My brother and I had an epic battle that became known in my family as the Yanomamo Axe Fight.
It was Indian summer, my brother was eighteen, bare-chested and early-Elvis thin. He stood in the entry of our mother's home, five inches taller than me, eyes narrowed, fists clenched. But he's nervous behind his anger. He sees his older sister as a tyrant, and he's not too far from wrong.
I could tell you about a borderline mother, about splitting children into all-good and no-good camps. I could tell you about a loving father who left and the bad men who filled his place; of what it's like to fight like a cornered kitten, to grab the end of the belt as it lands on your face and not let go. I could tell you about the gravity of rage and how it avalanches downhill onto the younger kids. But these truths were not yet known, and these truths were as pervasive and unseen as the diminishing space between my brother and me.
The details are as unimportant now as they should have been then.
He's immovable, arms crossed tight to his chest, face turned in a subtle flinch. While I, summoning my terrible will, am relentless and certain of victory, irresistible force.
But something rises up, and he sends me flying backward. In the struggle to suck air back in, there's a moment when I'm almost proud of him, but it doesn't last.
Act Two finds me standing in the driveway with a fat lip, the sound of the slamming front door still echoing down our suburban street. The gas cap from his blue triumph fits nicely in my palm. I want to smash glass. Life has already taught me not to break things I can't repair; I'm trembling with the effort to remember why it matters. He yells "Put that down!" and my fist clamps onto the cap.
There's a whole genre of fairy tales where people get stuck to things - they touch the golden goose or wear the red shoes in church - you can be sure at that point that the sin has become deadly.
"Put it DOWN!" he screams. I draw back my arm and aim at the windshield.
"Do it and I'll kill you!" He rushes past me into the open garage, comes out with a wooden handled axe. Time slows down. I remember wondering if he really would do it. The cap is now welded to my palm.
When fairy tales talk about spells - about heroes transformed or frozen or mute - they're suggesting something about losing control.
In a frenzy of displaced fury, my brother begins hacking at the front lawn. He's screaming, bits of grass and dirt fly into the air. The neighbors began to come out.
My boyfriend drives up and takes in the scene. I see him now in a green felt hat, quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder - Red Riding Hood's huntsman, the fairy tale's youngest son. He's been mentoring my brother, teaching him how to lay a welding bead. In his presence, my brother drops the ax.
My boyfriend walks through my brother's explanations and over to where I stand. He places his hand on my shoulder and gently slides it down my arm to the gas cap in my fist. He twists the cap back onto the car and we leave.
Days pass. I'm sitting at Marie Calendar's with my dad. I'm confident he'll take my side, like he always does. I mean for goodness's sake, he had an axe. But it's not playing out that way. My dad is bearded, sonorous. He says, "Of the seven deadly sins, pride is the worst."
I put my fork down. What about the axe? But Dad wants to talk about me, and sin. I don't know what shocks me more, to see him ignore my brother's near lethal rage or hear my atheist father use the word sin.
"Without pride, no other sin could flourish," he says. He tells me that it was pride that drove me to push my peace loving brother, and pride that grabbed the gas cap. Pride, he said, locks us into our mistakes, closes our exits and hardens our hearts, lets us feel justified about the bad things we've done.
Up to that point, I'd always thought of pride as a good thing, as a synonym for honor, as the power that kept my head up and my tears down. Pride was a bumper sticker virtue, a country western song - to think of it as a sin was a paradox I puzzled over for years. Like any good koan, the idea got more nutritious the longer I chewed.More questions on Life:
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more