At fourteen, your first kiss is quivering, soap-bubble fragile, broken open by your grandfather’s rough voice: “The hell is this?” Even at seventy he’s powerful, six foot three and mean as a copperhead, spitting tobacco juice instead of venom. He towers above the two of you, squinting down as his face sneers sharp, and in his hand is his rifle. The boy next to you scrambles to his feet, stammers out an apology, already beginning to back away. His saliva is still wet on your lips.
He’s more scared than he should be, because he’s not well enough acquainted with your grandfather to know that he always has a rifle in hand, is always either going out or coming back from a hunt, and always looks meaner than he really is. The boy thinks the rifle is, perhaps, just for him. The more scared he gets the more tender you feel towards him, and you want to leap up and kiss him again, soothe him with your affection, but you can’t. Your grandfather’s eyes are on you and they pin you in place. So you watch the boy go, feeling his dampness leaking into the skin around your mouth like the slow water in the bayou.
For weeks you replay the memory, disappointment turning to resentment turning to rage. That boy never even glances at you in class again. His eyes slide right over you as though your whole existence is now shrouded by an invisible force field. You tell your grandfather you’ll never forgive him. He regards you with small, pink-rimmed eyes, their moistness the only halfway vulnerable-looking part of him, and tells you, “That’s fine. Now go help your Nana with the dishes.”
Years later, you google the boy’s name out of a lazy curiosity. But not too lazy, because you put it in quotation marks. The first result is an article about a college rape case: a freshman accused, found guilty, expelled. You know it’s the same person, not only because of the unique sound of his name, those six syllables marching forward in perfect symmetry, but the dates, too, they match up. There’s a hardness in your stomach like a cold black seed, something you swallowed and realized too late is indigestible.
You remember your grandfather, his hard wooden hands and his rifle. Skin scarred by time. Walking into the woods to bring back dinner, distant cracks like earthbound lightning, limp rabbit bodies slung over his back. Coming home at any hour, unpredictable as storm season. Every evening looking grim-faced across the table at your grandmother, at her soft hands and her silence.
You imagine your grandmother trying, in her gentle way, to protect you—trying and failing to have a talk with you about boys, sex, danger. No, your grandmother could never have done what he did. It was your grandfather who chose not to put his rifle away before confronting the boy who would, four years later, be accused of rape. It was your grandfather who saw the danger hidden inside every male body like a misshapen pearl, because he remembered holding that same danger inside him. He remembered it until his body finally gave up its power, his spine bending at last to an invincible opponent, his lungs blackening like cathedrals filled with smoke.
You think of the men who’ve protected you, how they protected you from, in the end, other men, and you cannot think of a way to determine the difference between the men who harm and the men who protect. There is no way to classify two opposing categories that might meld and overlap at any time like the shifting wetlands, a slurred boundary between marsh and land, soil sinking into water. This difference always necessitating another appraisal, another look back to make sure. A difference fleeting and impermanent and barely real. A difference not found in age or relationship or kin but in the stillness of a hand, the warmth of a voice, the negative space where violence would otherwise be.
Amy DeBellis is a writer from New York. Her work has appeared in various publications including Flash Frog, HAD, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, and JMWW. Her debut novel is forthcoming from CLASH Books (2024). Read more at www.amydebellis.com.
Artwork: “Sunflowers” by Nataliia Burmaka
Acrylic on canvas