“War,” by Timothy Findley

That’s my dad in the middle. We were just kids then, Bud on the right and me on the left. That was taken just before my dad went into the army.

Some day that was.

It was a Saturday, two years ago. August, 1940. I can remember I had to blow my nose just before that and I had to use my dad’s hankie because mine had a worm in it that I was saving. I can’t remember why; I mean, why I was saving that worm, but I can remember why I had to blow my nose, all right. That was because I’d had a long time crying. Not exactly because my dad was going away or anything—it was mostly because I’d done something.

I’ll tell you what in a minute, but I just want to say this first. I was ten years old then and it was sort of the end of summer. When we went back to school I was going into the fifth grade and that was pretty important, especially for me because I’d skipped Grade Four. Right now, I can’t even remember Grade Five except that I didn’t like it. I should have gone to Grade Four. In Grade Five, everyone was a genius and there was a boy called Allan McKenzie.

Anyway, now that you know how old I was and what grade I was into, I can tell you the rest.

It was the summer the war broke out and I went to stay with my friend, Arthur Robertson. Looking back on it, Arthur seems a pretty silly name for Arthur Robertson because he was so small. But he was a nice kid and his dad had the most enormous summer cottage you’ve ever seen. In Muskoka, too.

It was like those houses they have in the movies in Beverly Hills. Windows a mile long—pine trees outside and then a lake and then a red canoe tied up with a yellow rope. There was a Native man, too, who sold little boxes made of birchbark and porcupine quills. Arthur Robertson and I used to sit in the red canoe and this man would take us for a ride out to the raft and back. Then we’d go and tell Mrs. Robertson or the cook or someone how nice he was and he’d stand behind us and smile as though he didn’t understand English and then they’d have to buy a box from him. He certainly was smart, because it worked about four times. Then one day they caught on and hid the canoe.

Anyway, that’s the sort of thing we did. And we swam too, and I remember a book that Arthur Robertson’s nurse read to us. It was about dogs.

Then I had to go away because I’d only been invited for two weeks. I went on to this farm where the family took us every summer when we were children. Bud was already there, and his friend, Teddy Hartley.

I didn’t like Teddy Hartley.

It was because he had a space between his teeth and he used to spit through it. Once I saw him spit two-and-a-half yards. Bud paced it out. And then he used to whistle through it, too, that space, and it was the kind of whistling that nearly made your ears bleed. That was what I didn’t like. But it didn’t really matter, because he was Bud’s friend, not mine.

So I went by train and Mr. and Mrs. Currie met me in their truck.
It was their farm.

Mrs. Currie got me into the front with her while Mr. Currie put my stuff in the back.

“Your mum and dad aren’t here, dear, but they’ll be up tomorrow. Buddy is here—and his friend.”

Grownups were always calling Bud “Buddy.” It was all wrong.

I didn’t care too much about my parents not being there, except that I’d brought them each one of those birchbark boxes. Inside my mother’s there was a set of red stones I’d picked out from where we swam. I thought maybe she’d make a necklace out of them. In my dad’s there was an old golf ball, because he played golf. I guess you’d have to say I stole it, because I didn’t tell anyone I had it—but it was just lying there on a shelf in Mr. Robertson’s boathouse, and he never played golf. At least, I never saw him.

I had these boxes on my lap because I’d thought my mum and dad would be there to meet me, but now that they weren’t I put them into the glove compartment of the truck.

We drove to the farm.

Bud and Teddy were riding on the gate, and they waved when we drove past. I couldn’t see too well because of the dust but I could hear them shouting. It was something about my dad. I didn’t really hear exactly what it was they said, but Mrs. Currie went white as a sheet and said: “Be quiet,” to Bud.

Then we were there and the truck stopped. We went inside.

And now—this is where it begins.
After supper, the evening I arrived at the Curries’ farm, my brother Bud and his friend Teddy Hartley and I all sat on the front porch. In a hammock.

This is the conversation we had.

BUD: (to me) Are you all right? Did you have a good time at Arthur Robertson’s place? Did you swim?
ME: (to Bud) Yes.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I’ve got a feeling I don’t like Arthur Robertson.
Do I know him?
BUD: Kid at school. Neil’s age. (He said that as if it were dirty to be my age.)
TEDDY HARTLEY: Thin kid? Very small?
BUD: Thin and small—brainy type. Hey Neil, have you seen Ted spit?
ME: Yes—I have.
TEDDY HARTLEY: When did you see me spit? I never spat for you.
ME: Yes, you did. About three months ago. We were still in school.
Bud—he did too, and you walked it out, too, didn’t you?
BUD: I don’t know.
TEDDY HARTLEY: I never spat for you yet! Never!
ME: Two yards and a half.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Can’t have been me. I spit four.
ME: Four YARDS!!
BUD: Go ahead and show him. Over the rail.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (Standing up) Okay. Look, Neil. Now watch… Come on, WATCH!!
ME: All right—I’m watching.
(Teddy Hartley spat. It was three yards and a half by Bud’s feet.
I saw Bud mark it myself.)
BUD: Three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four yards. (Maybe his feet were smaller or something.)
BUD: Three-and-foot. Three and one foot. No, no. A half-a-one. Of a foot.
BUD: Three!
TEDDY HARTLEY: Four! Four! Four!
BUD: One-two-three-and-a-half-a-foot!!
TEDDY HARTLEY: My dad showed me. It’s four! He showed me, and he knows. My dad knows. He’s a mathematical teacher—yes, yes, yes, he showed me how to count a yard. I saw him do it. And he knows, my dad!!
BUD: Your dad’s a crazy man. It’s three yards and a half a foot.
TEDDY HARTLEY: (All red in the face and screaming) You called my dad a nut! You called my dad a crazy-man-nut-meg! Take it back, you. Bud Cable, you take that back.
BUD: Your dad is a matha-nut-ical nutmeg tree.
TEDDY HARTLEY: Then your dad’s a…your dad’s a…your dad’s an Insane!
BUD: Our dad’s joined the army.

That was how I found out.

They went on talking like that for a long time. I got up and left. I started talking to myself, which is a habit I have.

“Joined the army? Joined the army? Joined the ARMY! Our dad?”

Our dad was a salesman. I used to go to his office and watch him selling things over the phone sometimes. I always used to look for what it was, but I guess they didn’t keep it around the office. Maybe they hid it somewhere. Maybe it was too expensive to just leave lying around. But whatever it was, I knew it was important, and so that was one thing that bothered me when Bud said about the army—because I knew that in the army they wouldn’t let my dad sit and sell things over any old phone—because in the army you always went in a trench and got hurt or killed. I knew that because my dad had told me himself when my uncle died. My uncle was his brother in the first war, who got hit in his stomach and he died from it a long time afterwards. Long enough, anyway, for me to have known him. He was always in a big white bed, and he gave us candies from a glass jar. That was all I knew—except that it was because of being in the army that he died. His name was Uncle Frank.

So those were the first two things I thought of: my dad not being able to sell anything any more—and then Uncle Frank.

But then it really got bad, because I suddenly remembered that my dad had promised to teach me how to skate that year. He was going to make a rink too; in the backyard. But if he had to go off to some old trench in France, then he’d be too far away. Soldiers always went in trenches—and trenches were always in France. I remember that.

Well, I don’t know. Maybe I just couldn’t forgive him. He hadn’t even told me. He didn’t even write it in his letter that he’d sent me at Arthur Robertson’s. But he’d told Bud—he’d told Bud, but I was the one he’d promised to show how to skate. And I’d had it all planned how I’d really surprise my dad and turn out to be a skating champion and everything, and now he wouldn’t even be there to see.

All because he had to go and sit in some trench.

I don’t know how I got there, but I ended up in the barn. I was in the hayloft and I didn’t even hear them, I guess. They were looking all over the place for me, because it started to get dark.

I don’t know whether you’re afraid of the dark, but I’ll tell you right now, I am. At least, I am if I have to move around in it. If I can just sit still, then I’m all right. At least, if you sit still you know where you are. And that’s awful. You never know what you’re going to step on next and I always thought it would be a duck. I don’t like ducks—especially in the dark or if you stepped on them.

Anyway, I was in the hayloft in the barn and I heard them calling out—
”Neil, Neil”—and “Where are you?” But I made up my mind right then I wasn’t going to answer. For one thing, if I did, then I’d have to go down to them in the dark—and maybe I’d step on something. And for another, I didn’t really want to see anyone anyway.

It was then that I got this idea about my father. I thought that maybe if
I stayed hidden for long enough, then he wouldn’t join the army. Don’t ask me why—right now I couldn’t tell you that—but in those days it made sense. If I hid then he wouldn’t go away. Maybe it would be because he’d stay looking for me or something.

The trouble was that my dad wasn’t even there that night, and that meant that I either had to wait in the hayloft till he came the next day—or else that I had to go down now, and then hide again tomorrow. I decided to stay where I was because there were some ducks at the bottom of the ladder. I couldn’t see them but I could tell they were there.

I stayed there all night. I slept most of the time. Every once in a while they’d wake me up by calling out “Neil! Neil!”—but I never answered.

I never knew a night that was so long, except maybe once when I was in the hospital. When I slept I seemed to sleep for a long time, but it never came to morning. They kept waking me up but it was never time.

Then it was.

I saw that morning through a hole in the roof of the hayloft. The sunlight came in through cracks between the boards and it was all dusty; the sunlight, I mean.

They were up pretty early that morning, even for farmers. There seemed to be a lot more people than I remembered—and there were two or three cars and a truck I’d never seen before, too. And I saw Mrs. Currie holding onto Bud with one hand and Teddy Hartley with the other. I remember thinking, “If I was down there, how could she hold onto me if she’s only got two hands and Bud and Teddy Hartley to look after?” And I thought that right then she must be pretty glad I wasn’t around.

I wondered what they were all doing. Mr. Currie was standing in the middle of a lot of men and he kept pointing out the scenery around the farm. I imagined what he was saying. There was a big woods behind the house and a cherry and plum tree orchard that would be good to point out to his friends. I could tell they were his friends from the way they were listening. What I couldn’t figure out was why they were all up so early—and why they had Bud and Teddy Hartley up, too.

Then there was a police car. I suppose it came from Orillia or somewhere. That was the biggest town near where the farm was. Orillia.

When the police got out of their car, they went up to Mr. Currie. There were four of them. They all talked for quite a long time and then everyone started going out in all directions. It looked to me as though Bud and Teddy Hartley wanted to go, too, but Mrs. Currie made them go in the house. She practically had to drag Bud. It looked as if he was crying and I wondered why he should do that.

Then one of the police officers came into the barn. He was all alone. I stayed very quiet, because I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from going through with my plan about my dad. Not even a police officer.

He urinated against the wall inside the door. It was sort of funny, because he kept turning around to make sure no one saw him, and he didn’t know I was there. Then he did up his pants and stood in the middle of the floor under the haylofts.

“Hey! Neil!”

That was the police officer.

He said it so suddenly that it scared me. I nearly fell off from where I was, it scared me so much. And I guess maybe he saw me, because he started right up the ladder at me.

“How did you know my name?”

I said that in a whisper.

“They told me.”


“Have you been here all night?”


“Don’t you realize that everyone has been looking for you all over the place? Nobody’s even been to sleep.”

That sort of frightened me—but it was all right, because he smiled when he said it.

Then he stuck his head out of this window that was there to let the air in (so that the barn wouldn’t catch on fire)—and he yelled down, “He’s all right—I’ve found him! He’s up here.”

And I said: “What did you go and do that for? Now you’ve ruined everything.”

He smiled again and said, “I had to stop them all going off to look for you. Now,”—as he sat down beside me—“do you want to tell me what is it you’re doing up here?”


I think that sort of set him back a couple of years, because he didn’t say anything for a minute—except “Oh.”

Then I thought maybe I had to have something to tell the others anyway, so I might as well make it up for him right now.

“I fell asleep,” I said.

“When—last night?”


I looked at him. I wondered if I could trust a guy who did that against walls, when all you had to do was go in the house.

“Why did you come up here in the first place?” he said. I decided I could trust him because I remembered once when I did the same thing. Against the wall.

So I told him.

“I want to hide on my dad,” I said.

“Why do you want to do that? And besides, Mrs. Currie said your parents weren’t even here.”

“Yes, but he’s coming today.”

“But why hide on him? Don’t you like him, or something?”

“Sure I do,” I said.

I thought about it.

“But he’s…he’s…Do you know if it’s true, my dad’s joined the army?”

“I dunno. Maybe. There’s a war on, you know.”

“Well, that’s why I hid.”

But he laughed.

“Is that why you hid? Because of the war?”

“Because of my dad.”

“You don’t need to hide because of the war—the Germans aren’t coming over here, you know.”

“But it’s not that. It’s my dad.” I could have told you he wouldn’t understand.

I was trying to think of what to say next when Mrs. Currie came into the barn. She stood down below.

“Is he up there, officer? Is he all right?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ve got him. He’s fine.”

“Neil dear, what happened? Why don’t you come down and tell us what happened to you?”

Then I decided that I’d really go all out. I had to, because I could tell they weren’t going to—it was just obvious that these people weren’t going to understand me and take my story about my dad and the army and everything.

“Somebody chased me.”

The police officer looked sort of shocked and I could hear Mrs. Currie take in her breath.

“Somebody chased you, eh?”



I had to think fast.

“Some man. But he’s gone now.”

I thought I’d better say he was gone, so that they wouldn’t start worrying.

“Officer, why don’t you bring him down here? Then we can talk.”

“All right, ma’am. Come on, Neil, we’ll go down and have some breakfast.”

They didn’t seem to believe me about that man I made up.

We went over to the ladder.

I looked down. A lot of hay stuck out so that I couldn’t see the floor.

“Are there any ducks down there?”

“No, dear, you can come down—it’s all right.”

She was lying, though. There was a great big duck right next to her. I think it’s awfully silly to tell a lie like that. I mean, if the duck is standing right there it doesn’t even make sense, does it?

But I went down anyway and she made the duck go away.

When we went out, the police officer held my hand. His hand had some sweat on it but it was a nice hand, with hair on the back. I liked that. My dad didn’t have that on his hand.

Then we ate breakfast with all those people who’d come to look for me. At least, they ate. I just sat.

After breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Currie took me upstairs to the sitting room. It was upstairs because the kitchen was in the cellar.

All I remember about that was a vase that had a potted plant in it. This vase was made of putty and into the putty Mrs. Currie had stuck all kinds of stones and pennies and old bits of glass and things. You could look at this for hours and never see the same kind of stone or glass twice. I don’t remember the plant.

All I remember about what they said was that they told me I should never do it again. That routine.

Then they told me my mother and my dad would be up that day around lunch time.

What they were really sore about was losing their sleep, and then all those people coming. I was sorry about that—but you can’t very well go down and make an announcement about it, so I didn’t.

At twelve o’clock, I went and sat in Mr. Currie’s truck. It was in the barn. I took out those two boxes I’d put in the glove compartment and looked at them. I tried to figure out what my dad would do with an old box like that in the army. And he’d probably never play another game of golf as long as he lived. Not in the army, anyway. Maybe he’d use the box for his bullets or something.

Then I counted the red stones I was going to give my mother. I kept seeing them around her neck and how pretty they’d be. She had a dress they’d be just perfect with. Blue. The only thing I was worried about was how to get a hole in them so you could put them on a string. There wasn’t much sense in having beads without a string—not if you were going to wear them, anyway—or your mother was.

And it was then that they came.

I heard their car drive up outside and I went and looked from behind the barn door. My father wasn’t wearing a uniform yet like I’d thought he would be. I began to think maybe he really didn’t want me to know about it. I mean, he hadn’t written or anything, and now he was just wearing an old blazer and some grey pants. It made me remember.

I went back and sat down in the truck again. I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there with those stones in my hand.

Then I heard someone shout, “Neil!”

I went and looked. Mr. and Mrs. Currie were standing with my parents by the car—and I saw Bud come running out of the house, and then Teddy Hartley. Teddy Hartley sort of hung back, though. He was the kind of person who’s only polite if there are grownups around him. He sure knew how to pull the wool over their eyes, because he’d even combed his hair. Wildroot-cream-oil-Charlie.

Then I noticed that they were talking very seriously and my mother put her hand above her eyes and looked around. I guess she was looking for me. Then my dad started toward the barn.

I went and hid behind the truck. I wasn’t quite sure yet what I was going to do, but I certainly wasn’t going to go up and throw my arms around his neck or anything.

“Neil. Are you in there, son?”

My dad spoke that very quietly. Then I heard the door being pushed open, and some chicken had to get out of the way, because I heard it making that awful noise chickens make when you surprise them doing something. They sure can get excited over nothing—chickens.

I took a quick look behind me. There was a door there that led into the part of the barn where the haylofts were and where I’d been all night. I decided to make a dash for it. But I had to ward off my father first—and so I threw that stone.

I suppose I’ll have to admit that I meant to hit him. It wouldn’t be much sense if I tried to fool you about that. I wanted to hit him because when I stood up behind the truck and saw him then I suddenly got mad. I thought about how he hadn’t written me, or anything.

It hit him on the hand.

He turned right around because he wasn’t sure what it was or where it came from. And before I ran, I just caught a glimpse of his face. He’d seen me and he sure looked peculiar. I guess that now I’ll never forget his face and how he looked at me right then. I think it was that he looked as though he might cry or something. But I knew he wouldn’t do that, because he never did.

Then I ran.

From the loft I watched them in the yard. My dad was rubbing his hands together and I guess maybe where I’d hit him it was pretty sore. My mother took off her handkerchief that she had round her neck and put it on his hand. Then I guess he’d told them what I’d done, because this time they all started toward the barn.

I didn’t know what to do then. I counted out the stones I had left and there were about fifteen of them. There was the golf ball, too.

I didn’t want to throw stones at all of them. I certainly didn’t want to hit my mother—and I hoped that they wouldn’t send her in first. I thought then how I’d be all right if they sent in Teddy Hartley first. I didn’t mind the thought of throwing at him, I’ll tell you that much.

But my dad came first.

I had a good view of where he came from. He came in through the part where the truck was parked, because I guess he thought I was still there. And then he came on into the part where I was now—in the hayloft.

He stood by the door.


I could only just see his head and shoulders—the rest of him was hidden by the edge of the loft.

“Neil, aren’t you even going to explain what you’re angry about?”
I thought for a minute and then I didn’t answer him after all. I looked at
him, though. He looked worried.

“What do you want us to do?”

I sat still.


Since I didn’t answer, he started back out the door—I guess to talk to my mother or someone.

I hit his back with another stone. I had to make sure he knew I was there. He turned around at me.

“Neil, what’s the matter? I want to know what’s the matter.”

He almost fooled me, but not quite. I thought that perhaps he really didn’t know for a minute—but after taking a look at him I decided that he did know, all right. I mean, there he was in that blue blazer and everything—just as if he hadn’t joined the army at all.

So I threw again and this time it really hit him in the face.

He didn’t do anything—he just stood there. It really scared me. Then my mother came in, but he made her go back.

I thought about my rink, and how I wouldn’t have it. I thought about being in the fifth grade that year and how I’d skipped from Grade Three. And I thought about the Native man who’d sold those boxes that I had down in the truck.

“Neil—I’m going to come up.”

You could tell he really would, too, from his voice.

I got the golf ball ready.

To get to me he had to disappear for a minute while he crossed under the loft and then when he climbed the ladder. I decided to change my place while he was out of sight. I began to think that was pretty clever and that maybe I’d be pretty good at that war stuff myself. Field Marshal Cable.

I put myself into a little trench of hay and piled some up in front of me. When my dad came up over the top of the ladder, he wouldn’t even see me and then I’d have a good chance to aim at him.

The funny thing was that at that moment I’d forgotten why I was against him. I got so mixed up in all that Field Marshal stuff that I really forgot all about my dad and the army and everything. I was just trying to figure out how I could get him before he saw me—and that was all.

I got further down in the hay and then he was there.
He was out of breath and his face was all sweaty, and where I’d hit him there was blood. And then he put his hand with my mother’s hankie up to his face to wipe it. And he sort of bit it (the handkerchief). It was as if he was confused or something. I remember thinking he looked then just like I’d felt my face go when Bud had said our dad had joined the army. You know how you look around with your eyes from side to side as though maybe you’ll find the answer to it somewhere near you? You never do find it, but you always look anyway, just in case.

Anyway, that’s how he was just then, and it sort of threw me. I had that feeling again that maybe he didn’t know what this was all about. But then, he had to know, didn’t he? Because he’d done it.

I had the golf ball ready in my right hand and one of those stones in the other. He walked toward me.

I missed with the golf ball and got him with the stone.

And he fell down. He really fell down. He didn’t say anything—he didn’t even say “ouch,” like I would have—he just fell down.

In the hay.

I didn’t go out just yet. I sat and looked at him. And I listened.


Do you know, there wasn’t a sound in that whole place? It was as if everything had stopped because they knew what had happened.

My dad just lay there and we waited for what would happen next. It was me.

I mean, I made the first noise.

I said: “Dad?”

But nobody answered—not even my mother.

So I said it louder. “Dad?”

It was just as if they’d all gone away and left me with him, all alone.

He sure looked strange lying there—so quiet and everything. I didn’t know what to do.


I went over on my hands and knees.

Then suddenly they all came in. I just did what I thought of first. I guess it was because they scared me—coming like that when it was so quiet.

I got all the stones out of my pockets and threw them, one by one, as they came through the door. I stood up to do it. I saw them all running through the door, and I threw every stone, even at my mother.

And then I fell down. I fell down beside my dad and pushed him over on his back because he’d fallen on his stomach. It was like he was asleep.

They came up then and I don’t remember much of that. Somebody picked me up, and there was the smell of perfume and my eyes hurt and I got something in my throat and nearly choked to death and I could hear a lot of talking. And somebody was whispering, too. And then I felt myself being carried down and there was the smell of oil and gasoline and some chickens had to be got out of the way again and then there was sunlight.

Then my mother just sat with me, and I guess I cried for a long time. In the cherry and plum tree orchard—and she seemed to understand because she said that he would tell me all about it and that he hadn’t written me because he didn’t want to scare me when I was all alone at Arthur Robertson’s.

And then Bud came.

My mother said that he should go away for a while. But he said: “I brought something” and she said: “What is it, then?” and now I remember where I got that worm in my handkerchief that I told you about.

It was from Bud.

He said to me that if I wanted to, he’d take me fishing on the lake just before the sun went down. He said that was a good time. And he gave me that worm because he’d found it.

So my mother took it and put it in my hankie and Bud looked at me for a minute and then went away.

The worst part was when I saw my dad again.

My mother took me to the place where he was sitting in the sun and we just watched each other for a long time.

Then he said: “Neil, your mother wants to take our picture because I’m going away tomorrow to Ottawa for a couple of weeks, and she thought I’d like a picture to take with me.”

He lit a cigarette and then he said: “I would, too, you know, like that picture.”

And I sort of said: “All right.”

So they called to Bud, and my mother went to get her camera.

But before Bud came and before my mother got back, we were alone for about ten hours. It was awful.

I couldn’t think of anything and I guess he couldn’t either. I had a good look at him, though.

He looked just like he does right there in that picture. You can see where the stone hit him on his right cheek—and the one that knocked him out is the one over the eye.

Right then the thing never got settled. Not in words, anyway. I was still thinking about that rink and everything—and my dad hadn’t said anything about the army yet.

I wish I hadn’t done it. Thrown those stones and everything. It wasn’t his fault he had to go.

For another thing, I was sorry about the stones because I knew I wouldn’t find any more like them—but I did throw them, and that’s that.

They both got those little boxes, though—I made sure of that. And in one there was a string of red beads from Orillia and in the other there was a photograph.

There still is. ◆

A Sunrise on the Veld

“A Sunrise on the Veld” by Doris Lessing

Every night that winter he said aloud into the dark of the pillow: Half-past four! Half-past four! till his brain had gripped the words and held them fast. Then he fell asleep at once, as if a shutter had fallen; and lay with his face turned to the clock so that he could see it first thing when he woke.

It was half-past four to the minute, every morning. Triumphantly pressing down the alarm-knob of the clock, which the dark half of his mind had outwitted, remaining vigilant all night and counting the hours as he lay relaxed in sleep, he huddled down for a last warm moment under the clothes, playing with the idea of lying abed for this once only. But he played with it for the fun of knowing that it was a weakness he could defeat without effort; just as he set the alarm each night for the delight of the moment when he woke and stretched his limbs, feeling the muscles tighten, and thought: Even my brain – even that! I can control every part of myself.

Luxury of warm rested body, with the arms and legs and fingers waiting like soldiers for a word of command! Joy of knowing that the precious hours were given to sleep voluntarily! – for he had once stayed awake three nights running, to prove that he could, and then worked all day, refusing even to admit that he was tired; and now sleep seemed to him a servant to be commanded and refused.

The boy stretched his frame full-length, touching the wall at his head with his hands, and the bedfoot with his toes; then he sprung out, like a fish leaping from water. And it was cold, cold.

He always dressed rapidly, so as to try and conserve his night-warmth till the sun rose two hours later; but by the time he had on his clothes his hands were numbed and he could scarcely hold his shoes. These he could not put on for fear of waking his parents, who never came to know how early he rose.

As soon as he stepped over the lintel, the flesh of his soles contracted on the chilled earth, and his legs began to ache with cold. It was night: the stars were glittering, the trees standing black and still. He looked for signs of day, for the greying of the edge of a stone, or a lightening in the sky where the sun would rise, but there was nothing yet. Alert as an animal he crept past the dangerous window, standing poised with his hand on the sill for one proudly fastidious moment, looking in at the stuffy blackness of the room where his parents lay.

Feeling for the grass-edge of the path with his toes, he reached inside another window further along the wall, where his gun had been set in readiness the night before. The steel was icy, and numbed fingers slipped along it, so that he had to hold it in the crook of his arm for safety. Then he tiptoed to the room where the dogs slept, and was fearful that they might have been tempted to go before him; but they were waiting, their haunches crouched in reluctance at the cold, but ears and swinging tails greeting the gun ecstatically. His warning undertone kept them secret and silent till the house was a hundred yards back: then they bolted off into the bush, yelping excitedly. The boy imagined his parents turning in their beds and muttering: Those dogs again! before they were dragged back in sleep; and he smiled scornfully. He always looked back over his shoulder at the house before he passed a wall of trees that shut it from sight. It looked so low and small, crouching there under a tall and brilliant sky. Then he turned his back on it.

He would have to hurry. Before the light grew strong he must be miles away; and already a tint of green stood in the hollow of a leaf, and the air smelled of morning and the stars were dimming.

He slung the shoes over his shoulder, veld skoen that were crinkled and hard with the dews of a hundred mornings. They would be necessary when the ground became too hot to bear. Now he felt the chilled dust push up between his toes, and he let the muscles of his feet spread and settle into the shapes of the earth; and he thought: I could walk a hundred miles on feel like these! I could walk all day, and never tire!

He was walking swiftly through the dark tunnel of foliage that in day-time was a road. The dogs were invisibly ranging the lower travelways of the bush, and he heard them panting. Sometimes he felt a cold muzzle on his leg before they were off again, scouting for a trail to follow. They were not trained, but free-running companions of the hunt, who often tired of the long stalk before the final shots, and went off on their own pleasure. Soon he could see them, small and wild-looking in a wild strange light, now that the bush stood trembling on the verge of colour, waiting for the sun to paint earth and grass afresh.

The grass stood to his shoulders; and the trees were showering a faint silvery rain. He was soaked; his whole body was clenched in a steady shiver.

Once he bent to the road that was newly scored with animal trails, and regretfully straightened, reminding himself that the pleasure of tracking must wait till another day.

He began to run along the edge of a field, noting jerkily how it was filmed over with fresh spiderweb, so that the long reaches of great black clods seemed netted in glistening grey. He was using the steady lope he had learned by watching the natives, the run that is a dropping of the weight of the body from one foot tot the next in a slow balancing movement that never tires, nor shortens the breath; and he felt the blood pulsing down his legs and along his arms, and the exultation and pride of body mounted in him till he was shutting his teeth hard against a violent desire to shout his triumph.

Soon he had left the cultivated part of the farm. Behind him the bush was low and black. In front was a long vlei, acres of long pale grass that sent back a hollowing gleam of light to a satiny sky. Near him thick swathes of grass were bent with the weight of water, and diamond drops sparkled on each frond.

The first bird woke at his feet and at once a flock of them sprang into the air calling shrilly that day had come; and suddenly, behind him, the bush woke into song, and he could hear the guinea fowl calling far ahead of him. That meant they would now be sailing down from their trees into thick grass, and it was for them he had come: he was too late. But he did not mind. He forgot he had come to shoot. He set his legs wide, and balanced from foot to foot, and swung his gun up and down in both hands horizontally, in a kind of improvised exercise, and let his head sink back till it was pillowed in his neck muscles and watched how above him small rosy clouds floated in a lake of gold.

Suddenly it all rose in him: it was unbearable, and he leapt up into the air, shouting and yelling wild, unrecognisable noises. Then he began to run, not carefully, as he had before, but madly, like a wild thing. He was clean crazy, yelling mad with the joy of living and a superfluity of youth. He rushed down the vlei under a tumult of crimson and gold, while all the birds of the world sang around him. He ran in great, leaping strides, and shouted as he ran, feeling his body rise into the crisp rushing air and fall back surely on to sure feet; and thought briefly, not believing that such a thing could happen to him, that he could break his ankle any moment, in this thick tangled grass. He cleared bushes like a duiker, leapt over rocks; and finally came to a dead stop at a place where the ground fell abruptly away below him to the river. It had been a two-mile-long dash through waist-high growth, and he was breathing hoarsely and could no longer sing. But he poised on a rock and looked down at stretches of water that gleamed through stooping trees, and thought suddenly, I am fifteen! Fifteen! The words came new to him; so that he kept repeating them wonderingly, with swelling excitement; and he felt the years of his life with his hands, as if he were counting marbles, each one hard and separate and compact, each one a wonderful shining thing. That was what he was: fifteen years of this rich soil, and this slow-moving water, and air that smelt like a challenge whether it was warm and sultry at noon, or as brisk as cold water, like it was now.

There was nothing he couldn’t do, nothing! A vision came to him, as he stood there, like when a child hears the word “eternity” and tries to understand it, and time takes possession of the mind. He felt his life ahead of him as a great and wonderful thing, something that was his; and he said aloud, with the blood rushing to his head: all the great men of the world have been as I am now, and there is nothing I can’t become, nothing I can’t do; there is no country in the world I cannot make part of myself, if I choose. I contain the world. I can make of it what I want. If I choose, I can change everything that is going to happen: it depends on me, and what I decide now.

The urgency and the truth and the courage of what his voice was saying exulted him so that he began to sing again, at the top of his voice, and the sound went echoing down the river gorge. He stopped for the echo, and sang again: stopped and shouted. That was what he was! – he sang, if he chose; and the world had to answer him.

And for minutes he stood there, shouting and singing and waiting for the lovely eddying sound of the echo; so that his own new strong thoughts came back and washing round his head, as if someone were answering him and encouraging him; till the gorge was full of soft voices clashing back and forth from rock to rock over the river. And then it seemed as if there was a new voice. He listened, puzzled, for it was not his own. Soon he was leaning forward, all his nerves alert, quite still: somewhere close to him there was a noise that was no joyful bird, nor tinkle of falling water, nor ponderous movement of cattle.

There it was again. In the deep morning hush that held his future and his past, was a sound of pain, and repeated over and over: it was a kind of shortened scream, as if someone, something, had no breath to scream. He came to himself, looked about him, and called for the dogs. They did not appear; they had gone off on their own business, and he was alone. Now he was clean sober, all the madness gone. His heart beating fast, because of that frightened screaming, he stepped carefully off the rock and went towards a belt of trees. He was moving cautiously, for not so long ago he had seen a leopard in just this spot.

At the edge of the trees he stopped and peered, holding his gun ready; he advanced, looking steadily about him, his eyes narrowed. Then all at once, in the middle of a step, he faltered, and his face was puzzled. He shook his head impatiently, as if he doubted his own sight.

There, between two trees, against a background of gaunt black rocks, was a figure from a dream, a strange beast that was horned and drunken-legged, but like something he had never even imagined. It seemed to be ragged. It looked like a small buck that had black ragged tufts of fur standing up irregularly all over it, with patches of raw flesh beneath . . . but the patches of rawness were disappearing under moving black and came again elsewhere; and all the time the creature screamed, in small gasping screams, and leaped drunkenly from side to side, as if it were blind.

Then the boy understood: it was a buck. He ran closer, and again stood still, stopped by a new fear. Around him the grass was whispering and alive. He looked wildly about, and then down. The ground was black with ants, great energetic ants that took no notice of him, but hurried and scurried towards the fighting shape, like glistening black water flowing through the grass.

And, as he drew in his breath and pity and terror seized him, the beast fell and the screaming stopped. Now he could hear nothing but one bird singing, and the sound of the rustling, whispering ants.

He peered over at the writhing blackness that jerked convulsively with the jerking nerves. It grew quieter. There were small twitches from the mass that still looked vaguely like the shape of a small animal.

It came into his mind that he should shoot it and end its pain; and he raised the gun. Then he lowered it again. The buck could no longer feel; its fighting was a mechanical protest of the nerves. But it was not that which made him put down the gun. It was a swelling feeling of rage and misery and protest that expressed itself in the thought: if I had not come it would have died like this: so why should I interfere? All over the bush things like this happen; they happen all the time; this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish. He gripped the gun between his knees and felt in his own limbs the myriad swarming pain of the twitching animal that could no longer feel, and set his teeth, and said over and over under his breath: I can’t stop it. I can’t stop it. There is nothing I can do.

He was glad that he did not have to make a decision to kill it even when he was feeling with his whole body: this is what happens, this is how things work.

It was right – that was what he was feeling. It was right and nothing could alter it.

The knowledge of fatality, of what has to be, had gripped him and for the first time in his life; and he was left unable to make any movement of brain or body, except to say: “Yes, yes. That is what living is.” It had entered his flesh and his bones and grown in to the furthest corners of his brain and would never leave him. And at that moment he could not have performed the smallest action of mercy, knowing as he did, having lived on it all his life, the vast, unalterable, cruel veld, where at any moment one night stumble over a skull or crush the skeleton of some small creature.

Suffering, sick, and angry, but also grimly satisfied with his new stoicism, he stood there leaning on his rifle, and watched the seething black mound grown smaller. At his feet, now, were ants trickling back with pink fragments in their mouths, and there was a fresh acid smell in his nostrils. He sternly controlled the uselessly convulsing muscles of his empty stomach, and reminded himself: the ants must eat too! At the same time he found that the tears were streaming down his face, and his clothes were soaked with the sweat of that other creature’s pain.

The shape had grown small. Now it looked like nothing recognisable. He did not know how long it was before he saw the blackness thin, and bits of white showed through, shining in the sun – yes, there was the sun, just up, glowing over the rocks. Why, the whole thing could not have taken longer than a few minutes.

He began to swear, as if the shortness of the time was in itself unbearable, using the words he had heard his father say. He strode forward, crushing ants with each step, and brushing them off his clothes, till he stood above the skeleton, which lay sprawled under a small bush. It was clean-picked. It might have been lying there years, save that on the white bone were pink fragments of gristle. About the bones ants were ebbing away, their pincers full of meat.

The boy looked at them, big black ugly insects. A few were standing and gazing up at him with small glittering eyes.

“Go away!” he said to the ants, very coldly. “I am not for you – not just yet, at any rate. Go away.” And he fancied that the ants turned and went away.

He bent over the bones and touched the sockets in the skull, that was where the eyes were, he thought incredulously, remembering the liquid dark eyes of a buck. And then he bent the slim foreleg bone, swinging it horizontally in his palm.

That morning, perhaps an hour ago, this small creature had been stepping proudly and free through the bush, feeling the chill on its hide even as he himself had done, exhilarated by it. Proudly stepping the earth, tossing its horns, frisking a pretty white tail, it had sniffed the cold morning air. Walking like kings and conquerors it had moved through this fee-held bush, where each blade of grass grew for it alone, and where the river ran pure sparkling water for its slaking.

And then – what had happened? Such a swift surefooted thing could surely not be trapped by a swarm of ants?

The boy bent curiously to the skeleton. Then he saw that the back leg that lay uppermost and strained out in the tension of death, was snapped midway in the thigh, so that broken bones jutted over each other uselessly. So that was it! Limping into the ant-masses it could not escape, once it had sensed the danger. Yes, but how had the leg been broken? Had it fallen, perhaps? Impossible, a buck was too light and graceful. Had some jealous rival horned it?

What could possibly have happened? Perhaps some Africans had thrown stones at it, as they do, trying to kill it for meat, and had broken its leg. Yes, that must be it.

Even as he imagined the crowd of running, shouting natives, and the flying stones, and the leaping buck, another picture came into his mind. He saw himself, on any one of these bright ringing mornings, drunk with excitement, taking a snap shot at some half-seen buck. He saw himself with the gun lowered, wondering whether he had missed or not; and thinking at last that it was late, and he wanted his breakfast, and it was not worth while to track miles after an animal that would very likely get away from him in any case.

For a moment he would not face it. He was a small boy again, kicking sulkily at the skeleton, hanging his head, refusing to accept the responsibility.

Then he straightened up, and looked down at the bones with an odd expression of dismay, all the anger gone out of him. His mind went quite empty; all around him he could see trickles of ants disappearing into the grass. The whispering noise was faint and dry, like the rustling of a cast snakeskin.

At last he picked up his gun and walked homewards. He was telling himself half defiantly that he wanted his breakfast. He was telling himself that it was getting very hot, much too hot to be out roaming the bush.

Really, he was tired. He walked heavily, not looking where he put his feet. When he came without sight of his home he stopped, knitting his brows. There was something he had to think out. The death of that small animal was a thing that concerned him, and was by no means finished with it. It lay at the back of his mind uncomfortably.

Soon, the very next morning, he would get clear of everybody and go to the bush and think about it.

Thank You Ma’am

“Thank You, Ma’am,” by Langston Hughes

She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. The large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.

After that the woman said, “Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and give it here.” She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, “Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.” The woman said, “What did you want to do it for?” The boy said, “I didn’t aim to.”

She said, “You a lie!”

By that time two or three people passed, stopped, turned to look, and some stood watching.

“If I turn you loose, will you run?” asked the woman.

“Yes’m,” said the boy.

“Then I won’t turn you loose,” said the woman. She did not release him.

“I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry,” whispered the boy.

“Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”

“No’m,” said the boy.

“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.

He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.

The woman said, “You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?”

“No’m,” said the being dragged boy. “I just want you to turn me loose.” “Was I bothering you when I turned that corner?” asked the woman. “No’m.”

“But you put yourself in contact with me,” said the woman. “If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another though coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.”

Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street. When she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into a large kitchenette-furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear other roomers laughing and talking in the large house. Some of their doors were open, too, so he knew he and the woman were not alone. The woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room.

She said, “What is your name?” “Roger,” answered the boy.

“Then, Roger, you go to that sink and wash your face,” said the woman, whereupon she turned him loose–at last. Roger looked at the door—looked at the woman—looked at the door—and went to the sink.

Let the water run until it gets warm,” she said. “Here’s a clean towel.” “You gonna take me to jail?” asked the boy, bending over the sink.

“Not with that face, I would not take you nowhere,” said the woman. “Here I am trying to get home to cook me a bite to eat and you snatch my pocketbook! Maybe, you ain’t been to your supper either, late as it be. Have you?”

“There’s nobody home at my house,” said the boy.

“Then we’ll eat,” said the woman, “I believe you’re hungry—or been hungry—to try to snatch my pocketbook.”

“I wanted a pair of blue suede shoes,” said the boy.

“Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some suede shoes,” said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. “You could of asked me.”


The water dripping from his face, the boy looked at her. There was a long pause. A very long pause. After he had dried his face and not knowing what else to do dried it again, the boy turned around, wondering what next. The door was open. He could make a dash for it down the hall. He could run, run, run, run, run!

The woman was sitting on the day-bed. After a while she said, “I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.”

There was another long pause. The boy’s mouth opened. Then he frowned, but not knowing he frowned.

The woman said, “Um-hum! You thought I was going to say but, didn’t you? You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that.” Pause. Silence. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. So you set down while I fix us something to eat. You might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable.”

In another corner of the room behind a screen was a gas plate and an icebox. Mrs. Jones got up and went behind the screen. The woman did not watch the boy to see if he was going to run now, nor did she watch her purse which she left behind her on the day-bed. But the boy took care to sit on the far side of the room where he thought she could easily see him out of the corner other eye, if she wanted to. He did not trust the woman not to trust him. And he did not want to be mistrusted now.

“Do you need somebody to go to the store,” asked the boy, “maybe to get some milk or something?”

“Don’t believe I do,” said the woman, “unless you just want sweet milk yourself. I was going to make cocoa out of this canned milk I got here.”

“That will be fine,” said the boy.

She heated some lima beans and ham she had in the icebox, made the cocoa, and set the table. The woman did not ask the boy anything about where he lived, or his folks, or anything else that would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job in a hotel beauty-shop that stayed open late, what the work was like, and how all kinds of women came in and out, blondes, red-heads, and Spanish. Then she cut him a half of her ten-cent cake.

“Eat some more, son,” she said.

When they were finished eating she got up and said, “Now, here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some blue suede shoes. And next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my pocketbook nor nobody else’s—because shoes come by devilish like that will burn your feet. I got to get my rest now. But I wish you would behave yourself, son, from here on in.”

She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. “Goodnight!” Behave yourself, boy!” she said, looking out into the street.

The boy wanted to say something else other that “Thank you, ma’am” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but he couldn’t do so as he turned at the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in the door. He barely managed to say “Thank you” before she shut the door. And he never saw her again.