I suppose that’s the way it is with people, too. There’s a time to wander through the lonely and barren times of life and a time to take a chance and sow new seeds of friendship. There’s a time to gather the fruit of experience and a time to move on to newer, greener fields and start planting again.
“You think we’ll find work in Sweetwater?” Buck asked.
He reached for a long stick and started poking at the campfire. The sparks twirled dizzily up into the darkness, then disappeared—their energy spent.
I shrugged. I didn’t know.
“Well, anything’s better than the Mission School,” Buck replied bitterly. He ran a hand through his short dark hair. His fingers wove through it eagerly, trying to coax it to grow faster.
It wasn’t all that bad, I responded.
He didn’t answer, being more interested in probing the fire with his stick.
I took a deep breath and lay back on my blanket. It was coming on that time of night when all the creatures of the day made room for those who only showed themselves in shadows. They were the invisible ones; the field mice who brushed through the thick prairie grass quiet as a breeze; the crickets who greeted each other with high-pitched giggles, but froze silent as pebbles whenever an intruder lurked nearby; the coyote, whose voice traveled on the air like a spirit searching for solace—but who dissolved into the darkness whenever anyone tried to answer its call.
“What was that?” Buck whispered. He sounded strange. I sat up and looked him over. He knelt before the fire, clutching his medicine pouch for dear life. The fire’s flames glowed red on his cheeks and cast deep, heavy shadows around his eyes.
What? I signed. I waited for what seemed like an eternity before I heard the low, mournful song that was the source of Buck’s fears. I had to bite my tongue to keep from smiling.
It’s just an owl, I reassured.
He swallowed hard. His eyes grew wide. They skittered and jerked around like two jittery birds. “Maybe we shouldn’t go to Sweetwater tomorrow,” he said finally.
He glanced around himself uneasily, making sure the owl didn’t overhear him, I supposed. “Owls are bad medicine, Ike. If you hear one, you can be sure something evil’s gonna happen. And if you ignore the warning. . .”
He couldn’t even continue. I’d never seen anyone as superstitious as Buck Cross. I understood that it all had something to do with his Indian religion, and I respected that. But sometimes, his strange beliefs made him act downright silly. Even the nuns couldn’t cure him of them back at the Mission.
Suddenly, I was hit with a brilliant idea.
I gasped, then I started to shake all over. Buck lunged toward me. “What is it? Ike?”
Oh, no! I signed. The owl. . .it’s turned into Sister Regina! She says she’s going to make you pay for putting that lizard in her bed!
I saw the reluctant smile twitch on his lips. I shot my eyes open wide, reached for my throat with my right hand and thrust the left out toward him. Then I tossed my head up to the sky and threw my arms over my face.
I could hear the laughter struggle up through his chest.
Please Sister, spare me! I gestured frantically.
“It’s you she should be coming after,” Buck shot back. His voice was too cold to be believable.
Me?! I didn’t do it.
“But it was your idea!”
I grinned broadly and he tried to look away, but he knew he was beaten. He gave up and laughed in spite of himself.
See? Nothing to be afraid of!
“I never said I was afraid,” he answered firmly. But I wasn’t convinced. Buck was a hopeless case. I fell back to the ground and stretched out.
Buck dragged his blanket over and spread it out next to mine. “I’m going to bed.” He rolled over and rested his weight against my side. “I’m cold,” he mumbled.
I don’t know why he even bothered with that weak excuse. I knew he was still scared.
It wasn’t long before I could hear the rhythm of Buck’s heavy, sleeping breathing trying to lure me to rest. But I wasn’t tired. I stared up into the sky. The full moon cast a liquid light over the entire prairie, touching the tips of the grasses with a cold, patient blue flame. I looked for the man in the moon and saw those hollow eyes staring out from a pock-marked face, his wide mouth hanging open in surprise. I asked Pa once why it was that the moon opened his mouth, but never said anything.
“Well, Ike,” he said, “truth of the matter is, there was a time when all the moon could do was talk. He knew how much we folks on Earth loved him and his silvery light. The moon would sit up there in the sky fat and proud and crow to everyone in heaven about how he was loved best out of all the stars and even the sun! He’d go on and on about his perfect white light that didn’t blind you like the sun’s did and wasn’t just puny sparklin’ things like the stars were. Came a time when all the stars decided enough was enough. They was all getting headaches from listenin’ to him jaw on. They thought, at first, that they’d all get together and push that moon right out of the sky and make him stay alone in the cold out near Mars somewhere. But then they got to thinkin’ about how we folks really did love that moon’s light and they had pity on us. So, one night, they called over the Big Dipper and had him sneak up behind the moon. That moon was crowin’ so loud he didn’t even notice when the Dipper raised itself high and came down with a “whack!” right on the top of his bald head. The moon was so stunned by that knock on the head that all he could do was open his mouth wide and stare out at the Earth. I suppose the stars really got through to him, because he never had anything much to say after that day.”
Pa always liked to tell a good tale. I guess we helped each other out, because I always had a question about something, and he always had a story to explain it. It used to be that I could never keep my mouth shut. Some people said I was just like a babbling brook because I always asked what they call “nonsense questions”—like why can’t we ever touch the sky or why is it that mosquitoes always have so much to say? Other folks thought I was as strange as the questions I asked. And there were people who said I was just plain stupid asking questions that had nothing to do with what Pa called “the high cost of livin’”. Thinking back on it, I suppose my jabbering caused a fair amount of headaches. I tend to wonder how many people wished they could’ve knocked me upside the head just to shut me up. No one ever tried, but I doubt it would’ve done me any good anyhow. Have you ever seen anyone stop a stream from flowing just by slapping at the ripples? I suppose I made most folks crazy with my questions, but Pa always had a willing ear and a ready response. He never thought I was strange—or stupid.
Thinking about Pa made me remember my family. I could see my Ma all dressed up for church on Sunday. She had long red hair that sparkled like cinnamon candy in the sunshine. She smelled fresh and sweet like lemonade. And she always smiled—especially when Pa would take her smooth white hand in his big rough palm and lift her up into the buckboard. Then, he’d gaze into her face from under his wide-brimmed work hat, and she’d blush red like a rose.
I thought of Maggie, too—the way she’d squeal with delight as she ran after the puppies and pretend her rag doll was her baby sister. I’d chase her around the farm and give her a carrot to feed the donkey. She had eyes as blue as the sky and just as clear. I’d never seen anyone with eyes as beautiful—except for Ma, of course.
I started to feel a lump forming in my throat. Buck always says that it’s bad medicine to speak of the dead—or even to think of them. He says that whenever you think of the dead, their spirits hear your thoughts and can’t rest. They feel real sorry you’re still alive and missing them, so they wander the Earth anxiously expecting to hear you call their names again and again. If you think about them too much, they can’t hardly stand it—and then they come after you. They figure the only way you’ll be happy and they’ll get some sleep is if you die, too, and they come and take your spirit away. At least that’s what Buck says. I don’t rightly know if it’s true or not.
I heard the owl call out again long and low, shaking me out of my thoughts. Buck must’ve heard it in his dreams, because he threw an arm over me and wiggled closer. He was so close, I could feel his warm, soft breath on my neck. He smelled fresh and woody, like hickory smoke rising up through the trees at daybreak. The weight of his arm settled on my chest and I couldn’t help but feel just a little more comfortable because of it.
Even though the moonlight lit up the prairie, and I honestly wasn’t afraid of owls, I’ll admit, I did feel a little scared. Maybe it was because Buck and I were getting ready to head into yet another town filled with folks who’d call us freaks and turn us away without a second thought. Or maybe it was because I’d made a mistake by thinking about my family and their spirits were starting to haunt me like Buck warned me they would. Ghosts from the past have
a way of doing that.
I can’t say exactly how long I hid in the corner of the barn the day they came and killed my family. The crack of gunfire rang through my ears for what seemed like forever, and I was never quite sure which shots were real and which were just phantoms of my imagination.
I was terrified that they would come back and find me. I knew if they did, they’d kill me for sure. That very thought had me frozen with fear. I squatted way back in the barn until my body throbbed in pain, but I never once moved—not even when Lucy sniffed through the barn, wagging her tail, and licked my fingers—or when the spiders and mice crawled over me, making me itch until I burned, tempting me to brush them away. All I knew was that if I even moved an inch, the sound would echo through the air like a cry and they would come back. I felt the daylight dying out around me. I heard an owl hooting somewhere above me and I knew it must be coming on night. I wondered how long I would have to stay there. I thought, if I waited long enough, maybe I’d just turn into a stone or a haystack and no one would ever know what had happened to me and I wouldn’t feel the pain anymore.
Then, the oddest thing began to happen. A strange numbness started to crawl up my legs. It wandered it’s way quietly up higher and higher—all the way to my chest and out my arms—clear through to my fingertips. And as it traveled within me, I was sure I was starting to disappear.
At first, I didn’t much notice it. All I could do was listen to those bullets snap like fire in my brain and pray with all my living breath that they wouldn’t find me. But when I felt the numbness rise up to the top of my head, my eyes were opened. I looked down and found that I’d become invisible.
I knew I was still alive because I could hear myself breathing and I could feel my heart beat. But try as I might, I couldn’t for the life of me see my hands—even when I raised them up to my face. I knew I still had my legs, but as I stood up, I felt more like I was floating, rather than walking, through the barn.
I passed by Dolly, still locked up in the milking pen. I stood there for a second and decided to test my new-found invisibility. I looked straight at her. I could feel the warmth of her body, I was so close, but her black eyes looked through me as if I were the air itself. I heard a soft shuffling sound and looked down. Lucy paced through the barn, anxiously sniffing me out. She thought I was still crouched at the back of the barn, and when she didn’t find me there, I saw her shake her head in confusion. She cocked her ears and looked this way and that, but she couldn’t find me—no matter how hard she tried.
Slowly, I felt a great calm settle inside me. I was sure those outlaws who murdered my family wouldn’t find me now that I was invisible. The echoing gunshots started to fade away into silence and in their place, I began to hear the crickets call to each other outside.
I looked around. I figured now that no one could see me, it’d be safe to take a look outside. I saw how the moonlight pierced through the wall planks of the barn, then gathered itself together and pushed the door open wide.
Before I knew it, I was floating out into the night and over toward the house. I thought I heard Pa’s harmonica sing out sweet and low while Ma laughed and rocked Maggie to sleep. But when I looked up at the house, it stood cold and lonesome as a stone.
I don’t rightly know just how I found them. I’m guessing some sort of breeze blew me over to where they were, because I don’t remember walking. I couldn’t feel the ground beneath my feet. I couldn’t even feel the clothes on my back. It was almost like I hardly had a body at all. And, at that point, I didn’t think that was such a bad thing.
The moon was big and full and it cast a shimmering silvery light over the whole yard. I felt myself hovering over them as they lay there in front of me. Their eyes were dark and wide, their mouths gaping open, like they’d all just been hit over the head with the Big Dipper.
I looked down at my Pa. In the moonlight, his face was like hardened wax—smooth and cool and a grayish blue. His beard was knotted and spattered with blood. I stared at him for a long time. I peered past his quiet lips and into the darkness that lay beyond. He looked like he wanted to say something, but no words came. There weren’t any words left to speak. His mouth was like an empty nest. His spirit had escaped and flown away out to somewhere I’d never find him.
“Pa,” I said aloud, “where are. . .?” I wanted to say more, but suddenly, I felt something flutter in my chest. It rose uncomfortably into my throat, dragging it’s claws up my windpipe. I felt it fly into my mouth. I closed my lips tight. It pecked at my tongue, but I wouldn’t budge. I knew if I opened my mouth, my voice would fly out and never come back—and I wasn’t about to let it do that. I didn’t so much mind being invisible with a voice, but I was real scared that if I became invisible without a voice, I might begin to forget that I even existed. As long as I could call my own name out loud, I knew I was still there. But without my voice, I was sure I’d just break up into a million lonely, invisible flecks of dust and scatter away on the breeze and maybe float out to a cold and desolate place—like Mars—and no one would even remember who I was or where to find me. I couldn’t let that happen.
I suppose my voice understood my thoughts, because it gave in a little and stopped pecking. Instead, it sat there patiently on my tongue, pressing itself against the edge of my teeth. Waiting.
A sudden, painful howl broke through my memories—jolting me back to the present. My heart beat thick in my chest as the coyote called out again. He sounded awful close. I scanned the prairie three or four times, but I couldn’t spot him. Both he and his echoing cry had melted into the darkness.
I glanced over at Buck, who was rolled up on the edge of his blanket by himself, his back to me. I suppose he must have found some courage in his dreams—or maybe it was just that coyotes didn’t scare him like owls did. I took in a deep breath, hoping to smell the morning, but the air was still old and heavy. This night was coming close to being one of the longest I’d ever known—and I’ve known many, I can tell you. Still, none of them was like the night I fought with my voice for the first and last time.
That night was about the longest I’d ever spent. I can’t really say just how long it was, because all I could focus on was keeping my voice inside me. It was a stubborn voice, I’ll say that. And crafty. It figured that if it made me hurt, maybe I’d open up and set it free. At one point, it leaned up so hard against my teeth, that I was sure they were going to pop out like garden stakes. But, even though it hurt like hell, I still kept my mouth closed.
When it realized that approach wasn’t going to work, it decided to go back to pecking at my tongue. It pecked so hard that it wasn’t long before I felt the hot, salty blood flow down my throat, trying to choke me. I felt my face go red and throbbing and the tears spring to my eyes as I struggled to breathe without gasping.
Then my voice went and played its last card and tried to get me to look at my Pa again. It had almost gotten free the last time I looked at him. And I swore I’d never lay eyes on Pa again because I knew that if I did, there’d be no way I’d be able to keep from opening my mouth and asking him another question. So, I floated over to the porch and settled down on the top step and looked away, over toward the cornfield.
I concentrated on that corn harder than I’ve ever concentrated on anything before. I focused on how it swayed in the moonlight—how the cornsilk dipped and rose and flowed through the breeze like a crowd of free flying fairies. I saw how the husks bent open their large pointed palms and touched one another like they were getting ready to promenade around the field. I even noticed how the proud stalks rose up straight as arrows, thick as saplings, as they reached up to heaven—ready to brag that they were the first to touch the stars.
Of course, my voice wasn’t going to let me focus very easily. It kept pecking at my cheek, trying with all its might to twist my head around so I’d have to look at Pa. I was able to resist it, but by morning, my cheek was so raw that I was scared that my voice might have almost chewed its way clean through. I caught it before it was able to make its escape that way, though.
When dawn came, I began to wonder just how long I would have to sit there on the top step, fighting my voice. I thought it had to give up sooner or later. But it was just as stubborn as I was, and I figured I’d be fighting it for a long time. I also began to wonder how long I was going to be invisible. You see, I actually believed that no one could see me. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was wrong.
“Sheriff! Over here!”
The voice sounded familiar. . .but I couldn’t quite place it. But by the time they found me, I’d been fighting with my voice for so long that I didn’t have much energy left to care who it was. All I could do was look over at the cornfield glistening in the daylight.
“Oh my Lord. . .Clark? Rebecca. . .”
I recognized the second voice right away. It was Sheriff Jenkins.
“That’s their boy,” the first man said quietly.
I felt my eyes grow wide. They couldn’t see me. . .could they? I gritted my teeth hard and tried to bite down on my voice, which was still trying to make it’s escape, but instead, I bit my tongue and the tears welled up in my eyes.
“Ike?” Sheriff Jenkins asked. But I didn’t move. I was sure I was in trouble for being the only one to survive. I thought they’d throw me in jail for not crying out when I saw the bullets rip through my family’s bodies—for not running to find the Sheriff when the outlaws were still in sight and there was a chance to do justice. I even thought they’d punish me for being alive—when really, I should have been dead like the rest of my family.
I prayed that I was invisible. If I kept real quiet, maybe they’d go away and leave me alone. But, as the Sheriff spoke my name, I began to feel an unwelcome tingling sensation stir in my feet.
“Ike?” he said again, and the sensation rose up into my legs—stinging me like I was being stuck with a thousand needles.
I knew what was happening, but I didn’t want to believe it. I took a chance and looked over toward the pain and saw my legs just as plain as day.
“Ike, can you hear me, son?” the Sheriff asked. Then he touched my shoulder and my body jolted like a tree crashing to the ground. The weight of his hand rested uncomfortably on my shoulder. I felt heavier than a block of lead. I could barely move, but somehow, I was able to force my gaze up to meet his. As our eyes locked, I finally realized that I’d never really been invisible at all. My heart skipped and a cold, wet rush of fear washed over me. I’d been visible the entire time.
The Sheriff’s blue eyes tried to smile at me, but instead, they filled with bitter tears. He turned away from me and sighed. “Good God. What a sight to see on a Sunday morning. You know if he has any kin nearby?”
“I don’t know,” the first man answered—and suddenly I remembered who he was. He was Mr. Garrett—our new neighbor. “I only just moved out here.”
“Well, we’re going to have to do something with him,” Sheriff Jenkins said, kicking at the ground. “Can you take him in?”
Mr. Garrett turned around and sized me up and down like I was some kind of fish that’d just been tossed into his lap. Then he shook his head. He didn’t want to keep me. “I got eight kids of my own. I ain’t got money enough to feed another one.”
“Charlie, it’d only be for. . .” the Sheriff began, but I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said, because my voice started pacing restlessly in my mouth, trying to get my attention.
All night, I’d struggled to fight it and now I was just about ready to give up. I wasn’t so scared of dissolving away into a million flecks of dust now that I realized I was visible. Still, a part of me wanted to hold on to my voice and hold on tight.
But that voice just wouldn’t be caged. And for the first time, I actually listened to what it really wanted. It wanted to fly free and spread it’s wings open wide. It wanted to climb up through the clouds and touch the sky. And it wanted to find my family most of all.
I wondered, then, just where Pa’s spirit was. And I wondered if he missed me and all my questions. Did he know I was all right?
I felt my voice stir anxiously within me. And then I knew I was wrong to hold it back. All it wanted was freedom—to be able to ask Pa silly questions and sing to Maggie and tell Ma that she was beautiful. Finally, I understood. My voice didn’t belong inside me anymore—no more than a bird belonged in a cage or a fish, out of water.
And so, I said a silent good-bye and opened my mouth wide. I felt my voice shake with excitement. . .and maybe even a little gratitude for the sacrifice I was making for it. Then, it pushed itself off of my tongue and took flight. I could almost see it rise up above the Sheriff’s head, shimmering red from our bloody battle, but now, with new white wings outstretched as it flew up past the barn’s high roof, up through the clouds, up past the moon hanging ghostly and pale in the morning light, and finally out of sight—to heaven and to my family.
“Jesus, look at that boy’s mouth!” I heard Mr. Garrett say.
I felt the blood flow down my chin like a river, cleansing my entire body, telling me I’d done the right thing.
“Looks like he bit it up somethin’ awful,” Sheriff Jenkins replied. Then he sat down beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “We’re gonna take you someplace safe, Ike. Don’t you worry none.”
I wasn’t worried. At that moment, all I could feel was a welcome peace that could only come from silence.
The soft song of a sparrow broke through the stillness of night and I suddenly realized that the morning had finally come. I breathed in the fresh, crisp air. The horizon glowed warm and golden as the sun spread its light across the entire earth. It was time to start a new day.
I stood up and took a good stretch. Buck was sprawled out on the ground, still sleeping like a baby. I kicked him once in the ribs. He squirmed, then rolled over. I kicked him again. . .harder this time. “Ummph,” he groaned. “Ok. Ok. Just give me a min. . .” He was asleep even before he could finish the word.
I glanced up at the man in the moon, who still hung heavy in the morning sky. My eyes fell on his dark, voiceless mouth. I wondered just what he’d have to say to us down here on Earth if he ever got his voice back. I wondered how folks would respond to him. Maybe they’d see him differently if he could talk. Would they love him even more? Or would they hate him? Maybe he’d just babble on so much, he’d talk himself right out of their affection.
I wondered what life might be like if I still had my voice. How might folks accept me if I could really speak my mind without needing anyone to interpret for me? I wondered what it might be like to be able to strike up a friendly conversation with someone on the street. What would it feel like to compliment a beautiful lady and receive her welcome smile in return? I wondered how it would feel to be able to scream out loud at the top of my lungs and hear it echo across the prairie. Or to be able to whisper a secret into someone’s ear.
Of course, I knew I’d never be able to speak again. My voice was a part of my past. And my past was a field in my life I’d decided to leave fallow for a while. It was time to start planting a new field, start a new life, and get ready for a fresh harvest. It was time to head to Sweetwater.