Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Two little boys become friends.
Good friends, if not best friends, though at various times over the course of their acquaintance each might be ready to use that appellation, to call the other his best friend. At other times, which sometimes overlap with those times, each might deny that he is the other’s friend at all. This, of course, is what we call friendship, a measured trust which by the same mechanism that it distributes affection also apportions mistrust, rejection, fear.
It begins at recess one day, when the first little boy, whom we’ll call Stephen, lies sprawled on the ground near the entrance to their school, on the far side of the building, away from the playground and from the other children. He lies there on his belly for three reasons. The first is that he has found an anthill, and wants his face to be as close as possible to the ants so that he might better study them. The second, which is related to the first, is that he wonders what it’s like to be an ant and is certain that he will gain no insights to their experience of the world while standing on two feet. Since he does not have six feet, as ants do, he figures the best approximation available to him is to lie horizontally, which allows him to see the grass and the sand and the cement of the sidewalk as he imagines ants might: the grass as a severe and imposing forest, the sloped patches of pebbled sand as desert badlands of boulders scattered along parched bajadas, the sidewalk as a high and treacherous bluff. The third reason that the boy is lying down, and perhaps the most forceful of the three, is that he would badly like to disappear.
But he is unable to, and not only because the other little boy, whom we’ll call Bolt, finds him there lying on his belly—in his long, bipedal softness more like a worm than an ant. (In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates imagines ants, like wasps and bees, to be the reincarnations of just and virtuous men. He does not mention worms, or, in this context, little boys.) Stephen looks up and sees Bolt walking by. Bolt looks puzzled by Stephen’s posture but displays neither suspicion nor scorn, the emotions Stephen is most accustomed to observing on the faces of his peers. Stephen senses an opening, and takes a chance. “Hey kid,” he says. “C’mere.”
Bolt comes closer and kneels in the grass beside him, his bare knees just inches from Stephen’s ear. “What is it?” Bolt asks.
“An anthill,” Stephen says.
“I know that.”
“But you don’t know what I saw.”
“What did you see?” asks Bolt.
“The ants just carried a tongue into their hole.”
“It looked like it was human.”
“No way they could do that,” says Bolt. “The hole’s too small.”
“They widened it. Then once they got the tongue in, they dug it back closed real fast.”
Those two words settle the matter like an agreement sealed with spit. Bolt asks Stephen whose tongue he thinks it was and Stephen answers that he does not know, but that it looked fresh. “It was still pink,” he says, adding that it appeared to have been sliced cleanly off, as if with a straight razor, a paring knife or perhaps some sort of dirk. “I don’t think the ants could do that by themselves.”
Bolt agrees, and the boys spend the remainder of recess on their bellies, side by side, wondering what the ants will do next, speculating about the origin of the tongue. They watch the janitor trim the bushes outside the principal’s office window. They squint their eyes and look for signs of blood on the hedge clippers’ blades. “If only,” says Bolt, “the ants could talk.”
But save the inaudible tread of their many feet and the soft crunching and clicking of their mandibles, the ants are silent. Their muteness creates, for Stephen and Bolt, a world of possibility. For the following week and most of the week that follows it, until they have exhausted the potential of the tongue narrative and moved on to another, brighter entertainment, the boys do their best to peer into the mouths of everyone they meet. Closed-mouthed people arouse their suspicions, allowing the story to spiral onward. From across the schoolyard and across the classroom and from one end of the schoolbus to the other, the two little boys stick out their tongues at one another. It becomes, for them, a secret form of salutation and even of primitive speech, allowing them to say, with various shades of meaning and emotion according to the context and the moment, “I have a tongue and you have a tongue—everyone else we can’t be sure of.” Their tonguedness, for now, cements them to a mystery, and with that, to one another.
So it is that during their first fight, which occurs three and a half weeks later and becomes the prelude to a fortnight-long freeze in relations between them, Stephen confesses to Bolt that there was never a tongue in the anthill. “You were stupid enough to believe me,” he says.
“You were stupid enough to lie,” Bolt responds.
But even if he had, technically, lied, Bolt’s riposte makes little sense to Stephen. Their young friendship is built upon lies, though it never would have occurred to Stephen to choose that word. They share spangled and beribboned half-truths, wishes, fantasies, fragments of dreams, alluring impossibilities that allow them not to escape or deny the world, but to consent on the existence of another one, one that they both find more interesting and ultimately more truthful than the drab galaxy of gerunds, state capitals, and polygons that their teachers conjure up each day in class, one that they can share.
By the second week of animosities, neither boy is able to remember the original cause of their squabble. For the record, though, Stephen had stretched the fabric of their friendship, the cocoon of stories in which they agreed to wrap themselves, farther than even Bolt was willing to let himself be taken. He had suggested to Bolt that all the other children, the teachers and school secretaries, the principal, the janitor, the nurse, the man behind the counter at the pizza shop, the muttering drunk they passed every day on the bus bench by the QuikMart, the QuikMart’s fat and watchful clerk, everyone, even their parents and siblings and their favorite cousins, were not humans at all. They weren’t aliens or zombies or ghosts but phantoms, mere tricks of the light. No one existed but Stephen and Bolt. No one else was real. “If you try and touch them,” Stephen had said, “your hand will go right through them.”
Bolt had considered the possibility, but had been unwilling to accept it. The idea that his mother did not exist had offended him. His father maybe—though he knew his father’s belt felt real enough—and his sister for sure, but he had not been ready to give his mother up. “That’s stupid,” he had said at last.
“It’s not stupid,” Stephen had answered. “It’s true.”
Bolt had responded that it was Stephen who was stupid. More words, none worth recording, had been exchanged before Bolt pushed Stephen to the ground. Stephen had stood, brushed the gravel from his knees, bit his gums to stop himself from crying, and walked away without a word.
During the two weeks for which they do not speak to one another—which feel, particularly to Stephen but also to Bolt in his more populated loneliness, like months or years—Bolt takes up with other boys. He plays stickball, tag, and hide and seek. He chases girls around the playground and flips baseball cards and talks about television shows and movies he hasn’t seen and cars and tanks and motorcycles he’d like to drive but won’t. Stephen, meanwhile, lies on his belly and watches the ants. He lies on his back and watches squirrels run along the telephone wires. When the squirrels run off he watches the wires sway unencumbered in the wind. He listens to the whistling sound they make and wonders what it means, what the wires have to tell the wind. He watches clouds run like ghosts from one edge of the sky to another. “He would like to fly away, but he cannot,” writes Plato in the Phaedrus, “he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world.” He turns his gaze downward and watches Bolt play with the other boys and with them chase the girls, screaming, all of them screaming, from one edge of the playground to the other. One day they all run past Stephen as he lies there on his belly hoping not to be seen, hoping if not to fly away then at least to sink deep into the tunnels of the virtuous ants, but everyone can see him despite his earnest wishes and one of the girls calls him weirdo and another kicks at the dirt, spraying his back and the left side of his face with gravel. She calls him worm and looks ready to spit, but then Bolt swerves by and pulls both girls’ pigtails until they cry and rubs dirt in their faces and runs off again without a word to Stephen or to anyone.
I realize that though I have given them names, I have not described the boys. They are boys, both of them, quick eyed and skinny legged. Bolt is a little taller, Stephen a little shorter and, in the obvious ways at least, shyer and less brave than his friend. The knees of their pants are patched with iron-ons and they have scabs on their elbows and knees. Bolt has a scar on his brow where as a toddler he had tumbled into the corner of a coffee table. Stephen has a scar on his chin from a bicycle accident in which, as he tells it, he flew over the handlebars and had time to count to three and even flap his arms two times before he collided, chin first, with the curb. If he had been going just a little bit faster, he is sure he could have flown. He is serious about this, as both boys are serious about everything, even when they roll laughing on the ground. You can color their skin and their hair and their eyes as you see fit: what matters is that they are boys. They smell like boys, like charcoal and warm chocolate milk. Their ribs show and their eyes are never still. They can breathe as fast as hummingbirds. Their hungers are larger than the sky. They are sharp elbowed, eager, and loose limbed, as free as they will ever be.
The morning after the pigtail-pulling incident—for which Bolt spends two hours on the hard bench outside the principal’s office—Stephen gets on the bus, messy haired, with sleep still crusted in the corners of his eyes. Bolt sits in the fourth row of seats. As Stephen passes, Bolt sticks out his tongue. Stephen smiles and sticks out his. He takes a seat in the row behind Bolt, hugging his backpack on his lap. The bus rounds a corner and stops again to let more children on. Stephen leans forward in his seat. “Wolves surrounded my house last night,” he says to Bolt.
“Were they blue?” Bolt asks.
“No,” says Stephen. “They were wolves.”
“We have those,” says Bolt, turning around to face his former friend. “They came into my sister’s room two nights ago.”
“Did they tear her to pieces?”
“No. But they scratched all her records and tore up her clothes and when my dad came in they clawed his face until he cried.”
Stephen laughs. “The ones at my house didn’t come in. They just howled outside my window and so I climbed out and howled back at them and tried to teach them our language.”
“What did you teach them?”
“Just the basic stuff they need for hunting, plus the colors and my name.”
“They didn’t come inside?”
“Too bad for you,” says Bolt. “Move over.”
In the Phaedo, Socrates suggests that there is another earth, a true earth, purer than this one and high above it. We dwell in the depths, he suggests, in hollows, marshy caves that fill with vaporous muck. Yet in our ignorance we imagine we are living on the surface of the earth and that the air we breathe is pure. In the same way, he says, the creatures at the darkest bottom of the sea believe the water above them to be the heavens and have no idea that there is a world above the water, or that so refined a thing exists as air. Only a few brave fish ever break the surface of the sea and, in one bright gasping breath, realize that the world is larger than they knew. Stephen and Bolt have never read Plato or heard of Socrates, but they—or Stephen anyway—would likely agree with this account. The air is thick and truth is always elsewhere. But they have faith also in the truths their bodies tell them, their ticklish pleasures and dislikes, in their own ability to find ether in the muck. They are not philosophers after all, but little boys.
In the brush beside the QuikMart parking lot, Bolt finds a shivering pigeon. “Look,” he says to Stephen, “it’s sick.”
“It’s the king of the pigeons,” Stephen says.
“No it’s not,” says Bolt, kneeling for a better look. “Pigeons don’t have kings. They’re communists.”
“That’s what I meant,” says Stephen. “It’s the czar. The other pigeons overthrew him, and now he’s all alone.”
“Why didn’t they kill him?”
“They poisoned him and left him to die,” Stephen says. “That’s why he’s shivering like that.”
“Poor czar,” says Bolt. “Let’s save him.”
Stephen, who knows a little history, is not sure the czar deserves to be saved, pigeon or no, but he suspects that any display of Bolshevik sympathies will be misunderstood by Bolt, so he shrugs off his reservations and follows his friend into the QuikMart. They pool their quarters, push the change across the counter and buy a super-sized purple-flavored Icee to feed the bird. When they come out, though, the pigeon is no longer shivering.
“We’re too late,” says Bolt. “Red bastards.”
“Don’t say that. It might have been his decadent lifestyle that made him sick. All that caviar and those Fabergé eggs.”
“You’re the one who said he was poisoned.”
“It was just a speculation.”
“Well he’s dead now.”
Stephen nudges the pigeon with a sneakered toe. “Yep,” he says.
Later, Stephen and Bolt will not speak for an entire summer. Stephen will fall hard for a girl who lives down the street from Bolt. He will show his love by stealing her candy every day from the store, and every day she will ask him for some additional gift: a lipstick, a hair clip, a pink bandana. And in the drug store or the card store or the QuikMart, Bolt will shake his head as Stephen scrambles to shove the desired object under his shirt or down his pants. It is not the thefts that Bolt disapproves of, but Stephen’s endless servility, his complicity in his own humiliation. Bolt will tell Stephen that the girl—who both agree is very pretty—is taking advantage of him, but Stephen will not care. Stephen will tell Bolt to be quiet and say that he doesn’t understand, which will be true. It will not matter to Stephen, he will tell himself, if he ever wins a kiss. He will be content to be allowed to worship her. So he will be doubly heartbroken when, one week before the end of school, he gets on the bus with a pack of cherry bubblegum and his most daring theft yet—a gold-plated charm bracelet with dangling hearts and G-clefs and keys—and the girl he loves will not even look at him because she is sitting in the back row holding hands with his best friend.
Later still, Stephen will not be able to remember that summer at all or how he passed its endless, listless, hollow, humid days. The girl will break up with Bolt two weeks before vacation ends. Bolt will be too ashamed to call Stephen on the phone, but when school begins again, he will take a seat beside him in the cafeteria. He will say, “Hey,” and Stephen will say, “Hey,” and Bolt will offer him half of his sandwich, which Stephen, who will not have brought a lunch of his own or a dollar with which to buy one, will accept, and after that they will be friends again and never once mention the girl who came between them.
“Oh my blessed Simmias,” Socrates asked a now long-forgotten friend, “is there not one true coin for which all things ought to be exchanged?” If Simmias responded, Plato did not record his answer, not in the Phaedo anyway. Perhaps this was not negligence on Plato’s part. Perhaps Simmias thought the question foolish—not merely rhetorical, but undeserving of response. And what about the boys? How would Stephen answer, and how would Bolt? Handing over everything, pencils and parents, lucky pebbles, beaches, mountains, all their clothing down to socks and underpants, surrendering every last thing and receiving just a coin—would they consider that a bargain?
When they finish the Icee, with all the purple-tongued decorum they are able to muster, the boys ease the czar of all pigeons into the empty cup, beak first. Its gray tail feathers protrude from the top of the cup.
“We should bury it,” Stephen says.
“Yeah,” says Bolt. “In the woods.”
On the way, they take turns holding the cup, measuring the pigeon’s weight with the muscles of their living hands, staring down at its black eyes. They are like seeds, each boy thinks to himself. Passing the bird to Stephen, Bolt says, “What do you think will happen?”
“To what?” says Stephen.
“To the pigeon.”
“Nothing,” Stephen says. “It’s dead.”
“But do pigeons go to heaven?”
Stephen, despite or perhaps because of his general metaphysical openness, the many questions he simultaneously entertains about the nature and the limits of this world, cannot bring himself to believe in the existence of the one fixed entity that their parents and teachers call God, nor in heaven, his alleged dwelling place. It’s not that the idea is too improbable, it’s that he finds the story boring, and boring stories can’t be true.
“There’s no such thing,” he tells his friend.
“You think there’s just hell?” asks Bolt.
“No. You just die, that’s all. You rot. Worms eat you. And ants and other bugs.”
“That’s stupid,” says Bolt, surprised by his friend’s intransigence. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Stephen doesn’t disagree. There’s no point, really, in arguing. Later, he will wonder at his stubbornness, but he will not be ready to admit to himself that with his denials he meant to punish Bolt, to make his friend feel dumb. For the time being, the boys agree to settle the matter in what they consider an empirical fashion. They will bury the bird, mark the site of its interment, and return two weeks later to dig it up. If the bird is still there, Stephen contends, he will be proven right. If it’s not, Bolt agrees, it means that God carried it off.
Both boys have their doubts. Bolt knows that a distinction is sometimes made between body and soul, that the presence of the one says nothing about the location of the other. Stephen knows this too, and also that the bird’s physical absence will be no proof of divine intervention, only, perhaps, that a stray dug it up. But both keep their reservations to themselves, knowing instinctively that no proof is ever final, that facts, such as they are, are ever subject to interpretation and that if the outcome of their experiment is not the one they desire, they can always voice their reservations then. Also, it should be said, neither boy is entirely sure that he is right.
To mark the spot, Bolt carves a cross in the bark of a tree with a bottle cap. Then, using a sharp, flat rock, Stephen kneels and digs a hole 14 inches deep. He tilts the Icee cup and lets the pigeon fall into the grave.
In the classroom, the teacher says something about the Monitor and the Merrimack, something about iron-clad hulls, but Stephen doesn’t listen. He gazes out the window at the dirt of the soccer field. Over by the far goal with its torn orange netting, Stephen sees the walls of a city. The city is burning. Its inhabitants leap screaming over the battlements, their clothes and hair on fire. Each hits the ground with a small smoky puff. In the playground, by the sandbox, Stephen sees a dancing army. Its soldiers are thin and unkempt. Their clothes are ragged and their weapons dull, but they laugh and dance as they march and tears stream down their dusty cheeks, and every other army they meet is disarmed by their dancing and their glee. And in the same way that Stephen once won a bus-stop fight with Kevin Pyle by not hitting back and instead just laughing harder every time that Kevin punched him, the dancing army is able to conquer every land they come across. Even so, they can do nothing to save the burning city. If they march dancing toward it, the distance between them and the city never appears to shrink. If they march as far away as they can, it never disappears from the horizon. All they can do is dance and laugh and never lose a battle, but that is not enough. Stephen shuts his eyes, but he still sees the city burning. Then Bolt tosses a pen cap at him and when Stephen turns, the teacher’s mocking face is inches from his own and the entire class is laughing.
Bolt’s bedroom is warm and the night air cold, but he opens the window nonetheless. The security lights that his father installed illuminate every twig and stone and blade of grass in the backyard. Bolt leans outside. He scans the yard for wolves, for advancing armies of the tongueless, for sinister men with black-gloved hands and polished pruning shears. He looks from blade to blade, rock to rock, and tree to tree, but all he sees is grass and rocks and trees, the neighbor’s house and the other neighbor’s house, the street. He leans out farther, hugging his pajamas to his chest, and stares up at the sky. Maybe he’ll see a spaceship, a pterodactyl, some giant mythic bird. Maybe his friend Stephen will have built a jetpack or sprouted wings and taken to the sky. But try as he might, Bolt sees nothing. There is no moon, and in the glare of the lights he cannot even see if there are stars or only clouds. If he imagines hard enough, he thinks, perhaps he’ll see something. But he can’t. The images, once formed, stay vague and leaden in his brain, refusing to take shape outside of it. “All souls,” the Phaedrus has it, cruelly, “do not easily reach the things of the other world.” Bolt shivers. He pulls the window closed. His father’s footfalls echo heavy on the stairs. He hurries back beneath the covers, and feigns sleep.
The next afternoon, Stephen has to go straight from school to an appointment with a doctor or the court, so Bolt goes to the QuikMart without him. He skims a magazine about jet fighters and another about hot rods until he’s bored. Then he buys an Icee and pockets a peanut-butter candy and without admitting to himself where he’s going, he walks in the direction of the woods.
The woods, in truth, are so small that they are hardly deserving of the name. The boys didn’t need to mark the tree. Bolt finds the flat, sharp stone with which they buried the pigeon and the low mound of dirt above its grave. He takes off his jacket and hangs it from a branch. He gets down on his knees and, hesitantly at first, begins to dig. More than a week has gone by. Bolt imagines millipedes crawling through the bird’s skull where its little seedlike eyes had been. He imagines scorpions and squirming maggots, smooth plumage reduced to stinking ooze. He stops and checks his pocket to make sure he’s brought a plastic bag. He hopes he won’t have to touch it, that he can angle the bird into the bag somehow without having to get it on his hands.
As he digs deeper and closer to where the bird should be, Bolt scrapes at the earth more slowly, with almost superstitious care. He’s not sure why, but he doesn’t want to damage it, to crush it with the rock. He widens the hole so that he can come at the grave from the sides. Despite his slowness though, it’s not long before he’s dug 12, 14, 16 inches deep, without any sign of the pigeon’s corpse. He digs six inches farther down, piling the dirt beside him, but doesn’t even find a feather.
Instead of feeling comforted by the pigeon’s absence, confirmed in his belief in God and in eternal life, Bolt is panicked. He realizes as he digs deeper—aimlessly now—that he had in fact never believed in God at all or in heaven and hell and that he still does not, that those were just words to him, his parents’ words and priests’ words, and the pigeon’s stubborn absence proves nothing, says nothing, means nothing. All it does is mock him for being there panting on his muddied knees with dirt caked into the lines of his palms. The missing bird taunts him for his own duplicity, his willingness to deceive himself and his best friend, but only for a moment. Bolt’s shame changes direction, and shape-shifts to anger. He is suddenly and coldly certain, though he will never be able to prove it or to mention it at all, that it was Stephen who dug up the bird, that he guessed that Bolt would try to dig up the pigeon and rig the bet and he dug it up first to teach Bolt a lesson, to rub his guilt into his face. Bolt stands, brushes the dirt from his knees and carelessly refills the hole, pushing at the earth with his shoe.
For two days after his failed attempt to exhume the missing pigeon, Bolt avoids Stephen at school. In the afternoons, he doesn’t pick up the phone at home, no matter how many times Stephen lets it ring. Stephen, for his part, stands barefoot in his kitchen counting the rings—10, 12, even 20—until he gets bored and a little embarrassed, imagining the telephone echoing through Bolt’s empty house, or worse, Bolt lying on the floor of his room with the door closed, hearing it ring and knowing that it’s him. Stephen pulls on a sweatshirt, steps into his sneakers and heads out for the woods.
He’s not quite sure why he’s going or what he expects to find. Mainly he’s annoyed by the literal mindedness of the whole experiment and annoyed with himself for thinking it up. He takes no satisfaction from his near certainty that he’ll be found correct. Certainty feels to him like a missed opportunity, a dead end. The pigeon had been the czar, and even in death could have been many other things besides. It could have risen again or been reincarnated in every living pigeon they encountered. The mutilated and demonic spirit of the murdered pigeon czar could have sought revenge from the land of the dead. If it wasn’t for his own intransigence, it could have been another secret that he and Bolt shared, a key that opened doors concealing other keys and other doors. He doesn’t care if his friend believes in pigeon heaven, or who gets to be right.
He is curious though. Except for his grandfather, laid out yellow and waxy in the dim funeral-parlor salon, he had never seen a corpse before. He’s not even sure that his grandfather counts, not sure that that stiff semblance of his mother’s father was not a badly sculpted mannequin, missing the giveaway stubble and stains and the characteristic whiskey, Pall Mall, and old-man smell of him. But the pigeon’s death was real. They had seen it suffering and shivering in the brush. A minute later they saw it dead, gone, still.
So before long, he’s on his knees beneath the tree that Bolt had marked, kneeling where Bolt had been kneeling two days earlier. Stephen finds the flat stone and begins digging. He digs to where he thinks the bird should be, excited and a little afraid at what he’ll find. Maybe he’ll hide the bird, he thinks, as a kind of present to Bolt, so that he can be right this time. He digs deeper, but doesn’t find it. He widens the hole and keeps digging. The pigeon isn’t there. Stephen is puzzled at first. A dog might have sniffed the corpse and dug it up, or a rodent of some kind. But no animal would have neatly covered the hole again, except for one very specific kind. Friendship is a measured trust, and Stephen’s appraisement of his friend’s fealty is for the most part calibrated well. So Stephen does not have to work to imagine his friend there on his knees, scooping the pigeon into a bag or a box and pushing the dirt back into the hole.
He is not exactly surprised at the deception, though it does sting. When he plans out his response, which he does almost immediately, he does not think of it as revenge, but as something more like an answering move on a chess board, or a witty, barbed riposte. They are doing the dozens, he tells himself—not with words, but with this hole.
Without replacing the dirt or concealing his tracks, Stephen slaps his hands clean and hurries to the QuikMart. The fat man behind the counter asks him where his friend is. Actually, he says, “Where’s your little friend?” but Stephen shrugs off the condescension, mutters, “Practice,” and pushes three quarters and a nickel across the counter in exchange for a buttered roll. Then he jogs to the empty warehouses on the far side of the woods. He stands in the middle of the potholed parking lot beside them and gazes from one warehouse to the next. To his left, above the shuttered loading dock, he spots a pigeon nesting on a rusted crossbeam. This one is not the czar of anything. Stephen walks slowly over and takes off his sweatshirt. He sits at the edge of the dock and removes the roll from the grease-slick cellophane that wraps it. He tears off a piece. He lobs it beneath the crossbeam. He tosses shred after shred, constructing a trail of crumbs that leads from just beneath the pigeon to two feet from his knee.
The pigeon hums and struts and thinks it over. Then appetite gets the better of it. The bird swoops down to peck the first poppy-seeded crumb from the concrete. It paces and bobs and considers the next crumb, then walks eight inches closer and gulps it down. The pigeon eats another crumb and then another, with each small mouthful getting a hand’s breadth closer to Stephen until at last it reaches the final piece of crust. Then Stephen throws his sweatshirt over the bird and gathers it quickly to his chest.
The pigeon is weirdly silent as Stephen squeezes, but it is stronger than he would have guessed. He can’t see it, can just feel it struggling inside his sweatshirt, its wings struggling to open, its neck and head and feet all straining at once against him. It is nothing but a ball of hidden strength, and Stephen counters its strength with his own, with all the force he can pull from his thin arms and narrow shoulders, but the bird keeps struggling and its feet and its beak scratch at his chest through the thick fabric of the sweatshirt and he twists against the bird and keeps twisting until at last he feels something in it give way beneath him and hears a tiny crack. He stops squeezing. He opens his arms and lets it drop to the cold cement of the loading dock. He lifts the sweatshirt. It’s not dead yet. Its wing is broken and jutting at an awful angle from its breast, and he can see the fear and pain still throbbing in its shiny, seed-like eyes.
Plato defines the soul as autonomous motion, as a being self-propelled. But it is more than that. It is also hunger, or something like it, and Stephen, looking down, realizes that if he had had to see the bird he would not have been able to do it any harm, that it was only because the pigeon was hidden in the folds of his sweatshirt and hidden also by the shadow of Bolt, by the 10 and the 15 and the 20 rings of Bolt’s stupid ringing phone that he couldn’t see its stupid little eyes and that now he has no choice but to finish what he started, so he searches around until he finds a big lump of broken concrete and he closes his own eyes and brings the concrete down hard on the pigeon’s head and doesn’t lift it up again, but leaves it atop the bird like a slab and, forgetting his sweatshirt and the hole in the woods, runs and runs and runs all the way home.
Later, much later, the boys will begin to stop being boys. At the public pool in the summertime, they will dry themselves in the sun on towels spread on the cracked concrete and when the other boy’s eyes are closed, each will quietly count the hairs on the other’s shins and beneath the other’s up-stretched arms and compare the total to his own. In the dim changing room, further darkened by the smells of urine, mildew, and chlorine, when one boy bends to shimmy off his trunks, the other will steal a peek between his legs to judge the rate of progress there. Repressing all outward signs of agony, each boy will suffer this strange transition in solitude. Each will wonder if the other masturbates as much as he does or if he is alone in that feverish shame. It will occur to Stephen that they could masturbate each other. They could close their eyes and each could pretend the other is a girl, like they previously pretended so many other things. Stephen will not know if there is a name for this activity, but he will suspect that there is, and that it is not flattering. He is not, he will tell himself, attracted to his friend in the same way that he is attracted to the girls at school or to the sleepy-eyed and spread-eagled women in the magazines he and Bolt shoplift from the QuickMart shelves. The sight of Bolt, he will tell himself, will never quicken his heart. It’s just that he is terrifically lonely, he will tell himself, in a way that he never could have imagined possible before, despite the many varieties of loneliness that he had experienced up to that point. He will consider proposing this activity to Bolt as an innocent and logical extension of their previous games, a pragmatic if admittedly short-term solution to the impossible quandary of their desire, but he will be afraid that Bolt will call him a faggot and will tell everyone else that he is a faggot and that their friendship will then disintegrate for good. Also, he will not be certain that masturbating each other, rather than masturbating by themselves in their bedrooms and their bathrooms, will make either one of them feel any less alone. Perhaps it will make things even worse.
In the end it won’t matter. The summer will not last. When it’s over, they will each be sent to different schools. Bolt will find new friends. Stephen, for a while at least, will find none.
For days, a week even, neither boy calls the other. The empty hole yawns between their homes. Like a tunnel in which nothing living travels, just two dead pigeons circling dumbly, shaking dirt from off their wings. It is Bolt, in the end, who breaks the silence. The boys meet after school and spend the afternoon beside the train tracks, daring each other to leap over the third rail, waiting until they feel the vibrations of an approaching train, then racing up at the last moment to place a penny on the track. Only after the heat and the clamor of the train has passed do they retrieve it, the coin warm now and newly shiny, Lincoln’s face pancaked and distorted. Though the 14-day deadline has passed, neither boy mentions the bird or the hole in which they buried it.
The next day, sitting in front of the pizza shop, flipping bottle caps, Bolt brings it up. “We should go to the woods later,” he says, “to check.”
Stephen nods and fakes a yawn. “Yeah,” he says, “let’s.”
But they don’t go, and instead pass the afternoon hitting one another with sticks in Bolt’s backyard. Neither boy brings it up again except obliquely, by way of evasion, by never playing in the woods again and by avoiding the topics of pigeons, God and the afterlife, the Russian Revolution. The tree eventually recovers from the wound Bolt carved in its bark. Rain and wind and time fill the hole they dug not once, but three times. To the boys though, long after they have ceased being boys and the sedimentary drabness of the world has almost buried them, the hole remains. It remains a hole, open and empty, untended and mute.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of two novels, Ether and The Suitors.
Originally published in
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby