BASS 2018: Matthew Lyons, “The Brothers Brujo” from Tough, Aug. 2017

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomenon of American male rage, and how it’s communicated down from generation to generation, from fathers to sons, more often than not mutating into something far worse than it was before. In so many ways, that rage is a central driver in our society, and even if our bad decisions sometimes seem sensible, it’s not difficult to track the destruction that they can cause as we flirt with total annihilation. Gods, humans, or something in-between, we all inherit the damage that was done before us. Even though we like to think of ourselves as better, sometimes all we can hope to do is redirect it. Sometimes we can only make things worse.

~ ~ Matthew Lyons, Contributor Note

Psychology has lots of theories about the difference between anger and rage. Some see it as a matter of intensity. Others feel anger, normally a transient state, stores up to becomes rage, a kind of constant state of festering anger. Anger might be seen as a response to obstacles, whether it be a car that won’t start or a disobedient child; rage is the response to injustice. Anger is the product of everyday life; rage is the product of oppression and abuse. Anger turned inward becomes depression; rage turned inward leads to suicide. Anger can be productive, when managed, supplying energy to overcome the obstacles that trigger it. Rage explodes; rage destroys.

Lyons walks a fascinating line in this story between psychology and horror using a gritty reality that eventually blends with fantasy/magical realism drawn from Santería. I’m not going to try to parse the religious details, as they have many variants and I know far too little to reliably research, but it’s a rich avenue for exploration.

Skeet and Leonel, teenage brothers, live (if you can call it that) outside of town with their abusive father, a Santería priest who uses the name of the god Agaju.

Skeet turns to look at his brother, gets in real close, so Leonel has to look at the thick black X tattoos carved on the thin skin under his eyes. His earliest memory, his father buzzing the needle-gun into his face with cold, meth-head determination. The pain, the way it lit his brain on fire. The way he sobbed, like he was never going to breathe again. Red tears cutting down and pooling along the line of his jaw, dribbling on his bare chest and collarbone….
Skeet studies his brother’s face, somehow left unscarred by the old man’s cruelties, shaped more by neglect and self-reliance than anything else. Agaju’s damages are clever, left in places hard to find. Scars webbed under the hair, bruises punched in under his arms, belt lashes striped along his back and thighs. Skeet’s suffered too at Dad’s hands, but they both know Skeet’s the favorite, a fact that neither of them will ever give voice to. To Leonel, Agaju’s an empty temple housing a withered, sadistic god. To Agaju, Leonel’s a first draft, a failed attempt. Something to send out for beer and cigarettes and to fetch his brother.

Complete story available online at Tough

Another of psychology’s offerings is the self-replicating nature of abuse: the abused can become either the abusive spouse, or can find an abusive spouse and thus continue in the familiar role of the abused. It’s pretty clear which path Skeet and Leonel take in the story. But what about Dad? He’s a Vietnam vet who came home minus three limbs. I have to wonder what he was like before the war, if his abusive nature pre- or post-dates his trauma. I doubt it matters to the kids, though.

Another factor in the story is isolation. This, too, by the way, is often tied to abuse, as the abuser keeps the victims on a short leash and away from prying eyes that might want to help. The isolation is realized in the story, as the family lives on the outskirts of town, interacting only when the services of the priest are called for. It’s a kind of symbiotic system perfect for isolative practices: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, except back-scratching in this case involves, on the one side, performing mystic religious rituals for the dead, and on the other side, providing income and not worrying about two kids. Sort of like parishioners of the Catholic church let their kids be abused for decades by priests who’d offer the Holy Eucharist.

Magic, connected to the rituals, plays a big role in the story. And, as the abuse is passed down, so is the magic, from father to sons, in a more malignant form. Not that the father’s magic doesn’t seem all that benign to begin with:

Something fucked up happens to a normal person’s brain the first time they see real magic. It’s like a disconnect. Because real magic isn’t like people imagine in the movies.
Real magic is so much better, and so much worse.
Most people can’t comprehend it, really. It’s too much, too sudden, too vulgar. So the brain only lets in little pieces, flashes of light and color and salvos of sound from far off and not much more. …
The truth is that magic’s a beast, enormous and lumbering and starving. It’s powerful, and it’s violent, and it makes a fuck-awful mess that people don’t want to see, or if they see, they don’t want to remember. So their minds compartmentalize and let them remember the lights and the pretty colors and the temporary suspension of the laws of physics. They hear thunder instead of screaming. They forget the blood and the shock and the stink and the explosions of teeth and hair that seem to come out of nowhere.
They forget that magic’s like watching someone get shot in the head.
Even when they’re watching someone get shot in the head.

This is not the kind of story I typically like, but I have to admit I found it totally compelling throughout even as I read while emotionally “peeking through my fingers” in places. After reading Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing the metaphorical possibilities, I wish I’d read more closely; I’m always blown away by his insights into the larger picture, particularly here, particularly now.

I’m also delighted to see Tough, a new literary magazine published primarily online by Rusty Barnes, formerly of the wonderful Night Train, make an entry into BASS. I don’t count crime fiction among my favorites, but I’m always glad that some of the less-traveled, but still highly worthy, corners of the literary internet are seeing some mainstream love.