Ritual, Innisfree, 8 January, afternoon
It was a great tragedy. Two families tied extricably together by a horrible confluence of events. One step different here, a longer goodbye hug there, a slightly different route taken, and none of this happens.
What made it worse was that there really was no one to blame. Not that blame makes things better, exactly, but it does make things easier. It assigns responsibility in a way that relieves some of the pressure of grief, gives it somewhere to go.
Joey Terrence was just 6 years old, out hunting for the very first time with his father. It was a ritual for the Terrences, that first time hunting with your father. It was a ritual that went back as far as the Terrences went back in Innisfree. Generations. Fathers giving to sons giving to sons giving to sons. Knowledge, love, history.
They were deep in Foster's woods, tramping quietly through the brush to find a wild turkey or two. They didn't know they'd crossed into the Thompson's land until Joey had fired that first shot and they heard the screaming.
Fort Thompson was 12, small for his age, golden haired. He had big ears, and the brightest green eyes you've ever seen. He had a gap between his front teeth, and when he smiled his whole face turned into a beam of light that was impossible to look away from. He was a creative child, bright and cheerful, though quiet and reclusive most times.
He lived with his parents and his 3 siblings, the youngest middle child. They lived on a 10 acre plot a little beyond the point where Innisfree town starts to break up into a constellation of farms and homesteads. It was quiet. The home was set far back from the road, with a wooded front lot that shielded the home from any traffic. Behind the house was 9 acres of orchard, woodland, wild brush, a sanctuary of sorts.
While the Thompsons weren't particularly religious, Fort nonetheless found God in those woods behind their home. He didn't articulate it in those terms, of course. He was too young and his family too irreligious for him to know any of the sacred words that would be comprehensible to 21st century Christians. But, it was God he felt in the woods, like sliding into a warm bed after a long, cold walk.
Most mornings, before starting on his chores, he'd walk as far away from his home as he could, to the very edge of their property, along quiet paths he'd forged on his own. He preferred the darkness and peace of the pre-dawn hour, the interstitial moment between the hoots of the night creatures, and the first stirrings of the morning birds. It was church for him. He'd bring books and his notebook for collecting leaves and flowers, and he'd settle into one of his favorite nooks and wait for the sun to rise. Sometimes, he read or flipped through his notebook, tracing his fingers along the veins of the leaves he'd pinned there, whispering the names he knew so well: beech, elm, oak, willow. It was a ritual for him, a benediction. He'd repeat the names of these beings he shared the world with, so that he might know them better. He touched their skin, their stems, their petals. Sometimes, he just closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the world waking up.
That morning, he'd found a space between the large roots of a great oak tree, at least 8 feet in diameter. He held his notebook in his lap, open to a random page, the pressed and dried petals of a daylily. But he wasn't really looking at it. He was staring off to the sliver of gray-black sky that filled the gaps between the skeletal tree limbs. Oak and elm and willow and beech.
As the gray-black gained a copper tinge, he felt something crawling on the back of his neck. He leaned forward and smacked the back of his neck. He looked at his hand. A spider wriggled in his palm, broken and dying.
Joey's bullet hit him in the throat. He leaned back against the tree, staring at the sun as it edged over the lip of the universe. He made one last entry in his notebook, with an ink he'd made himself.
Blessedly, it didn't take long for him.
The funeral for Fortner Whittaker Thompson was held in the chapel of Innisfree Church of God because it was Fort's favorite building in town. His body was laid on a cot near the pulpit, a large wooden cross hanging on the wall behind him. The sunlight of the morning glowed through the stained glass and illuminated his face. He wore a high-necked collar that hid the wound, and otherwise looked as radiant and cheerful as he'd looked in life.
The Thompsons invited the Terrences, and the Terrences came, all seven of them. They came in behind the Thompsons, in a ceremonial procession of the bereaved. While Margaret and Phillip Thompson had lost a son, Daniel Terrence had also lost something too. Joey would never be the same. 6 years old was too young to be held responsible, but it wasn't too young to feel the inestimable weight of shame. He'd taken something he could never give back. He'd carry this for the rest of his life, and really that was too great a weight for a child to bear.
The grief was shared by both families, and so they shared in the grieving. Daniel Terrence even spoke at the funeral, briefly, after Phillip Thompson had told the tale of Fort finding the first leaf in his notebook, a water oak, after Margaret Thompson sobbed through her memories of Fort as the happiest baby she'd ever known. Daniel talked about ritual, about the rituals that had led to this horrible day, about the generations of Terrences that had hunted for wild turkey on Foster's land, about what he'd been thinking about that awful morning, about how sorry he was for the part he'd played in this tragedy.
At the end, Joey Terrence spoke too. He had nothing prepared, and while all of the adults told him he didn't have to take part in this particular ritual, he insisted. His heart was so broken, the pain in his chest so complete that he knew the only way to start healing was to tell the world how much he hated himself.
He said: "Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, I don't know how to say sorry big enough to make any of this better. My heart hurts so much. I don't know how to say sorry. I don't know how to eat or sleep. My heart just hurts so much. I was the last person Joey saw before...before...I owe him my life. I'm so so sorry. I owe him my life, but I can't give it to him now. My heart hurts so..."
He couldn't say anymore, but everyone agreed he'd said what he could. He was only 6 years old.
Fort was laid to rest wrapped around the roots of the great oak where he'd died, curled in the fetal position. His father set his blood-stained notebook of leaves and flowers in the grave with him. Everyone in attendance threw a handful of mycelium in the hole, and then it was filled in with the soil, the Thompson and Terrence families sharing in the shoveling. They were both parties to this tragedy and it was their weight to carry, together.
Once the hole was filled, Fort's father took a custom-made brand and burned the details of his son's short life into the trunk of the tree, marking forever the place where the boy watched his last sunrise. Margaret was the last to leave, spending the remainder of the afternoon crying and laughing and remembering, all while kneeling in the very nook that had cradled her son.
Over the next years, Joey paid his penance as best he could. Every Sunday he left a loaf of home-baked bread on the Thompson's porch. At first, Margaret would just throw the bread to the chickens and pigs. She couldn't bear to eat something made by the hand that had taken her son away.
One day she went into the woods, early morning, and walked to the great oak where Fort had returned to the earth, and kneeling in between the roots, staring up at the burned letters and numbers in the trunk, was Joey. He was crying quietly, tracing the epitaph, his small body hitching with stifled sobs. Margaret watched him as he performed his ritual. Eventually, he stopped crying, and he turned around and sat with his back to the trunk, looking out at the coppery tendrils of the morning sun. In his lap was a notebook.
Margaret walked up to him and sat down. At first it looked like he might run away from terror and shame, but instead he burst into tears again. He was only 7 years old and he was so sad and filled with guilt. Margaret couldn't bear to look at him like this because it made her own anger and grief seem small somehow. She put her arm around him and he gripped her so tightly, like he was trying to crawl into her. His own mother hadn't touched him since the funeral. He was so cold and lonely.
As the sun rose higher and light began to crawl across the forest floor, he pulled away from Margaret and looked out into the trees. Margaret pointed at the notebook in his lap and asked about it. Joey told her it was a notebook of leaves and pressed flowers he kept for Fort. Every morning before his chores he would come out to this tree and he would cry and beg forgiveness and tell Fort about the leaves he'd found. He showed her the first page.
"That's a leaf from this tree," he said, pointing at the brown lobes of the great oak.
Margaret closed the book and she held the boy as they both started crying again.
The light of the sun touched their shoes, then their legs, and eventually rose to meet their cheeks, where it stayed until they parted ways some time later.