Kennesaw Mountain by Laura Usselman

Brian is getting further and further away from me in the storm, but still I do not call out for him to stop.  I don’t know how he can see to guide himself through the pitch darkness of these woods.  The storm hasn’t begun to flash and roar the way it will when it really arrives, and the trees appear, thrown up around me in dark streaks against the lightning-bright sky, only once every few minutes.  Huge drops of rain plummet straight down onto my head and my bare shoulders, and slap the leaves above my head and under my feet.  Wet leaf mold and mud squelches up through my toes as I move through the woods, not quite running, too wary of unexpected branches in my path, rocks and roots underneath my feet.  I wish I had stopped to put shoes on before I left the house.  I keep my brother barely in sight ahead of me.  He is glowing, a bright phosphorescent blue-green, like the lure of some prehistoric deep-sea fish, drawing me deeper into the woods.  I wonder if his luminescence helps him see the ground before him, or if he is like a lit house at night, the darkness all the deeper outside of his glow.

Brian always glows during thunderstorms, but his skin is throwing off a brighter light than usual tonight.  I am not used to seeing him so surrounded by darkness.  Everyone knows to let Brian outdoors when the sky darkens and the wind begins to blow—his second grade teacher, our weekday babysitter, even our pastor, who usually hates to see someone leave their seat during service.  When Brian was in preschool he had one teacher who wouldn’t let him outside, a woman just out of college who was afraid he’d wander off, she’d get fired.  Mom and I went to pick him up one afternoon during a storm and he was lying curled on the alphabet carpet under the window, his skin dull green, his eyes closed and his fingers clenched.  He would have looked dead, except he was twitching, making little confused sounds like a newborn puppy.  Mom sat outside in a lawn chair all afternoon in the rain, Brian in her lap, brushing his wet hair back from his face.

It took Mom and Dad a little while to figure out that what Brian needed was to be out in the storm, feeling the wind blow and the rain fall, even when he was a baby.  I was too young to remember, but Mom says that Brian used to scream his head off when a storm came.  She thought maybe he could feel something in the air change, and it spooked him, so she sat and rocked him in the stairwell, as far from the greenish pre-storm light that filtered in the windows as she could get.  He quieted down, but when Mom looked she realized he was bright red and holding his breath.  She tore out of the house to find Dad, working out back in the garage, and the minute she stepped off the porch and the rain hit Brian’s face he breathed.  It wasn’t until Dad came towards them and said “Jesus, Sal, he’s glowing,” that she noticed anything other than the air flowing back into his lungs.

Now when a storm comes when we’re in school I watch from the windows of my fifth grade classroom as my brother wheels across the playground, his arms spread out and his head tilted back, always moving.  Usually he loves the swings, beelines for them when he comes out of the school doors, but in a storm he stays in the field, shoes off, running.  He knows he cannot stay out for the whole storm–his teacher will give him a Daily Demerit if he’s not back, sopping wet and ready to change into the spare clothes he keeps in his cubby, in twenty minutes–and he seems frantic to get whatever it is he needs from a thunderstorm in the time allowed, tearing through the longer grass at the edge of the woods, running in great circles around our makeshift dodgeball field.  At home, in the afternoon thunderstorms that come two, three times a week in the summer, he is calmer, sometimes just spinning in slow circles in the middle of our crabgrass lawn.  The longer he stays the brighter he glows.  Some nights, after a long day of rain, we eat dinner by the light of his skin.

Tonight, though it has only been an hour since I watched Brian unlatch our front gate and head off towards the end of our cul-de-sac, he sends off a light so bright that it casts shadows back towards me and creeps up into the lowest layer of branches above his head.  I wish I could catch up to him, walk with him in his pool of waterly light, but he wouldn’t like that.  When the weather is good he wants only to be with me, to walk with me to school, to ask me if I’ll play even when my friend Caroline is there, to help me with my chores.  I let him put the silverware around the table when I set it for dinner, and he does it so carefully, the knives perfectly straight, blade turned in toward the plate.  But in a storm he is different.  Once, when I tried to spin in circles with him on our front lawn, he said “No, Anna,” looking stern.  “I don’t want to play with you right now.”  It is what I usually say to him.

Mom and Brian have a deal about the glowing.  As long as he locks the door when he comes back in, stays inside the fence, and uses the towel we keep in the mudroom, he’s allowed to go out for a nighttime storm, after the rest of the house is asleep.  I did not mean to catch him breaking his promise tonight, but I did, the thunder waking me just in time to see Brian heading towards the edge of the yard.  I got up and left the house without thinking of waking Mom.  I wonder why, now, with the woods dark and Brian only a faint glimmer of light ahead of me, I didn’t stop to tell her he was gone.  I know the answer.  I wanted to see where he would go.  I did not think he would go so far.

We live at the edge of a Civil War battlefield—Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield, Kennesaw, Georgia.  We learn about the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain every year in social studies, and then we visit the mountain on a field trip.  It is a routine that we are accustomed to, like learning the colors and the numbers up to twenty every year in Spanish, and playing the hand bells in music, and painting watercolors for Mother’s Day in art.  5,350 men were killed at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.  Most of them fought for the Union.  When we visit the park with school we stay at the visitors’ center and watch a movie about the battle, and then we walk around the museum, looking at all of the old bullets they’ve dug out of the ground.  They sell replica bullets in little velvet bags at the gift shop.  The movie says that the battle was a tactical victory for the South.  The narrator says this like it’s just another fact of history, no more interesting than Major General McPherson’s movement around the left flank of the Confederate troops, or Brigadier General John Newton’s frontal attack in column formation.  But the men who dress up in replica uniforms to talk to the class about the battle are more excited.  They get a little breathless when they talk about the Southern victory, like they can’t quite pretend it doesn’t make them proud.  They always tell the story of Daniel McCook, a Union commander who stood waving his sword and shouting “Surrender, you traitors!” when he was gunned down.  One year Brian came home and started waving a stick in the yard, yelling “Surrender, you traitors!” and then crumpling to the ground, over and over until Mom told him to cut it out.  She doesn’t really like the men who dress up in replica uniforms, or our neighbors who fly a Confederate flag from their porch and fight in the reenactment every year.  I just don’t understand their glee.  Two months after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta fell.  Two months after that, it was burning.

Sometimes Mom takes Brian and me to the mountain to go for a hike.  Brian likes to pretend that we are lost a long way from home, trying to survive in the wild.  He runs ahead of us on the trail to find mushrooms and wild onions to make wilderness soup, standing next to them and pointing until we get there, like if he moved his arm they might crawl away and we would miss them.  I like to pretend that we are in the middle of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, but I don’t say anything about it because I know it would upset Brian and Mom would say I’m being morbid.  I just look at all the tree trunks as we pass them, imagining a man behind each one, looking ahead up the trail to see which ones are wide enough to push Mom and Brian behind when the bullets start to whiz around our heads.

Brian is leading me through the woods of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park now, the edge closest to our house, where there are no trails, no visitors’ center.  There is a fence around the park to keep people with metal detectors out, but Brian walked right over a broken part of the chain link, where a tree had fallen and pressed the fence to the ground.  He didn’t pause on his way to the spot, like he already knew it was there.  I wonder if he comes here often during nighttime storms, or if this is a place he found with Dad, who likes to take him out exploring in the woods when he comes to visit.  “Guy time,” Dad will say, and rumple my hair.  I tell myself I don’t mind, that it would be boring, and spend the afternoon doing things with Mom that I know Brian will be jealous of—baking cookies, pulling earthworms out of the garden.  Dad loves to come over to the house during a thunderstorm, even if he hasn’t called ahead, and sit on the porch and watch Brian spinning.  “My little paint chip,” he says, and pulls me over next to him on the swing, wanting me to help him come up with names for the color Brian turns.  It’s not what I want to do but I do it anyway because it makes Dad laugh.  “Mellow yellow,” I say, “bright lime fizz.”  We have been playing this game for a long time.

I’m not sure how long it’s been since we crossed the fence—30 minutes, maybe 40—but the ground is beginning to rise steadily.  We are climbing the mountain, straight up, not following the careful, gradual switchbacks like we do when we come here with Mom.  It is how I always wish we could make our ascent, quickly and with no regard for the carefully groomed trail, but now I wish Brian would slow, would stop and point to a patch of wild onions or mushrooms, waiting for me to catch up.  The storm is picking up speed and I can hear larger objects falling to the ground around me, clumps of last year’s leaves that never came down, sprays of dead pine needles.  I wonder if it is just wind knocking things out of the trees until I feel prickling on my face and realize it has begun to hail.  The wind blows straight towards me and I strain to see Brian ahead of me, expecting him to slow, to turn around.  He doesn’t even lower his head.  He is like the hounds our neighbors keep, surging forwards on their leashes when they take them out for a walk, noses pinned to the ground, following a path I cannot see.

I slip in the wet leaves and come down hard on one knee and one palm.  When I get up my knee hurts in the deep, internal way that means it will be purple in the morning.  I imagine showing it to Mom and realize I am mad at Brian, now, that my feet hurt and my legs are tired, that the hail stings on my forehead and cheeks.  I want to drag him in front of Mom, for her to yell and him to cry.  I want to ignore him for days as he follows me around, desperate for me to tell him I am no longer mad.  But still I do not call out for him to stop.  I know he would not, and I do not want to hear my voice tearing out of me desperately, helplessly, and to watch his light get further and further away.

I hear sharp cracks behind me in the woods and I almost scream, imagining that the battle has resumed around me, picturing men in gray and blue uniforms streaking up the hill, fighting towards the higher ground.  I think about turning around and running back towards the house.  It is Brian’s fault we are here, and Mom couldn’t be mad at me if I tried to follow him, if I tried to bring him back.  But it is only by Brian’s light that I can see where my feet are headed, and I keep going, chanting under my breath “it was only a branch falling, it was only a branch falling.”  I think too that it could have been a man from our neighborhood, shooting a gun into the empty woods below, drunk on beer and lightning.  Mom hates the guns in Kennesaw, where every head of household is required by law to own and maintain a firearm, but I am accustomed to them.  The thought of a real bullet comforts me, so much more familiar than the spectral ones I imagine.

The storm is right over us now and the lightning comes every few seconds, the thunder almost at the same time.  I think for a moment that it is only the strengthened storm that lights the woods around me until I see that I have gained on Brian, that he is only twenty feet ahead of me through the trees.  He is struggling up a rocky stretch so steep that he climbs it like a ladder, clinging onto the cracks in the rock.  Above the ledge there are no trees.  We are almost at the top of the mountain, climbing up from under the overlook.  I start to run, my feet slipping back a half step through the slippery leaves every time I try to move forward.  The top of this mountain is exactly the kind of place Mom warns Brian away from in a storm, the ground almost bare, a few tall trees scattered in an otherwise bald patch of land.  I start to climb the ledge.  My too long, too skinny limbs are an asset here, and I scamper up the rock like a spider.  Brian is slow but, when I look up, I see his sturdy, glowing calves disappearing over the top and out of sight.

When I reach the top I am running immediately, tearing towards the ball of light that is again moving steadily further from me.  I slam into Brian, wrapping my arms around him, almost knocking him to the ground.  His skin is hot, almost too hot to touch, but I lock his arms to his sides and hang on.  The sky lights up almost continually and Brian turns his head towards me, confused, not recognizing me.  His legs keep moving, trying to carry him forward, up to the very top of the hill, out under the open sky, but I will not let him go.  He starts crying, frantic sobs that rip out of him and almost convince me to release him, but I hang on, my fingers dug deep into his t-shirt.  I do not know if I am saving or smothering him, but I don’t let go.


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