In retrospect he was always a knight. How else do you explain the brandishing of flaming swords and rescue of innocents? But retrospect is always useful in the illumination of what has already come to pass. Afterall in this case, it took awhile for the knight to evolve. In this case, my story begins with a seven-year-old boy.
I met Alex when we were seven. He joined my second grade class a couple weeks into the school year. Alex was mean in a classic seven-year-old boy kind of way. He threw out insults every other time he spoke. Taunting the girls mercilessly, especially during sports or other cooperative games. Our enmity was sealed, however, one warm May evening in woodland clearing in Wisconsin.
The sun was warm and dappled through leafy branches, as we piled out of cars into the campsite. The boys and girls immediately separated, like oil and water. I helped my mother set-up the tent we were to share, and watched regretfully as the five girls in the class, to whom I did not relate, ran off to explore the creak. The spring had done something funny to the girls in my class, all of a sudden their laughter had turned into dreadful giggling, and all they seemed to talk about was boys and kissing -especially this one boy, Ben. It seemed that all of the girls I used to play tag and climb trees with had all fallen madly in love (whatever that meant) with this one scrawny, yellow-haired kid. I shuffled my feet and rolled my eyes. There was a muddy patch up the creek, I remembered it from earlier, maybe I’d go look for frogs.
As I climbed down the embankment I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I turned to see Samantha, an older sibling that had come on the trip with us, waving at me. I felt a little thrill pass through me. Samantha was in fourth grade, she was my sister’s best friend. I liked Samantha, but as a personal friend she was off limits, except when we had a four-way play date with my sister, Samantha, and her younger sister Emily. I was having a harder and harder time relating to Emilly. Emily was the leader, you see. It was her will that propelled this new fascination with boys and kissing, a phenomenon to which I just couldn’t relate. So here I was, outcaste from the girl’s club and with a whole two days with Samantha all to myself. We played together into the evening, giggling at the other girl’s plan to all kiss Ben that night. We found heart-shaped leaves and sprinkled them on the side of the stream, calling it the love den. When our parents called us up for dinner, I ran smiling to the campfire.
As the sun set, we sat around the campfire telling stories and singing songs. I sat in my favorite spot by the fire, lighting a long stick and drawing with the charred end on a nearby rock. After awhile parents and kids headed off for various tents, and the only people left were Alex and myself. I watched him absent-mindedly as he lit a stick and ran around brandishing it wildly like a sword. Apparently tiring of his invisible enemy, Alex approached me with the glowing stick and in one quick movement swiped it across my arm and leg.
Ow! I cried “What did you do that for?” He looked at me waiting to see what I would do. I stared at him. “That’s how the burning stick goes.” He said. I was speechless. I must have stared at him for another several seconds before he wandered off, brandishing his glowing stick. I stood up and walked away.
My grandfather fought in the Navy in WWII. He had a tattoo on his arm and a jagged scar on his right shoulder. He never talked about the war, or his scar. He was a dark haired man of about five foot ten. He name was Joseph but he called himself Frank. His parents were of German decent (we think) but he considered himself Italian, a believable lie with his dark complexion and his spit-fire Italian wife (my grandmother). My grandfather fascinated me. I would often steal glances at the scar sliding out under his rolled up sleeve and make up stories as to its origin.
In the early morning light I climbed out of the tent and rolled up my sleeve. Carefully I examined the soft skin of my inner arm and sighed at the thin red shadow of the night before. Some scar this was! I couldn’t very well tell a good story off of it. I examined my knee. Yep, same thin line about an inch long.
I would have taken up hating
Alex in earnest, if it weren’t for one problem. He loved animals
. He was the one who would nurse a sick bird back to health, or into death
. He was the one who befriended the wild rabbits in his yard. When he was with animals, it was as if the world of people
disappeared and his entire demeanor would transform.
Three years after the burning stick incident, our class was on an overnight trip at a farm. I woke up early, and decided to go for a walk. As I approached the pig-pen there was Alex, leaning over the edge watching the piglets camber over their mother. I was about to walk the other way when he spoke, pointing out one and then another. He spoke kindly, softly. He asked if I had seen the rabbits, on the far side of the shed. I tried to remember how much I loathed this boy (on principle) but his eyes were bright with excitement, and he seemed so eager to share his experience. I shrugged my shoulders in resignation, and followed him around to the shed.
Maybe that was why, when Alex moved to New Jersey the summer before eighth grade I decided to keep in touch. I remember calling him one evening shortly after he started school.
“I don’t get it” he complained, “the boys in my class are so mean to the girls, always teasing them.”
“What??” I exclaimed incredulously. “Like you guys never teased us…”
“That was different” he said.
“How was it different?” more out of curiosity than as a challenge.
“You girls always fought back” he said. “But here…it’s…it’s as if they believe it. And it’s not just teasing, the guys are mean."
"Oh! Is that it? So if we were sweet and nice and didn't fight back, you'd have left us alone?"
"I can't believe you, of all people, are getting upset over the way guys are treating girls. So...have you talked about it to any of them? I mean, do you speak up when they do that?"
Apparently Alex didn't sit around quietly either. He didn't exactly fight back, as he was an outsider and it was not his battle. But he defended. Quietly at first, I imagine. A diversion of topic here, a counter-remark there. I always wished I was a fly on the wall of that classroom. We spoke pretty regularly throughout that year, then slowly drifted apart. But I never forgot that conversation, nor the child he was before.
I have a thin little scar on the inside of my right knee. It's not visible if you're not looking for it. But it's still there. I look at it sometimes and it always brings a smile to my face. It reminds me of a burning stick, and the unexpectedness of people. Besides, it makes a good story.