Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fun and Games

My mother cared for us with a benign but unimaginative neglect that could only be practiced by a woman with urban sensibilities. We were surrounded by hazards so far from her purview that for her they didn’t exist. She was a woman whose idea of roughing it for most of her life had been living with a bathtub in the kitchen of a Manhattan walk-up. How could she be expected to understand the perils that lurked in wait for small children in an outdoor privy?

Once when we were visiting a gigantic bachelor who had an outhouse large enough to accommodate his bulk, one of my little sisters almost plunged to a fate worse than death. I ran into our host’s cabin shrieking “Hurry! Hurry! She’s falling down the outhouse hole!” My father and his friend tore off to the rescue, finding my youngest sister desperately clinging to the victim’s hands as she slid inch by inch toward her doom.

Shortly after her narrow escape, my sister created a character named Georgie Pewstinker who lived at the bottom of an outhouse hole, Her portraits of this creature would make her a prime candidate for a child therapist nowadays. In our time, my parents found this spurt of imagination in a hitherto stolid daughter rather encouraging and completely amusing. A visitor from the states put Georgie Pewstinker into a poem and he became one of the family. My sister frequently channeled him. He spoke in a bloodcurdling yodel with long drawn-out syllables, which was probably cathartic.

A year or two later, quite early in my academic career, I was dressed, brushed, and ready for school, a one-room affair a few steps down the road that ran in front of our house. It was a gorgeous day with a fresh snowfall and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to waste all of this in a classroom, which was beginning to be a little dull. I launched myself into one of the silent scenarios that I could role play for hours—Anne Bonney the pirate was a particular favorite.

My little sisters must have been sick that day or else they would have noticed me floating about in the snow, stick sword in hand, quietly dueling with an invisible opponent. But nobody saw me, until my teacher walked past our house on her way to her own at lunch time.

“What are you doing? Go to school right now,” she demanded and I pulled myself out of my buccaneer existence. I had almost emptied my lunch box by then but I was in time for recess.

My mother never knew about my truancy but my teacher began to invite me to her house on Saturday to spend the afternoon and make doughnuts with her. I loved the attention and she seemed to think that I needed it.

When we moved back to the hills, our lives became rather isolated from the rest of the world and slowly we began to recreate a life that I’d later recognize in Lord of the Flies and A High Wind in Jamaica, a society of semi-feral children. Because we had been imbued with a rigorous infusion of “company manners,” we behaved well enough in our rare social encounters but in daily living we were savages.

One summer, a boy we knew came to stay for a month. This was a common custom in our culture; I’d been farmed out to friends of my parents from the time I was two when my mother had begun to have more children.

We didn’t really like Martin. He was a spoiled brat with a mean streak but he had a rebellious joie de vivre that eventually won us over. He had useful talents that we hadn’t acquired; he was good with a knife and he had brought his own little hatchet.

There was a huge thicket of alder bushes quite close to our house and we found that once we were inside that enclosure, we were invisible. The branches were so dense around and above us that we could see nothing but green. Even when it rained, the canopy of bushes kept us from getting soaked. It was the perfect place to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wished.

 “Let’s make a city.” I suggested. “We can each have our own chamber.”

For weeks, we worked at clearing small spaces within the jungle. Martin hacked away vigorously with his hatchet and I found that if I stripped the butchered alder branches of bark and leaves, they became whips. My sisters and I made many of them which we stacked neatly in our chambers.

Martin’s father knew a man who had undergone the Bataan Death March, a story that might not be every child’s idea of an adventure worth having but it appealed to Martin. Once we heard it, we realized it had possibilities, but we identified with the captors, not the war heroes. Slowly a plan took shape.

There was a group of children whom we detested who lived down the hill. They were slow of speech and had no spark. We were convinced they were of another species, definitely lower than animals. We would never have done to animals what we intended to do with the Smith children.

Whips weren’t enough. Martin chopped down thorny stalks of devil’s club and we put on our winter mittens to carry them to our torture chambers. When we had enough, we knew it was time to begin our march.

“Come and play with us,” we invited the Smiths, “It’s such an exciting game—you’ll see.” They willingly tagged after us as we left their yard and as soon as all adults were out of sight, we sternly put our captives in marching formation.”Get in a straight line,” I barked and Martin flourished his hatchet. The two of us led the way, my sisters bringing up the rear, and shouts of “March!” rang through the wilderness.

The Smiths looked worried and the smallest began to cry. “What is this game?” one of them asked and Martin replied, “This is a Death March.”

“Yes,” my youngest sister said, “We’re going to torture you in the alder patch.” I glared at her. “We told you not to tell them that. It’s a surprise.”

The oldest Smith broke ranks and began to sprint with the speed spawned by adrenaline and terror. Martin and I were reluctant to abandon our remaining prisoners and sent my sisters in pursuit, but it was too late. Before they caught her, Mildred Smith made it into our house, shrieking “Help, help! They’re going to kill us.”

“Of course we didn’t say that,” we all lied repeatedly, “It’s just a game.”

The Smiths went home. The chambers in the alder thicket slowly disappeared. Before Martin left us, he managed to split his forehead open with a vigorous swing of his hatchet and sported a rakish bandage for the rest of his stay. In a burst of the rivalry that existed between us, I sliced my foot rather deeply with an axe while trying to chop wood one dull afternoon.

It was undoubtedly karmic retribution for the devil’s club, but we failed to absorb the moral lesson conveyed by the bloodshed. Even without Martin, our amusements were unconventional and creative.

Once my foot healed, my sisters and I engaged two neat and prissy visitors in a spirited battle that owed quite a bit to a snowball fight, although it took place in June. We were all feeling bored and even Billy and Martha agreed that a spot of combat would liven things up. It had been raining so mud was plentiful and we made many, many gooey projectiles, took up our attack positions and fired.

Our resourcefulness won no plaudits when our parents had finished visiting. Neither our household nor that of our guests had running water and five children dripping with mud weren’t what any adult would care to find at the end of the day.   

After that we all played at Billy and Martha’s house, where their mother cut our sandwiches into neat triangles and we were encouraged to stay indoors. We busied ourselves in one of the bedrooms with Martha’s dolls, all of us amused for hours, even Billy. Their mother was pleased until the day she asked “Why are you playing in the dark?” and learned that we were playing Murder.

The plot that we related to her was much too grisly for her tastes and Martha and Billy learned to live without our company. Somehow we bore up under that deprivation. We were too busy to care; we had just learned to play cards. I'd recently read about Las Vegas and gambling for a penny a point was taking up all of our attention. With a little practice, I told my sisters, we could start a kid's casino...

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