Benjamin’s Black Tides
by Chris Yodice
Benjamin was sad; more so, he was confused. It went beyond the new and constant tumult in his belly, though this was troublesome enough. On the first day, he had found his body held in thrall by a merciless pressure that began in his head and seemed to wring every muscle, bone, and cell below. This had yielded slightly and, four days on, the boy had persuaded himself that these physical effects would subside. The questions, though, had pushed forward through the black tides of grief and now lay exposed, unwilling to be buried without first being tended.
What was certain was that his grandfather was dead.
Benjamin knew of death, or so he had thought. Television and comics had introduced him to the concept at a young age, younger than his mother appreciated. For such entertainments, however, he had no need to contemplate the topic in any depth. This was good; he had found early that any more than a passing thought on the subject brought him an uncomfortable sensation, a vague buzzing that he could not attribute to a particular part of his body. Mostly, though, his ears hummed and he could not seem to still the tremors in his fingers.
He knew that real people died too. George Washington was dead, as was Abraham Lincoln. He was pretty sure that John Lennon was dead; his third grade teacher was a Beatles fan and had played their music for the class one day in December.
Benjamin had accepted these deaths easily, with no tears and no questions. “Dead” was a part of who they were, a defining characteristic as absolute as their wooden teeth and funny beards. Now, though, he cried, as he had for days, since his mother first told him.
“Why?” he had asked her, ignoring the buzz that swelled within him. In the early hours, she did not have an answer. She had cried her own tears, a reservoir full it seemed, and she spoke in quiet tones with her brothers and sisters. She even had a relatively long conversation with Benjamin’s father when he called on that first night. But to her son’s questions, she responded, “I don’t know.”
And Benjamin found a measure of relief in her words. With his question, and the dark anticipation of her response, what ran through him had grown in its intensity, an electric current whirring through a circuit that traced his whole body and cut back and forth through his insides. He wanted to know the answer, more than most anything, he thought, but he was wary of what was happening in him. As his mother’s tired admission closed that first conversation, his unexplained feelings subsided to tears and remembrances that he did not welcome but, also, did not fear.
She came to him today, pretty, yet pale, wearing a dress again. She had worn a dress for the past three days.
Benjamin was sitting at the dining room table, schoolbooks laid out before him. It was not exactly a homework assignment he had intended to do; more accurately, it was schoolwork that had been sent home. It was heartless, but there was no reprieve for this week off. No matter, he was thinking of other things anyway and had been absently watching the twitch that now ran from his fingertips to his forearms.
“Let’s talk,” his mother said as she walked in, pausing briefly by the counter to put down the thick book that she had carried in with her. Her voice was gentle, yet stronger than he had heard it in some time. She sat down beside him, pulling the chair next to his even closer, and wiping his cheek with the back of her fingers.
She spoke about Grandpa and his life. He worked hard, she said, very hard until the end, just to get by. He loved his wife and his children and they made him happy. His grandchildren, too. It made up for the work. Then she spoke of his death. He had not been sick, at least not noticeably so, and that was good. So he enjoyed his days until his body, which had been slowly and stealthily darkening on the inside, just stopped.
Benjamin’s mother did not cry as she told him these things, not fully, but her eyes welled early and retained their glaze throughout. She used terms that he was not always familiar with, even though he was smart for eight years old and especially good at vocabulary, but she tried to explain.
Benjamin listened intently, trying to focus as her words were challenged by an aggressive hum that crescendoed into an electric roar that only he could hear. He felt that his entire body was shaking with this charge. He imagined he must be glowing with it. His mother did not seem to notice.
“Everybody dies,” she said.
With these words, a sharp crack sounded in Benjamin’s ears and the unbridled energy that had threatened to consume him was gone. But it wasn’t, really; something remained. While his limbs felt nearly weightless with the sudden absence of buzzing, Benjamin realized that the force — all of it, it seemed — was focused in his head, different now, and silent. But powerful. This new manifestation did not drown out his thoughts and questions, but lent them a deep strength he had not known before.
With a new clarity, he considered what his mother had said. He may well have realized the truth of it already, but the knowledge had existed only as an abstraction. Her words made it plain; everyone dies — but when? Here was a new concern, dredged up by the certainty of his mother’s statement.
“Do you have to be old to die?” Benjamin asked.
His mother turned to look at the book she had put down. It held her attention as he watched the clock turn from 4:16 to 4:17. He felt waves rolling in his head. She looked back at him.
“No,” she said. “People who die are usually old, but not always.”
His mind flashed at this answer. The waves rose and crashed relentlessly, and suddenly Benjamin knew nothing else. He could not have controlled them, even had such a thought occurred to him; it didn’t. In the gasps between one fall and the next, he saw the faces of people he knew, people old and young. That of a black-haired boy, Benjamin’s age, remained as the force inside Benjamin began to recede to its previous state.
In the moment that followed, Benjamin’s friend Arthur tumbled down the stairs of his own house, cartwheeling initially, rolling in the middle, lying still at the bottom. Arthur was in Benjamin’s class and had been responsible for bringing him his assignments and notes for the week.
Arthur’s face faded in Benjamin’s mind; the outline remained but the details turned slowly to coal. Once it was completely dark, this silhouette was replaced, just for an instant, with an image of the boy’s body as it lay three houses away. Then it was gone.
This picture puzzled Benjamin; it nearly brought him to tears though he did not know why. His emotion, however, was shortly replaced by relief that his mind was finally still. He looked to his mother. She was holding her breath. He didn’t know if she realized she was doing it.
Benjamin’s thoughts returned to their discussion.
“Animals die too.” He seemed to be telling her, not asking.
Benjamin watched his mother exhale. “Yes, animals too,” she said. She took his hand. “Everything.”
In the silence that followed, the waves came again. This time, they did not overtake him completely; though he could not stop them, he was able to keep himself from their churning midst. Detached, he watched as all manner of earth’s creatures tumbled by, pushed and pulled into the ensuing tempest. As the furor faded they disappeared, all but a dark shadow above — a living cloud, wings flapping and sounding a desolate call.
As Benjamin sat, a noise came from a distance, a muffled thump, followed by two more, and a moment where the individual sounds merged into a deep, prolonged boom. A block away a flock of seagulls lay unmoving on the tarred roof of an old garage. Benjamin had often watched these birds twirl and dive in the sky when he and his mother walked to town. It would be many weeks before they were found.
This time, though, Benjamin knew they were dead. And, having watched the work of the waves, he knew why.
His mother looked at her watch. The shine from its silver face caught Benjamin’s attention. He knew that she had to go out again tonight. To see Grandpa.
“I know this isn’t easy,” she said. “Death is tough to understand. I don’t understand it. And you’re being very brave.” Her sentences were clipped and coming out fast. She stopped. Her next statement was slower and unexpected. “You’ll always be taken care of.”
If he had learned anything in the past few minutes it was that she shouldn’t be so sure of that. He knew his parents loved him but...
Benjamin once again felt the threat of raging waters in his mind. He focused and tried to quell the force of what he now knew was in him. It was like wrapping his arms around a great ocean and, in the end, his efforts were not enough.
Across town, Benjamin’s father, the estimable lawyer, sat before an expansive desk. He looked up from the papers that covered it and reached for the phone. As he lifted the receiver, his eyes widened. He made a noise, a gurgle, exaggerated by adult standards, put his hands to his head, and fell to the floor. His office was now quiet.
Benjamin’s mother squeezed his hand. “Honey?” she said, “Are you all right?” His gaze had shifted to the front windows; his thoughts to all the life that existed beyond them. He turned back to her and saw her smile, her eyes red still, but relieved.
“I’m okay,” he said, with one more glance out the window. Nothing was moving.
She kissed him on the cheek and ran her hand through her own hair. “Then I’m going to lie down for a bit.”
Benjamin knew she was sad, maybe sadder than he was. And this conversation had taken its own toll on them both. He followed her to her bedroom. Standing in the doorway, he watched her lie down and close her eyes.
He tried his best not to think or stir the waters.
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Yodice