Knuckle Down: A Game of Marbles

From The Demon Rift



The Allie      Cuyahoga County Orphanage   October, 1906 


Fifty-six children played in the barren yard. The yard spread across half an acre that sided the orphanage’s brick building, which served as dormitory and schoolhouse. The play yard had swings, seesaws, random toys and pieces of toys, but there was little hope in the hard ground that resisted the most determined sticks of those who would play hopscotch. A few girls shared a jump rope, and in various corners, designated victims sought to avoid the gaze of their oppressors. Patty had decided to keep to herself and on her second day at her new home, she pretended she was in the park, with Grandma, Emily and Russ while they fed the ducks.

Patty Remembers

“The sky, the sky, the sky is boo,” Russie said. He never could get it right. “The sky is b-l-u-e, blue. “Ba-oo, dat’s wha I SAID!” He’d shake his head. She and Emily would laugh . . . Back and forth between the swings, around the perimeter, back and forth between the seesaws to the edge of the fenced yard, and back again between the swings. She wasn’t quick enough; she should have hidden the blanket. Ma took it; it belonged to her she said, just like Grandma’s money and . . .

Keep moving, the way to keep warm, except when your feet slipped in the snow.

“I ain’t goin’ ta jail!” Ma said, pointing the hammer at her for emphasis.The hammer had pieces of Russ’s blond hair and his blood was dripping from it.Emily was crying. “So you do what I tell you or she’s next; drop him!” Patty heard the pop of Russ’s head as it hit the ground five stories down.

Patty closed her eyes when she dropped him but she forgot to stop her ears. Oh Russ . . .

She walked along the side of the house, her eyes on the different reds of individual bricks as she turned the corner. Why did I leave him there while I cleaned her up? There was a crack as a spear of ice fell from the house’s roof. She wished for gloves so that she could hold it, waving it around like a magic wand or a sword. The sun made the ice glisten on the patch of dead grass. She wondered how long it would take to melt and disappear. As she looked closer, she saw something white sitting on the dirt, away from the slush of dirty snow. It rested near the ice spear.

She reached down and picked the allie up. Was it a marble? An allie?

The allie was round and the right size, but . . . She turned it over and . . . ah pretty . . . must be an allie. Rather than a solid milky white, it had swirls of light blue that were spider web thin on the creamy surface. She held it between her thumb and index finger, turning it. She sighed when the marble captured the sun’s light, its gleam holding the rays, reminding her of the park and saltwater taffy. Patty set it in her palm for a closer look and discovered that the blue lines curved and disappeared into a grey oval. Looks like an eye. The dark calm of the marble’s eye was soothing . . . as if to say you’re safe here . . . She held it to her cheek. A treasure, I found a treasure . . . Maybe I can find Emily and we . . .


The Allie was not a Pearl 

What she had found was not an allie, which was an alabaster marble. Though it looked like a pearl, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a piece of a wall. Not the wall that the creature mired in chaos sought to breach. Not from the dark universe, but the “allie,” a part of Stella’s pearl ring, was a chip from the wall that separated us from a universe of light.

This universe was not the heaven many sought to reach via the arduous paths of various religions.

Easily found if sincerely sought, Heaven lay beyond Creation, beyond countless universes and Time. People entered and exited its gate as they pleased. The chip, the orphan’s new treasure came from the universe of light, a place based on the physics of order and harmony.For whatever reason, intentional or not, this small piece had made its way to an Ohio farmhouse, then onto the grounds of an orphanage and into the pocket of a little girl.4

Knuckle down, Patty risks the allie

There was yelling. A fight was going on in the corner of the yard. She heard a little girl crying. “No fair no fair, I want it back! Hugo TELL him!” Patty tucked her treasure in her good pocket. The croak of adolescent laughter, older boys made her hesitate. Stay out of it. It’s not your problem. She heard sobbing and leaned against the side of the house to listen. “Nooo fair no fair! You didn’t hit it over the line. Gimme my marble. Hugo MAKE him!” “Winners keepers—losers weepers! If you wanna play, you gotta obey the rules!” A boy snickered. “Cry baby, cry for me! Waaaaa waaaa!” He laughed. “Leave my sister alone! Give it to her!”

From his voice, unchanged, higher, younger, Patty knew “Hugo” was no match for the bully.

“Make me, Hugo. You man enough?” the voice mocked him. A snap and a thump led to groaning as the older boys laughed. “Hugo!” the little girl began to wail. Patty stepped away from the side of the house. She hated bullies. Setting her face in a friendly smile, she rounded the corner. Six boys were laughing and pointing at a round-faced dark-haired boy of eight or nine who sat on the ground. The boy was holding his sister’s hand and using the other hand to rub the side of his face. His sister, a red-haired skinny rag doll of five or six years, with stricken brown eyes sat next to him muttering, “I’m sorry, Hugo, I’m sorry . . . ”

The bully held his arms in the air, dancing around as if he had just won a fair fight.

Then he saw Patty and recognized her as the new kid. It was time to learn who ran things. The bully, a lanky boy of fourteen, named Ralph, lowered his arms and winked at his friends. “Off limits, no girls. Go play on the swings, Dolly.” A wide circle lay etched in the frozen ground. Boys ranging in age from ten to early teens were crouched or standing around its edges. Near the line were two marbles, a large red and white aggie sat on the inside near the inner portion of the edge, and a smaller marble of dark blue clay rested in the middle of the dirt track. Patty kept her face friendly. “Give her back her marble and we’ll go swing.” Ralph nodded in agreement. “All you gotta do is pay, and she gets it back.” “Pay what?” she asked. She was losing patience.

“Give us a look at what you got inside them bloomers.”

Ralph was pleased with the gasp that came from his audience. A whisper from the ragdoll, “No girl . . . it’s okay . . . ” The bully narrowed his eyes. He had her cornered. Patty’s hands were jammed in her pockets. Warm, her hand was tingling with heat coming from the marble. Taking the allie from her pocket, she held it up for the bully’s inspection. “Knuckle down!” She said, “Winners keepers.” She pushed away the thought of the bully possessing her treasure. “What is that? An allie? Lemme see!” The bully started to grab, and she put it back in her pocket.“My shooter pushes yours out, and she gets her shooter back and yours too.” She waited as he considered her challenge.

Ralph stroked his chin in mock seriousness. “What’ll I get if it don’t?” he sneered, glancing back at the others

A sandy haired boy of ten was excitedly grasping the arm of a taller boy with stick-thin arms and legs, punctuated by hands and feet absurdly large in comparison. Three boys sat cross-legged, looking up in awe. All eyes fixed on Patty. “You get a look and the allie.” She said. Her smile belied the dead calm in her eyes. Her opponent considered the odds. What could go wrong? What if she beat him? He’d have to fix it. Even though the dolly looked tough, at five foot one, she was still two inches shorter, and he out-weighed her by twenty pounds. “Okay girlie, winners keepers.”

A look and the allie. A single pang of fear, what if. . . She was no coward. “Knuckle-down,” she said.

Her voice was confident, but . . . what would happen if she lost? Kneeling down, she put the allie in the crook of her index finger, resting her knuckle on the dirt as she flexed her thumb down, ready to propel the white sphere towards its target, the red and white aggie.

The gray eye floated in the swirl of blue threads and caught her attention, as if saying, “Are you sure?

Do you want to risk so much for those you don’t even know?” Cowards, her heart replied, they always lose no matter. I’m not a coward.A tear brimmed in her eye as she shot the allie. The white marble sprang up, spinning as she held her breath. Loud hoots erupted as the allie appeared to miss its mark until it landed on a small pebble. The angle of impact propelled the allie straight into the red and white aggie, which rolled out of the circle and came to a rest at the feet of the ragdoll who stared at it, unsure. Patty’s allie sat next to the blue marble as she moved quickly to retrieve it, the aggie and the blue marble.

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” insisted Ralph.

He followed her to make her set it back to what he had already decided would happen. A change of rules would fix it all. Patty whirled around and butted her head into the Ralph’s abdomen. She knocked him off his feet and scrambled up before he could grab her. The ragdoll and Hugo pulled Patty free. Ralph, who now decided to teach Patty a lesson by pulling down her bloomers, grabbed her wrist.   Before he could lock his fingers, the ragdoll bared her teeth, threatening to bite. He released Patty with a derisive “Cheat! You’re a cheater; those ain’t the rules!” The other boys stood quietly, witnessing Ralph’s disgrace.

The bell clanged as Patty and the other two children made their escape.

“I’m Hugo, and this is Hildy,” the round faced boy said. “You’re quality for sure, as my dad would say.” Hildy nodded emphatically, “Definitely quality.” “Patty.” Patty answered. “If you got a pa, why are you here?” Patty looked behind them. There was no sign of Ralph. Hugo shrugged. “He’s dead and me and my sister are charity kids. Momma went to jail, because one of her gentlemen friends found his watch missing. What about you?

Are you an orphan or charity kid?”

Patty decided he was too nosy, but there was something about Hugo’s good-natured face that she liked, so she answered. “Don’t know. I hope she’s dead.” That ended the questions, and they lined up with others. As they waited, pushing tight against the drab brick building, Patty stuffed her frozen hands deep into her pockets, clutching the allie. A gust of wind made them all shiver. Teeth chattering, she stamped her feet. Icy wisps of air found the holes in her leggings, chafing the pale skin. The leggings stretched too tight; she’d been wearing them, her only pair, for two years.   This year she’d grown five inches.

The two charity kids, Hugo and his ragdoll sister, Hildy were new like her, but had been there a week.

It seemed they already belonged. Hugo was nine and frail little Hildy, six. Patty wished she could be like them, always looking like you were having a good time, even if you weren’t. At least she had a scarf, Tandy’s. The younger woman was a nurse, and her name was Miss Tandy. Tandy had frowned and taken the checkered scarf from her own head. “Here, Patty, it’s too cold to be without a scarf.” What did she want? Eventually, Patty would know. It was cold. It would be colder tonight, her second at this place. She’d try to steal an extra blanket for her and the two smaller girls with whom she shared a bed.

The door jerked open, Leon forcing his weight against the protest of rusty hinges.

Clomping up the steep stairs to the second floor, there were only whispers and shoves. Talking resulted in a swift cuff from Mrs. Greer. Still shivering, the children rushed into the classroom stumbling against each other to claim a desk, the claim tacitly made by placing a token, a marble, a piece of bark declared “mine,” a pebble found and marked. They shed their coats and scarves, hanging them on hooks near the door.

Pulling off their shoes, they lined them up against a wall with four tall windows, the cracked shades rolled up.

Their socks, they draped on the radiator. The iron radiator with an occasional puddle forming under its ripples, stood under the windows that faced the playground. Winter sun shining through the windows brought no warmth. The radiator did though. The classroom was the warmest part of the house. It hissed as they draped their wet socks on it.

Mrs. Greer was writing lessons on the chalkboard. There were thirty-one desks in the room and fewer books.

There had been thirty-three, but two desks were now in the new infirmary. Taking a slate and a piece of yellow chalk from a stack near the chalkboard, Patty found a place on the floor, her back against the wall opposite the windows. Not so crowded, she decided. She liked looking at the tops of trees. As she watched the waving branches, she noticed a large crow hop onto the crust of snow a top the shed.

Was it watching her? Look all you want stupid bird. I’m warm, are you?

As if it understood, it spread its wings, and flying close to the window, flung chunks of ice against the pane. It WAS watching her, observing with its red eyes. No no no no no the bird hissed. Too strong—eliminate eliminate her—tear out her heart—no no no . . .

She stared back as the bird hovered, then abruptly it darted back to the shed’s roof.