Fire, Air, Earth, Water. Elements. Gods. You need go no further than newspaper headlines to see the evidence of their raw power over us. For me, it was reports of a Sumatran village being buried by mud slides triggered by wind-whipped rains and a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in the fall of 2009. More than 1,000 people gone in an instant. Their hopes, their dreams, their very lives snuffed out just like that.
With such awesome power, why wouldn’t Fire, Air, Earth, and Water be considered the basic elements—even gods? Fire warms us and burns us. Air lets us breathe but blows down our homes. Earth provides sustenance and buries us. Water slakes our thirst and drowns us.
The story stuck with me. So many dead. An entire village wiped out. Eventually, I decided to incorporate the disaster into a short story, “The Prince of Traps.” All four elements are represented in the story, so I have strayed a bit from selecting just one element, focusing instead on how each can conspire with the others. I hope the “other” four elements of plot, character, setting, and language are represented as well, but that’s for you to decide.
THE PRINCE OF TRAPS
The game began long ago, when I was a mere boy, and came about quite unexpectedly, my father exploding through the door one night and pouncing on me, his arms and legs tying me in knots, his body, more round than tall, crushing me, air bursting from my lungs before I had the chance to utter a single cry.
“I am the King of Traps, my son, but don’t let me trap you,” he whispered fiercely in my ear, his teeth clenched. “Life is a trap, in the coming and the going, but don’t let it trap you in between. Free yourself, my Prince of Traps!”
And so the struggle began, man and boy, king and prince, his weight against my skinniness, his strength against my weakness, his every advantage against my every disadvantage. He would not abide biting or scratching, thinking it cheating. “Fighting tooth and nail is for cowards,” he would say. “Let your mind solve the puzzle, and your body follow.” And he would not let loose his grip on me, no matter how fiercely I struggled to be free.
There is always an until, that moment when things change, great or slight, with or without warning, for good or ill. My father, a would-be actor with some knowledge of the theater, called it a deus ex machina, some god lowered to the stage to miraculously extricate a character from a difficult situation. In this case, it was a god within my father, set loose to set me free, to weaken his hold, allowing me to escape.
It was purposeful, I began to realize. He did not want to break my spirit. With every nuanced loosening of his grip he was teaching me how to escape, and when. A thousand ways, or so it seemed, to move hands, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, feet, head, fingers, and toes to escape. And like any good teacher, his lessons became progressively harder over the years, for me and for him, and became the reason for many an argument between my father and my mother.
“You’ll hurt the boy,” she would say. To which he would say, “Pish. I am making a man of him.”
And I would chime in, “I’m a man grown; don’t call me boy.” Not that it did any good.
Or she would wink at him and say, “Why not wrestle with me instead?”
To which he would say, “That match ended long ago, you won remember, trapping me with your loins.”
To which she would reply, “Trapped, is that how you feel, is it?”
“Oh, woman,” he would say, and walk away from her, usually to sit outside on our little wooden bench to stare at the mountain, his back resting on the wall of the house, his feet stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.
I would sometimes join him, as I did on this night, easing myself down beside him and assuming the same posture, trying in these small ways to be him. When he caught me at this, he would kick out at me. “Don’t copy me, boy, that’s just another kind of trap. To free yourself, you must be yourself.”
The lesson was hard because what I really wanted to be was anything Cecilia wanted me to be. Ah, Cecilia. Cecilia of the blue eyes and creamy skin.
Oh, her eyes.
She had eyes too blue, a head-turning blue, a sighing blue, a blue that caused as many fistfights as winks, the kind of blue that caused envy in some and awe in others, a blue neither dark nor light, as different in day as it was at night, but too blue for sure and then some.
Ah, her skin.
Her skin was so delicately smooth it made me drool just thinking about it. I could eat her with a spoon. Indeed, I imagined that if she and a spoon were handy, digging into her would not produce blood, or even a wound, but spoonful after spoonful of silky smooth flesh, like digging into a bowl of warm vanilla pudding. To touch that skin, to run my hand along her thigh, to kiss her neck, to cup her breasts were fantasies I played out over and over again in my mind.
My father would have none of it. “Another trap,” he said, catching me gawking dreamy-eyed at her as she passed by, her younger sister’s hand in hers, heading for the marketplace, not even so much as glancing over at me.
“Like buying on credit or betting on a so-called sure thing.”
“But I dream of her.”
“Dream? Well, that’s all that’s left you where she’s concerned. Her parents would have none of it, a boy like you. She is not like us. Just look in the mirror.”
“Isn’t that just another trap, one to escape?”
He turned and squinted at me. “Some traps are set for us from the start, and can’t be overcome,” he said, adding, “even by dreams.”
“Then what’s the point of learning how to escape a trap when the trap has no solution?”
“Ah,” he said, smiling at me now. “Part of escaping is knowing the traps that have no escape.”
“Yes, there is no escape there, for you or for her. She is as much trapped as you are, whether she knows it or not. Each life has its traps.”
“And what of you, father? What you said to mother.”
He crossed his arms and glanced over at me. “She is as trapped as I am, but it is a sweet trap, this trap of love, though at times it is a struggle—for each of us.”
“And me, am I a trap?”
“All children are traps in a way. Having you changed our lives—not that I’m complaining, mind, you are our sweetest trap—but certain things we once did were no longer possible, and certain dreams had to be delayed or forgone.”
“Dreams? What kind of dreams?”
He shook his head. “It is no matter now.”
We sat silently for a while, me staring at my feet, him staring at the sky, which had darkened, thick black clouds roiling above us.
“So many traps,” I said, breaking the silence. “Are there any we can escape?”
“Some traps have no escape, but many do,” he said, standing. “Like this storm. We best get inside.”
“Escaping from one trap by seeking another?”
He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “You are learning, my son, you are learning. Come, from one trap to another. It’s beginning to rain.”
Such rain. Curtains of rain. Torrents of rain. The sound of it on the tin roof almost unbearable. Yet my father sat quietly and puffed on his pipe, while my mother set about ironing a blouse. I sat at the window, watching the rain, wondering if Cecelia had made it home safely or if she was still out there, her wet clothes clinging to every curve of her body.
“What a sigh,” my mother said. “What was that for?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Nothing, I guess. I think I’ll go to bed.”
That night, walking into my room felt like a trap, slipping under the covers felt like a trap, and lying in the darkness felt like a trap, my stomach in knots.
I dreamed of Cecelia. She was in the town square, buying a fish, a large gray one, slimy from head to tail, with red bulging eyes that seemed to follow her movements as she inspected it.
“My father says if it smells like fish or its eyes are cloudy, it’s bad.” I said.
She looked at me. “Your father is the one who shouts obscenities in the square, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Drunk or sober. He says that to properly offend, you must offend everyone. To do less is a waste of time and voice.”
“Your father is a strange man.”
“He is the King of Traps.”
“Traps, he can escape any trap, as can I.”
“Then you are a strange man, too.”
“No, go ahead, test me. Wrestle me to the ground, and I will escape.”
“Me, in your arms? More like in your dreams.” She put down the fish and picked up a tiny octopus. “Here, escape from this,” she said, placing the octopus in my hands.
The octopus came alive and began to grow, its tentacles wrapping around me, squeezing me, snapping my bones. From behind me, someone—my father?—was shouting, “Run! Run!”
I awoke to the sound of snapping trees and splintering boards, my bedroom wall exploding, covering me with a mountain of mud that rolled over me, tumbling me again and again until everything was still and dark.
The first part of escaping a trap, my father had said, is assessing the situation. My right foot seemed to be trapped between two pieces of wood and the space around my head left scant room for air. I had minutes at best. I had to get up out of this mud, or die. But which way was up? I listened for any sound, but there was only silence.
Then I remembered my cigarette lighter, my accomplice in a trap of my own making. I reached into my pocket, trying to cover the lighter completely as I pulled it up toward my head. After several tries, it finally lit, the flame leaping upward, pointing the way. I quickly snapped it shut and started digging with my hands and pushing with my feet. The mud above me just fell down, rising near my mouth and nose. I had to free that foot.
I slid my free foot along the edge of the wood that held my right foot like a vise. It’s the rung of a chair. And then I heard my father’s voice as clear as if he were with me. Break it with your other foot! And so I kicked, again and again, to no avail. I began to feel feint, dizzy.
For every lock there is a key, my father said. I twisted my foot this way and that until it slipped free, and then I began scrabbling toward the surface, both legs kicking furiously at the mud and one hand scratching, clawing at the debris and mud above my head. My other hand I kept clapped over my mouth and nose to keep the mud out and to preserve the little pocket of air. And then I felt something hard with my hand.
Sometimes one trap leads to another, my father said. You said that yourself, remember? That seemed ages ago, not just hours. Assess, assess! I ran my free hand back and forth, trying to get the measure of the wood above me. A door? No, too wide. A wall? Yes, a wall. What had father said? When faced with a wall, look for a window.
I moved myself slowly along the wall, looking for the window, finally finding the edge of it and pulling myself along the sill until I was directly under it. The glass had been broken, leaving a jagged hole just big enough for me to push through. As I struggled upward, my lungs about to burst, the mud tugged at me like some many tentacled beast.
“Come,” my father said to me. “I have a trick to show you.”
He pulled out a little tube woven out of strips of bamboo. “Put one finger of your left hand in this side and one finger of your right hand in this other side. Yes, that’s right.”
“Now what?” I asked. “This is silly.”
My father shook his head. “No, it is just another kind of trap. Free yourself.”
I tried to pull my fingers out, but the more I pulled, the tighter the tube became.
“You see, you have made the trap by trying to escape.”
I pulled harder.
“Don’t struggle so,” he said. “Sometimes the only way out of a trap is to let go, to relax.”
“You mean give up?”
“No, I mean relax.”
And so I did, and slipped free.
“Well done, son. Come, mother and Cecilia are waiting.”