Writer in Residence · 09/28/2010

Artifact 12: The Boy of Threes

The boy slept in parks amidst hunks of slag and ash-filled craters. He wanted to dream of the time before, of iridescent statues that swayed with the trees and of wide ponds that turned from water to ice with the touch of a hand. He was sure he could remember the existence of such things; but he only dreamt of fire.

He imagined himself celebrated in the centuries to come – the last boy, Trey, the child of threes. They’d say he wore a necklace of metal tags. They’d say he found the last girl and led her from the ruin of one city and into the founding of another. But he couldn’t find any girls. And he didn’t know how to leave.

He was 333.333.333.

The spot of his tag’s insertion had become swollen, puss-filled in the days after the fires. He’d felt the metal edge pushing from within his skin and he’d used his fingers to squeeze it free. The numbers were his father’s, then his mother’s, then his own. He tied the tag to a strap of leather and kept it close to the pit at the base of his neck.

He remembered the amber and blonde of his mother. The turquoise and stiff whiskers of his father. Near the end, he’d nestled between them in a great hall and they’d listened to music played by a thousand horns and strings. They left into a warm night and he thought they could stay on the wide steps forever. But his parents had fought. His mother wanted them to go to the marketplace. His father demanded they return home. “We need to show him as much as we can,” his mother had said. And his father had said, “He should be home when it happens. He shouldn’t have to know any of this.”

Each time the boy found a body, he knelt over it and studied the face. All the women were blonde. All the men were a day unshaven. Everyone looked the same age.

In the time before, the people had glowed in their own, luminescent way, ten thousand colors and more filling the plazas and markets and halls of the city. In the ruin, there were only the tags. And the numbers etched at birth.

Seasons moved the boy forward. In the times of sun, he searched for his parents, for other children, for a girl. In the snow, he burrowed in and searched for some sense in the numbers, in all their formulations. Three to three to three was nine. Nine to nine to nine was twenty seven. Two to seven was nine again. And nine broke back into threes.

Child, mother, father.

He remembered the story his mother had told. A city born of a boy and a girl who’d fled another place. They’d built a home. They’d had children in a natural way. They’d died not of accident or choice. “Maybe that could be you,” his mother had said in the days before the fire. And he’d said, “Why?”

Boy, girl, city.

He collected tags with shared numbers – gathering families again through their slips of metal. In a park, he placed them into an ashen field. Sets of three. Always three. At first, a single triangle. Then dozens. Then hundreds of sets stuck into the fallow soil so that the boy could sit on the edge of the burned-away pond and watch the evening sun reflect in thousands of sparks of identical light.

Over time, the boy became the size of the men of his city. Then he became smaller. He had no word for the color his hair had turned. He had no explanation for the pains in his legs and arms and neck.

He forgot if ponds really turned to ice. He didn’t know if there had really been music in the great halls. He sat overlooking his field of metal and counted the numbers again and again. He was sure he had once known their meaning. He was sure he had once had reasons for what he did.

453.985.444 | 673.076.444 | 444.444.444

He found them on the furthest road. All three together. Mother. Father. A girl who was the age he believed he’d once been – thought he might have been still. His fingers ached as he cut their tags from their necks. His thumb brushed the etched numbers of the girl. Four to four to four was twelve. Twelve to twelve to twelve was thirty six. Three to six was nine. And nine broke into threes.

He threaded the girl’s tag through the leather strap and wore it next to his. They clicked as he walked. He liked their subtle weight.

There were days he woke and thought himself awash in colors. He thought he heard the bark of men in the market and the sound of buildings turning to catch the morning sun. He didn’t know if his eyes and ears were failing him, or if the world itself had grown weary of its state – grays no longer wanting to be grays, the wind no longer content to whisper.

His hands lost the strength to hold the knife. His legs had no will to wander. He settled on the steps to the great hall and reclined in a final turn of the sun. He was sure he’d been there once before. He was sure thousands would be there again.

In the evening, the light from the park reflected towards the boy, the countless sparks seeming as a singular light traveling down the road and to the steps of the ruined hall. He thought the light a memory. Or something from the years ahead. His fingers pressed against the two tags at his neck and he remembered something he thought he’d once known well. A girl. A city. A wonderful story he believed he might have lived. Three and three and three again. He was sure there was meaning to it all.

Alan Stewart Carl is a Texan writer of fiction and miscellany. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, PANK, Monkeybicycle and other cool places. Most of the time, he can be found down in San Antonio raising two wild and beautiful children. Virtually, he can be found at AlanStewartCarl.com.

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posted by Amber Sparks