Fiction

The Rebellion of Young David

ERNEST BUCKLER November 15 1951
Fiction

The Rebellion of Young David

ERNEST BUCKLER November 15 1951

W hen the ¡ear of the unknown swamped the boy he blindly sought some place to hide — a place where a kid’s got a right to cry

The Rebellion of Young David

Fiction

ERNEST BUCKLER

THERE ARE times when you can only look at your son and say his name over and over in your mind.

I would say, “David, David . . .,” nights when he was asleep the involuntary way you pass your hand across your eyes when your head aches, though there is no way for your hand to get inside. It seemed as if it must all have been my fault.

I suppose any seven-year-old has a look of accusing innocence when he is asleep, an assaulting grudgelessness. But it seemed to me that he had it especially. It seemed incredible that when I’d told him to undress he’d said, “You make me!” his eyes dark and stormy. It seemed incredible that those same legs and hands, absolutely pliant now, would ever be party to that isolating violence of his again.

His visible flesh was still; yet he was always moving in a dream. Maybe he’d cry, “Wait . . . Wait up, Art.” Where was I going in the dream, what was I doing, that even as I held him in m^ arms he was falling behind?

He called me “Art,” not “Dad.” The idea was: we were pals. I had never whipped him. The thought of my wife who died when David was born had something to do with that, I guess. And a curious suggestion of vulnerability about his wire-thin body, his perceptive face, so contrasted with its actual belligerence that the thought of laying a hand on him well, I just couldn’t do it. We were supposed to reason things out.

Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

He could reason, as well as I. His body would seem to vibrate with obedience. His friendship would be absolutely unwithholding. “You stepped on my hand,” he’d say, laughing, though his face was pinched with the pain of it, “but that doesn’t matter, does it, Art? Sometimes you can’t see people’s hands when they stick them in the way.” Or if we were fishing, he’d say, “You tell me when to pull on the line, won’t you, Art . . . just right when."

Then, without any warning whatever, he’d become possessed by this automatic inaccessible mutiny.

I’d get the awful feeling then that we were both lost. That whatever I’d done wrong had not only failed, but that he’d never know I’d been trying to do it right for him. Worse still, that his mind was rocked by some blind contradiction he’d never understand himself.

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Maybe I’d be helping him with a reading lesson. I tried to make a game of it, totaling the words he named right against the words he named wrong. He’d look at me, squinting up his face into a contortion of deliberate ingratiation. He’d say, “Seventeen right and only one wrong . . . wouldn’t that make you laugh, Art?” Then maybe the very next word I’d ask him, he’d slump against the table in a pretended indolence; or flop the book shut while the smile was still on my face.

Or maybe we’d be playing with his new baseball bat and catcher’s mitt.

His hands were too small to grasp the bat properly and his fingers were lost in the mitt. But he couldn’t have seemed more obliteratingly happy when he did connect with the ball. (“Boy, that was a solid hit, wasn’t it, Art? You throw them to me just right, Art, just right”) He’d improvise rules of his own for the game. His face would twist with the delight of communicating them to me.

Then, suddenly, when he’d throw the ball, he’d throw it so hard that the physical smart of it on my bare fingers would sting me to exasperation.

“All right,” I’d say coolly, “if you don’t want to play, I’ll go hoe the garden.”

I’d go over to the garden, watching him out of the corner of my eye. He’d wander forlornly about the yard, Then I’d see him coming slowly toward the garden (where his tracks still showed along the top of a row of carrots he’d raced through yesterday). He’d come up behir.d me and say, “I have to walk right between the rows, don’t I? Gardens are hard work, aren’t they, Art . . . you don’t want anyone stepping on the rows.”

David, David . . .

The strange part, it wasn’t that discipline had no effect because it made no impression.

One evening he said out of a blue sky, “ You're so smart, Art I haven’t

got a brain in my head, not one. You’ve got so many brains, Art, brains . . .” I was completely puzzled.

Then I remembered: I had countered with complete silence when he’d called me “dumb” that morning. I’d forgotten the incident entirely. But he hadn’t. Though he’d been less rather than more tractable since then, he’d been carrying the snub arbund with him all day.

Or take the afternoon there was only one nickel in his small black purse. I saw him take it out and put it back again several times before he came and asked me for another. He never asked me for money unless he wanted it terribly. I gave him another nickel. He went to the store and came back with two Cokes. For some reason he had to treat me.

My face must have shown my gratification. He said, with his devastating candor, “You look happier with me than you did this morning, don’t you, Art?”

I couldn’t even recall the offense that time. He had felt my displeasure, though on my part it must have been quite unconscious.

What had I done wrong? I didn’t know.

Unless it was that, when he was small, I’d kept a harness on him in the yard. He rebelled, instinctively, at any kind of bond. But what else could I do? Our house was on a blind corner. What else could I do, when I had the picture of the strength of his slight headlong body falling against the impersonal strength of a truck, or the i depth of a well?

David, David . . .

I said, “David, David . . .” out loud, that particular afternoon he lay so still on the ground; because this is the way it had happened.

I HAD taken him fencing with me that morning. It was one of those perfect spring mornings when even the woods seem to breathe out a clean water-smell. He was very excited. He’d never been to the back of the pasture before.

I carried the axe and the mall. He carried the staple-box and the two hammers. Sometimes he walked beside me, sometimes ahead.

There was something about him that always affected me when I watched him moving back to. I’d made him wear his rubber boots because there was a swamp to cross. Now the sun was getting hot. I wished I’d let him wear his sneakers and carried him across the swamp. There was something about the heavy boots not slowing up his eager movement and the thought that they must be tiring him without his consciousness of it.

I asked him if his legs weren’t tired. “Noooooo,” he scoffed. As if that were the kind of absurd question people kid each other with to clinch the absolute perfection of the day. Then he added, “If your legs do get a little tired when you’re going some place, that doesn’t hurt, does it, Art?”

His unpredictable twist of comment made him good company, in an adult way. Yet there was no unnatural shadow of precocity about him. His face had a kind of feature-smalling brightness that gave him a peaked look when he was tired or disappointed, and when his face was washed and the water on his hair, for town, a kind of shining. But it was as childlike and unwithholding as the clasp of his hand. (Or maybe he didn’t look much different from any other child. Maybe I couldn’t see him straight because I loved him.)

This was one of his days of intense, jubilant, communicativeness. One of his “How come?” days. As if by his questions and my answers we (and we alone) could find out about everything.

If I said anything mildly funny he worked himself up into quite a glee. I knew his laughter was a little louder than natural. His face would twitch a little, renewing it, each time I glanced at him. But that didn’t mean that his amusement was false. I knew that his intense willingness to think anything funny I said was as funny as anything could possibly be, tickled him more than the joke itself. “You always say such funny things, Art!”

WE CAME to the place where I had buried the horse. Dogs had dug away the earth. The brackets of its ribs and the chalky grimace of its jaws stared whitely in the bright sun.

He looked at it with a sudden quietness beyond mere attention; as if something invisible were threatening to come too close. I thought he was a little pale. He had never seen a skeleton before.

“Those bones can’t move, can they, Art?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“How can bones move?”

“Oh, they have to have flesh on them, and muscles, and . .

“Well, could he move when he was just dead? I mean right then, when he was right just dead?”

“No.”

“How come?”

I was searching for a reply when he moved very close to me. “Could you carry the hammers, Art, please?” he said.

I put the hammers in my back overalls pocket.

“Could you carry an axe and a mall both in one hand?” he said.

I took the axe in my left hand, with the mall, so that now we each had a hand free. He took my hand and tugged me along the road.

He was quiet for a few minutes, then he said, “Art? What goes away out of your muscles when you’re dead?”

He was a good boy all morning. He was really a help. If you fence alone you can’t carry all the tools through the brush at once. You have to replace a stretch of rotted posts with the axe and mall; then return to where you’ve left the staple-box and hammers and go over the same ground again, tightening the wire.

He carried the staple-box and hammers and we could complete the operation as we went. He held the wire taut while I drove the staples. He’d get his voice down very low. “The way you do it, Art, see, you get the claw of your hammer right behind a barb so it won’t slip ... so it won’t slip, Art, see?” As if he’d discovered some trick that would now be a conspiratorial secret between just us two. The

obbligato of manual labor was like a quiet stitching together of our presences.

We started at the far end of the pasture and worked toward home. It was five minutes past eleven when we came within sight of the skeleton again. The spot where my section of the fence ended. That was fine. We could finish the job before noon and not have to walk all the way back again after dinner. It was aggravating when I struck three rotten posts in a row; but we could still finish, if we hurried. I thought David looked a little pale again.

“You take off those heavy boots and rest, while I go down to the intervale and cut some posts,” I said. There were no trees growing near the fence.

“All right, Art.” He was very quiet. There was that look of suspension in his flesh he’d get sometimes when his mind was working on something it couldn’t quite manoeuvre.

It took me no more than twenty minutes to cut the posts, but when I carried them back to the fence he wasn’t there.

“Bring the staples, chum,” I shouted. He didn’t pop out from behind any bush.

“David! David!” I called, louder. There was only that hollow stillness of the wind rustling the leaves when you call to someone in the woods and there is no answer. He had completely disappeared.

I felt a sudden irritation. Of all the damn times to beat it home without telling me!

I started to stretch the wire alone. But an uneasiness began to insinuate itself. Anyone could follow that wide road home. But what if ... I didn’t know just what . . . but what if something . . .? Oh dammit, I’d

have to go find him.

I kept calling him all the way along the road. There was no answer. How could he get out of sound so quickly, unless he ran? He must have run all the way. But why? I began to run, my sel f.

MY FIRST reaction when I saw him standing by the house, looking toward the pasture, was intense relief. Then, suddenly my irritetion was compounded.

He seemed to sense my annoyance, even from a distance. He began to wave, as if in propitiation. He had a funny way of waving, holding his arm out stiff and moving his hand up and down very slowly. I didn’t wave back.

When I came close enough that he could see my face he stopped waving.

“I thought you’d come home without me, Art,” he said.

“Why should you think that?” 1 said, very calmly.

He wasn’t defiant as I'd expected him to be. He looked as if he were relieved to see me; but as if at the sight of me coming from that direction he knew he’d done something wrong. Now he was trying to pass the thing off as an amusing quirk in the way things had turned out. Though half-suspecting that this wouldn’t go over. His

tentative over-smiling brushed *at mv irritation, but didn’t dislodge it.

“I called to you. Art,” he said.

I just looked at him, as much as to say, do you think I’m deaf?

“Yes, I called. I thought you’d come home some other way.”

“Now I’ve got to traipse all the way back there this afternoon to finish one rod of fence,” I said.

“I thought you’d gone and left me,” he said.

I ignored him, and walked past him into the house.

He didn’t eat much dinner, but he

wasn’t defiant about that, either, as he was, sometimes, when he refused to eat. And after dinner he went out and sat down on the banking, by himself. He didn't know that his hair was sticking up through the heart-shaped holes in the skullcap with all the buttons pinned on it.

When it was time to go back to the woods again he hung around me with his new bat and ball. Tossing the ball up himself and trying to hit out flies.

“Boy, you picked out the \ e y best bat there was, didn’t you, Art?” he said. I knew he thought I'd toss him a

few. I didn’t pay any attention to what he was doing.

When I started across the yard, he said, “Do you want me to carry the axe this afternoon? That makes it easier for you, doesn’t it, Art?”

“I’ll be back in an hour or so,” I said. “You play with Max.”

He went as far as the gate with me. Then he stopped. I didn’t turn around. It sounds foolish, hut everything between us was on such an adult basis that it wasn’t until I bent over to crawl through the barbed wire fence that I stole a glance at him, covertly. He was tossing the ball up again and trying to hit it. It always fell to the ground, because the bat was so unwieldy and because he had one eye on me.

I noticed he still had on his hot rubber boots. 1 had intended to change them for his sneakers. He was the sort of child who seems unconsciously to invest his clothes with his own mood. The thought of his clothes, when he was forlorn, struck me as hard as the thought of his face.

Do you know the kind of thoughts you have when you go back alone to a job which you have been working at happily with another? When that work together has ended in a quarrel. . . with your accusations unprotested, and, after that, your rejection of his overtures unprotested too?

1 picked up my tools and began to work. But 1 couldn’t seem to work quickly.

I’d catch myself, with the hammer slack in my hands, thinking about crazy things like his secret pride in the new tie (which he left outside his pullover until he saw that the other children had theirs inside) singling him so abatedly from the town children, the Saturday I took him to the matinee, that I felt an unreasonable rush of protectiveness toward him . . . Of him laughing dutifully at the violence in the comedy, but crouching a little toward me, while the other children, who were not nearly so violent as he, shrieked together in a seizure of delight.

I thought of his scribblers, with the fixity there of the letters which his small hand had formed earnestly, but awry.

I thought of those times when the freak would come upon him to recount all his trangressions of the day, insisting on his guilt with phrases of my own I had never expected him to remember.

I thought of him playing ball with the other children.

At first they’d go along with the outlandish variations he’d introduce into the game, because it was his equipment. Then, somehow, they'd be playing with the bat and glove and he’d be out of it, watching.

I thought now of him standing there, saying, “Boy, I hope my friends come to play with me early tomorrow, early, Art”—though I knew that if they came at all their first question would be, “Can we use your bat and glove?”

I thought of him asleep. I thought, if anything should ever happen to him that’s the way he would look.

I laughed; to kid myself for being such a soft and sentimental fool. But it was no use. The feeling came over me, immediate as the sound of a voice, that something was happening to him right now.

jT WAS coincidence, of course, but I don’t believe that . . . because I had started to run even before I came over the crest of the knoll by the barn. Before I saw the cluster of excited children by the horse stable.

I couldn’t see David among them, but I saw the ladder against the roof. I saw Max running toward the stable,

with my neighbor running behind him. I knew, by the way the children looked at me with that half-discomfited awe that was always in their faces whenever any recklessness of David’s was involved—what had happened.

“He fell off the roof,” one of them said.

I held him, and I said, “David, David . .

He stirred. “Wait,” he said drowsily, “Wait up, Art . . .”

I suppose it’s foolish to think that if I hadn’t been right there, right then, to call his name, he would never have come back. Because he was only stunned. The doctor could scarcely find a bruise on him. (I don’t know

just why my eyes stung when the doctor patted his head in admiration of his patience, when the exhaustive examination was over. He was always so darned quiet and brave at the doctor’s or the dentist’s.)

I read to him the rest of the afternoon. He’d sit quiet all day, with the erasure on his face as smooth as the erasure of sleep, if you read to him.

After supper, I decided to finish the fence. It was the season of long days.

“Do you want to help me finish the fence?” I said. I thought he’d be delighted.

“No,” he said. “You go on. I’ll wait right here. Right here, Art.”

“Who’s going to help me stretch the wire?” I said.

“All right,” he said.

He scarcely spoke until we got almost back to the spot where the skeleton was. Then he stopped and said, “We better go back, Art. It’s going to be dark.”

“G’way with ya,” I said. “It won’t be dark for hours.” It wouldn’t be although the light was an eerie aftersupper light.

“I’m going home,” he said. His voice and his face were suddenly defiant.

“You’re not going home,” I said sharply. “Now come on, hurry up.”

I was carrying an extra pound of staples I had picked u{3 in town that afternoon. He snatched the package from my hand. Before I could stop him he broke the string and strewed them far and wide.

I suppose I was keyed up after the day, for I did then what I had never done before. I took him and held him and I put it onto him, hard and thoroughly.

He didn’t try to escape. For the first few seconds he didn’t make a sound. The only retraction of his defiance was a kind of crouching in his eyes when he first realized what I was going to do. Then he began to cry. He cried and cried.

“You’re going home,” I said, “and you’re going right to bed."

I could see the marks of my fingers on his bare legs, when I undressed him. He went to sleep almost immediately. But though it was perfectly quiet downstairs for reading, the words of my book might have been any others.

When I got him up to the toilet he had something to say, as usual. But this time he was wide awake. I sat down on the side of his bed for a minute.

“Bones make you feel funny, don’t they, Art?” was what he said.

I remembered then.

I remembered that the skeleton was opposite the place where he sat down to rest. I remembered how he had shrunk from it on the way back. I remembered then that the wind had been blowing away from me, when I was cutting the posts. That’s why I hadn’t heard him call. I thought of him calling, and then running along the road alone, in the heavy, hot, rubber boots.

David, David, I thought, do I always fail you like that? . . . the awful misinterpretation a child has to endure! I couldn’t answer him.

“I thought you’d gone home, Art,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t seem to find any words to go on with.

“I’m sorry too I threw the staples,” lie said eagerly.

“I’m sorry I spanked you.”

“No, no,” he said. “You spank me every time I do that, won’t you, Dad? . . . spank me, Dad.”

His night-face seemed happier than I had ever seen it. As if the triggerspring of his driving restlessness had been finally cut.

I WON’T say it came in a flash. It wasn’t such a simple thing as that. But could that be what I had done wrong?

He had called me “Dad.” Could it be that a child would rather have a father than a pal? (“Wait . , . Wait up, Art.”) By spanking him I had abrogated the adult partnership between us and set him free. He could cry. His guilt could be paid for all at once and absolved.

It wasn’t the spanking that had been cruel. What had been cruel were all the times I had snubbed him as you might an adultwith implication of shame. There was no way he could get over that. The unexpiable residue of blame piled up in him. Shutting him out, spreading (who can tell what unlikely symptoms a child’s mind will translate it into?), blocking his access to me, to other children, even to himself. His reaction was violence, deviation. Any guilt a sensitive child can’t be absolved of at once he blindly adds to, whenever he thinks of it, in a kind of desperation.

I had worried about failing him. That hadn’t bothered him. What had bothered him was an adult shame I had taught him, I saw now, for failing me.

I kissed him good-night. “Okay, son,” I said, “I’ll spank you sometimes.”

He nodded, smiling. “Dad,” he said then, “how come you knew I jumped off the roof?”

That should have brought me up short—how much farther apart we must be than I’d imagined if he was driven to jump off a roof to shock me back into contact. “Jumped,” he said, not “fell.”

But somehow it didn’t. It gave me the most liberating kind of hope. Because it hadn’t been a question, really. It had been a statement. “How come you knew . . . ?” He hadn’t the slightest doubt that no matter what he did, wherever I was I would know it, and that wherever I was I would come.

Anyhow, it is a fine day today, and we have just finished the fence. He is playing ball with the other children as I put this down. 'Their way. +

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