From Winter to Winter Again
“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in
comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the
swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit
at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes,
while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed,
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out
at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry
tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he im-
mediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter
to winter again. So this life of man appears for a
little while, but of what is to follow or what went before
we know nothing at all.”
An Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede
A punch to the head can kill you.
A blow to the head in the right spot with the right force can cause an epidural hematoma, which is where blood leaks between the skull and the dural membrane. Mostly, but not always, the skull is cracked as well. Especially if you lose consciousness, like I did, you should go to the hospital right away or you could die within hours. I’m not going to the hospital.
I think of that as I’m walking home. I open and close the knife in my pocket. One minute you’re there, the next you’re not.
I’m not used to walking home this early in the week, and the peacefulness of the day surprises me. The weather is clear, brisk in a way that makes me feel alert and alive. With no one around, especially no other teenagers, it’s nice to just enjoy each moment. Any one of them could be my last.
I remember reading a piece in English class about how life is like a bird flying in one door and out the other during a storm: you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going. I feel like that’s true and I’m struck by how alone we all are. Despite the noise and distractions that keep this fact out of sight, behind the curtain where you’re not supposed to peak, one fact remains: we are all alone. We are together on the earth for a brief time but the important things, being born and dying, are done alone. One way to forget about that for a while is to feel noticed. It makes you feel like you matter. We try so hard to connect to something, whether it’s through each other, religion, God, history, anything really, you name it and people have tried to live for it, but in the end we die alone. Eventually, the fact of our solitary mortality catches up to us.
I’m headed home from school where I just ran out of the Assistant Principal’s office, across campus, and through the yard of a nearby apartment complex. I drank so much of my own blood while running that I have to stop there and puke. I look back but there’s no one chasing me. After vomiting I see an elderly man with a hooked nose like a bird perched in an apartment window above peering down at me, not blinking. He doesn’t turn away even when I stand up and stare back at him. He doesn’t even seem to blink. I break first, looking away, and then I’m off towards home again.
It happened in the lunchroom against four guys. It was also in every lunchroom and every classroom, playground, park, store, and mall where I’d been bullied; and it was in my house for most of my life. It was against bullies, but also against my father. My father, and of course against God. I fought all of them today and they beat the hell out of me but I survived, and now when I face my father I face him already beaten.
I haven’t felt this way since losing my mom. Cars still terrify me, which is why I choose to walk home. A lot of things have terrified me since she died, and I had no one to comfort me. The more I needed my father, the more pitiful I got and the angrier my dad got until now when we rarely communicate. I only talk with him when I need to, like the proverbial atheist who doesn’t pray until he’s in a foxhole.
I wonder if this lack of fear is due to mental retardation. A blow to the head can do that, too. Permanently. I may not have to be this way for long, though. I’m hoping to be struck by lightning, a sign that God is watching.
They say our fathers represent God for us. We conceive of God living above us, far away and busy, and we’re afraid he doesn’t notice us, and if he doesn’t notice us we don’t matter. When my father notices me it’s never a good thing. I want to think of God as the opposite of my father, as someone I’d like to be noticed by.
Right now I should be worried about what will happen to me when I get home. Most days fear stalks home behind me like a shifting shadow, but today when my dad’s got a reason to be pissed and beat the hell out of me, all I keep thinking of is what a nice day it is. How the blue of the sky stretches forever, how the trees lining the road are gnarled and wise, how the air soothes the burning in my throat and pleasantly stings the flesh of my arms and chest through my torn shirt, filling my lungs with air and peace and life. I may be dying, and I don’t care, I’m just glad to be alive for this moment, and this next one, and the next one, for however long they may continue.
I’m not going to try and run away. In the past I’ve always been too afraid of what the consequences would be, but today I’m not afraid. I gave up fear back at school when I fought back. I lost the fight, but I feel like a winner. I’m done with losing, done with being afraid, done with caring what other people think of me or do to me. I feel like Superman: no matter how hard people try to hurt him, they can’t. Today I’m the man of steel; today I’m invincible.
I open and close the knife again. It was my grandfather’s knife passed on to me by my mother. I guess he had it from when he was a kid, so there’s history to it. I had it but didn’t use it. I didn’t need it to lose a fight.
I’m close now but I don’t slow down. I’ve been wondering if I’d suddenly feel terror when I arrived here, but I don’t. I don’t feel anything, really. I know that I might be retarded and I might die, but I’m moving forward either way.
I walk to the porch, grab my keys, and open the door. My dad’s inside on the couch. He doesn’t look up.
“Close the door.”
I don’t move.
My dad turns around but he can’t see me clearly yet, as I’m framed by the doorway with the sunlight behind me illuminating my shape like an angel dimly seen, and his eyes aren’t accustomed to the brightness.
“I said shut the damn…” His voice trails off and he stands up. He’s not a big guy but he has a large presence. Fear starts to build up inside me but I’m pushing it down and away. I don’t want to go back to being afraid.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asks rhetorically as he takes off his belt. It comes out in one smooth motion. “Get in here and shut that door. Look at your shirt, it’s ruined.”
I feel frozen, petrified. My bladder convulses, and I almost pee myself. This startles me into action; I want to be noticed, not humiliated.
“You can’t hurt me” I say, and catch the belt across the back when I duck. It really hurts and I fall to the floor, but already I feel better. I knock over a lamp and laugh. “You can’t hurt me”
He swings again and again, and I keep taking it, on the back, on the head, arms, legs, all over. The pain drives out fear so I run to the TV he was watching and kick it over and scream a laugh as the screen shatters and it lands on the floor with a heavy thud.
“You can’t hurt me,” I shout again, running through the house wrecking things. He corners me in the kitchen as I’ve just tossed a blender through the back window. I’m really on a roll, and I feel so good I can’t stop laughing as he punches me, the belt dropped somewhere behind us. I fall into the counter and knock the microwave off. “Thanks” I start but he punches me in the gut, hard, and I double over on the floor.
I lay there gasping and laughing as he stares down at me, fists clenched. Now I’m sure retardation has fully set in. He must think so too.
Catching my breath I manage to pull myself up using the counter top. My old man backs up till he’s standing in the doorway to the kitchen, out of breath and staring at me.
“You can’t hurt me” I whisper, and try unsuccessfully to pull the fridge over, the effort paining my cracked ribs. “And you’ll never hurt me again.”
I’m expecting another assault from my dad but it doesn’t come. Rather than calming me this makes me even angrier. I pull the fridge hard and it topples and I slip and hit my head. The last thing I see as I lose consciousness is the fridge falling towards me.
I wake up in a hospital bed feeling sore. Guess my dad gave up on the no hospital thing after all.
I remember that I could have died from any of the blows to my head I’ve received today. I picture shards of broken nose bone rammed into my brain, splintering through my memories of toilet training and fear of bullies and Algebra II and science and any conception of God I ever had, or a broken rib puncturing my lung or vital organs. Or the last thing I remember, being crushed by the falling refrigerator. That should have killed me.
Perhaps I should feel grateful that God spared my life, but I feel unnoticed instead, like he doesn’t care enough to take me home with him. I am a cat abandoned by God in the woods. I certainly seem to have turned feral.
“You are lucky, young man,” a nurse says as he walks in, short and Hispanic.
I look at him and hiss. He just smiles awkwardly and busies himself around me.
“The doctor will be here in a few minutes,” he says.
“You can’t hurt me,” I reply. He looks at me strangely before he turns and walks out. Time passes. A doctor enters, white hair beard coat and skin.
“Am I retarded?” I ask, as he sits down.
“Not anymore than you were before,” he replies, glancing behind him.
“You shouldn’t make me laugh, I might puncture a lung,” I tell him.
“What you are is lucky,” he says. There’s that word again. I let this pass. A moment later he says “Lucky your dad caught the fridge before it landed on you. He said you tried to pull it down on yourself, that it must have been the head injury from a school fight that made you do it. Is that true?” He asks.
I nod, but confusion and anger fill me as I realize the man I hate has become my savior.
“Alright,” the doctor says skeptically. When my dad shows up, he’s happy to declare my sanity and his ability to care for me at home. He’s supposed to wake me up on schedule, but instead he leaves me alone, something he promised the doctor he wouldn’t do. It turns out that he mostly ignores me now, staying at work longer and going to the bar afterwards. Some days he doesn’t come home at all. Apparently, I’m going to be ignored by my father and God. There’s something they have in common.
The way the brain heals itself is astounding. It can reroute functions to different parts of the brain that don’t normally control those functions. Like I read in science class about this guy who was struck blind from a blow to the head and the doctors all said it was permanent, but then miraculously two weeks later his sight was back and they scanned his brain and saw it had rewired itself to allow vision to return, sort of like rewiring a circuit breaker.
But it can also not do that and leave you blind or deaf or retarded, wondering why your brain isn’t miraculous and doesn’t heal itself, or why God has chosen not to perform a miracle on you but instead chosen to leave you broken. I wish my brain was left incomplete, incoherent, dumb but happy, but it isn’t and I’m left just as retarded as before, as the doctor said.
Well almost. I’m not free of fear, but I’m confident I can stand up against bullies, against my dad, against God. They may crush me but I’ll fight until my last breath is gone. Like an insane person, I’m hoping if I keep trying the same thing I’ll get a different result.
Time passes, but not much. I heal quickly because I’m young the doctor says. The blender’s still in the backyard and there’s cardboard over the window. The landlord said my dad has to pay for it. I thought he’d hit me then but he didn’t. He just left. We don’t have a TV anymore.
I’m walking the opposite way I did the day I left school after fighting back for the first time, remembering how the air felt cool and clean. Now it’s noisy and polluted. I walk past an old guy and glare at him, wishing he would say something smart or take a swing at me. I used to smile nervously, now I glare menacingly. Is this better?
I’m walking along wishing there was someone to fight. I want power and control, and I want to be the bully, I want to be seen. I don’t want to feel like an extra in my own life.
In Star Trek (the William Shatner one), when a character was going to come on for one episode and die before it ended, he always wore a red shirt. In entertainment jargon the dispensable characters are called red shirts.
Extras are even lower. They provide background for the more important things that happen to the main characters. Sometimes you don’t even see their faces. You want to tell your friends “pause it, there, that hair. That elbow. That leg. It’s mine. See, I am in the movie.”
Even worse is when you end up on the cutting room floor. You waited and got a little bit or maybe you volunteered just so you could be in a movie, and you acted disinterested, faked a conversation or danced or just moved around in the background while the important people did important things and important events happened to them. You existed near the same space and time as something more important, something cooler, and felt that yeah, maybe you could make it. Maybe you could be up there, important. You could matter and be noticed.
But then the director cut your scene out of the film. You sat in the theater watching closely for yourself but you never showed up. Your scene never happened. You ended up on the cutting room floor.
Right now I feel like I’ve been cut out of my own movie.
I am on the cutting room floor of my life.
I don’t matter and the people around me don’t matter. What I still really want is for God to notice me, but right now I’d settle for anyone noticing me so I don’t have to go about the business of dying, going from winter to winter, alone.
Passing a group of kids, I whisper “faggot.” I don’t think before I do this, it just happens.
One of them turns around and says “What did you say?” I stop and just stare at him.
“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says. I feel a thrill run through me, and I smile.
He steps forward and I brace for the punch or shove or kick, but nothing happens. He swings his fist near my face but I don’t flinch.
“Man, you’re nuts,” he says, and he and his friend hurry away.
I keep walking, staring down anyone who passes me by. No one hits me.
When I die no one will notice. I want someone to really see me, to really hear me, to really pay attention to me, even for a moment. I don’t want to be alone.
I cut down the alley, hidden from the school by the parking garage, and I spot a kid walking there as well. As fate or God would have it it’s one of the boys who bullied me in the lunchroom.
“Hey,” I say. “Remember me?”
He looks nervous as he turns around. He’s alone.
“Yeah, what is it?” he asks.
I just stare at him. Then I’m moving and he’s backing up as I’m getting closer.
“I’m sorry, OK, I’m sorry. What do you want?”
“To say thanks.”
He pauses for a moment to ask “Thanks for what?” and it’s all the time I need.
“For making me feel like I matter,” I say as I lunge at him. I catch him around the waist, and we both go down. We’re on the ground and he pushes me away, punches me in the cheek, his fist catching me right in the temple where I’m already bruised. My head snaps back and then forward, the concrete punching my temple in the soft spot. Instead of stars I see Mario, from Nintendo’s Super Mario, jumping up and breaking blocks with his head. I don’t know why.
“Fuck you,” he gasps, cradling his fist, rolling over and starting to run.
I jump after him, pulling the knife from my pocket and opening it, kicking him over so he faces up at me.
“I’m going to kill you,” I scream, waving the knife around. He looks at me, terrified, but something’s wrong. Out of nowhere I think of my mother. I think of this day we went down to the beach and flipped over rocks looking for crabs. I didn’t want to touch them, thinking them gross, but she laughed and chased me with one in each hand, holding them from the back and under the belly where they couldn’t pinch her. When she tired of this game she put them gently into the water lapping at the shore.
Without a word I close the knife, put it back in my pocket, and walk away.
I’m struck by the beauty of the sky, blue with huge, white clouds, and cold in a way that makes me feel alive as I walk towards the school. Even more so than the day I last left school, I feel alive. The bricks that form the exterior of the school are a work of art, each brick coming together to create an ethereal effect too beautiful to look at directly. I have to cover my eyes; the beauty is too much. It’s almost singing to me. It’s like God is finally looking at me, like He’s been looking at me all along and I just didn’t know it. Now He’s letting me look at His face, and its beautiful white light.
A punch to the head can kill. The more that occur the greater the chance there is of this happening.
I pass students and security and see them pointing with mouths open but I don’t hear their screams. I put my hand to my nose and it comes away sticky with blood. Did the boy I let go hit me? I don’t remember.
Everything is getting brighter and darker at the same time as I go down on my knees. God’s face is getting more and more clear, blocking out everything else. At the edge of my vision I see things: a teacher running out, his mouth open wide, pointing to kids who are pulling out their cell phones already, some making calls, others running their cameras. It occurs to me I’ll be on YouTube tonight.
Each moment seems an eternity, and it is so good to be alive for each of them. I laugh and laugh and laugh. I fall down laughing I’m so happy.
I am not alone; I am seen. For a moment, I am the star of my own life.
Seamus Horn feels very blessed and would like to start by giving credit to God. He is a full time English Teacher at Stadium High School in Tacoma Washington, and has been writing for a few years. This is his first published story. He graduated with a Masters of Education from the University of Washington’s Tacoma Campus. Seamus is supported in his writing first and foremost by his beautiful editor and wife Angie, and is inspired by his two children: Charlie, who is 5, and Estelle, who is almost 2. Seamus would finally like to thank scissors and spackle for taking the time to read and publish this story; it is a dream come true.