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Adventures in a Skinner Box

by Earl Carlson 3 months ago in Short Story
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Kingdom in a Balsam Grove

Kingdoms come in all sizes. The bigger ones — Sweden and Spain and England — have all been spoken for. But there are little kingdoms around that no one has claimed yet, and it doesn’t really matter how big they might be. A kingdom doesn’t necessarily have to occupy physical space at all. There are kingdoms to be found in the clouds — in the fertile imaginations of children. Every boy, no matter how small or how many big brothers he may have, can be the king of someplace.

Einar ascended the throne during the summer he was five years old — on the day he first turned his back on the sunlit field and ventured out into the shadowed world of the forest creatures. He did not go boldly, sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, into this great unknown; he was truly terrified. He knew there were great gnarling bears out there, and prowling wolves and screaming lynxes, and an endless array of goblins and savages lay in ambush within the foreboding darkness — creatures that dwelt nowhere but in the fantasies of a five-year-old, and in the woods behind his house. But he was driven by a more imminent and certain danger. Knute was after him.

Knute was a year older than Einar, and he was, even then, a formidable adversary and a veteran of the first grade. Einar, on the other hand, had never been to school or anywhere else, and had done nothing worth mentioning in his entire life. He had, by his presence alone, become an embarrassment to Knute, who felt honor-bound to make him pay dearly for the disgrace he had visited upon the family.

Knute’s favorite instrument of retribution, whenever their mother lay down for a nap with three-year-old Erik, was a stick freshly dipped down the hole in the privy — a horrifying implement sufficient to reform the renegade and bring the rebellious heretic home to Jesus. But the administration of justice, being among the most sacred ceremonies that a six-year-old may be called upon to perform, requires the most thorough preparation, and one does not quickly and easily scoop up a truly good gob of such viscous admonition. Even if he has the perfect stick, with a crotch just below the business end, it takes time and determination to dig up material of just the proper consistency, with just the proper degree of tackiness. And Knute would settle for nothing less than perfection.

Having seen him select his stick and march resolutely toward his own private armory, Einar had been forewarned and had managed to acquire a moderate head start. But Knute was considerably faster, and he was rapidly gaining on his younger brother. As you may well imagine, the very tangible menace coming up so quickly behind him worried Einar substantially more than the remote possibility of unknown dangers lying in ambush on the path before him. He had given no thought to the direction he had taken in his flight until he suddenly found himself in the shadows of the woods. By that time, Knute was hard upon him, and his alternatives had narrowed significantly. He could entertain no thoughts of turning back.

Momentum, emotional as well as physical momentum, carried him more deeply into the woods than any man had ever gone before, beyond the point at which he could have nurtured any hope of survival. But it wasn’t until he was certain that Knute hadn’t followed him into that twilight region that his natural cowardice returned to sustain him.

#

A rat in a Skinner box, as we learned in Psych. 101, when placed between two negative stimuli of sufficient authority, will vacillate between the two until he finds that point, at which the ratio of the distance to each of the stimuli is precisely equal to the ratio of their perceived discomfort. Once he locates that point, he will be as paralyzed, unable to move in either direction until one of the stimuli is removed or the equilibrium is otherwise disturbed.

But the woods behind his house bore no resemblance to a Skinner box, and, unlike the rat, Einar hadn’t yet mastered the concept of ratios. He vacillated, but he failed to find that point, of which Doctor Skinner had been so justly proud. Fear, in contest with his cowardice, drove him first more deeply into the lair of unknown dangers, then escalating cowardice drove him back toward his brother, the avenging angel, and fear, again advancing, forced him back once more into the shadows. In his panic, he lost all sense of direction, a sense with which he had been but poorly endowed in the first place, and he succeeded only in running around in nearly concentric circles of ever diminishing radius. And when at last he fell, exhausted, it was in the approximate center of all those circles he had just described — the center that may have been, in retrospect, his Skinner’s point.

He lay there with his face pressed into the aromatic carpet of spruce and balsam needles in a vain attempt to stifle the sound of his labored breathing. He could hear Knute pacing back and forth through the tall grass, brandishing his unholy weapon and shouting what he believed to be obscenities. And Einar was certain that Knute could hear him just as clearly as he could hear Knute. Or, if not his brother, then God knows what other creature might be listening and, even now, measuring him against its calibrated appetite. He knew all the fairy tales, and he understood the fate that awaited the unfortunate child who strayed beyond the protection of sustaining sunlight.

“Who are you? And why do you intrude upon my woods?”

He had known that the Bogeyman was out there somewhere, but he hadn’t expected to be discovered so soon.

#

It is to the English, who for centuries have been far too civilized to quiescently endure the petty problems of raising children that we owe the legend of the Bogeyman. Though it may be difficult for us out here in the break-away colonies to believe, not all English families can afford the luxuries of nannies to nurture, and public boarding schools to warehouse, their progeny. Some of them are forced by financial circumstances to actually wipe their own children’s noses and change their soiled linen. These unfortunate folk would welcome any artifice that would ease the odious burdens of parenthood. So, if the Bogeyman hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to silence noisy children and to set them properly on the path to righteousness.

The Bogeyman is not, contrary to the general assumption, an English invention; it is merely a clever adaptation of an already existing phenomenon. We are all familiar with the English penchant for ordering the world according to ethnic differences: the Englishman, at the summit of course, followed in descending order by the Scotsman, the Frenchman, the Irishman, the Chinaman and so forth down through the diverse family of man — and, at the very bottom − the Bogeyman.

Early English sailors exploring Indonesian waters often encountered, with ample repugnance and considerable trepidation, an enterprising people called the Bugis — a nation of loosely organized warrior tribes. Many of these Bugis had been driven from their homes during the reign of a particularly brutal prince, and, being excellent sailors and ferocious fighters, they naturally gravitated (and remain dedicated to this very day) to the comparatively lucrative profession of piracy. Moreover, by siding with the Dutchmen over the English in their competition to divide the world between them, they had flaunted their barbarity.

Of course, England, herself, has never been burdened with an unseemly absence of pirates among its citizenry; most of her oldest and noblest families owe their eminence to one or more of their forbears who flew the Jolly Roger. But, as civilized men, they have always had the good grace to decry the practice and to deny any taint of ancestral brigandry in their own bloodlines.

In the mind of the civilized man, piracy has always been, by its very nature, among the most despicable of crimes. The size of the small wooden vessels in which they plied their trade necessarily limited the number of men in a pirate crew, and this unfortunate limitation dictated the class of citizens upon whom they preyed. Although the bulk of the wealth of any nation consists of the corn and livestock and other commodities with which, by the sweat of its peasantry, it has been blessed, this wealth is thinly distributed across the breadth of the land. It requires an efficient and well-organized societal structure to properly plunder such bootie. A few men in a small boat in the middle of an endless sea would find it difficult to sustain a decent livelihood pursuing the occasional pocketful of rye to be found among the common folk. They must, of necessity, seek more concentrated riches: the gold and jewels to be found only in the possession of the most worthy of citizens — the well-to-do. And this, dear friends, will always be most vigorously discouraged.

It has been, perhaps even more than his fear of hanging, his English sense of propriety that has led many an errant mariner to forego his evil ways and retire to the luxurious life of the landed gentleman. And, on an estate purchased with his ill-gotten riches and with the full blessing of his peers among the gentry, to legally, morally and above all most courteously pick the pockets of the local peasantry.

The Bugis, being a savage and untutored race, have no such sense of decency. Not only do they remain unrepentant of their monstrous crimes, they seem to take some perverted pride in the enterprise, and they encourage their children to continue in the shameful family practice of piracy. It is certainly no wonder then that in good English and American homes, it is the Bogeyman — and not the Scotsman — whom we invoke to inspire respect and piety in our offspring.

#

But Einar had no knowledge of such arcane subjects as English moralism and Indonesian buccaneers. He feared the Bogeyman as any child would fear such a being — vested with immeasurable powers and utterly devoid of compassion for the problems of little people like him — much as years later and with far more reason he would learn to fear teachers and military superiors.

And so it came as a complete surprise to the child to hear his own voice, hesitant and muffled yet defiant, “This ain’t your woods. This is our prop-a-dee.”

“Everything in darkness belongs to me.” countered the Bogeyman. “I own these woods. I own the shadows. As long as it’s bright and sunny out, you think that field out there belongs to you, but tonight I’ll have that too. I’ll take everything that’s outside where the lamp light won’t reach. And under the bed, I’ll own that too.”

“Who says you can own it? My dad bought it. It’s our house, and it’s our prop-a-dee.” This disembodied voice was unmistakably his own, yet it operated independently of his control, overruling his sincere desire to melt into the earth on which he lay.

“I own it because no one can take it away from me.”

“My dad can take it away.”

“He can’t take it away because he isn’t here. You’re the only one here, and you aren’t big enough to take it from me.”

“Well, Knute is right over there. He’s big enough to take it away. He’s been to school. And he’s got poop on a stick. He can take anything he wants away from anybody.”

“Knute won’t take it from me because he doesn’t want it. He’s out there in the sunshine where he belongs. He doesn’t care about these woods; only you care. And you’re not big enough.”

Einar was losing this argument in case you haven’t been keeping score. He lay with his face pressed into the dirt to avoid seeing his tormenter. He was a spectator listening to his own voice — which seemed to emanate from five feet over his head — calmly engaged in reasoned debate over the fabled nine points of the law, while he lay cowering in the dirt like the respectful five-year-old he was. He wouldn’t have talked back to Knute, let alone the Bogeyman. And yet it was unmistakably his voice raised in reluctant defiance against this spectral bully.

Although it had never occurred to him that he should have another voice — one he’d never heard before — he wasn’t greatly surprised to learn of it either. The discovery of that other voice didn’t contradict any belief that he held sacred. If people had voices they didn’t usually use, it might simply mean that a person is more than one person after all, and there was certainly nothing surprising in that. Knute was at least two people that he knew of: the well-behaved boy he became in the company of adults, and this poop wielding avenger who would deny a younger brother the only route of escape from his current torment.

So why shouldn’t Einar be different people too? Why shouldn’t he be, on the one hand, the boy who sometimes pays attention in Sunday school and, on the other, the one who only this morning had tried to pee over the top wire of Les Opsahl’s barbed-wire fence — the one who watched over Erik while his mother made dinner and the one who sucked at his father’s discarded cigarette butts and blew make-believe smoke rings into the air — the one who cowered here in the dirt and the one up over his head arguing with the Bogeyman? He saw nothing strange in that.

“Well, I’m gonna be big someday,” Einar’s other voice hurled the ultimate — the most menacing — threat in his arsenal, “and then you’ll be sorry.”

#

From the sunlit field, Knute swore splendid vengeance in Einar’s general direction, and the wind blew a mournful melody through the evergreen boughs overhead. Einar waited, expecting a tirade of abuse for his backtalk, but no one disputed his last declaration. Maybe the Bogeyman wasn’t ferocious enough to intimidate this disembodied voice. Maybe he’d found no snappy answer to parry such a clever retort. Maybe he was considering the consequences of offending someone who would, indeed, be big someday.

It was only when the birds resumed singing, that Einar realized they had been silent. A red squirrel, loathe to suppress its eloquence longer, began scolding from the tangled branches of its lofty jurisdiction. But still, there was no answer from his fearsome visitor. An errant bumble bee, blown astray on a wayward gust of wind, droned busily past in her futile search along the forest floor for the nectar-bearing flora of the open field. Somewhere nearby, a redheaded woodpecker beat a staccato tattoo on an insect-infested tree. But the sounds of nature’s regular business only emphasized the unnatural silence centered in the thicket.

Einar was quite comfortable, thank you, lying there with his face in the dirt, so he was in no great hurry to raise his head and look around. And, although he began to suspect that his guest had taken his leave, he felt fully justified in ignoring his presence — or his absence — whichever applied. Good manners didn’t dictate that he be especially gracious to someone who either, would leave without saying goodbye, or wouldn’t respond to a perfectly friendly remark.

“I’m gonna be big someday,” he repeated less loudly and in his usual voice this time, “and then you’ll be sorry.”

#

Life — during our passage from that first slap on the ass at birth, through the humiliation of adolescence and the discomforts and disappointments of maturity, to that final one-way Cadillac ride — will not suffer the dictates of a constant velocity. Time pursues its course in fits and starts, oblivious to the wants and needs of mortal intercourse. In seemingly deliberate recalcitrance, it hurtles quickly past life’s more cheerful moments, and it interminably prolongs the unpleasantness with which we are so frequently afflicted. The older we grow, and the more precious our remaining days, the more rapidly they desert us.

But the impatient hours of a five-year-old are frozen in amber.

And so the decades rolled forever by. Civilizations rose and lingered in the limelight, then crumbled and decayed. Glaciers carved new valleys and, retreating, spawned great river systems. The collision of tectonic plates thrust virgin mountain ranges high into the stratosphere, and the wind and rain wore them flat again. And, eventually, Einar sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked around.

#

He was alone. His loathsome visitor, unaccustomed to defeat, had quit the field of honor. Even Knute had ceased his taunting and strutting and had retired, weapon unbloodied. For the first time, Einar enjoyed the luxury of a leisurely surveillance of his asylum.

He found himself in a grove of immature spruce and balsam trees. The peripheral boughs hung thick and low to the ground, screening him from searching eyes, yet not obscuring his vision of the world without. Though invisible to anyone in the field, he would have been able to see Knute, had he not given up by then and gone home. Beyond the sheltering branches of his grove, the hazel brush grew thick and intertwined, and it grasped at and held intruders. But no brush grew in the green and violet shadows at the center of his thicket, and the trees were bare of lower branches, permitting ease of movement without stooping or stumbling.

Magic governed in this grove. The still air was rich with the perfume of balsam fir, an aroma that, for Einar, would ever-after engender an aura of security — sweet sanctuary amid life’s turmoil. Einar felt thoroughly self-possessed in this enchanted refuge so deep in the woods that Knute would never find it — where even the Bogeyman was powerless to harm him. No fairy tale potentate ever possessed so wondrous a kingdom. Nor had any dominion ever enjoyed so worthy a king.

Redheaded woodpeckers provided a drum roll to announce the ascension of a new monarch to the throne of his woodland kingdom, as King Einar sat back in his twilight realm and took census of his sundry subjects. A pair of chipmunks observed a curious protocol from the trunk of a fallen tree. A snowshoe hare, unseen but for an occasional flash of white tail, bounded away in a long looping course through the hazel brush and cottonwoods, and then shyly wound its way back, all the while keeping a wary eye on its newly crowned sovereign. Butterflies and yellow jackets executed intricate aerial salutes in the humid evening air, while ticks and crickets and woodland beetles paid more pedestrian homage. From deep in the forest, a solitary partridge drummed its resonant applause, and the red squirrel, though not without vociferous misgiving, relinquished its erstwhile interest and assumed a perch of more modest elevation.

Wearing his new responsibilities like the royal robes, King Einar set out to explore his throne room, calmly and deliberately studying each tree trunk and low hanging branch. At length, he approached the largest balsam tree and contemplated the blistered purple-grey bark. He poked with his index finger at a large, glutted blister, and when his fingernail pierced the soft bark, the sweet-smelling pitch oozed out and flowed down his finger.

Balsam bark, once seen, will not leave a boy alone; it must be prodded and picked at. The blisters, like over-ripe pustules, beg to be violated. Even tired old grown-ups, knowing full well that the pitch will weld their fingers fast together, and that soap and water will avail no relief, are yet compelled to pop the blisters with their thumbnails and allow the pitch to flow out onto their hands. And then whatever they happen to touch — leaf, grass, insect, or baby bird — sticks to them and becomes as much a part of them as their own noses. Later, of course, they will regret having popped balsam blisters. But then they will do it again at the next opportunity.

#

By the time the sun began to set — by the time his mother had grown hoarse calling him, and Knute had repeatedly denied having seen him, Einar had managed to completely cover himself with pitch and moss and dirt and twigs. And by the time his clothing had been peeled off and thrown away — by the time water had been lugged from the well and he had been scoured with brown lye soap until his whole body smarted, it was well past his bedtime.

Going to bed without dinner didn’t detract from his satisfaction; he was more tired than hungry anyway. He had endured a very busy day. He had escaped Knute’s terrible vengeance, and he had outwitted the Bogeyman. He had discovered an enchanted woodland. And he had declared himself king of his own private dominion, where he had ruled wisely and justly until nearly bedtime, and he had become beloved by his subjects. Few five-year-olds could claim such achievements.

And when, in belated answer to his mother’s call, he had crossed beyond the frontiers of his kingdom, he was no less a king. When the King of Spain visits another country, he remains a monarch. He brings along his chauffeur, his barber, and his cook. All the perquisites of his office attend him wherever he goes. Foreign dignitaries call him your highness and escort him to the head of the line. They know he’s a king, and they treat him like one. But, more importantly, he knows himself he is a king. Distance cannot diminish his dominion.

The lamp had been blown out, and King Einar lay in the dark between his two brothers. The mattress stuck to him; so did the blankets and pillow. Knute stuck to him on one side, and Erik on the other. Wherever skin met skin, he stuck to himself. And yet a satisfied smile played at the corners of his mouth, and, with the sweet scent of balsam following even into his dreams, he surrendered to warm and welcome sleep.

From its dark refuge in a shadowed thicket, night emerged from a long day’s sleep to advance across the meadows and clearings, wrapping its raven mantle around each object it encountered along the meandering pathways through the fields and yards. But as it approached Einar’s house, it wrapped less tightly and less darkly, and, out of deference to the young king sleeping there within, trod more lightly and hastened on its way.

the end

Short Story

About the author

Earl Carlson

My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.

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