The Evening Kingdom

By
The Evening Kingdom

Courage can be found deep in the heart of jungle where beasts lurk behind every tree, or on the front lines of a desert battle ground where danger out numbers you like the grains of sand. However, the truest courage is found when crossing the worn painted lines of a playground basketball court. Where boundaries represent milestones, scrapped knees are the truest battle scars, and growing up is the ultimate line to be crossed.


The evening kingdom is a concrete slab with worn painted lines. The cement is rough and uneven from years of weather. At each end are basketball poles with the rims bent and crooked. Shreds of what used to be the net hang by a single thread. In the widening cracks of the cement little heads of grass poke though. Surrounded by chain-link fence, one might assume this place to be a prison, but it is a sacred place: an evening kingdom. Here, no adult governs.
A small herd of children play a game with unspoken rules—throwing the ball back and fourth without an apparent goal. There is no winning or losing-- only laughter.
The shepherd of the little children watches from a safe distance. She is ten or eleven, too old to play their games but she watches intently. Every now and then she has to settle a dispute over whose turn it is, or dust somebody off when they fall. She is the guardian of the kingdom, the shepherd of the laughing children.
A gang of noisy boys coming to play on the court soon interrupts their laughter. They are older, 15 or 16 with baggy shorts and unkempt hair. One of the boys carries a basketball, and they begin playing, first just shooting and dribbling, then, all out jungle ball. The children know the unspoken rules and move to the other half of the court.
The boys’ game is intense; all of them are focused on the ball. Nothing exists besides the ball and the hoop. Amidst the chaos of their shouting, the pounding of the ball and the feet shuffling to an uneven rhythm, nobody remembers the little ones. The shepherd is lost in the basketball game. She can’t take her eyes off the mesmerizing finesse with which the ball is flown around the court and clangs into the hoop. In her daze, she does not see the littlest of her sheep chasing after a loose rubber ball. He is not aware that his chasing has brought him across the forbidden line, the divide between adolescence and growing up. He looks up from his search for the ball long enough to see the fate he has made for himself; a hand smashes into his face and sends him skidding across the concrete and sliding into the dirt.
The shepherd girl sees this entire happening in slow motion. Before she can cry out or even move the little boy lands in the dirt on his face. She sprints to him, kneeling beside him she sees that’s his lip is cut and a little bit of blood runs from his mouth. His knees are skinned and the dirt stings his wounds. She holds him, soothes his crying. She feels anger well up inside of her, an anger of vengeance for the unjust.
She looks at the crack in the cement before her. She could just go home, take her sheep and leave the older boys to their game. But something stirs inside of her, something new. A fire is lit inside her fists, inside her head, behind her eyes. Her jaw sets and she forgets how gravely out-numbered she is, she forgets how small she is in comparison. She can only remember the terror in the eyes of her precious little sheep. Without looking back, she takes a step forward across the painted line, across adolescence, across fear. With firm conviction she says, “He’s just a little kid, you didn’t have to push him.”
Within seconds she finds herself also skidding into the dirt followed by a howling laughter from the pack of boys.
“Stay off our court kid,” one of them says.
The shepherd knows this is defeat. She takes the hand of her little sheep and signals the others to follow her home. The street lights flicker on, dusk sets in, and mothers stand in their doorways, calling their children in to get ready for bed.
Tonight, the evening kingdom is lost and a line is crossed—a crack in the cement that divides self-preservation from courage.


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