I’m sitting under a bridge. My house is a mile away and my mom is there and my dad is at work across the border in another state. It is summer, and there is no school work to be done, long division and skewed history. I have one more year of school at home before I will enter fifth grade at a Christian school twenty-five minutes away.
The pool of water beneath the bridge is stagnant. My friend Nick and I argued weeks earlier about whether the thin cut of water stretching away from it across the fields was a creek or a ditch. We escalated the issue to the jury of my father, who sided with Nick that it was a ditch. I continue calling it a creek.
We don’t own the woods across the field, the rectangle of trees in which I make ramshackle forts out of fallen branches, nor do we own the field I cross to get there. We don’t own our house or the barns beside it. I don’t own the hatchet in my backpack; my dad does. This will become relevant when I lose it in the woods a few weeks later.
The snapping turtle who hides under a concrete ledge at the edge of the tepid pool will not show himself. I can’t ferret him out; not with a stick, and not with food scraps. He’s perhaps a foot long from nose to tail; a minor monster. I like to think the minnows and crayfish in the pool are fully terrified of him, retreating from his legend to the crevices and reeds like a beast from mythology. He’s not that big really, but this is, as I’ll read from Jim Harrison years later as he describes an abandoned well, a vernal pool where frogs live trapped in a universe. The key to being an undersized king is to find an undersized kingdom. I stay under the bridge all day.
A few hundred yards down the street from my house in the opposite direction of the creek is the neighbors’ house. They have an apple orchard they don’t use and an abandoned industrial warehouse they only partially use. They have two boys around my age and we become friends. I follow them around as we play with walkie-talkies and drop illegal M-80s into pipes to make cannons.
Behind the warehouse is a house-sized pile of a greenish material the consistency of kitty litter. They refer to it as sludge. It was the by-product of whatever had once been made in the warehouse, and it is a part of their recreational landscape, and is now part of mine.
We play all over it like a sand dune. We jump our bikes off it, crash into it, and slide down its sides. I still have no idea what the stuff was. If I develop cancer at an early age, this should be looked into.
We live in this house for about a year. We move in during a snowstorm and move out during my first semester in the Christian school; my first semester in any school.
A rat gets in the house one night and scares the dog. It hides until my sister kills it with a hammer. My cat periodically shits on the living room carpet, and my mom rubs its face in the piles in anger and the cat leaves dismembered mice in my mom’s purse and shoes. I like to believe these things are related, though I say nothing. There are seasons of fleas, and there are flies from the turkey farm a couple miles west. There are black and yellow garden spiders the size of my palm, and I feed them grasshoppers. Fifteen years later I will point one out with thinly disguised wonder to my boss at a construction site and he will stare at me and then look away. He will stop calling me for jobs soon after.
During the summer the farmyard is filled with baby toads that all hatch at once. I catch dozens one day and feed them small worms before releasing them. I catch a young mouse dislodged from its home when I lift a piece of wood. I put it in a large mason jar and build a maze for it out of LEGO pieces. I beg my mom to let me keep it. She agrees, but it dies by the next morning.
In the final month before school starts my friend Nick and I put on camouflage and crudely paint our faces and strap our knives to our belts and wander in the woods like Green Berets, following the creek bed with stealth and purpose. We secure the ditch. We take the woods. We return to our bridge to eat the beef jerky of victory. We are kings.
I lose the hatchet. It must have fallen somewhere in the ditch, but we can’t find it. Plaintively, the warrior walks home. I tell my dad, who is upset. There is always a bigger kingdom to answer to, though he doesn’t own his either.
Sometime during that year we get kicked out of the church my dad pastors, or rather he resigns before we do. There is fear of physical violence, though nothing comes of it. We moved across five states for that church, a small country congregation with white siding and white members. I had fallen hard for Amy, one year younger than I. I’ll see her again at a wedding twenty years later and still feel shy. We stayed at the church just over a year, my dad’s final pastorate.
My family plays foursquare in the middle of our country highway, warning each other when cars come speeding along. The lines are drawn with chalk and a kill shot means the loser retrieves the ball from the bushes where the spiders spin their webs. I turn ten and get a basketball for my birthday, though we don’t own a hoop. During the Summer Olympics I develop and sustain a two-week crush on Kim Zmeskal, and the day after the closing ceremony I spend the afternoon pretending I’m doing gymnastics with her and Shannon Miller in our front yard.
We move to a house just outside the town where my school is, the town I will live in when I write this. It’s a new house and a new yard and new outbuildings and a new barn, none of them ours. The landlord lets me ride in his combine with him once. I ask him if he really owns it, because this isn’t a given. My mom tells me later this was rude. I don’t get to ride in the combine again. It is the sixth house I have gotten to know, and there will be many more.
There will be more small kings than I can count.
David Nilsen is a librarian and writer from western Ohio. He lives with his wife and daughter in a small town that lost its only movie theater last year and closes down every August for the county fair. His work has appeared in several eclectic journals, and he writers at www.davidnilsenwriter.com.