Category Archives: The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

PART 3, CH. 1) – The Boy Strager: A free novel (Can you spot the allegory…er, the metaphor…er, both?)

         A few moments later mother came and stood next to the boy in the doorway of the room with the hole.  She pushed him back gently with her arm and told him that she wanted to close the door to the room.  She told him that since they didn’t have the money to fix the hole, closing the door to the room was the best they could do.  Soon, she said, father would sell enough hats that they could hire someone to repair the roof.  Maybe he’d even sell enough so that they could buy a new house.

            “Somewhere closer to town, perhaps,” she said.  “Away from the watching mountain.”  Mother sounded uncomfortably suspicious, and the boy didn’t understand.  The hundreds of marching and watching eyes in Richmond never seemed to bother her, when the lines of immaculate blue soldiers filed past their row house with their glistening, silver bayonets against their shoulders pointing threateningly towards the sky.  She would open the curtain in the bedroom and stare back at them until they rounded the corner.

The lines of soldiers were as big as any mountain, the boy thought, and yet mother would stare back at them with a calm, resigned look on her face.  But out by the ranch house in South Dakota there was nobody.  No hoards of blue soldiers marching past; just one lonely, cold mountain in the distance.  Yet she seemed troubled.

            “Can I have this room, mother,” the boy asked.  He remembered the moon in the window of his bedroom in Richmond, and didn’t mind being watched by the moon, or the mountain or the sky.  With the hole, he could stare back at the moon even longer at night than he used to.  And besides, didn’t Lucy tell him he should appreciate the thinness of the walls, and everything new in South Dakota?  He’d never had a room with a hole in the roof before.

            Lucy came up behind them as mother was closing the door, and before mother had a chance to answer the boy, Lucy spoke.  She was no longer crying.  Her eyes were not even red anymore.

            “Oh, what a marvelous idea, Jason!  It will be just like sleeping outside in our new place!  I think I must surely envy you a little bit.  How can you ever forget where you are when you wake up and see the sky of South Dakota above you?  I’m afraid I will wake up in the middle of the night and still think I’m in Richmond.  I wish I had chosen this room first, but I guess you’re the lucky one, Jason. You see?  Already your imagination is getting better!”

            “I think you will freeze, Jason,” mother said.  “And I think you’ll have to tread water when it rains.  And you will never get a break from South Dakota, not even in your bed at night.”

            “No, I like this room, mother.  I have many blankets, and I’ll move the bed to the side so that I’m not directly under the hole.  I like this room.  It gives me something to think about besides Richmond,” the boy said.

            “Rain from the ceiling!” Lucy said. “What a lovely thing! Waterfalls and stars!  Waterfalls and stars!  Why, it will be like you are part of the fields and hills and flowers of South Dakota!  And if it rains, you will wake up even taller than the night before!”

She giggled.

            Mother said, “But what about the candle you like to keep next to your bed?  I think you’ll have trouble keeping it burning in here.  This room seems dreadfully drafty.”

            “Well, the hole is a place for the moon, I suppose,” the boy said.  “There will be light.”

            Mother shrugged.

            “If you want to sleep in here then I have nothing against it,” she said.  “I don’t know what your father will think, but it’s best if we don’t bother him about this right now. When he settles in at the store and begins to sell enough to make him happy, then we can tell him.”

            “Of course, mother.”

            “You are seventeen and can do what you want.”

            “Yes, mother.”

            Mother sighed and pressed her hands against her pulled-back hair and smoothed it.  Then she straightened and smoothed her dress, and adjusted it slightly at the bust.

            Mother said, “Now I must go and help your father unpack.  He wants me to pick out the hats for the window of the new shop.  You two can come and help, or you can stay and unpack your own things; whatever you choose. Later you can bring in some wood, Jason, and we can light a fire in the fireplace.  Hole or no hole, this house seems very greedy for heat, even though it’s not yet the middle of October.”

***

            A few hours later the great trunks were unpacked and father had chosen the hats he wanted displayed in the shop window.  He was now in the kitchen having tea, and mother was putting the linens on the bed in the main bedroom.  Lucy and Jason were sitting in front of the fire place where a small flame shyly crackled.

            Jason asked his sister about father’s shop, and many other things, too.  He asked her if the moon was brighter in South Dakota than it was in Richmond, and how far away the mountain was and if it was further than it looked, and if it was dark and shadowy by nature or if the sky gave it that color and made it look that way.  He asked her what she thought of cows and horses, and where he should put his bed, and whether or not he did the right thing in picking the room with the hole.  He asked her if the war in Richmond was a good war or a bad one and if she thought it was right that Richmond fell the way it did.

            Then he sat back and listened to her answers, enjoying the warmth of the fire.  All of her answers were bright, coming at him more like flashes of light than like words.  Like the popping of muskets.

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(PART 2, CH. 1)–The Boy Stranger: A free novel (Can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

HINT:  The primary purpose of this novel is to highlight my philosophical belief that all reality and truth is fundamentally and singularly bound within the physical world.  That beyond the physical, the visceral, and the natural, all other “truth” is abstract, and thus, the driving force of all real morality, as well as our justification before God is our very created selves.  Furthermore, I believe the consciousness to be an inexorable part of the biological, though capable of putting one outside of their own physical existence theoretically, based on quantifiable observations.  Nevertheless, this unique ability of man’s consciousness does NOT change the reality that all that exists and is truth is actual, objective physical “things”, of which man is preeminent…and thus, the material universe IS the source of all spirits and souls.  And of course, as a Christian, I consider God to be the very definition of the perfect, visceral, utterly real IT, or, as He puts it better, I AM.  If He is not physically REAL, by very essence, then what is?  I am not suggesting that GOD is an abstraction, is what I mean to say.  If nothing else, the PERSON of Jesus Christ obviously proves that.  On the contrary, there can in fact be no abstract attribute ascribed to God within his own existential framework.  He is utterly ALL He is and all He thinks and all He does…all of that IS God.  And that is why God is One.

The secondary purpose of this novel is to show the destructive pitfalls which result from seeing reality through the lens of abstract constructs; that is, basing one’s assumption of “truth” (moral or otherwise) on a figment of man’s ability to think OUTSIDE his physical environment.  One one hand, we have the practical, uber here-and-now thinking “Jason”; on the other, his sister, Lucy.  The persistent dreamer, almost to the point of madness. And still to come, Leonard, the “faceless man”…the physical embodiment (as he seems to think) of the all powerful abstraction:  “god”…but not the true God.  No, “god”, but devoid of the boundaries of man’s existential–though certainly no less true–reality…that is, reason, logic, metaphysical and moral consistency.  He, that is Leonard, of course, could thus be consider the symbolism for mystic despotism, or, as John Immel puts is, spiritual tyranny.  And if you consider him thus, you will not be wrong.  That is part of it. 

Er…I also hope the novel is , you know, fun to read and a good story.

And now, on we go, with our heroes, long suffering Credence family:

On the platform were two men in wool pants and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up.  They were standing next to the Credence family’s great trunks discussing and something in loud voices, not paying much attention to anything but their own conversation. The boy sniffed the air and there was just a hint of coldness on it; just an aftertaste of a chill. It was getting on early autumn, and though it was still very warm in Richmond this time of year, it was much cooler in South Dakota.  Here the boy understood that the chill came early and stayed late, and already there was something cold under the surface of the season.

The boy looked at the men standing next to the great trunks and noticed that they were wearing hats.  They did not look like father’s hats, though, but more like the hats that the horse handlers wore back in Richmond.  The boy recognized something familiar in the uncaring, lazy way about these men.

Father gestured toward the great trunks and told the men that he and the family were ready to go.  The men didn’t seem to pay any attention to father, but the boy knew that they must have heard him because they turned and, still talking to themselves, lifted the great trunks into the air and began to walk with them.

Lucy was still smiling as the men loaded the trunks onto the wagon, which was hitched to one white horse, with splashes of gray on its back and near its hooves.  The boy noticed that mother was smiling too, but he thought there was something different about the way she was smiling. There was something not real about mother’s smile.  It was like during the War when the boy would sometimes see certain gray soldiers back in Richmond salute their officers, but he could tell that there was no meaning behind it; or that the meaning had somehow changed.

“Jason, you must come now,” mother said.  “Get on the wagon and stop thinking so much.  Get out of your mind and see this new place around you.  You seem very slow today, and I feel like a cat tugging on a snagged string.”

The boy said, “And I am that string, caught in the splinter of a door.” He smiled.

“You are the string, Jason. Always dragged along this way or that way, by some whim or thought, or another,” mother said.

“And I am a fuse,” Lucy said with a giggle.  “We are both strings, Jason, just not the same kind.”

They all climbed into the wagon and were soon underway.

“Jason,” mother said as they bumped along the dirt road.  “What do you think of South Dakota?”

“Do you think they will like father’s hats?” the boy replied.

“I don’t know what they will think of them.  I don’t know enough about this place, same as you.  Same as Lucy, except she pretends she knows, which is fine because it’s the way she is and it suits her.  But I don’t know. I agree they do not have many hats here like the kind your father wants to sell.  But then, this could be a good thing.  Maybe something of the East out here in the West will suit them.”

“Mother, have you noticed the way their boots are so dirty?” the boy said.  “Where are the cobblestones?”

Mother shrugged.  “It’s just the streets here, Jason.”

“They are just dirt,” he said.

“Oh, you two,” Lucy said.  “I just don’t understand you.  You see only dirty boots and dead cows on tracks and dirty streets.  I saw your face, Jason, when the man was talking about the cows.  Father and I do not see it like this.  We see lovely people who need what we have brought here.  We see that it is bright in South Dakota—at least today it is bright.  And so why should we not think it will be bright every day?  And I know that you see it’s bright, too, Jason, but when you see the brightness all you can think about is the moon and your burning candle by your bed in Richmond.  You loved that burning candle.  Even when all of Richmond was burning down around you, you lit that silly candle, and so I think you are a very strange boy.  So what if they have dirt on their streets and on their boots?  Father has purchased a beautiful ranch house out on the edge of Shadow.  It will probably have dirty floors and a dirty chimney, but does all that dirt mean that it’s not beautiful?”

Mother said, “Lucy, you are my very sweet daughter.  I think it’s indeed bright in South Dakota, but I don’t think it was bright until the cheerful Lucy arrived here.”

The horse looked very uninterested as she pulled the wagon up the very long, very narrow dirt road to the ranch house on the outskirts of Shadow.  There were two men on the wagon sitting on the front bench with father.  Father seemed very impatient, even more impatient than the men, and he was snapping his fingers at his family, who were in the back of the wagon between the trunks.  Father was sitting on the bench, up at the front of the wagon, between the two men who had come along to drive the wagon and to help unload the trunks.

“When we arrive, you must hurry with the trunks, and help these men, and get them unloaded quickly,” Father said.  “You see that these are very busy men and they are in a hurry, so we must also be in a hurry.  This is what you do when you come to a new place.  If you do what you’ve always done, then you are very silly and you should never have bothered leaving the place you came from.”

“Father, if that’s true, then why do you intend to set up your shop here in South Dakota?  Isn’t that what we’ve always done?  The only difference is that we’ll do it here, now.  Something of the East here in the West, as mother said.  What’s wrong with that?” the boy said.

Father replied, “Lucy is right about the hats.  We’ll sell them, but we’ll just have to do it quickly, and catch the people as fast as they are moving.  Things move very quickly in South Dakota.”

Father turned away from the family and said something to the men driving the wagon, but the boy could not hear it.  Father was blinking quickly and his cheeks were twitching.  The horse, on the other hand, hardly ever blinked, and her tail swished lazily as she pulled the wagon with slow and deliberate clomps of her feet.

***

 

The ranch house was low and had a faded, gray-tan hue like the land around it, and was crooked and sagging at the ends.  The boards of the house bowed and curled as half-hearted and bent nails protruded from them.  The windows were closed securely and were colorless and bland and seemed to reflect nothing at all.  The curtains behind them were old and bunched and knotted.

The curtains and the tightly closed windows reminded the boy of an aunt he had back in Richmond who wore her hair in a motionless braid and pursed her wrinkled lips sharply and almost never blinked. As the boy stared at the old ranch house, he thought of this aunt and something that happened to him a long time ago:

When he was nine, the boy walked into a room in the family’s row house in Richmond to find that his aunt was dead.  She was sitting in a chair next to a window, where the afternoon sun fell upon her body, and he stood just a few feet behind her, a little off to the side.  A little while later the boy’s mother walked up behind him and asked him how long he’d been there. The boy couldn’t remember exactly, but it had been quite some time.  There was still sun upon the body of his dead aunt, but the sun was the golden color of a late afternoon at that point, not the bright sun of the morning it had been when he walked in.

When the boy walked into the room it had not taken long for him to discover that his aunt was dead.  But the strange thing was that this fact didn’t seem to have any practical effect on him.  It didn’t keep him from talking to her for a time, and moving the hair gently from her eyes, and placing her tea delicately on the window sill, and reading a little of her favorite book out loud to her, as was his daily custom when she came to stay with the family.  He didn’t do anything particularly different than he normally would have, except that when he was finished with his routine, he went back to standing behind her, a little off to the side.  Perhaps this strange behavior was due  to his youth.  Or perhaps it was that his aunt had always a certain look about her that was the same in death as it was in life.

When mother came in the room she looked at the dead aunt in a way that one would look at a dead bird in the yard.  She told the boy that it was just as well and then quickly made him promise to never tell anyone she said this.

Then she said something about how death has a way of bringing out the personality of someone like this aunt. Then she made the boy promise to never tell anyone she said this, either.

The boy asked mother what she meant by this, and she replied that she meant more than one thing.  She then told him that if he really wanted to understand he needed only to go to the funeral.  So the boy went to the funeral a few days later with the family, and he found out that mother was right.

The preacher gave a speech and said many nice things about this dead aunt, and the boy understood that the things he said just didn’t fit.  The coffin fit, that is to say it fit around her like it had been there all her life.  But the words of the preacher did not make sense to him.  And also his aunt’s eyes were closed and her lips were turned up into a peaceful smile, and this didn’t make sense to the boy either because he had never seen her smile before.

***

The back of the ranch house was set towards the snow covered mountain in the distance.  The snow looked like a noose around the neck of the mountain, and there was a dark, gray curtain of clouds above and behind it that reminded the boy of the hoods they put on men’s heads just before they dropped them through the gallows in Richmond during the War.  The boy shuddered at this thought and drove it from his mind.  He needed to be more like Lucy, he thought.  He’d probably sleep better at night if he were, especially in South Dakota.

The windows of the house reflected no sunlight, and the boy wondered if anything at all could give a reflection way out there by the ranch house.  Did rivers and lakes give off a reflection, or did they just look like big holes in the ground?  He didn’t know of any rivers or lakes nearby, but he supposed that there must be some.  The melting snow from the mountain had to go somewhere.  If it ever melted, that is.  It was much colder there than it was in Richmond this time of year, the boy thought.  Colder in South Dakota and even colder out there in the lonely plains where the ranch house stood.

The land was very flat and hard around the ranch house, for the most part.  At irregular intervals there were crops of brush and some holes in the ground made by some animal or other, and there were three or four trees standing huddled together several meters away that looked to the boy like they had wandered out too far and gotten lost.  There was also a deep well in the front yard that was dry and dusty-looking on the outside.  A bucket hung lifelessly askew from an old rope underneath the small roof of the well housing.

The boy went to the well and put his head down into it.  There was a very strong, unpleasant odor.  For a moment he was afraid that perhaps it was not a well, but a grave.  He jerked his head back in disgust and banged it on the bucket.  It hurt, but he was relieved because the bucket reminded him that, yes, it was a well, not a tomb.  But the smell was still not good, and the boy thought that if he ever fell down into that well he’d die from the smell before he hit the bottom.

Dead bones.  That’s what it smelled like to him.  Dead bones piled high in the blackness.  And he knew very well what that smelled like; he remembered from the war in Richmond.  The bones smelled and they were all the same; blue or gray or black or white, they all smelled the same.  All the skulls were the same skull, and all the legs were the same leg, there was no difference.

Mother said, “Jason, the trunks are unloaded off the wagon, no thanks to you.  Truly you’re a foolish boy, and a dullard, with an imagination as empty as that bucket that you just cracked your head on.  But I don’t blame you completely, for the men moved very fast, as they tend to do here in South Dakota.  I hope that things will not move too fast for us like that all the time, because then where will we be?”

“I’m not sure, mother,” the boy said.  “I suppose nowhere.”

Mother nodded, and looked up at the mountain in the distance.

“Anyway,” she said. “They have left us the wagon and the horse, which will be helpful.”

Father picked up one end of a trunk and began to drag it inside the ranch house

“We should get these inside and unpacked quickly,” he said. “Then we need to unload the hats and go to town and set up our new shop there.  If South Dakota moves quickly, then we better move quickly, as well.  I am much too old and too tired to go any further west, where the ocean is; which is the other place that some men from the East are going.  Anyway, we don’t have the money for that even if we wanted to.”

“The ocean is very far away,” the boy said.  “I don’t even think I could pretend to see the ocean from my bedroom window here, like I could in Richmond.”

Lucy said, “Jason, I fear for you because you’re so dull.  South Dakota is a full half way to the ocean.  It was my dream too, once, to see the ocean at both ends.  But at least I am halfway there.  And that’s how it goes with dreams sometimes.  You are lucky to get them at a half if you can.  You should understand this and not think so much about Richmond.”

Then Lucy turned to father. “Oh, father, it is so lovely here!  So bright and such land!  How I have dreamed of such land!  Land that is a great open and laughing mouth that breaths in and out and sends the cool wind over us to refresh us and not to hinder us. Such wonderful openness and no houses around for our own house to lean upon.  Not like in Richmond.  Can this be anything but freedom?”

Father grunted and jerked the trunk over a loose board near the door.

“Until the war,” he muttered.

“What did you say, Holland?” mother said.

“When the war came, there were no houses for ours to lean on,” father said. “I don’t see much difference here when it comes to that, Lucy.”

The boy looked around and he could not imagine the land laughing, like Lucy had said.  Like the ocean, it was too far for his imagination to reach.  But if it was an open mouth, he thought, it was not laughing.  It was snoring, or worse.  And the only freedom he felt was the kind of freedom one feels when he is lost in the desert.  But then, he was the dull boy, and Lucy was the one mother said was born with all the lightning and imagination.

Yes, he really needed to be more like Lucy, the boy thought.  Lucy saw much.  Much more than anyone else saw, and if this made her happy then he needed to be more like her.  He was so amazed that his sister had such a gift to see so many things, even things that were not even there. She saw laughing. He saw snoring, or worse. He was a dullard and she was lighting, so he decided that he would try to believe her and not listen to his own thoughts so much.

The boy also decided that he needed to be more like father.  He was a boy that thought too much, but father was a man who just did what needed to be done, like move his family from Richmond to South Dakota to sell hats, without thinking much about it.  There were so many people he needed to be like in his family he thought, and he began to wonder why he was even there.  But this was an unpleasant thought, like the noose of snow around the neck of the mountain, and he tried to put it out of his mind.

Mother said, “Children, obey your father and help him get those trunks inside.  Move quickly.  I feel a wind blowing, like a storm is coming.  If the trunks are stuck outside in the rain then they will be ruined, and if they are ruined then the only place we will have to put our things is this house, which I don’t believe is quite big enough.  And be especially careful of the latches and the hinges on the trunks because they are so delicate.”

Lucy skipped towards the front door of the ranch house, patting her brother playfully on the shoulder as she went by.

“Do what mother says, Jason, and help father bring in the trunks.  I am going to pick out my room,” she said, and disappeared inside the house with her braided hair bouncing behind her.

The boy picked up the other great trunk and dragged it towards the door and inside the house.

“Where should I put this trunk, mother?” he asked.

“Anywhere it will fit,” she said.

The boy stood in the doorway with one hand still holding one end of the great trunk and looked around.  It was dim and hard to see, but he could tell that the house was small.  He heard the latches on one of the trunks pop, and then he heard rummaging.  A moment later father began to light some candles and a lantern.

“Suppose it does not fit anywhere, mother,” the boy asked.

“Then force it,” mother said.

“But what about the delicate locks and hinges?”

“Who cares,” mother said. “Break them.  It’s selfish of me to wish them well.  I’m a good wife, Jason.  I have always thought it important to be a good wife ever since my mother taught me this.  I shouldn’t care about those trunks, and you and I should both stop thinking of Richmond.”

“Yes, mother,” the boy said, and went to find a place for the trunk.  He dropped it in the corner, then knelt down and popped the hinges.  He opened the trunk and began to unpack, but then he thought about what mother said, and about his decision to try to be more like Lucy, and he left the trunk and went to look around the house.

He came to a room toward the back of the house and noticed that there was a hole in the roof, large enough for a man to fit through.  It was a jagged hole, and it looked like it had been a weak spot in the wood, and that something heavy had been dropped through it.  It reminded him of the cannonball holes he’d seen in the homes in Richmond.  He looked at the hole curiously for a moment.

“Oh, my!  Jason!”  Lucy said, startling him as she appeared out of thin air behind him. “There is a hole in this roof!  And now I can see the beautiful day outside and the sun coming through.  Now I never even have to look out of the windows, which I have noticed are not so good for looking out of anyway.  What a wonderful place South Dakota is, to have such ways to see the brightness of the sky!”

The boy looked down and saw that there was an erratic stain from the water that had rained in through the hole in the roof and warped and discolored the wood of the floor.  Lucy looked at her brother, and saw that there was no expression on his face. He saw the hole and the stain, and there was nothing more in his face than that.  It was such a blank face, she thought, simply reflecting back what was right in front of him.  Or it was worse, she thought.  He was thinking about Richmond again.

Lucy said, “Oh, Jason.  I see that you’re a very silly boy, and a dullard, with an imagination like a dusty jar.  I don’t know why you are missing Richmond so. Why is it so hard for you to change?  Why can’t you appreciate the freedom we have here?  Are you so used to our row house, with its four walls and floors and roof, and people on all sides of us?  Why can’t you appreciate the freedom we have here in South Dakota, where the walls and roof are unattached, and the neighbors are few?  And what is so wrong with the wind and the rain coming in?”

Lucy began to cry.  Her lips trembled, and she wiped frantically at her eyes.

“I know you have bright memories of your burning candle by your bed, and of Richmond, and I have bright memories, too!” she said.  “But my brightest memory is when the general brought his blue fire to the city!  I was so afraid of the fire reaching our walls because the walls were so thick and tight and I knew that they would burn for a long, long time, and so we would also burn that way!  But I do not fear that here!  Here our walls are thin and the fire will burn them up quickly, if it comes, and so we won’t have to suffer long, not like in Richmond!  And perhaps we might even escape, and if we do there will be no throngs in the streets to block our way!  So don’t you see, Jason, you silly boy, that South Dakota is a good place where everything moves quickly, even the fire.  Now you must go and tell mother about this wonderful hole in your roof!  You will go and tell her of the brightness of the sky and the wind on your face, right in this room!  Go!  Go now!”

She screamed at the boy to leave, but instead of waiting for him to move, she turned and ran from him, sobbing heavily.

After a moment the boy turned and looked one more time at the hole in the roof.  He wondered how many of father’s fancy hats it would take to cover it up.

(PART 1, CH. 1)–The Boy Stranger: A free novel (Can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

Draw

 

 

 

Jason Credence told his sister, “I don’t recall ever having a dream like that, Lucy.  If I did, I’m sure I would not recognize it.” But he was a dullard, she said, and a fool, with an imagination like the eyes of a fish.

“Well, it was a lovely dream, Jason. Simply lovely.  I suppose you wouldn’t have fancied it, though.”  But all Lucy’s dreams were lovely, Jason knew. There was no difference between one and the next.  For it made no difference.  All was lovely with Lucy.  And all the time.

Jason was seventeen years old when the Civil War came to an end in 1865, and though Jason was considered to be a fool by his sister, and others, he was certainly not a coward.  During the last months of the war, he rode with some older boys who went off on their own sometimes, having no leader (for they were dead),  leaving Richmond in the darkness of night to go fight against the blue soldiers until dawn. One time he managed to kill a Yankee soldier with only a knife.

Several days after the war ended, the boy told Lucy about the soldier he’d killed.  She just smiled and stared out the window and spoke about how lovely the uniforms of the marching blue soldiers were, as the serpentine column wound through the city streets, eyes straight ahead…arrogant, proud, and yet, dignified, and this last thing heated the watching pedestrians to no end.  Lucy was imagining them all with lovely flowers on their lapels, and this she imagined simply because she thought that this would look nice.  When she drew a picture of them later—for she was a talented artist—she showed it to her brother, and he noticed that all the soldiers in the picture were wearing flowers.  Jason said that the flowers did not match the uniforms, or the death that the soldiers wore like a gray, opaque cloak around their shoulders.  His sister replied that it did not matter; she drew them as they marched, and when they marched, they were wearing flowers.  If they did not match…well, they were still so very lovely at any rate.

The boy’s father’s was from Richmond, Virginia, where he was from and where he raised his family.  The boy had a mother, of course, and then his one sibling, Lucy, of whom it has already been spoken.  Lucy was two years younger but several years wiser.  Yes, much wiser even than he was, was Jason’s thinking.

After the Civil War ended, father lost his job.  He had been a bookkeeper for a little shop in Richmond that sold fancy hats.  After the war there were very few people left who could afford them.  Those who could afford father’s hats had no place to wear them, and so they wouldn’t have wasted their money anyway.

The boy always remembered the white visage of the store, and the way the name of the store was written on the front in fancy, black calligraphy.  Father said that one day there would be fancy hats in Richmond again.  One day, when Richmond was born again new, and the streets clean and the glass from the windows shining gold from the sun.  But for now there was nothing left of the shop, and the money was running low, and what was left was practically worthless anyway.

Father began to speak to mother about moving West.  At night the boy would eavesdrop on their long discussions. The boy would press his ear to the cracks in the walls of their two-story row house, and to the undersides and key holes of the bedroom doors, and just listen and listen for what seemed like the entire night as father talked on and on in muffled tones about all the possibilities and opportunities out in the West.

Father suggested that perhaps they should move to South Dakota.  There, father said, he could open his own shop and sell his own fancy hats.  It would be wonderful, he said.  Mother sat quietly on the bed and listened, and when father was done speaking, she asked him about his playwriting.  He’d loved to write plays, and wrote many of them.  Whether they were good or not…this he had never bothered to find out.  And, so what mother was suggesting–that he stay in Richmond and write–had not crossed his mind.

Back before the war, when he was not working in the shop, father was writing plays.  Stacks and stacks of printed dialog would pour out from father’s little office upstairs. When he closed the door to the office, tattered and dog-eared scraps of yellowing and torn paper—some of it even bits of peeling shelf paper—would protrude out from underneath, clogging the space between the floor and the bottom of the door as leaves clog a gutter.  Perhaps he could try to sell these plays.  What a dream that would be, he thought.

Unfortunately the Richmond critics, those few remaining who had not fled north before the war, anyway, were not impressed.  And even though plays were hard to come by since the war ended, there was still the art of the thing to consider.  Dime store novels are better suited out West, they told him, which Father understood was their way of encouraging him to go.  One night while eavesdropping upstairs through a crack in the floor of the house, the boy heard father and the critics talking in the living room. He heard the critics telling his father that it would be hard to make money from a play that was less interesting than a person’s everyday life; and that these days plays had to be especially interesting, as the people of Richmond were coming off the heels of the great and terrible War of the States.  There needed to be something of progress and worldliness to the scripts; new plays for a new time, as it were, they told him.  It was now a very large country, and it was no longer acceptable to simply write about the things of Richmond.

Father seemed insulted, for the men had shown themselves rigid. As he escorted them out of the house, he told them, “The next time you see me, I will bring with me a great play, a new play, and even you stiff necks will then see.  And it will not be about the things of Richmond, but about the things of the West.  But I wonder if you two will be able to understand the difference, even in a country that is now as large as this one.”

“We are leaving,” he told mother and the boy…as they sat together on the bed in father and mother’s bedroom.

“But why so soon?” mother asked.

“Because it is no longer acceptable to write only the things of Richmond,” father said.

“But what else is there, father?” the boy asked.

“There is South Dakota. That should be different enough from this city, though I hear the Yankees have gone from here to there in the past months.  Another war, another rebellion, it seems,” he said with a sigh and shaking his head and carefully folding a shirt.  “But the blue soldiers are everywhere these days, so what can you do?  Richmond, South Dakota…we are all one nation now.”

The next night at dinner, before the candle which sat in the middle of the table, father told his family that they would not be waiting any longer, but that he had made arrangements for them all to leave the very next morning for South Dakota.  He’d bought the tickets, and the train would be waiting for them at the station and it would be leaving on time, and they would damn well be on it.  Lucy seemed excited, and she laughed with affection as father spoke of long train rides and all of the great open wide spaces.

“The West is indeed a good wide space,” father said calmly.  “Wide open spaces like that are sure to need some hats, and maybe even a play or two.” He stopped, smiled at Lucy, and then pushed his fork into his food.  “Fancy hats,” he added, just before taking a bite.

The next morning a coach came to take them to the station where all of them and everything was loaded on to the train.  Its nose pointed towards South Dakota, and soon they were underway.  Slowly at first, as trains do, and then faster, up to speed, then steady, chugging along with no thoughts of Richmond in the steam that rose towards the sky.  Steam…like empty cartoon balloons to be filled with the words of their new life.  The day gave way to the darkness, and the expanses of tracts of land and forest outside gave way to the claustrophobic blankness of black windows.  The boy fell asleep staring at the moon, and he dreamed about the moon rolling down a bright beach near the ocean.

 

***

 

It was many long days on the train before they arrived in South Dakota, in the town of Shadow.  Lucy leaned over and asked the boy if he thought it was a wonderful thing to be in the West.  It was rhetorical, of course.  For she already knew what her foolish brother thought, and she certainly knew without asking him that all of South Dakota was simply lovely.  She had a big smile on her face, and she stared out the window of the train at the people and the platform and all the newness.  Her eyes enthusiastically greeted everything they saw.

“Oh, Jason, do you not think it’s such a wonderful thing to be here in the West?” Another rhetorical question.  Asking questions was how Lucy spoke to herself and others, and sometimes one was not sure to whom her words were directed at any given moment.  Jason understood this, and did not care.  He still always answered her because he loved her.

“Why do you ask me that?” he said, giving her a strange look.

“Because it’s good to think of a place as being wonderful when you first arrive, Jason.  It shows you have manners.”

The boy said he was sorry for not having better manners.  He apologized to her even though she was younger.  He loved her.  And she was smarter, with a much better imagination.

“But I don’t know if it’s wonderful or not, Lucy.  I have never been here. This is the West, and I have never been in the West,” the boy said.  “But do you think it matters if it’s wonderful or not?  I think all that matters is how many hats they have here. I hope they don’t have too many.”

“Oh, Jason,” Lucy said with some pity behind her smile. She slapped him gently on his knee.  She never took her eyes off of the window and all that was beyond it.  After a minute she clasped one hand over her mouth and pointed with her other hand.

“Look, Jason! They have no fancy hats here!” she said.

The boy looked out the window to where her sister was pointing and saw all the people on the platform.  They all wore hats, even the ladies.  He could not tell how fancy the hats were, but he saw that they were not like the hats that father sold.  But this was South Dakota, and he knew the things would be different.

“Do you think father was right?” he asked.

“Father knew enough to get us this far, Jason, and through the War, and you have eaten this morning and all your life.  I think father knows what he needs to know.  The war has ended and we are still alive.”

The boy looked around the train with a curious expression on his face.  “Where is father?”

Lucy tilted her head and frowned.  “He has gone to get our trunks, I think,” she said, looking up and down the aisle and not seeing him.

The boy nodded and turned and looked out the window again. On the platform, through some steam rising from the tracks, he saw many strong men in black suits walking this way and that, with long, slender women walking behind them, as close as they could, with their legs moving gracefully beneath their dresses.  The women moved so gracefully that it almost looked as though they were gliding on air.

The men did not glide, but strode confidently, with long, powerful, purposeful steps, and puffed big cigars.  The men reminded the boy of the train he was on; big and strong and blowing smoke, with airs of confidence, and unwavering forward motion, like they were on tracks; and only ever stopping to let people on or off.

The boy looked again at the women who were walking behind the confident men.  They were the passengers, of course.  Some were clearly getting on, and others looked like they were waiting for a new station to arrive, and hoping it was coming soon. They cast knowing and coy glances at some of the other men walking past them.

The boy said, “I hope he can sell them here, Lucy.  His hats.  I’d rather sell them than hold them out.”

“Oh, Jason, you need to look a little more closely at the West, and use your imagination.  You are a very silly boy, only ever seeing what is right in front of you. But don’t you ever want to know more?  Don’t you ever want to see more?  Perhaps they don’t have fancy hats here, and perhaps they don’t even need them.  But can you not see that fancy hats are what they want?  I can see, Jason.”

She looked out the window and her eyes rose up the glass as she looked at the platform, then to the station house and past it, to the unobstructed expanse beyond.

“I can see, Jason,” she said.  “But I know what I see.  What do you see?”

Jason shrugged.  “I see big, strong men out there in black suits and heavy boots. I don’t know if it’s fanciness they are after, though.  But I can see that they want something and that they are always moving to get it.”

Father came up to Lucy and the boy and told them that the great trunks had been taken off the train and that they were now down on the platform.  There were two men with the trunks, and mother was there, too.  The men were getting impatient, father told them, and the boy noticed that father seemed impatient, too.  He waved his hand at his children with quick movements so that they looked like a hummingbirds at the end of his arms, and he flicked his head left and right, as if he were trying to use his large nose to prod them down the aisle.

They boy stood and took his sister by the hand.  They walked to the door of the train and down the very steep steps onto the platform. As they walked to the place where the two impatient men and mother were waiting with the trunks the boy heard a man behind him say that the train would be late arriving to its next stop.  The boy did not know who the man was speaking to, so he paid close attention, just in case it was him.

The man explained that there were many cows on the tracks in front of the train.  There were too many for the train to push off, and so there would be a delay until the cows decided to move or someone came along and led them away. The train dared not try to push so many cows off the track, the man said; too much damage and too much money.

The boy was not sure if the man was talking about damage to the train or damage to the cows.  He then thought to himself that he had only been in South Dakota a few minutes and already there were so many things for him to think about.  There were so many things to ask about.  What did people care about here?  Was it like it was in Richmond?  Richmond didn’t have many cows, but they did have many horses, and the boy knew that if some train tried to run down a bunch of horses, well, then they would hang that train driver.  But he didn’t know if it was the same thing with the cows in South Dakota.

The boy looked next to him and saw his sister laughing.  This made him feel good…that, and also the fact that it was very bright out in South Dakota that day.  It was brighter than it ever seemed in Richmond.

The boy thought that surely nighttime never fell in South Dakota.  Or maybe it did, but maybe the moon was bigger in the West than it was in Richmond.  Bigger and closer, and so bright that night was day and day was night and there wasn’t any difference.  Day and night…yes, he thought.  What would that be like, if there were no difference at all?

INTRODUCTION–The Boy Stranger: A free novel (Can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

South Dakota Begins

She rode her horse with her father and her older brother along the thin trail, both each on their own horses.  Canyon ridges were above them on both sides, and more than once father and brother drew their guns on several Lakota faces that peered down on them with a look of forlorn resignation combined with solemn, weary acceptance.  They were not angry faces, but they were not friendly faces, either.  Guns were a good hedge against these kinds of faces, especially in South Dakota.  And usually, the more guns one had the fewer faces one had to deal with.  This much the girl knew.  But her father and brother only brought one gun each.  Her father a rifle, her brother, the pistol.  But it was enough.

They came to an opening at the end of the canyon trail and there was a clearing.  The thin rocky path gave way to a wider path of trampled grasses.  Harder to see the trail, but easier to see the unfriendly faces.  Unfortunately, this did not matter in the end.

The four men who appeared behind the group were shadowy.  They wore long gray coats, and dark hats were low over their faces…or what the girl imagined were faces.  She couldn’t see anything except hats, coats, and the horses that plodded along at a slow, yet relentless speed.  The men stayed behind the girl and her father and her brother.  They kept their distance, never gaining, never losing ground.  The girl’s brother turned around and hollered at them, and waved his hat and said “Hello!” in a friendly way, but the men did not respond.  Their long gray coats flapped silently in the wind, though there was no wind.  And their heads stayed down, their faces never there, but hidden, and the black horses plodding along like machines.  Never gaining, never losing ground.

Father turned around and as her brother did.  He took off his hat and waved it in the air.  He said “Hello!” in a friendly way, and waved again.  And then he said something else too, something friendly, but still the four men behind them did not respond.  They made no sound, they showed no faces, and their horses plodded at the same slow and steady speed.  Like machines.  Never gaining, never losing ground.

At this point father looked a bit frustrated.  No…the girl thought.  Frustration…bravery, that was a mask.  The real face of father was fear. And she greatly understood why.  Normal men did not act like the four men who were following them.  And without faces, it was hard to tell just who these men were or what they wanted.  Men without faces, the girl thought, must want everything…or nothing at all.  And in either case, this was not good for the girl and her father and brother.  Yes…regardless of what they were after, it all or nothing at all, these men had the smell of death on them.  They didn’t really see father, or brother or the girl.  They only saw South Dakota, and South Dakota was all they were ever after.  This much the girl knew.  This, and that men who see people but do not see people are the most dangerous men of all.

They didn’t make noise, and there were no features of which to really see and remember.  But the smell could not be more real, and more visceral.  And though there was no wind, the men’s gray coats flapped silently, and the smell of their death floated towards the girl and her father and brother, as if it had been carried by the wind indeed.

This time father stopped and turned around to face the four men. His mask of bravery was strong now, and he meant to brandish it at these four strange men.  Brother stopped and put on his mask, too, and brandished it alongside of father.  The girl stopped just a short way behind her father and brother.  She watched the four men in fascination.  There was no mask of fear on her.  Just fascination.  These men were South Dakota, she thought.  Then, it all made sense to her.  Their faces were all around them, for there was not singular face to see beneath those hats.  There was no wind, yet wind; there was no noise, yet the noises were all around.  Yes, truly, she understood now.  South Dakota was after them, and South Dakota meant to have them. Her eyes widened at the thought.  What have they set out to accomplish, she thought.  Her and her father and brother.  She loved them both, but they were fools, and dullards, with imaginations like the bottoms of still puddles.  She watched in fascination as the black horses continued to plod, never gaining, never losing ground.  Even though she and her father and brother stood still, the men never reached them, but never fell out of reach either.

Eventually, the four men did gain ground, or rather, the ground brought them to her.  By the time the four faceless men arrived on their black horses, the girl’s father and brother were already dead, and the three horses dead as well.  The lifeblood having spilt out upon the ground of South Dakota from holes in the backs of their heads.

“What have you for us?” the first man asked.

The girl said nothing.

The first man nodded to the second man. “Search them”, he said.

The second man diligently slid down from his horse and searched the bodies of brother and father.  “Not much,” he said.  “A few dollars.  A flask.  Spectacles.”

The first man nodded.  He looked at the girl and said, “Where is the gun?”  And he drew his and pointed it at her.   She opened her overcoat and revealed nothing underneath.  There was nothing.

The first man nodded again.  “Come with us,” he said, and held his hand out to her.  “We’ll take you to see him.”  Then he turned to the second, third, and fourth man.  “Let’s go,” he said.  “Forget the gun.  She’s hidden it, and more besides.  But it doesn’t matter.  Get the money and the other things, and let’s go back to camp.”

“I’ve already seen him”, the girl whispered into the ear of the first man as she rode behind him on his horse, her arms around his waist.  “What will he tell me?”

The first man said nothing for a while.  Then, “He doesn’t care about you.  He only wants whatever you can give him.”

The girl looked surprised, then nodded.  Her face looked like the faces of the Lakota she had seen earlier in the canyons.  She sighed. “Fine.” She said.  “I suppose it is always this way.  The East isn’t enough, men also want the West.  South Dakota isn’t enough, and that is strange.  Because South Dakota is all there is.”

The first man said, “Truly.”  And his voice was cold and sad.