for Fred Chappell
It’s July, and the afternoon is hot and bright. The sky is white, and the sun, which is almost directly overhead, is the brightest white part of the sky.
A young boy and his twelve-year-old sister are wearing church clothes and walking along the railroad tracks near their grandmother’s house. The boy is a wearing a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and navy blue slacks that are cuffed above a pair of white, canvas topsiders. The shoes were already well worn when he came to own them, and he’s long suspected that they belonged to his sister, and the idea of her feet once being the same size and shape as his own is something he considers while he tries to step into the footprints she leaves behind in the dusty gravel between the railroad ties. His sister is wearing a pink cotton sundress that a few minutes earlier had a white bow tied around its waist. As soon as they’d left their parents behind at their grandmother’s house, she removed the bow and tied it around her head. She told the boy the two of them were now Indians who were walking the railroad tracks to search for arrowheads their tribe had left behind. But to the boy it seems like they’re just walking, and it isn’t long before he forgets to look for arrowheads and starts to wonder how far they are from where they’re supposed to be.
“You think we might should turn around?” he asks.
His sister doesn’t stop walking, and she doesn’t turn to face him when she speaks. “You can turn around if you want to,” she says. “I’m going to keep going.”
The boy stops and watches his sister’s back as she moves away from him, and then he jogs toward her, now trying his best to step on the ties so he doesn’t lose his footing in the gravel. “How far do you think we could go?” he asks once he catches up and falls in-step behind her.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe back to Gastonia if we had some food and some water.”
“Is that a hundred miles?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “It’s far, but it’s not that far.”
“How long you think we’ve been gone?”
His sister doesn’t answer, and he wonders if she’s trying to calculate the time. “I don’t know,” she finally says.
“We better turn around then.”
“I’ve already told you,” she says. “I’m not going back. I’m walking home. You can go back if you want to. Tell Mom and Dad I’ll see them later.”
The boy stops walking and looks behind him, trying to get some measure of how far they’ve come, and then he turns and looks at his sister’s back again, the white bow dangling like two thick locks in her dark hair. “You’re going to be in trouble,” he hollers.
“I don’t care,” she hollers back.
The boy turns in the direction of his grandmother’s house, and he tries to remember exactly where he and his sister joined the tracks. He pictures his mother sitting in his grandmother’s cool living room where the shades are pulled down against the heat. His mother looks up from a book she’s reading and calls his father’s name. His father’s gaze drifts toward her from the television on which he and his own mother are watching the race. “What?” he says. The boy’s mother closes the book in her lap and gives his father a serious look. “How long have they been gone?”
The fear of his parents not knowing where he is in that very moment grips him like a fist closing over his heart, and he flushes the image from his mind. He replaces it with the voice of his Sunday school teacher as he recalls the story she told him and his sister and the other kids that morning.
“When Jesus passed through Jericho there was a man there named Zacchaeus who wanted to see him bad,” she said. “Zacchaeus was a very rich tax collector, but he was also very short.” Some of the kids laughed, and she looked up from her Bible and smiled at them until they grew quiet. “Zacchaeus knew there was going to be a crowd coming to meet Jesus, and he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So he climbed up a sycamore-fig tree so he could look down on Jesus when he came through Jericho.”
She told the class that when Jesus spotted Zacchaeus up in the tree he called out to him and asked if he could rest at his house. Zacchaeus climbed down and opened his home to Jesus, and then he committed his life to helping the poor.
Once she’d closed her Bible, the boy leaned back on his hands and thought about Jesus riding into his neighborhood in Gastonia on the back of a donkey. Jesus looks just like his pictures with his hair long like a girl’s but with a big beard like a man. The whole town is there to watch him ride through, and the boy is sitting up in a tree in front of his house when Jesus stops his donkey and looks up at him. “Hey,” Jesus says, “come on down from there.”
And then the boy hears his sister’s voice behind him. “Hold up!” she says. He stops walking and turns around and sees her far down the tracks. She is on her knees and her back is turned to him, and her shoulders are moving back and forth like she’s worrying something out of the ground. She stands and holds it up for the boy to see, but she’s too far away and he can’t tell what it is. She comes jogging up the tracks toward him, and the boy waits for her.
“Check this out,” she says. She is panting and her face is red and sweating. In her hand is a rusty railroad spike. “This keeps the track in place,” she says.
“I know what it does,” the boy says. “Can I see it?” She gives it to him and he holds it for a minute and turns it over in his hand. It’s heavy and feels rough and warm.
“Pretty neat, huh?” she says.
“You’d better put it back.”
“No way,” she says. “Finders keepers.”
“What if the rail comes loose and a train runs off the tracks? It’ll be your fault.”
She looks down at the spike in his hand, and the boy is surprised to see that she’s thinking about putting it back now. “We’ll have to come back with a sledgehammer,” she says. “We’ll have to wait until next Sunday.”
“You might could hit it with a big rock,” he says.
“No,” she says. “It’ll take a sledgehammer.”
Together they walk back down the tracks in the direction of their grandmother’s house. The girl lets her brother carry the spike for a while, and then she asks for it back. She shows off and carries it like a marching baton and high-steps it up the track. The boy laughs.
She stops high-stepping and waits for him to catch up with her. “I wonder where he was going when he went through Jericho,” she says.
“Yeah. I wonder where he was going.”
“I don’t know,” the boy says. “Maybe Mom could tell us.”
“Maybe so,” she says. Then she says, “I bet he was on his way to the cross and that’s why he stopped to rest.”
“I bet he told old Zacchaeus where he was going,” the boy says.
“I bet they used one of these to nail him to the cross,” she says. She opens her hand and puts the point of the spike in the middle of it. The boy pictures the spike going right through his sister’s skin, and he envisions blood pouring from the puncture on the other side of her hand.
“I bet that would hurt bad,” he says. He watches her press it hard into her palm and turn it back and forth. She wrinkles up her face in either pain or concentration. When she’s done there’s a brown mark on her hand. She looks at it and keeps walking. Then she hauls back her arm and throws the spike into the woods that run alongside the tracks. The boy hears it crash through the branches.
“Why’d you do that?” he asks.
His sister wipes the brown spot off her hand and onto her dress. “I didn’t feel like carrying it anymore,” she says. Then she says, “Don’t tell anybody what I did.”
“I won’t,” the boy says.