Friday, August 27, 2004

G-E or g-e

Head down, tongue between lips, G-e o-r g-e, the unkempt boy with dusty-brown hair printed his name in a book. The room around him was filled with books, on the bed, on the floor, piled to tottering on top of his dresser. Clothes also scattered the floor, some of which were in various stages of being pulled on as the boy printed.

"Georjee!" came a high-pitched call from upstairs. "Georgie Rees, aren't you ready for school yet?"

The boy slammed the book shut, scooped it up with a couple of school-books from the floor, yelled "Almost, Mommy!" as he dashed to the bathroom, pulling his clothes the rest of the way on as he ran—and stopped, dead-still, in the bathroom, hand frozen in reaching for a comb from a small, jumbled pile. His eyes locked on the reflection in the mirror, the boy re-directed his reach to the book he'd just signed. From the face in the mirror he looked down at the flipped-open page and then whipped his eyes back to the mirror. It was true. The face that he saw in the glass there before him was not his own but the face of Sir George, from his picture-book. Georgie waved, hesitantly, and smiled, and the knight answered back with a martial salute. Behind him, from bright, white-washed turrets, bright pennants snapped in a stiff—

A sharp yank on his arm and the vision was shattered. Georgie was alone in the bathroom, his mother scolding him, yanking the comb forcefully through his tangled brown curls. "Ow, don't!" the boy protested, but his mother was in no mood to listen.

"You useless—" she started, then broke off and began again. "How many times have I told you to be ready on time, George Riis?" she demanded balloon-softly, punctuating her question with swift strokes of the comb. Georgie shut up and gathered his books as best he could with his head being tugged from side to side. Then, as he was pulled out of the bathroom with a vigour that set the towels hanging from the shower curtain-rod flapping ("You know it's report-card day today!"), he was hauled up the steps, past the ensorcelled knight who slid swiftly across the landing mirror, through the door, out to the car. ("What did you think I would do, just leave you there because your hair wasn't combed?") Georgie was thrown into the car's front seat. The doors slammed, first his, then his mother's. The car's motor turned but protested, reluctant to start. Georgie's mother swore.

Georgie looked down at the book he had signed as the car's engine roared into life. Sir George and the Dragon. In the chrome of the dash he thought he caught sight of a bright-coloured pennant, dancing in the wind as the idling engine jiggled.

"And today for show-and-tell it's Georgie's turn. What did you bring to show us today, Georgie?"

Georgie fumbled for his book, then set off up the long row of faces. The light, uneven taps of his footsteps were nothing like Sir George's firm, measured clanks advancing into the dragon's lair. A whisper, a titter off to his left—Georgie's two hands curled tightly round the firmness of his book. At the board, Georgie turned and glanced about looking for something—for anything other than those glaring faces. "This is my book," he began, still searching for an eyeless place. "Ih— It's about a brave knight named Sir George—"

"Just a minute, Georgie, not everyone here knows what a knight is." The teacher went on, explaining to the class what a knight was and wasn't, but Georgie wasn't listening. He had finally found a safe place for his eyes.

It was a globe that stood on a large table just to his left, a huge sphere of bright blue and red and yellow and green on a polished golden stand. And in the stand, Georgie saw Sir George on his horse, afar off, thundering across a flowery meadow, smiling and saluting him with a raised and pennoned lance...

"Georgie?" Someone was calling his name. "Georgie?" The voice was soft and sweet, like that of a damsel in distress. "You were going to tell the class about your book." Georgie snapped his eyes from Sir George, across the neat rows of dragonet glares, to the deep brown eyes of his golden-haired teacher. He panicked for a moment (why is she looking at me with her mouth half-open?) before he recognized her look of concern.

"It's— It's a book," he began again, fingers curling beneath the glares. "About a dragon— I mean a knight who kills a dragon." Georgie paused, his mouth full to bursting with the story of brave Sir George, but the words all got stuck in the opening and not one of them made it out. "He has my name," the boy blurted, and fled to his seat. He rammed his white knuckles into his eyes and leaned heavily on his new book.

"Sarah Reach." Georgie sat impatiently, hands folded on his desk, as the air buzzed around him with the shuffling of feet and tense, illicit whispers. Beside him, his friend Joey was moaning that his mom was going to kill him, but Georgie studiously ignored him, knowing his name was next. Sarah's black braids bounced with agonizing slowness from her desk in the back to the front of the room, but Georgie kept his eyes on them to avoid being caught by the globe or his pen, in whose silver clip he had seen Sir George again during spelling test. The silver moonlight had flashed and gleamed beautifully on Sir George's battle-scarred armour—and Georgie had misspelled the word "knight" because of it.

"Georgie Riis." Georgie got up from his desk and walked up to his teacher, who was sitting at the front of the class with a large cardboard box on her lap. The teacher reached a slender hand into the box and, smiling, handed Georgie a manilla envelope. Georgie missed the flames and charred lance-point reflected in the teacher's silver bracelet; his eyes were fastened on her open smile. "An excellent job, Georgie: straight A's this term!" He accepted the report card from her with both hands and took two steps backwards, still gazing steadily on the smile until it opened to call out the next student's name. Then he turned and made his way back to his desk, whispering to Joey as he sat down, "Sea monster tag on the adventure playground after school. Not It!"

"That's not fair!"

"Shhh," said the teacher, with a glare in their direction. And they were quiet.

Georgie was sitting on the swings when his mother drove in, the unopened envelope still in his hand. He jumped off the swings and scooped up his books, running across the empty playground to the vacant parking lot and their dusty grey-silver car. It was growling, and backfired as he opened the door, belching forth a huge cloud of black, roiling smoke from its exhaust pipe. "Hurry up and get in," snapped his mother as he stood there, and then, as he got in, "and shut the door, will ya? You're letting in the exhaust."

Georgie put his books down on the seat beside him. The envelope on top of the stack stuck to his hand for an extra second. "Ah, good," said his mother when she saw the palm-imprinted envelope. "Your father'll wanna take a good look at that when you get home." The car backfired and stalled when she threw it into reverse, and she cursed as she reached for the ignition.

"Did you have a good day, mommy?" Georgie asked over a volley of backfiring.

"No." The engine roared, and they lurched back through a cloud of dust and smoke.

Another backfire. The car heaved itself forward through its own smoke and out into the sunshine. Gravel crunched beneath its wheels as it crawled from the lot onto pavement.

Alone amidst the silence, Georgie scanned the chrome for pennants.

Head down, hands over his ears, Georgie turned another page. The yelling upstairs was getting louder.

"...ask you what's for supper and you hand me some filthy brown envelope? It's not ready, right? It's not ready!"

"If you'd just get the car fi—"

"The car? The car! Ah, the excuse of the day comes at last. I don't wanna hear about the car! Just get me my da—"

Georgie stuffed his head under a pillow, but it was really no help. The muffled words stabbed through his thin feather-shield with ever-increasing intensity as the voices rose in anger. Nor was there any help under his pillow: no book, no light, no hope—nothing but muffled words, piercing anger, growing fear, and his own small, pounding head. He set the pillow aside and rose, trembling, looked down at Sir George and then slowly got up from his bed.

The boy walked up the stairs like an ashen wraith, clinging to the handrail and wracked by each shriek and bellow that came down from above. He reached the landing and turned, just as a bottle bounced off the living room rug and whirled down the stairwell to shatter against and to shatter the landing-mirror. Without flinching, George bent down to examine the silver and the brown slivers of glass.

He was surprised, however, to see each silvered shard reflect the slight, tear-stained face of a boy. Surely this was not right. He knelt down on one knee and lifted a larger shard to examine the unwonted image more closely. Some dread magic must be at work here. He rose, looked up the stairs, and cast the brown-haired young reflection from him. Perhaps it would not be wise to confront two such powerful warring enchanters. Instead...

He turned. Before him stood a door and steel grate—a portcullis. He opened each and stepped out of the castle. Beside the gate stood a weapon: a sword. He grasped it with gauntleted fist and advanced, with firm, measured clanks, into the dim-lit cavern at the side of the stricken castle. There it lay. In silver-armoured splendour, all stretched out in sleep before him: the flaming-bellied serpent, the fiend-scourge of this fair land. Sir George raised up his heavy sword and gathered all his strength. With a ringing cry of challenge he attacked its evil length.

But the knight's strong sword but dented the foul serpent's steely scales, though the noise it made was like a thousand thousand summer hails.

Inside the keep the enchanters battled on.

His sword bounced back, but George held on, despite the jarring pain, and dealt the beast a thousand smaller strokes like heavy rain. The dragon's lair redoubled with its clang'rous cries of pain.

And still the two enchanters battled on.

Sir George raised his sword, now weakly, but renewed his harsh attack. He leapt and, with a lucky strike, he broke the dragon's back. Hind-scales shattered into crystal-shards, but still the serpent stood. Again George struck, but now his sword felt not like steel, but wood.

Yet even now the worm-enchanted sorcerers fought on.

And so, with but a child's strength left, George struggled round to face the breath and gaze of that dread beast. And, caught within its evil eyes, he froze, of will and power bereft, bewitched to think himself a tearful, fearful, brown-haired boy—his sword a bat, his armour clothes, reflected in the steely glare...

He shook himself to break the sorcerous stare, struck out the dragon's glassy eyes with his steel— his wooden bat...

Georgie Riis sank to his knees on the oil-stained, glass-strewn carport floor and cursed the beast that had bewitched him. He half-raised the bat, then let it slip from his bleeding hand to clatter on the concrete beside him. Its sudden noise masked the screams and crashes from the house—but only for an instant. Reflected brokenly in the bars of the battered car grille before him was the dust-dulled face of a frightened and tangle-haired boy. Georgie stared at it until he saw it was his own, then waited until the sounds of breakage within his home seemed complete. Then he arose, advanced with firm, measured steps to his open front door, and stepped inside.

© 1993 Edward Hewlett


No comments: