My twin brother and I were Tyrannosauruses, bent at the waist, elbows tucked to our ribs, our forearms swatting at everything as we careened through the dining room. We dug shovel-blade- deep holes in the yard looking for arrowheads, split rocks with hammers, hunting for Trilobites. We tied D batteries together with lengths of twine and lassoed each other’s feet. We taped the same twine to the doorway of our sister’s bedroom and tied it to an alarm clock we pretended was a tripwire bomb, jumping out of her closet and making exploding noises as she toppled.
My brother and I were always Kirk Gibson, taking that slow-motion, long-reaching swing and limping around our yard, pumping our fists, always winning the World Series. Or we were our father’s heroes with the strange names, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, Thurman Munson.
We conducted famous battles we learned about in school beneath the oak trees, Thermopylae, me demanding my brother to submit the garage. Him, Caesar invading Britain, the front porch, swinging a stick until I rolled off the side into the evergreen shrubs. We created our own bastardized Morse code during meals. We flicked coins across our plates through field goal posts made from our thumbs, drew naval code flags on paper, and hung out the second floor window yelling, Whisky, Yankee, Romeo. We released every sort of insect we found onto our sister’s bed. We tossed balls into everything that could be chipped, shattered, or smashed during our two-man, impromptu juggling acts.
My brother and I were full of questions about the world. We asked how far away the stars were. Why there are 24 hours in a day. Why our sister got her own room. If people can talk to the dead. If the earth is hollow.
We constantly made noise. Our bodies grumbling, burping, farting, and yelling over every injustice done to us. At night, when we were supposed to be tired, we ran in the yard wearing paper hats and made up our own constellations with direct reference to body parts we found to be humorous. At night we were Navajo code breakers, CHINDI LHA-Cha-EH TSA-E-ONINI-EE.
My brother and I offered a host of smells. We smelled of the center of leaf piles, damp earth, rot, and nutmeg. The scent of sweat inside our winter coats, bad breath, urine and something very human yet almost animal.
We were infatuated with girls, but knew nothing of them as we were too nervous or full of vulgar energy to listen to them, or do anything but tell them stupid jokes and run away.
My brother and I were headless horsemen, Zulu warriors, Union soldiers, and Blackbeard during the golden age of piracy. We gathered facts. Tallest mountains, longest rivers, first to fly an airplane. We shared these facts with people at random. We sang a song that named the fifty states but could not finish, trailing off after distant Idaho.
My brother and I knew more than we should about our parents’ marriage. We heard their fights and love making and how palpable with worry one seemed to make the other. We suspected they communicated in secret ink, their own higher, hidden code we had yet to break. We hunted through their room with a mail-order cipher wheel, looking to crack open secrets. My brother and I kept busy to avoid the tension thick between them.
We played paper games of hangman and Tic-tac-toe. My brother and I skipped stones. We drew the globe, stealing details from the library atlas like the Sea of Chrisis and the Copernicus Crater, and then charted the universe on large swaths of butcher paper that wound serpentine paths down the basement hallway and up the stairs. We asked every dog we came across if it could sit, speak, play-dead, shake, paw, over, heel, fetch, attack, sick-balls.
We were solemn and well-scrubbed, behind the ears, under the fingernails, for funerals of our grandfather and then grandmother. We were quiet and confused, then we were manic from those feelings, and then in trouble for scuffing holes in the knees of our fancy pants.
My brother and I were wild. Our energy endless. Our presence wholly felt.
It’s no wonder to me now why my mother began trying to farm us out to activities led by others. That’s why my father ended up brining us to a meeting in the basement of Our Lady of The Blessed Catholic School to see if there was any interest in having a local nine-and-under chapter of the Boy Scouts. In the basement were five other kids, with four slouched, unshaven fathers, and one woman with her son who had organized the meeting in an attempt to provide her son with a male role model. The woman wore a floral pattered blouse, a beige skirt, and heels that clicked against the floor as she swayed back and forth, almost dancing as she twirled the tips of her hair and laughed with a big, fake smile at anything any of the men said.
At the meeting, Lewis, and I ran wind sprints down the halls like brothers do. The other boys followed, and all seven of us ended up in the small gym, whipping dodge balls at each other. In the room with the adults, a vote was held and my father lost, or volunteered, or was flirted, or guilted into service, and the unofficial Boy Scout Troupe 509 was formed. And instead of ditching his boys, who were always moving in frantic circles around him, which must have been maddening, he gained five more.
So, in the local catholic elementary school gym on Saturday mornings, our father, a carpenter, taught us how to tie reef knots, bowlines, and clove hitches. He taught us about counting the age of a tree by using the annual rings and how each cross section of a tree could give an accurate climate record.
Three months into our meetings, he had each kid get five dollars from his parents. He gave my brother Lewis and I five dollars between the two of us. We each had a list of supplies we were going to need in order to be prepared campers. Between the Ames Department store, Ace Hardware, and paper stationary aisle at Tops grocery store, we’d secured a Swiss army knife with a cork screw, which my brother popped out and made grinding motions with while inching it closer to my eye. We had a compass, a yellow and a brown handkerchief, a book of matches wrapped in plastic, needle and thread, pencil and paper, a small flashlight, a magnifying glass, Band-Aids, fishing line, and fishhooks set into a wine cork.
When we reconvened on a Saturday morning, my father began showing us how to use our list of items and then told all seven of us that we were well on our way to being prepared campers.
“Does this mean we can go camping?” Joshua Aldon asked.
“Well. Maybe,” our father said.
That was all it took for all seven of us to become desperate with the desire to go camping, and we were off running the halls of the catholic school again, each of us explorers, each with one arm shielding the Artic wind, the other brushing off Borneo jungle vines. Our father was left to unravel the lines we’d tangled with shoddy knots and let them rest flat over the bend in his elbow like limp snakes. Each Saturday after that we pestered him about camping. Camping became a mythical activity for us.
Eventually, like most things that caused him to take action, he’d had enough being hounded, and had everyone go home with a handout asking for permission to take us all to Adirondack State Park, and for $43.00 from each boy for the cost of renting a van, canoes, and supplying camp food. He invited any of the other parents to come and help supervise.
The following Saturday, all five of the other boys came back with signed permission slips and money, but none with a parent. “Not even one of them,” he complained to our mother later that day. “I mean, they don’t know me from Adam. Here, take my kid for the weekend.”
I had walked into the kitchen and overheard this. He must have seen some disappointment on my face, that camping with the troupe was anything other than a joy to look forward to.
“Come here, pal,” he said, waving me over, and the scooping me close to pin me to his side and kiss the top of my head. “We’re going to have a great time. Don’t need anyone else either. Just us guys. Right?”
“Right,” I said, leaning harder into his side.
A month later, we found ourselves in a rented fifteen passenger Chevy van with a canoe rack and four canoes, headed east. We parked and put our canoes loaded with gear into the water and pushed off into the lake. I sat in the front of my father’s canoe. My brother and Dennis Lowry took off next. My brother, in the back, paddled like mad and Dennis, doughy and lazy, hardly paddled, so the canoe arched back to the shore. Joshua and Hector drifted to the left of the launch and C.J and William drifted to the right.
“Look at this. Where are you all going?” My father yelled.
“Paddle that way,” Lewis was yelling to doughy Dennis. The other two canoes were
working out some rhythm taking them in opposite directions.
“Okay, wait, wait. Everyone bring it in, work your way over here.” My father yelled.
“That was my fault. Should have shown you all this first.”
We had a rowing clinic on the water, only then being told how to balance in the canoe, how to hold the paddle when you stroke and to keep in rhythm with your partner. When we finished we began rowing across what felt like an ocean-sized lake for an overnight stay in the woods on the far side of Avalanche Lake. We set up our own tents that first night, and in the dark we laid out our camping gear on our sleeping bags. In the morning we all tried fishing for our own breakfasts along the shore as my father cooked flapjacks on a camp skillet. Then we spent the day hiking in the mountains, following a topography map my dad unfolded in front of us every mile. In the evening, we swam in the lake until we ate a dinner of baked potatoes thrown into the coals of the fire and hot dogs cooked on sticks.
Around the campfire that second night, my father taught us to play poker and left us at it when he went to sleep. My brother and I and the rest of the boys kept at it for hours, and were telling stories about how we could make big money playing poker, until my brother pointed beyond the fire and said,
We all stopped talking.
There was a man staring at us from the trees. I didn’t know how long he had been there but when he moved after my brother pointed him out, it seemed like a gnarled tree was shifting free from the darkness. Then a man walked forward and his colossal shoulders pushed errant sumac leaves aside.
His arms were as long as a gorilla’s and hung too far down his thick, powerful torso. He was the largest man I had ever seen and there was something wrong about his disengaged stare. Lewis dug into his pocket and I saw him fumbling at his pocket knife and unfold the corkscrew.
“What you boys up to?” the man asked.
We all about jumped out of our skin when the full heft of the giant white man with a denim jacket and free flowing black hair covering the back of his neck stepped into the halo of light from our campfire.
He must have had some growing disease as he was almost seven feet tall. He walked up so he was standing in the gap of the circle Dennis and Hector cleared, each leaning closer to the group.
“You boys out here all alone?” the man said, reaching his long arm down and rubbing his fingertip from the ruffled hair of Hector’s temple slowly down to the tip of his chin. Lewis reached an arm across my chest as if to protect me, and the light caught the corkscrew. None of us boys spoke. The fire receded into the strangers eyes. “Huh. You boys got no voice boxes. Just come out to do some comparing of your pretty little peckers?” his fingers pinched at Hector’s chin and lifted the boy’s face up to his.
My brother and I have tried to imagine what our father was thinking as he crawled out of his tent and saw that man—heard that question. I imagine it scared the hell out of him when he realized there was no way he’d be able to fend that man off if he had to protect us.
I was sitting by the fire looking at how big the man was, thinking maybe he was only trying to scare us, or maybe he really was a pervert, the real, authentic deal. I don’t know. And how was my dad supposed to know that? I was watching the big man when all the sudden he fell forward, and without bending, landed face first in the center of the fire. Most of the boys screamed. I’m not sure if I did, because if I did I probably would have flinched or shut my eyes, and I remember clearly my father emerging from behind the giant and seeing the tail end of the wild swing he took with the blunt end of the axe. […]
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Devin Murphy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah and The Chicago Tribune, as well as over fifty other literary journals and anthologies. Devin won the 2009 and 2010 Student Writing Contests at the Atlantic Monthly and holds an MFA and PhD from Colorado State University and University of Nebraska – Lincoln, respectively. Murphy currently works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.