By Greg Bear
When I was seven years old, I met an old man by the side of the dusty road between school and farm. The late afternoon sun had cooled, and he was sitting on a rock, hat off, hands held out to the gentle warmth, whistling a pretty song. He nodded at me as I walked past. I nodded back. I was curious, but I knew better than to get involved with strangers, as if they might turn into lions when no one but a little kid was around.
“Hello, boy,” he said.
I stopped and shuffled my feet. He looked more like a hawk than a lion. His clothes were brown and grey and russet, and his hands were pink like the flesh of some rabbit a hawk had just plucked up. His face was brown except around the eyes, where he might have worn glasses; around the eyes he was white, and this intensified his gaze. “Hello,” I said.
“Was a hot day. Must have been hot in school,” he said.
“They got air conditioning.”
“So they do, now. How old are you?”
“Seven,” I said. “Well, almost eight.”
“Mother told you never to talk to strangers?”
“And Dad, too.”
“Good advice. But haven‟t you seen me around here before?”
I looked him over. “No.”
“Closely. Look at my clothes. What color are they?”
His shirt was grey, like the rock he was sitting on. The cuffs, where they peeped from under a russet jacket, were white. He didn‟t smell bad, but he didn‟t look particularly clean. He was smooth-shaven, though.
His hair was white, and his pants were the color of the dirt below the rock. “All kinds of colors,” I said.
“But mostly I partake of the landscape, no?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“That‟s because I‟m not here. You‟re imagining me, at least part of
me. Don‟t I look like somebody you might have heard of?”
“Who are you supposed to look like?” I asked.
“Well, I‟m full of stories,” he said. “Have lots of stories to tell little boys, little girls, even big folk, if they‟ll listen.”
I started to walk away.
“But only if they‟ll listen,” he said. I ran. When I got home, I told my older sister about the man on the road, but she only got a worried look and told me to stay away from strangers. I took her advice. For some time afterward, into my eighth year, I avoided that road and did not speak with strangers more than I had to.
The house that I lived in, with the five other members of my family and two dogs and one beleaguered cat, was white and square and comfortable. The stairs were rich dark wood overlaid with worn carpet. The walls were dark oak paneling up to a foot above my head, then white plaster, with a white plaster ceiling. The air was full of smells—bacon
when I woke up, bread and soup and dinner when I came home from school, dust on weekends when we helped clean.
Sometimes my parents argued, and not just about money, and those were bad times; but usually we were happy. There was talk about selling the farm and the house and going to Mitchell where Dad could work in a computerized feed-mixing plant, but it was only talk.
* * * *
It was early summer when I took to the dirt road again. I‟d forgotten about the old man. But in almost the same way, when the sun was cooling and the air was haunted by lazy bees, I saw an old woman. Women strangers are less malevolent than men, and rarer. She was sitting on the grey rock, in a long green skirt summer-dusty, with a daisy-colored shawl and a blouse the precise hue of cottonwoods seen in a late hazy day‟s
muted light. “Hello, boy,” she said.
“I don‟t recognize you, either,” I blurted, and she smiled.
“Of course not. If you didn‟t recognize him, you‟d hardly know me.”
“Do you know him?” I asked. She nodded. “Who was he? Who are you?”
“We‟re both full of stories. Just tell them from different angles. You aren‟t afraid of us, are you?”
I was, but having a woman ask the question made all the difference. “No,” I said. “But what are you doing here? And how do you know—?”
“Ask for a story,” she said. “One you‟ve never heard of before.” Her eyes were the color of baked chestnuts, and she squinted into the sun so that I couldn‟t see her whites. When she opened them wider to look at me, she didn‟t have any whites.
“I don‟t want to hear stories,” I said softly.
“Sure you do. Just ask.”
“It‟s late. I got to be home.”
“I knew a man who became a house,” she said. “He didn‟t like it. He stayed quiet for thirty years, and watched all the people inside grow up, and be just like their folks, all nasty and dirty and leaving his walls to flake, and the bathrooms were unbeatable. So he spit them out one morning, furniture and all, and shut his doors and locked them.”
“You heard me. Upchucked. The poor house was so disgusted he changed back into a man, but he was older and he had a cancer and his heart was bad because of all the abuse he had lived with. He died soon after.”
I laughed, not because the man had died, but because I knew such things were lies. “That‟s silly,” I said.
“Then here‟s another. There was a cat who wanted to eat butterflies. Nothing finer in the world for a cat than to stalk the grass, waiting for black-and-pumpkin butterflies. It crouches down and wriggles its rump to dig in the hind paws, then it jumps. But a butterfly is no sustenance for a cat. It‟s practice. There was a little girl about your age—might have been your sister, but she won‟t admit it—who saw the
cat and decided to teach it a lesson. She hid in the taller grass with two old kites under each arm and waited for the cat to come by stalking. When it got real close, she put on her mother‟s dark glasses, to look all bug-eyed, and she jumped up flapping the kites. Well, it was just a little too real, because in a trice she found herself flying, and she was much smaller than she had been, and the cat jumped at her. Almost
got her, too. Ask your sister about that sometime. See if she doesn‟t deny it.”
“How‟d she get back to be my sister again?”
“She became too scared to fly. She lit on a flower and found herself crushing it. The glasses broke, too.”
“My sister did break a pair of Mom‟s glasses once.”
The woman smiled.
“I got to be going home.”
“Tomorrow you bring me a story, okay?”
I ran off without answering. But in my head, monsters were already rising. If she thought I was scared, wait until she heard the story I had to tell! When I got home my older sister, Barbara, was fixing lemonade in the kitchen. She was a year older than I but acted as if she were grown-up. She was a good six inches taller, and I could beat her if I got in a lucky punch, but no other way—so her power over me was awesome. But we were usually friendly.
“Where you been?” she asked, like a mother.
“Somebody tattled on you,” I said.
Her eyes went doe-scared, then wizened down to slits. “What‟re you talking about?”
“Somebody tattled about what you did to Mom‟s sunglasses.”
“I already been whipped for that,” she said nonchalantly. “Not much more to tell.”
“Oh, but I know more.”
“Was not playing doctor,” she said. The youngest, Sue-Ann, weakest and
most full of guile, had a habit of telling the folks somebody or other was playing doctor. She didn‟t know what it meant—I just barely did—but
it had been true once, and she held it over everybody as her only vestige of power.
“No,” I said, “but I know what you were doing. And I won‟t tell anybody.”
“You don‟t know nothing,” she said. Then she accidentally poured half a-pitcher of lemonade across the side of my head and down my front. When Mom came in I was screaming and swearing like Dad did when he fixed the cars, and I was put away for life plus ninety years in the bedroom I shared with younger brother Michael. Dinner smelled better than usual that evening, but I had none of it. Somehow I wasn‟t brokenhearted. It gave me time to think of a scary story for the country-colored woman on the rock.
* * * *
School was the usual mix of hell and purgatory the next day. Then the hot, dry winds cooled and the bells rang and I was on the dirt road again, across the southern hundred acres, walking in the lees and shadows of the big cotton woods. I carried my Road-Runner lunch pail and my pencil box and one book—a handwriting manual I hated so much I tore pieces out of it at night, to shorten its lifetime—and I walked slowly,
to give my story time to gel.
She was leaning up against a tree, not far from the rock. Looking back, I can see she was not so old as a boy of eight years thought. Now I see her lissome beauty and grace, despite the dominance of grey in her reddish hair, despite the crow‟s-feet around her eyes and the
smile-haunts around her lips. But to the eight-year-old she was simply a peculiar crone. And he had a story to tell her, he thought, that would age her unto graveside.
“Hello, boy,” she said.
“Hi.” I sat on the rock.
“I can see you‟ve been thinking,” she said.
I squinted into the tree shadow to make her out better. “How‟d you know?”
“You have the look of a boy that‟s been thinking. Are you here to listen to another story?”
“Got one to tell, this time,” I said.
“Who goes first?”
It was always polite to let the woman go first, so I quelled my haste and told her she could. She motioned me to come by the trees and sit on a smaller rock, half-hidden by grass. And while the crickets in the shadow tuned up for the evening, she said, “Once there was a dog. This dog was a pretty usual dog, like the ones that would chase you around home if they thought they could get away with it—if they didn‟t know
you or thought you were up to something the big people might disapprove of. But this dog lived in a graveyard. That is, he belonged to the caretaker. You‟ve seen a graveyard before, haven‟t you?”
“Like where they took Grandpa.”
“Exactly,” she said. “With pretty lawns, and big white-and-grey stones,
and for those who‟ve died recently, smaller grey stones with names and flowers and years cut into them. And trees in some places, with a mortuary nearby made of brick, and a garage full of black cars, and a place behind the garage where you wonder what goes on.” She knew the place, all right.
“This dog had a pretty good life. It was his job to keep the grounds clear of animals at night. After the gates were locked, he‟d be set loose, and he wandered all night long. He was almost white, you see. Anybody human who wasn‟t supposed to be there would think he was a ghost, and they‟d run away.
“But this dog had a problem. His problem was, there were rats that didn‟t pay much attention to him. A whole gang of rats. The leader was a big one, a good yard from nose to tail. These rats made their living by burrowing under the ground in the old section of the cemetery.”
That did it. I didn‟t want to hear any more. The air was a lot colder than it should have been, and I wanted to get home in time for dinner and still be able to eat it. But I couldn‟t go just then.
“Now the dog didn‟t know what the rats did, and just like you and I, probably, he didn‟t much care to know. But it was his job to keep them under control. So one day he made a truce with a couple of cats that he normally tormented and told them about the rats. These cats were scrappy old toms, and they‟d long since cleared out the competition of other cats, but they were friends themselves. So the dog made them a proposition. He said he‟d let them use the cemetery anytime they wanted, to prowl or hunt in or whatever, if they would put the fear of God into a few of the rats. The cats took him up on it. „We get to do whatever we want,‟ they said, „whenever we want, and you won‟t bother us.‟ The dog agreed.
“That night the dog waited for the sounds of battle. But they never came. Nary a yowl.” She glared at me for emphasis. “Not a claw scratch. Not even a twitch of tail in the wind.” She took a deep breath, and so did I. “Round about midnight the dog went out into the graveyard.
It was very dark, and there wasn‟t wind or bird or speck of star to relieve the quiet and the dismal inside-of-a-box-camera blackness. He sniffed his way to the old part of the graveyard and met with the head rat, who was sitting on a slanty, cracked wooden grave marker. Only his eyes and a tip of tail showed in the dark, but the dog could smell him. „What happened to the cats?‟ he asked. The rat shrugged his haunches. „Ain‟t seen any cats,‟ he said. „What did you think—that you could scare
us out with a couple of cats? Ha. Listen—if there had been any cats
here tonight, they‟d have been strung and hung like meat in a shed, and my youn‟uns would have grown fat on—‟“
“No-o-o!” I screamed, and I ran away from the woman and the tree until
I couldn‟t hear the story anymore.