C. Bard Cole
Squire Hull and Christopher Murphy, two nine year old boys living in Pine Branch, New York, were into prepubescent sadomasochism. An easy fifty percent of their play consisted of torturing each other in varied, devious ways, whole afternoons spent in the woods behind Chris's house taking turns at inflicting injuries, physical or otherwise.
They were best friends, but they feigned dislike, because their parents forced them to play together. Squire's mother was dead and his father worked a second-shift job that kept him from home until 7:30 each evening. Their home was small and ugly because they were poor and because Squire's father was unhappy. Squire was short and skinny -- bony arms and legs protruding from a round little torso -- and disastrously red-haired, hair so dark and coarse it shone purple in bright daylight. His skin was white as a trout belly except for a dusting of large, squarish, brown freckles heaviest on his shoulders. Chris Murphy was tall and athletic, strong-limbed with a protruding, solid tummy; apparently uncomplicated in his personality, outgoing, lacking in anxiety. He played junior soccer. Girls in his class thought he was cute. He was not particularly smart or good at school. Squire was: a clever boy, an avid reader, as skillful at drawing or model painting as he was at multiplying fractions. If he had been from a more well off family, with both parents alive, with less of a roadside-weed look about him, his intelligence would have been admired, but it interfered with adults' desire to pity him and made them wary.
Each day after school, Squire would get off the bus with Chris, and they would eat snacks prepared by Mrs. Murphy while watching cartoons and picking at their homework. At six-thirty they would sit down to dinner with Chris's parents and his older sister. In between, they would run off into the woods and Chris would tell Squire how ugly he was, how his hair was the color of an orangutan, how he looked like an orangutan who'd been partially shaved, how Chris could be playing soccer with his friends if his parents didn't force him to play with Squire every day, how Squire was the dumbest name he'd ever heard of, how he doubted that Squire was even a name.
He would force Squire down on the ground, a stick jutting into his back, in order to stack flat pieces of slate he'd gathered on top of his friend's chest, or pull the smaller boy's tee shirt up, shrouding his head and baring his stomach to place a variety of small gross objects -- slugs, damp-looking fungus, sow bugs, salamanders, grubs or centipedes, mucous from the back of his own throat -- in the downy, freckled "o" of Squire's belly button. Sometimes he would sit on Squire, hold him down and menace him with a string of frothy spit he mostly sucked back up before it landed on Squire's face. Sometimes he would put bark or moss or black ants down Squire's pants.
In the midst of these operations, Squire would begin to talk abstractly about stories he had read -- true stories, about a countess in Europe who stayed young and beautiful by bathing in the blood of children she had killed, about two children in Mexico who found an old mummy in a cave and brought it home, only to have it come alive and kill them, about a girl too lazy to go to the store and buy liver like her parents had asked her, who instead took a human liver from a corpse being buried in the churchyard and her mother cooked that instead, who ate the liver, and was visited by a ghost calling out, "Who has eaten my liver?" He would tell about the Windigo, the Indian cannibal spirit who preyed on children out lost in the woods, convincing Chris that the pile of rocks not far off the path was really an Indian graveyard, a likely place for a Windigo. That was his worst story, and it scared Squire to tell it, since he half-believed it himself.
When Squire's stories began to frighten him -- if the sky was darkening, lit up orange in the west -- Chris would revolt by abandoning his sophisticated tortures and simply jabbing Squire in the arms and legs with a small pointed stick. Sometimes he made actual punctures. This was dangerous. Once he'd made Squire bleed, the smaller boy would become possessed by a strange confidence, even aggressiveness. He would threaten to tell and Chris would beg him not to, pleading and reassuring him with proclamations of friendship. Squire would tell Chris that he was stupid, that he should be wearing deodorant already, that his parents were stupid, that anytime soon Squire's father would let him stay home by himself, that there was something wrong with Chris, that one day Chris would be sent to a psychiatrist and be shocked with electrodes. They would lie on the ground, Squire stretched out on his stomach, holding his friend's arm and looking closely at the pale hollow of his wrist, the blue veins underneath; or the fine hair of Chris's leg by the ankle, scraping white, dusty lines into the skin with a hard-edged rock.
When one of these lines bloomed a pale pink, Chris bleeding like he'd made Squire bleed -- then they were even.
Chris's father was a flabby, shy, educated man who always wished for a son who'd be popular, good-looking, and athletic. Chris looked like he could be that son except for the fact that he was too separate an individual for his father to enjoy this improvement on his own childhood. Because of this misguided lifelong desire, Kevin Murphy ended up with a child he could hardly help but see as a reincarnation of all the boys he'd lived his youth in envy and fear of. That he loved the boy nevertheless only made those dreadful feelings worse.
Squire's father was a tired, lean, sad man, who had lost the only person he'd ever loved as an honest human being, a pretty girl who was good and sweet and kind except when her dark moods swept over her and she fell into a pool of violent despair and self-hatred. She had a mental illness, and she had been treated with many different drugs before her suicide. Mr. Hull had his son's hair cut with almost compulsive regularity to avoid the sight of dark red-brown curls against the gold-freckled skin of a thin, spine-dotted neck. That he loved the boy nevertheless only made the dreadful feelings worse.
These stories mean something but not everything. These are normal boys. They will be friends for a long time. The woods around Pine Branch are so beautiful that you can't describe them. Hills and trees, rocks from glaciers ten thousand years ago scattered everywhere like tic tacs dropped on the car floor from a mother's purse, creeks running and splashing in meandering paths, hills that drop off to nowhere and morning valleys filled with white fog like God's breath -- just like an oil painting for sale at a Quality Inn starving artist sale. Nature can take your breath away and you want to capture it and perhaps it is not so hard to capture but there is a difference between the replica and the real thing. It's easy to make up pretty in a small frame but for real beauty reaches to the sky from below your feet as far as you can see. You can smell it in your lungs.
Sometimes you need to test to make sure you're alive, that the world is more than a school bus, a classroom, a soccer ball, peanut butter and cheese crackers and Japanese cartoons on the television. It's more than overcooked steak with green beans on the side. Chris and Squire knew each other from preschool, when they sat down in the same sandbox and fought over a Tonka trunk. Nobody ever died from getting poked with a stick or scraped with a rock, irrespective of there being blood or not.