A Snowman in July
"Hell son, the inside of my head is screamin'! Feels like I got an old, rusty ice pick jammed straight into my forehead. Right there. See. Just above my left eye. Burns like it's stuck in clean up to the handle. And Jesus, I got to shit somethin' fierce. But hell, what the fuck do you care, right boy?" the sheriff barked as he adjusted the stiff, woolen noose around Zeb's neck.
"I don't know why in the fuck I got to stay here with you anyway. Hell, we're payin' that weirdo executioner and his goddamn pet turtle a c-note just to drop your smelly ass. But no, that shit-for-brains governor says the law's got to be here, make it official, make it legal ... shit! Get that fucker reelected is more like it!
"Damn, I wish they'd hurry up and signal! Signal so ole fuck face over there can drop you, and I can run over behind that tree and pinch off this horse turd that's done got stuck up in me! Whew, them jalepenos will flat make you dance and burn ... there, there now, whew, that one let off some of the pressure. Yeah, and it don't smell half bad neither.
"So now, as long as that bull fart of a governor keeps jackin' his gums off, I guess you, me, and ole fuck face there is just gonna have to buddy up for a while. Right?!
"Hey you! Yeah you. Come on now, fuck face, your turtle's pissin' everywhere. Go on, git him the fuck off the scaffold, or stick a sock in it! Shit! `Bout the time that sun starts cookin' that turtle piss, we all gonna wish we was bein' hung. Right boy?! Course, I guess in `bout ten or fifteen minutes you gonna be squirtin' in your drawers, too. Mess up them nice britches of yours real good! Whew, oh yeah, that was a good one."
So, this is it, Zeb thought to himself as he fought to catch a breath through the steady stream of the sheriff's high-octane mixture of flatulence, sweat, and beer breath.
This is where I was to cast my stone, my lot into the mouth of heaven and fly, he continued to muse as he looked over at the fresh water pool on the tiny island where he stood, and then back across the river at the massive crowd gathered to see him hanged.
This is where my circle ties together, where, how did Norton say it, where the serpent bites his own tail. I wonder if Juke or Taylor will be there? I wonder which is worse: heaven or hell? I sure don't want any part of their heaven. And hell couldn't be any worse than the sheriff's farts. Or what I've done to Houstus.
Spread out in front of Zeb, tanning in the July heat were half-nude swimmers, children squealing as they slid down the muddy riverbank, and the broken face of the sun as it wrestled on the river's surface. Crowding the park and landing that overlooked the river and faced the island where Zeb waited were laughing, dancing, hungry, excited people. Hundreds of dirt farmers, mill workers, congressmen, prostitutes, and laborers, all gathered to join the citizens of Cocytus on this unusually "purposeful" Fourth of July holiday.
All had gathered to feast on corn, melon, barbecue, and beer, housed under the red, green, and yellow striped tents. "Gathered by the river," they had begun to whisper, "gathered to string up and then wash clean that Caina boy, the `unnatural' one, the one who seems so comfortable both inside and outside of his own skin. The one who claimed knowledge of both sides, the white and the black of sin. No sir, can't have that, not here."
Zeb listened as the band played one song after another, launching young and old, men and women, into dance after dance. Listened and smiled as he watched the flushed and glowing women avert their eyes as each suitor became more aggressive. Listened as the laughter exploded in quick, seemingly fiery-yellow bursts out onto the river, scattering geese and ducks with its sound. Listened to the screaming, the firecrackers, and the singing that made this day seem like a living breathing postcard. Or was it a dream he just couldn't shake? Did it matter? He wasn't sure. All he was certain of now was that these sounds and the sheriff's stench were for the moment driving him inward, driving him to search his memory for any object or feeling that might help him step back from this barrage, might allow him to fly.
To remember, remember that ten years earlier, when he was only seven years old, this island and the river valley had long been fallow, almost in a coma. The park did not exist, and the landing was little more than a broken pier left by a bankrupt shipping company.
Once the railroad had arrived in Cocytus, the river trade all but disappeared. The island, too, was different. (A foreign country, a place to journey once a little boy was old enough to swim the current.) It was so very quiet then. So very quiet when the river, the island, and the days spent there were Zeb's alone.
It was my first, and I guess, my 1ast private, almost sacred place, Zeb mused. It was "my" land of endless hunts for arrowheads, Indian ghosts, and their stones--their lots to cast into the pool and clear their way to dive into the mouth of heaven. Never was I happier than when I was alone here. No piece of ass, no bottle of booze, no dream or friend ever equaled this island. Maybe that's why I fought so hard to get it back.
Still no signal to release the trapdoor. Turning, Zeb saw the sheriff curse and disappear behind a large willow tree. Norton, the executioner, the hangman--also his best friend--refused to speak to Zeb and drank on. His first bottle of gin had long since been finished and then shattered on the bow of the boat that had transported him out to the island.
Just me, me alone for a while, he thought, but where are the arrowheads, the ghosts, my own lot?
He heard the sound of the band's bass drum echo off the river. Like a thunderclap, he thought. Looking over at the smallish, blind Negro man sitting on a stool just below him, Zeb smiled as he remembered the first time he heard a thunderclap and how frightened he was of its sound. He remembered that he was still only seven when heard that particular thunderclap, but he wasn't alone. No, Houstus was with him when he cried, wept out of fear, afraid that the sky was about to explode and split into pieces. Together he and Houstus sat by the river, under a large, stooping oak tree, and listened. Listened and watched as the sky began to wrestle with itself. Houstus gathered Zeb up into his lap, smiled, and told him not to be afraid. Told him that as soon as he understood the "workings of the sky," then everything would be better.
"Come a little closer, easy now, sit down 'tween my legs, let me hold you ... there, ain't that better? Don't you worry none now, hear? It'll be all right, soon as you warm up a little. Sweet Jesus, boy, settle down! You fidgetin' like a busted screen door ... relax, there now. You just gotta understand what's happenin'. After you see what's behind all that racket and light, then it'll all seem smart and easy. You'll see.
"Zeb, you know all them snake skins you see all around when spring first gets here? Well, what do you think would happen if them snakes couldn't shed them skins? That's right, son, they'd never grow none, or die tryin'.
"It's the same with the sky. She's got to grow some too, every year. When it clouds up and starts to thunder and she starts spittin' out them streaks of lightning, that's just the sky's old skin groanin' and crackin' off. You know, kinda like the widow Sims when she catches a look at herself in the candy store window. Now don't laugh, I know I can't see none, but I heard her a time or two, and when she don't like what she sees, `specially when it's herself ... well, you get the picture. Change is gonna hurt sometimes, and it ain't always pretty.
"But I'll tell you somethin', Zeb, just 'tween you and me, a secret. You know when it starts rainin'? That ain't just water comin' down like most people think. It's really tiny pieces of the sky's old skin, little shreds of color comin' down to paint the ground and people's eyes.
"You ever wonder, after it stops rainin', why everything glitters and `as got more color to it? Zeb, son, you see, now the earth and everybody's eyes have got all the sunrises, moonlight, and sunsets that old sky had before the new one came along and pushed it away. That's why when it finally stops rainin', and you look up at the sky, your eyes water. The new sky is scared, just like you were, and by makin' your eyes water, it's tryin' to steal back some of them colors it pushed away and put in your eyes.
"Huh, I guess you're right, I ain't never really considered it before, but you're right Zeb. When the widow stops cryin' and looks back into that window, ain't nothing changed. For some things, bein' blind ain't so bad, I guess ... least ways nothin' don't ever change inside of my head. And that's the only place I got eyes. You feel better now, son? Good."
A broken downspout cast a long, white-water snake onto the red clay street. Zeb, of course, was there to watch, touch, and marvel at how it bored such a large crater into the road.
It's alive, he thought, like a giant serpent sending out its young to invade and slice up Main Street; an army from the sky sent down to recapture its lost colors. And I'm a powerful Indian warrior sent here to protect the earth.
Even in the cold November rain, Zeb's walk home from school would somehow be transformed, made into something special. Everything around him, the rain, the woods, the town's buildings, even its street, would have to wrestle with Zeb's imagination and be changed. Every moment of each day was an adventure. Nothing could simply remain untouched or still. Sure it was fun, but, there was always that tiny feeling, the one that gnawed at him, telling him there was no other way. Sometimes it was terribly lonely in Zeb's world, but it was always warm there. I wonder if anyone else feels this way? he often thought, anyone other than Houstus and Taylor and me. I wonder.
Halfway home, the road split. The quickest route was to go straight: a coarsely-hewn path creeping away from town until it abruptly ended at the mobile sawmill. Then, from the mill, there was a small path Zeb's father kept chopped back, which led directly to their cabin.
With the rain, Zeb knew the river would be up, turning the valley into a giant lake. Knowing Uncle Taylor was visiting, and that, three-thirty was "sippin' time," Zeb decided to risk a detour and head for the river.
To all but a few, the entrance to the river path was nonexistent. Without fail, though, wanting to safeguard "his" secret, Zeb would always check to make sure no one was watching before plunging through the bushes and into the forest. Sliding through he was in, and immediately he felt warm and relaxed, almost as though he was asleep and dreaming. He couldn't stop smiling. Zeb turned his face skyward and let the rain drop into his eyes. To be in "his" forest was to be connected to a dream, or to one of his beloved Indian stories. Though by himself, he never felt alone--here.
Today a thick fog had settled in and around the trees. From within this white, the voices of the woods--the jays, squirrels, and snapping branches--seemed to breathe, as though they were being exhaled from some vast creature made of cotton. Zeb felt even closer and more connected than usual, as if he were suspended or flying in his warm, familiar feeling. At this moment he felt he was a part of, an extension of all that surrounded him. Here, nothing was confused or disconnected. Here, his imagination and the outside world were one. Here, Zeb was a living prism capable of filtering the separate worlds through himself, then transforming them into the one he liked the best.
He was happy and complete. That's how he felt here--complete. The voice, the one he seemed to always carry with him, the one that drove him to question, to wonder, to lock himself into every moment, that voice was never silenced or left unanswered here. The endless refractions, the colors of "his feeling" took flight when Zeb was in the woods, alone by the river, or in the lap of Houstus or Taylor. Zeb, like any child, held on to his Eden-like connection to the world like a stuffed toy or a favorite blanket. But, unlike his friends, he swore he would never lose it, his feeling. He would guard it, protect it, feed it, do whatever it took to preserve it. After all, it had saved him more times than he cared to remember.
Like the time he had tried to explain to his father how he felt and what he would see during his walks in the woods. When he had tried to describe to that shaking head and smirking face the sense, the feeling of his "glistening sound."
"You see, daddy, whenever it rains or the sun turns white-hot, the forest sings. It really does sing. The ice-covered branches in the winter, or the sun sparking on the river when it's hot in the summer, they are like notes that sparkle, daddy, they're like notes that sparkle. `Cause, well, you never see any animals or people, it's always just the sounds matchin' up with a rainbow or a frozen branch or the broken face of the sun on the river. Like jewels that whisper and sparkle at the same time. Daddy, I call 'em whisperin' diamonds, and I believe they are the most beautiful, the most precious kind of diamonds in the world, `cause they talk to you, and all they seem to want to do is make you see things you ain't seen before, you know, make you happy."
Never had he seen his father laugh so long and hard. Then his dad called Zeb's mother into the room, and they laughed at their son together, longer and harder still. Zeb smiled, tried to laugh with them, but felt strange. His stomach had never hurt like that before. It felt as though someone had folded it several times and then sat on it. Why were they laughing at something he felt to be so simple, obvious, and warm? Why would the two people he trusted the most twist and break his feeling?
"He can't be mine!" they both said in unison, then laughed some more.
"No son of mine would say somethin' that stupid," said his father.
"That's right, blame me!" protested his mother.
"I know," said Mr. Caina, "it was that retard come through here seven years ago, you remember the one with the wagon full of books and photographs and paintings. The one we had to run out ... `cause, well, you know, `cause he was so different. I bet you he was the one left Zeb on our doorstep, it was him I bet."
"You're right!" laughed Mrs. Caina, "probably was that idiot's child."
Zeb left them still laughing, joking about his "diamonds," and sat alone in his room. He looked out of his window for an hour, his parents never bothering to check on him. Only their laughter, their distant, cold laughter came slithering around and under his door to taunt him, to make his stomach fold up once more. Ever since that night, his house always felt a little strange, but the river and the woods were warmer, and his diamonds that much more precious.
Arriving at the knoll that overlooked the river, it was all there. As he had imagined, the rain had transformed the river into a vast lake. Sprouting up from his lake were half-submerged trees, and the island which bore his most prized "whisperin' diamond": a rock-bordered, freshwater pool. It was this island, and its freshwater pool, that so often drew him down to the river. Like a foreign country, it was a land of mystery that lay just out of his grasp, a place to visit when he was old enough to swim the current. A place Zeb was convinced was full of magic, Indian warriors, princesses, their ghosts, and the power of the largest, most beautiful of all his "whisperin' diamonds."
The island did not appear to be a "hexed" or "evil" place at all, as his mother would often say. Nor did it seem to be irritating, though, that is exactly what his father would call Zeb each time he brought up the subject. Why, thought Zeb, why does this place bother them so? Maybe Uncle Taylor will know why. He'll tell, I just know he will.
The sky was a perfect shade of battleship gray. A gust of wind bearing a fistful of rain and now sleet broke through Zeb's reverie. Yes, it is past time, Zeb thought to himself. Even Taylor could not divert his mother's attention forever. No, he really did not want to upset his mother, not today. With one last, long look at the island and its diamond, wondering what he would discover the day he was able to swim out there and explore it, he was gone.
Content as he pushed through the woods heading toward home, Zeb once more thought of the white-water snake, the fog, the island, and the freshwater pool--his diamond. All had been collected, touched, and made his own. Nothing, Zeb thought, can ever go wrong as long as I can feel this way. Nothing.
Every November and July, Uncle Taylor would visit Cocytus to fill and take orders from the town's only "boutique." Pudgy, topped with the same auburn hair as Zeb and his mother, Taylor was a salesman for the hosiery in Salston, a hundred miles away. Usually wearing suede spats, a white linen suit, and a bowler hat, Taylor was a semi-annual event for both Zeb and his family, as well as the people of Cocytus.
The story is recounted and constantly embellished of the night when, after matching each of the bell tower's hourly chimes with a shot of whiskey, Taylor was bet a case of bonded bourbon he couldn't butt out the candy store's quarter-inch-thick plate-glass window with his head. Looking at the clock, which read ten 'til twelve, and realizing it was either the window or twelve straight shots of bourbon, Taylor let out his favorite Cherokee war cry and doubled the bet--most of which would eventually be consumed on the very spot he where was about to conquer "time, the elements, natural law, unnatural law, the hives, the clap, and the jackass who was about to lose two cases of bourbon!"
The bar was locked, and the few remaining patrons, including the bartender, escorted Taylor to the candy store, eager to watch Samson wrestle the plate-glass window. Surrounded by a semi-circle of eleven glassy-eyed men, Taylor began to wrap his neck, face, and hands in a shredded tablecloth, preparing himself for battle. Soon painful fits of laughter filled the vacant street as everyone watched Taylor bounce off the window four times before pausing to steady himself by clinging to the barber pole.
After shaking the colors free from his brain, Taylor glared hard at his detractors and barked: "Okay, you piss-ant little sons of bitches, if you think it's so goddamned funny, you want to triple the bet? Huh? What do you say ass-holes? How 'bout six cases?"
Laughing harder still, his audience upped the wager to eight cases of bourbon. Taylor crowed, "Now I got you pack of rubes right where I wanted you in the first place. Watch this!" Plunging his head into a nearby watering trough, Taylor stayed under the water until a worried spectator pulled him up, fearing he was drowned. "God damn it, leave me be," Taylor screamed. "I'm gonna freeze my head solid, then punch that son of a bitch clean out!" In thirty more seconds, a pale, ghoulish-faced Taylor rose up from the trough and ran full speed at the store. Five feet from the window, Taylor launched himself, much like a battering ram. Breaking into three large pieces, the window collapsed around the unconscious victor. The crowd ran home.
Later that morning, the outraged owner of the candy store, Louie Scalofis, brought the sheriff by to show him the damage and demand restitution. After the sheriff finally quit laughing, he revived Taylor and took him to the jailhouse. Six of the eight cases of bourbon paid for the window, the remaining two paid Taylor's fine. A few stitches patched him up, and in two more days he was back on the road, and all Taylor had to show for his effort was another chapter in his ever-widening legend.
"Fine just fine," he said, "just another stone wedged into the great fortress that is my haven in the ongoing battle to slay mediocrity and boredom. A few cuts and a hangover the size of Mount Everest is a small price to pay, gentlemen, for some momentary relief from the war. Actually it's a bargain, when you consider the enemy. Ah, yes, the life of a traveling salesman. Didn't God offer Lucifer an eternity in hell or one spent as a door-to-door salesman? Believe me, Lucifer made the right choice. Next time I pass through town the drinks are on me."
Once Taylor had finished his business in Cocytus, he would take part of his commission, purchase half a case of bourbon, then visit with Zeb's family for the next two days. For those forty-eight hours, Zeb would be the prized toy of his favorite uncle. He would also be the object of Taylor's Indian legends, war stories, and the beneficiary of trips made into town to find the "perfect toy for the perfect nephew."
As Zeb exited the woods into the front yard, a Cheyenne wolf call greeted him. Zeb smiled as he listened to his uncle's yell echo through the trees. Before the second call was finished, Zeb was sprinting toward the howling Taylor. Their eyes locked, and each held the other's gaze for a moment, reassuring himself that nothing had changed between them. Clattering down the steps, Taylor turned his back, cocked his head to watch the approaching rider, then dropped to his knees just in time to catch Zeb securely on his shoulders. With a pint of bourbon happily circulating through his veins, Taylor bucked and howled, then reared up, bellowing to Zeb, "Hold on, boy. We goin' on the dad blamedest, most mud-sloggin', snake-poppin' ride of your life!"
For the next five minutes, Zeb's mother clenched the porch rail in white-knuckled anticipation and listened as Zeb rode his snorting rhino through the woods. Finally, the renegade pair leapt from out of the brush. Winded, but still unsatisfied, Taylor spied a small brick wall at the far end of the yard: his grand exit awaited him! Before either Zeb or Mrs. Caina could warn him, Taylor raced toward, then leapt up and over the brick wall. Zeb's mother screamed, while from behind the wall, Zeb laughed, and Taylor's cursing grew more intense.
"Sheeit! God damn it, boy, why in the hell didn't you tell me this is ya Daddy's manure and compost pit!"
Words fled the house as Mrs. Caina's lullaby warmed the den. It was six o'clock, supper time. Outside the rain continued to fall, filling the house with a gentle, insistent suggestion of sleep. A fire burned hot and even in the fireplace. Wrapped in quilts, huddled close to the hissing flames, Mrs. Caina dried the head of her little Bellerophon, while Pegasus soothed his wounds with a fresh pint of bourbon. Taylor, Zeb, and his mother sat motionless, cradling the feathery blaze with unblinking eyes.
Rattling the porch as he stamped his boots clean, Mr. Caina broke the silence when he announced his return from the mill. With a quick wrenching open and slamming shut of the door, he was in, wet and smiling. His grin vanished as he spied the huddled trio warming by the fire. Laughing, Mrs. Caina recounted the tale of Zeb and Taylor's late-afternoon jaunt through the forest. Shaking his head, he began to strip off his rain gear, sighing as each article of clothing dropped to the floor. Once down to his red, long-handled underwear, Mr. Caina grabbed his brother's bottle, took a drink, farted, and said, "Let's eat!"
Over slabs of steaming pork roast, sweet potatoes, and rhubarb pie, old bonds were renewed, and laughter soon replaced the earlier, uneasy silence. Soon the four of them were back in front of the fire. Taylor and Zeb's father sipped coffee laced with bourbon to ease the discomfort of their swollen bellies. Zeb sat quietly, watching the fire, his father, and his favorite uncle from his mother's lap. Only heavy breathing, an occasional nod, and the pop of a green log broke the comfortable silence. Sleep and a new day seemed to be fast approaching.
This calm continued to fill the den until, rising up with Zeb in her arms, Mrs. Caina announced that it was time for him to go to bed. Before she could utter her command a second time, Zeb was on the defense, using his only weapon: Taylor, to stall for time.
As his father repeated the dreaded command, Zeb went into action, begging Taylor for a story, knowing that if his uncle was still awake, there would be at least one good story, if not two or three, and bedtime would be delayed for another hour or more. Taylor, though, who had been fighting sleep for the last fifteen minutes, was beginning to succumb to the potent mixture of a fire, a full stomach and whiskey. Nothing but the whites of his eyes were peering out from under his eyelids. His own snoring had jolted him back to consciousness three times now. Feeling the moment slipping from his grasp, Zeb went into a fullcourt press. Hopping onto Taylor's lap, Zeb yanked the groggy bear awake and begged for the one thing that just might keep his uncle from sleep: an Indian legend. Telling story after story about his favorite subject: Indians was the only distraction Taylor liked more than drinking bourbon.
Zeb had won, Taylor was awake and grinning. Mr. and Mrs. Caina shook their heads and smiled, graciously accepting defeat. Taylor, though, was still not fully awake. He was laboring as he searched his memory to find a story.
"Maybe this can wait 'til morning, Zeb. I can't seem to think of a good one quite yet, and it's gettin' late, and well ..."
"I know," Zeb interrupted, "the island, you know the one. It sits out in the middle of the river. You know, the island with the pool that sparkles in the sun and has got all those rocks around it. You said one time that it was a special place for the Indians. Tell me about it. Please, it won't take long."
Fending off the horrified, fearful looks from Zeb's parents with a reassuring nod, Taylor agreed to treat Zeb to a story about the island. After positioning his favorite nephew and friend on his massive lap, Taylor took a long drink from his bottle, then with Zeb held securely in his arms, he crossed the river so that the two of them could explore the forbidden isle.
"Well Zeb, I don't know if your daddy ever told you, but the pool that sits on that little island out there in the river is a freshwater pool. I mean it's got water so clear and sweet it's almost unnatural. Most people in these parts got to go down a couple hundred feet to get water that clear and sweet. But on that island, it just bubbles up so putty and nice that, well, you cain't help but wonder why.
"And the funny-lookin' rock formation that circles halfway around that pool, it's a sight and a wonderment, too. Did you ever notice how it slopes up all gradual like, then forms a little ledge that sticks out all the way to the middle of the pool? Well, I'll tell you somethin', Zeb. There was a time when none of that was there!
"No sir, instead of that pool and its rock border, there was a great big ole mound with the biggest willow any man has ever seen sittin' right on top of it. And in that big ole willow lived the greatest, most ferocious of all the night hawks that ever flew over the earth. No one, not even the bravest Indian warriors would venture out to the island. They knew that no human could ever survive a battle with that hawk, much less tryin' to capture or kill it. No sir. Several foolish warriors had tried, but the hawk which they called Death Shadow, would always kill the Indian brave, then fly over the village right before dawn and drop the dead body onto the fire in the center of the village.
"No one ever saw the great hawk because it was always so dark, but they could feel him, sorta like a huge, warm thundercloud overhead. Right as he was passin' over the village, the beating of his massive wings would put out the fire in the center of the village. Then the body of that slain warrior would drop down onto where the fire had been burning. Everyone would hold their breath, praying that Death Shadow wouldn't swoop down into the village and take them. And he would circle and circle over the village until just before dawn, then he would fly back to the island.
"As the sun started peeking over the horizon, the fire in the village would start to burn again, and the dead warrior's body would flame up and turn into all the colors of that morning's sunrise. And Death Shadow's huge wings--that's all anybody ever saw--why they would just glow. You see, Zeb, they was catchin' all the colors of that dead warrior's spirit and brushing them into the sky. Then he'd be out of sight. Gone.
"After a while, nobody would go out to challenge Death Shadow. I'm sure you can see why, cain't you, Zeb.
"Everything went along just fine for a while. Death Shadow would fly over the village ever so often, but he really never bothered anyone. All they ever heard or saw of Death Shadow was during the night sometimes, when he would go hunting. He'd swoop down and pull a forty- or fifty-pound catfish out of the river, or maybe a cow or two, and take them back to the island to eat. He left the village and its people alone until, well--yeah hold on, I'm gettin' to that, Zeb. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
"It was a real hot summer night, too hot to sleep. 'Bout midnight, a group of the tribe's women went down to the river for a swim. Since they couldn't sleep, they figured they might as well cool off for a while. After an hour, most of the women had their fill of swimming, climbed out of the river, and went back to the village. All except one woman, Sheshonna, the chief's daughter. She was younger and stronger than the rest and wanted to swim a while longer.
"Not too long after the other women had left, Sheshonna started hearing somethin' strange coming out from the island. At first, it was like a little boy trying to imitate a bird, then it started growing louder and deeper until it sounded like someone playing a flute. Still, it was much too pretty to be just a flute; it was like a man, a boy, and a flute all rolled up into one sound.
"Well, Zeb, this sound would get louder, then suddenly drop to a whisper, then get louder again. After a while, Sheshonna was hypnotized by this strange song. It was like it was being played for her, like someone was callin' out to her.
"So, in spite of what her father and the village had taught her, Sheshonna swam out toward the island, drawn there by the sounds that seemed to be coming out from under that giant willow tree.
"As she drew closer to the island, the song became even more beautiful, making her forget all the dangers she had learned about the island and Death Shadow. All she could think of was to find out where that mysterious music was coming from, and who was making it.
"And when she climbed up on the shore of that island, guess what, Zeb? Sheshonna, she wasn't scared one bit! Nope, she just walked straight up to that giant willow, and there she found a handsome Indian warrior sitting up against the trunk. But this wasn't an ordinary brave, no sir. He had the body and the head of a normal man, but instead of arms, he had beautiful black wings.
"For the rest of the night, they sat together while that strange warrior sang to Sheshonna, songs more beautiful than any human had ever heard. Then, right before dawn, he stopped singing, and he spoke to Sheshonna of how he loved her and wanted to marry her, and she told him that she also loved and wanted to marry him.
"Then something real strange happened. The warrior became very nervous and told Sheshonna that she must go quickly, that once the sun was completely up, it would be too dangerous for her to be on the island, that Death Shadow would awaken and kill them both. Right before Sheshonna left, the warrior told her not to come back to the island for another year. Once the year was up, she was supposed to wait on shore until she heard his song, then swim out to the island, and for another night they could be together again.
"Just as Sheshonna was about to leave, he told her to pluck a feather from his left wing so she would know the next day that this hadn't been a dream. He kissed her and told her again never swim to out to the island unless she heard his song.
"When Sheshonna arrived back on shore, she became frightened that she would have to go through the woods with no moon or morning sun to guide her. Then, as she let out a sound of fear, that feather the warrior gave her lit up like a torch, burned with all the colors of the rainbow. It was somethin'! For her trip through the woods, Sheshonna had a safe guide.
"Yeah, that's right, Zeb, you guessed it. That warrior with the wings was Death Shadow. Turns out, the Indian gods had seen how lonely their prized hawk was, so they decided to let him experience human form. One night a year the gods turned Death Shadow into a man, or I guess I should say partially, because they left his wings on him so hopefully he would remember that his human body was only temporary.
"They figured that once Death Shadow had a taste of what it was like to be a human, he would hate it and want to always remain a hawk. Their plan backfired, though, 'cause they figured that Death Shadow would never meet anyone and would grow so lonely he'd never want to be human again. But, well when he laid his eyes on Sheshonna, well, well, well that was that, I mean, who wouldn't want to be a man after seein' her all wet and--ah, well, you get the picture, Zeb.
"Legend has it, she was so beautiful, that whenever she went down to the river at night, the moon's reflection would disappear, 'cause you see, the moon was jealous of her beauty. It didn't want to give her a chance to see her reflection. So you really couldn't fault Death Shadow for wanting to be human.
"For the next three years, Sheshonna couldn't think of anything all year except the one night she was able to join Death Shadow. Even the strongest, most handsome brave in the village couldn't get the time of day from her. Yes sir, she had it bad for ole Death Shadow. Pretty soon, it got to the point where she was cryin' most every day and night, not eating hardly anything, and her momma and daddy were just beside themselves worrying 'bout their daughter.
"Well, it was the night before Sheshonna was supposed to swim out and meet Death Shadow. This was to be the third time they would see one another. The chief, Sheshonna's father, figured he better do somethin' before his little girl died of loneliness or starvation. At midnight, he got up and put on his war bonnet and paint, picked up his spear, and went down to the river. Once he was at the river, he knelt down and scooped up a handful of mud and began smearing it all over his body, then he dropped to his knees and started praying to the Indian gods.
"You see, Zeb, by dressin' for war and covering his body in mud, the chief was asking all the gods to help him: mud for the earth, water for the sky, and paint for the gods who rule the wars between men. He prayed all night for the gods to end his grief and save his daughter from a life of loneliness and pain, to help find a way for his daughter and Death Shadow to be married.
"It was daybreak when the chief finished. Something real strange happened, Zeb, before he left. As the chief stood up, ready to start his trip back to the village, still sad that his prayers hadn't been answered, a bolt of lightning cracked and lit up the sky, then immediately turned into a rainbow. That rainbow just hung there in the sky for, oh, I'd say close to a minute, then it fell apart, turnin' itself into a flock of all different types of birds-eagles, kingfishers, doves, and bunches and bunches more. The chief cried he was so happy, and then he laughed out loud. It was a sign to him, Zeb, a sign from the gods that his prayers had been answered. Each bird represented a different god, so it meant that all the gods were in agreement on what to do.
"That night, the chief couldn't a been happier. He was so happy, he personally escorted Sheshonna to the river, gave her his blessing, and then swam part of the way out to the island with her. He was excited that his daughter would finally find true contentment.
"Well, Zeb, after Sheshonna had been out on the island for a while, the sky started to cloud up real fast, and the wind commenced to screamin' and hollerin'. The wind blew so hard, Death Shadow had to put his wings around Sheshonna to protect her from flyin' rocks and branches. That's when it happened!
"The biggest, longest, hottest bolt of lightning you've ever seen came out of the sky and hit that big ole willow Death Shadow and Sheshonna were sittin' under. That willow tree exploded and started to burn like a hay barn in the middle of a drought! The fire was so bright the Indians in the village thought it was daytime. Everybody ran out of their huts and teepees and hurried down to the river to see what was goin' on. It wasn't 'til noon the next day that the fire stopped and the smoke cleared enough that they could see what had happened.
"Turns out that not only was the willow tree gone, but the mound it was sittin' on had also disappeared. And Zeb, do you know what was in their place? Yep, that's right, that freshwater pool and the rock formation. Or was it as simple as all that?
"According to Indian legend, that pool and rock formation are Sheshonna and Death Shadow. Sheshonna is the pool, and Death Shadow is the border of rock. You see, the Indian gods figured that was the only way the two lovers could always be together. When Death Shadow put his wings around Sheshonna, the gods sent down a bolt of lightning and changed them. Zeb, those rocks and the ledge that hangs out over the pool are the wings and the head of Death Shadow protecting his love. And when you really think about it, Zeb, they'll always be together this way, longer than if the gods had made Death Shadow human.
"The Indians also say that the jealous moon took pity on poor Sheshonna, and for an entire year, would only shine on that freshwater pool. Legend has it if you crawl out on that little ledge and look into the pool when the moon is out, you'll hear Death Shadow's song, and you'll see the eyes of Sheshonna lookin' up from the water. The Indians swear that if you stay long enough, hang there above the water, watch and listen, the water will rise up, kiss your face, and the breath of Death Shadow will fill your lungs with his strength. You'll touch, for a moment, what Sheshonna, Death Shadow, and the gods themselves felt when that lightning bolt hit. Zeb ... Zeb, you awake?"
His body curled up in a ball, his head glued to Taylor's chest, Zeb was lost for the night. Mrs. Caina delicately shoveled Zeb up from Taylor's lap, kissed both men and put herself and Zeb to bed, leaving the remainder of the night, the red coals of the dying fire, and the restless, wandering shadows of the den for the two Caina brothers to dissect.
Left alone, the two brothers attempted to reestablish their family bond, tried to slide back into the molded, seemingly invincible armor of their youth. Staring into the hissing coals, they tried to take back the seven years since Taylor first left home and shattered the world they had loved, together, for eighteen years. As an entry, they used anything of recent memory, like stray cats or easy girls, anything to start a discussion. Like children describing new toys, they spoke of their lives during the past few years as sources of entertainment, marbles to be traded, objects to break down the barrier, anything to help them return to their fragile, shared universe.
For Taylor's younger brother it had been marriage, while Taylor, growing weary of Cocytus, had chosen travel. But where had it led them? Why was a dirt-poor youth, spent together working eighteen-hour days simply to eat and buy shoes, why did it seem so golden, so warm, soft, and fragile as a memory, why? Why was it so difficult to make eye contact with the one human he thought would never change--his brother.
"New Orleans, now that's my favorite," began Taylor. "A city overflowing with wonderful food, big-breasted, caramel-colored women, and good, cheap liquor. It's where I want to live out my life, where I want to mark my spot and die. Put me on a burning raft, float me out on the Mississippi, and then let me drift out into the ocean. A viking funeral, with a band playing Dixieland jazz. All my friends will be drinking, laughing, and toasting that good ole son of a bitch Taylor, the one who's footin' the bill for all this fun."
"It was, shit, I guess 'bout two weeks after you left when I got the job down at the sawmill," said Zeb's father. "With the railroad comin' through and all this virgin timber we got around here, hell, I've been set now with a pretty decent job. We supply the railroad with all their ties, ship `em direct out of here. That mobile sawmill was my idea. They's four or five spread out all over the county. We supplement what the big one in town can't handle.
"She's a good woman, Zeb's momma, she really is. Got a temper. Course, I guess we both do. Don't like to, ah, well you know, she ain't like she used to be, you know lettin' me have a piece whenever I like. But I kind of work around that one way or the other. You know what I mean?
"Anyway, that was real good how you handled the story 'bout the island. I know she's breathin' easier now that Zeb's got a story to hang on to. Hope he never finds out, well you know, the truth 'bout that place and him, course, I guess it don't really matter ... or does it?"
Ten years ago, standing by the river, he closed the cover of his grandfather's gold pocket watch. It was close to noon, and A.D. Worthcott's horse had gone lame. Returning to the road, he walked to the nearest town, disgruntled by this interruption of his hunting trip. Worthcott arrived in Cocytus in time for lunch. Enamored by her quiet people, he stretched his bad luck into a three-day layover. Six months later, Mr. Worthcott returned to wake Cocytus from its dream.
Soon Cocytus was restless with prosperity. Under Worthcott's hand, and with the introduction of his railway line, the tiny farm village, in two years, grew into a town, complete with a sheriff, a courthouse, hookers, syphilis, and seven bars. The seasons no longer ruled Cocytus. With most of the town at work in humming textile mills or feeding whirling saw blades, the weather had become no more than the subject of idle, lunch-break conversation.
In a short stretch of time, the town grew bored with its wealth. Days that were once spent working in the sun now began to fester in the unchanging routine of laboring in factories and mills. Time clocks had replaced the seasons. Even church service was held later, every other Sunday, so that the workers pulling half shifts that day could be in attendance. The grind of their factory driven lives continued to numb the population of Cocytus until one spring night, four years after Worthcott had first arrived. It was Cyrus Jackson who rescued Cocytus from its coma.
A light breeze filled his lungs, as his feet glided over the new grass. Dr. Steinlowe had just delivered his sixtieth baby, and for the sixtieth time, he felt humbled and exhilarated by the event. The delivery had gone exceedingly well, so the happy doctor was nearing home four hours earlier than he had planned. A late dinner and perhaps a walk with his wife were all that remained to complete this unexpectedly "perfect" evening.
Just after ten o'clock, two shotgun blasts brought the sheriff to Dr. Steinlowe's home. Entering the house, the sheriff found the doctor weeping at the foot of the stairs, cradling his dead wife. Upstairs in the master bedroom, he found Cyrus Jackson with the better part of his throat pasted on the headboard of the Steinlowes' bed.
By noon the next day, the town was ecstatic. A birth and two murders in one night, all performed by the same man; surely it was some kind of divine test. The trial was finished within the week. The newspaper and all who were in attendance at the trial agreed that if the good doctor had only testified on his own behalf, he would have gone free.
"To kill another human," the judge proclaimed, "can be excused if given the proper circumstances. In fact, it can be applauded if the defendant is expressly destroying the perpetrator of a greater sin. Please, Dr. Steinlowe, you have grieved enough. Simply state what you saw your wife and Mr. Jackson doing, describe for us their actions ... all the details of their adulterous sin, and I, these fine people, and God Almighty will welcome you back into our bosom. You have performed admirably and with great courage in ridding us of these vile creatures. Please, tell us all, everything that you saw and heard that night, so that I might set you free."
But laughing and shaking his head while sitting on the witness stand, the doctor said, "Perhaps he was right. Judas, that is. Just give them what they want and then hang yourself. Two for the price of one. No, you'll not hear a word from me. My wife was an angel, Cyrus Jackson a saint, and me? All I'm doing is making the town's itch, its libido for the next week or two, more pronounced. Don't act so surprised, I can see it in everyone's eyes, even in yours, judge. Can't wait, can you? Yeah, see, I told you. So, just remember me when you start feeling the urge. Remember and thank me when your wife just can't get enough; and when your husband is hard as a rock, thank me, the good Dr. Steinlowe, for services rendered. That's it, judge, that's all I have to say. Please take me away now, before I throw up. The smell of this place is making me sick."
From deep inside the fog, there came the sound of the last nails being driven into place. It was the perfect spot for a hanging. Directly in front of a wide, grassy meadow, half a mile from shore, the island provided an ideal stage for the town to witness justice being served. Lucius Oland, the town's carpenter, had been commissioned to erect the scaffold. The need to transfer his tools and wood out to the island in a skiff slowed his usually efficient and meticulous work. After working all night, Lucius was just finishing, as the morning fog began to break. He never felt rushed, though, since the hanging was not to take place until five o'clock that afternoon. Sitting down to rest, the fog still covering his newly-finished piece, Lucius thought of his dead father.
"Things can get confused," he would say. "A man buys a horse to plow and ends up racin' him to save the farm. That's kinda natural, though, just one man playin' with himself and gettin' caught with his hand down his pants, don't hurt nobody, just a might embarassin'. It's when people start confusin' people, you know, when they start mixin' their wants and needs with the troubles of others, well, then it's time to leave. Like a bitch too old to have pups; when she does, she turns right around and eats `em. Can't stand herself, so she goes and makes it worse. Son, if you ever smell it, or see a lot of people gathering just to watch it happen--I mean death and dying--leave. As quietly as you can, just pack up and go. I ain't promisin' you you'll find a better place. But, at least, maybe you can find a spot where the hatred and the rot ain't had a chance to set in."
By ten o'clock the temperature was up to eighty degrees. The heat had long ago burned off the fog. Arranging his tools in the front end of the skiff, Lucius looked at the shore, then down at his neat bundle of clothes, his small wooden clock, and the tiny cedar cabinet his father made as a wedding present for his mother. Checking his leather pouch to make sure his savings were intact, Lucius Oland pushed the small boat away from the island, not bothering to look back.
The mayor's opening address was beginning to wear the crowd down as it continued to explode from his rubber jowls in huge bursts of spittle and labored breathing. It was hot and he was fat, but it was an election year, and this hanging was the perfect place to make his pitch for another term. The mayor pushed on, endlessly it seemed, until finally, mercifully, he was spent. In a matter of only fifteen minutes, his face had bleached out to expose a road map of purple and yellow veins, crisscrossing his face and neck, while his hair and clothes were heavy with sweat. His neck and lower back throbbed, his bladder was on fire, but he still thought to himself: Just fine.
Relenting the stage, to everyone's relief, the mayor signaled for the honor guard to begin their exhibition, and then stumbled down the stairs, wheezing and fighting for air. Removing his jacket and tie, he crawled under a tree, then signaled for one of his assistants to bring him a bucket of beer.
"So, how was I?" the mayor asked his assistant.
"Ah, well sir, fine, just fine, well, up until that part where you wet your pants, just fine. Here's your beer, sir."
At a quarter to five, after a day-long celebration which featured a four piece bluegrass band and a feast of barbecued ribs and beer, the sheriff, his deputies, and the prisoner floated into view. (The entourage had traveled up the river earlier so they could float back down to the landing and create a "grand, stately entrance.") As the boat drew closer to the island, the riverbank became pregnant with wide-eyed observers, all fighting for a better view. Soon, like lemmings, they began to spill over into the river, some wading out neck deep to secure the best possible view of the hanging.
"Let me see now, we got a hanging up on the island, a baptism taking place down in the river, the pharaoh on his barge floating by ... so I guess that just leaves us Sodom and Gomorrah, right Fred?" quipped one of the hundred or so drunk and sunburned observers. "No, no, that's not what I mean, Fred. It don't mean I'm interested in no man stickin' his business into my, well ... you know what. No sir. All it was ... well, it was just an observation is all. A way to ... ah hell, you want another beer? I'm buyin'. I'm warnin' you. Quit lookin' at me like that! Quit it!"
With the crowd settled, the boat docked, and the handcuffed prisoner and his heavily armed guard standing next to the scaffold, the sheriff waddled up the stairs to seize the center ring. Looking out over the river at the crowed landing, he felt the focus of a thousand sets of eyes, all bearing down on him and the condemned. Like the ringmaster at a circus, he thought to himself. This crowd's mine. Like my own, personal whore, bought, paid for, and waitin' for my first move or command. But shit, what do they really want? Can't be just a hangin', but what else is there?
As the sheriff attempted to speak, his stomach suddenly knotted and collapsed onto itself. He fumbled for the words he thought they wanted but kept remembering what Steinlowe had said earlier in the courthouse, the statement about being Judas. So what's that make me? he wondered.
The sun was low in the sky, shining straight into his eyes. Mumbling a few words about serving the public interest, the sheriff's speech was halted by a gunshot and the angry calls of several in the crowd who were anxious for the hanging to begin. "It's late," they began screaming, "My head hurts," they continued, "Her pussy's gettin' cold," one offered, to the delight of everyone. Frozen, staring back in disbelief, the sheriff stopped his awkward address and motioned to his deputies to bring up the prisoner.
As the sheriff attempted to place the noose around Dr. Steinlowe's neck, his hands began to shake uncontrollably. His head felt like it was filled with acid, his vision was blurred, and his heart was pumping at twice its normal rate. Filling his ears was the constant chant of the crowd to "string, stretch, strip, and burn him." Fighting to calm himself, the sheriff looked away from the crowd and made eye contact with the doctor.
"What's the matter, sheriff?" Steinlowe chuckled. "Your whore gettin' outta hand? Paid for somethin' you didn't bargain for? Losin' the urge?"
"God damn it, shut up!" the sheriff shouted back. "Shut up so I can calm myself. This ain't gonna be as easy as I thought."
"Yeah, you're right sheriff, a soul should have compassion for a man in your situation. Hell, all I got to worry about is being hanged. Look what's waitin' for you back on shore."
"Shut up I said, 'fore I ..."
"What? Before you what, sheriff? Release me?! God no, please, have mercy, hang me, you son of a bitch! Do it while they're still singing and laughing, please. It's how I want to remember all of you. Go on now, you can do it, sheriff, really you can. Just turn your head and pull the release. You're doin' me a favor really. Go on now ... thanks."
When the trapdoor rattled open, a flock of geese bolted from the river. The sheriff cried and vomited over the platform's side. One of his deputies began to mechanically fire his shotgun over and over into the legs of the scaffold. From the crowd on shore, and from those neck deep in the river, a cheer rang out. An elderly man standing off to the left of the massive gathering remarked to his wife of forty-seven years that Steinlowe resembled the fine big carp he had caught out of this very same river twenty years ago.
"Look, sweetheart, look how he bucks and fights like Thunder did when I hooked him. Got that same fight and spirit. Would you look at him! That son of a gun is still fightin' it! Can you imagine tryin' to land him?!"
After the hanging, the excitement quickly shifted to the pregnant Mrs. Caina. When Steinlowe's body began to buck uncontrollably, she collapsed. Most figured the heat had been too much for "a woman with child." Upon waking from her swoon, Mrs. Caina promptly went into labor. Immediately, a slightly drunk and sunburned doctor hatched from the crowd. Transporting her to town seemed risky, so within minutes, the meadow was transformed into a field hospital. Just after eight o'clock, the Cainas had a premature, but healthy baby boy.
It was close to midnight before the doctor felt Mrs. Caina capable of weathering the journey back into Cocytus. Lifting a hunter's lantern, he swung the light like a pendulum, signaling the only wagon which still remained in the meadow. Pulling up parallel to the prostrate Mrs. Caina, the three men carefully lifted and placed her in the slender space that remained in the bed of the wagon. The doctor, the driver, and Mr. Caina, cradling his infant son, squeezed together on the platform seat, mashing the springs flat. With an affectionate tap of the driver's whip, the wagon began to creep toward town.
The new born, Zebulin, began to cry as the wagon squeaked and moaned. Frightened, Mr. Caina looked at the doctor.
"Now now, don't you fret none, your boy's hungry, that's all. Here hand him to me and I'll give him to your wife. There now, you see, he's takin' to that nipple just fine.
"You know, it's kinda funny how things work out. What, with your wife the way she is, I was worried 'bout gettin' her back safely on this bumpy road, not to mention this chill that's tryin' to set in. But with her tucked up real tight and warm against Steinlowe there, well ... we ain't got a thing to worry about, not a thing.
"Everybody doin' all right back there? Good ... good. And Mrs. Caina, once you've finished nursin' Zeb, just open the lid there, and slide him in. Steinlowe loved babies, just adored them."
"You crack me up, Doc, you really do," laughed Mr. Caina.
"What is it this time?" Mrs. Caina shouted as she peered down at Zeb. "Last year they caught you playin' with that little retarded Jones girl out behind the schoolhouse. And don't try and talk your way out of it again. Don't! Don't insult me by sayin' you was just tryin' to clean her up after she wet her panties."
"But momma, she was cryin' real hard. She was alone behind the schoolhouse, scared, real scared, afraid 'cause she wet herself. And then it started to rain and thunder, and all I was tryin' to do was--"
"Shut up! Do you hear me? Don't you dare try and twist that story around with me! I'm just grateful that group of older boys happened to come along before you got into somethin' else we'd all be ashamed of."
"But like I told you before, it was them, those older boys who were comin' out from behind the schoolhouse when I walked up ... it was them that--"
"God damn it, boy--shut up! What, did you take one of those books from the library to show everybody at school? What kind of nine year old looks at things like that anyway? You're unnatural, too damned interested in strange and naked things."
"But momma, the teacher told us a story, what they call a myth, about the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Her name was Venus. She told us that Venus sprang up full grown from out of the ocean. Teacher said there were some pictures of her in the library. One was painted by some guy named Botter, ah, Botachillie ... anyway, I didn't know that she was going to be naked in the picture, and I tried to close the book before the other kids could--"
"Quiet. I said enough of that! We've already been over that too many times. I guess those red-pepper and cold-water enemas didn't make a big enough impression on you, did they. Well, go ahead, tell me why Miss Loman wants to see me tomorrow. But why should she be any different from the others? Miss Landers, Miss Doss, they all wanted to see me about you and that scummy mind of yours. Go on now, and be quick about it. I got to start supper, and you know how your daddy gets if supper's late. Damn it, speak boy!"
"It was, well, ah. We were suppose to ... It was a story, I mean, a lesson. History class, I mean it was history class."
"Would you please just git on with it, boy! I ain't got the whole damn afternoon. Maybe I should just go ahead and give it to you now. What do you think?"
"Witches. I mean, we were learnin' 'bout the settlers and that town up north, ah, called Salem. I, ah, I forgot to read the lesson on Salem. I mean, well, I got home late from talkin' to Houstus. I didn't think Miss Loman was gonna call on me anyway, but she did. Miss Loman asked me to talk 'bout the witches. 'Bout the court trials where they had to find out all 'bout who was a witch. And, well, when she said something 'bout trials, I thought maybe she meant it was some kinda contest. You know, like a magic or beauty contest or somethin'. I figured if I talked 'bout that, it would be close enough to what the lesson had been about and, well, maybe Miss Loman wouldn't notice that I hadn't read it.
"I started out by talkin' 'bout the great magic contests they used to hold in Salem. How the whole town would come out to watch.
"The first one I told them about was a little boy's mother. She was very kind and beautiful. She had learned magic to make her little boy smile and laugh. After every trick, he would giggle and clap his hands and she would pick him up and hug him until it felt like they were the same person. That little boy loved his mother more than you can imagine. And she loved him. So when it was her turn to perform, the mother said the little boy had to help her, had to be a part of the magic.
"They both walked up to the lake in the center of town. Then the momma went over to a spot where the sun was sparklin' on the water and dipped up a big glass of that water. She poured that sparklin' water all over her little boy, and he began to sparkle and glow. Light and sparks and colors covered the little boy, and he felt warm and excited inside. His mother, I mean the witch, smiled and bent over and kissed him. Right after she kissed him, a whole flock of the most beautiful butterflies you've ever seen flew off that little boy, circled around the crowd, and then melted into the sky. Everyone there clapped, and the little boy smiled, and his momma bowed to them.
"Now the other witch who was in the contest, she lived in an old house, one nobody would ever walk up to or knock on its door 'cause it looked so scary. But she was really nice, this witch, she really was. Anyway, she brought a pretty lace glove to the trial, like the ones you have, momma. With that glove, she reached up and caught a sunbeam. One by one, she went to every child standin' there and told them to close their eyes. She took that sunbeam and painted the eyelids of each child, then told them to think of any place in the world. After that, she told them to close their eyes and make believe they were at that place, then open their eyes back up and go down to the lake. When they looked down into the lake, it wasn't their own reflections that they saw, it was the place each one had imagined when that witch told them to think of a place. It was like a dream painted on the face of the lake. And when everybody turned to thank the--"
Coming down hard across Zeb's face, Mrs. Caina slapped him three times. "God damn it, God damn it, God damn you, boy, when is this garbage gonna stop? Get the hell outta here! Do you hear me? Go! Get the hell outta here and into your room. Damn it! If you're lucky, I'll tell your daddy the reason you're missin' dinner is 'cause of a stomachache. But I don't know. Maybe he'll have an answer for all this. Yeah, and if I tell him, maybe he'll be so pissed he won't bother me in bed tonight, the jackass. Whatever.
"God damn it, Zeb, I can't believe I've got to go to school again on account of that perverted little brain of yours. What the hell is it with you? Answer me! What is it? What? I said answer me, boy! Yeah, well, I guess that's what I git for lettin' the likes of your daddy knock me up. Go on git, outta here. Get out! Go to your room and don't come out 'til mornin'. Now get!"
Zeb stared out of his bedroom window, letting the cool evening air chill and caress his bare chest. Turning, yet again, to see if someone had come to the door to check on him, he saw and heard nothing. Looking back through the window, he mused about how, when placed against the sky, the frame of the opened window became an opening, a keyhole, an escape from this place and time. If only I had a pair of wings, he thought. With wings I could pass through this door and into the sky; I could come and go as I pleased. Appear and disappear through the colors. That would change everything, if they could only see the colors of the stories and my dreams. See me climb into the clouds, gather in the sunrise and sunset, and bring them both down to paint their eyes. Then maybe they could see how both are the same, the same to me. See how the light and the dark of each color is like the inside and outside of the same place or room. Like this room, like me.
As Zeb continued to watch the rose, gray, and black of the sunset begin to shade and then darken the sky, the scent of budding honeysuckle started to mix and then dissolve into the odors of the pan-fried steak and potatoes he was missing. He was beginning to forget the pain and loneliness brought on earlier by his mother's scolding. His father had long since arrived home from work, and still he had not come to Zeb's room to discipline him. Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought, Zeb told himself. Maybe they've forgotten all about it, maybe they'll bring my supper to me, tell me a nice story before I go to bed, maybe, just maybe. The knocks, rattles, muffled laughter, and quiet voices piping in from the kitchen, seeping under his door and into his room, seemed to bear out Zeb's optimism. With an empty stomach, but a renewed hope, he waited and listened for the sound of footsteps bringing his supper and a story.
Zeb had been in bed for thirty minutes when his bedroom door was kicked open. A sour stench, heavy with sweat and alcohol, immediately flooded the room. Stripped to his underwear, holding a lantern level with his face, Mr. Caina steadied himself in the doorway. Zeb noticed that his father's right eye was more a siphon than a mirror for the kerosene blaze. After swiping the inside of his mouth with his tongue, belching, then cursing the taste of his own breath, Mr. Caina began.
"If it ain't one of you, it's the other. Fuckin' bitch says she's got to keep her panties on cause it's that time of the month. What 'bout them titties? No, no, got to sleep, she says, besides, they're tender. Yeah, I know 'cause you bleedin', you bleedin'. And you, you little shithead, think you're so smart you can fool the teacher and your momma and daddy. Shit! Your momma says she can't go to school with you tomorrow, 'cause it's that fuckin time of the month! So me! I got to go to school with your little fuckin' ass. Miss a morning's work, they gonna dock my pay, and all 'cause you think you're so cute and smart and shit! Shit, my head hurts, and I ain't had a piece in a week and now this shit! Stand up on the bed, now! Take off that night shirt! Lean over, God damn it! Now!"
Standing naked on his bed, with his palms sliding down across the rough pine wall, Zeb bit deeper and deeper into his bleeding tongue as each stroke of his father's belt found its mark. It was not so much the pain that made Zeb cry, it was the fear. He was not frightened of dying, or of being permanently harmed--physically. No, this was a new wrinkle in his world of adventure, of imagination and love; it was a lonely, sick, hateful feeling, the sensation that he was being forever robbed of his place, his feeling, and worse still--his wings.
With a final lash, his father was gone as quickly as he appeared. Zeb's room seemed darker and the air in the house dead from Mr. Caina's stench and rage. A week would pass before the last splinters had finally worked themselves free from under Zeb's fingernails. But what of my feeling, Zeb mused, when will it scab over and heal. When will it free itself again to fly and transform me?
Soon, Mr. Caina's heavy snoring filled the house, making it impossible for Zeb to sleep. As he composed himself, lying on the bed, staring into the colorless ceiling, he heard the sound of two doves calling to one another. In short bursts, followed by a string of long, chortled notes, the two birds filled the night air outside of Zeb's room with a soft, persistent duet. With this sound, the moon seemed to reappear, cutting a large rectangle of white into the bedroom floor. A hawk's screech echoed in the distance. The scent of honeysuckle returned. Crawling out of bed, Zeb pulled up the window screen, and for a moment let fly his pain.
Drawn by its light, smell, and sound, Zeb looked out at the early morning and saw his world, his feeling, alive and restlessly dancing in the sparkle of freshly dewed grass. Never had he been awake at four in the morning. His father's beating had perversely allowed him to breathe air that seemed to be scrubbed and washed, or better still, brand new. Never had he heard or seen the landscape in this light or at this time, never watched as the moon nursed the fields with an ivory breast, or listened as the woods seemed to house a symphony of waking, wet sounds. It seems strange, Zeb thought, strange that only birds were left to guard this fragile world, a world almost anyone with wings could conquer and rule. Only birds to watch over this place, my place, yes, my place. It's so soft, fragrant, and alive, a place where my feeling could live forever and never die, not as long as I protected it, made it my own. Like Death Shadow, like Uncle Taylor said, the great one who owns the wind and the colors of the sky.
Coughing wetly, then spitting to the side, Mr. Caina interrupted Zeb's flight. Zeb immediately felt empty. Closing the screen to his window, he crawled back into bed. Turning over to face his window, he watched, as the moonlight wrestled with the damp, rusted screen. It glows ... almost burns, he thought. Just like Sheshonna's feather; the one Death Shadow gave her. I wonder what Death Shadow would have done, he mused. I wonder. Pulling the damp sheet over his chest, Zeb rolled over and away from his window to face the dark wall that ran along the other side of his bed. Within minutes, Mr. Caina was snoring once more, and Zeb was asleep.
Zeb's last pebble had long since sunk to the bottom of the river, but it still had not relieved the empty, giddy feeling that filled his stomach. Looking at the splinters and the scabs beginning to form under his fingernails, he thought of last night and the conference, earlier in the day, with his teacher and his hungover father.
"Mr. Caina, I'm glad to see that you've come this time. Maybe a stronger hand is what young Zebulin needs. To put it simply, he's different and doesn't seem to mind it. With that in mind, you can see the dangers involved to himself as well as the others. He's off somewhere, God knows where, thinking and dreaming of people, places, and things that border on, no, that are unnatural for a boy, well, for anyone his age or older. And what I propose to do is--"
"Don't bother none, Miss Loman, please. I'll take care of it, or one of us will have to leave, Mr. Caina assured her, glancing pointedly at his son. And you can be sure it won't be me. No, I don't want to take up any more of your time. Here, this is a leather strap I brought. When Zeb here goes off into that world of his, you can get one of the older boys to take him out back and strap him good.
"Like his momma's said a hundred times: Just stop your cryin' and behave, 'cause this world's gonna keep goin' with or without you, you little crybaby. You ain't as special as you think. Let it take you, show you how to act--the world, I mean. Learn yourself a fable or two, a lesson on what's right or wrong. Your daddy and I done it, why can't you? Ain't a soul on God's green earth or heaven above who gives a hoot about what you're doin' or who you are, until you die. So slow down, shut up, and try and be somebody, somebody we'll remember. Somebody who done somethin' more than just being born and dyin'.
"Anyway, we'll fix him, won't we, Jean, ah, I mean Miss Loman. Fix him good. All of us.
"Zeb, run outside and wait on the steps. There's somethin' I need to discuss with the ... just run on, I'll be out before you know it."
It was close to four, and Zeb thought of someone who was probably just rising up from his cot and scratching a nap from his eyes. If, instead of turning left at the fork leading toward home, Zeb were to follow the river for another mile, he would be able to stop by his favorite place: a plywood shack with a tiny front stoop, where he was sure the coalskinned, snow-haired "Houstus" would be rocking in his chair.
Fifty years ago, when Sam Houston Bailey, "Houstus," was seven, he ignored his father's warning and played too close to his father's forge. When a neglected caldron of glue blew its lid off, the young Houston's face and eyes were scalded, burned so badly that many believed Houston would die. But he survived, though permanently blinded, his face badly scarred. Unable to work for his father, Houston shined shoes in front of the post office. Within six months, he knew the sound of every shoe in Cocytus and would hail each person by name. For the next ten years, the dawn did not break without Houston sitting on the post office steps, smiling. When his father died and his mother was paralyzed by a stroke, forcing her to move in with her sister in Arden, Houston's marbled face and quiet eyes suddenly began to irritate the town.
"Hell, I mean shit, you got to go fetch your mail, don't ya? And there's just no way you can walk right past him, not without him callin' out your name, askin' 'bout your family and whatnot. If I get my shoes shined one more time, I won't have any leather left. And besides, since when do we let a colored boy like that have so much control. He's nice, but something's got to be done."
A town meeting was called. There, a collection was taken to fund the construction of a small shack, to be erected two miles outside the city limits of Cocytus. Within a month, Houston was living in his new home by the river. Now, all those responsible for moving Houston out of town are either dead or have moved themselves. But no one has ever asked Houston to return, not in fifty years. Everyone claims he would be unhappy back in town. "A man like him needs his space, loves his shack and the river, yes sir, he does." No one ever bothered, though, to ask Houston how he felt.
To eat, Houston sold grub worms, crickets, and minnows to the men from town. Jacob, his brother, arrived once a week to bring Houston's food and wine and to restock the bait buckets, count the money, and check the scales that sat on the sawhorse table. One time, Zeb asked his father why no one ever steals from Houston.
"'Cause it would be a perfect sin. You see, Houston wouldn't never know. Only person who'd have to worry 'bout it would be yourself. Pretty soon you'd find yourself beholden or confessin' things to Houston you wouldn't never tell anyone else. That's the way sin works, Zeb, it makes you liable, ties you to the man you just upped and screwed over. If I was to steal from Houston, wouldn't be long 'fore I'd be prayin' to him and askin' that nigger for forgiveness. No, you won't catch me doin' that, too strange, just too damned strange for my taste. No, if I wanted somethin' from him, it'd just be a whole lot easier to hit him over the head or kill him. That way I'd be off the hook. Understand?"
Zeb first met Houston when his father took him fishing two years ago. Walking up the sandy path to his shack, Houston hailed Mr. Caina a quarter mile away, asking him who the little one was stuck so closely to his side.
"Everbody's step got its own song ... that's how come I could tell little fella," Houston's random-toothed grin cackled to an amazed and bewildered Zeb. From that moment on, Zeb was greeted several hundred feet away. Always, "Mr. Houston," with his frail, ebony fingers would reach out to stroke the thick mane of auburn hair that covered Zeb's head. Laughing, he would ask Zeb to describe its color to him, then he would return Zeb's kindness with a story or a piece of hard candy.
Their friendship took root and flowered quickly. Before long, Houston implored Zeb to call him by his nickname Houstus; a name only his parents and brother had been permitted to use. In Houstus there remained the remnants of the seven year old child who one day lost his sight; a little boy still alive and wondering 9ut loud, questioning and challenging the universe from inside the tired 'and aging shell of an old man. In Zeb, he sensed he had more than just a little friend. Zeb was a gift, a spirit circling back to him from one of his stories or dreams. A tiny redemption, an offering from the town and the people who had banished him. He felt that he and Zeb were connected, bound together by the disdain and hatred of the others.
As was the case with every visit to Houstus's home, the moment Zeb stepped out of the woods and onto the path that led up to his mentor's shack, Houstus's voice was there to greet him.
"Zeb ... Zeb, that's you I know it. Why you walkin' so slow? You got lead in your shoes, or are you sick, or just plain unhappy? Come on up here, let me touch that head of yours. Tell me what's eatin' at you. Here, take this, Jacob just left it. Got a whole sack of these jawbreakers. What's the matter, son, you lose that purty cat's eye shooter you found down by the river? Come on, you know you can tell me."
Close to a minute slipped past, and Zeb still said nothing. Instead, he stared into the woods, listened to insects, and breathed in the smell of Houstus's smoke-heavy shirt. He loved the odor of Houstus's cherryflavored cigars and the scent they left in all of his shirts. It was always so pleasant to sit with Houstus, as soothing and reassuring as any walk in the forest or trip to the swollen river. Only Uncle Taylor could come close to giving Zeb this same warm feeling.
Finally, Zeb began to recount the events of last night and the early morning conference with his teacher. As always, his words were greeted with an unconditional acceptance. But today, Houstus's face bore a squint of compassion and a look of complete understanding. It was as if Houstus was hearing himself speak. After taking a long, slow drink from a bottle of cider, Houstus paused, shook his head gently, and then pulled Zeb up onto his lap. As Houstus rocked them both, his soft, baritone voice began to release carefully chosen words like so many rare butterflies, caged and fed, held captive until needed for just such an occasion--to console his little friend.
"You leapt over `em Zeb. You jumped clean past `em and when you turned around to look, you smiled instead of laughin' and pointin' a finger at `em. No sir. Cain't nobody stand that 'cept maybe a drunk Negro or a strange-eyed white. No, Zeb, you took off and just left `em behind, flew like that hawk of yours, the one you're always talkin' 'bout. So they all of `em took their best shot at you.
"Son, all you done was to act like a mirror. They look at a little boy like you and get scared 'cause you talkin' and actin' like a fine young man. People see their own shortcomings in you, so they either got to change, or whip the tar out of the one who makes `em feel uncomfortable. Why do you think they stuck me out here all by myself? No sir, Zeb, don't you change one bit. Mend them bruised wings of yours and just keep flyin'.
"Yes sir, Zeb, one day--and it'll be here 'fore you know it--you'll be a long way from here, all growed up, and last night and this morning won't feel like nothin' at all. You'll be your own man, happy, with a purity wife and a little boy who'll be the spittin' image of you. You'll look down at that boy of yours and think 'bout what happened, and you'll bend over and pick up that little boy and hug him 'til he giggles and plain just laughs out loud 'cause he's so happy. That's how you beat `em Zeb. You don't break or change, you protect yourself, whatever you hold most precious, protect it 'til you're sure it's safe to share it. Then you let it fly, let it take you up in the sky and soar. Yeah, that's right, son, jus' like that hawk of yours, Death Shadow. Be strong like him, don't change, 'cause you sure don't want to turn into one of them, now do you?
"Enough of that. Let me tell you somethin' now. It's a dream I had last night. One I have, oh, it seems like every four or five months. Same exact dream ever time, 'bout the time of year when the seasons commence to changin'.
"Zeb, it's like I just waked up. I feels real thick-headed with sleep, and I don't know whether it's midnight or jus' 'fore sunrise. So I tell myself to jus' lay there real quiet for a spell, wait 'til my head clears, and see if that'll change things.
"It's then I start noticin' that the river is runnin' real fast and close. So close it sounds like I could just reach out my window and touch it. All of a sudden, the wind starts screamin' in the big willows. Sounds like the belly moan of a wolf, only a thousand times louder! My heart's beatin' pretty good 'bout now. It's then, Zeb, that I'm hopin' this is a dream, 'cause if it ain't, I don't know what in the Sam Hill I'm gonna do. And right when I'm 'bout to get so scared I can hardly stand it, a funny thing happens.
"An Indian woman comes to me. I know she's an Indian 'cause she lets me touch her hair. She grabs hold of my hand, and her skin feels like satin and warm baby oil it's so soft. She leads me outta my house and down to where I can hear the water lip up to the bank. And it's strange, Zeb, 'cause you know I can't swim a lick, but I ain't scared of the water one bit when I'm with her. Somehow I know she's gonna protect me.
"Remember now, she still ain't said a word yet, but it's like I can see her with all my other senses. She's got long, slender fingers and a smile that would make the sun jealous it's so bright and soft. Then it happens. First I hear `em, then it's like I can almost see `em, as she pulls three glass balls from a big canvas bag. Then she cracks `em open and fills `em up with river water and puts `em back into the bag. She puts some of that same water in my eyes and rubs my face with it, too, and kisses me, real gentle like on my forehead and on my eyes, too. After that, we walk back to the house.
"When we get back here, she takes me to my cot and makes me lay back down. Then she pulls them three glass balls back out from her bag and puts them up all around the room, and damn, Zeb, I sees `em! I really sees `em! It's the purtiest sight you ever wanted to see too, cause I can see again, I really can! All three of them balls is just a sparkin' with that river water, shootin' colors and moonlight all over the inside of my cabin. All the colors of the rainbow, and then some, are jus' a dancin' and spinnin' and jumpin' and swirlin' all over the place. Zeb, I tell you, it's somethin' to see! Them glass balls throwin' all those colors around--and even through me! It's like they's whisperin' or somethin', whisperin' and strokin' the inside of my brain.
"When I look around so I can thank that Indian woman, she's gone. But I hear a sound, a sound I heard only once before, a sound so lonely, but so pretty, it makes your eyes water up. Daddy said it was the sound of a swan dyin'. They pick a spot way off, alone in the woods, and commence to singin'. Sounds almost human, but even prettier, like there's a whole choir of lost and lonely people who suddenly found one another, like they know they'll never, ever be lonely again. It sounds like that. Then, all of a sudden, the river is covered with wind, swirling around, like buckshot being scattered on the water's face. The cabin is filled with that fresh, wet air and then, boom--total silence.
"I just lay there watchin' those glass balls slowly melt away, and I wake up and it's mornin' and I got a funny feelin' inside. Don't know whether it's sad or happy. Like seein' an old friend you know is dead, but you swear you heard his voice or felt his hand, so who was it? Anyway, I just lay there until that feeling goes away and tell myself, Wasn't them glass balls somethin'? and, I'm the only one who's ever seen `em, the only one."
Zeb smiled and told Houstus that he felt better.
"That's the stuff. You see, Zeb, you and me, we'll be all right, be just fine. I feel better, too, Zeb, I really do. Thank you son, thank you.
"Now go on, tell me what you see out on the river today. Tell me what you see, then I'm gonna show you somethin' totally different. Gonna show you how to see with them ears and that nose of yours. Teach you to see the other side of what you say you see out there. You and me, we'll put our eyes together. It'll be like the night and the day decided to join forces, decided to share their secrets. We'll be better than both of them. Won't we, Zeb, won't we."
Copyright © 1998 Gary Bolick. All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-88739-179-6