A few years ago my Mother called to tell me she’d learned something horrible and that my brother Mark would call at some point to tell me.
She couldn’t speak about it she said. She could barely speak at all.
I spent days wondering. What possibly possible horrible thing could only Mark tell me? I wouldn’t push it or him. He’d call.
Mark is the baby of our family. The youngest of four. A jewel of a child – he was. I sat and remembered his fat baby legs, his loud infectious giggle.
He was born with a collection of mystery illnesses and nearly died several times. We were frighteningly poor. So out of touch with what others called the real world that it was many many years before my Mother realized that our family had health insurance through one of my Dad’s employers. She never thought to ask. Dad never thought to find out or mention it.
Many nights after Mark’s birth we others – Kent, Danny and I - woke to hear Mom and Dad’s anguished scrambling around to boil water to steam the air in his crib. As tiny as he was, we heard his rasped, gagging breaths. We sat wide eyed and fearful in our room, barely breathing, listening.
Danny, who had been the youngest till Mark came along, was especially fearful. At two and a half years old, he didn’t understand pregnancy. He had thought Mom had gone to the hospital to die and when she came home with Mark, who needed so much energy and attention, he suffered from a different kind of loss of her.
Eventually, Mark’s health improved. He became a fat and sassy baby. Happy, heaps of black hair and dark skin like our father, deep deep blue eyes and as I said, the most infectious giggle ever.
Danny became more difficult. He is a red head – which partly explained his rather contrary nature. He missed Mom’s attention. He had been the baby – and now, he wasn’t. He was the middle child. He didn’t like being the middle child.
As he got older – somewhere around 2 to 3 - Mark had huge tantrums. Not the usual terrible two kind of things. I guess his brothers picked on him a little. He wasn’t going to take that. The boy had a temper and a scream that would break our eardrums.
To get his way and to get our attention he took to holding his breath till he fainted. After a few times of that, and us kids watching him recover, we just ignored him when he did that.
Danny was always especially mean to Mark. We took it as part of his nature – being a red head and all – and we took it as just part of being in a family. The two of them – Danny and Mark – were close in age and often together. When we had homes that allowed it, Kent being the oldest boy had his own room and Danny and Mark shared.
While they fought and Danny picked on Mark, and while I often told Danny to knock it off – we all never thought too much about it. Mark could take care of himself. He was his own brand of feisty.
Mark and I had a special relationship. He was my baby. For a while in one of our houses, when I was fourteen/fifteen, we shared a bedroom and Kent and Danny shared another room. Mark and I even slept in the same bed. He wet the bed in those days and it could be a pain – but I told him that I had wet the bed too when I was his age, so I couldn’t get too mad at him for it.
When I was a teenager, I used to make my dates bring him along. Sometimes. We just loved each other. He often clung to me when I’d leave on dates. He was nine, I was sixteen when our parents divorced and our mother left with my three brothers to live across the state.
I stayed behind to finish high school. Insane at the time, my mother just didn’t want me with her. And while I was devastated to lose my brothers, I was also grateful not to have to change schools yet again, this was already my second high school. I lived in the third of three boarding houses when I graduated.
It took several years, but I finally got enough money together and a car to drive to visit my Mother and brothers. It was awkward and Mark was distant. My father had visited several times. Oddly and inexplicably, he wouldn’t take Mark with him when he took our other two brothers out to lunch or whatever. He said Mark was too young to go. And to my mother’s horror, he would leave Mark screaming and crying on the front porch while he drove away with Kent, his favorite, and Danny.
We never ever got any kind of answer from my Father as to why he did that. He wouldn’t talk.
Families are weird. It’s a weird thing that these people, who might not otherwise even talk to each other end up being forced to be in the same house under the same roof and somehow learn to deal with each other.
Mark, who was one of the most sensitive and gentle people. Who wrote songs and had the voice of an angel, was also a very troubled man. He was so bright. And beautiful.
In our family we knew that in some way Danny’s picking on Mark and constant demeaning of him and brow beating him and poisonous jealousy – especially after the divorce but long before that too – had damaged Mark. Had deeply scared and hurt him. But we thought, I guess, that it wasn’t so bad. We’d all had our scars and hurts and damage from that family and that upbringing.
We’d all gotten out in our own ways.
Danny and Mark had sort of stayed together. They’d traveled around and shared housing in several parts of the US. They’d lived on the north shore of Oahu, in the badlands of Texas and on the edge of a super high end neighborhood in Southern California. It seemed strange to me that these two who’d been so at odds their whole lives would choose to be together like that.
Then, even more strangely, Mark up and moved to the mountains. Alone. He spent most of his 30’s locked away in a death trap of a cabin up in the far rural reaches of eastern Washington State where our family had ten acres of desolate mountain land. He lived a very hard life there in snow, and suffocating heat with no power at first and very much alone.
He hunted deer for meat. He suffered from back problems, having hurt himself in some sort of accident in Texas. Once, in the dead of winter with the stars clear and close, the muffled sound of owls’ wings and firs weighed heavy in white, Mark drove back from a hunting trip empty handed and in desperate pain.
He left the truck lights on and stepped out, his vision black with the hurt, the shake in his legs from both hunger and injury, he slipped and went down hard to the frozen ground. A scream. The sound bounced long then short then was devoured by the world.
He lay there, snow slowly covered his face, the icy wind caught his breath. His legs bent and unable to move. He watched the stars in the clear cold sky. And listened to the wolf pack close in.
His eyes went to the door of the cabin and he knew he wouldn’t make it. He couldn’t run. He could barely breathe or see. If they saw him make a move, they’d close in quick. They’d catch him before he made it in the house.
The door to the truck was open, the keys flown and buried somewhere in the drifts. His rifle had left his hand when he fell and lay on the floor of the truck, its barrel just visible from his position on the ground. With huge effort he reached his hand and fumbled the rifle out of the truck.
He collapsed back to the ground, the rifle near.
All the while, the wolves. The wolves. Their stealthy approach. The soft crunch, their nostril flared snort low against the calm night. The circle ever closer. Patient. Watchful. Hungry. Lean.
He breathed long and slow touching the pain, willing himself to stay conscious. He knew one thing: he would not die being torn apart by wolves. He had two bullets left. If he couldn’t get up, if his first shot didn’t scare them off, if they came much closer... he’d shoot himself.
The wolves. Closing in. One step. A chilling howl. They weren’t afraid to be seen. They sensed something.
For a moment, Mark gave in to the inevitable. His breath frozen and falling back to his face. Icicle tears at the corners of his eyes. For a moment, dying here and now felt right. A release. A fitting end to his short and tortured life.
He was an attractive man and women often tried to save him. A smile weepingly bright, a pied piper laugh. The promise of something. Some even went so far as to live with him there in his tin roofed pieced together shack on the far edge of the world. For all of them it just became too hard. Especially when he drank.
Not a mean man, melancholy and sour beyond his years. A deep and gashing ache that was there. Hidden in its depth but not in its existence. Masking a beauty that could be just seen, just glimpsed, just heard. So close – but not to be touched.
Seemed it could be healed. Seemed there was so much benefit if it were. Seemed a woman could do it. Seemed he wanted it. They all left. Dragging their hearts, confused, hurt, angry some, bitter others.
These were the days before cell phones. But even if they’d been around, he wouldn’t have had service or money to have one. I wrote to him once in a while. And sometimes heard from him. One of our cousins lived not far and we’d hear about him through the grape vine. Occasionally, he’d come down from the mountain and shave his long dark beard and cut his scraggly hair.
When I’d ask him why he was there, he’d say he needed to be. Needed to get away. The mountain was the one place where no one would bother him.
He was, it seemed finally away from Danny. The rest of us thought this was probably a good thing. Maybe he’d heal from Danny’s constant put downing. Maybe he’d be happy.
The wolves - close enough now for Mark to see the glint of their eyes in the light of the truck. The frost of their breath. The threat of their power. Their need.
And then it happened. survival. a look. primal. adrenaline. a blur. a lunge. a shot. the dark. the stars. the moon. a howl. the snow. gnashed teeth. a crash. a bolt. torn jeans. blood.
He was inside. Who knew how? The howls outside his door, the blood on his leg, he fell to the floor. He would live.
I didn’t know it till later, but I carried a kind of questioning anger about Danny. Why did he see fit to just destroy our brother? What was this deep mean streak in him that gave himself permission to act that way toward Mark?
Later I would learn that Danny’s sense of competition with Mark went so far as to seduce Mark’s girlfriends when they lived together and lord it over him.
I could touch on the time Mark finally did come down from the mountains. He stayed with me, my husband and our two boys. Then, I was the only married sibling. He had written several songs for his guitar while away and sent me scratchy tapes of himself playing guitar and singing. The songs were good. His voice, clear, full of emotion, compelling.
In those days I owned a small construction company and was making decent money. With my encouragement, hand holding and financial backing we recorded his songs. I overproduced them. I was frankly so excited to be with Mark, to hear his voice to see him to support him in something. In retrospect it ought to have been just Mark and guitar.
He was blown away and grateful and got into it too. I’ll find the CD – am out of town just now – and attach a song to this piece. It was of course recorded on reel to reel.
When Mark called – so many many years later – in his forties. Married. I was now the only unmarried one of us.
He spoke haltingly at first. About seeing a therapist for several years. About his life and how much he loved me and appreciated how much attention I had given him when we were kids. About how that attention and care from me had partly saved his life.
Saved his life?
And then in bits and small pieces and innuendo and bare balled truth and gut wrenching sickness and sobs and gasps and tears and grief and sorrow and hell and screams and anguish and no no no no.... not in our family and how can this happen without anyone knowing and how could I have missed it – entirely and without a second thought – missed missed missed it... how could I have not known or suspected. How?!!
How could it be that our brother Danny had brutally and consistently tortured and sexually abused our baby brother. Had beaten the light out of him with his actions and his terror and his whispers and his poison.
Danny, like all sexual predators, had threatened Mark with terrible things if he told. Mark, so young so sweet, who looked up to all of us, who shown a light in our lives, was daily dimmed and finally snuffed and none of us saw why it was happening.
Danny killed Mark's soul as surly as those wolves would have killed his body.
And I, who loved him so, missed it entirely.
The photo is of me, Mark and our Mother sometime around 1985. He was getting ready to go to the mountains then.