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Adrian Engstrom

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Boy and Man

    The brown of the wrinkled earth and the brown of the man’s clothes were close but not the same color. The boy saw this as he walked toward the man. The log on which the man sat was closely brown, too, and so was the tree trunk behind him. They were all of such dry and flat colors that the boy couldn’t know how big the man was until he walked under the shade of the tree. The man was of a normal size, it seemed. Here under the dark green leaves the boy stood and looked down at the man and the man looked down too, under the brim of a hat. The world felt empty without the crunch of the boy’s boots and the man and the boy kept looking down in some sort of shared witness to the emptiness. A tape played in the boy’s mind of the miles he’d walked across the ground’s small regular cracks and veins, and steps he’d taken while looking at this dark green tree shading its brown tenant, and the tape ended and the boy breathed and was in the moment again and saw the man still looking down.

    “Hot today, isn’t it?” said the boy.

    The man grunted.

    “And bright,” said the boy.

    The man grunted again. These were sounds of no ill-will, no agreement or disagreement. The boy thought that perhaps he was doing something wrong by talking to the man.

    “That’s a nice hat,” he said, though he could only see the top side of it.

    There was another grunt but the hat did not move. The bright emptiness surrounded the three of them – boy, man, and tree – and the boy felt for some sound to remind him that he was alive. There were no sounds. The sun in all its steady downward screaming made no noise; the distant hills were silhouettes without animation; the man didn’t move. The boy didn’t move either. Inhalation heated his nostrils and he held to that.

    “Where did you get that hat?” the boy asked.

    The man was silent.

    He knows that’s not what I’m here for, the boy thought. He felt sorry for bothering the man. The man looked up. The man had a normal face under the hat, though it was dirty and unshaven. The bones cut out against his face to make sharp ridges and taut valleys. Blue eyes in their caves looked at the boy as an answer.

    “I was just in that town yonder,” the boy’s arm swung back to point over the thin straight track of dusty bootprints cutting the desert, “and didn’t see no hattery. Did you get that hat from the town? I need a new hat. Where’d you get that hat?”

    “I haven’t been in town in three years,” said the man in a rusted voice.

    “You got that hat three years ago?”

    The man didn’t answer but didn’t look down.

    “It’s a nice hat.” The silence was all around them. The boy looked into the man’s eyes and saw a depth. The ground was level and unyielding but something in the world seemed to sink as the boy looked into that depth. And then he blinked and came to himself and tried again.

    “I need new boots,” said the boy, “I like your boots. Where did you get them boots?”

    The man stood up from the log and his boots’ soles separated from their leather tops along the seam where they’d been sewed, tiny mouths opening in dark greeting.

    “What are you talking about?” asked the man.

    Their eyes were now very close together. The man was shorter than he’d looked, shorter than the boy. The man’s face was very dark under the shade of the tree and the shade of his hat. It was a nice hat, the boy thought.

    The man stepped forward. “What is this about?”

    The boy stepped back and the man stepped forward again. They kept stepping until the boy’s boots crunched out of the shade and the sun heated his back. The man stood behind the line of dark and with his dark face looked at the boy. The boy looked at the ground to his left and found no answers; he looked to the right and found no answers. He considered several ways they could arrive, in this conversation, on the substance he wished to discuss. He saw only one way forward and looked up, turning his head away from the strange power of the man’s eyes to instead view the small silhouettes of the distant hills. It didn’t look directly walkable, not from here. No water.

    “I’m looking for the man who killed my brother,” said the boy.

    “You want to take my boots?” asked the man. He had not looked away. His face had not changed at all and now the boy was looking at his eyes again and could not stop looking at his eyes. “You think these boots will fit you?”

    The boy looked down and saw that the boots were enormous.

    “No,” said the boy.

    “Are you going to kill me?” asked the man.

    “No,” said the boy, “It’s not-“

    “Why are you really here?” asked the man, and stepped forward. The boy stepped back. The man stepped forward again and, impossibly, remained in the shade. The boy stepped back again to not feel surrounded by the width of the man, who seemed too broad at the shoulders to fit through a door.

    “I’m looking for a man,” said the boy. He swallowed and lifted his hands palm up as if to give the phrase as a peace offering. “I’m looking a man.”

    “What?” asked the man, and the boy had no answer. The question rang inside his head and he didn’t have an answer for what he wanted or why he was there or what the man’s boots or hat might have meant or if he did want to take them and perhaps was willing to commit murder to do so. The boy looked at everywhere but the man’s deep eyes. He had no answer for what it was – the thing that brought him here – or why he was an inhabitant of this desert or the larger place this desert was set in or even why there was any inhabiting to do at all.

    As the man stood and looked up at the boy there was the slightest stirring of the hot air. It crossed his ear in a small breeze. He looked up at the man and into those eyes and did not fear them. He knew –

    “You’re the man who killed my brother,” the boy said.

    The man didn’t move from the shade in which he was wrapped and the two looked at each other.

    “I’ve been looking for you,” he said, and in the aftersilence he did not flinch. “I’ve been looking for you for three years. Why did you kill him?”

    “I’ve killed a lot of people,” smiled the man. “Always nice to meet one of my children.”

    The boy did not look away. “Why did you kill him? What did he do?”

    The man laughed. “What are you talking about?” He held out his left hand and tapped the sausage-thick fingers with a wooden thumb, counting points on the scraping-together of worn and beat nails, letting ring a voice that died in the dry air. “I’ve killed plenty. Who was your brother? And why would you think I would remember his special face, unique hair, particular scream among the thousands I’ve known? Have you ever asked yourself, boy, if he was exception or just exceptional to you? How would you even know? I took these boots and hat from men I killed and I wear them to guarantee the nightly visitations of their former owners’ faces. I have fatherly taken them out of the world just as their mothers brought them into it. The empty vessels of their bodies are in the desert beyond, collapsing into the dust onto which you and I stand, but their souls are wrapped in my personhood and thus bound to each other in a numerical and narrative greatness they could not have imagined in life. I have taken them as sustenance and inheritors.

    “So you will kill me? Do you think you can wear these boots, boy?”

    At this last word he leaned forward and the boots gaped open to give a peek of their dark warm interior and the enormous blood-flushed toes within.

    The boy saw in the man’s eyes that his brother had been known. The man and his brother had been close.

    “Why did you kill him?”

    “My child,” the man said, “what is it to kill? What is it to maim?” With ring finger and wooden thumb he encircled his hat and dipped it off. He turned his head to show a pink soft wrinkled gash at the side of his head. “He took my ear,” said the man, “and ate it. And my skin-“ pointing at a square bald patch amidst the hair around his widow’s peak – “and other things.” The man smiled wetly. His face opened like a door, all its lines turning upward. Cooing: “what did he mean to you?”

    “He raised me,” murmured the boy. “You’re lying. He didn’t do those things.”

    The man smiled again. This time sadly.

    While the boy stared at his mouth, he said, “Long ago they had something called a chimera. You ever heard of that?” The boy shook his head. “Well, for your brother it was that pink lump behind his ear. That was the part you could see. But you know there were parts you couldn’t see.”

    The boy was silent.

    “The lump was there upon his birth. It wasn’t him. He had encased it there. It grew roots into his head with time. I can see that he took things from you, though you’d have trouble pointing to them, and I must tell you that while I destroyed the body of your brother, I did not destroy who he was. I only consumed him in the same manner as he was consumed, controlled, and created by that lump.”

    The boy’s lips were dry. He didn’t know whether to be angry or not. He did know, somehow, that the man had no gun. The boy shifted from foot to foot.

    The man continued, “The truth is your brother took the lump and his taking constituted a preemption of the laws of primogeniture. Do you know how many slices of it he gave away? Do you understand what we have all suffered?”

    The boy shook his head and snorted like a bull. “He raised me. He fed me. His work helped people and he kept me from dying. I had typhoid when I was seven and he was off on some doctoring and I had no other doctor for two weeks. He came and fixed me and they say I woulda died the next day if he didn’t. I saw him put mothers to sleep while birthing and they woke up to the happiest babies in the world. I saw him take off three arms at the elbow from three different carpenters in three minutes flat so clean that not one of them got gangrene. They tell stories about him and end ‘em by saying ‘that’s a man worth remembering.’ If he took your ear in a scuffle, I believe it.”

    But the boy licked his lips and the man laughed coolly.

    “Oh, my child,” he said, “when was the last time you saw him?”

    “Three years ago December 28. He went out to pull a tooth and didn’t come back.”

    “You can shoot me anytime you like.”

    The boy started. The man laughed again. “Your brother needed you. He put a piece of that lump in you and I know you can feel that you’re more than one person now. Going on three years, that piece must be big. He didn’t care that it would grow, he just needed to give it out. It made him need that. He needed you and all the others for that. He needed me to kill him. Nobody needed him as he was, not except the lump. And so we’ve all played our parts up to today. The question is, do you need me or do I need you?’

    The boy brushed his forearm across stinging eyes. His back felt afire under the sun. From the man’s gashed boot came a trickle and then a stream of water. The boy blinked against the pain of vision while the dirt around the boot darkened and sank softly into itself.

    The boy didn’t know what to say. The man’s shoulders were so wide they seemed to wrap around and grasp the boy’s back. The boy put his hand on his gun, half just to have something to hold onto. His head lurched forward and then jerked up in unsteadiness to settle his gaze just above the man’s head. The man stood in the sun. His mouth and ear glistened and he put a hand on the boy’s, pressing it into the butt of the gun.

    “You can shoot me if you want,” whispered the man, “I won’t hold it against you.”

    The man’s other hand rested thumb-on-larynx and fingers-on-pulse. “Go ahead. It’s okay.”


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