Warm little kid and sharp as a bird beak, born right there on the carpet when his step father won’t let his mother out to the hospital. He’s raised by himself and away from watchful eyes, creeps ’round the woods in quiet hours gathering blackberries in his shirt. Always cutting his legs up with the thorns. Beaten savagely like his mother before him.
Any such child of beating has his leanings, to fear or darker musing. Even as he wanders in the branches some hell rises inside him. Clenching his fists and gritting his teeth and pressing his red face into the creek long as he can while his breath poisons slow in his lungs.
Looking up with just his eyes, a strand of water-soaked hair shaking in the corner of his vision. A squirrel is passing by just in front of him. Twitching and blinking, one eye just slightly after the other and it moves it’s little paws over the dirt. The hate is welling. He feels like yelling but keeps obediently quiet, not disturbing the peace of the forest. But he can feel it fighting to the surface, gutting him from the inside and rising to the top like impurities from boiled gold.
The creature looks up at him, transfixed by creeping realization. They lock eyes, and a single muscle twitching under the squirrels nose gives warning and just at the moment when the whip will crack, something stops it. The boy can feel it pouring out from him in waves into the mind of the creature until it overflows. The squirrel falls down sideways to the ground, consumed wordlessly by vast pain both physical and mental. Ten long, sick years of it. It can’t understand a second.
The boy stands. By the green-filtered light he watches, feeling the pain leaking out from somewhere. Concentration on the writhing little form, he pushes it. More and more, the pains of his ten years flowing into the body. He can feel it ebbing away, his cuts and bruises bubbling off it’s skin. He smiles, blinking. And looks up at the forest’s ceiling, tears of joy on his face.
From then on it gets a little better. When he can, the boy slips out into the forest to release his pain on the unaware forest. He finds that letting it out provides a semblance of relief, temporarily. But the more he lets bleed the more takes it’s place, of thrown insults and bottles and rough hands moving over him. Of words from schoolmates breaking over his shoulders. Every tortured night vomited up into the mind of a passing animal. They writhe on the forest floor when he does it. He used to not watch.
The switch is flipped proper on an unassuming winter day. The irritation causing it is so minor as to be nothing. He’s pushed to the ground by a schoolmate and kicked in the sides by two others. His scabs can attest to the frequency of these things.
He begins by redirecting the pain they cause him. Bruising their sides, making them grow paranoid in the hallways for the scraps of money in their pockets. Making them taste sweaty hands in their mouths and down their throats and vomit on their teeth. When they won’t stop it escalates. A broken rib. Bottle glass in their neck, the sharp corner of a table to the side. Lonely, sleepless depression driving them deeper into the wilds. Hate screaming inside them pushing free.
The air about him is always awash in these and many more such torments. It is an ever-present stench about him. His pains fill every space, his paranoia and fear. Even the innocent children are burdened by a fresh cascade of pain as he passes them in the halls. No one dare raise a hand, not when he can call such pain and guilt as to cripple their body and mind. Hit me, he’ll say. Hit me you old bastard, right across the mouth. Just to feed the pit.
He turns to drinking.
He’s in from a night out in the woods again. The bottle hangs limp in his clammy hands. He fumbles with the keys. Anger rises so easy now it flows ever present, thick in the air he exhales. It brings people to their knees. The porch light overhead flickers violently, and little clicks sound as moths hit it. The key turns.
The flickering light extends out into the house and stretches black impressions over it’s surfaces. Immediately the stink of blood fills his nose. His eyes dart nervously over every nook. A TV is going in the bedroom like always, the light it casts moves to the cadence of sport but no sound. He can see the back room, and now a faint banging and swearing. He enters the bedroom.
Her head is broken open at the top, cracked lines of blood stain her eyes and mouth. Strands of hair are gathered up in it, in the wound cut across her brow. It soaks the carpet, congealed among it’s fibers. Her tongue is swollen and seems to fill her gaping mouth, and blood is crusted on her two front teeth. She’s sitting up against the bed eyes open as if contemplating the wall. And over her the bringer of death, stood ready with his gaze locked on the boy.
Don’t do nothin’ you’d regret, He says slowly. A pause, the boy is drinking it in. I had to do it like this, she was comin’ at me. She would’ve hit me, sweartogod. The boy looks up at him in disbelief. His step dad looks away at the wall, lip quivering, and turns back to him. All I had was a bottle, I was just gonna do a… a practice swing. W-warning swing. But the damned thing didn’t break. He looked down at it, lying there. Wasn’t my fault it happened, but I know you’ll blame me.
Seconds lapse in the little stand off. And then it begins. Silently, he lets every last drop of it hard into his step father’s fat body. Waves of hurt filling the old man up to the very brim. Tears run down both their cheeks in unison. He’s dredging up the darkest thoughts from so far down he’s hardly aware of them. His anger and sorrow are filling faster than he can unload them. His step father is on the floor, leaning against the bed and weeping hard.
The guilt of secret sins, of standing over the weeping bodies of classmates. Of arguments screamed out while he cowers. Of many pulls from the bottle by the light of an overcast moon. Filling up the animals with his hate and pain. Every bit of it emptied into his father’s writhing form, but it’s not enough. Nothing could be enough.
He leans down close, right by his father’s ear, clutching at his grubby shirt. There’s comin’ a day, he says, when I come back. Hate gathered in his voice. I’m gonna go out and find the pain of the world, he says. I’m gonna find pain like you never felt before. He pushes his step father back into the bed frame and stands up in the same motion. The last reserves flow out into the broken form.
Morning breaks out over the dashboard. He’s been driving all night and his eyes are tired. He rubs the hair from out of his eyes, pulls the sunshade down. The sun’s rising diagonally in the corner of his eyes. Arriving at a diner, he sits down on a bench outside and looks over the town. He’s never been this far.
Three years. He wanders in and out through American dreamscapes, guided by a compass rambling where is hidden to man. Getting into squabbles in bars, by choice walking barefoot and coat-less. Collecting pain. He kills a man with the strength of his hands in an alleyway for looking at him. He tells himself he’s nothing, worthless. Guilt is welling, sorrow, and tangible pain. Pain in his joints and muscles. In his blow-rattled jaw. Old pains from times past, and new ones. Chaffing against him.
How quick can three years enter the old man? Should it be compressed into a moment, or drawn out as long as it has taken to gather? Will such poison kill, or will it merely bleed him? He pounds his body against the steering wheel on the road at night. Screaming raw. He is violent, the younger image of his step father. Paranoid, his instinct is away from prying eyes. His spirit lies in puddles and rain sumps. In stains and mud and cracked blood tied up in bandages, American soil.
He returns. On the back of the bus way, cold and tired. Broken up. At last, he has gathered all he can stand. He sits down next to an old man swallowed up in a leather coat. The man looks sideways at him.
Young man? The old man says. He doesn’t look.
Young man, the old man says louder. He turns. What?
You’re shivering. Would you like to borrow my coat? He shakes his head.
Naw, old man. It’s been a long time coming to stop now. Silence. The old man wipes the scruff of his face.
You young ones, now I don’t understand y’all sometimes. You… you feel there’s debt you’re to pay, for better or worse.
The man laughs under his breath. Yeah, I got a debt to pay somebody. The old man shakes his head again, still looking out the window.
You carry it all with you. And act like you’ve got to do it. Like it’s a man’s lot to do it.
The younger turns to the old man. It is, old man. This whole damn country’s created from suffering. The old man turns back to him, eyes severe.
That’s true. It runs in a man’s veins. The old man leans in close so their shoulders are touching. The younger recoils, but listens intently.
But even if we’re made of suffering, it’s decency keeping us together. It’s God’s breath moving in the clay.
He breathes quickly, glaring wildly at the old man. The old man settles back into his seat, looking out the window again. The younger leans back, staring up at the ceiling.
The bus pulls up to the stop and he gets off. It’s cold and snow moves in the clouds. His feet are bare on the sidewalk as he walks. Coming to the old house, it’s unruly and unkempt as he left it. He pulls the old key from his pocket, holds it down by his side. The breath clouds in front of him. He looks up at the cloudy sky, gathering all the years up that he’s saved, bursting to be free.
He steps up onto the porch, his jaw tight and his fists clenched, coaxing the tide. Steadying the key with both hands, he slides it slowly into the lock, putting pressure on it.
It doesn’t turn.
He pushes it again, harder. Breathing heavier, he shakes at the door knob, swearing under his breath. He hits the door, slamming into it with his body. The flimsy old key snaps off in the lock. He calls dying rabbit screams out into the air as he forces his aching body into the door. He looks around, the hair falling in his face, and sees the window. Smashing it, he steps into the house, wanders through every room. Weeping his eyes raw. The stain is still in the carpet in the bedroom, but cobwebs are gathered in the corners. Life is long since left from this place.
He sinks weeping to the living room floor. Moaning, feeling the years ache in his legs. He pushes himself up and out of the house, sprinting back further into the woods beyond and stopping at the creek. Pushing his head into the mud of the creek, he unleashes the tide.
Something is different. The pain doesn’t spread to the ground, to the animals there. It rises like helium, up over the tree canopy and into the atmosphere. It pours from him like smoke off an iron, off his back and clothes, bleeding out from every pour. He sobs deeply into the ground.
But he finds it doesn’t fill him again. It just flows and flows, until he is empty of it and he rolls over onto his back. The snow is falling, floating down softly over the wood. The tears streaking his ruddy face are freezing, and they stop entirely. His burden is gone, taken up. There is nothing left to feel.