Aaron's hands were large. Signals of impending adolescence. The veins on the backs threaded like rivers between his bones. Delicate pointed fingertips of his boyhood were squaring into the coarseness of a working man's hands.
He made a fist, sinews springing over whitened knuckles.
Hands like my father he thought, flexing them suddenly in this shock of similarity. He closed his eyes. Hands like my father.
The memory slapped him like a wet rag in the face. He knew it was because he was alone, with no one to distract him from his thoughts. But he knew also that it was because he had been studying his hands. He wanted them to be separate from him, separate from who he was.
The afternoon's memory surged through him. He clenched his hands in response. An attempt to suppress the reality of what they had done, these betrayers of good conscience.
"We got it, we got it!" came the distant, overexcited shriek from a clearing in the woods. Wild whoops and yells interrupted his thoughts as the other boys got closer. He hadn't wanted to take part, but now they were running towards him.
"See what you missed, Aaron?" smirked a boy at the front, dirt smudged across his mouth. Aaron sat cross-legged on the ground, occupied by snapping pine needles into pieces. Little piles of his handiwork lay before him. The boy in front thrust his hands down, tempting Aaron to look at what they held. Aaron looked up at the boys surrounding him, a ring of dark silhouettes against the late afternoon light. He leaned forward to see. The boy with the thing in his hands snatched it up a little higher, then higher, then up above Aaron's head -mocking- until Aaron had to stand to see. The boy marked his triumph with a small snort. In his hands sat a bird. Its head was at an odd angle but the eyes blinked rapidly.
It's still alive. Aaron breathed.
The boy had a thumb pinched around each wing, trying to still the panicked flutter of its wings. Aaron looked down.
"How did you get it?" he asked obligingly, knowing the boys would tell soon enough.
"We chucked out some crumbs and waited in a ring behind the trees. Hundreds flew down, but I just took the first one I saw with the net," said the front boy.
"Come on, you liar!" laughed another, "It took you ages, man! It was like your twentieth try!" The front boy swung around.
"You just shut up! I know what I did! I know how to do this stuff, and I did it first time. Stupid bird." A supportive guffaw erupted from the back of the group.
The boy holding the bird turned to face Aaron again.
"So, Aaron...seeing as you wanted out and left us all alone to catch the bird, I've got a little favour to ask you." He pinched the bird's wings a little tighter, making it flutter again. "Take it," he said, stretching out his hands to Aaron. Aaron knew this was a trap, but was careful to do what the boy said. The bird was slipped into his open hands. He held it firmly but gently, with one hand under its belly, the other diagonally over its wings so that only the bird's head was visible.
A tiny heart is beating in my hands.
The front boy began to circle Aaron, slowly. Aaron kept his eyes downcast, focused on the bird.
"We did our bit. Now you do yours," the boy said.
Suddenly, the smell of crushed pine needles was hot in Aaron's nose. In the late summer's heat, the air tasted dusty and too strong to breathe. Like a sock shoved into a screaming mouth. Aaron felt his heart hammering in instinctive awareness of what was to come.
The boy called to someone in the group. A rock was passed to him. He placed it at Aaron's feet. The boy took two steps back and said, his arms hanging heavily at his sides, "We're waiting, Aaron."
Aaron knew he couldn't run. He knew he couldn't let the bird go, it was too weak by now and the boys would run after it. He instead said the first thing that came to him.
"I want to set it free".
The front boy started it. An unbelieving snort exploded from his nostrils. The other boys joined in, sniggering and catcalling at Aaron's idealism. They began to chant: "Do it! Do it! Do it!"
The trees around him seemed to grow taller, bending their heads together to watch him, far below on the ground. The incessant chanting, punctuated by impatient shouting crowded the space between Aaron and the rock before him. The bird was too tired to flutter by now, its small head eternally cocked to the side. The blinking eye focused warily on Aaron.
Suddenly, the front boy's voice rose above the rest. He walked towards Aaron and started circling him. His words were inaudible above the background chanting, but Aaron watched the boy's mouth grow wide with words, his lips stretching diagonal and red against the smudge across his face. He caught only traces of the words the boy was saying. Until the boy was leaning into Aaron's face as he circled, hot breath curling Aaron's ears.
"Just as I thought. You can't stand up to your father, how could you crush a tiny bird?"
"Everyone knows. Everyone knows what he does. What does he do it with Aaron? A wooden spoon?" the boy mocked. "No, I'm mistaken. He beats you with a wet rag. That's right. Sometimes, on bad nights, with a poker." Aaron felt himself lifting, separating slowly like oil on water. He was invincible.
"Tell me Aaron, how bad does it hurt? Like a whip? Like nails down you back? Do you cry?" The boy sneered, then mimicked a teary expression and asked again "Do you ever...cry?" He rested his hands heavily on Aaron's shoulders and forced him down to his knees. The smooth rock lay directly before him.
He felt the weight of the hands on his shoulders, and they were his father's. He was waiting for the shoe against his back. For the hands to reach forward and grab his own left hand, for the twist of arm at a right angle on his back. In anticipation, he laid the bird down. Reached for an object of defence with his right hand. The one he found was smooth and heavy. He picked it up. He twisted his body. He hit hard. Once. He left the rock where it lay and sat back. Fascinated, he watched as a slow red trickle marched from under the rock. A tiny red army, pioneering its way through the pine needles.
There was a stillness. Aaron looked up to see that the boys had stopped chanting, and were watching him, wide-eyed. Someone clapped him on the back of his head.
"Well who would've guessed you had it in you? Maybe you are your father's son after all." The boy grinned down at him, "Just like your father".
Aaron stood. He dusted himself off. Pine needles spiked his clothes. He wiped his arm across his mouth, turned, and walked away. Behind him, he heard the other boys talking, laughing again, moving closer to lift the rock.
The wood at night was cool and dark. Aaron had felt exposed under the bright night sky on the walk to the woods, but once he was inside, his footsteps slowed.
A ring of comfort.
The trees seemed even taller now, but they observed him sleepily, unthreatening. The wood was quiet, devoid of the night scurryings and scrapings he had expected to hear, had expected would frighten him. In place was the heavy weight of silence. Aaron walked, following the path he knew so well by day, surprised that he knew it even better by night. The night cleared his head with its lack of distracting brightness.
He stopped at the clearing. His backpack made a soft thump on the ground as he swung it off his shoulder. He knelt in front of the rock. Gently, slowly, he lifted it and placed it beside him.
The boys had left their mark. The bird's wings were outstretched; its tiny feet curled up on its belly. The misshapen head still cocked to one side, but the bird's beak had been opened and pine needles jutted out of its mouth.
Aaron began to dig. He lifted the coarse, grainy soil and placed it in a mound next to the hole. The deeper he dug, the cooler the earth got. He wanted it to be deep, so nothing could sniff it out. He lifted the bird gently, folding its wings into its sides. He placed the bird in the damp, cool dark.
Once the grave was covered, he bound the two large sticks he had brought with the rope he had in his backpack. He steadied the cross against the rock.
Still kneeling, he looked up. The sky was just visible between the bristled black of the pines. The low branches above his head scissored the sky into an abstract that he found beautiful.
Aaron looked down and began to unravel the rest of the rope.
The early morning sun was just hitting the forest floor when the woman entered the woods for her sunrise walk. She knew the path well and so was not daunted by the cooler, greyer depths of the clearing. Her footsteps were the quick and lively of someone who is used to the bite of early morning air, who relishes it. She looked up as she walked, breathing in the scent of dewy pine, watching as the light filtered in too fast, as it does when the sun rises.
She slowed. She stopped.
There was a new shape in the trees. Swinging heavily in time with the creaking boughs.
Like washing hung out to dry on a morning in spring.