A Personal History of Knives, part III


On my first over-night camping trip with the Boy Scouts we learned how to whittle on bars of soap. The leader of that particular activity, Mr. Warren, handed us each a white cake and dull knife with its point filed off. “Alright,” he said without giving us any instruction, “let’s see you turn these dumb blocks into a pear or a swan or a fish.” The boy to my left, with minimal effort, made a book with Holly Bible carved on the front. The one to my right made a box. But in the spirit of spontaneous generation I made my knife beget another knife.

“What have you got there?” said Mr. Warren. He held out a stubby hand covered in soap film to take it from me. As his offensive eyes studied it I tried hard to keep my mouth from twisting into a scowl. Everything about the man repulsed me, the eczema on his arms and neck, his black hair and moustache matted with Vaseline, his acrid breath worsened by too much coffee. “You trying to say our knives ain’t good enough?” he said.

He gave me back my bar of soap. I watched him go to the woodpile and dig around until he pulled up a piece of two-by-four of soft yellow pine. Then he sat next to me on the bench, slung his right foot up onto his left knee and pulled from his boot the biggest, most beautiful knife I had ever seen.

Leaning in to me until I almost wilted, he whispered, “I can do that, too.” The knife cut in, smooth flakes of pine falling on the soap powdered grass like gold on ivory. He hummed faintly as he whittled. A few minutes later it was time for lunch.

At campfire that evening I watched Mr. Warren work on his facsimile knife. The other boys were listening to a story or roasting marshmallows or throwing bugs in the flames, but I kept my eyes on Warren’s bloated hands. A blade was beginning to take shape in rough mimicry of the real one. All the flakes of wood fell on a blanket at his feet and before we turned in for the night he said, “Peter, watch.” Then he flicked the blanket at the fire and the cloud of wood dust ignited into a cloud of orange flame. I wanted that wooden knife.

For the next couple days he worked on it constantly, mostly while sitting on a lawn chair outside his tent, but also at mess and at campfire. It no longer looked rough, but mellowed and good to touch. Whenever he caught me looking he would hold it in his hand like someone weighing a pouch of coins and say thoughtfully, “not like your little soapscum one, eh Peter?”

Then one evening during dinner I forgot my mess-kit and had to run back to the tents to fetch it. Only the screen door to Mr. Warren’s tent was closed and without much compunction I went in. On a little bedstand next to his cot, between a kerosene lamp and a book, lay the wooden knife. It was completed. I took it and hid it in my sleeping bag.

When I returned Mr. Warren saw me walking with my plate of chicken, beans and bread and said, “Peter, come sit next to me.” He was sitting with another scout master, Mr. Clark, at the end of a long table. Reluctantly, I took a seat.

“Do you know Peter?” he asked Mr. Clark who was sopping up gravy with his bread. “He is an interesting boy.”

“How is that?” asked Mr. Clark. Warren put his heavy hand on my shoulder. His rough skin scraped the back of my neck; rancor swelled in my chest.

“Well let’s see. At the shooting range the other boys aim for the center of the target, and Peter tries to place his bullets all along the periphery. When we go swimming in the lake he spends most his time underwater. When we went panning for gold he went hunting for crayfish. At the general store the other boys buy candy and he bought a rabbit pelt. When Jimmy was trying to teach the boys how to speak some Algonquin, Peter was trying to make up his own language. And of course when we were whittling those bars of soap he made a knife instead of a swan or fish like I had asked.”

“What do you mean he made a knife?”

“I mean he used his knife to carve another knife, out of the soap.”

“Interesting boy,” Mr. Clark said absently. He was busy chewing the gristle off his chicken bones.

“That’s right. You never can know what to do with a boy like this one,” said Mr. Warren with an ambiguity that disturbed me. “Why aren’t you eating your food?” he asked me.

I lay in my sleeping bag that night rubbing my feet along the smooth wooden knife, too scared to hold it in my hands. It occurred to me that I could not hide it among my possessions for Mr. Warren would certainly search for it there. So with the urgency of madness I resolved to hide it elsewhere, immediately. Counting my breaths from one to three-thousand I kept myself awake until one by one the voices trailed off and lamps were spent. When all that was left were the crickets and the stars I got dressed and crept out.

The night was humid and the woods were claustrophobic; the only thing suggesting depth were the eerie foxfires glowing here and there. Webs and leaves kept brushing against me sending shivers across my skin. Whatever creatures cry out at night were crying with such delirious force that I could not even hear my feet rustling and breaking the twigs beneath me.

After what felt like an hour I stopped and cleared a place with my hands, then used the knife to dig into the dirt. I buried it there and covered the spot again with dead leaves. Then slowly I picked my way back to camp.

Lying awake in my tent, itchy and sweaty, I realized that I had not marked the spot nor taken careful note of it. I was certain I would never find again the place where I hid the knife. Then disappointment spread over me like a shroud.

The next day I looked and did not find; I knocked and nothing was opened.

But Mr. Warren never said a word.


~ by Peter on March 30, 2008.

6 Responses to “A Personal History of Knives, part III”

  1. ooooh, what a rich and worthy tale with guilt burying the evidence forever. There are so many layers in this, it truly is like peeling an onion. Brilliant! Excellent story.. carrying this around in my pocket today…
    I’ve decided I want to marry you and have you birth my children.

    okay. I was totally kidding with that last part.
    We’d need a really sharp knife to get the crotch fruit out if you were to be the breeder. ~wink~

  2. You sir are a fantastic author. I must now go and piss on everything I have ever written.
    Seriously though, this is wonderful. I generally don’t read a lot of short stories I find on blogs and such, least wise not all the way through. You writing, though, is compelling, very human and the story concise. Very good form.

  3. It is good to see your writing getting more attention, but still not as much as it deserves. I think I’ve said before there is something honourable in the way you take on the challenge of the idea and execute it immaculately, perfectly, like a kind of zen mastery, that is it, mastery of the craft is what you display without apparent effort, that is its beauty,

  4. You tiptoe amongst every scene, refusing to take it as your own, choosing to leave it for us. Superb writing…

  5. Peter rocks! Peter rocks! uh-huh! uh-huh!
    ummm… ooops, sorry. Gingapaul site got me in the mood to dance.
    you know peter – one of my favorite parts of this story (aside from the many wonderful layers in it) is the dichotomy of the attraction/repulsion between Peter and Mr. Warren. It elevates the tension in the story beautifully.

  6. Lakota, I did read this before…but felt a bit at a loss what to say. Peter, everything I could have said felt lame, except to say superb writing, which is self evident.

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