By VESNA MAIN.
HAD HE LIVED, we wouldn’t have had you, my mother used to tell me, her voice breaking. He was so beautiful, she would say, holding back her tears. As a child, I was puzzled to see her so emotional. Later, I wondered why she needed to tell me, again and again, that I owed my existence to my brother, who had died a year and a half before I was born. I was indifferent to the fact that I wouldn’t have been brought to the world had he not departed, as I was indifferent to the dead baby himself. He was no more than a black and white photograph, taken just after he had died at the age of three weeks.
Even in my early childhood I was familiar with the picture: a small baby with a neat face and closed eyes. He wore a white bonnet with a silk ribbon tied under his chin and a white baby shirt. His body was covered with a blanket, which was also white. A rubber toy was placed on it. Had the baby not been lying in a small white coffin, padded with white silk and surrounded by white roses, he could have been taken to be asleep.
When I was a teenager, the years when I considered most boys of my age to be silly and ignorant, I wished I had had an older brother, a boy who would help me navigate the inevitably difficult years. The brother I did have was four years younger than me and, until we were both well into adulthood, he was mostly a nuisance, someone who interrupted the solitude I required, disturbing me with his childish demands. If only my mother’s first born had not died, I would think, forgetting that his death led to me been born. My fantasy created a confidante I so much wished to have: a young man who shared my interests and who was kind and sensitive, someone who knew the ways of the world and could protect his younger sister, teach me how to be.
It never crossed my mind that my elder brother might have been the exact opposite of what I had imagined him to be. But that is the beauty of the dead: they cannot disappoint. My best friends are dead. They are the ones who always understood me and offered me advice. Unfailingly selfless, they are the ones I miss, not those still alive whom I try to avoid.
I am sure, to my mother, my dead brother remained more beautiful, and a much better child than her two living ones. He could be anything she dreamt him to be. He had no chance to argue with her, as I did, or make her anxious about not doing his homework, a role enthusiastically adopted by my younger brother. We were, inevitably, her disappointments.
VESNA MAIN’s book-length publications include a collection of stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide (Salt 2018); a novel-in-dialogue, Good Day? (Salt 2019—shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize); autofiction, Only A Lodger… And Hardly That (Seagull Books, 2020) and a novella, ‘Bruno and Adèle’ in Shorts III (Platypus Press, 2021). Born in Zagreb, Croatia, Main lives in England and France.