I learned about creation from Mrs. Grimm, in the basement of her house down the street from ours. The room was dimly lit by a stained-glass lamp positioned above the pool table. There was also a bar in the corner, behind which hung an electric sign that read RHEINGOLD and held a can that endlessly poured golden beer into a pilsner glass that never seemed to overflow. That brew was liquid light, bright bubbles never ceasing to rise.
“Who made you?” she would ask, consulting that little book with the pastel-colored depictions of agony in Hell and the angel-strewn clouds of Heaven. Mrs. Grimm had the nose of a witch, one continuous eyebrow and teacup-shiny skin—even the wrinkles seemed capable of cracking. Her smile was merely the absence of a frown, but she made candy apples for us at Halloween and marshmallow bricks in the shapes of wise men at Christmas. I often wondered how she had come to know so much about God, and pictured saints with halos and cassocks playing pool and drinking beer in her basement at night.
We kids would page through our own copies of the catechism book to find the appropriate response, but before anyone else could answer, Amy Lash would already be saying, “God made me.”
Then Richard Antonelli would get up and begin to jump around, making fart noises through his mouth, and Mrs. Grimm would shake her head and tell him God was watching. I never jumped around, never spoke out of turn, for two reasons, neither of which had to do with God. One was what my father called his “size ten,” referring to his shoe, and the other was that I was too busy watching that sign over the bar, waiting to see the beer finally spill.
The only time I was ever distracted from my vigilance was when she told us about the creation of Adam and Eve. After God had made the world, he made them too, because he had so much love and not enough places to put it. He made Adam out of clay and blew life into him, and, once he came to life, God made him sleep and then stole a rib and made the woman. After the illustration of a naked couple consumed in flame, being bitten by black snakes and poked by the fork of a pink demon with horns and bat wings, the picture for the story of the creation of Adam was my favorite. A bearded God in flowing robes leaned over a clay man, breathing blue-gray life into him.
That breath of life was like a great autumn wind blowing through my imagination, carrying with it all sorts of questions like pastel leaves that momentarily obscured my view of the beautiful flow of beer. Was dirt the first thing Adam tasted? Was God’s beard brushing against his chin the first thing Adam felt? When he slept, did he dream of God stealing his rib, and did it crack when it came away from him? What did he make of Eve and the fact that she was the only woman for him to marry? Was he thankful it wasn’t Amy Lash?
Later on, I asked my father what he thought about the creation of Adam, and he gave me his usual response to any questions concerning religion. “Look,” he said, “it’s a nice story, but when you die you’re food for the worms.” One time my mother made him take me to church when she was sick, and he sat in the front row, directly in front of the priest. While everyone else was genuflecting and standing and singing, he just sat there staring, his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. When they rang the little bell and everyone beat their chest, he laughed out loud.
No matter what I had learned in catechism about God and Hell and the Ten Commandments, my father was hard to ignore. He worked two jobs, his muscles were huge, and once, when the neighbors’ Doberman, big as a pony, went crazy and attacked a girl walking her poodle down our street, I saw him run outside with a baseball bat, grab the girl in one arm and then beat the dog to death as it tried to go for his throat. Throughout all of this he never lost the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and only put it out in order to hug the girl and quiet her crying.
Food for the worms, I thought, and took that thought along with a brown paper bag of equipment through the hole in the chain-link fence, into the woods that lay behind the schoolyard. Those woods were deep, and you could travel through them for miles and miles, never coming out from under the trees or seeing a backyard. Richard Antonelli hunted squirrels with a BB gun in them, and Bobby Lenon and his gang went there at night, lit a little fire and drank beer. Once, while exploring, I discovered a rain-sogged Playboy; once, a dead fox. Kids said there was gold in the creek that wound among the trees and that there was a far-flung acre that sunk down into a deep valley where the deer went to die. For many years it was rumored that a monkey, escaped from a traveling carnival over in Brightwaters, lived in the treetops.
It was midsummer and the dragonflies buzzed, the squirrels leaped from branch to branch, frightened sparrows darted away. The sun beamed in through gaps in the green above, leaving, here and there, shifting puddles of light on the pine-needle floor. Within one of those patches of light, I practiced creation. There was no clay, so I used an old log for the body. The arms were long, five-fingered branches that I positioned jutting out from the torso. The legs were two large birch saplings with plenty of spring for running and jumping. These I laid angled to the base of the log.
A large hunk of bark that had peeled off an oak was the head. On this I laid red mushroom eyes, curved barnacles of fungus for ears, a dried seedpod for a nose. The mouth was merely a hole I punched through the bark with my penknife. Before affixing the fern hair to the top of the head, I slid beneath the curve of the sheet of bark those things I thought might help to confer life—a dandelion gone to ghostly seed, a cardinal’s wing feather, a see-through quartz pebble, a twenty-five-cent compass. The ferns made a striking hairdo, the weeds, with their burrlike ends, formed a venerable beard. I gave him a weapon to hunt with: a long, pointed stick that was my exact height.
When I finished putting my man together, I stood and looked down upon him. He looked good. He looked ready to come to life. I went to the brown paper bag and took out my catechism book. Then kneeling near his right ear, I whispered to him all of the questions Mrs. Grimm would ever ask. When I got to the one, “What is Hell?” his left eye rolled off his face, and I had to put it back. I followed up the last question with a quick promise never to steal a rib.
Putting the book back into the bag, I then retrieved a capped, cleaned-out baby-food jar. It had once held vanilla pudding, my little sister’s favorite, but now it was filled with breath. I had asked my father to blow into it. Without asking any questions, he never looked away from the racing form, but took a drag from his cigarette and blew a long, blue-gray stream of air into the jar. I capped it quickly and thanked him. “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” he mumbled as I ran to my room to look at it beneath a bare light bulb. The spirit swirled within and then slowly became invisible.
I held the jar down to the mouth of my man, and when I couldn’t get it any closer, I unscrewed the lid and carefully poured out every atom of breath.
There was nothing to see, so I held it there a long time and let him drink it in. As I pulled the jar away, I heard a breeze blowing through the leaves, felt it on the back of my neck. I stood up quickly and turned around with a keen sense that someone was watching me. I got scared. When the breeze came again, it chilled me, for wrapped in it was the quietest whisper ever. I dropped the jar and ran all the way home.
That night as I lay in bed, the lights out, my mother sitting next to me, stroking my crewcut and softly singing, “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” I remembered that I had left my catechism book in the brown bag next to the body of the man. I immediately made believe I was asleep so that my mother would leave. Had she stayed, she would have eventually felt my guilt through the top of my head. When the bedroom door was closed, I began to toss and turn, thinking of my man lying out there in the dark woods by himself. I promised God that I would go out there in the morning, get my book and take my creation apart. With the first bird song in the dark of the new day, I fell asleep and dreamed I was in Mrs. Grimm’s basement with the saints. A beautiful woman saint with a big rose bush thorn sticking right in the middle of her forehead told me, “Your man’s name is Cavanaugh.”
“Hey, that’s the name of the guy who owns the deli in town,” I told her.
“Great head cheese at that place,” said a saint with a baby lamb under his arm.
Another big bearded saint used the end of a pool cue to cock back his halo. He leaned over me and asked, “Why did God make you?”
I reached for my book but realized I had left it in the woods.
“Come on,” he said, “that’s one of the easiest ones.”
I looked away at the bar, stalling for time while I tried to remember the answer, and just then the glass on the sign overflowed and spilled beer onto the floor.
The next day, my man, Cavanaugh, was gone. Not a scrap of him left behind. No sign of the red feather or the clear pebble. This wasn’t a case of someone having come along and maliciously scattered him. I searched the entire area. It was a certainty that he had risen up, taken his spear and the brown paper bag containing my religious instruction book and walked off into the heart of the woods.
Standing in the spot where I had given him life, my mind spiraled with visions of him loping along on his birch legs, branch fingers pushing aside sticker bushes and low-hanging leaves, his fern hair slicked back by the wind. Through those red mushroom eyes, he was seeing his first day. I wondered if he was as frightened to be alive as I was to have made him, or had the breath of my father imbued him with a grim food-for-the-worms courage? Either way, there was no dismantling him now—Thou shalt not kill. I felt a grave responsibility and went in search of him.
I followed the creek, thinking he would do the same, and traveled deeper and deeper into the woods. What was I going to say to him, I wondered, when I finally found him and his simple hole of a mouth formed a question? It wasn’t clear to me why I had made him, but it had something to do with my father’s idea of death—a slow rotting underground; a cold dreamless sleep longer than the universe. I passed the place where I had discovered the dead fox and there picked up Cavanaugh’s trail—holes poked in the damp ground by the stride of his birch legs. Stopping, I looked all around through the jumbled stickers and bushes, past the trees, and detected no movement but for a single leaf silently falling.
I journeyed beyond the Antonelli brothers’ lean-to temple where they hung their squirrel skins to dry and brewed sassafras tea. I even circled the pond, passed the tree whose bark had been stripped in a spiral by lightening and entered territory I had never seen before. Cavanaugh seemed to stay always just ahead of me, out of sight. His snake-hole foot prints, bent and broken branches, and that barely audible and constant whisper on the breeze that trailed in his wake drew me on into the late afternoon until the woods began to slowly fill with night. Then I had a thought of home: my mother cooking dinner and my sister playing on a blanket on the kitchen floor; the Victrola turning out the Ink Spots. I ran back along my path, and somewhere in my flight I heard a loud cry, not bird or animal or human, but like a thick limb splintering free from an ancient oak.
I ignored the woods as best I could for the rest of the summer. There was basketball; games of guns with all the children in the neighborhood, ranging across everyone’s backyard; trips to the candy store for comic books; late night horror movies on Chiller Theatre. I caught a demon jab of hell for having lost my religious instruction book, and all of my allowance for four weeks went toward another. Mrs. Grimm told me God knew I had lost it and that it would be a few weeks before she could get me a replacement. I imagined her addressing an envelope to Heaven. In the meantime, I had to look on with Amy Lash. She’d lean close to me, pointing out every word that was read aloud, and when Mrs. Grimm asked me a question, catching me concentrating on the infinite beer, Amy would whisper the answers without moving her lips and save me. Still, no matter what happened, I could not completely forget about Cavanaugh. I thought my feeling of responsibility would have withered as the days swept by, instead it grew like a weed.
On a hot afternoon at the end of July, I was sitting in my secret hideout, a bower formed by forsythia bushes in the corner of my backyard, reading the latest installment of Nick Fury. I only closed my eyes to rest them for a moment, but there was Cavanaugh’s rough-barked face. Now that he was alive, leaves had sprouted all over his trunk and limbs. He wore a strand of wild blueberries around where his neck should have been, and his hair ferns had grown and deepened in their shade of green. It wasn’t just a daydream, I tell you. I knew that I was seeing him, what he was doing, where he was, at that very minute. He held his spear as a walking stick, and it came to me then that he was, of course, a vegetarian. His long thin legs bowed slightly, his log of a body shifted, as he cocked back his curled, wooden parchment of a head and stared with mushroom eyes into a beam of sunlight slipping through the branches above. Motes of pollen swirled in the light; chipmunks, squirrels, deer silently gathered; sparrows landed for a brief moment to nibble at his hair and then were gone. All around him, the woods looked on in awe as one of its own reckoned the beauty of the sun. What lungs, what vocal chords, gave birth to it, I’m not sure, but he groaned; a sound I had witnessed one other time while watching my father asleep, wrapped in a nightmare.
I visited that spot within the yellow-blossomed forsythias once a day to check up on my man’s progress. All that was necessary was that I sit quietly for a time until in a state of near-nap and then close my eyes and fly my brain around the corner, past the school, over the treetops, then down into the cool green shadow of the woods. Many times I saw him just standing, as if stunned by life, and many times traipsing through some unknown quadrant of his Eden. With each viewing came a confused emotion of wonder and dread, like on the beautiful windy day at the beginning of August when I saw him sitting beside the pond, holding the catechism book upside down, a twig finger of one hand pointing to each word on the page, while the other hand covered all but one red eye of his face.
I was there when he came across the blackened patch of earth and scattered beer cans from one of the Lenon gang’s nights in the woods. He lifted a partially crushed can with backwash still sloshing in the bottom and drank it down. The bark around his usually indistinct hole of a mouth magically widened into a smile. It was when he uncovered half a pack of Camels and a book of matches that I realized he must have been spying on the revels of Lenon, Cho-cho, Mike Stone, and Jake Harwood from the safety of the night trees. He lit up and the smoke swirled out the back of his head. In a voice like the creaking of a rotted branch, he pronounced, “Fuck.”
And most remarkable of all was the time he came to the edge of the woods, to the hole in the chain-link fence. There, in the playground across the field, he saw Amy Lash gliding up and back on the swing, her red gingham dress billowing, her bright hair full of motion. He trembled as if planted in earthquake earth, and squeaked the way the sparrows did. For a long time, he crouched in that portal to the outside world and watched. Then gathering his courage he stepped onto the field. The instant he was out of the woods, Amy must have felt his presence, and she looked up and saw him approaching. She screamed, jumped off the swing, and ran out of the playground. Cavanaugh, frightened by her scream, retreated to the woods and did not stop running until he reached the tree struck by lightening.
My religious instruction book finally arrived from above, summer ended and school began, but still I went every day to my hideout and watched him for a little while as he fished gold coins from the creek or tracked, from the ground, something moving through the treetops. I know it was close to Halloween, because I sat in my hideout loosening my teeth on one of Mrs. Grimm’s candy apples when I realized that my secret seeing place was no longer a secret. The forsythias had long since dropped their flowers. As I sat there in the skeletal blind, I could feel the cold creeping into me. “Winter is coming,” I said in a puff of steam and had one fleeting vision of Cavanaugh, his leaves gone flame red, his fern hair drooping brown, discovering the temple of dead squirrels. I saw him gently touch the fur of a stretched-out corpse hung on the wall. His birch legs bent to nearly breaking as he fell to his knees and let out a wail that drilled into me and lived there.
It was late night, a few weeks later, but that cry still echoed through me and I could not sleep. I heard, above the sound of the dreaming house, my father come in from his second job. I don’t know what made me think I could tell him, but I had to tell someone. If I kept to myself what I had done any longer, I thought I would have to run away. Crawling out of bed, I crept down the darkened hallway past my sister’s room and heard her breathing. I found my father sitting in the dining room, eating a cold dinner and reading the paper by only the light coming through from the kitchen. All he had to do was look up at me and I started crying. Next thing I knew, he had his arm around me and I was enveloped in the familiar aroma of machine oil. I thought he might laugh, I thought he might yell, but I told him everything all at once. What he did was pull out the chair next to his. I sat down, drying my eyes.
“What can we do?” he asked.
“I just need to tell him something,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “This Saturday we’ll go to the woods and see if we can find him.” Then he had me describe Cavanaugh and when I was done he said, “Sounds like a sturdy fellow.”
We moved into the living room and sat on the couch in the dark. He lit a cigarette and told me about the woods when he was a boy; how vast they were, how he trapped mink, saw eagles, and how he and his brother lived for a week by their wits alone out in nature. I eventually dozed off and only half woke when he carried me to my bed.
The week passed and I went to sleep Friday night, hoping he wouldn’t forget his promise and go to the track instead. But the next morning, he woke me early from a dream of Amy Lash by tapping my shoulder and saying, “Move your laggardly ass.” He made bacon and eggs, the only two things he knew how to make, and let me drink coffee. Then we put on our coats and were off. It was the second week in November and the day was cold and overcast. “Brisk,” he said as we rounded the corner toward the school and that was all he said until we were well in beneath the trees.
I showed him around the woods like a tour guide, pointing out the creek, the spot where I had created my man, the temple of dead squirrels. “Interesting,” he said to each of these, and once in a while mentioned the name of some bush or tree. Waves of leaves blew amidst the trunks in the cold wind and, with stronger gusts, showers of them fell around us. My father could really walk and so we walked for what seemed like ten miles, out of the morning and into the afternoon, way past any place I had ever dreamed of going. We discovered a spot where an enormous tree had fallen, exposing the gnarled brainwork of its roots, and another two acres where there were no trees but only smooth sand hills. All the time I was alert to even the slightest sound—a cracking twig, the caw of a crow—hoping I might hear the whisper.
As it got later, the sky darkened, and what was cold before became colder still.
“Listen, “ my father said, “I have a feeling like the one when we used to track deer. He’s nearby, somewhere. We’ll have to outsmart him.”
“I’m going to stay here and wait,” he said. “You keep going along the path here for a while but, for Christ’s sake, be quiet. Maybe if he sees you, he’ll double back to get away, and I’ll be here to catch him.”
I wasn’t sure this plan made sense, but I knew we needed to do something. It was getting late. “Be careful,” I said, “he’s big and he has a stick.”
My father smiled, “Don’t worry,” he said and lifted his foot to indicate the size ten.
This made me laugh, and I turned and started down the path, taking careful steps. “Go on for about ten minutes or so and see if you see anything,” he called to me before I rounded a bend.
Once I was by myself, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to find my man. Because of the overcast sky the woods were dark and lonely. As I walked I pictured my father and Cavanaugh wrestling each other and wondered who would win. When I had gone far enough to want to stop and run back, I forced myself around one more turn. Just this little more, I thought. He’s probably already fallen apart anyway, dismantled by winter. But then I saw it up ahead, treetops at eye level, and I knew I had found the valley where the deer went to die.
Cautiously, I inched up to the rim, and peered down the steep dirt wall overgrown with roots and stickers, into the trees and the shadowed undergrowth beneath them. The valley was a large hole as if a meteor had struck there long ago. I thought of the treasure-trove of antlers and bones that lay hidden in the leaves at its base. Standing there, staring, I felt I almost understood the secret life and age of the woods. I had to show this to my father, but before I could move away, I saw something, heard something moving below. Squinting to see more clearly through the darkness down there, I could just about make out a shadowed figure half-hidden by the trunk of a tall pine.
“Cavanaugh?” I called. “Is that you?”
In the silence, I heard acorns dropping.
“Are you there?” I asked.
There was a reply, an eerie sound that was part voice, part wind. It was very quiet but I distinctly heard it ask, “Why?”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Why?” came the same question.
I didn’t know why, and wished I had read him the book’s answers instead of the questions the day of his birth. I stood for a long time and watched as snow began to fall around me.
His question came again, weaker this time, and I was on the verge of tears, ashamed of what I had done. Suddenly, I had a strange memory flash of the endless beer in Mrs. Grimm’s basement. At least it was something. I leaned out over the edge and, almost certain I was lying, yelled, “I had too much love.”
Then, so I could barely make it out, I heard him whisper, “Thank you.”
After that, there came from below the thud of branches hitting together, hitting the ground, and I knew he had come undone. When I squinted again, the figure was gone.
I found my father sitting on a fallen tree trunk back along the trail, smoking a cigarette. “Hey,” he said when he saw me coming, “did you find anything?”
“No,” I said, “let’s go home.”
He must have seen something in my eyes, because he asked, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” I said.
The snow fell during our journey home and seemed to continue falling all winter long.
Now, twenty-one-years married with two crewcut boys of my own, I went back to the old neighborhood last week. The woods and even the school have been obliterated, replaced by new developments with streets named for the things they banished—Crow Lane, Deer Street, Gold Creek Road. My father still lives in the same house by himself. My mother passed away some years back. My baby sister is married with two boys of her own and lives upstate. The old man has something growing on his kidney, and he has lost far too much weight, his once huge arms having shrunk to the width of branches. He sat at the kitchen table, the racing form in front of him. I tried to convince him to quit working, but he shook his head and said, “Boring.”
“How long do you think you can keep going to the shop?” I asked him.
“How about until the last second,” he said.
“How’s the health?” I asked.
“Soon I’ll be food for the worms,” he said, laughing.
“How do you really feel about that?” I asked.
He shrugged. “All part of the game,” he said. “I thought when things got bad enough I would build a coffin and sleep in it. That way, when I die, you can just nail the lid on and bury me in the backyard.”
Later, when we were watching the Giants on TV and I had had a few beers, I asked him if he remembered that time in the woods.
He closed his eyes and lit a cigarette as though it would help his memory. “Oh, yeah, I think I remember that,” he said.
I had never asked him before. “Was that you down there in those trees?”
He took a drag and slowly turned his head and stared hard, without a smile, directly into my eyes. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, and exhaled a long, blue-gray stream of life.
© 2002 by Jeffrey Ford.
Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.