The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 14, No. 1

The Third Law of Dialectics

by Ted Burton

As a special online supplement to the Spring 2010 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2009 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.

I am without question a most unremarkable man. My eyes are only slightly misaligned. If you were to look at my face you wouldn’t consciously notice an asymmetry, but neither would you pause to regard my features. If you were to witness me in the execution of a crime, you would misremember details. The descriptions you would provide of me would result in a composite of banalities.
      I have never required much sleep; as early as my fourth year, I consistently awoke before my father. While he still snored under layers of cotton and down, I would open my eyes and wait. After my eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, I would lift myself away from the mattress and leave it slouching and bereft in a corner. I would step slowly across the slats of wood so that no splinters could bother the flesh of my bare feet. When I had taken a few steps, I would stop and pull my weight away from the floor in order to stand in the worn ruts of a chair’s lap. Leaning my hands on the surface of a small table, I would wait for dawn to illuminate the dented horizon of pine, and in the half-light I would imagine the existence of the woman my father claimed had been my mother. Maybe her lye-burnt fingers had traced the cracks in the table, or the hems of her homespun had brushed the legs of the chair. Once, while I was thinking these things, I heard an intake of breath behind me. As my father slid feet into boots, I turned and looked at him. He stood up and moved toward the door, stopping just at my left. I continued to look down. From the side of my vision I saw the flash of a flexed forearm, as if an intimate gesture had been stifled. My father tightened his throat and left the room. The cabin resumed its sighing, and the logs went back to unbuilding themselves into the dirt.
      I learned very early how to be left alone. When posed with a question, I practiced catatonic silence; when given a command, I turned deliberately to comply. Unlike the children who raced to display their mediocrity to uninterested adults, I managed to attend school without much notice. Instead of asking questions directly I waited for others to offer information. From within the solitude of my supposed inferiority I was able to piece together a family history of contradictions. People discussed my mother all around me, used words as if I couldn’t hear: she was garrulous, shy, confident, promiscuous, possessed, desperate, cunning, self-effacing, saintly, beautiful, tepid, lonely, prurient, a witch. The gossips agreed only that toward the end of her life she could think of nothing but the story of a man named Moses, and that often she heard words whispered in her ears.
      I learned to shoot a gun in order to examine the consequences of noise. When I was ten my father left me alone with his weapon, convinced of my respect for its metallic muscularity. My restraint in killing animals was motivated not by an interest in the preservation of their lives but by the discovery that death brings an end to reaction. I would fire shells into empty air and watch quail explode up and out into the hysterical bosom of the shotgun’s thunder. The clap of a single shot would echo above the rows of onion and wheat while scared birds traced a pattern of chaos.
      I continued this practice until I was twelve, at which time my father brought home my schoolteacher as his new wife. Previously, the woman had attempted to persuade me to feign an interest in various subjects, and now that she considered me to be her son, she constructed displays of maternal affection. She had introduced herself to my father after months of casting concerned glances over the parts of the pew upon which the faithful rest their elbows. She installed herself in our home. She observed me with a heavy concentration.
      I began at this point to consider the benefits of nocturnal amusements. After a time I moved my mattress into the larger of the cabin’s two rooms as if in consideration of the privacy of the new couple. This gesture was accepted without complaint, although for a few weeks I noticed that my father’s wife would rise from her sleep to check on me. She always found me curled into the same quiet circle and decided soon enough that I required no nighttime supervision.
       I began my business when the new moon reflected darkness over the valley. Wearing no shoes silently I crept away from the house and the sleeping couple. From the ocean of stars over my head there descended a luminescent fog with which to navigate the road. As I walked I stepped through the murmur of crickets and the hungry mourning of coyotes. I continued until I reached the first homestead on my path. The cracks of the cabin exhaled the warmth of the breeze. The door was latched but not locked.
      I assumed that the owner of this place was wealthier than my father because no one slept in the common area. The embers in the stove resisted the dark, and a weak nudge of light reached a nearby shelf. A steel glint gathered up my attention. I picked up a pair of scissors. I opened a door and stepped noiselessly into the sound of breath pressing through a girl’s nose. I stood in the doorway for a time watching a cotton sheet rise and fall in unison with the workings of young lungs.
      I stepped to the side of the bed. The girl’s face was turned away from my body. She blew breath over the intricate embroidery of her pillow. I held the scissors in my right hand. Careful not to touch the bed with my knee, I shifted my weight to the left foot, raising the right foot just off the floor. Lifting the sheet away from contact with the sleeping form I snipped a fist-sized circle from the thin material. I placed the scissors on the desk beside her, stuffed the bit of cloth into my pocket, and left the house.
      I imagine it was the sound of the closing door that roused her. Within seconds the night was filled with her screams. I turned my head and saw the light of a lantern pass an open window and heard chairs overturn in the house. I jumped over wooden lines of fence and ran through a herd of bothered cows as bullets ripped the air around my head. The angry howl of curses behind me grew more distant. The thumping of the blood in my forehead matched the beat of bare feet on dry earth. Soon my legs finished running. I stashed the stolen bit of cloth in the rafters of the barn. I approached our cabin, slipped though the door, climbed into bed, pulled the covers around my shoulders, and slept.
      I awoke the next morning before rooster song. I dressed myself for church and waited for a rustle to sound in the next room. After breakfast I climbed into the back of the wagon, and I sat with my back to my father while he clicked his tongue at the horse. My legs hung off the back of the cart, and I watched our farm disappear as the snorting animal pulled us toward the town. We rode on a wave of sloppy momentum and then slowed to stillness as the steeple bell tolled its last announcement.
      I followed my father and his wife into the church’s sagging vestibule and into a cloud of words: indignity, unimaginable, violation. Small footprints had been discovered outside of a certain farmhouse. The parishioners posited the existence of a diminutive man with a deranged interest in young girls. Hadn’t he broken into a home in the middle of the night? Hadn’t he cut a hole in a sheet at the level of the breast? I resolved that the next hole I snipped would be from the foot of a man’s bed.
      I waited for the passing of another month, for the sound of crickets to lull the valley to sleep, and once again I lifted myself from the mattress and stepped across an uncreaking cabin floor. This time I carried with me the scissors of my father’s wife. I heard the croaking of a bullfrog and followed the sound, which issued at once from both sides of the distance. I walked a midline barefoot through the corrugations of an onion field, inhaling the bitter, oily air. I saw the silhouette of a leaning shack. I approached an open window through which a man blew snores of whiskey. I climbed over the sill and hopped noiselessly to the floor, then stepped over a dog as wrinkled as the figure in the bed. I extracted the scissors and cut a rough octagonal shape from one side of the sheet, this time leaving a hole the size of my head. I stowed the scissors in my belt, pushed the cloth into my pocket, and left the house.
      I amassed, by the time I was fourteen, a great fortune in bits of snipped sheets. They were of various sizes, patterns, and shapes: a fist-size flower print circle, a grimy octagon, and various complex geometrical figures for which I have no names. Although doors and windows were invariably locked, I was able to find a way to enter a home without waking its inhabitants. During these seasons the townspeople conducted business with a veiled hysteria. Three mayors were elected and recalled in two years. A collective insomnia ensued. The heavy eyes of sleep deprivation appeared. Since no man could be implicated in the trespassing, some began to consider the possibility of a supernatural occurrence.
      I noticed that the accruing speculation concerned the holes left in the sheets after the snipping had occurred rather than the absent bits of cloth themselves. It was assumed that whoever was responsible for these acts was cutting cloth in search of some hidden thing. I lost interest in the idea of entering a home in order to make an open space in a previously intact plane; instead I decided to observe the collection of stolen scraps with a new attention. Early one morning I climbed to the ceiling of the barn and extracted the bits of cloth. I jumped to the ground and stirred up a circular moment of hay dust, an unhinged, toothless jaw that set back in retreat after reconsidering its decision to swallow my legs. I cleared a patch of floor with my feet. I sat down with the lantern and considered the pieces of fabric through a trellis of dusty light. I waited for an idea’s occurrence. After a time, I paced a trail to the cabin and returned along the same path. Using a needle and thread taken from my father’s wife, I began to sew the edges and corners of the bits of cloth together. Soon I had produced a quilt comprising both snipped remnants and empty space.
      I ducked out of the barn and into the quiet of the dark morning. I followed the dirt road for a hundred yards until I arrived at a small growth of birch trees. I pulled the sewn object out of my jacket and hung this banner from a low-reaching tree. Its fissures yawned. The spaces accounted for as much area as the bits of cloth. For a time I watched the activity of the approaching morning through the assembled holes in this new plane. The cool of dusk burned into the flame of sunrise. The sun cast its beams onto my bare feet. The darkness coalesced into the initial stages of shadows as light and dark separated.
      I returned home. From the porch I heard the reports of conversable metals and then the insistence of a stoked fire. I opened the door. I entered and sat down at the table. My father sipped coffee from a tin cup, and his wife fried eggs. No one spoke. We three sat in silence as a beam of sun migrated across the floor. After an hour we were startled into notice by the commotion of a dozen voices rushing past the road in front of the cabin. My father and his wife rose from their chairs, and I followed them onto the porch. We could see a crowd congregating around the birch grove. Streams of horses and human beings were approaching from both directions. Wagon wheels rolled across layers of dust. My father gestured to his wife. I followed them first down the steps and then down the road, and then we came to a crowded knot of kneeling people circling a tree and a thing that interested them. People pressed in, whispering in muted mumbles. Some were crying, some praying, some staring in open-mouthed silence. The crowd registered a recognition of the scraps of cloth. Someone approached us and pointed to the banner, asking if we could make out the holy image that had been sculpted out of cotton and space.
      I noticed that the crowd was becoming denser, that a stillness was settling on bowed heads. The word miracle moved itself past the lips of those staring at the tree. Someone remarked the blessedness of the occasion. The people seemed to have forgotten the fear that the contemplation of bits of cotton had previously engendered. I wondered if all of those present were deciphering the same form in the puzzle of cloth or if the icon would be formalized later. I heard talk of conversion, which suggested to me that the image in the minds of the majority was the property of a single religion. A low mumble drummed the morning: grace, fruit, womb, holy, mother, sinners, death.
      I looked at my father and his wife. He held her hand tightly. Neither seemed to be praying. The flag moved with the push of the breeze. A fat fly settled on a boot. A finger moved across two wet nostrils, and then the palm circled back to rest over open lips. Someone inhaled a triple skip of air. I turned away and walked along the road toward the cabin. My bare feet left an impression in the layer of dust.

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