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Fiction #128
(published April 3, 2003)
The Boy with the Crooked Mouth
by Tom Sheehan

It was never what he said, The Boy with A Crooked Mouth, but how he said it. It was the way he sneered and looked down at people, those who did menial tasks. He looked down at maids and drivers and sheep ranchers and even firemen when there was no fire. He had little use for landscapers and log splitters and men who froze ice cream and men who climbed poles to put up wires or women who spent long hours making clothes for other people.

Whatever he said, the mean way he said it, the way the words came out of his mouth, made his mouth crooked. The words came with something almost visible hanging on them, pulling at his mouth, like spidery webs or tree moss or ghostly strings of a sort. And his mouth always got twisted and screwed up and made him look odd and he never once realized it. Nobody ever told him, "Go look in a mirror at the way your mouth looks whenever you talk." Nobody ever said to him, "Go talk to the mirror and tell us what you see."

They just let him continue talking because his father was the richest man in the town. This was the town where the rich man lived on the hilltop in the biggest house. It was the house, as The Boy with A Crooked Mouth would say, closest to the stars. "Some nights, if you don't know, I can almost reach out and touch my stars."

Words like those words really stretched his mouth out of shape and made him look so silly and so plastic that people did not laugh, they pitied him so much. "My stars!" they would say to themselves. "My stars!" sounding like, "My word!" and small glee filled their eyes.

The Boy with A Crooked Mouth particularly liked Orion, sitting there on top of the whole universe. Orion, he thought, must be much like his own father, princely, top of the mark, one of a kind. And, he often said to himself, the kind of a man I will become some day.

One day a new boy came into town, tall and with red hair. His bright eyes and handsome face put him in the limelight right away. While he walked about the town, he whistled. Every place he went he whistled and people knew he was coming, or knew he was going. All kinds of whistle sounds came from his lips; long whistles and short whistles and train whistles and bird whistles and bird songs, and even ship whistles sounding far at sea. When he did a whole song people would marvel at his range of notes and how beautiful the tones were.

When The Boy with A Crooked Mouth got tired of all the attention being paid to The Boy Who Whistled All the Time, he walked up to him and said, "I bet you think you're pretty special the way you can whistle. I don't think you can whistle that good." He turned and pointed off to the house on the top of the hill. "I live up there. Where do you live? What does your father do for work? Does he work in the fields? Is your mother a maid? If she needs a job I might be able to get her one."

His mouth was as crooked as it ever had been. It was almost like a scar that had healed from a bad wound, or a bolt of lightning caught in its place in a dark sky. Jagged it was, and wretched. It even made his eyes look funny and out of kilter.

The Boy Who Whistled All the Time did not answer the questions. Instead, looking right at the other boy, said, "Why is your mouth so crooked? Did you get hurt? Have you fallen on your head? Are you angry at me because you cannot whistle?" He stopped for a moment and looked closely at the boy's crooked mouth. "I doubt that you could ever whistle, your mouth is so crooked, so out of shape. It's as if it's bent or broken. I probably couldn't teach you how to whistle no matter how hard I tried."

"I can do anything you can do." Nobody had ever talked to him like this before. It felt very strange. He wondered if he should look in a mirror, but he couldn't make himself do it. His mouth felt perfectly all right to him.

"Not with that crooked mouth," the new boy said. "You couldn't begin to whistle with a mouth like than in a hundred years." Off he walked, a most glorious tune rising from his lips, a song that made people stop in their tracks, listen to the song, and remember the words that went with the music. A lot of them thought about olden times when they were young. All along the way people waved at him and raised their arms happily over their heads.

And The Boy with A Crooked Mouth saw it and wondered again about the mirror.

That night he talked about it with his father. "It'll come to you some day, my son," the father said. "You'll be able to whistle and you'll be happy for a while, but then, when it doesn't bring you any money or won't get groceries for you or pay your bills, you might want to try something else." He smiled and patted his son on the head and said, "Like working in the bank when the right time comes."

"But what about this new boy? He keeps on whistling and he seems so happy and so are those who hear him. He doesn't have to pay any bills."

"Listen, my son," the rich father said, "Whatever you do in this life, just make sure people look up to you. Not down on you. That's what's important. Where you fit in this world."

"Like always living on top of the hill in the biggest house?" the boy said and neither he nor his father saw how crooked his mouth had become once again.

One day the old gardener who worked on top of the hill at the biggest house carved a whistle out of an old piece of wood he had found. When he blew on it a most beautiful sound came from it. He cut a few more holes and soon a host of lovely notes leaped into the air.

The Boy with A Crooked Mouth heard the notes from the whistle and came running around the corner of the big house. The old gardener whose name was Renee Persimmon had always smiled at the little man of the big house. He had always been kind, and the boy knew it. Renee was one person he had no disrespect for, and did not look down on him.

"Where did you get such a beautiful whistle, Renee?" he said, and he sat beside the old man on a small bench.

"I made it from an old piece of wood. It was a pretty piece of wood, though. It had such a nice grain to it, long and smooth like a canoe or kayak or a swimmer in the water. I decided not to burn it and not to throw it away because most all things have some kind of use, are worthy in themselves."

"All things?" The Boy with A Crooked Mouth said. He listened to more beautiful notes coming from the whistle. "All things? Are you sure?" He did not know softness had begun at the corners of his lips. The music was still beautiful and Renee nodded his agreement. The boy said, "Will you teach me, Renee. I would love to be able to play that whistle the way you do."

"Why would you want that, Armand?" Renee said, deciding it was time to call the boy by his given name.

The Boy Who Once Had A Crooked Mouth said, "I think it would make people happy. It makes me happy. The Boy Who Whistles All the Time makes people happy." His lips were really soft now, and his mouth was no longer screwed up like a bolt of lightning or an ugly old scar. "Perhaps it would make my father smile to hear me play that whistle."

Renee Persimmon the old gardener said, "I don't think you need any lessons, Armand. You look like you can play it right off the bat. Here, try it," and he handed him the whistle and saw how soft and pleasant the boy's mouth was and how music would soon have its rightful place with him.

"Wait until The Boy Who Whistles All the Time hears this," he said as he played some beautiful notes. "It might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"Yes," Renee Persimmon said, "an old friend of mine said that once in a movie a long time ago."

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