April 2003: THE MUSICIANS
Autumn was most fun, because then they imagined, like on Earth, they were scuttering through autumn leaves.
They would come like a scatter of jackstones on the marble flats beside the canals, the candy-cheeked boys with blue-agate eyes, panting onion-tainted commands to each other. For now that they had reached the dead, forbidden town it was no longer a matter of "Last one there's a girl!" or "First one gets to play Musician!" Now the dead town's doors lay wide and they thought they could hear the faintest crackle, like autumn leaves, from inside. They would hush themselves forward, by each other's elbows, carrying sticks, remembering their parents had told them, "Not there! No, to none of the old towns! Watch where you hike. You'll get the beating of your life when you come home. We'll check your shoes!"
And there they stood in the dead city, a heap of boys, their hiking lunches half devoured, daring each other in shrieky whispers.
"Here goes nothing!" And suddenly one of them took off, into the nearest stone house, through the door, across the living room, and into the bedroom where, without half looking, he would kick about, thrash his feet, and the black leaves would fly through the air, brittle, thin as tissue cut from midnight sky. Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the outer covering of black flakes. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.
And then out of one house into another, into seventeen houses, mindful that each of the towns in its turn was being burned clean of its horrors by the Firemen, antiseptic warriors with shovels and bins, shoveling away at the ebony tatters and peppermint-stick bones, slowly but assuredly separating the terrible from the normal; so they must play very hard, these boys, the Firemen would soon be here!
Then, luminous with sweat, they gnashed at their last sandwiches. With a final kick, a final marimba concert, a final autumnal lunge through leaf stacks, they went home.
Their mothers examined their shoes for black flakelets which, when discovered, resulted in scalding baths and fatherly beatings.
By the year's end the Firemen had raked the autumn leaves and white xylophones away, and it was no more fun.