No one is chasing him, but the Glass boy’s heart still pounds as he runs through the woods, soles of his canvas sneakers slapping the soft earth. When he reaches the other side of the forest he stops abruptly, removes his sneakers, steps onto a blanket of bright green grass. For a moment, he crouches to catch his breath, watches as a pair of pale cabbage moths flutter up from a dead stump. He hears a bird chirping, the branches moaning as they lift and fall in the breeze. The sun overhead is hot, and he closes his eyes, pulls a lungful of sweet air in through his nostrils. Heaven, he thinks. This sliver of land just before the water is my private heaven.
Using his hands to shade his eyes, he scans the woods, the visible length of the stream. He is alone, and he scampers to the edge, lays down on his stomach. Slides his arm over the grassy lip, and as his fingers wiggle through drowning roots, a handful of waiting tadpoles skitter and hide. He feels around. And for a moment, when he finds nothing, his heart strikes so loudly in his ears the sounds of the stream and bird and creaking trees sink. But then his hand knocks it. Hard and slippery. It’s there. Grunting, he pulls the pickle jar from the water, heavy with the rock weighting it down. He notes it is intact, no rust on the lid, no evidence of water damage to the treasure inside. No sign that someone else has touched it.
After he dries the jar on his T-shirt, he looks around once again. Yes, yes. He is alone. Then he sits cross-legged on the grass, pinches the jar between his bare thighs, twists the lid with both hands. Even though he had washed the jar in hot suds, the faintest smell of vinegar still tweaks his nose. His breath is shallow as he reaches in, removes his tiny treasure. So valuable, but bought for only a handful of change.
He hauls a handkerchief from his pocket, blankets the rotting stump beside him, and examines each item before laying it down. Too much, now, to see everything at once. To have it all exposed, recklessly, where a gust could arrive without warning, pilfer a piece of his perfect puzzle, carry it off to someone who might destroy it. Hands shaking, he scoops them up, clutches them to his chest. Imagines, for a moment, they hear his blood moving through his veins.
Time folds, an hour dissolves, and the boy wonders if he might be missed. If the man might question his absence. He places the items in the jar, seals it. One last glimpse, his eyes, wide open, pressed to the heavy glass.
He is dizzy when he stands, and he nearly drops the jar on a flat rock. Even though he is still holding it close to his breastbone, he cannot help but see it smashed, a spray of glass, his collection scattered. The very thought makes his legs weak, and he does not trust them. Scrawny legs, even though he eats like a gannet. He shuffles, carefully, places the jar back into the stream, underneath the overhang of unkempt grass. The tadpoles are there again, grazing his knuckles with their quivering tails. Wanting him to stay and play. But he stands, whispers, “Not now, not now.”
He searches the woods for blinking eyes, listens for footsteps or hollering. He stares at the sky, expecting to see the man’s shocked face pressing down through the clouds. He knows the man is everywhere. An almost God. With the swoop of an axe, he has witnessed the man choosing between life and death. Witnessed it more than once. Head of a piglet flying in one direction, pink body in the other. Tiny hooves on stick legs twitching, still trying to run away.
But there is nothing. Nothing, yet. And he coils his excitement and guilt, like a greasy spring, presses it down, locks the trapdoor inside his mind. He stuffs his feet into his sneakers, stiff fabric heel flattened, and for a good distance he walks backwards through the woods. Gazing at the spot where his secret is guarded. And he tells himself, as he watches the rippling water, that no one will ever know. No one will ever find it. No one will ever get hurt. Then he turns, runs towards home. Towards the farm. Towards his life with the man.
As soon as the cloud of mud settles to the bottom, the tadpoles push through the water, and tap the glass. They are children still, barely limbs to stand on. Eyes like black beads, they see what’s inside the pickle jar, and don’t know to look away.