Kiel, Wisconsin was a quiet place with very long, straight roads petering into the distance. With equal significance in the states of Manitowoc and Calumet, it was surrounded by natural beauty: the river; parks; and plain but passable historic buildings. Kiel and its neighbouring townships were loved. As far back as I can remember the people there had a pride for the simplicity they’d nurtured, their plain, honest lives and their down-to-earth work. It came to be known affectionately among the locals as ‘the little city that does big things’ – even the slogan, which carried it through two World Wars, was ordinary and unadorned. In retrospect, Kiel, Wisconsin didn’t change the way many towns do, and this was perhaps owing to its unassuming size or its traditional, small-town values.
My brother and I were born and raised in a dilapidated farmstead on the eastern edge of the city that had once been used for the production of a few crops but where, later, when the inevitable changes did slowly come, was demolished for the construction of Highway 67. As a young boy, I remember feeling glad that Mother stayed home feeding Ed and I, her beloved twins, and generally for keeping the family home clean, tidy and sane. Out most of the day and tired when he returned, our elderly Father worked at a local factory and was involved in designing and producing the world’s first soft ice cream dispenser, for which he was incomparably proud. It’s safe to say I never really knew him.
And Ed is dead now, too – though often I can’t accept it. I’ll always remember him shouting to me, safe in the knowledge he would likely win, “Albert Tessler – race you from the Sheboygan to Mother’s shoes!” Evenings spent together, wandering along the river spotting the occasional wildlife, or traipsing along the Milwaukee Road near the railway track on the hunt for some kid to scrap with, always ended in a race home to Mother. Early on, I knew there were differences in Ed, but I was unable to predict anything he did until much later. Being unpredictable was part of his charm, initially.
It was during one of these typical evenings, as the day was drawing gradually to a close, that Ed challenged me to a race – and lost. He’d never lost before. Until that moment, Ed had considered himself better than me in every conceivable way. As we flew along the Sheboygan kicking up pale dust, as I gained on him and sped on to victory, an insubstantial yet not insignificant part of his brain rewired itself. He altered that day – and so did I. From then on Ed eyed me with a certain caution; a spiteful suspicion, casting me dark glances as if, when he wasn’t looking, I’d beat him at something again, something far more important than a spectator-less boyhood race. Losing the challenge he’d set himself made Ed aware of the crippling fear and feeling of failure and, believe it or not, opened his eyes to immortality.
Ed had been pampered and protected and thought he deserved it, whereas I’d never had the opportunity to try it easy. I was glad I hadn’t, even in the self-reflective moments following regular physical punishment. You see, directly as a result of Mother’s unusually strong love for Ed, Father, who saw very little with his own washed-out eyes, wrongly assumed I was the tear away, a shirker, and that I didn’t help enough around the home. If he returned from work furious, I’d be the one to get a quiet, painful thrashing in the back room for my sins – which totalled none back then, as far as I can recall. In some ways, when I look back at our childhood, I’m glad for all that, too. That Ed had come second in our race was news us brothers held close to our hearts: he dared not reveal his failure; I dared not report on my success. As we climbed into our bunks that night of the race and I looked over the rim of my mattress at him, he turned sharply away.
Our futures were ahead of us and should have been bright, but Ed had been struggling, getting behind, and had been put, by poor, worried Mother, into the after-school class intended to encourage the less capable pupils. Thing was, I knew different, because I knew Ed better than anyone else. Behind the closed, unpainted door of our tired, unpainted bedroom – that same room we’d shared since birth – he proved to himself and to me that he was as intelligent as they came.
At the climax of his most secretive phase, one that had lasted most of his teenage years, Ed became suddenly violently reckless, killing his biggest animal to date and storing it under the porch of the house. It was the fall of nineteen sixty seven. We were nineteen. No one but I knew what he’d done: our stone-cold Father was dead; our Mother, deteriorating rapidly in the hospital. During that time of dramatic change, I had a lot to think about, and plenty of time for thinking. I figured that if the authorities ever found out about Ed’s strange, persistent world it’d be by discovering it for themselves and not through me. My reasons, which I ran over and over those long nights, were as sturdy and compacted as the earth beneath our family home upon which he lay his prey. I had a job to keep, bills to pay, and last but not least, I had to prevent Ed being taken away. Deep in thought, sat in the darkness of our increasingly decaying home, set on edge by the sound of Ed dragging his newest victim – a female calf – along the dust track outside, I was sure I was making the right decision. How could I have known what was in store for us?
The calf had already died, according to Ed – he was merely ‘investigating it’. But the cavernous wound was freshly made, cut apart aggressively with the butchering knife that lay, coated in raw sinew, in our kitchen sink. Ed lied most when the evidence was stacked against him. Calmly, he continued to break open the carcass, draining it of the blood that eventually filled the ditch, and stretched the rest out underneath the house like some kind of macabre rug, warm to the touch and still covered in plenty of slowly oxidising meat. Ed knelt there, chopping and hacking at the body for five long hours, vigorously ripping pieces off. He kept it for over a week before I managed to regain some control – I’d suffered with the conflicting thought that we’d both be discovered, even if he agreed to its proper disposal. Rumours were spreading, but not of Ed. An old man across town was accused of poisoning the few animals that roamed his neighbour’s farm, then taking their carcasses indoors to ‘supplement’ his meals. But I knew the poisonings had all the latest hallmarks of Ed’s passion – he’d already progressed to cooking his specimens and consuming parts of them. His affliction was developing.
At twenty two, amidst the worst phase of Ed’s torment, I lost my only job, at the research centre in town where I’d met my future wife, a cautious young woman by the name of Dorothy with long, red hair and a gentle lisp. She’d never been back to the house in two years – my surreal existence, so far removed from the simplicity and choking conformity of our working life, would have been a little too rich for sweet Dot’s comprehension. There was, therefore, a battle raging inside me: to risk my brother; or to protect him and risk the rest. Without knowing what led me to it, I chose Ed. My punishment? Dot married a local, wealthy councillor too soon after our broken engagement, and secretly began sending me copies of their wedding photographs and images of their first-born.
In the year that followed I spent longer with my brother, watching him as he gradually transformed our home into the workshop of a madman. Wrestling with animals in the fields by night, storing them dead and mutilated in the shed by morning and getting them out to play during the day, he progressed from strange to deranged, collecting different organs and bones like ornaments that he spread throughout the rooms. He would stare at me as he cut the animals up, making me feel like his sick apprentice.
One cold morning, we received news of Mother’s passing. Taking up Ed’s butchering knife, still covered in the dark blood of his latest beast, I stalked out of the house and hid for days in the wooded area behind the school, angrily gathering reminders of the happy child I thought I’d been. I was not there to kill and slumped shamefully back to Ed, sitting beside him on the blood-bathed carpet covered in the chunks of several species we’d picked apart that week, and I relinquished his knife. Ed was laughing when I told him everything, but I couldn’t be sure if he’d heard me. I admitted to him that without Mother – whom I hated for loving her mad son Ed more than she loved her sane son Al – I would struggle to live. I explained to him that I wanted to know what it felt like to die, like Mother just had. So, Ed took the huge butchering knife and raised it high above my head, gripping the handle with both his hands. Though the tip of the blade touched my hair, we both knew he wasn’t preparing to kill me. As he stared down at me, still brandishing the knife, all powerful, the laughter drained slowly from his lips and we shared a moment of truth. I saw in him recognition and realisation. I saw that he was no more sane or insane than I. In fact, I now knew, as I examined his eyes, that insanity was just an act to save him from reality. As he lowered the butchering knife and let his gaze travel out across the stained floor and brittle animal debris that was the state of our lives, he serenely suggested suicide in the Sheboygan.
Our pact was to meet there at six the following morning, and go together, but Ed’s body was already deep beneath the reflective surface water, held firmly under by river-bank stones. Without reproach, I left.
When they found Ed, they found the others: two sisters, Tilly and Dot. The scene was described as “horrific! A shock to the homely counties of middle America!” As the dust settled, the people of Wisconsin resumed their lives, safe in the knowledge the maniac had ended his own life and was no more.
Unknown to them, I survived, renovating for my own benefit the tired, old house, removing each and every remnant of the disgrace it once concealed, and as I sit here on the freshly painted porch, subdued by Mother’s gently rocking chair, I have to smile to myself. To cut up Tilly as well as Dot saved my skin – there’s no doubt about it – for Tilly was Ed’s first love and naturally, they connected him to both by straight-forward – if entirely inaccurate – means of deduction. What surprised me was this: save for the panic, outrage and hatred directed at dead Ed Tessler amongst the kind-hearted souls of Kiel, he became nothing less than legend across some parts of the country. For his notoriety, and for his need to keep secret the fact that I won him at the race, I will always despise him.
It often felt as if Ed were capable of calling to me from within. If I’m honest, I don’t know which one of us remains down here on earth, for there are times when I think I’m Al
– and times when I know I’m Ed.