Bruce Holland Rogers
The Dead Boy At Your Window
This story is an illustration of a fixed form as described in Bruce’s column for November 2008. It’s a little long for flash — about 1,300 words — but it illustrates his points nicely and it’s a multiple-award winner: the Bram Stoker in 1998 and the Pushcart Prize in 1999.
In a distant country where the towns had improbable names, a woman looked upon the unmoving form of her newborn baby and refused to see what the midwife saw. This was her son. She had brought him forth in agony, and now he must suck. She pressed his lips to her breast.
“But he is dead!” said the midwife.
“No,” his mother lied. “I felt him suck just now.” Her lie was as milk to the baby, who really was dead but who now opened his dead eyes and began to kick his dead legs. “There, do you see?” And she made the midwife call the father in to know his son.
The dead boy never did suck at his mother’s breast. He sipped no water, never took food of any kind, so of course he never grew. But his father, who was handy with all things mechanical, built a rack for stretching him so that, year by year, he could be as tall as the other children.
When he had seen six winters, his parents sent him to school. Though he was as tall as the other students, the dead boy was strange to look upon. His bald head was almost the right size, but the rest of him was thin as a piece of leather and dry as a stick. He tried to make up for his ugliness with diligence, and every night he was up late practicing his letters and numbers.
His voice was like the rasping of dry leaves. Because it was so hard to hear him, the teacher made all the other students hold their breaths when he gave an answer. She called on him often, and he was always right.
Naturally, the other children despised him. The bullies sometimes waited for him after school, but beating him, even with sticks, did him no harm. He wouldn’t even cry out.
One windy day, the bullies stole a ball of twine from their teacher’s desk, and after school, they held the dead boy on the ground with his arms out so that he took the shape of a cross. They ran a stick in through his left shirt sleeve and out through the right. They stretched his shirt tails down to his ankles, tied everything in place, fastened the ball of twine to a buttonhole, and launched him. To their delight, the dead boy made an excellent kite. It only added to their pleasure to see that owing to the weight of his head, he flew upside down.
When they were bored with watching the dead boy fly, they let go of the string. The dead boy did not drift back to earth, as any ordinary kite would do. He glided. He could steer a little, though he was mostly at the mercy of the winds. And he could not come down. Indeed, the wind blew him higher and higher.
The sun set, and still the dead boy rode the wind. The moon rose and by its glow he saw the fields and forests drifting by. He saw mountain ranges pass beneath him, and oceans and continents. At last the winds gentled, then ceased, and he glided down to the ground in a strange country. The ground was bare. The moon and stars had vanished from the sky. The air seemed gray and shrouded. The dead boy leaned to one side and shook himself until the stick fell from his shirt. He wound up the twine that had trailed behind him and waited for the sun to rise. Hour after long hour, there was only the same grayness. So he began to wander.
He encountered a man who looked much like himself, a bald head atop leathery limbs. “Where am I?” the dead boy asked.
The man looked at the grayness all around. “Where?” the man said. His voice, like the dead boy’s, sounded like the whisper of dead leaves stirring.
A woman emerged from the grayness. Her head was bald, too, and her body dried out. “This!” she rasped, touching the dead boy’s shirt. “I remember this!” She tugged on the dead boy’s sleeve. “I had a thing like this!”
“Clothes?” said the dead boy.
“Clothes!” the woman cried. “That’s what it is called!”
More shriveled people came out of the grayness. They crowded close to see the strange dead boy who wore clothes. Now the dead boy knew where he was. “This is the land of the dead.”
“Why do you have clothes?” asked the dead woman. “We came here with nothing! Why do you have clothes?”
“I have always been dead,” said the dead boy, “but I spent six years among the living.”
“Six years!” said one of the dead. “And you have only just now come to us?”
“Did you know my wife?” asked a dead man. “Is she still among the living?”
“Give me news of my son!”
“What about my sister?”
The dead people crowded closer.
The dead boy said, “What is your sister’s name?” But the dead could not remember the names of their loved ones. They did not even remember their own names. Likewise, the names of the places where they had lived, the numbers given to their years, the manners or fashions of their times, all of these they had forgotten.
“Well,” said the dead boy, “in the town where I was born, there was a widow. Maybe she was your wife. I knew a boy whose mother had died, and an old woman who might have been your sister.”
“Are you going back?”
“Of course not,” said another dead person. “No one ever goes back.”
“I think I might,” the dead boy said. He explained about his flying. “When next the wind blows....”
“The wind never blows here,” said a man so newly dead that he remembered wind.
“Then you could run with my string.”
“Would that work?”
“Take a message to my husband!” said a dead woman.
“Tell my wife that I miss her!” said a dead man.
“Let my sister know I haven’t forgotten her!”
“Say to my lover that I love him still!”
They gave him their messages, not knowing whether or not their loved ones were themselves long dead. Indeed, dead lovers might well be standing next to one another in the land of the dead, giving messages for each other to the dead boy. Still, he memorized them all. Then the dead put the stick back inside his shirt sleeves, tied everything in place, and unwound his string. Running as fast as their leathery legs could manage, they pulled the dead boy back into the sky, let go of the string, and watched with their dead eyes as he glided away.
He glided a long time over the gray stillness of death until at last a puff of wind blew him higher, until a breath of wind took him higher still, until a gust of wind carried him up above the grayness to where he could see the moon and the stars. Below he saw moonlight reflected in the ocean. In the distance rose mountain peaks. The dead boy came to earth in a little village. He knew no one here, but he went to the first house he came to and rapped on the bedroom shutters. To the woman who answered, he said, “A message from the land of the dead,” and gave her one of the messages. The woman wept, and gave him a message in return.
House by house, he delivered the messages. House by house, he collected messages for the dead. In the morning, he found some boys to fly him, to give him back to the wind’s mercy so he could carry these new messages back to the land of the dead.
So it has been ever since. On any night, head full of messages, he may rap upon any window to remind someone — to remind you, perhaps — of love that outlives memory, of love that needs no names.
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About the Author
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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Copyright © 2008, Bruce Holland Rogers. All Rights Reserved.