The rock struck the child’s head. He cried out in pain and frustration, his fingers digging into his thick hair at the back of his scalp. They came away red with blood. The warm liquid trickled down, forming a small pool on his neck.
The kick in the seat of his pants sent him sprawling. He rolled to avoid the next kick.
The ten-year-old boy frowned at the man towering over him. Reaching back, he rubbed the spot where the boot landed. He fought back the tears that threatened to force their way out. He would not cry- he could not cry. He was strong, and this was only his second day of training to be a man.
Yesterday, the man threw the stones at him- and a few grazed him. “Warnings”, his stepfather called them.
The ones this morning hit his left leg, and then his right, as he crawled under the strand of electric fence. They hurt, but not like the last one. They would leave bruises, but not blood.
“Boy, you ‘bout as dumb as they come,” the man said.
The sun behind him gave his six-three structure a god-like appearance.
“I might as well throw you to the hogs and start over.”
The words cut worse than the stone. The threat terrified the child. He glanced to his left at the hog pen. The man, the only father he had ever known, often threw dead chickens, opossums, and coons to the hogs.
Time after time, the boy watched in horror as the pigs’ tusks tore these carcasses apart. It seemed to him that the hogs glared at him as they ate the dead meat, sizing him up for their next meal.
“Now you get out of my sight before I feed you to that sow over there,” he said, pointing to a huge white hog. He came after the boy, raising his foot for another kick. His size 12 boot missed the child’s buttocks. And the boy scrambled to his feet before his stepfather landed the blow that would be more painful than the last kick.
Racing around the barn, the child ran down the incline to the river. If possible, the words made him run faster.
At the top of the hill, he tripped over a root, losing his footing. And, tumbling over logs, and through briars and puddles, he came to rest at the edge of the river.
Lying there for a few seconds, he regained his breath.
Sizing up, the boy took measure of himself. Reaching up, he touched his face. The cuts from the briars weren’t too deep. A few bruises, mostly from the rocks thrown at him. And torn clothing, covered in mud. All were recoverable. But not his heart. The bruising there would last a lifetime.
He felt tears coursing down his cheeks. Angry, he slammed his fist into his face, bloodying his nose. “Not supposed to cry. Quit being a baby. Be a man,” he said, repeating his father’s words.
His nose bled, the blood mixing with the salty tears.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he would show him. Tomorrow, he would endure the ritual. Tomorrow, he would prove he was worthy to be called a man.
After washing in the river, he crept up the hill, making sure to keep the rickety barn between him and the man. He kept it that way all the way to the house. The smell of the hogs still fresh in his nostrils.
The stench seemed to become stronger with each step. And despite the washing, mud still clung to him. He dug his toes into the warm dust. A little comfort in his world of dread.
He thought of stripping, but at his age he knew better than to walk around nude. Not that it would make much difference. The overalls were second hand from the poor box at church; his mother patched them, but it didn’t help much. Tumbling down the hill had torn more holes in the cloth. So he held the bottom part together as best he could.
Stepping up onto the porch, he avoided the boards that creaked.
Carefully, he sneaked up to the screen door. Not seeing her, he breathed a sigh of relief. The spring on the screen door squeaked. Squeezing through, he slowly made his way across the living room.
“What do you think you’re a doin’?” Her voice made his blood freeze. She stood at the door to the kitchen, hands on her hips, her face flushed. “Get them muddy feet off my clean floor.”
“Yes ‘em,” he whispered past the lump in his throat.
He backtracked on wobbly legs, trying to place his bare feet in the grimy prints. His mother reached out a hand and grabbed the out-of-sight mop.
“Go, just go!“ she shouted. And bringing the mop into view, she waved it at him.
She never whipped the boy- that was his father’s job. But she saw the evidence of his work when she bathed him. She steeled herself to believe it was good for the child, as she had married the man only a few months before. Not the first mistake she’d ever made. But perhaps the most deadly.
The boy stayed outside the rest of the day, going back to the river. And stripping, he bathed. Washing the blood from his head and face. His stomach growling, he ate berries and roots to silence it.
In the evening, the smell of ham frying drew him to the house. He peeked through the open door to the kitchen, where his mother and stepfather were seated at the table. His mother looked up, frowning.
“There you are. Been prowling them woods all day. You hungry?” she asked.
“Yes, Mama,” he said, nodding his head.
“Well then you best get them chores done ‘fore you eat,” the man said, not looking up as he cut into a thick piece of meat. The sight made the boy’s mouth water.
“You heard your father. Now go on, get them chickens fed and watered.” His mom made a shooing motion with her hand.
But in response to her ushering, a bit of rebellion rose up in him. As soon as he said the words, he knew he was in for a beating.
“He ain’t my father!” he shouted, his hands clenched into fists, and his teeth biting off each word. “He be just an interloper.”
And whirling on his heel, he ran for the barn.
“Boy, you get back here and git what’s comin’ to you!”
He glanced behind him. His stepfather stood on the back porch, his razor strap dangling from his right hand.
He had been waiting for the boy, the piece of leather lying across his lap.
From the barn, the child watched through a crack until the man returned to the table and resumed eating.
After a few minutes, his conscience got the better of the him. It was his responsibility to care for the hens. Feeding them and gathering the eggs.
Shoving the piece of tin off the barrel of chicken feed, he filled the galvanized bucket half way. Setting the bucket on the straw fling floor, he replaced the makeshift lid on the barrel.
The one time he had forgotten and left the lid off, coons got in the feed. His stepfather had used the razor strap that day. The bruises took two weeks to heal.
Keeping his eyes on the house, he walked to the pen.
Carefully, he opened the gate to the pen, blocking the hens and rooster, lest they slip by and escape. He scattered the feed in the small troughs, then went to the pump. Filling the bucket with water, he returned to the chicken yard. And rinsing out the bowl, he poured in the water until it overflowed.
Satisfied the hens were taken care of for the night, he closed the gate and hung the bucket on a nearby post to dry.
He felt the sharp, stinging pain on his upper thigh before he saw him. And he cried out more in surprise than agony.
“Lean against that fence boy,” his stepfather commanded, holding the strap in his right hand while running it through his left. Like a snake striking, he then grabbed the boy by the back of the neck, and pushed the child’s face into the wire of the chicken pen.
The boy struggled to escape. But the man’s grip was too strong. The boy waited- though he didn’t have to wait long. He knew pain was inevitable.
Rising the strap, the man brought it down hard, striking his target.
By the fifth blow, the boy had stopped struggling. But with his backside almost numb, he endured five more, for a total of ten, of the worst strips he had received so far in his young life.
His mother, watching from the kitchen window, covered her mouth with her hand. Surely the boy didn’t deserve that brutal of a beating.
Her husband let go of the child, shoving him in the direction of the house. As the boy came through the door to the kitchen, she raised her apron and wiped her eyes.
Taking his plate from the oven where she had kept it warm, she set it before him, noticing he shifted in his chair, his eyes dry. She wanted to say something to comfort her son. But what could she say? Her fingers touched the bruise where the man pushed her into the wall last night. No, she dare not say anything against the man.
*3 years later*
The bed shook. The boy groaned in his sleep. And the man kicked the bed again.
“Get up Boy, time to go huntin’.” His stepfather staggered to the doorway leading to the hallway.
The boy sat up in bed.
The only thing he hated worse than hunting was his stepfather.
Drunk at five in the morning. What else was new? If the conservation officer caught them, the man would blame the boy.
Today. It ended today.
He could go to prison, but it couldn’t be worse than this.
The beating he received at the chicken pen three years before had paled in comparison to other batterings he’ endured. But at 13, he was almost as tall as his stepfather.
He groaned, hating to leave his bed. Trying to delay leaving as long as he dared. The beating he received yesterday made his bones ache. The thumping his mother took when she tried to intervene was almost as bad.
The blue sky mocked him. And the already-warm sun threatened him. He had prayed for rain, or at least a cloudy day.
During training, he could only have a mouthful of water an hour. Yesterday, he had violated that rule, resulting in a severe beating.
His stepfather put down the pint of corn liquor when the boy came into the kitchen.
“You made me late,” the man mumbled. “Shoulda been in the woods an hour ago.”
The boy didn’t respond. His hands shook.
He hated killing. Hunting. The only friends he had were the animals in the forest.
His stepfather demanded he go hunting, but when it came time for the killing shot, the boy froze. He loved watching the animals play. He dreaded the thought of taking a mother from her young.
As they entered a clearing in the north woods, they saw them. A doe with her fawn. The fawn appeared to be only a couple of months old.
“Shoot her, Boy,” his stepfather demanded. The man stood several feet back.
The boy raised the rifle, then lowered it. He couldn't bring himself to kill such a beautiful creature.
As he lowered his rifle, a shot startled him. The doe crumbled to the ground.
“Boy, you ‘bout as worthless as nothin’”.
Walking by the boy, his stepfather struck him in the jaw. The boy fell backwards into the weeds, his rifle clattering to the ground.
“You ain’t even got the safety off that gun,” the man said, landing a kick in the boy’s side and laughing.
It was then that the boy knew he was going to kill the man. Turning his eyes to the doe, the boy watched her feet kicking in death throes. Beside the deer, her fawn bleated. On spindly legs, it sniffed of its dying mother. Then it nosed her side as if trying to wake her.
Heartlessly the man knelt and stuck a knife in the animal’s throat. As the doe bled out, the man reached for his rifle. Aiming it at the fawn, he said, “We gonna have us some tender deer meat tonight.”
Leaping off the ground, the boy ran at the man, kicking the gun away. The gun discharged, the bullet passing harmlessly over the little deer’s back and smacking into a tree. The boy snatched up the man’s gun.
“Boy, you give me that rifle!”
Rising to his feet, the man glared at the boy.
With tears flowing down his cheeks and dripping off his chin, the boy shot his stepfather in the heart. The man looked at him stupidly, then collapsed with a groan.
Strangely, all the boy felt was a sense of relief. No regret, unless it was that he hadn’t killed him before he shot the deer.
He laid the man’s rifle on the ground, pointing at his stepfather. And whistling, he shouldered his own rifle. Then with the fawn following, he set off to tell his mother the man was dead.