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The Deep Dark Descending
Author:Allen Eskens

The Deep Dark Descending

Allen Eskens


Up North

I raise the ax handle for the third blow and my arm disobeys me, stiffening above my head, my hand tangled in knots of shouldn’ts and shoulds and all those second thoughts that I swore wouldn’t stop me. My chest burns to take in oxygen. My body trembles with a crystalline rage, and my mind screams orders to my mutinous hand. For Christ’s sake, get it over with. This is what you came here for. Kill him!

But the ax handle doesn’t move.

A surge of emotion boils up from somewhere deep inside of me, building to such a violent pitch that I can’t hold it in, and I let loose a howl that fills the spaces between the trees and whips through the forest like an artic wind swirling skyward until it fades into nothingness.

And still the ax handle doesn’t move.

Why can’t I kill this man?

He’s on his back, unconscious, his eyes rolled up behind the slits of his eyelids. His arms are bent at the elbows, hands sticking up in the air. His fingers curl into sharp hooks, as if clawing at something that’s not there. Maybe in the dark corners of his senseless brain he’s still fighting with me—grabbing for my throat or plunging his fish knife into my ribs. But the fight is over; he’ll realize that soon enough.

My chest is on fire, the frozen air scraping my lungs with white-hot bristles. Exhaustion kicks at my knees until I tilt back, planting my butt in the snow, the ax handle sinking to rest at my side. It’s maybe five degrees out here, but I’m burning up under my coat. I pull the zipper down to expose myself to the winter air, and it chills the sweat that clings to my flannel shirt. I lift my collar to cover my mouth and breathe through the material, letting the dampness of my exhale moisten the cloth, smoothing down the serrated edge of my inhales.

The man just beyond my feet should be dead, but that last strike didn’t land true. Excuses line up on my tongue, bitter seeds waiting to be spit to the ground. I was tired from the chase, and I was off balance when I hit him. I started the swing of my ax handle ready to send a hanging slider into the upper deck, my aim zeroed in on that soft plate beside his left eye. But he lunged at me with a fishing knife. Dodging the blade caused me to tilt enough that it changed my swing from a death blow to a knockout. Such is the difference an inch can make.

The man’s head twitches, and his right hand jerks and falls to his side—a mean dog having a bad dream. A tiny trail of blood trickles from beneath his stocking cap. It follows a path down the side of his head to where it has been dripping off his left ear, creating a red blossom in the snow. I watch his torso slowly rise and fall. He breathes, and that irks me. I should have killed him in the heat of the fight; that’s how it was supposed to happen—no contemplation, just action and reaction. He had a knife. I had a headless ax handle. A club verses a blade, that’s about as fair as it gets, isn’t it?

Fair. Why do I care about fair? If things were reversed and I was the one scratching at the dead air, he would not hesitate to kill me. He doesn’t deserve the courtesy of fairness. Yet I remain ensnared by childhood notions of right and wrong, impressions as thin as tissue, but layered so thick in my memory that they have become walls of stone. I am somehow tethered to the black-and-white world of my youth as I struggle to pull myself toward a shadow of gray. I’m not that boy anymore.

I try to clear the tar from my thoughts. One more hit will put him to rest. One more swing of the ax handle is all I need. My fingers tighten around my weapon.

It’s then that I hear the whisper of her words, faint, mixing with the breeze that’s whistling through the nettle. She’s speaking with that same tsk of disappointment that she sometimes used when I was a child. Is this what you’ve become, Max Rupert? Nancy asks. Is this who you are?

I loosen my grip on the ax handle. I hadn’t thought of Nancy in years, and now when I need her least, the goblins of my subconscious find it necessary to summon her memory from the dust. I don’t want her interference. Not today. I squeeze my eyes shut and her ghost disappears.

The man starts to move, rolling like some newborn larva, blind to the world but coming to understand that something has gone terribly wrong. I had hit the man hard—twice—but not hard enough, because he didn’t die. The gurgle of each exhale lifts up from the back of his throat like a snore. He’ll be waking soon.

I climb to my feet and square up like I’m getting ready to split a log. This time, it’s not a random whisper of Nancy’s voice in the breeze that stops me. It’s a memory that took a full day to create, but comes back to me now in a starburst so brief that I can barely blink before it’s gone. I was in fifth grade and had just left the cafeteria on my way to recess, racing at a pretty good clip. As I neared the entrance to the playground, a couple of sixth-grade boys came around the corner, walking toward me. I didn’t know either one of them, but I would learn later that the bigger of the two was a kid named Hank Bellows.

As we passed each other, Hank threw his shoulder into me, sending me careening into a wall. I bounced off the brick and went sprawling across the asphalt, the ground chewing up a good chunk of skin on my forearm. I looked up to see both boys laughing as they continued their walk to the cafeteria.

When my father heard the explanation for my wound, he lit into me like it had somehow been my fault, as if my weakness brought this on. “You can’t let that stand,” he said. I could smell the beer in his words. “It don’t matter that he’s a sixth grader or that he’s bigger than you. You have to call him on what he did. He’ll never respect you as a man if you don’t stand up for yourself. It’s up to you, and no one else, to make this right. That’s what a man does—he makes it right. You want to be a man, don’t you?”

I didn’t need his encouragement. I already had plans for Hank.

But later, after my dad fell asleep watching TV, Nancy came to my room, carrying a first-aid kit. She had moved into our house when I was five and, as near as I could tell at the time, she was my dad’s girlfriend. Her touch was gentle and her words soft. She asked me to go through the incident again as she washed dried blood from the wound. I told her what had happened from beginning to end.

“You’re pretty mad at Hank, aren’t you?”

“I’m going to kick his—” I stopped myself because Nancy didn’t like profanity, even though profanity seemed to be half of my dad’s daily vocabulary.

“Being mad doesn’t feel good, does it?” She lifted a dollop of salve to spread on the abrasion. I braced for the sting, but it never came. “All that anger you have inside you?”

I gave a shrug.

“I’ve been angry like that before. For me it felt like I had a stone pressing down on my chest. Can you feel that?”