Short Story | The Catapult of Christ

Photograph: Pexels

 It was the best catapult she had ever seen, not mentioning the catalogue ones which were beyond her pocket. Yet even though this one was home-made, fashioned on the Kaiser N.C. her father owned in the basement workshop of their house, its metal body gave it an advantage over the commercially available wooden counterparts.

This will never break, no matter how much you drop it.

The elastic was not really elastic at all but the rubber ring which fitted to an old press machine put together by her Uncle Stefan long years before she was born and now lying rusted in the store room with the tricycle and the broken skis.

The rubber ring was held in place through two holes miraculously positioned and welded by her father Mirko whose skill had ensured perfect balance in his daughter’s tiny hands,  and a sure shot from any angle and ample distance.

Why, with practice, this could kill somebody.

And though her father had warned her against mischievous use with threats of a hiding and confiscation, Anna was sure she had seen a glint of subversiveness in his eyes as if he was saying to her:

“But I’ve really no strong objection if you happen to accidentally catch old Majda one on the backside. Just make sure she doesn’t catch you!”

A profusion of words of thanks and a peck on the cheek seemed to satisfy the papa and, after the words of paternal warning to be a good girl and only to aim at trees or cans, Anna had leapt out of the kitchen window, and into the streets of Piran in search of easy targets of the organic and most certainly human kind.

The first victim was no match for a creature with the speed of a cat in the winding streets of Piran, a town with more places to hide than open spaces. The posterior was obviously touristic and beckoned to be stung.

I’ll hit the right cheek just below the pocket.

Mercifully, as this was the christening of the new plaything, the girl selected a medium sized pebble from the alcove in which she lay in wait, placed it carefully, gripping both stone and rubber between forefinger and thumb,, holding the handle in her right hand and pulling back with her left, she took careful aim.

The tourist, a man of middle age was ambling slowly up the cobbled hill singing a tune which marked him out as an Englishman. He held a stick in his right hand which he used to thrust forwards into the cobbles in order to make the challenging climb more tolerable. The appearance of the walking stick almost caused the child to pause with pity. However, with the crease of the centre of the victim’s bottom already in the dead centre of her meticulously aimed sights, she pulled back the ring to its full extent and, as he reached a distance of ten metres away, she let fly. Bulls eye !

The cry of indignation followed hard on the heels of the cry of pain, which superseded by only an instant the sound of a pebble smacking hard against a soon-to-be tender buttock.

Before the poor, afflicted Englisher could even turn to discover the source of the sudden attack, the girl had jumped out of her hiding place and disappeared down the meandering street and out of sight, discovering that running, giggling and puffing were actions that did not combine easily.

Got him ! Got him ! Got him !

* * * * * *

Wine bottles smashed, cigarette packets removed from sea defences, and a shattered window pane in a deserted outhouse and it was surely time for another human victim.

Anna sat, still as a gravestone, perched precariously behind a pile of rocks, her left leg dangling over the sea edge, her aim directed at the second fish restaurant along from the quay. She was out of sight, though a trained eye would have picked out a squinting face between two large boulders.

She felt no qualms about catching Andrej, her older brother, a senior waiter at the restaurant.

The soon-to-be-scattered balancer of plates and glasses was currently collecting the piles of bones, cold garlic sauce, greasy napkins, knives and forks, and an impossible amount of crockery for a creature with only a single pair of expert hands, wrists and steady elbows. Yet these were hands which could hold five or six glasses a piece, and wrists and elbows, a double- plateau enough for the remains of at least a table for four.

If I’m clever, he’ll drop it all over the fat man. Serve him right!

What occurred in the next few moments was a blur of smashing crockery, a confusion of flying fish skeletons, screams of dismay and the yell of a rather large gentleman, a curse in Italian as a coffee cup dislodged his lighted Dutch cigar landing in his cavernous lap to be followed by plates and spoons, garlic sauce and several squashed potatoes. The yell was one of pain as the cigar burned its way through corduroy into the first layers of skin on the ample leg.

As Anna disappeared, congratulating herself on a perfect hit on the neck, she could hear the disappearing sounds of Italian curses, and Andrej’s profuse and profound apologies in every language he could think of.

Once again, in her rapid flight from this scene of post-culinary devastation, Anna experienced the conundrum of not being able to laugh and run at the same time, due to the excessive puffing and panting. It was breath or giggle, flight or pause for laughter, safety through escape, or risk through being caught in the act, or being spied in fits of mischievous after-the-fact joy.

Should I keep running or should I stop so my breathing can give way to my ha–ha-has?

* * * * *

The Days of the Catapult (as Anna later referred to them) were a delightful mix of quest and mischief. The victims were numerous and the missed targets few. Arnica ointment and antiseptic cream were in short supply at the pharmacist and all and sundry wished to be rid of the mysterious plague of wasps, surprisingly prevalent for so late in the season. Meanwhile Anna lay low when suspicion appeared too close, but drew comfort from the map of suitable hiding places she held in her head (and on paper behind the Encyclopaedias in her bookcase in case her memory failed.

It was only when she heard on the town grapevine that Andrej had not been scolded but actually rewarded by the Italian gentleman for giving his wife her first genuine laugh in over thirty years, and when she discovered that old Mr Hren had suddenly chanced upon the wedding ring  of his long departed wife Branca, lost these last ten years, (as a result of bending over in pain from a well aimed shot to the back of the head), and when the huge and terrible row followed by a spectacular reconciliation leading to an unplanned begging of Jan to Mojca to get engaged, all following spilled wine on a new dress (from a perfectly targeted pea on the behind), it was only when these results had been digested that Anna began to think of angels and magic properties possessed by the fabulous catapult.

Money discovered after a bump on the head, a happy family reconciled from a repaired broken window, a healed feverish hound from the shocked leap into the air (after a pebble in the ear), young Anna became ever more convinced that the effusion of her weapon was a gift of beneficial magic to its lucky recipients. Initial pain and indignation (from a whack or a sting) gave way to wondrous good news and life transformed for the better. The Catapult became a magic sword-stick and the Days of the Catapult became a noble quest of target-based sorcery.

And soon it became the little child’s mission to bring health and happiness to the entire population of her home town,  delivered through her clandestine and painful instrument of Christian good will.

She named it the Catapult of Christ. A direct hit from her aim, she became convinced, was a miracle borne on the wings of a Angel from Heaven.

Why, even a superb ping upon the over-sized nape of Father Peter had seemingly resulted in one of his most interesting sermons for years !

* * * * *

The quest to sting old Majda began on a early Autumn morning just as the sun had risen over the church spire. Anna lay poised on all fours like a cat ready to pounce, her stomach and legs resting in relative comfort on the moss bed under the rusting wire fence that marked the forbidding boundary to Majda’s vegetable garden. The heat of the mid-September sunshine would surely tempt the old misery out of her parlour and into some tending and harvesting.

The Holy Weapon held in her steady fingers, Anna waited with the patience of a tomcat hungrily watching its prey.

The church bell rang out announcing it was time to boil some coffee on the stove, and for the Piraners to take a break from their daily tasks. As if in response to the peals, a distant liner trumpeted twice while Anna kept her gaze fixed firmly upon the wooden parlour door.

Come on, Majda ! Come out and tend to your vegetables !

A sharp eyed on-looker would have seen the careful drawing back of the catapult’s rubber ring as the door creaked open and the hunched frame of Majda came slowly into view, her shaking hands carrying some pruning shears and a wicker basket which had seen better days.

Careful ! Be Careful ! You must choose the right time !

She had developed a taste for hitting her targets on the posterior. It was not only extremely painful, but also hilarious in its visual impact. A shot on the “bot” was pleasurable for the sender precisely because the reaction of displeasure from the receivers was so indignant and comical. Particularly, the combination of “Ouch” or “Ooh” or “Ahh” with the sudden leap upright and a look of confusion and betrayal on the faces was quite clownish. The comedy of it was too much for Anna to resist.

It is my reward for doing Christ’s work.

As if only too happy to oblige, Majda’s behind was conveniently moving into perfect position as she bent to remove some weeds from the cauliflower patch, grumbling at them as unwelcome intruders. As she finished her bending over, her left buttock was in exact line of sight for the ever-alert Anna. She finessed her aim, pulling the ring back a further few centimetres, calculating the trajectory, the distance, the strength, uttering a prayer:

“Dear Lord I give this day to you

I pray you let my aim be true !”

And then she let fly !

It was like the gradual turning of an iceberg, broken free and buffeted in a strong wind; or the laboured about-face of a lazy brontosaurus, switching direction at the smell of some fresh leaves. The bulk of rags and keys, scarves and aprons that was Old Majda turned. And it seemed that her manoeuvre actually preceded the release of the shiny pebble -as if the old woman had magically anticipated the treacherous act.

It is hard to imagine the depth of terror which filled the child’s soul as her perception of the helpless old fool, the unwitting target – in its turnabout to face the young girl – transformed into one of a powerful witch, one who knew what was to befall her before it occurred. Old Majda became an enchantress, a sorceress, a source of power.

As her face came into view, the pebble struck her Cyclops-like above the bridge of the bony nose. At that very instant, her piercing, black eyes met those of her attacker, picking them out impossibly in the bushes, making a mockery of a hiding place which, only a few moments before, Anna had felt sure was as secure as could be.

It was truly a strange sight to behold: those terrifying, accusing eyes one moment, the flight of the projectile whizzing through the air, and then the impact of stone on bone, the cry of pain as Majda flinched, stumbled dropping her basket and shears in order to raise a shaking hand to tend to the sudden source of injury.

For Anna there was no mischief to this deed, no sense of daring and circus-clowning. Her only wish was to raise herself to her feet, to turn on her heels and be as far away from that terrible, evil place as soon as she could. She leapt up and turned to run. A howl of pain issued from her tiny mouth, its sopranino sound mingling in dissonant harmony with the deep tone of Majda’s roar of indignation. For, in her haste to be off, Anna had turned her ankle on a left shoe still firmly planted, facing towards the scene of horror, which left her with a badly twisted ankle. She fell onto her knees, the lame leg throbbing with the heat of agony. Anna would be going nowhere in a hurry.

It took the old woman but a few moments to regain her composure, to calm her breathing and to begin to approach the child who had invaded her domain. Her hand still covering the newly delivered wound, she inched menacingly towards Anna, who backed away, grimacing with the terrible pain of an ankle reddening and throbbing from the twisted sinews.

“Give me that thing ! Child – give me that thing!”

Majda reached forwards, and the stricken child was sure that she had extended her arm an impossible length in front of her, a yard, no ten ! It was too much for the child. As she blacked out, Anna saw swirling dragons gobbling up stars and planets and the voice of the old woman was the thunder of Satan.

“Give it to me.”

The dragons rose up and carried the stars away. Anna opened her eyes and squinted at the brightness of the sun and the still rising pain in her twisted limb.

As she sat up in the dampness of grass and earth, she saw the witch retreating along the path in the direction of the old house, her catapult – HER CATAPULT – in her bony hand.

“Give me back my catapult!” she cried !

Without turning, Majda continued her march and uttered: “A curse on your catapult.”

“You’ll be sorry!” warned the brave girl, ignoring the stinging in her knee, “This catapult is blessed by the Lord Jesus, and he will curse you for stealing it!”

Majda disappeared through the door, turning only to slam it shut and bolt it in three places.

“A curse on you!” Anna could be heard to mutter as she hobbled on cobbles towards a late supper and a foot bathed in Birch oil and hot water.

* * * * * * *

A week later Majda died – peacefully in her sleep, some said, accidentally in her parlour, said others. Few mourned, though one or two fishermen were said to have sighed in memory of courtships long gone, or kisses left on the shingle.

The house was soon cleared, the garden quickly trampled with the feet of undertakers, house-clearers, inquisitive dogs and daring children.

Some said it was a blessing, others about time, and few said a pity.

Anna had already learned the art of putting weight on her good foot and had resolved, that muggy Sunday afternoon to search the crates and skips for her catapult, to take it to the church, set it in holy water and to say a short prayer.

As she approached the garden, fear arose in her heart as she remembered that turning head and terrible eyes of the old woman.

She’s dead now. Nothing to be afraid of now.

She lifted her Sunday skirt and wrapped the hem in her belt to avoid both mud and a scolding in Church. She stepped along the garden path.

And there it was, it’s metal arms, brilliant in the sun. Anna reached out and took hold of the Catapult of Christ, took it to her breast and closed her eyes in prayer.

When evening came it lay, safe, in her bedroom cupboard in the secret place for special and important things.

There it lay.

As the season turned, the girl could be found along the quay, running with the other children, playing hide-and-catch, disappearing among the rocks and the chairs and tables of her brother’s restaurant. Occasionally a tourist would utter an indignant howl as a pebble made contact with a buttock.

Yet soon it was a boy that was the target of her attentions, then another, then a trio.  Within a few weeks, this child was a cat among pigeons; this Anna was more concerned with blushes than bruises. Church became a chore, and kisses and hugs were more in evidence, though the memory of Majda and their terrible encounter never left her. But Christ could wait awhile while His Catapult was laid to rest in the secret compartment made of Bibles and Dictionaries in the sturdy closet. The Catapult was quickly forgotten and the battered parishioners of Piran were mercifully spared another season of stings and pings.

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