She took the great iron spoon and the mummified frog and gave it a bash and made dust of it, and talked to the dust while she ground it in her stony fists quickly. Her beady gray bird-eyes nickered at the cabin. Each time she looked, a head in the small thin window ducked as if she'd fired off a shotgun.
"Charlie!" cried Old Lady. "You come outa there! I'm fixing a lizard magic to unlock that rusty door! You come out now and I won't make the earth shake or the trees go up in fire or the sun set at high noon!"
The only sound was the warm mountain light on the high turpentine trees, a tufted squirrel cluttering around and around on a green-furred log, the ants moving in a fine brown line at Old Lady's bare, blue-veined feet.
"You been starving in there two days, dam you!" she panted, chiming the spoon against a flat rock, causing the plump gray miracle bag to swing at her waist. Sweating sour, she rose and marched at the cabin, bearing the pulverized flesh. "Come out, now!" She flicked a pinch of powder inside the lock. "All right, I'll come get you!" she wheezed.
She spun the knob with one walnut-coloured hand, first one way, then the other. "0 Lord," she intoned, "fling this door wide!"
When nothing flung, she added yet another philter and held her breath. Her long blue untidy skirt rustled as she peered - into her bag of darkness to see if she had any scaly monsters there, any charm finer than the frog she'd killed months ago for such a crisis as this.
She heard Charlie breathing against the door. His folks had pranced off into some Ozark town early this week, leaving him, and he'd run almost six miles to Old Lady for company - she was by way of being an aunt or cousin or some such, and he didn't mind her fashions.
But then, two days ago. Old Lady, having gotten used to the boy around, decided to keep him for convenient company. She pricked her thin shoulder bone, drew out three blood pearls, spat wet over her right elbow, tromped on a crunch-cricket, and at the same instant clawed her left hand at Charlie, crying, "My son you are, you are my son, for all eternity!"
Charlie, bounding like a startled hare, had crashed off into the bush, heading for home.
But Old Lady, skittering quick as a gingham lizard, cornered him in a dead end, and Charlie holed up in this old hermit's cabin and wouldn't come out, no matter how she whammed door, window, or knothole with amber-coloured fist or trounced her ritual fires, explaining to him that he was certainly her son now, all right.
"Charlie, you there?' she asked, cutting holes in the door planks with her bright little slippery eyes.
"I'm all of me here," he replied finally, very tired.
Maybe he would fall out on the ground any moment. She wrestled the knob hopefully. Perhaps a pinch too much frog powder had grated the lock wrong. She always overdid or underdid her miracles, she mused angrily, never doing them just exact. Devil take it!
"Charlie, I only wants someone to night-prattle to, someone to warm hands with at the fire. Someone to fetch kindling for me mornings, and fight off the spunks that come creeping of early fogs! I ain't got no fetchings on you for myself, son, just for your company." She smacked her lips. "Tell you what, Charles, you come out and I teach you things!"
"What things?" he suspicioned.
"Teach you how to buy cheap, sell high. Catch a snow weasel, cut off its head, carry it warm in your hind pocket. There!"
"Aw," said Charlie.
She made haste. "Teach you to make yourself shot-proof. So if anyone bangs at you with a gun, nothing happens."
When Charlie stayed silent, she gave him the secret in a high fluttering whisper. "Dig and stitch mouse-ear roots on Friday during full moon, and wear 'em around your neck in a white silk."
"You're crazy," Charlie said.
"Teach you how to stop blood or make animals stand frozen or make blind horses see, all them things I'll teach you! Teach you to cure a swelled-up cow and unbewitch a goat. Show you how to make yourself invisible!"
"Oh," said Charlie.
Old Lady's heart beat like a Salvation tambourine.
The knob turned from the other side.
"You," said Charlie, "are funning me."
"No, I'm not," exclaimed Old Lady. "Oh, Charlie, why, I'll make you like a window, see right through you. Why, child, you'll be surprised!"
"You won't fetch onto me if I walk out?"
"Won't touch a bristle of you, son."
"Well," he drawled reluctantly, "all right."
The door opened. Charlie stood in his bare feet, head down, chin against chest. "Make me invisible," he said.
"First we got to catch us a bat," said Old Lady. "Start lookin'!"
She gave him some jerky beef for his hunger and watched him climb a tree. He went high up and high up and it was nice seeing him there and it was nice having him here and all about after so many years alone with nothing to say good morning to but bird-droppings and silvery snail tracks.
Pretty soon a bat with a broken wing fluttered down out of the tree. Old Lady snatched it up, beating warm and shrieking between its porcelain white teeth, and Charlie dropped down after it, hand upon clenched hand, yelling.
That night, with the moon nibbling at the spiced pine cones. Old Lady extracted a long silver needle from under her wide blue dress. Gumming her excitement and secret anticipation, she sighted up the dead bat and held the cold needle steady-steady.
She had long ago realized that her miracles, despite all perspirations and salts and sulphurs, failed. But she had always dreamt that one day the miracles might start functioning, might spring up in crimson flowers and silver stars to prove that God had forgiven her for her pink body and her pink thoughts and her warm body and her warm thoughts as a young miss. But so far God had made no sign and said no word, but nobody knew this except Old Lady.
"Ready?" she asked Charlie, who crouched cross-kneed, wrapping his pretty legs in long goose-pimpled arms, his mouth open, making teeth. "Ready," he whispered, shivering.
"There!" She plunged the needle deep in the bat's right eye. "So!"
"Oh!" screamed Charlie, wadding up his face.
"Now I wrap it in gingham, and here, put it in your pocket, keep it there, bat and all. Go on!"
He pocketed the charm.
"Charlie!" she shrieked fearfully. "Charlie, where are you? I can't see you, child!"
"Here!" He jumped so the light ran in red streaks up his body. "I'm here. Old Lady!" He stared wildly at his arms, legs, chest, and toes. "I'm here!"
Her eyes looked as if they were watching a thousand fireflies crisscrossing each other in the wild night air.
"Charlie, oh, you went fast! Quick as a hummingbird! Oh, Charlie, come back to me!"
"But I'm Acre!" he wailed.
"By the fire, the fire! And - and I can see myself. I'm not invisible at all!"
Old Lady rocked on her lean flanks. "Course you can see you! Every invisible person knows himself. Otherwise, how could you eat, walk, or get around places? Charlie, touch me. Touch me so I know you."
Uneasily he put out a hand.
She pretended to jerk, startled, at his touch. "Ah!"
"You mean to say you can't find me?" he asked. "Truly?"
"Not the least half rump of you!"
She found a tree to stare at, and stared at it with shining eyes, careful not to glance at him. "Why, I sure did a trick that time!" She sighed with wonder. "Whooeee. Quickest invisible I ever made! Charlie. Charlie, how you feel?"
"Like creek water - all stirred."
Then after a pause she added, "Well, what you going to do now, Charlie, since you're invisible?"
All sorts of things shot through his brain, she could tell. Adventures stood up and danced like hell-fire in his eyes, and his mouth, just hanging, told what it meant to be a boy who imagined himself like the mountain winds. In a cold dream he said, "I'll run across wheat fields, climb snow mountains, steal white chickens off'n farms. I'll kick pink pigs when they ain't looking. I'll pinch pretty girls' legs when they sleep, snap their garters in schoolrooms." Charlie looked at Old Lady, and from the shiny tips of her eyes she saw something wicked shape his face. "And other things I'll do, I'll do, I will," he said.
"Don't try nothing on me," warned Old Lady. "I'm brittle as spring ice and I don't take handling." Then: "What about your folks?"
"You can't fetch yourself home looking like that. Scare the inside ribbons out of them. Your mother'd faint straight back like timber falling. Think they want you about the house to stumble over and your ma have to call you every three minutes, even though you're in the room next her elbow?"
Charlie had not considered it. He sort of simmered down and whispered out a little "Gosh" and felt of his long bones carefully.
"You'll be mighty lonesome. People looking through you like a water glass, people knocking you aside because they didn't reckon you to be underfoot. And women, Charlie, women -"
He swallowed. "What about women?"
"No woman will be giving you a second stare. And no woman wants to be kissed by a boy's mouth they can't even find!"
Charlie dug his bare toe in the soil contemplatively. He pouted. "Well, I'll stay invisible, anyway, for a spell. I'll have me some fun. I'll just be pretty careful, is all. I'll stay out from in front of wagons and horses and Pa. Pa shoots at the nariest sound." Charlie blinked. "Why, with me invisible, someday Pa might just up and fill me with buckshot, thinkin' I was a hill squirrel in the dooryard. Oh..."
Old Lady nodded at a tree. "That's likely."
"Well," he decided slowly, "I'll stay invisible for tonight, and tomorrow you can fix me back all whole again, Old Lady."
"Now if that ain't just like a critter, always wanting to be what he can't be," remarked Old Lady to a beetle on a log.
"What you mean?" said Charlie.
"Why," she explained, "it was real hard work, fixing you up. It'll take a little time for it to wear off. Like a coat of paint wears off, boy."
"You!" he cried. "You did this to me! Now you make me back, you make me seeable!"
"Hush," she said. "It'll wear off, a hand or a foot at a time."
"How'll it look, me around the hills with just one hand showing!"
"Like a five-winged bird hopping on the stones and bramble."
"Or a foot showing!"
"Like a small pink rabbit jumping thicket."
"Or my head Heating!"
"Like a hairy balloon at the carnival!"
"How long before I'm whole?" he asked.
She deliberated that it might pretty well be an entire year.
He groaned. He began to sob and bite his lips and make fists. "You magicked me, you did this, you did this thing to me. Now I won't be able to run home!"
She winked. "But you can stay here, child, stay on with me real comfort-like, and I'll keep you fat and saucy."
He flung it out: "You did this on purpose! You mean old hag, you want to keep me here!"
He ran off through the shrubs on the instant.
"Charlie, come back!"
No answer but the pattern of his feet on the soft dark turf, and his wet choking cry which passed swiftly off and away.
She waited and then kindled herself a fire. "He'll be back," she whispered. And thinking inward on herself, she said, "And now I'll have me my company through spring and into late summer. Then, when I'm tired of him and want a silence, I'll send him home."
Charlie returned noiselessly with the first gray of dawn, gliding over the rimed turf to where Old Lady sprawled like a bleached stick before the scattered ashes.
He sat on some creek pebbles and stared at her.
She didn't dare look at him or beyond. He had made no sound, so how could she know he was anywhere about? She couldn't.
He sat there, tear marks on his cheeks.
Pretending to be just waking - but she had found no sleep from one end of the night to the other - Old Lady stood up, grunting and yawning, and turned in a circle to the dawn.
Her eyes passed from pines to soil, to sky, to the far hills. She called out his name, over and over again, and she felt like staring plumb straight at him, but she stopped herself. "Charlie? Oh, Charles!" she called, and heard the echoes say the very same.
He sat, beginning to grin a bit, suddenly, knowing he was close to her, yet she must feel alone. Perhaps he felt the growing of a secret power, perhaps he felt secure from the world, certainly he was pleased with his invisibility.
She said aloud, "Now where can that boy be? If he only made a noise so I could tell just where he is, maybe I'd fry him a breakfast."
She prepared the morning victuals, irritated at his continuous quiet. She sizzled bacon on a hickory stick. "The smell of it will draw his nose," she muttered.
While her back was turned he swiped all the frying bacon and devoured it hastily.
She whirled, crying out, "Lord!"
She eyed the clearing suspiciously. "Charlie, that you?"
Charlie wiped his mouth clean on his wrists.
She trotted about the clearing, making like she was trying to locate him. Finally, with a clever thought, acting blind, she headed straight for him, groping. "Charlie, where are you?"
A lightning streak, he evaded her, bobbing, ducking.
It took all her will power not to give chase; but you can't chase invisible boys, so she sat down, scowling, sputtering, and tried to fry more bacon. But every fresh strip she cut he would steal bubbling off the fire and run away far. Finally, cheeks burning, she cried, "I know where you are! Right there\ I hear you run!" She pointed to one side of him, not too accurate. He ran again. "Now you're there!" she shouted. "There, and there!" pointing to all the places he was in the next five minutes. "I hear you press a grass blade, knock a flower, snap a twig. I got fine shell ears, delicate as roses. They can hear the stars moving!"
Silently he galloped off among the pines, Ms voice trailing back, "Can't hear me when I'm set on a rock. I'll just set!"
All day he sat on an observatory rock in the clear wind, motionless and sucking his tongue.
Old Lady gathered wood in the deep forest, feeling his eyes weaseling on her spine. She wanted to babble: "Oh, I see you, I see you! I was only fooling about invisible boys! You 're right there!" But she swallowed her gall and gummed it tight.
The following morning he did the spiteful thing. He began leaping from behind trees. He made toad-faces, frog-faces, spider-faces at her, clenching down his lips with his fingers, popping his raw eyes, pushing up his nostrils so you could peer in and see his brain thinking.
Once she dropped, her kindling. She pretended it was a blue jay startled her.
He made a motion as if to strangle her.
She trembled a little.
He made another move as if to bang her shins and spit on her cheek.
These motions she bore without a lid-flicker or a mouth-twitch.
He stuck out his tongue, making strange bad noises. He wiggled his loose ears so she wanted to laugh, and finally she did laugh and explained it away quickly by saying, "Sat on a salamander! Whew, how it poked!"
By high noon the whole madness boiled to a terrible peak.
For it was at that exact hour that Charlie came racing down the valley stark boy-naked!
Old Lady nearly fell flat with shock!
"Charlie!" she almost cried.
Charlie raced naked up one side of a hill and naked down the other - naked as day, naked as the moon, raw as the sun and a newborn chick, his feet shimmering and rushing like the wings of a low-skimming hummingbird.
Old Lady's tongue locked in her mouth. What could she say? Charlie, go dress? For shame? Stop that? Could she? Oh, Charlie, Charlie, God! Could she say that now? Well?
Upon the big rock, she witnessed him dancing up and down, naked as the day of his birth, stomping bare feet, smacking his hands on his knees and sucking in and out his white stomach like blowing and deflating a circus balloon.
She shut her eyes tight and prayed.
After three hours of this she pleaded, "Charlie, Charlie, come here! I got something to tell you!"
Like a fallen leaf he came, dressed again, praise the Lord.
"Charlie," she said, looking at the pine trees, "I see your right toe. There it is."
"You do?" he said.
"Yes," she said very sadly. "There it is like a horny toad on the grass. And there, up there's your left ear hanging on the air like a pink butterfly."
Charlie danced. "I'm forming in, I'm forming in!"
Old Lady nodded. "Here comes your ankle!"
"Gimme both my feet!" ordered Charlie.
"You got 'em."
"How about my hands?"
"I see one crawling on your knee like a daddy long-legs."
"How about the other one?"
"It's crawling too."
"I got a body?"
"Shaping up fine."
"I'll need my head to go home. Old Lady."
To go home, she thought wearily. "No!" she said, stubborn and angry. "No, you ain't got no head. No head at all," she cried. She'd leave that to the very last. "No head, no head," she insisted.
"No head?" he wailed.
"Yes, oh my God, yes, yes, you got your blamed head!" she snapped, giving up. "Now fetch me back my bat with the needle in his eye!"
He flung it at her. "Haaaa-yoooo!" His yelling went all up the valley, and long after he had run toward home she heard his echoes, racing.
Then she plucked up her kindling with a great dry weariness and started back toward her shack, sighing, talking. And Charlie followed her all the way, really invisible now, so she couldn't see him, just hear him, like a pine cone dropping or a deep underground stream trickling, or a squirrel clambering a bough; and over the fire at twilight she and Charlie sat, him so invisible, and her feeding him bacon he wouldn't take, so she ate it herself, and then she fixed some magic and fell asleep with Charlie, made out of sticks and rags and pebbles, but still warm and her very own son, slumbering and nice in her shaking mother arms... and they talked about golden things in drowsy voices until dawn made the fire slowly, slowly wither out....
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