a short story by Pete Sipchen
About the Author
Pete Sipchen lives mostly in Webster Groves, Missouri, where he writes for newspapers and magazines. His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and U.S. News & World Report.
Always, when I saw the boy Salmos away from St. Agnes Catholic School, he was in his backyard. Always, he lay on his side in the shaggy bed of bluegrass, one ear cuddled to the ground as if listening to the earth breathe. But he wasn’t listening. He was looking, as closely as a suitor looks into the eyes of his intended.
I would walk around the house, which was only a block from mine, make my way down the gentle slope of lawn, and stand above him, watching how the wind from the field behind his yard ruffled his straw-colored hair, how it ruffled the billion streamers of grass into a fluttering ocean of movement, now silver, now green in the afternoon sun.
“And what do you see today?” It was as if I opened my mouth and let the words fall, like leaves of sound, softly down into the pink shell of his upturned ear.
“Ants,” he murmured. “Two of them. Did you know their legs are hairy?”
“How can you make out such detail without a glass?” I had never thought to ask him that before. Were his the keenest lenses ever set into a skull?
“I concentrate,” said Salmos. “You notice what you love.”
And how, I wanted to ask, do you know this when you’re twelve? For he was right. I did love the wild disarray of his hair, and the green and silver grass that seemed to inhale me down toward its fingery, feathery touch. Is that why I always noticed these things?
In another moment I found myself lying in the coolness as well, my face a ruler’s length from his bellflower blue eyes, my ear and eyelid tickled by the tender, springing tips of green. Conscious of my long dress bunched beneath me, I lifted my hips ever so slightly and smoothed the flowered fabric beneath with fingertips. The shoes fell away from my feet. I felt this.
“You’re pretty today,” said Salmos.
But when I looked, his focus was already back into the seething world an inch from his nose. Had he actually seen me? Or was he guessing? Was I pretty today, indeed?
“Pretty for a teacher,” he added and laughed at his small joke.
A reddish, gauzy curtain lifted out and for an instant filtered and blocked, filtered and blocked the sunlight at my eye. Then it settled across my nose and cheek in the finest, lightest filaments. My hair. I brushed it back. “You spend too much time in this,” I told the boy. “It’s lovely, but….” Now the words seemed to march out of my mouth and along the crumbly soil, over the brown timber of twigs toward his pale face, soldiers becoming tiny as they receded from me and, I imagined, growing taller as they neared him.
“Don’t be like the others. I’m not a freak.”
I watched the breath of his words disturb the dust in front of his mouth, sending a puff of it toward me. It died in a heartbeat. Two ants, red and glossy, locked their twisty legs together and fought in a square of ground midway between us. The killing ground, I thought.
“You’re my teacher,” said Salmos, his eyes never leaving the battle. “Tell my mom and dad I don’t need to keep seeing that doctor. They’ll listen to you.”
I lifted my head, coming out of his world. At the far end of the meadow behind his yard, a line of silver maples, long-shadowed in the glancing light of late afternoon, swayed their dark, supple arms to and fro like a chorus of dancers, the wind calling their dance.
“They’re the same, you know.”
The boy’s voice was like a lullaby. My head sank back, yielding. “What are?” A sigh of contentment.
“A blade of grass and a tree.” His soft fingers, more feminine than my own, plucked a single strand of green from the space between our faces with a snap that I could hear. “Both are full of tubes, veins that carry water and food from the earth up into themselves. And the further away from the ground they are, the smaller the veins get. Did you know the veins at the edges of a tree leaf are as fine as the veins in a grass leaf? Leaves are nothing but grass growing in trees. And grass is leaves coming out of the soil.” His eyes glistened. “Do you know how perfect that is?”
Grass shimmering in trees. Leaves leaping from the ground. Always, what he saw was new to me. I felt myself tugged deeper into the river of his perception. “It’s harmony,” I said.
His gaze sharpened onto a flat, white stone halfway embedded in the brown earth.
“Yes! Harmony.” He dislodged the stone with a thumbnail and rubbed it between his fingertips in a way that was almost erotic. “Music you can see and touch.”
The wind ceased as suddenly as a cricket’s song, and for a pristine moment all was defined by its absence. The forest of grass that rose about us became still, painted and frozen. All sound drained away, and the world was a held breath. Into this well of silence I tossed words, afraid perhaps of drowning in its beckoning waters.
“Why will you never look me in the eye?” This I had asked him many times, always for naught. His replies were evasions.
The boy blinked in slow motion. “I don’t look anyone in the eye.”
This time I persisted. “I know, Salmos. But why?”
He decided to answer. “Because your eyes steal a part of me. Can you understand? I don’t want to give anything up to your judgment. I know you judge me, and that’s all right. I can’t stop you. But I don’t want to see it in your eyes.”
With his words, I could feel my insides quiver and hum, as if I were a tuning fork, sharply struck. I did understand. The sky exhaled and the wind resumed, nudging all things into motion. If Salmos needed a doctor, did I?
“Your parents worry,” I whispered, clinging to the driftwood of the world in which I worked. But my fingers were slipping.
“I love them for it,” he said.
A wave swamped me, and I let go. The strong current pulled me under and down. When my lids unshuttered my eyes, a single spikelet from the puffball of a dandelion danced in a shaft of sunlight on my nose. As delicate as a spider’s web, it teetered on my skin, ascended an inch on a whisper of air, spun upside down and fell, an exhausted angel, into the mothering arms of a spilt milkweed pod. A foot away, I saw the boy watch the angel in its repose.
“Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace,” said Salmos.
I sat up, came back into myself. My heart pounded in my chest. I looked around as if in a foreign land, brushing bits of life from my hair. Behind us, the high, dark-eyed windows of the boy’s house, imperturbable and mute, gazed out at the yard, the meadow and all beyond. I stared back, searching the depths of their glass for some sign of movement. “Where are your mom and dad?” I asked him. “Still at their jobs?”
Salmos nodded. When he raised up onto one elbow, I could see behind him a patch of matted grass shaped like his head.
I stood dizzily. Taking a pleat of my dress between a thumb and forefinger, I shook it once and again, and watched bits of dead, dun-colored grass fall lazily to earth. My shoes lay spooned together on the lawn. Seeing them, I became aware of my toes dug into the warm soil. I bent down and scooped up the shoes but didn’t put them on.
“I have to be getting home,” I said.
The boy got into a sitting position and hugged his knees against his chest. I couldn’t see where his eyes were aimed. “Goodbye for now,” he said.
I left him there, the angled sun gilding him with yellow fire. I followed the stitched-together back lawns of the neighborhood in the direction of my house, placing my bare feet carefully. Two houses down I passed a man leaning on a pitchfork at the edge of his garden. He acknowledged me. I smiled at him and glanced back at Salmos, alone in the vastness of his yard. The man’s gaze followed mine. He shook his head gravely. Nodding toward the boy, he said, “I know his parents. A real sadness, that kid.”
I said nothing. Above us, green grass rustled in the trees.
“Foreign Land” Copyright ©2003 by Pete Sipchen.
All Rights Reserved.
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