by Eugene Marckx
In a time that circles with the changing faces of the moon this story is always happening. A boy. Why is it a boy? Could it be a girl for once? But this was a boy¾born to trouble. Oh, yes, plenty of people tried to wish it all away, yet there was famine, but not for lack of food. There was poverty, but not for lack of goods. There was fear, but not for lack of weapons. There was ignorance, but not for lack of teachers. Oh, yes, there was trouble, and this boy was born to it.
And it wounded him. He did not grow strong and straight. He grew sideways. He looked sideways, and he walked sideways in a scuttle. His father took no pride in him. How could he teach his son to throw a spear straight to the kill? Not with those sideways hands. His mother, how could she hide her pity? She wondered if her breast milk had been too watery when he was born. He wasn’t the boy she’d wanted¾so sideways.
What does a boy do in troubled times but find trouble? Was there something to steal? Something to break? Someone to betray? People loved their rules. “No excuses,” they told him. Yet he saw how they set aside the rules for each other. “No excuses. Take your punishment!” He cried and laughed, and laughed and cried, and cried and laughed until they all knew him by that song.
In the end he was locked outside, crying and laughing, until the wind swept his song away, and he stumbled off into the badlands. Who knows a path in the badlands? There is no sun, and the moon keeps changing and changing. And the wounds on the boy began to fester. Did he learn how to steal? Each time he did so a part of him went missing. Did he learn how to kill? Each time a part of him went dead. But how could he know this? How could he be certain of anything under a fickle moon?
It may have been years he went on stumbling. In the badlands there is no time. All time is the same, the same, that is, until he saw a dark wound in the earth, a shadowy hole. Maybe he’d seen it before, but now he saw it for the first time. He crept sideways toward that wound. He touched it with his toe, and something deep inside moved. It called his name. An old woman called him by name.
“Come down. Come inside.”
He didn’t want to, but now he knew one thing. Wherever he would go in the badlands, this wound was in the center. Any far edge he could gain was not so far away from this. Now he climbed down over the rubble to a small fire where the old woman was stirring a pot. How did she know his name?
“Take off your jacket.”
He hadn’t known he was wearing one, but he winced and felt it tight, and he began to peel it back, peel it away like a second skin. He wasn’t at all sure of this, for now he felt raw. Was this the only way, the way through?
“Sit down there across the fire from me.”
He wasn’t about to show fear, but she just cackled like a cowbird, and then he remembered that cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Was he somehow related to her? He sat down.
“You want to know why.”
“Yes, why and how did you get here to this low place. But where else can you go, Sideways Boy? I welcome you in all your confusion.”
“Confusion?” With this word every one of his pat answers dropped away and his wounds began to throb. Yet her voice carried a familiar sound. “Grandmother, you sound a little like my grandma back home. She used to catch me by the legs when I was small. She would turn me upside down and shake me until any goods I had came tumbling onto the ground. She always said I needed straightening out.” He looked hard through the flickering fire, and there he saw his old grandma, as mean as ever, clamping hold of his legs again. He laughed and cried, and cried and laughed in his old song, and his legs danced until the woman here before him waved her hands, and he could see the old snare of it and release himself. His singing settled into some new pure strains, and his grandmother’s cruelty began to wither.
The old woman looked at him across the fire. “You see me now?”
“Look again.” She pulled back her mask. Before him was the face of an old man. And when that mask slipped off he saw the bony skull of death. And it cawed in that voice, that cowbird voice. “You see me true for once, and just to keep this in mind have a sip of my tea. It is the tea of death.”
He was afraid of death, but he took a sip from her ladle. It tasted both fiery and cool. In his tender body he was plunged into hot fire and passed on to the cool waters of a river. He opened his eyes and saw a dark shore, swam to it and rested. Later, he found strength to rise, and he felt some balance, balance in his grasp, in his step, in his sight. And he could begin to see a little into the shadows.
He went on, not back to those who had known him. He went on, and some say he broke new ground in a patch of badlands, and the sun came over to help out. And others say, no, he found a secret path beyond those hills into a land of rainbows. But some few whisper that he wandered all his years in the dark mystery of a changing moon. They say he went back now and again to that wound in the earth, to peel off his old jacket, deal with old ghosts and sip the tea of death the old woman gave from her ladle. She is there still, old woman or old man, feeding the flickering fire, waiting.