Masha had only broken into a slight sweat while given birth and had requested nothing for the pain. The delivery room was crystalline white and smelled deliberately of nothing. There was a bed, a silver bedpan, and a washbasin on a lone table with sharp edges. The window was crosshatched by thin lines that led out into the hospital hallway. Lisa and Suzan stood on tippy-toe to try to watch their mother. Their faces showed little amazement, and in truth, they would remember very little of the birth; it was so dull. The doctor merely moved between table and bedside, and on the last trip he held Alphus in his hands. Masha was covered in a sterile green tarp. The girls would remember the thick window, strange because it did not lead outside, and the rolling metal carts that would bear down on them. The carts had two shelves that were covered in metal objects and plastic bags. The people pushing them did not have any definable facial expressions. What was the smell of birth? The baby boy looked withered and fleshy. His skin was covered in fluid carved from his mother’s womb, and his eyes were tightly shut. The doctor spanked him; he needed to hear him wail to know that he was breathing. Alphus didn’t cry, but he breathed nonetheless. A steady, if labored, in and out. They were alone in the delivery room: Masha, Alphus, and the doctor. There was no sound but breathing.
Masha Gibb, her son Alphus, and her two daughters lived in a small town. Masha settled her family there because the wheat had not yet been harvested and shone like Rumpelstiltskin’s gold. It grew up and down hillsides like flaxen waves of a frozen ocean. Masha’s hair was the color of the wheat, and she cropped it short. She was average height but had a slight build and was often mistaken for being younger than she was. Her shoulders were narrow and hard.
She bought a house for cheap, the previous owner having fallen upon hard times – a mortgage, a divorce, no work and less motivation. The bottom half of the house was made of brick and the top was wide paneling, a shade of blue so light it was almost white. Brick stairs led up from the driveway and through a cement arch to a small shaded landing at the front door. Masha let the previous owner, Kevin, stay with them for a while. They had a bad mole problem in the backyard, and Kevin, a man of tan complexion and nasal drawl, would sit on a folding chair and throw back beers; he’d wait, mallet in hand, for a mole to show himself upper-terrestrially. Masha would occasionally find him passed out in the grass, the yard as extensively moled as ever. The underground rodent colony actually made the ground rather soft; so soft that one afternoon it simply swallowed Kevin up. Masha found the yard empty, upon returning from her new job, and Alphus and the girls investigating a sandy human-shaped indent that had formed in the ground. Kevin’s chair was empty and a beer bottle, some liquid still inside, lay on its side by the sandy grave. Masha led them into the house. Lisa cried. The next day Masha set about pouring the yard with concrete.
Alphus had been born on the morning of the shortest day of the year. The day after his eleventh birthday, school was canceled, and the next. The school building stood empty, snow piled almost up to its eaves. There was a road from his house that ran, like a trench, downtown, past the McHenry snow farm, and around one round-about to the vacant plain of snow that was once, presumably, the school parking lot. Alphus remembered how Ms. Kingsly would park in the far corner of the lot and take her naps in her car during lunch.
While the other kids would play together, chase each other and make up rules to their own games, Alphus would sit in the corner of the gravel field outside the school. He would watch the sunlight play through the tree leaves and count as many pebbles as he could without running out of numbers. Sometimes he would watch the other children, watch the way their heads and bodies would move when they ran. During morning recess he would pace the border of the red gravel field, searching the ground with his eyes just like the old neighborly man would sweep the field for metal. Both were looking for treasure of sorts. Alphus found a new rock each day. He’d pick up the one he had chosen and finish pacing his circuit, rubbing the rock through his fingers and turning it over in his palm. He preferred rocks that had been cleft and smoothed on one side. He would put his rock of the day in his pocket and then put it on his shelf in his room once he got home. His favorite rock, a white limestone with pumice-like holes on one side and a smooth basin on the other, was kept on his bedside table. When he couldn’t sleep, he’d rub the smooth side with his thumb and imagine the light dancing through the leaves. The leaves would fan from dark green to a shade that was so bright it was almost yellow but still the deepest pure green he could imagine.
The snow quickly covered up all the rocks in the red gravel field, and he could no longer pick out his favorites. After a week of snow, Ms. Kingsly, having just woken up, found Alphus tunneling, hands bare and raw, through the snow. When she snatched up his wrist, she found a pebble cupped in his palm. It was so round it may have been tumbled smooth by a glacier or sanded down by ocean waves. Though the glaciers had been melted for centuries, and there wasn’t an ocean for miles.