I asked him who he was, and he said, "I'm Sweeney," and I believed him. I probably shouldn't have, except that it was true. I can always tell when people are telling the truth.
Mum and Dad were still in the last battles of the divorce, so I was trying to keep myself out of their hair as much as possible. This was why I had packed two cornmeal pancakes and an old plastic dish of syrup and was heading out into nowhere, where I wasn't necessarily wanted but sure as hell wasn't unwelcome. Not that I was resentful about it or anything. Nobody wants to fight in an amphitheater. Well, nobody but gladiators, but you don't see a lot of those around these days. Goes to show you.
So out I went, with my book and my pair of half-crumbling pancakes and my yellow wellies and an old, oatmeal-colored jumper that had holes in the elbows. "Get a new one, Linnie," everybody was always saying. The truth was I had gotten used to it, and now it felt weird not to have my elbows out in the wind like that. Out on the edge of some stranger's field on a rock under some old tree, reading my book, eating my pancakes, with my elbows comfortably half-frozen in the new fall air. Nigh on paradise for somebody like me, that is to say an ungrateful teenaged child knocked out of the house by more serious topics.
And that's where I found Sweeney. In that tree, over that cold old rock in some unfamiliar field. Just looked up and there he was, watching me from the smooth, gnarled limb over my head, naked and white as the sky.
"Who are you?" I said.
"I'm Sweeney," he said.
It was true.
He was as mad as they say, in the stories. You could see it. It shone out of him, like his skin was made out of paper like one of those Chinese lanterns, a weird, flimsy, mortal envelope around the kind of madness that they make stories out of. You could tell he was old. Not the way you're thinking, I mean, because even though his hair was faded right out to white there were moments when he'd turn just so and you could see he'd had the face of a king. I mean old the way memories get old. Faded and twisted and turned a little vague, stretched out in one direction or only properly sharp when you see them from one angle. His arms and legs a little too long, skin like wood with the bark peeled off. Eyes like I don't know what.
I guess that's where the madness comes in.
I looked up at him, less wary than you'd think. I don't know why. "What're you doing there?" I said.
Instead of answering, he just pointed down at me with one worn, too-long finger. "What's that?" he said.
I looked down at my hands, at the warped little plastic dish. "It's a pancake," I said. "You want some?" I dipped it in the cold syrup and handed it up to him, and he ate it on the shoulder of the tree, his feet clinging to the branch under him.
"What're you doing up there?" I asked again.
He glanced down at me and licked the syrup from the palm of his hand. "I'm lost," he said.
And, before I could answer, he stood up like a spider, crossed his arms and looked me real hard in the eyes. "So are you," he said. And he turned and jumped, effortlessly, disappeared into the half-empty branches of the edge of the woods. Left me facing an empty tree with a handful of crumbs and a dish of maple syrup dripping into the dust.
Wasn't until I turned to go that I realized I didn't remember how to get home.