What a precise and distressing story; it deftly escapes definition. An old, beautiful painting with bullets shot through it. A completely incomplete family portrait, a ghost story, a myth. The lovely, cold shape of this tale reminds us that no character ever makes it out of a story alive.
Our father brought a captive back from the war. At first, because we thought he might be with us for some time, there was talk of his entering the family business. For a couple of weeks he went along to the office every morning, but eventually our father decided that the business affairs were too complicated to teach someone who would be with us for only a short while.
Instead of working, the captive stayed at home and looked after us. He cooked meals and drove us to school. He washed clothes and checked our homework. No one told him to do these things, but he was never idle.
He lived in our brother's room, which had been left just as it was. We wouldn't have permitted a lesser person to sleep in our brother's bed and read his books, but the captive was larger than life.
He came from across the sea. He was taller and paler-skinned than we were; his hair was fine and blond, his eyes blue. His English was nearly perfect, but he spoke in a clipped, formal way that unsettled the people around here, who prefer a comfortable drawl. It was a long time before we could tell when he was joking.
We were proud of the beauty of our captive. We liked to watch how the muscles moved under his shirt as he worked. We took him on walks around the neighborhood in the evenings and on weekends, when people were out working in their yards or walking their dogs. Everyone admired him. They said, "That's a fine-looking captive you have there," but they looked at him sideways. We turned our gaze modestly to the ground while the captive petted their dogs.
For Halloween, after weeks of debate about his costume, we dressed him as a Karankawa warrior. Our sister April had done a report for social studies about the Karankawa people, who lived in these parts many centuries ago, before the Spanish came. The Karankawa warriors were six feet tall, pierced and painted and tattooed, and they performed ritual cannibalism on captured enemies. Or so said April's social studies textbook.
Our captive made a splendid Karankawa warrior. He wore one of our mother's wigs of long dark hair, real human hair from China, that she had worn before she died. We painted and befeathered him. We spent so much time dressing him that we forgot about our own costumes and had to wear the ones from the year before, which were actually the ones from the year before that, when our mother had been here to make our costumes.
"Next year," said the captive, "I'll make you new costumes."
We took him around with us trick-or-treating. We had made him so fierce that little children screamed.
"What did you wear, really?" asked our sister June. "What did you wear when you were a warrior in real life?"
We shushed and slapped her. She was too young to understand politeness.
"He wasn't a warrior," said April. "He was a soldier."
"I wore normal clothes," said the captive.
"Did you kill people with guns or did you cut off their heads with swords?" asked June.
We dumped her candy in the bushes so she wouldn't ask any more questions.
It wasn't long before the captive seemed like one of the family. He helped us with our science projects, remembered our birthdays, reminded us to comb our hair in the mornings, and attended our soccer games and piano recitals. Our father was so busy with work in those years.
"You do as he tells you," our father warned us. "He's one of the family."
We came to love our captive and hardly remembered a time when he had not been with us. Dimly we recalled that there had been a better time, a certain paradise, back when our mother had still been with us, before our father and our brother went off to war. On the other hand, the time with the captive was so happy and peaceful that we couldn't be sure the past had been any better.
"He's from so far away," said our father, "but he's just like us. Isn't that strange."
The captive taught our sister May how to cook. At the beginning of his stay, he had prepared disturbing foreign dishes that we refused to eat, but before long he began using our mother's recipes. Soon we gained back the strength we had lost after she died. He was especially thorough in teaching May about the preparation of meat. He taught her how to cook the flesh of every kind of creature. She learned to roast and fry and bake and sear and grill over an open flame. At first it was disgusting to touch raw meat, but soon she was intoxicated by the alchemy of cooking. The meat had been alive once, a cow or chicken or pig running around in the world. Then it was dead. Then, when we ate it, it came alive again. The juices bubbled out and darkened from red to brown. Delicious smells arose from the carcass. The skin grew charred and crispy, and we wanted to have it in our bodies.
June taught the captive to dance. She put on her white gloves and a pleated skirt and her shoes with the heels. They looked ridiculous dancing together because the captive was so tall, and she was so little. The rest of us fell off the couch laughing as they waltzed around the chairs and the coffee table.
Our sister April was nervous before she asked the captive to be her date for the prom. A month before, he had helped her to pick out a long shiny dress, but none of the boys in her class had asked her yet. As she stood in the kitchen and spoke the words, "Will you go to the prom with me?" she thought she would faint and fall over dead and become a mush on the floor.
The captive set down the wooden spoon he was using to stir a turkey stew.
"Of course I'll go with you," he said. "I'm your captive, am I not?"
April ran upstairs to her room. She closed the door and tried on her dress again, and it looked even better this time.
It was our father's habit to come into our rooms every night, while we were sleeping, and look out the windows to see if there was anything bad outside. We left our bedroom doors ajar so he wouldn't disturb our sleep when he came in. After April began closing her bedroom door, we were afraid our father would be confused and distressed that he couldn't look out her window. But there was no need to worry. It was understood, without anyone needing to say anything, that from now on the captive would take on the responsibility of looking out April's window.
When April had a baby, the captive suggested the name of August, and we all liked this name very much. Of course, our father was the one called Daddy because a captive couldn't be a real father, could he?
As well as taking care of us and the baby, the captive looked after our father's art collection. Even before the war, our father had collected landscapes, but in those bygone days his choices had been more serene. He liked fields of blue flowers, bright skies, and golden clouds. After the war he was drawn to less attractive compositions. He bought an oil painting of a dilapidated wooden house. Its frame structure was somehow apparent beneath the boards, rickety and geometrically impossible. A strong wind across the plains would bring it tumbling down.
We never liked this painting. The lines weren't at the right angles. In real life the house could not have stood upright. The colors were too dark: brown, crimson, and purple, with lots of black shadows and only a few white streaks to show the outline of the timbers. The house took up the whole picture so we couldn't see the grass or the sky. Many coats of paint were scraped onto the canvas, as if it really were a house that had been painted too many times.
It must have been a house in one of those towns that used to be prosperous but now are almost ghost towns, where there are broken-down cars in every driveway, the young people have moved away, and even the gas station has closed. It was a big house that had been built a hundred years ago for a happy family, but many sad things came to pass, and they died off. Not even rats were left to skitter across the slanting floors and listen to the boards creaking in the wind.
The captive loved the painting of the abandoned house. It hung by the front door, and often we came home from school to find him staring at it. We did our best to correct his taste. In his room we hung a watercolor of our own house on a sunny day. The next-door neighbor had painted it for us after our mother died. Here the colors were mild, and the thick, textured paper was clearly visible under the gentle wash of pigment. There was nothing objectionable in this view of clean stucco walls, red tile roof, yellow flowers, and clipped lawn. However, this good example could not draw the captive back from his fascination with the other house.
He was also mesmerized by a barren landscape of the windswept west. In the distance was a rippling mesa. In the foreground was an island of gray strewn with boulders and contorted rock formations. This could never have been a real place. The mesa looked like the prow of a sinking ship, and the island of rock was like a tilting iceberg that would soon tip the boulders into the sea.
Our father was touched that the captive cared so deeply for the paintings. They went together to museums and art galleries. The captive developed a flair for choosing new art for the collection. Because our father was busy, he sent the captive on trips around the country to seek out the scenes they both loved.
"I don't know what we'd do without you," said our father.
We were puzzled to learn that their tastes matched perfectly. Except for the war, they had nothing in common.
We brought to our rooms the old, comforting views of autumnal hills, snowy woods, cacti budding with yellow blossoms, and broad mountains shining in the sun, while the central walls of the house were taken over by the other pictures.
Our father and the captive were happy in their shared passion. They sat side by side on the couch and read books about the regional history of landscape painting. They discovered artists they wanted to collect, and the captive went off to garage sales and antique stores to hunt out dusty treasures.
"Why don't you ever try to escape?" asked June at the dinner table.
April slapped her, and June wept into her plate. We went on eating as if nothing had happened.
"Why would he do that?" said our father, helping himself to barbecued ribs. "He's one of us now."
We never asked the captive about his past. Such questions had not been strictly forbidden, but we knew it without being told—all of us except June, who was too small to understand. She was too young to remember much about our mother or our brother. She didn't understand yet about death, how you don't talk about it because there's nothing to say.
During the years he awaited his execution, we never asked the captive what his name was. We never asked about his family or the house he had lived in or who his best friend had been at school. Once, when June asked if he missed his mother, he said, "You children are more to me now than my own family."
"But doesn't your mother miss you?" asked June.
"If I went back, it would make my family sad. I'm a soldier, and I must do what soldiers do."
"What do soldiers do?"
"They go away to fight, and if they lose the battle, they don't come back."
"I don't want you to go back," said June.
We were comforted to know that the captive loved us and that we were better than his old family.
It was a comfort, too, that he was taking so long to die. We thought dying ought to take a very long time. If it takes nine months to be born—a whole year at school—dying ought to last even longer because after that there's nothing to look forward to. Our mother had died over two years, and that was too short. The bomb that killed our brother had exploded in less than a second. Because the captive was taking so long to die, we began to believe he might be with us forever.
During those years, the only sorrowful event in our lives was the death of our dog Sully. The captive had never liked the dog. He had fed him and taken him for walks, but there had never been any love between them. When we had pressed him on the subject, he said, "It's a dog. It will die. Why get attached?" In the morning, before he took June to school, he dug a grave in the back yard and stood with us while we buried Sully. He refused to cry, and for this we could not forgive him. As punishment we ignored him for some days. We passed him on the stairs without speaking and looked through him as if he were a ghost. We soon realized that we didn't need the captive as much as we had believed. In fact, we would do just as well without him.
We got a new puppy. It cried every night for a week, and the captive went downstairs to comfort it, though we told him it was better to let it cry. That was the only way to make it understand that it wouldn't see its mother again.
After our dog Sully died, June had nightmares. Then our father began to have nightmares, and the captive joined in, and soon the house was awash with ghosts. Our father took time off work and stayed in his bedroom all day. The captive, too, was reluctant to leave his room—which had once been our brother's room, but which we now thought of as belonging entirely to the captive. April was left to do the laundry and the cleaning, and May took over the cooking. June drifted through the house in a dream, waltzing in her high-heeled shoes to imaginary music and tripping over the rugs, with no one to catch her. When the clicking of her heels fell silent, it meant she had stopped to stare at the painting by the door. The vision of the ramshackle house entranced her. We took it away and put it in the garage because it was not a good influence.
The captive and our father came out of their rooms after midnight. No one wants to be alone in the dark. They sat at the kitchen table in the bright light and ate cereal and ice cream. We crouched on the stairs and listened to the clink of their spoons in the bowls. We wanted to hear what they were saying, but they weren't saying anything.
Only once did we overhear a conversation that might have meant something.
"Do you think..." said the captive weakly. "Might we possibly...?"
"No!" bellowed our father. Crockery shattered. We sprang away to our bedrooms as he stormed up the stairs.
On the day of the execution, we had to explain to June what was going on. We had thought she knew already, but it turned out no one had remembered to tell her. She was too young to understand without being told. We told her over and over that it was a good thing to happen, a good thing for the house and also for the captive because it would make him better than he was. We told her it was the right thing, and the captive wanted it to happen, and it wasn't the same as someone dying in our own family. It wasn't the same as our mother dying or our brother. This was our enemy. The captive had fought against us in the war. He had wanted to kill our father and our brother and our countrymen. It wasn't the same as one of us dying.
We thought it might make June feel better to help us dress him, but she locked herself in her bedroom and bawled like a child. Her crying upset the captive.
"Should I go in and see her?" he kept asking.
We soothed him by rubbing his neck as we colored his forehead with the powder of ground bricks and drew stripes of blue and green eye shadow across his cheeks. He went into his room one last time to shine his shoes. When he came out, he had put on one of our brother's ties.
He knocked on June's door. "May I come in?" he asked. "Can I have a hug?"
He said this as a joke. It was what June said every day when she met him outside the school. She never gave him a hug without asking first.
June did not answer his call. He followed us downstairs. People had come over, and the house was full of strange voices. We turned off the television, and the neighbors sat on the couch in the living room. Our father had lit a fire. He stood by the hearth and stared into the flames. The assistant minister from our church was talking to him, but our father wasn't listening. He stood with one foot propped on the hearth and leaned his arms on his knees as he looked into the fire.
April and May held the captive by each hand and led him through the living room. As he stood by the fireplace, he seemed larger and gentler than anyone else in the room. He was pale and quiet, as if he had already begun to fade from this world.
Above the fireplace was a large painting, bought in happier times. It was a peaceful ranch scene of cattle grazing on the plains.
Our father held the pistol awkwardly under his left arm, as if to say that it was no threat, not yet. He shook hands with the captive.
"I know how much this means to you," said the captive.
"Thank you," said our father without looking in his face. "You know how we feel."
The minister said a few words about eating and drinking the body and blood. He finished with, "Love your enemies, and do good to them that hate you."
April gave the captive a cushion for his knees, but he didn't have time to kneel. Our sister June ran into the room, waving a bundle of letters. From that point on, all was lost. The ceremony was botched, and nothing would ever be good again.
"Leif!" she cried. "His name is Leif."
Our father stepped back. His face crumpled. He sat heavily upon the hearth and laid the pistol beside him. We tried to restrain June, but she wouldn't be stopped.
"His name is Leif, and he's a real person. He has a name! We never called him by his name. How could we forget to ask his name? He is Leif August Ljungstrand. He has a wife named Ingrid and twin sons, Gabriel and Magnus, who were babies when he went away. Now they're seven years old. Their names are on the back of the picture. Do you see?" She waved photographs of a smiling, fair-haired family standing in the snow.
The captive gasped. Beneath the paint his face was drained of blood like the visage of a dead man.
"He has a box at the post office, and he writes letters to his wife, and she writes letters to him. I found them in his drawer. He's a real person, and his family loves him!"
The captive snatched the letters and pictures from June and threw them in the fire.
"His middle name is August," she said. "He named the baby after himself!"
She threw her arms around his waist and screamed his name. The sound of those syllables was shocking to the rest of us. We had never thought of the captive as the kind of person who might have a name. Furthermore it was an odd foreign name, not like the name of a real person. She kept saying his name, as if it were an incantation that could halt the progress and destroy the power of the rite we were enacting.
While she was screaming and clinging to him, the captive snatched up the pistol and shot himself in the head. We could not but commend him for taking control of the situation and salvaging what was left of the ceremony, to which we had all looked forward for so long. Our father recovered his composure and carried on as planned. Our sister May prepared the funeral feast.
The table was long and empty as we sat at dinner. May had opened the windows to let out the smoke from the burned meat. Mosquitoes and moths came in from the dark. The curtains billowed, and wind blew through the dining room, slamming doors and rattling the paintings on the walls. It snuffed out the white candles that April had lit, and we were left with the harsh electric light that washed out the furniture and took away the substance of things.
Now we saw beyond the Persian rugs and shiny varnish to the bare boards of the floor. We saw through the paint and the walls to the timbers of the house. As we ate the beloved meat, the table and floor slanted like a room on a ship, slipping deeper into the house. The wind blew down the table and banged the door. We could not get the smoke out of our heads. One by one we vomited under the table while our father chewed and swallowed, finishing everything on his plate.
Suddenly we understood that the painting we had despised was not what we had thought. That ramshackle house was not empty, not abandoned. The family had fallen on hard times, but they were still living inside, though the house might collapse at any moment. They were not prisoners. No one had boarded up the doors and windows. Yet they would never leave this place because it was their home.
I came across a footnote in an anthropology book that mentioned a South American people who lived with their captives for some time before executing them, and I began to imagine the relationships that might arise in such a situation. The paintings described in the story are by Depression-era Dallas artists William Lester and Everett Spruce.