Matty winced and swatted at the buzzing insect as it hovered near his sweaty face. This high in the tree usually provided some relief from the swamp’s marauding skeeters, but it had been a wet summer and an unusually hot September. The result was predictable, despite two attempts by the town to fog the marsh areas with DDT… Odd acting birds and mosquitos the size of hummingbirds.
From the upper perches of the old ash tree, the 13 year old boy could see for miles. He often climbed this matriarch of the shadowy forest because it made him feel safe. Invisible. Something he yearned for at times, as he watched people. Trying to understand.
He could see the rolling farmlands to the west where he spent most of his summers and the hills to the north, near the old Mill Pond, and even the winding stream lined with cattails that fed that landmark as it made its way from the vast marshes to the south. Marshes filled with wildlife and danger. Some that should have never been there.
Today tho, he was no longer naive. Much had happened in three short years… He had honed his survival skills and learned the art of invisibility, and now lived like the forest creatures he admired. Always on alert. Tensing at the sound of a breaking twig, or the cry of a startled jay.
In his mind, he was only half human now. Armor on the outside, to keep him safe, until he learned the way.
Bobby laughed when he admitted that, one night in the treehouse. But then, he stopped, and moved closer to the solemn boy. He put his strong arm around Matty’s slender shoulders and then they had sat there for hours, watching the summer moon arc across the silent sky as the lights of the distant radio tower flickered red, warning … marking the sky, for little planes that droned past at all hours of the night.
On this late summer afternoon, only the skeeters and the occasional bluejay seemed to be moving about. Matty scanned the trail that wound through the quiet woods. A trail that might have been started by the nearly invisible deer that came here to drink from the slowly moving, spring- fed streams. Or, by the slew of neighborhood boys who trampled grass quite efficiently, sometimes creating trails, and other times laying waste to carefully coiffed backyard lawns. But, whatever the origin, the path was the blond boy’s best way to avoid the older boys who occasionally terrorized the younger kids. Spawn of a creature well known to Matty. Who still frequented the neighborhood when he wasn’t in jail, for one reason or t’other…
The teenager shuddered to think about that day. It had been nearly three years, but it still terrified him. He had come to understand that he had two choices. To live each day afraid of the very real possibility that there was more evil to come, or to take up the sword and do his best when confronted with it, in its many forms.
And so, only 6 months ago, he had taken the oath, before God, to bear that sword that had been forged long before his birth, and carried into battle when evil slithered from the darkness. The sword that carried a responsibility unlike anything else. This very afternoon, he would come to understand that even more clearly.
It was a crescendo of muddled voices that fired the nerves in his back and neck and startled him to full alert. He pulled himself up to a better perch and strained to find the source as a nervous jay took flight and screamed the first warnings. The voices grew closer and now he could make out a few words. Rude words, and distinctly male. And underneath the words, he could barely hear the plaintive sobs of a younger person. Perhaps a boy, but whoever it was, something was very wrong…
There was no time to climb the 25 or 30 feet to the ground, but Matty did manage to lower himself to a wide crook about 15 feet from the ground where the massive ash tree branched out in three directions… From here he felt most safe. It was an area that fit his Converse basketball sneakers well. The branches were large. Almost as large as the trunks of most trees. He could hide himself easily behind any of them, and from that roost, see in both directions, up and down the trail where the voices seemed to be originating.
In less than a minute, his worst fears were realized. The deep voices did indeed belong to two of the worst delinquents in the area. Matty’s blood ran cold to hear the derision and taunting tone of the banter between the two. And now, he saw why. Between them was their latest ‘captive’. A young boy of perhaps 11 years of age, who had apparently been caught away from the safety of home, perhaps returning from his paper route.
Matty recognized him immediately. Billy…Little Billy. One of the nicest little kids this side of Main Street.
The oldest tormentor jerked him from side to side, like a pathetic little rag doll, using the boy’s balled up t-shirt as a leash. Matty winced. The youngster was crying and had been for a while, by the looks of it! His face was tear- streaked dirt, essentially. It seemed abnormal, as though he had suffered an encounter with swamp mud recently. Both boys towered over him and made him appear tiny, and powerless as his bare midsection heaved and his dirty jeans threatened to expose even more of his underwear. He had been shoved about, and was not weathering it well… From his hiding place, the blond boy shuddered. This could not end well. There was noone about.
And now, he could make out the words, between the raucous and derisive laughter.
“Frickin hell, Greg, what a little wimp! He looks like a little girl, ‘cept he ain’t got no tits! I KNOW he ain’t got no balls!”
That prompted the heavier boy to yank Billy’s once clean t-shirt nearly over his head, exposing his chest. “Nope! No tits!” , he said mockingly, twisting the boy’s right nipple cruelly, as Billy shrieked in pain.
“Shut the fuck up, you little turd! Who do you think is gonna hear you way out here?”
Billy sobbed and slumped, and then staggered as he tripped on an exposed tree root that he might have seen normally. He landed on all fours almost dragging Greg down with him, who still held his t-shirt twisted in his left hand. There was a brief ripping sound…
The skinnier 15 year old exploded with laughter. “Damn! Your mama’s gonna be pissed! Look what you did to your shirt!”
The 11 year old boy tried to get up, but as he regained his footing, his backside presented too tempting a target, and the sadistic pimply -faced accomplice kicked him viciously, between the legs, lifting and propelling him foward. Even the brawny older boy couldn’t hold onto him then! There was an audible tearing sound, and suddenly the youngster was tumbling sideways, his shirt in tatters with Greg holding what was left, like a leash.
Matty’s heart was pounding and he almost screamed out, but his throat felt choked, as though the beast had a hold on him once more. He froze, as the incident unfolded below…
“Fuck me!”, the lesser Martinelli brother bellowed. “That’s gotta be a first! One kick, two crushed nuts and a rag for Mama! All at the same time!”
The tiny boy laid at the base of the mother ash tree motionless, in a fetal position. He seemed almost to have stopped breathing momentarily. Then, he caught his breath and really started to cry.
Matty clutched the tree and buried his face into the rough bark. He felt every muscle tighten in his back and neck, but his legs were now shaking… trembling, as the memories flooded back. What had been a peaceful September day had quickly morphed into a nightmare. The terror he felt came from a well known place. One that his armor had protected him from. Or so he thought.
But, the sobs of the little boy below him, clawed at him as he remembered the words. The admonitions… “Go forth. Whatever You command me, I will do…” Matty closed his eyes and tried to pray, but it was no use. The terror below saw to that…
The older boys were not leaving, as he had hoped. There was blood in the water.
“Hey Greg, if he doesn’t care about his shirt, maybe we should take his pants, too! I’ll bet he shit ’em anyways!” With that, the younger Martinelli took a step foward and reaching down, inserted his hand in the exposed waistline of Billy’s jeans and tugged at them violently, but he succeeded only in pulling the boy backwards through the dirt and leaves. The denim held fast.
Matty clutched the tree and knew then. He had to do something. For the boy in the swamp, if nothing else. If he didn’t, a part of him would be lost. Maybe forever…
He didn’t think. he just spun around the tree, and stepped on the stub of a branch protruding from the rough trunk and yelled, “Leave him …”
The last word was never spoken. Instead, there was a loud ‘crack’ as his foothold snapped and the teenager hurtled to the ground, crashing through a nearby pine tree bough that he used to reach the climbable branches of the old ash tree. He crashed to the ground near the young boy as the older boys watched, bewildered. The fall forced the air from his lungs as he landed atop a partially rotted branch that was half buried in the forest floor.
It felt like an explosion, and Matty heard nothing but snapping branches and then felt the impact on his right side, mostly in his rib and lower back area. He gasped for breath as he became aware again…
“What the fuck !” were the first words he heard. It sounded like Greg, but he didn’t care. He still couldn’t breathe and was wondering if he ever would again! Everything else became secondary…
It was almost as if the first breath came from someone else. He heard it that way. A huge gasp, like the time he had been revived after drowning… His eyes focused as he tried to move. Billy was only a few feet away, wide- eyed and looking dazed. Matty saw the terror in his eyes and tried to smile, but only managed to cough. He groaned and closed his eyes again, unsure that something, most likely his back, wasn’t broken!
“Where the fuck did HE come from?” Greg asked, his voice breaking.
“He was up there… m-must have been up there, all along,” younger Martinelli offered. “Christ! He almost landed on me!”
” Goddammit… you know who that is…”
“Yeah… so what? He’s alone…”
“Cowards…” Matty managed .
“Who you calling cowards?” Greg mumbled uncertainly.
“Go away… ” the blond boy said, more firmly now, as his breathing returned to normal.
“You ain’t telling me any…”
“We’ll find you and break your leg this time…” The 13 year old boy gasped. His back was screaming as he tried to roll onto his other side to get up. He slumped back to the other side, as Billy reached over and put his dirty hand on Matty’s head protectively.
“We?” Greg cackled. “Big words from a skinny kid! You gonna get your mama to help?”
“No… Just Bobby. “
It was pure inspiration. He didn’t even think about the effect it might have as the words tumbled deliriously from his mouth. But, the words fell heavily. Into silence. When he glanced up, the younger Martinelli was tugging at his brother’s arm and motioning to him. Greg hesitated and brushed the hand away angrily, but said nothing. At first. He seemed to be measuring his words.
Finally, he spoke. “Screw this! I ain’t got time for this shit… I hope you broke every fuckin’ bone in your body… I’m outta here! This is getting boring anyways…”
Matty closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as the older boys turned and straggled away, one behind the other, Greg in the lead. He listened to the sound of broken twigs and rustling leaves as the two delinquents wandered down the winding path, back towards the south, from where they had come.
The tall teenager rolled onto his stomach and then onto all fours. Everything hurt, and the pounding in his head was dizzying. He slowly pushed up into a sitting position and lifted his hands to his face. Lord, what a fall! He felt stunned that he hadn’t broken his neck! Billy moved to his right and he felt the boy’s warm arm around him.
“Matty, are you OK? It’s like you fell outta the sky!”
“I did! Only I wasn’t trying to. At least, not like that! Cripes. My back feels like it’s in a million pieces… What was THAT all about, anyways? How’d you end up with those guys?”
“Geezz, Matty, I wasn’t tryin’ to get caught, y’know! All I was doin’ was goin’ to pick up my bike from Tweeter’s. Me and him were gonna do my route together and then head over to Gelliss'”
“Tweeter? Who’s Tweeter? Do I know him?”
“Sure! He’s in my grade. His real name’s Mark, but we call him Tweeter, because he sounds like a bird when he sneezes… “
Matty grimaced and managed to get into a sitting position against the old tree with Billy helping. “Mark… I see. But how did you end up with Greg Martinelli and his brother… what’s his name?”
“Uh… I think it’s Henry, but noone calls him that, because he hates it. I forgot and that’s why he was so pissed… He likes to be called Rex, but I couldn’t remember.”
“Rex. Hmm… How appropriate! The only Rex I know is a dog. A German shepherd dog. And, he’s a lot nicer than that guy! By the way, he kicked you pretty hard! You OK, little man?”
“I’m OK now. ” Billy grinned. “They don’t call me numbnuts for nothin’!”
Matty giggled at the young boy’s attempt at humor. Billy had always had a good sense of humor. A really sweet kid… “Numbnuts, eh? Who calls you that?”
“Ahh, my brother. That or dickhead…”
“Nice brother. I never called my younger brothers names like that! Anyways, how did you end up getting caught by those two?”
“I didn’t see them until it was too late… They ambushed me near the bridge when i stopped to take a pee. Shoulda peed on them! Assholes!”
“Hey! Never mind the bad language! You’re just a kid… A good kid. You don’t need to talk like that!”
Billy reddened and looked down. “I’m sorry, Matty… Matty? Why did they get scared and leave?”
“Uh… well, Billy, let’s just say that they messed with me a few times and the last time, Greg ended up at the hospital, thanks to Bobby and his Louisville Slugger! You don’t forget those things too easily, not even a jerk like Greg!”
Billy looked startled and was quiet for a moment. He wiped at his dirt- streaked face with an equally dirty hand.
“Don’t mention it, Billy…”
“No, you don’t know what they were gonna do! They’re really evil…”
“It’s OK, Billy. Just watch out for them next time. Sooner or later, guys like that end up in jail. Just steer clear. Tell your brother what happened. He’ll watch out for you…”
Matty struggled to his feet with the young boy by his side. He straightened his back and shook his legs, one at a time. Miraculously, he had survived, intact.
Billy looked up at the tall,blond boy and then threw his arms around his waist and held him tightly. Matty hugged him back and then patted his head and walked him back home, through the winding trails he knew so well, as the boy in the swamp smiled. It would be some time before he would feel safe again, but he was on his way…
A few weeks ago, as I walked down the quiet street I once roamed as a child, I noticed a car approach from the south. I walked to the side of the road to allow it to pass, but as it reached me it slowed, and the passenger window rolled down.
I stopped and leaned over to peer inside, thinking someone was lost and needed directions.
Inside the car was an elderly gentleman, who looked at me smiling, and addressed me by my first name. I was stunned, and told the man that ‘he had me at a disadvantage’, and that I was ‘very sorry but I didn’t know his name.’
He smiled serenely, and I noticed that he was wearing a very expensive watch and a gold ring with a large ruby embedded in the center.
“I know you, tho. You’re Florence’s oldest boy, aren’t you?” He extended his hand. “I’m Pat. I knew your grandfather and all your uncles and aunts. Especially your Godfather. John.”
My mind was reeling as I tried to absorb the odd situation. Who was this man? I had never seen him before in my life!
I shook his hand and we talked, for about 20 minutes, as I leaned into that car window, my back hurting from all the years of carpentry work and the many falls it had endured, during my childhood and even into my adult life…
I will not divulge all that I learned in that 20 minutes, but some of it was mind boggling and some of it left me shivering. You see, I had never known very much about my Uncle John, the man I honored at my confirmation as a 12 year old boy, by taking his first name as my confirmation name. He was, after all, my Godfather.
But what shocked me to the core was to learn something I had never known about the man that everyone seemed to consider the ‘black sheep’ of the family. You see, dear reader, this man, who had a career as the town attorney and was a friend to my Godfather, told me that my uncle had been proud of me. That he had watched from afar, as I took on the mantle of big brother and defender of the weaker kids around me. How he knew that, I had no idea, but there it was…
I asked him what he remembered most about my Godfather, who had never seemed to be much of a presence in my life, and he replied, “He was ‘the catcher in the rye’. The real deal. He spent his childhood defending the little kids who were always being bullied. I hear that you took after him…”
I managed to keep my composure as we parted company on that April morning. And no, I never knew…. Isn’t life strange sometimes?