When he was a child, he found a possum by the side of the road. The eyes were black, glazed over, but black just the same. He took them home and tried them on so he could see what the possum saw the moment he was run over. For a whole day, he stumbled about just at the edge of their property, his back to the house, until his mother came out in her bare feet, an apron over her shoulder, furious because he wouldn’t come in for supper.
He followed the tracks to building number six. It was an empty box, just like the others, only wind-worn because it was set so close to the rail lines and the rush of pollution that followed the trains.
He adjusted the bag of wooden stakes strapped to his back, and then slipped past the corner to the side of the box the trains couldn’t see. When he finally came upon the body sitting up against the powdery concrete, he gingerly dropped down onto his knees.
There was no reply because the body was missing most of its face. There were bits of flesh, hair and bone pasted to the wall by the congealing blood like a violent halo.
“Tell me, what was He like? I mean, did you get a good look at Him?”
The body twitched, as if trying to right itself.
“I’ve never seen Him, you know. So many years now and I still haven’t seen what He looks like.” It had been forever, already. How much longer was he expected to wait?
He threw a glance up at the sky, measured his words.
“When He touched your face ...”
But there was too much blood there. Frustrated, he took a hold of the ears and pulled.
With the body stretched out on the hard-packed gravel, he placed the palm of his hand on the chest. He felt the tickle of a heart beating. There was still time for one more question, he told himself.
“What was it like?”
But the air simply bubbled through the wounds in the face.
Dejected, he pulled a stake out from his bag and leaned in close to where there should have been an eye.
“You saw Him.” He whispered.
She wasn’t breathing.
She was frozen in place, staring at the two eyeballs in his hands, the dried blood on his face.
“Mamma?” They’re not my eyes, he wanted to tell her.
She hit him across the head then, parting his hair on the wrong side, knocking him off his feet. He remembers how hard she hit him, almost as if she wanted him far away.
As he fell, he twisted his body so he wouldn’t land on his face. He flailed his arms hoping to touch her. He knew the ground was covered with black ants. He wanted to ask her if they were going to bite him, but she was already running for the house, his father.
With his face in the tall grass, he waited for the cuss words to fade away before finally looking back over his shoulder. He decided he didn’t care if the ants would bite him. Stretching out his arms, his fingers gently parting the blades of grass, he started to search for the eyes.
He put the point of the stake over the heart, and then his full weight. When he felt the crunch of the hard ground, he listened for that final hiss and then rolled off the body.
He stood up, sniffed at the air just as the first globule of rain was coming tumbling out of the sky. He caught it in his open mouth, swallowed hard, and then danced about trying to catch the rest before they could touch ground. He dropped the bag of stakes so he could move better.
“I’ll catch you all,” he teased as he showed his face to the enormous sky.
It was a game he played, a simple pleasure.
While still looking up, he lurched forward, stepped on his bag of stakes and fell hard on his knees, the crush of that immense sky on his shoulders.
“I am a fool marker,” he told himself as he stretched out his legs to examine the wounds.
He picked at the bits of gravel imbedded in his knees, watched mesmerized as the big drops of rain thinned the blood, washed the wounds. He wiggled his toes. They were fine. Still, he wasn’t ready to move yet. He was in no condition to dig a grave in the hard earth.
“Rest a while longer.” he told the body.
Looking out across the landscape, he tried to imagine what it must have been like before it all turned this ashen color. This was nothing like the wild country of his youth. There were spots of green here and there, but they were hardly pretty, mostly weed—mostly barbed. He often wished he could ride one of the freight trains out of this place, but he knew better. The preacher warned him to stay away from common folk.
He lay down next to the body so he could feel the sting of the rain directly on his face.
After the beating, his father drove him to the church, forced him out of the car. He left him there without instruction, speeding away as soon as the car door was shut.
He knew what to expect, though. He had heard all the stories before. The preacher was supposed to frighten him.
“You’ve got to be single-minded, boy.” The old man leaned in closer. “Or the marker’s going to make sure you never get to no place higher than the dirt.”
He couldn’t stop looking at the preacher’s eyes. They were sickly, gummy, the way the possum’s eyes were after spending the whole day in his warm hands.
“He’s going to pin your soul to the ground with one of his big old stakes, and then the worms will have their way with you, boy.” He wiggled a crooked finger in the air. “Worms and them big black ants with the…” He tried to make a pair of pincers, but the tips of his thumb and finger wouldn’t meet.
With his ear to the ground, he thought he could hear the sound of the dead on his earth, scarred over the way it was, over-full with their wicked bones. And then he thought that maybe he should get up and run, but he couldn’t move. He could only listen to the sound of the dead coming in from all around. They were plowing the landscape with their heels.
He knew the bag of stakes was at his feet, the one and only miracle he was ever allowed to witness, always full, filled by an unseen hand that could crush a man’s skull if it was meant to be. He imagined himself standing up, mindlessly slinging it over his shoulder the way he had done so many times before.
And then the body lying next to him spoke in a hushed tone.
“Did you see him?”
He was startled by the question. Had he seen Him and not remembered? He thought hard, gently touching his face, searching for wounds, realizing finally that this was just a dream.
“Right,” The body seemed to be thinking about the next question. “How long has it been?”
“The whole day into night.”
“No. I mean how long have you been at this?”
It had been forever already. “A long time.”
“How much longer, then?”
He didn’t want to look towards the voice, his only companion all these years.
“Not much longer,” he answered quietly and then waited for the hissing to stop.
“But, what will become of me?” The voice cracked.
Walking home from church, he wouldn’t stop thinking about the marker.
You’ve got to be single-minded, boy.
His parents were thrilled when he asked for their copy of the bible. His father was beaming with pride when he said that you could always count on the preacher to set a kid right. His mother even wiped it with her apron before handing it over.
“I’ll be in my room,” was all he told them.
What he really wanted to say was that the preacher was no good, but then they might have asked him how he knew? He would have told the truth, of course. He’s single-minded, just like me—only different.
He searched for the marker in the scriptures, well into the night, until he finally fell asleep with the open bible on his chest.
In the dark, he watched his hand moving through the air, touch the body lying next to him. The flesh was cold, still pinned to the ground. Realizing he was out of his dream, he got up in a crouching position. He could hear many voices spread out across the landscape.
He studied their figures, the glossy trench coats, their wide-brimmed hats. He was going to call out to them, just to make sure they had really come for him, but the hairs stood up at the nape of his neck. He sniffed at the air, looked up at the night sky as he did.
The troopers looked back at him then, their flashlights glowing like devilish eyes. The rain fell sporadically at first, and then heavily. He wanted to tell them that it was nothing at all, nothing to fear. It was just a simple pleasure he was allowed. But they wouldn’t understand because it was his alone. They simply stared at him, their devilish eyes blinking from the downpour.
He pulled out a stake from his bag and pointed it like a rifle. All at once, they advanced with guns in hand. Some dropped their flashlights, so the beams of light crisscrossed the landscape, showing nothing in particular—building five, building three.
It had been so long, already.
“Bam,” he yelled, “bam, bam.”
It was true. He never minded the scolding, the insults. He knew he was different. The preacher eventually realized, too, told him never to come around again.
“You see things different than the rest of us, boy.”
He knew. He found it in the scriptures.
“Stay away from common folk, if you can. Ride the rails.”
Just like his parents, the preacher wanted him gone.
“There’s no fear in you, boy, like you got no soul—no place to go.”
The first bullet burned into his shoulder, and then they found their mark as a group and his whole body started to burn.
His eyes burned, too, because he was looking up through the driving rain. And then he had to shake his head.
He could hear his father’s voice. He knew the teeth were clenched, because the words came out in a string. He was pissed off.
His mother would catch a beating, too, because she birthed the little monster that was like no other kid.
“My God,” she let it slip, once, “you’ve got the Devil’s eyes.”
She liked to call the woods beyond their property line the wild country. Stay out of the wild country, his mother would say, but she had always been taller. To her, the wild country meant the green canopy with all its little creatures flitting about. He was more interested in exploring the earth beneath his feet. She explained to him, once, that the soil was blackened in the wild country because dead things where left undisturbed there, enriching the soil.
He could feel his body going limp. The troopers had picked up their flashlights and were carefully making their way to him. He couldn’t tell what they were yelling, but they sounded scared, just like his parents did that day out in the back yard.
Because of all the light they were shining on him, he couldn’t see their faces, but he could hear their nervous murmur, and the rain as it bounced off their trench coats. When he realized they were going to wait it out, he obliged by opening his eyes as wide as he could in the downpour. It was all in the eyes, he believed.
“For I have eaten ashes like bread,” he started to say, “And mingled my drink with weeping.”
All at once, the lights quivered. He wanted to tell the troopers it was nothing to fear. It was his alone.
“For thou hast lifted me up and cast me away,” he continued, “And I whither away like grass.”
The preacher warned him not to forget to pray when his time came.
He’ll listen even to you .
But he had said enough, already.
He waited a bit longer, and then the hissing started.
Antonios Maltezos recently was published in Musings: An Anthology of Greek Canadian Literature, Pindeldyboz, Slingshot, The Shore Magazine, and The Pedestal. He also has stories forthcoming in NFG, Night Train, and Ink Pot. When he’s not hard at work on his novel, he sits around hallucinating about a spot of light at the end of a tunnel.
Top photos "Contemplation" courtesy of
Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature - With work by Antonios Maltezos
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