Beth’s two fingertips laid there on the plywood floor of our fort in the woods. Her left middle and left index looked like two rubber fakes with the nails painted a loud orange, two made-in-Taiwan Halloween gags from Spencer’s Gifts in the mall, except that the pool of blood between her shaking, mangled left hand and the detached fingertips was growing fast, each beat of her pounding heart made visible by a fresh outflow from the stumps. The guilty hatchet was dropped next to the pool of blood, its blade painted crimson.
What came after is a broken-glass mosaic: Beth stumbling and sobbing, Mia death-gripping Beth’s wounded hand in hers, me carrying two bits of Beth’s in mine, Beth’s mom screaming, Beth screaming, the ambulance screaming.
Three weeks later, before the lake incident, she let us see her hand while her mom changed the dressings. The reattached fingers looked like they were taken from the corpse of a drowned man, bluish and bloated, joined to her by zippers of black thread. Tendons were permanently damaged, causing the fingertips to lean to one side.
No one was there to teach us how to split kindling the proper way. Our 1976-moms didn’t know how to hold a hatchet, didn’t even know where our dads kept them, on the bottom shelves of the workshops in the garages of our suburban colonials. Our 1976-dads and brothers didn’t think to show us, so we showed ourselves. What Beth’s merit badge taught us: don’t lay a log down on its side and try to split it. If you don’t hit it dead-center, the log rolls and the blade glances to the side and bites deep into your bracing hand. We learned that blood will never come out of plywood, and that soaking a fort in lawnmower gas makes it go up like a torch.
Beth wears her merit badge with pride. We still go out for drinks sometimes, the two of us, now that we’re older, and when she flips off someone using her damaged hand, usually an over-aggressive man, the middle finger drifts to the side, the “u” in her “Fuck You” falling over and looking more like a “Fuck Yoc”—an insult dipped in dialect; mostly understandable, enough to catch her meaning.Merit Badge Status as of August 4, 1976
|Merit Badges:||Hatchet Skills||CPR||Self-Defense|
On my honor, I pledge to do my will as I will—the rest is just a bunch of bullshit.What’s Wrong with Mr. Dutton’s Secretary?
The previous summer, when it rained, my older brother and I opened the garage door and set up an office. My brother sat at a folding table in the back of the garage. He was Mr. Dutton, generic boss of a formless corporation. He told me to sit near the front of the garage. Your job is to help Mr. Dutton, he said. My name was Mr. Dutton’s Secretary, as if I were the thinnest of beings, or fabric, a lace curtain to be brushed aside.
All afternoon I watched the raindrops collide with the driveway. No one came to see Mr. Dutton.Merit Badge: CPR
When Beth’s hand was healed over, enough that the lake water wouldn’t cause infection, we ran the test. It was late afternoon; the sun was packing it in, so we had the lake to ourselves. Mia looked scared, as if she might not go through with it. Beth and I were scared that we would.
We eased ourselves off the rickety wooden dock and into the murky water up to our chins. Our toes tunneled into the gray muck on the bottom. Mia was shivering. Remember, just to my limit, she said, no more. We nodded. She took a deep breath, slipped below the surface.
Beth and I each found a shoulder, putting our weight on it. For a minute or two everything was peaceful: the gurgle of the water in the reeds, birdsong. Then her spasms started. I stared at Beth, or through her, and we both pressed down harder. Mia’s flailing became wild, desperate, before suddenly calming again. Fear swept Beth’s face. We both grabbed Mia by an arm and hoisted her up. She coughed, gagged, her skin graying, her eyes bulging from her head. She was choking on water she’d inhaled, spitting cloudy mouthfuls at us. We couldn’t lift Mia’s dead weight onto the dock, so we hauled her to the shallows, through the reeds to the grassy shore. We laid Mia flat, her body still shuddering. I knelt next to her, putting my left hand beneath her neck, lifting to open her throat, just as the first aid handbook said to do, with my right hand placed on her forehead. Mia was expelling still, wheezing, and I couldn’t be sure if she was getting any breath in at all, so I bent over her with my lips sealed over hers, blowing what I could into her. She’s breathing, Nat, said Beth. Natalie, stop! But I couldn’t stop, not until Mia herself pushed me away. The dim light in her eyes was cold, departed, the look of someone deep at the bottom of a well who’d already decided not to climb out.
I wish I could remember how Mia looked before that day at the lake, right before she went under, before the best part of her never came up for air.Origin Story
In the 70s, the Girl Scouts were the only game in town. Moms in heels led living-room campouts. They were uninspired, both the living rooms and the moms. They smelled docile, like ground beef and freshly laundered sheets and dreams pinched back and transplanted to the point that they didn’t take. Me, I wanted to cut my hair and nails short, to bind flat my budding tits so I could put on shoulder pads and plant some boy’s face in the stadium turf.
Each girl got a small green pocketknife. It’s handy for so many things, the moms said. Cutting thread, opening packages. Instead, I cut myself out of their picture. The knife I kept.Merit Badge: Self-Defense
My step-uncle Jake was a doomsday survivalist, bunker-minded, his nightmares punctuated by mushroom clouds. His concrete safe room had a hatch built into his basement wall; a separate escape tunnel ended in a metal door set into the side of the ravine behind his house. The escape door had a hasp, but he didn’t keep it locked. The walls of the safe room were lined with shelves full of canned food, bottled water. There was a cot, a chair, a single light fixture.
He was the only man in my life who didn’t see me in pink-filtered light, so when he wanted to show me his bunker the first time, spur of the moment, I went, and when he touched me, I flinched, and when he played with himself in front of me, I didn’t leave. I have no idea why, but I didn’t. Instead, he moaned my name, Natalie, Natalie. I stared at the light in the ceiling glowing blue beneath its silver cage. Desperate insects threw themselves against it. It looked so pathetic, so incredibly small. It should have been so much bigger.
The second time he invited me down there, he planned it ahead of time, so I planned ahead too. Beth would sneak onto his property from the rear, up the ravine. I would go to the safe room with Uncle Jake at four. At five after four, Beth would enter through the escape tunnel, pocketknife at the ready. We figured the two of us could take him. It would have worked perfectly if it weren’t for the padlock.
I let him touch me at first so I could open the blade of my knife behind the small of my back unseen. His hands stroked the long seconds past. No Beth.
Fact: there is a particular paralysis caused by witnessing sudden violence that aids in self-defense. When a blade strikes an attacker’s face, such as a puncture or a slicing of the cheek near the eyes, the attacker will instinctively raise his hands to protect himself, presenting new targets to the defender’s blade.
Fact: blood does not permanently stain sealed concrete, but ragged scars stain faces. Scars can telegraph shame, and shame (to the shamed) is a billboard on a busy highway; it can lead a man to take his own life rather than see the looks on the faces of those passing by.
Fact: the singular goal of self-defense is survival. The losers never know they lost.Awards Ceremony
To me, this last merit badge has no single look. At times it arrives like debilitating claustrophobia or love in another woman’s arms or shrill screams in the deep crotch of night or a forgotten gravestone or a corner office on the eighth floor with two walls made of glass.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and no longer recognize myself; I see Mia’s haunted eyes staring out of my dark sockets, Beth’s warped fingers reaching. Sometimes I go into work early just to watch the pedestrians streaming across the sidewalks below me like tiny cells pulsing through the arteries of pavement, splitting off and disappearing, bleeding into doorways and alleys, soaking into the floorboards of the city.
Sometimes it rains all afternoon, and I watch it from my desk, and no one comes to see me.