THERE WAS a summer back when they were kids, when Arthur Dunn was thirteen or fourteen and his brother Jake was eight or nine, when for weeks on end Jake pestered Arthur to play the game he called knives. Jake had a great collection of knives at the time, everything from fancy little Swiss Army jack-knives with dozens of attachments to a big sleek hunting knife with a runnel down one side for blood. It was the hunting knife that was to be used in the game because according to Jake it was the best for throwing.
‘Just once, OK?’ Jake would say, dancing about barefoot in the dust of the farmyard, tossing the knife from hand to hand like a juggler, leaping back quickly if it decided to fall blade first. ‘Come on, just once. It’ll only take a minute.’
‘I’m busy,’ Arthur would say, and carry on with whatever task his father had set him to. It was the summer holidays and the list of tasks was unending, but it was better than going to school.
‘Come on,’ Jake would say. ‘Come on. You’ll love it! It’s a really good game. Come on!’
‘I gotta fix this hinge.’
Jake had explained the rules of the knife game to him and it was crazy. You stood at attention facing each other, about six feet apart, and took turns throwing the knife into the ground as close as possible to your opponent’s naked foot. You had to be barefoot, Jake explained, or there would be no point to the game. Wherever the knife landed, your opponent had to move his foot alongside it. The idea was to make him do the splits bit by bit, as slowly as possible. The more throws the better. The smaller the distance between the still vibrating steel and the outer edge of your brother’s foot, the better. Nuts.
But in the end, as they had both known he would, Jake wore Arthur down. That was Jake’s speciality – wearing people down.
It was a warm evening in July, the end of a long hot day out in the fields, and Arthur was sitting on the back step doing nothing, which was always a mistake. Jake appeared around the corner of the house and saw him, and his eyes started to shine. Jake had dark blue eyes in a pale triangular face and hair the colour of wheat. In build he was slight and reedy (‘frail’ was the word their mother used) and already good-looking, though not as good-looking as he would be later. Arthur, five years older, was big and slow and heavy, with sloping shoulders and a neck like an ox.
Jake had the knife on him, of course. He always did; he carried it around in its own special sheath with its own special belt-loop, so as to be ready for anything. He started badgering Arthur right away and eventually Arthur gave in just to get it over with.
‘Once, OK?’ Arthur said. ‘Once. I play it once, now, and you never ask me again. Promise.’
‘OK OK I promise! Let’s go.’
And so it was that on that warm July evening when he was thirteen or fourteen years old – at any rate plenty old enough to know better – Arthur found himself standing behind the line his little brother had drawn in the dust, waiting to have a knife thrown at his bare and vulnerable feet. The dust felt hot, warmer than the air, and soft as talcum powder. It puffed up between his toes every time he took a step and turned them a pale and ghostly grey. Arthur’s feet were broad and meaty with red raw patches from his heavy farm boots. Jake’s feet were long and thin, delicate and blue-veined. Jake didn’t wear farm boots much. He was considered by their mother to be too young for farm labour, although Arthur hadn’t been too young at the same age.
Jake had first throw, by virtue of it being his game and his knife. ‘Stand at attention,’ he said. His eyes were fixed on Arthur’s left foot and he spoke in a hushed voice. He had a great feeling for the drama of the moment, had Jake. ‘Keep your feet together. Don’t move them, no matter what.’
He took the knife by the blade and began swinging it loosely between finger and thumb. His forefinger rested easily in the blood runnel. He seemed scarcely to be holding the knife at all. Arthur watched the blade. In spite of himself, he felt his left foot curl inwards.
‘Keep it still,’ Jake said. ‘I’m warning you.’
Arthur forced his foot to lie flat. The thought came into his mind – not drifting gently in but appearing suddenly, fully formed, like a cold hard round little pebble – that Jake hated him. The thought had never occurred to him before but suddenly, there it was. Though he couldn’t imagine a reason. Surely he was the one who should have done the hating.
The knife swung for a minute more, and then, in one swift graceful movement, Jake lifted his arm and threw, and the blade circled, drawing swift shining arcs in the air, and then buried itself deeply in the ground a couple of inches from the outside edge of Arthur’s foot. A beautiful throw.
Jake’s eyes left the ground and he grinned at Arthur. ‘That’s one,’ he said. ‘Your turn. Move your foot out to the knife.’
Arthur moved his foot outwards to the edge of the knife and drew the blade from the ground. The skin on the top of his left foot was stinging, though nothing had touched it. He straightened up. Jake stood facing him, still grinning, arms at his sides, feet together. Eyes bright. Excited, but without fear. Without fear because – and Arthur saw this suddenly too – Jake knew that Arthur would never risk throwing really close.
Arthur imagined his mother’s face if he were to prove Jake wrong and slice off his toe. He imagined what his father would do to him if he were even to catch him playing this stupid game. He couldn’t think how he’d allowed Jake to persuade him. He must have been mad.
‘Come on,’ Jake said. ‘Come on come on come on! Close as you can!’
Arthur held the knife by the blade, as Jake had done, but it was hard to relax his fingers enough to let it swing. He’d thrown a knife before and he wasn’t too bad a shot – in fact a few years back he and his friend Carl Luntz from the next farm had painted a target on the wall of the Luntzes’ hay barn and held competitions, which Arthur usually won – but the outcome had never mattered. Now, the chance that he would hit that narrow blue-veined foot seemed overwhelmingly high. And then, all at once, he saw the answer – so obvious that only someone as dim-witted as he must surely be wouldn’t have seen it earlier. Throw wide. Not so wide that Jake would guess that he was doing it deliberately, but wide enough to bring the game to a safe and rapid close. Make Jake do the splits in three or four steps. Jake would jeer but he was going to jeer anyway, and the game would be over, and Jake would have to leave him alone.
Arthur felt his muscles start to relax. The knife swung more easily. He took a deep breath and threw.
The knife circled clumsily once in the air and then landed on its side eighteen inches or so from Jake’s foot.
Jake said, ‘That’s pathetic. Take it again. It’s gotta stick in the ground or it doesn’t count.’
Arthur picked up the knife, swung again, and threw, more confident now, and this time the knife embedded itself in the ground ten inches from Jake’s little toe.
Jake made a sound of disgust. He moved his foot out to the blade and picked it up. He looked disappointed and pitying, which was fine by Arthur.
‘OK,’ Jake said. ‘My turn.’
He took the knife by the blade and swung it back and forth, looking briefly at Arthur, and when their eyes met there was a slight pause – just a fraction of a second – during which the knife hesitated in its lazy swing and then picked up its rhythm again. Thinking back on it afterwards, Arthur was never able to decide whether there was any significance in that pause – whether in that instant of eye contact Jake had seen into his mind and guessed what he intended to do.
At the time he didn’t think anything, because there was no time to think. Jake lifted the knife with the same swift movement as before and threw it, but harder than before, and faster, so that it was only a shining blur as it spun through the air. Arthur found himself staring down at the knife embedded in his foot. There was a surreal split second before the blood started to well up and then up it came, dark and thick as syrup.
Arthur looked at Jake and saw that he was staring at the knife. His expression was one of surprise, and this was something that Arthur wondered about later too. Was Jake surprised because he had never considered the possibility that he might be a less than perfect shot? Did he have that much confidence in himself, that little self-doubt?
Or was he merely surprised at how easy it was to give in to an impulse, and carry through the thought that lay in your mind? Simply to do whatever you wanted to do, and damn the consequences.