by Clifford D. Simak
He found the contraption in a blackberry patch when he was hunting cows. Darkness was sifting down through the tall stand of poplar trees and he couldn’t make it out too well and he couldn’t spend much time looking at it because Uncle Eb had been plenty sore about his missing the two heifers and if it took too long to find them Uncle Eb more than likely would take the strap to him again and he’d had about all he could stand for one day. Already he’d had to go without his supper because he’d forgotten to go down to the spring for a bucket of cold water. And Aunt Em had been after him all day because he was so no-good at weeding the garden.
“I never saw such a trifling young’un in all my life,” she’d shrill at him and then she’d go on to say that she’d think he’d have some gratitude for the way she and Uncle Eb had taken him in and saved him from the orphanage, but no, he never felt no gratitude at all, but caused all the trouble that he could and was lazy to boot and she declared to goodness she didn’t know what would become of him.
He found the two heifers down in the corner of the pasture by the grove of walnut trees and drove them home, plodding along behind them, thinking once again about running away, but knowing that he wouldn’t, because he had no place to go. Although, he told himself, most any place would be better than staying here with Aunt Em and Uncle Eb, who really were not his uncle and aunt at all, but just a couple of people who had took him in.
Uncle Eb was just finishing milking when he came into the barn, driving the two heifers before him, and Uncle Eb still was plenty sore about the way he’d missed them when he’d brought in the other cows.
“Here,” said Uncle Eb, “you’ve fixed it so I had to milk my share and yours, too, and all because you didn’t count the cows, the way I always tell you to so you’ll be sure you got them all. Just to teach you, you can finish up by milking them there heifers.”
So Johnny got his three-legged milk stool and a pail and he milked the heifers, and heifers are hard things to milk, and skittish, too, and the red one kicked and knocked Johnny into the gutter, spilling the milk he had in the pail.
Uncle Eb, seeing this, took the strap down from behind the door and let Johnny have a few to teach him to be more careful and that milk represented money and then made him finish with his milking.
They went up to the house after that, Uncle Eb grumbling all the way about kids being more trouble than they’re worth, and Aunt Em met them at the door to tell Johnny to be sure he washed his feet good before he went to bed because she didn’t want him getting her nice clean sheets all dirty.
“Aunt Em,” he said, “I’m awful hungry.”
“Not a bite,” she said, grim-lipped in the lamplight of the kitchen. “Maybe if you get a little hungry you won’t go forgetting all the time.”
“Just a slice of bread,” said Johnny. “Without no butter or nothing. Just a slice of bread.”
“Young man,” said Uncle Eb, “you heard your aunt. Get them feet washed and up to bed.”
“And see you wash them good,” said Aunt Em.
So he washed his feet and went to bed, and, lying there, he remembered what he had seen in the blackberry patch and remembered, too, that he hadn’t said a word about it because he hadn’t had a chance to, what with Uncle Eb and Aunt Em taking on at him all the blessed time.
And he decided right then and there he wouldn’t tell them what he’d found, for if he did they’d take it away from him the way they always did everything he had. And if they didn’t take it away from him, they’d spoil it so there’d be no fun or satisfaction in it.
The only thing he had that was really his was the old pocket knife with the point broken off the little blade. There was nothing in the world he’d rather have than another knife to replace the one he had, but he knew better than to ask for one. Once he had, and Uncle Eb and Aunt Em had carried on for days, saying what an ungrateful, grasping thing he was and here they’d gone and taken him in off the street and he still wasn’t satisfied but wanted them to spend good money for a pocket knife. Johnny worried a good deal about them saying he’d been taken in off the street, because as far as he knew he’d never been on any street.
Lying there, in his bed, looking out the window at the stars, he got to wondering what it was he’d seen in the blackberry patch and he couldn’t remember it very well because he hadn’t seen it too well and there’d been no time to stop and look. But there were some funny things about it and the more he thought about it the more he wanted to have a good look at it.
Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll have a good look at it. Soon as I get a chance, tomorrow. Then he realized there’d be no chance tomorrow, for Aunt Em would have him out, right after morning chores, to weed the garden and she’d keep an eye on him and there’d be no chance to slip away.
He lay in bed and thought about it some more and it became as clear as day that if he wanted a look at it he’d have to go tonight.
He could tell by their snoring that Uncle Eb and Aunt Em were asleep, so he got out of bed and slipped into his shirt and britches and sneaked down the stairs, being careful to miss the squeaky boards. In the kitchen he climbed up on a chair to reach the box of matches atop the warming oven of the old wood-burning stove. He took a fistful of matches, then reconsidered and put back all but half a dozen because he was afraid Aunt Em would notice if he took too many.
Outside, the grass was wet and cold with dew, and he rolled up his britches so the cuffs wouldn’t get all soaked and set off across the pasture.
Going through the woods there were some spooky places, but he wasn’t scared too badly, although no one could go through the woods at night without being scared a little.
Finally he got to the blackberry patch and stood there wondering how he could get through the patch in the dark without ripping his clothes and getting his bare feet full of thorns. And, standing there, he wondered if what he’d seen was still there and all at once he knew it was, for he felt a friendliness come from it, as if it might be telling him that it still was there and not to be afraid.
He was just a little unnerved, for he was not used to friendliness. The only friend he had was Benny Smith, who was about his age, and he only saw Benny during school and then not all the time, for Benny was sick a lot and had to stay home for days on end, and since Benny lived way over on the other side of the school district he never saw him during vacation time at all.
By now his eyes were getting a little used to the darkness of the blackberry patch and he thought that he could see the darker outline of the thing that lay in there and he tried to understand how it could
The thing kept right on feeling friendly toward him.
So he put out his hands and tried to push the bushes apart so he could squeeze in and see what it was. If he could get close to it, he thought, he could strike the matches in his pocket and get a better look at it.
“Stop,” said the friendliness, and at the word he stopped, although he wasn’t sure at all that he had heard the word.
“Don’t look too closely at us,” said the friendliness, and Johnny was just a little flustered at that, for he hadn’t been looking at anything at all-not too closely, that is.
“All right,” he said. “I won’t look at you.” And he wondered if it was some sort of a game, like hide-and-seek that he played at school.
“After we get to be good friends,” said the thing to Johnny, “we can look at one another and it won’t matter then, for we’ll know what we are like inside and not pay attention to how we look outside.”
And Johnny, standing there, thought how they must look awful, not to want him to see them, and the thing said to him, “We would look awful to you. You look awful to us.”
“Maybe, then,” said Johnny, “it’s a good thing I can’t see in the dark.”
“You can’t see in the dark?” it asked, and Johnny said he couldn’t and there was silence for a while, although Johnny could hear it puzzling over how come he couldn’t see when it was dark.
Then it asked if he could do something else and he couldn’t even understand what it tried to say and finally it