Iowa Stray (1904)
In the brittle dark of morning Matt shuffled to the chicken yard and worked his way around it, tossing handfuls of grain to anxious birds. As he finished his first lap around the chicken yard he looked to the east and saw a distant body rise up from the railbed, bend, stagger and fall behind the winter drifts that had built up against the farm's fence.
"Hey!" he shouted, dropping the bag of seed. "Hey, hey!" His boots crunched across the snow-laden hayfield as he ran. He reached the ditch that separated his father's farm from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line and plunged down into the dark where weak dawnlight did not yet touch. He searched with eyes still canny to darkness and spotted a body.
The long, black hair made him think of a girl, but then he noticed the legs, the lack of pants, only a torn and tattered navy coat. Matt saw the boy's sex and blushed, licking his lips. It was the first time he'd seen another boy that way since puberty and a surge of twisting shame rushed into him before he brutally shoved it aside. The boy looked about his age, maybe 15 years, pale, with one leg twisted in a direction a leg should not go. Bruises covered his face. Matt looked down at the boy's groin again, summoned by dark instincts he had prayed would someday leave him.
The boy groaned. Matt shook himself and said, "Hey, are you okay?" The boy bent his head back to look at Matt. His lips cracked and blood flowed across his marred and dirty face before he collapsed, silent. His eyes had gleamed strangely in the dark before they closed. "Oh, God, are you dead?" Torn between shame at himself and shame at leaving someone so injured, Matt finally threw his own coat over the boy and ran back to the farmhouse. "Pop! Pop, come help!"
Even in winter, when there was little to do before first light, his father had already risen and made his prayers. "Matt? What is it?"
"Pop, Help! There's someone in the railroad ditch. He looked beat up pretty bad. He might be dead."
"What?" His dad was a big man, a strong and churchly man, and he came out with his hand still hitching his breeches up to his suspenders. "What kind of man?"
"I don't know. A boy, I think. Maybe. My age. He's... he's naked, Pop. From the waist down. I left him my coat."
"Well, then, go get a blanket or something, you idiot. You're gonna need your coat and it's as cold as a witch's teat out there. Find me out there." He tromped out of the back porch.
The older man had reached the ditch and was looking back and forth, his eyes searching the darkness for anything out of the ordinary when Matt caught up with him, blanket in hand."My God," he heard his father say as he descended into the ditch. "My God. Matt, get down here with that blanket!"
Matt joined his father at the bottom of the ditch. In the rising light, he could see the boy more clearly, and he saw that the boy had very strange hair. No, not hair, ears. Those were ears at the top of his head, like an animal. Like a cat. "He's one of those yowlers," he said.
With a strange catch in his voice, his father said, "Yuh. I've never seen one of these before. Not outside of pictures. I wasn't even really sure they weren't just something you'd read about in old Twain stories or something out of Punch." He looked up at his son. "He's still breathing. We've got to get him back to the house. You ready?"
"Yes, sir," Matthew said.
"Good. I'm going to lift him. You get your hands under that broken leg and you make it sure it comes with, you understand? Don't twist it or turn it at all. Don't make it worse. You understand me?"
"Good. Here we go. One, two, lift." Matthew followed his father's instructions and held the boy's leg, following the slow rise of the boy's body until it was firmly in his father's arms. A tail, a catlike tail, fell between his father's arms and dangled downward. "Let's go."
By the time they got back to the house, his mother had risen and awakened the rest of the household. Mark and Joseph were already up and shaking with excitement. They looked wide-eyed as their father walked in carrying the body in his hands, and their eyes grew wider when they saw the tail. "Matthew, put a saddle on Pipin and go get the doc. I'll take the boy to the spare bedroom. Don't ride that horse too hard."
Matt didn't want to leave the scene behind, but he recognized his duty. The ride into Jefferson City took nearly an hour, and when he arrived the sun was up and people were moving about the town. He rode to the doctor's office, tucked as it was between a general store and the post office, and knocked loud.
Doc Shannon opened the door and peered out. He was a short man gone soft in late middle age, who wore his waistcoat, pocket watch, and stethoscope as badges of honor. "Who's that so early?"
Matt was breathing in the dust heavily when he arrived. "It's me, sir. Matt Henry, from up the ways. I found... my father and I, we found a boy in a ditch. He's been hurt bad. We need your help."
"Yes, sir. I think it might be one of those yowlers."
Doc Shannon jerked momentarily. "A yowler? You saw the ears, did you?"
"Yes, sir," Matt said. "And his tail. His leg's definitely broke, too."
"A broken leg I can fix. Even on a yowler. Let me get my horse ready. I'll be with you as soon as I can." He puttered back into the house, slamming the door and letting the shade clack against the thin glass. Matt was taken aback, but he waited just the same until the doc came riding around the back of his little two-story office house. "I'm ready, young Master Henry."
His father had already sent his brothers out into the yards to complete the day's work when he returned with the doc. His mother and sister sat in the front room, sewing. Matt knew his chores for the day, but his father shook his head when he headed out to do them. "Stay, son," he said. "You're the same age as that boy. The others are younger. I want you to stay and talk to him if he wakes up. I'll call you if I need you."
Matt nodded. "I'll do that, sir."
The doc was in that little room for a long time. At one point, he called in Matt's father, and Matt heard a low, painful cracking sound, but no scream. He wondered what that meant. Eventually, his father came back out looking ashen-faced, but said nothing. The doc sent Matt to get water. Later he was sent for rags. When he wasn't fetching, Matt sat in the hallway in its little chair with the woven back and waited. The light of day grew and warmed toward noontime. Eventually the doctor came out too, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. He looked up. "I've never treated a yowler before," he said. "Still, a cast is a cast. I've done everything I can for the boy. It's all in God's hands now. Just keep him warm. If he wakes up, make sure he gets enough water."
"Is he going to be okay?" Matt asked.
The doc shook his head. "I don't know. I just don't know."
"I've never seen a yowler before," his father said.
Matt's mother had stood quietly at the stairs. She said, "He's not... dangerous, is he?"
"I don't believe he should be. They're not dumb animals. Almost as smart as a negro, but in a different way, I'm led to believe. I haven't seen one since I was in medical academy in Michigan, and that was a long time ago when I was a younger man. They're, ah... Zeke, before I go, there's something you ought to know. You probably guessed like I did that he jumped or was pushed out of a train." His father nodded. "I'm thinking he jumped. He was... before he was beaten, he was-- how do I put this delicately-- "
"Say no more," Matt's father said. "I believe I understand."
"They say that the devil put yowlers here to tempt us, but that boy..." Doc Shannon shook his head. "No soul deserves that. You take care of him, Ezekiel Henry. And I'll send a wire east and see if someone is missing a yowler boy. There aren't that many of them." He shook his head, then bowed to Matt's mother. "I'll see myself out, Asibel. God bless both of you."
His mother nodded. "And you, Doctor Shannon, for coming out so quickly."
Eventually, his father relented to Matt's obvious boredom and set Matt to doing his chores. Distance from the guest room made Matt more curious, and he visited the bedside several times. Matt could see a sweet face through the bruises, with long hair, full lips, and a broad nose. He could be forgiven for thinking the yowler was a girl.
Matt was leaving for the fifth time that day, shortly before his bedtime, and had his back to the bed when he heard a little voice say, "Thank you."
"You're alive!" Matt turned back and sat on the little stool they'd set up next to the bed. "I'm so glad. What's your name?"
"Nico," he said. "It's just... Nico."
"I'm Matt. I found you in the ditch. What... what happened?"
Nico shook his head. "Train riders... they didn't want to share the boxcar with me. Or me with them. Where am I?"
"Clack County. In Ohio. They said the others, on the train, did something to you. They wouldn't say what. The doc and my pop."
"That was probably wise of them," Nico said, and then he fell unconscious again.
Nico's leg kept him from moving too far through the weekend. By the third day, however, he was strong enough to get downstairs for breakfast. He had washed up with an ewer full of hot water and a basin Matt had brought him, and when he came downstairs Matt's sister Rebbecca blushed and gasped and giggled. Matt did too, but he was more surreptitious about it. Nico blushed back.
He had brushed his hair. It was thick, fell down to his shoulders, and was mostly black but for two white streaks that coursed over his ears and down the sides. He had a broad, curiously girlish nose that complimented his soft but still masculine jawline, huge eyes with a human shape but an almost supernatural glisten, and a small mouth with soft, sweet lips. He was small, almost as small as Rebbecca, and had trouble getting about even with the crutches his father had found in the attic and sawed down to match. He was such a mix of sights no man or woman in Jackson county had ever seen before, as exotic as a tiger. He bowed at the waist fitfully when he came down and said, "Ma'am."
Mark was younger than Matt, and his clothes fit Nico. Nico looked fine in the rough cotton shirt and pants they had found for him. He was still unshod. His feet looked normal and human. When he sat he shifted uncomfortably. Matt's mother said, "Is everything all right?"
"It's fine," Nico said. "It's just that there's no tailhole in these pants, and it's... uncomfortable." Matt leaned back and saw Nico's tail was bent upward and draped over the pants. Nico had chosen to wear suspenders, and now Matt saw that the looser fit gave his tail more room.
"Where are you from?" Rebbecca asked.
"Santa Barbara, ma'am. That's in California."
Matt's father came in and sat down. He held out his hand to his wife and said, "Let us pray." Matt watched Nico bow his head. He'd thought that yowlers didn't pray, heard they didn't have a God to pray to, but Nico followed along as his father said, "Lord, we thank you for this meal, and for bringing us this blessing of food and fellowship. We honor you this morning with faith and pray that we may not be tempted beyond what we are able. Amen."
Nico joined with the others in the mutter of "Amen." When Matt raised his head, he saw his father's jaw tighten slightly, then relax. The morning grace had not been what his father usually said. "I heard you say you were from Santa Barbara?"
Nico nodded. "Yes, sir. My mother is there. She works for the McCannick family. They own a number of plantations out that way."
"And what brings you here?"
Nico hesitated. "I wanted more than what the McCannick family offered."
"You ran away, then."
"I'm 19 years old, sir. You can't say that I ran away. I just left."
"You don't look a day older'n Matt, and he's just about to turn sixteen."
"That's not unusual in a Bastet, sir," Nico said. He shrugged. "I'd like to offer your family some work, whatever I can do, in return for the kindness you've shown me, but I'm not going to be much use on this leg for a few weeks."
"Do you have any skills?" Matt's mother asked.
"I can read, and write. I can do sums. I sew well, and cook. Maybe not what you're used to, but I can cook."
She said, "I have a lot of mending to catch up on, Zeke. If the boy can earn his keep that way, let's let him. At least until he can make his way out on his own."
Matt's father gave his harsh nod, the one that said he wasn't sure if he agreed or not but that he had no choice but to go along. Matt's mother got that nod out of his father oftener than seemed right to Matt. Matt felt cursed that he had never been interested enough in girls to know what it meant to give in that way. Marriage was still something he would have to do someday, his duty to family and God.
After breakfast, Matt and his brothers walked through the snow to school and sat through their classes. Matt glanced to his right, to the column of chairs where the girls all sat, and what he saw were strange creatures, giggling and silly. They said that girls matured faster than boys, but these girls never seemed anything but immature and ridiculous. They chatted among themselves, pointed at the boys from time time, shaking or nodding their heads, when they weren't paying attention to the teacher.
The teacher waved her hand. "Fifteen minutes, children, and then I want you back here." She picked up a kitchen clock and wound its spring.
One of the other boys, a loudmouth names Brooks, came up to him and said, "Hey, Matt, what's this I heard about you having somethin' strange happen at your place last Friday?"
"Don't you know?" Mark said loudly. "We got a yowler livin' with us now."
"A yowler? How did that happen?"
Mark said, "Matt, tell the story."
Uncomfortable in the role to which he'd been cast, Matt did nonetheless, leaving out the parts that he knew would probably get him into trouble.
Brooks said, "I bet he's pretty. Pretty like a girl. Yowlers are supposed to be."
"A little bit," Matt said. Brooks shot him an odd grin, and Matt shrugged.
"Yeah, I heard that's what they're all like. Boy or girl, a yowler wants to be a girl." He licked his lips and left them shining with spit. In the insinuative voice only schoolboy have mastered he said, "Especially in bed."
"How would you know?" Mark said.
"That's just what I heard," Brooks said. "Just what I heard. They're all whores, you know. That's what they were made to be. That's why they can't enter no church."
"I don't believe that," Matt said.
"You better," Brooks said. "You can never tell what's going on in a strange creature's mind like that."
Matt wanted to say the same thing about girls, but he held back. His classmates all wanted to know more but nobody else knew any more. Nico was still a mystery. Matt knew he came from California, and he didn't believe that Nico wanted to be a girl, no matter that his face was pretty or that he'd be earning his keep by sewing until his leg healed up.
School let out at noon and Matt went home to dinner and his chores. He had firewood to chop, horses and cows to hay, chickens to feed. He split twenty logs, enough for a day in the main hearth. They were mostly cured from the spring before, but they were still hard work, dry work.
Nico came out to watch him. Matt eyed the boy as he moved awkwardly on his crutches, and he winced. Something inside Matt knew that Nico would be so much better, so much more right, when he was able to walk without them. He wanted to watch Nico move, see what the cat in the boy did to him. Something in the way he moved, even crippled as he was, touched Matt inside. Matt blushed, turned back to his sledgehammer and wedge. "My mama let you go early?"
"I've darned quite a few of your socks," Nico said. "You have a lot of socks with holes in them. I hoped you'd be glad."
"I am." Matt grunted hard as he brought the sledgehammer down on the wedge. The log he was working had a knot through it and didn't want to give. He lifted the sledge and brought it down. It bounced off the wedge corner and rattled into the log itself, sending a hard shock up the handle into Matt's hands. "Ow! God bless it!"
"Are you okay?" Nico said, hobbling up.
"Yeah, yeah. Happens all a time. I'll be right. Just, ow." He rubbed his bicep where the pain was greatest. Nico stood close to him. He was smaller than Matt, just a little shorter, and Matt was pretty sure that wasn't entirely due to the crutches. That was something else that didn't look right about Nico right now-- those clothes. Nico was soft and girlish. He wasn't a girl-- he wouldn't have looked right in Rebecca's clothes at all-- but he needed something else, something finer, than the farm clothes they'd given him.
What Nico looked like with no clothes at all crossed Matt's mind. Matt startled, jerked his head up toward Nico and said, "I'll be right. Really. Just... just don't stand too close. Lots a chips flying."
"All right," Nico said, turning and hobbling away. Matt watched his tail bounce as he left. Nico had sewed himself a pair of pants with a tailhole. That looked right. Matt turned back to his chore, grateful for the cold afternoon as he hacked at the logs.
The family sat for supper. His mother passed around pieces of apple bread and praised Nico for his deft hands and quick work through the mending. "As good as Rebbecca," she said.
Matt went to bed shortly after nightfall. He had his own room, being the oldest son, while his brothers shared theirs. Exhausted from a day of hauling and swinging, he readily fell asleep.
He woke in the middle of the night. There was nothing unusual about that. Matt knew most people woke up at least once in the night, especially when the nights were longer, to lie in bed in the cooling house and listen to the wind. It was often a peaceful time.
Matt found no peace when he awoke. His body was asweat and his sex as hard as the sledge lever he'd been holding all afternoon. He knew what it was and what caused it and he was ashamed. He knew what it meant to be a queer. The Bible was clear about that. So was his father, who'd read that particular passage from Deuteronomy often enough that Matt had it memorized: "And when a man lies down with man as he would with a woman, it is an abomination to God, and both shall be stoned to death."
But the very picture he'd had that afternoon, of Nico in motion, naked, was more than he could bear. He grabbed his sex and jerked it, pulling the skin back and forth in what Matt believed was a fair imitation of what he might feel if he ever entered a woman. Except he didn't imagine a woman in his head, it was Nico, beautiful Nico, his long hair close enough Matt dreamed he could smell it, sleek Nico, and Matt thought about putting his hands on Nico's skin, on touching him on his back, on his chest, getting close to that sex Matt had seen.
Matt climaxed onto his stomach. Shamed and disgusted by his weakness, he toweled it off with a handkerchief he kept on his bed stand for this. He'd have to wash it out in the morning. He didn't want his mother to know that he would sometimes abuse himself like this. He didn't do it much-- it would make him crazy, some books said-- but sometimes, he would rather have been crazy from whatever he did than be so crazy with the needs that becoming a man placed on him.
Matt stared at the ceiling and blinked as tears came without want. He didn't want to be a queer. He closed his eyes and prayed for temptation to pass from him.
January eased toward February. Nico remained as enigmatic as ever, giving little about where he had come from or where he was going. Frank's assertion that Nico couldn't enter a church turned out to be false when Nico went to church with the family on his third Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter. That caused quite a stir in the town, but Doc Shannon and Matt's father explained it as best as they could.
Matt rode alongside him in the back of the buggy on one of those trips to church. "How's the leg today?" he asked, trying to make conversation.
"It's doing well, thanks," Nico said. "It doesn't hurt nearly so much anymore."
"Good. That's good, isn't it?"
"Dr. Shannon says that it might come off soon," Nico said. "I don't know if that's true. He said six weeks. It's been almost six weeks, hasn't it?"
Matt did numbers on his fingers. "More. Almost seven."
Mark and Joseph were joshing each other in the back of the buggy. Rebbecca sat opposite Matt and Nico, reading her Bible, making sure she knew the sermon even before Father Chalfant gave it.
"Who is that girl I saw harassing you last time at church?" Nico said.
"Maggie Hivner," Matt said. "Been on me for years."
"She's pretty," Nico offered.
Matt shrugged. Nico gave him a strange look. "Is there something wrong with her?"
"No," Matt said. "Nothing at all. I figure I'll marry her someday. That's what Pop says, anyway. It's my duty, as the eldest son." He stared across the stretch of the wagon to where Rebbecca was reading, her lips moving as she absorbed word after word from silk paper and leather skin. "My duty to my family and God." He returned Nico's stare until they both turned away from the maddening tension.
Father Chalfant read from the second book of Samuel, ending with David telling Samuel "Thy love for me is wondrous, surpassing the love of women." He went on to talk about the responsibilities of kings, and the need for there to be conquerors, but all Matt heard was the words of Samuel to David. "Thy love," he mouthed. He glanced over at Nico, who had picked up his own Bible and was leafing through it, reading his own story. He shook his head hard, bowed it to touch the unoccupied pew seat in front of him, and clasped his hands together above his knees.
Matt had soiled himself with his own hands for three nights running before this church day, and many times before that since his first night. Sometimes he tried to imagine Maggie, sometimes Jane or Catherine, the two prettiest girls he knew, but time and again when he imagined his own hand on another's flesh it was Nico he touched. Nico's back, or chest, or worse.
He was full of sin and he wanted freedom from it. He knew what he was about. He was a Henry, a man of the Methodist Protestant Church of Springfield, and he knew where his future lie, where it had always lain. Nico's presence was a mistake, an accident, a crime. A crime had been committed against Nico and the sheriff had come to talk to him about it. A crime was being committed against Matt but no angel would come and absolve him of it.
He barely heard Father Chalfant say, "Let us pray." He saw Nico bow his head.
After the service he watched the girls his age buzz around Nico, dipping their hands to touch him like some rare secret. He charmed them with gentle words and comforting nods. They giggled at his compliments and did not care if they were sincere. Matt cared. He wished suddenly that Nico would only be an honest man, would only tell the truth.
He decided to intervene with a truth of his own. "Jane Cultice, isn't your mother fixing to pair you up with Tom Mills?"
"That's just a story, Matt Henry," she said. "My Mama has made no promises to anyone, and neither have I."
Matt could feel Nico's stare on his skin, like a caress, almost like a warning. "Well, I don't think your Mama would like to think you might make eyes at a... a... "
"A yowler," Nico said.
"And why not?" Jane said. "It's just talk."
Matt said, "Talking leads to doing. That's what the Father says, right?"
"Besides," Nico said. "I'm not exactly the marrying kind. And I'm not staying in Springfield forever."
On the way back to the house, Nico sat next to him. "Thanks. I didn't know what to say to them to make them go away. I've never been... out... among normal people like this. Not too much." He blushed. "Jane, she's pretty too."
Matt just nodded.
Spring thundered in with a storm that filled to overflowing the ditch where Nico had been found. The ground soaked and Matt's father said he would wait a week later than last year to keep the seeds from drowning or washing out. The plaster came off Nico's leg but he still got about with a bit of a hobble.
School resumed after the late-winter pause when snows got too deep to walk. Matt rode, carrying back the books he had borrowed at the beginning of winter, books by Bill Boggs and Thomas McGrew and other great and famous writers, a whole stack of them, five in all, but he had to admit he'd only read three. That was all right, the teacher only expected him to read one or two.
The classroom was whitewashed and warm, fed by the Springfield boilers a block and a half away. Matt felt out of place here in town. His father's farm was close enough to Springfield that, when he'd joined the 4H club two years back he hadn't felt like one of the country boys or girls, but when he came to school it was full of townies and he didn't feel like one of them either.
"Hey, milk boy," said one of the boys while they stood in the fresh air and sunshine the teacher insisted was so good for them. Frank was Matt's age, the kind of boy who had been a bit of a roughhouser two or three years ago, but who had since started to see that playing that game with the big kids could get him hurt. He was still known to get into a fight or two. "Jane tells me that you've still got that yowler at your house. Have you adopted him?"
Matt scowled. "No..."
"Bet he's had Rebbecca already."
Matt would later think on just how fast a soul can go from mere talk to murderous fury. "You take that back," he said.
"Why? Is it true? I went to the library and read about them. Scholars and things. Yowlers can't control themselves, which is why good people drive 'em off and only filthy rich people keep 'em. They're all deviants." He looked at Matt closely. "Maybe he hasn't had Rebbecca. Maybe he's had you."
Matt swung out with a hard punch, aiming for Frank's head. It glanced off his chin, and Frank shook it off quick and came back with a roundhouse of his own. Matt threw himself at Frank and the two of them tumbled into the dirt. Frank punched at his side, then hit the back of his head and shoved him to the ground. Matt sputtered and turned, but as he came up with his fist a man's hand grabbed his collar and pulled him upright like a chicken about to get chopped. Covered in mud and bleeding from a cut above his left eye, Matt felt shame to have so lost his temper. He faced the teacher. The school custodian had him in hand. "Matt Henry, what is this about?"
"Nothing," he said. There was dirt in his mouth. He held back from spitting, put a finger in his mouth to try and dig it out instead.
"Matt threw the first punch, Miss Gains."
"Is that true?" Matt nodded, unable to meet her eyes. She said, "Matt Henry, you've never been known to start a fight in this school in all your life. Did Francis say something to you?" Matt smiled a little, he knew how much Frank hated being called Francis. Otherwise he held his counsel. "Francis, what did you say to Matt?"
"Nothing, Ma'am," Frank said with a pitch perfect voice of disbelief.
"Boys," Miss Gains cursed. "Matt, go inside and have a look at that cut. Then I suggest you ride home and explain to your Pop what happened here today. Stay home tomorrow and cool your head. Understood?"
Matt looked at his boots, but nodded finally. He could feel blood seeping down his cheek.
After cleaning his wound and checking Pippin's saddle, Matt made the slow ride home. He felt the bruises on his face blossoming slowly as the cold sun beat down on him. He knew by the time he got home his eye'd be black and his cheek blue, and he'd be lucky if his father didn't do the same to his backside.
His father was in the oat fields with a shovel, but he spotted Matt, took a look at the sun, walked toward the house. "Good Lord!" he said as he spotted Matt's injuries. His expression hardened. "What happened to you?"
"I got-- I got into a fight. With Frank Shaffer. Miss Gains told me to stay away from school tomorrow. Cool off, she said."
"What was it about? No, I can guess. Nico."
Matt blushed. "He said... he said yowlers can't control themselves and they're all deviants and seducers and he and... and... Rebbecca... "
His father snorted. "That boy has been nothin' but a soul of decency since he landed here, and we have done the right Christian thing by him for it. That Shaffer boy's always had a mouth. Just like his father."
"You're not going to punish me?"
"You look punished enough, Matt. Time comes when a man's got to defend his family's honor, and learn the price of doing. Go wash. I'll take the saddle off Pipin."
Matt nodded. "Thank you, sir."
Matt went. He filled a pitcher with water and examined the cut above his eye. It wasn't bad. It wouldn't even need a bandage. It had bled a lot, and there was still blood along his jawline where it had seeped down during the ride. He went to his room and sat on his bed, opened the window, and looked out over the dusty road that led into town. He was still staring, not thinking, when he heard a knock at the door. "Come in," he said, his voice thicker than he felt right.
He didn't look to see who it was, so he was surprised when he heard Nico's say, "You're back home early." Matt turned. Nico's eyes widened. "What in the world happened to your face?"
"On your first day back?"
Matt shrugged. "Time comes when a man's got to defend his honor."
"Oh, Matt, Don't be stupid," Nico said. He closed the door behind him, went and sat down next to Matt. "Was the fight worth it?"
"Good enough. It let Frank Shaffer know that I'm willing to fight to protect my... my sister's honor."
"Oh," Nico said. "It was about me."
Matt nodded. "He said that he went to the library, and he looked up yow... Bastet. Sorry. I wouldn't call a Black man a darkie, I ought to know better. And he said that you're all perverts and deviants, and that's why there are so few of you. Good Christian people try to wipe you out or drive you away, it's only dirty rich people who keep you."
"What he says is half true," Nico said, startling Matt. "Bastet and humans can't trade diseases. We can't make each other pregnant. For centuries, the wealthy have kept us as their, I guess you'd call 'em, toys."
Realization struck like spring hail. "That's what you were for Mrs. McCannick?"
"No," Nico said, so quietly Matt strained to hear him. "Mr. McCannick."
Guilt wrung Matt out. Tears welled up in his eyes, unbidden but truthful. All the things he'd thought about Nico, all the lustful urges he'd had weren't just abominable before God, they were plays in his mind of the terrible monstrosities Nico must have suffered all his young life. "What's wrong?" Nico said.
Matt tried to find words, lost them. "No," he managed. "No."
Nico's face paled. That might have seemed impossible to Matt once, Nico was so light to start. But he saw it clearly, saw the fear in Nico's eyes. "Matt?" He swallowed. "It's because I... I did those things with a man, isn't it?"
"Yes. No. No, not like that. I don't... I don't hate you for doin' things like that. It's not... "
Nico stood up. "I'm tainted. That's what you think, isn't it?"
"No!" Matt looked up. Nico was going the wrong way. "No, it's just... I feel so bad, because a what you must have gone through. It... It must have been awful."
"Oh." Nico sat back down. "Matt," he said, "Do you want me to lie?"
"Lyin's a sin."
"So is being a queer," Nico said softly. They sat side-by-side on the bed. Matt dared not look at him. "I didn't hate what Mr. McCannick did. I just hated him. Because of what he did to my mother, of how he kept her-- and me-- long after we were supposed to be free. Long after we were supposed to be let go." He sighed. "McCannick had the ears of senators and he used his money to keep her a slave. He tried to keep me too."
Matt said, "So you did run away."
"It's like being in a cage. The food is good, the water's clean, even the toys are good. McCannick wasn't too bad, I guess, as keepers go. But it's still a cage."
Matt nodded. He understood being in a cage. He could feel his own pressing in on him, bars wrapped around his heart, squeezing so hard it felt like his eyes hurt. What could he tell Nico, what could he say? "Do you... do you like girls?"
Nico sighed. "Yes. Just as much, maybe. I've known fewer of them, I guess. They're a mystery. Boys are so much easier to understand."
Matt gulped hard. "We are?"
Nico put his hand over Matt's, the touch of his palm, free of the hard callouses of farm work, so different from anything Matt had ever known he'd remember it for the rest of his life. Nico's hand was soft fire. "Yes, you are."
He grabbed Nico, pulled him close, kissed him hard, mouth crushing mouth, every limb atwitch. No talk needed, Matt knew what he wanted, Nico knew too. Nico pushed back, they fell over, the bed creaked.
Footsteps came up the hallway, and Matt pushed Nico away with arms that regularly split logs. Nico sprawled over the side of the bed, recovered, glared at Matt, then heard the footsteps. "Oh," he said.
Matt nodded, still trembling. He took a hard breath, then ran a hand over his bruised and painful face, straightening out his hair, checking his mouth. There must be signs of his sin, he thought. Must be. He couldn't feel any. Nico sat on the floor, easing himself down onto the leg he said still gave him pain.
His mother's voice sounded through the door like the doom of God. "Matt Henry, are you in there?"
"Yes... Yes, Ma'am."
"Your father said you'd been in a fight. Is that true? May I come in?"
His mother came in. "Oh, here you are, Nico. What are you doing here?"
As if nothing in the world had happened to either one of them, Nico said, "The same thing you are, Miss Henry. I heard Matt was in a fight, so I came to check on him. I think he'll be okay."
"You're probably right. That's quite a bruise you've got, Matt. I hope the Shaffer boy came out the worse."
"Yes, Ma'am." Matt stared at his mother, and he ached. He was betraying her now, betraying her expectations of what he'd be, betraying the God he'd known his whole life, the one who loved him, who'd died for him. In his heart, he believed himself to be a good man with a-- a curse, a thing, that made him unacceptable in the eyes of God and family. And the one who'd put flame to that tinderbox thing was sitting cross-legged on the floor, calm and cool and unconcerned, less than ten feet away. His mother said, "I worry about you, Matt Henry," and she touched his chin with her cool fingertips. "God's blessings on this house have been queer, that's for sure." She gave Nico a glance, and Nico smiled back at her. "I'll leave you both. You must have something to talk about. I thought I heard you fighting."
"I was trying to sit down," Nico said. "My leg gives me pain still, and I tumbled a bit when I did."
"That must have been what I heard." Her eyes had always looked tired. Now Matt realized that the tiredness covered more: a deep and suffering sadness. "You boys be good, okay?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Nico said. Matt echoed his agreement, and she left, leaving the door ajar as she left. Matt looked at the crack in the door. She knew. She had to know. He looked at Nico.
Nico nodded, stood, and walked over to where Matt sat, his heart beating harder and harder. Nico put his hand on Matt's shoulder. "You'll figure it out. So will I. You should take care more of that face, Matt Henry. It has to stay good-looking so you can find the love of your life." He laughed abruptly, and then in that smallest voice he said, "Listen to me. Stupid yowler."
Without saying another word, he left, leaving Matt to stare at the half-open door through his tears.
"When are you leavin'?" Matt said. May had coming roaring in with a week of scorching sun that threatened the corn and oats more than Matt wanted to contemplate. The rains in March had washed out a few fence posts. The cows were trying to climb down into the ditch and chew on the grass that grew on the other side of the tracks. Aside from the risk of the train, that wasn't their land and they had a good peace with the Turner family over there, so Matt and Nico had been dispatched to put up a new line of fence to join with the east fence that kept the cows from wandering into the woods.
Nico shrugged. "I don't know. When I feel like it. When I've got enough money." He glanced back to the house. "I'm obviously not going to drink my pay away." Nico looked at him. It was their first time alone together since the day of Matt's fistfight. "Do you want me to leave?"
Every night since, Matt had relived that hurried, desperate kiss after he'd gone to bed, soiling himself time and again. It hadn't lasted more than a few seconds, but it had burned itself on his soul the way the devil's footprints left blackened scars on the soil wherever he stepped. He could feel them. He put his hand to his chest. "No," Matt said.
"Yes, you do," Nico said as he jammed the post-hole digger into the ground, wrestled the two levers apart, and pulled out another clot of dry dirt. Half fell through the two clamshells, leaving a little dust cloud. His leg had finally stopped hurting and for the past two weeks he'd been working full-time on the farm. Already the sleek lines of his arms were becoming even more streamlined with newfound muscle and power. "Your turn," he said, stepping back.
Matt took over, going deeper, trying to work as fast as he could. The faster he worked, the more concentration it took, the less he had to think about Nico standing next to him, short, powerful, beautiful Nico. More beautiful than any woman he'd ever seen. Matt knew what he looked like in a mirror and he could imagine what Nico looked like. He could put together the bare, thin, cold body he'd seen last February with the skin and face that stood right beside him. He felt that starving dream constricting his throat.
One of the digger's blades hit a rock. Matt leaned down and dug it out with his fingers, then tossed it into the ditch, watching it ruffle the brown grass on the way down. "No," he said, "I don't."
Nico made a strange sound, one Matt had never heard before. It sounded like a snort of contempt, only one a cat might make. He glanced over at the train tracks. "You found me down there, right?"
"Like over there," Matt said, pointing to the west.
"Snowing. Cold. Dark. Who found me first? You, or someone else?"
"Me," Matt said with another grunt as he resumed digging.
"I was naked," Nico said.
"You were half naked," Matt said.
"It was the bottom half."
Matt paused, his eyes closed. "Stop it, Nico."
"Why? Great River, Matt, I can see it in you. Why is it so awful for you?"
"Because I ain't no sodomite like Mr. McCannick, and I don't want to be one!" He lowered his voice lest the wind carry his words to ears he didn't want to hear. "I don't know what that was, Nico..."
"It was a kiss, Matt. It was a kiss."
"It wasn't me. I was hit in the head or something. I wasn't right."
"You haven't been hit in the head every night since then," Nico said. "You know what they say about yowlers and our ears? All wrong. If anything, I think we hear less well than you folk. But my sense of smell, Matt... It tells me a lot. It tells me a story."
"Well, I don't want a part in your story, Nico. I just want..."
"To marry a country girl, have ten babies, grow old on this farm, and die, never knowing anything else."
"A man has to do his duty, to God and his family. You take it." He left the digger in the ground, held out a handle to Nico. Matt could barely stand to watch Nico, to watch the muscle and sinew ripple and turn as he jerked the levers apart, pulled up a clod of dirt, and tossed it aside. Nico worked hard, and after his turn he said, "I think that's done enough. Hand me the yardstick, please?"
Matt tossed it. Nico caught it deftly and dropped it into the hole. "That's enough," he said. "Let's get that drain rock in."
Matt nodded. The two of them poured rocks from a canvas bag, then lifted the cut piece of timber they'd hauled out that morning. Nico aimed it with his hands, pointing it at the hole they'd been digging together, and it slowly slid down into the darkness. Matt had the heavier job of controlling the post's descent, and he came close to Nico as the post righted itself and fell in. Matt leaned up against Nico for a moment as the two of them grabbed the post and steadied it, but quickly jerked himself around the other side of the pole. Nico shook his head. "I'll get the shovel," Matt said.
For Matt, the day was one long agony. When Nico wasn't working, his beauty threatened to overwhelm him. When he was working, however, he radiated an insane kind of manliness, the kind Matt emulated but didn't ever really feel. They sat down ten feet apart from the fourth pole of the day, passing a tin of water back and forth, and Matt said, "How do you do it?"
"Look so... so right."
"I'm not sure," Nico said, looking down at his boots. He had bought them with a loan from Matt's father, and had already paid it back. "Maybe it comes from being a Bastet. And maybe I'm just not afraid of what I am."
"What's that?" Matt said, taking a drink.
Nico looked at him. "Someone who can do you no harm that I don't mean to, and someone who you can't harm if you don't mean to. I'm not ashamed of what I am, and what my people have made of ourselves through the centuries. It's not just that we were forced to be courtesans and catamites, we were good at it. Not made for it, but it was a happy thing we came out this way."
He reached out for the canteen, took it, drank from it. "I was good at it. I just didn't like being good for McCannick."
Matt felt his eyes wet with tears again. He looked away. "I hate feeling... Did Mr and Mrs McCannick... "
"Often enough to have two children. Probably not more often than that. Mr. McCannick really was a man's man. Mrs. McCannick called me twice, I think, when I was there. I didn't understand her at all."
"It's like... " Matt tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. "It's like hearing about China, or Mongolia. Some place so far away, like another world."
"Why do you stay?"
"Because this," Nico said, spreading his hand to indicate the farm, "is another world to me. It's all so simple here. There are no schedules, just what the farm needs, and what the farm needs is obvious. Just Spring and the fields. I'd like to stay for a while. The only thing that's not simple, that makes me think I should go elsewhere, is you." He lowered his eyes. He looking so sweetly inviting that Matt felt the pang of desire for something more than a quick jerk of relief between his own lonely bedsheets.
"Don't you know how to just be a friend?" Matt said.
"No," Nico said. "I've never had one before. And I know you don't want one. Not from me."
Matt knew he was right. He heard his mother ringing the triangle, calling everyone to dinner. He stood up, helped Nico to his feet, and the two of them went in.
The next day was a school day, and after that he had more posts to dig, more fence to build. Nico helped him once more, and together they worked their way closer to the woods. To be so close to Nico, to watch him as he regained his strength and began to move with the smoothness of a cat, was almost more than Matt could bear. The day reached it greatest heat and Matt sat down, taking deep gulps from the canteen.
"You look like you're about to faint," Nico said. "Are you sure you're okay? You're working yourself too hard."
Matt nodded. "I wanted to finish four posts before... before now."
"We took all day to do four posts yesterday. You're going to kill yourself, Matt."
Matt stood up, looked at Nico. "Come with me," he said. They walked to the edge of the fence, picked their way between two lines of wire. Matt led Nico into the woods.
"Where are we going?"
"Waterin' hole," Matt said. He picked his way among the trees. The path from last summer was still there, still visible. Matt thought it strange that they were always willing to swim so late into Fall, but waited so long into Spring before starting. It was like they if they kept swimming summer would stay, but that starting to swim was like starting a clock to winding down.
He found it. It was barely a pond, maybe twelve feet across, a ragged, rocky spot in the earth where a stream stopped at some rocks and then started up again a little ways away. Nico bent down and ran his hand through it. "That's cold!"
"I eat chicken!" Nico said. "You're really going to jump in."
"Best way to cool off," Matt said. He stripped his shirt over his head, then tossed his pants off as fast as he could. If he waited longer, he'd turn yellow and run, so he pushed them off and hauled off his boots and with a whoop flopped into the pond.
Nico's eyes were wide. "Come in before I freeze to death!" Matt said.
"Not even I could keep you warm in that, Matt."
"Don't matter." It was a dare. Matt knew it was a dare. The problem was, he didn't know who he was daring, Nico or himself. The cold water was getting deep into him, and he knew he'd have to get out soon, naked and wet, and stand before Nico and wait to dry off enough to get his clothes back on.
Nico finally took off his shirt. Matt had never seen him shirtless, and his long torso with its sleek planes and muscled plates made Matt light-headed. He imagined a decrepit older man touching that body, and anger and shame possessed him for ever thinking that Nico had been anything but a victim. Yet, no man could resist, no man should have to resist, the temptation of Nico.
When he dropped his pants, Matt's emotions tumbled into something raw, something bright and painful, something for which he had no words. He saw the boy's full unencompassable beauty.
Nico let out a shout of his own and jumped into the water. He disappeared, then broke through the surface with a gasp that was absolutely painful. "Holy sun and stars, Matt! This is cold!"
"It's great on a hot day, ain't it?" Matt said. He reached out and grabbed Nico by one arm, pulled him close.
Nico bit his lower lip, his ears, those catlike ears that Matt tried so hard to ignore, dipped down in something less than friendship, something more like fear. Matt looked at him, bewildered. "What?"
Nico looked away. "It's nothing."
"You're wrong, Nico. I ain't no queer. But you're here, and you make me feel something no girl does, and someday you'll be gone, but while you're here... I may as well feel what I feel."
Nico turned to look at him. "What?"
The trembling in Matt's body wasn't like anything he'd ever felt before, but he had to feel what he'd felt that one time, back in his bedroom, back with Nico. He kissed Nico hard, kissed him because he meant it and he wanted Nico to know it. He pulled the other boy close and they sank beneath the water until both of them ran out of air and they both needed to fall apart and head for the surface.
They broke air, laughing and screaming at each other until they swam for the water's edge and hauled themselves up onto the rocks and dirt, then fell once more, sharp rocks under Matt's buttocks and back as Nico pounced on him, the sleek boy never less than what Matt had ever wanted from a fantasy. Nico's sweetness poured into him as he reached around Nico's back and held him, his trembling hands anxious to touch every part of Nico.
They rolled over and Nico kissed Matt's chest, then his belly. Matt held his breath as Nico's head reached his groin and he felt the warmth of Nico's mouth on his cock and Matt knew he would have to hold onto this moment for the rest of his life. It was over almost too quickly, but Matt knew he couldn't hold back. He'd practiced his whole life reaching his pitch quickly and silently, and as Nico's mouth performed its magic upon his cock, as he felt Nico's tongue swish back and forth on his shaft and he absorbed the indescribable pleasure of being surrounded by someone else, someone who wanted him for only a moment or maybe a lifetime, but someone else.
Nico licked his lips as he looked up. "I'd kiss you, but you wouldn't like it," he said.
"Will I like it if I do it to you?"
"Probably not, but there's only one way to find out," Nico said.
Matt reached down. His hands trembled as he first laid his fingers on Nico's erect cock. He forced himself to look at it, at what he was doing, to see as well as feel the soft skin, the veins that seemed to bulge around the thick base where pubic hair much more fine and soft than Matt's own suddenly ended. The veins faded into a thick shaft, darker than the rest of Nico, and ending with a roll of skin over a cockhead the color of his mother's day lilies. He would never have thought of putting it into his mouth before now, but since Nico had done it, he ought to return the favor.
He kissed the head with just his lips, then with his tongue. He expected to be disgusted by the taste of it, but it just tasted of skin. Except that it was a man's cock-- a yowler's cock, but still a man's. Matt could feel the blunt, demanding flesh against his tongue and he realized he had made a promise he didn't know if he could keep. He didn't know if he could give Nico a climax the way Nico had him.
He tried. He finally gave up all pretense of either knowing or understanding, but instead just closed his eyes and pressed his mouth into servicing Nico's cock. Matt tasted salt and sweat and something strangely sweet. Nico's heating body gave off the fresh scent of exertion and desire, and Matt inhaled that heady odor. He knew he would miss it someday. He had to remember, store it away, freeze it forever.
Nico groaned. "Matt," he warned. "You won't like it if I come in your mouth."
Matt let go and looked up. "What should I do?"
"Use your hand. Like you do on yourself."
Matt took Nico's cock in hand. He made a fist around it, like he did on his own, and began a slow stroke. It was such a solid thing, so big and powerful and real. Matt had never imagined it would be like this. He had thought Nico's cock would be small like the rest of him. But no, it was as substantial and solid as Matt's own, maybe even a touch moreso.
It didn't take much more. Nico's body shook so hard Matt feared he might tear something, but then his body tightened wire-high and an arc of white jetted hard across his chest.
Matt felt Nico's hands grab him, pull him close, and the two of them were in the dirt again, giving each other kisses meant to last. "Damn," Matt whispered. "I never thought it'd be like this."
"What did you think it would be like?"
"Don't know. Hurtful. Dirty," Matt said. "Something other than so... good."
Nico nodded. "I didn't know either."
"What do you mean?"
"I've only ever known Mr. McCannick and Mrs. McCannick, and her only a few times. And then those men on the train. No one else. No one who thought about me as something other than a thing to use."
"There isn't nothing else," Matt said.
"Matt, is that how you feel about about Maggie Hivner?"
Matt's answer was a time coming. "That's hard. I don't know what I'm thinking about doing with her."
Nico said, "Let's get dressed."
The next three weeks went by too fast for Matt. They would work hard until almost nightfall and then sneak into the woods. Hands and mouths were enough; Nico offered Matt his backside once and Matt said no, he didn't want to go so far, he didn't want too much. He didn't want to hurt Nico. "It doesn't hurt," Nico said. "Not if you do it right," but Matt still objected. He had his reasons, and Nico accepted them.
They got sloppy, or daring, or stupid. They would meet in Matt's bedroom, close the door, and Matt would just grab the other young man in his arms and hold him and kiss him. Matt would take a kiss behind the chicken coop, or snitch a feel of Nico's almost always-ready cock while they moved wood from the shed into the house for the night.
In the daytime, they would run for the far field and the swimming hole. Their time was furtive, fast, and driven by all the force that youth puts behind such times. They bruised each other, and Matt felt like he understood love.
They were at the watering hole on a blistering lay May afternoon. Not a cloud filled a sky so blue it rivalled Nico's eyes, a blue that could be seen through the tall stands of pine and maple that grew high out of the rocky, hilly terrain. Matt heard the footsteps first, and dove for the water as Nico grabbed his pants. They expected Matt's brothers, who sometimes came up the trail when the day grew this hot.
When Matt came up, he saw not Joseph or Mark, but his father, dressed for the farm, his hat in his hand. "Matt?"
"Pop, what are you doing here?"
"Come here, boy." He pointed. Matt obeyed, hauling himself out onto the ground. Water sluiced off his form, leaving him momentarily chilled before the sun asserted itself once more. Nico had pulled on his shorts, but not much more. Matt hadn't had time to do that. "Get your pants."
When Matt had pulled them on, his father glanced looked at Nico, then Matt, then back at Nico. He clenched his hands into fists and shook. He knew. He'd seen, somehow. "How long have you been queerin' my boy, Nico?"
"About a month, sir."
"Nico!" Matt shouted.
"A month," his father said. Matt saw it now, the grief that gripped his father, an old, familiar grief, so worn and comfortable that maybe his father could not live without it. "I have lived all my life this thing, Matt, and I'd hoped to spare you of it. I still hope to spare Mark and Joseph of it." He turned to Nico. "You can't stay here, Nico. There's no place for you here."
"I know, sir. I'm sorry."
"The Lord brings us our challenges and temptations for his own reasons. A good man never faces a temptation greater than himself."
"That's what the scripture says," Nico said. "But I don't think of myself as the work of your God."
Matt stood on the concrete platform, it's poured, wet gray surface reflecting the cloudy, drizzling sky overhead. Nico waited, dressed in a new dark blue suit, the repaired jacket over his arm. He had a little black suitcase with everything he had in the world, everything he'd earned in his four months with the Henry family. Men and women milled on the platform, saying their goodbyes to one another. A portly stationmaster passed them, watch in hand, stopping when someone asked for a car. The train stood at the far end, a blackened steel manifestation of modern power leaking early steam.
"Is this what you want?" Nico said.
Matt nodded. He glanced back at his father, who waited a polite distance away out of earshot. "I got nowhere else to go."
"Come with me!"
"And do what?" Matt said. They'd had this argument last night. They had it again this morning. Nothing came of it, but Nico tried. Matt respected him for trying. "I got no skills worth selling, no place for working."
Nico gestured to the town of Springfield, to the rough-hewn bodies of men and women, even the townies, who lived so far from the capitals of the world. "Is this who you are? What you are?"
Matt thought he'd cry again, in public, and he didn't want that. "It don't matter. What I am, in here, is broken, Nico. Broken apart. But the biggest piece, the piece I got left, the piece that's been there so long and I understand it, is a farmer, Nico. Is a Henry. You never had a family like this, that goes back so far, you don't understand."
"I don't," Nico said. "But I do see what it means to you. Will you be happy here? Will you make Maggie happy?"
"I can't do prophecy," Matt said. "I hope to make her happy. When nothing is left, a man has his duty. He just does." He closed his eyes. He knew now the exhaustion and sadness that lay behind his father's eyes, and his mother's, and the shared shame they carried knowing how hard his father fought to stay an honest man.
The stationmaster rang the bell and shouted out, "All-aboard!"
"Goodbye, Nico." He watched as the sleek, sweet Bastet turned and walked with his impossible grace to his railcar, leaped in. Other faces followed Nico, some contemptuous, some curious, some wistful. The whistle blew. Porters closed the doors. The train strained, its cars reluctant to go. It pulled and each car jerked as it surrendered its slack and added its weight to the engine's responsibilities.
The car holding Nico shifted backwards, stopped, began to roll forward. Matt followed it. He chased it as it picked up speed down the line. He wanted one last glimpse of Nico, one last look. But the car pulled away faster than he could run and he reached the edge of the platform and the fence and there was nowhere else to go. He wanted to reach out and grab the last car, sink his fingers into it and hold on until the train stopped or the engine's might ripped his nails from his fingers.
Something of Matt went with the train, trailing behind it, a cloud like dust and pollen and dandelions, curling and flying in the blowing wake of the train, flying toward the heavens, leaving behind only an empty shell in heavy-duty cotton clothing, another scarecrow stuffed with the tailings of harvest, doing his duty to his farm.