And it happens like this:
Isaac walks into the woods, right past my dog, who is three-fourths pit bull and generally quite unfriendly to strangers. Rufus, brindled hunter full of sharp teeth and powerful jaws does nothing.
“That’s weird,” I say.
Without asking me what is weird, Isaac says, “We have an understanding, Rufus and I.”
“Rufus doesn’t want to die, and I don’t want to kill him.”
Rufus makes no move to follow me as I vanish into the dark morning woods with Isaac, which is also strange, since he loves to wander the forests with me.
“I don’t want him along with us,” Isaac tells me.
The woods are green and shadowed and the air is full of the smell of drying pine needles lying crisp and rusty between trunks laid out in even rows. My father planted them fifteen years before, when I was two years old, and they have grown strong and tall, like me, and are almost ready to be harvested. Isaac heads upslope, taking the grade easily with me right on his heel.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
In reply, he only points with a thick left finger toward the high ridge that boxes in one side of the field where Mr. Wishon farms his cattle. Up there in the higher country are cliffs and boulders and oak forests growing in the thin, stingy soil. We push on, and Isaac says nothing and I ask nothing more and soon we are out of the pines and into the oaks that have just sprouted new leaves of green after the long winter. The wind blows silently about us, bringing the ever-present smell of Wishon’s cows and steers.
In a while, we stop.
“It happened here, didn’t it?”
I look around. We are at the base of a cliff of exposed granite and quartz that looms, as craggy and as hard as Isaac’s face. From the fissures in its rugged surface are odd, twisted oaks and other hardwoods finding purchase on that extreme grade. I know what happened here, but there’s no way that he could know. So, I say it. “What happened here?”
“This is where you first realized how strong you are. You were twelve. You were twelve and you jumped up that cliff. How high did you go?” He turns toward me and points up, up. “Which tree did you make it to? That one? The next?”
“The next,” I say.
“And then what? What happened after you jumped forty vertical feet from a standing position?”
“I jumped down,” I tell him.
“And what happened then?”
I wave my left arm at the trees below us. “The branches of those trees stopped me, but I got hurt. I hurt myself pretty bad. Got cut. Broke my wrist.” I feel it with my right hand. “My left wrist. Not a bad fracture, but I broke it.”
“And you went home and lied to your parents. You didn’t tell them that you’d jumped up the side of a cliff like someone out of a comic book. You lied and told them that you climbed up a rock and fell off.” He smiles at me, showing a mouth full of blunt, white teeth.
“Who told you this? I never told anyone what really happened.”
He ignores my question. “How high can you jump, now, Kevin?”
“I don’t know. I don’t try that kind of thing anymore.”
“Well do it. Do it for me. No secrets, son.” He indicates the gapped and broken rock above us. “Jump for me, as high as you can.”
I look up. I tense. “No,” I say, relaxing my muscles, those muscles that have never been taxed, have never been tested, have never been really, actually used.
In reply, Isaac turns toward the rock wall and attacks it. He reaches out with those big, horridly gnarled hands of his and begins to climb. He goes up the lichen-covered stone like some kind of monkey. I’ve never seen anyone climb like that, move like that. He’s fast, quick, and does not hesitate as he goes up. Soon, he’s forty feet up, then sixty. He looks down at me. “You can do it, Kevin. You can jump this high, can’t you? I know you can. Come on. Jump up here. Join me.”
I shake my head. I don’t know what game he’s playing and I won’t be part of it. No one knows. I’ve never told anyone and I’ve never shown anyone. I won’t do it now.
Once more, in reply, Isaac attacks the cliff as if it were a simple task. With no rope, no fear, he scales the sheer granite, finding purchase in small nubs of stone, in narrow cracks made by ice and roots over many, many years. He goes up and up until he’s looking down at me from near the top, a hundred feet above me. “Join me,” he yells, and I barely hear him. I make no move.
“You’re not alone, Kevin,” he says before he flings himself from the tiny shelf of rock on which he’d been perched, staring down at me with that mad, ugly face of his.
I scream. Nothing intelligible. It’s merely a scream of shock and horror. I watch, as he seems to float down toward me, but then realize it’s only an illusion of my shock as he comes plummeting like the bag of meat and bones he really is. He’s killed himself, I think in the final instants before he slams into the stony ground near my feet. I fall back to spare myself from being splattered with his remains. “Jesus!”
But there is no blood. There are no guts. He lands full face like one of those sacks of potatoes I used to lift so easily on my shoulders when I was just a small boy. And then, miraculously, as I watch, he stands up, brushes himself off. His hat is still on his head, pulled down tight over that unbelievably ugly skull. “Damn,” he says. “Tore my pants,” tugging at a rip in the right knee.
“How?” I say.
“You’re not the only one, Kevin. There are others like you. Like me.”