After school, dad was late and I told myself the story where the witch got put in the oven.
Ms. Matchless punches me in the side of the head. It is night, and I have been on guard.
Heads Down, Thumbs Up|
by Gavin J. Grant
|Mrs. Black repeated her question, but then the border wobbled over us again. She sighed. There was a knock at the door, and the school secretary came in.
"Yes, yes," said Mrs. Black before the secretary could say anything. "I know, I know."
She turned to us. "Boys and girls. Two minutes of heads down, thumbs up."
She went to the sink at the back of the classroom and wet her handkerchief. She touched the tops of our heads as she passed, a diagonal line of us whose hair stood up on the backs of our necks. I wanted to be touched. She took her hankie to the blackboard and stretched up to the top corner and wiped her name away. Her name was Ms. Sterling now. I sneaked a look at Jeanine. She'd never learned to sculpt the letter r out from the other sounds. She had her head down, but her eyes were open. She was staring at her math book (we'd have to use the other set now) and her face was slowly turning red. She hated it, too, the change.
Ms. Sterling said something, and everyone sat up. She said it again, and now she was looking at me but I hadn't been listening, and now she was using a different language.
"Ardgrur-; rjinnsfller?" she asked.
And then I knew what she meant, the other language coming over me like the dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup. I hoped it wouldn't last. I liked our other country; the stories were better. In this one the witch always escapes and sometimes she even marries the children's father. Ms. Sterling cried sometimes in the art supply cupboard after reading these stories. But she won't be allowed to tell the other ones anymore. That's what happened to Ms. Frobisher, our teacher when we were last this country. She was ancient, and she always forgot who we were.
· · · · ·
After school, dad was late and I told myself the story where the witch got put in the oven. I liked singing the song the brother and sister sang when they gathered apples and herbs to bake with her. Once, when I was in the first class, we got a story where the witch ate all the children. We all cried.
· · · · ·
Dad was late because he waited for Mum to come home before coming to get me. Neither of them ask about school. I didn't want to tell them anything anyway. I heard my dad tell Edward's dad I'm a chatterbox. I curl up in my seat and watch the men out on the road painting the white lines light blue.
Dad drove even slower than usual. Mum started talking about how hard it was to sign in for her new job at the library. She wants him to speed up, but I know she'll never actually ask him. Dad jumps when she puts her hand on his leg. Dad's rubbish in this country. I wish the border would go back.
· · · · ·
Next day Jeanine doesn't come in. But neither does Bobbie or Bobby or Brian. Someone at the back sends a note forward, but I don't take it. Alison digs her nails into my leg and I jump like my dad in the car. Ms. Sterling notices, and I have to stand in the corner. Alison should be laughing, but she's not. There's something wrong with her eyes, they're too big or something. Her dad's in the other country's army. I wonder if he's dead yet.
Last time the border came over we saw dead people everywhere. They said they'd been Pee Oh Double Yous, but we knew they were dead. They appeared after school. They were gray and cold and wanted to hold us. Edward said they were zombies. We all knew zombies wanted to crack our heads open and suck our brains out. We ran and ran. I didn't know where I was when I stopped. I'd run up a hill, and all the dead people ("Wait. It's me. Your Uncle Billy.") couldn't follow because they were too tired. There were lots of houses up there, and they all looked the same. I thought I knew someone from school who lived there, Caroline, but I didn't know which house she lived in. I don't remember getting home. Sometimes I think I went back to the wrong house. "Where's Sarah?" I asked when I got home. I remember Mum and Dad looking at each other. They thought I couldn't understand the look, but I did. I always understand adults. I wonder if they were ever children: if they don't remember how easy they are to understand.
When we get home I ask dad why adults don't know children understand. But he says, "Don't, shh. Just
just pretend, okay?"
"I don't want to," I say.
"When I was young," he says, and he picks me up, sits me on his knees. "When I was young, we didn't have adults."
I know this game. He used to do this a lot when I was younger. But I still scream when he opens his knees to drop me. He holds my arms, and I hang there for a second, pulling my legs up so that my feet don't touch the ground.
"We all lived together. Boys and girls. There were hundreds and hundreds of us," and he pulls me back onto his knees. "You wouldn't have liked it," he says.
I know this story. There are birds nailed to a barn. Cats and squirrels for dinner. There are scary adults who try to get into the children's big house, and sometimes they do and they take some of the children away. Sometimes the adults disappear and Dad gets a look in his eye. I don't like him then. Then there's his friend Ranald who went away (like Bobby and Bobbie? I wonder), and something Dad said once made me wonder if actually he got eaten.
When Dad tells stories, he changes. He likes to play and roll about and then later he makes dinner. I like that and try and get him to tell more stories. For dinner he usually makes scrambled eggs in rolls, and he can't stop smiling when he uses lots and lots of butter and cheese. Mum would make sausages to go with eggs, but after story time Dad won't eat meat until the next day; or maybe the next week.
He drops me through his knees again, and this time I spring back up immediately. He lets go my hands, catches my waist, throws me in the air; I can feel his smile on my back. He stands up really fast and catches me and throws me still further up. Suddenly I realize who he is and what he's done. In this country he's sad because in this country he was cruel and he isn't going to catch me. I start screaming.
He plucks me from the air. "What's wrong?" he asks, and there are ugly lines all over his face. He's breathing fast, "Are you okay? Did I hurt you?"
I catch my breath, but I can't look at him. Mum comes running in. Dad shrugs his shoulders at her, and even as I cling to him, she peels me off and carries me over to her chair. She's colder than he is and has harder edges.
Dad usually finishes stories by saying, "I had many friends then. I met your mother there. We were very lucky."
· · · · ·
Ms. Sterling is replaced. "Just for two weeks, class," says the headmistress. Once we had a man for headmistresshe wanted to be called headmaster. We didn't like him, and when the border passed over again he ran away. We were so happy. It was like Saturday, and summer, and that holiday they have in autumn on that side, all in one.
Our new teacher says, "My name is Ms. Matchless. However," and she bends her cracking knees, and then her gray hair and heavy glasses are right down in front of us, "you," and she tickles under Berenice's chin, "you can call me Joanna."
Listening to her, I realize the cake, the apple, the hard black and white liquorice mints, any and all of these will be enough to make me climb into the oven. Ms. Matchless stands, smiles at us.
"Now," she says, beaming, "let's go out to the garden. Who can tell me what we've been growing in the school garden?"
I have always stayed away from the garden. I like drawing. I was going to be an artist, and whenever the border changed I was going to paint new murals in the school halls, but now I throw my hand in the air and tomatoes and cabbages are all I ever want to grow.
· · · · ·
Dad's got a beard and he goes to sleep earlier than me now. He makes me laugh, and sometimes I go in to kiss him and tuck him in. He is half-asleep and calls me Ranald, but I'm used to that here. He hopes the border will move back soon. I hope so, too, but I don't want Ms. Matchless to leave.
Ms. Matchless has been our teacher for five weeks. The headmistress stopped visiting our class in the second week, when she saw we weren't upset about Ms. Sterling. But then she started coming again, and now she helps Ms. Matchless every afternoon. She never did that before. She laughs when Ms. Matchless laughs. I wish she wouldn't come.
· · · · ·
Ms. Matchless tells us all about our country. Some of us remember our anthem. I don't. We never sing it at home, except when people come over for dinner. I don't like this anthem. The other song is better, but I know not to say that. Ms. MatchlessI don't call her Joanna, no one doeshas a very sharp ear and can tell who's singing. I'm learning the words, and I sing very loud. I have a good, high voice although I know it won't last. Dad has a deep voice and likes to sing with me when we walk. We hold hands, and sometimes he swings me around, even though we both know I'm too big.
Ms. Matchless says that our country has one of the biggest forests in the world. She points to it on the map and says she grew up there. We are quiet. There is no forest near us, and we are imagining what it would be like to grow up in a cottage deep in the woods.
"There is nothing as beautiful as the Long Forest," Ms. Matchless says softly.
"Miss, please, miss." I am standing and waving my hand, and she smiles at me.
I fall back in my chair. "Please, miss, can we go there? Can we see the forest?"
She looks surprised and pleased. Maybe I'll get a green circle on my report card.
"Well, that is an interesting idea! Who else wants to visit the forest?"
Everyone waves their hands in the air. Something hits me in the back of the head, hard enough to sting. I glance back, but all I can see are waving hands and smiling faces.
· · · · ·
I am going away for a whole week, and we still haven't told Dad. I've never gone anywhere for a week. Once we drove for hours and then went on a ferry to visit my grandparents, my mum's mum and dad. It smelled of bitter mint and mothballs, and I hated it. There was a lot of shouting at night. I didn't like sleeping in-between my parents. Mum wanted to leave the next day, and Dad wanted to stay forever. I wish I wasn't going on this trip.
I'd waited until Dad went to bed before giving Mum the release form and asking for the trip money.
When she read the form, I didn't like the way she looked at me. "You suggested this?" she'd asked, and I saw Ms. Matchless had put in an extra note just for Mum.
I didn't have anything to say. Mum signed the form and said not to tell Dad just yet.
Now, when I am brushing my teeth, she says, "We'll just tell him tomorrow." But in the morning, Dad has left for work before I get up.
In front of the school there is a big white luxury coach with its engine running with a handwritten sign in the driver's window, Ms. Matchless, The Long Forest, and I forget about Dad until lunchtime, when the bus stops and we eat our packed lunches. Mum made mine last night, and my sandwiches are hard around the edges. But I swap my apple for Alison's orange and then we sit next to each other and I think maybe I have a girlfriend.
We don't reach the forest until the next day. We stop for the night at a youth hostel and sleep in two big, dark rooms. The driver sleeps in the boys' room in the bed nearest the door. I lie awake until after he comes in and goes to sleep. I am too frightened to go to the toilet in the night, but I don't wet myself. Early in the morning there is a knock on the door. The driver is still asleep, so I run over and open it. Ms. Matchless smiles at me and kisses me on the cheek. I rush past her to the toilet. When I get back, I find that Lucas needed the toilet, too, but couldn't hold it. I listen to the other boys and I'm very, very happy I held it.
This morning we can see the dark line of the forest, but it is still very far away. I tell Alison ghost stories, and even though it's daytime lots of people get scared because of me. Ms. Matchless walks up the bus and tells me to stop or tonight the witch of the forest will take me away. I can't help but grin, and she does, too. She has false teeth, and they are very white. I've seen her move them around during quiet time at school when we put our heads down on our desks and she marks our homework. The others are still scared from my stories, and I am happy. Maybe I will stay at Ms. Matchless's house in the forest and never go home.
She sits down next to me, and I have to squeeze over beside Alison. No one else can see, so I hold Alison's hand.
When everyone is quiet, Ms. Matchless tells us that there are trees in the Long Forest that are not found anywhere else in the world. They go straight up for hundreds of feet then weave their branches together so that it is very dark below. She says that lots of people live in the forestsome in houses far above the groundbut there is no way to count them all. She says there are more ways into the forest than out. Alison shivers, and I squeeze her hand.
"It's because there's a big city," I burst out. "The capital." Ms. Matchless nods at me but watches the others. I have read far ahead in my textbook, and I know all about the capital and how all the people left the forest towns.
"There are two million people. It has two airports, two big stadiums and lots of small ones, and the parliament buildings, which are very beautiful on the inside because they are made from wood from the Long Forest."
Alison nods her head, and other people do, too. I am smarter in this country. If we stay here, maybe I will be a teacher when I grow up.
Then the bus goes into the forest and it is almost as dark as night because we are driving under the tallest trees we have ever seen. Everyone is quiet. We drive for two hours under the trees, and all the time we are going up.
The forest is like another country. Even the cars are different. Alison gets bored, so there is some seat swapping and me and Edward sit together and count cars. He knows more of them than me, but I have a girlfriend, so I don't care.
· · · · ·
The capital is huge. The day after we arrive, we go to the parliament, which is boring on the outsidethe walls are gray and very, very thick and the windows all have bars. Inside it's like a church. There are glass walls in front of the wooden walls, and I can see where the old wooden walls look thin where lots of people have touched them. Parliament is in session, and a man is speaking when we go to the visitors' balcony. He is not very interesting, but I like his clothes: they have bright buttons and sharp creases I'd like to touch. We all clap when Ms. Matchless claps, and the man waves up at us. We all wave back, and lots of people laugh. Then we have lunch outside in the gardens. There are huge concrete flowerpots and concrete picnic tables all around the parliament.
The rest of the week we walk everywhere. My feet hurt, but I like the city. We stay in another youth hostel but now I know not to drink anything before bed. I am very thirsty in the morning and I drink lots of milk.
One morning Ms. Matchless tells us to bring our bags down after breakfast. We take them outside and find that the bus is waiting for us. We all protest it isn't time to go back, yet but we are shooed onto the bus. Ms. Matchless says we are going farther into the Long Forest, and we are all quiet. Alison sneaks over and makes Edward swap seats. Berenice is unhappy, and Edward will say he has a girlfriend but he doesn't really.
Leaving, it is hard to tell where the city ends and the forest begins, but then we slow down and turn off the expressway onto a narrow, dark road. We are silent and watch the forest, which is different now that we see it up close. The trees grow far apart, but they go back a long, long way. Their trunks are smooth and silvery and look difficult to climb. The forest is hard, dark, frightening, but Ms. Matchless is smiling.
The driver goes even slower, the front of the bus swings almost into the trees when it goes around corners. Occasionally we see empty cars parked beside the road, but we never see houses or people walking.
We stop at a parking lot and I see there is a path up to a big hall or castle. We walk in twos, holding hands. Edward is now very happy. I am, too, but I know where we are and he doesn't. This is where we will live with Ms. Matchless from now on. We will cook and clean, some of us will be gardeners, some of us will be children, and the noisy ones will be dinner.
· · · · ·
This house is not like the youth hostels: we do not sleep in big rooms. Us boys are on the second floor and the girls are somewhere up above. Edward, John, Richard, and me are in a room together. There is a window seat, a fireplace, and four small beds. We each have our own bedside cabinet carved with a forest of trees with lots of apples. Little cottages are hidden among the trees, there are mountains in the distance, and everywhere there are tiny, running wolves. I run my fingers over the carving, pretending I am in the forest. I run away from the hall where Ms. Matchless is showing the class how to bake the cakes she loved as a child. I come upon the wolves, and they chase me, but I find it is not so hard to scramble up one of the silver trees. I throw the apples down at the wolves, trying to drive them away. The wolves are very hungry. For years they have wanted the beautiful golden apples but have not been able to reach them. I throw one apple to each wolf, and the wolves gobble them up. Their smiles get bigger and bigger, and then they all howl. I put my hands over my ears and close my eyes. Suddenly there is a lot of laughing. I am surrounded by boys and by girls, too. The girls should not be here. We had been planning to raid the girls' rooms as soon as the lights are out. I think that when I gave the wolves apples, they changed into these children. I am still on my knees, my fingers tracing the carvings.
· · · · ·
At dinner we sit on benches at two long tables. They are round underneath, and Ms. Matchless says they are two halves of one huge birchlike tree from the forest. It's not very comfortable, until I sit on one foot: then I can swing my other foot underneath me. We eat and eat and eat. When I am at home, Mum and Dad don't cook like this. I don't know what I'm eating! There is meat and potatoes and mushy orange and green vegetables, but I don't know what type of meat it is. I imagine it's the wolves: that's why it's dark and chewy. Or maybe I am a wolf like the others. I growl as I eat. Even though they are horrid, I eat the vegetables. I like the bread. It's black and crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I see Ms. Matchless put lots and lots of butter and then salt on it, and I do the same.
After dinner Ms. Matchless says she is going to give us a tour of the house.
I put my hand up. "Is this your house?" I ask.
She is already leading us out of the dining room and she only shakes her head.
There are dusty old paintings on each side of the hallway. Pointing up to the first one, Ms. Matchless says, "This is Edward Doubleaxe."
Edward is grinning so much I wonder if his head will fall off. Ms. Matchless is smiling at him in a way I don't recognize. Later, at home, whenever I think of Edward, I remember this smile.
"Doubleaxe was the first man to rule the whole forest. He burned down a village to build his castle here by the river. Later, during the coup in which he killed his father, Doubleaxe's son burned the castle to the ground and built anotherbut that was much later. There have been many castles here, but Doubleaxe's was the first.
"Doubleaxe was handsome, but his nose was so large he only allowed painters to paint him from the front. Once, a painter tried to paint a portrait of Doubleaxe and his wife with the light coming from the side so that there would be the slightest hint of a shadow of his nose." She smiled at us. "Doubleaxe was not a man who enjoyed being laughed at. This is not that painting."
Behind Ms. Matchless the others are laughing at Edward and using their hands to make pointy beaks. "Beaky, Beaky," Berenice whispers.
· · · · ·
The way home was much harder. We did not have the bus. We had to walk. The Long Forest was dark and, at the end, when the trees grew farther apart, the bushes were hard to push through. There were gray wolves, black bears. I was glad I was not the oldest boy, the second brother, or the youngest girl, who would get the prince but had to do all the dirty work first. I thought of my father and his friend, Ranald, and after the mushrooms, acorns, and the leaves that made me sick were gone, I ate what I had to eat. We walked and we walked and Ms. Matchless always walked behind us.
During the day, we couldn't see the sun. I saw Beaky once, but he did not see me. He was a scout, he said, and tried to keep in front of us. We could all smell him, and we tried to stay away from him.
Alison stayed away from me at first. The boys were weaker, the girls stronger. Ms. Matchless was the strongest of all. Once, when we met two soldiers, she took them out of our sight. She made them scream. She limped when she came back, but her eyes were bright. She had tied a khaki shirt around her calf, and as we walked it slowly turned red, brown, black. We liked the soldiers' rations.
She sang songs we'd never heard. She said they were forest songs that didn't belong to any country. This was the first thing I did not understand. I would have hated her for this, but she was my everything: my bare foot stepping in front of my other bare foot; my waking up in the morning, my sidling behind trees to watch her finding food. I learned the songs inside, but I did not sing anymore. I knew now that only girls sang. I will ask my father if Ranald sang. Maybe that was his mistake. I don't want to make any more mistakes.
We got into the forest so easily, but that road is far behind now. My shoes are broken and gone, my trousers torn. I smell like nothing I have ever smelled. I do not like it. I think about Edward Doubleaxe ruling the whole forest and the houses built on top of the first village. Bigger and bigger houses, but always made of wood, and always so easy to burn.
Before we left the big house, after the television stopped, we listened to what the radio said about the border. Ms. Matchless (we never learned her new name; she said she did not have one in this country) said that this border had never crossed the house before, that was why everyone there was so upset.
I spat. I was eleven and I knew what borders did. I could have told them, but no one wanted to listen. I knew they didn't have to go around digging ditches and shouting about parents and blood and our party, their party. They could have changed the flag, washed the windows, and gotten ready for the army's visit. They made me angry. I'm just a boy, I thought. I understand. Why don't they?
Ms. Matchless punches me in the side of the head. It is night, and I have been on guard. Even with her limp I did not notice her. I deserve to be punched harder. I salute, and she walks away. All the soldiers' guns make her walk slower, but she won't let me carry one until much later.
· · · · ·
We reach the last border back to our country and find that it has stopped moving. There are guards with guns, big silver and black dogs that look like wolves, and spike-topped fences that run from the road into the forest. We slip back into the forest, and Ms. Matchless leads us along the wire. No one can keep up the borders in the forest, she says.
We wait and cross at night. It is more like swimming. The words buzz and crawl in my mouth, fighting each other. I realize Ms. Matchless is not following us. We have gone back to holding hands, walking in twos, pulling each other along. I am lucky: Alison has left the girls and walks with me. She is very strong. The border makes me want to sing the forest songs, the songs that don't belong to anyone, but I am a boy. I am a boy.
We look back and see Ms. Matchless waving. She points her gun at us, and I point the other one at her. Then she salutes, waves, walks tall and strong and limping back into the forest.
· · · · ·
Mother and Father are happy to see me. Once I stop eating I will tell them that I am happy to see them, too. Or maybe after I sleep. I do not know when I will sleep. Who will stand guard? I hid the gun in the garden before I knocked on the door. Later, when Mother and Father are asleep, I will get it. Mother and Father think I am just a boy. I am a boy. I understand.
· · · · ·
One day, soon after, I climb high up Unionist Bridge and I see Ms. Sterling's little car coming into town. Beaky's voice says "It's a Silver Satellite" in the forest language, but I ignore it. A man in a dark suit is driving, and I know he is Police Army. Ms. Sterling sits in the back and does not see me.
The headmistress brings Ms. Sterling to class the next morning and we all stand and say we are happy to see her. We thank the blurry-faced secretary who has been trying to teach us. Ms. Sterling limps, but on the other leg from Ms. Matchless, and everyone says she has a wooden leg now, to go with her new glass eye. Last year I wouldn't have liked her glass eye because it never moves, but I do now. Sometimes I think it works like a real eye. I wave at it when her real eye is looking the other way, but she never says anything to me. The headmistress nods at her in the hall. We all nod, too. We're children, we know what to do.
· · · · ·
Then one day during multiplication tables the border crosses over us again. For a long moment (such a long moment inside), I think it will be something new, some place we've never been before. I am excited and I stop reciting even stop watching for problems.
We'll learn new songs, always wear bright shirts on this day, eat sweet red cakes on a special Wednesday in spring, sour white dumplings on the opposite Wednesday in autumn. The girls will wear their hair long (or maybe I will), and I will grow up tall and blondmy hair has been growing back, but darker than it was before.
Then I feel the old words trying to sink into my teeth, my tongue.
Ms. Sterling says, "Sit down. Heads down until I say," and makes her slow way to the sink to get something to clean the board. Ms. Sterling will be Mrs. Black again, and now we know Ms. Matchless is not coming back. I think of Ms. Matchless limping and hunting and eating in the Long Forest. I wonder if she will go back to where she grew up. Would she stay there in the place with no country, singing the songs from before there were borders? I do not think so. She is too strong. She will leave the forest to fight for the capital. Alison is looking out the window, seeing something I can't. I do not think I am the only one that misses Ms. Matchless.
I am still standing. "Rjihnsfjil;ardrruwer," I say.
"Shut up," says Mrs. Black. She doesn't touch anyone as she shuffles back from the sink. A thought settles inside me: she is not Ms. Matchless, but she is a girl: she is strong.
She limps by me and punches me on the side of the head just like Ms. Matchless. It is night in my head, and I have let down my guard.
"Foolish boy," she says. She limps to the blackboard, erases her name.