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And So, He Said

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Personal Essay: Pessimism


A short story about a young boy and a young girl, and immortality. Spring 2011.

July had a birthmark on her cheek in the shape of France. It was a dark splotch on her cheek, a dark honeyed color, about the size of four postage stamps. When she was smaller, it had been less France-y, but ever since she turned five, it had slowly grown more and more France-like. Now, it looked like a perfect silhouette of the country, complete with the protruding bump of region of Britany.

It was unfortunate that she had such a prominent mark on her cheek.

It was especially unfortunate because July hated French people.

Her reasons for hating French people were small, but many. She disliked the food that the French people ate -- she thoughts snails and frogs had no place in a kitchen. She disliked the sound of the French language -- especially that nasal sound that seemed to be necessary in every French sentence. And when she was younger, an exchange student -- a boy from Paris -- had pushed her into the school swimming pool.

July hated French people, but this sort of thing wasn't a commonly shared belief, so July learned to keep it to herself for the most part. She hated French people in private, and even when people said to her, "Did you know your birthmark looks like France," she only bit the inside of her lower lip and forced a smile.

She met Castor at summer camp.

Her parents, who were busy, busy people, sent her to the same camp every year. It was at a place called Blue Pines. July thought it was a silly name, because the campsite was neither blue, nor populated by pine trees. Instead, it was populated by a few cabins and a large number of bored people.

Everyone at Blue Pines seemed bored, herself included. The counselors seemed bored with dealing with the bored kids who'd been dumped at Blue Pines by their parents, so they came up with bored activity for the kids to labor through in order to keep them occupied. The atmosphere, on the whole, was rather dreary. And bored.

This was probably why Castor stood out so much. He didn't radiate so much boredom.

Castor was one year younger than her, but half a foot taller. He was skinny and lanky and had a tuft of unruly, dark hair that stuck out in all directions. He looked a little bit like a crane that had run into an electric line. Castor also had a slight Australian accent. It made everything he say sound both jovial and slightly mischievous at the same time.

Like, when he sat next to where July was sitting at the edge of the camp pool with her toes wiggling at the surface of the water (shallow, with a few leaves floating on the surface) and said without any sort of preface, "Wow, it would really suck if you didn't like French people, looking at that birthmark on your cheek."

The way he said it was strange. Like he was completely delighted to say it.

"I hate French people." July said it quietly, because she knew that no matter what she said, it wouldn't come out sounding half as pleased as what Castor had said. She didn't want to come across as gloomy. She wasn't. She was just bored, like the rest of the camp.

"Oh, that's okay."

July suddenly realized that Castor's eyes were very, very green. Frighteningly green.

He smiled and said, "I don't like French people either."

Before July could say something like, 'I'm glad someone agrees with me,' or ask something like, 'Why do you hate French people?' or even just nod, he added, "I don't like anyone. I think people are all sort of miserable."

He smiled, and July stared. Castor's teeth were very fine and very while. He had a chip in his right canine. He got to his feet and flicked the water off his long toes (they were like fingers, his toes) before walking off. July stared until she couldn't stare any more, and then she stared for a few more moments, before Castor was suddenly gone from her vision.

That evening, there were icebreakers. She previously hadn't paid too much attention to Castor, but she did this time. It was one of those silly icebreakers where the kids sat around in a circle and said some unimportant facts about themselves. Things like, their name, how many siblings they had, whether they liked dogs or cats more, and what their favorite movies were.

When it was Castor's turn, he rocked his weight forward -- he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, and the movement made him hunch over like a predatory animal. "I'm Castor!" He smiled. It was a nice, if slightly impish looking smile. "I've got oooone brother."

He stopped, after that. It was as if he felt the following facts weren't important. Even when the counselor looked at him questioningly, he sat there smiling in his unflappable, cheery way. So the counselor moved on.

July squinted at Castor, making a note to herself to keep an eye out for him.

She didn't see much of Castor the next day, though, because despite his claims of hating people, he sure liked to talk to them.

When the counselors dismissed all of the kids after a grueling session of forming misshapen dishes out of hard clay, July parked herself at a corner of the pool with her ankles dipped in, a book propped across her knees. It was a rather dull book taken from the camp library, with dog-eared edges and more than a few missing pages, but it was better than watching a bunch of the bored boys kick around a soccer ball that was slowly deflating in the summer heat.

She sympathized with the soccer ball, more than any of the other kids.

It took a while for her to realize that Castor had appeared out of nowhere and seamlessly blended into the crowd of boys chasing around the dying soccer ball. Peering over the top of her book, she watched as Castor migrated from one boy to another like a strange breed of parasite.

Although he still ran after the ball as it slumped from one end of the makeshift field to the other, he would hover around a select kid, smiling that dingo smile of his as he asked questions. July couldn't tell what Castor was saying, because it was far away and it was drowned out by the sound of a few of the other kids half-heartedly splashing around the water, but she could tell that there was some sort of back-and-forth exchange between Castor and the selected kid.

But it wouldn't ever last long.

Whenever July looked up after reading through a chapter, Castor was hovering around a new kid. He looked unflappable -- consistently cheery. At one point, she was fairly sure that a boy (who had a French accent, July noted -- she had noticed that boy's French accent during the first-day ice-breaker and had immediately pinned that boy as The French Accent Boy in her mind) pushed Castor away from the dying soccer ball.

Castor only staggered back a step before grinning and saying something.

July could veritably imagine his drawling, Australian accent. That grin. Those eyes.

The next day, he was accosting the girls making beaded necklaces in the shade.

The day after that, the kids (who July suspected were secretly getting stoned off snuck-in drugs) who were staring at the dragonflies flitting around the air.

Someone else the day after that, then another someone else the next day.

July thought that, a week into camp, Castor probably knew the names and lives of every last kid in Blue Pines, if not the counselors as well.

"So why do you hate French people?"

July looked up from her book. Castor was right next to her. She hadn't seen or heard him approaching, so it was slightly startled. The last time she'd looked up from her book, Castor had been nowhere in her line of sight -- no doubt off talking to some other bored kids.

He was crouching, rather than sitting. He rested the entirety of his lanky weight on the balls of his feet, his arms crossed over knees (he had a pink band-aid on his right knee), his cheek resting on one of his wrists. His shoulder blades pressed against the fabric of his shirt, accentuating the curve of his back like a pair of small hills. There was a strange, wild sort of grace to the way he held himself, like an untamed animal.

"Just. You know." July tried not to stare too much more as she adjusted her hair, trying to brush the short strands forward so they hid the France on her cheek. "I just don't like them."

"Aw. You've gotta have some reason." Castor was grinning. July realized that the white of his teeth matched the white of his shirt, the green of his eyes like an acidic exaggeration of his cargo shorts. She couldn't tell if he was making fun of her, or sincerely wanting a conversation. "It's kinda hard to hate an entire country's people for no reason."

July frowned. "And what about you? You said you hate everyone."

Castor's eyes widened. The more she thought about it, the more July was aware that his eyes were terrifyingly green. His smile also widened. "Oh yeah, of course I do." A pause. He rubbed the underside of his nose with his wrist. "I'll tell you my reasons if you say yours."

"Go ahead." July closed her book.

"Nuh-uh. You go first."

"You first."

"I asked first."


"So you have to go first."

July sniffed. She didn't like losing arguments. But she also wanted to hear Castor's reasons. She could easily picture him simply scampering off like he always did, if she continued to press the matter. So she gave him a long, scrutinizing stare to say, 'I will give in this time but this will be the last time,' before answering.

"The food and the accent. French sounds weird." Pause. Castor was staring at her expectantly. So she added, "When I was little, a French kid shoved me into a pool."

Immediately, she regretted saying it. She knew what was going to happen.

She wasn't surprised, so much as she was startled, when Castor suddenly shot his arm out and shoved her into the pool. At least he'd had the consideration to snatch the book out of her hands before he dunked her. Because as she surfaced, angrily spitting out water and glaring at him, he was gleefully holding the book in both hands, his bright eyes peering over its edge to stare at her. The smile was audible in his voice.

"-- are you going to hate me now?"

July scowled, as she hauled herself out of the pool and shook the water out of her hair.


She snatched the book back and pushed Castor into the pool. He showed no resistance, and was grinning as he plunged into the water. Like there was no fear. As she watched, he snaked to the bottom of the pool and skimmed against the floor before surfacing at the other end of the pool.

It wasn't until he'd pulled himself out of the water and shaken the water off himself like a dog that she realized he hadn't told her his reasons. It made her angry enough to get to her feet, but he was too quick to vanish.

July made a note to herself that she would find him when he was least expecting it.

She did find him two days later.

She found him lurking around the border of the pool, pressed against the wire fence. July had purposely kept herself hidden ever since they'd dunked each other -- she had counted on Castor feeling guilty about that incident and revealing himself, and she had been correct! There was the tingle of triumph down her spine, as she watched from the branches of a nearby tree. Castor did a loop around the pool fence, scratching his head. His hair fluffed out like feathers, or fur.

July waited under Castor was at the quite, uninhabited end of the pool's fence before pouncing on him. Not literally, that would have been wrong. She pounced on him metaphorically -- she slapped a hand down on his shoulder and said, firmly, "You didn't say your reasons."

He flinched, hard, but didn't jump. He paused, before craning his head over his shoulder to look at her. His eyes shone bright as he said, "Oh. You startled me."

"I know."

"That's not very nice."

"Well, you pushed me in the pool last time."

"You did too."

"You did it first."


"So it was your fault."

Castor seemed to think over the matter for a few moments. July could almost see his mind working, turning the matter -- it would look like a rectangular plaque of wood -- over and over to study its every surface, assessing its validity. He was satisfied only after a thoughtful hum and turned to face her. The smile was back.

"Okay." He nodded eagerly. "It was my fault. Sorry."

"So." July crossed her arms. She liked the feel of crossing her arms. It made her feel very authoritative. "You have to tell me your reasons."

"Reasons?" Castor's blinked owlishly. "What reasons?"

"Your reason," July even rolled her eyes. It felt nice, like she was towering over him. (Even if he was taller.) "For hating everyone."

"Oh, that." Castor scratched his cheek. He hummed in thought, tapped his sandal-ed foot against the wire fence behind him, hooked his thumb against the pocket of his cargo shorts. "Aaaaaaaaah, well. About that. Hmm. It's funny. But yeah, that."

July narrowed her eyes and pinned him down with her stare.

Castor hemmed and hawed and wasted a few more moments before suddenly smiling. "You said you hate French people because of a bunch of little things, right? What was it? Food and language and you got pushed into a pool?"

"The accent." Pause. "But just the language, too. French sounds gross."

"Oh. Yeah. Those are valid reasons." Castor looked like he would once more stop talking, until July gave him a scathing glare. He then let out a dramatic sigh -- as if he were standing in some unseen spotlight -- and said, "I don't really like French people, because the French Revolution was just so messy, you know?"


Castor turned around and gave her a brilliant smile. It was even nicer than his nice smile. It was a staggering, star-like smile. He said, "Yeah. I mean I've been through a lot of terrible things, but the French Revolution was one of the worst. I mean, really? A breaking wheel? Brutal, man."

July was just about to ask what he meant by that, when he suddenly clambered over the pool fence was startling agility. He made a graceful swan dive off the top of the fence and straight into the pool -- and July was almost scared that he'd crack his head at the bottom, but he glided along the bottom of the pool like a dolphin before surfacing.

A deep, gasping breath.

July stared.

Castor smiled, his face dripping, shining wet with water and said, "Then again, the Crusades were pretty bad too." He turned and slid out of the opposite side of the pool, then vanished into the boys' dressing room.

She had to corner him behind the little cabin that served as the library to berate an explanation out of him. He was crouched on the ground, that same pink bandaid on his knee, studying a line of ants that were busily marching into their home. Each carried a speck of food, a fragment of food, a piece of leaf. Castor watched them with the same excitement with which he seemed to treat everything else.

It was hard getting his attention, because he was so focused on the ground.

Namely, she had to shove him over. The first few taps to the shoulder had gone completely unnoticed, and it wasn't until she gave him a harder push that he toppled over onto his side and looked up at her dumbly from where he lay.

"Oh," he said. "Hi."

"What did you mean last time?"

"Huh? What did I say?"

July rolled her eyes. She didn't like doing it because it made the France on her cheek ripple, but she thought that the moment merited the gesture. "About the French Revolution. That stuff. Something about the Crusades."

"Oooooh." Castor rolled on his back. Belly-up, he scratched his chest. "That."

July waited with her arms firmly crossed.

"Yeah, I've been through a lot. Crusades, French Revolution, both World Wars, the Teutoburg Massacre, St. Bartholomew's Massacre, Port Arthur Massacre, St. Valentine Massacre -- a lot of massacres. You'd think they'd start naming those things more creatively."

"What the hell are you talking about?" July never sweared. She'd promised to herself that she'd never swear, because it seemed very uncouth. She broke her rule this time. Just this once.

"I have a brother," Castor said. July blinked, and Castor went on, waving his hands in the air like a conductor. "Twin brother, actually. But he's older than me. A looooot older."

"I thought twins are supposed to -- "

"But." Castor's voice was suddenly sharp. Like a blade, like flint. He said, "He didn't like the age gap. So he asked our dad to fix that. Our dad's cool like that, so he did. And now my brother -- . Ah."

July was staring, and making no attempt to hide that she was staring.

Castor sat up and looked at her. He had grass in his hair, and an ant crawling down his chin. The ant walked in a curling arc around the curve of his cheek as he smiled.

It was a softer smile. A little sad. His teeth looked less sharp. He said, "Did you know, being immortal's kinda painful, if you didn't start out like that. You can't just make someone immortal. Lots of dying and being reborn involved. Very messy." He rolled to his feet in one smooth movement.

July had been thinking very intensely over what Castor was saying. She knew that this was a very difficult situation to understand. She said, slowly, "Okay. I can get why you'd hate people, then." Pause. She chose her words carefully. "Then why do you talk to them so much?"

"I wonder." Castor shrugged.

"You talked to like everyone in this camp. Every. One."

"Yeah, I know."

"You've got to have some reason." July had uncrossed her arms. Castor was looking a little bit too mournful for that, and she would have felt bad. But she kept her voice firm. She couldn't really grasp the situation, couldn't really understand that Castor was really saying the truth, couldn't really understand what Caster was. But she did want to know why he would go to such lengths to speak to people that he evidently disliked.

Castor scuffed his shoe against the dirt.

He wasn't smiling as he said, "I've seen lots of people. Lots and lots. And some of them aren't so bad, I guess, if you talk to them enough."

He turned and ran, but he wasn't smiling.

July hadn't realized it before, but Castor never spoke to the same person twice in a row. Maybe it just would have been too much for him to handle -- speaking for that long to a person he disliked -- or maybe he just didn't have the attention span. Maybe he just didn't feel like it. Maybe he hadn't found anyone he liked here. Or maybe he treated the people he liked the same way he treated people he disliked?

July didn't get a chance to speak to him for the next few days, because he was always busy talking to the counselors. Pestering them with questions, his teeth sharp and eyes bright. He looked happy.

But he did come to July eventually to say, "You know, you don't seem like the type, but I'll say this just in case -- you shouldn't tell anyone about what I said. About me."

July had been reading under the shade of a spindly, dying tree. She looked up to see Castor standing before her, hands jammed in his pockets. He'd finally shed the pink bandaid from his knee. He looked up around at the camp area, raking his eyes over the various bored people littering the area, before looking back to her. His vicious smile was back.

"They'll think you're crazy, if you tell them I'm immortal. And if they try to do something to me, I'll just end everything myself. They'll take that as proof that I was just mentally unstable, when I said all that to you. I'll be someone else, and I'll move on."


July answered simply, because she had already decided that she would never speak of this to anyone. She had thought over it deeply, and come to the conclusion that this was something that Had To Remain Secret. So she would keep it Secret.

Castor stood there a moment longer. Too long. July couldn't help asking,

"Did you like me, at all?"

He looked down at her, blinking slowly.

She bit her bottom lip. She felt like she'd said something wrong. "-- you told me about what you are. So. Does that mean -- you dislike me less than anyone else?"

Castor laughed. It was a small, silly laugh.

He said, "No."

He said, "No, you're just like most of the others."

He said, "At least you're honest about who you hate. But I don't like you any better."

That had been the last day of camp.

Castor was smiling, as he ran off with his backpack hefted over his shoulders and clambered into a sea-green car that no-doubt belonged to his parents. July watched as the car drove off, obediently waiting for her own parents to pick her up.

Standing beneath the not-pine trees bordering Blue Pines, with the country of France emblazoned across her cheek, she felt very small, and very cruel.