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I cowered there, against cold steel, while he reviled me, said all manner of evil against me, vowed to do great damage unto me. I prayed for deliverance, but it seemed God had forsaken me, and Jesus was out to lunch. Then, through a fog of fear, I saw that, despite his threats, this boy was doing nothing; rather, he was demanding that I "put 'em up." It came to me: he would not actually attack unless I conspired to violence. Christ was at work; just as He had said, salvation lay in not resisting evil.
I stopped cowering. I faced him, told him I would not fight. He cursed me for a coward; I said "God bless you," as if he'd sneezed. He promised he'd kick my nigger butt back to Africa; I said I forgave him. That rendered him speechless, so he punched me in the belly. Faith could have been knocked out of me, along with wind, but as I sucked in air, I felt myself filled with the Holy Spirit, and as soon as I could talk, I went that second mile: I told that boy I loved him.
Afterwards, I could not remember if he first smote my right cheek or my left cheek; I could only remember being beaten, and thinking I was going to die, like the prophets persecuted before me. I could not remember falling; I could only remember being on my back, not with my arms and legs outstretched, like Jesus on the cross, but drawn in, like a submissive dog. I could remember crying out, not a prayer, not words of forgiveness but a fervent plea -- but to my attacker, not to God. Afterwards, though I tried, I could never forget I begged that bastard for mercy, or that he laughed, and kicked me in the side.
That somehow disarranged my senses: suddenly the sky above me smelled clear and blue, the dirt beneath me tasted damp, the blood in my mouth felt coppery, the pain was a stentorian scream, and the words he screamed seemed written in the air: STINKING CHICKENSHIT MONKEY-FACED NIGGER. That was when I went mad.
My senses clarified. My emotions -- fear, anger, doubt -- precipitated into pure crystalline fury. I did not get up, I rose up, as if with wings of eagles, filled with the strength of ten thousand. Realizing there had been a dangerous transfiguration, he sprang back and turned, but before he could run, I was on him like black on night.
I hammered at the base of his skull, shoved him to the ground, kicked him over, leaped astride, pinned his arms with my knees, and pummeled him without restraint. Blood, still dripping from my nose and lips, ran down and mingled with his. I spat mucus and teeth into his face, and every foul name I knew. For a while he tried to free his arms, to turn his face aside, but finally he gave up struggling for anything but air. But with every gasp he said the word. And when he grew so winded and hurt he could not make the sound, I saw his lips shaping the word; half-dead, he still called me nigger. Then I stopped punching at him, grasped him by his ears, and began pounding his head against the ground, deliberately, methodically.
I do not know how long I pounded his head; I had no sense of time. I know I never thought of stopping until the school bell signaled the end of recess. Then I rose and trotted back to school as casually as if I were abandoning a game of baseball. I did not look back to see if he was coming, or even still alive. But I knew I was still alive; I felt more alive than ever I could remember. I felt ... blessed. Filled, and perfectly; as if the final pang of hunger had been by satisfied by the last crumb of food. I felt the keenest, sweetest, profoundest ecstasy that I had ever known.
Fortunately, he was still alive. Fortunately, he kept the Code of Silence. Fortunately, my teacher asked no questions; she only told me to get the bleeding stopped, which I did, in time to catch the school bus home. I sneaked in, washed, and changed, concealing my rent and bloody garments beyond all discovery. My mother, alerted by my teacher, discovered them before the day was out. But acting with the wisdom of Solomon, she did not confront me, nor did she tell my father, who spanked first and asked questions later. She waited until my Uncle John arrived.
Uncle John was not a minister. He was, however, my clan's eldest male, a position of great, albeit secular, authority, like a chief. He alone among my clan elders seemed to realize that, whatever my destiny, I was still a child. My grandmother had little patience with my playing; she thought I should hurry to put aside childish things. Uncle John taught me to catch fireflies, to blow bubbles with bubble gum, to make a Willie Mays-style basket catch. My father gave orders in terms that oftentimes were over my head. Uncle John dispensed his wisdom in earthy similes and jocular tones; about name-calling he had said, "Don't worry what they call you, Sonny, so long as it ain't late to dinner" -- which would have been exactly right had epithets been the only issue.
Holy Saturday afternoon, while we cracked the coconuts, my uncle and I reasoned together. By then there was no need to tell me my sins were as scarlet; during the Good Friday service, ecstasy had been replaced by macabre visions and guilt. As one minister described the Roman soldiers torturing Jesus in the Praetorium, I had seen myself, spitting and cursing and smiting that boy's profane head. As another described Pontius Pilate washing his hands, I had seen myself, in the school washroom, washing away the blood. When the final minister intoned "It is finished," I had felt my soul rending as if it were the Temple's veil. Full, now, with shame at having eaten the bread of wickedness and drunk the wine of violence, I hungered for absolution; I told my uncle ... everything. Continued ...
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