Narrative

John Burnside

Was it Leon, your cousin, or
Leon, the tow-headed boy
with the scar like a crescent moon
beneath his ear
you dated for almost a year
in that backwater town
where you lived
when you lived
with your father?
Or was it someone else rigged up the boat
to drag a skier through the sweet
brown river, kids taking turns
to stand tall in the wake and feel
the cool of it, the unaccustomed thrill
of seeing themselves from the outside,
almost grown
and elegant, like people who had luck
and money?
All afternoon
they hurtled back and forth
at breakneck speed
till this boyfriend or cousin went down
in a tangle of weed and, laughing,
called out to the rest
to go fetch help, he’d crashed into a mess
of razorwire that someone must
have dumped there – not
unusual for that place, you said,
you’d see the strangers
driving away all the time in battered
pick ups, headlights
dusting the track
with gold, in the swim
of summer.
How long before he knew
you couldn’t say,
but gradually it dawned on him that this
was snakes, not wire,
and surely you remember to this day
how, when they dragged him out, he was a mass
of bites, and a dozen or more
of the smaller ones
still hanging on.
How soon, you’d asked,
before he’d understood?
How soon
before he died?
We didn’t last that long,
but I always believed what you’d said
was true, not knowing why
it haunted me for years, until I met
a US signalman on five-day
leave, a grown-up child
called Jason, as I recall, who, over rum
and endless quantities of Speckled Hen
told the exact same
story.
I didn’t say a word, of course
– not even at the last
when he turned around
and asked, in the same lost voice –
I wonder how long it was
before he guessed?
His name was Jay,
that boy,
not Leon,
and far too young
for dating, twelve, I think,
or possibly thirteen
– I can’t quite recall
the details, this far on:
it was right at the end of the night
and I was tired.
Maybe the teller was Jay, and Jason
the boy who died,
I couldn’t be certain.
The stories have run together
over the years
like ink in the rain
and I’m mostly snippets, now;
nothing’s entire;
though one thing I do recall – and this
is crystal clear –
is right beneath his ear,
he had a scar.