AMONG GODS AND MEN
Our family owns a large bath. Many baths, though the one I am speaking of is the largest. It can hold three, four, perhaps even five people at a time, and every so often, I sink to the bottom of it and drown out my thoughts with the sound of the water filling.
My mother, a prosaic, slender woman, hates this “silly routine of mine”—I hear her French voice in my head telling me that. She refers to it as my ‘cachette,’ even though I am not hiding when I come here, especially since she often knows where to find me. It is no secret.
However, my mother is unaware of how often I find myself between the marble bottom of the bath and the water’s surface. Her guess is too many times a month; this is not always the case. Though lately, I’ve been here every night of the week. It is not by choice, to be here boiling my brain soft until I can no longer think. Like most things in my life, everything depends on the family. And everything is the family.
This year our state is to host the annual Governor Council’s New Year’s Gala. My father tells me our family has had the honor only a few times before. Once when he was a couple years older than myself, but that’s all we know. Even my mother knows nothing.
I do not know what to expect beyond what other states have done in past years. All the States’ great leaders and their families congregate with hot wine clutched between their leathered-gloved hands to celebrate the start of the coming year. There are usually fireworks, entertainment, and a great deal of food, except this year is different because it is Michigan’s turn to put on the show.
My brother will be on display, that I am sure of. He is older by twenty months, a firstborn, and treated as if destined to become a god. Xanthus is capable of the title, and he looks the part.
They got everything right in the lab: my father’s square jaw, my mother’s sharp green eyes, and her lithe form. My brother is blond, though no one else in the family is. This is a trait my parents claim came from one of the generations of Creel before us. As a firstborn, he is designed for perfection. As a second born, my parents did not select my features like they did with Xanthus.
Lean and of average height, I am nothing like my brother. He is a marble statue, lofty and fair. My complexion is much warmer than his, although overall I lack anything worth remembering. Not too unlike my mother now with her sunken cheeks and long graying hair, though I am told she was suitable in her youth. My hair is ash, the color of mushrooms, and my eyes are small and dull like sandpaper or wood that has been left out in the sun too long. I do not attract attention like my brother, because I am not supposed to. I am a second born.
My sole expectation is to uphold the family name, not to become governor. I show up where and when I am told, a warm body for events and a face for the press. Only ever flaunted when necessary. That is why I hate these events. That is why I drown myself in the bath.
These are my last thoughts before footsteps vibrate through the water and pull me from my thoughts. My eyes fling open and I wait a moment for them to leave before draining the water and stepping out.
When I get to my bedroom, I notice the homekeepers have placed my attire for the night on a gold hook near the fireplace. It is standard, a black suit and tie. My mother’s voice again: Homme chic. Classy man. Nothing at all like what Xanthus will be wearing tonight. My parents will have picked out some type of colorful ensemble to make sure he is seen.
Buttoning up the shirt, I realize the sleeves are much too long. They had the suit made to be the same size my brother was at my age, alleging there was no time to get my measurements. My slight, fourteen-year-old body cannot keep up with Xanthus who gets bigger by the day. At my age, it seemed he was already halfway a man. I still feel much like a child wearing adult clothes.
“Your father requested I give these to you.” My mother enters my room. “Xardin?”
I look up, finished tying my second shoe.
She holds one hand out to me while the other wrestles with an earring. I reach out and two small cuff links, each in the shape of the letter X, land in my palm. The same as my father and brother wear. I never knew my grandfather, but I expect he had the honor of wearing the X, as well.
I roll them around with my thumb, admiring the glints of silver. One of the points digs in too deep and breaks skin, forming a bubble of red. My mother and I exchange a glance, though I do not think she notices the blood.
“Put them on,” she tells me. “Your father and brother wait for us.”
I nod. My fingers clutch the long ends of the sleeves, smearing blood into the black fabric. Then I twist the cuff links in place. A contented expression appears on her face which catches my attention, and a grin slips out my mouth. Her eyes linger over the suit, missing my face completely.
* * * *
The gala, held in the enormous garden behind our mansion, is littered with apple blossoms and hundreds of heels that trample the fragile petals. The snow from this morning has melted away, thanks to the warmers beneath the dirt. A perfectly formed rectangle of grass meeting snow frames the space. The snow that continues to fall melts the moment it touches the ground.
Everything is set up perfectly. Tables laden with food line the perimeter. Six-foot-tall statues of half-naked sea nymphs decorate the space between the cherry blossoms, and from their marbled mouths, streams of champagne flow into bowls below. Five large fountains have been placed in various areas around the garden, as well, with neon koi fish
swimming in circles in the basins. Homekeepers carry gold serving trays with sweet treats and savory meats, all begging to be consumed. My mother ordered over sixty different possible starters and what seems like an unlimited amount of alcohol for tonight’s event. It is almost too much. Half of it will not be touched by the end of the night and the rest thrown away by morning.
Through the window, I observe the bodies of aging governors and their plastic wives mingling and drinking, while my mother tightens the back strap of my brother’s harness; a holster-like mid-layer that fits snug over his suit—sparkly, and garnet red to match the rest of his outfit. It’s supposedly fashionable these days for men to wear a body-crossing
contraption to attract attention.
I glance back at the seatbelt slung across his chest and roll my eyes. My mother is determined to have her firstborn son burned into the brains of every governor in attendance tonight.
“Xardin. What are you doing?” My father’s voice is austere. “Away from the window.”
I release the curtain and step away, back straight, shoulder blades squeezed tightly together.
“It’s fine, leave it!” Xanthus rips his shoulder away from Mother at the arrival of our father. The garment is pulled so quickly from her hands that it chafes them and she rubs them together to ease the abrasion.
“Handsome.” She smiles through her words. “Always handsome.”
He turns his back on her and is silent.
“It’s time,” my father announces, and the family makes themselves ready. I stare at the back of his head as he waits for the spotlight to land on the door. There is a countdown in my mind. Starting with five, I try to guess when the light might hit: five, four, three, two, one.
My hands start to sweat in anticipation, hyperaware of everything going on around me. Next to me, my mother shifts in her heels. Ahead, Xanthus’s right shoulder twitches, uncomfortable beneath the harness. Then there is my father. He faces forward. Stoic, stone-like. A man Medusa could not scare. I am unable to detect even a blink.
“Five, four, three, two, one,” I start to whisper. A flicker of my mother’s eyes hushes me.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. I think. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Five. Four. Three, Two— The spotlight lands on the door and my breath catches in my chest.
I slide my moist palms against my slacks as the door opens for us.
Michigan’s anthem sounds through every speaker within the garden. A crack of golden fireworks goes off and rains around the mansion as we are announced. Michigan’s colors shine across the sand-colored stone of our home when we step out, all of us waving. The people applaud with their wine and flutes of champagne lifted in the air. Those sitting rise to their feet. The light keeps me from noticing anyone in particular. It is impossible to see anything from where I am standing, and Xanthus’s shadow doesn’t help.
The introduction is over before I can begin to process it. My father says a few, light words to welcome everyone to Michigan and ends with a toast. More people applaud and more fireworks fire off at the end of his speech.
The music starts up again, and our family disperses into the crowd. My father and brother are handed short, round, amber-filled glasses by the Governor of Kentucky who is first to greet us. A third glass is forced into my hands by the man’s son. I take it, but do not drink.
My father notes this and eyes me when the attention is on Xanthus. His head moves, the barest shake of disappointment, and I feel there is nothing I can do other than drink. Though I can be good at pretending, he has always been better at catching me.
I hold the musky, stark liquid in my mouth until I become accustomed to the tang and sting, then swallow.
My father turns away from me and he and my brother move to a table near the front where the Governor of Washington introduces them to his family. Then it is the Governor of Arkansas they welcome next, and then the Governor of Maine.
I search for my mother who stands alone at a table veiled with an intricate display of macarons. I step off to the side, sauntering in her direction when a homekeeper, a short Bourgeoisie girl with a white scar on the left side of her upper lip, approaches me. She has a platter of caprese skewers resting in her hands. I turn my back to her and press the drink to my lips.
“Good evening, sir, would you care for a starter?”
I do not answer.
She stares at me a moment, almost as if deciding to speak again, then moves away from me, back out into the crowd. I swallow the bourbon singeing my tongue.
My eyes follow her as she bounces from person to person, the wisp of her dress licking the heels of men and women alike. There is a small gold S pinned just above her left breast to show she has been hired for this event and by whom. A courtesy of the Sulmans. One of many, from what I have seen. I easily spot the gold letter on each homekeeper I am able to find.
In my search, Xanthus’s harness glints from nearby. He is surrounded by a ring of governor wives. Even at fifteen, he has caught the attention of women over fifty. But he will not be eligible for arrangement for another four years, and even then, they do not have daughters to pass along to him. Regardless, cross-state arrangements have always been discouraged and rarely ever occur.
Most governor families produce only a single son, though some have two—like ours—and others take the risk and allow their second born to be female. From what I understand, this is usually by the wife’s request. The States have never had a female governor before, so even being a second born, I am in better standing than any daughter will ever be. If anything were to happen to the older brother, the mother and daughter would be forced down and a new family appointed.
The daughter would become an ordinary Beau Monde girl, I think. Like my mother once was. Like all the wives here were before their arrangements. I am grateful to be a man.
My sights land on the face of a boy, another governor’s son, across the garden who is dressed like me and around my same age. I note his tanned skin among the porcelain bodies positioned around him. I move from my safety at the edge of the garden to an empty table in the middle to see him better.
He talks to the men as though he carries the conversation. Governors, all of them, lean in to listen. He takes a drink from his glass and as he does so, I do the same. Whatever he is telling them must be funny because all the men’s faces are stretched in smiles with laughter spilling out. This shocks me. That a boy of his age can capture the minds of men.
When his eyes land on me, I flush, looking in any other direction but his. I didn’t realize I was staring until now. A rush of heat climbs my neck.
Then a hand falls on my shoulder and spins me around, making me spill my drink. “This is my son, Xardin.”
It is my father. He stands with another man who wears a sleek black leather suit.
“The youngest, my second born.” My father flashes a grin, but I know better. I have just embarrassed him in front of someone he was hoping to impress. He eyes the stain of alcohol that now lines my right pant leg.
“Xardin, another strong X name for the Creel clan.” The man sticks his hand out to me. I give it my best shake. “Corneliani Kambers, Governor of Massachusetts. I have a son about your age around here somewhere. Such a big party, I can’t keep track of all the family members!”
The governor chuckles. He says something else, but I have already forgotten. His words jumble in my head; I take another sip of bourbon. The alcohol massages my brain.
“They will show up eventually,” my mother says, breaking our conversation. She comes up behind my father and locks her arm around his. “It’s almost time.”
“Better find them soon, Governor, before the show begins.” My father’s head inclines to Governor Kambers and the two part ways. I follow my parents, but my gaze tracks the governor until I lose him in the mass.
We find our seats at the head of the garden. The crowd falls back into the warmed rectangle of grass and face in the same direction as my father expectantly. A faint line of Patrols is only visible from their golden S that reflects off the solid black uniforms.
The lights burn out the moment we sit and a steady noise of excitement waves through the crowd, sending a prickle up my spine.
I look at my mother. “What’s about to happen?”
She shushes me through her excitement. Xanthus takes his seat next to my father. The two of them share a look, my father places his hand on my brother’s shoulder, and the show begins.
A long firework climbs the sky over frozen Lake Michigan. Its journey into the atmosphere is silent. If I were not watching, I would not know there was anything in the sky, it is so quiet. When it reaches its limit, the small rocket bursts into an explosion the color of maize that is soon sucked into an invisible void at the center of the sky.
It remains there, spinning and sizzling, as the next firework goes off. This one does the same: silently ascends, explodes into a shimmering dandelion, then moves to the center where it joins the other.
This happens again and again with each firework that shoots off, picking up speed. Before we know it, there is a large, sparking ball of heat and gas greater than the mansion looming in the sky. Soon enough, the finale comes with a raucous roar of cheers and whistles celebrating a silent, illuminated sky. Once the rockets cease, all that is left is the small sun created by the lights.
It moves toward us at a gradual pace until it floats above the garden. The heat warms my skin.
A mumble rolls through the now hesitant crowd as the ball starts to shift and twist and stretch. Even I move to the edge of my seat in anticipation of what might happen next. The sphere is only growing. There is no telling what it will turn into after.
But that is when it stops. The murmurs die down and the sphere of light begins to shrink. Smaller, and smaller, and smaller. I crane forward. Everyone squints. A few words are muttered and brows furrow, but no one’s focus leaves the flickering globe. Not yet.
I glance back at my father who rests his chin in his hand. I cannot tell what he is thinking. Is this it? Is this really what we were anticipating? Michigan’s grand show is of a dying light? What kind of message does that send to our sister states? Most certainly a pathetic one.
I turn away in a huff. But Xanthus is glowing with anticipation. He must know something, I decide. Of course, he would know and not me, left clueless like the rest of the guests here.
Once the ball is so small that it blends in with the outlying stars, there is a sound like that of a champagne bottle popping. The spinning sphere explodes into one giant bright X that rains down flecks of gold which turn to snow over the garden.
At first there is only silence, but then a collective gasp erupts, and everyone is on their feet clapping. Round faced children toss their heads back to the falling snow while others cover their glasses in fear of it landing in their drink. I notice the Sulmans off in the distance raising a glass to my family. This must have been just another gift to my father.
I look at him once more. This time there is a small lopsided grin in the corner of his mouth.