Title: Rotting Stagger-Claw
**Author’s note: I probably tried to do too much with this story, but it’s an exercise, so that’s what you’re SUPPOSED to do. Hubris is really the only correct posture for the artist to strike, especially while experimenting and drilling. But even though I tried to do too much probably, the story has a unity to it and feels fairly complete to me. I think if go back and edit this one, I will work on making the boy’s thought processes consistent throughout the story and make his mental transition a bit more believable, but most of it I won’t monkey with too much. I like it.** PS: This ended up being a tad longer than 6 pages.
The animals stirred in the field, restless, portending the morning’s arrival. Grass rubbed against grass with a thin sigh, a choir of soft voices made mighty by numbers. The sleepy boy closed his eyes again and tried to pick out the sound of specific pairs of grass blades. He had an hour yet before the old farmer or his wife came out to the field to work and found him there and made him leave.
Out of the tall weeds to the south stepped a man the boy did not recognize. The boy heard the thicker rustle of the tall weeds and raised his head slightly but did not sit up. He could see the whole man, but the man could not see him.
Six feet tall, the man wore blue pants, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, brownish tie loosened, no jacket. He carried his hat in his hand. He was staggering and clutching something to his stomach, something red maybe.
The boy rolled to his side for a better view but still did not sit up. The staggering man removed his hand from his belly and the boy saw that he had not been clutching an object to himself, but was bleeding and had been clutching his own flesh.
The boy gasped before he could stop himself. The tall man from the tall weeds snapped his head around and looked directly at the boy. The boy did not see him reach for a pistol, but suddenly there it was in the man’s hand. He aimed it at the boy.
“I was just listening to the grass!” he screamed, covering his face. “I promise I wasn’t sleeping here!” he lied. “I promise to go and not come back. I didn’t take anything, sir!”
The tall man grunted and tried to speak. A thick line of blood oozed from his nose and pooled atop his lip before snaking its way into his mouth.
“Claw,” he said. His gun arm sagged, drooped. He dropped the pistol in the grass. “Rotten-claw,” he breathlessly mumbled, then fell over face first into the grass.
The boy had been peeking through his fingers, but now he took his hands away from his eyes and stood up, ready to run. But the man did not stir.
“Mister?” Nothing. “Sir? Are you still mad?” Nothing.
The boy took two steps toward the collapsed man. Two more. One more. He was close enough now to toe the man’s head with his boot, which he did. Nothing.
The boy stood looking at the man’s back for a long time. Then he bent down and picked the pistol up from the grass. It was short and silver. He had seen one a lot like it last year in his Uncle Alabaster’s truck. He pointed it at the man but did not pull the trigger. Instead, he made pshaw! pshew!shooting noises with his mouth like he used to do with his brother before they had to go live with Uncle Alabaster.
“You boys make too much noise with them goddamned mouths,” Uncle Alabaster said after dinner one night during that first week. “What say I shut em the hell up for a while?”
“Please, Al, language,” Aunt Ida had said, and Uncle Alabaster’s arm uncoiled and bloodied her lip before the boy saw it move. Aunt Ida covered the bloody lip and teeth and pulled her breath in. Her eyes filled with tears and she got up from the table with her plate. She placed it in the sink and went outside.
“I don’t like mouthy people,” Alabaster had said. He got up from the table and limped to the stairs and climbed to the loft, where he kept a typewriter and some percentage of a case of whiskey, depending on how often he’d gone up in the loft that week.
“Now shut the fuck up down there and do your goddamned chores before I draw blood from every soul in this goddamned house.”
The boy knocked on the farmhouse door. The farmer’s old brown dog lay crumpled in the corner of the porch, fur peeking through the lattice. His tail batted at a fly. He looked up at the boy for a half second, then lowered his snout to his paws and closed his eyes again.
“Hello?” the boy called. After he had recovered from his shock, he realized that the tall man with the bleeding stomach was for sure not the farmer or anyone who worked for him, didn’t look anything like any of them actually. The boy marveled at how panic had shaped his ability to even distinguish between people who looked nothing alike. He wondered if this could be controlled and understood by someone like him. He was supposed to be in 6thgrade, he was pretty sure, but no one had checked on him in a while, and now that he had run away from Alabaster and Ida’s, no one even knew where he was really. He actually wanted to attend school and read books and learn things, but he didn’t know how it would be possible. Even so, he thought maybe he was smart enough to learn more about that panicked feeling and what happened to his brain when he saw the gun in the man’s hands. He had been happy and pleasantly observant moments before, aware of every living and moving thing in that field, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe or control his own thoughts.
He placed his mouth in the crack where the door met the jamb. “Anybody home?” Nothing. He was hoping the old farmer’s wife was at least home, because she seemed to like him in spite of the pity in her smile. The old farmer’s pity was full of anger, but hers was gentle and sad. She always wanted to feed him and mend his clothes, but the farmer, who always regarded the boy from the corner of his eye and never spoke more than a word at a time to him, wouldn’t allow it.
“Boy is up to no good, Violet,” he said. “Turn him loose. He ain’t yours.”
“But he’s nobody’s,” his wife protested.
But not even the farmer’s wife was home today. He knew they had a phone inside and pondered what he should do. Breaking in was wrong, but so was leaving a man bleeding in a field. The boy was pretty sure the man was dead, but what if he wasn’t? He would need help.
The boy reached out and grabbed the glass knob and turned. It revolved easily and the door opened and creaked. “Hello?” he said again. He heard the grandfather clock in the front hallway, but nothing else. He felt something brush against his leg and jumped. It was a cat who had come to investigate and had found a leg for rubbing. The boy reached down and petted it. Its back humped and snaked beneath his stroke. “Good boy,” the boy whispered, and the cat darted into the house and disappeared.
The boy stepped into the front hallway and closed the door behind him. The house was dark and cool. He was pretty sure the telephone was at the end of the hallway next to the parlor. He began walking that way when he saw a figure moving in the shadows next to him. The gun was in his hand before he even knew he planned to grab it. He spun toward the figure and found himself looking into a tall mirror in the middle of a coat rack and bench. It was himself he had been about to shoot.
Had he been about to shoot? He had never fired a gun and hated the memories of Uncle Alabaster that this one brought up, so why was he so quick to grab it from his pocket and point it? And what if the shadow had been the farmer – or the farmer’s wife – and what if he had squeezed the trigger, which he almost had before realizing it was his own reflection that had surprised him?
He let the gun dangle by his side and looked at himself in the mirror. Go, his mind whispered. He’s dying. But he couldn’t move. He could not remember the last time he had looked into a mirror, and he did not recognize the person he saw. His face was dirty, his overalls were torn and threadbare, and his shoes were bulging to accommodate his feet. But his eyes… Surprising himself the way he did, he had no time to guard against the blankness of those eyes, the sadness. Blank and sad. Those were his eyes. This was who he was now.
He didn’t want the telephone anymore. Let that man rot in the field. The boy lifted the pistol and aimed at his reflection. The gun blocked the view of his face and he smiled. He liked not being able to see his own smile, to simply feel it. He pulled the trigger and the sound concussed his ears to the point of profound and sudden deafness, followed immediately by a ringing roar. The mirror shattered and huge slabs of glass fell to the wooden floor and disintegrated. A small shard bounced up and cut the boy’s cheek. It almost seemed to him that he had seen the mirror come undone before hearing the explosion of the pistol. He reached up and touched the blood on his cheek.
The first thing he heard when his ears began to work properly again was his own breathing. He stared for a moment at the black bullet hole in the wall and then looked down at a large surviving piece of mirror. His eyes looked different now—or maybe it was the angle. He couldn’t quite place the difference, but he knew he felt better. He felt a flash of optimism and hope bolt through his consciousness. It was gone as quickly as it had come, but it was powerful.
“I’m nobody’s,” he said. The old farmer was right, and the boy could no longer hate him. The farmer knew that the tragedy of a body moving through the world was really a comedy, a slapstick routine. A routine circus act. That man lying in the field was like the circus clown, red a red flower blooming in the gut of his white shirt.
Smiling, the boy turned to the stairs and climbed them, the pistol leveled in front of him and ready for action like Montgomery Clift. The landing at the top of the stairs presented him with three doors, two of them open. The boy walked to the closed one and laid his ear against it. He heard running water.
Someone was home. The boy felt the panic again but saw immediately that he could control it, hold it in front of him and regard and judge it like Alabaster sanding a block of wood. He held the panic in his own small hand, felt the heft of it and the pleasantness at gripping it and of knowing that he could massage it into any shape he wanted.
Yes. He knew what he was going to do, saw it all clearly in another flash. He must show himself what he could do with it, this energy of panic. Then he would return the gun to the dead man in the field. No living person would know he had even been there today, but he would carry the secret knowledge of it in his heart forever.
He turned the knob and the door opened silently. The sound of the shower water slapping and raining on porcelain and human skin filled his ears and made him think of the sigh of the morning grass. A robe lay draped over a wicker chair next to the shower, along with a white towel.
The boy sat in the chair and waited.