I. A Wise and Worldly Piece of Wood
I led my father through the lanes of our apple orchard, watching wormy balls of fruit drop to the soft earth, so glutted with decay they couldn’t roll. The sky was a healthy blue flame and my father put his hand up to block the light from bursting his old eyes. He laughed.
I looked back over my shoulder under the shady brim of a lopsided straw hat.
“What’s so funny?”
“My hand can stop the sun, but it can’t keep a single apple from falling.”
He dropped his walking stick and sat in a pool of tree-shadow. He wheezed heavily, splintering twigs with his thick fingers. His nails were too long and collected dirt. It repulsed me to think that my father had gutters on his fingers.
“What do you mean?” I asked, walking over.
A fruit struck my head and unhatted me.
He said, “That’s what I mean. It’s the big things that are easy to do. Own an orchard. Have a wife. Have children. Even living and dying are nothing. But the little things, those are not so easy. You cannot see them and what you cannot see you cannot even for wait for. You cannot even wait, do you understand how sad that is? Watch out for the little things, Gideon. Blights hit your trees, your wife stops talking to you, and all your children go off and disappear.”
“I’m right here.”
“Of course I don’t mean you, but your brothers. Aren’t you going to pick up your hat?”
“Wasn’t it lopsided this morning?”
“So why did you put it on to begin with?”
“I felt different then.”
“Just a few hours ago?”
“You’re a strange one, Gideon. You’re given to dreaming and your moods . . . are your moods, and nobody else’s. It will be trouble for you.”
“I’ll help you get up. Let’s check the rest of the orchard.”
“For apples that aren’t ruined.”
“Here? Sooner look for a newborn in a grave. You know what this is?”
“Don’t start with the curse. The curse isn’t real.”
“First your brothers disappear. Now our fortunes are destroyed. I’ve been cursed.”
“You left out, we conceived you by accident.”
“No need to state the obvious, Gideon.”
“I’m going to keep looking,” I said.
“I’m going back to Bronx.”
“I know that apple wasn’t hard, so your skull must be soft. It’s the town you’ve lived in your whole life.”
What the hell was he talking about? We were two wounds bleeding into each other.
“But our town is called Brookridge,” I said to him.
“You’re a strange one,” he said, spat, and turned to go.
“What will you do at home?”
“Watch your mother hide my things in plain sight.”
“Tell her I have hope at least, if you don’t.”
“Don’t get lost,” he said.
“I know these lanes well.”
“They might have changed. The rot . . . has twisted the trees here and there—you see? A twist here and a twist there, and who knows where you’ll wind up?”
“You’re stranger than I, old man.”
“I was first, anyway. That entitles me to something.”
He planted his cane in the ground and began pulling himself up. I offered my hand and he ignored it. It could block the sun, but it couldn’t help my father. He struggled to his feet on his own.
I watched him hobble away, each step an effort, his right arm barely swinging, his left advancing the cane. He used to beat me with that stick when I was young. That stick had taught me about cruelty and how to wake up in the cold dawn. A wise and worldly piece of wood, now it tutored him in walking.
II. You Can’t Wake a Gourd
A squirrel took my hat away and my thoughts with it. That is how light thoughts are, even thoughts about flipping the universe on its head. I turned round and kept on down the lane. A curled-up leaf rolled by my feet. There was something about that leaf, but I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t the way there’s something about rocks or twigs.
A white fungus scarred the tree trunks. Apples were blackened and devastated. I stopped to listen to them thudding to earth, like raindrops sound to ants.
Salamander popped out from behind a tree with the ho-hum surprise of wind-blown trash.
“Gideon, there are lots of people named Wolf but no wolf with a name,” Salamander said. “I mean: hello.”
He was tall and scrawny and his pigeon-chest was tanned a leathery brown and his red hair was sparse from pulling. There was fragile china on the edges of wobbly tables in his bomb-shelter eyes. There were scars on him, too. Many of them were the result of my hitting him too hard, when he needed hitting.
Salamander’s mother died giving birth to him. At the time, he understood what had happened and tried to hang himself with an umbilical cord. But the midwife believed in the Right to Suffer and cut the noose. He lost much oxygen and—where there had been a sense of purpose—was now a half-idiot.
The other half? I took it for my friend. But his learning problems grew faster and stronger than his bones, he couldn’t read, and he sometimes made odd prophetic announcements that came true and made him highly unpopular.
A few years back, Salamander’s father was struck by a triangle-wheeled cart full of experimental blue pumpkins, donkey-driven by the destitute inventor Lester Treat. The cart was rather slow and didn’t crush Mr. Mander. But on the point of reviving he swallowed some blue pumpkin seeds. His skin turned a purplish-pink and he fell into a deep sleep.
Salamander asked around for advice. Nobody knew how to wake a gourd, but he received several excellent recipes for pie. As reparation for the accident, Judge Afterwit ruled Salamander should keep the cart and half the offending farmer’s pumpkin patch. There was no patch. Salamander moved into the dilapidated Barn of Slim Mercy on Lester Treat’s plot and laid his father in the cart. He fed him gruel daily, waiting for him to wake.
III. When Stars Become Apples
Back in the rotting orchard, I said, “Salamander, how are you?”
He swayed dumbly as a sapling in the wind.
“I asked you a question,” I said.
I slapped him, somewhat half-heartedly, on the cheek. He stared stupidly. I lifted my hand again, but something stopped me, maybe something that described what a leaf is not, or something like death that I would never remember when it pulled me away from myself. Today I was aware that if I hurt the half-idiot nobody would care. It would be consistent with the way the world was at that very moment. Each drop of Salamander’s blood would be a justification for the sun to rise in the east. If I didn’t strike him the sun would still rise—but I would’ve had nothing to do with it.
How did I know this? It all goes back to my youth, which I remember so vaguely it has become private legend. My parents didn’t bother to teach me the word “apple,” despite the fact we owned an orchard of them. I assumed they were stars, since I’d heard stars were in the sky, and I thought sky referred to anything above ground level.
When I harvested round reddish stars you could eat, I felt somewhat divine. And a shooting star was one that fell to earth, and starlight was when you set the stems on fire. But when my mother took a basket of them to make “applesauce” I asked why it wasn’t called “starsauce” and learned stars couldn’t be collected. I despaired. When stars became apples, the world was drained of life. So I tried not to go along with the world, as much as possible.
IV. A Cloud That Died
“My mother gave up mothering twenty years ago today,” Salamander said.
“Oh, you know you’re allowed here. I am in a mood.”
“I don’t know. The one where you say the wrong thing. Why are you here, though?”
“I wanted to see if it was true about the blight.”
“Well, see for yourself,” I said. “Why don’t you come along? I’m looking for one decent apple.”
“I saw one, up the road.”
“That’s good news. I told my father I had hope, and it wasn’t unfounded. It had no blight at all?”
“Better than good news. Sally, you’re like a brother to me.”
“Do you ever think about them?” he asked.
“I never knew them. I know more about their clothes. You see all these patches on my trousers? My mother takes them from different articles of clothing belonging to each of the five of them. Whenever I get a tear in a garment, she mends it with Ben’s sock or Blake’s vest or Nestor’s shirt. I wish I knew them better. It appears that Wegman was somewhat flamboyant. In fact, I think the red fabric on my knee is part of a strapless gown. But you’re like a brother right here beside me, and that’s worth more than rags and wishes. Now show me this good apple.”
“I ate it.”
“Happy birthday, Sally . . . shall we skip stones? There’s no lack of those.”
“I miss my father. A person who is sleeping is not a person at all,” he said, collecting pebbles.
“My father snores so I get no rest. Does yours?”
“Well, gourds don’t snore. Maybe if you made him snore, he wouldn’t be a gourd any longer and he’d wake up.”
We followed a path to the edge of Nobody Lake. It carried no reflections on its silvery surface. It didn’t increase with rain; it didn’t dry up with drought. It ended in an omnipresent, huge wall of gray fog, opaque as granite.
Salamander thought the lake was a cloud that fell into a deep hole, couldn’t move, and died. That made sense to me—who ever saw a living cloud stay still?
I didn’t know what my brothers thought about the lake, but I knew that one night, drunk and egging each other on, they rowed across it through the fog and were never seen again.
Since dead people are equally nobody, our town’s funeral rites were performed at Nobody Lake as well. Salamander’s mother’s pyre had drifted across it, growing smaller in perception as it went further into the distance and less in size as it burned to cinders, disappearing in two ways at once. That bothered me because if you can vanish in simultaneously multiple fashions, it suggests there were many of you present. Speculations aside, nobody—living or dead—had crossed the lake and returned to talk about it.
“Something about this day,” I said, “makes me feel like we’re giants about to skip tombstones.”
V. Close to Meaning What I Say
“Did you hear Goody Treat died this morning?” Salamander asked.
“No. You’re not going to her wake, are you? Her widower Lester Treat will be there—do you want to see the man who turned your father into a gourd? Besides, people think you’re weird enough as it is, without you slinking about the corpses of strangers. Why do you do that? It makes people nervous.”
“They don’t know what I know,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“More butter, please.”
“Sally, are you okay?”
He was gazing at the gray line where the lake met the fog. The dead cloud glistened like fat. I skipped a nice flat stone three times across it.
“Do you remember when things were different?” Sally asked.
“Me either. It seems to me we’ve been standing at this lake for our whole lives.”
“Even if we had been, things would be pretty much the same. The orchard would be rotting. My father would be miserable. I’m restless, Sally. It seems to me nothing goes on here, nothing ever did. Sometimes when I wake up, I wish I was still asleep, like your father even, never having to put on these ridiculous pants, or say good morning and good night ever again. We’re only bold enough to toss rocks in this lake. What kind of risk is that? The stones are worthless. They’re not even ours. I can understand why my brothers tried to cross this water. They had to get drunk to do it. But I’d like to do it sober.”
He said, “You can’t be serious. Nobody leaves Grahamsblat.”
“It’s the town we live in, Gideon.”
“My father thought it was called Bronx earlier . . . why can’t we agree on a name for it?”
“I don’t know much, Gideon. What do you think it’s called?”
“Okay, well, nobody leaves Brookridge, then.”
“Goody Treat just left today, didn’t she?” I asked.
“Gideon, you can’t be telling me you want to die. You’re my only friend.”
“I know. And, I don’t exactly mean what I’m saying. But I’m close. I’m close to meaning what I say—do you see how unusual that is for me? I’m frustrated and bored, and I want out of this, all this world we know. All Crumbull’s gigantic utensils. Don’t you get sick of having to lift a fork with two hands? I wish I had something to live for besides what others lived for me first. I wish I was the son who got away.”
I looked down at a rain puddle at my foot. A leaf had fallen on the face of my reflection. I felt the oddest sense of recognition, but it passed quickly.
“You see that leaf?” I asked.
Salamander picked it up, dripping.
“What about it?” he said.
“It looks pretty normal, but it isn’t. You know what’s so special about it? Its origin.”
“I bet it came from a tree.”
“But which tree?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds here.”
“Exactly. And every leaf on the ground, every single errant leaf you ever saw, is a mystery, because you simply don’t know where it truly came from.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I don’t know—but I’m close. I’m close, and I’ll be sure to tell you when I find out.”
“I need to feed my father,” Salamander said.
Without a word we rose and started back, dodging falling apples all the way. The white fungi on the trees were like markers for a path that didn’t exist—yet.
VI. A Piece of Wood’s as Good as Fate
After Sally and I parted, I headed home: a cottage standing at the outskirts of Brookridge (or whatever it was called). It was overshadowed by willows that swept the eaves and threw branches down the chimney, leading squirrels to the disappointments of Mother’s kitchen.
Since childhood I waited for inanimate things to move, hoping a spirit stirred in them. Many a knot didn’t untie under my gaze and many a table refused to jig. I paused beneath an elm at the crest of a hill, to look at the still white cottages stacked up and down the green sward like boxes for storing lives.
I took one step forward and a whistling pierced the air. More whistles followed. Hundreds of shrill notes were carried and dropped by the wind. It was tea-time.
My cottage door was open and our kettle screamed. Father sat at the old oak table, his back to the door and fire. Next to the fireplace were empty bookshelves. My father had burned all the books long ago as fuel for the fire.
One dreadful winter, long after Bob’s disappearance, Father stole the boy’s diary from under Mother’s bed and tossed it on the flames. I hadn’t summoned up the nerve to read it yet and I cried out as the pages were eaten. I took to hiding the books, but we nearly froze to death and I had to give them up.
Father faced a painting of himself and Mother. Pots and pans the size of bathtubs hung in front of it and obscured the canvas. The painting told the story of my parents’ meeting in their youth. It depicted them pinned under a large piece of timber.
They both worked at the sawmill. One day, they were the only ones there and were accidentally trapped beneath a beam. The whole time neither one uttered a word, each resenting the other for being witness to such an embarrassing and painful episode.
They lay side by side for a full day before they were found by an art student. He began sketching the unusual scene. After several drafts he pulled the timber off them. “A piece of wood’s as good as fate,” my father said to his co-worker. “I need a wife, and you need a husband.” So they were married, and the artist gave them a painting to commemorate the event, suitable for blaming.
Putting Father’s thick coat on, I hugged the enormous kettle and set it on the cool stone floor.
He said, “So, you’re finally back. I know you put the tea on before you left just to drive me crazy. You know I don’t feel up to lifting that kettle, and Heaven forbid that idle son of mine would be around to help his own father. Did you find a fine apple?”
“No. Where’s Mother?”
“Your Aunt Leona’s house.”
“I’m not there.”
“I’m going, then, to see Mother and then to check in on Salamander.”
“You shouldn’t hang round that one, I’ve told you before.”
“Save your breath, old man. If I cannot choose my enemies, at least no one will ever stop me from choosing my friends.”
As I was leaving, I noticed something stir across the room in the stillness. For a second I thought the inanimate world was finally going to sit up and do a somersault for me. But it was a reflection in the mirror atop the dresser. Father’s wrinkled face was framed there, and it was crying. I had never seen him cry before.
VII. The Mandolin
Aunt Leona lived just past the Barren Well. She was a spinster who offered you things she couldn’t locate and spent the rest of your visit trying to make up for it by giving you things you didn’t want. She reminded me of everyone.
I knocked. Leona appeared in a crumpled pink dress, her ageless smile wide and smooth as a brand-new sled.
Mother was busy rearranging furniture. Because she couldn’t make people do what she wanted, she liked to show her authority over things. She once insisted my right shoe was my left, dominating my feet because she lacked access to the concomitant halves of my brain. I wondered what Leona had done to make my mother bring her passion for reorganization to her sister’s living room. Mother wore a green skirt and a yellow top and whirled about like an angry flower.
“Mother, what’s happened?” I asked.
She said, “The chair has taken the desk’s place.”
“I mean with Father.”
“Did you find a good apple?”
“No. I believe the orchard is completely useless.”
“Damn, and I swore you would. If only your brothers were still here. You can’t do the job of five.”
“Six, counting me.”
“Five or six—there’s little difference.”
“There’s all the difference in my world, and I would hope some of yours, too,” I said. “My brothers are gone and that’s it. I’m tired of living in the shadows of people who don’t even have them.”
Leona tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I get you some tea?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Mother,” I said, as she took two unicorn tapestries off the wall and looked about for new locations, “I saw Father crying just now.”
“You were seeing things.”
“Yes, they’re called tears.”
“Don’t talk back to me, Gideon Prop.”
“But do you know why?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any milk,” Leona said, returning from the kitchen. “Can I offer you some biscuits?”
“No, thank you. Do you know why my father is crying?” I asked her. “That’s why I’m here. Maybe you can tell me.”
“Certainly not. What can I give you?” Leona said.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“There must be something.”
I spied a mandolin on the wall. I couldn’t play, but then my lack of knowledge never stopped an object from existing.
“How about that mandolin?” I asked.
“I was about to put that away somewhere, anyway,” Mother said. “It clashes in here.”
“Oh, I don’t know . . .” Leona faltered, her smile vanishing.
“What do you want with that old thing?” my mother chided her.
“Nothing, of course. No, nothing. Don’t be silly! Why would I need a mandolin?” Leona said.
We stood there in silence until Mother took the instrument from its peg and handed it to me.
“May I be alone with your sister for a moment?” I asked my aunt.
Leona smiled and went out of the room, but the smile and exit were unusually forced.
“I’m going to do something crazy soon,” I said.
Mother was puzzling over a three-foot long rolling pin. She twirled to face me.
“Gideon, I’m going to sit and show you how ridiculous you are.”
She backed up to where the chair used to be and fell on her behind.
“Do you need help?” I asked, crouching to her level.
“You’ve always asked too many questions, Gideon. Why can’t you be more like your brothers?”
VIII. If Your Vases Are Enormous
I left Mother trying to move a spider’s web from the wainscoting to the ceiling and went to see how Salamander fared with his father who slept in his Barn of Slim Mercy. The barn was at the bottom of a little wooded valley. It looked as though it had tumbled there. It was built on a foundation of clover and so full of holes it was more thin air than wood.
As I descended the path, a cold shadow enveloped me and I turned to see mighty Crumbull and his gang looming.
Crumbull was a potter, or illusionist, which is the same thing. Everyone drank from his cups, ate on his plates, and pissed in his bedpans. He also made cutlery. Because Crumbull was a ten-foot tall giant, all his products were giant-sized. Thus the rest of us felt ourselves living in a world too large for us.
I think nobody journeyed far from Brookridge because of those great mugs and vases. It gave the illusion there was enough space as it was, because a vase captures space and if all your vases are enormous, then clearly all one has to do is break the vases in case one needs more room to live.
Behind Crumbull the Illusionist stood at least twenty of his gang, various half-Crumbull-sized townspeople who liked to think spending time in his company made them as big and influential as he. All wore black mourning dress.
“Seek shelter, Gideon Prop,” he said. “It’s about to rain.”
I looked up. The sky was blue.
“Apparently you’ve gone completely mad,” I said. “At least I know it’s not just my family. Do you know what my father said to me today? He said, and I’m not exaggerating this one bit, that—”
“—Enough!” Crumbull shouted.
“Enough of you. There’s not a drop of water in sight.”
“I didn’t say anything about water, did I, mandolinist?”
“Oh, this? I don’t even know how to play.”
The gang dragged large crates of broken pottery and stones forward.
“What has Salamander done?” I asked.
“Ask Goody Treat’s widower!” Simon Dimple said, pulling Lester Treat to the front of the crowd.
“He poisoned my wife. He’s killed my Goody,” Treat said.
“Impossible,” I said. “Salamander has no motive or ability. He scarcely knows his own name.”
“He knew her last words. He must have been in the room, hiding. Demons can hide.”
“What do you mean?”
“He passed by the wake,” Treat said, “and we didn’t want him there. But I thought maybe he was paying his respects and it wouldn’t be right to turn him away. Then when I thanked him for coming he said ‘More butter, please.’ And those were Goody’s exact last words. But he wasn’t there when it happened. My Goody never got her butter . . . and all thanks to Salamander’s evil ways.”
I remembered Sally saying those words at Nobody Lake, and saying, “They don’t know what I know.”
“He knows,” Crumbull said, pointing a drumstick finger at me. “You can see it in his face. You’re protecting a murderer, Mr. Prop.”
“It’s no surprise,” another said. “Gideon’s family is cursed. He probably did his own brothers in.”
“Yes,” I said. “At the age of five, I cut them to pieces and hid the bodies so I might grow up to wear the stupidest pants in all Brookridge.”
“What the hell is Brookridge?” Crumbull asked.
“Oh, forget it.”
“Out of the way,” Crumbull said.
“Wait,” I said. “You say I know Goody’s last words as well as Sally. By that logic, I might be the murderer, and Salamander just happens to know my secret.”
My father always told me that I was an idiot.
“Listen,” I said. “The simple truth is Salamander didn’t kill Goody Treat, rest her soul. And neither did I.”
“It looks like you’re involved,” Spatch the titmouse–droppings addict said, standing between Crumbull’s legs.
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said.
“Not about looks they can’t,” Crumbull said. “Get out the stones, boys.”
“How would you like to hear the mandolin?” I asked, stepping back and holding it aloft.
“I thought you don’t play,” Crumbull said.
“I don’t. But if you’ll just wait here for a bit, I’m sure I can find someone who does.”
“Mr. Treat plays, actually,” someone said.
“Fantastic,” I said. “That’s great.”
“I’m not very good,” Treat said.
“Wait, in fact, isn’t that your mandolin, Treat?” Crumbull asked.
“No, I’m sure it’s not.”
“I think it is. It has your initials on it, right there in mother-of-pearl. I’ve seen you playing it at The Toasty Eunuch. This bastard must’ve stolen it.”
“I did no such thing,” I said. “It was given to me by my aunt Leona, who—”
Treat threw a rock at my chest.
“Up yours,” I said.
He tossed another rock. I blocked it with the mandolin, which broke open. A letter and a small leather whip fell out. I could see clearly that it was addressed to Leona and signed “Your Sweet Treat.”
No wonder Leona was always smiling.
Treat ran forward to snatch the note. If their affair became public it would ruin him, especially since Goody was so beloved by all.
He picked it up and tore it to pieces.
“What does it say, Treat?” Crumbull growled.
“It . . . I cannot say . . . it is too painful . . . but it indicates Gideon and Salamander as Goody’s murderers . . . it’s some kind of curse, a magical note.”
I turned and ran toward the Barn of Slim Mercy. Pottery crashed at my heels and stones rained on my back. I swung the door open. It fell off its hinges.
IX. How to Wake a Gourd
Through broad barn-piercing sunbeams I saw Salamander lying on his father, head on his chest, both of them sound asleep in the cart, a line of drool from Sally’s mouth to his father’s shirt, an equally tenuous string of life binding us together.
Rocks showered the barn. I didn’t think the wall would stand much longer. The mob flooded the doorway, crushing clover, walking slowly because their crates of ammunition were so ponderous. They could not see us behind bales of graying hay.
“Sally,” I said, tapping his shoulder. “Wake up.”
He opened blast-crater eyes.
“Did you kill Goody Treat?” I asked.
“No,” he said, getting up and straightening his father’s shirt.
“You knew her last words. That’s what this is about.”
“I know everyone’s last words.”
“Yes, I have always known everyone’s last words—”
A stone crashed through the wall and hit a bucket. Sally looked at me blankly, still drooling. I tossed him on the ground under the cart and pushed a bale of hay in front of it to hide him.
Crumbull filled the doorway.
The mob came through holes on every side of the barn. A foamy tide swarmed around me, black-waved and crested with pale leerings. I grabbed a rusty rake, wielding it like a bouquet of daisies.
Lester Treat looked past me at Sally’s purple father in the cart. There was a sadistic smile on his lips. Crumbull advanced slowly. He smelled like a beer-drinking horse. In his hand was a great decorated wooden spork.
What happened next happened fast. Crumbull lumbered forward, swinging the spork. I ducked down and poked the rake into his groin. He roared backward. Stones smashed my face and arms. I fell, bloody hay in my eyes. I got to my trembling feet. The world had gone soup.
Crumbull raised the spork. As he brought it down, a mourner jumped in front of me. The spoony part struck my father’s skull. He collapsed into an ashy pile.
I dropped by his side. The fingers on one of his hands were opening and closing, opening and closing. The hand was a brilliant pink. It was like a tropical flower quivering in a downpour. I bent down and took it. The fingers clutched my own and stopped moving.
A murmuring crowd gathered
“You stupid fools,” I said.
Crumbull saw what he’d done. He dropped the spork, bent down, and took a large stone carp from a crate. He lifted it high over me.
Before he could smash my head, the golden beams of sunshine began disappearing as high blackness slid over the Barn of Slim Mercy. The room was plunged in unnatural night.
“It’s the curse,” someone said. “He’s a demonist! Prop is blocking the sun!”
The panicking mourners streamed out, even Crumbull. Salamander helped me up.
“We can’t stay here any longer, you know,” I said, and he nodded. “Don’t move. I’m going to see if they’re gone.”
I found the doorway with my hands and reached out to test the sheath of darkness. My fingers touched something like skin or dried tongue. I crawled under, stones left by the mourners biting into my knees.
After creeping several yards with no sign of light, I tried to make a hole in it. It was tough but not impossible to tear. With a shard of pottery I managed to cut a cross into the surface and pulled the flaps down toward me.
My head emerged in the middle of a sheet of vibrant green, a color too noble and joyful to be tossed in a salad and too divine to be found in a feather. I wanted to dive into it, and open my mouth and devour it at the same time. Slightly darker green veins, thick as tree trunks and giving rise to smaller tributaries like branches, forked throughout the colorskin. Here and there silent birds strutted and pecked along them. The veins radiated out to the tips of three serrated main points facing north, east, and west. These tips were tinged with fields of gold, red, and orange. I turned my head and saw a monolithic stem, browner than its host, curving up into the sky like a scorpion’s tail poised to sting, and only then did I know my find for a leaf.
All this wonder mingled with my father’s sacrifice and I tried in vain to see how the nightmarish loss below and living dream above could share one moment. Strong gusts blew from the north. Dark clouds unrolled toward us. It must’ve been these powerful winds that brought the giant leaf.
I crawled back to the barn.
“It’s a leaf,” I said. “But we have to go. We can discuss this later. We must cross Nobody Lake.”
“Why?” asked Sally.
“Because this leaf came from over the lake. I can tell from the direction of the darkness.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t know anything about trees, but the mystery of this leaf is worth investigating. Finally, a reason to get out of this town.”
“What about being wanted for murder?”
“There’s that,” I admitted.
“Gideon, before we go, would you help make my father snore?”
I didn’t think it would work, but I understood Sally wouldn’t want to leave him alone like this without trying. “Is there a lantern here?”
A moment later we moved in flickering light. I opened the sleeper’s violet mouth and sealed his nostrils with my fingers. He began snoring.
“You did it,” Sally said.
“But I don’t see how it will help anything—”
“—Watch it with that cart!” his father yelled.
“Dad,” Sally said.
“Where am I?” the man asked, looking around and through me.
“You’re in a barn. You were hit by a cart years ago and have been sleeping ever since,” I said.
Salamander started crying and I realized I stood on my father’s long-nailed hand. He looked remarkably like the timber-trapped figure in his wedding portrait. I knelt down with the lantern. We were alone together in a circle of light, enclosed in walls of darkness and each one inch from invisibility. I laid the spork over his chest.
My father observed it with evaporating-ink eyes.
“A piece of wood’s as good as fate,” he said.
I put my ear to his mouth. He was done speaking and breathing. The sorrow in my gut seemed to belong to someone else, and I felt my own blood cheering and pressing against it, trying to drown it out.
“I have a second chance . . .” Sally’s father said.
“But I have to say goodbye,” Salamander said.
“Yes, I’m sorry, we must go,” I said.
Mr. Mander said, “Good luck, son. Now that I have this second chance at life, I will live honestly. I will open my heart and finally reveal to the entire world the woman I love and intend to marry.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Why, none other than your aunt Leona.”
“Good heavens,” I said. “What Leona shows and what she hides must be complete opposites. But, Sally, we must get to the orchard. There is no time to waste. Mr. Mander, can you sit up?”
We helped him to his feet. The seeds which had worked their way into his blood had kept him from atrophying.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Kind of like an eggplant,” I said. “But grand.”
He hugged his son farewell.
“You can do us both a last favor,” I said. “Tell everyone we went toward the Marshes in the south. And tell my mother . . .”
I decided to say something factual. Because the world is made of indisputable facts, of giant potters and enormous leaves and blue pumpkins and the non-reflective bodies of dead clouds. There’s always enough room for facts, but throw a feeling in there and it gets claustrophobic.
“ . . . I am the son who got away.”
X. So Long
Salamander and I started for the woods. I planned to follow their perimeter until we reached the orchard. We both knew the orchard well, but we’d have to improvise a way across Nobody Lake. We had to move quickly because I knew soon Crumbull and his gang would come back soon to get us. And I had no doubt they’d blame my father’s death on us tool.
We were still making way through the trees when night fell. Confused voices rang out and hushed intermittently, near and far. We often stopped to wait for footsteps to recede. But mostly our feet snapped twigs and crushed leaves, and each snap was the end of a twig and the end of a snap, and each crush the end of a leaf and the end of a crush.
When we were still, all was silence. The leaf was like a hand fallen on a mouth. “Enough,” it seemed to say. “Please shut up. Can’t you see you’ve been talking nonsense all these years?” Rain started. It was odd to hear it pattering above our heads while the forest stayed dry.
“What’s that squishy sound?” Salamander asked.
I knelt down and picked up a mass of spherical goop.
“We’ve reached the orchard,” I said.
“What’s that crinkly sound?”
Slowly, a horizon of dim light was seeping into existence.
“The leaf is curling up at the edges,” I said. “Just like a normal leaf that’s blown off a tree and dried.”
We fumbled our way through trees bowed under the weight of disease. My father had warned the blight would change the paths, and he’d been right. A twist here and a twist there, and who knows where you’ll wind up? We reached a steep slope that led down to Nobody Lake and I stepped in apple mush, sliding forward. Salamander fell into me and we both tumbled and slid down through rocks, sticks, and extruding roots until we knocked into a large rock.
Shadows began to flicker into shape around us. Someone had lit a fire.
I peered around the rock. The furthest tip of the leaf stopped just short of the lake. A large bonfire was raging by the shore. A flash of lightning illuminated figures in the gloom. Two floating funeral pyres were about to be lit.
They were going to send Goody Treat into the unknown. The second pyre was for my father.
My mother was moving my father’s limbs and his cane into different poses on the pyre as though they were floral arrangements. Crumbull exchanged heated words with her and she stopped. Aunt Leona was there also, and Mr. Mander was following her, a lovesick ripe plum of a man, begging at her feet. Lester Treat sullenly stalked them around Goody’s pyre. He suddenly started shouting and kicked Salamander’s father in the behind.
“Now or never, Sally,” I said. “We have to make a go for the pyres.”
Sally didn’t hesitate. We ran along the dead cloud’s edge. The mourners were too delighted with the private lives turning inside out to notice us. I heaved Father’s pyre into the silvery water and Sally launched himself on Goody Treat’s. I took my father’s cane and used it to push myself from the shore. It was still a wise and worldly piece of wood.
I looked at my father’s face only once the whole time we paddled across Nobody Lake. His mouth was open. His teeth were too yellow and sparse. I’d never noticed the narrowness of his tongue before. Sally sat very dignified, facing outward from between Goody’s spread legs, like a diligent guard dog.
When we were a few yards away, the town finally realized the pyres were gone. They shouted and screamed at us to come back, Crumbull and his gang uttering vile threats. I skipped a stone from my pocket that struck the giant in his forehead. That was such a perfect last sight of Brookridge that I turned to face the fog the rest of the journey.
Eventually the yelling died down. We paddled cold water with our hands. I don’t know when we reached the jagged gray wall of fog, past which nobody had ever returned.
“Sally,” I said. “You told me you know everyone’s last words?”
“I don’t know why. But I do.”
“Mine aren’t this is it, are they?”
“No. Your last words are urinal cake.”
“Good. This is it.”
The pyres and their weird cargo floated effortlessly through the fog. I expected it to hurt, but it was soft. We saw pulsating lights everywhere, like when you press your hands against your eyes. Then our crafts gently bounced against a shoreline. I felt as though I was falling asleep and waking up at the same time, the consciousness equivalent of a leg that is lifting and falling in the process of walking.
We stepped onto a gravelly beach. The fog stood behind us. It was dark as night. The rain had stopped, but my head thundered.
Quick as missing keys, we were blinded by sunshine as though something huge had blotted out the sun and then moved. While our eyes adjusted to the light, we heard footsteps approach. I waved Father’s stick like a weapon, ready to fight.
“Gideon,” a man said.
“Who’s that?” I asked, seeing the gradually solidifying outline and details of a bearded man in a violet floral dress, carrying a parasol.
“It’s your brother Wegman. And you brought a friend. That’s good. You must come with me, and meet Ben, Blake, Bob, and Nestor.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“I’ll explain everything.”
“Dad’s dead,” I said.
“How? Are you a spirit?” I asked.
“No. His corpse over there is kind of a giveaway.”
Salamander had been fixing Goody Treat’s hair, which came undone on the journey across the lake. He finished that, and straightened her false eyelashes, then joined us on the beach.
“What I really want to know,” Wegman said to me, “is what took you so long?”
He removed our father’s cane from my hand and used it to push the two pyres back through the fog. Then he showed us the tree.
Erik T. Johnson‘s latest appearance is in the anthology Box of Delights by Aeon Press. His stories may be found in such places as Shimmer, Space & Time, Tales of the Unanticipated, Sein und Werden, Dead But Dreaming 2, The Shadow of the Unknown, Best New Zombie Tales Volume 3, and WTF!? You can learn more and get in touch at www.eriktjohnson.net.
Notes from the authors:
The Leaf was meant to be the first chapter of a novel, and I never got past writing what ultimately became the story as it appears in EV 24. Who knows, one day I might continue Gideon and Sally’s adventures. I believe the piece was originally inspired by a Magritte painting of leaves the size of trees. I hope everyone enjoys it.