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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 3 & 4

Illustration by by Nick Matej





DURING ENGLISH, Ms. Humphreys gave them fifteen minutes to answer the questions she’d written on the board about The Merchant of Venice. Then she collected their notebooks and walked around at the front of the room, calling on different pupils. When she looked in his direction, he closed his eyes; she asked the girl in front. At the end of the lesson she gave him a little nod and came to sit at the next desk. In a low voice, quite different from the one she’d been using to address the class, she asked if he had read the play.

He had.

“Did you side with Shylock, or Antonio?”

“Both. Shylock was cruel—the idea of cutting a pound of flesh is horrible—but Antonio treated him as if he had no feelings. And then Jessica steals from him and runs away.”

“And what about the caskets?”

“They were just a way for Portia’s father to control her, and make the suitors seem dumb. It had to be the lead casket.”

“But you only answered two of the questions.” Ms. Humphreys held up his open notebook.

Someone had drawn a seagull on a corner of the desk. Nearby was a rudimentary cat. Duncan saw how each could be made better. Following his gaze, Ms. Humphreys said, “Could you have drawn the answers?”

“If I had enough time, if people didn’t keep interrupting. If...” How to explain that sometimes a drawing came right the first time. Sometimes it took a dozen attempts, and even then failed.

“Do you know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is? If you keep doing badly on tests, you start expecting to do badly, and then you do even worse. You just need more time.”

“So I’m not”—he retrieved an insult from last year—“ a moron?”

He saw Ms. Humphreys register the word, and the context in which he must have heard it. “No,” she said firmly. “You have a good brain, but you’re going to have to learn to stand up for yourself, to explain that some things take you longer. I know you’re passionate about painting, but you need words too.”


ON THE BUS HOME HE saw Zoe sitting halfway back and went to join her. He was longing to tell her about Ms. Humphreys and his good brain, but she was folding and unfolding her shirt cuffs, a sure sign of fretfulness. “Do you remember,” she said as the bus pulled away from the school, “when the Sawyers’ dog attacked you?”

How could he forget one of the worst events of his life that had led to one of the best? He and Zoe were playing in the Sawyers’ garden—their mother was having tea with Mrs. Sawyer—when the back door opened and a huge dog leaped across the lawn and, in a single motion, seized Duncan’s leg. The pain was blinding, deafening. From far away he heard Zoe yelling. Later she showed him the red tooth mark on her hand where the dog had briefly released him to snap at her. Then Mrs. Sawyer was standing over them, shouting, “Let go, Leo. Let go.”

The day his stitches came out, his father had arrived home with a dachshund. “He’ll help you get over being afraid of dogs,” he had said, and Arthur, small, wise, the color of a newly hulled chestnut, with dark ears and a beautiful smile, had turned out to be the perfect ambassador for dogkind. He had carefully distributed his favors among the five of them, with a marked preference for Duncan.

“So why didn’t you scream?” Zoe said now as the bus swayed around a corner.

His trousers hid the crescent scar, but he could picture the seventeen tooth marks; the boy had had two red stockings, he had had one. “He was eating my leg,” he said. “All I could do was try to disappear.”

“Did you hear anything? See anyone?”

“You mean, besides you screaming and Leo growling? No, there was a kind of haze.”

“Remember that TV program about people who nearly died and saw a bright light at the end of a tunnel, someone waiting to welcome them? Do you think Karel saw someone?”

Duncan didn’t remember the program, but he did remember the boy’s pale eyelids. “No.”

“Perhaps”—Zoe smoothed her cuffs—“ he was waiting for the right person to wake him.”

From the way she spoke, both halting and eager, he knew she wanted to be that person. He himself had felt no desire to wake Karel. Watching the vein pulsing in his temple, his chest rising and falling, he had sensed that the boy had made his way to a place of safety; to wake him would be to hurl him back into hardship. Before he could say any of this, Moira was standing over them. Would Zoe like to go to the cinema?

The autumn Leo had tried to eat his leg was also the autumn his father’s mother had come to live with them. Every afternoon, when he got home from nursery, he would go to the sitting room to show Granny the paintings he had made that day, and she would reward him with one of her special cough sweets, a purple oval dusted in sugar. “Your pictures emanate,” she told him. He asked what that meant, and she said, “They reach out to people. They glow.”

But one afternoon her armchair was empty. He had looked in the parlor, the kitchen, before he knocked on her bedroom door. As he opened it very quietly—he was doing something forbidden—he heard a strange noise. Still holding onto the doorknob, he had stood there, searching the wardrobe, the windows, the heavy curtains, the chest of drawers, until, at last, he understood that it was Granny, lying in bed, who was making the hoarse rattling sounds that filled the room.

His mother had discovered him, kneeling beside her. Later, alone in his room, he had drawn her pointed nose and sunken cheeks, her closed eyes and open mouth. Normally he didn’t care who saw his drawings—they were his, and not his—but this one he hid.

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SHE WAS STILL going to school, still studying, joking around with Moira, doing her chores, but it was as if her hair had stopped growing. A change, invisible to most other people, had overtaken her. A few days after they found the boy, she was searching for a book about Florence Nightingale when she came across a poem she had written the previous spring about her grandfather. She had carried her notebook to the churchyard and, sitting beneath a yew tree, summoned her memories: his mustache yellow with nicotine, his collection of fountain pens, the poems he recited when they went on walks, his interest in airplanes, his dislike of his given name, Horace. She reread her first line: When we first met, I was the unsteady one. According to family lore, Horry had taught her to walk, holding her hand as she tipsily crossed the lawn.

She had been working on the third stanza when a man, a stranger, came through the gate on the far side of the churchyard. What she saw first was his panama hat, then his white shirt and jeans. He was carrying a book. She had a vivid sense of the picture she made, a girl sitting beneath a yew tree, writing a possibly immortal sonnet. Perhaps the man was a scholar, searching the churchyard for some historical figure. Or a visitor looking for his own grandfather. The hat made him look vaguely foreign.

She was struggling with the lines about her grandfather returning to the battlefields of his youth, when she felt a kind of buzzing. The man was standing thirty feet away, between two gravestones, his eyes fixed not on her but on the yew tree, his arms motionless at his sides. She glanced at his face and then—he was willing it—glanced lower.

Everything happened very quickly. She saw his jeans and something that was not his jeans. The man retreated behind a gravestone. His shoulders hunched—fastening his fly, she guessed—and he walked swiftly, not quite running, toward the gate.

She tried to continue writing about her grandfather, barely twenty, trapped in a muddy foxhole, but after a few minutes she set aside her notebook and walked over to the gravestones. The man had left his book on top of the taller stone: A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” was one of her grandfather’s favorite poems.

“A flasher,” Moira had said when she told her. “He must have been thrilled, finding a nubile girl in the churchyard.”

“But what was the point? He showed me his willy and ran away.”

“The point was to shock somebody.” Not somebody, Zoe had thought: me. The man had come to the churchyard to read, or look for a grave, and then, at the sight of her, been unable to help himself, like Antony with Cleopatra, giving up an empire for a kiss. Now, looking at the poem, it ended midway through the tenth line, she thought maybe she could go back to it. Or write another poem, about the boy lying on the grass while the birds watched over him.