Isaac sat silently as Principal Gayle spoke. The boy’s father sat next to him, hands clasped in his lap, listening as the woman behind the great pressed wood desk accused him.
“It isn’t the first time,” she said. “He’s been caught twice in the past three weeks burning ants with his magnifying glass, once a few weeks ago with matches.”
Daddy straightened in his chair, drew in a breath. “Matches? I wasn’t told—”
Principal Gayle shrugged, threw up her hands. “He’s a good student, Mr. Gold. Quiet and overly shy, but a good student. He’s never given any of his teachers any trouble, save on these few occasions.”
Isaac let his feet swing freely, one knocking rhythmically against the right chair leg beneath him. There was a long silence as his father drew in a deep, thoughtful breath and blew it out again, slow and deliberate.
“Isaac?” Mrs. Gayle cocked her head as she tried to make eye contact. She folded her hands on the desk in front of her. “Isaac, do you know how dangerous it is to play with fire? How terribly you might hurt yourself or someone else?”
Isaac said nothing. He sat silently, staring at the nearest leg of her desk. His father shifted in his chair again. It squeaked slightly.
“Isaac, answer,” Daddy said.
The boy shrugged, a small gesture, barely noticeable. “I like the sun in the glass. And the smoke.”
His voice was tiny and jumbled. He didn’t like the sound of his own voice, so he spoke as seldom as possible.
“And the matches?” his father said.
Isaac didn’t answer. Just gave another shrug.
Principal Gayle sat back in her own chair, a chair seemingly more comfortable than those Isaac and his father sat in. The boy stole a glance then, noting the sheen of the brown leather on which she reclined, the buttons sunken at intervals into the plush cushion. He wondered if it would burn, what color smoke it would belch forth—
“Mr. Gold, I’m sure this is all just a big misunderstanding. Boys like fire. They’re fascinated by it. As long as Isaac knows that it’s dangerous, and that he should steer clear in the future”—she seemed to be speaking to him directly now—“I’m sure we can put this behind us.”
His father nodded. “He’ll be disciplined, Ms. Gayle. I can assure you.” He rose then, clapped his hands. “Up, Isaac. Let’s go.”
Isaac slipped out of the chair, his feet touching the floor at last, and hustled after his father, eyes still downcast. He had almost made it to the door when Ms. Gayle called to him. He turned back, forcing himself to look her in the eye.
“Let’s not go through this again, Isaac, alright?”
He nodded, not even seeing her. His eyes danced over the wood paneling in the office, the pressed wood bookshelves along the far wall, the soft, glinting leather of the principal’s chair.
It would burn. All of it.
He was chastised as usual: pants down, on his knees, daddy’s belt smacking flatly into his bare bottom once, twice, three, four, five times. Then, his father would help him back on with his pants, buckle his belt, and hold the boy in his arms. “I love you, Isaac,” he’d say, “and God loves you too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have put me here to correct you. Now, go on to your room and pray for forgiveness.”
That was the usual drill. That was the drill now. It was selfish of him, he knew, misbehaving so, forcing the principal to call daddy away from his work. Tonight, they were expecting company, Mr. and Mrs. Istringer from the congregation, for dinner. They’d arrive directly, and Isaac’s chastisement had taken time out of his father’s preparations. Thus, when the beating was done, Isaac accepted his father’s hug and dutifully started for his room. Daddy called to mother in the kitchen.
“Lucy! Get those steaks out the fridge, sweetheart!” Then he turned back to Isaac. “Son, bring daddy the charcoal from the garage, please.”
He knew he would have to search, but didn’t mind. He loved the garage. It was his favorite place to practice his reading, looking at the boxes and bags strewn among the dust, trying to decipher them.
There, on the shelf high above Daddy’s work-bench: ARSENIC, for the rats.
And there, a fiery red can at the foot of the work bench: GASOLINE, DANGER—FLAMMABLE.
FLAMMABLE. Just the sound of the word gave him a chill, a tingly thrill that started between his legs, shot up through his belly, and spread out to his fingers and toes. FLAMMABLE meant able to flame. Flames meant fire. And he loved fire.
Here, a huge, unopened sack of something: FERTILIZER. That made the grass grow. Shit made fertilizer. He knew so because when Daddy meant to say bullshit like the other dads or the kids at school, he’d say, “That’s a lot of fertilizer,” instead of “That’s a lot of bullshit.” Cursing, daddy said, was the fastest way for a body to end up in hell, because it was entirely too easy and you could do it without anyone noticing or caring.
The rattle of an old motor startled him. It came to a stop outside the garage door, in the driveway. Then, a pair of slamming doors, followed by the crunch of green grass under sneakered feet. That’d be Mr. Istringer. Daddy would start the fire soon.
He found them beside the grill, daddy and the old man, speaking in low tones, bending close. Struggling under the weight of the charcoal bag, Isaac took a good long look at the burly old man, tall and broad-shouldered, a great, hefty shock of white hair topping the crown of his head. Mr. Istringer was an elder at church, and he taught chemistry, whatever that was. As he waddled up to them, his arms still clutching the charcoal, Isaac heard a few words of their conversation.
“So it’s in the garage?” Mr. Istringer said, nodding and looking at daddy down the bridge of his long, crooked nose.
Daddy just nodded.
Mr. Istringer shrugged, making his sagging face long and strange in the garish afternoon sun, his lips pursed, his chin jutting. “I’ll just grab it on the way out then. Thanks again, Bram.”
Isaac offered his sack, hoping it wouldn’t slip from his grasp too soon. He had both arms wrapped around it, as if it were a baby or a fat cat.
Daddy nodded, said, “Thank you, Isaac,” and took the bag from him, continuing his conversation with Mr. Istringer.
“So you say the traffic’s doubled this week?” his father asked, looking at Mr. Istringer with his brow furrowed in disbelief. Mr. Istringer nodded gravely, his beefy bottom lip suddenly thrust out, pouty.
“Doubled, at least,” he said. “So many of these girls . . . not even out of high school.”
They both shook their heads, clicking their tongues sadly. Isaac took advantage of the silence.
“Are you going to light the fire, Daddy?”
“Soon,” his father said, still lost in thought. Mr. Istringer looked down then, his chin doubling, and saw the boy below him.
“Well, sir! How are you doing?” he offered his great palm. Isaac stared at it, not wanting to feel on his soft palm the sandpaper roughness of the old man’s skin. Istringer waited, smile frozen, hand extended.
Daddy nudged him. “Isaac, shake hands.”
The boy wouldn’t look into the old man’s eyes. He only offered his hand, felt the quick, sandy squeeze of the old gent’s shake, and pulled away, clinging close to his father’s side.
Mr. Istringer clapped him on the shoulder, and Isaac shrank the slightest into his father’s slacks. “So,” Mr. Istringer said, “how old are you now, Ike? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
“Seven,” the boy muttered. He hated to be called Ike.
“All of seven? When are you gonna shrug off those kids you keep your worship time with and listen to your daddy preach the word, huh?”
Every Sunday in service, there came a time when the children went to children’s church with Mrs. Ballard and the adults stayed in the pews to listen to Daddy preach the word. Isaac had only heard his father preach the word a few times—once when he was sick and mamma wanted to keep an eye on him; sometimes on holidays like Easter or Christmas—but that was it. Most of the time, when Daddy said the children were dismissed, he was ushered out of the church proper by mamma and into the small room off the narthex where children’s church was held. Every single week.
Isaac looked to his father, grabbing the belt loops of his slacks, “Daddy, can I listen to you preach come Sunday?”
“Maybe, son, we’ll see. Let’s get this fire going . . . ” he opened the charcoal bag and rifled out some briquettes, each one plunk-plunk-plunking into the bowl of the grill.
“Sure, you should,” Istringer said generously. “You bring us the word, Bram, you oughtta let your son see you in action. Catch a spark of Daddy’s fire, eh? Eh, young man?”
Isaac didn’t say anything, he just stood close by daddy, hands in his belt loops.
He heard a sound like peeing: the lighter fluid. Daddy was soaking the briquettes, a squirt here and a squirt there. Then, out came the matches.
Blue Tip Kitchen Matches.
Isaac had read the box time and again.
“Daddy, let me.”
A shadow fell over him, heavy and dark. His father didn’t even need to repeat himself.
“I’m sorry, daddy,” Isaac mumbled.
His father smiled. “Stand back, now.”
With a hitch and a breath, the match came alight, the tiny flame flaring, then shrinking to a luminous, ghostly smudge of blue. Daddy held the match a moment, letting the flame feed on the wood of the matchstick, then tossed it onto the charcoal.
Then came Isaac’s favorite part.
Blues and golds lapped over the briquettes, the flames twisting and dancing, laying a shimmering cloud of what looked like living air over the dirty, blackened hunks of coal.
Isaac watched, not listening as his father and Mr. Istringer talked on, not caring what they were saying. He watched the fire as it rambled and rolled over the charcoal, gradually chasing away the dirty, sooty blackness and leaving in its wake a pristine, pale ash. An ash nearly white; as white as he suspected the robes in Heaven to be.
They ate pork ribs and baked beans with bacon and potato salad, and after dinner was done, mother and Mrs. Istringer went inside to clean up while daddy and Mr. Istringer took to daddy’s small garden in the back yard. They lingered there among tomatoes and celery and carrots for an hour or more, while Isaac watched from the back patio, seeming to amuse himself with a Hot Wheels Crash Racer. They talked long, and they never smiled, and his daddy crossed his arms on his chest often and rubbed the back of his neck almost as often. When the sun started to disappear behind the distant treetops, they embraced like brothers, daddy placing one hand on the back of Mr. Istringer’s neck, and taking his free hand with the other. The two men stood in the garden for what seemed a long time, and Isaac studied them carefully, their tightly shut eyes, their frowning mouths, their clasped hands. Daddy was speaking, soft and low. Isaac knew that look well: prayer. When Mr. Istringer left, he left with the fertilizer.
Isaac stood near the front door watching his father wave goodbye to the Istringers. Mother was still inside, stitching perhaps. The Istringers’ Dodge disappeared at the corner of the block, and Isaac’s father turned and trudged up the drive.
Isaac studied him. The slump in his shoulders. The knit in his brow. The purse of his lips. He knew then, perhaps for the first time, that his father could be weary and tired, just as anyone could. He’d never seen him so before, and certainly not after a barbecue. Barbecues left smiles, didn’t they? The sauces and beans and sweet tea, and the smoldering ash from the cooking pit? Weren’t these all absolute goods, blessings meant to feed and nourish the body and soul. He’d always thought so, but as daddy shuffled past him, into the house, he thought differently. The boy knew he needed to comfort his father somehow and stepped in his path, arms thrown round his waist, squeezing him tightly.
Daddy said nothing. He ruffled his boy’s hair absently and ushered him aside, disappearing into the cool shadows of the house.
Isaac was allowed to listen to his father preach come Sunday. He sat quietly, eyes wide, never slouching, barely breathing. He had to keep reminding himself that the man at the pulpit was his father again and again. His father.
“God tested Abraham,” daddy began. “Came to him one day and said, ‘Abraham!’
“‘I’m here,’ Abraham replied.
“‘Take your only son, Isaac,’ said the Lord, ‘Your only son, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.’ Sacrifice. You hear me, people? Sacrifice. Lay out your son, your daughter, your love, your life—all you have in this world that is dear to you personified in flesh—lay them here at the altar, and take up your knife, and cry blessings to the Lord, and plunge that knife into their soft skin.”
Isaac heard nothing save his father’s booming voice in the vastness of the sanctuary. He wanted to look behind him, sure he’d find a room full of dumbfounded weekend Christians, eyes wide in disbelief, mouths agape, much as his own were. He knew he’d find them if only he’d look. But he could not look. His eyes were on his father, and they would not leave him.
“You listening? Did you hear me? I said lay out your burnt offerings, here and now. Give the Lord what is most precious to you and destroy it with your own two hands and them set it aflame and in that haze of smoke and stench of burnt flesh, you’ll find your offering to the one who made you.”
Silence. Someone in the back coughed.
“You hesitate. Do we read of Abraham’s hesitation? Eh? No sir. God speaks, Abraham listens. Next morning, he was up and had a mule packed and off they set for the region of Moriah. Abraham’s trust, his faith in his provider, was absolute. Sure and steady. He tied his son. Bound him, hand and foot. Laid him on the pyre. Drew his blade. Prayed that his offering be received. And in that moment, just shy of the slaughter of his own dear son, God set Abraham free from his terrible promise. Up sprang a ram. From a barren, rocky hillside. And they slew that ram and they set it aflame and they sang their praises to God. For they had kept the faith, and the Lord had rewarded them. How many of you would do the same for the one who made you?”
His eyes scanned the room, flashing with a dark and terrible light.
“How many of you would give all you had back to the Lord who blessed you with it? Even your only son? Your only begotten son? Didn’t God do as much for you? Would you dare challenge him? Say, ‘God, I couldn’t take any man’s life, let alone the life of my own flesh and blood.’
“It’s God’s simplest commandment, after all: Thou shalt not kill. Simple in its brevity, in its clarity, in its equanimity.”
The sullen man from the driveway the other night was gone. The man at the pulpit was stern and sure, thunderous and unbound, hands gripping the edges of the pulpit, white-knuckled, his face had reddened and his eyes narrowed and his jaw jutted forward, tiny beads of sweat on his wide brow.
A sudden commotion at the rear of the sanctuary. The great doors from the narthex thundered open, heavy on their hinges, and in slipped Mr. Istringer.
Isaac noted him, then noted that the rest of the congregation sat still and wall-eyed, staring up at his father. The great doors hadn’t shaken them in the least.
The old man straightened his sport coat, wiped his brow, and took a seat near the rear.
Isaac watched him for a moment, but turned back around when his father continued. He had now pinned the Sunday morning crowd with a steely gaze, “We’re hypocrites. We throw away lives day after day after day. Our daughters kill their spirits, first with sex and drink, then play God when the Lord blesses them with a tiny life. A life dependent on them. A life wanting. They have no more regard for that life than to march into a doctor’s office and open themselves to having the child cut out of them. Ripped from its womb. Unborn. Without a chance in the world. And our young men, driven to vile experiments with sex and drugs, lying with other men like those consumed at Sodom and Gomorah, contracting this generation’s greatest plague, and sometimes, sometimes spreading their disease and rotted blood to more still. More sons. More daughters. Poisoned. By what? By drink? By drugs? By bad ideas? By the act of sex? By sin? No, not even by sin? They’re poisoned by ignorance. Ignorance, and a lack of responsibility. We coddle them. We build families centered around our children, we parents reduced to little more than baby-sitters and shopkeepers, butlers and maids. We cook for them, clean for them, ignore their failures, create false successes to fill the empty voids of their lives, and what does all this do to them?”
Again, his gaze swept the crowd. Isaac licked his dry lips.
Daddy spoke. “It releases them from ultimate responsibility. They never believe that they are a part of their family, a member of a group, but a monarch of sorts. A rajah. Some pagan deity. An emperor. A movie star or a pro athlete.”
He spat the words as the vilest turn of phrase, as if he were saying dirty words like penis or vagina. Still, there came a titter of laughter. Isaac didn’t know what they were all laughing about. He couldn’t have mustered a laugh right now if he’d wanted to. He was scared stiff.
“Our children are reflections of ourselves. We’ve created them, and if they are junkies, and whores, and sexual deviants, and malcontents, and layabouts—if they are monsters, then we have made them so! And if we have led them to these desperate straits, to these dangerous, horrifying precipices overlooking oblivion, then we must do whatever we must do to yank them back! For not to is damnation, not only for them, but for us, in letting them slip away. Filling our hearts with love, we must steel ourselves with courage and conviction and take hold of their lives once again, and prove that we love them enough not to make shambles out of them.”
He started looking around the congregation now, eyes actually meeting the gazes of the worshipers.
“Consider the Lord of the Old Testament. The trials he heaped on Job, a righteous and penitent man. Consider Lot’s wife, struck down for disobedience. Consider Moses and his flock, made to wander for forty years because of idolatry and greed. Consider Sodom. And Gomorah. The tower of Babel. Consider Abraham and his unshakable faith.
“Love is patient. Love is kind. But love must often be cruel to be kind. Love builds walls of protection. And love strikes out sometimes in savage defense. Love, brothers and sisters, is the sword and shield of the Almighty. The same God who gave us salvation in Jesus Christ, who promised each and every one of us a mansion in heaven if only we’d love each other and ourselves as much as he loves us; that same God marked Cain, and brought the flood, and showered plagues on Egypt. True love knows no boundaries, it seeks only the ultimate end. Amen?”
Isaac was trembling.
The boy found his father in his study, scanning through the word and some other tome of imposing size. Daddy sat hunched over them both, eyes close to the pages, scanning, leaping back and forth between them, as if reading the two at once.
“Daddy,” he said, small and slight.
Daddy didn’t look up from his reading. “Isaac, what are the rules when Daddy’s in the study?”
“‘Leave Daddy alone with the word and the spirit’,” Isaac mumbled automatically. “But I had a question, Daddy.”
His father drew in a deep breath, then rubbed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “All right, then. Come in.”
Isaac approached, stopping just short of his father. He thought about getting up on his lap, just to be close to him, to feel the gentle softness of the plaid lumberjack shirt he wore, but he opted to stand instead, to talk man to man.
“Is God mean sometimes? Like you said? Really cruel mean?”
Bram drew in that same deep, considering breath again, tilted his head back and clicked his teeth. “Well, son, sometimes, we see what He does for us as mean or cruel . . . when we want something that’s ultimately bad for us, or when we get ourselves into a jam that he won’t get us out of because it’s better for us, in the long run, to suffer the consequences. Do you understand?”
No, he didn’t quite understand. He kept staring at his father blankly.
“Like the other day,” his father said. “I knew that if you kept burning those ants, you’d lose all respect for life. Those ants did nothing to you, and if they did, it’s your Christian duty to turn the other cheek. They’re God’s creatures, just like you and me, and they don’t need you raining fire down on them for no good purpose. God wants those ants out of the yard, he’ll take them out. At the very least, he’ll work through me, because as your father, I’m obliged to defend you, and the people I love from harm. ‘Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.’”
But what had ants to do with anything? Why would his father stop him from burning ants? Ants gave tiny, pus-headed welts and when you died they swarmed over you and took your skin off piece by piece and took it back to their mounds for food. Shouldn’t burning ants be something everyone should do? The will of God?
Daddy drew another impatient breath, considering. “Sometimes, we have to do something that seems cruel and unusual to save souls. It’s just that simple.”
Isaac nodded, doing his best to seem as if he understood. He looked into his father’s face and saw that same, broken man he’d seen in the driveway two nights earlier. The slump. The knit. The purse. He felt his father in need, and he offered what solace he could. “You’re not cruel, daddy. I know you’re doing your best to get me into Heaven.”
Bram studied his son. His eyes narrowed, his expression seeming confused. “Thank you, Isaac.”
His father hugged him then, and patted him on the shoulders, too hard.
“Go on, now. I’ve got some work to do in here.”
He left, closing the door behind him, then went into the gully beyond the back yard with his magnifying glass, knowing that it would be some time before his father set foot outside his study.
He caught the sun in his hand-glass and set it on the first tiny ant he came across, fat and colored like a candy apple. It stopped, seemed to wiggle the slightest. Then, a small, audible hissing. An ever-so-tiny plume of smoke. Finally, a crackle, and the ant shriveled, crumbling in on itself.
So simple. Take aim—snap, crackle, pop—and it was over. Like they said when you died: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The sun fell quickly and Isaac rushed back home, eager and revitalized. Maybe Daddy was right: sometimes the strong had to watch out for the weak. Ants, for instance. Tiny, pitiful creatures. Helpless, really. As he’d been hunched over his work, swallowing those candy-apple specks in his tiny sun, it’d come to him so clearly. Isaac was the shepherd. The ants were the weak. Why leave them to a life of toil and worry? In danger of being trampled? In danger of being washed away by the flood of a good, steady rain. He was sending them home with the light of the sun and the help of his hand-glass. Who’d have thought you could do such things with a simple piece of glass? Fire, out of thin air! He’d have to try gasoline sometime.
He bounded in through the front door and made straight for the garage, catching the faintest hint of the television droning on in the family room beyond the front hall.
Into the garage. He didn’t really know why. He just wanted another look at the gasoline can. Another look at that word: FLAMMABLE.
There it was, rust-flecked and fire-engine red, the spout rising from its pot-bellied trunk like the head of some dinosaur. A small, red plastic cap covered the mouth of that great neck, and there, printed on the front of the can, the word in yellow block letters.
He stared at it, wondering at it, then remembered that his magnifier was sticking out of his back pocket. The TV droned on in the house. He needed to get inside and stash his magnifier before Daddy found him. He grabbed a can of soda and left the crowded mustiness of the garage, closing the door behind him.
Passing through the hall into the kitchen, he could hear the TV, and see his father, shoulders slumped, sitting in his favorite chair. He was staring numbly at the TV.
A terrible image on-screen: a small building, one wall blown away, crumpled like cardboard and frayed and torn at its edges. Black smoke billowed from the wreckage, and firemen stood round, their great hoses trained on the husk, showering it with water. And the voice of a somewhat desperate, yet ever-professionally detached reporter on the scene:
“ . . . while numbers are still unconfirmed, it’s believed that at least two dozen people were killed by the explosion, most of them patients here at the clinic. No suspects have been apprehended as yet, but police promise a swift and speedy investigation, citing the cruelty of this crime as proof positive that the perpetrator is dangerous and without remorse.”
Clinics. Like hospitals, only smaller. Isaac wanted to ask what had happened and why. Who would do such a thing? He wanted to ask his father, but the slump of his daddy’s shoulders and the set of his daddy’s cheek muscles and the insistent tap-tap-tap of daddy’s fingers on the arm of the chair told him not to. Something urged Isaac into the kitchen, to pour his soda, then straight into his room without a word.
Two days in school passed. Two nights at home. Daddy was tight-lipped, distant, sometimes gruff and abrupt, sometimes so absent-minded that he even forgot that Isaac or his mother were in the room. He sat. He stared. He breathed deep and he rubbed his temples often.
It was on the third day, a bright, sunny Wednesday, that Isaac rushed home from school, eager to take to the gully with a stolen jar of gasoline and some kitchen matches he’d pilfered the night before when daddy was in one of his zoned moments. He’d try it first a drop at a time, making a tiny pool, shoving in a stray ant or maybe even a field mouse, if he could catch one. He had to see what would become of them in the liquid fire. How did gasoline burn? Blue-gold like the barbecue charcoal? Hot-white like the tiny sun captured in the crystal clearness of his hand-glass? He’d see. He’d see soon enough.
The house was dark. Not a light was on. Daddy sat in the living room, not reclined as usual, but hunched eagerly over his study Bible in his lap. He was barefoot and still wearing his sleeping clothes: sweat pants and a rumpled What Would Jesus Do? T shirt. When Isaac came in through the front door, he immediately caught his father’s eye and froze in his tracks.
“Isaac,” his father said.
“Go out and play, son. Daddy’s expecting company.”
Isaac stood where he was for a moment, taking in the sight: his father, still so disheveled and dazed, late in the day. Never. He’d never seen him so before. What was more, he was unshaven, the gray shadow of stubble already standing out on his square chin. His eyes stared, bloodshot and bulging, from beneath a knotted brow, cut deep with lines of worry. Even his skin seemed to hang heavy on him. Isaac didn’t know what to think. He’d never seen his father in such a state, in the stupor he’d been in. He’d hardly said a word in two days and now this: ungroomed and wild-eyed on a perfect, sunny, afternoon smack in the middle of the week. Something was terribly wrong. Isaac simply had no idea what it was.
“Go on now,” his father said.
Isaac was still standing in the doorway, one hand gripping tightly the brass knob, the other swaying easily at his side. He almost shut the door then, but stopped when a car door slammed behind him, followed by a second. He turned. Two men in suits were walking up the drive from a long brown Sedan. One was finishing a cigarette. The other had the boy pinned with his narrow, squinting eyes. He smiled, showing a set of crooked, yellowed teeth and cracked lips. Isaac shrank against the door, almost ready to close it.
“Little man,” the grinning one said. “How do. Hold that door, please.”
They topped the stairs to the front porch and almost made it through the door. Isaac pulled it shut, trying to bar them. The grinning one caught the door with his outstretched hand and it stopped in its tracks. Isaac shoved, pressing his weight against it. It wouldn’t budge.
“Whoah, there, little man,” the grinner said, laughing. “Your daddy home?”
Isaac then felt his father press against him, lay a hand gently, almost absently, on his shoulder. He opened the door. “I’m Pastor Gold,” he said. “And you’d be the gentlemen who called.”
The smoking man put his hands in his pockets, and when he did so, the tails of his coat were swept back and Isaac saw a small, flashing brass badge pinned to his belt. Grinner spoke: “Detectives Bainer and Riccio, Pastor. Mind if we come in and talk a spell?”
Isaac looked to his father, begging him with his eyes, Daddy, don’t! Don’t let them through this door!
His father sternly hustled him aside, opening the door wide. “Go out in the back, son. Play. Come in, gentlemen.”
They strode in, Isaac shrinking into a corner of the foyer, giving them a wide berth as they passed and followed daddy into the living room. The one who’d been smoking shut the door behind him.
Isaac moved into the garage, backing himself up against the open door. He waited, knowing he’d be able to hear them from where he now stood.
Daddy sniffed, then: “What brings you by, gentlemen?”
“You’ve heard about the Mayora Clinic bombing on Sunday?” That had been Bainer, the one who did all the talking.
Daddy: “Yes, of course.”
There was a silence, long and deliberate. Isaac imagined the three of them, sitting there, staring at one another.
Then, someone cleared their throat. Bainer spoke again. “Let’s cut to the chase here. This is routine. The Mayora Clinic is well-known as being a site where abortions are performed, and since opening its doors, its taken some flak from a number of misguided fundamentalist types.”
Isaac was perplexed. He’d never heard of a fundamentalist. Whatever it was, he didn’t think his daddy was one or knew any.
“What are you suggesting, detective?”
Bainer sighed, clapped his hands together. “Pastor, I’m not suggesting a thing. We’re trying to play this thing out, swift and straight. Now, I’m a church-going man myself—”
“This is persecution, you know that, don’t you?” his father’s voice quivered the slightest, seemed unsteady. “Christian persecution. Ever study the fall of Rome, detective?”
“Steady, chief, I’m not persecuting anyone,” Bainer forced a laugh, a fake, plastic laugh that made Isaac’s teeth grind together. “I’m hear to ask for your help. This is routine. When one of these clinics opens its doors, it ain’t Muslims or Buddhist monks out there marching and waving placards and chanting and screaming hellfire and damnation. It’s Christian folks with a bee in their bonnet. Now, you’re a Christian leader in this community, and all I’m after is some basic info?”
Isaac heard the squeal of polyester on vinyl: Bainer was sitting in the easy chair. His daddy’s easy chair. “You heard any strange words from the folks in your congregation? Any rumbles that might—”
“Nothing,” daddy shot back, not waiting for him to finish. “I’m surrounded by good Christian folk, detective. Good Christian folk. And all they’ve got their minds on is building godly lives, not setting explosives—”
A new voice. It had to be Riccio. “One doctor and four nurses were killed in that explosion, Pastor. Forgive us if we seem to be intruding, we’re just trying to find the source of the problem—”
“This is discrimination, plain and simple,” daddy hissed. “Plain and simple.” His voice was rising, slowly but surely.
A rush of air: Bainer was now standing and the easy chair was puffing itself fat, as it always did. “Take it easy, Pastor.”
“This is an insult!” daddy said. “How dare you come into my home—”
Voices broke out. Bainer and Riccio, shouting suddenly to be heard over daddy’s voice. Isaac couldn’t stand it. Within, he heard his father’s voice in match against the voices of the detectives, a voice desperate and thundering, his church voice, grappling with the voices of the unsaved. Liars, all.
Isaac didn’t know what was wrong with him. He only knew that his daddy had been insulted and threatened by these men from outside and that he’d never heard strain and worry in his father’s voice like the strain and worry he heard then. Never known the angry thunder that now rumbled on the other side of the wall. The way the world suddenly spun out of control.
Those men were to blame.
The voices carried on, rising and falling, sometimes stopping for a moment, but always resuming.
His work was done here. He was helpless and he needed solace. He needed the sun and the breeze whipping through the gully and the whisper of it in the ferns and shrubs and the leaves of the trees. He needed the breath of flame.
He filled and old coffee can with gasoline, setting it on the floor and tipping the gas can carefully until the fuel sputtered forth and gargled into the can. A few drops sloshed onto the concrete floor of the garage, but by and large, he was neat and clean. Off he went, with glass and matchstick, fuel and fire, to the safety of the gully and its late afternoon shadows.
He was in luck. There under the canopy of leaves he found a struggling blue jay, one wing smashed, the other struggling helplessly to lift it to flight. Sad thing. Terrible sight.
Isaac dowsed the struggling bird, lit a match, and let the flames come. He sat back and watched, eventually closing his eyes to enjoy the music of the breeze in the swishing leaves and the blue jay’s furious funeral song. A few times, he thought he heard his mother’s voice calling from far away, but he blocked it out, concentrating on the birdsong and the wind in the trees.
It was dark when he finally came home with his empty coffee can and his small stash of matches. He let himself in through the side door, left the coffee can in the garage and proceeded into the house.
Darkness. The only light came from daddy’s office. The door was ever- so-slightly ajar. Golden lamplight flooded the living room, cast like a sunbeam on the worn ivory carpet, marking garishly the divide between day and night, the light and the darkness. Isaac approached his father’s study and gently pushed open the door.
Daddy knelt on the floor, hands clasped before him, body wracked in heavy sobs, shoulders trembling, head hung low. His voice trailed on in the lamplit gloom, jumbled and incoherent. Looking closer, Isaac saw tears streaming down his fathers cheeks, his normally set lips trembling, snot running from his flaring nostrils.
He was praying. He couldn’t tell a word that he said, but he knew daddy was praying. A voice so lost and desperate and hopeless could only find its way to God.
“Daddy,” he said.
Bram stopped. He turned, staring wild-eyed at the boy before him, mouth agape yet still with clasped hands. He shuddered then rose to his feet, suddenly coming on like an angry bull, charging, reaching out with his great hands and shouting and sobbing, all through clenched teeth. Isaac hadn’t any time to react. He was snared in the bull’s grasping horns and felt its hot breath and felt also the wet warmth of its tears raining down on him.
“Disobedient!” he heard through the huff and puff of his father’s breath, the jumble of words.
“Your mother called and called!”
They were moving down the hall, through the darkness, shadows rising up on all sides, cold blue moonlight filtering in through the open windows here and there. Isaac felt tears sting his eyes, panic coiling tightly in his guts, as his father thrust him nearer and nearer to his bedroom, fingers digging into the flesh of his small arms as surely as they clung to the pulpit every Sunday when he spread the word.
“She’s gone! Gone! She’ll be back for you in the morning!”
“Daddy, what’d I do! I’m sorry!”
He flew then, flew through the air, feet kicking nothing, and landed face first in the center of his own bedroom, carpet burning his tear-streaked cheeks, one arm folding neatly beneath him. His father stood framed in the doorway, a tall, looming shadow in a gallery of shadows, nothing more than thunder and darkness.
“You stay here, Isaac! You get on your knees and you pray to God to save your soul! Pray long and hard and don’t you lay your head on that pillow to sleep until the voice of God has come to you! You listen, do you understand! Listen and learn. Then sleep. Mommy will come in the morning.”
“Where is she?” Isaac said through hitching breath.
“She’s gone,” his father said, voice a hoarse whisper, shoulders suddenly collapsing. The fury had left him. In its place there was only a profound sadness. “Pray, son.”
He closed the door, leaving Isaac alone with God.
Isaac knelt in the dark for a long time, choking back tears, swallowing the great, knotted lump that kept creeping into his throat, wiping his running nose on his forearm. He heard nothing from beyond the door to his bedroom. He saw no light from beneath. And he himself never rose to turn on the lights. His disobedience had carried on long enough. Daddy’s rage and sadness made that clear. He would obey. He would pray. He would beg forgiveness.
And so he pulled his knees up close, laid his head down on them, and locked them in with his arms, clasping his wrists. And he prayed Dear God in Heaven, forgive me. I’ve been a terrible son to my father, my father who loves me more than he loves himself, my father, a holy man and blameless and perfect in your eyes.
What have I done?
What have I done?
Daddy, what have I done to hurt you and bring you these tears and make you so angry with me? Daddy, please, forgive me, daddy . . . daddypleasedaddypleasedaddypleasedaddypleasedaddyplease
He choked back the tears, felt the sour tightening in his jaws that tears so often brought with them, sucked back a thick web of something in his throat. He coughed. He would not cry. A man doesn’t cry. Men don’t cry.
But daddy, oh God, daddy you cried I saw you cried so many tears I saw you shaking daddy oh God what’s happening to my daddy, my daddy, my blameless, holy father, God . . .
He trembled there in the darkness, on the floor of his bedroom. Trembled and shook and cried like a baby, the baby he was trying so desperately not to be and then—
A voice in his ear. No. Deeper. A voice, strong and sure, even and soothing.
Honor thy father and mother, for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, and God said to Abraham, ‘Go to the region of Moriah and offer your son Isaac, your only son, as a burnt offering to me, for I baptize you in water, but one who is greater than me shall come to baptize you with fire, that through him, man might not perish but have eternal life, for I say to you, my brothers, who among you gains his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life, for my sake, will find it, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
He was still. His sobs fled. His trembling ceased. As if an invisible hand set on his shoulders to stop him.
Blessed is he who shepherds the weak, for he is truly his brother’s keeper.
“Honor thy father and mother,” Isaac said in the dark silence. It came to him then like a rising sun, creeping little by little over the horizon, bathing him in its morning glory. He saw his only course of action, the only way to make things right, the only way to turn daddy’s face back to God and prove himself once and for all a loving son.
He waited. And he crept.
He refilled the coffee can, this time slopping more gasoline about than before. He fished out the matches. Two left.
Daddy slept on the living room couch, snoring raucously, mouth open wide, strewn about like a sack of old groceries. Isaac stopped for a few moments, watching his father, half willing him awake, but making no sound. Nothing. Daddy didn’t move. Isaac went about his work.
Into the living room, creeping ever closer, coffee can sloshing in one hand, matches clenched in the other. The fuel wafted pungent in his nose, and for a moment he thought he might be sick. But just as suddenly as the urge to heave had come, a new calm swept over him. A new surety.
Daddy snored on.
He stopped a man’s arm-length from him.
Nothing. Snores. A sound from daddy’s throat like a jigsaw on fresh lumber.
He waited. Daddy was out cold.
“I baptize you,” he said, and doused his father in the gasoline. The larger part of it spread over his chest, soaking quickly into his undershirt. A little went into his open mouth and wet his face. Bram stirred, choked in his sleep.
Isaac scraped the kitchen match along the edge of a nearby endtable. A breath and a flare and the flame pierced the darkness, pure and bright.
Match met fuel. Fuel made fire.
Isaac leapt back, wide-eyed and amazed. Daddy too leapt from his bed and cried out to God and fell on his knees. The flames lapped eagerly at his night-shirt, then his sweat pants, then his arms and his throat and his mouth and his face.
For an instant, their eyes met, Isaac’s sure, solemn gaze locking onto his father’s bulging, wild eyes. Then the flames swallowed the father, and there was only the son, shielding his eyes. His father stood before him, dancing, a fiery angel on a short road home.
For a son so loved the world he gave his only begotten father that he might not perish, but have everlasting life.
Bird Tends to Wing
By Clay McLeod Chapman
Before his head hit the pillow, little Georgie Archibald would hold himself a
minute's worth of one-handed prayer. Both elbows buried into his sheets, he would ruffle up his alter before slipping underneath it. His right hand always found its way around the stump of his left, the fingers wrapping over the smooth rump like most children would grip a baseball.
Nature had left the boy hindered. His mother was born with a few teeth missing, his father missing before the word pregnant had even been mouthed -- the result being George short on everything below the left elbow but a nub of bone. The joint worked as well as any fleshy hinge would; three inches of arm tapering off to a dull point -- the tip of a peppermint stick that's been sucked on for some time, all licked down to nothing.
But George was always reaching for something higher.
"How about an inch tonight?" was all he ever asked, a ruler left out next to his
bed. A symmetrical score of lines the last thing he saw before the lamp went black, his dreams would turn them into a row of teeth, leaving an even smile for the first thing to
see the second morning woke him.
It was no hand, sure. George knew that. But it got him thanking God, anyhow.
The only one who seemed to be listening, however, was Witherspoon. Since retirement left him ten floors north of little Georgie, Witherspoon's room always caught his call rather than heaven. The prayers must have lost their way on up, missing a turn somewhere in the air ducts of their tenement. Witherspoon heard it all, every word spoken as clear as his bedroom window. It was there that he got to know George.
Looking outside, he had a view of the local playground some twenty floors below. His days were spent watching over it, on to the concrete littered with the tenement's children knee-deep in a game of stick ball. Up above, the curtains kept closed -- light having given up on the apartment. The sun was shunned from coming in by a heavy webbing of shades, but there was always a hint of nose fogging up the window, two streaks from his nostrils like arms outstretched to catch a foul ball.
Though everyone else had forgotten, Witherspoon's apartment remembered his
heyday. All the baseball cards his swing ever graced were lined up along the walls, his black and white features a portrait to his early years. Now his wrinkles were the soul
marks keeping score of his home runs. Each jersey from minor league on found themselves tacked to the ceiling, an entire team of empty t-shirts held by pins alone -- ghosts of the man who once wore them. Now there was not enough of Witherspoon to fill the clothes he even had on.
But it was the game stirring up below that brought a little bit of meat back to those
sentimental bones. The boys never knew it, but eyes up above were always on them.
An audience of one, everyday. Witherspoon never bothered with the major league games on television when a round of stick-ball was at his feet. The crack of wood was
a homecoming to his ears, the familiar sound of bat striking ball resonating through his
memory. Witherspoon never let go of the noise. It had just weakened with the years.
Rather than a Louisville Slugger crying out in a thunderclap, it was his bones that were snapping now. But it did not stop him from cheering out at the off-hand home run, a pane of glass holding the sound safe inside his bedroom. His swing came back when his spirits were high, the loose skin that dangled from his arms fanning enough air that his jerseys breathed the gust in, the cloth bulging with its old life for one quick inhale. Dust would rustle and memories would stir.
But when George stepped up to the plate, a hush would overtake him, his breath held by the mitt of his lungs. A broom stick, a stretch of duct tape around his elbow -- the boy armed himself with his own makeshift bat. He would bite his lip and Witherspoon would follow, both waiting for the pitch that always came charging. It was suit for Witherspoon to help out, trying his damnedest to call the ball before it was thrown. Fast or curve, they would come just the way he pegged them, almost as if they yielded to whatever card he picked. George would return the favor by hitting the ball higher than all the others. They popped up so far, they would always find their way to Witherspoon, an arms length from his window. When one would come, it would stop right in front of his nose, spinning so fast the stiching blurred into the contours of an eye. It would watch the old man, never blinking, waiting as long as it could for him to catch it, only to drop when his fingers were blocked by the window pane.
Those were the nights that George's prayers were more thanks than favors. The boy wanted to tell the tenement the tale of his homeruns rather than ask for an inch,
which would get Witherspoon out of bed and on to his knees, searching for the air duct.
In finding it, he would press his ear against the grid -- George's words floating through like whispers from clenched teeth.
One night, it went like this --
"And did it ever go high, God," George explained. The words themselves slid up
the metal, the softness of his ten year-old tongue passing through the vent's rusty
throat. "You must've seen it, I'm sure. I had to be close this time. I got a goal to get a
ball right up under ya', so you can catch it if you wanted to. Thanks for helpin' with
In the very heart of that moment, Witherspoon was lulled off from his senses, half-asleep with the words sending him farther along. Before the rest of him knew what his mouth was doing, his lips tensed and loosened, forming words for the first time in
"Ah, you're welcome, kid. Not a bad hitter at all, if I do say so myself." The thoughts dropped through the vent, tumbling ten stories below. George caught them all by the ear-full, a glove grabbing for the ball, wrapping over the words and never letting go.
"Is that really you up there?"
Witherspoon woke up. The vent went silent like a hung up phone. At this point, he
figured, what was it going to hurt to say yes? For the boy, Babe Ruth was the closest
thing to holiness this side of the bible. All of the prophets these days came with a stick
of bubble gum, their batting average marking their saintliness. If there had been a better umpire in the game of life, Witherspoon knew he could have contended for the Cracker Jack divinity those boys worshiped below. The crack of the bat would be a calling in his honor, the ol' Witherspoon swing back in practice. His baseball cards could fetch a couple dollars rather than dust if he just...
Ten floors below, the ear of opportunity was waiting for an answer. Everything
inside the old man's bedroom hung on his lips. His jerseys, remembering how it felt to
have his heart beating inside them, began to race in a long forgotten pulse.
"You got it, kid."
From the air-conditioning, the two articulated a game of catch that lasted until dawn -- George asking for pitching tips, Witherspoon responding in dug-out tongue, as if baseball was the only religion there was.
"Head straight for the base. You gotta cut out those curves in your running. Otherwise, you're just giving the players more time to catch you."
"What about me when I'm on base?" George asked his new coach. "Have I got I
"Yeah, not bad. A glove might get you farther. But not bad at all."
"My own glove?"
"Sure. A good pillow for the ball is all it takes. I'll see if I can dig up something for you 'round here."
"Really?" The excitement softened the air-ducts into a warm breath, as if George
were whispering right into his ear. "I've never had my own glove before."
"Every kid needs a glove. You can't play ball without a glove."
"Even you, kid. You're catching highballs just as much as the next guy."
There was a pause. "Were you anything before you were God?"
Sighing, Witherspoon said it. "I was a second base man. They said I was going to
be the next best thing to the Babe. Boy, did I ever have a swing."
"And now you're up there?"
"Do you ever come down?"
"Groceries, but that's about it."
"Do you ever want to play again?"
"Once in a while, sure."
With that, together they slipped off to sleep on their separate floors, sharing dreams
of their favorite teams the whole night through.
The next morning, Witherspoon fished out his old glove. The leather had cracked a
set of veins, coursing up through its fingers as much as those on his own hands. Prying
open the stiff fist that held a likeness to arthritis, he found the palm as soft as the
insides of a clam. There the memories were, each and every ball he had ever caught
coming back to him. It was in there that the temptation grew to slip the glove back on.
There were decades in between his hand and its hold, but what a feel it had back when.
The warmth to it, he remembered. Like getting under the covers. Like the sleeping bag he had on his first camping trip. His first kiss. His first home run, both on and off the
field. All inside the leather like an autograph on a baseball card, sealed for as long as
the ink would hold the memory.
He would put it back on and mine the life inside. He would show those boys how to
play a real game of stick-ball.
But when Witherspoon's fingers dug their way in, they were met with a cavern they
could not recall. Elderly worms traveled through hardened burrows they used to call a
moist home. They could not hold it, the glove dropping right off his hand.
He picked it up, tried it on again. It slipped, fell to the floor. Bending over, his
back cracked. He thought it was the sound of a swing. Foul ball.
He tried it on again.
Three strikes, you're out.
It took hours to pull him out from his apartment. The front door closing behind him
was a cut of the umbilical cord, his life-in-hiding now hiding without him. The tenement halls had a hollow whisper within them, empty of everything but a bland carpet and red doors. He had accustomed his ears to the air inside his bedroom, more dust than breath, tainted like lead in water. When the elevator reached his floor, his eyes could not help but run back to his apartment. The number on the door was the same as the one on his last jersey. He remembered thinking the omens to a good life were there before he had even stepped into retirement. But within years, light bulbs had burnt themselves out so many times, Witherspoon eventually gave up on changing them. Because what was there to see now than other people playing the game? He was damned to the stands while heaven was only a few bases away. Pictures were no good. The baseball cards were browning, his swing fading in those photos faster than it took for his arms to fall off.
Stepping into the elevator, his eyes were met with the sting of an unfamiliar light.
Even a dull florescent was more than they could hold, leaving him to squint over which
button to press. Which floor was George's? The mitt kept under his arm, the closest
thing to his heart other than cardiac arrest. For George, he thought. For George, he
had to keep telling himself. He would pass his leather wings on to Little Archibald, the
best stick-ball player this tenement had ever seen.
Ten floors down, Witherspoon entered a hallway that looked the same as his own.
More doors lined along more carpet. The numbers even blended together, looking to
him like mustard splattered on hot dog. For the life of him, he did not know which
door to knock on. Starting with the closest, out came a man who had never heard of
George. The next brought a woman the very age of baseball itself, the two straining
their eyes hard to see one another.
"The Archibald boy?" She yelled out that most of the hall could hear. "He's down
at the other end, I think. The one with the, with..." Her voice dropped to a normal
tone, probably thinking it was a whisper. "With no hand, eh?"
Witherspoon kept trudging down the hall, blindly knocking door to door. Please
George, he thought on each rap of the knuckles, just come out here. Come out and take this away from me. The glove felt as if it were tightening around his chest, his heart
gripped in the mitt until it could have ripped out. In his mind, it did. It was the only
hall in the best curve ball he could muster. And where it struck, a wet slap on
apartment number thirty eight, Mrs. Archibald answered. Slitting the door open, she made sure the chain in between them was secure.
"Yes?" There was a weight of unease in her throat, a look of distrust tossed upon
him in a heap. The old man standing before her was offering nothing but worry. His
wrinkled clothes held more sweat than skin, his hair shocked a wild white. And then
"Is your son home?" was all that panted out.
Her eyes tightened. "He's out playing ball."
"Do you think you could... You could give this to him for me?" The glove made its
way out from underneath his arm. "As a gift? It's not getting much use now, so I
At the sight of his offering, the look in her eye unleashed an anger only someone
hurt could let loose. "What's this?"
Witherspoon's tongue tripped. "What?"
"What is this?"
"It's a gift. I..."
"Have you ever even met my son before?"
"I even autographed it..."
Her face twisted. "When did you talk to him? Outside?"
"If I find you near my son I'm calling the police. If I even catch you on this hall
again I won't even hesitate!" Her hand shot out from behind the door, snitching the
glove out of Witherspoon's hand and flinging it down the hall. Witherspoon turned to
see it roll along the carpet, a piece of meat tossed to divert a dog from the closing
He found himself back in his apartment. The dry warmth to his bedroom did not
hold the same comfort as before, the blanket of dust that crept back into his lungs only
coating him with dead skin. By leaving, he had let the memories leak from their
container, draining what support there was in solitude. He fiddled with the glove again,
hoping that his fingers could at least find the home they once had inside. But slipping it
on, it slipped off, repeating the up-and-down process until his back was about to give.
If he had been deaf to it before, his ears quickly opened up to the children below,
playing their stick-ball. The sounds came up from the playground until it was all he
could hear. It turned to a taunt, the cheers drawing him up close to the window. All the
bases were filled. Even twenty floors up, the tension was clear to see. The person up to
bat had to bring them all home with one big sweep of the bat. And the harder
Witherspoon squinted, the more George lifted into vision, the broom-stick wrapped
tight to his stub.
When the ball came to the boy, Witherspoon cricked his neck in a way that could only be called an invitation. The stitches running along the red leather saw it just before meeting the end of George's bat, sending itself up through the air. It climbed along the tenement until it found the right window, this time not stopping, but stretching its path just a few inches more. It tapped on the pane of glass, Witherspoon's window
answering in a shatter. Lending himself to old impulses, Witherspoon gave in to the play. His hand found the ball, his body finding a gust of thin air. Before he realized it, he was dropping.
The whole of Witherspoon's body would only prophesize a repaving. He met the
concrete with a firm handshake, his antique body splintering into antique pieces. All
the children shielded themselves from the explosion, at first stirred by the commotion,
only to slowly gather around the remains with their mitts still in hand. Rather than look
away, they felt the heap invited their attention. There was something familiar to it, to him -- an omen to their game. Scattered teeth from a shattered mouth could be found
gnawing on the playground, some of the boys picking them up and putting them in their pockets as relics to the day He came down. Because, as George Archibald now tells
the story, his prayers were finally answered, the missing pieces to the puzzle now found. When Witherspoon hit, the impact took his hand off the arm and into the air, spiraling through the sky like a detached propeller. It landed before George's feet, the fingers still gripping the baseball. God had caught him out.
There came an itch along George's arm. When he scratched, the stick strapped to it
by tape let go, his sweaty anticipation too much for such a crude device. For in front of
him lay a gift. With a new strip of duct tape, Witherspoon's raw end met the smoothness of George's, sixty year old skin fastening to the ten year old slope. And in George's eyes, the fingers wriggled. And in his eyes the wrist bent. And in his eyes the arm was alive, new, maneuvering as if it were his own. A fresh growth now came from the stub, like a sapling born from a stump. The hand kept hold of the ball, never wanting to let it go. Looking around himself, he found all eyes were upon him. On his arm.
Out of the crowd, he picked another who had the bat. There was a silent indication
of what was to happen next. The crowd dispersed, idling to their positions. The boy
with the bat strolled to home plate while George claimed what was left of Witherspoon
as the pitcher's mound. The catcher signaled the pitch, George nodded, and for the
first time, he threw -- the hand like a clipped flower in a vase, blooming, the fingers
blossoming to reveal a beautiful curve ball that struck the boys out on every pitch.