This year the pre-Homecoming party was out at Joel Fenniker’s parents’ farm, west beyond the highway, across the harvested acres. There was always a Bonfire on the Friday before Homecoming — Bonfire on Friday, game on Saturday, the dance Saturday night. The voting for King and Queen had all been done in homeroom classes on Wednesday and although the coronation didn’t come until the actual dance, the Bonfire — unsanctioned by the school — was where the royalty was initially, informally, anointed.
A long walk. Wesley headed down the hill away from the high school lot, past the junior high that was now emptying too, hearing behind him the high wails and the masculine muttering beneath it of cops frustrated at the lack of a murder weapon. The weight of his pack pressed him on while he walked, down past the practice field below the junior high where the younger boys with peach-fuzzed chins and bad skin shunted a soccer ball around, back and forth, back and forth, upwind and unaware of twelfth-grade death.
Wesley didn’t so much step into the wood as dissolve in, feeling the shredded autumn canopy muffle out the cries and calls and street noise behind him. From the dryness of the paved lots he strode across dampened piles of leaves degrading back to soil, and his lungs billowed in and out the flowering smell of clean rot. The cool here etched a flat blade between his skin and his clothes to pimple his chest and arms. He was wearing just a dark t-shirt, jeans and a flannel overshirt. His papers and textbooks dug into his lumbar while he walked and he shifted the pack higher. The revolver slid around near the top of the pack and Wesley wondered if the safety was on. He had no idea of the distance to Fenniker’s, nor how much light he had left. It was early in the afternoon but the sun prismed into faintness in the yellowed treetops and seemed to be in mourning.
I’ll marry her once we’re gone from here, Jimmy had been saying back in the car. People pass in hallways and on corners every second but never look each other in the eye to recognize sister souls. She and I, we’re bound that way, now until the trumpets call, in the sight of heaven.
I’ll dance at the wedding, Wesley had replied with a leaden throat. My heels will meet in midair. I’ll carry the ring and raise the toast and have sex with the maid of honor in the bathroom of the VFW hall. Godspeed you, compadre.
And then Jimmy had turned toward his approaching woman and put forth a hand and started an exhalation that had no ending.
Over the brusking of leaves beneath his hightops the highway noise came to him, like TV static. Early navigators through this wooded Illinois lowland had hearkened for streams and rivers, but all the world could offer Wesley Fager on the last unpaved deertrails was the road singing like the sound of piss. He’d heard it in his bedroom at night but never so clear as now. Had his car not been impounded, he would have taken that highway and turned off three miles south to make it to Fenniker’s.
His shoes were not cutting it. On the shifting slime of leaves they twisted sideways when they should have braced his ankles up, and his foot misjudged the contours of the land beneath it. When he came down from the last hillock and pushed through the low-hanging boughs of ash and pin oak and stood at the embankment leading up to the highway itself, he was grateful suddenly for asphalt.
He was starting up the hill toward the road with his shoes sliding uncooperatively when the cough came echoing out of the wash drainpipe, at the foot of the slope. He saw suddenly the rusted grocery cart parked at the lip of the old pipe, one front wheel askew from its brothers, an American flag flying from a car antenna lashed with wire to the cart’s ribs. The basket of the cart was filled high with old coverless books. The phone directory propped up the Aa-Be volume of the Britannica, a thesaurus leaned in sadness against Moby-Dick and the collected works of Yeats, all stripped of their exteriors with pages bared to the weather.
Wesley stopped his upward floundering and let his shoes slide him naturally back to the hill’s base. Inside the ringed pipe it was just large enough for a man to fit, and a man had, curled embryonically within and looking out at the woods balefully like a damp chick chafing at the smallness of its egg.
“The daylight’s too brief to go hiding from in autumn, grandfather,” he called.
“Not brief enough when all it does is plague my old flesh,” the man said, and canted his head closer to the pipe’s aperture. Around the tanned and hairless crown of his head ropy white hair trailed near to his shoulders, and his scalp was crocheted with the ridges and scars of melanoma lesions. His eyes flared a vindictive eagle-gray for a moment and then his face retreated into shadow.
“Me, I walk against nightfall,” Wesley said. “Beyond this road lie the fields I must reach, carrying my message with me. Have you got a car I could borrow?”
“My stride is my only vehicle,” the old man said, words buzzing through the phlegm at the base of his lungs.
“Then I must scale the crown of this bank and hoist a thumb toward heaven at the roadside.”
“Pray, what could better delay a messenger boy than the dependence on others, more surely than the long odds of a hitchhike?” All Wesley could see inside the pipe was the old man’s bearded chin in the downward slant of light, the angle of its point wobbling with each word like the enameled jaw of a German nutcracker. “There’s no surety his choice of ride would not steer with the wrong bearing, or that he’ll meet a ride at all. The way between places is faster far than the way across.”
“Through the pipe, you mean,” Wesley said.
“Messenger boy, through this portal you’ll cut away not mere yards, but perhaps hours.” The old man’s hand, mapped with gray veins and crusted with humus in its creases, came out with its palm up. “But have you the knowledge to pay as a toll?”
Wesley looked at the shopping cart with its payload of literature, then shrugged out of his backpack and opened it. The air that gusted up from the pack smelled like violets and spent firecrackers, the combined scents of Eliza’s handkerchief and her gun. He kept the pistol concealed beneath the flap and fished out his biology textbook, passing it over. The old man took it with a surprising grip whose strength translated to Wesley through the bookspine and drew it into his bolthole. There was a sticky rip of old industrial glue giving way and then the book’s blue cover, with its illustrative microscope photo of cellular mitosis, spun out of the pipe to fall away in the forest brush.
“To better judge the book,” the old man said. The hand came out again, gestured for more. “To whom does your message go?”
Up from the pack Wesley brought his sociology text, reasoning he’d just photocopy Paul Derning’s pages, and finally passed over his algebra book. “There’s a blond-haired girl beyond these woods shall receive my words,” he said.
“Known a few of those,” the shadowed man said. Away with a stiff tug came the jackets that braced up the reason of hidden numbers and the glory of human cultures, and Wesley’s backpack was considerably lighter. The old man’s voice came again, hollowing and ringing as he seemed to retreat farther into the pipe. “Pass, and beware of blond women with dark eyebrows. They carry all the coldest seasons inside them.”
Wesley sealed the pack and threw it across his shoulders, braced one foot against a root and pulled himself into the dark opening. His hands and knees landed in something slipperier than water, and numbed. He crawled across the grooves of the pipe and breathed through his mouth to damp the smell of yellowed sweat and mulchy runoff from the land. Something bobbed painfully against the stitches in his eyebrow and he yelped, bringing his hand up to swat the obstruction away. It swung back at him, revealing itself in the gloom as a loose-tongued tennis shoe riveted by its gray laces to the roof of the pipe.
“Touch not the tokens,” the old man said, somewhere far ahead in the tunnel. “Gifts given by others who passed this way and had no pages to yield up for me.”
Wesley found the mate of the tennis shoe just ahead, its fabric marked with spots of rust color. Beyond it came others, a tan boot, a laceless loafer hung through its heel by a bent nail. A cold breeze hummed through the channel and set them to swinging, barely limned by the pinhole of outside light far ahead. Wesley lowered his head to protect his scar and bumped through the hanging garden of footwear, shivering slightly when he passed under a pair of toddler’s sneakers.
Fattened on phosphates from cornfield runoff, the algae in the ribs of the pipeway had bloomed into sponges of moss. When Wesley set a hand or knee into one it liquefied and burst with a smell like fucking. He felt himself move by the old man, heard the pulpy dredging of his breath in the passageway, but did not see or brush him. Curled in a crosspipe, perhaps, hidden in deepest shadow.
“Messenger boy,” the voice came from very close. “What message might you have for me?”
Wesley raised his head again into the oncoming breeze to blow away the odor of flesh and fungus and pressed ahead, shrugging aside a dangling pair of girls’ soccer cleats. The rings of the pipe cut into his knees. Pulling his right leg along he felt a vague tugging and heard a scratch at his heel, as of fingernails raking the rubber sole of his shoe. But the tug did not come again, and as he closed his eyes and dragged on the wave of wet man-smell dropped notch by notch.
He felt the light strengthening against the pores of his face, and his stitched forehead throbbed in response. He opened his eyes and he was within a body’s length of the pipe’s end, smelling fresher water and yellowed leaves. His mole’s blindness would not let him see anything but a palette of undifferentiated gold. But hanging at the channel’s very end he could distinguish — through long hours of suiting up and stretching out and studying his own feet — a set of running shoes, sole curved as if for terrain rather than track. He put out a hand and closed it around the laces of both, pulled hard, and felt the laces snap free of whatever tacked them to the ceiling.
The roaring that arose behind him was that of perdition, and he pulled himself hard out of the pipe to tumble forward and fall flat on his back in a muddied creekbed. For moments he could do nothing but lie there, blinking with pain at the graying sky between treetops and feeling the damp soaking into the seat of his jeans. Then the smell blasted again from the pipe’s mouth like a vomiting, and he was on his feet and splashing up the wash with his lightened pack, deeper into these new woods.
He felt more winded than he should have when he finally stopped, leaning against a fallen treetrunk that bridged the waterway. His hightops were sodden and torn, his clothes wet and soiled down the back. The cold glued itself to his spine and he wished for the jacket he’d left in his locker. He unlaced his worthless hightops, pitched them away up the bank and slid into the captured shoes. Each heel carried a stylish swoosh in red and they squeezed tight and proper at the key points of ankle, ball and arch.
The crow landed on the fallen log while Wesley flexed his foot and tugged at the seat of his jeans, trying to air and dry them. The bird had the body of a football and it landed like one, striking down on the brittled bark and rising once before its talons got purchase. It folded its wings untidily and high-stepped once toward Wesley, and turned the profile of its arrowed skull toward him to keep him in the sight of one amber eye.
“Brother of the air,” Wesley said. He propped one foot on the log and leaned into it, lengthening his tendons against a cramp. “The feeding for your kind is better in the fields yonder, and in the driveways and gutters of the town back behind me.”
By its lazy preening the crow spoke of meals already eaten, seed and refuse nibbled up from hacked-over cornrows and unlidded trashbins. It glanced up to the sky and Wesley followed its gaze through the thin branches to the half-moon sitting lopsided at high autumn noon, almost due south from the sky’s midpoint. The sunlight was being chased away to the southwest, and the feeding was done.
“My time in the tunnel and the dash from its exit have spun me around sideways.” Wesley stood, bent and brought his wounded forehead almost to his kneecaps. Muscle and joints popped in their sockets with the release. “I could better know the land had I your windborne view of it.”
The crow fanned its silk-black wings, hunched toward the surface of the log and cacked, expelling a wet tuft of straw. At Bonfire the tradition was one of effigy-burning, with seniors of the Edenton ranks crafting a straw man in the likeness of the enemy’s players. This year the Homecoming opposition was the Hadderfield team. By its vomiting the crow implied its presence at the making of the sacrifice, at the Fenniker farm, and guilt of plucking away of this bit of stuffing.
“Then the way you came is well and true,” Wesley said. “A great kindness.”
He dug the toe of one new shoe into the bank of the wash and began to climb up, in the direction the bird had come from. Beyond the rise he could see where the wood at last thinned into open land, and he walked for the treeline’s edge. Behind him, the crow watched and did not blink, then leaned and pecked back up its expectoration, eschewing waste, though the straw was just straw and in truth the crow had not told its origin.
At the wood’s perimeter, Wesley cursed his jeans. The damp fabric would chafe with running, he knew, and the cut of the thighs would shorten his stride. Ahead the fields were stained violet with declining southwestern sun and stubbled with the harvested, untilled stalks of corn. The land was flat, then rolling, then flat again, no rise greater than its neighbor. The breaths he drew here were dustier than in the trees, less rotted but also less savory. Out there the wind was hardier, but his way would be straight now rather than twisted by topography. Limbered, hoping to warm himself further by effort, he began to run.
(Read Part 3.)