Issue 95, Spring 1985
My father comes into my room. “Look,” he says. He carefully opens his hands: a luminous, gold-colored butterfly sits in the bowl of his palms, like a light he has carried into the dark room. I prop myself up on a hand in the pillows, gazing in sleepy awe. The butterfly remains still for a while; then it twitches its wings. We watch it flutter in a curving, luminescent course to the window, and then under the sash and out into the night.
We go downstairs and noiselessly out the back door onto the dark lawn. My father points up a tree: a halo flickers around its crown. In its topmost leaves a golden colony hovers. “They’ll be there all night,” says my father, his voice a whisper. I stand beside him in my pyjamas, spellbound and feeling a strange, tranquil enchantment, as if the night has turned into my bedroom. “Where do they come from?” I ask my father. “From the moon,” he says softly. We look at the moon. “At least,” he says, “that’s what I’ve always been told.”
* * *
“Let’s eat,” says my father. We go into the dining room.
Halfway through the meal the phone rings. My father puts down his napkin and pushes back his chair and goes out to answer the phone himself, since he’s expecting a call. I seize the opportunity to right an inequality that’s been vexing me since we sat down. I pick up my father’s plate and hastily scrape what’s left on it onto mine, and bolt everything down.
My father had given himself by far the larger, tastier portion to start with. He comes back into the room and sees the two empty plates. He looks at them. I sit quietly, trying to appear vacant. He doesn’t say anything. He walks behind me. Suddenly he grips me by the back of the collar and heaves me out of my chair, onto the floor.
I lie on the floor, shocked. After a while, I get to my feet, my face burning. I set the chair back upright. I go out of the room into the hallway on trembling legs. I make my way towards the kitchen, and pause in the doorway awkwardly.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” I tell him, in an unsteady, chastened voice.
“I was only joking.” He stirs eggs in a bowl. The flame is on under a frying pan. He glances at me. He closes the lid of the egg carton on the counter and takes it over to the refrigerator.
“The sooner your mother gets back from her trip, the better,” he says.
* * *
I come into the kitchen. My mother screams. Finally she lowers her arm from in front of her face, “What are you doing, are you out of your mindV she demands. I grin at her, in my Bermudas and bare feet. “It’s okay,” I tell her in a chambered voice, through my father’s heavy, muffling lips. “He’s taking a nap, he won’t care.” “What do you mean he won’t care?" she says. “It’s his head. For God’s sake put it back right now before he wakes up.” “No,” I tell her, pouting, disappointed that her only response is this remonstration. “I’ll put it back in a while.” “Not in a while, now" she says. She moves her hands as if to take the head from me, but then her hands stammer and withdraw, repulsed by horror. “My God" she says, grimacing, wide-eyed. She presses her hands to her face. “Go away! Go away from here!” “Mom,” I protest, nonplussed.
“Get out of here!” she cries.
I stalk out of the kitchen. Hurt and surprised I plod heavily up the stairs. I go into my parents’ bedroom. I stand at the foot of the bed. My father lies on his back, mercifully unable to snore, one arm slung across his drum-like hairy chest in a pose particular to his sleep. I look at him. Then I back away, stealthily, one step at a time, out the door. On silent bare feet I steal frenetically down the hall, down the front stairs and out the front door. On the street I break into a run but the head sways violently and I slow to a scurrying walk, until I’m in the woods. Then I take my time on the path, brooding, my hands in my Bermudas pockets. I come to the creek and stand balancing on dusty feet on a hot, prominent rock. The mid-afternoon sun lays heavy, glossy patches on the water and fills the trees with a still, hot, silent glare. A bumble bee drones past, then comes back and hovers inquiringly. I get off the rock and stoop down, bracing the head with one hand, and pick up a pebble. I get back on the rock and fling the pebble at the creek.
It makes a ring in the water. Another ring suddenly blooms beside it. I look around at the path. A friend of mine comes out of the trees. “Hi,” I say to him. “Hi,” he says, in a muffled, confined voice. He stops a few feet from me. “‘You look funny,” he says. “So do you,” I tell him. I make room for him on the rock. “Where’s your dad?” I ask him. “In the hammock,” he says. “Where’s yours?” “We don’t have a hammock,” I tell him.
“He’s in bed.” Half an hour later there are half a dozen of us standing, great-headed, at the side of the creek.
* * *
My father and I quarrel and he cuffs me and I lose my balance and tumble down the carpeted stairs and bang my head into the foot of the banister.
I lie in bed with my head festooned in bandages. Every evening my father comes into my room with another present for me. A science book, which perhaps I’ll read; an instructive game, which I’ll certainly never play. Then he wheels me out onto the screen porch and turns on the lamp and reads me a story aloud, which normally he never does. The stories are hoary favorites of his from his own childhood, and they bore me terribly. But I love the sound of his voice as he reads, hammy and low and at times awkwardly urgent. Then he puts the book aside. He reaches down and from under the lamp table he brings out our paper hats. He has fashioned these with his own hands from the Sunday paper. He spreads mine wide and carefully seats it on my swaddled head. He fits his own on. Then he turns off the lamp, and in our hats we sit together waiting for the moon, a pale giant, to rise above the woods across the street.
He tells me about these woods, as my mother used to when I was still a very little child. “Yes, it’s all true . . .,” he murmurs, squeezing my hand in his, his great wavering hat nodding in the dark. “The woods are full of all sorts of things—lions, tigers, savage crocodiles . . . And two valiant soldiers,” he adds, squeezing my hand. “The young one wounded, the other, who loves him, to nurse him ...”
* * *
I am taken prisoner by pirates. They put me in irons but release me after I agree to join them. Our ship leaves the coast and enters the muddy reaches of a river. Here the wind falters and then the water becomes too shallow for navigation. We take to rowboats and after an afternoon of arduous pulling, put ashore under trees. The pirate captain says we will eat now; after dark we will move on foot to our raid’s destination. Two laughing, stinking types —my “shipmates”—come out of the woods from foraging with a squealing pig in their arms. The one who wears a brass ring in his nose thrusts his cutlass blade against the pig’s throat, and laughing all the while, the two of them let the frantic pig wriggle out of their grasp, so that when it lands it’s done the work itself of cutting its own throat.
The pig rushes briefly in idiotic, posthumous circles in its blood.
I turn away, horrified. “Go fetch me the ears,” says the captain, grinning at me sadistically as he scratches under his shirt for lice.
The sun sinks. The night is moonless. We move inland. The first mile or so is through dense woods; after much confusion and crashing and cursing, the captain angrily submits and we go under the light of a small torch. Then we reach a main road and the torch is doused and we go across. The woods are sparser here. We come to a smaller road and follow it, keeping just off the edge, breathing heavily, weapons clanking in the silence.
They have provided me only with a cudgel, apparently not trusting me with a cutlass or pistol. Suddenly I crash into the back of the man ahead of me, who has stopped. He elbows me savagely. It’s the brute with the nose ring. “We’re here,” the captain announces in a fierce whisper.
The dark shape of a mailbox stands beside the entrance of a driveway into the trees. Part of a house is visible, set back on a high lawn. I regard all of this with disbelief. “But this is where my parents live!” I gasp. “What’s that?” says the captain, eyeing me over several shoulders. “Nothing,” I reply, and I sink back out of his sight. I am in shock. I hear mutterings all around me about a fabulous treasure of vacation slides. We start in a body up the driveway. I can see now the car my mother wrote me they’ve been trying to sell. No lights show in their window. They’re asleep of course, they goto bed early. My heart is sickened, feverish. What could pirates want with my old man’s vacation slides? They are good slides, it’s true, but worth a raid? I cover my mouth, thinking of what’s in store for my poor elderly parents. We reach the lawn. The first pirate goes tramping through my mother’s zinnias. Suddenly the cudgel flails in my hands.
I race towards the house. “Mom! Dad!” I scream. “Stop him!” the captain’s voice shouts. Explosions roar around me. “Save your ammunition, save your ammunition!” the voice screams.
I fling over the welcome mat and find the key and throw open the door and go rushing down the hallway, crying alarm. The lamp is on in my parents’ bedroom. I burst in. My father is sitting on the side of the bed in his pyjama bottoms, fitting on his spectacles. His grey hair stands up in sleepy wisps. His false tooth is in the glass on the night table. “What is all that noise and shouting?” he says. “What are you doing here? I thought you were out west communing with nature. Why are you wearing that funny eyepatch?” “There’s no time for questions, we have to run,” I gasp, pulling him by the arm. “Come on!” I cry, then, looking around, I let go. “Oh my God, where’s Mom?” The bedroom door crashes against the wall. The pirates fill the threshold, all black moustaches and yellow teeth, headkerchieves, drawn cutlasses, smoking guns. “Ha!” cries the captain. He comes swaggering into the room in front of his troop.
“What’s going on?” says my father, rising to his feet. “Who are these awful people, are they friends of yours?” “They’re pirates, dad,” I muttered unhappily. The captain stops in front of us and raises his cutlass into my face. He sets the point slowly against my chin so I have to tilt my head back. “We’re going to hang you by your guts, you mutinous dog,” he announces savagely. “This is an outrage!” cries my father. “How dare you? Stop that this instant!” “Dad, don’t,” I tell him, through clenched teeth, squinting down the length of the blade. “Shut up, greybeard,” the captain sneers. He gives a quick vicious prod so that I jerk. “What we want from you,” he says, addressing my father but glaring at me, “is to tell us exactly where the slides are.” My father gasps. He draws an arm up in front of his once burly but now wizened chest in a pathetic gesture of defiance. “Never!” he cries. “What do you say?” grins the captain. He presses the cutlass slowly so I have to bend my back. “Dad ...” I plead out of the side of my mouth. There is a long, deadly pause.
“Do you think I’ll wait all night!” the captain gasps furiously and his jab makes me stagger backwards into the night table, upsetting the tooth glass. “Dad, please—” I whimper. “Stop!” cries my father. His voice breaks. “They’re in the closet, over by the secretary.” The captain grins lividly. “Ha!” he says. He pulls the cutlass away with a sharp flick of his wrist. I squeal in pain and clap a hand to my chin. I look at the palm: there is a drop of blood on it. The captain swaggers over towards the closet, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder for someone to guard us. “Don’t cry, bag-of-bones, we’ll take good care of your treasure for you,” he says, and he cackles derisively. He pushes his men out of the way and flings open the closet door.
There is a tremendous choral explosion. The captain rises into the air like a rag doll and sprawls down onto the floor.
There is no more front to his body whatsoever. My mother and the next-door neighbors, all in nightgowns, step through the smoke firing blunderbusses and muskets. “Now we’ll show them!” cries my father. Flintlock pistols blossom in each of his hands. They belch flame. Our guard screams and topples to the floor clutching his face. My father throws the pistols aside.
A saber and a dagger take their place. “Cover my back!” he cries. Stupefied, I do what he says and stand behind him. I look around for a weapon, all I can find is the cudgel I brought with me. Furious cries and clangings and explosions around in the room behind my back. Suddenly a pirate bursts in front of me. A brass ring hangs over his frenzied snarl. It’s the pig sadist. His berserk one-eye glitters at me. Cursing him, I cower under my cudgel as his cutlass rises high above my head and the spit of his own invectives sprays me. My life flashes before me. The cutlass flashes down with ferocious violence, past me, into the floor where it quivers wildly, sunk on its tip. A hand and forearm are still attached to its handle, gruesomely, all by themselves. The pirate gapes at this spectacle in one-eyed astonishment. Then his astonishment transfers to his chest, where, to a deep gurgling in his throat, the blade of a saber driven by two neuralgic hands sinks full length into his ribs, up to the hilt, then withdraws, covered in blood. He slumps, lifeless and gushing, onto the bed. “Are you alright?” cries my father, the bloody sword in his hands. “Yes, I think so,” I gasp, my knees trembling. Then I gasp again, pointing in horror.
“’Your shoulder!” I cry. “What?” says my father. He peers down his nose at the red stain at the top of his arm. “Ach, it’s just a flesh wound,” he says. He looks past me and he grins, pale in the face and looking rather foolish with his tooth missing.
“Well I think we’re about all done for the evening,” he says.
Some hours later, when many things have been cleaned up and seen to, the three of us sit alone by ourselves at last in the kitchen. The blackberry cordial my father brings out for special occasions is open on the table. My mother is putting a safety pin into the bandage on his shoulder. I have a Band-Aid on my chin. “So you see we’ve known a raid was coming for quite some time,” my father says. “Everyone in the neighborhood has been very helpful and kind about it, especially the Lewises from next door. I must say we didn’t expect to see you! But when the time came, we were ready for them.” “I’ll say you were,” I agree. “But you know, there’s still one thing in all of this I don’t quite understand: why would they want your slides?” “Oh, that,” says my father. He shifts in his seat and a grin of debonair self-effacement takes form on his face, and I realize he is trying to evoke the debonair movie heroes of his younger days.
His tooth is back in place. “Well I’ll resist the obvious temptation of saying they’re all ‘gems’. . .” he jokes urbanely, pausing to let this bon mot sink in. “But in fact,” he continues, "for some reason people seem to value them very highly.” “Did you know,” my mother breaks in, “that next month the library is going to have an exhibit of your father’s slides?” “Just prints of them,” my father corrects her. But he’s beaming proudly.
“But at their expense.” He leans back in his chair and slings his unbandaged pale arm over the back rest and regards me with a cool, wry twinkle in his eye, his characterization now in full flood. “So you see, Mr. Adventurer-Out-West,” he says, the lamplight in his hair, “maybe we do live in a quiet little town here, and perhaps we are getting on a bit in years . . .but we still manage to have our share of excitement. Wouldn’t you say?”