KNIGHTS OF THE HARVEST MOON
I first met Boy Luttrell as we were cartwheeling to our deaths down the limestone bluffs that stand guard over the Osage River outside of Ambrosia, Missouri. I caught ragged glances on the way down of Boy's torn grey sweatshirt. It kaleidoscoped with sycamore leaves and redbud saplings and the delicate yellow flowers of wood sorrel that squeezed its tenuous life from the wisps of dirt and moisture trapped among the rocks. Now and then I glimpsed the berry brown water of the river as it rushed up to meet us. I got too dizzy to be certain which image fit exactly where, so I just grabbed at everything, hoping for a purchase without thorns or knife edges. My left hand tangled in the frayed rips of Boy's jeans while my right closed around the slippery bole of a young sycamore that grabbed back at me for the merest fraction of a second before casting me off. It stemmed gravity's tide only long enough to separate my right side from my left by perhaps a millimeter more than nature intended. Tears stung my eyes as I fought and failed to hold on to both the sapling and the bluejeans. Grainy limestone chewed on my forearms and back, welling up streaks of crimson that blended with greens and beige and blonde and the murky berry brown of the river to make me wonder if death would be beautiful or just painful.
The plunge ended short of death and the river on Boy's ravaged arm and a stunted red cedar that left its calling card on my crotch and its needles in my underwear. Boy had snagged a bloody knee around the lichen crusted root of an oak stubble, its aspirations for treehood stored in leaves broader than its trunk, and dug five mangled toes into a mushy pocket of decaying leaves and moss that passed for soil on the rock face. I released the arm for better purchase on a limestone outcropping and looked through sweat soaked, bleary eyes at the dirty face of my benefactor to discover that the river was not getting closer, that life would not, after all, end at eleven and that Boy was, in fact, a girl.
She was twelve then, her grime streaked face framed by stiff, short blonde hair and highlighted by penetrating, sky blue eyes that reached out and gripped a witness with such power as to make the rest of her face seem like an afterthought. It was her eyes that gave her away. She was tough and strong and athletic, as mean as a cornered copperhead, could swear with guys who'd never seen the inside of a church or a bathroom, who'd never used bathroom tissue or nail clippers or a napkin, but those eyes, as fierce and cutting as they could sometimes be, fit only in the face of a girl. They were almond shaped, brooding over a nest of freckles that straddled an upturned nose and ran away toward high cheekbones, leaving stragglers to wander into the corners of those captivating eyes.
"You little pissant," she hissed at me through clenched teeth as she struggled to secure her hold on the near vertical face of the bluff, dispelling any notion I might have entertained for just a heartbeat of treating her like a girl. "You coulda got us both killed."
"It weren't my fault. String dropped a rock on my head. It durn near knocked me out. I got too dizzy to hold on. I didn't know you was below me. I didn't know you was even here. Who the hell are you anyway?"
Directness, undiluted by tact or compassion, is a common trait of the young, and their most enduring curse and virtue. I and every one of my peers, at that age at which I found myself clinging like a tick to flypaper halfway down a rocky hill that had been carved in two by a river that waited below to do the same for me, could address ourselves to anyone in any manner without fear of cutting up their feelings. Not that we didn't frequently do so, or that our victims, including each other, did not suffer for it, but awareness is the precursor of conscience, and little of the former and none of the latter had yet intruded upon our lives after eleven summers.
String Pendleton, whose ambitious choice of a stone with which to announce his presence above me had introduced me to Boy, was my best friend, which will give you some idea of how everybody else treated me. He was nearly six feet tall, with a Roman nose and prominent Adam's apple being his most distinguishing features, and a regrettable tendency, of which I was victim on that and many other days, to speak or act long before thinking. I knew the rock he dropped on my head could not have been meant to kill me, else he would have had to begin planning the deed some days in advance and someone would have had to cue him at the right moment, for he would have let it pass by as he did most of life. That someone could have been Pivot, String's fraternal twin, who was a head shorter and half a head smarter than his brother, who also climbed somewhere among the goat paths above me on the rock face that day, who was known far and wide and nicknamed for his penchant for turning brusquely on his right heel whenever he wanted to change direction, any direction, and who was already, at eleven, displaying the pimply face and cracking voice of adolescence that the rest of us yearned for and dreaded. String was not named for his build, as appropriate as that would have been, but for his love of stringbeans, a vegetable whose shape and complexion he just happened to resemble. I spent a good deal of time defending String from the cruel ministrations of his stronger, meaner brother, only to be rewarded late on a late summer's day with a thoughtless rock that sent me and a hard eyed girl I hadn't known existed tumbling toward a berry brown oblivion.
"I seen you guys comin' out this way on your bikes," she explained to me as we minced our way with much pain and hard breathing back to the goat paths we'd fallen from. No one I knew of ever claimed to have seen goats on those bluffs; wild ones certainly had disappeared from the Ozark foothills (though they are not properly "foot" hills since there are no true mountains for them to be the "feet" of, only sedimentary mounds pushed up by tectonics and time to form the diminutive Ozark "Mountains" of which these scrub cedar, sycamore and tick infested hills could be considered feet) long before we came to trade our blood for cedar needles, but goat paths they were called then and now, a propos, perhaps, of nothing at all. "I just moved here from Springfield," she spat out at me between gasps and rocks and hillside debris, but none of her perfect, white teeth. "They kicked me outta school down there ‘cause I put a old, dried up cow pattie in a teacher's file cabinet. Don't know how they knew it was me. Don't much matter anyway, I guess. I weren't passing none of my classes. They woulda held me back again. I sure didn't want to go to school this fall with that bunch of geeks comin' up behind me. I expect I'll start over here and not be in trouble so much. What's your name, Wienie? That little cedar tree 'bout made a girl outta you, didn't it?"
"Lucas," I told her. "Lucas Voss." But from that day forward until one strange and stormy night three years later, she called me Wienie. At that age I had neither the physique nor the bearing to evoke either admiration or derision, or even notice, from the community into which I blended with anonymity that was only occasionally lonely. My hair was the mousy brown that children's hair so often settles for as it struggles for its real identity, while my eyes were the steel grey color that reflected nature's indecision as to which and how many of my parents' genes would get involved. Boy and I were the same height, though I would have sworn she was taller. I was a typical pre-adolescent in search of a personality.
Two seconds after we pulled ourselves over the lip of the bluff to safety, she was slapping String's face and kicking his rear end for dropping that rock that propelled us down the rock face. I went to his defense as I always did, and then Pivot came to mine as she pummeled and nearly pushed me over the cliff again. Hindered, if only slightly, by the natural aversion to striking a girl shared by even the most barbarous of pubescent boys, a standard to which we only occasionally aspired, we were no match for her ferocity. We discovered that day, in one of those personal, private, losing bouts with cold reality, why she was called Boy. She whipped us all into a groaning heap and then stepped on what was left of us. We couldn't help but admire her.
We became that day the closest thing rural Missouri was likely to have to a juvenile gang, though no one called us that in those days. Kids were inclined to travel in clusters then as now, most content to revolve like dark planets around a star whose personality overpowered their own, content to reflect light while yet they had none of their own. We were one of the few clusters that sought out or created trouble, and in that sense were the herald of a new social order whose growth rate, thankfully, was slower than ours. We were known as "that Luttrell bunch," Luttrell being Boy's last name and we being somewhat just more than her shadows. Had we known the word minions, we would not have liked it applied to us, though we could not have escaped from her orbit to avoid the label. She laid on us late in an August afternoon a grip of durable metal that did not so much break three years later as it just melted away in the heat of four innocent hearts grown too warm with the friction of real life ever to touch each other in the same old ways again.
In the days of my life before the era of Boy Luttrell, Pivot, String and I comprised one of many clusters of friends so nondescript as to make little enough impression on one another and none at all on the vast, uncaring world we used each other to struggle through. We were not the caliber of friends that asked each other difficult questions and gave each other honest answers we didn't want to hear, though perhaps that would have been a lot to ask of friends of any caliber at that age. The one and only mutual service we rendered was to support each other against a hostile environment, to contrive or connive or just lie for one another in pursuit of an existence we could understand without the stress and pain of deep thought, and which, upon occasion, and in defiance of a seemingly organized and planetwide effort to prevent it, we might enjoy. To that end, and to the dismay of our parents, all of whom saw their own children as blameless if endlessly trying victims of the pernicious influence of others, we spent a great deal of time together. Before the days of Boy Luttrell, we were flotsam on a tepid sea, struggling to keep from slipping below the surface in the estimation of our peers and, I regret to report, our parents.
I have never blamed my parents for my failures, so numerous and predictable as to become routine, one of the few constituents of my early years that I could count on to lend stability to my life, but I do believe they blamed themselves. My mother was inclined to wring her hands frequently in my presence and to sigh deeply, somewhat asthmatically, in response to almost everything I said or did. I do not believe now, as I did then, that it was a manifestation of disappointment so much as it was of expectations fulfilled. She often told me, more wistfully than hopefully, that I had so much more ability than I ever used, a mantra often repeated by my teachers, more wishfully than objectively, with no justification that they ever showed me or that I ever saw. Every visit by Pivot and String to my house, and there were many, was confirmation to my mother that I could not climb above my station with two albatrosses around my neck. She fretted about it continuously and, on occasion, complained to my father in my presence, but never took any direct action, for fear, I suspect, of depriving me of the only friends I was likely ever to have and who did, after all, make me look good by comparison.
In any case my mother was not an effective decision-maker. It is a characteristic common to those who fear the consequences of life less than being blamed for them. She tolerated better the effects of other people's decisions than she did their opinions of hers, so she became a sort of avocational critic, pointing out the inadequacies of other people's lives without actually living one herself. Poised perpetually to leap on others' mistakes, she was nevertheless careful never to point them out to the people who made them. That spared her the onerous, and sometimes dangerous task of defending her judgments and herself from their reactions. No matter whom her vitriol was aimed at, it was likely to splash on me if I were present to catch it, so I endeavored not to be whenever I could help it. That left my father to bear the brunt of it, which he did stoically for the most part, until such time as the dam burst and spilled the reservoir on me, usually in the form of a leather belt or peach tree switch lashed across the backs of my legs for some offense I probably committed but could not associate with any particular whipping.
My father saw the need for punishment of misbehavior but not the need to connect the two. If I were to devote enough time to catalog all of the errors I committed and the punishments I received prior to that epiphany, or series thereof in my case, that heralds the age of responsibility, I suspect the books would have balanced nicely, though I doubt that I could associate with any degree of certainty any one punishment with any one error. My father's accounting skills were not that precise, nor did he see any need for them to be. The result was that I was punished often enough to give vent to my father's frustration but not predictably enough to change my behavior. My father and I were trapped in a cycle of fear and frustration, of crime and punishment, from which there seemed no escape until Boy entered my life. She involved me in so many misdeeds, each so closely on the heels of the last, that any time my father chose to whip me for whatever reason, the punishment was certain to appear justified. I saw reason and order in my father's behavior even when there wasn't any, a delusion every parent needs from his children. It saved our relationship.
I enjoyed having String and Pivot over, though we spent little time near the house, because my parents both belonged to a tradition that demanded solicitous treatment of guests whether they were welcome or not. We ate better and fought less in the presence of company, and Dad was less likely to rip into me in front of witnesses. I invited Pivot and String to my home as a defense against my father, and they came in hopes of seeing it fail.
Being twins of the fraternal variety, Pivot and String were no more closely related than any other siblings, yet people invariably expected them to act alike as well as look alike while they steadfastly did neither. If nature sets a limit on the intelligence, judgment and assertiveness allocated per birth, and if multiple births are not expected to share those equally, then Pivot and String must have been confused with triplets, the third member having acquired the bulk of those qualities and, having assessed in some way his siblings before birth, chose to forego the procedure and consign himself instead to some version of oblivion that he found preferable to life with Pivot and String. I was ordained by circumstance to take his place.
Pivot was the more likely of the two to express an opinion, and therefore the most likely to be wrong. He had a quicker temper and a stronger tendency to express it violently. He discovered early in life that String was a natural and proximate target, and that other targets were more likely to hit back, so String became his frequent punching bag and I String's frequent protector -- until the day Boy appeared on the goatpaths overlooking the Osage to change the pecking order and make it all immaterial.
We spent the next three years following Boy into trouble, albeit not the sort that left visible scars on anyone or endangered the public health and welfare of the otherwise tranquil community of Ambrosia. Like the denizens of most river towns of that day, people in my hometown were slow to get exercised over anything that didn't affect them directly. Summers were long, drawn out, sticky and too lazy to allow any but the very young to draw more breath than living absolutely required. Heat crawled into the Missouri River valley like the stench off bad ideas and lay there, unsympathetic and unmoving, from June to September. Its vapors wrapped around our lungs. Its tendrils crept into our brains and pushed into some inaccessible corner the thought of any activity that wasn't life sustaining or, if you were a kid, a bit of fun stained with meanness. Boy proved to be an expert at sticking a needle just far enough under people's skins to draw out exasperation. They'd swear at us and make threats and close their eyes against the heat, the swimming air above asphalt and concrete carrying away their anger before they got the law involved, leaving behind an itching irritation that usually brought on a headache they'd have until the September evenings cooled it off.
Winters in Ambrosia bit hard with cold and the snow it squeezed out of the air above the river. We who were young and lived for spring confined our restless spirits under heavy coats and sock caps until the rising river and exploding leaves signaled a return to adventure, though on occasion the pressure of our throttled, impish natures leaked into the hallowed halls of Ambrosia Middle School, whereupon our misdeeds brought us to the attention of Mr. Burrows, our middle school principal, affectionately known as Zombie for his buoyant nature or, less often, Chromedome for the polished gleam of his bald head. As a disciplinarian he made slower progress than the small, black ants that endeavored to scratch away the stone and brick school building to replace it completely with the sandy mound of their expanding home. They would build an anthill of mythic proportions, one to take its rightful place among the other Ozark Hills, years before Zombie would succeed in turning the Luttrell bunch into the models of comportment he innocently believed dwelt latent in the depths of all of us. Like all inveterate optimists he suffered from a peculiar astigmatism in which the brain confuses what it sees with what it wants and is perpetually confounded by sincerity masquerading as honesty.
It was in early September, three years after we pooled our blood and resources on the bluffs above the river, that Boy decided that our freshman year of high school should augur in a new era of mischief and mayhem, and that we should open the year with some prank destined for legend, a harbinger of greatness to come, a challenge to all who valued their reputations as miscreants and malcontents to find the courage to top this. She chose as her target, for reasons she would not share with us, Miss MaryEllen Trentshaw, our American history teacher.
Miss Trentshaw had been molded from the stuff of adolescent dreams of prurient gratification. She was tall, statuesque and prone to wear skirts shorter than the puritanical climate of a public school of that era was likely to approve of, though still too long to satisfy the demanding fashion sense of the boys in her classes. Our pencils hit the floor with tedious regularity whenever she sat down, as picking them up gave us treasured opportunities to peek up her skirt. The hot, oppressive days of waning September coaxed Miss Trentshaw into her seat so often that the clatter of pencils sounded like a hailstorm. Lucky and roundly congratulated was the boy who could identify on any given day the correct color of her underwear. Girls in our class became so annoyed with the ritual that they took to stepping on the hapless fingers of anyone who dropped a pencil on the floor while the teacher was in her seat. Boys who'd never been in a fight in their lives sported bruised knuckles.
Boy, who never wore skirts or in any other way advertised her gender, had just that summer begun wearing baggy sweatshirts or loose denim shirts with overalls regardless of the weather. She patted the chest of the overalls she wore that day as she explained our small parts in the operation. She carried something there she didn't want anyone to see, but she wouldn't reveal it or explain its part in the plan. It wasn't that she didn't trust us -- we who would have followed her unquestioningly into a burning building had she but ordered it -- but she knew our limitations. On the day of our attack on the unsuspecting Miss Trentshaw, Boy reached across the aisle and knocked my pencil to the floor. When I leaned over to pick it up, sneaking the obligatory peek at the teacher as I did, Boy hit me across the back of the neck hard enough to upend me out of my desk. It hurt no more than a hundred other like blows she had delivered to or about my head in the three years of our somewhat brutal acquaintance; on occasion I had fought back only to take a thorough thrashing reminiscent of that first meeting on the bluffs, but Boy never held my ill-considered revolts against me, and so I reasoned that it was only right that I not hold it against her for suppressing them in the manner she did.
The only part of Boy's plan she had shared with String, Pivot and me came later, so the blow to my medulla and my ego was entirely unexpected. The class laughed hysterically as I got to my feet, still reeling, and stumbled across several sets of feet on my way back to the floor. Miss Trentshaw helped me to my feet and back to the stability of my seat. I cursed myself for not feigning a more serious injury, which would have allowed me to stay longer on the floor enjoying the sight of Miss Trentshaw standing over me. It was only one of a long list of oversights with which my early adolescence was plagued. Hardly a day of that part of my life passed without the nagging certainty that I had missed some opportunity that would never present itself again. Miss Trentshaw tossed her long, auburn hair as she stood and flashed her green, angry eyes at the rest of the class. They fell silent immediately -- there is nothing so captivating as sexuality in turmoil -- and she turned her attention to Boy.
"Miss Luttrell, that was completely uncalled for. Lucas did nothing to bother you, and you had no right to hit him like that. Go take your seat on the dunce stool. I'll deal with you after class." Miss Trentshaw's indignation did nothing to mitigate the prim propriety of her manner. She never tired of reminding us that part of her job was to civilize our behavior as she educated our minds. Though we could not have testified to the success of either effort, she never allowed our boorishness, our determined ignorance, to shake her resolve or detract from the model of cool professionalism she always presented. Boy lowered her head not quite enough to hide the contemptuous smile that was an habitual accessory to her school wardrobe. I knew enough of her plan to know that the dunce stool was precisely where she wanted to be.
It is, and has always been, an almost universal failing among the teaching species that they believe the model of civilized behavior they display for their classes will insinuate its way into their malleable psyches in such manner and to such degree as to undermine or supplant, whichever is appropriate, the parental model which has proved so inadequate over a period of years, and for which their children have developed one degree or another of contempt. As the disciples of cold, hard reality that children inevitably are, they understand and respect pure force, naked and irresistible, and virtually none other of the complex machinations directed at them by adults. Force is the argument kids use on each other, and the only one which routinely works, until such time as it is partially supplanted, at least among the male gender, by sex. Miss Trentshaw was better qualified to capitalize on the latter than the former, had she been so inclined and had she found some way to fire the weapon without being destroyed by it. I never saw any evidence that she was consciously tempted to exercise that option, or even that she was aware of it, though I have no doubt she could have had our testicles in a china cup had she only passed one around. She could not have influenced Boy that way, of course, though she could certainly have deprived her most determined antagonist of any support personnel with the merest sway of her hips, a feather touch of fingertips or a hint of a wink. No threat of force Boy could have mustered would have kept us from jumping ship. But Trentshaw was either ignorant of the extent of her arsenal or loath to use it, and so she relied on the same weapon Boy used so effectively: force. Unlike her sexuality, however, she didn’t have nearly enough of it.
Outside the window of our room, a construction crew was doing repair work on the roof of the building. The clangs and clatters of their efforts to hold the old mausoleum together were the constant companions of our cerebrations, such as they were, for a period of some years. However, to say that the racket detracted from the quality of our education was to assume facts not in evidence. A long platform was attached by ropes to a huge pulley bolted to the roof. The permanence of that arrangement testified to the character of our building and to the tempered resignation with which all public institutions of learning view their future. Every few minutes the platform would ascend slowly out of sight ferrying lumber, tar paper and other supplies to the workmen above. In some classes along that hall, the slow motion yo-yo of the platform provided welcome respite from the tedium of a monotonous lecture, though that was not an issue in Miss Trentshaw's class, at least not for the boys. We heard neither the lecture nor the platform, though the noise of its creaking, jangling climb helped mask what Boy was doing from those in class of the feminine persuasion who were likely to be less interested in Miss Trentshaw's anatomy than in her history, as she sat hunched over on the stool next to the open window. I saw her pull a brass hook about three inches long from inside her overalls. That was followed by what appeared to be a length of clothesline or other fine rope, but I couldn't be sure. Boy's only instructions to us had been, "When the fur starts to fly, get the door closed and the shades drawn as fast as you can."
After what seemed an inordinately long time, Boy straightened up from covert operations in the vicinity of her lap and looked at me with the kind of fierce glee I had come to associate with trouble. As Miss Trentshaw paced near her, Boy glanced quickly back and forth from the teacher to the platform that hovered outside the window. She seemed to be trying to time something or to make up her mind. Eventually she just settled back on the stool and waited. Boy could exercise infinite patience at times like this, probably because she hoarded all that she refused to spend on me and any and all others who were slow to divine her intentions or bend to her will. Five minutes later Miss Trentshaw again walked between Boy and the rest of the class. This time when Boy looked out the window, she saw the platform on its way up. She quickly pulled out from her overalls a loop she had tied in the end of the rope. Casually, as if from much practice, she tossed the loop out the window to lasso the end of a two-by-four on its way to the workers above. The other end of the rope was tied to the hook which, with a smooth and silent bow, she deftly pierced the hem of Miss Trentshaw's dress as she passed by. It took only seconds for the ascending rope to pull the teacher's dress up to midthigh. The uncertain feel of the gliding garment was the first hint she had that something was dreadfully wrong.
The class began to react just as Miss Trentshaw did. They pointed and gaped; some laughed, but no one got up to help. Boy's intimidating glare soured any milk of human kindness that might have leaked unbidden from any of the girls in class, adolescent boys being known to lack the required gland entirely. As Pivot, String and I jumped up to close the door and pull the shades, the tension on the rope increased enough to pop half a dozen buttons off the back of Miss Trentshaw's dress. She fought it valiantly, trying at once to hold the hem down so as not to reveal herself to the panting, hopeful mob in the room with her, and to disengage the stubborn hook. But as so often happens to soldiers who fight battles on two fronts, she lost them both. The rapidly steepening angle of the rope's ascent pulled the hem of the dress above her waist. The expanse of golden skin, exposed as it was on that part of the female form most cherished by us who, on a good day, could only dream of such a cornucopia, and revealing as it did the figure of this object of our most durable and erotic fantasies, held us, rigid and sweating, its willing captives. The class fell silent as a tomb as they watched open-mouthed while the dress crawled up to the struggling teacher's neck and yanked completely free. She stood there petrified, a study in sensual terror, in underwear whose total surface area would not have exceeded that of my hand, a comparison I was eager to substantiate directly. That same plan hatched in the libidinous minds of ten other boys simultaneously, along with a clear intent to execute it, an intent that couldn't have been more obvious to the desperate Miss Trentshaw. The girls who finally rushed to her aid got there in time to catch her as she fainted. Boy solemnly shook hands with her gang, sat back down on the stool, and calmly waited for the eye of the hurricane.
Though Boy was the consummate tactician, it may have been that she overlooked the fact that the pliable Mr. Burrows was no longer our principal. The high school principal was almost as new to the system as we were, so we'd had no experience with him, no rumors even upon which to base our expectations. Boy's wealth of experience with others of his species may have tempted her into an unwarranted complacency. When we were called to his office, we sauntered in, as we had Mr. Burrow's office fifty times before, with the air of self-satisfaction that school principals are so fond of in students. The secretary introduced us to Mr. Bile, a man who personified irony much better than he recognized it. Boy stiffened, her hands on hips in her most defiant posture, her lip curled into her best condescending sneer. As Mr. Bile began to speak, her bored gaze drifted around the room, touching upon everything there except the principal. Whether she was listening to him or not, I couldn't say, but I was. The more I heard, the more I felt the earth tilting downhill. All of its really hard, heavy and sharp-edged components were rushing down from behind and above me to impale me at the bottom of a very deep well.