Discover more from The End of the World Almanac
Song on the Green (Feast of Shadows Part 2)
My name is Ólafur Strákurson. I’ll be 9 this summer. I have a secret I can’t tell anybody. Not even my dad. He’s an importer. When I was little, I asked what an importer did and he told me it’s kind of like being a smuggler, or a pirate, except he doesn’t steal anything.
My secret kills people. Sort of. It kills them inside their heads. But it stopped because I agreed to feed it. We made a deal. I agreed to feed it and it said it would stop hurting people. But I’m not supposed to talk about it. It made me promise not to tell anyone, especially my dad.
My mom and dad are getting divorced. Dad says it’s because Mom was unfaithful and that I’m old enough now that I should know what that means. He grew a beard, like the wizards and stuff in the books he reads. He has a lazy eye. That’s what everyone calls it. It points a different way from his other eye. It’s from when he was my age and one of the neighbor kids locked him in the basement. They knocked him down the stairs and he was stuck there until Grandma came. I think something else happened, too, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. I heard him tell my mom once that there was a thing down there with him, and he had seen it out of the corner of his eye and that’s why it went funny. She told him it wasn’t funny and he shouldn’t ever tell anyone else about it or she’d leave.
One of my pets left once. I have a lot of pets. They get really loud when the doorbell rings. Dad says I’m not allowed to bring home any more. Even if they’re really scared. I asked what if they were hurt and he said to tell him and we’d talk about it. I have three dogs and two cats and a turtle named Speedy. I had a bird, too, a parakeet, but it died. And I had another bird once but it wasn’t a pet. It was just hurt and I hid it in the garage at our old house so my dad wouldn’t know. I let it rest and I fed it bugs from under the rocks in my mom’s garden and then one day it flew away while I was at school. It was a raven. I think. I wasn’t sure because it was white instead of black. But I know it was bigger than a crow. It left me things after that. It brought me a real shiny bottle cap once. And a seashell. One of those kinds that curl around and around. But it wasn’t a big one. It was small. It left them on the windowsill at our old house. I don’t think it knows where to find me here. I never knew its name, but my parakeet’s name was Pete because that’s a good name for a parakeet.
I also have Sudoku. She’s a terrier. And my cats, Ribbon and Betsy. Betsy’s missing most of her tail. And two other dogs. Wilson is the big one and Pringles is the little one. I wanted to call her Ancestral because I like that word, but Dad said I couldn’t do that because it wasn’t a name. I learned it at school when we were talking about family jeans. We think Wilson is part shepherd, but he has longer hair. Dad says he’s a mutt. He has a spot on his side where there isn’t as much fur. That’s because it never grew back from the sickness he had when I found him. Some people had hurt him and he ran away. He told me about it and I cried. I had another dog named Careless who never paid attention to anything or anyone, even my dad, but I lost her ’cuz I left the door open. Mom used to get mad at me all the time for leaving the door open. I forget to close it sometimes. I would come home from school and take my coat off and put it on the railing by the stairs and set my bag on the ground by my shoes and pet my dogs and forget to close the door. I left the door open and Careless ran away. We looked for three days. We looked everywhere. Even my mean old neighbor Mrs. Kalinga helped. That was at my old house. I’m glad she’s not my neighbor anymore. (Please don’t tell her I said that.)
Anyway, that’s how I found it. My secret. It was coiled under a boat trailer like a snake. Or maybe a giant worm, with segments and stuff. Except it isn’t a worm. When I leaned down and saw it, it contracted like it was hiding. I saw its eyes. They were like open mouths. It reached out for me with its mouth-eyes and I ran. But I’m not supposed to tell you that. Dad says the things I see aren’t real and I’m not supposed to talk about them.
Two days after I found my secret my friend Emerald was missing. And that’s why we had to move all the way out here. I heard my dad talking about it on the phone with my Uncle Oliver—he lives in New York—and about how Mom had lots of stress because of everything that happened. I asked my dad if it was my fault Mom left, and he said no, I should never think that, and that Mom loved me and wanted me to go with her but Dad wouldn’t let her because of how she is. I miss my mom. Sometimes my dad does, too, even though she makes him really, really mad.
Dad and Uncle Oliver talked on the phone a long time about Mom at the new house, but mostly they talked about the lot. For an auction. Not an empty yard. The lot was locked with a bunch of junk in the little garage—not the new garage that faces the street but the old one in the back yard next to the hollow. I don’t know why people call it a hollow, but they do. It’s like a forest. There are houses on one side and Newcombe Street on another and if you walk all the way to the back there’s the big highway, but you can’t get to it because there’s a fence and the highway is up the slope so you can’t even see the cars. But you can hear them pass. And you can feel the wind from the big trucks. I stand there sometimes. In the hollow. With the trees. There are lots of places to hide where the older kids can’t find me.
Something used to be in the hollow. An old building. Maybe a house. There’s a little bit left inside a big ring of fallen trees. Someone stacked them one on top of the other, like a wall, and they have all these branches that reach out like spikes. There’s a stone rectangle in there, too. My dad called it a foundation. The stones on one side are black like maybe there was a fire. And there’s an opening. A tree fell over it and all kinds of leaves and stuff gathered on top, so it looks like an animal den, but it’s not. I think maybe there’s more underground, like a basement, but I’m no supposed to go in there. Dad says it’s not our property so we shouldn’t go in there, but it’s okay to use the path because lots of people use the path. There are so many trees in the hollow, you can’t see out. All the leaves have fallen ’cuz it’s not spring yet. And there’s still some snow back there that hasn’t melted. It crunches when you walk on it. Dad said I should be careful because there might be snakes, but I don’t think there are bad snakes in Pennsylvania. Just bad things that look like snakes. When they don’t look like worms or rats or cockroaches.
My secret attacked my friend Emerald and now she’s dead inside. In her head.
One day some security guys came and took the lot out of the old garage and put it in an armored truck. It’s worth a lot of money. Maybe that’s why they call it a lot. After it was gone, Dad wasn’t using the garage so it was a good place to hide my secret. In Pete’s old birdcage. Then my Uncle Oliver called to say he was sending someone to help with the lot because there are some people who want to take it away, I think. They’re maybe afraid my dad made it up, or stole it. Like a pirate. Dad said the man who was coming to work for us was from a different country, and that he was famous, and that I should be on my best behavior.
Before the man came, my dad cleaned out the garage. He used to work in an office, but at our new house he works from home. So he’s always there, even when I get home from school. He keeps saying he likes it. Every day he says he likes it at least twice.
“I like being home, not having to go to the office. I like it.” Just like that.
He cleaned out the garage while I was gone. When I got home, it was already empty. Except for a stack of old doors leaning against the wall. But the corner was empty. I came home from school and went right to the back to check on my secret. I stood in the door and saw the freshly swept floor. He had moved Pete’s old bird cage. It was empty.
I wondered if my dad had seen it.
I wondered if it had hurt him.
I wondered where it was.
Then I heard him. “What is all this junk?”
My dad came around the side of the house where the workers had torn up the grass and left all the stacks of lumber and tiles and things. He saw me standing in the door to the old garage. Dad said the old garage was behind the house because that’s where people put garages in the old days. It looked too small to hold a car. Dad said it was a carriage house. I don’t know what that’s for. He was wearing his plaid work shirt and some heavy gloves. He set a white plastic bucket on the grass. He had the big broom in his other hand.
“I need it,” I said.
It was the white raven’s collection. Everything it had left on the window sill at our old house. Even the little Frisbee. It wasn’t a full-size one. It was kid’s size. It was yellow and the middle had cracked and broken away so all that was left was a ring. I knew it was trash, but I think the raven thought it was pretty.
My dad stood straight and looked down at me with his eyes that didn’t line up right. My friends say it’s weird. I don’t like when they say that. It’s always been that way. That’s just how my dad is.
“What is this?”
He set the big broom against the window of the garage. The white paint was cracked. The window was dirty. There were leaves all over the grass. They blew into the yard from the hollow. We had to rake the yard all the time. Dad said no one had told us that when we bought the house and we’d have to put up a fence.
He reached inside the bucket and pulled out the shiny bottle cap. Then the little roll of twine. Then a little rubber spider. “Why do you have it?”
He held it out in his hand to me as if I hadn’t seen it before. There was more in the bucket. There was a hook and a few plastic clips and some other things. I think the raven was thanking me. I thought maybe it was giving me stuff to make a nest. It seemed rude to throw it away.
I think my dad could tell I wasn’t being honest. He gave me that look and turned his hand over the bucket. The bottle cap bounced as it landed inside. He picked out the little hollow Frisbee. He held it out like he didn’t understand.
I shrugged again.
“Go dump the bucket in the trash.” My dad reached for the broom.
“I can’t,” I said.
He waited for me to explain.
I wanted to tell him. But I knew what he would say. I wasn’t supposed to talk about the things I saw. They weren’t real.
The doorbell rang. We couldn’t hear it from the back yard, but we heard the dogs barking. All at once.
My dad set the broom against the garage window again. “That will be him.” He pointed to the bucket. “Dump that in the trash and come meet our guest.”
He had the hollow Frisbee in his hand and walked into the house with it. He was going to throw it away.
I waited until he was gone, then I carried the white bucket across the lawn to the hollow. I found a place with a lot of leaves behind one of the big trees. I cleared a space, then dumped the raven’s collection on the ground and scraped the leaves back over it. Then I ran the bucket to the side of the house by the lumber and went inside.
It was my dad’s lawyer lady. And a man. He was the strangest man I’d ever seen. He had no hair. And his skin was an unusual color. Not white. Not black. And not like Asian or Mexican. It was like the earth. And his hands had tattoos. He seemed like maybe he was sick. He was too skinny, like the starving people on TV. And I heard him cough. But the strangest thing about him was his name. They just used the first letter. Mister A. Tranjay. That’s what they said. Mr. A. Tranjay this and Mr. A. Tranjay that. He didn’t even look at me. Most people smile or said hi. But not Mr. A. Tranjay. It was like I was a ghost. Or he was.
We were all seated around the dining table. The workmen hadn’t finished the new wood floor yet. It was kind of like a puzzle except all the pieces were the same shape. Only a little bit was done in one corner. The rest of the floor was all rough and scraped. And the walls had no skin. I could see their insides. There was pink fluff and wires. Our new house smelled old. Dad said we were renovating. He served his guests coffee. He had a glass of wine for himself. He sat next to his lawyer lady. They were across from Mr. A. Tranjay. The old brass chandelier was overhead. I sat at the end of the table. My feet dangled and I swung them back and forth.
“When Oliver suggested you,” my dad said, “we were very excited. We think your work is very exciting.”
My dad pulled his sweater down again. It was tight over his belly. His clothes were getting too small. I thought maybe they were shrinking since he was doing the laundry now and not Mom.
“I always liked the way you described the Bistro. Futurist interpretations of the proto-civilized diet. Fantastic. It’s a terrible shame what happened.”
Mr. A. Tranjay didn’t say any more. I liked his voice. It sounded like the wind blowing through hollow wood. I kept staring at his palms. There were symbols on them. It looked like a couple were missing. He kept one hand under the table. I think so no one would see it shaking. But I could. It seemed like he couldn’t stop it.
“I don’t think either of us”—Dad looked to his lawyer lady and then back to Mr. A. Tranjay—“believe you would burn your own restaurant down.” My dad kept trying to make conversation. That’s what adults say when they want to talk and no one else does. “I remember reading about how you served hákarl once. I was very impressed. Not many people have heard of it, let alone had the balls to charge others a few grand for a taste!” He laughed and rubbed his beard. I think it was an adult joke. “My family is from Iceland. Well, we’re from Philadelphia, but Ólafur’s great-grandparents were from the old country.”
There was some quiet and my dad’s lawyer lady filled it. She wore blue and white. With pearls.
“The last Cirque seemed to a lot of people like an attempt to turn everyone away. To just kill the series dead.”
Mr. A. Tranjay coughed. “If so, it was a poor attempt.”
My dad scowled. “Why do you say that?”
“Because that was fifteen years ago and people still talk about it.”
“What was the last dish going to be?” the lawyer lady asked. I didn’t know her name. “After the Cheeto-crusted Spam?”
“I’m sure you can find the answer on the internet.” Mr. A. Tranjay’s voice was quiet, almost hoarse. I thought maybe he had a cold.
“People seem to think it was going to be human brains,” she said.
My dad glanced at me and then back. He forced a chuckle. “Isn’t cannibalism illegal?”
“Not the eating,” the lawyer lady explained. “Just the procuring.”
I didn’t know what that meant.
Mr. A. Tranjay was silent.
The lawyer lady pulled out her phone and tapped on the screen. “In 2012, a 22-year-old Japanese artist, who had recently undergone elective surgery to remove his manhood, scrotum and all, cooked it and served it to six paying guests.”
“Oh, geez!” Dad stood up and shooed me out of the room. “Come on. Let’s go. Out with you.”
Mr. A. Tranjay nodded at the woman as I walked past. I heard them talking as my dad sat me in the living room and turned on the television.
“And within weeks, he was arrested.” Mr. A. Tranjay said.
Dad handed me the controller for the new game system he had gotten me. After “the incident.” That’s what he called it. I turned it on, but I could still hear. The lawyer lady kept talking. I think she liked to talk, maybe almost as much as my dad liked to drink wine. I couldn’t see her, though. I could only see Mr. A. Tranjay.
“You were called as an expert witness for the defense,” she said.
I played SkyCraft. It’s this cool game where you have to design paper airplanes to fly through all these obstacles and things. Each level was different, and you had to trade your points for different kinds of paper or different kinds of folds, like turned-up wings and stuff, so that the plane you built would fly the right way after it went through the loop and hit the blast of air, and then land on the target. I was on level twelve.
“Two years ago, you co-authored a paper with a team of Israeli geneticists in which you claim a species of hallucinogenic wheat rot was likely responsible for the prophecies in the Book of Daniel.”
“The climate of the period”—Mr. A. Tranjay coughed, and his voice shook after—“and the method of storage make it the only plausible explanation. But I understand the skepticism. It’s considerably more convincing when experienced directly.”
“Are you suggesting the anthropological community should consume an hallucinogen?”
“Only if they wish to understand the past as it was lived.”
I fell down a bottomless pit. Well, my plane did. The screen went blank for a moment and I saw my face. It twisted like a ghost. I turned to see if anyone was looking. I could feel a nightmare coming.
“No,” I whispered.
It wasn’t supposed to happen in the daytime. When adults were around. We agreed. I shook my head and turned my head around. My secret had to be close. It couldn’t feed from far away. I saw Mr. A. Tranjay looking right at me from the other room. He was looking right in my eyes, like he wanted to ask me a question. Then he turned back.
“You want to know whether or not I am qualified,” he said.
“There is no question of your qualifications, sir. Anyone who’s ever paid more than a few dollars for a hamburger has heard your name.”
“My tact, then.”
The lawyer lady sounded like my old neighbor Mrs. Kalinga. “The lot in question has been valued between two and twelve million dollars.”
I pinched myself hard. Sometimes that makes it stop. Mr. A. Tranjay kept clenching his fist under the table. We were both fighting something.
“If authentic,” he said.
“And your analysis is sound,” she retorted. “Understand that whether or not this matter, and thus my client, remains out of court, let alone whether he sees a dime of that money, will depend entirely on how your results are presented: factually and with a dignity appropriate to a concern of this magnitude, or accompanied with a side of pan-fried scrotum.”
“No, no. Not fried. That was his mistake. It is a tough leather. Better to serve it broiled, and well-seasoned.”
“We can still say no.” She had turned to my dad. “We can refuse. The Board—”
Dad interrupted. “Has ultimate say.” I couldn’t see him or his lawyer lady.
“We can challenge,” she argued.
“Judy, I already have a contentious divorce and a horde of creditors breathing down my neck demanding the lot be insured, immediately. I’m not going to sue my own Board of Directors on top of that.”
“But why him?” She pointed.
I could see her finger. She had a big ring.
“He comes highly recommended.”
“By someone close to me. And he was among the least expensive of all the prospects.” Then my dad raised his voice as if cutting off her objection. “And that’s all I’m going to say.”
The woman threw something onto the table. I couldn’t see. Her phone maybe.
My dad was trying to console her. I knew that voice. He used it with Mom all the time. “The only question is whether or not Mr. Étranger’s credentials will satisfy the underwriters.”
“Of course they will. Are you kidding? I feel like I’m in an old cartoon every time I meet with the insurance guys. They practically have dollar signs floating up from their eyes. You want to hire—in secret—the world’s most outrageous chef, fresh off the highly mysterious arson of his notorious restaurant, to verify—in secret—the biggest culinary discovery so far this century. When it all comes out, we’ll have press in every newspaper in the world. Much of it will be negative, but it won’t matter. People love drama. The price-per-bottle is going to go through the roof.”
“Then why can I see the veins on your forehead?”
“I’m not just your attorney, Tim. I’m your friend. With Faustino gone, you’re the sole legal owner of the lot, but it’s being held in escrow, which means you’ll be the last person to get paid. The people closest to the buyer get paid first, and so on, all the way on down. It’s a world of middlemen, and the bigger the money, the longer it takes to move, and the longer it takes to move, the less you’ll see of it. Your soon-to-be-ex-wife will want her share, and she can keep this tied up in court for a long, long time. Since the lot was acquired while you were married, her lawyers will ask for half of whatever you expect to make regardless of whether you’ve been paid. And if they think you’ve low-balled the price valuation, they can demand an amount that ends up to be more than half of whatever you finally clear at sale. I’ve seen it happen with artworks and other assets of this kind.”
“That’s the law. All that matters is the appraised value at the time of settlement. I don’t think you realize just how little you stand to gain from all of this. And how much fighting to keep any of it is going to dominate your life—our lives—probably for the next several years. Are you certain you want to rest all of that on the shoulders of a man who charged his guests $8,000 for three ounces of rotting shark testicle?”
There was silence. My dad was thinking.
I got up and walked back into the dining room. The nightmare had stopped. I sat down in the chair next to Mr. A. Tranjay. He gave me a little smile. I liked him.
My dad looked at me. “Yes,” he told her.