In the shade of the towering poplar at the back of my house, I sit on the lower step of the laundry stand terrorizing a community of ants with a twig. I poke at their sand hills constructed in the cracks of the hot asphalt and watch them scurry for their lives. For an instant, I feel a surge of power, but then I stop to wonder why I am entertained by such a malicious act. My thoughts are interrupted by shouts. I look up to see my best buddies, Curtis and Gilles, racing their bicycles down the gravel driveway towards me, leaving a trail of dry dust streaming behind them. Curtis’ Schwinn Stingray comes to a sliding stop only a wheel length ahead of Gilles’ new Centennial.
‘I win! Beat you again, Baker,’ shouts Gilles, a wide smirk breaking across his face.
‘I gave you a head start. And besides, my tires aren’t designed for gravel,’ explains Curtis, trying to catch his breath.
‘Excuses! Excuses! Hey, Ray, grab your bike. We’re heading to Whitson River for a dip,’ urges Gilles.
‘We can’t get to the swimming hole on my property anymore. Old man Simard put up a barbed wire fence between our fields and hung up a big-ass No Trespassing sign.’
‘We can ride to Whitson through your field, stash the bikes and wade down the creek to the swimming hole,’ suggests Curtis.
‘Naw. It’ll take us forever to get there and then back. And besides, I don’t want anyone to swipe my new wheels,’ says Gilles.
‘No big deal. We can sneak on through their front driveway,’ proposes Curtis.
‘Old man Simard is crazy. Word is he keeps a shotgun loaded with salt shot by the front porch just for fun and giggles,’ adds Curtis.
‘No sweat, man. I know Daniel, his son. I trade comics with him. I’ll ask him to join us. His dad will be none the wiser.’
‘Daniel isn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, either,’ reminds Curtis.
‘I guess he is kind of an odd duck, but he is harmless,’ I answer in his defense.
‘Damn good thing. He’s as strong as an ox. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side,’ says Gilles.
‘Daniel wouldn’t hurt a fly. Poor guy gets teased all the time and never says a word. Anyway, daylight is burning. Let’s get going.’
I take the lead. We race our bikes along the gravel shoulder of the highway to Daniel’s place. I spot him at the back of the house by the old barn, feeding chickens.
‘Daniel, you want to ride to the river with us,’ I ask.
He doesn’t answer. He simply nods and walks into an old shed.
‘Where the heck is he going?’ asks Curtis.
Before I can hazard a guess, Daniel comes out, riding an old bike and grinning from ear to ear. The front wheel is missing a few spokes, and the brake pads whine and squeak as they rub against the twisted rim on every turn.
‘Nice ride, Daniel. That’s a sweet vintage model,’ I say to encourage him.
‘It’s a CCM,’ answers Daniel, smiling with pride.
We ride up the beaten tractor trail along the fence line. The grasshoppers pop up ahead of our tires and fly forward a few meters only to pop up again and again. We stop in the shade of a choke cherry tree to get relief from the scorching sun and eat a few of the sour berries. We fill our mouths with the sour unripened fruit and spit the seeds out in a juicy mess. Laughing hysterically, we take turns trying to call out tongue twisters as the inside of our mouths pucker and make the words incomprehensible. Rested we continue a few kilometers along the trail to the river’s edge.
‘Last one in is a rotten egg!’ yells Gilles. He drops his bike on its side and starts stripping down. Curtis and I follow suit, peeling our clothes off as fast as we can. The sound of a loud splash stops us. We look in disbelief as Daniel, fully dressed in jeans and plaid shirt, complete with shoes, wades in the river.
‘Rotten eggs! Rotten eggs!’ shouts Daniel, pointing at us and laughing.
‘That boy is nuttier than a shithouse rat,’ says Gilles.
‘Yeah, but he ain’t no rotten egg like you suckers,’ shouts Curtis dropping his shorts and sprinting down the river bank for the water.
After a few hours of skinny dipping and play-fighting in the cool current, we head back to Simard’s house. We are tired but feeling refreshed and revitalized from the cool dip. Daniel’s mother is in the backyard as we pull up. She takes one look at her son in his wet clothes and goes ballistic.
‘I warned you never to go into the river. You stupid no good for nothing imbecile. Didn’t I warn you. Can’t you ever get that into your empty wooden head. I’ll teach you to listen to me when I talk to you.’
We stand in shock as she grabs him by the collar and drags him off the bike. She swings him around like a rag doll with one arm as she beats him with the other. She doesn’t even pay attention to us or seem to care that we are watching. Daniel screams and cries, desperately yelling for her to stop while trying to block her blows, but she relentlessly continues to beat him like a dog. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, and frankly terrified that she would soon turn on us, we panic and speed out of the yard and down the highway.
We ride home in silence, not mentioning one word to each other about what we have just witnessed. I’m not sure why we keep quiet-is it the fear and horror of the assault or are we ashamed of ourselves for not trying to help him? Are we terrified helpless bystanders or cowards running from fear?
The next day I wake up as if nothing had happened. Just another sleepy Monday morning, like every other school day morning. I thud up the steps from my bedroom in the basement to the kitchen. My sister stands red-faced at the front door with her books and lunch-kit in hand threatening not to hold the school bus for me-again.
‘You’re always late. The bus parks at the driveway, beeping its horn, waiting for you. It’s embarrassing. Why don’t you grow up?’
‘Why don’t you go fly a kite?’
‘Mom! Ray is late again.’
‘Don’t forget your lunch,’ shouts my mom. ‘And don’t sit at the back of the bus with the English kids.’
‘What? Why not? Whatever. I got to go, Mom. Bye.’
My mom insists that I sit in the front of the bus with the French kids. It’s like the English kids have some sort of contagious disease. She rambles on about our responsibility as French-Canadians to protect our language. Many of these English kids are my neighbors and some are good friends of mine. I really don’t care what language they speak. I can speak both English and French, so I don’t understand the problem. Besides if anybody wants to speak French-nobody is stopping them.
I hop on the bus and sit down next to Jean-Pierre. Everybody calls him Mimi; I’m not sure why. He is a thin, wiry farm kid who is always getting in some sort of trouble. We are sitting directly behind Daniel this morning. I can see the blemishes on the side of Daniel’s face and neck from the beating he got from his mother.
‘Hey Ray. Let’s have some fun,’ says Mimi tugging at Daniel’s hair. Daniel slides over tight against the window.
‘Leave him alone,’ I said.
Mimi reaches over the seat again and snaps his index finger at Daniel’s ear.
Daniel cringes in pain and leans forward.
‘You’re such a jerk. How would you like someone doing that to you?’ I ask.
‘They wouldn’t dare,’ answers Mimi sitting back in his seat giggling like a fool.
‘One day you will pick on the wrong person and I swear you will get yours.’
At the school, Daniel slumps low in his chair at the back of the classroom-quiet, head down, eyes on his scribbler. The chair seems tiny under the fourteen-year-old’s oversized frame. Barely visible, a pencil protrudes from his powerful hands, a short twig growing from a stump. Daniel draws on his scribbler; the Incredible Hulk; his favorite comic character. He flinches at a crumpled wad of paper that whizzes past his head, followed by a cackling of laughter. He ignores the teasing from the jokesters and returns to his doodling, which continues, even after the teacher enters the room and turns everyone else’s attention to Math.
The bell rings signaling the end of class, and instantly the door is jammed with teenagers trying to get out of the room. Last in line, Daniel follows the group. One of his common harassers casually slaps Daniel’s books and binders from his hands, sending them cascading across the hallway floor. Frowning, Daniel kneels to pick up his things. The motion is routine, a reflex.
Later, at recess, I join some friends in the school yard for a game of soccer. Mimi plays on the other team and behaves himself, until he sees Daniel standing on the sidelines staring out into space. I knew there would be trouble when Mimi walked off the field and bee-lined for Daniel. The rest of the team and I run over, arriving in time to hear Mimi go into his usual routine.
‘Daniel, are you lost?’ asks Mimi circling him.
‘No, I’m not lost.’
‘No? Well, a gorilla escaped from the zoo this morning, and they’re all looking for you,’ says Mimi laughing and jumping around and gesturing with his arms like a monkey.
Daniel gives a nervous smile and tries to ignore Mimi.
‘Hey, King Kong, I’m talking to you. You look like you’ve eaten one too many bananas, ape man,’ says Mimi, as he pokes at Daniel’s mid-section.
‘No,’ answers Daniel trying unsuccessfully to avoid Mimi’s jabs.
‘Wait, what’s that on your face? Is that banana?’ asks Mimi.
‘Banana? Where?’ asks a confused Daniel confused.
‘Right there,’ answers Mimi, slapping Daniel on the cheek. And there and there,’ he repeats slapping him repeatedly. Daniel’s glasses fly off his face and one lens shatters as they hit the ground.
Daniel’s face turns red, his eyes tear up and his bottom lip quivers.
‘Aw, what? Are you going to cry now, King Kong? I thought you were a big ape, but you’re nothing but a baby monkey.’
‘Mimi. Leave him alone,’ I say.
‘Stay out of this, Belcourt. I’m just having some fun with Curious George.’
Sobbing, Daniel bends to pick up the remnants of his broken glasses. Mimi takes advantage of his vulnerable position and kicks him hard in the behind, sending him tumbling. Slowly, he gets to his knees and reaches for his glasses only to watch Mimi step down and crush them under his foot.
I can see the anger gathering in Daniel’s swollen eyes. He climbs to his feet and starts to hyperventilate as he walks slowly and steadily towards Mimi.
‘Holy cow. Now you’ve done it,’ I say to Mimi.
‘What? Are you going to cry, baby monkey? Are you going to call for mommy monkey to come help you?’
Daniel roars and rushes Mimi. The body slam, completely unexpected, drives Mimi to the ground. Daniel flails, throwing wild punches about Mimi’s head, many of them hitting their mark. Pinned under the big boy’s weight, Mimi yells for help and tries unsuccessfully to squirm his way-out. We stand in shock, watching the onslaught. Some of the onlookers begin to urge Daniel on.
The assault seems to go on forever. Finally a teacher arrived to break it up. Mimi’s face is a swollen balloon. Turns out he has suffered a broken nose and two black eyes, not to mention various bruises. He goes home for the rest of the afternoon and doesn’t return to school for a couple of days; recovering from his injuries and a broken ego, I would suspect. Daniel spends the rest of the school day in the nurse’s office trying to calm down.
Mimi’s physical and mental abuse of Daniel, which had been going on for some time, came to an abrupt end with that thrashing. I guess the malicious crushing of his glasses was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Daniel, the last in a long series of abuses he endured from many sources. I don’t condone violence, but I cannot say Daniel’s actions were unjustified. A person can turn the other cheek only so often; sometimes fighting back is the only answer to violence. And although Mimi was the only physical target of Daniel’s beating that day, I suspect that Daniel was mentally punching his abusive mother and every other bully who hit, teased or insulted him over the years.