Zeke, looking up into the trees on a cool autumn afternoon, trying to be perfectly still, listening to how the leaves turning in the breeze make the air sound dry. His grandfather calls out to him from the porch.
“What are you up to, Zeke?”
Zeke continues to stare up into the trees. “Lotsa stuff,” he says, gruffly. Yellow-orange oak leaves are twisting against the dull sunlight. He strains his eyes, trying hard to make the leaves stand still. If he watches closely enough, the leaves will never fall.
“Well,” says his grandfather, “Come on in for lunch.”
“Not hungry,” says Zeke.
“Come on, son, come on inside.”
A brittle leaf twitches, sways. Zeke squeezes his eyes tight, and the leaf is just a vibrating shadow. Then it detaches from its branch and falls slowly to the ground. “I don't want to,” he says.
Now Zeke looks at his grandfather. A thin old man always stooped over, the ridges of his spine bulging against his flannel, baggy corduroys hanging from his bony hips. He’s standing in the shadows of the porch, dusty shadows crammed with old wooden chairs split at the seat and mildewed couches sagging under milk crates stuffed with odds and ends. All this leading into a narrow house just as dark and just as choked with dust, the whole house tottering into its last stage of disrepair. Zeke wants to scream at everything and he wants to smash it all.
The old man sighs and says, “Zeke, son, I’m doing my best. Could you please just come on in for lunch? Maybe we can do something fun this afternoon.”
“After your nap, you mean?” Zeke snorts.
“Maybe before,” he says, trying to smile.
“There’s nothing to do anyway. I hate this place!”
“I’m running away!” says Zeke, and he does just that. Runs down to the narrow road, follows it up past the house, past the neighbors, straight on to where the road dead-ends at a row of twisted pines lining the edge of the canyon. He turns at the pines and follows the lip of the canyon up into a wild tract of land littered with sun-faded beer cans. He runs and runs. Eventually he comes to a soggy little creek and he follows it up, away from the canyon, to where someone has built a little dam to form a murky pond. Some boards are laid across the creek to make a small bridge, and Zeke stands on it and looks into the water. The pond is dark and muddy or else hidden beneath gently spinning swirls of floating leaves. He is out of breath and tired and the reasons he ran seem vague and pointless.
He walks past the pond, comes to a rusted chicken-wire fence sagging out from termite-gnawed posts. He pushes the fence down and walks across it. He is at the base of a little hill and at the top of the hill he can see a barn. The barn has a musty, wet smell. It's empty. There is a gaping hole in the roof, birds’ nests in the rafters. But past this barn is a double-wide trailer ringed with flower beds, and next to the trailer is a new barn, red and white. There is a woman walking from the barn to the trailer with a metal bucket.
“Hey,” she says when she sees Zeke. She points at him with her bucket. “What are you doing there?”
“I ran off,” he says and is surprised to find that he is ashamed.
The woman sighs, hands on hips. She's a big woman, wearing a tattered pink robe over mud stained jeans, galoshes.
“Who do you belong to?”
“Nobody,” he says, kicking at the ground angrily to make up for his sagging heart.
“Hmph,” says the woman.
Zeke turns and starts to walk away, but the woman calls after him.
“You want to see something?” she says. “It's pretty cool.” She sets the bucket down and puts a smile on her face and beckons to Zeke. She is big and strong, and her cheeks are rosy.
He goes over to the woman and she takes his hand in her rough, chapped grip, and walks him over to the new red barn.
The barn is open; it smells like hay. A couple of horses quietly swishing their tails in their stalls, a few chickens scratching around on the open ground in the center, and a single cow, a big cow as black as a shadow, standing off in the corner, eating from a trough.
“A cow,” says Zeke, unimpressed.
The woman laughs. “Not just any cow,” she says. They go into the barn. The cow looks up from its meal. With one head, two heads. Three eyes, two mouths. The heads meld together in the middle, spread out from a single point as if one head was just close to a mirror. At that single point is an eye, they share an eye, a big watery eye with an elongated pupil like a figure eight. A bright green horsefly walks across the red, veiny eyelid.
“What's wrong with it?” says Zeke.
The woman shrugs. “She’s got two heads. She was born like that.”
“It's gross,” says Zeke.
“Yeah, kinda. You get used to it though. Her name is Janine. You want to pet her?”
“That's okay. Anyway, she does a really neat trick, you want to see?”
“What kind of trick?” says Zeke.
The woman drops his hand and goes over to Janine, pets her absently on the top of the heads, and reaches for something on a shelf above the trough. She brings it over to Zeke. It's a wooden, triangular block, painted black with strange white shapes on each side. Out of the top and the bottom of the triangle are two wide metal rings.
“Janine can tell the future,” says the woman. “You take this rune, put it in front of her, and ask a question. You get your answer depending on what she does with it, and I interpret it for you.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” says Zeke.
The woman frowns at him. “You're a pleasant little fellow, aren't you? Anyway, how d'you think I paid for this new barn? Lotsa people pay good money to hear what Janine says about their futures. But I'll give you a free one, if you go on home where you belong after. Deal?”
Zeke looks at the strange rune. He is tired, and hungry, and his shame has become a distant, calm sorrow. “Sure,” he says.
The woman hands him the rune and he holds it up in front of his face. “Janine,” he says, “Where are my parents?” and he tosses the rune to the ground in front of the two-headed cow.
Janine considers him a moment, then considers the rune. She leans down and with the mouth of her left-head picks it up by one of the rings, then tosses it up into the air. It lands in front of Zeke on one edge, so that two of the painted sides can be seen: on one is a thick circle with an x inside of it; on the other are three straight lines on top of a semi-circle. Zeke and the woman stare down at it; the woman says, “Huh.” Janine goes back to her trough.
“So what's it mean, lady?” says Zeke.
“Well,” the woman chews on her bottom lip. “Where are your parents, kid?”
“Dead,” says Zeke.
“Ah,” says the woman. “The oracle isn't clear, honey. The future is one thing, but the, ah, hereafter is something else. Not sure that's really Janine's forte, you know?”
Zeke stares down at the rune and feels hot and angry inside. “What a ripoff,” he says quietly. “Can I ask another question?” he says.
“You got any money?” asks the woman.
Zeke goes slowly back the way he came. The woman watches him until he has crossed back over her fallen-down fence. When he gets to the pond, he stands again on the little bridge. There is a large, open spot in the middle of the pond now, the leaves washed away, and the sky is reflected on the water. Clouds, light blue sky, the jagged tops of trees. And then, a fish. A big orange fish passes right through the clouds. The water ripples away from it, and the fish disappears beneath the leaves. Excited, Zeke goes running home, tells his grandfather about the fish. “Two feet long,” he says, “and bright orange!” After lunch they go up to the pond, Zeke with a fishing pole. They try for awhile that evening, and Zeke goes back every day for two weeks, standing on the boards, his line out in the middle of the pond, but he never does catch the fish. In fact, he never even sees it again.
Dustin Heron holds an MA and an MFA from San Francisco State University. His work has appeared most recently in Watershed Review and Craft Literary, and is forthcoming from Long Island Literary Journal. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and his nonfiction has won the Mary Tanenbaum Award. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press.
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