It was a muggy, porch-sitting Saturday afternoon when the stranger came northbound along Rural Route #16. He was clean and well put for a man, save for the dust and sweat of the road. He touched the brim of his weathered hat and set a booted left foot on the worn step of Burt Mitchum’s storefront. “Howdy. You fellas know where I can find the Levendis homestead?”
“Levendis? You mean the old Levi place? Up the way two miles or so.” Partridge Maycomb pointed north with his sweaty bottle of RC Cola. He noticed the stranger’s eyes, goat’s eyes, but didn’t say nothing as it wasn’t his business.
“Out on behind the poplar grove on your left as you go,” Seth Blovett said, and spit chew juice over the railing. He saw how the man’s ring fingers were longer than the middle ones, but wasn’t one to say so.
“Ain’t much to the place. Run down. Been some time since folks lived there.” Carl Mays took in how the fellow’s ears were pointed, but figured it wasn’t his place to speak out.
The stranger brought his boot back to the dirt road. “Thank you kindly.”
Bubba Maycomb, Partridge’s half-wit son, watched the stranger walk on. “Pa, hey, Pa, you see that fella’s — ?”
“Never you mind, Bubba,” Partridge said, and finished his RC.
Near on two miles up the road, the stranger turned left at the crown of summer poplars. The house was small and not much to look at, but he didn’t see it run down at all. The windows were whole and the door clear of high grasses. The plank walls wore fresh whitewash. The yard was a patchwork quilt of asters, goldenrod, and ox-eye daisies. An apple tree with low branches promised good pickings come fall. It was a comfortable place, not so much lonesome as content to be alone. He pushed his hat back and strode up the dusty drive and around the house on the left.
He found what he was looking for past a march of poplar on the far side of the backfield. A golden-haired boy old enough to be summer’s best friend squatted in the thick mud alongside a tumbling creek, faded overalls rolled up to his knees. He turned rocks over with a crooked stick a splash at a time.
The stranger came along side and hunkered down. The mud dried up and cracked around his boots. “Howdy.”
“Howdy,” said the boy without looking up.
“Mudbugs. Or treasure, sometimes.”
The stranger picked up a smooth black rock and tossed it into the water. He breathed in the heat of the day, the cool of the stream. “What sort of treasure?”
“All kinds. I found this yesterday.” The boy reached into his right front pocket and pulled out a ragged tube of woven paper-thin strips of wood once red or green, now faded and dirty. “Hold out your hands.” The stranger obliged, and the boy slid one end of the tube over each of the stranger’s first fingers. “Now try to get loose.” He smiled. His eyes were blue as the sky, with sunbeam lashes.
The stranger moved his hands apart; the tube tightened until it was snug around his fingers. “Well.”
“Some trick, huh?” The boy picked up his stick.
“You could say so.”
A shape scurried out from under a tipped rock, and quick-like the boy picked it up for a closer look. He turned the mudbug this way and that, its legs and claws going every which way, then set it back in the water.
“You always let them go?” The stranger eased his hands together and freed his fingers, left, right. He set the tube on his left knee and smoothed it flat.
“Good of you.”
There wasn’t no wrong in the silence that settled between them, but soon the boy sighed and scrunched up without moving. He put himself more inside his skin, like as if he didn’t want to say what had to be said. “I like it here.”
“So do I,” said the stranger. “Real nice place.”
“I don’t got to rush none, or worry.”
“You ain’t going away, are you?”
The boy poked his stick in the mud. Two twigs near the top stood out crosswise. “It’s not fair.”
“C’mon now.” The stranger’s words were gentle. “Deal’s a deal. We take turns, here or anywhere, that’s how it’s always been.”
“It’s so hard.” The boy’s shoulders sagged low as his frown. “All most folks want me for anymore is for wanting. Round here, I can be myself like I used to, even have my name to myself again. It’s all peaceful.”
“I know. No demands or foolery. No deals.” The stranger stared straight on at the sun, unblinking. “We can just be.”
They touched hands and kept company with the creek until the boy sighed and made his feet. “All right.” He rolled down the legs of his coveralls. “You take care of the place, ‘kay?”
“Always do.” Mud oozed around the stranger’s boots. “Take your time comin’ round again.”
The golden-haired boy headed towards the house. He looked back once, only once, as a dark-haired boy with two left feet unlaced his boots so’s to feel the cool mud between his toes with no one around to call Old Scratch out for doing it.
The yellow-haired stranger headed southbound towards the bend in Rural Route #16. His overalls was faded but clean, and he wore a John Deere ball cap far back on his head. He smiled bright and friendly — “Howdy, fellas.” — as he walked straight into Burt Mitchum’s, and equal friendly when he walked out with a frosty RC Cola and fried bologna sandwich and went on down the steps.
Bubba Maycomb watched the stranger walk on. “Pa, Pa, you see that fella’s — ?”
“Never you mind, Bubba,” Patridge said, and took another swig of cola on a muggy, porch-sitting Saturday afternoon.
I wrote the scene of the boy with yellow hair by the stream during a writing workshop on point of view and setting conducted by Charles de Lint, and realized afterwards that I was more interested in why the boy was there than the scene itself. I am fascinated by how our perceptions have shaped the concepts of good and evil, light and dark. How might such a duality feel about such rigid roles? Would they long for a moment where they could be themselves without living up or down to our expectations? A getaway where folks didn’t ask too many questions? Wouldn’t you? Thank you for reading.