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O Brother Where Art Thou?¹

Cathie BorrieCathie Borrie


I remember how my brother died.

Early August. That last weary hour before darkness.

I remember what happened two months before my mother is to remarry and we’re to get our new father. Two months before our move to the city.

My brother is thirteen. I’m ten.

Boys yelling, car doors slamming, speeding away tire-screeching. A knock at the door. My brother’s friend is standing there crying. At first I think he’s kidding and start to laugh but then I see the tears rolling down his face. I’ve never seen a big boy cry, it must be something really bad.

“Hughie’s hurt. Somebody beat him up. He won’t wake up.”
 Mum and Gran run out the door.

Stay here, Cath.

“I want to come with you, Mum. Mum?”

She rushes out, I follow. A little way down the road there’s a group of people looking at something lying in the grass by the side of the road.

My brother.

He’s lying on his back. One of his shoes is missing and I want to go look for it because he wouldn’t like that. His face is all bloody and his mouth is full of throw-up. Is he asleep?

“Mum? Mum? Is Hughie sick? How can he breathe like that?”

My mother is kneeling beside him but I can’t hear what she’s saying.

“Mummy? You should wake Hughie up. Why won’t Hughie wake up?”

Go back inside the house, love. Oh please Cath, go back inside.

It’s getting dark.

I don’t know what to do. What should I do? My gran’s crying. Everybody’s crying. I don’t know what’s going on. Why is nobody doing anything? Mum stays beside my brother and holds his hand but he wouldn’t let her do that if he was awake.

I’m cold. The gravel hurts my bare feet.

The police come.
An ambulance.
Our doctor.

What are the police doing here? Their big black car is parked at the side of the road and the red light is flashing around and around. I wish they’d turn it off because people are getting out of their cars to see what’s going on and I don’t want anyone staring at my brother. I watch the policeman talking to my mum. Is she in trouble? People are whispering.

“They know who did it. They’re going after him right now.”

Who are they talking about? What did he do? I can’t stop shaking. I think I’m going to be sick. A grown-up tries to take my hand.

“Come on, dear. Let’s go back inside.”

“No! I’m staying here with my brother.”

“Other people are with him, it’s alright.”

I know it isn’t.

I go back inside. Sit at the kitchen table. My brother’s frayed tartan bedroom slippers are leaning against my gumboots in the utility room. One of the soles is dangling loose.

Car doors slam. Motors start. Then—nothing.

Mum comes in. Her hands are shaking.
Hughie’s gone. He died, Cath. Our Hughie’s gone.  
“Gone where? What? Oh no. Please Mum, no.”

That night my mum talks on the phone to the man who’s going to be her new husband and our new father. My new father. He’s away on business. She turns her back, whispering sobs into the phone.
Hughie’s been killed. I don’t know—a boy—yes, drunk—much older—pulled over—started a fight—he was after Hughie’s friend, but—

I close my eyes.
“Please God please God please God I promise to be a better nicer kinder person if only it isn’t true. Please God don’t let Hughie be dead please God please please please.”

My grandmother and I cry all night long and the next day and the next and the next but after that first night my mother never cries about my brother in front of me again.

 ¹ O Brother, Where Art Thou

The title of a film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


  • Mary Anne Mercer

    Seattle 04/20/2013 07:20:35 PM

    Cathie, The scenes of your mother's dying were beautiful, poignant and very familiar. It seems impossible to put in words the depth and intensity of that experience but you have brought back much of what i lived through just a year ago. Thank you.

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