The Day The Axe FellbyHeathen Hemmingway©
For me, childhood memories have always been elusive creatures. At times I struggle with a memory, trying my damndest to bring it to fore and nothing happens. I find myself with the very basics of the memory, but beyond that I can't grasp anything. Then something happens at random and a memory comes to me in striking clarity. Some unknown visual cue, smell, or sound triggers a memory so powerful I have to stop in my tracks. That happened to me today, while standing in the hardware super-store. I was ambling about looking for tomato cages when I passed a display of axes and hatchets. A big axe with a bright red blade and a blonde wooden handle caught my eye, and instantly I had a vivid flashback from my childhood.
I saw myself standing over my stepdad with a baseball bat clutched in my hands. He was dead, and lying at his feet was an axe much like the one in the hardware store. I was thirteen years old when I killed my first stepdad.
I remember waking to screams. I was deep in a sleep that only a child could sleep. Now, thinking back on things, I imagine that night was the last time I slept like a normal person. Sleep has evaded me since, and when it does come it is brief and hectic. I may sleep for two or three hours on an exceptionally good night, but most nights sleep does not come at all. When I do sleep it is disjointed and broken by constant waking, or punctuated with random incoherent dreams. Over the years I have tried all manner of sleep medicines , and in time I grew so tired and dejected with the side effects and vertigo that I stopped taking medicine altogether. Now, after so many ears of insomnia, I have simply learned to live with it.
The sound of my sister screaming tore me from my sleep, and I sat bolt upright in bed with my heart pounding so hard it hurt in my chest. I sat there for several moments, listening to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing, and not stuck in some terrible dream. I recognized her voice, screeching and crying at the same time. Then I heard the sound, a sharp crunching sound followed by cursing. I reached under my bed and grabbed my Easton baseball bat. I remember my mother bought it for me on my 13th birthday, and I was very proud of it. With my heart pounding away like a triphammer, I leapt out of bed and ran down the hallway to my sister's room. A French door hung with a curtain separated the hallway from the living room of our house, and my sister's room was to the left of the living room. My hands were shaking badly as I turned the glass knob, and the door seemed to take an eternity to open. As it swung open I saw my stepdad standing there, his foot against the door pulling at an axe embedded in the wood. The head of the axe was painted red, with bare metal showing on the edge of the blade from years of use. My sister was screaming insanely from the other side of the door, a terrified and unreasoning scream that made my blood turn to ice water.
I yelled at him to stop, but he didn't seem to realize I was there. His eyes were glassy and look glazed over. He looked like a man possessed as he finally pulled the axe free and then lifted it over his head, swinging down and striking the door in the center. It made a horrible sound as the wood splintered and shattered, tearing a huge ragged hole in the middle of the door. The sound of my sister's screams were suddenly louder, and without thinking I raised the bat over my shoulder. He raised the axe to strike the door again, and as he swung down I ran up behind him and swung the bat with all my might.
Somehow, time seemed to slow as I watched the bat strike him in the back of the head. It wasn't like you see in the movies, where the bad guy falls unceremoniously to the ground with a thud. A sickening gout of blood sprayed around the end of the bat, and he staggered a step forward. He slowly turned to face me, and I saw a thick trickle of dark red blood pour from his left ear. His eyes locked with mine for a moment, and I could see his eyes were filled with a vacant hateful stare. He held his enormous left hand out to me, palm open, and then suddenly the axe fell from his right hand and landed on the floor with a dull thud. Then he fell, too.
I stood there paralyzed for several moments, still holding the baseball bat in a death grip. I remember that my sister was still screaming, hoarse and ragged, when my mother came rushing in to discover the grisly scene.
A week later I was sitting in a courtroom in Wetumpka, Alabama. My mother sat next to me, her hands clutched together. My sister sat next to my mother, speechless and staring. The judge, who sat behind an impossibly huge desk, looked at me with a wary expression mixed with pity and apprehension. As the adults talked, I remember random words and phrases floating back and forth.
"what a terrible thing to expose a child to..."
"was a miracle he didn't kill them both..."
"drunk as a skunk, your Honor"
Someone said the words "very brave young man" and my mother put her arm around me and held me tight. She was crying. Minutes later and after much more incoherent adult-speak, the judge's gavel fell and we were free to go. As my mother drove us home in her old brown Pinto station wagon, not a word was said between us.
Time passed by inevitably as it always does, and along came a new stepdad. I had high hopes for him, and much to my dismay he turned out to be just another drunk when the thing I wanted most in life was a father. Two years later I found myself standing in our back yard with a narrow shovel in my hand, toiling away at excavating a sewage line that ran from the back of our house to the end of the property. Our house was built before the turn of the century, and all of the sewage lines were made of primitive terra-cotta pipe. Over time they had become congested with years of roots and debris, and the time to remove and replace them with modern plumbing had finally come around. It was in the middle of August, and the heat was unforgiving and miserable. I had been making good progress all day, taking short breaks and working through the hottest part of the day. I guess I was concentrating too hard on the job at hand, or maybe the heat was taking its toll on me. I didn't notice my stepdad standing behind me. I don't know how long he had been there watching me until he spoke.
"You're throwing the dirt too far from the hole, nigger." He grunted.
I recognized his voice, and instantly my blood was boiling. I looked behind me at the long trench I had dug, and then looked down at my blistered and ruined hands. I had been wearing gloves all day, but they only offered me so much protection. I suppose he could see the anger in my eyes. Before I could speak he reached down and grabbed my left ear, turning it painfully and pulling my face close to his. He smelled of sweat and copper and his breath was heavy with the stench of rotgut.
"I said you're throwing the dirt too fall from the hole!" He barked, and that was when my anger got the best of me.
I tore away from him, a stinging pain erupting from my ear as I pulled away. I raised the shovel and struck him across the knees as hard as I could. His legs buckled and then he fell face-first into the narrow ditch, almost comically. If I weren't so scared at the moment it would have been funny, watching that big bastard squirm and flail in that narrow ditch, not knowing exactly what the hell had just happened. I touched my torn ear and saw I had blood on my hand. I crawled out of the ditch and stood over him as he fought to right himself.
"Who's the nigger now?" I spat at him, then threw the shovel in the ditch and walked away.
I knew that was going to cost me, and for weeks I watched over my shoulder at every spare moment. I lived with a half-hearted hope that he had forgotten or forgiven the whole damned thing, but I should have known better. That's one of the most damning things about youth, you believe in things just for the sake of believing.
Weeks later I was cutting the grass, lost in the smell of fresh cut grass and enjoying the last of the season's long summer days when he got his revenge on me. I was daydreaming placidly as I pushed the loud mower across our yard, oblivious to the world. Suddenly a pain bloomed in my right side and my breath was knocked out of me. As I fell to the ground I felt another pain, this time exploding on my left side. As I lay there on the ground, writhing in pain and gasping for air, I could see his boot inches from my face. He hooked a toe under my midsection and rolled me over onto my back. I lay there helpless like a boned fish, my kidneys screaming in pain. The setting sun was behind him as he stood over me, and I could hear his voice but I couldn't see his face for the brilliant glare. Make no mistake about it, he was one big son of a bitch, standing six foot five and weighing every ounce of three hundred pounds. As he stood over me with the sun behind him he looked twenty feet tall and five feet wide.
"Next time I'll kill you boy." He hissed at me, and with that he walked away.
I remember feeling very glad that he walked away, because I didn't want him to see me crying. I also knew that it wasn't over. There would be another episode between him and I, there was no way around it. During the months that followed I tried my best to avoid him, picking up odd jobs around town. By the time he was passed out in bed at night, I would be arriving home from another long day of yard work or cleaning up the dish pit in one of the few small cafes in town. I was a hard worker, and odd jobs were always plentiful for me around town. I watched many a sunset while pulling an old push mower down the long sidewalk that led to our house, illuminated by street lights.
Then the day I was dreading finally came, and he decided I had done something to earn another beating. It was the day I killed my second stepdad. I was in the drying room stringing up peppers to dry. My mother grew an impressive variety of peppers, and at the end of the growing season I hung the remainders from a row of hooks on the rafters to air dry over the winter. Come planting time, we would pull the dried peppers down and crack them open and then shake out the dried seeds to plant. It was something I greatly enjoyed. It gave me peace at a time in my life when it was a rarity.
I had my back to the door, standing on a small stool while I hung the strands of peppers tied with garden twine. I saw a shadow fall across the room and I knew he was there for me. As I turned to face him, I started to speak. I'm not sure what I meant to say to him. Maybe I was going to try and actually speak with him, to communicate like a normal human being. Maybe I was going to ask him to just leave me alone. I can't remember exactly, but I do remember the word "Listen..." leaving my mouth a moment before he kicked the stool out from under me. I fell to the floor and hit my jaw hard on the wooden plank floor. The pain was instantaneous and sharp, like a lightning bolt had struck me in the head. I heard a ringing in my ears and my vision doubled. I slowly regained my senses and stood up, hoping that he had gone.
To my despair he was standing there, smiling a maniac's smile and swaying a bit in place. He reeked of booze, his eyes shot with red and his clothes disheveled. I saw he was holding a length of thick creosote coated rope in his right hand, and as if in response to me seeing it he started hitting me with it. I raised my arms against the blows, and each time the rope struck me it took a patch of skin with it. He connected a hard blow against the side of my head and I fell back, landing against the shelves that lined the wall. As I struggled to stay upright, I grabbed blindly for something to hold onto. My hand felt something cool and flat, and I grabbed it as I fell. Dizzily I stood up again, not willing to give in to him. I looked down to see I was holding a lawn mower blade in my hand. I had sharpened it myself with a file weeks before, and the edge shone bright silver. I pegged him with a defiant stare. He raised his hand to hit me with the rope again, and I charged yelling like a banshee, like a Wild Injun as I would have said in my youth. I think he had a brief moment of clarity, for as I fell on him his eyes were suddenly alert and yes, frightful. He knew I was going to kill him. I struck him between the eyes with the lawn mower blade and when I drew the blade back for another blow I could see a thin red line appear between his eyes and within seconds blood was pouring down his face in a torrent. I thought that would have been enough and he would leave me be, but I should have known better. He dropped the rope and squared his shoulders like a linebacker about to tackle. He lunged forward and as he did I swung the blade low, cutting his gut open. His stomach erupted in a frightening gush of blood, his intestines coiling out. The stench of blood and alcohol filled the room, and I can remember hearing the blood pattering on the wood planks as he stood there wide eyed with shock and disbelief. Our eyes locked, and mine followed his as he fell to the floor to land at my feet.
I dropped the lawn mower blade and fell to my knees, crying and defeated. It was just too damned much for a kid to deal with. I was covered in hue bloody welts from the rope. My jaw was aching and throbbing like a hellish kettle drum. The world swam before my eyes. After many long moments I somehow managed to stand. I looked down at my stepdad. The color was fading from his skin. The floor was slick with his blood, and the smell of blood mixed with cheap booze was strong enough to make me nauseous. I turned to look away from him to find my mother standing there staring at me in horror.
As to be expected, weeks passed by and I was sitting in court again with my mother at my side. The welts from the rope had turned to bruises, some to scars. The police had photographed me from head to toe, documenting each mark, cut and bruise. I was taken to the Tallassee hospital and diagnosed with a broken jaw, two fractured ribs, several scrapes and lacerations, all neatly documented and sitting in front of my court appointed attorney as the proceedings droned on. Once again I heard words in adult-speak float about the stale air of the courtroom.
"traumatized into this response"
"clearly a pattern of violent behavior"
"self defense, nothing else"
And four words I remember very clearly. "lucky to be alive". As I sat there choking back tears, trying to salvage some small shred of my pride, I wondered if I was lucky to be alive, if this was what life was like. I know now, that is no way for a fifteen year old kid to think. Once again the gavel fell and we were free to go.
Looking back on it now, I am glad the memory came to me. It reminds me of who I am and why. Often times, though, I think that the lost memories from my childhood should remain that way, lost. I can't help but wonder what my life would be like if I could turn back the clock, rewind time to a moment in life before I was beset by so much stress and angst. Maybe I could remember more of my childhood, and maybe, just maybe I could remember all the happy moments I lived before the day the axe fell.
My children will never live a stressful life. I will be better than the memories that elude me.