The most amazing thing he ever saw, he said, was a man as tall as a house married to a woman the size of a station wagon. He wondered aloud to whoever would listen about what their children must look like. Probably the size of a recreational vehicle, the kind his aunt and uncle used to drive out west when they didn’t feel like paying for a proper vacation. Back when they loved each other and he still knew what that meant. He saw this man and this woman, in real life, but nobody was around to say hey, that’s really something to see. The adults around town said the only thing probably bigger than that woman’s waist was the boy’s imagination, but he knew what he saw.
He packed as much storytelling into a ten-year-old frame as a ten year old could, Ike did. Especially for one as slender as his. It was the kind of frame that made it easy for him to slip and slide through holes in fences and gaps under porches. Places nobody else would fit in a million years. Places where only Ike could see what he saw, and where everyone else would just have to take his word for it.
There was a time about three months back that Ike signed himself up for the play at the Mount Gilead Community Church of Christ. They were telling the story of the Ark and Ike was supposed to play a zebra. The play wouldn’t have made much sense with just one zebra, but the thing is that’s exactly what happened. And people started asking questions about why there were two lions and two kangaroos and two goats but only one zebra. Some figured there was just a felt shortage, but then people got to realizing that there was a little boy about ten years old that was supposed to play that second animal, and so now the zebra population was in danger and a little boy was missing, too. Ike didn’t turn up at church ‘til near an hour after the play was already over, and when he did his lip was split and there was a knot on his forehead on which you could have landed a moderately-sized aeroplane. So people got to asking questions about those marks and why he’d missed the play, and Ike, never one to withhold information, let them all know the truth - that he was taken from his home and held hostage for days! No food, barely any water and regular beatings that were worse than the heretics’ at the Inquisition! He had of course used his cunning to escape and was lucky to be alive to tell you all the tale.
And the folks in Mount Gilead turned out in numbers to find this mad man who was capable of kidnapping and torturing such an innocent boy, a man someplace between four feet and seven feet tall, depending on whom Ike had witnessed to, and with hair as long as Samson or as short as a newborn baby. Either the weight of ten men or the frailty of an invalid, and somewhere between twenty-two and sixty-two years of age. Mount Gilead wasn’t real big to begin with, and once folks got to looking and talking together all those wrongs started adding up to even fewer rights, and Ike’s story started making less and less sense. The people stopped their looking and most of their believing, too.
Then there was the time not too long ago when Ike showed up to school with a black eye, just like the time the week before when he showed up with two. His teacher asked how come he hadn’t been at school the day prior, or those days last week for that matter, and what had become of his face. But Ike insisted she see the other guy before she got to asking questions. Did he say guy? He meant guys. Six of them. With clubs. And steel toe boots. They surrounded him when he cut through an alley behind a tire yard. He never takes that short cut, and these guys must have known he wasn’t a regular. He took care of four no sweat, but the last two were scrappers. He rearranged some attitudes and a few faces of his own, but not before they got their licks in. He was sorry he was late to school by the way, but by this point she had to understand. He offered to tell the story to the whole class, but the teacher just directed him to his seat and took one herself, but she balled her hand up into a fist and raised it to her mouth and did that thing you do when it’s either real cold outside or something’s wrong. And days didn’t get much hotter than this.
He got home from school that afternoon with a full brain and an envelope his teacher had told him to give to his mother. Make sure it’s your mother. He found her where she always was. In the front room rocking chair positioned somewhere between her third and fourth gin and tonic. She had on a house dress that used to be white and a face that used to be hers. A face that seen too much but understood too little. The type of face you get when you’re tired of trying to explain things. She didn’t say much. She never did. That was fine by Ike, it made her a better listener. And boy, did he have a yarn to spin. He set the envelope on his mother’s lap, unsure if she’d even noticed, and unhinged his jaw.
“Mama,” he said, half checking to see if she was listening and half as a courtesy. After all, she’d want to be prepared. She didn’t respond, she rarely did. In fact, the waltz her index finger was crafting around the edge of her glass was the only sign that she was breathing at all. That seldom fazed Ike and today was no different.
“Mama, today at school a boy named Roy climbed on a dumpster and then onto the roof of the school,” Ike barked with pride, his hands perched neatly on his sides, elbows straight out and chest real big like a super hero.
“Then he walked right to the edge and looked straight down like he wasn’t afraid of nothing! It must have been a hundred feet high. At least, I bet that’s how tall he felt up there!”
Ike’s speech quickened.
“All of the school ladies ran to the edge and were yelling for him to come down or to be careful or that his parents was already on the way, but Roy just looked at them and smiled real big and then he jumped right off!”
Ike paused to allow his mother to react, an offer which she refused to oblige.
“But guess what, Mama? He didn’t hit the ground. Roy the boy flew through the air right there at school! Can you believe it? All those people on the ground trying to catch him but Roy was too quick for them. He just flew as high as he could, away from all of them! Can you picture that? A boy! My age, maybe even younger, flying through the air!”
Mama didn’t say much, she barely unfurled a smile, but she did peel her fingers off her glass long enough to run them through a tuft of Ike’s dirty blonde hair, a rare moment of tenderness that was cut short by the sound of gravel crunching beneath the tires of an old Buick Skylark. That was Ike’s cue to head to his room and Mama’s to fix a new drink, seeing as how different things had been since Daddy’s sister-in-law died.
Before Uncle Jeb’s first wife passed, both he and Ike’s father had run a store just outside the Mount Gilead city limits. Nothing fancy, just the normal particulars, household needs, medicines. Once the cancer spread too far, though, Uncle Jeb got to running with some unsavory women. Loose is the term Abe - that’s Ike’s father - would use to describe them. One particularly caught his affection, Dess was her name, and she had a whole new plan for Uncle Jeb. She had never wanted kids, thought they were money pits, which didn’t bode well for Jeb’s only daughter from his first marriage. Never saw the wisdom of creating extra mouths. Had a business mind of her own, too - one that involved selling Jeb’s stake in the store and moving somewhere tropical. When Jeb shared the plan with Abe hell broke out and the two stopped speaking. Mount Gilead never was a buyer’s market, and Abe wasn’t able to find any investors. The store went broke and took Abe with it. He hit the bottle first and mama second - and then he came looking for Ike. His only comfort came from knowing that miserable woman was controlling Jeb’s life, plus he’d heard through circles that Jeb had developed a bottle problem all his own. Still, Abe never recovered from the blow to his ledger or his reputation, so when he pulled the letter from his wife’s lap and read it to himself that set him off real good.
He unclasped his belt and slid it real slow from around his waist and made his way down the hall toward Ike’s room. It was a walk he’d made many times before. Ike was waiting patiently at the foot of his bed, focusing his attention on the hallway light that spilled into his dark bedroom beneath the door. As the light scattered Ike’s chest grew tighter, but he tried to steady his breath. He’d memorized the steps to this dance long ago, no reason to be nervous this time. As the door slowly creaked and the distance between he and his father evaporated Ike remained still. The initial blows were always the worst. The rest was simply routine.
It was over as quickly as it had began, this dance, and Ike’s father returned to the front room looking for his wife. And Ike, he slipped out through the kitchen and into the summer evening without a thought in his head of where he was going.
He beat out a trail through the woods, passing by a giant row of trees that looked to Ike like paper dolls. He crossed a small footbridge over a creek he’d seen before and made it to a small field of poppies when something made him stall. Movement. A few yards deep in a mess of vines and weeds. Had whatever it was remained still he wouldn’t have noticed, but there was just enough of a rustle to cause a stir in Ike. It was probably just a coon or some other nuisance critter, but what if it was a bear or something badder? Ike was fearful, but never too fearful, so he slowly reached the top half of his slender frame into the brush and forged an opening.
She lay in a purple sun dress, dark hair covering her eyes, one of which was badly swollen, the rest beaten and bruised like a busted up piece of fruit. Whoever had left her there had taken time to make sure she wouldn’t be found for a while, if ever at all. She’d taken more than her tiny body could withstand, but for the moment she was of the earth. She wasn’t strong enough to say much more than her name, but Ike knew who she was. Her name was Ana. She was Uncle Jeb’s daughter. She was two grades below Ike, which made her seven. Maybe eight by now. He’d seen her over at his Uncle’s house a time or two before, the new ward of a new wife who wanted a new beginning.
Ike was left searching for words. It wasn’t something he was used to. He studied Ana’s little hands, each finger broken in two places, bruises up her legs as far as Ike could see amidst the ruffles of her tattered dress. Her hair had dried black with blood, and her mouth puffed up blue at the corners. What was left of her breathing was shallow and strained, and she could barely lift a hand to gesture for help. Ike stood up and backed away slowly. He turned carefully and faced the direction that brought him to Ana. And then he ran.
Ike ran back toward downtown Mount Gilead as fast as he could, this time paying little attention to the scenery. He emerged from the woods and crossed the train tracks that marked the edge of downtown when he saw an old police cruiser parked outside of Mr. Murphy’s bar. He burst through the door, paying no mind to the fact that a ten-year-old had no place in a bar. The officer sat with his back to the door, but even perched on a stool Ike could recognize the towering figure. He approached the man and tugged at his uniform. The officer set down his glass and slowly rolled to his right, not expecting to be met by such an underwhelming complainant.
“Can I help you, son?” he asked.
Ike stood silent, trembling, but not for the man in front of him.
“Out with it!”
Ike was silent, unable to write the words in his head that sounded like what he was feeling, and all of a sudden twisted up inside with two different types of guilt. He thought of Ana’s little broken fingers, all ten of them. And he thought of Mama, too.
“Well?” the officer prodded again, growing impatient.
“Um, officer.” Ike trembled more. “You see.” He swallowed hard.
“Back by the tire yard, there’s this pack of coyotes. Each meaner than the next. There must be close to a hundred of them and - ” The officer raised his hand, which meant it was time for Ike to stop, and he rolled his stool back to its original position, reminding Ike that coyotes hadn’t been seen in Mount Gilead in fifty years and that he remembered Ike from the church and that the next time he wants to go spinning stories he’d be best off picking a better fool to fool.
And so Ike apologized for wasting the man’s time and excused himself from the bar, and he walked back through the same woods, over the same creek and past the trees that looked like paper dolls. He was all alone. No policeman or fire chief and no pack of concerned lookers-on was with him. Just Ike and the field of poppies. And now Ana. And he did all he could think to do and he held her tiny hand in his. And she understood why he did what he did. All too well. And as her soul passed through her lips and out into space he told her all about his mama and the face she made in that chair and the days he hadn’t been to school and why he’d been late to church that day three months ago. And they were the realest words he ever spoke.