“If your twin brother is the Messiah, what does that make you? This question squirms at the fiery-hot and killer-cold heart of Amanda Leduc’s delightfully strange and beautiful, ‘The Resurrectionist.’”
—Zsuzsi Gartner, Thomas Morton Memorial Prize Judge
When the hurricane came, our house was the only one in the neighbourhood that didn’t lose power, or at least not for long. The moment it happened, George stuck his finger into one of the open sockets down in the basement—Daddy had uncovered them expressly for this purpose—and the light from his hands made the whole house thrum back into business. Mama returned to Sunday dinner like nothing had happened. I think she gave a small thanks to Whomever that the food in the downstairs freezer wouldn’t go to waste, but that was about it.
We didn’t worry about winds knocking trees over onto the house, either, because George was on the lookout for that, too. He came back up from the basement and sat in his living room chair, rocking and looking out the window. The rain lashed against the glass and every now and then you could hear another tree fall to the ground, but it was never one of ours. If you watched him you could almost see it—George’s halo, or whatever it was, wisping out to touch the trees, marking them all, not this one, not this one. Save this house.
He sat in that chair and watched the world rage on outside long after all the rest of us had gone to bed. We didn’t even dream.
In the morning, he went out on the front steps of the house and received the neighbourhood, all the laptops and cell phones and tablets that anyone could carry. One tap of his index finger against your iPhone’s socket and you were powered up for a good three days—the power of God in your phone now, the inner circuits and wires and motherboards of your computer humming some silent, divine song. People who were unused to his heat peeled off their clothes as they approached our front door. They came in tank tops and wife beaters and lacy maroon bras. One woman, frazzled by the hurricane or amped up on the joy of being saved or whatever, had gone completely topless by the time she reached his step. She held her cell phone out to George, careful not to touch him. Everyone knew what that mistake could mean.
“Thank you,” she said. She was very polite. “Thank you, and God bless.”
He didn’t notice. Or maybe he was trying so hard to notice that I couldn’t tell the difference. He just touched her phone—one little flick, and everything lit up like normal—and sent her on her way. I watched her pull her sweater back on as she moved back down the street and into the cold.
George kept at it all day, and the next. Mama brought him food at two-hour intervals—one thing we’d learned over the years was that the light of God came at a price, one you could measure in stalks of broccoli and slabs of nearly-raw beef, cans of kidney beans and barbecued chicken breasts, a dozen eggs gone just to George for breakfast. When he turned fourteen Mama discovered quinoa and if she hadn’t been past praying by that point—what do you pray for when your own son is the Messiah, or close enough that no one can tell the difference?—I think she would have fallen on her knees and cried.
He sat, and said nothing, and device by device he powered up the neighbourhood. At certain points I came down beside him and fed him while he worked. I hated doing it, but if he took food breaks that meant people would be lined up at our house for that much longer, so I shut up and passed slices of meat into his mouth and didn’t say anything. After a while he shooed me away—he didn’t say why, but I knew he was embarrassed about it too.
By ten p.m., pretty much anyone who wanted a working cell phone had already come by. It had started to rain earlier in the evening and the last few people who came up to George were soaked, but hopeful. No matter how many times people saw him do his thing it remained the same: infinitely mysterious, infinitely surprising. Like watching a dog do math, my grandfather had said, once. He died soon after that.
This was the second year in a row that a hurricane had come to town, and the second year in a row that George had acted as the neighbourhood generator. The funniest part about all of it was our neighbours, Millie and Rob. Last year, after Hurricane Irene cut the power for almost a week, they’d gone out and bought a generator. Instead of coming to George with their electronics, they fired it up on their front porch and sat defiant on their steps. They watched the long line of pilgrims move to our front porch and then disperse. Every now and again Rob would cough, stand up and make a show of patting down the generator, as if to remind our wayfarers that he and Millie could fix their cell phones too, without calling on God, so there.
But no one came to them, at least not that first day. George saw everyone, and when there were no more people in the line he stumbled back into the house and went to bed.
I sat up for a while, watching the window, waiting for someone else to come and drop their mechanical hearts onto our porch. The world stayed dark and quiet. Just before midnight, someone came shuffling up across the front lawn. I couldn’t see who it was. They stayed hunched in the shadow of the trees before the window—a small shape, man or woman, beast or child, shivering with some kind of resigned expectancy. Hood and hat pulled down over strings of hair. Coat that looked too thin for the weather. A hand came out, hovered just above the window glass, almost knocked.
I stood on the other side of the window, pressed my palm against its cold surface. Felt my heart slow down to infinite beats. It was the way I felt around George sometimes, like oxygen was a poor substitute for what we were all supposed to breathe.
I should have gone to the front door, but I didn’t. Instead I just stood there, my hand out, until the person on the other side of the glass withdrew their arm and stepped back from the house. In movies, the person would have faded into mist, or disappeared in a clap of thunder. In real life, they just walked back out to the road.
I closed the curtains and went upstairs to bed. George’s light was on—a thin shimmer of white shining from beneath his door—but I didn’t go in.
When we were in the womb together, I felt George’s heat like an extra heart. I could touch his growing fingers across our amniotic sea and think instantly of beaches, even though I hadn’t yet seen them, didn’t know what they were. We kicked and slept and dreamed of palm trees. I didn’t know what it meant to be alone.
When we came out, pulled squalling and purple into the world, I felt ice for the very first time. Those latex hands so cold and slick. The smiles, the cries of wonder as George’s light lit up the room. The doctors took off their long white coats, rolled up their sleeves, tried to remember the words we used for prayer. Oh God Oh God, I remember someone saying.
Years later, Mama told me I was wrong.
“You couldn’t possibly have known,” she said. “You’ve been reading old newspapers. You were so cold when they brought you out—nearly blue. They put you in an incubator right away.”
“Someone said it,” I told her. “Maybe it was you. Or Daddy.”
She laughed. “I didn’t believe in God, Gabby. You’re such a romantic. I don’t know where you get that from.”
I’m still cold, all these years on. Even beaches are an echo of what I’d imagined them to be.
Earlier that year, for a science project, George made a resurrection machine, complete with squirrel. He brought in a road kill squirrel he’d found in the ditch, put it in a cage, then set the cage on a table laid with white cloth. He invited people to come up and find a heartbeat on the animal using one of Daddy’s stethoscopes; when no one could, they all agreed the squirrel was dead. Then George shoved a finger into the squirrel’s mouth and it jumped away from his hand, screeching. He let it run around the cage for a few wonderstruck moments, and then George tipped it out onto the table and suddenly there was a knife in his hand and he lunged forward and speared the squirrel through the heart and held it out to us like it was some kind of prize. The squirrel’s tail twitched and then went limp.
“Gabby,” he said. “Can you help me take the knife out?”
I didn’t want to, but no one said no to George. I didn’t even have a science project that year—why bother? So I stepped out from the little crowd that had gathered—these stupid girl students squealing in horror, these equally stupid teachers looking uncomfortable and not sure what to do—and put my hand around the knife. It had a gilt handle. I think it had been hanging in Daddy’s office. I pulled it out with no trouble. George lifted the squirrel back into its cage and put a finger inside the squirrel’s mouth again, and before you could blink, the ugly red slit in its chest had closed and the squirrel was leaping from side to side in the cage, gnawing on the metal bars, the whites of its eyes brilliant and uncomprehending.
George waited a few minutes, until the uneasiness in the wrinkles around the teacher’s mouth had fled in wake of wonder, and then he tipped the squirrel out and did it all again.
He killed the squirrel seven times that day. He’d probably have kept going if the principal hadn’t come up and asked him, politely, to stop.
“It’s a great project, George,” she said. “But you’re making people ill.”
I helped him pack up—we threw the squirrel in a garbage bin just outside the gymnasium door—and made him wash his hands before we left the school.
“It doesn’t matter,” he tried to say, but I wouldn’t listen. “You think something like germs can kill me?”
“I don’t want Mama to kill you,” I said. I stood outside the bathroom door and pitched my voice into the room, into his head. When he came out, I checked to make sure that he’d scrubbed every last bit of blood away.
“There,” he said. “I pass the test?” His nails were white and clean.
“What happened to all the blood?” I asked. There’d been so much of it. At one point I wondered if we’d ever be rid of it—if red blood cells marked the skin like some kind of divine tattoo.
George shrugged. “It went down the sink,” he said. “Just like everything else.”
By the time we got home Mama was waiting for both of us, rigid in her chair at the head of the table.
“You think it’s funny?” she said. The words were for George but she spoke them to me. “Playing with life like that?”
“Mama,” he said. “It was only a squirrel.”
“The principal didn’t call me about a squirrel,” she said. Last year she and Daddy had rigged up a tiny electric fence around the edges of our roof; we knew she had no love for squirrels. “The principal called me because your experiment made half the school sick. You’re not thinking, George. And Gabby—you’re not helping.” She stopped, looked at us for one long moment.
“It’s not death,” George said, finally. “What I show them. What I do. You know that.”
I thought about the squirrel then—the terrified eyes, that cage within a cage. The blood that just kept coming, pumped from some deep, cosmic fountain. One red blood cell and then two and then three. Not death, maybe, but not really life either. Blood cells like magic. Blood cells like fleas. An animal perched on the precipice of death, snatched back from oblivion again and again and again.
When I was a child I wore three coats in the winter, and two coats through the spring. My happiest days were the ones when the air shimmered with smog and too much summer, when the city issued heat warnings and told everyone to stay inside. When it was dangerous to look at the sun. I would sneak outside and lay on the grass beneath the backyard trees, stretch out my arms and wait for ants to march across my skin. The tiny footsteps of insect military. I could be warm then. I could feel like a whole person.
George hated the heat. For him it must have felt like being inside your own inferno—one hundred-plus degrees everywhere, no matter where you went. Sometimes I’d sit up in the yard and see him staring out at me from inside the house. The air conditioning was always on, but in the summer our house felt like a fridge. The power company had hooked us up to the grid for free, way back in the days when George’s hot little hands saved the town from its first tornado. In the summer, my parents and I went around in long johns and thermal socks, and when George stood under an ice-cold shower for hours at a time no one grumbled about the water.
He came out on the grass with me once, when we were seven. We laid down side by side, and I closed my eyes and felt my heartbeat slow, smelled the pleasant whiff of singed grass. With George there the heat was even better. I could pretend that things were like they had been in the womb—dark yet brilliant, warm and alive.
When I opened my eyes the ants had flocked to him like pilgrims, hope tingling in the twitches of their feet. The light, maybe. The warmth, maybe more. The way that flies will buzz straight to your porch lights, your rickety lanterns. When they reached the top of his torso they burst into tiny bits of flame. The air smelled like burnt coconut.
He got up and brushed the ants off, then made as if to go back into the house. I stopped him. I was the only one who could do it without getting burnt. My hand so cold against his skinny arm. I felt the light of his halo pucker and push and then course through me. The warmth and joy were absolute. “Wait,” I said. “Don’t go.”
“I’m dizzy,” and he shook my hand away. I wondered if it felt strange to him then—that skin-to-skin contact, that whisper of what things had been like when we were growing together, before birth and life had thrown us out of balance. “I need to lie down.” As he slumped back to the house I felt the heat go with him.
Every time I sat out by myself after that, I’d think of him in our cold house, just waiting. He was Venus, or Mercury, that much closer to God, and I was Neptune, or maybe Pluto, that much closer to spinning out into eternal cold. He left a burnt brown angel outlined there against the grass. It disappeared the next time the rains came.
The power was out for a week. Every day brought another phalanx of devotees to our door—people from across town, people from out of town, people from half a day’s drive away. The hurricane had come hard and families up and down the coast were hurting.
Three days after the storm, all of our neighbours came back for a recharge. They brought twice as many things this time—laptops and cell phones, blenders, old GameBoys. One girl handed an electric toothbrush over with her BlackBerry.
“I haven’t brushed my teeth in two days,” she said. “Clean teeth really will feel like a miracle. Thank God for Listerine!”
I felt the snark rise in my mouth like laughter, or despair—why don’t you use a regular toothbrush, moron—but didn’t say anything. No one had come here to talk to me. George touched her toothbrush with one finger. The bristles were fraying and old.
“Thank you,” she said, when the toothbrush gave a merry little buzz. “I’m—I’m a real fan.”
“You should sleep,” I said to him, after she’d gone back down the steps. The next person approaching was the old man from four houses over—he had a dog that he walked in the park. He left his dog’s shit on the grass when he thought no one was looking, but I always saw. “You need to get some sleep.”
“I’m okay,” he said. “Really, Gabby. I’m fine.”
I fed him dried apricots one by one, and kept my eyes on the line of people at our door. Together, they were a shimmering human centipede. A hundred feet, a hundred hearts, a thousand marbled worries. When we ran out of apricots I dashed back inside and brought my brother an avocado. I scooped the flesh out and fed it to him, no complaining.
By the middle of the day people had stopping trying to make small talk—they came, they awed, they slinkered away. “Did you sleep at all?” I asked him. “Last night? Or the night before?”
“I had some sleep,” he said. His voice got lost beneath the sound of approaching feet. “It was enough.”
It was not enough. It was never enough. But we’d been at this for years now. People kept coming, for one reason or another.
He stayed on the porch long into darkness—after the neighbours had gone home, after the out-of-towners had climbed back into their SUVs and rumbled back to their ravaged cities. Until there were four people in line and then three and then two. Then one—the person in the hat and hood who had nearly knocked on our door the night before. Mysterious in the dark with me last night and now, mysterious in front of us again.
“ ‘The hurricane brought me here.’ ”
A hand came up and pushed the hood back and I saw it was a man, wrinkled and shivering. He reached out to my brother with a fistful of nothing.
“Stop,” I said. I stepped in front of George and the man touched me instead—my arm, right near the elbow. All of my fingers went numb.
“Gabby?” George said. He sounded so tired. “Are you okay?”
“She’s fine,” the man said. Up close I could see that his eyes were green and the stubble over his chin was flecked with grey, and gold. The colours made him shimmer. He was and was not there.
“I am fine,” I said. “I’m just cold.”
“You’re always cold,” George said. He got up, then inched forward to stand beside me, and spoke his next words to the man as though they were some kind of secret. “She’s the coldest person I know.”
“I think you should leave,” I told the man. I don’t know where the words came from. “We don’t need you here.”
The man watched me, and did not blink. His hand slid around my elbow and gripped it, hard. “I need you,” he said. “The hurricane brought me here.”
“Do you have a cell phone?” I said. My elbow numb now. My arm. My shoulder tingling, filled with music. “You can give it to me. I’ll give it to George.”
“I’m not interested in George,” the man said. “I was. But now I think I came here for you.”
The cold crept through me with slow, careful hands. My face belonged to someone else now, my mouth hardly my own.
“Gabby doesn’t have anything for you,” George said. He stood beside me now, as pale as God had always made him, his light so bright and hard, and he watched the man.. “Why would she? Give it all to me.”
The man let go of my arm then, and drew his hand away. The skin around my elbow had darkened into the shape of grasping fingers. I touched the mark and set myself on fire.
The flames were pale, but bright. Through them, I saw the man retreating. I heard George yell my name. He pushed me to the ground, covered my face with rough cloth. His shirt? A towel? I wasn’t sure. He pressed down hard. Roll, Gabby! he said. The words came to me from far away.
I thought about the ants then, even as I rolled across the porch. The way they climbed so willingly. The way that they believed. I rolled off the edge of the porch and into the bushes, crashed down into the leaves. I could have rolled forever. The warmth, the hot white mouth of death, the smell of burning through my hair.
The flames flickered through the bushes, then went out. I was still for a moment, heard my family tumble back to me from far away. When I turned my head to look out over the lawn, the man had disappeared.
Mama and Daddy and George came lurching round the corner, crowded around me like I was something lost.
I sat up. “I’m okay,” I said. I raised a hand and touched my eyebrow—everything still there, each small hair intact. I was cold again, like it had never happened.
“Gabby!” George blurted. He reached for my hand, and then remembered himself.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“He set you on fire,” George whispered. I’d never seen him look so scared. “I saw it.”
“I don’t think it was real fire,” I said. I held my palms up in front of them. “See? No burns.”
“He looked familiar,” Mama said. The worry lines all pinched around her mouth. “I can’t think from where.”
“You look tired,” Daddy said then, to me, and he bent down and picked me up. Normally I would fight against this but today it felt like a gift. To curl into his shoulders and his chest and close my eyes. To be the child that everybody worried about just this once.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Really. I don’t think anything happened.”
Except that it had happened, this dark and wonderful thing, this something that had gone now and left me feeling colder than before. Mama and George followed us into the house and down the hall to my room. They didn’t bother with the lights. Daddy put me down on the bed and Mama pulled a blanket up around my chin. I looked at my brother and almost said stay, because his halo was so huge in my room, so electric and charged. But he was becoming George again—all boredom, no fear. He left before Mama and Daddy did, and took the brightness with him.
When he was a baby, George burned every pilgrim that came to our door. Our parents had to hang a sign out on the porch. Please wear gloves if you want to touch the baby. Sometimes they would hand me over if someone looked especially disappointed—they could hold me, and look at George, and pretend it was somehow the same. Eventually my parents got a pair of special oven mitts—quilted, lined with Pyrotex—that bakers wore to pull pizzas from ovens. They hung them in the garage and brought them out when the faithful came calling.
The scientists who came to study George clocked the temperature of his halo at a range of 100 to over 500 hundred degrees. No one could hold him for longer than five minutes, even with the mitts on. And even if you wore the gloves, there was no guarantee—nothing would save you if George wanted to touch your face. As a baby, he was the opposite of healing. The burns that he left on people’s cheeks were small and red and shiny, and never went away.
“I don’t know how you survived,” people would say to our mother, over and over as the years went by. “With that inside of you. It’s a miracle. It truly is.”
“Well,” Mama would say. “It wasn’t a miracle. It was all about balance.” She wouldn’t say anything else, and people would stumble away from her and George just like all the rest of the saints must have done throughout history when meeting the divine—invigorated, holy, confused.
What she meant, of course, was that she survived because of me. The ordinary daughter. The girl whose only gift was the absence of what made the other child so special.
There were no more hurricanes that year, and the green-grey-gold man did not come back, even though I looked for him, prayed hard, imagined. I took to wearing short-sleeved shirts to school, even as the winter came and went. I could rarely feel my hands but when I looked down at my left elbow I’d see the fingers, shimmering darker every day, and remember. Other students bit their nails when exam time came; I put my palm against that stenciled hand and prayed for a heat that would burn me beyond knowledge, beyond envy.
Sometimes when I blinked I’d see that squirrel in front of me, its black eyes staring out from the face of an unsuspecting neighbour or student. Black eyes that shifted into green just for an instant. Sometimes the shift was so quick and so vivid I would drop whatever I was holding. Papers scattered all across the floor, pieces of chalk that fumbled from my numb and frozen fingers. Once, even a glass that shattered on the kitchen tile when Mama turned to me and I saw the whites of her eyes flip in terror, her snarls and small sharp teeth gnawing at the air.
It was always an illusion. George spent most of his time in his room. When we were at school, he took the seat at the back of class, nearest the door. He doodled in his notebooks, and did not answer questions, and his halo shone brighter than ever, so bright that everyone pulled their desks away from him and as close to the front as they could. The teachers began to wear sunglasses.
There were no more resurrections—at least, none that I knew of. If it was George who was frying the squirrels on our roof now, and not Mama and Daddy’s little electric fence, no one said anything about it.
Summer came early that next year, another gift. The first day that the temperature climbed over 95, I stripped down to my underwear and lay on the lawn. The heat pooled and collected along the inside of my arm. It was a delicious burn, if there could be such a thing.
When I heard footsteps beside me on the grass, I turned my head, expecting to see George. It was only my mother.
“You look warm,” she said. She climbed down beside me and stretched out her arms so that our fingers were almost touching.
“I am.” I turned my face away from her and watched the sun climb instead. It didn’t bother me like it bothered other people.
“You said he looked familiar,” I said then. “That man. Familiar how?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been trying to remember and I can’t.” Her fingers brushed my own, then crept away. “You’re not talking to your brother.”
“George is not talking to me.”
“He might have come to see us before,” she said. “When you and George were younger. There were so many people—it’s hard to recall all the faces. I’m sorry.”
“George hardly ever talks to me. That hasn’t changed.”
She sighed. “He’s going through a lot, you know.”
“So am I.”
She caught and held my hand this time. “I know, sweetie.” After a while she got up and brushed the grass and bits of dirt away from her jeans. “Supper soon,” she said. “Don’t stay out too long.”
When she left, I watched her go. She slid into the house, a dark spot of nothing next to George, who was watching again from the patio door. I turned away from them both and faced the backyard shed, all sagging wood and rusted beams.
I don’t care, I thought, even as another little voice said, you’re a liar.
That’s when the ants started coming. I heard them marching up, felt them tinkle across my folded back, plod their whispers across my neck. Pool mysteries into my collarbone. I flipped back onto the grass, felt some of them collapse under the weight.
But they kept coming, marching slowly, one by one. They crawled over my collarbone and up towards my ribs.The ants that touched the handprint in my elbow shimmered as they climbed. They scaled my ribcage like a ladder and when they reached the centre of my sternum they exploded into bits of ash and flame. The fire licked my hips and ran back along my hands and throbbed along the handprint scar. I felt the grass around me shudder, crisp away.
George did not come out to get me, even though I know he saw. The flames burned and swirled and made no sound. I grasped my elbow, lined my fingers up with the handprint, and felt my insides flock together, ignite. Everything burning at once. The ants kept coming, faster and faster, a drum of fealty with no end. Stop, I wanted to tell them. Stop stop stop. You don’t know what you’re doing.
Later, when we went over the grass, we saw the lines of their pilgrimage radiate out from the burnt stencil of my outline, like the green-gold light of stars.
Amanda Leduc’s stories and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in PRISM International, Found Press, Big Truths, The Rumpus, Crossed Genres, ELLE Canada, TinctureJournal, Little Fiction, filling Station, Prairie Fire, and other publications across Canada, the US, Australia, and the UK. Her fiction and non-fiction were both long-listed in their respective categories for the 2014 CBC Canada Writes competition, and her novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men, was published in 2013 by Toronto’s ECW Press. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she is at work on her next book.