On the October evening before the eighth Anniversary of the Evacuation of Armaments, the boy stood in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, watching his mother rearrange things in her dresser. His stepfather hummed as he unpacked a suitcase from a trip. The boy said his 12th birthday was in five days. No one answered, although he was sure they heard him. He cleared his throat loudly—neither his mother nor his stepfather looked his way. Hurt, the boy left the house to get away from them.
The boy had seldom been out on the streets after sundown because his mother remembered the nighttime ‘shootings’ of her childhood. As soon as she let slip that banned word, she shook her head and refused to explain it. The boy couldn’t find the word anywhere. To keep the peace for the next generation, after the Evacuation, words and images of violence had been prohibited.
The boy decided to run to the avenue along the city’s central park and then all the way downtown. Hundreds of people on the tree-lined streets were preparing for the Anniversary festivities. He saw young men climbing up ladders to hang flower baskets from the lampposts and girls making wreaths or braiding each other’s hair. Traffic was banned and a violinist or an accordionist played at every intersection.
But the boy was in a sour mood. Peace! he thought. Everybody makes such a big deal out of it.
“Peace!” he shouted to three girls holding a ladder. He meant to sound sarcastic, but the girls smiled and waved at him.
“So wonderful!” He tried for sarcasm again while running past white-haired women painting doves at an intersection.
“That’s right!” they looked up.
The boy veered away from a drumming circle, and crossed the street to avoid women dancing. There were many circles of dancers in the middle of the street, for blocks and blocks.
“Alleluya! Alleluya!” sang the women. “He can’t hurt us anymore!”
People on the sidewalks cheered the dancers, and the boy ran past all of them until he reached a desolate stretch of the avenue.
The utter silence surprised him. Here were no flowers, no happy girls. A sign taped next to the opening of a park path said, “Enter.” A sprig of rosemary was stuck into the paper.
Wanting to know what this meant, the boy followed an overgrown path into the park until he reached the edge of a vast meadow. He stood and breathed in the scent of mown grass. A dense line of oaks and dark maples encircled the basin of the meadow. South of the park, above the skyscrapers, a fiery magenta lined the bottom of the gray clouds. But here, looking at the fantastic stillness of the meadow, the boy could not understand why his mother was afraid of streets and parks at night.
He climbed a knobby crabapple tree, scraped his hand, steadied himself on a branch, and waited.
In a little while there was movement in the bushes along the path. The mayor of his neighborhood came out of the path holding a branch of rosemary. After her came the thin Chinese man who owned the dry cleaners around the corner from the boy’s home. The man stepped carefully in worn black slippers and carried a poster-size photo of a gaunt face. The boy watched others follow: the burly Little League commissioner and his wife, who carried a photo of an eager young man in a captain’s uniform. The boy stood up. Holding the branch above him for balance, he watched as mayors of other neighborhoods and hundreds of men and women from all over the city walked out of the path. They filed onto the meadow in a silent procession. Some people carried a sprig of rosemary; others, photographs. Many of the photos were of young men, but some were of young women pushing hair away from their faces, and a few were of laughing children.
The procession moved across the darkening field along the eastern line of trees, down to the gray outcroppings of schist to the south. So many people came to the meadow that the newcomers had to stop under the boy’s tree to wait for the people in front to find new places.
There was his English teacher!
She stood very still under his tree. He could see her ponytail, her smooth cheeks, her narrow shoulders, and her elbows because she was holding a photograph at waist level in both hands.
That afternoon in English class, when he had looked up from his book while analyzing a sonnet, Miss Henriques was staring at him out of her dark eyes. Her attention thrilled him. As soon as he finished the poem, she hurried down the aisle to him. Standing by his desk, she turned to the class. “This guy gets it!” she crowed and pressed an approving hand on his shoulder.
Later in the school locker room, the boys teased him. “This guy!” they laughed in sing-song. He hadn’t figured out how to answer them, so he said nothing, but he was hurt. It still hurt to think of it, and he grasped a branch and closed his eyes as the procession under the tree began.
When he opened his eyes, the boy crouched down on his branch to see where she was. Miss Henriques had moved away, but he was jubilant. He had seen her out of school.
The boy saw the meadow fill with row upon row of somber men and women. The air was cooler and the sky was getting dark when a woman called out, “I remember him!”
“Lord, how I remember my wife!” cried another.
A man near the boy’s tree said, “I remember him—my baby!”
The people on the meadow spoke in their different voices—some loud, others trembling and crying.
“My love, I remember you!” The boy thought that was his teacher’s voice. Frightened, he climbed down the tree and ran home.
When he was inside his house and about to start up the stairs to the bedrooms, he heard his mother arguing with his stepfather.
“It’s a historical object from my museum. You don’t have to see it—” she said.
“I certainly don’t want to,” said his stepfather.
“So don’t. But I can’t just ‘throw it out’ like you said!”
His stepfather answered in a low voice. The boy took a few more steps up the stairs.
“Tell me where not to look. Is it under your naughties?” his stepfather said.
The boy caught his breath.
“How you talk! Yes—under my naughties—if you want to use that silly word.”
The boy went into his bedroom without being seen. When he was in bed, his mother came to his doorway to remind him that he’d be last to leave the house the next morning, before the housekeeper arrived. Then she asked what he wanted for his birthday.
He didn’t feel like talking and pretended not to hear her. Eyes closed, he saw the empty meadow as he had seen it at first. And Miss Henriques under the tree: her ponytail glossy, holding close a photograph of a fair-haired man.
* * *
Early the next morning, his parents’ voice woke him. The boy didn’t mind; he’d rather hear them leave than wake up to an empty house.
From his bed, the boy could see the morning light around the window shade. He heard the front door shut. He was alone.
On his way back to bed from the bathroom, the boy noticed that the top drawer of his mother’s dresser was not shut all the way. If it was open when she came home, she might accuse the housekeeper of going through her things, he thought. To close the top drawer, he had to open the second and when he saw her lacy nightgowns, he remembered last night’s argument.
His mother’s way of keeping score of other people’s rights and wrongs had given the boy a way of thinking. At school, if he did something good, such as hold a door for a kid he didn’t like, he rewarded himself by taking an extra lap around the track after they were told to stop. Since he would save the housekeeper from suspicion by closing the drawers, he decided to reward himself by looking at the historical object under her nightgowns.
He reached under the slippery nightgowns until he found a heavy something wrapped in a thick silver polishing cloth. He lifted it out carefully: it felt broken. He pushed the top and second drawers closed with his elbow and carried the broken thing in both hands to his bedroom.
Put it back, he told himself as he put it down on the rug and sat next to it. “Put it back!”—he imagined his mother yelling.
If he was brave enough to look, he’d know something his stepfather didn’t.
He would look. He unwrapped the heavy object carefully, so that it wouldn’t fall apart.
His window shades were still down but there was enough morning light to see by. So old and half-broken! What was this thing! Historical? He had never seen anything like this object, with a scratched wooden cylinder and a metal contraption on top.
The writing on an index card attached to the object by a purple ribbon said it was a “flintlock pistol” made in Paris in 178… the last number of the date was stained. It was ‘used by the leaders of the Royalists to shoot Republicans…” The remaining words were also too stained to read.
“To shoot.” Was this a thing for the shootings his mother was afraid of? Was it a bad thing? He lifted the strange, heavy object and laid it down on its other side. Screwed onto the cylinder was a polished silver engraving of three muscular figures in a style the boy recognized from his book of Greek myths. The middle figure, a robust centaur, had one leg raised as if he’d just kicked the warrior on his right. Holding a club in one hand, the frowning centaur was about to swing at the warrior on the left.
It’s art—that’s is why she has it, he thought. The action in the engraving pleased him. He liked the centaur’s boldness and the shininess of the silver, and ran his finger over the grooves of the men’s beards and the hair.
The boy left the pistol on the floor while he took a shower. When he came back to his room, he eyed it as he dressed.
I could show the engraving to Miss Henriques, he thought. It might cheer her up after last night. If he unscrewed the engraving, he could bring it to school and stay after class to show her. She’d ask him if he remembered his Greek myths. Yes, he did. She might pat his arm in thanks for bringing her this beautiful thing. He smiled to think of that.
The boy tried all the screwdrivers in the box he kept under his bed, but the old screws would not come out of the engraving.
He decided to bring the entire pistol to school and keep it a secret until he talked to Miss Henriques. The boy checked his phone calendar: all his classes were cancelled for the Evacuation of Armaments assemblies and picnic, except for last period. He was relieved that he’d still have English. After wrapping the pistol in the polishing cloth and two towels (because it was historical), he fit it neatly into the bottom of his book bag and left for school.
* * *
As students were leaving the room at the end of class, Miss Henriques untied the window shades and let the warm October sun shine in through the row of windows. Then she looked down at the field. The boy, who was standing in the back of the room, thought that she was more beautiful than ever in her magenta dress and glamorous make-up.
He cleared his throat. Miss Henriques turned around.
“You!” she said. “How are you?”
He spent the day waiting for this moment, but now it was difficult to talk.
“I’m ok,” he finally said.
“Well then. You caught me in a good mood,” she told him. “This is my favorite holiday! But I guess the kids were a little bored.”
To avoid admitting that everyone complained about the Anniversary, the boy said that he wanted to show her something. She sat down at her desk in front of the classroom and waved him over.
“A poem?” she said.
He shook his head no as he laid the wrapped object on top of a poetry anthology on her desk.
“What can it be!” She was happy. “Do you read poems at home with your parents? No? How did you learn to be so good at analyzing—”
He had folded the towels tightly around the pistol and it took several minutes to figure out how to unfold them.
“So mysterious!” laughed Miss Henriques.
Finally the boy flung the towels off the pistol.
She sat still and said nothing.
He waited. Kids walked past the open classroom door on their way out of the building.
“What,” she whispered. Then she turned part of the way towards him, her face drawn, mouth open.
“Oh! I wanted to show you the other side.” The boy turned over the pistol to show the engraving, and smiled, hoping it would please her.
Miss Henriques ignored the engraving.
“Do you know what this is for?” she said hoarsely.
“To shoot. But I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t know what that means.”
“It hurts people?” He wanted to know.
She stood up and kicked her chair away. The boy thought that yes, to shoot must be very bad, or Miss Henriques wouldn’t have done that. It must be something horrible.
“I just wanted to show you that, because—” he pointed at the engraving.
She shook her head, no.
The boy was frightened of the situation. He couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘beautiful’ to her—that he wanted to show her the engraving because it was beautiful. He remembered that ‘pretty’ was a synonym for beautiful, but he couldn’t say that to her either. He gestured at the engraving. “It’s nice,” he whispered.
“How did you get it? There aren’t supposed to be any more.” She leaned against the wall behind her desk, then pulled the comb out of her bun and her hair fell onto her shoulders.
“My mother works in a museum. She said it’s historical. It was in her dresser.”
Miss Henriques covered her face with her hands.
The boy felt he was beyond his abilities and looked out the windows at the bright October sky. On the field below the classroom, boys chanted the name of their favorite football team. The engines of the school buses on the street were revving up, and there was the laughing and snickering of students let out from school.
“Take it off that book.” When Miss Henriques took her hands away from her face, the boy saw that her eye make-up was smudged onto her cheekbones.
Relieved to be told what to do, he moved the pistol with its cloths to an empty space on the desk.
Miss Henriques stepped towards the desk and snapped her comb down against the wooden desktop. Then she took the small hammer used for tacking the best essays to the bulletin board out of a desk drawer.
“Close the door and come back,” she said. He closed the classroom door and returned to her desk.
As soon as he was standing next to her, Miss Henriques hit the engraving with the hammer.
The boy shouted, “Wait!” but she hit it again. With her hair hanging loose against her angry, smudged face, she struck at the engraving, the barrel, the trigger, but she wasn’t strong enough to break anything.
The boy snatched the hammer from her and hit the pistol. He had never done such a thing before. He raised his arm and brought the hammer down hard. He liked smashing. He liked seeing chips fly off the pistol.
Then, holding the hammer above the pistol, the boy glanced at the six rows of empty desks whose blond wood shone in the sunlight. He felt powerful at the front of the room with the teacher watching him, and looked down at the engraving. The boy thought that if he struck it, he’d be smashing something, like the centaur. He brought the hammer down and dented one of the warriors. Miss Henriques made an encouraging sound.
When he raised the hammer again, the boy remembered that his real father used to hold his hand up high and wiggle his fingers before he smacked the dog. The boy reached higher too and waved the hammer once before bringing it down. With a crack he split a piece of wood off the handle. Then, he looked down at the pistol to hide his great delight from Miss Henriques.