The Cost

Everyday, this boy sits on his curb, not speaking. He’s been home a week and is just a few years older than my own sons who stand around him secretly longing for a draft, who try to get him to tell them what he knows, what he has seen. He hasn’t spoken yet, just grins or grimaces, cackles at their domestic jokes about bikes and school and girls. I’d like to believe his silence is a kind of grace, but know it isn’t and won’t last; he’ll tell them something I don’t want them to hear. Today, the girl from down the block, the little one who hasn’t learned to stay away or how to broker her own presence, joins the small pack on the curb. They tolerate her at first, but then I see her poking him with one finger over and over. She is sure to be asking questions, probably the same one again and again. It almost doesn’t matter what the question is. Why isn’t he wearing a uniform anymore? What is war like? Why this; why that? As I watch, the girl seems to grow wings. They unfurl like new leaves, fragile, inevitable. I wish she could fly away, but she remains and keeps on asking her question, and the boy keeps on not answering, his head low and shaking, until one of my boys leans forward as if to embrace him, but instead leans over him and pushes the girl back, holding her at arm’s length. She is transformed into a doll, her head broken, the contents soft wool and old newspaper spilling out, turning to dust in the air my sons are breathing. The laughter that escapes their throats sounds like the barking of a pack of dogs, or like guns firing, but it’s not like that at all and not like feral dogs, but the kind that are kept for laps: lean, small, keen-eyed, hungry to prove themselves against large dogs and so must be kept on a leash for their own good.

Laura McCullough | Mudlark No. 32
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