I suppose I shouldn’t have expected to find the old trails. We had our work cut out for us even then, when we were diligent about it. Proving up that territory took time, grit, and a hulking, battle-scarred maul with a wicked hook at the end, perfect for tearing the guts out of stickerbushes and orcs alike. I never Christened that instrument of destruction, at least not well enough to remember now, but I can still feel its nubs and cracks and splinters beneath my palms. That beast of a stick refused to yield a comfortable grip, and I refused to want one.
Somehow I re-discovered the maul every spring when it got warm and dry enough to venture to the othersideofthefence. Ben and I would tear through half a dozen rotten sticks in the first few days—soggy explosions of bark and moss and bugs that did nothing to beat back the hordes of plants that had invaded our forts. We’d lose skirmishes again and again until I found the maul half-buried under last year’s leaves, abandoned in a mess of once-conquered, now-thriving stickerbushes. I’d unearth its sun-bleached hilt, raise the muddy hook high, and like Aragorn and Andúril, or Luke and his lightsaber, or Link and the Master Sword, we’d change the tide.
Ben took the opposite approach and used whippers. He’d pinch a cedar bough just below the thick place where it met a larger branch, and he’d bend the bough until the bark split and the red-white core looked as tight as a rubber band. Cedar boughs are almost a sort of pre-wood, springy and flexible, more plant-y than tree-y, but a good one would split down the middle, and Ben would twist it around and around as the fibers spread and snapped one by one until the whole thing dangled like a broken arm. Then thirty-pound Ben would tug on the bough until the last fibers snapped, strip away the offshoots, and go to war.
Whippers cut through ferns like butter, while the maul, for all its heft and intimidation, could only bludgeon ferns to the ground and watch them rise right back up like a flock of demonic phoenix. Nettles crumpled under any stick, same as the swampy alien plants by the pond. But the real enemies were stickerbushes. The green ones broke easily enough if you had a decent weapon, and their thorns were too soft to plunge deep if one snagged you. Not so the old ones. The old stickerbushes had hardened into skeleton armies with thorns as tough and piercing as blasterfire. The old stickerbushes ruled the deepest parts of the othersideofthefence, so naturally, we carved our base out of the heart of their lair. I can still hear that the maul crashing into them. Sometimes they were stormtroopers. Sometimes Moria goblins. They moonlighted as battle droids after Episode I came out, and every now and then they were just stickerbushes. Deadly, evil stickerbushes.
I wore shorts exclusively for most of elementary school, dang the torpedoes, and my shins showed the cost of my conquest. Red lines ran knee to ankle, peppered here and there with tiny globes of blood. I sported bruises, too, these ones inflicted by Ben and Calvin and other friends. We kept an arsenal of swords, shields, staves, and axes in my closet, weapons I had forged from PVC pipe, foam insulation, and duct tape. One hit to the torso killed you dead. Three hits to the same limb chopped it off. Head shots were off-limits by parental decree, but if they happened on accident you better recover quick before Calvin jabbed you in the belly with a two-handed sword.
No weapon inspired more fear than the ball and chain: a bag of rocks wrapped in an old bathrobe, stuffed into a beanie, and tied to an old jumprope. You could swing that rock bag with enough force that your opponent cared more about not getting hit than about winning or losing the match. That, and the time I miscalculated and overshot Ben’s chest in such a way that the ball and chain wrapped once around his neck, cinched itself tight, and smashed into his face. I panicked and pulled back, which jerked Ben straight to the ground like a horizontal hanging.
Mom and Dad never found out and Ben survived, and our fingers survived, too. After the first few swollen knuckles, I duct taped bits of padding onto ten pairs of cotton gloves I bought from the dollar store. Every Friday our friends would glove up, pick weapons and teams, and one side would get thirty seconds to run through the trails and take up defensive positions around the base. We’d fight among the ferns and stickerbushes until the battle spilled out to the yard and driveway and creek gully. The best areas were atop the rounds of wood waiting to be split, where we’d hop between platforms like Jedi; or on the curved cedar trees with exposed roots you could run along like Legolas; or in the passage between the fence and the compost pile, where a team’s single surviving warrior could force enemies to approach one at a time, at least until someone ran around to the other end of the passage, which left the stalwart defender no choice but to jump the fence and scramble into the creek gully, where footing was precarious and fighting wasn’t much fun.
The older we got the harder we hit, and the PVC cores cracked and broke and were fixed with duct tape and cracked and broke again. We lost the axe first, and then the longsword. The daggers and Darth Maul lightsaber survived longest, mostly because no one wanted to use them. But by that time we had discovered airsoft guns, and we started our evolution from flimsy plastic pistols to sporting-good store semi-automatics to metal sniper rifles to fully automatic $200 weapons from eBay that left welts and chipped windows.
I wandered through the other side of the fence a few weeks ago, pushing aside plants and ducking under branches. The trails had vanished. The stickerbushes won. As for the maul, I fear it’s joined the likes of Excalibur and Narsil. I could only find a small clearing that marked the heart of our old base, surrounded now by brush and memory. A last, lingering trace of our gleeful and serious violence.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.