A Short Story by Betsy James: The Good Neighbor

Good Neighbors by Betsy James with permission.

We were leaning on the fence of the bull’s pasture—me, and Dres, and Yebbe who lives upladder from my place—and my uncle Yanle was bleeding the bull. The bull was young and big, he spent his days harking and pawing and hooking left and right. My uncle was a little, bald, bleak man, yet the bull stood for him patient as a heifer while he nicked a leg vein and filled a clay jar with blood.

The blood was for me. Tomorrow I was turning twelve, and my uncles would make me a man. I wouldn’t live at home any more but in the Holds with the other men, I’d have my own good neighbor, and Dres and Yebbe would still be just kids.

But until tomorrow we were all kids. My eldest sister had given me Suka to mind, so we wouldn’t go into the bull’s pasture and pretend not to be afraid while Uncle bled him. We had to stay on the village side of the fence with Suka crowing and dribbling and trying to crawl into the pasture herself.

I held on to the back of her shift. “No, no.”

            She chortled. I let her go and she took off again half under the fence, crawling for the gods’ house. Its door opens on the pasture so the bull can guard it.

“Not in there. They’ll eat you!” I caught her up and made the worst face I could, all teeth.

She screamed. I unmade the face to my ordinary one: round and spotty, with duck down on my lip and my teeth crooked where Dres hit me with a board that time. She patted my mouth with her fat hands. “Teedy, Teedy!” After tomorrow she couldn’t call me that. I’d have a real name, Tedemke Layusa Bram. But I wouldn’t see Suka so much anyway, being a man and living in the Holds.

Uncle Yanle untied the bull from the post, slapped his shoulder and walked away with the bloody jar. The bull stood as if tranced, then jumped and ran to the pasture end, tossing his horns and snorting. Uncle went to the door of the gods’ house, lifted the latch, entered, and shut the door behind him.

In a low voice Dres said, “What do you think he’s doing in there?”

We all knew what he was doing in there. I said, “Painting them. Mine. For tomorrow.”

“You sure?”

“What else?”

Dres wouldn’t be a man for another half year. I couldn’t tell if he was envious about that, or relieved, or what. He’d brought his own clay jar, not for bull’s blood but to trap glow moths in, that baby game. He looked away from me, put the jar to his lips and whispered into the hollow of it, “Do you think they drink the blood?”

“Who?”

“Our uncles. In the gods’ house.”

“You’re crazy!” I’d thought he meant, Did the good neighbors drink the blood? I’d just told Suka they’d eat her. “The blood’s to mix into the paint, Babyface. To make it holy.”

“Our uncles say that.” Dres stared into the jar. “But…when you change into a god, wouldn’t there be something serious you’d have to do? To make yourself change, I mean.”

He didn’t say, And tomorrow it’ll be you, Teedy.

I tried not to think about this. I was an uncle already, Suka’s, and tomorrow I’d be a man. I’d tried not to think because I got afraid—about blood, or worse things. It would be better just to go with Uncle Yanle and do whatever he said, get it over with.

Away in the dark meadow the glow moths were winking on, one by one. Behind me Yebbe said in his hoarse little frog’s voice, “Men don’t change into gods.” He was the youngest of us and would come last to the Holds, but he was the boldest. “At the equinox, when the gods come? It’s just our old uncles dancing, pretending to be gods. With masks on.”

Dres and I looked away from him. I made Suka look away, too. It was blasphemy, and besides you’re not supposed to say the word mask. You say “good neighbor,” or just “them.”

As if to the moths Yebbe said, “Imagine fat old Uncle Faradei changing into a god. With his stinky rotten-teeth breath.”

“Or Ebre,” Dres snickered suddenly. Ebre is Yai’s uncle, the village drunk.

It was true that among the gods who showed themselves at the dances there was a skinny one who couldn’t dance straight, and a fat one whose breath stank when he gave you your equinox gift. I knew they were Ebre and Uncle Faradei. We all did. Since I was seven or eight I’d known, but without allowing myself to know.

Do you see what I mean? Did you ever know something with one part of your mind, and another thing with another part, yet keep the parts separate? I knew there were uncles in the world, and there were gods, and…and good neighbors, and a kind of connection between all of them that was not to be looked at or wondered about. What I knew was, when you turned twelve your uncles did something to you and then took you into the gods’ house, and after that you didn’t have to ask those questions, because you were a man.

I stayed looking away, blowing on Suka’s neck to make her squeal. It was the gods’ house I looked at, stuck onto the Holds like one cell of a mud wasp’s nest. It had one tiny window, barred, high up under the eaves. Its door never stood open, and was never locked.

The one part of my mind knew the gods lived in there. The other part knew that our uncles, merry or angry or drunk, went in there to paint them, to trim them with ribbons or fox fur. I could feel those two parts of my mind get aware of each other and begin to circle, like a pair of dogs.

“Faradei!” Yebbe mocked, poking out his gut.

“Ebre!” Dres staggered about and toppled into the evening grass. Suka went grasping after him.

The mind dogs had found each other, they were sniffing under each others’ tails, and I didn’t want them to. If the uncles were just uncles, then where was the godhood? What was I to be given tomorrow? I said, without meaning to, “Are they alive?”

“Who?” said Yebbe.

“Them. In there. The…what Uncle Yanle’s painting for me.”

“Sure, they’re alive,” said Dres. “My granny hears them at night. They crawl around in there like glow moths in a jar. That’s why the window’s barred. To keep them in.”

“Your granny’s deaf as a skillet,” said Yebbe.

“The other granny.”

“That one’s crazy. Anyway how could she hear them from clear over in—”

“She hears things. She heard the ghost dog that time, she heard the earth bull bellow before the walls shook.”

I let them argue. Suka was yanking and kicking, yelling “Teedy!” I made another, worse face for her, gnashing my crooked teeth.

I knew Dres’s granny, she was crazy all right, she talked to her shoes and smoked a pipe like a man. I didn’t know what to think, what to believe.

Uncles can’t be gods. Men can’t be gods. Yet tomorrow, when I’m a man, I’ll have my own good neighbor and I’ll dance and Suka will see me, she’ll think I’m a god the way I thought Ebre was. But I’m not a god! I’m ugly and blasphemous. Is it in the good neighbor, then, that the godhood lives?

I’d seen Uncle Yanle go out with his axe to get cottonwood slabs, with his net bag to fetch blackstone and madder for paint. There was no holiness in that. Was the god in the bull’s blood, then? But the bull ate grass and shat same as a goat, and flies walked on his eyes. How could he be a god? The paint was just paint. What if the good neighbors were just, well, masks?

It was hard to say that word even in my head. I made myself say it. What if they were just slabs of cottonwood, dried, punched with eye and mouth holes, painted by our uncles to scare babies and women with? I’d seen Yanle come to dinner with paint on his hands. He’d scratch his armpits, sit down, and eat pig.

I started to sweat in the middle of my chest. What if there weren’t any gods? What if it was all a men’s secret, some grownup lie?

“Your granny drinks gin,” Yebbe told Dres, kicking him out of the grass. “Come on, stoneheads. They’ll call us in early because of tomorrow.”

I rode Suka screeching on my shoulders. We went off to the dark north pasture and caught glow moths together for the last time, and put them in the jar. I made bars of my fingers and tipped the jar so Suka could look in to see the clay walls bathed in cold light, the little blazing beings pumping their soft abdomens and clambering on each other in their prison. By their light I saw her face, round and ignorant and sweet.

Nobody cared if I went out at night. There are fish in our creek, yuj, they’ll rise to torchlight better than sunlight. I’d often gone midnight fishing with Dres and Yebbe and come home in the pink dawn with breakfast. Nobody stirred in the big room, except Suka curled up between my sister and the wall. She opened her round eyes once and shut them.

The streets felt different. It wasn’t the three of us sneaking and snorting, pissing on the headwoman’s gate because there wasn’t anybody to see us. There was only me, keeping to the shadows as if the moonlight was too bright, looking behind me at nobody looking. The alleys grew longer, and the moon stood in the sky like a stone.

I crept past the pigsties. Nothing stirring. The goats were lying down, the turkeys made a little gabble but no trouble. I heard a wild dog laugh, out there in the desert, and the bull at the far end of his pasture stood still as ivory. The Men’s Hold was asleep, smelling of wood smoke and midden and scraped hide.

Because of the glow moths I half thought to see light at the little barred window. But it was black, a mouth with bars for teeth.

I ducked under the fence. I thought, I’ll grab the window bars, pull myself up, and look in.

I stepped close, but not too close. Somebody had planted spearbush under the window and made it a wicked place to fall. And I didn’t want to take hold of the bars, for fear something inside might seize my hands.

This thought made me wipe my hands on my thighs. But what would a handless thing have to grab with? Teeth? I stood with my hands tucked under my arms, cold as bone, refusing not to know what I would know.

No sound came from inside. Not the flutter and thump of moth wings in a jar. Not even the scratch of a rat.

I shuffled closer, careful of the spearbush. I was taller than I thought; on tiptoe I could almost look into the window. All inside was black. A cold, ordinary breath came out, bearing the smell of paint.

I thought, I will look.

Then I thought, I’d rather be killed whole than have something bite my hands.

The bull in the pasture moved his head to watch me, moonlight on the wet of his eye. Like Uncle Yanle I walked through the dewy browse to the wooden door, lifted the latch, and pushed the boards with the flat of my hand. The door creaked open to the width of my face.

Nothing happened.

I pushed it again. It was an ordinary door, opening on an ordinary dark room that had a cluttered feel, like the cubby where Mam keeps rug beaters and the churn. A little moonlight leaked in. I could see a clutch of paint pots, and the old twice-cracked mirror that Yebbe’s auntie had thrown out.

I shoved the door wide. When I could see what hung on the walls my heart gave a jolt like a cart. But they hung still as leaves on a catalpa tree.

Looking at the masks, I could tell which ones my uncle Yanle had made. I knew his brushstrokes from the headboard he’d painted for Mam. I could tell which masks were Resne’s from over the ditch, and which were Shub’s—that’s Dres’s dad, he paints in curly lines like bindweed—and which belonged to Yebbe’s dad, who can’t paint at all; his bulls look like dogs. It was as if a bunch of my neighbors were there, good neighbors in fancy dress for a festival, hanging patiently on the wall. I’d seen every one of those masks at the dances, and I’d been afraid of some of them. There they were, hung up in rows like hats.

I stepped right into that room. It smelled like a wagon maker’s, of paint and grease. My heart went raw and exultant and empty. I thought, You old men! You old men telling lies, scaring us boys into believing there are gods! Making us think with half our minds that you’re gods—that you’re the bosses of the world!

For none of it was true. Not the songs and cries and tears, not the prayers and blessings, streaming ribbons, thudding chants and weeping women. It was nothing. A game, like moth-catching. Wood and paint to frighten babies.

I saw my life, how it would be. After tomorrow I’d come to this room with the other uncles and I’d paint masks, I’d wear them, I’d dance, and Suka would think I was a god. I’d be wise and deceitful and there would be no gods in the universe, only men in masks.

I even knew which mask would be mine, for on the battered worktable lay one painted by Uncle Yanle’s hand.

He had carved a youth, smooth-skinned, long-faced and handsome, with white straight teeth and a full mustache. I tasted bitterness in my mouth like blood. I was to wear the face I had always wanted, and would never have.

I picked up the mask.

It was so light, it lifted faster than I expected. It wasn’t ready to wear yet, for it had no harness or whatever rig the uncles would give me, tomorrow, to keep my fake god face on. Taking the thing in both hands, I set it against my cheekbones to see what the lying grownup world would look like through the eye holes.

It looked little. Like a framed picture, sharper than the world is, and darker. Through those eyes I looked around at everybody else’s masks. I couldn’t see much, only shadows. Still holding it to my face I swung round and looked out the open door, across the village fields where the ditch runs, to the corn all gathered and just the stalks left standing white in the moonlight: the narrow, ploughed valley I was born in, and the wild mountains beyond.

Across the field the bull moved sleepy as a dream, a toy bull, no danger in him. I reached out both hands to pick him up.

I couldn’t, for he was still the real bull in the real field. But the mask didn’t fall.

I put my hands back to the edges of it. Wiggled it. It didn’t move, or barely, and I felt that motion in the bones of my face.

I wiggled it again. Tugged.

Then I wrenched at it, I was the bull wrenching at his own horns, panting, sobbing; my breath dampened the inside of the mask, I staggered in the doorway, battering my head, my own face against the threshold like an elk battering the velvet off his horns, smelling the bull’s blood in the paint, my own blood.

I stumbled, sat down on the clay floor sobbing, clawing at my face, my very bones. In the twice-cracked mirror I saw myself, a god-youth with smooth cheeks and mustache, my white teeth grinning like a fox’s, so pointed that when Suka saw me she would shrink away, calling, “Teedy! Teedy!” for him she would never see again.

“Suka!” I sobbed.

Under my fingernails the ridge of the mask shifted. Lifted. The mask began to pull away from the rest of me, like a ripe scab.

I was afraid it would tear off my whole face, draw my guts out through my mouth. Then I couldn’t bear it, I wrenched the thing off, hurled it away and sat on the floor faceless, bone-naked, running blood.

I put up my hands. It wasn’t blood, only tears and sweat and snot from blubbering. I opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror, my spotty round face and crooked teeth, my downy lip. The mask lay in a corner in the windless moonlight, its paint unmarred and glistening, still as a stone.

I scrambled over the threshold, pulled the door shut and dropped the latch. I heard a scuffling sound within, a dragging, and fled away across the dewy pasture with no thought of the bull, I was too fast for him anyway, thinking only of the sound that was the mask creeping back onto the table so it would be there tomorrow, smiling, when they’d made me a man who could bear to wear it; when Uncle Yanle came, and me with him, to open the door and go in.

Please thank Betsy for sharing her story with us. Click here to visit her tip jar. Betsy’s new book is now available here.

Betsy James is the author and illustrator of seventeen books for adults and children. Among other honors, her books have been named: Tiptree Award Honor Book; New York Public Library Best Book for Teens; Voices of Youth Advocates Best Book; Junior Library Guild Selection; Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Book; and International Reading Association Children’s Choice. She facilitates writers’ workshops nationally and internationally.

http://www.listeningatthegate.com (older readers)

http://www.betsyjames.com (younger readers)

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