Stephen Wade is a prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, 2013. Wade’s fiction has been published in over thirty-five print publications. His unpublished novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010. Among the publications in which is work appears are: Crannog, Zenfri Publications, New Fables, Gem Street, Grey Sparrow, Fjords Arts and Literary Review, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual, 2011 and 2015. www.stephenwade.ie
Lion-Cubs, Skins, Pitt-Bulls and Us
By Steve Wade
“Out of the way,” I shouted at the little kids who often trailed after us bigger kids like a pack of lion cubs.
On the sixth or so pendulum swing, with me as the pendulum on a backward ascent, I gripped the rope tighter with my hands, slipped my foot from the loop and, just before the completion of the swing, I released my hold on the rope and flew feet-first through the air.
“Geronimo,” I screamed, and landed on the hay we’d taken from one of the haystacks in Farmer O’Reilly’s fields.
All of us, including the kids, shut down, became totally silent for a few seconds. We listened hard. But no echo returned from the trees. For obvious reasons, we hadn’t yet ventured too far along the river since Fiver’s death. Fiver was one of Mrs O’Gorman’s Pekinese dogs.
Just a week back, Ger and me had dognapped Fiver to hold for ransom, a plan that went all wrong. We stashed the dog in the old cowshed before teatime. But on our return to the fields the following evening – that scary time when the day was dying and the crows in the dark trees were complaining – Fiver was missing. We found the dog within minutes. There she was, as stiff as a frozen towel hanging from a clothesline in January. Whoever had taken her had hanged the Pekinese from the tall conifer, using the thin blue rope we’d used as a lead during the dognapping. Aller O’Callahan, at thirteen, three or four years older than us, was our immediate suspect. Aller was always mooching around the fields on his own.
Anyway, we were ensuring we had a quick escape in case Geronimo Hawk came from out of the forest. Geronimo Hawk arrived each year in summer like a late migratory bird. Nobody knew where he came from or where he went for the winter. Geronimo Hawk stayed mostly around the fields at the back of the church. We weren’t really afraid of him. We respected him, I guess, and stayed out of his territory, which was in and around wherever he happened to be in the fields. He, the Hawk as we usually called him, was away it seemed. So we relaxed.
The little kids ran wildly and danced about me like almost articulate young lions.
One yellow cub, a small round boy of about four, grasped me round the neck and wouldn’t let go. The other cubs aped his lead and clung fast to my neck, arms and legs. One of them bit me. The cub leader laughed a gurgly laugh that was so infectious, all the other kids, and me, too, and my buddy Ger surrendered to a state of uncontrollable laughter and incapacitating high spirits.
For those tiny people, I was a hero, a being more worthy of adulation than a deity. I was Tarzan.
“Raz. Ger-Raz,” Ladders’ voice roared from a distance, somewhere in the packed trees. Ladders was Ladders’ nickname. I don’t remember his real name – if I ever knew it. Anyway, something was wrong. I could tell by Ladders’ voice. “Raz,” he called again.
Ger and me exchanged significant glances. The racket from the small kids made it difficult to hear clearly. There were other voices, older voices, drawing near. They sounded rough, the way bigger boys sounded when they were playing football.
We shushed the little kids up and listened.
Branches were being snapped, and there was the sound of brambles and weeds being thrashed with sticks. Worse still, they had dogs. We heard their yelps and muffled barking.
“Ladders,” Ger called out.
Silence now. No droning voices.
I visualised an advancing group halted. The barking continued but was more muffled, as though hands were clamping the dogs’ muzzles shut.
“Ger, Raz, help. Skinheads, skin… ”
“Hold him,” a voice shouted.
“Skinheads,” I roared.
“Skinheads,” Ger echoed.
“Right, let’s go!” one of the angry voices screamed. The dogs were now going crazy.
“The kids,” I roared at Ger. “We’ve got to get them out of here.”
“Go, run. Go home,” Ger screamed at the children.
The lion cubs scattered about like demented rabbits, but there was nowhere to run. The way home was back along the path of the advancing skinheads. Sensing our panic, they screamed, cried and wailed for their mammies.
Too late. Two skinheads were scrambling over the collapsed wall that was the entrance to our sacred hollow.
“You,” the first guy over the wall said to Ger. He pointed his finger head-high, as though it were a pistol. “Empty your pockets.”
The dog on a lead by his side growled and barked at Ger, echoing its master’s words. I thought I might vomit. Ger’s tormentor’s lip made me feel sicker. A couple of thin white lines seemed to pull it towards his nose. His voice was a snarl and the lip touched his nose when he spoke.
The second guy obviously didn’t believe in formalities. Smiling and without orders, he buried his hands deep into my pockets. His lucky dip yielded only a small rubber ball, a snotty tissue, a plastic soldier with its head chewed off, and a couple of pebbles I had intended using as catapult ammo.
I studied him carefully while he rummaged in my pockets. His hair was very blonde and cropped so tight he could’ve been bald. His forehead was crumpled and his face appeared oddly long. He kept his mouth open, and his tongue walked across his teeth like he was counting them. One of his canines was longer than the other one and it was pointed. On the pointy tooth, his tongue paused and pressed hard. I could tell the way his eyes creased.
“Money?” he said to me, smiling still.
I shrugged my shoulders. He motioned to whack me across the face. I squeezed my eyes shut, but was startled to feel an almost affectionate open-palmed tap on the cheek. This confused and disturbed me.
But when a third skinhead came over the wall, leading Ladders in front of him, and also straining to hold another bullet-headed dog on a chain, Vampire-tooth changed. His grip on my arm tightened and his friendly smile became menacing. “No odds on this one in anyway,” he said to Ladders’ skinhead, and motioned me to sit down next to the four little kids who, out of some common instinct, I guess, were now huddled quietly on the ground before the tree trunk.
“Little shits,” the third skinhead said. “What about them stupid runts?” he went on. “Have you searched them?”
Vampire-tooth ordered the kids to get up. That’s when Ger’s skinhead, Hairlip, stepped in front of Vampire-tooth with a clenched fist. “Them is babies,” he said. “We don’t touch them.” He looked from Vampire-tooth to the third skinhead. Hairlip twitched his mouth, stepped forward, his frown turning blacker. Vampire pushed him away by slamming his open palms against Hairlip’s shoulders. Hairlip fell back into the third skinhead. He tried to spring forward at Vampire, but the third skinhead gripped him by the arms and held him until he relaxed.
“He’s right,” the third skinhead said. “It’s these guys is the ones coming around here where they’re not wanted.”
Without fully realising it, my legs were leaping over the wall as though I had wings, and I was racing along the well-worn track that led to the entrance into the rear of the churchyard. Felt like I was the fastest creature on the planet. My body ducked under low-hanging branches, swerved with agility around trees determined to hamper my progress, zigzagged to avoid old and familiar objects like ivy-matted, mossy logs, tree-roots and dips in the earth, along with fresh obstacles: clusters of nettles that had sprung up in clearings.
Behind me pounded one of the skinheads and his dog, the two snarling, warning me graphically what they’d do to me when they caught me.
My stomach twisted when I heard the loathsome command, “Get him, Snuke. Catch it.”
I hit the ground hard. A horrible shock vibrated through me as I rolled over the fallen leaves. The Pit-bull named Snuke clung tightly to the bottom of my trousers’ leg and rolled with me. A momentary whine broke through the dog’s pneumatic growling hum when my free foot drew back and stomped him in the side.
Fearlessly, he emerged from his second tumble in the dirt. My falsetto scream mingled with Snuke’s ferocious snarls, and the tangle of green and brown foliage, flecked by blue patches from the sky, jerked from side to side, and I could smell the Pit-bull’s hot, doggy breath as his sharp teeth pressed into my throat, and there was a sticky feeling oozing down my neck, and the skinhead’s voice was shouting something as he pulled the dog from me by the collar.
I might have been emerging from a ragged dream, slipping into another, when oxygen came back into my lungs. I struggled to sit up, made it to a half-seated position and rested on my elbow.
Hairlip was repeatedly kicking the dog on the end of the leash the way you would a football. The dog yelped without retaliation. It seemed accustomed to this treatment.
“Leave us alone, Mister,” I said when Hairlip finished with the dog and was swaggering towards me.
“Don’t call me ‘Mister’,” he said. “I’m a young fellow, too.”
Clutching my chin in his hand, he examined my head from left to right, and then he twisted it as though he was trying to twist it from my body. But he didn’t use too much force, like he was playing, maybe.
“It’s only scratches,” he said. “Next time I’ll let him tear your bleeding throat out.” He dragged me back to the others by the scruff. “Tie Snuke and Razor up.” Hairlip said to the third skinhead.
The third skinhead looked the meanest. Either his head was too small for his body or his body was too long for his head; I wasn’t sure. He hesitated, spat on the ground, and took the two dogs and tied them by their leads to an old car tyre we sometimes used for a seat on the swing.
The dogs obediently sat down side by side, their heads on the earth between their forepaws.
The third skinhead approached Ger. What now? Hairlip and Vampire-tooth stood away from the three groups: the children, Ger, Ladders and me, and the dogs.
“Do you like him?” he asked Ger and nodded at Ladders next to him.
Hairlip and Vampire lit up cigarettes and chuckled together over the third skinhead’s antics.
“I don’t know,” Ger said. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“No,” the skinhead said. “Do you really like him?”
The dogs sat up, their bullet-heads seemingly awaiting Ger’s response.
“He’s my friend,” Ger said.
“How about you?” the skinhead said to Ladders.
Vampire and Hairlip were laughing louder and I thought I saw one of them blow a kiss in the air, but I wasn’t sure.
“I guess so,” Ladders said. We hang out together and stuff.”
Ladders was called Ladders because of his climbing skills. He had moved into our neighbourhood when we were about six. I remember asking him one time why he was called Ladders. “Because I’m a deadly climber,” he said. “I can climb anything.”
The third skinhead turned back to Ger. “Would you like to?” he said.
“What?” Ger said. “Like to what?”
Vampire imitated Ger’s slow way of speaking in a dumb voice that made me want to get out of that situation and go hunting with Ger. There’d be nobody else around, just the two of us. No stupid teachers or drunken fathers, and no big ugly bastards with shaven heads trying to make him cry. And Ger would know that he wasn’t dumb or slow.
“Would you like to give him a kiss?” the third skinhead said in a whisper, and then he roared so loudly that a flock of birds exploded from a tree the way they do in films. “KISS HIM!”
We are told that significant moments in our memories are recorded as frozen images, as though captured by a camera. That moment, for a few seconds anyway, following the third skinhead’s twisted command that Ger kiss Ladders, is without distortion, undiluted by the passage of time. The frantic flapping sound made by the startled birds died away in an instant, leaving in its wake a searing silence.
The central focus drawing me into that petrified scene is Ger’s pallid and confused face locked onto the third skinhead’s chest. Contrastingly, the expression on the skinhead’s face glaring down on Ger epitomises intolerant anger, the face of a youth so beaten down all his life he knows nothing but defeat. To the centralised figures’ right are the four kids: three boys and a girl. Seated alike with their skinny arms folded around their drawn up knees, and their bright eyes bursting with what they shouldn’t be seeing, the kids represent innocence’s first encounter with corruption. And then there are the two dogs in the shadows behind the scene’s main characters. Bullet-headed, stony-faced, red-tongued and white-fanged, their presence lacks subtlety, yet impacts like an underused cliché.
The scene hangs there, pulsating with potential horror, frozen forever.
“I said kiss him,” the skinhead said again, shoving Ger towards Ladders. All becomes animated then.
As though operated by the one instinct, the kids sprang to life. They were on their spindly little legs, screaming piercing screams that threatened to rip their throats, darting around like balls in a pinball machine, reacting to the two Pit-bulls, which were, in an obvious redirected attack, fighting each other savagely through Vampire-tooth’s nasally attempts to separate the growling, twisting, biting, slashing, gum-bearing, eight-legged entanglement in the grass.
“Razor! Razor,” Vampire kept shouting, his voice a feeble beacon warning too late of an imminent tempest already underway.
“Get them. Get them bleeding runts,” the third skinhead roared at nobody and everybody.
Hairlip was doing just that. Except every-time he caught a kid and carried him back, arms and legs flailing, and put him under the tree, the kid zipped off again while Hairlip tried to catch the others.
Ger and I could have used the moment to bolt for the exit over the collapsed wall. Instead we remained, as we were, disturbed and fascinated at what we were witnessing, too scared to move and too scared not to. We would convince ourselves in a week or so, when this latest nightmare was distant enough to discuss as an adventure, which we were, in fact, on the verge of escaping the enemy, charging through the woods and back to base camp where we would recruit reinforcements and return to claim valour and victory.
Of this Aller, the town bully’s thundering figure charging through the gap in the wall, denied us. Powering along on an elongated version of his famous bellow, Aller struck the third skinhead into the stomach with his new baseball bat. The skinhead went to his knees. Hairlip darted by Aller, avoiding a similar blow, only to get it into his lower back from behind. Aller stood over him panting, a figure from a killer movie savouring the moment.
“Aller, Aller,” I shouted. “Your man is loosening the dogs. Look it.”
Vampire had overcome his nervousness about getting bitten by one of the frenzied terriers and was pawing madly at the dogs’ leads.
Vampire had one of the dogs by the collar. “Get him, Snuke,” he said. “Kill it.” And he sort of swung the dog in Aller’s direction the way you throw a bowling ball. Vampire lunged forward too, but found himself alone facing Aller. Snuke, the Pitt-bull, had other ideas and had attached its powerful jaws to the other dog’s throat.
“Run for home,” I shouted after the kids who were already over the wall and fleeing. Ladders went with them. “Keep going and don’t look back!” It felt great shouting those words.
Meanwhile the third skinhead had emerged from Aller’s wallop and was creeping up behind Aller.
“Your back, Aller,” Ger shouted. “Behind you.”
Aller swivelled round and struck him into the thigh with his foot. The skinhead’s scream mingled with a suffocating whine coming from Razor being throttled by Snuke.
“Me dog. Me dog. He’s killing me dog,” Vampire shouted. “Do something, somebody!”
Aller must have been thrown by that spontaneous and honest plea for human consideration. Everything turned around at that moment. I saw it happening before it happened. Although I couldn’t be sure, Hairlip had to have caught Aller with a rock when he struck him across the back of the head. I seemed to feel the dull thud echoing in my ribcage.
Aller collapsed into the leaves, Gulliver taken down by a Lilliputian. I watched everyone present, as though in collective disbelief, watching, mesmerised, Aller’s unconscious legs moving, pedalling in the dirt, which were mirrored by Razor’s back-legs clawing at Snuke. And then, just before the dog’s legs stopped moving, a thick greeny-white substance spouted from its penis onto its exposed underbelly. My churning stomach dragged my attention back to Aller, whose mousy-scalp was now turning a deep red.
“We can’t leave Aller,” I answered Ger who was calling me from the wall. But my legs disagreed with my token conscientiousness. A four or five minute sprint to the church, every intake of breath sliced at my lungs when we made it to the churchyard.
“Aller saved us,” I managed to cough out after I got some of my breath back. “We really shouldn’t ought to have left him alone like that with them.”
“We’ll go get help,” Ger said. “Come on!”
Feeling something cloying in my throat, I said, “What if Aller’s dead?” I went into a coughing fit then, and with the coughing came the ugly taste of bile, which, in turn, precipitated an enervating burst of vomiting.