A haunting personal essay
Some children are born to this world under a cruel star.
Paul was one of those children, sadistic and cruel, who took a warped pleasure in the suffering of others, whether he caused it or not.
Like most neighborhood bullies, Paul liked to pick fights with weaker kids and he had a low tolerance for pain. I remember the day he ran home bawling after a swarm of yellow jackets used his hand as target practice. It was just punishment for his having disturbed their nest under a sheet of old plywood in our back yard.
My mother used an old homemade remedy to treat Paul’s red, swollen fingers. It consisted of vinegar and baking soda to draw out the bee venom. But Paul, tough as he thought he was, couldn’t handle the even worse sting of the vinegar, and went running off in a tearful rage.
The irony is that Paul came from a good middle-class and observant Catholic family. He was a couple of years older than me and bigger. And I was afraid of him.
I just couldn’t fathom at such a young age how anyone could be as mean as Paul; how it came to him so easily and naturally, like his vicious, sardonic laughter. How could such a person could even exist in a merciful world? But Paul appeared to me as true darkness personified, the monster with the blond flat-top haircut and glasses lurking under the bed when the lights went out.
It was the same unfathomable darkness that inspired Paul one day to pick up a rock and smash it against the head of a red-breasted robin nesting in a tree. Paul had no reason to kill the robin other than the sheer enjoyment he got out of it.
Paul went around proudly showing off his brutal handiwork to the other kids in the neighborhood, who cackled with excitement and awe. When it was my turn to bear witness I froze before the sight of this soft feathery creature nestled lifeless in Paul’s hands.
The bird’s left eye was just a spot of red blood.
I stood there speechless.
As a young boy I liked to catch insects and keep them as pets. I would name them, and if they were my favorite banded woolly bear caterpillar, I would feed them lettuce and apple slices and grieve their all-too-soon transition to the Isabella moth like a death in the family.
Paul would discover my appreciation for insects on my way home walking through an open field where a group of adults were burning rubbish.
Paul immediately zeroed in on the big grasshopper I had just captured behind the fingers in my left hand. He grinned and then walked me over to the fire. For a while we stood there, shoulder to shoulder, watching the crackling flames rise and fall.
“Throw the grasshopper into the fire,” Paul said.
With those words something took control of me. It was as if Paul had just reached into my 7-year-old brain and pulled a lever.
I tossed the grasshopper into the fire.
It went passively into the inferno, turning a bright hot red and vanishing in the embers.
At that moment I hated — and feared — Paul more than ever.
Years later I came to realize “Paul” was just a clever excuse, a convenient name I gave to the mindless cruel potential that manifested in me that afternoon.
It is the same cruel potential that exists in all of us as it whispers in our thoughts in our moments of weakness — moments when we are most likely to listen.
Because I listened, I destroyed the grasshopper.