I spent that summer unbodied, in the mind of a child. I was a thought, only fully realized when considered by the child. When he forgot me, when he became captive to some new thought, I waited to be birthed again into the fullness of his reality. The child’s name was Will. He lived with his mother, and I met him while I was also living with his mother.
I don’t know how I’m supposed to remember it at all, much of the summer’s a blur. I spent most of the time outside of my body, coating the walls of the room in which the child slept. But it’s important that I remember. Remember it, or it never happened. Remember it or it will be remembered for me—in pictures, in the mouths of strangers.
It was June, the air was heavy with humidity. The boy refused shirts, disdained them. His shoulders turned pink. His pink skin peeled and flaked away. The fresh skin underneath turned auburn and reflected the sunlight. He was always running with his arms outstretched, his shoulder blades making tents out of the tight skin on his back, threatening to tear through.
When he asked me how old I was I lied and said I was twenty-three. I lied to him often, because I wanted to know what it felt like to lie to him.
It takes strength to lie to a child. If the world were filled with more strong men, courageous enough to lie to children, we’d avoid all sorts of trouble.
I was afraid I’d lose him. I couldn’t keep pace with him. And so often it fell on me to be watching him. He maintained an excitement and a fervor for living things that I couldn’t pretend. So I took him behind the house and let him run without inhibition. The yard was large, open, and generally benign. If I stood or sat in the center, he could run circles, never leaving my line of sight. He ran with his train of invisible field pariahs in tow—spiritual creatures who licked the honeysuckle and bid him do the same. Their misfit conga line spit the sun back into the sky and snorted lines of pollen. He knew these imaginary friends by names he could never share with me and wouldn’t think to anyway.
Once I had asked Shy, the boy’s, Will’s, mother, who the father was and she told me it was complicated. Complicated how, I asked. Complicated by the fact that the boy’s father was not altogether absent, but he wasn’t involved either. So you are like the Virgin Mary then, I suggested. Yes, like the Virgin Mary, she agreed.
The first time the child and I left the house together we went to buy a toothbrush. I hadn’t brought much with me to Shy’s, and I didn’t have a toothbrush. We walked on the street because there was no sidewalk. I made sure we were always on the left side of the road, and that I was always on the outside of the child so if a car came careening wildly in our direction, I would be the first to go. If the child was run down, bloodied and bruised, I would be long gone.
We were silent for much of the walk. He kicked a rock ahead of us, watched it bounce, walked to it, and kicked it again. We were almost to the store when he stopped kicking the rock and moved off the road into a yard.
I was nervous the owner of the house was going to come out and yell at us for trespassing. Will was looking at something in the grass. I saw over his shoulder what looked like a small hole in the grass with tufts of fur poking out.
The yard had been recently mowed, we could smell it, and it was apparent the baby rabbits were slaughtered unintentionally. Slaughtered they were, though. There was maybe six of them, but it was difficult to count.
Will looked at me, avoiding my eyes, and then back at the rabbits. I could tell the scene unnerved him, frightened him, but I had nothing to say that would make it any more palatable. He knew it was an accident, but that didn’t change things. He was still kneeling over a stew of bloody rabbits mixed and mashed in the earth.
“That one’s still alive,” he said, pointing.
I looked and, sure enough, one of the babies was twitching. It’s tiny eye, the one turned in our direction, was blinking. Will looked back at me and I nodded as if to say, yes, that one is still alive.
I could tell he wanted to cry. I wouldn’t have minded, but he obviously didn’t feel at liberty. I couldn’t give him permission to cry without embarrassing him, so I bent down and scooped the little bloody bunny into my palm. Will’s eyes went wide, and he didn’t look like he was going to cry any longer.
The bunny was warm, and each time it twitched my body tickled and started with uncomfortable empathy. I held it close to my stomach, thinking that would provide more warmth to the vulnerable creature. The boy kept looking over and peeking at it while we walked.
“You can’t bring animals in here,” the cashier said as soon as we walked in. Her face was scrunched up from looking at the deformed and dying rabbit.
“Open your hand,” I told Will.
I set the rabbit in his palm. It squirmed around, startled by the transfer, and panic set the boy’s body rigid. I told him to stay outside with the rabbit while I bought the toothbrush. My palm was pink from the animal’s leaking body. I rubbed my hands on my jeans.
I watched him from inside while I checked out. He was holding the rabbit close to his naked belly as I had done, and he kept his head bowed like he was praying.
“What’s that you got out there?” the cashier asked.
“Is it hurt?”
When I got outside, I went to take the rabbit back, but the boy started walking with it. He held it in one palm, and cupped his knuckles with the opposite hand. Two hands, like he was holding the sacrament. By the time we got home the rabbit was dead. He wanted to show his mother, but I suggested we bury it instead. I dug the hole and the boy laid the cotton ball carcass gently into it. He pushed the mound of loose dirt over it, and I tamped the ground with the blunt end of the shovel.
When Pete and Shy fought we left the house. If it was the middle of the day we’d take money from Shy’s purse and go see a movie. If it was later, after the sun set, we’d work on our garden. We were building a garden in a thicket of trees half a mile from the house. The thicket was set back in a field. It wasn’t large, maybe 30 yards across. But the center was completely hidden from the world outside.
We tried packets of seeds at first, but nothing happened after we planted them and it was hard to know if we’d done it correctly. So we started stealing fresh cut flowers from the graveyard. I held the flowers as he collected them. He read the names and dates from each tombstone. It was his act of penance. Some of the flowers we stuck in the dirt like flags, others we scattered around the garden.
We needed plants of greater substance though, so we began stealing from other gardens in town. At first we only took hanging baskets. We transferred the contents from the baskets into holes we dug in the thicket with our hands. Then we began digging up small plants from gardens and bringing them to the thicket as well. We were careful not to take multiple plants from the same gardens, we only borrowed one, two at the most, from each property. It was nothing anyone would notice.
He got it in his head that he wanted to dig up the bunny and rebury it in the garden. I didn’t think this was such a great idea. I didn’t know what the state of the rabbit would be, and I thought it might hurt him to see it decomposing. He was insistent though. He said the rabbit didn’t belong at the house, it belonged at the garden. He said if I wouldn’t help him, he’d do it on his own.
So one night, after the sun had set and everyone else was busy, he and I went into the backyard with the shovel. The grave, a bare mound of dirt surrounded by the tall grass, was easy to identify. I dug and the boy watched, eager and reverent. As I kept digging, the boy grew confused. The rabbit wasn’t in the grave. He squatted down and sifted through the dirt with his fingers. Maybe it’s bones are all cracked up and tiny, he said. Maybe the body’s already turned to dirt. Maybe, he said, maybe the spirit of the rabbit left the grave and is already living in our garden.
I told him that was certainly what happened. But I was lying again. I’d come out a few days earlier, after the boy was sleeping. I dug up the decomposing carcass of the baby bunny. I couldn’t toss it near the house, because he might stumble across it. So I carried it three blocks and threw it in a dumpster.