The two boys squatted at the edge of the pond, sticks in hand, playing in water and mud; splashing it around like it was a cauldron in need of churning.
“Your daddy is wastin’ his time,” said the dark-haired boy. “Putting that fence up won’t help him save his livestock. Not when that giant goes walkin’ ‘round again.”
The other boy shook his blonde head and scowled. “There ain’t no such things as giants, you liar. Daddy knows what it is. It’s that disease takin’ his herd, one by one. He just needs some money for the medicine.”
In the distance the inky lands sloped upward to the crests of the hills beyond the farmhouse and the barn, and the echoes of a man’s hammer. The sun sank into the ash heap of the world, the embers slowly dying out on another dying Autumn day.
“Sure them giants are real,” the dark-haired boy said. “They’re in the Bible. They’re called the Nilfeeum, I think. All you gotta’ do is read it. God’s truth given in God’s words.”
“I thought God’s words were supposed to be Jewish,” the other boy said.
“Whatever it is, it’s what it says,” the dark-haired boy said. “Giants. You better be watchin’ for ‘em because they’ll shake your barn down and they’ll take your livestock. They’ll take each head of cattle. It don’t matter if you’re a Godfearing man, if you got Jesus on your side and in your blood. That makes him hanker for you all the more.”
The blonde boy paused in his stirring, gazing into the reeds on the other side of the pond. They swayed and whispered their secrets. He tossed his head dismissively to one side.
“My daddy can take care of any giant anyway. He’s got his gun.”
“Guns don’t do nothin’ to giants,” the other boy argued, smacking the water with his stick. “No more than whinin’ about taxes do to the County. Them giants are comin’ for you and yours. Mark my word. They’re comin’ for everybody. That’s why my daddy’s movin’ us out soon. Goin’ somewhere else. Ain’t nothin’ here but what ‘em giants will swallow whole. Nothin’ worth stayin’ for here. It’s pointless, daddy says. You might as well piss on the ground and expect flowers to grow. Ain’t no good seedin’ anyway. Whatever grows, well, them giants will be eatin’ it all.”
The blonde boy sighed. Absently he stirred the stick around the cluster of tadpole eggs, scattering them to drift in the dark brown murk of the pond; unthinking, simply churning with a compulsion that had been given spark by other thoughts a stick could not dissolve or fend off or scatter unto a similarly languid death.
After a while, the two boys sought higher ground from the valley’s shadows. They hiked the nearest hill, sitting down beneath a large oak. The sun sank to a flaming ruin among the Kentucky hills. Down below—drowned in the shadow of those hills, and dwarfed by those hills—was an old tumbledown barn that was so eaten by Time and weather that it was more straw than timber. The two boys stared at the soundless breast of the horizon as the evening waned. The sun smouldered and the valley below gave over to cool shadow. Dusk flared defiantly; hopelessly.
“A bit chilly,” the blonde haired boy said.
“Oh, don’t be such a nancy,” the dark-haired boy said. “You’re worse than a girl.”
The blonde boy sulked in resentful silence, his knees up to his mouth. His denim jeans were stained with grass and mud and pig’s blood. He didn’t wear a shirt and his face and arms had been baked brown by a Summer’s worth of sun. After a silent minute, he sighed. Leaves shivered in a cool breeze.
“I should be headin’ home,” he said. “Gotta’ go to church in the mornin’.”
The dark-haired boy frowned as if he caught a whiff of a rotten egg. His face and arms were also baked brown. His dark hair was cropped across his brow, but long in the back. A white scar split one eyebrow, like the mark of Cain.
“What do you mean, ‘What for?’” the blonde boy said. “Cuz you’re supposed to.”
The dark-haired boy shrugged. He sat with his legs laxly split in front of him. Both boys wore no shoes and their bare feet were riddled with red bug bites. Above their heads, the oak tree spread its sprawling cover, occasionally dropping an acorn.
“I don’t see how it is you’re ‘supposed to’,” the dark-haired boy said. “Jesus is everywhere anyhow, so it don’t matter.”
The blonde boy just shrugged. “All the same, daddy and momma will want me to go. And if they want me to do it, I oughta’ do it. You’re supposed to honor your parents.”
“Boy, you really don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy remarked, shaking his head. His hand searched the yellowing grass unmindfully, fondling an acorn. The dirty fingers clutched it loosely. Squinting his eye against the squinting glare of the sun, he threw the acorn down the hill—as if aiming for the collapsible barn. “Yeah, I don’t see how goin’ to church honors anybody. I mean, you oughtta’ be workin’ on the farm. Or your family’ll lose it.”
“Prayer helps, too,” the blonde boy said. “Momma says so. And daddy agrees.”
“Christ,” the dark-haired boy said. “Your folks don’t know nothin’.”
“They do so,” the blonde boy growled. “He teaches me stuff all the time. He knows things.”
“Your daddy don’t teach you nothin’ cuz he don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy said, rallying. “That’s why ya’ll are losin’ the farm.”
The blonde boy opened his mouth, but the words died in the cold breeze. His angrily knitted eyebrows broke for a moment, and he seemed ready to cry, drawing his knees farther up to his nose. His blue eyes sought the old barn—it was small and slanted in among the ocean of shadows between the yellowing hills. The fields sprawling around it were black with shadows and blight.
“We’ve been prayin’,” the blonde boy said.
“Banks don’t give a damn about prayers,” the dark-haired boy said, snorting. “You can’t pay a note with prayers. Hell, lies would get you further.”
“It’s not even a big note, really,” the blonde boy said, his voice tremulous. “They might forgive it.”
“Forgive it?” the dark-haired boy exclaimed, throwing another acorn. “They ain’t in the business of forgivin’. They ain’t priests. They don’t care if it’s a hundred dollars or a single penny. If it’s owed to them, it’s owed to them, and they collect. Don’t matter how big or small, they will get it out of you, even if it has to be bled out. They want ‘em numbers to match.”
“But it’s so little to them,” the blonde boy said quietly, hopelessly. “Daddy says so.” He bowed his forehead against his knees. His fluffy straw-colored hair was full of debris from the day: twigs and leaves and mud and pig’s blood. “Why can’t they just leave us alone? We make food for ‘em. We feed ‘em. Ain’t that more important than numbers on a note?”
The dark-haired boy snorted again. “They’d take those pants off of you if they could,” he said. “And not even because they’d need ‘em. Just so they could. They’d filch the skin off your back, too. Use it for a wallet for all that money they’ve got and you don’t.”
“It ain’t fair,” the blonde boy said. “It ain’t our fault it was a dry Summer.”
“They don’t care about that, neither,” the dark-haired boy said. “They grow their own crops, fed on blood.”
The boys fell silent for a while, watching the sun sink deeper, burying itself in the horizon. Shadows rose like floodwaters until the hills floated in the chilly murk of twilight. A fog came creeping in. The echoes of the hammer had died long ago.
The dark-haired boy groaned as he stood, stretching. “It is a bit chilly now,” he said. “Guess I’ll be headin’ home.”
He started walking away. He called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t stay out after dark too long or the giants will take you!”
The blonde boy remained sitting, staring into the ashes of the day as they darkened to night. The distant hills were completely black, becoming nothing more than an outline of featureless mounds beneath the dreaming fog and the wheeling stars. He stared unblinking for a moment, and fancied he saw the hill tremble. He stood up.
“Ain’t no such thing as giants,” he said.
Down the hill the boy walked alone. He looked back once, seeing how high the hill was that he had sat upon, wondering if it might rumble to life, there emerging from its slope a primordial being beyond measure or mercy. The hills dwarfed the small house that he approached, and yet the house dwarfed the boy. His foot scattered an ant hill as he passed it, and if the ants bit him he did not notice. He was lost in those shadows that lay all around.
Within that deep, deluge of shadow an image betook the boy: an image of long, loping legs and great swaying fists like the pendulums of a giant clock that struck him again and again, incessantly, like his father sometimes did when in his drink. One, two, three. Strike, strike, strike. The barn flying sideways, splintering, cracking, showering the earth. House exploding. Mother and sister broken among the debris like little frogs skewered on toothpicks for the easy appetite of the giant overhead.
He felt so small beneath the giants of the world.
And yet, he was a giant also.