Sheldon Lee Compton
The Good Life
There's an insect, maybe an insect, maybe something else, that stands still in the night, making a lonesome noise in the not too far distance. A young boy, not much more than a toddler, still close enough to those unsteady days that his hair is springs curly and white whereas it will be coarse and salt and pepper gray later in life, stands in the middle of a large bottom field in this dark. It's a summer darkness and the lonesome sound bleating out across the field could also be a bullfrog resting at the edge of a long puddle of water running alongside the railroad tracks. Whatever is making the sound, the boy must know.
He walks through the very middle of the field, which is populated by hundreds of dying reeds jutting skyward like the stretching fingers of dead men. As he walks, he grabs and snaps several in half. The sound of the snapping is the only other one besides the lonesome warble-bleat-croak. It is dark, for sure, but it's a young darkness, hardly an hour out from dusk. The scent of the hot chunks of coal that were warmed throughout the day is still heavy in the cooled air, and the sky has yet to show very many stars — only the North Star, and one other which is not a star at all but the planet Jupiter seen at twilight. But the boy doesn't know this. He only knows the sky is not yet as black as the warmed over coal dropped between the tracks.
The tracks can't be seen, but the mounded earth on which they run is easily visible. The boy notices the closer he gets to the tracks, the louder the lonesome sound becomes. He takes careful halfsteps, can see the shimmer of the puddle to the side of the mounded earth, lets out a long-held breath, and is then startled when the lonesome sound stops in mid-note. Now, and this is the paramount thought in the boy's mind, the only thing that exists is the silence, a deep wealth of it, a heaving animal, large and dying, fixing itself across the surface of all the Earth. It is a vacuum now, the field, the railroad tracks just before him, the clapboard house far behind, a vacuum in which sound is dead. And then, subtle and lightly at first, comes the lonesome sound again. A bleating? A croaking? Is it the sound of the boy himself crying beneath the bedsheet and quilt, or an echo of this crying, or a low moan of such helplessness and aloneness only a child could bear it? Deep within his mind there opens a crevice through which light shoots out laser-thin and the cause of a great deal becomes clear. Not the sound, but the reason, the reason he stands in the field at all. It's a complicated wanting, a desire.
The call of the insect (bullfrog?) from the darkness is the chilly possibilities dormant inside him, the way in which the sound squeezes itself out into the world like a desperate whine, a melancholia of the neglected soul and pocket, is the manifestation of his desire. The darkness is all the world's seething energy shackling him in place. The boy sees futility in the shine of moonlight across the surface of the puddles. He understands that the spear of shivelight that has broken loose in his mind can no more alter his path than it can transform him into a god.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a short story writer, poet, and novelist from Kentucky. He is the author of eight books, including the short story collection Sway. His work has recently appeared in Best Small Fictions 2019, Everyday Quarterly, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Trnsfr and Stymie, among others.