By Chris Cocca
It was coming up on three; the shadows from the rowhomes reached back to the alley. Behind the alley, other rows; much farther back, the mountains. The girl was picking tree bark from her tidy yard. The boy, watching from his porch, had spent the summer in the buttonwoods that lined a strip of grass between their houses and the main road in and out of town. The girl had spent the summer with her grandma in the mountains.
“Well,” he said, “how was it?”
“My granddad shot a cougar.”
“Scared it off at least.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s something.”
“What did you do?”
“Built an engine with my pop. Climbed that tree,” he said, pointing to the sycamore with cankered crowns sixty feet above her mailbox. “Climbed it to the top.”
“Did. And I swept the bark out of your garden.”
“Not much of a garden,” she said.
“Well, you know how they peel.”
“They wouldn’t peel so much if you’d stop rutching up and down ‘em.”
“You sound like your pop.”
“Well, he isn’t wrong.”
“He is. The bark peels off like scabs no matter what you do.”
“You don’t help it any.”
“I don’t hurt it none.” He came down the concrete stairs. “I let the grass come up through the cracks,” he said, pointing to his walkway. “I figure something that strong, that determined, deserves a fighting chance.”
“It’s ruining your walk.”
He sat down in the grass. “You know anything about dreams?”
“Dreams?” she said, “what made you think of that?”
“Sometimes I have strange ones. All summer long I had a dream about the sun. And I started to think, well maybe the sun is me, or maybe I’m the sun.”
“And I’m the sun, and I’m shining.”
“Yes,” he said. “On you.”
“I am the sun,” he said and stood. “I am the sun and the moon and the air.”
“You’re not either,” she said. That’s how her grandma talked.
“Am too. I am the sun and the moon and the air.” He traced the sidewalk’s cracks with a dirty, calloused finger. “Not just the light or the water or sky.”
“No, you’re not. You sound like prideful Joseph.”
“I am the earth and everything in it. Everything you’d die without.”
After dinner, Abner’s father took his belt. “Abner, I’m sorry. Christ says love your neighbor. You made the Jenkins girl cry. Even worse, you scared her. I don’t want to whoop you, boy, but better me and better now than you not learning something. You can’t go running off your mouth. You can’t be picking fights and bragging.”
The next day, the boy picked mint and cosmos. The Jenkins girl answered the door.
“Lily,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
She looked at the meager bouquet. “I heard your pop tanning your hide.”
“I didn’t cry none.”
“That’s brave, Abner,” she said.
“It didn’t hurt none.”
“I’m sorry I told.”
“Let me put these in water. Abner, they are lovely.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Least I could do for making you cry.”
“I’m sorry your pop went and beat you.”
“Didn’t hurt none.”
“I believe you.” This news made him happy.
“Please, not through the yard,” she said. “The foxglove never took.”
That night, Abner dreamt that he was older. He was telling Lily: “I am not the sun and the moon and the air. I am the lupines above the coal room. I am morning glories climbing up the trellis. I am the weight that breaks the lattice, the splinter in your father’s hand when he goes and tries to fix it. I am rooting in the mortar, in your windows, in your blood.” He woke up with a headache, everything was wet. Across the grocer’s alley, Lily’s light was on. “I am your Virginia creeper,” he said. “Your precious, lurking vine.”
In the morning, the shadows from the sycamores and rowhomes made lines connecting bars, garages, churches. In the grocer’s alley, Mr. Jenkins swept the walk; Lily gathered curling bark from where she’d planted larkspur. Abner watched them from his porch.
“Ain’t it something,” Abner said when Mr. Jenkins had gone around the back to burn a clutch of nightshade.
Abner moseyed over. “Your house. It’s getting smaller.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Every day a little bit of mortar wears away. Like when you rub your eyes, the sleep sand falling out.”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s nothing. The mortar only crumbles where the ivy latches on.”