In the second grade, every song was a handful of orange Tic Tacs rolling around my tongue: I knew all the words, could feel them tangy, round, and smooth, but didn’t care which one was which. I could sing back the Beatles perfectly with the words all smashed together. I was the first one to memorize any song the music teacher sang us. My favorite was The Ghost Ship. The words meant nothing to me, but the melody was full of ragged sails and midnight hurricanes. I twas all port and starboard, I sang it ‘til the winds ran out of me. My little brother was four years younger, but two steps ahead.
He memorized the shapes my mouth made, practiced them tirelessly. We shoved the words at each other as through it was a competition to see who could get them out the fastest, who could drew them out the longest. And the cold wind blew. By the time it was his turn to learn it in music class four years later, he already knew the song so well, he confused the teacher.
My fist-chested brother. A fireplace shotgun, waiting for his chance.
Little girls learn how to sing The Perfect Man before we ever know what the lyrics mean. Strong arms, good hair, wide eyes, brave heart, big money, kind hands. We build model ships in bottles, whispering life into the toothpicks and wire; we make plans and blueprints for the one we hope is coming. And come they do. Fleets and vessels. Battleships and barges. They arrive on the horizon, flags to the sky.
I have seen what can happen when a woman tries to make a dinghy into a galleon. Sometimes a rowboat is all you need. Sometimes a whaler. A ferry. Our model ships look perfect in their bottles, but we do not know if they are seaworthy. Sometimes the one that reaches your harbor has already been through the storm. Sometimes you cannot see the leaking until you are so close. Until you are already out to sea. Trying to batten down the hatches. Bailing the water pooling at your ankles. Manning the rigging alone.
My little brother pushed off from shore before the tide had turned his way. Always two steps ahead. For years, I didn’t want him going under. I tried to anchor him against the storms, threw him safety nets and buoys, trained myself in CPR I have known so many men whose hulls have been made hollow by the salt of this sea, whose sails are pulled so tightly into the wind, whose rudders no longer point to anything but drowning. How do you keep a boy floating? How do you keep him above the ache?
Men will drift eternal. Men will say, It’s just a scratch, when the cannons have shot them full of holes.
They will look at their tiny driftwood tied with strings and say, Ship. They will look at the broken wheel between their hands and say, Captain. They will look at the men who have jumped overboard without them and say, Crew. Today my brother is twenty-years handsome. He is smirk and motor. Femur strong and decision heavy. His desks have been worn down by the feet of others, but his compass always points north. I can hear the cabin creak. The chains rattle. The ladders sag.
It has been a decade since I heard him sing.
We are in Ireland, a country we have never been to. I have rented us a car I cannot drive and I have been maneuvering us gracelessly through the green, green, countryside toward the cliffs of the western coast. The rain is a diligent mother who checks on us every few hours. The sky is endless gray. My brother’s quiet fills the car like a family holiday. I turn on the radio to mask the fog. The shoreline arrives beneath us suddenly, the way all shorelines do: full and vast, crumbling away at all our stubborn solidness.
And there, standing against the crashing sea, sits the massive body of a shipwreck, as though all of history has been gifted to us. We are giddy with adventure. We are skipping over the rocks, we are shouting to the wild horses and the ocean’s roar. The jagged porthole opens to us, we pull ourselves into the boat’s hungry mouth. It is empty and whole Full of speed ahead. Prow to stern. Fore and aft. We climb until we are scraped and muddy. Rust children with lighthouse eyes. And together we start to sing the words we have known since childhood. As though they have been drifting through us, lost at sea, waiting for the right current to find safe harbor.
Oh, Brother. No matter your wreckage. There will be someone to find you beautiful, despite the cruddy metal. Your ruin is not to be hidden behind paint and canvas. Let them see the cracks. Someone will come to sing into the empty spaces. Their voice will echo off your insides like a second-grader and her little brother -four years younger, two steps ahead.
Singing ’til the metal vibrates. ‘Til the ghost ship rings.