He broke through the trees into a back clearing.
It was the meadow of Cooney’s farm, and the setting sun was kindling a glow on the tips of the trees and illuminating the russet grass.
Through this marriage of light and color, a lowing proceeded, and a herd of cows came lumbering.
Behind them, a girl in a dress was swinging a twig. She was small from this distance, abstract and in a world of her own.
He was nervous and shy – nervous and shy before her, he never understood why – but he called out,
She shaded her eyes with her hand. It cast a purple shadow down her face.
“Jed? Is that you?”
He ran to her until he could see that the twig was a spotted birch, and that her dress had a print of black berries on it. He stopped before her, out of breath. A cow swung its head at him, and he settled his palm on its warm flank and rubbed. The animal gave a flick of its tail, stomped, and then walked on. Jed took his hand off the fur and regarded her.
Her hair was not permed, and was pinned back under a soiled handkerchief. Her forehead was damp. The handkerchief was the color of watered-down coffee.
“Well, this is the best thing that’s happened to me all week,” she said. Her pale face was mottled pink, smiling almost too frankly. She gave a hard swish at the ground with her stick. “What are you doing way out here? You didn't walk all the way out. Or run.”
“I did walk."
"Why would you do that? That is not exactly an ambling Saturday stroll. It is back fields and boggy woods."
"I was just…”
He weighed honesty and dishonesty.
A crow flew over Aggie's head. It flapped to a nearby tree and settled on the oak limb. It shuddered its wings, like an old man twitching a jacket over his thin shoulders.
“I just had to walk and walk and to not stop. One of those days, you know. I could not stop if I wanted to. I had to keep going.” He was chagrined at the desperation in his own voice. But he suddenly wanted to spill everything, too. A yearning clench his gut. Listen to me, Aggie. Listen.
“Oh.” She smacked at the grass with her stick, hard, again. “Is everything okay?”
“I guess so.”
“Ah!” she gave a sudden shriek. “Look at how red that is!” She pointed up, her fingers taut and ecstatic. “Listen to this, Jed. You'll like this. Did you know why the sun looks so red when it lowers in the sky?"
"No." He swallowed. "Why?"
"Because we are now seeing it through more of the atmosphere than when it is overhead! Think about it. Science is incredible. Absolutely gorgeous. Enlightening and gorgeous. -- Absolutely stunning!”
Oh, no. Her voice was full of that tone he recognized. It was the herald of thoughts that had been swelling up her head all day, with no one to spill them to, except a drunk zombified father and twenty muddy Holsteins. It was her reaction to suddenly having a sentient listener.
"Tell me more. I don't get it," settling back into the reserve he kept for her when she needed to unlodge her logged mind.
“Let me see how I can explain this." She jumped up on a damp stump. It was lone in the meadow. "I think it is because the sun's rays go through more air molecules when it is lower in the sky. So the blue color gets scattered away, and only the red is left. It is incredible. It is a mirage!" She lifted her arms up and looked like a Druidian priestess, holding her birch aloft. The rays turned the stick ruby. "Jed, this is what makes me feel like the world is not concrete at all. Think of it. Our perception is based on the cones in our eyes and refracted light. Even in science, life is about a point of view and not absolute fact. The sun is not innately red. Or yellow! or even white for that matter. Color is so beautifully slippery.”
But his patience had unspun too early. He was staring at the dripping stain on the tree-tangled horizon. His heart was tight; his fingers curled in.
“Agnes, I got into a fight before I came here,” he suddenly said.
"A fight." Gently. "And with whom?"
He knew she was ignoring his interruption, and he sputtered on. “My father. Just this afternoon.”
“Oh, no.” She stepped down. "Jed."
"It was terrible. It was just -" He wanted her to be able to picture it, like a visionary, without him having to cut any words. "So bad. I don't even know."
"Just that it happened at all. No one got hurt or anything."
"No, such things are jarring no matter what. Aren't they."
"Yeah." His heart curled into the softness she was offering.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
“Sunny went after Georgie, Dad went after Sunny, and I went after Dad.” He bent his head, his hair falling over his face, and he scrunched his hands through the blackness. Scruffed it up.
“Oh, I'm so sorry." She reached out, and her hand ran down the curl of his muscle on his upper arm, and he felt shocked by the touch. "You’re so noble. You're the best brother that ever –”
“I don't know about --”
“No, think of it. Think of it, and take comfort in this. That could have happened without you there. But think – you were there and you stepped in to stop it. You stepped in and acknowledged the Right. You were a witness to that, and that is so necessary. It is the only freeing thing for a kid. When someone says, ‘No! This is wrong, and you don't deserve this!'"
"I told her that, too. I said, 'This is not fair, and it is not your fault.’"
"Parents are way too powerful otherwise. You see, the kids won’t question treatment and take the blame on themselves.”
“Any and all blame."
"So maybe you’re right. I'm glad I was there, though I'm not glad it unfolded like that."
"No one ever is."
"So -" He breathed out. "Yes. That puts my mind at ease. I agree with you. Thanks, Aggie.”
They had come to the pasture fence and the cows went peaceably through the gate. Jed shut the rusty bolt for Aggie, who had turned her face up to the sky. Her skin was white, almost translucent, and it turned a peach-cream in the refracted light, all her blemishes washed away.
“Now, you know," she said softly, "the moon has no atmosphere,” like one in a trance.
"Yes," he laughed, "it's your turn now, Aggie. Go at it. Hard. Tell me everything sciency and luscious."
"Well, see, picture this. Imagine you and I were standing on the shore of the moon."
"A shore in the moon." His imagination tumbled. Now that his soul was cleared, he felt actively engaged; mentally aroused. Gears were whirring in the nautilus of his brain. "And would we see a sunset there?"
"Yes, but it would not be red at all.”
“Would it not? Tell me more." But before she could answer, he jumped up onto the bottom rung of the fence and said, "You know what. I don’t think it’s strange I came here at all. I wandered, but I must have known I was coming here."
"Your footsteps took you not by chance."
"Because your shoes are encoded with a homing device towards this locus."
"Well, all I know is that I seem to want to come here with every trouble I have. I feel so at ease. Relaxed. Peaceful here. It's like safe haven."
“You mean the farm."
"I mean -- yes."
"Or are we talking about the farm or me?”
“I like these cows.”
“I adore the cows.”
“But see!" he rolled over onto his back, leaning his elbows on the top rung of the fence, "I sometimes feel like things in my life have not happened until I have told you about them.”
"Really." She held up her stick before her like a birch sword.
"It is true." And suddenly he felt frustrated and exultant: both feelings born of the profundity of the admission. "It actually is."
She was slicing her birch sword through the air. Twirling her lash and decapitating the multiple heads of Queen Anne.
“Agnes," he laughed.
“You are a moonshine samurai.”
She stopped and planted her weapon before her in the ground. “I feel the same way about you, too, you know.” And her voice was infinitely tender. He almost could not match it, and he feared, but then he thrilled. “You know that, right?”
“I know. Hey, say, what color would the sunset be on our moon shore?”
“I am guessing it would be colorless.”
"How very magical. No filters -- just undiluted light."
He broke through the trees into a back clearing.