The exponential worldwide growth of the ultra-violent Perringdale Religious movement may have had its entire genesis in the sorry events of one terrible afternoon.
Felix Perringdale, on his way home from the horrendous 4 AM chore of hand milking his neighbor’s thirty-six Jersey cows, was set upon by a band of Le Mars, Iowa ruffians. The name “Felix” had been a burden to him for all of his sixteen years, and in combination with the odd, delicate sound of the surname “Perringdale,” which the local boys turned into “Fairy tale,” (screamed out in high pitch falsetto across the court yard green, on the school house dirt road, and on any occasion where Felix’s spindly shadow might be seen), filled the boy with dread — and rage. Adam Haraldsson, the cheerful blond bully who led the pack, had turned the mockery into a kind of rural opera the local beauties begged for. “Feeeeeeeeee-licks…oh FEEL-ix!” (That sonic emphasis on the “feel” syllable left Felix feeling unwholesome, obscene, and ridiculous all at once. It made him clench and open his fingers in a way that only made the chorus more intense.)
On that morning, Felix could hear the mockery from behind the tall corn on the side of the road. It was getting closer. There must have been five or six of them. They burst out into the open all at once — big, rough Iowa farm boys with their chores completed for the morning and no squirrels to hunt, nothing to trap and toy with but Felix.
“FEEL-ix,” Adam said, putting his arm around his shoulders, and walking along side, too close. “All done with the Hummel cows, are we?”
“Of course I’m done with them,” Felix said, petulantly. “Why do you think I’m walking home, mister?”
“No lingering to chat with the lovely Annie Hummel, Felix? I hear tell she’s sweet on you.”
“No,” Felix said. “For silly.”
Felix, in truth was a kind of “perfect storm” bully victim. He was skinny and awkward. He had the sort of springy gait that even the non-observant, and polite, were tempted to mimic. He was naturally peevish and upset with his lot in life, and when he was being taunted, he gave his attackers visual feedback, (the flexing fingers). He was constitutionally unable to ignore a verbal taunt. He was a reasonably acute thinker, but not on the spot. That’s when words like “mister” and “for silly” got blurted out, making everything worse.
Had Felix indulged his own desire to laugh at the mockery of pairing his sixteen year old, spindly self with Farmer Hummel’s unmarried 28 year old daughter — who was easily three hundred pounds, who had an unsettling fine black down on her upper lip and cheeks, and who in an another age would have been called bipolar — then Felix might have gone on to live a reasonably content life, and the world would not have to deal with the violent tremors of the movement he inspired. But when Adam Haraldsson made conjectures about what a grand wedding it would be, Felix saw, in his mind’s eye a ridiculous picture of himself and Annie Hummel attempting to consummate, and the very engineering of such a prospect nearly made him chuckle. Had he yielded to this humanity, had he burst out in laughter, the bullies would have evaporated. The self-awareness would have been baptizing.
But Felix Perringdale clenched his jaw, bitter with rage, and elbowed his tormentor in the side, pulling his punch at the last minute, rendering his defense even more pathetic looking.
Adam laughed. “That’s the best you have, little man?”
The beating that followed was all the more humiliating in its mock ferocity. Adam picked Felix up by his back belt loop and ran him around in circles. Peter Kimball shaped Felix’s well-greased hair into a cone. Andor Svensen pinched his cheeks. When the boys disappeared into the field of corn, Felix was left standing in the middle of the road, with one shoe off and a stock of corn stuffed down his trousers.
But the day had only begun, and it was about to get worse. A kind of glowing self-pity settled over Felix as he continued the shuffle homeward. He had felt this tingle before, and he recognized it as strangely pleasant, this feeling sorry for yourself. How could he possibly be blamed, by God, for any vengeance he might ponder in response to such random cruelty and arrogance? How could mindlessly happy scoundrels like Adam Haraldsson go unpunished in this life? Couldn’t there be some sort of horrible justice dealt out to this muscular, handsome, effortlessly funny young man who enjoyed the ladies’ boundless affection? Couldn’t he be gored by a bull?
As he approached the battered and neglected Perringdale homestead, he didn’t even bother removing the corn stalk from his trousers, preferring to wear it as a badge of martyrdom as he visualized the goring, and crippling of young squire Haraldsson.
“Yes,” Felix thought to himself. “Not dead, but crippled, unable to walk. I could offer elaborate sympathy on such an occasion. He would be unable to stand, and I would hover over him, proffering a long speech of profound sorrow. Yes.”
With these thoughts of blood and convalescence in his mind, Felix grabbed the tin pail next to the well pump and headed for the hogs. He had been warned by his mother, several times to walk the water around the back way, and pour it into the trough from behind the protection of the fence, but the revenge fantasy had given him a peculiar sense of power, and he charged right into the pen, among the snorting and the growling of the hogs–never stopping to consider the potential consequences of having a sweet green ear of corn wedged firmly into the seat of his pants.
“Felix!” his mother yelled.
Something in her voice communicated urgency, and Felix felt the breath of the great Yorkshire boar closing in on him. He dropped the pail and ran, and nearly made the fence, only to trip on the stalk itself as the animal closed in on him. He was face down in the mud and pig shit as he tried to rip the bait from his pants, but the pig’s teeth sank into his buttock as he heard the front door of the house crash open. Felix tried to push back and turn over, but the other hogs were moving in, just as the crack of his father’s rifle scared them all off–the big boar a little reluctantly, actually lifting Felix off the ground for a second or two, before abandoning his prize.
Later, in the Perringdale kitchen, holding his genitals in his hands as his mother examined the wound to his backside, Felix couldn’t bring himself to look anywhere near his father, who was drinking straight from the bottle and complaining about having to waste a bullet.
“We should call Doc Thornton,” his mother said.
Elijah Perringdale spit on the floor. “We owe him too much,” he said.
“It might fester,” said his mother.
“That’s what happens,” Mr. Perringdale said, without the slightest trace of pity, “when you run into a hog wallow with an ear of corn in your pants.”
“It will require stitches,” she protested.
“Cost too much. Who would even notice any swellin’ on that part of him? Might flesh the boy out a little.”
And, then, as though some celestial quotient for universal humiliation had not been met for the day, without any warning at all, Adam Haraldsson walked right through the kitchen door without knocking. Even for Adam, the sight of Felix standing with his pants around his ankles, his mother trying to clean a butt wound, and Mr. Perringdale radiating a whiskey fog from across the room — well it was a picture he had never seen before and a picture he could not imagine seeing.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Felix,” Elijah began, “had the bright idea to water the hogs with a stalk of corn in his trousers. I still can’t imagine what inspires a person to carry around corn in that fashion.”
Felix and Adam exchanged a look. Neither of them could decide who would be ahead of the game should either of them speak, and then Adam blurted out, with a humanity Felix was incapable of registering, “I’ll go get Doc Thornton.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Perringdale. “It will heal. Serve him right.”
“Elijah,” his mother pleaded. “Please.”
“We can’t afford to waste money on doctors,” Elijah Perringdale said, finishing off the last of the bottle.
“Maybe you should scorch it,” Adam suggested.
“You know. Cauterize it. Burn out any festering.”
The room paused to consider this advice. It was the sound of a room full of people admitting, in their minds, that something made sense, even to Felix, who clenched his teeth at the notion.
“The advice has merit,” Elijah Perringdale said. “Adam and I could hold him down and you could use the flat iron, Mrs. Perringdale.”
‘Mrs. Perringdale,’ Felix thought. His father only got this formal when he was amorous. This was the sound of his drunk old man actually flirting with his mother. His father was about to laugh. His own father was about the laugh at the prospect of his son facing a red hot flat iron. Sure enough, Elijah began chuckling.
“Elijah,” his mother said, “please.”
Later that evening, after yet another sore, painful milking at the Hummels, Felix didn’t even go into the house. He went straight to the barn, bitterly recalling the picture of himself, flat on the floor, screaming, as Adam held his shoulders down, and his whiskey-soaked old man held his legs, while his mother scalded the wound. He could only imagine how quickly this news would travel. They would be talking about it now at the church dance–the boy who ran into a pig pen with corn in his pants. He could hear people asking questions, “what was he thinking?” “Elijah Perringdale wouldn’t even send for the doctor?”
Sitting against the wall of the barn, Felix bitterly recalled the sound of his father wondering if a bullet was wasted, saving him from the hogs.
“Made me waste a bullet,” Felix said, repeating his father’s words, his eyes stinging. He bit his lip, but he couldn’t hold it back. He began to weep, as some young men do, when they realize, after years of bitter proof denied, after trying to think the best without any real encouragement, that they were unloved.
No one heard it, but Felix began to howl with grief. He actually pounded his chest. He buried his head in the straw. He fell asleep weeping.
And when he woke up, he began to write — quickly, furiously, with the passion of someone who knew, first hand, the pain that is at the center of life.