Apple and Cinnamon
Growing up, I was always a bit of a 'problem child.' This was what they called the ones who didn't sit down with their backs straight along the lines of the chairs, the ones who didn't stick a finger against their scrunched up lips, all smiles and feigned goodness. Then the teacher leaves the room a moment, and they turn on their chairs and tell you, 'you're not strong enough to push the teacher's table across the front of the room!' And so you do it, you do it because who are they to question you? Who are they to question anybody? You do it and then the teacher tries to get back in but there's a bloody great big table in the way, and they're looking right at you and scowling. But you don't give a damn because the class has broken out in to cheers and you've let that little fake goody-two-shoes sat in front know that actually, you are strong enough.
There was one boy especially that liked to encourage me to do things like that. Looking back on it now, I was obviously playing into his little devious plans like a stringed puppet. But I think, even if I knew that at the time I'd have still gone and done what he'd expected of me. If I hadn't, I'd have been considered a coward in front of everybody, and even though I was filling his little glass of ego with a smug self-satisfaction whenever I danced to his song, it was me who the class looked up to; it was me who got the cheers and the high-fives and it was me who the other kids came to help wage their wars. The boy at the other end with the hand on the trigger - he was a nobody. Everyone called him 'Vee' and I always thought that was a girl's name, suited him just fine.
'You can't climb that drainpipe!' I damn well could, and did. I got to the top and then slipped and fell off the thing and fractured my wrist, but I climbed it. The teacher forced me to write with my left hand that summer, I couldn't read any of my own words, but what did words matter in a world where the educated were laughed at? Only the sissies and the boys with allergies or lame legs ever bothered with things like 'knowledge' and 'history' - I spat at 'history', it never did me any good in that run-down little village. In that place all you had were your friends and a good stick to defend yourself with.
'A good stick' was generally one that is about the length of your hip bone to your ankle bone, you don't want it too thick because the weight would work against you, but not too thin because then it would break on impact. We used to have 'arms-days' where we'd go about the village and gather everything we could for our arsenal. For the stick, we'd take to the woods out by the east side of the school yard, I'd have Monkey and Kento with me, as usual. We called him Monkey because he looked like one - short and hunched and too hairy for a twelve year old. He had an eye for a good tree, it was thanks to him we found our hideout there in the shade of the woods, and when it came to finding the stick he'd just yell out, 'San, that's the one!' and point up to nowhere in particular. Sure enough, whatever he pointed at, we hacked at with an axe and then Keno whittled it down with one of his knives so it was sharp at the end. Kento was a quiet kid but a fine brawler, his father was the local butcher so our arsenal was largely thanks to whatever he could sneak out from the house without being seen. One day he emerged with the biggest knife you could imagine, 'this one's for chopping up the bones' he'd declared proudly - we all marvelled at it as we walked down the street, waving it under the sun to make it shine, but our awe was soon interrupted when a middle-aged couple saw it glinting in the sunlight and made a fuss, so we fled and tossed the knife into some shrubs a couple of streets down.
On the battlefield, violence was fair game. At the crossroads on the north side of the village, it would be our school against the Bullards, or 'Blow-Hards' as we called them. We'd set the day and the time, and then off we went, brandishing all our weapons and filling the sleepy air with our war cries. Their tanned faces enraged us all the more, their school was a 'vocational institute' which basically meant they were all about physical activity, out on the beach under the sun every day, soaking up the rays. I saw their golden complexion and there'd be a pang of jealousy well up inside me, there was nothing more I'd have liked than to spend my school hours outdoors - but our school was the 'academic' side of the coin, we were funnelled into stuffy classrooms wearing our black satin uniforms, sweltering in the heat. Of course, I made a point of 'misplacing' my uniform each term, and then many others did. The B-Hards were physically stronger than we were, but we made up for that with intellect, as even the likes of Vee banded together with us when the time called for it. He'd write a note which would pass from hand to hand beneath the tables. I'd open it, thinking, what web is this wuss spinning now? But his scribbled note and diagram would see us flank the enemy on each side as they came at us puffing their tanned chests, and we'd overwhelm them, pelting them with eggs and rotting meat.
What were we fighting for? I couldn't tell you, it was just what we did. We enjoyed it! And for the most part, we got away with it. Those skirmishes between our schools would end when teachers from both would break through the walls of young bodies, demanding order. Having gotten wind of something about to go down, they'd stalk the streets in search of anything suspicious, and then come down on us with full force. But who was to blame when there were so many boys in the fray? There weren't enough fingers to point at faces, so each class would be reprimanded by their teachers and that was that.
It was my daredevil stunts that got me into trouble. Slit-mouthed Vee would be up to his usual tricks, out of pure amusement he'd dare me to make a fool of myself. As stubborn as I was, I wasn't about to let that self-assured weasel get the better of me. On one afternoon, I passed by his desk and on impulse, I slapped the boy across the back of the head. He cracked his chin against the tired wood and the whole class erupted into laughter. Serves you right for balancing your chair on two legs, I thought to myself. He rubbed at his chin and then turned to me, grinning,
"Didn't even hurt." Everybody was watching, with baited breath.
"Like I care."
"That's because you're an animal."
"Oh? What's this now? Little Vee finally got a back bone?" There were a few sniggers across the classroom.
"You think you're such a big man, don't you Sanshero? Well you're not, you're just a chimp with a rock. Why don't you join your monkey friend and stop embarrassing yourself?" A snatch of stifled laughter eked out from behind clasped hands. I looked over to where Vee was pointing, Monkey sat with a ruler in his hand, mouth agape. I set my eyes back on Vee, with an incredulous stare. It took every ounce of my willpower not to jump on him and sink my teeth into his face. Who was he to tell me to do anything? Who was he to command a room like this, and set the state of play? He was the child of a family of wealth from the big city, the world would soon be his for the taking. He was here for his little intellectual dalliances to then graduate into the wide world with every badge of honour a boy could ask for, but he had no respect from us - he was one for the teachers to nod pleasingly at in the corridors, and nothing more. I wasn't about to let that boy challenge me in front of my people.
"You watch your back.' I leaned in to his face, eye to eye.
"My back?" He gasped in a feigned surprise, and looked around the room. "San here likes it from behind, everyone!" The room filled with laughter and hooting. I grabbed his wrist with my left hand, I felt in that moment I could snap it. Vee turned to the doorway, either through fear or something else, but there was no sign of the teacher. He slipped his free arm into his right pocket and pulled out a small pen-knife. The laughter fell into silence. He leaned and whispered into my ear. "Do your worst." And he flipped the knife open, the metallic clink seemed to cut through the static silence of the room. "Go on, give your audience what they want. Play the part." I yanked his arm between my legs, and with his knife I sliced slowly across his skin. I still remember the smell of his blood as it dribbled along the line I'd carved, I remember thinking of it like those animal carcasses Kento's father butchered with that big knife we'd tossed away, I remember the gasps of the boys and the rays of the sun filtering through the dusty windows, burning everything with an orange hue.
Vee kept quiet about what had happened. He simply rolled up his sleeves during class, showing off his scar, like one of his many honourable badges, for all to see. I was called into the principal's office later that week, my father sat with a dark expression on his face. I hated that office. The principal was a fat, balding idiot. The room was a foul combination of incense, sweat and the ringing of cicadas through the open window, an assault on all senses. I sat staring into the corner alcove where the picture of his dead wife sat, sun-stained and faded. Father nodded apologetically under the chorus of sighs and heavy notes of concern from the spectacled man behind the desk - he nodded, but he didn't care. And why would he care? I loved my mother, and he loved her too, when she was gone, there was nothing left in that house of ours. I eat the food he gives me, and I shit it back out in his toilet, that's how it was with me and my father.
Without an accusation from Vee himself, there was nothing to be done of the incident. I was given a blanket warning about my behaviour in general, but everybody got those; they were the product of an eternal summer in which boys would fight with other boys over nothing in particular, completely oblivious to their lives falling away before them.