The small boy crept quietly through the forest. Silently, he parted the branches and peered into the clearing. The bear was eating the bloody remains of its prey. Some poor wayfarer who had camped in the wrong place. Another sad victim of the killer grizzly. It seemed he had hunted this creature forever. Too late to save the poor traveller who lay bleeding out his life under the great claws, but at last the bear was in his sights. It would not escape this time. He raised trusty Betsy to his shoulder, took quiet and careful aim.
Bang. The bear fell dead. The small boy caressed his rifle, and praised her. “Good shot Betsy!” He propped Betsy against a tree stump, drew his knife and deftly skinned the carcass. Pleased with the morning’s work, he headed home for lunch. The bear skin, miraculously light, hung over his shoulder. Betsy, reloaded, was at the ready should any other threatening creatures appear.
He sang as wended his way home.
Daveeee, Davy Crockett!
King of the wild frontier…
As he emerged from the forest the scariest creature of all was waiting. He knew he was in big trouble this time, and even Betsy could not get him out of it.
” I told you not to play in the long grass” said mother.
“I was just hunting a bear, Mum”.
She seized his wrist with one hand and relieved him of Betsy with the other. The bearskin fell from his shoulder and vanished. He knew what was coming next. He had seriously miscalculated the risks of the day. His coonskin cap fell to the ground. His courage, dauntless when hunting bears in the woods, fell from him with the hat. He knew he would not bear his punishment as stoically as Davy Crockett would have. He never did.
The gun rose and fell, each blow punctuated by a single word.
“I. told. you. not. to. go. in. to. the. long. grass. Didn’t. I? Didn’t. I? Didn’t. I?”
The small boy was screaming. “I’m sorry Mum! Stop! I am sorry! I’ll be good! I’m sorry! Please! I am sorry!
“Didn’t. I? Didn’t. I? Didn’t. I?”
This wasn’t mother. He knew this intuitively. This was She, the bear who sometimes appeared from nowhere, to attack him whenever he misbehaved.
He went limp, letting his body become a dead weight. He slipped from her grasp and fell to the ground. The experience of a dozen times before had taught him that timing of this manoeuvre was crucial. Drop too soon and She would pick him up again and start over, redoubling the smacking. As he lay sobbing on the ground he knew he had gone limp too soon. He could sense her anger and frustration. Her vindictiveness, although he did not yet have that word in his vocabulary.
She did not pick him up. For a moment relief washed over him. The beating was over. But there was still a menacing tension in the air. He knew better than to move.
The She-bear held out Betsy with both hands, bringing it down abruptly. It broke in two over the knee that came up to meet it.
He froze in horror, a wail of distress caught in his throat. The pain in his chest completely overpowered the stinging of his buttocks and thighs. He checked the cry before he betrayed the inconsolable depth of his desolation. “Betsy…”
Mother walked over to the dustbin, lifted the lid, dropped Betsy’s remains inside. The lid slammed down.
“Perhaps now you’ll learn to do as you are told. Come and get your lunch”.
The small boy joined the cubs. Wednesday at four PM was Cub night at the Scout Hall in the recreation grounds. He loved cub night. He learned all sorts of interesting things. He hoped they would all go camping in the holidays. He really wanted to sleep in a tent.
He had a green Jersey and cap with the scout fleur de lis. On Wednesdays he looked forward especially to wearing the brown scarf with a yellow patch and a leather woggle to fasten it around his neck. On the sleeves of his jersey he wore the badges he had earned. The small boy worked hard to earn his badges. By November, he already had three; for cooking, toy making and knots.
One hot afternoon, everyone was doing activities outside to qualify them for the athletics badge. They all took off their shirts. Akela had a strange look on her face as she asked the small boy how he had got his bruises.
“I fell out of a tree” he told her.
The small boy loved climbing trees. He even had a tree hut where he kept the important treasures he found. His rock collection, leaves, cicada shells and such.
The big macrocarpas were his favourite. They smelled nice and had very long, strong branches. They sheltered and concealed him. He could get pretty high up and there was always a nice place to sit and observe the world. He was quite agile. He never fell.
The small boy was bigger now. He had just turned eight and now it was late January. The school year was about to start. He looked forward to going back to school. The summer holidays had been spent mostly out in the fields and streams around Bunnythorpe, either playing with his best friends Lawrence and Billy, or as often as not, out exploring alone.
He was growing. When he tried to put on last year’s school clothes, he found they were tight. It was a struggle to do up the fly-buttons on his shorts. He could barely fasten his belt at the first hole. He went to show Mum.
His mother took one look. “Christ”. she said. “You look like a sack of shit tied up in the middle”.
The small boy pictured a sack of manure with a rope around it like a monk’s knotted white cord, squeezing it into the shape of a waisted torso. He imagined manure oozing out. That was how his mother saw him. The thought wounded him deeply. Not for the first time, or the last, he wondered if his mother actually liked him at all. Even a little.
As the years passed he forgot most of the events that made his mother upset with him. He never could forget the chilling feeling he had that day, and he could never dispel that image.
And he never forgot Betsy.