OUR HERO DISCOVERS A MORAL IMPERATIVE
Tow-headed Mikhail bent over the lifeless, flattened, bloodied chipmunk. Then he squatted next to it and studied it hard with steel-blue eyes that were tearing up.
In the gravel next to the road lay Mikhail’s discarded spade, his bucket, his wool mittens dug out from the recesses of the hall closet. Beside that, his bike, thrown onto its side in the grass. The roadside was quiet. Tall grasses whispered and trees shimmied in the light breeze. Green permeated the landscape, silvery-green on the undersides of grass blades, bush leaves, tree branches. The sky was blue and Midwestern-wide up beyond the scraping of the branches. Occasionally a car whooshed by to disturb the still: a mechanical groan of motor and tires eating pavement with a “Shhhrrrrwwwooosh!” And then gone, more quiet and breeze. There were no houses around this bend. No church, no store, no anything. Just a boy and a dead chipmunk; one lying splattered on the pavement with a paw over the glimmer-flecked white line, the other squatting and staring at the carnage.
Nine-year-old Mikhail Aleksandr put on his gloves, took up the spade, and wedged it under the body. He lifted the chipmunk, still held together in one piece, and lowered it very gently and a bit awkwardly into the bucket. Then he stood up the bike, applied the kickstand, loaded bucket, gloves, and spade in his bike’s basket and peddled up the gentle slope of the road.
He knew of a quiet wood, which might have been private land, but no fences or garish neon signs told him to stay away. It was crisscrossed with dirt trails, one which eventually led out to the end of Mikhail’s street. To this trail Mikhail rode, through high weeds, navigating around rotting logs and stray rocks. Then he shouldered the bucket and the spade and walked a little off the path, into the sparse wood. He dug a shallow hole in the ground at the edge of an overshadowing bush, dumped the chipmunk in, covered the hole, smoothed the dirt. He marked the grave with a stick, bowed his head, and steered his bike homeward.
“Mikhail?” His mother called from the kitchen. The house smelled of boiled green beans, baked chicken. Nadine rounded the corner. “Mikhail! Where have you been?”
“You can’t just be ‘nowhere,’ Mikhail. Where were you? And go wash your hands for dinner.”
“Nowhere, mom.” Nadine looked at his pale face, the bleak shadows in the depths of his irises, and then padded off to the kitchen, banging around plates and pans, her hands oven-mitted in gross shades of brown and orange and green. She was sitting at the table with her hands folded under her thin chin when he came in extra-scrubbed for dinner. The kitchen was lit by the light of the dusk diffused around the drawn curtain and two yellowed bulbs in two brown-shaded lamps. The refrigerator hummed. Mikhail lowered himself into his chair. Nadine took the posture of prayer and quickly snapped off “God is great, and God is good. We thank Him for our food. By His hand we all are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread,” her eyes on Mikhail the whole time. She served him a chicken breast, some beans, some rice, and let him push them around on his plate. “Sweetie, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Why do we have to eat animals?”
“Oh, not this again!” She threw her hands up and then set one to re-aligning her napkin, the other to picking up her fork. She cut at her meat for a while and lifted a bite to her mouth, stopping just short of it. “I still don’t know where you were and why you won’t tell me.”
“It’s just nothing.”
“If I had a nickel for every time you told me ‘nothing’ or ‘nowhere!’ That’s truly exasperating.”
Mikhail thumped his feet against the legs of his chair.
“I’ll quit asking when you communicate with me. Remember about communication?”
“I wasn’t doing anything, Mom.” His fork traced the flowered pattern on his plate, slowly looping around the chicken and green beans and rice. “Look, I’ll eat some chicken.” He cut off a piece and shoved it in his mouth, chewing with his mouth open so she could see. “It’s good. Yum.”
Nadine worried some of the fine lines of her face into creases. A lock of hair found its way stray from its tight, low bun of chestnut hair. “Seriously? I just ask you these things because I want you to be safe. You know what it’s like when I don’t know where you are…” She bit at her lower lip.
“I was riding my bike.”
“In the woods, behind the Thessinger’s house.”
“What were you doing?”
“Mooo-oom!” in two long, defeated syllables.
“What? Were? You? Doing?” Each word came with a nod of the head and an unswerving glare.
He cleared his throat. He coughed. But in the end the stare won and he mumbled, “I was burying a chipmunk.”
“You were what?!?”
“I mean… Could you please explain?”
“I just saw it from the bus window. And I went back and buried it. That’s all.” His eyes watered and he wiped at snot with the back of his sleeved arm.
“Well, I… Just… Next time tell me where you’re going. And does that mean you were riding in the busy street? How far away was it? And how did you— did you— pick it up?”
“But nothing. Your father would never hear of you riding out on the highway or handling diseased carcasses, even at your age.” Of course, she never really knew what Alexy would have thought; he never got to have a nine-year-old boy. But still. “You are my baby, Mikhail.” He was so disgusted at her calling him a baby he hung his head until his nose nearly touched the chicken sauce. “But you’re my little man, too. The man of the house. Like your dad.” She took a bite of rice and gave Mikhail a reassuring smile.
Across town, in the same duskiness of that summer evening, Gaby lay on her bed, belly-down, feet swinging. Her windows were thrown open to the first few stars off the pale horizon, her room lit up and vibrating with a light and ceiling fan combo, her radio at level five to compete with the radio downstairs. She sang down at a drawing tablet, colored at odd angles with fluorescents, “Oh bay-bee, do you know what I mean? Being with you is like havin’ a dream!” She picked up a turquoise marker, colored more.
There came a banging at her door. “What!?” she continued to streak the paper. “Bein’ with you-oo is like havin’ a-uh dream. Ooooh.”
Annie swung open the door, hand on hip. This meant, Mom made me walk all the way up here to get you because we’ve been calling you for dinner and you can’t hear us! “Turn down your radio! You’re in trouble!”
Gaby capped the marker, threw it on the bed with two pinched fingers, swung her legs over the side of the Rainbow Brite festooned bed, and exaggerated a strut to the door. Looking at Annie with her head jutted forward on her neck, she switched off the light. The din in the room stopped with the pop of the switch: light and noise. The fan whirred slower and slower in the dusky dark. “There,” she said. “Happy?”
Annie sang, “You’re in trouble.”
“By the power of Northwyth!” Gaby bent one arm behind her head and straightened the other, holding an open palm out at Annie.
“Oh, puh-lease! Nerd. Why did you even think of that?”
The two girls went crashing down the stairs two-at-a-time to a familiar scene: all a-hum and a-buzz with gold light and noise, the clashing of pans, dishes, silverware on the dinner table. Bette Midler crooned in the foreground and background and off the walls. Stellar crooned along as she shuffled herself toward the table, a pan of meatloaf balanced on an oven mitt. She set the meatloaf on pot-holders, danced with her oven mitts around the end of the table, and kissed Adam on the head as she sashayed by.
“Gross, Mom,” said Annie, trailing in behind Gaby.
“Gaby!” Stellar simultaneously pointed a remote at the radio and scooted her chair in to the table, all while looking intensely at Gaby. “How many times do I have to tell you not to play your music so loud and close your door?”
“I can’t hear my radio over yours.”
“And Bette Midler too!” said Annie.
“You two don’t be smart with your mother.” Adam was a number of bites into his scalloped potatoes.
“Yeah, you two”—eyebrows raised and pointing her fork first at one and then the other— “don’t be smart with your mother.” Stellar scooped up meatloaf and then rested her hand back down. “Plus, Bette Midler is cool. And plus, you” at Gaby, “are still in trouble.”
“For what?!?” Hands flung down to her side, a pouty face.
“For playing your music too loud and keeping your door shut. I’ve warned you enough times.”
Annie stuck her tongue out.
“Mom! Did you see that? Annie stuck her tongue out at me!”
“So did not.” Another roll of those hazel eyes.
Aside to Annie, “Cut that out. And you—Gaby, look at me—are grounded from your stereo for the week.”
“That’s not fair!”
“That way you can hear when I call you to dinner.”
Adam shoveled in three carrots at once. “You heard your mother.”
Mikhail was back at the bush in the woods a week later, with another pail and another bit of roadkill. It was a damp day, a nip from lake wind digging right into the bones. Mikhail finished burying a flattened turtle with loose dirt and sat down on the ground several feet away, rubbing his bare hands against the back of his thighs. He watched a few darkened leaves fly from the mostly green and clattering branches high above and did not hear the foliage crunching nearby or see the red plaid move among the brush.
A gruff voice startled Mikhail, “Hey, you!” Mikhail jumped to his feet and stared. He waited for a cue to grab his bike and run off.
“Now just you wait a second.” The man strode closer to Mikhail. “What are you doing here?”
“You— I— Just sitting. And riding my bike.”
“You look harmless enough. Not smoking or anything?” He stopped ten feet back from Mikhail.
“No, sir. I’m just a kid, sir.”
The man had a grizzly ring of brown hair and a large, shaggy mustache cut low around his lips. His brow was heavy but the lines around his eyes were worn deep and friendly. He wasn’t a big man, but exuded masculinity through ashy smells and mended bootlaces and patched, flannel hunting coat. He carried nothing in his half-fingered gloved hands, his nails mere stubs: clean hands but with deep lines of dark. “Yeah. Sure. So you come back here often?”
“Where you from?” Mikhail didn’t think he was in trouble anymore, but he was itching to get away from a protracted conversation. “You seem sort of fidgety.”
“No? Well—” Just then there was a low rumble as the whole forest lurched in one direction and a deafening boom cracked the autumn still. Mikhail and the man looked around with hurried glances, and before they could think what on earth would have done such a thing, there was another, more localized crack above and a bustling of tinier cracks and swishes as a branch plummeted through the canopy. Mikhail did not see it coming and he was thrown, sprawled and pinned to the side, as the man stood watching, helpless.
The man was not sure just how Mikhail lost consciousness, but he knew that the scrawny, pale boy was not awake anymore. He lifted the slight boy and carried him through the woods the short walk to the tiny cabin at the end of the crazy dirt road that separated him from the onslaught of suburban sprawl. He had a truck there, but it was propped on cinder blocks and in the middle of some undefined “work.” More usefully, he had a wife there, who looked up as he came thunking the only door back on its hinges and stomping unceremoniously in with an unconscious child. “Man alive, John!” she gasped, before expressing no little confusion: there had been a boom and a lurch that shook the whole cabin, and now here was John with a baby in his arms.
“Hardly a baby, Mercedes.”
“Ah, tut, tut, tut.” She shushed him with the wave of her lean, brown hand and gathered Mikhail into her own arms, cradling him and bobbing, taking in the smooth visage, the lay of his white eyelashes on his pale cheek, the scuffed tennis shoes and relaxed fingers with fresh dirt under the nails. She hummed a quiet chant as she bobbed, which seemed only a muffled craziness, as she carried him the few feet under the loft’s rafters. There it was a dimmer dark and a couch sagged nearly to the ground, layered with furry blankets and furs. She nestled him under a wool blanket of intricate, colorful weaving and sat beside him on a low stool.
John and Mercedes knew nothing about the boy; where he might live, who he might belong to. Before John could articulate this Mercedes hummed to herself, and rhythmically rocked as she dispensed the only remedy she knew to make him better, or perhaps just to kill the time, waiting. This is the story that Mercedes told Mikhail as he journeyed from unconsciousness back to consciousness, a story that would begin a relationship of boy to Mercedes to story, and perhaps even infect his soul with romance:
“Sand sprayed across The Queen’s body like thousands of needles. White linen wrapped her head to protect her ears and nose and mouth, and she remained silent as she approached the tall, slim stranger, even though any noise she made would have only been ripped from her and flung skyward out against the empty desert, anyhow. Only the top of her face showed between the folds of fabric to reveal her gem-blue eyes, big and clear and windows into a quick and pondering, discerning soul; the linen clung with the wicked wind to the curves of her slender body, first one way and then another.
“The stranger watched her fight against the wind, toward him. She was young and he saw her tenderness peeling away quickly to reveal steeliness. He saw everything clearly with a vision that is unknown to humanity, as unknown as the feel of passing between dimensions or the knowledge of creating something from nothing. His clarity extended to her disarming eyes, her camel bobbing its long neck away from the spray of the sand, her hand tucked under double-thick fabric. In that clenched hand—he could see this in both her thoughts and also in the skeletal, dynamic, colorful, rainbow that was his vision—she tried to conceal from him a small leather pouch with a long, slender thong, able to fit neatly in her hand. And in the pouch, fastened so tight that the knot would not give without great force, was a small magical seed, extremely ancient and powerful enough to take up much more room—in his way of seeing—than a small sliver of a seed had any right to take up. The Queen had managed somehow to disguise herself and remain incognito through various boundaries, travel across dangerous and hostile environs to meet him in the middle of the largest desert at a terrible time of year, alone, and yet what impressed him the most was with what stunning composure she held the pouch in her tiny fist.
“They stood in the middle of a great expanse, the sun infernal, intense, and throbbing through the golden haze of whipping sand. Her gaze met his intensely, and she stood solid, unblinking. As soon as their bodies aligned and their eyes met, he was keenly aware of something, and he wondered how she could not be. A burst of searing heat exploded in their midst and shot out in a widening circle of magenta that ripped up more sand as it flew away from them. The Queen showed no sign of noticing. As a matter of fact, neither did he. But he pulled a bit of it from the air and pocketed it to ponder later. He was terrified he might know what it meant.
“‘What do you want?’ he asked her. His voice was clear and soothing, even though The Queen had the distinct impression that he was reining in the sheer extent of his volume and wrath with every syllable. She had the same impression about his body, as if he could flex and his body would come tumbling out of his clothes—or maybe even his own skin—in every direction. She also noticed that he was not without handsomeness and magnetism of the most devastating sort.
“She chided herself for thinking of it at this moment.
“She stared at him still, thinking about her mouth bound up against the desert, and how her every muscle and limb were bruised, sore, and stinging with thirst and abuse. She came all this way and now she could not imagine how she would be able to speak to him. All the miraculous strength of mind and body that she was blessed with seemed to scatter like a bush of butterflies taking off in flight and she realized at once that her eyes must be betraying her frustration.
“All at once, she was aware that she was stringing thoughts together as cohesively as the Germanic language that she spoke out loud. The thoughts moved swiftly from her own mind and appeared—she could see this so clearly—in the stranger’s mind or behind his eyes. She was startled by this, and wondered if her thirst was affecting her mind. Surely it was nothing like this when the castle’s Gypsy girl read your mind; just a fleeting uncertainty about a color on a card hidden in your bedroom.
“What do you want me to do with it?
“This time, The Queen was sure that the stranger had said nothing with his lips, but his thought was as tangible as a cuneiform tablet in the front space of her head.
“I have never spoken like this before, she tried.
“He did not respond, but she knew all the same that he understood her and was keeping his own council.
“This confuses me—in other ways, too. How is it you speak in my mind? How is it you… she hesitated; suddenly she knew that she was standing dangerously close to a raw segment of history. How did she know that? This went beyond telepathy.
“He knew the curve of her thought, even though she snapped it off defensively. The question hung unfinished between them, stretched over the desert, emblazoned like a sword that pierced through his heart, through her heart, and out like a bloodied ship mast rising on sandy waves. He surrendered to what was happening, and a loud crack sounded in his ears, renting all the time before from all the time after.
“She was looking at him, questioning.
“You want to finish your question?
“She clawed at fabric, peeled cloth from in front of her mouth, revealing a long, slender nose and a wide, ruby mouth which the stranger hungered to kiss. She stood with the wind whipping the white linen across her strong, straight thighs, her blue eyes gleaming over her sunburned, high cheek bones and a lock of red hair escaping to blow curling out around the side of her narrow face. ‘How do I know you?’”