He arrived nearly naked, dressed himself in the feathers from our molting hens, but he never scabbed, never bled, bruised or callused. He entered our twine and tin-can town a week ago, but who of us had an entrance into him?
We curse him for his beauty, try to cut him with our words, but where he came from remains a mystery. We can’t glisten like he does in the grey-light of the lightning-churned marshes. When we drag ourselves from the waters onto our splintered docks, our bodies are blotted in mud, but he emerges uncut, leech-less, flushed.
“Where’s your mind swimming?” asks one of the old men, and I blush. I tuck worms into buckets of mud, because this is our bait shop. Father taught me to hide things here: the hooks, the worms, the rolls of water-stained money. He grips my head.
“Never too far,” Father says. “Sawyer may seem like he’s somewhere else, but he’s always listening.” The men, my father, Mr. Kaykden, Mr. Densen—they mumble, cough, and curse about the beautiful stranger, do so through their meat-stained tongues, teeth cracked and bloodshot eyes and their hands gnarled from years of hard work. They say that he’s a bitch and I nod. A fruit and I nod. A fag and I nod. I remove my fingers from the buckets and I’m caked and stained in mud.
Fridays, outside our only diner, its glass door, our Cola cups, there are black neon nights.
I pass these with the Marlboro boys, because it’s the best place to hide. He passes us, bright as the beam of a lighthouse in his feathered boa. Proud as the hens he’s stolen from, as though he too has grown a new coat for the winter, and beneath it, all that bare-skin: the legs, the shoulders, the hollow of his gut. He parts our cigarette puffs, toes tobacco backwashed from our leering lips, and we can’t stomach it.
The Marlboro boys say, “Milk-skinned bitch, we’ll kill you.”
I can’t look at him, his greaseless hair, his hips. I have my own rules: Silence is key; Suck tits, dick, whatever you want beneath the cattails, but never above; Chase the tails of budding beauties, not Marlboro boys; Lock lips except while kissing. That’s key to boys and girls, to chaff-bed sex and silver-queen corn, popped between locked jaws in the silence that comes after.
But he doesn’t get it, won’t get on with anyone.
“We ought to tar and feather him,” I whisper when he’s far enough away, his body small and bright as the moon’s rippled reflection. The boys nod like broken branches in a muddy stream. I bite my tongue behind the cigarette, because my first rule’s been broken.
Our beauties, limbed like water striders, have begun to wait for him around his bogs, his docks, his marshes. They’re blooming now—the waters, not the girls—with wild garlic, water lilies, and bright-eyed arrowheads. At night, our hotties hang around booths, break Splenda packets into deserts across the tables.
We’re sick of sticky surfaces, tear-drop sugar goo gluing our glasses and the girls giving us, his unequals, stink eyes.
I’m sick of sticky stomach shudders, egg sac slick with semen as the boys wish it were him, not me, with them.
Lately, the boys’ve told stories about beautiful men—older men—who pass through here and through them.
These boys. My boys. Rust-ridden, ash-blemished, brutalized boys who wander our fields barefoot. I tell them, Never trust a city suit, no matter how quickly it comes off. “Snakeskin,” I say, and they smile like they’ve never seen a water moccasin.
“It’s not like I care about them,” says the Polton Farm boy, “any more than they do about me.” We’ve had sex beneath the corn stalks, and he looks at the horizon, where our starlight disappears beneath the light of the city. “I wish we cared about each other though.” He sighs and my heart sinks with his breath. I push leaves from our path.
“What were you thinking tonight?” I ask. “I saw you look away.” He turns his head like he had before and plucks cornsilk from his brow.
“About a dream,” he says. Then the town begins to rattle. A train passes, down the track that divides our homes, and through the field where we stand. Once it’s gone, the Polton boy continues. “Out in the marshes where the tadpoles grow their legs, I dreamt of all the boys in town, but I couldn’t tell you apart. You were waist-deep in the water, bobbing, and you couldn’t pull yourselves out. I was on the highest dock, the beautiful stranger beside me, and he told me to wonder: What use is it to survive such an ugly place when we’re just as ugly?”
The Polton boy’s question sends me to bed uneasy. It’s as if the train continues to rattle our town and wake me repeatedly. I reel again and again from the waters of my sleep, haunted by dreams of the stranger’s blooming body beneath mine.
As soon as they begin to lay again, it always seems like the chickens start to die too. That’s because everything else in town is alive with the summer: the hawks and strays and raccoons; the wildflowers that bring their other prey; the rivers, fat and ready to spill over. Father tells me it’s time to slaughter some hens, before the hawks can pick them all off. But I have a date with one of the girls I’m seeing, and I slip out of the house for the afternoon.
The whole town seems hot and uneasy today—Marlboro boys missing from the diner, girls gone from the docks. Polton Farm has sold to someone from the city, their son run away. I meet my girl at her mother’s salon, and I can tell she knows—by the way she looks at me—that it’s me who’s uneasy. She asks whether I prefer her to the boys.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
She sighs and the dust in her mother’s salon sinks over us, heavy as the afternoon. We’re curled in the oldest, softest barber’s chair and I run my hand through the unkempt hair that she never lets her mother cut or even comb.
I ask her: “Why do you girls love him?”
“The feathered boy.”
She puffs the hair from her forehead.
“Why do you poke holes in things?” she says.
“It’s not love,” she says. “And comparing it to love makes it seem too small.”
How should I know what love is, though? The most I can tell is where to throw a line for the best chance at fish. Which bait to hook at every shore. I can’t tell crowfoot from marigolds or make the waters bloom—with flowers or with girls. After I’ve left the salon, I look for anyone—the Marlboro boys, my other lovers, or the beautiful stranger in his feathered boa. Maybe he could tell me what love is.
Three years ago, my father opened a rusty switchblade next to my face and told me that’s what it was to fall for someone—that fast and sharp—but I never believed him.
I remove the blade from my own pocket now and carve the names of my lovers—the Polton Farm boy, the girl in her salon, and the first man I met two years ago, surveying our land in his snakeskin boots—into the bark of the nearest tree. Then I bend to the marsh and wash the sap from my blade.
When I hear the stranger scream, I nearly drop my knife in the water. When I rise, I hold it tight to my side. I follow the sound of the Marlboro boys up the hill to where the river is most fat and deep. Hidden behind a bush of cattails, I watch them hold his body beneath the water, where it hisses and steams. I bite my lip to stay silent, wishing that I could play my role—whatever that might be—in his murder. A minute passes and their faces slack like fishing lines on a lazy day. I only wish that his body would stop, just like I’d wished that it would disappear from my dreams.
Another minute passes and I can tell they’ve never killed someone. Their knuckles strain around his slowing body the way mine strains around the switchblade. They look to the oldest boy, who sits stock-still, smoking his Marlboro. “What?” he wants to know and they pretend that it’s nothing. I pretend too—that I’m not here and that the hot tar, the feathers were not my idea. The third minute nears and his foot kicks like a caught fish. When he stills, the oldest boy puts his cigarette out on the beautiful stranger’s heel and I jump at the sound, but not enough for them to see me.
When it’s over, they roll him to the shore and look between one another. His body is callused, scorched, and scathed with tar, but they seem unsatisfied, like they’ve smashed a lightning bug and gotten no glow. Then they scatter as though something has startled them.
I approach the body and stroke the feathers, which are no longer soft and white, but burnt to the shafts and crusted with tar. If it really wasn’t love, like the salon girl said, I don’t think they’ll miss him. They’ll go back to the lives they had before and I’ll go back to the bait shop, hide the switchblade where I found it, then sleep and dream about the trees I’ve carved. But by some impulse I can’t explain, I dig my blade between his ribs and begin to carve my own name, over and over—Sawyer, Sawyer—over the bright legs and hips and shoulders. I tell myself that this is to claim him as my own kill, so the town can know I did them a favor. But watching his blood wade into the murky water, I’m surprised by how human he is, and I want even more to claim him as one of my lovers. To hold the body beneath the feathers.
Even now, though, that body refuses me an answer: From the open eyes, gaping mouth, to the widened pores from which his feathers sprout, I see no passage.