James sat on the brow of the tyrannosaurus skull that lay in the ravine behind his home. It had rained last night and the bone was slick under the seat of his corduroy pants, like it was sweating. He liked to come down here after breakfast, before Mother remembered him enough to order him around. As he skidded down the hill from the backdoor he had snatched a fallen maple branch, and as he sat now he prodded the right eye socket, scaring out birds that were trying to roost there. The skull had its teeth embedded in the earth, the carpet of lichen from the ground sneaking up its cheeks. It was tilted slightly so that it appeared to be gazing upward, cloud gazing, and James would sit with one heel holstered in each eye socket and the two of them would watch the clouds together.
Up on the hill, behind the maples, a door swung shut. Probably Eleanor feeding the pigs. He used the branch as a pole to slide down off the skull and hopped across the pathway of stegosaurus tail spikes that led to the copse of trees at the very bottom of the ravine. He never let Eleanor come with him. As soon as the last oats had been scooped out of his bowl he was sliding out the door, leaving Eleanor to take the scraps out to the pigs again and again. He knew she resented him for it. When he returned she would purse her tiny lips and ask Where’d you go? and he would say Nowhere. He knew she would like to be with him down here, pointing out paws in the clouds and playing hopscotch, but if she came she would talk in that shrill little voice and put her hands in his pockets and ask him ridiculous little sister questions. And if he waited for her, Mother would make him do chores and then he would never get outside.
The maple leaves were just starting to turn, and some had already fallen into the crevices between the roots. The damp made them wilt onto the little compsognathus ribs and slender pterodactyl wing bones that littered the tree roots like acorns. One of these he plucked up and used like a pencil to write his name in the tree bark.
It was his name, rolling down into the ravine from the open door of the house. Mother was calling him. He huffed and leaned against the tree with his arms crossed, kicking at an ankylosaurus tail club by his foot. She had remembered, then. It wasn’t that Mother ever forgot him really. Mother forgot a lot of things if she couldn’t see them, but they would come back to her eventually. If the dishes were clean or the laundry was hanging and she could look and see it, then what was done was done. But when she wanted something that was out of her sight, then she would want it and forget it and want it again, and no one refused Mother when she wanted something. That was why Eleanor would go out to feed the pigs all morning, why later this afternoon he would stack the firewood over and over, over and over, until dinnertime.
He held the wing bone in front of him and squinted, trying to imagine that it really was a pencil, with a sharp tip and little bite marks from concentration. Up by the house was a trail, and out on that trail a long way, in the town they never went to, was a school where they taught things to children. He wasn’t sure what things, he only knew about stacking wood and making boots from cured pig hide. It didn’t matter what they taught there; the thought of anything other than Mother’s chores brought to his imagination a sense of wonder. Sometimes when he was stacking the firewood he would imagine taking off on the trail and begging at the doors of the school to take him in. But they would never take him without a pencil.
Mother’s shouting was getting out of hand. His own name was being pelted at him from the top of the hill, falling on him like acorns from the trees, and the birds were getting restless. It was time to go home and start the chores he would never finish. Maybe Mother had always been like this or maybe she had gotten worse, he wasn’t sure. Childhood was a long, stagnant era.
Tossing the wing bone to the ground and heading back for the house, he looked back over his shoulder at the tree where he had not written his name, just a knurly circle. As he walked back across the stepping stones of tail spikes he eyed the ground as if he might spot a pencil there, lying in the grass or just peaking out of the mud. He was forever imagining that he would pull one out of a piece of firewood or find one rolling around under the kitchen table. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a pencil was the sort of thing you could just find anywhere, on the road or in a drawer? What if this were the sort of world where there existed that kind of magic?