THE most frequent memory I still have is how the dirt and rocks under our feet crept through the soles of our well worn shoes, tormenting our feet by day and itching them at night.
I, for one, stitched the sides of my moccasins often, sitting by fireside after long days of hauling cut timber, forcing the large unwieldy needle the surgeon lent me through the well worn deer hide of the soles and sides of the shoes. Others let their shoes fall into disrepair.
Their despair at our mutual fate was understandable. We were assigned to the convict work camp in the far western region of Formela, most of us for petty crimes and larceny. There weren’t many who were violent. The men and women at the camp were mostly thieves and rascals, prostitutes and such, products of poverty and ignorance.
Both my parents died when I was nine years old, leaving me in charge of a five year old sister. Where she was now I had no idea. I was caught stealing a book when I was 11 years old from Old Tom’s bookstore in the town of Marginau one day and hauled off to court.
When the gavel came down two hours later, I was taken out back, a brand was seared on my upper right arm in the shape of a “T” for thief and I was put on a wagon to the work camp. Our overnight journey was remarkable only for the amount of stench a wagon full of dirty souls can produce in close proximity when no stops are made for ablutions. After some struggle, I wet my pants, something I hadn’t done since I was two years of age and I remember weeping as I held my hand over the burning T on my arm while a kind prostitute wearing a bright red dress held me close to her bosom.
“You’ll rile the lad up,” a toothless man wearing a torn green jacket said from the other side of the wagon, cackling.
“He’s too young to think that way on it,” the prostitute, whose name was Cherl, replied. “It’s the likes of you that’ll make him that way long afore his time.” She held me closer. “Got one your age at home, I do. Name is Jaspil. What’s your name, lad?”
“Sev,” I sniffed.
“Sev. Now that’s a fine family name, it is. Your folks are from whereabouts?”
I wiped my eyes, horrified to find that snot was intermingling with my tears all over her dress. Her large breasts wobbled with the movements of the wagon, but I sank back onto them with a sigh of relief after she cast me a huge maternal smile, clucking at my discomfiture.
“He’s from the old neighborhood. Him and his sister have no family. And the lad’s got a short leg,” a woman named Alli said. She was also a thief. I’d seen her at the branding, in line with me. They’d stripped her naked as a jest, so she was now huddled in an old horse blanket, shivering. She pointed at my left leg. “That one.”
I stared at my leg, pulling it up underneath me. “So? I get around fine.”
“What took your parents from you, lad?” Cherl asked.
“Likely the flu,” replied Alli. “No doctors go down there.”
I nodded. The flu hit our neighborhood hard several years ago. We lived by the wharves and the rats carried it generously spreading the germs until each and every family seemed to have the black mark on their door.
“Did you catch it?” the toothless man asked.
I shook my head no.
“It’s a blessing,” Alli said. “Ruins your health, it does, even if you recover.”
“The flu,” said Dr. Pol , the final inhabitant of our quintent, a middle aged portly man arrested for selling a potion to cure ills that turned out to be fake, “can be healed by my formula, no matter how it’s ravaged the human body.”
“Shut your trap,” the toothless man said. “Stuff’s worthless and you know it. Only difference between you and other thieves is that you give people a bottle of water with your right hand as you take their money with your left.”
“I beg your pardon , sir,” Dr. Pol said, shuffling his feet in the leg irons. “I’d ask you not to cast slander upon me. If this fine lad here could but take my potion, his lame leg would be healed.”
“Lot more ‘n slander will be cast on you when we get to the camp if you don’t cut that kind of talk out,” chortled the toothless man.
“Who is he?” I asked Cherl in a low whisper, pointing toward the toothless man.
“Him? Never mind him. His name is Wats. A beggar. A low life.”
Wats laughed again, seeming to pride himself on showing off his empty mouth. “Whore. Pot calling the kettle black.”
So our journey went. It was the beginning of my constant worry about what happened to my sister Turi and my first life lesson being the only child around adults – that there was plenty of childish behavior to be had in our company. I was used to the taunts of the other children because of my lame leg, but learned that adults taunted each other just as much in close quarters.
I’d been at the camp now for the better part of a year, although I lost count of the weeks and months that went by after someone ruined the dirt calendar I built in the side of our tent. Perhaps it was out of spite, perhaps ignorance. Many in the camp didn’t know their letters or numbers. My mother had seen to it that I knew both before I was even seven years old, as if she’d had a premonition that my life would be a rough one and I’d need every skill I could muster up to get through.
When the troopers learned of my ability to read and do accounting, I found myself getting short breaks from the back breaking timber lugging. I was asked by the major who ran the camp to do their books and write short letters for him at times. Looking back, I believe it bothered him to see my small body under piles of wood as I limped along.
Despite my age and my leg, I was required to carry the same load as an adult – no less than two to three logs at a time. It wasn’t fair to expect my short arms to hold them but when I dropped them, the lash came down on my back same as everyone else’s so I learned to carry a leather strap to lash around the logs to make up for the shortness of my arms. Ironically, the strap was made of the same cord used to fashion a whip. This taught me the lesson of how you could make use of a thing for you or against you – with very little effort but enormously profitable difference.
But as the months wore on, I spent less time hauling timber and more time in the tent of Major Feret, the King’s army officer who ran the convict camp. He was in his thirties, a fit and handsome man who wore his blue and gold uniform proudly despite the humble surroundings of his assignment. The handful of officers and corps of troops under him who acted as our guards and caretakers looked up to Major Feret, although there were gripes about his stern handling of the troops.
“Treats the prisoners better ‘n us,” some of them said within our earshot after two men were stripped and beaten for raping Cherl.
They left her half dead under a tree one winter night after having their way with her. Both men were reported by their fellow soldiers, who , as much as they looked down on us, didn’t approve of what they had done to Cherl. It didn’t’ take long for Major Feret to order their reassignment – but first he had them brought in front of us to be humiliated.
I stood in the back, tears streaming down my face as I watched the lashes land on their thin backs. None of us ate well at the camp, the troops included. A beating was worse on a body that was bony and we all knew it and did everything to avoid the lash. Nevertheless, I don’t think there was one person in that camp, save perhaps the Major, who’d not felt the lash during their time there. I could see everyone’s body recoil as the whip gave blow after blow. 50 lashes. It was unthinkable.
I wept not for them, however. I wept for Cherl who’d shown me and everyone else nothing but kindness. On her first day of camp, they took away her fine red dress and made her wear a brown robe while she worked. It was too long and she kept tripping so that night she tearfully cut it down to a less modest work outfit with places to stick out her arms and legs. When her long hair got in the way, she chopped that off too. Within the week, the beautiful woman who’d held me in the wagon was gone. Her spirit seemed to die as she gave up every bit of her former appearance. She became sullen and her face hard. I wondered what this final brutal indignity would cost her – if she’d survive.
Rumor was she had a fever and the major had put her in his own cot, far from the eyes of the curious. Major Feret stood by my side, his stern visage unmoved by the yells of the rapists. His right foot seemed to count out the lashes and when one of the whippers stopped at 45, pointing to the blood pouring down the mens’ backs, Major Feret shouted “Five more!”
The crowd winced. I muttered “Rightly so, they didn’t stop, did they?”
I would have earned a few stripes myself for speaking that way in front of most of the troops, but Major Feret merely put his hand on my shoulder, then walked away back toward his tent. I looked after him sadly.
When I reported to his tent to do the books an hour later, the major motioned me away. I could see the form of Dr. Pol in there, ministering to Cherl on the cot. Unhappily I returned to carrying timber, using my leather strap to tie the logs together until one of the new troops told me to carry just one.
Perhaps it was their way to make up for what the rapists had done to one of us. However I’d learned not to take any special favors the others didn’t get in front of them so I continued to lash the cord around the logs. I saw an older soldier whisper to the new trooper and he nodded.
Then he shouted “Everyone – one log today is all you have to carry. Get on with it now. Don’t dawdle.”
And I saw everyone look over at me, relief in their tired eyes. It was like a miracle when that happened, watching people able to pick up just one log rather than strain their shoulders and arms all day. I found myself smiling despite the blisters that were growing on my hands.
The next day Cherl was gone from the major’s tent. When I brought Major Feret his bowl of porridge , I saw the empty cot and tears stung in my eyes. “Is she dead?” I asked, setting his bowl down.
He took me by the shoulders. “No, boy, she’s close to it but not dead. I sent her into town to be cared for. She lost much blood.”
I nodded, trying not to cry, but the tears flowed. Cherl was the closest thing I’d had to a mother since my own mother stopped breathing. I wasn’t sure, shamefully, if I was crying for her or for me. I sniffled, wiped my nose and was surprised to see Major Feret reach into his pocket and hand me a handkerchief.
“There, there, Sev, can’t have an officer’s son with no manners. What will my wife think?”
“Your wife, sir?” I asked, wiping my nose off with his clean handkerchief. I looked at it enviously. It was a fine thing, made of soft cotton and pure white.
“Sev,” Major Feret said, putting his hands on my shoulders, “when your term is up, which it will be in a few weeks here, my wife and I would like to give you a home.”
Joy rose in my throat yet I was startled at the offer. It was unheard of for an army officer, who came from the noble rich side of town, to take in a child from the old neighborhood – let alone a branded thief. But I’d seen many kindnesses from the major, so I yearned to hope that this was real.
“What about my sister, Turi? I have to find her when I get back. “
Major Feret knelt down on his right knee and held my shoulder. “I’ve looked for Turi, Sev. She’s gone. I don’t know where she went, but someone has her. Maybe a family who’s hiding her or maybe someone who’s moved on. I promise you we’ll keep looking but shes no longer in the old neighborhood.”
“But, sir, she must be. She’s so young. She can’t have gone far.” I pulled away from him. This was what I’d feared the day of my arrest – that I’d never see my sister again and never know of her fate.
“Sev, I promise you we’ll keep looking for Turi. I won’t keep you from looking either.”
My body relaxed. “Yes, I’ll keep looking for her until the day I die,” I said.
“Sev, my wife – she cannot have children, you see. If you’ll humor her, let her be your mother a bit, that would make me happy too.”
“Good boy. Now run get your own breakfast and report back here when you’re full. We have work to do.” He stood and straightened his trousers. “And Sev?”
“Not a word of this – to anyone. People have a way of trying to ruin good things sometimes – jealousy is a powerful thing.”
I nodded at him and limped back to the campfire for my own bowl of porridge.
The next week flew by quickly. My few friends in camp – Dr. Pol and Alli – kept asking me what was going on with me, but I was careful not to say.
Dr. Pol told me he wished he knew, so he could bottle it and sell it causing everyone to laugh. Whenever we joked about our crimes, there would be encouragement as if what we’d done wasn’t wrong, but a source of pride. It made the guards wince but it kept us going at the boring work and formed the bond we needed to endure the conditions.
One thing I learned in camp was never to break that bond, never to cross that line. I felt that was what Major Feret was telling me when he said not to tell anyone the news about him taking me in. A body could only be on one side of the fence in the work camp. You were either a guard or a convict. There was no in between.
When I broke a rule, I was lashed like the rest of them. I carried my share. I ate the same food. It didn’t matter that I was the only boy there or that I had a lame leg. I was a thief and had to be punished with the rest of them.
I learned early on the difference the T branded on my arm would make in my life , the T that couldn’t ever under our law be removed. No matter how hot it was, I never took my shirt off in front of anyone. I bathed alone by the river. I slept with my shirt on, worked with my shirt on and ate with my shirt on. I hid that T with a burning shame, knowing all along I was practicing how to do it once I was let out of the camp.
All my life I’d hated it when I was teased for being different because of my short leg. But the branding was different. It was a mark I got for stealing. My mother always told me whenever I was treated badly because of my leg that it wasn’t my fault. But the T was my fault, from my own doing. I knew if she was here, she’d be ashamed of me. At least I thought so. I’d never know now.
Yet I saw other convicts walking around almost deliberately showing their brands, proud of them. Some sported several brands- a few had T’s on both arms . After your arms were branded, a T was put in another spot and the branders weren’t fussy. One woman had one on her forehead – a man had one on his chest. I saw two convicts with five T’s – and no one crossed them ever. Unlike outside the camp, the worse the criminal you were, the more power you carried among us.
I found myself laying in bed at night, my joy at going home with the major muddied by worry. I wondered where I’d go to school and what the others would say once they saw my brand. I couldn’t fathom that the major and his wife would want a child who was a known thief as a son, then remembered she was without child and realized they had no choice. But still , it seemed that I was a poor substitute for an heir. Maybe if we found Turi that would make up for it. She hadn’t committed any crimes after all. She could be their reward for taking me in.
It rained one afternoon. When I got to the major’s tent, he wasn’t there. I was told he’d had to ride home late in the night for an emergency. I couldn’t imagine what it was, but went to haul logs. I kept looking at the road into camp, hoping to see his horse returning, but by dinnertime when I lined up for my bowl of rabbit stew, our weekly reward of a meal with meat, the major wasn’t back. I didn’t dare ask any questions because it might earn me a lashing, so I just held my bowl out.
Sergeant Tucker smiled at me. “So you’re going to live with the major, are you?” he asked, filling my bowl twice, instead of once.
“Sir- what?” I asked, playing stupid. There was a line of convicts behind me, including one with the five T’s on him, the one called Big T. I tried to move on in line hoping they wouldn’t notice the extra dip of the ladle, but the sergeant grabbed my shoulder.
“Oh, he’s a sly one, this one. He’s gotten in so good with the major that he’s found himself a new home. Fancy that!” Sergeant Tucker reached behind him and handed me a roll. Rolls only went to troopers, not to convicts.
“No, thank you, sir,” I said, handing it back.
“Take it, boy,” the trooper said. “It’s my gift to you. “
I looked behind me. I could see the betrayal in everyone’s eyes, but mostly I registered the anger in a few, including Big T. Swallowing, I took the roll and turned around. “We can break it up among us,” I said feebly, tearing it into pieces.
“Move along, we want our stew,” one of the convicts growled.
I walked over to Alli and handed a piece to her. She was , as ever, thin and weakly. “Here, take this.”
“Did I give that to her? I gave it to you – an officer’s son-to-be,” said the sergeant, snarling at me. “You’d better learn, Sev, not to share with the likes of that once you’re living with the major.”
Alli shook her head. “Keep it, Sev.”
Not knowing what to do, I pushed the roll into my bowl of stew, trying to hide it under the liquid. As I walked, I felt everyone’s eyes on my back. I found a spot under a tree and huddled into myself, shoveling the precious stew, the only meal all week I usually enjoyed, into me as if I was dreading every spoonful.
No one sat near me. Their eyes strayed over toward me, questioning me, wondering. And I knew I’d lost their trust. Worse yet, by spilling the beans, the sergeant had put my safety in jeopardy. I wondered how he found out.
“Doesn’t deny it, does he, Sam?” asked Big T.
“That he doesn’t,” Sam replied, belching. “Hey, boy, can you ask the sergeant for a second helping for me?”
The convicts laughed. I stared at my empty bowl, not answering. Then I walked over and dropped my bowl into the tub to be washed along with the others. The convict standing there handed it back to me.
“Wash it yourself, officer’s boy,” he said.
I took it guiltily. As I walked down to the river to wash my bowl, I could hear the hoots and hollers of the other convicts jeering . My eyes wandered over to where the troopers were eating. The sergeant sat on a rock, laughing. I determined to tell the major as soon as he came back to camp what the sergeant did, then realized I was being foolish. Best to keep that to myself for now.
While all this was going through my mind, I found myself tripping over something. I didn’t know what it was until I rolled over to retrieve my bowl, which had slipped out of my hands. I saw the foot of a convict and looked up into Big T’s face.
“Leave your bowl,” he snarled. “Now stand up so I can knock you over again.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I protested.
Big T waited until I rose, then yanked my shirt off me so hard the buttons popped. He placed his index finger against the T on my arm and said “You think other people are going to let you with this back in society? Maybe when the major’s there to watch out for you, but what about when he isn’t? Like now?”
I stared down at the brand, transfixed as usual by it. I kept it covered so much I really don’t think I’d accepted it was part of me. Swallowing hard, I said “I don’t know what I’ll do, Big T.”
“Big T is going to tell you what to do , boy. Because I like you. You’re a good boy, for a thief anyhows.” He took his hand off me and knelt down eye level. ‘You’re going to run away. Leave here. You can’t let him adopt you. Hear me? You’re one of us. I’ll get word out and you can find people like us back in the old neighborhood. Mebbe we can even find your sister.”
I looked at him, confused. Give up a chance to be the major’s son? I didn’t believe Big T knew where Turi was – but wouldn’t that give me a better chance to find her? What if he was right? What if I never fit in as an officer’s son?
I heard the major’s horse before Big T did. My eyes turned toward the road, and, as if we were in synch, I saw the major turn his horse toward me and Big T, whose large hulk hid me.
“Get away from that child!” boomed Major Feret’s voice as he rode up.
Big T stood up and stepped back, snarling.
“Are you alright, boy?” the major asked.
“Yes, sir, I’m fine. Big T didn’t hurt me.”
A few troopers ran up. “He was fine, sir, ” one said.
“ We wouldn’t let nobody hurt Sev. Especially knowing what he means to you,” another added.
“And what would that be?” Major Feret asked, his eyes surveying all of us.
Big T looked up at the major, then spat at the ground. “Seems to me that you’re mixing apples and oranges,” he said. Knowing he was going to get a lashing, he added sarcastically “Sir.”
“Whip this man!” Major Feret ordered and the nearest trooper grabbed Big T by his shirt and hauled him off toward the whipping post. The major jumped off his horse and approached me. “I told you not to tell anyone.”
“I didn’t, sir.” I said hoarsely.
“I see.” He looked around. “So who’s responsible for this?”
I looked over at the troopers and saw the sergeant on the rock, his face immobile. I wanted to rat on him, but hesitated. No one spoke. Not any of the convicts who were standing around watching, nor the troopers, said a word.
“Sergeant Tucker found out, sir,” said a new trooper, a man who’d just arrived. He was so new the buttons on his uniform still shone, something we rarely saw in our dust filled camp.
“Sergeant! Come here!” bellowed Major Feret. He looked at me. “Pick up your bowl and put it in the bin, Sev. Then come back here.”
“Yes, sir.” I picked up my bowl gingerly and walked as all eyes watched to the bin. I handed it to the convict who took it wordlessly now, then walked back to where the major and the sergeant stood eyeballing each other.
Sergeant Tucker was the second in command and had been ever since two of the captains had been reassigned to other camps due to skirmishes on the eastern side of the kingdom. This was a showdown unlike any other the camp had ever seen.
“So, sergeant,” Major Feret said after I’d arrived. “Would you please tell me how you found out about this?”
“Your correspondence, sir,” replied the sergeant. “On your desk- from your wife, sir.”
“You read my personal mail?”
“I see. Probably something almost anyone in this camp might do if he had the chance.” A few chuckles arose from the troopers, perhaps raising their hopes that the major would let this all go. “However, sergeant, as second in command, I’d think you’d have more common sense than to tell everyone what you read.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied miserably.
The major approached the sergeant. Rapidly he stripped off the stripes on the sergeant’s jacket. “You won’t face such dilemmas as just a trooper, will you, Tucker?”
Tucker clasped his hands to his arms, as if the gesture had pained him physically. He was ready for retirement, having served in the military for twenty years to earn those stripes. Devastated, he looked at the ground.
“Will you, Tucker?” asked the major.
“Good, then. Report to me in the morning for your new assignment. Make sure your uniform is properly fixed to show your demotion.” The major handed the stripes to me. “Son, place these in the campfire.”
I was startled at his command and also by his use of the word ‘son’. Reluctantly, I took the stripes and walked over to the campfire that was still burning brightly from the evening meal. Tossing the stripes in to the roars and cheers of the convicts, I returned to the major’s side.
Major Feret put his hands on his hips. “So who to replace you with?”
The troopers fidgeted. None of them had even a corporal’s rank among them. Most were fairly new recruits, farm boys, not officer material. A promotion like this from the ranks was rare and an opportunity they all cherished.
“Farmingworth,” the major said, picking a young red headed trooper out. “Come here.”
Farmingworth blushed and strode over to the major, saluting him. “Yes, sir?”
“Why don’t you try your hand out at the job? You know how to listen. You managed to get your arse over here.”
The troops and convicts laughed loudly at the joke and Farmingworth said “Thank you sir!”
The major turned to me. “As for you, Sev, I suppose your days of sleeping out in the air are over. Come with me, son.” He put his arm around my shoulders.
In the distance as we walked toward his tent, I could hear the lashes landing on Big T’s back. It was a sound that would haunt me the rest of my days, as much as his huge hulk hovering over me. Hadn’t Big T just spoken the truth? He just said what everyone else already knew, that convicts were on one side of the line and officers and troopers on the other. Crossing that line was unheard of in our world, the one created in camp.
I still bear the T on my upper arm all these years later, a brand that not only cost me a year of my life, but separated me forever from my sister. I never found her. And it’s separated me from the life I would have had without the stigma that came with it.
I still find it ironic that the very same T led me to a new life with the major and his wife. They didn’t adopt me in the end, but the major did give me a home and a good education – and love.
That seemed like a fair enough deal. Using the same thing for good that could also ruin your life. Life can be like that.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan