Until We Are Naked Again Beneath the Mute Witness of Stars

by Berrien C. Henderson 


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.


“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.


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.”


“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. 


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.


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?”


“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.


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?”


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.”


“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 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.”


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.”


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. 


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. 


— then â€”

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.


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.


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. 


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.


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, … â€

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)