The freedom train - Moses, 12th October, 1993
The freedom train
Moses – 12th October, 1993
Moses walked into the woods near his grandparents’ house. He’d been into them many times. Along the same path, through the back yard and behind the other houses, down the track into their darkness.
At fifteen, Moses was a big kid – much older looking than his years. Ungainly in his sweatpants and hoody, his wrists and ankles jutted out, vulnerably pale. To Moses, it seemed that his growth spurt had only taken hold over the last few months. It arrived with the acne that had reddened and tenderised his skin, giving him the permanently musky smell his Grandma complained would stay in the bathroom long after he’d left it.
Each time Moses’ spots burst and then dried up, his skin seemed to slough off and he thought of himself as a snake shedding its skin to accommodate new growth. He didn’t like his changing – beyond control and unknowable in outcome.
At Moses’ feet, close at heel, a small, grey dog walked. Step after small step, it looked up at Moses, regarding him with steady, simple loyalty.
The wood had little remaining of it, but what there was grew fierce and thorny – a throwback to a time before the housing development had eaten it up. In its deepest part, there were still trees that were over two hundred years old and tiny flies spent the entirety of their short lives buzzing around them, trying to escape their shady reach.
It was the end of summer and the heat clung wetly to the ground, rising in the wood’s hollows. It was a sickly, cloying heat and if the trees could speak, they would ask for the cold to start biting so they could feel the relief of the fall.
On the ground, the detritus of people stood out against the muted colours. Soda cans, used sanitary towels, grocery bags. The wreck of an old car with no wheels. The wood’s trees were wolfish here, twisted and snapping at each other; vying for the light.
Moses was whistling under his breath. Some old blues song he’d heard his Grandma playing that morning. He couldn’t really remember the tune, but he loved the first line. “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me. Where did you sleep last night?” The words made him shiver, but he wasn’t sure why. The next line – the answer of “In the pines” – even more so. It made him think of Delarosa. He wondered if somewhere in the expanse of this world or another, she was sleeping in the pines and this thought comforted him.
Out of nowhere, school crossed his mind and he stopped whistling. In school, Moses was always alone, despite the ever present people. He didn’t get kids his age; the joshing boys, the tittering girls who moved as one body.
He was bigger than most people in school and he accepted this had to make him a target for attention and ridicule. The girls stared at his crotch and shrieked at what they were sure was the bulge of his erection. It’s not that. It’s not that at all, he wanted to explain to them. It’s only the way I sit. I can’t help it if the chairs in this place are too small for me.
Not that he ever did explain anything to them. Not even when Joel Hughes kicked him in the back of the knees because he said he looked like a faggot. Nor when Ruthie Sanger whispered, “I’m not sitting anywhere near you. I don’t want to catch what you are.”
No, Moses didn’t talk to the other kids and he only talked to the teachers when he had no choice but to talk to them. He rarely liked what he learned in school, although he did like stories in English class. He felt words, like physical jabs in the pit of his stomach. He hated the words adolescent and metastasizing. He loved Mother and absurd.
Sometimes, his Grandma tried to speak to him about what he might do after he left high school, but it wasn’t a conversation he had anything to add to. Instead, he felt her words trickle out of his ears, down his neck and then dribble down his back. If he was to share what his after high school plan was, Moses guessed his Grandma would feel his words in the same way he did hers.
In his plan, it would be night. He would get dressed all in black – hoody, jeans and box fresh Nikes. He’d take his Walkman and he’d be listening to the five or six songs he had on its cassette. The music would both soothe him and excite him. More than that, it would make him feel powerful.
He would have the can of gasoline from his Grandpa’s storehouse in his rucksack and he’d climb over the school gate and on to the gym roof. He’d pour the gasoline everywhere and he’d take Grandma’s lighter that she wouldn’t even know he’d stolen and he’d light the gasoline. Everything around him would be glowing amber and he’d stand watching, listening to his music. At the right moment, he would start dancing like a robot in the darkness, noticing all the colours as they changed. Amber, ochre, umber. Moses up high; dancing, burning. This was the after high school plan he didn’t share with his Grandma.
At home, Moses guessed he was happy. Settled was the word his Grandma used. “Of course, we’re settled here”, she’d said to his teacher when she’d had cause to visit the school.
Moses wasn’t so sure though. When he watched TV in the den, he didn’t like the flatness of its pictures. He wanted to touch textures and feel depth. I must feel, I must feel, he repeated to himself.
Sometimes, he would touch the flesh on his cheeks for the sharpness of his adult features which he knew were lying in wait for him just below the surface. But on winter nights, cuddled up to the dog by the fire, watching the pinpricks of light shimmy in the flames, he supposed settled was what he must feel.
Moses’ sleep patterns had always been erratic. He would wake up in the mad hours of the night and at those times, all he could think of doing was walking. Along the roads near his grandparents’ house. Sometimes into town. The cops had brought him back five or six times and it was driving his Grandmother wild. Each time they turned up at the door his Grandpa said nothing, but Grandma would tell him that although she loved him, she was done with his behaviour. Moses had thought about what she’d said and if the truth be told, he couldn’t follow the distinction she was making.
On nights Moses didn’t wake up and walk, he dreamed. One dream came back to him on a number of occasions, with only slight variations he could remember.
In his dream, he was transforming into something else – a type of animal, what type he wasn’t sure; but he was hoping he would develop wings so he could jump high in the sky. Then the dream changed and he was hiding at the back of a cave in a rocky mountain, observing the creature who lived in the cave. The creature stood over a silver bowl. It was naked and its black hair snaked down its back, stopping just short of the tail that grew out of the bottom of its spine. It squatted over the bowl and it looked like it was pissing, but what it emitted was a pearlescent, grey substance. The stuff ran down its legs and some of it ended up in the silver bowl.
Out of the shadows, another creature emerged. It was taller than the first and thinner. It moved towards the centre of the cave, its sides glistening damp from where it had touched the cave’s walls. It picked the silver bowl up as the first creature stood back. They looked at each other and then the first creature disappeared into the dark.
The one that was left cupped the silver bowl and brought it to its mouth. It began to lap the substance in the bowl, its rough tongue banging on the metal, causing the sound to ricochet around the cave. Then it swallowed.
On his night walks, Moses would never go into the woods and never take the dog. He would just walk, straight and silent, meeting no one. He’d considered whether he could be looking for something, but he wasn’t convinced. In any case, it could only be Delarosa and he was never going to be able to find her.
In his walk today, Moses had a plan and it involved the dog. He’d had his eye on the wrecked car in the woods for a while and he was going to use it as part of his experiment. His hypothesis.
He’d wondered for a long time about what point life became death and whether you could see the exact point one turned into the other. He’d calculated that if he shut the dog in the car without food or water and came back daily, he could observe precisely when the alive dog became the dead dog. He’d even perfected what he’d tell his grandparents. He walked the dog, it slipped its lead, it ran off into the woods, he looked for it, he couldn’t find it.
So Moses opened the rickety car door and ushered the eager, slobbering dog in to the back seat. He didn’t speak to it or look at it when he closed the door. He knew he’d see it tomorrow, and anyway he was thinking about how angry his Grandma would be when he came home without it. As he walked towards the entrance to the woods, the thought of her future anger made his heart sad.
Dusk was beginning to fall and the tsk tsk of the dog’s claws on the car window was heightened by what the half-light hid. Even at the edge of the woods, Moses could clearly hear the dog behind him. He didn’t want to think about what he’d done, but neither did he want to go back and help it. Instead, he imagined it on an old steam train. In a carriage looking out of the window, on a journey to the beach. The dog on a train, riding its way to freedom.
By the time he got back to his grandparents’ house, Moses was thinking about Delarosa again. He remembered when he’d last had a conversation about her – about six months’ previously and unusually, with his Grandpa.
Moses had gone out to feed the pigeons in the back yard. When he’d opened the loft door, the birds were already alert and gathering. He’d sprinkled the grain in their dishes and removed the water bowls so he could wash and refill them.
He remembered that the morning had been a cold one, but the loft had the warmth and dense air that groups of birds together create. That, and the acrid smell of their shit.
After their flocking and feeding, Moses had stood watching them for a few minutes as they moved away from what was left of the grain and fluttered up to their regular perches; wings opening and stretching. Comforting cooing filled the loft.
His Grandpa had arrived then and although it had been nearly Easter, the rush of air he’d brought in to the loft with him was winter biting. After a while, they’d put the birds in cages and taken them together in his Grandpa’s Jeep to Cottam Hill, where they were going to release them.
At the pinnacle of the hill, they’d got out and began opening the cages to allow the birds to fly away. They’d shot up in swathes into the clear vastness of the sky, appearing burnished as the sun hit their breasts and the underside of their wings. Burnt gold and bronze, copper shimmering against the blue. And then they’d became indistinct and tiny. And then, they were gone.
What remained in the sky above them, Moses remembered, was the birds’ absence and the trails of airplanes like erratic, crazy doodles or shooting stars.
Moses had looked at the Grandfather he barely spoke to and asked him the question he only posed to avoid asking the one he really wanted answering.
“Grandpa, why do the pigeons come back?”
His Grandpa had paused and then answered.
“It’s the little ones, Moses. They come back for the little ones. Why are you asking me what you already know?”
“She’ll come back won’t she Grandpa?”
And there it was. His question had spilt out of him before he had any chance to stop it. A question from deep within the Delarosa shaped hole that his body grew round. He had had no idea in the world why he’d asked it. He knew she would never be able to come back from where she was, but still his Grandpa answered.
“Sure, Moses. She’ll come back one day.”
Moses remembered he’d got straight back in the Jeep, as betrayed by this lie as the one his Grandma had told him years before about the dead girl on the beach only being asleep.