the indisputable weight of the ocean
People are always telling me that my work is too dark. So I've put up this sunnier story, but even it has a shadow, as its original publisher – a fine Atlantic Canadian literary magazine called the Gaspereau Review – is no longer in business.
It was a simple enough thing and that thing was simply this: Edmund Kelley was a gentleman. Of course his mom called him her 'little gentleman', as in 'Oh Edmund, you are my perfect little gentleman,' which did seem to hold to a certain logic that these type of things often follow, considering her affection for him and the fact that he was, after all, only ten years old. Still, Edmund himself was not particularly fond of the diminutive aspect of that title. Gentleman was enough; gentleman summed up the whole thing rather nicely, thank you.
He was definitely a more refined version of your average child. He lived in a state of perpetual Sunday mornings. He stood before you with such composure: his shiny blonde hair combed into a nice, neat part, his clothes as clean as they had been in the closet, without rumples or rips or tears or stains. And in his manner he was like a little man trying to impress someone's parents, listening when spoken to, smiling politely, saying 'Please'. Indeed, adults liked Edmund very much, and that suited him just fine.
They lived on an acreage at the edge of a small town by the sea. 'An estate,' his mom said. For as long as Edmund could remember it had been just the two of them, his dad working far away in classified locations. This was to be expected; he was, after all, a nuclear submarine commander.
Edmund did not go to school. 'You're such a smart one,' his mother said. 'It's best if I just teach you at home.'
'I concur completely', Edmund agreed. It only made sense; his mom was a wonderful teacher and, since he had no others, they were the best of friends.
Edmund did not have much use for other children. The only time he saw any was when they went into town for groceries, and what he saw he did not like. From the back seat of the car he might spy some running amuck in the park or dawdling aimlessly in front of the store. They seemed hopeless and wild all at once. 'That bunch lacks any semblance of discipline,' Edmund would say to his mom.
'Oh honey, they're just grubby little kids, nothing to worry about,' his mom replied. 'They won't bite.' But to Edmund they looked like they just might do exactly that.
If such a thing can actually be enjoyed then Edmund enjoyed order. Peace and quiet and order. He prided himself on the neatness of his room, on the orderly way he kept his things. And while he had many things, from trains to model planes to amateur scientist sets, what Edmund loved the most, what he lined his walls with like the bricks of Tutankahman's tomb, were his books. The most prized were from his dad, sent in parcels of brown paper that, if smelled hard enough, held the faint and mysterious scent of what could only be the deep sea.
The summer of Edmund's eleventh birthday revealed itself to be a most tumultuous time. For some vague reasons of economics that his mom refused to give Edmund a chance to understand, they had to move to the city. It was all very upsetting. Edmund said, rather bluntly: 'This is terrible.'
'Oh honey please, it's only the suburbs,' his mom said.
Terrible, Edmund thought.
And it was. Suddenly there were people everywhere, all around them, all the time. They were surrounded by people. Deluged by people. The houses on either side seemed to bob in the shadows a mere few arm-lengths apart. Cars and dogs and babies in carriages and old men who muttered in what Edmund could only assume was profane language and children, especially children seethed around their new home. These people will sink us, Edmund thought with a shudder.
Edmund wondered out loud if dad might be able to take leave and come see them in their new house.
'He's on a very important mission right now,' his mom said.
It must be dangerous too, Edmund thought, to make mom look so distracted and tired.
But Edmund was not without consideration for his mom. And because he did not want to be an extra burden on her, he tried to cope with his new situation. He really did. He taped a picture of Winston Churchill to his mirror to remind himself not to complain. In fact he tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, to stay out of his mom's way and let her get herself grounded. So when she announced that she would now be out of the house during the day, that she would be starting a job, he gave himself a headache with the energy it took not to say anything about how absolutely terrible that was. 'You're a big boy now and it's only for a few hours a day,' his mom said.
Et tu, Bruté?, Edmund thought.
Then the noises came.
It was the second afternoon by himself and he was in his favorite chair by the window in his bedroom, reading a fascinating deconstruction of Napoleon's last campaign at Waterloo (Not so much the fault of the great man as his incompetent subordinates, Edmund thought) when he heard the most horrifying screams next door. His blood froze. The screaming continued. Someone was begging, pleading for mercy. A boy's voice. Should he call the police? But then, what was that? Laughter? It was. Big, pealing, squealing laughter. And now what, more screams?
Edmund went to the window to investigate but the houses were too close together – he could see nothing. He was fairly certain that the commotion was coming from the neighbour's backyard but once outside he was again thwarted, this time by the height of the fence and the closeness of its slats. It's like the bloody Berlin wall! Edmund thought. Still, he could hear them on the other side.
It sounded like there were two of them and one was torturing the other. Having quite a good time of it too, laughing hysterically the whole while. Some kind of foreign instrument was involved, possibly a hose. The victim would periodically make an attempt to wrest away control of this object, there was a good deal of running and physical grappling, and often there were violent sprays of water in the air. All Edmund could think about was the Roman coliseum and the bloodsport of gladiators. He went into the house to lie down.
His mom found him on the living room couch with a damp towel over his face. 'What's wrong dear? Are you sick?'
'Just relaxing mom. I'm fine.' He did not want to worry her.
Besides, it might never happen again.
Which of course was foolish optimism. They next afternoon they were at it with a vengeance, this time with some sort of inflated ball that they delighted in throwing at each other as hard as they could, undoubtedly with the intent of causing maximum injury because there was some rather plaintive sobbing, much different than the hysterics of the day before, followed by angry yelling from an adult within the house. Then the injured party laughed at the one who was scolded and the whole thing began again. Sadists! Edmund thought.
Sleep offered no escape for Edmund. His head swam with images of fire and barbaric pagan rituals, of silhouetted figures with demonically painted faces. It was sheer, unadulterated terror.
The next day, tired and bleary-eyed, he found himself crouched in the shade of the fence again, listening to more carnage. Today the violence was more straightforward, revolving around some kind of whacking. They whacked and teased and cursed and whooped and tormented each other and ... what was that? They were keeping score! They were actually keeping score! That was too much. Even the sun seemed to blaze with indignation.
When he entered the alley Edmund had no idea what he was going to do. He still had no idea when he silently, breathlessly pushed open the gate to the neighbour's yard.
There were two of them. One was bigger, older and he had an oversized plastic bat. The other one was more Edmund's size, although thicker. He had the inflated ball. They were playing ... what, some kind of baseball? It looked nothing like the version Edmund had seen in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There was only home plate and first base. The hitter had to get to first base and back without getting tagged. The pitcher had to retrieve the hit ball and then tag – nail, really – the runner, and the more force the better, so it seemed. They called each other the cruelest of names. It was all ... madness. Edmund stood there and watched, transfixed. After some time the smaller one, the pitcher, squinted into the sun and saw him there in the corner.
'Hey!' he called out. 'Whaddya doing there?'
His voice rang like doom in Edmund's ears. In the next few swirling moments his mind went completely and utterly blank. 'My dad's a nuclear submarine commander,' he heard himself say.
'No shit?' said the older one.
'Hey,' said the pitcher. 'Hey, I'm getting killed here. You wanna play outfield?'
And because his mind was still a frothing emptiness, because he could think of nothing else to say, he simply nodded his head.
God he had fun that day.