Until We Are Naked Again Beneath the Mute Witness of Stars

by Berrien C. Henderson

1

The false teeth clatter-clacked along the table. They stank after not having been immersed in Efferdent for several nights. Oh, it’s not that Mr. Pierce had forgotten. He just didn’t care.

The plate of food—Salisbury steak, weak of gravy and anemic of mushroom bits along with bland potatoes—waited untouched.

“Get those for me, would you?” said Pierce.

The teeth clamped together and hopped onto the plate’s edge. Snapping and clattering, they consumed the food as the old man’s waddle and Adam’s apple worked with each swallow. He wiped off the teeth, then ran his fingers through the gravy and licked his fingers.

“That was fun.”

The teeth chomp-chomped in agreement.

2

“Where do you go at night?”

He had rolled the trashcan to the curb for pickup when the widow Ayers waved and called to him. His property butted the retirement community.

“What’s that?” said Pierce.

“At night.” She took off her gardening gloves and lay down a trowel. Pansies today.

“If you’d mind your own business,” he said, “we’d not be having this conversation, now, would we?”

“No need to get horsey,” said Ayers.

“No need to nag, then,” said Pierce, walking back to his house.

3

Truth be told, he didn’t know. Not all the time. He liked the fresh night air (always had), but lately there were holes in his memory—bothered him like a tickle-itch at the back of the throat. He knew he’d traveled much of his life. Seen great and wondrous things. Participated in none too few. But what was it worth? A gated retirement community encroaching his island of longleaf pines? Putterers and piddlers and busybodies all.

“What’s on that wrinkled mind of yours?”

He sat up in the lounge chair in the study. The curtains blew in gently. A heady smell found him—fresh-turned earth and lavender and sunshine and pine.

“It’s been a long, long time,” he said.

She sat on the window sill and dangled her naked legs. “Only yesterday.”

“For you, perhaps.”

She looked around. “Don’t you get tired of reading books?”

“I get tired walking down the hall to take a piss.”

“You should wash that mouth of yours, Peter.”

“I’m out of denture cleanser.”

“At least you still joke.”

“Only when life’s too serious not to take seriously, Tink.”

Her smile warmed the room. “That’s more like it.”

He stood and eased over to the window. The breeze was humid, and he thought it might rain in a few hours; at least, that’s what his hip prognosticated. He braced against the wall and with some effort sat on the floor. He sighed only for show, though. It was for the extra-deep inhale that he came to her. For her.

“You’ve come to ask me back,” he said. “Again.”

It was only a few inches’ drop to his shoulder. Tink scooted her butt forward, pushed off with her hand, and landed on his shoulder. He smelled of unwashed hair—several days’ by her nose, but not unusual for him—and canned stew. She snuggled against his whiskered face and lay there for some time.

He began to snore, and she woke him.

“Hey, you. Piggie.”

“What?”

“You were snoring.”

“I’m awake.”

“Let’s do something.” She climbed over his head, down to the other shoulder, and used his arm as a slide, then sat Indian-style on the floor. “And don’t tell me, ‘We are,’ because I know what humans do and what you do here, and it’s boring as hell.”

Peter said, “I go out. Some.”

“Do you fly?”

“On occasion.”

“Tonight then?”

He was already dozing. And snoring again.

She hopped—one, two, three—into the air and glided around the room. She hovered at his ear and whispered. “I think you’re still as good a liar as any, boy. As lost as any of them thought of being.”

She kissed his cheek (she hated those whiskers!) and spiraled out the window and into the night.

The breeze returned and flapped the curtains, draping the one over Peter’s chest and face.

In his sleep, he smiled.

4

The three chickens raised enough of a fuss that Mrs. Ayers came out on the back patio to investigate. She prided herself on keeping some chickens and a tiny garden which reminded her of her mother’s Victory Garden. She’d even won Most Beautiful Garden three years running for her flowerbeds.

At least Mr. Pierce wasn’t in them at the moment.

“What on God’s green Earth you are doing in my garden?”

He rolled over, his shirt in tatters, all the buttons gone except two at the very bottom. His old man’s chest was smeared with dewy dirt and some blood.

“You’re hurt.”

“Where am I?”

“My backyard, that’s where. My garden, Mr. Pierce.” She approached him but held up her hands, not knowing whether to touch him.

“Sorry.”

He noticed the chickens and crowed at them. Then he walked past her.

“Shouldn’t you see a doctor? I could call—”

He waved her off. As he did, half the shirt fell away, exposing a torso that, in its youth, had been tapered but now was a cartographic study of scar tissue: pucker-mouthed punctures, razor-thin slashes, smooth avulsions. He bled, though, from those two fresh wounds; one had almost incised the nipple of one saggy old-man’s breast. He wiped a grimy hand over the wounds. The new bleeding conformed to the lifelines of his palm.

“Goddamned pirates.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

“Those cuts will likely get infected.”

He chortled, then let out a burst of much needed belly laughter. He walked the short, county-maintained road to his house. “Sorry about crashing into your garden, Mrs. Ayers.”

The chickens squawk-clucked strange accusations in his general direction.

Shuffling away, he crowed again.

5

Fireflies beaconed in the dusky coverts of the pine limbs and cedar windbreak. They blinked bioluminescent esotericism each to each. Pierce’s false teeth gnawed a plate of ribs on the kitchen table; he’d left the door open to air out the house. He smacked his lips at the BBQ sauce as it appeared on his lips and chin, and he washed down the mouthfuls with a root beer.

The teeth chattered their way to the porch. He dropped a hand, and the dentures hopped into his palm.

“Seems like a lazy way to eat,” said Tink. She hovered nearby, peeking from around a corner of the house.

“There is”—he stuffed the dentures into his mouth and chomped—“never a lazy way to eat.”

She loop-de-looped around and landed, dangling her legs over the edge of an upturned five gallon bucket.

“You want me to go back,” he said. His voice was soft and flat in the humid night air.

She shooed some fireflies drawn to the soft scintillations of her dusted hair and skin. “Yes. No,” she said. “Only if you want to.”

He stood with a halting stoop-and-stretch. He lightly banged the heel of his hand on his hip. “Would you join me?”

“Why, that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me since—”

“The last time I said something nice?”

“Exactly.”

She glided behind him, and waves of faery dust trailed in her wake and flirted with a handful of fireflies. Several long moments ensued as Pierce stared into the night. Tink pirouetted in the grass.

“I went to the doctor the other day,” he said. “Then a few others.”

“You’ve never been sick a day in your life,” she said.

“It ain’t that kind of being sick.” He tapped his temples. “Some of the old roads have lost their signs.”

“Oh.”

“Like them.” A chin upthrust to the stars. “Sometimes I forget them, and they seem foreign like they first did when I was a boy.”

“I imagine lots of folks forget things,” said Tink.

“The deputies had to bring me back home after they found me down a county road thirty miles from here, Tinkerbell.”

“Oh, Peter.” She fluttered to his shoulder and fiddled with his collar.

“I have this vague recollection of fighting pirates,” said Peter.

“Heard ‘bout that.”

“Two weeks ago? I got new scars.”

“Fight ’em with a sword?”

He pulled out a battered pocketknife.

Tink giggled. “Now that is very impressive.”

“Not when you wake up in someone else’s backyard.”

“I just bet you crowed.”

“Damn right,” he said. “But that’s not the point.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

She hovered in front of his face. She smelled like tangerines this time. “Your point, Peter.”

“I used to think home was where I felt most comfortable. Then I grew into this world,” he said. “I left a lot behind.”

“It’s all just beyond those stars. But you’re right. You did leave a lot behind.”

“I’m sorry.” He sat in the grass.

“You’ve had adventures here, though,” she said.

“Can’t remember many of them. They’re like them.” He pointed at the fireflies. “They move around too much, and just when you think you’ve got one, you don’t.” He stood slowly. “Goodnight.”

“Good-bye.”

The door closed. Tink was alone. She zipped across the yard, full-stopped, and wrangled in the air a moment. She let go of a firefly.

“That wasn’t so hard.”

6

Moonlight nuzzled along the bedroom walls. Peter had gone to the kitchen to get something to drink. The faucet ran; he forewent a glass. A cupped hand. A slurp.

—and—

the streams visit his memory first. Streams that smooth creekstones and keep the rheumatic tree roots glistening and slick as they grasp the water’s edge from among thick, green turf. A faery rides a watersnake. The foliage shivers. Breeze? Indian?

The water warps his reflection. He strikes it.

Leaves.

— then —

stared at the pinned piece of paper on the corkboard in the kitchen beside the refrigerator. He’d never taken medicine a day in his life, not even when he’d lost his teeth. Peter tore the paper from the thumbtack and wadded it up and trashed it.

Shadow peered from around a corner in the kitchen, then rippled away.

7

Back in the bedroom Peter opened the nightstand drawer and rummaged among the miscellany and took out a drawstring pouch. The wind tousled the curtains.

Peter saw his shadow.

“Remember this?”

Shadow concurred and jumped along the wall in a fine gliding motion.

“Taking care of a few things.” He spread the pouch’s contents on the foot of the bed. An arrowhead. A creekstone. An eye patch. A smidgen of faery dust sifted out, and the items jiggled under the unction.

Shadow mock-fought along the walls and slithered beside Peter and wavered like some oil-slick ghostling.

“I won’t ask or force you to go anywhere else. You’ve been stuck to me long enough, Shadow.” He was a most practical companion, if not altogether contrary betimes.

Shadow shrugged. He began signing.

“You know where it is?” said Peter.

A nod.

“I bet it’s in the last place I left it.”

Shadow grabbed his belly and doubled-over and tossed back his head. He signed some more.

“A trade for this old stuff? Just show me and be done with it.”

Rapid gesticulations and hopping about.

“It’s going to be like that.”

Rude gestures and dark signs—black sigils that hovered in the air of the room and accused.

“Been called worse by better, Shadow.” Peter stood, his joints cracking. “I’m going to read a bit.” He waved a hand over the pouch and the lightly fluttering contents nearby. “They’re yours if you want them. No deals. No tricks. I’m lucky to have thought of them, let alone kept up with them after all this time. Been meaning to mention something else.”

Peter talked at length with Shadow, who pitched and stamped about the room and signed in a number of colorful ways.

“I think we owe it to each other, ol’ boy,” said Peter. “You’ve been stuck with me long enough, and I’m the one who caught you so long ago. Right? Whenever you’re ready.”

Shadow pulled away, and Peter drew in his breath as Shadow limped off. Two tears, each on Peter’s heels, bled on the shag while a few viscous drops of midnight formed a trail to the wall where Shadow rested.

“Thanks for putting up with me.”

Shadow signed, “OK.”

Peter removed something from his pocket and hefted it while rubbing his chest with the other hand. The newest scars still sang tender ditties.

He held the pocketknife forward.

“Shadow, this simply will not do.”

Shadow agreed.

He shuffled out the bedroom, and for the longest while, Shadow simply stared at the arrowhead and creekstone and eye patch. He gathered them up in the pouch and left.

From the study window Peter thought he saw Shadow haunting the yard and moving from moonlit patch to moonlit patch. Ghosting around like old memories, slippery thoughts.

Fireflies held court with Shadow.

It reminded Peter of something for a moment, but then he opened a book and began reading, losing himself. Lost in the words for some time. Pages fluttered, the book open in his lap as he dozed and dreamed of forests and streams and mountains.

8

He debated taking his shoes.

There was always a need for shoes over here and a type of shoe for every occasion, but he could always trade for a pair of moccasins. Or go barefoot. Water and dirt and mud between one’s toes—that was a simple pleasure, an old, familiar friend.

Shadow. Sword. Star.

Peter stood at the open window and thought about Tink. Had she even said she would come tonight? The gray places in his memory played fox-tricks with his head, and he hated not remembering, hated the misremembering. He squeezed his temples with the heels of his palms as though the pressure would loosen some fount in the crevices of his brain and give him solace. A litany of names spilled from his lips—names he with which he would never be familiar.

Razadyne. Namenda. Ativan.

Motion caught his attention. With great effort, Shadow came from around the corner of the house. He set down a wrapped bundle and beckoned Peter out. The security pole with its light buzzed and cast spectral sodium-arc illumination, and Peter reckoned the bundle was a burlap sack. He pulled it away and revealed the short sword in its scabbard: a finely wrought double-edged blade with a full tang and leather-wrapped handle.

“Hmmmmmmm.”

Shadow recounted his troubles.

“The utility shed? Under the old fishing poles?” Peter gave the air a few tentative cuts and thrusts before returning it to the scabbard and fixing it to his belt.

Shadow held out the pouch and pointed at Peter’s pocket.

Peter dropped the pocketknife into Shadow’s pouch. “A fair trade.”

Shadow nodded and pranced away, turning once to wave.

“’bye.”

A heady feeling took Peter, and he stumbled, then fell. Or thought he fell. His face hovered inches over the grass, fresh with early dew. He toed the ground and pushed off in shaky spirals, swooped too close to the gnarled, arthritic limbs of the pecan trees in the backyard. He could hear his pulse shushing pa-drum-rum, pa-drum-rum through his head.

Pirates. Mermaids. Indians.

His hair clung matted to his brow as he plowed through the clouds and left behind his little island of property with its longleaf pines and cedar windbreaks and long two-path road running alongside the pond and the gated retirement community. He floated a while and tracked the blinking lights of airplanes. After Peter took in the spray of stars and the dusty belt of the Milky Way’s edge, he pitched back and forth, disoriented now with no moon out for gauging his start. The constellations’ names had failed him at last.

Waterfalls. Treehouses. Smoke signals.

Peter surveyed the firmament—the black arch porous with silvers and blues and reds. Which one? There were plenty. The old road map was slippery like those fireflies. He banked, then soared into the outer dark, one star being just as good as another. They flickered and winked for eons and parsecs and light years. They were all of them bedamned and complicit in their silence (and he supposed he had it coming) like so many absent friend and echoes of conversations fading down the avenues of the mind. How age passes judgment, it struck Peter, passes judgment on itself, and we let it unchink the armor of memory until we are naked again beneath the mute witness of stars.

“Okay, Tink. Here goes nothing.”

He chose and flew straight ahead. Plenty of time to get there.

And time enough to wander among them all.

“They are not really friendly to Peter, who had a mischievous way of stealing up behind them and trying to blow them out; but they are so fond of fun that they were on his side to-night, . . . ”

Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

Berrien C. Henderson lives with his family in southeast Georgia. He was born in a small town and currently lives in a farming community; deer and turkey have been known to wander through his yard. A small cadre of common house geckos earn their keep by eating the bugs on the carport and front porch. Both Berry and his wife teach–high school English and sixth grade English, respectively. He has a son and daughter, and they both answer to Thing 1 and Thing 2. Ever elusive free time he spends with family, and late in the evening or late at night, writing speculative fiction and poetry.


2 Responses to "Until We Are Naked Again Beneath the Mute Witness of Stars"

  • Excellent story! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1 Clint Harris said this (February 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm)


  • Excellent.

    2 Asakiyume said this (February 28, 2011 at 11:16 pm)