Searching, finding

I remember when I first saw the child. He was all scrunched up on a large rock at the edge of the field, picking a silver out of his toe. The sun slapped down on his bare back, and his hair was matted and grimy. Unaware that someone watched him from behind, he grunted a little, tugging the tow up closer for a serious cross-eyed examination.

Suddenly his body stiffened. His head snapped up like that of a deer taken by surprise. He knew he was no longer alone. He kept his back to me and didn't turn his head so much as an inch.

After an eternity, he began to whistle softly, nonchalantly -- a tuneless little whistle that made me feel strange.Lowering his foot, he reached for a half-eaten apple that lay beside him, and became engrossed in its texture and structure. I knew he was waiting for me to make my presence known.

He whispered something indistinguishable, then pushed himself to his feet. His face strained against the sun, as if he wanted to hear it speak, as if it were saying something that fell just short of reaching him. "Not now," I heard him say, "not now."

Sauntering away from me, he was finally lost among the trees on the other side of the field.

The summer was endless and stifling. A dreadful stillness hung in the trees. It was the proverbial calm before the storm, only the storm never came. People took to staring up at the skies and clucking that it was unnatural to have such heat even if it was August and they had never seen anything like it and how happy they'd be when the rain came. But it never did.

The second time I saw him, he was standing on the old stone bridge that crosses Turner's creek, right where we used to knock the tin cans off with stones. Leaning over the lowest part of the bridge, he was staring intently at something in the water. I couldn't see that part of the creek from where I was, but I could see the tension in his back and legs. I remember thinking he looked trapped, like some wind thing not daring to move.

Then it happened again. His head jerked up. He was aware of me. Neither of us moved. I wasn't sure what to do; so, for no reason, Im began to whistle -- a kind of tuneless whistle. He swung his head sharply to the right and stared into the distance, as if the whistling came from way off someplace, the far side of Croucher's farm. There was no other sound.

After a moment he too began to whistle, slowly, and without so much as a backward glance, he trudged off the bridge and turned up the old dirt road that runs past the goat-girl's shack and on down to Garden River.

I watched him go till he disappeared at the bend of the road where the birches are, then I walked over to the bridge. How long I stood there I don't know. Finally, i placed my hands on the wall as he had, and slowly leaned over and started into the water. I saw myself.

Before anyone knew what had happened, summer slipped into autumn, and then into Indian summer, and October burned as hot as August had. The countryside soughed anew under summer dust, and the golden-rod was dead. People kept coming into town and saying how unnatural the weather was, and that nobody minded all this heat at the proper time of the year but mid-October was not the proper time , and how happy they'd be when the first good frost'd come. But the frost, like the rain, kept its distance.

The next time I saw him was the last. It was early one morning. I had taken the dog and set out to explore the upper bush a little. I hadn't been there since I was a kid. It seemed like another lifetime -- and of course, that's exactly what it was.

I crossed over Turner's creek where it comes out from under Pine Hill, up there where Old Harry Newly met the bear the autumn before last. Panting and covered with sweat I dropped down onto a clump of witch grass. The dog had wandered off someplace and was rooting around in the distance.

I was busy examining a new scrape on my elbow when it happened. That silence. Nothing stirred. My head jerked up -- and then I knew. I knew he was watching me. I wanted to shout and leap to my feet. "Not now," I whispered. "Not now."

Whistling softly, I leaned back against a tamarack, watching the sun slip silently in and out of the branches, then shifted my body casualty and looked up.

There he stood, staring down at me from that clearing at the top of Pine Hill , to the right of all that sumach. We looked at each other, not moving, silent. The sun stopped. So did the branches.

Finally he spoke.

"Did ya see it?" His voice was slow and quiet. I didn't answer. He waited, watching me sharply. "In the water. Did ya see it?" I looked at him for a long time and then nodded. "Then ya've seen it," he answered softly. "Ya've seen it. And that's all there is to it."

Our eyes didn't move. At last he lifted his arm in a single unwaving salute of recognition, then turned, and descended the other side of Pine Hill.

Time passed, The wind crept back into the trees and the branches breathed again. I could hear the dog rooting through the brush. It was a chill wind. Before we reached home the dark clouds of winter could be seen scudding about on the edges, and a few drops of icy rain fell silently on the dust.

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