short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
I have a secret.
When I was four years old on vacation at my grandfather’s farm, I got caught up in a thresher. For you city dwellers, all you really need know is it’s a huge machine used to separate grain from crops. I was playing cat-n-mouse. You can image which was the mouse.
If not for the quick action of my grandfather and the shift of a not-so-ill wind, I’d be dead. Some, prone to exaggeration, said I should have died.
Obviously not, because I didn’t.
The thresher, like a T. Rex, bent and snatched me by the foot, thrusting his head back in an attempt to gobble me up. I’m told I screamed louder than a human being is able. I refused the invitation.
The hallux of my right foot was mangled. Alien in contrast to my otherwise close-to-perfect body, my big toe is flattened and as if stamped with a die, looks like a happy face. It’s my toe. I get queasy when I look at it.
I don’t wear open-toed shoes and I never go barefoot in the park. You won’t see me swimming.
That’s my secret.
Five years later, early in spring, I dreamed out the classroom window, wondering whether this year I’d be big enough to sit on the back of the T. Rex and guide his grain gobbling.
I heard the door open followed by the principal’s voice. Mrs. Ellis, our teacher, said something. The collective gasp from my classmates finally pulled my hands off the T. Rex’s lever.
Mrs. Ellis spoke, introducing our new classmate like nothing was wrong. If I had surreal in my vocabulary, I’d have used the word.
Raphael stared ahead with vacant eyes, seeing nothing. It looked like someone had taken the flesh off his face, made a jigsaw puzzle and misaligned the pieces back on, hammering them in place, stitching done with coarse thread and clumsy hands. His dark hair projecting out in plugs looked like carrot greens. He scanned the room, finally stopping on my face.
A sense of violation washed over me. I busied with a book, math, my favorite subject. Where things in the world didn’t make sense like war, hungry children in a rich nation, T. Rex’s that attack children, happy face halluces and scar-faced boys, math made sense. Math was predictable and reasonable.
Raphael took the desk across the room. I didn’t look. I didn’t dare look. I knew he stared at me. I could make something up here. I could say I was noble, seeing Raphael as the human being he was and not the monster he appeared to be. I could say I saw beauty in his disaster, whatever that might have been.
I didn’t want to see him. I wanted him to be home schooled. I wanted him to wear a bag on his head. Gosh, people get tummy tucks and eyelids tightened, crow’s feet pulled back just so they can look four years younger for two years. I didn’t know why Raphael couldn’t have proper reconstructive surgery.
I wanted him to stop staring at me.
In the days to follow, shock turned to antagonism, at first manifest in jokes and teasing from afar, privately. Now, I can say I was semi-noble. I never stepped into the fray. I never joined with my classmates. Sadly, I never spoke against their insensitivity, either.
I still wanted him to stop staring at me.
I wanted to confront him. I couldn’t bring myself to get that close. He walked home alone in the opposite direction. I thought I could catch up to him well away from school. Walking together, I wouldn’t have to look at him, eyes ahead, watching careful steps. I could tell him I didn’t like him staring at me. I could tell him to stop.
Okay. I admit it. I didn’t want to be seen talking with him.
The antagonism matured before my eyes, poised on violence. Mrs. Ellis gave the class a lecture on diversity and understanding, which only made things worse. Raphael pulled down A pluses, feeding the monster. I stayed after class to express my concerns to Mrs. Ellis. I meant to tell her about the other kids. What I ended up doing was whining about Raphael staring at me.
Mrs. Ellis assured me she was aware of both, in the midst of dealing with it. She explained part of school was learning to get along with, to live with, people much different.
Midway between the school’s front door and the crossing guard a block and a half up, a group of children, mostly from my class, circled Raphael, offering taunts, the festering antagonism finally in full bloom. Raphael, head down, tried to push out but was pushed back in.
Now, I can say I was noble. I rushed toward them. “Cut it out! Stop it! What do you think you’re doing?” I didn’t address anyone in particular. I was ignored. I sensed the final escalation, one of the larger boys stepping forward, his fist back.
I broke the circle, coming between the boy and Raphael. His fist came down, catching me below my right eye, just to the side of my nose. I flew backward, knocking Raphael to the sidewalk. Blood spilled from my nose. The circle of children froze. The air froze. Even the birds stopped singing.
The boy, standing over me looking down, mouthed: oh-my-God.
In that moment, I think we all got it.
Raphael had run off. I don’t blame him. The boy who hit me gallantly tore the shirt from his back like Superman, placing it to my face as a compress. He apologized repeatedly all the way to the nurse’s office, me clutching Raphael’s abandoned notebook to my chest.
I felt good about myself until I opened the notebook and read:
She walks with the slightest limp,
But don’t dare call her a gimp!
She may be flawed.
She has me awed.
She’s a great human being.
Most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.