Take it off, take it off, said the baby with no shirt on straight up in his high blue sky chair pretty certain, off already was his sister’s shirt a little older, a lot quieter. Take it off, said their father to their mother in a different tone. It was August in the Northern Hemisphere, everyone was sweating. That time. Another time came after.
What did they call it, how went that saying, it was, what was it, something like walking on egg shells, more like walking on eggs.
The baby and his sister were running, they were the two of them screaming, this wasn’t a game they were playing. They came from where their father was, where he stayed, back in there where he went to be on his own, back in where most of the time he always was.
One time it was winter, when that was always where they ran from. It had been boiling hot with their father’s big woodstove always running.
Their mother heard their father screaming at the baby and his sister, never, never never come into this room again.
She watched the baby and his sister hide themselves beneath a table and turn themselves invisible. She knew how to do that, too. So she made up her mind it was time to.
Let’s make up something to say then, hey, baby, how about you put your boots on and we go with your sister out to make a snow boat, huh? Let’s make a snow boat to sail away on, okay, let’s take a flashlight with us to look for things, let’s go.
The baby and his sister worker harder than anyone their mother had ever seen work hard. They built everything anyone could need in nineteen different ways.
In the boat work they had to be doing work so hard so they dug in and on another day they built a town inside they’d been spreading from one room to the next down a hall over into another room their town grew as it needed to grow to have as many ways in it to run through with good hidden rooms to hide in. Good hiders they were from the get-go. Their mother folded nineteen down into ten.
Good tunnelers, too. With enough snow to go around they could tunnel long and hard. They could out-tunnel anybody who tunneled.
Their mother one time knew a tunnel you had to whistle through to keep it from falling all over, so some fish could swim by.
Then the hot room their father kept himself in was empty. That room was theirs now. Everything that was what their father used to have learned how to be invisible. There was a lot of room now to do things with.
The baby and his sister could spread out anywhere, if they wanted they could town all they wanted to now, inside or outside, snow or no snow. It didn’t matter.
The baby was two and three and four sometimes and his sister was all these as well and six. They had pretty fair, fine hair then and bronze eyes, real shield material, especially very reflective.
They pitched in to fill things up. They stormed their hot father’s room until no one remembered what he screamed or who he threw or what he smashed or where he went.
That snow boat they had been making had to be made fast, fast and furious their work would have to be, they could see that. Nobody needed to talk about it. They knew how big it needed to be, not too big but big enough.
But strong. Not just a little flippy matchstick play ship. Better than a bird feather roundabout tugboat. Broken-upness it would need to slip through, a pitch, a plunge, it would near-to tear-along, it needed to be quick to turn aside, it needed to zoom.
Watch what I’m doing said their mother who they saw seemed to be doing nothing they could see, she seemed to be staring at something into nothing. Ma? said the baby. Ma? said his sister more insistent.
Mister put a blister on sister when he pitched her and her bike she couldn’t handle into some prickerberries with summer strong nettles.
They’re just kids, their father was always saying. Just kids, they can get over anything.
Just kids was what he was always saying too many times, while he brandished everything as if these were all his very own, his feather duster and his ballpeen hammer. All along he knew what a bad man he was but he didn’t want anyone else to say it, he couldn’t bear it.
Stay away from my things, said their father to the baby and his sister so many times they knew there were things of his they needed to touch to find out why.
Here, said the baby with a stick in his hand, to his mother sitting on a big tree root, here, pretty soon the baby and his sister had sticks all over their mother, her hair could hold lots of little sticks they learned, she had a pocket up top stick after stick could stay in, there was room in her buttonholes for a stick or two, her ears were places two good sticks could stay tucked behind, she had a lap with a skirt sticks could fill, and they found a good big stick she could hold in her hands.
They knew what take-away was, they knew it had to be small, it could be anything, a blue rubber band, a black paperclip, a little brass something or else, any nail, any little sliver of anything, anything they could take away to hide in a good hiding place somewhere in their town.
Let’s count all the doors and windows in this house to see how many ways in and out we can find, said their mother, so we know. You two touch all the doors and windows, I’ll say the numbers, so we’ll know.
Let’s start at the top in a corner and work our way all the way down.
Sixty-eight they all said when it was over.
Minus two not the baby or his sister could reach up to and four in the cellar nobody wanted to go down into to touch anything or to count, plus the hatch.
Sixty-eight is a lot to carry, so let’s make it fourteen and make fourteen five, five you can keep in your head or you can put it on one hand’s fingers, like this, said their mother, taking one hand each from each one of them, and counting.
Little by little now some of the others who lived in their house with them could come out of hiding. The baby’s sister showed who lived in her tall mirror in her room, that one is a girl with a good name but the boy couldn’t remember it, he couldn’t see this one in the mirror but his sister told him what she in the mirror was for, the one who was there all the time they were there, when they were talking the one in the mirror was listening, and so he listened the way he thought she was in the mirror for.
Mr. Nobody didn’t do much every day but follow their dog around.
But when they found anything broken or couldn’t find something they
needed they knew Mr. Nobody had broken it or taken it away.
Yank went the twisted arm-harming father when the baby wasn’t coming along with their father’s fury fast enough.
Crack like a whip winced the baby’s shoulder when he couldn’t get it past where his fuming father threw it.
Templeton Jones, said the baby’s sister, that’s who’s inside that tall mirror of ours. Templeton Jones.
Down in the cellar where they wouldn’t go they knew a fox stayed who they didn’t know, they didn’t know if it was friendly or not. Their mother didn’t know there was a fox down there.
She didn’t know as much as those two knew.
Watch this, said their mother, with seeds in her hands, sitting outside on their sidesteps, you sit here too with seeds in your hands and we’ll see if we can find out something birds know.
Little by little there was no more baby, a boy was beginning to be there, right along with his sister who moved straight through things, like a laser she was, she was on a mission.
It was her brother’s job to see if he could figure out what his sister’s mission was. They needed to keep building and building over their town, it needed to get stronger, strong enough so when they needed to they could get there. They needed to know places outside no one else knew.
No matter where their mother was they were who knew what she was doing, they kept an eye on her to see what her face showed and if it could tell them anything they needed to know.
They had on the floor that stick sharp stack tossed in a corner with one of those daddy-long-leg spiders guarding its home. No one was supposed to take away a stick unless they could make it happen without moving any others.
There once was a stick, a blue stick, it was three days in June packed in a canvas bag. That green stick that was once by the door to their father’s hot room when he was in it, that stick too, that was one more stick they could see. Two more green sticks were words some words were sending away. That red stick was some words their mother didn’t want to let them hear. They knew all those sticks in the corner wanted them closer. They knew every stick by name.
Now and then when they would go together to see how the sticks were doing the daddy-long-leg spider would show them what it could do if it wanted to go spinning.
It could turn itself into a spinning ball that was no more a spider than a drop of water is.
Run, said their mother, we have to go to where there’s some water.
They did. They got in. Not one of them could really swim so they stayed where they could breathe or where their mother could keep them up enough to be safe. They could all float a little. They were pretty good floaters. And they could go under and find things on the bottom fast enough to get back up for air. They had a waltz sort of dance they could do in the water for a long time together. It came with music their mother could hum to keep them floating.
One time they spent most of a day throwing eggs around.
Their mother’s hair was black, eyes brown, these seemed a little sad all the time which was good when she smiled the boy and his sister really knew she meant it.
Look, she said, where a snake’s been here and gone, it’s left its skin here for us to have. How long do you think it took that snake to leave this skin, I bet it took a long time.
Reach in here and I’ll give you something, you need to find some hard blue shoes and a crown to protect your head, you need to go get something for your fox to eat, go find five things you want to show me, tell your brother to do that too, these were some of the things Templeton Jones said and sent outside of the mirror to them.
A red toothbrush, a sea green comb, their dog’s black leash, a book of matches with a bluebird on it, curly brown leaf broke off a plant, orange wooden box with music in it, rock with three white lines running through, lead soldier looking through binoculars at you, that snakeskin, a broken blue rubber band, were ten things, so they folded ten into one. And if that was one then they needed nine more things to get back to ten.
Templeton said through the mirror she wanted the matches and the soldier’s binoculars, she said, try using your rock luck to make a place you can give it to me through.
The boy and his sister had to think through this thought for a while and to do that better they needed to find their dog who would let them see if Mr. Nobody was around. They didn’t know if they wanted to give their things to Templeton Jones.
They were standing around a fire their mother was cooking things over when their mother said, listen, peepers, they’re letting us listen to them telling one another how good they are at doing what they are doing. Maybe putting buttonholes into buttons she said not meaning to. See if you can see what the crickets are up to now.
If we could, if we could, it seemed was all they were saying. The boy said no, the frogs are making binoculars, his sister didn’t answer after they wondered her way to see what she was thinking.
She was thinking how to fold something down into three. She’d settled on twelve which she got to by going eleven different ways.
One way was the way the door to her room didn’t close very close, another way was never to be letting her listening very close to everything ever leave her, another was make sure, another was which part of the staircase to be on, one way was to watch what her brother was doing, one was to know which room her mother was in, one was just wait, another was to find their dog, and one more was to stay as far back behind her bronze eyes as she could.
The boy and his sister and their mother were outside with flashlights looking for one another. Their dog was out there looking for something that wasn’t human to move. Don’t you find me said the boy to his sister, which he knew she would not do.
Inside the crate they kept their town-building things in were the boy’s hands hunting for something he needed to do to a road when his sister said, my room, with a rock in her hand.
That story’s over, said their mother to the cover of a book she was closing to begin to get them to get closer to sleeping which when they were under their covers she’d go sit on the sidesteps in the backyard to do some unthinking. One time a black cow with a white face came by, this time there was a herd of sheep scattered around, unbleating. Nineteen she counted, then folded nineteen down into one.
So open up one of your books and show us something we can see in it, said his sister when she took her brother with her to the tall mirror. Show us a page we can see from out here, she said to Templeton Jones.
She’d put their rock in her brother’s hand saying hold it, don’t let it throw itself if it tries to, she said.
Another time their mother said, go put on your shoes, she said, let’s walk down this road to the place where rocks are made, we can each find a rock we need, it’ll take a long time.
Sit here, said his sister when she stationed him on one of the steps on their staircase she said he could call it step five, and listen. Next to his head on their stairs was a row of warrior babies who could watch him listening. He could watch their weapons. He could see their dog way down there watching him sitting.
Half a big willow tree they kept in their side yard blew down, broke all the stone steps up to their top yard, fell through the roof of the hot room but no one was in it. It was better down, said the boy to their dog, it was where we could climb it. Some climbing we could do here. Some climbing around in a world we could otherwise.
Templeton Jones could not climb here.
The baby was on fire in a cold room with a helicopter next to it. Look there, let’s make up a big gale of wind, huh? Enough wind to blow the skin off a snake, huh?
In the quarry where they always went to find rocks they could stand around a little mud pond and wait for frogs. Let’s talk about frogs was what they said when they used to know not to talk about what they were not supposed to be talking about.
Let’s go, said his sister, there’s a place in the snow we need to tunnel through, there’s a room in there with some of our things in it. Let’s go count them. Where we last saw them. They did not know if their mother could get to this room with them.
It was time to go see what was folded. It was time to go far fast to another town far off. Inside, said their mother, inside, she said, to them both, with her hands unfolded and something in each one of them for the boy and his sister to take with them ever after to some places where their building would not falter. Twelve, ten, nine, a dozen, eight, six, seven, twenty-two, thirty-nine, seven, nine, eighteen, forty-nine, seventeen, three, two, three, seven, nine, eleven, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-seven, thirty-seven, forty seven, fifteen, twenty, nineteen, nine, eleven, three, three, three, nine, eleven.