My son John was tall and slim
And he had a leg for every limb
Now he’s got no legs at all,
They both shot away by cannonball.
Were you drunk or were you blind
To leave your two fine legs behind?
The hardest thing about living in-between two worlds was that every thirty seconds he would attempt to dip his mechanical pencil into a non-existent ink well.
The quality of the paper was nowhere as good, but he still appreciated the pure smoothness of it under the base of his hand as he wrote. Sometimes he would recall the way the yellow parchment would scratch his fingertips, and then he would feel a brief pang of homesickness.
He wrote at night, in the dark, with his covers pulled up over his head to muffle all sounds but the scratch of lead on paper. When the batteries of his flashlight ran out he learned to write in the dark, in pitch blackness, forcing his words to move like shapeless arrows across the page, even when he couldn’t see them. Once he wrote an entire letter in the same three-inch space, the words crowding each other and forming one big smear of indecipherable squiggles. Eventually, though, he learned to see in the dark, or at least to imagine that he could, and so he kept on writing.
He wrote about sex; he wrote about war, and fear, and mostly about running away. Sometimes after writing about it he felt as if he had run away, but had been inexplicably dragged back. He kept the letters in an old cigar box that someone had left behind ages ago, and stored the cigar box under the loose floorboard in the center of the room. He always addressed the letters to the same party; once he tried to write to someone else, but wound up ripping the letter to shreds when it was done. He chewed the shreds into spit balls and started swallowing them all until the glue made him nauseous. He wrote only to one address after that.
He continued to write after he ran out of paper. They found a stack of envelopes under his bed and searched with worried looks for evidence of his letters, but when they found none they shrugged and frowned at him and took the rest of the paper away.
So he wrote on the floor.
It got to be great fun, using the wood of the floor to form the surface for his messages, sometimes using the grain of the paneling to form an ‘o’ or finish the cross of a ‘t.’ He got splinters in his palms and in the tips of his fingers from writing because he would write with his hand clenching the pencil almost at the tip itself, so that his fingers scraped constantly against the wood. He would lie flat on the floor, head against the wood, writing his letters out against the long flat plane of wood beneath him, writing until his arm could stretch no further. They raised their eyebrows when they saw him doing this, but said nothing, and gradually he learned to tell the time of day by the way the light cut across the floorboards and bisected the room: at a twenty degree angle right before he ate dinner; at a sixty degree angle right when he finished his bath in the morning.
The day came when they took away his pencils completely, and at first he was baffled by this empty gesture; gradually, however, he began reading what he had written, first to himself, then aloud, to keep him occupied. It was quite entertaining. At times he worked out tunes in his head and sung them. Once he even made one of them smile.
Not long after that they all came to see him at once. He listened and then suddenly he was there, and he walked right in as if he visited every day. Everyone stopped immediately, and self-consciously averted their eyes and stared at the walls. He did not look away, however. He glanced down at his feet, first self-consciously, then in amazement, admiring the handiwork. The floor was covered, wall to wall, inch by inch, meticulously. Letter after letter--his eyes took it all in while the others coughed and said things like ‘well, it must be getting near time.’
From where he had been reading the floor, he looked up all at once, at him, in understanding, or maybe fear. He was blinding and full of color.
A thought suddenly struck: he had been too taken with the wood grain of the floor—he had not thought to write on the white walls, where the words all would have been so much plainer.
“The floorboard,” he said, staring intently back. “The one that creaks.”
“You see what I mean?” one of them said. “There’s no hope for him now.”
He nodded slowly. As they took his arm and led him past, he put delicate fingers on his elbow and stopped them. “The one that creaks,” he said softly, his eyes lowering to where the skin flinched at the touch. “I see.”
And all the splinters in his hands were painless.