On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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In a distant land, a woman looked upon the unmoving form of her newborn baby and refused to see what the midwife saw. This was her son, whom she had brought forth in agony, and now he must suck. She pressed his lips to her breast.
“But he is dead!” said the midwife.
“No,” said his mother, “I felt him suck just now.” Her lie was as milk to the baby, who, though dead, now opened his dead eyes and began to kick his dead legs. “There, do you see?” And she made the midwife call the father in to meet his son.
The dead boy never did suck at his mother’s breast. He sipped no water, took no food of any kind, and so of course he never grew. But his father, who was handy with all things mechanical, built a rack to stretch him on so that, year by year, he would grow as tall as the other children.
When the dead boy had seen six winters, his parents sent him to school. Though he was as tall as the other students, he was strange to look upon. His bald head was almost the right size, but the rest of him was as thin as a piece of leather and as dry as a stick. He tried to make up for his ugliness with diligence, and every night he stayed up late practicing his letters and numbers. In class, the teacher called on him often. Because his voice was like the rasping of dry leaves, it was hard to hear him, so the teacher made all the other students hold their breath when he gave an answer. He was always right.
Naturally, the other children despised him. The bullies sometimes waited for him after school, but their beatings, even with sticks, did him no harm. He didn’t even cry out.
One windy day, the bullies stole a ball of twine from their teacher’s desk and cornered the dead boy. They held him on the ground with his arms out in the shape of a cross and ran a stick in through his left shirt sleeve and out through the right. Then they stretched his shirttails down to his ankles, tied them in place, fastened the twine to a buttonhole, and launched him into the air. To their delight, the dead boy made an excellent kite. It only added to their pleasure when they saw that, owing to the weight of his head, he flew upside down.
When the bullies grew bored with watching the dead boy fly, they let go of the string. But the dead boy did not drift back to earth, as any ordinary kite would do. He glided. He found that he could steer a little, though he was mostly at the mercy of the winds and could not come down. Indeed, the wind blew him higher and higher.
The sun set, and still the dead boy rode upon the wind. The moon rose, and by its glow he saw the fields and forests drifting by below. He saw mountain ranges pass beneath him, and oceans, and continents.
At last, the winds eased, then ceased, and he floated to the ground in a strange country. The ground there was bare, and the moon and stars had vanished from the sky. The air seemed gray and shrouded. The dead boy leaned to one side and shook himself until the stick fell out of his shirt. He wound up the twine that had trailed behind him, and he waited for the sun to rise. Hour after long hour, there was only the same grayness. So he began to wander.
Before long, he encountered a man who looked a little like himself, with a bald head atop leathery limbs. “Where am I?” the dead boy asked.
The man looked at the grayness all around. “Where?” he said. His voice, like the dead boy’s, resembled the rustle of dead leaves stirring.
A woman emerged from the grayness. Her head, too, was bald, and her skin dried out. “This!” she rasped, touching the dead boy’s shirt. “I remember this!” She tugged on the dead boy’s sleeve. “I had a thing like this.”
“Clothes?” said the dead boy.
“Clothes!” the woman cried. “That’s what it was called.”
More shriveled people came out of the grayness and crowded close to see the strange boy who wore clothes. Now the dead boy knew where he was. This was the land of the dead.
“Why do you have clothes?” asked the dead woman. “We came here with nothing.”
“I have always been dead,” said the dead boy, “but I spent six years among the living.”
“Six years!” said one of the dead. “And you have only just now come to us?”
“Did you know my wife?” asked a dead man. “Is she still among the living?”
“Give me news of my son!”
“What about my sister?”
The dead people crowded closer.
“What is your sister’s name?” the dead boy asked. But the dead could not remember the names of their loved ones. They did not even remember their own names. Likewise, the names of the places where they had lived, the numbers given to their years, the manners or fashions of their times — all of these they had forgotten.
“Well,” said the dead boy, “in the town where I was born, there was a widow; maybe she was your wife. And I knew a boy whose mother had died; perhaps he was your son. And I knew an old woman who might have been your sister.”
“Are you going back?” one dead person asked.
“Of course not,” said another. “No one ever goes back.”
“I think I might,” the dead boy said. He explained about his flying. “The next time the wind blows —”
“The wind never blows here,” said a man so newly dead that he remembered wind.
“Then you could run with my string.”
“Would that work?”
“I think so.”
“Take a message to my husband!” said a dead woman.
“Tell my wife that I miss her!” said a dead man.
“Let my sister know I haven’t forgotten her!”
“Say to my lover that I love him still!”
They gave him their messages, not knowing whether their loved ones might themselves be long dead. Indeed, a pair of dead lovers may well have been standing next to one another in the land of the dead, sending each other messages through the dead boy. Still, he memorized them all.
Then the dead put the stick back inside his shirt sleeves, tied everything in place, and unwound his string. Running as fast as their leathery legs could manage, they pulled the dead boy back into the sky and released the string. They watched with their dead eyes as he glided away.
He glided for a long time over the uniform gray stillness until at last a puff of wind lifted him higher; then a breath of wind took him higher still; then a stronger gust of wind carried him up above the grayness to where he could again see the moon and the stars. Below, he saw moonlight reflected in the ocean. In the distance rose mountain peaks. The dead boy came to earth in a little village. He knew no one there, but at the first house he came to, he rapped on the bedroom shutters. To the woman who answered, he said, “A message from the land of the dead,” and he gave her one of the messages. The woman wept, and gave him a message in return.
House by house, he delivered word from the dead. House by house, he collected replies. In the morning, he found some boys to fly him, to give him back to the wind’s mercy so that he could carry these new messages back to the land of the dead.
So it has been ever since. On any night, his head full of messages, he may rap upon any window to remind someone — to remind you, perhaps — of love that outlives memory, of love that needs no names.
This story first appeared in North American Review.
Bruce Holland Rogers