"Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition." (James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room)
Once there was, and once there was not. Once the crumbling house by the edge of the forest was not there - and once the overgrown field before the house was swathed with trees. The house was there long before the town's population began to swell - it was always the Abercrombie house, with its peeling white paint and wind rattling its loose shutters.
Ms. Agatha Abercrombie was not particularly familiar with the townsfolk, valuing her privacy above all else. She was born and raised in Idaho, in the exact house with the peeling paint and loose shutters that the townspeople, generation after generation, referred to as the Abercrombie house. Its inheritors weren't always of the same surname, but the mailbox outside the house continued to read Abercrombie in faded cursive letters. The house, regardless of who owned it at the time, was unquestionably theirs.
Ms. Abercrombie had one son and one inheritor. He was not well-known throughout the townspeople, because not once in his six-year-old life had he been seen in the town. She had not once failed to attend church every Sunday, but the people of Philipsburg had yet to see her son. Ms. Abercrombie refused to let him go to school - and this was the subject of much gossip among the churchgoers, some sympathetic, some disdainful. However, all of them agreed: the Abercrombie family was, and would seemingly always remain, a mystery.
The day he met the boy, Eliot Abercrombie was waiting for his mother to come home.
The sky was blue, dotted with wisps of cloud that dissolved with the slightest breath of wind. The air was sticky and humid, and buzzing with the sound of jarflies. Eliot sat in front of the porch steps, poking a stick in the gap between the ancient staircase. The wood crumbled like it was made of sand. It was as old as the house itself, and the years had stripped it of its paint and rotted its wood. Eliot poked it. It crumbled.
"What are you doing?" a voice said, very suddenly.
Eliot looked up.
The foxtails were parted and a boy he'd never seen before was watching him poke the stick through the gap in the staircase.
His face was round, sunburnt, and very brown. It reminded Eliot of coffee beans. His eyes were big, and black - the color of ink. "I want to git the snakes out."
"I want to see them."
"Oh." The boy pushed aside the foxtails to get a better look. He had a pail with him, the plastic one used to make sandcastles. It was filled with raspberries. Eliot looked at it. The boy saw him looking and popped a raspberry into his mouth. "Have you ever seen them before?"
"The snakes?" Eliot asked.
"How d'you know they're there?"
He sat back on his heels. It was mid-afternoon, when the late August sun was at its highest and hottest. He was dressed in a thin cotton shirt that had already begun to stick to his skin with sweat. Eliot scratched his neck. The humidity had begun to make him itch. "I kin hear them sometimes. They hiss."
He had not ever heard a snake behind the porch steps, but he could feel them, like something that was supposed to be there. "Yeah. Like ssshhh."
"Ssshhh," he said.
"Ssshhh," Eliot said.
The boy set down his pail and squatted next to Eliot. He was barefoot. There was dirt underneath his toenails and caked on the soles of his feet. Eliot looked at his feet. The boy did not notice, or perhaps he did, but he did not seem to care. Eliot thought this was shocking. Everything about this boy was completely and utterly out of the ordinary. "Where are your shoes?"
"Did'ja lose them?"
"No. I gave them away."
Eliot lowered his stick, now giving the boy his full attention. "To who?"
A frown tugged at his mouth, as if he was confused by Eliot's interest. "The forest. I just said."
Eliot laughed. The jarflies buzzed, and the mourning doves crooned sadly at one another, and the wind swallowed the noise up and carried it away, away, into the sky. "What kin the forest do with your shoes?"
"I dunno. Maybe there's a fox that wants them."
Eliot decided this boy was incredibly strange. He had not, in his short life, had such an encounter with anybody else before. Eliot could not help but feel interested. "Foxes don't wear shoes."
"I know they don't. Maybe he wants to be people."
"Foxes can't be people. God made people to be people."
"What if he still wants to be people?"
He thought about this. God created foxes to be foxes, not people. "So why did God make him a fox?"
"Maybe He made a mistake," the boy suggested.
Eliot was speechless with astonishment for a moment. "No," he said. "Foxes can't be people. They can only be foxes."
The boy did not say anything. He picked up the discarded stick and poked at the gap between the stairs.
Eliot watched, disquieted.
"What's your name?" the boy asked. The wood crumbled. He imagined the snakes behind the porch steps ssshhhing.
"Oh." The boy poked with the stick.
Eliot watched him poke. "What's your name?"
"Jonah was eaten by a fish," Eliot said. It had taken God three days and three nights to save Jonah. It occurred to Eliot that three days and three nights was a very long time.
"I wasn't," Jonah said.
"You were," he insisted. "My mama told me so."
"Well, she lied."
"She's not allowed to lie. Lying is a sin. If you sin you go to hell."
Jonah looked at him. His eyes were so black. Eliot wondered how a person's eyes could be so black. He could see himself reflected in them. He wondered how he looked to Jonah. "How d'you know?" he asked.
"How d'you know lying is a sin?"
Eliot paused. "God said so."
Jonah did not look like he believed him. He dropped the stick and stood up, wiping his feet on the grass to get rid of the dust and pebbles. Eliot looked down at his own feet. His shoes were worn out and too small for him. No shoes were probably better than small shoes. No shoes didn't pinch his feet like small shoes did.
"I'm going away now," Jonah said suddenly.
"Oh." Eliot looked back up at him and his eyes fell on the plastic pail. "Where did you git the berries?"
"From your house." He pointed at it. "They grow beside your house."
"Then they're not yours," Eliot said. "They're mine. You can't take something that in't yours."
"They're not your berries, either," Jonah replied. "They're the bushes' berries."
He screwed up his face. The other boy sounded so sure of himself. "Well, the bushes are mine."
"They're not. They're not yours."
"Then, whose are they?"
"They're nobody's. They don't have to be somebody's." Jonah offered the pail of raspberries to Eliot. "Do you want one?"
He took one.
"I have to git home," the boy said. "Bye, Eliot."
The jarflies buzzed. The wind swallowed the noise and carried it away - and Jonah with it.
The wind, Eliot thought, must have liked him very much.