Our father used to say we were forged by the fist. Claimed we were descended from the bare-knuckle pugilist Captain Robert Barclay himself. He used to say lots of things. “The world’s the ring” was one. And “Victory’s in the preparation.” A single moment of triumph the result of undergoing things you’d rather be spared. Like fear and pain. This he believed, and that’s why he started us young, my brother and me. Five years old. Twins. Face to face in a ring of dirt.
“Now hit him,” he told us. We froze. “Do it,” he said, and my brother swung first, and in the settling stars his face looked scared, floating there over me like a crying moon. Scared of hurting, or of being hurt. Scared of failing. “To the finish,” our father said.
* * *
Mornings we rose before the sun had clawed its way over the high pines and bled bright into our dark valley. “Bodies need conditioned if they’s gonna last,” he said. Twenty miles a day from the start. Up to thirty when we could do it without puking. Fueled by a gruel of oats and water, up the steep slant of Rattler’s Ridge with sacks of sand slung on our backs, lungs burning, no matter the season. Through tangled brush or knee-high snow.
To toughen our knuckles he started us on phone books bound to a tree, and once we’d torn and bled through the entire alphabet, leaving a wet and gaping hole in its pages, he moved us up to planks of cedar.
Afternoons were for sparring. Bare fists against skin thin and taught across our frames. We split lips and knocked our teeth loose, hairlined each other’s ribs and pissed blood, sometimes for days. If we pulled our punches or showed signs of backing down, the crackle of a cattle prod returned us to our stances, guards up.
He told us daily he’d give us each one in the gut himself someday, but we’d never know when. “So you can feel what it’s like when you cain’t see it comin’.” Our father was a fierce man, his promises alone enough to send tremors like struck steel through our bones. We’d once seen him haul a man from his car at an intersection, beat him red and senseless at the stoplight for cutting us off. In our minds, that’s what we had to live up to.
The bloodletting was our mother’s last crossed line. “Gotta purge the bad blood,” our father had said, “the weak blood.” She knew a lost cause when she saw one, and that’s when she left. A kiss and a whisper in the dark. Took with her our only chance of something else.
So we trained.
Nights we’d sweat. Ate meat butchered by hand and drank diuretics to cleanse the bowels, rested beneath piles of blankets, the wood stove stoked with oak we’d chopped by the cord with a twenty-pound maul. Sometimes we’d play cards. Others he’d read us the early scriptures or events from around the globe, wars and acts of terror, imprint us with words like wrath and retribution, preparing our minds as he prepared our bodies, with a narrow focus on the broad outcome. “These are the things that’ll help ready you for any eventuality,” he’d say. “The world’s a brutal place. You must be more brutal than the world.”
* * *
The world’s the ring. The first thing he’d told us, and the last. His legacy. Even now, half a lifetime, many wounds and wounded later, with him six feet beneath us, as we step into the circle, we hear them. His words. In the trees and rustle of windblown grass. Be more brutal than the world.
We move toward the center and stop shy. “To the finish,” my brother says, but it’s almost a question.
A chance for something else? I wonder. “What else is there?” I say.
Silence, save the wind. He nods, then raises his fists, elbows down.
I nod and raise mine, step forward. We stand still, and begin.
William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two children. He holds a BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as New World Writing, (b)OINK, Anomaly Literary Journal, Sick Lit Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and many others. You can find him on the various social media sites, if you’re so inclined.