I ran my hand over my name, carved the previous summer into the smooth, bare wood of a section of the enormous, nearly horizontal trunk of my castle. Some said it was lightning that broke and bent the still-living trunk, but I wasn’t sure, and it really didn’t matter. What mattered was that I knew that we were the same. Damaged, bent close to the Earth, but still alive. I was also quite sure that it knew this too.
I heard an older boy hollering in the distance. I knew that voice. The sound moved steadily closer, and the familiar tightening washed over me, as I reached for a fork in a thick, nearly vertical, branch. The substitute trunk. I prepared for battle as I pulled myself up my castle stairway. The boy flew down the hill and through a field of waist-high grass, heading straight towards the rushing moat. The boy challenged my strength in the usual way, by calling me a baby. I proved myself by yelling “I am not a baby, I can swear,” then firing shot after shot of words that could have had me imprisoned, if the wrong ears had heard them, while he threatened to beat me. I made my way carefully across a narrow bridge spiked with slender branches, from which a long, thick rope hung down some 30 feet; its knotted end dangled a few feet above the far bank, with a hand-hold knot a few feet above that.
Once I reached the rope I tried to pull it up, but it was too heavy to pull up without using both hands. I looked at the hard ground far below me. There was no way I was risking it. I quickly dug through my pockets, sorting through small rocks with shining flakes, a piece of irresistibly soft wood, rubber bands, random bits of metal, a string tied to a paper clip, and other interesting bits, before I found my red Excalibur (Swiss, of course).
The boy scaled a fallen log, then ran with a “whoop” to the rope dangling down above the bank, on the far side of the moat. I set to work sawing the blade back and forth across the rope, hidden in the leaves above his head. The boy hurled another challenge at me as I hid in the castle, and I responded in kind. I hoped our exchange of insults would delay him long enough for me to cut through the rope just enough that it might not support his heavy frame. He gripped the rope and started walking slowly backwards, preparing for a running start.
One swing and he’d have crossed the moat, my only defense. The knot in my stomach wrenched tighter. He could easily scale the castle walls. Images of casts and stitches and slamming into the dirt after a long fall through vicious branches filled my head… as did having to explain what happened to my father, the king. My fingers ached as I worked Excalibur’s small blade across the rope. I considered crying out to the most fearsome teenager in the neighborhood, the Dark Knight David, as the boy took flight, but he wouldn’t hear me from so far away. Panic flooded me as the boy neared the moat’s center. Then I heard a snap and the rope broke away from the branch. I heard a yelp, and a crash, accompanied by the sound of branches snapping, as the boy slammed through scrub oak, river hawthorn, and poison ivy, onto a small rocky island surrounded by rushing water. The frayed rope fell like a dead thing across his body.
I let out my breath and the aggressor whimpered. I quickly abandoned my position and scrambled down the jagged and twisting castle stairs, ripping my jeans and skinning my knee in the process. The boy hurled more now-empty threats. I hit the dirt and took off running towards the tunnel. I reached the chain link fence, slid on my belly under the boundary, hopped into the stream, and cringed against the sudden rushing cold. As I followed the stream through the tunnel beneath the road, the sounds of the rush of the water and the blood in my ears set against the splashes and my footsteps echoing off the tunnel walls came together in a strange and satisfying rhythm as I quickly waded through the water, still worried that the boy might somehow be capable of pursuit.
I emerged from the tunnel to the side of David’s house, safe. I smiled as I listened to the Dark Knight having fun with his companions in their fort, nestled in the brush and cottonwoods in the back. I could smell their spicy smoke and hear screaming guitars from a boom box somewhere inside. If he came out he’d look tired, and like the sun was always too bright, but he’d never let anyone hurt me. He liked me, I think, because I wasn’t scared of him. I stood there a while longer in the stream, listening to his music, then I turned and splashed my way upstream.
I climbed out into my back yard, grabbed some carrots from the garden, and fed my rabbit, the enormous and spoilt rabbit-prince, Dusty Bottoms. I gathered a bunch of fruits and vegetables for myself, holding them cupped in the bottom of my t-shirt, then I hopped from rock to rock across the stream, triumphant in my victory. Leaving my sneakers on the deck, still muddy from my adventure, I walked in through the back door, grabbed a soda from the kitchen, and headed to my room to replay the events of my latest battle in my mind, while celebrating my great victory with a feast. I couldn’t wait to tell the Dark Knight everything.