“Is the stag waiting for something?”
I stood in the doorway of the old garage.
I was supposed to go to a hospital in a couple days. Or was it tomorrow? I could never keep track. But I knew I was almost out of time. I needed help. Maybe I had to break my promise. I knew that was bad, but I didn’t want anyone to be hurt, and it seemed better to break a promise than let someone be hurt.
Mr. A. Tranjay was working. He had some kind of magnifying goggles on. He looked at me. They made his eyes huge. He set the bottle from the lot down—it had black goop inside—and took off the goggles. He had dark rings around his eyes. He looked sick. His hands were shaking.
“What makes you think I know of such things?”
I stepped in and looked up at him. “Don’t you?”
“Maybe. But how did you know that?”
“When did you see it last?”
“Yesterday. On the way home from the doctor’s. They asked me a bunch of questions. And I have some pills to take.”
“I see.” He said it in a way that made me think he didn’t think much of my pills. “And what did it do, the stag?”
“I was looking out the window in the back seat. It was almost dark, and we passed a storage place. Like where people keep all the stuff they don’t need but don’t want to get rid of. There was a yellow-orange kind of light like they use in street lamps. It was on the side of the building. There was a sign, too. But it was high up a pole and one of the bulbs inside had burned out.
“The stag walked across the grass and onto the driveway in front of the gate. It stared at me as we drove by. It just watched. I thought my dad would see it for sure.”
“I don’t think your father is open to that. Not anymore. Not after your mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know things about people sometimes? Things they don’t tell you?”
I shrugged again.
“Yes, the stag is waiting for something. That is why the door is open, the one you wandered through. And the sooner I get on with it, the sooner he can close the door and keep anything bad from coming over.”
“Like the thing that’s hurting people?” He already knew about my secret. That it was out there.
“I don’t think that slipped through an open door. I suspect that was summoned across. Along with many other shades and shadows.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. “Can you teach me how to stop it?”
“No.” He was firm. He put a hand on my shoulder. “Leave such things for adults.”
I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t leave.
“Promise me,” he said. “Your father is already very worried.”
“But it’s hurting kids.”
He stopped. “This is true.”
“Maybe you could stop it.”
“I don’t think I’m capable of stopping anything. Not anymore.”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I’m a kid.”
He stood with a groan and limped to a stack of books at the far end of the garage. They were in an open cardboard box. They were old, like really old. Not like the books at the library.
He reached into the box and moved some books around. His hands shook. He had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling over.
“I wasn’t sure what to do with these.”
He pulled one out. It was long and narrow and made of leather. None of the pages were evenly cut. It looked like someone had stitched it together by hand. He handed it to me.
I took it. I read the title. Someone had taped it to the cover, which was otherwise blank. “Signs and Sy . . . Sy . . .”
“Cyphers,” I repeated. “Martin . . .” I couldn’t pronounce the last name.
I cradled the spine in one hand and unhooked the metal clasp that kept it shut. I had never seen that before. There was dust. I sneezed. I almost dropped the book, but I pressed it to my coat at the last second. I might have wrinkled some of the pages. I opened them to look, and I saw symbols. Just like the ones on my window.
I looked up at Mr. A. Tranjay.
“Perhaps this will help. It’s an original. Very valuable. Hold on to it and you can sell it one day and pay for college.”
I looked at the words. It was all handwritten. I couldn’t even make out most of the letters because it was in cursive.
“Is it English?”
“It’s a medieval Slavic dialect.”
“An ancient people. Made slaves by the Romans. That’s where we get our word.”
“But how will I read it?”
“I understand Google is very helpful.”
He sat down on the stool again and reached for the goggles. I closed the book and walked to the door. I stopped. I turned around.
“Did you really make all those people throw up?”
“No.” He picked up the bottle of black goo again and shook it. Whatever was inside was thick and ran down the sides like burnt syrup. I think that was the lot. I think people were supposed to eat it. “Only half.”
“Oh.” I waited. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t know how to translate an old book. Everything was always for adults. “Why?”
“I thought art was supposed to make people feel better.”
“But why would you want to make people sick?”
“I didn’t want to make them sick. I wanted to show them something. About themselves.” He turned to me. “Maybe it’s something for when you’re older.”
I didn’t want him to be right. The book was slipping and I adjusted it against my side. I didn’t like so many things were just for adults.
I think he could tell he was frustrating me. And maybe he felt guilty for not helping. “Art is an exaggeration. Do you know that word? It is a lie that reveals the truth.”
I laughed a little. I didn’t mean to. It just came out.
“It’s true,” he objected. “Adults, they build a world much of which is false. And in such a world, you need a lie to reveal one, to expose the truth underneath, just the way it takes grit to make a polish.”
I thought about what my teacher said about Columbus and discovering America. “But what did you do?”
“I anesthetized a live cow and slaughtered it at the table.”
He inserted a long needle, like from a syringe, into the cork on the top of the bottle.
“What is an—annis . . .”
“Anesthetic is what the dentist gives you so your teeth won’t hurt when he drills.”
He drew some of the black syrup up the needle.
“Ohhhh. So the cow didn’t feel any pain.”
“And then you cut it up?”
“I surgically removed one leg, the rump it was attached to, and part of the loin. There was quite a lot of blood. But I left the animal alive. And in no pain.”
“What happened to it?”
“I kept it.” He leaned over the work bench and squirted the syrup onto a little piece of glass. “Until it died of old age.”
“And you cooked the leg in front of everyone?”
“I drained, skinned, and carved it in front of my guests while they dined on a zoo of boiled anuses.” He paused as he put a few drops of clear liquid on top of the glass as well. “Served breaded like calamari.”
“Yuck!” I made a face.
“Do you know what an anus is?” he asked.
“Is it like what the dentist gives me?”
“Better ask your father.”
“And people ate the cow?”
“A couple. Most wouldn’t touch it. Especially not with the animal watching them eat.”
I scrunched my nose. “It was watching them?”
“The beast had made a great sacrifice. It was given the position of honor, left absent until then, at the very head of the table. It dined on a bowl of baby greens. Docile. Chewing. Watching. Like a great brahmin.”
“Sort of like a priest.”
“I don’t think I could eat it.”
“But you eat beef?”
“What is the difference?”
I bit my lip then. Hard enough that I got that metallic taste on my tongue. “I dunno. It just seems wrong.”
“When you eat those things, you eat an animal that died. Often painfully. Inhumanely, even. You just don’t see it. It is kept from you. An illusion.”
“A lie,” I said.
“Yes.” He smiled. “But my cow lived. It made a sacrifice, and it spent the rest of its natural life peaceful and fulfilled. Is it not worse to die than to merely lose a limb? Or do you prefer a lie to the truth?”
I didn’t have an answer. I waited for him to say something else, but my dad started yelling. In the distance. I tensed. I forgot I wasn’t supposed to be outside the house without asking him. I was bad again.
I think Mr. A. Tranjay understood. “You must have patience with your father.”
“Sometimes I don’t think he is my father.”
“Why do you say that?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just that, when we did our family genealogy project in school we learned about . . .” I had to think of the word. “Inheritance?”
Mr. A. Tranjay nodded.
“He and I don’t look alike. And we’re completely different.”
“I think most sons say that about their fathers.” I must have looked disappointed because he quickly added, “But I agree there is not much resemblance. You look as much like your uncle as your—” He stopped mid-sentence.
He leaned back on his stool and looked at me like I was a famous painting hanging in the doorway. He scanned my face like he was memorizing it, like my mom did when she left last time. He looked at my ears, my nose, my eyebrows, the line of my hair.
“Now that is something.”
He stood and walked over to me. He reached out and touched my earlobe. I thought it was strange, but I wasn’t worried. It felt like our old garage with Mr. A. Tranjay in it was the safest place in the whole world. Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay.
My dad came. He was upset with me. But Mr. A. Tranjay interrupted him. He asked if he could make us dinner to thank my dad for giving him the opportunity to pay some final debts. My dad got real excited. I think he had wanted that all along but hadn’t dared ask. He totally forgot about being mad at me and asked when would be convenient.
“Why not tonight?”
Dad got very excited, which made me mad. I was supposed to go away the next day. It was a place like a hospital but not a hospital. For people with lots of worries. That’s what my dad said. I was supposed to pack a bag after supper. I was mad. I didn’t have to be. We got a phone call while we waited at the table for Mr. A. Tranjay to finish cooking. It was the doctor. I could tell because of the way Dad was talking. He glanced at me and then walked into the other room.
“You’re kidding,” he said. He didn’t seem happy, like it wasn’t good news. “For how long?”
My doctor had gotten called somewhere. It was a big deal. He couldn’t admit me. He gave my dad some referrals to other doctors. Dad wasn’t happy because that meant starting over.
I was at the kitchen table. Mr. A. Tranjay was cooking while Dad was in the other room trying to sort it all out. Mr. A. Tranjay winked at me. Like he’d had something to do with it.
I smiled. I liked him then. More than a lot.
He served us tomato mousse. He taught me that word. He said I didn’t have to eat it. But it was okay. Then he made grilled cheese sandwiches. I think Dad was disappointed, but they were so good and not soggy at all. He even cut the crusts off.
But the coolest part was this thing he called “solid-state stew”—noodles and carrots and onions and bits of chicken suspended in a brine gelatin, like Jell-O but a little softer. It was served in a warm terrine. I learned that word, too. It was better than my grandma’s stew, but I wouldn’t tell her that. It seemed weird at first but it was all warm and rich and salty. It tasted really good and filled me up and took the cold away. My dad wouldn’t stop talking about it, especially how easy it seemed to make.
When it was time for dessert, Dad and Mr. A. Tranjay started talking about business stuff. Mostly about the lot. It seemed like maybe that was the only thing they had in common. And Mr. A. Tranjay didn’t want Dad to start talking about the divorce.
“And you acquired it from the man Giuseppe Faustino?”
“Yes. Just before he passed. God rest his soul.” My dad cleared his throat a couple times. “What is this?”
He was eating dessert off a small plate. It was a special kind of chocolate. I wasn’t allowed to have any. I got a small cake because I like that better. Mr. A. Tranjay didn’t eat anything.
“Ophiocordyceps,” he said. “A parasite of the ghost moth.”
He watched us enjoy everything he had made.
“You mean this is . . . chocolate-covered insect fungus?”
“Shaped like tiny”—Dad glanced at me—“phalluses?”
There was a pause.
My dad stared at his plate, mouth frozen in mid-bite. “It’s delicious,” he said as he began chewing again. “You should be a chocolatier.”
“Cacao is indigenous to my country.”
“Ah. Of course.”
After another glass or two of wine—I forgot how many he had—my dad relaxed and joked with me. He got louder. Then he got softer. Then he fell asleep at the table.
Mr. A. Tranjay smiled at me. “Time for dreaming.”
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: The meaning of magic