Fiction by James Callan

Lying there in the tall grass, not a scrap of clothing to cover his bare body, the bug bites bloomed over Jim’s exposed flesh in scattered, scarlet constellations. He had sprinted across the emerald fields of soy, September sunshine on his back, and collapsed, heaving, laughing, delighted while in the arms of Silas, who had chased him the entire half mile.

They had been swimming in the swell of the river where the pools were shallow and slow-moving, cold and crystal clear. They had been kissing, embracing, aroused by the closeness of their bodies, their shared, sudden impulse, which came to neither of them as a surprise so much as a revelation. Who had kissed the other first, neither boy can remember. Who had ventured to turn a wrestling match into something tender, something seductive, neither one cared. For now, they were carefree, elated, and itchy with bug bites while their wet, glistening limbs and bared backs weighed down the gold and purple heather at the edge of the green crop where they lay.

Silas counted the little red bumps that rose on Jim’s thigh to creep up and dot his stark-white backside. He traced the minor irritations rising up from his friend’s skin, brushed them gently with the tips of his fingers, and felt each tiny swell beneath his light touch. He savored the story, the image projected in flesh, as if fine art, a relief sculpture or an intimate message embossed in Braille.

He leaned in, front to back, and whispered into Jim’s ear, wet with tawny, lake-sodden curls, “Let these be the years we spend together,” and as he kissed the back of Jim’s neck he began to count each welt that snaked up from his hip to his armpit. Disappointed by the low figure, the representation of time he’d be together with Jim, Silas gave up on the game, turned his friend over, and as they kissed in the grass each bug bite disappeared, the world itself evaporated, an inconsequential, trifling thing.

The sound of dogs in pursuit over the soy fields reminded the boys that their recreational sport was performed on private land. They could easily hide from the farmer’s scanning gaze, simply lay low and avoid being seen, but even as they had freshly emerged, clean from the frigid shallows, they couldn’t hope to conceal their odor from the hounds’ powerful scent. Naked as the day they were born, each boy rose, almost dry, and skirted the long rows of soy to scamper back where the river ran as they did —tirelessly, and with untroubled grace.

Hand in hand, giggling with the thrill of barking dogs on their heels, Jim and Silas reached the edge of the wood, paved a trail in the underbrush with their effortless stride, and pursued the bank of the rushing river, hobbling across rock, through mud. Silas tugged at Jim, who had never before felt so happy to be led, to be pulled in a direction that was not of his own initiative. He watched his friend guide him, surefooted, cutting a natural path with ease, one with the river’s edge, an extension of the forest. What had been second nature to Silas, a well-practiced instinct, was only just now becoming clear to Jim.

When they reached the eddying swells that gently whirled, the chilled shallows where they had swum, found truth in each other’s arms, they spotted their clothes lying in a heap where they had left them. It had been Silas’ idea, of course, when the suggestion was made that they wear each other’s clothes, an exchange their mothers wouldn’t notice because they are the same size and each boy attends the same school, each wearing an identical uniform. Silas held up Jim’s shirt, still damp with afternoon sweat, and pulled it over his head. Jim reached for clothes just like his own, but with the scent of Silas, and dressed himself. Together, exchanging shirts and trousers, socks and undergarments, the two boys had become one with the other, a unified whole. This was their boyish reasoning, an idea that made them laugh out loud as only children could ever manage, without humor, purely of joy.

Silas left first, leaving Jim to catch his breath and reflect on the image of his friend running home with a wave and warm smile. After he had gone, Jim still saw Silas as if before him, bathed in light, like an angel, or a defining moment of truth.

Deciding to undress yet again, to wear his own skin and nothing more, Jim stood, naked, on the edge of a large, rocky shelf outcropping the pool beneath him. Usually wary of heights, he didn’t pause to consider the river well below him. Jim dove with alien grace, a foreign self-confidence, as his outstretched arms cut the cold water which obliterated the lethargic heat of summer, soothing, invigorating, nullifying the itch of each crimson bite that spread like a fire of self-discovery across his goose-pimpled flesh.

When he rose up to take a breath, to impale the moving current, Jim viewed the woodland with newly minted eyes, with keen vision unveiled by that familiar gossamer fog, that spectral haze which had suddenly lifted. The world around him had become bright —crystal clear, like a cold river which swelled near the banks to purify its shallows in a dance of gentle, moving swirls.

James Callan

James Callan grew up in Minnesota and currently lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand. His wife and son are great apes of the human distinction, but the remainder of his family consists of varying lifeforms, including cats, a dog, pigs, cows, goats, and chickens. His writing has appeared in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Maudlin House, Mystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He is the author of A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023).