labor and they dripped equal volumes of sweat and blood. They were both hard-headed — physically and mentally. They were alike, yet unlike, as the warp and woof, running at odds to make the same cloth or the same bloods that created Cain and Abel.

They had frolicked as children, chasing the same frogs and pollywogs in the creek by day and lightning bugs by night. They made forts amid the scrub pines and rode to historic adventures on tobacco-stick horses.

They shared duties around the homeplace. If one plowed, the other picked up the stones. If one milked, the other washed down the milking parlor. If one cut the firewood, the other stacked it. Together they fed the stock, shod the horses and saddle-soaped the bridles and harnesses and polished the hames.

They hunted both sides of the hedgerows for rabbit or quail, and through the stands of oaks where squirrels chattered about the acorn crop and fell to the rifles of these sharp-eyed nimrods. On the baseball diamond, they were an invincible battery, one on the mound, the other behind the plate. Their batting averages differed only by thousandths of points.

They shared the same heroes, derided the same cowards, bore the same sincerities to religion and charity. They shared their books and sometimes their Sunday shoes. They shared the money they made from hiring out their labor to neighbors or selling hen fruits to the grocer. They planted truck gardens and put up hay for selling in the winter.

One learned to play the guitar, the other sang the tunes. They played on their porch on late summer afternoons and at barn-raisings or corn-shuckings where the girls would blush at a wink or plot to plant a kiss on a cheek.

They gigged frogs when the moon was new and filched watermelons when it was full. They raced in the tobacco rows to see who could finish his row first, the winner turning to help the loser so they could both sit in the shade until the full sled was collected and an empty one put back into the row for another contest. They raced hoeing the corn and they raced to the mailbox. They raced on foot to school and raced through the curriculum, piling up learning like cords of wood.

The tall one had the unconquerable cowlick that no amount of mother’s spit could bring to heel. The shorter one could never find a shirt that fit his neck without the sleeves covering his hands.

They shared responsibilities and blame equally, remaining individuals with independent streaks, but never to the detriment of the filial relationship — until that day when they stripped for battle.

The immediacy of the fight brought to focus differences that had been simmering over a long time. They were as stag deer fighting for territory, only to hook horns and die from that fatal congruence. What used to be a tightly tethered tandem now jostled in loose traces, fighting the bit, prancing at the hands of a fractured teamster. It could be so trivial as one thinking Daniel Boone hung the moon, while the other insisted it surely was Davy Crockett. If one said the sky looked imminently like rain, the other would inquire when God bestowed second sight on him. If one said it was night, the other would engage a magistrate to judge it day.

As they engaged in their bloody fight, some onlookers cheered. Some even broke out in sideline fights of their own. No one was without a side, even those who turned out chiefly to cheer only the damage. And on they fought, pausing only to gasp for air or dab at their own blood or protect some bashed or broken part.

“Hit him harder, Reb.”

“Stomp him good, Yank.”

What brought them to this condition became muddled in the retelling. Some sleight, some betrayal, some lack of recognition or wrong that was not righted. Theirs became a world of rising anger; love turned to hate, and an underlying taste of bile in the cup of sweet life.

They fought brother against brother, the worst ferocity. They made the ground bloody by their passions and blinding beliefs. Eventually, when neither one could stand fully erect, bowed by battered ribs and vision blurred by swelling eyes, the fight did end, but not the rancor. The cuts quit bleeding and gashes became scars that remained pale when the sun tinted the flesh around them.

And decades later, when they flexed their fingers after confirming a handshake or momentarily felt warm water leaking from a once-broken nose or strained to hear through a damaged eardrum or felt a weakness in the shoulder when picking up a great-grandchild, it awoke the slumbering memory of their fruitless battle and brought them to one compact: Some wounds never heal.

Jay Ashley is managing editor of the Times-News. Email jashley@thetimesnews.com