“Teddy’s Tomb” a short story

“Teddy’s Tomb” by Sean Boyd

I don’t know where the memory came from.  I hadn’t thought about that time or place in years.  All of the years since had served to obfuscate those thoughts.  How had they resurfaced after all this time?  I had moved on; lived in a different place; adopted a world-view that was vastly different from the one I had seemed destined to acquire.  Maybe all the changes were an attempt to forget, a sign of the struggle to bury the images of that day.  Up to now I had been successful at sanitizing my conscience, but then the memory came.

I was sitting on the bleachers at the baseball field on a spring day, twenty-five years later.  I moved my hand, and as the shadows moved across my knuckles it hit me.   Maybe there was a smell in the wind or some sound that opened the vault and let the memories tumble out in a confused collage.  It wasn’t a stream of thoughts, just a single, muted freeze-frame that carried all the potency of that day long ago.  I looked closer at my hand and wondered what the connection was.  It wasn’t a guilty hand, yet not totally innocent.  It was the others who had acted, theirs were the bloody hands.  Mine were guilty of not acting.  But what about my mind?  Surely I could have broken the spell— done something to stop the flow of events.  It wasn’t fear that had prevented me from stopping the flow of events, I was caught up in the existential flourish that connected me with life’s deepest meaning and swept me into the pernicious excitement.  The miasma and dross that coursed through the depth of humanity was all that existed on that day.  No beams of heavenly light pierced the moment, only its compliment, its polar opposite.  Somehow it was one of the purist moments in my life.  There was no conflicting view, nothing to balance out the lurid aspect of humanity.  Nothing to check its fervor.  For a few hours of that childhood summer the mystery had been laid bare.

It was an oven of an afternoon and we were on our way to our secret fort underneath the train trestle over the river by the quarry at the end of town.  If you could have seen those smiling, innocent-faced boys of eleven and twelve years old, never could you have foretold the violence to come.  The five of us were the bad kids in town.  We hadn’t done anything to attract the attention of adults; in fact we had never done anything morally questionable.  The only thing that set us apart was a feeling that we were bad.  Not even clear what that meant, we knew that our rules, the code of our gang, would be the only authority we would recognize.  To show our commitment to each other we had set aside this day to make our mark.  It would start with the usual feats of daring: the high jump off the trestle into the river; the balancing run across the eight inch girder on top of the trestle; scaling the two hundred foot face in the quarry.  But today we would push the bounds, ratchet each feat up a notch, and add a little more danger to bond us even closer.  Then we would make our mark.  A nail, with a head the size of a dime, would be heated up–red hot–and pressed into our skin on top of our right wrists.  It would be a sign of our courage and our commitment to each other.

The potency of our ceremony cannot be doubted as none of us ever spoke outside our group about what happened later that day.  In our meetings over the following weeks we talked about it with the excitement of enthusiasts, reliving the thrill like a team after a big win.  Inevitably one of us would mention it, not always in good conscience, and the sensation would tremble through our discourse until we quivered with excitement.  It was like a drug we poured on to the ground and danced in until we felt the tremors in the darkest recesses of our spirits.  It bonded us as initiates and the world never knew, and the body was never found.  

After the searing pain shot up through our arms and the blisters had already started to form, we made a pinwheel, with our proud markings showing, as our right hands piled together.  Round and round we went, chanting:

Now we are one

it has begun

we owe a debt

with no regrets

to none but ourselves.

The creation of the poem, and the ceremony itself was pure teamwork.  Ideas fermented in a group consciousness that betrayed nothing of individual contribution.  We were cohesive in a way adults, with their well developed fears, could never attain.

The pain and danger of the day boiled in our blood as we regretfully realized that the peak had come and gone.  Attempts were made to cycle the intensity higher, but no ideas were potent enough to impregnate the moment with further energy.  It was when we departed our fort, and the shadows of the trestle, that it should have ended.  Yet somehow the sunshine challenged us.  The dark mystery of the occult ceremony we had invented and executed lingered in the brightness of the sun.  We were addicted to the rush of secrecy, to the sense of belonging that now defined us.  We needed further actualization of the truth we had born.  

Walking down the tracks we arrived at the spot, the freeze-frame that had blasted its way so suddenly into my life all these years later.  I was watching my son, who was the same age as I had been then, play Little League baseball.  I couldn’t help wondering if he too had some dark secret hidden in his soul.  Children live securely in their secret worlds, able to hide anything from the view of others.  We had hid it well.    Even after it was accepted that Teddy was dead, and the funeral without a corpse was over, no one would have thought the five of us knew anymore than anyone else.  Much less that we had been complicit in his disappearance.  It hadn’t been premeditated, and the fact that he had died, or that we had hid the body out of fear is not so great a surprise.  It was what happened in-between that showed the savage underbelly of our collective psyche.  

He was alone on the tracks as we rounded the bend that curved around the quarry that had once been a mountain.  He could see our excitement and he wanted to be a part of it.  We had no intention of letting him become a full-fledged member, but we were anxious to execute our ceremony again.  We explained the process and proudly displayed our mark.  He was frightened, but impressed.  And willing.

The scene on my mind is of that day.  The sky was filled with big, puffy clouds that threatened a storm, and stark shafts of light poured down.  In front of me was the gravel bank of the quarry that sloped down to the tracks.  Off to the right was the rusted metal arch of the trestle disappearing around the bend.  To the left was one of the few houses on the other side of the tracks.  It sat high on the hill, unconcerned with the encroaching quarry.  Sloping hay fields drifted down to the tracks, accentuating the bucolic homestead.  The pillars of the great house reminded one of its past grandeur and majestically presented the security of home.  It was Teddy’s house.  It was the house whose great lawn had hosted the memorial.  We had all been there.

Since he wasn’t going to be in our inner circle, we let Teddy do our standard, easier tests of courage.  He could jump from the lowest part of the bridge, walk instead of run across the top girder and take the simpler route up the quarry face.  He never made it to the quarry.  He bravely jumped into the river, but his dripping frame shook with fear when he looked up at the high girder spanning the gorge.  He gathered his courage, desire to belong overcoming his fear, and ascended the structure.  He slowly started across, but when he was half way someone through a stone at him.  Throwing stones was a common activity for us and we all had pretty good aim.  The others were behind me and I never saw who threw the stones.  I watched the first one arc a few feet away from Teddy, and then another, and another.  I don’t know that he was actually ever hit, but the barrage un-nerved him and he fell, forty feet down to the rocks that lined the river.

His broken body lay across a large round boulder.  If one had decided to pose for a picture, the shot could not have been improved upon.  We were all silent waiting for him to move.  He never moved under his own power again.  We approached him en-masse.  There was a trickle of blood escaping his mouth and a flow down the rock from a wound to his head we could not see.  His face looked peaceful.  No one spoke for some time.

I don’t know whose voice uttered the words, but we all had the same thought: we must hide the body.  While plans were being devised, we realized what an extraordinary moment it was.  It made our initiation more powerful.  We had made it and Teddy hadn’t.  His sacrifice enriched our purpose.  It was the birth of something greater for our group.  Danger, pain, death.

It took on spiritual strength.  Now our club had a secret to empower our fraternity that merited our ceremonies.  We already knew we wouldn’t tell anybody, and hatched a plan for Teddy’s tomb.

At the end of the quarry towards the trestle there was a huge bank of gravel that protected the plateau above where the grinders, conveyors and sorters did their noisy work.  It was never touched.  It would be easy enough to place his body near the bottom of the pile and bring down an avalanche that would cover him for eternity.  That was our plan and as far as I know it is still hiding the truth.  Not just the truth of his death right in his hometown, but of the strange disfiguring that occurred after his death.  

It dawned on us that we should keep a memento of our day.  It was a sloppy job, and we probably ended up with the liver or part of a lung instead of the heart we had aimed for.  The one prepared enough to have his pocket knife had the honors.  Other hands chipped in and were soon covered in blood.  We wrapped the organ in a comic book and left it, by the rock while we buried the body.  We invented another ceremony and all said some words at the tomb.  After completing our eulogies which recognized Teddy as part of our group and we returned to the rock.

On our way back the sky began to rumble.  The timpani of heaven and the bassoons of hell began to wail, busting forth a threnody for Teddy.  Reminiscent and lamenting, it filled the valley with the sentiment of death.  One of us un-wrapped the body part that we assumed to be a heart, climbed on top of the rock and held it over his head as lightning struck and the rain came.  We were maddened to ecstasy by the epic reality we held as our secret.

The rain washed the blood from the ground.  The river washed the blood from our hands and clothes.  A few days later an animal found our stinking, fleshy memento and it too was gone.  The comic book was burned.  All that represented the innocent was now gone from our world.  Months later when all hope was given up, our actions at the funeral revealed nothing.  We never would have stood up under scrutiny, but we weren’t even suspected.

As I watched my own eleven year old hit a home run, I realized how much innocence had been lost on that day.  The event itself had faded from memory, but its effect was a noticeable thread throughout my life.  I respected death more.  I appreciated individual life more deeply.  I knew I was as guilty as the rest.