An Arts & Crafts Recess
by Matt Rager
It's early November, cold, and fallen leaves pinwheel across the playground asphalt, spiraling in sweeping arcs that bisect the faded yellow lines of squares A/B/C/D, until they - yellow and red, crisp and dry - skitter up against the backs of legs, mostly blue-jeaned, some sweat-pantsed, that form a roughly ovoid circle comprised of all twenty-three students in Mrs. Lundeen's fourth grade class, boys and girls pressed tightly together, two deep, watching the two figures, circling, stalking.
It started when Kevin told Mike that Kevin liked Kylie; Mike subsequently told Sarah who told Kylie who said, "Ewwww, gross," and word of this (both Kevin's feelings for a girl and Kylie's ensuing declaration of disgust) soon rippled throughout Room 12A, eventually snaking its way back to a chagrined Kevin, who, angry, of course, but also desperate to shift attention away from his own embarrassment, immediately challenged Mike (who had told, even after pinky-swearing not to) to a fight.
So now it is now, post-lunch recess, the two children circling each other warily, the other children chanting the demanding intonation known (seemingly) instinctively to children everywhere, bloodlust creeping in as their voices rise in both pitch and volume, a discordant whole. A shriek breaks the rhythm and evolves into pre-pubescent cheer as Kevin draws first blood; his club, a small spiked bat, catches Mike a glancing blow upon the shoulder, which sends Mike spinning in an ungainly half-pirouette, where he, upon recovering, answers back with a thrust of his own scissor-tipped stick that punctures a hole through Kevin's cardboard constructed breastplate, just beneath the rib cage. Look, look at this, breathe it in: the grace as Kevin denies the projected path of Mike's scissor-tipped stick, pulling his exposed neck away just barely, the pushed wind felt heavy, commingling and cooling with the sweat on his only-just emerging Adam's apple; breathe in the sound of the collective inhalation of the children, follow the swell of the circled shriek as blood begins to well up beneath Kevin's torn sleeve and stain it a profound red.
If you were to place your ear upon the ground you would not just hear but feel the chant, universal, fight fight fight, rolling along the pavement, rising in unison, the children as if a single sentient being, a collective energy united in its need to urge to see. One could compute the mathematical simplicity of their savage geometry, one could trace the cause, always already there, as here in this circle, which tightens as the classmates push closer, the students vacillate between twin impulses to recoil and to leer even more obscenely. The adults know and so they look away: look at the indifference of the teacher on recess duty as she turns away, purposefully unseeing. She knows that stopping it will not stop it.
Kevin had taken such care, during arts & crafts hour, carving the spikes to a point and attaching them to his club through a combinatory amalgam of glue stick and Scotch tape, Mrs. Lundeen looking on approvingly at his inventiveness, giving him not one but two gold stars for creativity. Mike, darting a glare in Kevin's direction, had raised his hand plaintively, calling Mrs. Lundeen to examine his own construction, for which he received not only two gold stars for his artfully crafted scissor stick, but an additional two gold stars for the helmet he fashioned from the dismantled sections of his Power Rangers lunch box, the hard plastic of which serves him well as it deflects yet another club strike, which leaves (the deflected blow does) yet another opening in Kevin's defense, and so Mike thrusts again and again, Kevin's cardboard armor stippled red in a pattern that, if deciphered, might explain all, and as Mike thrusts again he thinks that if only Mrs. Lundeen could see it now she wouldn't have given Kevin any gold stars for the cardboard breastplate (clearly churned out after-the-fact in pale imitation of Mike's lunchbox construction) and now Kevin is down on one knee, and the crowd has not grown silent so much as muted and now Kevin sinks to the ground, and something in the collective space shifts, sets itself loose. Already the circle is dissipating, a few moving to offer a pat on the back, a high-five, a word of benediction to the winner, Mike already having dropped his scissors stained red at his feet, as everyone turns away, leaving Kevin fetal on the asphalt, curving in around himself. Mike looks back just once to his friend but then the bell is ringing and it is time for class and Mike cannot be tardy because his name is already on the board with a check mark next to it, and so the playground empties, and the sunlight moves its careful, caressing way over the landscape until it gives way to the waning moon, the light of which reflects beneath the child, in a pool steadily spreading that covers the leaves in a red deeper, and stains the yellow lines of the A-square orange, and is already beginning to seep through the cracks in the pavement.
About the author:
Matt Rager is twenty-seven years old, and employed as an English Composition instructor at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington. He received his BA from Pomona College and his MA from Western Washington University. He is currently working on a novel manuscript entitled "The Lever of Transcendence." He recently had his first work of fiction, "The Coffin Makers of Ghana" accepted for publication by AGNI.