Narrated by Bob Eccles
My Grandpa died on Halloween. His heart was black.
“Don’t touch him,” said the nurse.
“He’s going to Heaven,” I said. “Right?”
“He’s going home.”
A fat jack o’ lantern sat on one table and a bible on the other, and I sat between on a wood bench that pinched my ass. When my dad asked the nurse to blow out the candle pumpkin, all I could smell was how small the room was, like hell in an elevator. Outside, the world was huge with wind and rain. A granddaddy poplar spanked the window with his misty leaves, trying to poke in a branch.
“Don’t touch,” said the nurse.
My mom leaned her chair back and just strangled her kerchief. She kept her beak shut. She was angry as Christ at the nurses who wanted Opa raptured because he was eighty-six and he’d lived a fruitful life. What in Christ is fruitful? Was he rotting?
“Opa’s dying?” I said. “Will he bleed?”
Dad held my head. When he pulled, a hair snagged on his chewed thumbnail. Then Opa’s breath rattled. He pulled at the tubes and ripped the tape on his chest.
“What’s it?” I said.
“Don’t touch,” said the nurse.
The jack o’ lantern roared fire out of his eyes. An angel passed, maybe a ghost. Ben would know.
“Miene hoat es schwoat!” Opa said.
“What’s it mean?” One of my eyelashes stung into my eyeball.
“Quiet,” scratched Mom. She hadn’t talked in five hundred years.
“What’s he saying?”
“Don’t scream, Wig.” She spoke in her quiet voice, meaning angrier than when she yelled and got out the wooden spoon, the lefel.
“He says . . .” My dad’s lips twitched same as when he got the call that Oma ran naked from the Old Folks Home and sang hymns to the sky from the helicopter pad.
My eyeball went blinkers. My other eye was dead.
“He says . . .” Dad whispered.
“Miene hoat es schwoat!” Opa was bucking now.
I rolled my eyeball.
“Stop your twitching.” My mom rocked the chair on two legs. She was really tall. She was going to tip.
“I cannot stop, for Christ sake.”
Mom’s teeth squeaked. “One more swear, Wig. One more.”
I was going to collapse. I could already smell the floor tiles. “If you don’t tell me,” I said, “I’m going to ask Ben.”
Mom stood so fast her knees cracked. Her hands clenched like she had two lefels ready to smash. “If you say Ben again, in this room where my father is going to meet God, if you speak your demon’s poetry . . .”
It was a lie anyway. Ben was outside with the tree. Halloween is his night, okay?
My dad kneeled in front of me. “Son, Opa says his heart is black.”
“Black!” I tried to scream. It came out high and a whisper.
“Yes, son. Even in death there is awareness of sin.”
Awareness of sin? What in Christ? Jesus lived in Opa’s heart for a million years since Old Country and the Communists because Jesus got nailed and bled so when you die you’re flying to Heaven to meet James T. Christ or Saint Petersburg or who the hell and it’s the finest time because you smash from the World with its drugs and dinks and filth and fingering which is a thing I don’t know but Carl Briggart from church does and you see God face to face and get hugged into the Bosoms and skate the Golden Streets, and now these devils were telling me Opa’s heart was black like a beetle like a Bible like dry old blood?
“Miene hoat es schwoat!”
I looked at the Bible and the pumpkin grinning smoke. And I knew in my live eye that Opa was supposed to have the Bible in his heart but instead he had the pumpkin, and his soul was smiling straight down to Hell.
I jumped. “Help! His heart’s on fire. His heart’s a jack o—“
“Wig!” my mom yelled. “Good night nurse, you are finished for all time with Mrs. Weir and that worldly school and language art—”
“Dora,” said my dad. “Not now. Don’t trigger his eczema.”
The light bulb grew to a moon and the walls flowed down. I fell on the floor. It was lies, all of it. Where were the true words of Jesus? Where in Christ was Ben when I needed him?
Opa was dying. His heart was black. And I had to stop swearing for all time or my heart would rot on the vine.
“Get up, Wig,” someone said, but I couldn’t see.
The rain stopped.
The room was tight. But outside the granddaddy poplar still sparkled with rain like the window had exploded into the World and the tree was nailed with a million slivers of glass.
Opa was dead in the morning.
Now, This World is Not My Home, okay? That’s what the hymn says, and it’s true or Jesus doesn’t have blue eyes like in the picture above our toilet. But we’re all living here—except Opa and the deads—so that’s a problem, because where’s home? No way in Christ I’m going to Hell with Ben, but I’m really not sure I’m going to Heaven either. One time I joked that home was Valhalla, which is a place I learned from Mrs. Weird. That got me the lefel, time when I whipped my hand away and my mom hit me right in the nuts. I called her cow and horse face. She wrote it down and my dad read it after work and I tell you I wished this home was not my world because my ass hurt for a million years.
“A million years is a long time,” said Ben. “Some would say an eternity. You sure you’re not embroidering, as you do?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
We were sitting near the Shade in the backyard, me in the dirt, him in the low branch of the apple tree.
I pinched a leaf so I wouldn’t scratch my eczema. “So I have to go to Opa’s funeral. I already asked. And the viewing too.”
“What do you mean of course. I don’t want to go. Carl Briggart says the body looks like a deep sea fish, all white and their eyes too big. Is that true?”
“How would I know?”
Sometimes I wished Ben would just shut his beak. When he says how would I know, he knows, and that’s why he says it. My mom says Ben doesn’t talk ever, because I’m just daydreaming and flaunting Christ. And then there’s Mrs. Weird, who says Ben’s real in some different way, same way myths are real, so I can write any story I like about him. No way, says my mom. I just scratch. And then my dad says that myths are paganism, and my sister agrees.
“As do I,” said Ben.
“That’s stupid.” I pinched the leaf until it got sticky. “We’re talking, right?”
“And you taught me the swears.”
“Only the ones with dignity and the true spirit of blasphemy. You learned well.”
“So you’re real. Don’t be stupid.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t real. Are you real?”
What in Christ. Sometimes I just stopped talking. Then me and Ben would watch the blurry air over by the Shade.
“Shall we watch the Shade, Wig? Note how the air bends and wicks around it, almost as if sullied by sunlight.”
“I’m not allowed.”
So we watched the sunlight wix and wend or whatever, and I forgot about the funeral, and my eyeball came back to life just like the other one. And for a while it felt like home.
“Next thing you’ll be praying to Satan. Or Buddha. Who’d want to worship that fat thing? Just like Carl Briggart. You’ll be dancing. Swearing. Smoking.” My mom was combing my hair way too hard, slicing my ears. “From now on you’ll never mention Ben again, you hear? Not even to yourself. You are finished with Mrs. Weir and language arts and George McKillop School. You are finished with stories and poems. No more Ben.”
“He swears,” said my sister Hannah.
“It’s true,” I said. “But only the ones with dignity and the true spirit of blasphemy.”
“Wig!” My mom hardly ever screamed.
“Wiggy.” My dad was in the tub with a washcloth over his privates. “No more. Dora. The eczema.”
The comb snagged hard and my mom’s hands dropped. “That’s it, Ken? That’s your best parenting?” Same voice as when she found my cousin Ricky’s netbook still on, with all the bras and panties bookmarked from the catalogue.
“Wig.” The water slopped when my dad sat up. “It was okay to have a Night Friend when you were young. Not anymore.”
“It was never okay,” said my mom.
“You’re twelve.” Hannah spit toothpaste. My mom glared same as when she glared at the slutsy girls at the mall. Jesus smiled from above the toilet, his picture crooked.
My dad tugged at the washcloth. “From now on you should pray every time you think about Ben. Ask Jesus to make it stop, he always answers prayer. And we’ll get you a pet, something real. A bird maybe.”
My tongue gummed in my throat. “A . . . bird?”
“Right. A budgie. Something that sings.”
“A canary,” Mom snapped.
“Real. You mean. Like a . . .” I couldn’t breathe around my tongue. “It’s a—”
“The bird kind.”
“Heavens, Wig.” My dad slushed some water up his belly. “You pretending to be deaf now?”
“Nosir. The bird—”
“You’re scared of birds?” Hannah said. “It lives in a cage, dimbo.”
“Cage,” I said.
“You could get a talking one. One of them with the horny beak.”
“Do not say horny,” Mom warned. She flushed the toilet, even though it was empty.
“I am not going to the funeral!” I yelled.
My dad’s legs twitched, and the washcloth slipped down. My mom’s teeth squeaked, and she flushed the toilet again and it gurgled because it wasn’t ready to flush again and the handle clinked up like Opa’s coffee spoon dropped in the sink.
“God help us,” said my dad.
“Was that a swear?” Mom’s scariest, quietest voice.
“No, Dora. An expression.”
Our new weeping birch tapped the window. Hannah stared at her tongue in the mirror. My mom and dad stared at each other. All I could think was to tell the birch to come in, and bring the Shade with her. But that would be a trespass.
“Wig, get ready for the viewing. Right. Now.”
I don’t even know who said it. My tongue was dry. The comb was stuck in my hair. I think my ear was bleeding.
“What a delectable irony,” said Ben. “You’re getting a caged bird.”http://liquidimagination.silverpen.org/site/wp-admin/plugins.php
“Am not.” I dangled my toes in the shadows floating out from the Shade.
“This will be a living poem.”
“Nope.” My toes were cool.
“Will it talk? Oh please. Delight me with one who speaks.”
“Shut your beak.”
“Put on your shoes.”
Ben, sometimes he never lets up. “Get a feathered tale-gatherer,” he said. “An iridescent, jewel-winged, long-tailed Scheherazade, who will pour out stories from the Shade until the whole suburb is revived with old gods whose names are long lost from ancient times before the pipes were planted and the concrete poured.”
“In Christ sake, shut up.”
“You shut up.”
“No, you shut up.”
“Wig!” My mom, from her bedroom window. “Now. Where are you?”
A thrush twittered in the twigs.
“Better go,” said Ben. “You’re getting mud on your Sunday pants.”
“My favorite day. Have fun, Punchinello. I am going to fly. Tomorrow after church?”
He flew. I stayed, scratching the dirt. I wanted to trespass into the Shade and dive into mud and soak down to the roots and pour up into the trees and turn into sap and drip out the ends of the needles. And so what, yeah, I did forget to say that Ben is a magpie, because I never think of him like that, because he sees me and talks to me and sometimes he even listens and I never even heard one word from Jesus no matter how many times I prayed. So maybe I am going to Hell, and Opa’s already there and maybe Ben will be there too someday, or maybe we will turn into trees once we’re rotten and buried in the dirt. But I’m sure as Christ there’s no trees down in Hell. And if my dead eyeball wasn’t so gummed up with daylight and crumbs, and if I wasn’t so itchy, I think I might finally cry and dive in and start ripping apart.
“Not yet,” Ben said.
Then he flew for real.
Once I asked Ben, “What is blasphemy?”
I didn’t know a bird could sigh. “Blasphemy is the refusal of the Big Both.”
Ben clicked his beak. “Let’s examine your life, Wig. Christian, Pagan, scripture, myth—can it be both, or simply neither? Is your mother right, your father, your teacher, your pastor? Who sees truly? What’s more real: the feel of rain on your scalp or the verses of scripture? The question itself is impossible. Is a heart black or white? Is it the God’s son or the Goddess?”
“Notice: the wood came from trees and the nails came from iron, and both of those came from earth not sky. The Big Both can never work, Wig. Everything happens in threes.”
“But God is supposed to be three in one.”
What in Christ.
My mom only whispered two things to me at the viewing. “You do not have a dead eyeball, Wig. Now look.”
I looked, but it wasn’t Opa. It was some white toad, too skinny, and he was wearing someone else’s suit with his eyes closed. I was bleeding from eczema, but I hid it by pulling my shirt sleeves down.
“Did you know him?” My Auntie Suze leaned over the box.
“Does he know you?” Her lipstick was like frozen cookie dough. She had a dead eye too.
“This way,” said my dad, but I don’t know who he was talking to.
“Everything happens in trees,” Auntie Suze said. Of course, I thought.
“Threes,” said Ben that night, when he trespassed in my bedroom.
“You need to listen carefully. Your Tante has the plautdietsche accent.”
“She said trees.”
“T’rees. Threes. T’rice. Thrice. Remember.”
“There’s your Tante Zuss,” said my mom, the second whisper. “Don’t you dare talk to her.”
But Tante Suze leaned in. “Don’t look.” Her breath smelled like pumpkin pie. “Don’t look, Wig.”
“Too late.” My dad’s lips crushed his teeth. “Come this way, Tante. Wig, follow your mother. Zuss. This way.”
Now what kind of funeral happens in a church basement, where they usually play floor hockey and meet to argue about the Pentagooch?
“Pentateuch,” said Ben one time.
The whole place smelled like coffee and cabbage rolls and sweat and even old cum said Carl Briggart once, whatever that meant. I stared at the ceiling tiles with their sweat stains and wondered what kind of trees the chairs were made from because my ass was going totally numb, and everyone was actually singing This World is Not My Home, even Tante Suze with her high quiver and they were all standing except for me.
“Wig!” my mom whispered. Everyone was staring at me.
Actually, it wasn’t my mom. It was Ben, and it was midnight and windy, and the viewing was over a long time ago, and the mountain ash was screeching on my window, bleeding its berries onto the glass.
“That was you screeching, Wig.”
“It wasn’t. The ash is trying to poke in.” This was a trespass. Ben had never been in the house before.
There was this smashed pumpkin on the road when we drove home from the viewing, and his eyes were jammed shut from some car that drove over him. And I knew then that the pumpkin needed to die because there is a God who sees him and Opa and all of us and another God behind God who sees God and another behind them and another and another and then finally something that’s way too big to even be a god so it’s some Thing with no name and there’s another Thing watching him and the universe is watching Them until it runs out and another universe begins watching and where does it ever end?
“You just did.”
“Scream. You said you wanted to scream.”
And I thought that maybe Heaven and Hell and Mrs. Weird’s class and Ben’s realms and the whole world of trees and my mom’s tongue and Jesus’ blue eyes and even God’s own planet eye is all just eyeballs staring at each other and never blinking and every eyeball is just every other eyeball so they all see everything from nowhere and it’s not three or two or one but a billion and not even God or the Other God behind him or even the Devil or the Thing with no name can hide—
“That’s quite a metaphysics, Wig.”
My eczema was bleeding on the white pillow.
Ben stretched a wing. “You might turn those images into a poem. Express your true self.”
What in Christ? That bird was retarded. Because I hate my poems. And I hate Mrs. Weird and I hate language arts and I hate myths, which nobody understands, not even Ben, and he’s got eyes on both sides of his head so he’s supposed to see both sides at the same time.
“Interesting. Even true, perhaps. So I wonder, now, if you want to be seen and not seen at the very same time, a Big Both, a dissonance you cannot harmonize, a circle you cannot square.
“Shut up, Bird.”
“You shut up.”
“You shut your beak!” Because there is no circle. I do not want to be seen. I do not want to be seen. I do not want anyone from anywhere to see me at all. And even my best friend doesn’t understand.
“Everything happens in threes!” I yelled. I don’t know what in Christ it meant.
Ben was quiet a long time.
“Wiggy, you okay in there?” My dad, from the hall.
The moon was out, between branches like a lamp on barbed wire keeping its light, so the whole room was glowing with darkness.
“You’re right,” said Ben, so gentle it hardly sounded like him. He was on the bedpost, or the window, or the chair. I couldn’t see.
“Do you remember when I told you not yet?”
“Well, it’s time for me to take it back.”
Actually, I did remember. For once I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Now, if this world is not my home, then this home is not my world, right? It didn’t even look like the same hallways or steps when I snuck out. The corners were too sharp and the stairs were too steep and the streetlight came through the windows at funny angles and the walls smelled like wet dirt. The door didn’t even squeak.
Ben always told how the Shade came from all trees at once, not just the ones in the backyard. I don’t know if he meant all the trees in the world or what. My Dad said the Shade was just a mudhole where the dirt was too loose, but that’s not true, because then the Shade would freeze in winter. And the Shade doesn’t change, no matter where the moon or the sun is, because they’re from the sky. The Shade is made of darkness that shines from nothing into nothing. And maybe the Shade is everywhere, we just can’t see it that way.
I skimmed my hands over the top of the hedge as I went. The wet leaves sprang back, shushing a stream behind me. Poplar and Pine bent over. They wanted me to do it. The moon dared me. The rain pointed. And maybe, I thought, maybe even Opa wanted me to do it, because the Shade is really where he wanted to go, and we got it all wrong when he died. Maybe his heart wasn’t that kind of black. Maybe he hated us staring at him while he died, or even after he died, or maybe his whole long life. But his eyes wouldn’t let him go to the Shade. My eyes would. And like Carl Briggart said and Mom hated and Ben never taught me to say, fuck everyone with their eyes and their glares and their warnings and stories and myths and scriptures and schools and their looks and their stares and their prayers and poems and their promises of—
Don’t touch, said the nurse.
I touched. My eyeball winked alive. My arms began to bleed. No one was watching now. Ben was gone, and I had an empty heart, and there was no jack o’ lantern or Bible burning inside. I closed my eyes and stepped into the Shade. That’s not exactly true. I opened my eyes, and the Shade stepped into me.
When the sun rose, I was locked in the bathroom, staring up at the Jesus picture over the toilet. I raised my pinky and coloured his blue eyes with black muck. Then I ripped up my poems and sprinkled them into the toilet.
“Wiggy,” said my dad from the hall. “How’d you sleep?”
I flushed. I turned on the tap, hot as it would go.
“Wig?” He knocked.
“Good.” But it came out a gargle. I horked and spit mud into the sink. “Good,” I said real loud. “Just fine.”
Then I washed in the burning water—the sap, the berries and the bird’s blood under my fingernails.
AUTHOR BIO: A.M. Arruin lives in an abandoned hotel in the wild Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Crooked Timber: Seven Suburban Faerie Tales, and many short stories and poems. To his surprise, he once found himself serving on the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award, under his other name, Randy Schroeder.