One day, in the middle of another Saturday morning I began whittling away at a piece of soft wood that some bygone flood of the river had deposited in the branches of a white gum tree. We called it smoke wood because we cut twigs of it into cigarettes, sucking through its porous fibre, choking back coughs and turning gray.
We were fifteen years old. Camping on the banks of our river was part of our small-town tradition. We carried knives, made bows, built fires and stole fruit from the plantations. At night we lay in our sleeping bags telling naïve stories of our future and giving timid intimations of love’s first rustlings.
This day Bandy and I were camping out over night.
The smoke wood that I was whittling was bent in the middle so I cut it in half and began creating equally spaced rings around its girth. Then, between each ring I carved a series of patterns: a Maltese Cross, checks, stripes, circles and stars. Then I shaved one end into a point like an arrowhead.
I didn’t even notice Ricky walk into the campsite. Two years younger than us, he’d grown up close to Bandy and me but high school saw us drift apart. He stayed on the edges of our lives though, like an unwanted memory of the children we had been.
Ricky threw some leaves on the fire, which sent pale smoke slowly into the breathless summer air. Bandy was in the branches of a tree carving FUCK into its thick trunk for posterity.
“Whatcha doing?” asked Ricky.
“Nothing. Just mucking around with my knife,” I answered.
“That the same one you got for Christmas last year?” I was surprised that he remembered. It was a reminder that we had once been close. We held each other’s secrets.
“Yeah,” I said. I looked at him and noticed he was growing up. His voice had broken too.He pointed to the discarded, bent smoke wood. “You don’t still smoke that shit, do ya?”
“Nah,” I said, lying.
“I can get real smokes from my sister’s boyfriend these days,” Ricky went on. “Lets me have as many as I like.” I felt a strange rush of resentment flood through my body. “Who gives a fuck?” I answered sticking the carved wood into the ground next to me.
“Not you, that’s for sure.” His remark struck home and it was so quick and pointed that it took me by surprise. The last sex I’d had was with him; the last he’d had was with some girl at a drunken party when he was still just twelve.
We sat in silence now, the smoke hovering around us. “What’s that?” Ricky asked, looking at my carving. I stared into the fire.
“Nothing. Just some shit I was doing.”
He was silent again and I could feel him looking at the whittling that I had spent over an hour carefully producing. “It’s pretty good,” he said.
“It’s nothing.” I said.
“You gonna keep it?”
“No. I told you, it’s nothing.”
“Then I’ll chuck it in the fire,” he said and out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand dart towards the carving. Instinctively, I did the same and pulled it sharply, desperately from his grip. He smirked. “So you do like it, eh? So you are proud of it then.”
I felt my face redden. I looked at him but words wouldn’t come.
Ricky stood up. “See ya, Bandy,” he called up into the tree. Bandy grunted.
I watched Ricky climb up the bank of tall grass and disappear. I started whittling again but somehow shame welled up in my throat like vomit.
As I said, this was all years ago. Yesterday I bumped into Ricky for the first time since we were boys. We shook hands, the same hands that had once clutched a piece of carved wood in a smoky haze of mutual defiance and anger at the receding face of love.