Patrick Whitfill grew up in a small Texas town and then moved to a bigger one, then to an even bigger one. He is currently finishing up a doctorate in poetry. His stories can be found online at Pindeldyboz and Juked.
He buried his first pet and then his family taught him how to gather the leaves behind the house, pile them in a metal garbage can and burn them. His brother taught him how to hold his hands together, as if praying to a god small enough to capture in his hands, like lightning bugs or daffodil seed. He taught the boy how to cover his mouth, his nose, his eyes; and then he taught him how to breathe the smoke of all his memories, because, as his father loved to point out, that's all that a memory could be: smoke. And he was a damn fine son, so he believed his father.
The night they took Taco, his gerbil, behind the house to set him to fire, his mother sat him down at the kitchen table and taught him about names: the ones you keep to yourself when you lay awake at night, staring into the ceiling fan's slow, steady whirrs; the ones you keep because, eventually, everyone thinks of how lonely the dead must be, going through the invisible parts of every day.
The boy sat on the opposite side of his mother, nodding his head because he had decided to wear his name like a wool coat. Over her cup of coffee, the steam rising in the air and catching in the sunlight slanting in from the windows, his mother told him the names of her mother and her mother's mother, of her father and of the sister that never left the delivery room. She spoke with her hands, explained her family's beliefs, how different they were from his father's ideas. Once, she said, they celebrated the death of her uncle until five in the morning, her father stumbling into the rose bushes behind the house, waking into a world of thorns, saying his brother's name again and again.
His mother taught him that not all grief vanishes, that some of it stays around, sticks to your ribs. She taught him that, sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you will wake with blood dripping off your hands.
His brothers taught him not to carry his love around with him like a sack of marbles, that he could never hold on to anything in his life, so why would he think that he could hold on to something he loved? Something important. He never had an answer, even though he begged all the small corners of his mind for a response, for the right phrase to throw back, and finally explain what he never understood himself. Still, he brought home each animal he saw, even the ones his father pointed out as probably diseased, probably contagious. Because he already felt contagious before he knew words like airborne and quarantine. Because he always felt ready to lose, to start a fire in the back of the house, to start the last chant to the just-dead.
And so, tonight, when he lit the bundle of leaves and said a little thank you to the wind for giving him another autumn, another animal and another handful of the forgotten to burn -- solely for the smoke -- of course he thought of his father standing over a dying fire with a cigarette in one hand and a beer bottle dangling from the fingers of the other. He thought of his mother, sitting in a rocking chair, warped from years of weather, desperately keeping her mouth shut, names freezing to her tongue. And he thought of his brothers, the way they always asked him, Why? Why did he keep getting something to lose? Because they knew -- they had stood right next to him -- that it all ends in a quiet, sifting smoke.