Tuesday, March 30, 2010

That Great and Terrible Knowledge

The first story I've ever posted! Hope you enjoy it.

“Oh Truth, Truth, how inwardly did the

Very marrow of my soul pant for You…

- Confessions (III.vi.)


I was twelve years old when I committed my first murder. Stuart and Knox were there, shirts tied round their heads like the commandos we had seen in Rambo commercials on TNT. They stood next to me, Knox was silent and searching for words as he rested his elbow on my shoulder; He knew what I was feeling. Even in October it was warm in Dothan Alabama. The air wasn’t as damp as it was in august, but still hung heavy above the earth, wrapping you around your shoulders and following you as you walked. I was clutching a pile of rocks that had been only a few moments before an innocent tool used to kill the invisible Enemy and it’s minions in our neighborhood forest, but in one fell swoop, one misdirected toss, it had actually found a mark. And it was I who moved my arm, supplied the force, released the stone, and harmed this unsuspecting creature, probably knocking it from it’s home high up in a tree. A hurried gust of wind rent the warm silence and stirred the sleeping leaves on the ground, sending them up around my ankles and revealing even more the broken remnant of life at our feet. Stuart was the first one to see the body, and he craned over it, wide-eyed with what I counted as misplaced excitement.

“What a shot,” he said, “ did you even see it there? He crouched to his knees, picking up a twig from the ground, and glanced up at me.

“Oh man, don’t touch it,” said Knox, “ just leave it alone and let’s get out of here.” Knox put his hands in his pockets and I brought mine to the top of my head. I could already smell the thing.

“Man you really hit him good.” Stuart flicked its wing over and revealed its belly, feathers ruffled. Its beak was open.

I said, “I didn’t see it.” My skin was starting to tingle and the lower part of my back was getting warm, my stomach turned and I could feel the slow procession of vomit finding it’s way to my mouth. I had killed something.

We walked back to the house; I had a feeling I wouldn’t want to play anymore for the rest of the day. I hung my head.

“It’s not a big deal,” Stuart tried to comfort me. “Birds are all over the place, so you killed one, you didn’t mean to.”

“But it still happened, I could have been more careful.” My face was burning; my back began to pour sweat.

“How in the hell do you think you could have been more careful? A bird doesn’t even do anything but sit in trees and fly around. It’s not like it’s a dog; it doesn’t belong to anyone. Who cares if one dies, and who cares who did it if it does.”

Knox then said, “It’s not a big deal; don’t keep talking about it.” His voice trembled as he finished that last word and he shut up. I was glad, I needed somebody to shut up, the things they were saying and the things I was saying to myself in my mind blended together and I was overwhelmed by the weight of the question: What had I done? I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. But I killed something, something alive, something that may have had babies or friends. I recalled a trip fishing with my father a few years before, how I watched him delicately remove a hook from a fishes mouth, gripping it’s lip with one hand and resting it’s weight on his knee. He always performed this operation in a hurry, he always dropped the fish right back in the water. This time I had kept the creature; I had denied it its right to the water, or to the sky. What was I anymore? No, no, I said to myself. I have done nothing wrong, I have only been a part of an unfortunate accident. And yet my tongue swelled, that or my throat was shrinking. I was as good as a killer, I thought. But what was that? I reasoned myself into guilt, into vindication, and after all, I feared reason would lead to madness. I felt the course roll of stones still in my palm, and dropped them as if they were burning me.

“What now?” I let myself say. They kept walking, wrestling with a question that didn’t make any sense, not even to me.


We clapped hands at my door, and then I was alone at home. I dropped my bandana on the floor by the back door and passed through the living room on my way to my bed. I found it and collapsed on it, uncertain of why I was so upset. I rolled onto my back and counted the cracks in my ceiling. I had been meaning to stick a poster up there over them; maybe I’d do that in a few minutes, I thought to myself. Sadness, anger, was killing me. What was I feeling? Was it guilt? I most assuredly felt guilty, and yet wrestled with it, as if I had a right to be counted as innocent.

The door to the house opened, hung for a second, and then shut. He was home.

I heard my father drop some mail on to a table, whistle as he went from the living room to the kitchen, shout “hallelujah!” as he discovered one last Grapico in the fridge. He had to have known. He had to. I could hear his feet coming down the hall, closer and closer to my door. I was ready for the hammer to drop. The door opened.

“I’m sorry” was the first thing he heard when he stepped in. I was in tears, but I couldn’t remember when they had started (I hope Stuart and Knox hadn’t seen me crying). “It was my fault, I didn’t mean to, and it won’t happen again. I’m so sorry.” I was bawling.

Now my father, a teacher and an occasional drunk, had a big heart, but an even bigger head. He didn’t waste a moment of confusion: “Son I don’t know what you did, but whatever it was I promise that it’s going to be ok.”

“How do you know? You don’t know what I’ve done, it could be anything.”

His face was soft. “I’m not worried,” he laughed, “you didn’t kill anybody did you?”

I didn’t think it was funny.


The day was ending. The shadows of trees had already stretched their bony fingers across the west face of our house, and inside, warmth found me from a fire my father had put to light in our pale marble fireplace. I leaned back in my bed with a heavy chest, my father went to the kitchen, poured some milk for me, grabbed a beer for himself, and made his way back to me. He set the milk down on the table beside the bed and, resting his palm on my shoulder, he told this story:

There was a man in Africa once, who lived in a village close to a river. Everyday the villagers would put out in the morning a few tall young men to go to the river and fetch water, and this man would go with them. Mzungu, they called him, the “traveler.” He knew the river well, after many years of travel down and up it. One year, however, the traveler searched further down the river than the village than he had been before, and came upon another village, quite similar in appearance to the first. And yet, the people in this village never gathered water from the river, but instead waited until the rains came, and gathered that water that was collected on leaves. Because of this, their water was murky, and not as abundant as that of the other village. And so the traveler went to the riverside, dipped his hat in the water, and brought it back to the villagers to drink. They had never tasted such clear, pure water before, and immediately resolved to gather their future water supplies from the river. A few of them, however, did not like the idea of taking water from the river, and so they went out into the wilderness to find the other village up-stream. When they came upon them, they told them that they were from another village that had just begun to take water from the river. The first village was enraged in anger that their water was being taken, and so set up arms to go and attack the other village. The other village prepared to defend itself, and a war broke out that still goes on today.

I furrowed my brow and puzzled at the meaning. I gathered my thoughts, and finally asked:

“Why did they attack the second village?” Father raised his eyebrows and said soberly, “Because they were jealous. They wanted the water for themselves.”

“But there was plenty of water, a whole river’s worth. Why would they be jealous?” My father smiled, his face so disarming. He had expected the question, and knew his answer well.

“Because son, they are people. People are given to do terrible and bizarre things with the power that is given them.”

“Like I did today.”

“Exactly. And yet, not so. What you did was not good, and so I expect you to be more careful when you are playing around outside. However, it really isn’t that bad of a thing you did. After all, it was an accident, and so I ask you to relinquish your guilt. Go easy on yourself, buddy. But what’s more important is that you realized something was amiss when you killed the bird. (I cringed when he said it). Imagine if the villagers who were jealous of the river had had that thought as they were marching to battle with the other village.

“So what do I do?” He took a swig of his beer.

“You forgive yourself, and take comfort that there is a good and a bad, and you’re beginning to look for the difference.” He stopped what he was saying short, and scratched his whiskered chin with that thinking look, the one I had seen so much in adults and always wondered when I would have that hair to scratch. The next thing he did is something I have remembered for years gone by. He turned towards my bedside table, opened the small drawer on its front side, and reaching in, pulled out an old dusty bible and placed it on the tabletop. My father patted my knee, told me he loved me, and made his way to the door.

“But is there any hope for people?” I asked. My father had opened the door, and the breaking light through the opening silhouetted his figure. I imagine he was smiling.

“So much.” He shut the door and I passed into an easy sleep.