I remember the first time I realised I was going to die one day. It was a bright summer morning and the sun had hardly risen yet. There was still dew on the lawn which Dad had mowed the day before. I could smell the freshness from the lawnmower as I passed it by on my way out the front door. I was barefooted, my eyes were still drowsy and the long shirt which reached my knees was warm from the duvet. But there was an energy inside of me which I couldn’t battle. Sometimes I tried; I would wake up and grab harshly around my pillow, press it to my chest as if it was a human being which I was choking life out of slowly. But my legs would start kicking. My eyes would flutter open and then close, and then they would open again until everything inside of me was fully alive, telling me to breathe in deeply and get going. I was seven years old at the time. They say that kids are just full of energy and cannot sit still because they’re born to be curious. They need to see, feel, touch and taste everything, and it all has to happen at once. But they’re wrong.
I clearly remember wanting to stay away from life itself. When Mom packed the basket with blankets and food, and Dad drove the car out of the driveway and said that we were heading for the beach, I didn’t jump and squeal like a normal child. I ran and hid underneath my bed and had to be dragged outside screaming. “You like the beach,” Mom said and she was always right. I loved the lively feeling of cold water running over my toes and the sun burning my shoulders and the seashells cutting my knees. But I was scared of loving everything so much. I wanted to be a quiet kid sitting in the corner of the room like grandma’s neighbour whose kids were as silent as herself, shy and reserved. They always sat at the dinner table with their hands folded in their lap as they looked at all the food with hunger. They looked like they could devour it within a second, but didn’t dare to touch even the tiniest piece of chicken. Meanwhile I would dive in, empty half of the bowl of bacon mixed with salad, break the baguette in two and have both halves, sip my lemonade and hold up the glass as I would loudly ask for more. The youngest of the kids, Arthur, would always give me such a fowl glare when I yelled at grandma to get me more soda. To him life was something to be taken seriously and he always carried a book with him rather than a plastic gun like me. I knew he feared life just as much as I did, but while he managed to control himself and avoid everything that could harm him, my body was unruly. I couldn’t sit still. I just had to discover what I was not shown and I hated myself for it.
That morning I fled quickly across the lawn, the wetness of the leaves clinging onto my feet and making me feel awake. The air was still chilly. I could feel it hitting my cheeks red, and the soft skin between my toes felt sore as I jumped onto the asphalt of the driveway and hurried towards the road, but I couldn’t stop myself though it hurt. The birds had started singing, but the road was empty as no one left home this early on a Sunday morning. Though I knew better, I still ran out and followed the thick, white lines on the middle of it as I walked down the street, my ears listening for every little sound around me, but my gaze fixated on the ravens fluttering above my head like black dots on the sky. I couldn’t see them clearly; already at that age my sight was getting bad.
I walked and thought about what a funny place the world is and how I didn’t want to ever understand it fully, but still couldn’t help but to long to discover it all. I wondered if grown ups knew everything and maybe I believed that they did. They always seemed so wise and they had advice for every situation. “Don’t look at the sun for too long, or your eyes will burn into two hard pieces of coal,” Dad would say. “Don’t climb to the top of the tree, or you will fall and break every bone in your body, and you’ll never be able to play football,” Mom would say. Still I would climb the big oak in the backyard and watch the sun as it set in the evening. I thought that parents were really clever, but they knew very little about what makes boys want to do things the most and restrictions were surely one thing which got my blood boiling. If someone told me I couldn’t do something, I was sure to do it and maybe that was why I decided to sit down in the middle of the road and just feel the asphalt with my small hands. It was getting warmer as the sun rose higher onto the sky. Sounds started emerging around me too. Somewhere someone let their dog out, a man started mowing his lawn houses behind me and as I tried to listen really hard, I could hear girls laughing and splashing around in water. A smell of strawberries reached my nose; someone had gotten up early to make a cake and I could almost taste the burnt surface of it and feel my teeth dig through it to the soft inner. I felt so very alive and aware as I gnawed on the air and imagined it to be Mom’s fruit pie which grandma had taught her to make.
But I wasn’t aware. I had slipped into a haze of dreaming and I didn’t recognise the loudest sound of them all as it came hammering towards me, speeder pushed to its limits and the radio playing rock music so loudly that the driver couldn’t concentrate on anything but singing along. The red car came flying up over the hill and as I looked, I am sure I saw its whole bottom facing me. I smelled the oil, watched the thick wheels with the zig-zag prints alongside of them, noticed things hanging down from the back of the car - things I didn’t know the name of but which I’d seen many times before at the shop whenever Dad went to get the old motor fixed. But I didn’t see Arthur as he hurried across the street, his brown shoes slipping off of his feet as he grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me across the asphalt onto the pavement.
The car slammed to the road and continued. The driver hadn’t seen anything but the dog in the garden behind us started barking harshly. I sat watching the spot on the road where I’d just been and then I noticed that I wasn’t breathing. I took in a long breath and my stomach started gurgling, my lungs pulled together and unwillingly I let go of a shout, my nose sniffing and my eyes getting watery as I realised what had just happened. Arthur was still on the ground next to me, his fingers deeply dug into my shirt, and he pressed his face to the hem of it and started shaking. That’s when I realised I hadn’t been the one to shout. I had merely weeped a little. Arthur was bawling by my side and I hesitantly patted his back. He was wearing a thick shirt.
“Don’t go around… dying!” he said, and he’d really used all strength in him to say the word ‘die’, and he’d made it sound so cruel and unavoidable that it sent shivers down my spine. I was staring at him and only now did I realise that he was dressed in a tiny suit, ready for church as always on Sundays. He must have been waiting for his mom in the garden as he saw me sit down on the road, oblivious to the danger I was putting myself in.
I looked at my knees. They were bleeding from having been dragged across the road.
“If you die, you don’t come back,” Arthur said and finally lifted his head. He had snot running from his nose and his green eyes were filled with water.
I wiped my own off before wiping his. “You,” I said, and my voice was weak. I sounded out of breath. “You always told me they say else at church.” It was a stupid thing to comment on, but I couldn’t help myself. Death was a scary concept which Mom never spoke of and always shouted at Dad for mentioning.
“They don’t know for sure. They don’t know anything. You only know what you see yourself.” Arthur stood up and brushed his trousers clean. They had gotten dirt all over them. I tried not to look at his bleeding knuckles as watched his face and let his words sink in. They didn’t sound like something Arthur would say, but it was as if they made sense to me. In that moment I understood why Arthur never tried anything and would rather sit still. He didn’t trust the world and he didn’t trust what anyone said about it, but instead of challenging it like I did, he would rather shy away and just leave things be.
I stood up as well. “I won’t die,” I said, the word strange to my lips. “I’m too young.”
“Mrs Henderson’s son drowned in the pond,” Arthur said swiftly as if he’d just been waiting for a chance to share that with me.
I gave him a stare. “Oh…”
“Arthur!” It was his mom’s calm voice. She peeked over the hedge and waved at him. “We’re all in the car. Come on.”
“Alfred!” It was my Mom’s desperate, worried shout. She didn’t wave at me, but picked me up from behind before I got the chance to turn. “You stupid boy! Where have you been? How dare you leave the house like that!” She pressed me to her body and I buried my face by her neck like I had done many times before. Like this I could feel her breathing; her chest would rise and her heartbeat fill me up for a second whenever her breasts touched my arm. It always made me feel loved, but this time I could only think of her heartbeat stopping for a second, her chest not rising and her words quieting. Everything turning quiet around me, completely. Then she dropped me back on the ground.
“We’re going home!” she said and there was a warning about spanking to her voice.
I looked back at Arthur who was still standing close to me, his hands folded in front of him. But there was a new glimpse to his eyes. A glimpse of something lively, curious and excited which I hadn’t seen before. It was as if he’d suddenly taken over my energy. “I’ll tell you more one day,” he said. He didn’t have to say about what. We both knew what: death.
“Okay,” I said and maybe I’d wanted to say more, but Mom’s big hand closed around mine and she started dragging me along. I followed as quickly as I could, my eyes glancing over my shoulder to see Arthur picking up his shoes and putting them back on. In that moment I felt adults knew nothing and Arthur knew it all, and I wanted to know more. Not feel it, not taste it and not touch it, just hear more. And believe it.