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I used to think if I swung high enough, fast enough
swing set chains would break free and lift me.
I could see the flat, hard playground drop below me in a molten square,
the laughter of childeren on seasaws, far below.

Up here with seagulls, and wind that bends and rolls, I look down
at boys hanging from the rocket ship,
like primordial hunters missing only their spears,
with their poking and prodding, barring the door
with their bodies and fists. “EEEW retard!”
and “C’mon, here’s the door, retard!”

Then I’m running again, always running across that same field
with its rusted fence with the spokes torn back,
separating my street from the school.
I always know, even with the pack of them,
nipping at me with their rabid catcalls,
if I could just reach that fence with its gaping hole,
they would stop, arms gangling uselessly,
then turn back,
as if that fence had some secret force field
or ray of death only I was immune to.

But more often, I stumble and fall
and they are upon me with their shoves and punches
or throwing stones, or sticks or balls
that land, as always, yards away.
This is my penance, I knew, even then,
for throwing rocks over my fence
into the next-door neighbor’s pool.

An ancient softball lands at my feet, splitting at its skin and seams,
and later, when I turn it in my hands,
I wonder at the assailant who hurled it,
adjusting his aim to just miss me.
What did it cost him, this pretend hatred, his secret shame?

But even now, I am that child, that moth, pale and unlovely,
squirming within a prison of fear.
When the blows land, always in my stomach,
snuffing out breath and air–
I tell myself they will not hurt me, not really–
these bruises that bloom under my shirt,
tender to the touch, and sifting colors like puddles
under the press of my fingers before they fade,
never leaving marks anyone could see.

I would like to soar above their heads
but I cannot fly high enough or fast enough
to escape the playground where faces crowd around me,
and the bars of the rocket ship press into my back and thighs.

I could crouch,
evade the clawing hands,
and let the cement scrape my palms as I back out the iron door.
Or I could face them,
fists swinging in a satisfying rhythm,
catching first this boy, then that one, watching them fall back,
bars releasing their arms and legs like so many dismembered dolls.

But I do none of those things:
I am rooted firmly on the ground
alone in that field of yellowed grasses
with the rocket ship rusted and condemned:
playgrounds are much safer now—
so they tell me
and the shadow of a seagull’s wing
passes high above me.

Robin Dawn Hudechek

Previously published in Cadence Collective: Year One Anthology