Mrs. Derundi had warned me that if I kept missing school she would stop allowing our afternoon sessions. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had meant it, so I pedaled faster. If I was back by lunch, maybe she wouldn’t notice.
I avoided the main roads, the shotgun bouncing against my back with each bump in the gravel. A mile and a half ahead was the forest.
Dogs barked from behind chain linked fences as I rode between the narrow corridors of slum houses, so close that their spittle sprayed between the holes and dripped from my shoelaces. Leather collars dug into their necks, their leashes strained, and fences vibrated in the staccato rhythm of their snapping jaws, but the barriers held. I was fast on the bike, the fastest of anyone my age that I had ever met, but I knew that even I could not outpace the dogs. The cruelty of their masters had taught the dogs a hatred of all men, and their anger would spur them faster than fear could inspire my feet.
I discarded my bike at the edge of the forest, leaning it against a gnarled stump whose rings remembered a time far beyond my birth. There was no path there, but I knew the place well. Sometimes, during my stepfather’s drunken fits, I would hide here, sixty paces into the forest, where a clearing opened among the dense, unkempt vegetation.
It was here that I loaded the shells into the double barrel, placed the stock against my shoulder and felt the
cold metal against my cheek. I aimed, lining up a thick pine tree in my sights, and held my finger across the trigger.
I squeezed and fire erupted out of the muzzle, throwing me onto my back as fresh wood chips rained around me. The thick smell of sap permeated the air as I surveyed the splintered remnants of the tree. I rolled, retrieving the shotgun from where it lay in the dirt beside me, and ejected the still smoking shells.
A normal boy would have cried in that situation, with dirt smeared across his face and his spine sore from the impact of the ground. But I was no normal boy, and I had endured more pain than most twice my age. And Mrs. Derundi had taught me curiosity, which left me no time to dwell on my feelings.
I found my bike where I had left it, and returned to the trailer park, leaving the shotgun inside the door. The preacher man had departed an hour before, but I knew his direction. I set off, and fifteen minutes later saw his dark figure striding down the road, a wisp of dust trailing behind him.
“Sir!” I called out, pedaling beside him. He maintained his pace, his walking stick thudding the ground like a metronome. When he spoke he looked ahead, and his voice rumbled with weariness.
“What is it, child?”
“How did you stop the bullets, sir?”
“When you do not fear the wicked, they have little power over you.”
“But they could have killed you! Wouldn’t you have been afraid of that?”
“There are worse things than death, child.”
The preacher man stopped, and his black eyes met mine.
“There are many, many things.”
I shivered. Something about the tone of his voice, or the solemnity of his face, made me feel as if he was speaking from experience.
“So where are you going now?”
“Away, where my feet guide me. Never to return to this place.”
“Did you mean it when you said it was cursed? Did you curse it?”
“The worst curses are those that men bring upon themselves. There are places where evil has grown so heavy it weighs down the earth, and the tips of Hell reach up to touch it. Many such places have existed in history, and they have all been destroyed by the evil they wrought and the doors they opened.”
“But what about me? That’s my home. Does that mean I’m cursed?”
He placed his palm across my forehead, his cool skin meeting my sweaty brow.
“I give you my blessing, that you may be purged from this place. That you may resist evil.”
I’ll never know his intentions in that blessing. I’ll never know if he knew what was going to happen, or even if the blessing caused it.
But I do know that it did happen.
And to this day I call that blessing a curse.