By Rachel Muenz
The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was the blood, spraying from the brick like fireworks. Glorious red. White shards fell among the pinecones, bits of his teeth. His square-jawed face erased. And the shriek had such power, it seemed to vibrate the stripe of sky, the only bit you could see through those God-awful trees. All of it painted by my nine-year-old hand.
I have always loved the morbid. My favourite book at that age was a nature one about coyotes. It is open right now to the best picture in the whole book, a photograph of the grey-brown streak of a coyote, crushing the leg of a deer in its jaws. The deer’s eyes are big black marbles and a bellow of pain crack its mouth open, showing the dark nub of a tongue:
When the young first begin to hunt, they tease and play with their prey, tearing and nipping and clawing. Stumbling and bleeding, it can take several minutes for their victims to die in unmitigated agony. Adults, on the other hand, kill their prey quick and clean without suffering.
Sweet blood and death. You’re disturbed, aren’t you? But everyone is fascinated by disaster. Look at the front page of any newspaper and you’ll see. We need chaos because otherwise we wouldn’t know we are alive, we would be robots with too much order. Blood and death exist so healing and life can exist.
Let us return to that time when I was nine, not so long before that precious red memory.
Four children are lined up facing a jagged brick wall in the centre of a black wood. The trembling claws of branches reach for their heads, sending a cold shiver down the backs of their necks. The wall is covered with the marks of an old fire and thick with moss, perfect for absorbing the thuds of small bodies. This section of brick and some concrete footings beyond the wall are all that remain of the old school. A lamp was knocked over in 1886.
I often daydream about the fire. The schoolteacher’s startled arm hitting the lamp on a winter afternoon, the kerosene spilling a wave of flame over her desk, which swallows a stack of paper and climbs to the ceiling, searching for air. Children scream. A slate shatters on the floor.
If you force your way east through the trees you will come to the new school, also red bricks, with a bell-tower and white trim around the windows. Several clean, newer additions grow off the side and back of this building; the big grey box of a steel-sided gym and a small maze of low buildings with lots of glass. The oldest part was built four years after the fire that forced those children into the snow and bone-snapping cold. Several got sick from it. One died in a bed soaked in his own sweat a month later. Somehow, dying of a fever always seemed a myth to me, a thing that could never happen.
The bit of wall has a history of death, deep in the stones. It has history that blackens your hands if you touch the bricks. Four children, their heads bowed over 100 years later, wait for a new moment of heat and fear. Three older boys sway behind them, holding rotten green sticks in their hands. The four are to be executed. Let me tell you about them.
The slim one at the far left side of the wall is Palash Kumar. His hands are behind his back and not even shaking, though the acorn-coloured skin on his knuckles has gone white. He stares over the wall through his dirty lenses.
Pal thinks he has no right to complain about the beatings because his father and grandparents once lived in a war-torn country where they suffered religious persecution. Whenever the boys come to collect us in the schoolyard, shouting our crimes to the crowd of laughing kids, he never says a word but follows them with his hands at his sides and a dent of worry between his eyebrows. War-torn. Persecution. These are some of my favourite words. They have a nice, mangling sort of sound that I like.
I asked Pal to tell me the story over and over, especially the gory bits. His grandparents carried his father through bullets and bombs to come here. Beneath the ulcer of the sun, they rattled through dust and men with guns in the back of a truck that battered their kidneys bloody. Their neighbours were shot into body parts the day before they fled. This was another scene I played over and over in my head, lonely fingers and chunks of brain flew through my mind. Bodies blackening in the gutters, shrouded with flies. I am like a fly, the way I feast on images of the dead.
Saeed, Pal’s father, was also beat up at school but he just wiped the red from his cheek and walked away. He put all his fury into his studies and got academic revenge. Saeed became a successful engineer and moved to the quiet of the country to raise his son and daughters. Those kids that hit him are probably living on welfare somewhere with a bunch of cockroaches in their kitchens. Pal said his father wants him to be a doctor so he can inspire his cousins in the motherland. He is to be shot for being a “Paki” and because Saeed once beat him for reading a dirty magazine, something that threw the three boys into uncontrollable laughter. Maybe they’re as sick as me.
Next in line, a short, plump girl by the name of Magdalene Blush shakes below Pal’s shoulder. She is nine like me and usually spends most of her time crying under the monkey bars or in a box of shadow in the high-ceilinged bathroom. Mag has so many freckles she could be brown like Pal. Her whore name does not suit her because her teeth all point inward and her forehead has an alien bulge. Horror would be more accurate. Or monstrous or hideous, more of the words I love. They call her Mag the Hag and that is why I hang around her, because of the supernatural quality of her face. I can stare at it all day and always find something that scares me. And of course she has good stories too.
In the cement tunnel in the playground where we curled up to hide from the three boys, she told me about the men who come to hurt her mother. Her mother says it’s okay but Mag doesn’t like it. It makes her skin feel crawly, she says. Once, Magdalene walked in on a big pale man biting her mother’s neck and when she screamed, her mother threw a shoe at her. I told you to stay out. Are you stupid or something? The man groaned as if he was the one in pain and that is what flung Mag’s feet back into the pink hall. A row of fangs sunk into the thick veins of a neck. The biter was obviously a vampire and I wanted to help Mag drive a stake through his heart but he never came back, just like the others. We were both disappointed because being able to say you’re a vampire hunter is pretty cool. It would have raised us up a notch in the opinions of the other grade fours at least.
Mag watched a huge purple lump grow above her eye in the hall mirror; no one even noticed except me because of her already bumpy skull. I wanted to touch it but didn’t dare ask because then everyone would think I liked her. Torture is fascinating. Mag is to be killed for being so ugly that the boys break the taboo of not beating up girls. Her face makes them crazy. It is for the sanity of the schoolyard that she must be disposed of. A tangle of red-brown hair is her only blessing since it hides her bulging eyes, her teeth and the shock of her misshapen head.
Shayne Forrest twists his hands next to her. His eyes are below mine even though he is twelve like Pad. Even Mag is taller than him. He looks at the bricks with a bit of a smile. They are still level and strong, not a single one loose after a hundred years. His great-great grandfather was one of the men who built the old school and Shayne is proud of this fact. No man could cut bricks straighter or place them in more perfect lines than James Forrest. He eventually took over Adams Building Company and made it Forrest Building Company and became very rich. Shayne lives in a huge white farm house on the edge of town that has fifteen rooms and twelve bathrooms. But that’s not very interesting.
What I liked was when Shayne talked about the injuries that happened when the first school was built. One worker fell off the roof because he didn’t wear a rope like James and he had two left feet, a saying I always take literally in my head because it is so pleasantly freakish. It wasn’t so high of a drop but the way his neck hit the packed dirt, it was wrenched the wrong way round. In my loop of gory things, I see the man belly down in the dust with his chin above his back, his eyes full of nothing but reflections of a big blue sky. There were no industrial-looking trees then. Just a field of waving yellow grass and flowers. The trees grew in after the fire, stunted because of the acidity of ash, Shayne’s grandfather told him.
He has seen the forest from above, the landscape a creepy geometry. The woods curl around the side of the new school and the baseball fields beyond. A claw holding a shard of an emerald. If you look really hard you can see the dull red line of the wall, or pieces of it, making a tiny slice in the centre of the claw. Like how you can see the Great Wall of China from space, Shayne says. His grandfather takes Shayne in his plane every year on his birthday. Shayne said he’d take me on his next one but he never did.
That’s OK though because I have such a good imagination and it would have been pointless anyway after the brick incident.
Shayne is a handsome kid. The son of two lawyers, he has chocolate-coloured eyes and dark hair parted to the side. He should be popular but instead he is sentenced to be executed because he is small in a terrifying way and because he looks into people. His eyes drag your soul, naked and shivering to the surface. It makes people go cold from the inside out. Shayne always knows what you are thinking. The three boys didn’t say this in their announcement of his crimes because they couldn’t put that feeling into words but I know that’s why he is at the wall.
The boy at the end of the line, next to Shayne, has black curls of hair that grip his pointed ears. He has a girlish look about him, in his long eyelashes and the way he holds his chest, arms bent. His name is Linkon May and he is my nine-year-old self.
I admire the gothic atmosphere. The black and silver arches of the trees, the faded light. The word “wasteland” comes to mind, one that has always given me a twinge of pleasure in my chest. Thin needles. No leaves. Dead-looking things. Beneath the slaughtered cow of my coat is the skin of a Dalmatian, black dots all over my back from a previous execution. I admire those in the mirror every chance I get; they are my emblems of suffering and make me a martyr. My knees ram each other. Of course I am scared. I don’t like being hurt but once the pain goes away, the wounds are nice. The cuts lined with pink as they slowly seal shut. If I could sit and watch them heal I would. I am to be shot for being a stupid, girly boy.
My spine taut, I wait with my eyes on the greenish foot of the wall. One bottom brick has a slender thread of black around it. It must be loose. Shayne would be upset I think.
Our executioners argue behind our backs. The musty air presses my nose, saturated with fungus that scrapes my esophagus. I wish they would get it over with so I can go home and look at my new marks and cuts. My heart knocks on the inside of my chest and vibrates through my ribs and sternum and collar bone.
Greydon Call is their leader, marked by the pale fur on his upper lip and chin, already a man at thirteen. He swishes his branch through the air, it licks my back and my foot kicks forward. It bumps the brick which sends a thrill up my leg as it bumps back. It really is loose.
“Stay in line,” he shouts.
I don’t bother talking back. My mind is filled with a liberating idea. The brick shooting from my palm, bending his nose with a crack. I could do that. My eyes relax. Pal coughs.
“Shut up,” says the fattest executioner, a solid square of flesh named Nigel Dean whose blue eyes hang from thick, black brows. There is a smack and a wheeze from the left end of the line. Nigel crunches back to Greydon and his other friend, Hal Brown.
It was Hal who grabbed me after school. He clipped my arms together with his skeletal fingers. My legs went limp and hopeless because he has the grip of death. His gaunt grin pushed my heart to my feet but I felt a flicker of excitement. I was being taken to the black teeth of Hell to be punished for my sins, which is at least more interesting than school and having friends. Greydon crushed Shayne and Mag together and pushed them across the flat sand and trampled grass of the schoolyard into the barbed mesh of the forest. Nigel punched Pal into a reluctant march. His hums were impaled on the branches, never to escape from the wood.
The dried-blood red of the wall always looks so bright when you first see it through the thicket. It is another thing I think about over and over, an abstract painting over my eyes.
They argue over what method they will use. The decaying sticks that leave pink welts? Their own hands? Carefully, I look over my shoulder. They aren’t watching. I crouch and fit my fingernails into the gap around the brick. The rough corners nip my skin. I wrench it free, scattering dirt and bugs, and hold it to my chest so they won’t see.
They have decided on stoning, using the bullet-hard pinecones scattered all over the forest floor as ammunition. Those always leave the most interesting bruises. I once copied their shapes onto a big piece of Bristol board. All the smiles and birds and snails and skulls that decorated my back. My mother keeps the drawing on her bulletin board in the office. She says it is her favourite. It is mine too.
Pine needles snap as Greydon steps back.
Their shadows scrub the bricks as they raise their arms, pinecones in their fists.
I shift the brick in my hand, getting a better grip, a tree groans like a human being. Something crinkles. I know exactly where his face is.
I pivot in the dead branches and needles and push the brick through the air with the heel of my hand. Greydon’s face disappears in a wheel of red drops. Four teeth tumble across twigs and shreds of bark. There’s so much blood I can smell the iron over the mould in the air. His howl, louder than any of our screams had been, shatters the barrier of metallic branches. Kids playing basketball on the asphalt behind the school show the forest the whites of their eyes. They think it is a ghost and run all the way home. That’s what they will talk about all next day at school.
Greydon falls, his arm whipping down. I see a black line and then the stick cuts across my eyes. Lacerations on the cornea.
Still, it is worth it to see Greydon turned into a screaming boy. To see the dance of blood and Hal and Nigel charging into the lowered spears of the trees just before my vision is reduced to shadows.
The gentle pull of Pal’s hand guides me home, through the forest’s grasp without a scratch, over the tufts of grass in the baseball field without stumbling, up the slope through the chain-link fence and down my street, into light bright enough that even I can see it. The patter of Shayne’s sneakers and the clap of Mag’s flip-flops are right beside me. Vision is one of the most precious senses but I don’t feel so bad, I feel safe.
“Stop smiling,” says Mag. “It’s freaky.” Her voice squeaks. I try to straighten my lips but I can’t. The brick is still pressed against my palm.
When he visits after the surgery, Pal tells me my eyes have braided ghost-blue lines across them. Shayne says I make a truly terrifying impression and I like how that sounds. The outline of Mag’s head is still strange and I’m glad I can tell.
The static of rain softens our voices. Shayne sits on the dark edge of my bed and I get him to read my favourite book because his voice has such bite and drama. I know what the pictures look like even though I can’t quite see them yet. Their rough forms are enough to bring the memories of mutilation back to me.
“Page 39,” I tell him.
Paper shuffles, Mag and Pal are silent.
Shayne clears his throat and says:
“When the young first begin to hunt they tease and play with their prey, tearing and nipping and clawing. Stumbling and bleeding, it can take several minutes for their victims to die in unmitigated agony. Adults, on the other hand, kill their prey quick and clean without suffering.”
His head moves. “You’re a freak,” he says, snapping the book shut. Pal and Mag laugh.
“How is Greydon?” I ask.
“Fine, he just got a broken nose. He looks like a total ass now, it’s bent like crazy,” Mag says. I can tell she is grinning. “They’re too afraid to touch us now.”
I think that’s a shame. Suffering was all the distinction I had at school.
“They beat up other kids instead.” Pal rolls his shoulder and looks out the pale square that is my window.
My eyes heal, not as sharp as they used to be but not bad. Our friendship never went away but the four of us did. Time does what violence can’t, I guess. We never would have got together if it hadn’t been for the executions.
Now I’m back to being twenty nine and alone.
I keep the brick on my mantelpiece. Often, I’ll pick it up and run my hands over it, feeling the black residue of the past, the cold roughness, and it brings those pictures into my head to play over and over. They are so beautiful that my heart breaks.
Pain, fire, blood and death.
The soft press of a hand and the caress of voices all around me.
Palash, Magdalene, Shayne and Linkon. Maybe I’m not so weird. I don’t think it is death and destruction that I love after all. It could be something normal because I miss them so much. I think it is friends.