I only began to view it as an attack when I’d gained the wisdom of retrospection. At the time it seemed some odd occurrence that was not personally meant for me. I was so young I hardly knew the difference between myself and my mother—the thought of someone else wanting to harm me was so unbelievable that I chose simply not to, until future events made the realization inevitable.
I wouldn’t remember it at all if he hadn’t worn orange. If it had been otherwise, the images might have faded in my mind, lost in the muddy stream of a boy’s memory.
We were shopping together, my mother and I, and I was walking as children do, sometimes darting ahead, sometimes falling behind. My mother was haggling over the price of a wheel of cheese, and I was investigating an unlucky field mouse that I had cornered near the edge of the street. While being sure to stay out of the gutter myself, I poked around the mouse with a stick. I didn’t want to hurt it, but I remember thinking it was fun to see it run, to watch its sides flutter as it panted in nervous fear.
That was when he lunged out. A hand grasped for the collar of my shirt and swung me up like a farmer swings an axe. He laughed like he’d guessed the answer of a madman’s riddle and he hoisted me out into the street.
I knew how the mouse felt.
Then a cart I had not heard nor seen prior arrived. Not at great speed, but of wide axle, and some protuberance from the wheels caught the man who held me at the knees. He stumbled and fell, we both did, into the gutter, only as he fell he hit his head on a nearby stone, and the dark blood inside of him spilled out.
On the back of his orange shirt, I could make out five letters spelled in blue: CHRON. They were no more than mere symbols to me at the time, I was never a good student, yet their image has stayed with me ever since.
I stood over him as he sputtered in dying disbelief, as the wagon rattled on. My mother called in the distance for me to attend her, having seen neither the man nor the cart, and I, not understanding fully what had happened, raced to her side.
My mother yelled at me for getting my clothes dirty. I never told her about the man with his strange clothing and his even stranger attack.
I was only five.
• • •
My mother never talked about my older siblings, although they’d died to a one. I could read their loss in her though, it in the way she moved more slowly during their birthing seasons, her sorrow circling overhead like a chained bird, having neither a home to fly away to, nor a safe place to land. She would stare out of windows, towards lost places with small graves. Her eyes were most beautiful then, dark and deep, swimming with tears she couldn’t quite set free.
• • •
The year I turned eleven I was attacked three times. I have come to realize that there may have been more attacks, ones that I never realized as such at the time, but those were the three that defined me.
In spring I crossed a field at dusk.
I already felt foolish, I should have been home ages before, but the wanderlust that follows young children like a puppy was doubly affectionate towards me. I would be lucky to make it home before full night, I would have to pick the end of my path by starlight.
So when the woman arrived, you understand, she was hard to see.
I am ashamed to say that I stood there, mouth agape, in the decreasing light. There was no reason for her to come straight for me, she was neither a teacher of mine, nor a friend of my mother’s, or, I was sure, anyone I had ever known. Yet she crossed with sure purpose, building up speed, and as she neared me she began to run.
I remember watching her for the time of three ragged breaths. I thought to scream, but swallowed it. Her clothing fit her in a way I had not seen before, and the sight of a woman racing towards me full tilt—perhaps I should have been afraid, but I was struck by a wonderment instead. Was she an angel, sent by God, with some message of infinite importance, come to whisper in my ear? This was a possible thing. I had spent my life longing for something strange and special to happen to me, for a sign meant for me alone.
I know now it is in the nature of children to each hope to be more precious than their generic circumstance, to prove themselves always worthy in particular of their parents’ love. But some children want more than that. They want not only the love of their mother and father, but the adoration of the milkman or the cobbler, or the blacksmith up their street. They want the whole world to watch and love them and find what they do right, and I have learned I am one of these, that more avaricious type. So it made sense to me that she was running towards me, because I deserved to be ran to. My imperceptible greatness and her unexplainable strangeness, we were bound to meet, had been meant for each other, for all time.
I had only seconds to think on all of this—the three ragged breaths, as I said. Then, as the last light of day pulled away from the world like a sheet leaving only muted greys behind, she held up an axe.
It should have been too late for me. My wonderment—frankly, my hope—had cost me too much time. Not even the rush of speed that comes from abject fear could have saved me.
But a dog tore through the waist-high weeds at the side of my path. There was just enough light for me to see its beard of rabid slaver, before it leapt fearlessly towards her. Its teeth snapped down on her pantlegged thigh, and the power of its leap pulled her down. The axe, dropped, flew end over end, sailing past to land behind me with a thump.
She screamed. Not at the dog nor at the pain it caused her I felt, but in anger at having her purpose thwarted. And that purpose, it slowly dawned, as I watched the rabid monster savage her leg, was killing me.
I suppose I could have tried to help her. To run the dog off somehow. I remember thinking about it, looking around, trying to find a stick to gesture angrily with, or a rock to throw. But by the time I had decided to help, if only to find out what secrets she had, it was too late, the dog had changed its grip and had her by the throat. There was no way for her to answer me now, he’d bitten her neck clean through, and had retreated to crouch beside her as if chewing on her windpipe was to be his greatest joy in life.
I cannot explain why, but I was not afraid of the dog. Instead I crouched in front of the woman, her life very busily leaking out from her wounds at neck and thigh, and tried to gather my courage to touch her. Just once. To prove that she was there. Sometimes my mind was against me—are not all men’s minds occasionally against them, even cruelly so, trapping them inside dark dreams at night?—and who was to say that this wasn’t a dream now, she and I and the gnawing dog at nightfall. I reached out with one hand to touch the end of her shoe. It wiggled under pressure, as a shoe ought, but then it—there were no words for it how it changed, and I could not suppose where it was she went. Did the night take her? Was she consumed by the air, the earth, the dog? I had my hand upon a shoe, and it gave, as my own shoe might, and then there was nothing there anymore, no woman, no axe. Just a rabid dog left behind, and one confused boy.
I stood carefully, so as not to attract the dog’s attention. My mind full of whirling questions, I went home.
• • •
The second attack when I was eleven was more subtle. It was in the summer, and I was running on an errand for my mother, sent to get some bread from up the block. The money she’d given me to pay for it was hot inside my hand, I had dreams of haggling the baker down and keeping the small change, secreting it away to buy paints for myself later.
I didn’t know the sound of a rifle then. I had never seen one before. So the booming noises that came up a nearby wall seemed like they were the call of some strange bird, one that somehow left puffs of plaster and brick erupting in its wake.
It was the screams of others that alerted me. High pitched women’s panic, low registered male shouting, curses mixed with prayers, as people ducked and ran.
The booming sounds didn’t stop. And I could tell by the nearness of both sounds and chalky puffs as bullets hit mortar, that they were meant for me. One came so close I could feel the wind as it grazed me, the thunder crack of it landing behind, and in fear I involuntarily peed.
There was a shout of surprise, a word of protest, and then one final scream, as the man who was shooting down at me was pushed off his roof.
He fell down like a dropped doll and landed, neck pointing wrong, the white bone of a knee-cap sticking out. I didn’t wait to see what became of him, or finish my shopping, instead I raced home to change my wet clothing before my father found out.
• • •
I was told that my brother Edmund fell from measles. I no longer believe that that is the truth. Nor do I honestly know what happened to my older siblings, who all died before their time.
It is a heavy weight to know that you are the only one that can carry on your line.
• • •
The third strike was in the fall. My father had sent me to the Realschule, thinking it would make a man out of me. Little did he know the trials I had already overcome.
I was walking home from school, alone, avoiding others as it seemed they avoided me, waiting for another blow to land. By then I viewed everyone I met with a mixture of envy and distrust. I was angry at other people’s ignorance, that they did not have to live as I lived, a black rabbit perpetually racing across endlessly snowy fields, always waiting for a hawk. And I distrusted anyone whose life was simpler than mine, as it seemed that everyone else’s must.
Wrapped up in my own sorrow for myself and my low position in the world, I did not see him coming. He might have easily killed me, except for his misstep on a fallen branch.
Hearing dry wood crack I whirled around and he blinked in surprise to see his prey so clearly.
‘‘What is it that you want?’’ I asked him. He did not respond. ‘‘Why do you keep doing this to me?’’
And suddenly the racing rabbit inside of me found rest.
‘‘Do it then! I can’t keep waiting for you! I can’t keep running away!’’ I shouted.
I don’t know whether he understood me. He was dressed as strangely as the others, and he held up something that looked like, but was not entirely, a rifle.
‘‘I can’t keep dodging a blow that never comes!’’
The weapon in his hand wavered, and I ran. Not away from him as I ought to have, but nearer, so that we could finally fight.
You may not know this, but a young boy is capable of quite a lot of anger. I have often thought if the frustrations of young boys could be harnessed, they could blot out the sun, turning the brightest day into night.
I ran into his chest before he fired. He was taller than me, and his gun made a sound like someone inhaling after getting punched in the gut. Or perhaps that was just me, as his fist landed, cracking two of my lower left ribs. The fire of pain lit and spread, finding my body’s kindling just as dry as the surrounding autumn hills. It felt like my entire life I had nursed one dark secret like a piece of charcoal, only knowing it was within me by its heat. This man’s punch had cracked it open, revealing the red hot flame inside, and once released, it must consume me utterly.
The rest of the fight went by in a blur. I wrestled with him like Jacob with the angel. I bit him, I found the soft spot of one eye, I landed blows into his bowels and groin, all the while he screamed words I didn’t comprehend. He broke my arm and cracked my skull with the butt of his strange weapon. I went down at this, and my concussion made his words separate and echo in my head, so that his voice asked questions and then answered itself, in his undecipherable tongue. He stood over me looking down and I asked the only question I knew how.
‘‘Why?’’ I asked it over and over again. ‘‘Why why why?’’
He brought the weapon towards me, sighting it with his undamaged eye.
And then a bolt of lightning snapped down.
It struck the crown of his head and transfixed him. His hand spasmed but the weapon yanked to one side, wasting whatever munitions he meant for me on the ground. I could hear the crackling and smell the sizzle as electricity cooked him to the bone. Drops of fat coalesced and fell, landing like spilled candle wax at my feet. I carefully pulled myself away from him, broken arm and all, and watched him die, the physical manifestation of my secret desires. The fire that had been inside of me was now eating him alive.
‘‘Why?’’ I asked him one last time, though there was no way he could answer. The sky above us both was empty of clouds.
• • •
The truth died with him in the fire. It died with all of them, and all the ones that came after. I know, because I asked every single one. I became bold, reckless, honestly. I threw caution to the wind. The wind carried it far away, and would never bring it back.
It took many more years for me formulate a plan, based on only the evidence of their trying, and of their continued deaths. I know this will sound insane, but diary, it is your job to hear me out.
I believe these men and women must be drawn to me from some other point in time. It explains their mannerisms, their weapons, their clothing. Were it only one or two of them, I could think that they traveled towards me as curious fish visit a sinking stone, but over the course of my life, and given the volume given of theirs, I have come to realize I must possess some incredible—I do not know any other word to call it—gravity.
What else can explain how many are willing to try to kill me? Who then, themselves, go on to die, as I am saved again and again by the sheltering hand of fate? I have, as I must, come to consider them sacrifices to me personally, these tributes from another time. No normal man could possess so many fervent enemies. Thus, I am not normal. And freed from the shackles of normalcy, I will rise.
As much as these men and women tormented my childhood, plucking the slender reed of my innocence from the riverbank of a child’s idyllic life, I cannot help but be grateful to them. Without their deaths I might have never realized deeper truths. How many men have had greatness elude them because they did not realize it was within their grasp? It will not be so for me.
My father sent me away to school hoping that I would be more rigorous in my studies, and leave my art behind. Instead, soon I will leave behind both schooling and art, because all I need to know these strangers from another time have already taught me. It is a conclusion so simple as to be inescapable, once thought —
I am destined for greatness, and I cannot be stopped.
Cassie Alexander is an RN and the author of the Edie Spence urban fantasy series, comprised of Nightshifted, Moonshifted, Shapeshifted, Deadshifted, and Bloodshifted. She lives in Northern California with a supportive husband and an occasionally supportive cat.