Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.

The Sniffer
Sara Joyce Robinson – 2000

The littlest Beader boy could smell water.

Whether in the sundry summer sky or in the Beader family’s   one   bathtub, he was aware of rain showers and washings before anyone else, even the television weatherman. He could find the largest puddle on the playground, the deepest part of the creek, the nearest water fountain. Without a forked twig or fancy machine, he knew where   there   was water; he sensed it with his whole body.  The feeling snuck up on him like tiny hands creeping over his skin, until they pinched his nose and covered his mouth, making him scream. Its nearness filled him with fear until all he could feel, all he could taste, was the coming water.

A hundred years ago, he would have been considered a miracle, a gift from God, sent to ease the suffering of his rain-starved people. The skinny, strange little boy would have led his people across the scorched plain to the water that would make their crops grow.  Where he pointed to, they would have dug with their shovels flying, until the first trickle of water wet their feet.  They would have held each other in their arms as the water bubbled out, weeping in joy that at last relief had come.

A diviner, one of the divine. The church ladies with tears streaking their dusty faces would have lifted him up in their hands toward the heavens and praised the Lord, thanked the Lord for what he had provided them. Their blessing, their miracle.

As it was now, he was just a nuisance to his mama who had more important worries, than her youngest, strangest boy. The first two Beader boys had worn her out. After the third one, she stopped caring about their finger­ painted pictures and dirty knees. The Beader boys came in an unbroken chain, nine of them, each a year and a half apart, no girls. The littlest Beader boy was born the summer the drought came with days hotter than any even the grandparents could remember. He emerged pale and oddly silent with his eye wide open. Only after Dr. Barnes smacked him hard on the rear end did he utter his first cry, and at that mo­ ment the drought ended, in a burst of broken water.

After his birth, Mrs. Beader kicked Mr. Beader out of her bed; first onto the couch, and then into Lily Prachet’s perfumed arms. No matter the weather, after breakfast she would pry the boys away from the television and send them outside, spilling out of the house like goldfish on the sidewalk, their big eyes blinking and empty from morning cartoons. They were not allowed back inside until it was dark, so they had to find ways to fill up the blank hours themselves. When the littlest Beader boy felt the choking hands of rain in the sky, he would hide, screaming and clawing, under his bed. His mama would drag him out by the heels and dump him howling on the front steps. She would then lock herself inside with her soap operas and three-dollar super­market wine, leaving the littlest Beader boy on the front porch, pounding the screen door with his thin fists.

When this happened, the second Beader boy would gently pick him up in his arms, and all the Beader buys would gather around him in a wall of boy bodies. Nine identical shaggy, black-haired heads bent in a sad circle.

Sixteen black eyes watched the littlest two fill with tears. The Beader buys had beautiful eyes, dark like chocolate pudding, deep like the middle of the creek, tragic like Mrs. Beader’s soap opera heroes. The eight brothers would cradle   the   littlest   one, lifting him up in their hands to rock and soothe his fears, to protect him from the rain. Only after his cries had stopped would the rest of the neighborhood children crowd in and sweep up the Reader boys in their group to go play under the old bridge, safe from the rain that would most certainly come.

Banished outside by their parents, the children congregated together to find amusement in numbers and refuge from boredom. The children came in all shapes and sizes.  The oldest almost ready to leave the children’s band to sneak cigarettes from the corner convenience store and experiment with make-up. The youngest ones left in the dubious care of older siblings who had promised to keep them out of trouble. The Beader boys were a quiet addition to the group, novel leaders, never troublemakers. They participated too eagerly, excited to be included, but hardly ever spoke.

To the children, everywhere contained the possibility of fun and so their games had no boundaries. On the rainy days, they played under the bridge, becoming trolls hoarding treasures, or castaways shipwrecked on an island or beavers building dams to make pools from river and rain.  They liked to stand out in the rain, catching drops on their pink tongues, arms stretched wide, welcoming and rejoicing what the littlest Beader boy had foretold. From a dry spot under the bridge, the littlest Beader boy watched their games, his beautiful eyes shadowed and wanting.

On days when the sun shone, the children roamed farther out, pushing away from their homes and parents. They were explorers and pirates, ponies, and policemen. They climbed trees, collected rocks, caught ladybugs, planted gardens of twigs, and prepared feasts of leaves and sand.

On these days, the children coaxed the littlest Beader boy out of his hiding place and into their games. He was their sniffer. They told him what they wished to find, and if he could feel the water there, his eyes lit up and his fin-ger pointed them in the right direction. With shouts and cries. they followed him as he rode high upon the oldest Beader boy’s shoulders, bouncing along, leading them across the land to find the ice cream man or the best swimming spot.

Time passed, the summers came and went. The first two Reader boys left the children’s band to join the older ones who spent their day slinking in corners and alleys behind the liquor store. The littlest Reader boy grew straight and thin, the strangest and quietest of them all. He still cried when he felt the fingers of rain in the sky and lucked himself into small hiding places apart from the rest of the chil­ dren. His black eyes watched over their games, brooding like a summer storm stewing in the sky.

The signs started off small. When the littlest Beader boy pounded on his mama’s screen door, the thunder seemed to roar and rumble in time wi1h his cries. When the children were hot and weary, a neighbor’s sprinklers always turned on like magic, and the water seemed to dance higher when he laughed. The other chil­ dren began to notice those strange things and suspicion tickled the backs or their minds. More time passed and the signs grew stronger. When Mr. Evens put him out of his store because he tried to buy beer for his mama, the littlest Beader boy trembled with anger and the water pipes in Mr. Evens’ basement ex­ ploded. On a day when the chil­ dren were playing in the creek, three of them spotted him at the edge of the creek, eyes closed and arm spread, stepping out across the water walking over it as the ripples held him up. When the children shouted in surprise, he opened his eyes, concentration broken, and fell into the creek. For the rest of that afternoon, even his brothers kept their distance from the littlest Beader boy and watched him with tentative eyes.

As the littlest Beader boy grew older, his sense of water changed, matured. Its fingers still terrified and choked him, but now it responded to his moods, matched his rhythms, struck at his enemies. The children did not know what to make of the littlest Beader boy’s new ability. Intrigued by its amazing power, but terrified or what it could mean, they whispered of it only amongst themselves. This was not a secret for grownups would either not believe them or do something terrible. The something terrible was undefined and hovered at the edges of their minds, sitting there cold and hard. A warning. But the littlest Beader boy was one of them, a part of their group.  His secret was theirs to know and protect.

Unfortunately, on one gray day Anna Geyser’s mother saw the littlest Beader boy in the street redirecting the flow of water in the gutter, so the children could better sail ships of leaves and paper down the street. The children tried to warn him to stop, but they were not quick enough, and Mrs. Geyser saw what he was doing. She jerked her daughter away from the group and from that day on no longer allowed her to play with the band of children. The children were horrified and spent the rest of the day hiding under the bridge. Fear pounded in their hearts and the something terrible hardened in their minds. Danger was coming. Within four hours that afternoon, every grownup in the town had heard Mrs. Geyser’s story and began to remember other strange things that had happened when the littlest Beader boy was present.

From   leaky faucets to the flood in the library two years ago, it was whispered that the littlest Beader boy had played a part in it all. Paren1s found reasons to keep their children away from the neighborhood games and worried what mischief he was capable of getting into. The littlest Beader boy cowered from their hos­ tile stares and critical eyes, hiding in dark places as far from town as he could get. Wary and wondering, the children did their best to hide him from the adults and run as fast as they could from the something terrible that was bearing down upon them.  The small whispers and quiet accusations combined and complicated until everyone in town was caught up in the rumors of the littlest Beader boy’s strangeness. The town sat and steamed on what should be done with this odd child, this menace to normal existence, this monster who their great-great-grandparents would have praised as a miracle. As the days stretched into another summer, everyone waited on edge for the something terrible to happen.

It came one dry, hot morning just as the chil­ dren were being let out of their houses for another long day of adventuring. It came in two smooth, black cars with tinted windows and not one mark on their glossy sides.  The children stood still in jagged groups on the street, watching and knowing. The cars pulled up to the Beader house in the middle of the boys frosted flakes and cartoons. Four men in identical black suits with shiny hair and sunglasses stepped out of the car and approached Mrs. Beader’s screen door. Parents, too, began to come out of their houses and pulled their children inside, away from the something terrible in front of the Beader house.

“Social workers,” they told the children, “come to take charge of that household. Should have been there years ago.”

But the parents looked away as they said these things, eyes darting around the room, leaving the children only more confused. They knew these men were not social workers. Social workers were like Mrs. Burstien who wore plaid skirts, whose glasses were too big and who always trailed papers and peppermints. These men in their slick, black cars were not here to give out food stamp or write on forms; they had a more terrifying purpose. The children pressed their faces against the front windows and watched the Beader house.

The front door opened. The men flipped open badges and went inside.  Nothing happened for an eternity. The children waited. The front door opened again.  The men walked out with the littlest Beader boy between them. He stood tall and for   once did not cry. The sleek doors of the black cars opened, and the men and the littlest Beader boy   got   in. Then, the cars left as smoothly as they had come.  No more whispers, no more waiting, the something terrible had come and gone.  There was a moment of nothing, or silence, the darkness before   realization.

The children drifted out of their houses to stare blankly at the Beader’s front porch and each other. No one had any answers or even any questions, and it was weeks before they could put together enough pieces to talk about the something terrible that had so quietly ripped through their lives. With their days now empty, their games faded to quiet gather­ ings as each child wondered what had happened to the littlest Beader boy and if he would ever return. Their sniffer, their miracle, had been taken from them, and they were lost.

The remaining eight Beader boys became even more silent than their missing brother had been and seemed to scatter in every direction. It was as if their chain had been broken and with one of the   links missing they were no longer attached. It was rare now to see more than two together at any time, while Mrs. Beader seemed to sink only deeper into her wine and indifference. The children began to stay awc1y from the creek, and the bridge, and the woods. Instead they chose to spend their days picking through the empty lot next to Mr. Linger’s hardware store, kicking empty bottles, and digging holes in the dust. As the days passed. the children simply began to put the pieces back together and return to the woods to play their old games. But they were not the same without the littlest Beader boy to watch over them from the shadow or lead them through the woods. The games did not work quite the way they used too, but the children did the best they could. Sumner ended and the children spent the winter watching water fall from the sky, wondering.

Then one June day just after Breakfast the children had begun gathering out on the street when two smooth black cars pulled up in front of the Beader house. The children scattered and hid themselves so that they could see the car doors open and four large bodies and one small one emerge from them. The men knocked on the front door and it opened to let all five inside. After about five minutes, only   four   people left the Header house, got into the cars and pulled out of the street. When they could no longer see or hear the black cars, the children ran to stand on the porch of the Beader house in eager expectation.

The screen door creaked open and out stepped the littlest Beader boy. The children held their breaths and stared at their returned miracle. After a year, the littlest Beader boy was taller, his hair cut short and neat. His face looked leaner and centuries older, as if an old man looked out from his eyes, oh his beautiful eyes were stunning. The children gasped as they first noticed the eyes that had watched over all their games and inhabited their dreams for the past year. No longer black, the littlest Beader boy’s eyes were silver, like soft spring rain clouds. They shone like polished crystal and seemed to sing of angels in heaven. A quiet peace and knowing had replaced the misery that used to live in them. His eyes reflected the children’s faces, their futures, and a thousand years of their ancestors all at once. Roaring and reverent, this moment of reunion hung suspended in the air, light and fragile.

The littlest Beader boy smiled shyly and broke the spell of awed wonder. The eight Beader boys crowded around their youngest brother, touching his race, holding his hands as tears streaked their cheeks. The rest of the children pushed   in, all trying   to reach him and confirm that he was real. He had returned and a year of waiting and wondering was finally at an end.  The time for the littlest Beader boy’s stories of   doctors with gentle fingers and hallways of hospital   beds filled with other little boys with black and silver eyes would come later. The time for him to explain how the feel of water had changed with the blackness of his eyes would come later. For now, it was enough for the children to rejoice in welcoming the littlest Beader boy back to where he belonged. Back to his people who lifted him up in their hands and praised the Lord for their gift, their miracle. A diviner, one of the divine.