The Stream

I remember the last day of school that year because our teachers had given up on teaching us anything meaningful, and opted, instead, to let us have a full day of recess. While the other children hung from the monkey-bars, or chased the red plastic balls which always seemed to deflate before recess was over, Mary and I sat on the swings. We were not swinging, but we were dragging our feet through the soft dirt below them, leaving a thick coat of brown dust on our white ankles. We were eight years old then, and ready for the summer and the adventures we would have.

I had moved to this town two years earlier, when my father had gotten his position teaching Biology at the state university a half hour away, and Mary lived close to me. Ours were the only two houses on the dusty rural road, isolated double trailers with huge back yards. We were friends because I was a shy child. Words, which came so easily into my mind, always had trouble making their way out of my mouth. Incidentally I was very quiet most of the time, and when I tried to speak the words came in stutters and embarrassment. Mary, being deaf, had no need for my words. We understood each other, as only children and best friends can, without any language aside from her fluid hands, and the few broken signs that she had taught me.

"You'll learn, Anna. It's not so hard." She had signed it, and then written it down so I could understand.

"Ok." But I had never really thought I would be able to grasp it. My hands seemed so clumsy, so slow beside hers.

"You'll see."

Our toes made jagged lines through the cool dirt, our shoes lying discarded by the swing-set. I knew from experience that the dirt under my toenails would take extra bath time to wash out. 

"We'll have fun this summer." I signed, clumsily making my hands form the "fun" and "summer", knowing anyway that Mary would understand.

She smiled at that. "Yes, we'll go to the stream."

The stream was no farther than a mile from the back edges of our yards, but that mile was tall grass that rose to our waists in places, and then trees which hid the stream from the view of outsiders. We had "discovered" it the previous summer by accident. Mary had been staying at my house while our parents went to a church picnic, and the teenage girl who was supposed to be watching us had sent us outside while she waited for her boyfriend's rusty red pick-up truck to appear in the driveway.

We liked to play in the tall grasses. Once we had found a litter of kittens that we carried home like precious jewels, to the dismay of our parents, but usually we played hide-and-seek, one of us lying down in the grass until the other one found her or she got bored of staying still. So on that day, when Mary challenged me to race to the distant trees, I had met the challenge.

"I'll beat you!" She signed, and then she was gone.

"Oh no you won't!" I yelled after her, forgetting for the moment that she wouldn't hear my answer.

What we found was the stream, waiting for us just beyond the thin line of shielding trees. It was probably not the safest place for two eight year old girls to be playing, but we never thought of that. To us it was magical, mythical, and we truly believed, despite the scattered beer bottles and cigarette stubs, that we were the only people on Earth who knew of it.

            Mary and I were wading by the shore, dipping our legs tentatively into the dirty water, the day the boys came out into our small clearing by the bank. They rushed out from behind the trees, coming upon us so quickly that we had no time to react. There were three in all, older boys that I didn't recognize.  I imagine they had just been playing in the fields and trees, like we did, because I don't think they expected to find us there.

            "Hey, look it's the freaks."

            "Yeah, hey weirdoes."

            "What're you doing out here all alone?"

            "We're playing." I said it aloud, also signing the term "playing" for Mary to see. The boys caught onto that I guess, the one closest to me grabbed my hand and the others mimicked the sign, making fun of us.

            "Don't you know we don't let no little freaks play here?"

            "Yeah freaks."

            "Mutants."

            "Little fucks."

            The chorus of their voices was horrible enough to me, but one look at Mary's face and I could see that she was terrified. Even though she couldn't hear the words, she could read the faces of the boys and guess at their cruelty. Their eyes were dark, venomous, and I was frightened. I hadn't noticed the glint in them before, the hate. But almost as soon as the cacophony of insults had begun, it stopped. The boys had other ideas for fun, and they picked me up and dropped me, hard, against the rocks where the shore met the stream.

            The water rushed behind my head. I could hear its gentle roll, and all I could think was that I would never be able to explain to my mother why my hair was wet.

            Mary had tried to run. I watched as the trio of boys came back with her held over their heads like a trophy, but instead of tossing her, as they had tossed me, they simple held her there above them, their arms so extended so fully that they were straight. She was squirming and beating her fists against the back of the boy she could reach, her mouth opening and closing as if screaming. They held her there, until the center boy said "Oh fuck, she peed her pants," and at that they dropped her, more violently than they did me, into the shallow water, and ran back through the trees.

            I lay there, stunned and immobile, for a few minutes; not sure that I could trust my body to balance itself. When I did move I found Mary lying on the grass a few feet away and I laid down beside her, trying to understand.

            "What happened?" Her hands were held in the air above us, and I watched the signs form upside down.

            "I don't know."

When our parents learned what had happened we were forbidden from ever going back to the stream alone, but it didn't matter. Alone or accompanied, both Mary and I knew that we were never going back.

We were examined by the local doctor the next morning, who could only tell us that we were "lucky that nothing was broken." Our parents filed police reports, but nothing was ever done. Neither Mary nor I knew at the time the motivations behind the attack, did not even have the words to describe what had happened to us, we only knew that we were different, and that that might be the worst sin of all.