Things are what they are; or are they?
“I found it in the hollow of Grampa’s oak tree,” I told my brother.
He didn’t believe me of course. So, I took him there.
After breakfast, mom went out in the yard to pick strawberries before she headed off to work. Dad had already left, long before the sun rose. He hated getting up that early but the new ‘job-site’, as he called it, was out of town and he wanted to beat the traffic.
“Show it to mom first Tyler,” my brother ordered.
“No Billy,” I protested. “She’ll take it away.”
“Bill,” he said. “Don’t call me Billy.”
“Whatever,” I said. “We’re not showing mom. You know what Grampa said.”
Billy, or Bill as he demanded we now call him, was older by two years than me; and this was really the first time I remember ever standing firm that I get my way over his. Also, it was the first time he ever let me.
“Show it to me again,” he said, holding out his hand, palm up; expecting me to place it there like so many other things he told me to give him.
“You can see,” I said. “But I hold it.”
Bill scrunched up his face, a sign he was about to punch me. Then his expression eased back to normal and he bit his lip thinking. Cause I didn’t back off like I usually did, was my thinking on the matter. I stood my ground, as dad would have said.
I peeked through my bedroom blinds; saw mom still involved with the berries, then focused attention once again to my backpack. Unzipping the front pouch, I reached in, then paused.
It stared at me with cat-like eyes, sort of yellow but ringed orange closer to its black pupils.
“Let me see,” Bill said. “Tyler, let me see now or I will tell mom.”
Bill’s patience never lasted.
“It didn’t bite the first time.” I glanced back, “When I took It from the stump.”
I decided it wouldn’t bite this time either but lowered my hand slowly, just to be safe. Like at the tree hollow, the little creature stepped lightly into my palm. I could feel the tiny claws pricking my upturned hand like the kittens we had once, and I winced as its forepaws brushed my fingertips. Once settled, it curled up, made a low trilling sound, and wrapped its long reddish tail around my wrist.
I lifted it out of the dark pouch.
The eyes turned blue when I held it up to the morning light shining through my bedside window.
“Wow,” Bill said.
“I know. Remember mom’s ring?”
“The one she keeps with Gramma’s things? I think she called it opal.”
“Watch this,” I said.
I moved my hand ever so gently within the sunbeam. The little fellow shifted a bit to keep his balance, digging all four sets of claws into my palm, but so slight this time that I hardly noticed. The eyes turned silver, faded to white, then pink, then back to blue.
“When the sun shines in his eyes they turn from yellow to the color of mom’s ring. Opal.”
“Iridescent,” my brother said.
Along its back the scales under the thin fir began to sparkle with a rainbow-like shimmer.
“Wow,” Bill repeated.
“I think it’s a baby,” I said.
“Okay. Take me there. I’ll meet you at the pasture gate.”
Bill left my room, probably to get his jacket. It was summer and the morning was warm but Bill was a boy of habit and he dressed the same as he did during the school year. Me, when vacation came around, I was sneakered in shorts and t-shirts all summer long.
From the gate of Granton’s pasture - Mr. Granton was the farmer who bought the land my grandfather sold him - we skirted wide the Hereford’s gathered at the morning feed trough - boy I hated getting caught amidst the cows at feeding time - and trudged up the mud path through the tall grass into the cottonwoods standing at the top of the rise.
Under this tree thicket, I looked up to see the grey leaf canopy flutter like butterfly wings above the trail. Never was there a breeze passing through them that did not do this. I took a whiff like I always did. Up here somehow it always smelled like rain even on the sunniest days.
Bill followed behind until we reached back where the cottonwoods gave way to the pines and the real forest began. I looked back. We could still see the valley but not our house.
Bill passed by me at the turn in the trail and we came to the oak. It was a rotted out thing. Grampa called it a stump even though it still had all its branches. But all the leaves had died, which Grampa said was an odd thing to happen. Oaks live forever, he said. So when an oak dies, got to change your definition of forever.
“What do you think Grampa meant?” Bill asked.
“You mean about when an oak dies?”
“No. That didn’t really mean anything. Just something he said because it sounded cool.”
I glanced around at my brother, thinking for the first time I could recall, that he was not all just a jerk that liked to hit me when he didn’t get his way.
“I meant the other thing.” He shifted his look from me to the backpack as I lowered it from my shoulder.
I unzipped the front pouch and stared inside. I repeated my grandfather’s words, “Things are not what they seem when you think they are.”
“He said it every time we came with him to this dead oak.”
“Stump,” I said.
Bill smiled. “Stump,” he agreed.
“I thought about that Billy.”
He did not protest this time when I failed to call him Bill.
“I think he meant to make sure…well you know…um…not to pretend you see everything? He wanted us to not just see things but...see things."
It was my turn to bite my lip. The tiny furry-scaled baby creature stared up at me with the yellow eyes that turned opal in the sun.
“Does that make sense?” I asked.
Bill stood there at the stump without a response for a long moment before he finally answered.
“I saw a kid at school with a big ‘ol bruise on his arm. It was when we were changing shirts during gym. I heard his buddy say something about how that must have hurt. The kid said, ‘Yeah. I fell off my bike.’”
Bill stepped over to me and peered in to see the little baby creature.
“He didn’t fall off his bike Ty.”
Bill’s eyes were watery. This surprised me. It surprised me a lot.
I considered what Bill told me.
“I didn’t tell anyone Ty. I just thought, yeah, he fell off his bike. It was easier that way, you know.”
Bill wiped his eyes.
I think I nodded, but can’t remember.
“So yeah. I think you’re right Tyler. Grampa wanted us to make sure what we see is what we see...and to always look hard to make sure it’s not something else.”
“I miss him Billy.”
Bill turned to the stump. A large knot had fallen out of the trunk and lay on the ground at the roots. It looked like a giant wad of chewed gum that had rolled in the dirt. Where the knot had been, a gaping black hole sunk back into the trunk, masking the interior from inspection. The air around the stump smelled vaguely sweet, almost like cotton candy, but a bit burnt.
On the spur of the moment, Bill reached down and grabbed a handful of dried leaves. He looked at me and turned his hand palm up level with the knothole, and let them go.
It was the same thing Grampa used to do. The leaves parted company from his palm, floating a split second above, airborne as if caught in a wind eddy, which I guess actually they were…because like when Grampa did this, the leaves were sucked spiraling away into the knothole and disappeared.
“I think we should let him go,” Bill said.