April 2017 Tarvik and the Trebuchet

 Back home in Seattle -


 Basically, Tarvik is a sweetie, and most the time I stomp on my principles and tell myself he is who he is and deal with it, Claire. Okay, here’s the conflict.

 My live-in boyfriend was raised in Outer Unreal to be a warrior, the sword-swinging kind. Don’t even get me started on explaining his homeland because it defies explanation except to say that it is an invisible world plunked down in the middle of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and once upon a time I stumbled into it by accident, kind of like Dorothy falling into Oz. Except I think Oz was a fun place. Tarvik’s world is not. People amuse themselves by conquering and slaying each other and when they are done fighting, they don’t even have hot running water to go home to. They live in drafty, unheated stone castles lit only by gloomy torchlight, so I guess it is understandable that they don’t understand concepts like pacifism.

 However, Tarvik followed me back to my home in Seattle, where I am a parttime tutor at the neighborhood Center, and my students are high school dropouts in the thirteen to sixteen year age range. Boys. Six of them, and all in search of a father figure because the fathers in their homes, when and if there are any, are stepfathers. The fact the kids are dropouts probably tells you a bit about their home life and why they so desperately need male role models.

 My guy is a great role model most the time. He works at the Center as the lunch hour cook and the rest of the day he does maintenance, mostly painting walls and that sort of thing. Sometimes he takes my dropouts to the field behind the building and plays games with them.

 The only rules he imposes is that they all have fun. He is cheerful and athletic and strong and confident, full of all those qualities the kids admire, plus he is very friendly and willing to help them with any problem and to answer any questions, so you can see, he’s a great role model.

 Except for one little catch. He considers fighting a sport. Oh, I don’t mean he encourages the kids to hit each other. No. He’s into the sort of sports people do at Medieval Fairs, jousting, knife tossing at targets, that stuff. Last week he and the boys put together light-weight wooden swords and Tarvik began teaching them how to wield a broadsword, a skill that requires two hands, a firm stance, and a certain amount of fury.

 The first time I saw him at it, he had the kids in a circle swinging away at each other, clunking blades together. Wood blades clunking isn’t as upsetting as metal blades clanging, I’ll grant that, but still.

 When we walked home that night after work, our arms around each other’s waists, I said, “Tarvik, you really shouldn’t encourage the boys to fight.”

 Right now I should mention that yes, I am a pacifist. I am also a vegetarian. However, I don’t try to impose that second choice on anyone else. But a hope for world peace? Come on, it has to be imposed. It is way too important not to be imposed, which is why every beauty queen states it as her first wish. Even if she has never given it a moment’s thought or even knows what the phrase means, she knows it is a popular choice. Nobody in an audience will ever leap up and shout, “No! World war is what we want!”

 So anyway, I do know what it means and I don’t preach it, but I at least try to influence my students and the people in my household. As Tarvik is my live-in, I try to nudge him in the right direction.

 “It’s only a game, my Claire,” he said.

 “What’s wrong with soccer? Or football? Isn’t summer the time for baseball?”

 “All those games require teams. We never have more than six, and a lot of times only two or three show up. So I try to think of sports they can do in pairs. One of them suggested boxing. Would that be better?”

 I rolled my eyes at him. “Oh sure. Let’s break noses and knock out teeth.”

 “Perhaps it is a good thing I don’t know how to box and so I can’t teach them that.”

 His hand-to-hand combat skills consist mostly of fancy footwork, amazing speed and considerable strength. Have I mentioned that my boyfriend is a hunk? He’s a short hunk, about five and a half feet tall, same height as me, but right after that the comparison ends. I am a skinny weakling with long dark hair. He is solid muscle in a super package, blond, blue-eyed, and way too good-looking, with an elegant nose and a sassy grin.

 “Tarvy, there must be something besides fighting that you can teach the boys.”

 “They aren’t fighting.” He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and faced me. “They are playing.”

 “With swords.”

 He slid his arms around me and did his kissy thing, covering my face with quick kisses, which is all very fun but not when I am trying to make a point.

 I pushed him away and marched off toward home. He came right after me, got in front of me, turned to face me and then skipped backwards. If I tried to do that, I would stumble and end up sprawled on the ground. Not Tarvik. He can do that backwards thing all the way home, and that’s okay if I am not already annoyed, but man, when I am thinking he is in the wrong, the skip thing and the big grin drive me crazy.

 “How is it educational to hit each other with swords?” I demanded.

 “First, they had to make their swords. We used the shop tools in the basement. They designed their own hilts and carved them out and sanded them and learned a lot about handling wood and that is educational, isn’t it? And now we are into proper grip and control, which is not easy. As for hitting each other, that’s not allowed. They can only strike each other’s blades. If there isn’t a blade blocking their strike, they pull back. None of those are easy skills.”

 “Oh please. Next you’ll tell me you’re teaching them cake baking but nobody gets to taste.”

 “Next I will change the subject because I know when I am losing,” he said, and dropped back at my side and caught my hand. Have I mentioned that my boyfriend is a hand-holder? That’s another one of his really nice qualities. “So what would you like for supper?”

 He has a list of nice qualities, including the amazing fact he loves to cook and makes supper for me every night. For me and his darling teenage cousin Nance, who lives with us, and for Jimmy, my scudzy cousin who, thank the stars, does not. But Jimmy does show up regularly for supper and if you ever dropped by Jimmy’s house you’d know why. Nothing in the fridge but beer. Nothing in the kitchen but stacks of old pizza boxes. Jimmy’s idea of breakfast is a beer and a cigarette.

 As always, Jimmy turned up at suppertime. I shouldn’t say this but truth is, my cousin reminds me of a ferret, all pointy nose and sneaky eyes. Like me he is skinny and has dark hair, but right after that, we have zip in common. I hope.

 And also as always, he cornered me and muttered, “Hey, cuz, can you lend me fifty? I’m flat broke.”

 Lend means repay and he never does, but I gave him a twenty. He’s family, my only living blood relative in Seattle, so what are my choices?     

 The next afternoon, right in the middle of one of my brilliant explanations of fractions, complete with examples chalked on the blackboard, one of the kids said, “Teach, we’re going over to your house after class.”

 I stopped creating the visual aid on the blackboard, chalk held above my head, and turned to face the boys. “Are you? Why?”

 “You don’t want us?”

 “Depends on why you’re coming over.”

 “Tarvik is going to show us how to build something and he said it’s too big for inside. We told him we couldn’t build it here because anything left outside is okay to steal.”

 I opened my mouth to give a short lecture about that statement. And then I closed my mouth. In theory a thing left outside was not okay to steal. In fact if the item left on the Center’s play field had value, it would be gone by morning. If Tarvik had invited the boys over to do a woodworking project, wasn’t that an improvement on combat instruction?

 They all made it to my house in flash time, Tarvik and four kids, and as they seemed happy, shouting jokes at each other and lugging boards out of the garage, I went inside, had a shower, washed my hair, took a little lie-down because I’d been on my feet all day, and then got up slowly, dressed, wandered out to the kitchen and reheated the coffee. When I went out the back door the kids were gone and Tarvik was walking around the yard picking up hammers and nails and stuff.

 And then I looked all the way back to the fence that separated the yard from the alley.

 I clutched my coffee mug in both hands. With my elbows propped on the railing of the deck to keep myself steady, because I was shaking with what I can only describe as acute anxiety, I spoke firmly. It’s the voice I use in the classroom.

 “Tarvik, what is that?”

 A weird collection of boards filled the backyard, forming a sort of triangle that was taller than Tarvik, maybe a couple feet taller. At the base corners were old car tires, the treads worn slick. At the peak a bar balanced a long pole and the whole thing looked like some kind of giant teeter-totter. A giant would have to be as tall as a house to use the thing.

 For a brief moment I kidded myself that it was outdoor gym equipment, something for the kids to climb. That’s how optimistic and trusting I am.

 He faced me with his sweet innocent smile. “It’s called a trebuchet.”

 “Of course it is. And now that I know the name, what does a trebuchet do?”

 “Here,” he said, touching a hunk of metal on the ground at the end of the long pole, “is the weight. It holds down this end.”

 “Uh huh.”

 “And here,” he said, lifting his hand to show me the rope he gripped, “is the rope.”

 “Yes, I know what a rope is. What’s it’s purpose?”

 He pointed at the end of the pole that stuck ten feet up in the air. “The rope is tied to the raised end of the pole. When I pull hard enough, I can bring the raised end to the ground and lift the weight up in the air.”

 “Okay. So?”

 “It’s really very simple. I can pull the rope,” and he added action to words, “and reverse the end positions.”

 Give a boy muscles and right away he wants to use them. He hauled, his muscles bulging, until the weight was skyward and the other end was landward, or whatever it’s called. He looped the rope to a hook on the base to hold the pole in place and the weight in the sky. Next he fastened an open bucket to a notch on the lowered end of the pole.

 “You see? It’s perfect. We’ll try it out tomorrow.”

 “Try it out to do what?” I have been working with young teenagers far too long. Raise my suspicions and I keep asking questions until I get answers.

 “What a trebuchet does. We put something in the bucket, for example a tennis ball, a very soft one so it won’t harm anyone, and then we quickly pull the rope free, and the weight on the other end drops and the bucket swings up and the ball flies across the play field.”

 I could see how it worked. I still had more questions. “But your trebuchet isn’t in the play field.”

 “Ah! That’s what the wheels are for. We’ll carry the balance beam separately and push the frame over to the Center tomorrow.”

 There was something about the whole situation that I knew I should object to, but as the bucket was empty, I couldn’t quite grasp the problem. Even if the rope slipped, the weight would fall in our empty backyard. And then I saw the problem.

 “If the rope broke, that bucket could go flying through a neighbor’s window.”

 “No, it can’t. I have the bucket handle fastened to the pole.”

 Okay, I thought and thought but I could only think of one possible danger. “Could you take down the pole for the night? I’ll be awake all night waiting for that weight to come crashing down.”

 “Of course. We need to take it down tomorrow anyway, before we roll the frame over to the field.”

 “Umm, one more teeny question. What are those things used for, besides teaching teenagers how to build giant objects?”

 “To toss things in the air.”

 “I can see that. But it’s exact purpose? Because I do not believe it’s original design was for tossing tennis balls.”

 He finished securing the rope, with the weight still skyward, and jogged across the lawn and up the stairs and wrapped his arms around me and nuzzled my neck.

 “I want an answer.” Okay, it’s hard to keep my voice teacher firm when he’s doing that, but at least I managed to murmur my request.

 “Now don’t be angry,” he said, which meant he knew I would not approve. “That’s all we’re going to use it for.”

 I stepped away from him. “How did you know how to build a trebuchet and why? And no, you stay your distance until I get the truth.”

 His smile lit up his whole face, which is why he gets away with so much. “All right, my father’s army had a trebuchet. It was used to throw rocks at castles. It’s a weapon of war. But I promise we will only use it to toss balls at targets.”

 The yard behind the Center is a block long, probably safe enough as long as Tarvik supervised. Satisfied the situation was under control, I gave him the hugging I’d interrupted, and tossed in a few kisses. “Okay, Tarvybaby, come on, maybe I can help you dismantle the thing. It’s sort of steampunk, I guess.”

 “What’s steampunk?”

 “Oh, it’s a term used in books and costume design. Nicotiana belongs to a steampunk club and they make Victorian costumes and decorate them with bling made from machine parts.”

 He knew Nicotiana, a witch who lives down the street from us, a nice person but a real witch, the kind who casts spells and makes healing potions from herbs. She is an amazing gardener and gardening is new to Tarvik. He loves doing it. And she loves explaining to him which plants need sun and which need trimming, and she’s always giving him seedlings and cuttings. He repays her by doing repairs around her garden and her house.

 “Bling. Right. That’s jewelry. But what are steampunk stories?” he asked.

 “They’re set in Victorian times, more than a hundred years ago, and in the stories the people have amazing machines that haven’t even been invented in our times, things like flying automobiles.”      

 We wandered down the steps and across the lawn, the soft evening air doing great things for my mood.

 In the distance a police siren did its wail. And a dog barked. And a neighbor shouted at the dog to shut up. All normal city noises. And then we heard someone running top speed toward us in the alley.


 Jimmy’s voice. We rushed to the back fence and leaned out to see where he was. In the dusk the alley was a dark narrow strip without light or shadow.

 My scudzy cousin came rushing through the gate and slammed it shut, like a three-foot high garden gate was going to protect him from anything larger than a chihuahua.

 He ran past us, banged into the frame of the trebuchet, bounced back, shrieked, grabbed at his forehead, and kept right on running across the grass and to the side door of the garage.

 He grabbed at the handle. As usual the door was stuck. Apparently that grab took Jimmy’s last breath. He collapsed right there by the garage wall.

 Tarvik and I stared down at him. Tarvik maybe figured Jimmy was being chased by a dog. I figured it was somebody he owed. We were both wrong. Found that out when the siren wail went to a pitch and then dropped to a couple of beeps and then went silent.

 The police car had pulled over to a curb, the way they do when they’re chasing a speeder. Speeders are usually driving cars. Who’d figure my cousin on foot for a speeder?

 “Hide me,” he gasped. “Get me out of here.”

 A car door closed out by the front of the house.

 “What’s going on? Jimmy, are the police looking for you?”

 “Not exactly. I mean, if all they find is me, I’m okay. It’s what I’ve got that’s the problem.” He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cardboard box about the size of a brick.

 “What did you do to your head?” Tarvik asked and that’s when I saw the blood dripping from a cut on his temple and running down the side of his face.

 Jimmy touched his forehead, winced, pulled away his fingers and stared at the blood. “I ran into, hey, what is that?”

 He pointed and Tarvik said, “A trebuchet.”

 “A what?”

 “It’s a shop project Tarvik’s doing with my students. Jimmy, what have you got in that box?” I asked.

 He tried to stand but his legs started to buckle and Tarvik grabbed him and held him upright. One look at his expression and I didn’t have to ask again, I knew. My idiot cousin had stolen something. It looked the right size for a cell phone. If he’d grabbed it at a cheap place, he might get off with a fine, but if it was one of those expensive ones, he could do jail time.

 “Get your story together. Figure out what you’re going to say and it better be good. I’ll go talk to the officers but I can’t stop them from searching you. Whatever you stole, they’ll find it.”

 “What’ll I say?”

 “You can always try to convince them you forgot it was in your pocket when you walked out of the store. They won’t believe you, but you can try.”

 I headed around the house and met the officers coming up the driveway. “Hi, can I help you?”

 “Yes, ma’am. We saw a man running down the alley and he turned into your back yard.”

 “He’s my cousin. He’s not a housebreaker or anything.”

 “No, but we need to talk to him.”

 “Sure. He bumped his head somehow and he’s bleeding. Uh, why don’t we go inside? He’s probably washing up.”

 “We’ll come around the back way, thank you.”

 I could have said guests always came to the front door, which they never do, not in my neighborhood. Everyone walks around to the back, but anyway. Thing is, those guys weren’t going to let me distract them or delay them, so I did a U-turn and walked ahead of them, hoping I sort of blocked their view, in case Jimmy was trying to dig a hole and bury whatever he’d stolen. He was just dumb enough to do that.

 As we reached the edge of the garage, I heard his voice. “If I yank this rope loose, the thing goes off?”

 “Yes, but don’t, oh!”

 All three of us turned the corner and had a good clear front row view. The only thing I can say is that of the three of us, me and the two policemen, I was the only one who knew what was about to happen. And why.

 The weight came crashing down on one end of the pole and the bucket flew up on the other end and I saw the arc of an object very close in color to the gray sky as it flew above the neighbor’s house and disappeared. Somewhere in the distance I heard glass shatter, so far away and so mingled with the sounds of traffic in the streets and TVs in all the houses, it wasn’t obvious to anyone who wasn’t listening for it.

 Jimmy’s package, with a boost from Tarvik’s toy, had either shattered a windshield or taken out a window.

 The policemen did a search of the yard, and of Jimmy, and asked if they could search the house and garage, which wasn’t a request. They explained their rights and our lack of rights which they didn’t need to do because I told them to go right ahead.

 The only other question that was at all awkward was when they asked about the structure in the backyard. “Whatever it is, do you have a building permit?”

 “It’s a school project,” I explained. “Some students put it together and left it here overnight so it wouldn’t get stolen. Tomorrow they’ll take it to the community center.”

 “What’s it for?”

 “I think they want to see if they can aim tennis balls at a target,” I said.

 After way too long from my point of view, the policemen left. As soon as their car drove away, Jimmy learned the true meaning of the word grilled.

 “What did you steal and don’t lie. You’re no good at it and I can always tell and by the way, you two,” and my glare swung from Jimmy who had his mouth open ready to start lying, to Tarvik who looked puzzled, “that thing you shot off? It broke something. Sounded like a window.”

 “We better go around the neighborhood and find what was broken,” Tarvik said. “Steal? Jimmy, did you steal something?”

 “Of course he stole something. Why else would he be so scared he shot it off with your trebuchet?”

 “All right, let’s go find it.” Tarvik led the way out of the back gate and out of an argument. He’ll do anything to avoid arguing with me.

 Jimmy and I followed. “It’s not what you think, Claire. I didn’t take anything out of a store. A guy paid me fifty bucks to deliver a box for him.”


 “I know. I know it was stupid. And I know it had to be drugs because why else would he pay fifty for me to carry a box from downtown?”

 “You were delivering drugs to someone in the neighborhood?”

 “No, a couple blocks north. But about the time I got out of my car, I saw the police car down the street and knew they’d followed me. So I ran through some backyards, and well, anyway.”

 Did I believe him? Of course I did. He really is that stupid. And now we had to find a box the size of a brick filled with a substance that could send us all to prison and if we ever got out of this I was going to find a way to implode Jimmy. Well, no. There’s that problem of being a loud mouth pacifist, always preaching about it. So the worst I could do was ban him from my house and make him survive on his own cooking.

 We went up and down the street checking cars and not finding any shattered windows. A block away we heard screaming.

 “Uh, I think we found where it landed,” Jimmy said.

 We walked toward the noise and ended up in front of the house of Nicotiana, the witch with the beautiful garden. She’s tall and has long hair that lies smooth against her head when she is calm and flies out in all directions when she’s upset. She stood in the middle of the sidewalk and her hair was a bush.

 I tried to defuse. “Hi, Nicotiana! Are you okay?”

 “No, I am not okay! Someone broke a window in my house!”

 Tarvik occasionally does repairs for her and so he said, “A window? I’ll measure it tonight and replace it first thing in the morning.”

 “But who broke it? There’s a box on the floor. Maybe it’s a bomb!”

 “Let me go see,” he said, and he went past her into her house while I stayed outside and chatted and Jimmy tried to turn invisible.

 When he came back out, box in hand, Tarvik said, “It’s only a box with some weeds in it.”

 I was surprised. I’d been figuring white powder and from the look on Jimmy’s face, so had he.

 “Let me see it,” Nicotiana said.

 Tarvik handed it to her. She lifted the lid and sniffed. “Huh. Marijuana. Not easy to come by this much. I have a few medicine recipes that call for it. All right, I think I’ll keep this in payment for my window.”

 Okay by me. I didn’t want the stuff in my house and Jimmy wasn’t going to take a chance on having it anywhere around himself or his house.

 Tarvik went back to measure the window and took Jimmy with him, which left me again to make small talk.

 “What a bother for you. But Tar’s good at replacing windows. He’s done several of them at the Center.”

 “Oh, that man of yours, he’s good at everything, he really is,” she said. “And I am good at identifying my enemies. I’ll run a few tests on the box. Other than Tarvik, anyone who touched it is going to regret it.”

 Have I mentioned that Nicotiana is an expert at spells that cause warts and boils and hangnails? I wouldn’t have to bother thinking up a nonviolent punishment for my cousin.

 After we walked Jimmy to his car a few blocks away, Tarvik and I strolled homeward together through the summer night. He started skipping backwards in front of me, his grin spreading across his face.

 “My Claire, do you realize it worked? I wasn’t sure but oh, my Claire, it sent that package two blocks away! The trebuchet works!”

 I tried to think of something nice to say about a machine invented for warfare and now breaking a neighbor’s window. “We live in modern times and you built a machine out of the past that only requires manpower. Maybe that’s reverse steampunk. Clever you.”

 Apparently the idea pleased him, or at least, I think that’s what all the hugging and kissing was about.

Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews

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