I am not allowed a knife, but the National Treasure’s son is. He has a red-handled Swiss Army one that incorporates a can opener, a bottle opener, two saw blades and a detachable pair of tweezers. He shows it to me in his back yard, levering the primary blade out of the handle with his thumbnail. ‘I killed a bird with it last week,’ he tells me. ‘Like this.’ He turns it in his hand so he’s holding it by the blade and flings it at the lawn. It bounces off the grass, handle first, and rolls into the mulch beneath a rose bush. He frowns and says, ‘It’s hard to do it right, but I did it. I hit it in the wing and it stuck it into the ground.’ He points at a spot farther down the lawn. ‘Right there. Then I stabbed it and killed it. Blood went everywhere.’
I don’t believe him. I want to, because I think that if I had a knife I could do amazing and outrageous things like that—although part of me knows I couldn’t stab a bird. I know he couldn’t do it either, and that he’s bragging about made-up exploits because I’m a year older than him. But just seeing the knife in his hand is enough to inflate my desperate want for one. Five or six years later, I will realise that the only thing I’ve experienced that can contend with my yearning for a knife is the smash of hormonal agony that pulsed through me when a girl I was infatuated with made it clear she had no interest in me. Nothing else compares.
For the last four years my father has consistently refused whenever I ask for one. He says, ‘No, you don’t need one.’ I write him lists of what I would use a knife for, which he reads, laughs at, congratulates me for making an effort, and ignores. When I ask again, he says, ‘No, you’ll cut yourself and your mother will kill me,’ so I go straight to her, and she says, ‘That’s your father’s decision.’ When I turn this back on him, he says, ‘You can have one when you’re old enough.’ He won’t tell me when this is. He just says, ‘Not yet.’
But the National Treasure’s son has one, and he is younger than me. I can’t believe it. The injustice I feel is the strongest emotional response I’ve ever had. When I get home I surge around the back yard for three hours, rehearsing what I’m going to say to my father. I’m going to show him. I’m going to show the wisps of his combover and the spikes of his moustache. When he gets home I pound up the stairs and let him have it, arms swinging, words flying, my face red and hot and screwed up. But he only wants to talk about the National Treasure. I fob off his questions; I don’t care about the National Treasure. I care about knives and dead birds and fairness. I shout at him and run off.
The National Treasure moves his family to Hobart, and my parents buy their house. We move in. The National Treasure’s son’s room becomes my room. His glow-in-the-dark Marvel Comics ceiling stickers are now mine. The countless tennis balls I find in the bushes around the yard are mine too. When my friends come over and ogle at the house of an Australian legend, his glory is partly mine by association. But I don’t get his knife.
It’s seven years before I next see the National Treasure’s son. When we meet again it’s on a football field. He is a champion player: state representative, plays above his age group, and potentially heading to the AFL, the guys on my team say, although there are rumours that he’s a bit of a thug. I’m not much of a player. If he recognises me when I line up on him in the third quarter, he doesn’t show any sign. I grab him by the back of his guernsey before he runs into the centre square—I am a tagger; this is my job—and he turns around and pushes me over. I can handle that, but it’s a bit of an overreaction. Ten minutes later, I tackle him as he collects the ball and we slide over the boundary line in front of a bunch of supporters, who are mostly just parents of the players. As we stand, he punches me in the jaw. It’s not all that hard, but it’s unnecessary, especially when the umpire is fewer than ten metres away. He is sent off, fuming and screaming. I rub my mouth. Later, my coach tells me I did a good job getting him fired up.
I never see the National Treasure’s son again, although two years later, at university, I read about him in the Mercury. He has been charged with assault for an incident during a football match. Fights happen in footy all the time, but to be charged by the police is almost unheard of. Usually that means someone has been deliberately put in hospital by someone else. Sometimes players are punched in the back of the head so hard that blood comes out their mouth. I don’t know what the National Treasure’s son did. The paper just says assault.
But as I read the report, I begin to believe his story about the bird.
• • •
It starts when I am seven, with a picture book called Medieval Weapons. I have been conditioned to think that all books are good, no matter what they’re about, because books make you smarter. Because I like reading, adults are endlessly congratulating me and muttering about how smart I must be and how my parents have done so well to help me catch the reading bug at such an early age. Nobody cares what’s in the books.
I find Medieval Weapons in the school library during a rainy recess when we’re not allowed outside. It’s one of those A4 Dorling Kindersley books made up of large pictures and text laid out in randomly placed paragraphs. The chapters are sectioned into different eras and cultures, with colour photos of swords, axes, spears, crossbows and other primitive killing devices. The writing is full of gory facts about ways people used to kill and torture one another. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen. I’ve figured out three different ways to steal it before I finish the section on Vikings.
Rain and hail pummel the asphalt netball court outside the window. One weapon in particular has snagged my attention as I flip through the pages. It looks like a knife blade attached to a large ring, big enough to hold on to, so it would’ve functioned like a stabby knuckle-duster. Only it’s not just one blade; further pictures show that it has three, layered on top of one another, and when you squeeze on the handle two of the blades are snapped sideways at 45-degree angles, turning the weapon into a triple-bladed punch dagger. As I stare I imagine myself wielding it, swinging my bladed fist around on a battlefield, slicing through faceless enemies, like Wolverine.
When I read the text attached to the images, I find out its purpose is even more gruesome. The idea is to trigger the extra blade function after you’ve stabbed your enemy in the stomach. The blades explode outwards inside the body and carve into the organs, turning a serious wound into a catastrophic one. Then you twist, churning the intestines and stomach together, and finally you yank the weapon out, scrambled guts attached, disembowelling your enemy in a matter of seconds. A queasy sense of horror slops around in my chest. My eyes swell and shake. I can’t take them off the page.
If I saw this on television my mum would turn it off and tell me to go outside, play Lego or, of course, read. But I don’t see it on television, I find it in a book, which means it is good. So here I am, being taught how to disembowel by Dorling Kindersley, discovering in a public school library the horrendous cruelty and violence that humans are capable of.
And even though I slide the book into my backpack after school when the librarian has gone home, even though I lie in bed imagining what I would do with a disembowelling knife in vivid detail, I know I wouldn’t really rip someone’s guts out, just as, a few years later, I know I wouldn’t stab a bird. I don’t want a weapon of war and torture. At seven years old, I am a realist.
But a normal knife—a nifty pocket knife, for example, something small and sharp that possesses the perfect amount of danger—is something else. I start wanting one of those more than I’ve ever wanted anything before.
• • •
Eventually I get one. It’s a Leatherman multi-tool that my parents give me for my fourteenth birthday. By now, I’m too old to get all that excited about it. I like it, sure, and I appreciate finally having one, but the wild thrill I used to associate with owning a functional knife has passed me by; my friend S just got three throwing knives.
His older brother bought them for him from Allgoods, a bushwalking supplies store in town. They come in a polished leather pouch with three neat sheaths and a buckle that clips over the top. He attaches it to his belt when his mum isn’t home and carefully removes the blades, one at a time, before hurling them at pretty much anything in his back yard. I have a go as well. We struggle to make them stick into our targets, although once or twice we make a knife plonk into the trunk of a banksia tree, quivering in the afternoon air in a way that is somehow deeply satisfying to watch.
After a few weeks the throwing knives are scratched and blunt. S has started pinging them straight at the fence in an attempt to improve his accuracy, and the hardwood palings have taken a toll on their once-sharp points. Nobody cares about them any more apart from S, and I’m pretty sure even his interest is waning—by now he has a Kendo stick, and seems intent on learning how to knock someone unconscious with it.
Later, I try throwing my Leatherman at Dad’s dartboard, but it hurtles awkwardly through the air and crashes into the wall. I pick it up to see if it’s damaged. My thumb slides down the blade, testing the keenness of the edge as it catches on the indentations of my thumbprint. Then I hear Mum shout ‘Dinner’ and my heels pulse my body upwards in slight shock. I grip the handle and, without thinking, snap the attachment shut, forgetting that I’ve wrapped my other thumb over the blade’s slot. The knife slips straight into my flesh and smacks into the bone. I gasp and pull it upwards, freeing my thumb. For the smallest measurable moment I stare into the gape of the wound—tuna-pink muscle and layers of translucent, jagged skin—before blood flows up and over, escaping to the garage floor. I run to the bathroom, clutching my hand, clenching my teeth, and wrap half a roll of toilet paper around the cut. Mum is saying, ‘Rob, dinner.’ The toilet paper becomes saturated, so I peel it off and reapply, over and over until the flow has mostly stopped. I get four of those big square bandaids from the cupboard and attach them to my thumb. By now Mum is knocking on the door, yelling: ‘Are you all right? What’s happened? Your brother will eat your chops.’ I throw the bloody paper down the toilet and pray my sister is on her period, so there will be an excuse if it doesn’t flush properly.
I walk to the dining table and sit down, trying to hide my thumb, but everyone sees it as I grab my fork. Mum squawks, ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’ I mumble something about jamming it in the garage door, but she’s having none of it. She says, ‘Let me have a look,’ and I tell her, ‘It’s fine, leave me alone, Jesus,’ and she says, ‘Robert, let me see that right now,’ and Dad says, ‘Don’t you talk to your mother like that,’ and my brother and sister kind of ignore everything until Mum has got the bandaids off my hand and is staring at the wound, her eyes fish-wide and wobbling, as Dad leans over and sees the clean straight cut and looks at me, the knowledge of what’s happened clear and present in his expression, and he raises his eyebrows and sucks his mouth sideways, half-smile, half-sour, and says nothing.
• • •
I give up on my knife obsession—my friend J has guns. He lives on a farm, so to him it is the most natural thing in the world. To me it is astonishing: a boy my age, who isn’t that different from me, with easy access to deadly firearms. The first time I see him shoot, he clips a sprinting rabbit that I’m tracking with a spotlight, snapping it into a frozen clump of soft fur and stringy flesh. His .22 doesn’t have a scope, so it’s even more impressive. When I turn the torch off we can’t see a thing. Night is darker in the country.
For the rest of the night we drive around shooting possums and wallabies and rabbits. Officially, we’re doing it to control wild animal numbers and supply meat for the farm dogs, but really we’re just doing it because we can. I’m not a very good shot. I can only hit things that aren’t moving. The bullets are small, more like pellets, and I’m shocked at how easily they can kill. I thought it would take a few hits, but a single shot collapses the animals instantaneously into death. We collect the carcasses, swinging the stiff warm flesh by the tails into the tray of J’s ute. There’s barely any blood; the puncture wounds are too small. I can’t understand how easily they die.
The only thing we don’t kill is a forest raven. It’s perched on the white branch of a eucalypt, studying the ute as we drive up, and I ask J if we can shoot birds. He shrugs and says, ‘I guess.’ I aim the .22 and brace my body for the noise—I’m trying to get used to the mini-explosion it makes, but it shocks me every time—and the bird drops from its branch. We drive over to pick it up, but it’s not there. A loud caw rises from some nearby bushes. We look around, but we can’t find it.
J also has a shotgun. He explains the difference between it and a rifle and asks if I want to have a go. I say, ‘Yeah, awesome’, and he hands it to me and pans the spotlight across the trees. He stops on a brushtail possum and says, ‘There you go.’ I stand up in the tray and raise the shotgun. It’s heavier than the .22, and it wobbles a bit in my hands. For a few seconds I pause, apprehensive and scared, although I’m not sure what I’m scared of. The possum doesn’t move.
When I squeeze the trigger the gun flies back into my shoulder, nearly knocking me onto the pile of dead marsupials behind me. The sound is horrendous; it makes the .22 sound like a Christmas cracker. My instinct tells me to drop the gun, but I hold on to it, just. For a few seconds I can’t hear anything. I’m shaking. J is laughing. I place the gun carefully onto the tray and force a smile. He’s still got the light on the possum, which is unharmed and not moving. He asks if I want another go and my head is shaking no before I’ve even thought about it.
The next day we drive around feeding the cows. When we stop to fill a water trough I hear a caw, then another, and another. It’s much louder than usual, and it sounds distressed, if a caw can sound like that. J hears it too and we look around the paddock until we see where it’s coming from. A forest raven is hopping across the grass, maybe 30 metres away from us, beating one wing while leaving the other immobile. J says, ‘Looks like your mate,’ and I realise it’s the bird I shot the night before. We wander closer and the raven sees us. It hops away madly. J follows it. So do I, although I have no idea what to do. The bird keeps trying to fly, but it can barely get off the ground. J looks at me and says: ‘It’s fucked. Gotta kill it. Humane.’ I nod and turn back to the ute to get the gun, but J keeps following the raven. As he gets closer its cries become louder. He circles it, slow small steps, herding it towards a tree. When it’s backed up against the trunk, it turns and spreads its good wing as wide as it will go, inflates its chest, raises its neck, points its beak, and releases its loudest caw yet. J studies it for a moment, scratches his arm and turns sideways.
He lifts his left leg and slams his boot into the raven. I see blood spurt up from between the inky feathers as he repeats the action, stomping with methodical force, and I think there must be a more merciful way of doing this. The National Treasure’s son flicks into my mind: I stabbed it and killed it. Blood went everywhere. J stops when the bird is quiet. We don’t talk about it.
For J’s eighteenth birthday, S and I and the rest of our friends all put in 20 bucks and buy him a proper hunting knife from Allgoods. It’s this huge Bowie thing that looks like something Steven Seagal would kill a terrorist with. It costs about $200. J rolls it over in his hand and says thanks. We ask if he likes it and he says, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty fucken cool.’
• • •
Then a guy I know is stabbed in the stomach with a one-armed scissor at a party. I don’t know him well, and he is quickly released from hospital without any lasting damage, but still, he’s been stabbed. When I hear about it my mind immediately flicks to the length of the blade, how far it would penetrate, the internal damage—imagine if it had been triple-bladed! The reality of the stabbing makes me feel sick and a little fearful. I make a conscious effort to avoid anything sharp or dangerous for a while. I tell myself it’s a mature, sensible thing to do. I am moving on from weapons.
And it nearly works. I think I’ve gotten over my obsession until my friend W gets a samurai sword on a school trip to Japan, from a store in Tokyo that specialises in selling unsharpened samurai replica equipment to white kids on holiday. He knew, and he didn’t care. I don’t care either. I think it’s awesome.
As he plays Guitar Hero, I take it off the plastic hooks on his bedroom wall, where it is displayed. I pull it from its ornamental scabbard and watch the light bounce off the polished metal, feeling the weight in my hand, knowing that I’m 17 years old and shouldn’t be so impressed by a tourist sword, but not really caring that I am. W glances up from ‘Paint It Black’ and says: ‘It’s blunt, obviously, but there are places you can take it where they sharpen it for you. Like, blacksmiths and stuff.’ I thought blacksmiths only existed in the Middle Ages and fantasy novels, but I nod and say, ‘Wicked.’
It’s the day of W’s eighteenth birthday party. I have arrived first, so we’re tooling around on his Xbox, waiting for everyone else to arrive and drink Tooheys Extra Dry and Vodka Cruisers with us. For his present we all pitch in, like we did with J, although instead of pooling money to buy him a knife or a bottle of whisky we come up with something more original: we steal him a street sign. It’s from White Street. W’s last name is White. We think this is brilliant.
I give W the sign, which I’ve wrapped in Christmas paper, and when he opens it he laughs and says, ‘This is so frickin cool.’ He shows his mum, who frowns a bit, then his dad, who smiles and says, ‘I hope you didn’t get caught.’
A year later W drinks too much and dies. He’s diabetic, and is usually fastidious in checking his blood levels—at school he was famous for his routine of sticking a needle into his stomach, every recess, no matter who was around—but one night he accidentally locks his bedroom door at college and passes out after getting home from the pub. He’s still alive when he is found and taken to the hospital, but he dies there, not long after his family arrives. It happens in Adelaide, where W had moved for university. His organs are instantly donated to people who need them, as per his wishes. They fly the body home for the funeral.
W’s father asks me to deliver a eulogy. I am shocked, because although W and I were friends, there were others he was closer to. But they don’t like public speaking, or just don’t feel up to it, so I say: ‘Of course. I’ll do anything.’ I drive up the goat-track Midland Highway from Hobart, where I’m studying, back to Launceston.
Eight of us are acting as pallbearers. We meet in the car park outside the chapel and the funeral director takes us through the procedure. We nod and mumble and make big promises to ourselves not to fuck this up. There are hundreds of people at the funeral. Our old high school sends busloads of students who’d known W, including an entire soccer team that he’d coached the previous season. My brother does not come. He’s in year nine, and knows I’m delivering the eulogy, but he stays in class.
My father doesn’t come either. He’s at work. He also knows I’ll be speaking but this doesn’t make him turn up. But my mum does. She and the other mothers clutch our arms and shoulders as we file into the chapel, taking our seats in the row designated for pallbearers. The officiating minister does a bit of Jesus-y stuff, which we all ignore, and then starts speaking about W—celebration of life, remarkable young man, tragedy, tragedy. We know and everyone knows and it’s all so obvious because the casket is lying behind him, and we’re all staring at the box W’s body’s in, breathing and crying and stabbing our fingernails into our palms.
W’s little sister rises to say something, supported by a friend, but can’t go through with it. She sits back down, struggling to breathe. For the first time in my life I think I might have a soul, because seeing W’s little sister like this makes a part of me flinch in pain and I can’t explain it as anything other than soulburn. W’s father stands and gets a little bit further through his speech than his daughter did, although not much. As he talks, I am bashed by memories of him sitting silently in the stands of a basketball stadium, hunched forward and riddled with focus as he watched our team play, every week of every season, clenching his fists and half-rising from the bench each time W loped into a layup or was knocked to the floorboards. He stops mid-sentence, clasps a hand over his mouth, lets out a long, microphone-enhanced exhale, then says sorry and sits down next to W’s mother, who is bent in two and shaking.
The minister announces my name. Time thrums around my ears like a flicked rubber band. My friends look at me. My mother reaches over the pew and squeezes my shoulder. And I stand up, walk past a row of crowded knees, face a few hundred people, and deliver a eulogy. It’s not the best speech I’ve ever made, but it’s okay, I guess. I tell a story about shaving W’s head one time when he was sleeping, which gets a few laughs and breaks up the moroseness for a minute or two. This makes me feel guilty, like I’m dodging the issue at hand. I do not falter through the speech, not once, which seems like an emotional deficiency rather than strength.
As I finish I scan the faces in the crowd, recognising most people, and feel a bit shocked at what they look like with tears spread across their faces. Again I feel the burn pulse through me. As I return to my seat it occurs to me that I’ll never forgive my father and brother for not being there. It’s a detached thought—all my thoughts are detached at this stage—so it doesn’t make me feel angry or sad or betrayed. It just feels heavy, because I instantly know how true it is, and that it’s something I will have to drag around with me for the rest of my life. I won’t be able to forgive them.
The minister gives the blessing and motions for us to come forward. We take our places next to the casket and lift, hefting it onto our shoulders, and carry it outside to the waiting hearse. It takes us a few goes to align the coffin with the special runners in the back of the car; we feel like war criminals for not getting it right. When it finally catches, we slide it in and start walking alongside the hearse, which begins the 400-metre slow drive to the plot in the cemetery. The rest of the crowd starts to shuffle after us.
There isn’t much to say about the walk. It’s been raining; the leather of my shoes starts to dampen and crease. The hearse’s engine is almost noiseless, and the gravel crackles like fire under our feet. I suck cold air and stare straight ahead. The metres are stretched out like a taut ribbon of elastic.
When we arrive at the hole we open the boot and retrieve the casket, under instructions from the funeral director, and slide four long white straps through the brass handles. These straps are soft, pliable and printer-paper white. They’re too beautiful to carry a dead body. They should have been used to hold back curtains in a five-star hotel, or as ornate ribbons on the first car a millionaire buys for his daughter or son or second wife. In my hand their softness is almost silken, and in my mind I see myself hacking them to pieces with a medieval weapon and then setting the remains on fire with a Second World War–era flamethrower.
But we have a duty to perform, so I focus and tightly grip on to the fabric. We carry the box over to the plot, allowing it to hover in the air for a moment, before we start letting the rope slide slowly through our hands. The box descends, tilting slightly until we correct it, and comes to rest on the dirt. W’s mother says, ‘My boy, my boy, my boy.’ W’s father props her against his shoulder, his face moist, his body shaking.
The minister says a few final things that I don’t listen to. W’s parents and sister each throw a rose into the grave. There is a large pile of dirt, which people start gently tossing on top of the flowers. I do it too. The sky is a hard blue smear above us. And as my soil falls through the frigid Launceston air I have an involuntary thought, one I hate myself for having because it’s not appropriate or normal or decent, but I can’t control it. I look at W’s coffin and think, what’s going to happen to his sword?
• • •
I have lots of knives now. In the toolbox my father gave me when I moved into a share house there’s a Stanley knife, which I use to cut paper designs and Balsa wood. One Christmas my mother gave me a Wüsthof kitchen knife that’s so sharp I can slice tomatoes by dropping them onto the blade like an infomercial chef. I have a filleting knife for salmon, a carving knife for roasts, and an all-purpose nautical knife in my tackle box for killing fish. My Leatherman sits on my desk. I use it to open beer and dig at ingrown toenails.
I try not to think about old obsessions and past behaviour, but I can’t escape them any more than I can hide from thumb scars and bleeding birds. For example: I am running through Princes Park as a small shadow flashes over my field of vision. I hear a flutter as something soft and frantic starts flapping at the back of my head. Before I can react I feel something stab me in the skull, sharp and cold, and I stop running and grab my head with a gasp of shock and pain. My hands come away with nothing. I come to a complete stop and swing my eyes around, searching, confused, wounded.
A woman sitting on a bench a few metres away is shaking her head and pointing at the sky. I follow her finger and see a magpie circling above me. It lands on a branch, skewering me with a one-eyed stare, a splash of red on its beak. I reach for my head again; it’s painful to touch. When I retrieve my fingers they’re smeared with a tiny streak of blood. Sweat mingles with the wound, stinging and burning.
The woman says, ‘You’re the fourth person he’s swooped at today. He had a go at me as well. Someone should do something about them. They’re too dangerous.’ I nod at her, but don’t say anything. The bird shifts on its branch, jumping sideways, keeping its eye on me. I rock forwards, ready to run again, and as I do the magpie leaps into flight, careening towards me. I duck, grabbing at my pocket even though I know I didn’t bring anything with me, searching for something to defend myself with. I see a small fallen branch lying on the grass and make a lunge for it. As my fingers roll around the wood I hear the flapping again, so close to my ears, and although I start to raise the stick, I am too late; pain again snaps through me as the magpie’s beak thrusts into the thin flesh that covers my skull, slicing the skin and sweat, probing through my soft defences as I begin to flail, swinging without aim. I hit nothing.
This essay was the winner of the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, and its development was greatly aided by Julia Carlomagno.
Robbie Arnott is a Tasmanian writer. His first novel, Flames, was released in 2018. His second, The Rain Heron, will be out in 2020 with Text Publishing.