Heir of the best of the North American literary tradition, Luciano Lamberti wades into the murky waters of domestic terror. In “The Song We Sang Every Day” a family implodes from within when one of its members is replaced by someone or something else. What is it that makes us family: our blood connection, our shared silences, or our unnamable secrets? We owe this story to the influences of Hawthorne (specifically, his American notebooks), and Stephen King, who are like two distant uncles that haunt the author’s dreams. We live on a new continent, wild and without ruins; fear probably predates humanity, but it takes root in the heart of man as if it were its most favorite and familiar niche.
Translated by: Frances Riddle
My name is Tomás. I’m thirty years old. I live with my father. We’re two bachelors in a big house who run into each other at odd hours and treat one another with respect, but we often go days without seeing each other. On Thursdays a lady comes to sweep the floors, wash the dishes that have piled up, and polish the furniture. I have an older brother, a software engineer, who lives in the hills with his family, and we go visit him sometimes. We take turns driving, because my father’s eyes get tired. We set out early on a Saturday and come back on Sunday after lunch to avoid the traffic.
But the story I want to tell is a different one. Something I’ve never told anyone.
My brother, the one who lives in the hills, isn’t my original brother. He’s something in the body of my brother, something that replaced him. Many years ago my brother disappeared in the woods and never returned—what I mean is, he returned, but it wasn’t him. It’s not that he was different or changed. It was someone else entirely. Someone else who came into our family and devoured it from the inside.
It was 13 April. I remember the date perfectly because it was my mother’s birthday. It was a Sunday that year, and we went for a barbeque at a little place on Route 9, the road to Zenón Pereyra. On Sundays the barbeque joints fill up with people who park under the trees and spend the whole day there, listening to the football game with their car doors open, but on that particular Sunday there was hardly anyone. Just one couple, who ate and left early.
Well, behind the grills, on the other side of a fence, there were some woods. It was a cluster of those trees they call evergreens, which had sprung up at the mouth of the canal, and their dropped needles carpeted the ground. If you walked just a hundred meters in it was a really ugly place, with broken glass sticking out of the mud, rusted sheet metal, bloated, decomposing dead dogs, and rats the size of cats scurrying among the rubble. That’s where the one who took over my brother’s body came from.
There’s a photo of that afternoon. I have it here as I’m writing because it marks the exact moment that everything began to fall apart. There we are, the four of us, in front of the trees, the blue trunk of the Dodge to one side. My mother, still young, has one eye closed because the sun was in her face. A cigarette smolders between my father’s fingers. My brother is smiling, with the headphones of his Walkman around his neck. It’s a huge smile, a smile that says: look at me, I’m seventeen, I’m new to the world, I’m on fire! His smile is forever frozen in that photo. It’s the last time we’ll see it.
After that picture was taken we had cake, and then my parents unfolded their lounge chairs and fell asleep. I sat against a tree and started reading a comic book. I wasn’t paying attention to my brother. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes went by, then my mother opened her eyes and asked me where he was, her eyebrows scrunched up with worry. She must’ve had a nightmare, one of her “premonitions.” I shrugged. I didn’t know. My mother walked over to the fence and called for him. She shouted his name several times. She woke my father up, and the three of us called for him. Then we heard the snap of a branch breaking, and my brother came out from the trees with his headphones on. He just stared at us. I get chills remembering his expression.
“Do us all a favor and take those out of your ears,” my mother scolded him.
My brother took a minute to react. When he did, he moved his hand to remove the headphones with a gesture that was not his own. That’s when I first suspected that something wasn’t right, something hard to put your finger on. But I didn’t say anything. What could I say? We got in the car and drove home.
A month later they took him to the doctor, the first one, Dr. Ferro. He X-rayed his head and ran some tests, then he talked to my parents. Physically, he said, my brother was fine, that maybe the problem had to do with adolescence, the typical excess of hormones, rejection of the world, even depression. Who isn’t depressed at seventeen?
So he gave us the number of a psychologist, who talked to my brother and gave my parents the same diagnosis as Ferro, that their son was healthy, perfectly healthy. A bit quiet, a bit withdrawn, but healthy.
“Doctor, you don’t understand,” my mother said. “The boy is a different person. He’s not my son.”
The psychologist shrugged. “Your son is suffering from mood swings because of his age. You’re just going to have to accept it.”
But my mother did not accept it. She took him to more doctors, a homeopathic specialist, a parapsychologist, traditional healers. She was obsessed. She eventually lost control of her life, smoking excessively, neglecting her appearance, suffering long periods of insomnia in which one single idea bounced frantically around in her head like a pinball. My brother was a different person, and she couldn’t be around him. She couldn’t stand his presence. Before, she had been annoyingly affectionate, always mussing up his hair and telling him he was more handsome every day—things moms say to their sons—but ever since that afternoon in the woods she couldn’t touch him. She had trouble even being near him. His presence made her nervous. The same thing happened to my father and I. It was like some part of your body felt an instinctive revulsion toward him. You felt like going far away and never coming back.
We didn’t talk too much about it. I remember speaking to my dad about it only once. We were sitting in the car, outside the sports pavilion where I had my gym class. He’d insisted on driving me, even though I always walked or rode my bike, and when I was about to get out of the car he said he wanted to ask me something. He thought for a second. “Have you noticed it?”
I nodded my head. “He breathes different,” I said.
I shared a room with him, and I heard him at night.
“Different, weird. He breathes like he’s another person. And sometimes I turn on the light and he’s sitting up in bed with his eyes open. He scares me.”
My father was silent for a minute and then he finally said, “Your mother is depressed. Help her out. Don’t cause any trouble. Behave, OK?”
I was about to tell him about the dreams. About the dream I’d had the night before. But I decided not to.
“Yeah,” I said, and I got out of the car.
The dreams were all more or less the same. My brother was walking through the house without turning on any lights or making any noise. He walked over to the photos hanging on the wall, and he looked at them. He stood over my bed, or over my parents’ bed, looking at us. His eyes were completely black. Then he lay back down.
My mother had dreams, too, but I didn’t know about them until much later. She dreamed about—as she said—“your real brother.” My real brother, she said, was at the bottom of a well, underground. The well was very deep. The opening at the top looked to him like a little coin of light way up high, and he’d ripped off all his nails trying to climb up to it. He was skinny; you could see his ribs. He screamed and screamed.
“I wake up panicking, and I pray to God that I’ll never have that dream again,” my mother told me. “And God listens, but only sometimes.”
One day my mother looked at my brother and said, “Why don’t you just leave?”
“Calm down,” my father said.
We were having lunch with the television on. It was a Saturday or a Sunday. My brother stabbed a raviolo, brought it to his mouth, and chewed without taking his eyes off the television.
“I know who you are. I know perfectly well,” said my mother, nodding her head.
“Calm down,” my father repeated.
My mother got up and went out onto the patio to smoke.
By that point the house was a lonely place. A few months after the incident in the woods my brother’s friends stopped coming over. They didn’t offer any explanations. Later on, my mother ran into one of them on the street, and he told her that being alone with my brother gave him goose bumps, and he showed her his arms; even just thinking about my brother gave him goose bumps. The same thing happened with our relatives and even some neighbors that had always stopped by before. My brother made them uncomfortable. So they stopped coming over.
I’d wake up screaming in the night, and my father would come in and turn on the light.
“Did you do something to him?” he asked my brother aggressively, sounding like he wanted to punch him.
My brother would just turn over and pretend to be asleep.
I don’t know how long things went on like that. Months probably. Months of tense meals, months of my mother crying in the laundry room, months in which we all preferred to be anywhere but home. One morning the secretary came into my classroom and started whispering to my teacher, glancing over at me. Then the teacher told me to put away my things. My father was waiting in the office. His face said that something had happened, something bad.
“Your mom had a nervous breakdown,” he explained in the car, shaking his head. “She attacked your brother with a knife.”
I found out later that my mother had made the mistake of telling first the police and then a psychologist her theory about the change in my brother. She explained that he’d been replaced by a spirit that lives in the trees, something she’d read about in a magazine. The spirit would live in his body until it had used it up, and then it would jump into another body, and then another, and another. It was like a parasite. And all she’d done was try to free it. That’s what she told them.
They took her to a psychiatric hospital, and they wouldn’t let us see her for fifteen days. She needed to be stabilized, the psychiatrist told my father. We went to see her for the first time on a Sunday afternoon. My brother still had bandages on his face and arms because he had needed stitches for some of the knife wounds. We sat at a concrete table on the patio, watching the other patients who had visitors. After a while my mother was brought out by a nurse, a fat woman, who led her by the arm. My mother shuffled toward us wearing a blue tracksuit and holding out her hands in front of her as if she were blind. When she recognized my brother, from a distance, she started shouting and struggling against the nurse’s grip. Another nurse had to come over, and between them they restrained her and gave her an injection.
Since then, only my father and I go to visit.
We go every Sunday, and we’ve been repeating the ritual for over twenty years now. We bring her cigarettes, chocolate, magazines. My mother is increasingly absent, lost. When she leans in to whisper in my ear I can smell the rottenness of her breath, a dense, heavy smell. She always says the same thing, “Don’t let yourself be left alone with him. He’s bad; he’s full of hate. He hates all three of us. He hates us because we’re different. Do you understand, my love?”
I say that I do. That I understand.
Every family has their own song, the song they sing every day. A song made up of expressions that allow them to live together, pass the time, not think. As long as they keep singing this song the hearth will remain lit. And when the song goes silent the family explodes like a huge bomb, and its members are blasted like shards in every direction. That’s why we all sing the same song every day, to stay together, to keep the hearth alight.
A few months ago I had to take a trip on one of those buses that stops in every little town along the way. It was a horrible trip: the reading lights were broken, the seats wouldn’t recline, the heating was on way too high. At one point in the night I woke up, disoriented. The bus had stopped in a tiny town. The bus station had three platforms, and it was dark. There was a dog sleeping on the oily ground, and leaning against a column was a man with a big Adidas duffle bag on his shoulder. I remember thinking how depressing it would be to live in a town like this. And then I looked at the man, and I saw it was my brother. I felt an ice-cold knife stab into my spine: it was my brother. It was my brother, the real one. He had a few strands of gray in his hair and had put on a few extra kilos, but it was him, by God and the Virgin Mother. I should have stood up, stopped the bus, shouted like a madman, but the truth is I remained glued to my seat. The bus started to pull away, and I didn’t do anything. I covered my face and sat like that for a long while until the lights of the town disappeared and we were once again submerged in the monstrous darkness of the open road.
Now we’re sitting in the backyard of his house in the hills, my brother and I.
It’s just an ordinary Sunday, a warm Sunday that says summer is near. My father, my brother’s wife, and their son are napping inside. But he and I stayed here, under the trees, looking out at the mountains and listening to the murmur of the creek that runs nearby. Enjoying the tranquility. We haven’t said a word in twenty minutes.
I look at my brother. He looks at me.
Who are you? I want to ask him. What are you?
But I decide it’s better not to know. After all, he’s family.
Image: Gregory Crewdson, from “Beneath the Roses” (2003-8)
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