Green Hills Literary Lantern



The Heads

            The heads come for Max at night, necks dripping blood and sinew, eyes perpetually open, mucus streaming from nostrils. He wakes in a sweat, gathers wet sheets around his cold, shaking body and lies for hours, peering across the room lit by the gray streetlight at his bureau, square, squat and sightless.

            He gets out of bed and gropes his way past his father’s bedroom, down the stairs, and into the living room where he flicks on the lights and stares at his mother’s portrait until comforted.

            He tries to forget the Waucanda Fishing Club. Three weeks ago, his father had promised Max he would love it up in the North Woods where the college’s Dean of the Humanities Division had a cabin. The week before they left, his dad had taken him to buy new fishing rods and tackle for everything from bluegill to northern pike.

            “We want the best,” his father announced to the man in khaki. “We’re going up to northern Minnesota for some toothy lunkers.”

            The man looked mildly amused as he drifted into the spirit of long-time camaraderie. On his fishing vest hung dry fly spray, nail clippers, a pair of scissors and a safety pin.

            “For loosening knots in your fly line,” the portly man said when he caught Max staring at the pin. “Now, whatta goin’ for? Stripe-necked eels? Western McGinty’s? Bulbous-cheeked pickerel?”

            His father bent down to look into the glass case lined with reels. Pointing out the most expensive, he said, “Will that one catch the big ones?”

            “That one will snag even the lime-head bass,” the clerk assured him with a laugh as Max gazed at the line of shiny gold and silver orbs.

            After coming home with their catch, Max never let the reel out of his sight. On the ride north, he held it most of the ten-and-a-half-hour trip while the men talked shop and the dean’s son, Carson, two years older than Max, read a book. Once the dean suggested that Carson “Do something” with Max, but the boy only sighed, beat him at scissors-paper-rock until the back of Max’s hand reddened, then went back to reading. His father had packed paper and crayons, but not wanting to look like a little kid to Carson, Max stared at his reel and out the window until a gas station or fast food restaurant broke the landscape.

            The cabin was a winterized bungalow on a mile-long lake. Asked if he wanted his own room, Max said, “Okay,” unsure how his father wanted him to answer.

            “Say, ‘Yes, please,’ and ‘Thank you,’” his father corrected.

            “Yes, please. Thank you.”

            His room, at the farthest reach from the living room, where stone fireplace and log-limbed furniture held conference, measured half the size of his room at home. When he went to bed, he felt like the woman in a magic trick stuck in a box by the magician. A single bed, tiny chair, desk and nightstand barely fit. He pushed the button on the singing Billy Bass until his father called down the hall, “Thank you, Max. We all know the words by heart now.” After Max brushed his teeth in the cabin’s one bathroom, his father sat on the side of his bed, joined him in prayers, kissed him and closed the door, leaving him in absolute silence and darkness.

            Next morning, his father knocked on the door and told him it was time to get dressed. After a breakfast of oatmeal and yogurt, the two men took the rowboat with an electric motor and Carson took Max in the canoe. It was hard enough for Max to paddle, never having done it before, and the bulky life vest restricted his arms so that his reach-and-pull motion extended only a foot or two. Because Carson’s arms were longer and better educated, Max’s stride never coincided with that of the older boy, who apparently  thought precision paddling important when tested by the rigors of nature.

            “Get in time,” Carson spat from the stern. “Don’t make us look like jerk-offs.”

            When Max threw out his first cast, he got knots in his line.

            “Gimme it. Lemme do it,” Carson said, exasperated. “Haven’t you ever fished before?”

            “Sure I have,” Max lied. “Plenty times.”

            “If you weren’t here, I could have been fishin’ with Teddy,” Carson said later in shallow water as he reached for Max’s hook, caught in a tree branch. “He lives in Omaha. He’s been to Las Vegas. He saw a whore there.”

            Max didn’t know what to say. “Where’s Omaha?”

            “I bet you don’t even know what a whore is.”

            “Sure I do. I seen one plenty times.”

            “Just don’t cast toward shore.”

            “I thought you said that’s where the fish are.”

            “I lied. That’s where the trees are. Big fish live down deep. Cast out into the lake far as you can.”

            When Carson caught a largemouth bass, the boy pulled down its lower jaw and thrust it at Max.

            “Gotcha!” Carson screamed.

            The sharp teeth scraped Max’s nose, and the fish’s odor, like the seaweed Max had taken off his hook, filled his head. He tried to close his eyes, but the open mouth drew his gaze, enticing him with the horror of interior musculature, the rippled, oily ivory that slid into a long, black cavity.

            “Ooh, he went number two!” Carson squeaked, and turned the fish upside down to show Max the dark green worm that oozed out its underbelly. Cocking his middle finger against his thumb, Carson fired, the goo raining into Max’s face.

            “Here, crybaby,” Carson jeered, handing Max a dark blue bandana from his pocket. “Don’t freak. The dads will hear.”

            That afternoon, while the two fathers fly-fished the stocked trout pond, Max pretended to take a nap while Carson watched TV. The few times Carson came in to see if Max was awake, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply like he remembered his mother had done when he crawled into his parents’ bed during thunderstorms before she died.

            Each father returned with a fish, the dean a rainbow, his dad a brown. The dean cooked up both in a fry pan and served them side by side on a platter lined with lemon slices.

            When the four were seated around the card table set for dinner in the living room, the dean held out a knife and fork to his colleague. “Randy, like to do the honors? Restaurants only bring out the fillet, but I prefer a holistic presentation, skin, head, tail, the whole fourteen inches.”

            “You know more about this kind of thing than I do,” Max’s father demurred. “That’s got to be one stupid fish to go after my fly.”

             “Nonsense. You were just getting into the swing of things. A little more practice, and you would have mowed the whole bank with your fly.”

            The dean took a knife and began cutting off the fish’s head. “Maybe Max would like to know where to find the sweetest meat on a fish.”

“Its cheeks!” Carson bellowed.

As he listened to the knife scrunch through bone, Max saw the open eye stare at him. Once the head was severed, the dean bent forward as though inspecting it for disease. With the fork holding the head in place, the knife point expertly split open the face just below the eye, dug in and popped out a light brown piece of flesh the size of a cotton Q-tip.

“There it is,” the dean announced, proud as an oncologist showing off the excised tumor. “Max, you get the first prize.”

Riding on the end of the knife, the cheek was dropped on Max’s plate.

            The dean pointed his knife at the other trout. “Try finding yours, Randy. They’ll call you a fisherman when you can prepare and eat your own catch.”

            Max’s father held the knife for a moment above his brown trout, then furiously began to saw through what might have been a tree trunk. The head thrust this way and that, its eye, as though cognizant of the abuse, accused Max for the indiscretion.

            “Now cut off the tail, slice up along the spine, lay back the skin, and peel the meat back from the bone.”

            The vomit came without warning. It filled Max’s mouth, and when there was no more room, it flew out, filling his plate and spilling onto the table. There was a lot of yelling. People jumped up and away from the mess. Towels were spread out. A cool, wet washcloth bathed his forehead and cheeks. He was led to his bedroom where he got into his pajamas. “Stay in bed until you feel better,” his dad said.

            “Only an hour before Bingo in the Antler Room!” the dean called from the living room.

            Max closed his eyes and begged for sleep, but instead he pictured the gaping mouths of fish hung on the cabin walls, their pointed teeth set to sever a finger or toe. He imagined each fish loose in his room, flopping toward his bed, wriggling under his sheets and eating his flesh. He bunched his body into the fetal position and tried to picture his mother.

            After a while he felt better. Bingo actually sounded cool. Once he played church Bingo with his mother and she won big. He remembered holding a worn-out ten-dollar bill, more money than he had ever held before, and he felt very rich.

            Fifteen minutes later, dressed in clean clothes, Max called from his room, “Dad, can I go to Bingo?”

            “I can’t very well leave him here,” he heard his father say.

            “You don’t want to miss the Antler Room,” the dean advised.

            As the four of them walked the woodchip path through the woods to the clubhouse, the dean said, “Every Friday night is movie night. Monday is Bingo. Occasionally someone will organize a ping-pong tournament. The main hall is monstrous. Has a woodsy feel.”

            “It’s pretty cool,” Carson said in a friendly voice for the first time. “You’ll go nuts.”

            As they neared the rustic, dark-stained building with screened-in porch and stone chimney, adults chatted in small groups while children played tag or hide’n seek.

            The dean checked his watch. “Almost eight. Time to buy our cards.”

            The screen door opened onto a long porch. As they walked toward a set of double doors, Max glanced in a window and immediately pulled his hand from his father’s grasp.

            “What’s the matter?”

            “C’mon,” Carson called from the door. “I wanna get the card I won with last time.”
            The dean glanced back at father and son, then pulled by voices of recognition and welcome, disappeared inside.

            Max’s father reached for his son’s hand, but Max jerked it away.

            “It’ll be fun, son. You used to help your mother win at Bingo. She told me if you hadn’t yelled, ‘Bingo,’ she wouldn’t have seen the X.”

            Max stared blankly at the golf clubs lined up on the porch. “I don’t want to go in there.”

            “They’re nice people. They all have cabins on the lake. The dean knows them all.”

            “Coming, Randy?” The dean’s voice sounded perturbed. “They’re about to start.”

            His father’s arms wrapped around Max’s waist and hoisted him up to his chest. “We’re on the way!” he called. “Save a seat for the winners!”

            “No, Dad!” Max wailed, squirming to free himself. “I don’t want to!”

            “Max. Behave. We’re going in. We’re going to have a good time.”

            But Max knew he would not have a good time because he had glimpsed the heads through the window. If he went in there, the heads would lunge at him, teeth, tusks, horns, and antlers—everything they used to defend themselves turned to attack him. These were not dead animals, harmless reminders of past glory. Their spirits lived. He read it in their eyes, glassy and bulging. They were watching him.

            His father pulled open the door. The room buzzed with pre-game excitement. Wooden balls churned in the cage. Chairs scraped the floor. People in blue jeans, shorts, flip-flops and running shoes scurried to their places at long folding tables.

            Max shut his eyes, but he had already seen them. Deer, antelope, elk, mountain goat and moose. Even a mangy buffalo brooding above the fireplace. They roared, snorted and howled at him.

            “Open your eyes, you chicken,” they chided. Or was it Carson?

            He obeyed. Who was he to deny them? An ant to be stepped on. He squinted, allowing a slit of vision.

            Bright ceiling lights spotlighted the heads. Their mouths flew open as they leapt from the walls, their torsos, tails and hooves filling in as they extended their reach. The crowd and tables vanished. His father disappeared. Max stood defenseless before the ghastly herd, cringing, crying, waiting for teeth to pierce skin, for antlers to puncture a lung.

            Then he was outside in the cool night air, pine trees humming, his dad’s calm voice telling him, It’s all right now, we’ll go back to the cabin, read a book, play pick-up sticks, do a jigsaw puzzle.

            They left the next day. The dean drove them to an airport and they flew back home. From the limo, Max carried his own suitcase to the front door. His dad unlocked it and went in first. Max followed, but he stopped in the living room and set down his suitcase when he saw the heads.

            Not animal heads. No. These heads had been there before, but he had never really seen them. They came alive to him now, whole and real. Human.

            They were the heads of his mother, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, framed in gold, silver, pewter, marble and leather, all wearing smiles. He picked up one of his mother. She had been caught in the yard, probably planting new perennials. Her eyes looked at him as though seeing him, too, for the first time. She looked happy, concerned, speculative, wise and loving. So loving.

            In fact, she offered so much love for her son that he almost couldn’t stand it.


Richard Holinger teaches English at Marmion Academy, in Aurora, Illinois. Recipient of two Pushcart Prize nominations, his poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in The Texas Review, The Iowa Review, Witness, Midwest Quarterly, The Southern Review, Boulevard, and Another Chicago Magazine. He writes the column “View from Geneva” for his weekly hometown newspaper, The Geneva Sun, and has facilitated many writing workshops in northern Illinois. He lives in Geneva with his perfectly nuclear family of four, plus dog.