The boy had become acquainted with the ground.
Here it was sandy soil, cool and slightly damp to the touch, comfortable against his thin body, with little wildflowers poking up here and there, weedy green forgotten children of the earth. The ground here was friendly and took seeds and bony little boys into itself with equal joy. There were days he dug little depressions, like a nesting plover, and laid down the rocks he found in a wavering line between the flowers, and tried to pick all the dirt out from under his fingernails.
Beyond where he lay was the gravel. That rolled beneath feet, sprayed behind flying heels, battered bare soles. That caught in your clothes when you were thrown down upon it, and left little nubbly patterns of bruises and spidering marks of torn skin. And beyond that was the concrete. That was the brutal ground, hard and unforgiving like a curse of hatred, scything skin from flesh, flesh from blood, blood from bone. That was the ground that scarred.
Over that way was the rumpled sand at the bottom of the swingset, but he did not know that ground, because the boys who walked never let him go there, because he was the boy who crawled. The one time he had, they'd kicked him in the back of his head, and that soft, sweet, shifting sand had filled his mouth and nose. Then the nurse'd had to pump under his ribcage, and he'd been coughing up harsh grains for days.
But now he was on the soil, against the fence of the playground, and he was safe, and eye to eye with a garden snake. In the faintest whisper, he asked the snake about the weather, and the snake complained of the clouds and said it wanted to sun itself, and is that mouse I smell over there, no, that's only boy, not mouse...
Oh, yes, the snakes talked to him. He was the only one they would talk to, fey boy that he was, reviled by the world and acquainted with the ground. He spent almost as much time crawling on his belly as they did, and he alone wept when those skinny little ribbons of life met their skinny little ends. When you talk to snakes, everything comes in long stripes, and everybody stares at you as the little scaly garter winds around your wrist and flicks its tongue and murmurs about how blades of grass go this way and that when you slither and why is the sun hiding today, did it hurt its face? He learned soon enough to pretend he didn't talk to the little serpents, but the boys never forgot. After all, he was the orphanage lunatic, all ten years of him, with his eyes like the heart of a hot fire and a father who feared him more than death itself. Crazy boy. Snake boy. Fey boy.
If he could speak to them, he would have laughed and told them he was a changeling--didn't they know that fairies would take a human child and leave one of their own, with its fey little eyes, and it could call lightning from the sky when it grew? But changelings were only something he'd read about once, in a little book he'd stolen and hidden with for a few days before the cleaning lady had taken it from him, and he didn't know all the words and had to make up half of it, so he wasn't sure he'd gotten it right. And he couldn't speak to the other boys anyway. The last time he'd tried, they'd thrown him down on the concrete and the skin had torn off his arm in one long swath and blood had poured over his fingers and bright red bruises had seared his whole body. He'd crawled so slowly, across the cruel ground and the rolling ground, until he'd reached the sandy earth and collapsed in pain, open flesh peppered with dirt, his fingers plowing the soil weakly as he cried tears hot like flame. A scaly little yellow-and-black ribbon, barely long enough to cross his palm twice, had curled next to his head and hissed in outrage and bared its needle teeth at the boys who walked. He'd might have laughed at it, at that tiny thing wanting vengeance on giants, but one of the boys who walked had picked it up on a stick and dashed it against the wall, so he'd cried instead. Then they'd dashed his head against the wall too, and he'd woken up four hours later in the infirmary with his pupils not quite the same size.
Now he just lay and listened to a snake talk about grass. This is the grass of remembrance, it said. This is the grass of remembrance, where others have bled, and we have bled, where others have wept and we have wept. Snakes cry tears with the heart of earth, not with water. You cry tears with water, crazy boy, but you're not like the others, you crawl like us, and you water this grass for us, and you speak with us under the dying sun. Remembrance? My love has died against that wall, my child has been smashed against the concrete. Only you held their broken bodies in your warm hands. Only you watered this grass against cruelty.
One day, he wanted to say. One day I'll crawl all the way and be acquainted with all the ground and then I'll be everything, because they'll never stop me, it doesn't matter how much they hurt me. One day slithering things will mean something. One day the others will cry like we have. One day...
And maybe he did say it aloud in a faint little whisper, because the snake sang of grass grown from blood, and remembrance of the pain of the cruel ones, and the boy smiled, just a little. And although the clouds were thickening, the snake was as warm as could be, because the boy took the little ribbon in his hands and let it slide between his fingers and soak up the heat of his palms. It is good for snakes to have a boy on a cold day, he thought.
"Ew. He's holding a snake again."
Yes, it would be good for snakes to have a boy. But who did the boy have on a cold day?
"Little loony." Laughter. "C'mon, even his name's a joke..."
Nobody. Nobody and nobody, cold day or warm.
"Nobody's gonna answer you, Riddle. C'mon, give it here..."
Just a hissing garter and sandy earth and the grass of remembrance.
"C'mere, Crazy Tom..."