Little Boy Blew
“Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
For if I do, he’ll surely cry.”
The sunrise was apocalyptic, setting the meadow aflame with blinding white light scintillating across early morning dew. Tom stood in the light, stunned, leaning on his pitchfork. A big man—and not at all Slim Pickings—he was as a scarecrow made of brick; more stone than stonemason. Even so, he stared at the sunrise with a look akin to haunted sorrow. When the flames of the morning did not reach past the distant trees, however, he loosened his taut muscles and continued pitching the hay into the nearby wagon. The pale horse in front of the wagon whinnied impatiently.
“I am hurrying as fast I can,” Tom said to the horse, grunting as he stooped and pitched the hay.
The cool morning mists scattered at the sun, like ghosts. The air grew hotter. The dew of the morning vanished while the dew on Tom’s brow gathered wetly. He did not wipe it away until he had piled the wagon high and could fit no more within its bed. Then he wiped his brow with his flannel sleeve and took hold of the horse’s reins.
“Go on, Old Henry,” Tom said, giving the reins a little whip.
Old Henry was, in fact, not “Old”, but young, and so impatient for work. He pulled at once, and nearly accelerated to a trot, but Tom gave the reins a little tug to curtail the horse’s impatience. The horse knew where to go, and so went to the barn directly, navigating the grazing cattle with little guidance or prompting. He came to a stop by the gabled barn, snorting contemptibly. Tom hopped off the wagon. Old Henry gave another impatient snort for emphasis.
“Fine, fine,” Tom said, untying the horse from the wagon. “Go on, then.”
The horse bolted, running across the vast meadow. At full-gallop it approached the fenceline—as if it would bound over it—but turned at the last moment and ran the length of the perimeter as if keen on winning the Kentucky Derby. While Old Henry ran his laps, Tom unloaded the wagon. By the time he had finished, his wife called him to breakfast. He rested the pitchfork against the wagon and turned toward the old farmhouse. As he turned he caught sight of something standing in the meadow, where the cows grazed. In his periphery it looked tall and wide of stance. He turned to look at it directly, but whatever it was, it was gone.
The kitchen was bright as the sun glared through the window. The tiles across the floor gleamed, recently mopped, and the chicken wallpaper was paneled with few shadows from the cabinets.
“Why don’t you get a tractor, pa?” his son asked. The little boy sat across from his father at the round table, looking expectantly at his father.
“I can make do without one,” Tom said. He grimaced as a gashing pain shot across the bend of his back, near the juncture of his shoulderblades and the tendons of the spine. He buried the awareness of this pain deep in the crowded bunker of his mind.
His wife, Lucille, sighed, but said nothing. She served them plates heaped with eggs, bacon, and pancakes. His son ate the pancakes with energy—more energy than he ever had for his chores—and Tom watched him pensively for a long moment. Tom then began to eat. He ate the pancakes and the eggs with an engineer’s exacting efficiency, but he did not touch the bacon. The bacon made him feel sick to his stomach.
“Lucy,” he said, “I thought I told you not to give me any bacon.”
His wife sat down at the table with her own plate.
“It’s good for you, Tom,” she said. “You need something to keep your strength up. You’ll work yourself to an early grave if you don’t eat more.”
Tom, who was broad of shoulders and barrel-chested, shook his head.
“I drink plenty of milk,” he said. “That is enough. Here, Little Tom, have at it.”
He slid the plate across the table to his son. Little Tom reached his small hand out and took hold of the bacon, piling it onto his plate with greasy fingers.
“Thanks, pa,” Little Tom said.
Tom stood up, silently, and went to the door.
“Tom,” Lucille said, turning in her chair to watch him go.
He paused at the door that led out of the kitchen.
“Don’t work yourself out there too much,” she said. “The heat’s not good for you.”
“I know heat’s not good for you,” Tom said. “Believe me. I know better than most.”
He went out the door.
Tom went to the garden to hoe the weeds. Occasionally he stole a glance at the cows, and Old Henry, and the farmhouse. Little Tom joined him, using a small hoe to stab at the black soil and uproot the weeds. Little Tom wore his own denim overalls and a blue shirt. On his head he wore a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.
They were a long way from Brooklyn, but not far enough from Manhattan.
“When do you go back to school?” Tom asked his son.
The little boy looked gloomy in the shade of his hat. The midmorning sunshine chiseled the shadow hard along his round face. “Another month, I think?”
“You been keeping up your studies?” Tom asked him.
The little boy gave a glum, half-hearted shrug. He dug at the soil aimlessly; absentmindedly. He said nothing.
“We got those books for you so you could study,” Tom said. “You’re goin’ to need to study to get better in school so you can go to college someday.”
The boy sulked in silence for a while. He uprooted a weed and threw it out of the garden.
“Why can’t I join the Army?” he said, mousily. “Like you did?”
Tom’s face darkened. “I’ve told you already,” he said, his tone stony. “You’re not going into the Army. Or the Navy. Or nothing to do with war.”
“But you were a hero…”
“It ain’t like the movies!” his father snapped. “That propaganda swill! It’s all hogwash.”
Tom took a deep breath and sighed. They continuing hoeing the garden, but in silence.
The days of Summer were long. Tom aimed to make the most of them. After he and Little Tom had hoed the garden, he tied Old Henry to an old, rusty combine. It was small, but it served his purpose in the fields of wheat and rye and oats. Old Henry had more than enough gumption and endurance to make the combine efficient, and even had strength remaining afterward to pull the hay-rake. Eventually, however, Tom knew he would need to purchase another horse to ease Old Henry’s burdens. He might even have to purchase a herd of horses.
But he would not purchase a tractor.
The day grew hotter as the sun reached its zenith. The shade drew inward, shrinking in retreat. The cattle sought shelter under a copse of trees near the bullfrog-gibbering pond. Old Henry, too, sought what remained of the shade, returning to the gables. Tom sat in a rocking-chair on the porch while Lucille—sitting on the steps—mended a pair of his denim overalls. Little Tom lay on his stomach, glumly reading aloud from a book of collected works by Shakespeare.
“…and for one blast of thy minikin mouth, thy sheepe shall take no harme…”
Little Tom frowned down at the open book like it was a frog that had just spoken to him in French. He turned his head this way and that, like a box of crackerjacks from which he was trying to retrieve the sticker. Finally, he looked up at his father.
“Pa, what does that mean?”
Tom, who had been erstwhile staring out at something in the meadow, turned and looked at his son with some confusion.
“What does ‘minikin’ mean? What does any of it mean?”
“Minikin?” Tom said, considering. “I think it means ‘small’. Like ‘munchkins’ in the Wizard of Oz. They’re small people.”
“Oh,” Little Tom said. He looked down at the book again, puzzling over the phrase. After a long beat, he gave up, and began to read again, mechanically speaking without emphasis or comprehension.
Lucille stood up from the steps and went to Tom, laying the overalls in her husband’s lap.
“Finished,” she said.
“Thank you, darling,” Tom said. His eyes remained in the meadow, but also seemed much farther away than that. He had ceased rocking his rocking-chair.
“We need more salt,” Lucille said, standing next to her husband. “And more flour.”
“We’ll have flour soon enough,” Tom said. “When I get the mill working again.”
“We’ll need flour sooner than that,” Lucille said. Her tone was one of threadbare patience. “And the salt. We need salt.”
“I’ll take Old Henry into town tomorrow,” Tom said. “If I leave early in the morning I should be back by the evening.”
“If we had a truck…” his wife began to say.
There was creaking sound that silenced her, but it was not the sound of the rocking-chair on the porch. It was coming from Tom.
“I don’t want to argue about this, Lucy,” he said quietly. “You know how I feel about it.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “But it would make things easier for us. Easier for all of us. We could even go into town for church on Sundays like a normal family.”
Tom chuckled mirthlessly. “You can pray here as well as pray there,” he said. “God ain’t gonna’ hear you, anyhow. He is deaf. We deafened him with that bang, Lucy.” He laughed a dry, cynic’s laugh. “He’s always been hard of hearing, come to think of it.”
“Tom,” she said, tremulously. “Tom, we all could use with some more society. You could go to Grenwich and see your friends. Talk to them. Maybe you’d feel better. And Little Tom needs to be around other children.”
“He’ll be around other children when he goes back to school,” Tom said.
“But he has to stay with his aunt, then,” she said. “And God knows my sister is good to him, but it makes this place awfully lonesome when he’s gone. Because you’re gone most of the time, Tom. You go off in your little world and you don’t even seem to be home when you are home…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“It’s not like I don’t know how you feel, Tom,” she continued, speaking over him. “But wallowing in it is not healthy for you. You got to see things the way they are. It was a necessary evil. If you like, a truck is a necessary evil, too. You don’t even have to drive it. I could drive it. I drove the girls around during the war. I could drive Little Tom to school every day. We have more than enough money. Daddy saw to that…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“And it’s not even the same, Tom. It’s just a gasoline engine. People use them all the time. It won’t explode or catch fire…”
Tom stood up suddenly, his eyes affixed somewhere far away. He stepped off the porch, walking intently toward the meadow. He did not stop at the blazing heat or the glare of the sun. He did not stop at the buzzing deerflies that swirled around him like hateful memories. He did not stop at the echo of his wife’s voice. He walked directly to the gate in the center of the meadow, halting only as its shadow fell upon his boots.
It was not a normal gate. Firstly, it had no fence upon which it hinged to open and close, nor did it have a latch. In appearance and function it was not a Western-style gate for cattle. It was a post-and-lintel construct with two rounded columns of wood and a curved lintel in the traditional Japanese style. It was what Tom knew to be called a “torii gate”. It was blackened and scorched, the wood seemingly ready to collapse unto ash at any moment. The gate appeared as if it had been struck by lightning and set ablaze. As he entered the gate and left the meadow behind he could hear the air raid siren. He heard people distantly. He heard wails of grief and screams of agony. He heard a distant hum, like that of thunder protracted unto a single deafening note. He was no longer on his farm. He walked desolate streets where wooden buildings had been scattered, their frames and walls smoldering like twigs from a dead bonfire. The sidewalks were littered with debris and soot. The air tingled and the sky was bright where the clouds had been blown away. In the distance a blinding light was only now fading, like sunset, and a cloudy figure danced on the horizon. It was a pillar of clouds, but it was also a dancing boy blowing his horn. Tom knew the name of that dancing boy. He dared not speak it.
There were no other people on the decimated streets. There were only shadows burned into walls that aped in deathly stillness the silhouettes of men and women and children. Tom averted his eyes, yet he saw them elsewhere also: along crumbling facades, on the posts of a temple, skewed on the sidewalk itself. Their ashes entered his lungs, making him cough. Tears came to his eyes, beckoned by the cindery air.
The people were gone, yet they were everywhere.
Tom turned away, staggering toward the torii gate. He could see the meadow between the charred posts. Both sides of the torii gate were bright, yet only one was bright with a natural light. He walked through the gate for the countless time. He had been through it so many times now and yet it hurt nonetheless.
Tom left the torii gate and stood once again in his meadow. The gate was gone and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. His wife stood on the porch of the small farmhouse. Ahead of her, running across the field, came Little Tom. He smiled as he ran, pointing up at the sky. A plane flew overhead, its engine whirring noisily. The minikin boy slowed, his smile drooping into a gawping frown. Tom heard a horn blast in the air. In horror he watched as his son began to melt before his eyes, his skin peeling and blackening like the skin of a rotten onion. Smoke spewed from his body and soon his eyes burst into flame, burning hollow to empty eye sockets that stared darkly into the realm of Death. He crumbled to a heap of bones upon the meadow. Tom fell to his knees and wept.
When his son reached him, he hugged his father with arms browned by the sun, but otherwise unblemished.
“It’s okay, pa,” his son said. “The war’s over. We won.”
“Not all of us,” his father said, hugging his son. “Not all of us…”