My brother always seemed to be the first. My parents came to America in 1897, leaving Ireland to start a new life. I once asked my father, why he decided to leave, and all he would tell me is “It seemed like the right thing to do.” in that thick Irish brogue of his. My brother, Rowan, was born in January of 1900, the first born, the first son, the first of a new century. My mother would tell me later that he came early, he was due in February. But Rowan, being Rowan, had to be the first. He was the first boy born in Harper county. My mother would tell me that Rowan was the first baby boy of the 1900s. That was just Rowan's way, I guess, always the first.
I was born two years later, a baby so small my father could hold me in the palm of his hand. The doctor told my parents I wouldn't last, I wouldn't survive. I like to think I proved them wrong, in a way. I've always been “frail”, in my mother's words. “A sweet, sweet boy.” My father had to have been disappointed, a strong man like himself having a son like me. My father probably expected to have many strong, hearty sons to work on the farm. He was left with just Rowan and myself, when my mother died. No more sons. Just a frail boy and the first boy.
Now, don't take to believing I thought badly of my father. Far from it. He may have been slighted to find such a weak boy as his son, but he was a Mumford, a proud man. While Rowan and my father worked on the farm, a task too strenuous for me, I was tasked with learning. “These here”, my father would say as he set down a stack of books, “Will be finished by tonight, ya' hear?” If I wasn't going to be a strong Mumford farmer, my father decided I'd be a smart Mumford. Maybe a lawyer, or doctor. He would go into town, grabbing as many books as he could. It had to have been a humbling experience, my father asking the librarian for books for myself. My mother's legacy was teaching her boys to read, something my father could never do.
I would read every day, from sunrise to sunset. I explored worlds with Gulliver, fought Indians with David Bowie, and sailed the seas with Captain Ahab. And every night, Rowan would come into our room, sore from the days work, and ask me to tell him a story.
I found out very quickly, that I had a knack for telling a story. Rowan would sit there, enamored as I told him the stories I had read during the day. The best compliment Rowan ever gave me is, after telling him a story, he looks at me and goes “Ferg', some days I wish I was you. I wish I could be you sometimes.” Now, whether or not it was meant as a compliment, I haven't a clue. But it was nice, it was nice to know the great Rowan, the first boy of 1900, felt some jealously. He felt jealous of me.
Whether coincidence or not, the next morning changed everything. “Ferg, Fergal, wake up” Rowan poked me awake, and as I rubbed my eyes awake, I couldn't help myself but chuckle.
“Rowan, what in blazes are you wearing?”
Rowan was dressed in pants and a shirt, but he was wearing a belt with all sorts of metal and bags full of sand attached to him. He just looked at me, eyes wide, and pressed his finger to his lip to quiet me. Then he took off the belt.
At first, it seemed like nothing happened. But then, Rowan started to rise, lifting into the air until he was pressed against the ceiling. At first, I thought it was some kind of trick, and I looked for strings or a platform of which he could be standing on. But there was nothing. My brother was floating in the air. His eyes were wide, Rowan looked terrified. He grabbed the bannister of the bed, and pulled himself back down to earth, putting the belt on himself once more. Then he looked at me, looking for answers.
“Is it the Devil, Fergal?” By brother asked, sucking air in a panic.
“Rowan, you can levitate.”
“Remember that book, about the genies and the Arabians? Remember the flying carpet? That's you!”
“But I don't want it to be me!”
My father must've heard the ruckus, and came to our room, asking us what all the fuss was about. This time, I didn't watch Rowan, I instead watched my father. As Rowan took off the belt once more, my father's eyes lit up, as he watched his sixteen year old son rise to the ceiling. At first, I thought it was fear, but then I realized what it was: Amazement. Wonder. Envy.
Things moved pretty fast after that. It took me a few days to convince my father and brother, but eventually the agreed with me. People would want to see my brother and what he could do, and they'd be willing to pay.
We went town to town, all over Kansas. Pay a nickel, and see the amazing levitating boy. My father fashioned a tent for us to use. People would pay, and come in. After a few choice words, by myself, Rowan would come in. He would stand in the middle of the tent, as we had set the chairs up in a circle. Rowan would do it slowly, untying one bag of sand attached to him at a time. And slowly, slowly, he would rise. To the very top of the tent, and then he would float there, looking down on the people. They would gasp, they would blame it on the Devil, then call Rowan an angel. And then, once my father and I pulled Rowan down, they would pay to see it again.
“Rowan, what's it like? Floating, I mean?” I asked him once, after a show. We were taking down the tent, getting ready to head off to the next town.
“It's comfortable. Wearing these weights”, he said pointing at his belt with the sand bags, “Just don't feel right. Sometimes I wonder, if I took the belt off in the middle of the field, how far up would I go.”
“I think you'd go all the way, Rowan.”
“All the way to Heaven, right?”
“That's right, Rowan. That's right”
It was at the next town, at the edge of Kansas, that my father said good-bye. It must have been hard, to admit that it was just too much work for him. Going town to town, the constant travel of it all. He looked at us and told us he was proud. Proud of his boys. “I raised myself two good men.” He smiled when he said this, something I rarely saw from my father. He gave Rowan a bear hug, and then squeezed my shoulder, and he left. Sometime later, in the house my father had built with his own hands, he died in his sleep. I guess he knew what was coming, and wanted to do it at home.
It was later that night, after my father left, that Rowan and I started to discuss the future. We had done two shows that day, and decided to reward ourselves with something to drink. The little tavern was dirty and cramped, but it suited us just fine. Rowan drank whiskey, while I stuck to water. I wanted to keep traveling, go to other states and towns. Maybe, one day, the white house, I suggested. Rowan just chuckled, and took a sip.
“Fergal, why does it matter? I think we should've gone home with Pop. All of Kansas has seen me, and we've taken a dime from them all. What more is there? More money?”
“You don't get it do you. Rowan, it's not the money. You can do something no one else can,. You're special. Shouldn't the world see that?”
“I don't care about the world, and I don't care about being special.”
“Then what is it, then, for you Rowan?”
“My wee lil' brother, that's what” He laughed, and ruffled up my hair. “Fergal, as long as you want to keep doing this, I'll do it. I ain't got no one else in this world anyway, mine as well spend it with you, eh, little brother?”
So we continued the show, we traveled all the way to Georgia even. Rowan was 22 at the time, a splitting image of my father. We did a show in a little town called, funny enough, Century. Just like the other shows, the townspeople filled up the tent, got quiet as Rowan began to take off the belt, then exploded in gasps and shock when they him float to the very top. I never got tired of watching it, the look in peoples eyes. That look of amazement. I could never get enough of it. Sometimes I wonder, if I knew this was going to be the last show, would I have appreciated it more? Or would have it taken away from the enjoyment of it all? I guess I'll never know.
I was beginning to pack up things after the show, already thinking of the next night's show, when I noticed Rowan. He was talking to a fair, dimunitive girl. She had blond hair and freckles all over her face. She was smiling, almost as much as Rowan.
In my later years, I regretted how I felt at that moment. I should have been happy for my brother, but instead I was jealous. I was hurt. It had always been Rowan and Fergal. I don't think I could imagine another person taking my brother's affections. I felt betrayed, and I left. I left that night, I didn't even say good-bye to Rowan. I'm sure at first, he was surprised. But Rowan, was smart, he had to have realized why I left.
It wasn't until years later, that I saw my brother again. I had returned to Kansas, and was living in the house I grew up in. I figured my father would want it that way, one of his boys living there. I had no need for the farm, and the land around the house grew wildly. As I got older, things became harder for me. On my good days, I could make it into town. But most days, I stayed in the house. A stray dog found his way into my home, one day. A mangy, frail looking scamp. He had wide, brown eyes though. He reminded me of myself, in my younger days, and I decided to keep the little thing. I named him Conor, after my father.
Sometime around my 29th birthday, 29 more years than the doctor had given me, and I heard a knock on my door. I opened the door and found my brother standing there.
“Hey Fergal.” Rowan said to me, his smile weak. It isn't a lie to say that his hug hurt me, as I was much weaker than last he had seen of me. But it was worth it.
I motioned him inside, but he declined. “I like it outdoors.” He said, softly. He looked off into the wild fields, and began to tell me what had happened since I left.
Her name was Mary. It was simple, yet fitting, he told me. She had come to the show that night, and it was love at first sight. For the both of them.
“Her voice, Ferg', God, do I wish you had talked to her. Her voice was angelic.”
It had hurt him, he told me, when I left. But he knew why, just as I had known he would. With nowhere to go, he stayed in Century. Within three months, he had asked Mary for her hand in marriage. She, of course, said yes.
This was the life Rowan had always wanted but never had. A wife, a home, a simple life. These days, I feel guilty. Rowan lived the life I had wanted, for me. I sometimes wonder if that was wrong of me, to take him on the road, town to town. Did I make him a side show freak? But when I start to feel too guilty, when I start to get tight in my chest, I just remember what Rowan had told me that day: “Fergal, if we hadn't gone on the road, I'd never met her. Thank you.”
For a time, everything was perfect. Rowan and Mary were married, and with the money we had made, they didn't have too many worries. They spend some days walking in the grass, hand-in-hand, he told me.
As Rowan got older, though, it took more and more weights to stay on the ground. By the time Rowan was 27, it took 88 pounds of sand to keep him on the ground. He had become like me, spending most of his days in a chair. It must have felt horrible, like being in prison. His body was strong and healthy, and yet, confined.
Mary fell sick, in the wintertime, a sickness she never recovered from. I asked him, what was the last thing Mary had told him.
His eyes went moist, and he began to sob. “An angel”, Rowan said softly, “She told me I was her angel.”
I had never seen my brother like this. I could never imagine him this sad, it broke my heart. I told him, I wish I could take it back. Wish I hadn't left that night. Then I asked him what he planned on doing now.
“I feel...” He began, before drifting off, thinking about it all, “Everything feels so heavy, Fergal. I just want to to let go. Walk with me, please?”
I nodded yes, and walked with my brother, to the middle of a field. The walk took everything out of me, and I was ready to collapse by time we stopped. Rowan looked at me and smiled.
“I love you, Fergal.” He told me, as he slowly took off the sand bags on his belt. I was too weak to do anything to stop him, and sometimes I wonder if that was his plan. Slowly, he began to rise off the ground. I looked in amazement, just like every person who had ever paid a dime to see the show. I fell to the ground, weak, as Rowan rose in the air. He looked at me, below him, and gave me a smile, before looking upwards, to the heavens. I sat there, and watched as my brother floated into the air, until all that was left was the sky above me.