His father was landscaper and a well driller. He shaped the land and drew water from the places where there was no water. To a young boy this was a kind of sorcery and his father reinforced these superstitions by amusing local kids with petty magic and sleight of hand. If he noticed the curious gaze of his clients’ children, he would stop his work, amble over and produce little paper birds from behind their ears. When the boy was older, he would ask his father how he did it and his father told him. “The real trick,” he said, “is in the making all those birds.”
They had a little blue pickup with the family name stenciled on the side but, for work, his father used a red truck with a tall cable tool-rig hitched to the back. It towered into the sky like a prehistoric animal torn from some dream world into the hard chilly reality of western Pennsylvania fog light. A thick red nylon tent gave the rig an arched and sagging back. If it was an animal, its spine was broken by its labor. In the bed, the used drill heads and bits tumbled like crustacean fossils, the worn tri-cones like discarded mysterious bones. His father laid the borehole first, the earth whining and resisting horribly. He sludged the hole to keep it cool and fluid. Then he slipped the bit into the subdued ground and the drill began to spud, twisting a quarter-turn as it rose and fell. After a while the few men who worked with him had to bail the borehole and empty the drill cuttings.
The boy watched all of this work, waiting for the moment when his father would raise his arm suddenly, halt the drill and extract it from deep within the earth. Then his father would move back, arms crossed at a distance to watch as water began to choke and bubble from the wide-throated guide-pipe. The boy watched his father concentrate, as if his will could make the water announce itself, as if his silent communication could force the earth to answer with its choked gurgle. At home, he would wash the caked mud from his fingers up to his wrists. He wrung his fat knuckles and massaged his palms. The sink basin splashed brown and red as his scabs fell away.
It was midnight in late August when the boy’s father had the accident that shattered his leg. The boy heard the mower start up outside and listened as it passed his window in circular rhythm—near then far then near again—like the hum of an insect, but soothing and familiar. The boy knew that his father suffered from troubled sleep, troubled dreams. He would often wake in the night to do daytime chores, and to drink warm bottles of Spaten on the porch, only to appear groggy in the kitchen in the morning. The mower kept orbiting the grass outside his window until, close to the house, something happened. The motor kept whirring but the boy knew it wasn’t moving. He listened a long while and then got up and looked out the window. Below, haloed in the warped yellow light of the late summer moon, was the mower, upside down with its deadly guts spinning fast, and his father wriggling with one foot caught underneath. The boy gasped to see his father. He looked small and frightened, like a worm after a rain storm.
The boy’s sister came home from college to see how they were. He was doing his homework on the couch when she arrived, and the first thing she said to him was, “Knock knock.”
“Whom, dumbass. Get back to work.”
She was kinder to him than she had been before she left, funnier, but different too. She stood taller, as if her near-adult knowledge granted her also physical toughness. She drank coffee. She drank with their father. She waved her hands dismissively as she spoke about her friends and their interests and adventures. Sometimes though, he thought he could see her hands trembling.
He heard them fighting in the night. Their father shouted and she laughed a thin cruel laugh that made the boy sorrowful. He heard them mention Mother and he turned over in his sheets. A long while later, his sister came into his room and climbed into the bed and held him like she used to do when he was very little. While he pretended to sleep, she pulled him close and buried her face in his shoulder. She sighed heavily and spoke. “Get out of here,” she said, “Get out as fast as you can.” In the morning she was gone.
When his father was on his feet again, the boy made sure to wake early enough to see him off. Every day he would look into his father’s eyes and remember the sound of his sister’s cruel laugh. On the days when there was no school, the boy would rise as the low haze of the sun began to light over the long skeletal ridges of trees. He watched as big black forms honked their way through the sky from Canada toward Mexico in the fall and back again in the spring. He heard the soft lapping of wings overhead and traced their fat bodies until they became little organized specks over the eastern hills.
Once, he accompanied his father out to survey a site in New Alexandria. They rode in silence and the boy watched the low branches move past his window in a swift brown blur. Power lines traced a sagging thread beside the road, and he felt as if he were racing their troughs and waves. Beside the road, the low hills descended and he imagined slowly gliding like the geese above the stationary brown figures he knew to be grazing horses below. An airplane hung suspended in the clear air.
While his father worked, he made his way through a dense little thicket of trees to the other side. Quickly he shut his mouth and held his breath. Before him the hills were divided into grids by tombstones, an army of granite headboards that stretched as far as he could see in any direction. At the bottom of the valley was a shabby brown funeral parlor, in danger of being washed over like a dingy by the waves and waves of gravestones. There was a light on in one of the windows and one car in the little parking lot. The sky was hazy and clouds hung low like ghosts, spirits heavier than the air, and he couldn’t see where the parlor’s driveway let out onto a main road. Years ago, his sister had told him that, if he breathed as he passed a graveyard, he might breathe in some wayward ghost that would forever whisper to him in the night. The boy did not move.
He squinted out the light and scanned the horizons. Little gray slabs everywhere, dividing the land into neat dotted-line grids. How many he could not count and so he did not try. Some were clearly older than others, ancient and cracked stones and, even from a distance, he could tell that the names had worn away in the elements. Some were huge phallic monoliths but they too seemed puny in comparison to the sheer number of stones. He imagined millions, stretching out endlessly into the unknown continent beyond. The hills gave the land a sense of swelling and the little stone peaks seemed to burst from the earth’s face by the force of some pressure building underneath.
There was no movement, not even wind, in the valley of stones and he held his breath for a long time turning his head left to right and back again in search of a point of termination, a property line, but the stones occupied his entire field of vision. He wondered to himself, if people keep dying as they do, won’t we just need more graveyards? And if that went on forever, wouldn’t all the land someday become a graveyard? Then what? The living would be stuck like the buoyed funeral parlor, one blinking light, rolling along on the sea of the dead. When his lungs started to burn, he turned and made his way back through the thicket to find his father.
His father looked frustrated, and the boy knew he hadn’t been able to find water. They took a different route home and the boy did not recognize the land. He kept watching the guttering power lines and looking out over the sloping earth, but didn’t imagine himself among the geese.
A boy named Danny Harkin was his best friend. The Harkins belonged to the church his family used to attend but didn’t any longer. When he slept over on weekends they took him along to see the new priest do mass. Father Hutchinson was a young man, thin and vital and breezy, full of jokes and references the week’s big news. After mass, he shook with everyone and used two hands to do it. Hutchinson was of a mind for charity too and organized charity events that he would advertise nonchalantly at the end of the service. The Harkins actually took the boy to one of these, to a home for retired and sick people. There he met a woman who showed him her heart beating through the skin of her chest. She laughed a wet crumbling laugh when his eyes widened in shock. There was a younger woman who wandered the halls who, Father Hutchinson said, taking him aside so he wouldn’t stare, had some kind of early onset dementia. Late in the day, an old lady cried as Father Hutchinson washed her feet
The boy’s father seemed guarded about the boy attending these events and never expressed disapproval or approval but asked, “What did you feel about that?” when he came home. The boy, of course, never knew quite what to feel about it. He liked the Harkins and he liked Father Hutchinson. He liked the way the young priest could pivot away from a chuckle to suddenly speak with a fierce kind of certainty that the boy didn’t hear anywhere else. When Father Hutchinson said things about holding one another because we are the arms with which God embraces, the boy really wondered if he belonged to the people around him and if they belonged to him. The Harkins were quiet about their faith and never really pressed the boy. It was understood that they would take him along if he was already there from the night before. Besides, they all knew that the boy’s father spent most Sunday mornings sleeping off Saturday night.
Afterwards, his father would thank the Harkins for watching him and then, over grilled cheese sandwiches and apple juice, he would ask, “What did you feel about that?” The boy shrugged and looked for a long time at the way the sun broke in his juice glass. Then his father would have to gear up and go to work. Even on weekends there was work to be done, he said. When he didn’t have fields to clear, he mowed and trimmed for people out in places where the houses were a little bigger but nobody was much better off. There weren’t many wells to dig anymore.
Most of the parents of the boy’s friends went to work in sooty holes behind convenience stores or in little offices tucked behind the adult video store billboards along the highway or, if they were fortunate, in big cereal box edifices an hour out in the city. Windows gazed out upon endless parking lots. Children played make-believe for only a few years and then turned to sports and gossip. At school, everyone’s parents knew one another. Many had themselves been schoolmates. Sometimes on weekends people drove into town to bowl or go to the movies. The best theater was a long drive away past Altoona. Lots of families belonged to a local produce co-op and the boy knew the man who delivered fresh tomatoes every other Saturday as Mr. Milewski, who was rickety and nearly bald and whose big loping ears always startled him. In October, Mr. Milewski brought pumpkins. The vegetables were always small and steely because the land was sick with something. The boy looked out at the brown and yellow hills and wondered if it were possible for the land to be dying.
Sometimes he would wander out to the road to watch as older boys and girls barreled crazily down steep roads, passing cans of hot beer back and forth on their way to fuck and get fucked in some carpeted basement somewhere. He watched them disappear in a pale cloud of dust and kicked a rock in their direction. The road petered off into a dark curve and he stood staring a long time absorbed by its impenetrate darkness, addressing it as if it might respond. No answer ever came.
In the night the boy lay awake in the dark, watching the dark forms of trees wobbling in the night, the clouds gliding like whales—blacker forms against the darkness of the world. He heard the scratching of animals and the call of night birds hungry for the cold and the mouse bones of November. He felt the reality of fear under the surface, under the core upon which the soft things lay. He needed only scrape away the clutter and it would be there, waiting like old friends wait.
At eleven, he learned his first magic trick: a simple illusion by which he could make a pebble seem to disappear from one hand and reappear in the other. Even as the other children said they knew how he’d pulled it off, he was overcome by the discovery of his own knowledge. It was as if he could hear the rhythm and melody of creation itself. He imagined that the pebble, of its own volition, wished to travel from one small palm to another. He imagined that he merely allowed it to do so. “Watch my hand,” he said. “Keep your eye on the stone.” He’d move his hands quickly and then slowly open them to reveal nothing but pink flesh. “It’s gone,” he’d say, “but now watch.” Another quick flutter and then a slow revealing, “There it is!” Some shouted, pawed at his fists for the trick rock but others sat quietly back and considered. He watched them and felt something tremendous inside of himself. He felt the air grow warm around his body, vibrating with life in the dead air. That night, as he slept, he did not feel afraid.
On his fourteenth birthday he watched the sun dying beyond the brown western slopes. He heard the hum of his house behind him, wheezing and creaking with old but sturdy life, and heard the buzz of autumn crickets late for warm shelter under rocks or fungal stumps. He watched two other boys disappear over the nearest hill, thrilled and wheezing mist into the air, fast and clumsy like unbroken horses. They shouted, glowing red in the cold, their youth just beneath their skin. He watched for a long immobile moment as the sky deepened into red, then deep brown like dried blood. The sky was brilliant and sad and he felt something tugging at his guts that he had never felt before. He dug his feet. The soil was loose and dry. Dust tumbled around his sneakers. He felt his pulse, could feel the quick puckered hiccups in his chest. He watched the sky descend, unable to turn away, unable to move, and the brown gave way to a new light. White broke through the oily clouds and a weird brilliant pillar traced a line perpendicular to the earth. A strange reverberating flap filled his ears, made him dizzy, like the beating of wings as the geese flew overhead but close up and off-balance somehow. He shut his eyes and saw nothing. Darkness churned in his eyelids, but he knew then what nothing was. The beating noise flooded in his ears and, when he opened his eyes again, the edges of the world still seemed blurred. His heart and his breath grew too fast until he was afraid and he heard footfalls behind him, heavy and charging, followed by joyful shouts and thick breathing and he ran.
The children behind saw his form tumble over the hill like a leaf blown off course and disappear. In laughter and splayed limbs the children scattered down the valley and the wood beyond, sifting away amongst the trees. The hoof-footed sound of child play echoed and faded away in the valley basin as the sky deepened into a black and starless chasm, the eternity of blind and soundless night. They did not find him for hours.
By then he’d stopped shivering and the spittle and foam had dried into white ash at the corners of his lips. His flesh seemed to glow with cold. Danny Harkin’s older sister, Maryanne, who’d spent some time earlier trying to flirt with boy, found him first, and stopped where she was, too taken with the heavy certainty of death even to call out. She stared and shivered, feeling for the first time the cold in her flesh and in her bones. Danny joined her and shouted, “I found him! Over here!” He reached out and shook the body. He thought of the way that chicken felt as it defrosted in his hands under the steaming faucet—the way the edges turned flaky and white and the muscle softened between his fingers, but when he tried to separate the slabs, the frozen parts resisted with a sick and sucking sound of frost.
The boy’s father arrived, humping over a dead log with his twisted leg and nearly knocking the two children over in the process. “Oh Christ,” he said and collapsed over the boy’s form. The wood was silent for a long time, punctuated by the wet mutterings of the man. Finally he too grew silent and turned his ear to the boy’s purple lips. New forms arrived, black and gray in the night and all held the air in their chests, afraid to break the fragile silence, as if any untoward sound might plunge the entire basin into fire and chaos. It was oddly peaceful. Suddenly his father looked up, a thread of wet between his lips. “He’s breathing,” he said. “He’s breathing. Move.” He scooped up the boy and the leaves with him into his broad arms and rushed blindly toward the hill, a pale and desolate form trailed by the small crowd.
They kept vigil through the night at the hospital. His father buried his face in his hands and ground his chin into his fist. In the morning the nurses asked if he didn’t need to go to work and he twisted his lips into something like a smile and said no. There wasn’t any work waiting on him.
When the boy woke, he saw his father had placed a paper bird in his hands. He smiled, blinked, and fell back asleep. The doctors said he must’ve had a seizure but otherwise he seemed fine. It was hard to say at the moment. They’d have to watch him. Run some tests. Later, when he was up and speaking again, they asked him what had happened but all he remembered was the smell of oranges. They nodded at this and let him watch television.
On the way home, he made an odd request. He wanted to stop at Father Hutchinson’s house before it got dark. The rectory was a half hour out of the way but his father was in a delicate mood and willing to entertain whatever the boy wanted. This too, despite the fact that Hutchinson had said the mass at Mother’s funeral. At the door the priest and the boy’s father exchanged uncertainties and he led them into the living room.
“I want to talk to you,” said the boy. He said it with warmth, but it was an odd, flat thing to say.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Can my dad leave?”
The younger man maintained an even and counseling tone. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say to me you couldn’t say to your dad.”
“No, it’s alright. I’ll just be outside.”
“No,” the priest protested.
“Really. It’s fine. You need anything, Kid, give a shout.”
The boy’s father left and made his way to the porch. He settled into the old weathered rocker and pulled a crushed pack of reds from his shirt pocket. He cupped his hands against the wind and pulled hard to light and breathed heavily and evenly. He exhaled, relieved and comforted. The sky was white and low. If it were a different time it might threaten rain but not now. He wondered when it had last rained. Maybe August. Down the road he saw the Donut Stop. A blue minivan in the drive-thru idled beneath a sign with a lewd and grinning clown. A baby pushed a pink plastic chair like a walker, trailing an old man in a pageboy who shuffled with the same infant gait. Across the street the gas station was empty, its pumps and hoses hung flaccid. The place was a burial ground. An excavation. He squinted. Behind the veil of white, he could see the refracted and hazy sun, yellow behind the white. A far away clatter of leather called his attention to a flock of geese rising in a brown V over the bare trees. He wondered where they were headed. South. Down from Canada and on to Mexico. Funny how you never saw them still—never floating in ponds like ducks—always flying one place to another—north to south and north again. Pilgrims in search of a destination. A journey of ever expanding horizons and reversals of poles. The screen door clattered metallic.
“Bill.” He never called Hutchinson “Father.” He was older by a decade anyhow.
The priest looked out on the driveway.
“Everything okay?” the boy’s father asked.
“Can I have one of those?”
“If I let you do that you’ll have to go to confession.”
“I’ll go when you do.”
“Need a light?”
“I’ve got one.”
They passed a long moment, their smoke disappearing into the white sky.
“Seizure’s a scary thing. Tough for a kid.”
“For anybody,” the boy’s father looked meaningfully at the priest.
“You’re holding up?”
“All things considered.”
“It’s a scary thing. Hard for a kid to wrap his head around maybe.”
They paused. The boy’s father asked, “Did he say something to you?”
The priest was silent. He pinched his features around his cigarette.
“My boy’s business is his own but if you need to tell me something I’d like you to tell it.”
“He said the oddest thing.”
The priest fumbled, “I guess he thinks he saw God.”
“That’s what he says.”
“That’s what he says.”
“The one and only.”
The boy’s father took another drag and pinched off the ash and flicked the crushed butt onto the lawn. “Father,” he nodded and went back inside for the boy.
A minute later their truck left bouncing through the dust toward home.
The boy watched the guttering telephone wires. He searched the sky for geese and his father eyed him warily, fumbling for words in the humming silence.
“What did you say to him?” he finally asked. “He seemed to think you saw something.”
The boy looked at his father. He was calm and sturdy and considered. He wasn’t rattled or searching like his father was, just very still.
“Nothing,” he said, “I saw nothing.”