SAWC 2010 Fourth Place

The Branding by Kirsti Bauer

‘What is this?' Ma had said worriedly, the first time she had found the bruises on his stomach. ‘Who did this to you?'

‘No one.' Isaac shook his head and yanked his t-shirt down over the purple blotches. Ma had only started asking questions after she'd noticed him walking funny, all bent over like a cripple or something, as Max had said. He should never have walked funny. Then she would never have known. It was better for Ma not to know - she had enough on her plate already, what with being a single mother and working her arse off so she wouldn't get fired and trying to pay his school fees. He should be more grateful to her that she did her very best to keep him at the private school even after Papa had left; she didn't need to hear that he was being bullied there. The old cliché: ‘I... I ran into the stair railing.'

Her eyes narrowed to crow's bead-eyes. He hated it when people did that; it gave him the shiveries. ‘I don't believe you,' Ms Paul contested. She paused and through her thin eyelids her eyes - so navy they were almost black - bit into his heart and tasted the truth that spurted out from there. ‘Are you being bullied, Isaac?'

‘I said no.'

‘Do you know what to do if you are being bullied, Isaac?'

Wait, this was different. He hesitated. He settled for, ‘Tell me in case.'

Ma's eyelids slunk back to their friendly and more familiar slots and she ushered him over to the settee. ‘Bullies only do what they do because they like to feel powerful over you. It's just a silly power game.' She stretched forward and reached for the inherited family Bible, the one Isaac was forbidden from touching because it was so ancient, and opened it on her lap. ‘Let's see what God says.'

Although Isaac didn't say so, he didn't think that God would be able to help much. The Bible was all good and well for when you wanted to heal a sick person or have a baby in your sixties, and maybe even if you were stuck at the edge of an ocean and needed to part it, but what did Jesus know about a sadistic thirteen year old inflicting pain on a defenseless ten year old? Isaac couldn't even remember Jesus ever being ten years old in the Bible.

‘Hmm, okay.' Ma nodded resolutely. ‘Colossians 3:13: "... forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."' She nodded again and went a whole wad of Bible forward. ‘Remember this? "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'"

‘Aha!' Ma said the ‘Aha!' triumphantly. Isaac felt as if he should experience a similar epiphanic realization, but no such thing came. Ma was still smiling at him. ‘So you see,' she told him, ‘you have to forgive your enemies. You have to go up to them and say, "I forgive you in the name of Jesus Christ". Okay?'

Isaac thought Max would laugh in his face was he to do that. ‘If I'm ever being bullied,' he reminded his mother.

‘If so.'

Monday came and it was back-to-school day. Max was looking forward to it, Isaac knew, while he was dreading it to the point that if he owned boots, he would be quivering in them. He considered faking sickness, he'd done that before, but he understood that it wasn't an option today. Ma would know after the bruises-incident. By marching out the door looking powerful, determined and indomitable, he could portray the impression that his safety was one less worry on her busy, busy list. She was always going on about her infinite number of worries.

At school Max was waiting for him. ‘I have a special surprise for you...' he taunted, his sarcastic suggestion entwined in malice.

Isaac set his focus upon his classes and did his best to stay by the staffroom at lunch. He was irrefutably aware of his intuition beeping Red Alert and what that meant. Max had something big up his sleeve.

That afternoon he found himself cornered. Max and his gang shoved him around to the back of the school, to the ‘suspicious side', where all the older boys came to smoke their cigarettes and goodness knows what else.

‘Have you been avoiding my special surprise?' Max asked him, tutting evilly.

Isaac set his mind to taking deep breaths. The other boys were making a fire and when he tried to back away, two more sets of rough arms were waiting to trap him like wrap-around vines. They squeezed as he struggled; Chinese-bangle, tourniquet.

He was vaguely aware of Max's cronies moving about by glittering flames, shifting the wood around with a small pitchfork. Maybe they were going to cook something gross, like worms, and make him eat it. He could deal with that.

‘Are you trying to leave before the surprise? You're hurting my feelings, Isaac...' Max jeered. ‘Isaac Paul; if I were you I'd change my names around. Or just have a mother who isn't so stupid as to put them the wrong way in the first place.' He cackled loudly and it seemed to Isaac that everything echoed the laugh, reverberating off clothing, concrete, sky.

The words were on the tip of his tongue. Not the ‘in the name of Jesus Christ' part, of course, but the ‘I forgive you' was right there. It and an insult driven by disgust and belittlement were fighting over which might fly out first. Isaac was leaning towards his Ma's advice on forgiveness; he was all ready to turn the other cheek and to put his faith in God when...

‘Hold still, animal.'

Isaac screamed as the red-hot pitchfork connected with and seared through layer after layer of youthful, mortal skin. Even after the branding was over he could still feel the heat trapped in the wound.

‘Now you'll never forget us,' Max hissed, running his fingers just above the blistering wounds on the ten-year old's thigh. Three slashes. Three slashes to remind him of the power Max had: the power to cause undeserved pain, the power to crush Isaac, and the power to - somehow - be owed forgiveness.

‘I hate you,' he seethed.

‘This is a "BULLY FREE ZONE",' the life orientation teacher declared the very next week. Isaac looked at her and hoped that she meant they wanted to throw all bullies headlong out onto the street, rather than that there was no bullying going on currently, because otherwise she was sorely mistaken. He himself had walked in there with a limp and an aching abdomen as a result of cruel classmates. Nevertheless, they were given a lesson on bullying.

‘It's all about power,' the teacher mirrored Isaac's mother's words. ‘Bullies are, usually, really just cowards on the inside.' Max would love that one. ‘Which is why they feel it necessary to inflict pain on others. It makes them feel powerful. Now, I want you to think about what you have the power to do to people.'

I have the power to uplift...

I have the power to forgive...

I have the power to save...

I have the power to hurt...

I have the power to deride...

Isaac chewed on the back of his pen as the L.O. teacher said, ‘No person is better than another so it's obviously wrong to hurt people or to abuse power, I'm sure you'll agree.'

Not Max.

‘Would that be okay? To have "bad power" over people?'

The young boy ran his fingers lightly over his scarred leg. No, it was not ‘okay'. But it was better to be powerful in a bad way than powerless in every way, Isaac knew that much.

At home he sat down at the kitchen table and did his homework. Ma was cooking tomato pasta, and the news was on. A teenage girl had been kidnapped somewhere.

‘Terrible,' Ma sighed, smacking around the contents of her pot.

Isaac stopped his maths and looked at his mother. ‘What do you do if you're going to get kidnapped?' he inquired anxiously.

‘I carry pepper spray.' Ma tapped the wooden spoon against the pot violently and used a colander to get the water out. She started dishing up Isaac's portion; it made a splat noise as it crash-landed on his plate. ‘That stuff will stop any baddie in his tracks.'

Isaac had images of his mother taking on the mafia. He chuckled to himself. Ma really was invincible.

She suddenly wanted to know, ‘How's the bullying going?'

‘Fine. There isn't one, so.... fine.'

‘Good. I told you God comes through. Forgiveness is everything.'

Isaac didn't know if he had it in his heart to forgive Max. Maybe before the branding - maybe­ - but not now. Now he could never forget, just as Max had intended.

The following Monday Max had promised a little one-on-one. It had petrified Isaac all week long. His fear permanently rang in his ears and the ache it gave his head infected his whole body until he couldn't even hold his breakfast down. The vile smell of bile lingering on his clothes reminded him of what he had now convinced himself: Max was capable of anything. He was capable of anything at all, except remorse. Which is why there was no point in forgiving him; it was not as if he was about to repent.

So as Max stood at the top of the stairwell, chasing Isaac whom in trying to escape the inescapable position he was in, had run away, he gave one last mocking cry. ‘You are worthless, Isaac Paul!' Max screeched. ‘You are worthless and you are powerless against me!'

And with that Isaac Paul decided that sometimes you had to play bad power with bad power for the simple good of all humanity, and so he retrieved his mother's pepper spray from his pocket and enjoyed the glorious swhhhht sound it gave as he sprayed it into his attacker's eyes and then the clankity-clanck-clunk sound that Maximus Green gave as he clankity-clunked down the stairs.

Who was powerful now?

Several months later, a messy court case revealed Isaac's scorched thigh and the truth of the extensive bullying. Both boys were expelled but neither charged, on the condition that they attend counseling and do some charity work. Max was in the hospital for two weeks, and when he was discharged it was a further month until he was off crutches. Secretly Isaac felt happy over how his revenge had played out - an emotion he kept silent inside him for fear of his mother's reaction. Imagine the guilt she would expect him to feel! For he did not even feel guilty. Although perhaps that alone was enough reason for remorse.

It was a rainy winter Saturday, the type that is common in Cape Town, when Isaac again ran into Max at the local shopping mall. He was fourteen now but the minute the sight of Max's looming figure registered in his mind, he felt ten again. He started when Max caught sight of him and they stood staring at each other.

All those years of power games, all those years of running and chasing and being caught, and now they simply stood. Isaac held Max's eye and after a substantial amount of time he stopped feeling afraid that if he broke away it was a sign of weakness. Right then it hit him that nobody had the power to make him feel weak, that no one ever would again.

And as Isaac's girlfriend appeared and slipped her hand through his, he gave Max an acknowledging nod. The greatest power came not in the act of revenge, but in the refusal of belittlement that it stood for.
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