"A Hundred Years Ago"
But enough fluttering about:
Short story, posted 11.6.04. PG-13. "When a young boy accumulates too many memories, all very real and solid, he cannot help but realize he has a history. If a boy has a history, surely that means he's been alive far too long to be continuing this childhood thing, and should find himself a business venture straightway. Therefore, Peter said he didn't remember things. This was perfectly true, because the things he remembered were just like dreams, and dreams, as we both know, aren't very real at all."
A Hundred Years Ago
Though Wendy was a very new mother, she soon discovered the trick of opening up her children's dreams and stowing their thoughts in a much neater order than they had been. Good things to the top, bad to the bottom, and no child ever the wiser except that he felt happier in the morning because of it. The way Wendy learned of this mothering thing was after one of Peter's nightmares.
He didn't dream as the other boys did; he would cry and shake and call out for her, and in the morning would never know a thing had happened. The one time she mentioned it, he chastised her severely for even suggesting it might have been so. This was not very strange, for Peter often forgot things, and if there was to be make-believe, he far preferred that he was in charge. But that was neither here nor there; what concerned Wendy was the nature of the dream that shook Peter so.
After the dream when he'd cried out such things as she'd never thought possible -- things pertaining, though she couldn't imagine how, but certainly pertaining to the pirate captain -- she comforted him by patting his head and giving him a bit of her dressing gown to hold. She found herself heartily wishing that she could find out what about the captain vexed Peter night after night, so that she might fight against it. Perhaps an extra spoonful of the children's medicine, or an earlier bedtime, would ease his troubled mind.
Now, in the world you and I normally traverse what happened then is only allowed for real mothers, and only because they don't know they shouldn't be able to. Wendy seemed perfectly sensible of the impossibility, and this proves that she was still very young. But as this is the island far beyond where real mothers are, and Wendy had wished so very sincerely, one might say that a small keyhole suddenly appeared just behind Peter's ear moments before Wendy placed her hand upon his head for another stroke. When she touched it, however mistakenly, the traveling case of Peter's mind laid open before her, and the boy relaxed in such a way as she had never seen before.
All of the thoughts in Peter's traveling case were memories. They looked fever bright, like dreams. This comes from remaining always a child. When a young boy accumulates too many memories, all very real and solid, he cannot help but realize he has a history. If a boy has a history, surely that means he's been alive far too long to be continuing this childhood thing, and should find himself a business venture straightway. Therefore, Peter said he didn't remember things. This was perfectly true, because the things he remembered were just like dreams, and dreams, as we both know, aren't very real at all.
Wendy was confused by what she saw in Peter's memories, and because they were badly torn and jumbled about, she assumed she'd simply found the bits that made up nightmares, and set herself to immediately discover their contents. Most were wrapped into strange little packages tied off with string, but scattered over and around these were loose dreams, uncollected and with no string to catch them all. It was these that she thought must be the problem.
The first memory she pulled out and shook was all creases -- it looked very old indeed, and had Wendy known what you and I know, she might wonder just how many years Peter had been teaching little boys to fly. But she said, "Ah! I suppose you must be the first dream."
She gave the memory a very firm shake, hoping to dislodge its musty odor, and found herself caught by the image that flashed across its surface. There was Peter, little pearl teeth flashing in the sunlight, and he was crowing. Around him, in the midst of a clearing, was a group of boys. They were dressed much like hers, all bear skins and dirt under their nails, though she didn't recognize any of their faces. Standing in front of Peter, looking very much as if he'd found something wonderful, stood a boy with black curls and light blue eyes, slightly taller than the other boys and paler too. She heard a voice say, "I never want to go back."
The boy was named James. Peter found him sitting by a windowsill, crying. "Why are you doing that?" Peter asked him. The boy replied, "I wish I wasn't here anymore. I wish I was anywhere else at all."
Peter tossed some dust upon the boy and said in a brazen tone, "I suppose, if you wish, you might take my hand and come away with me."
James, two years into boarding school and sick with all the horrors bestowed on little ones such as himself, took Peter's hand and let himself be carried away.
The great secret here is that Peter did not know how many memories young James had stowed away in his head. Memories make a history, as you have just learned, and though James might have looked like a little boy, no amount of flying would help him forget the many things that made him grow up.
We must take a moment here to pity Peter, because at that time he did not know what things he would forget. But don't pity him too long. He won't remember it, not really, and all the attention would simply go to his head.
Better that you pity James. He is going to come out very poorly in the end of this. Did you see his eyes as he watched Peter fling back his head and crow for being such a clever leader? Do you suppose a real mother would very much like to open up James's traveling case and see what garments he carries at that moment? Peter had saved him from very many bad things, and given him so much good. It was at that moment that James swore he would never go back, and this is true, he never did.
Wendy laid aside that memory. She didn't understand all that we do, so she was only saddened by the idea of so many little boys who never had a mother. Wendy was very conscientious of her mothering role, and worked very hard to be one for every boy around her.
The next memory she found had been rolled up like a piece of silk, and so it was not nearly as wrinkled as the other. But when Wendy unwrapped it, it looked as if it had been left outside: there were three little fairies, like dried insects, that had squeezed their way into the shelter of the memory and couldn't find their way out again. She felt very sorry for the fairies, and wished she could ask Peter what their names had been.
Perhaps Peter had taken out this silk and dreamed it when he was lonely, only to leave it aside when his boys came 'round. Wendy thought a dream to cure loneliness might be a very fine thing indeed. She wondered if Peter was never lonely anymore. Beneath the poor fairies' wings, she saw another picture, and she was eager to see what might form this sort of cure might take.
There was James, and there was Peter. They were flying above the lagoon, and there was a chilling sound in the air. Mermaids think that the moon calls to them, so they sing for her, but they don't like to. To them their songs sound very angry and put-out. To regular mortals, though, they sing in an eerie tone, the sort that would make even fathers cry if they ever heard a note. The mermaids were singing louder just then, to vex the boys above them.
It worked on James, who would ask Peter to some other place very soon. Peter looked the same as ever, though there was something in his countenance that seemed troubled. He had seen something different in James, but he could not tell what it might be. But here, can't you see the difference between this memory and the previous? Against all rules, James had grown a little. It was the length of his legs, the dip of his cheeks. The outside was catching up with the in.
A ship rocked before them, strong and bone-like beneath the moon. James gestured at it with his sword. "They frighten me, Peter."
James was speaking, of course, of the pirates. The beasts are always manageable; the redskins are as often friend as foe; the mermaids only snap their teeth at you if you step too close. It was the pirate Blackbeard and his men that any boy of Peter's must watch out for, for they were grown up and still lost.
"I don't see why they're so very frightening," Peter said petulantly. "I think I'm more frightening by half. Did you see the cut I laid across Blackbeard's cook?"
"I did," James said. "I was glad of it -- he reminded me of my mathematics professor."
Peter didn't know what a mathematics professor was, but it wouldn't do to let James know that. "That's why I killed him, you know," Peter said. "I expect the world could do with fewer mathematics professors, if it pleases you." The wonderful thing about Peter was, the moment he said it, he believed it.
The sad thing about James was, he did the same.
If it was a cure, Wendy was very uncertain now of the sickness. She decided that the best thing to do was to roll it all back up and place it to one side for sorting later. Perhaps Peter stopped watching it for a reason, but it was so very sweet -- it seemed a shame to put it away.
She nearly missed the next dream down. It had slipped to one side and got caught in the lining. Wendy wondered what possible dream it could be. She pried it out gently, and tried to smooth it as best as possible. It was an odd picture she saw in there. She didn't quite know what to make of it.
A boy -- that tall one she'd seen twice before, with the blue eyes and pale skin -- and a very small mirror. He was staring at it, and seemed to be saying things very quietly. The angle from which she viewed him doing this was awkward, as if someone had happened upon something that they were not certain they should be witnessing. A moment later (for really, this is Peter, and he does not approve of such things as good manners, though he is perfectly capable of them if no one tells him so) the image rushed forward and pulled the startled pale boy away from his mirror, and the dream, as Wendy thought it was, ended there.
Wendy, for all that she is very good and motherly, was not terribly knowing about some things. If she were really clever, she would have known to ask me what it was the boy with the mirror had been saying.
But as I like Wendy, I showed her the way of charming the full story from these things: She turned the whole dream over and watched it from the other side.
"Good, oh, very good," James whispered to his mirror. He was looking at his cheek, and saw no sign of a beard there yet. The older boys at school, who had chased him and made him do the most awful things, had had the beginnings of beards, and his professors all had them as well. James knew that part of growing up was getting a beard. If he wasn't very careful with his growing, he'd wake up with a beard one morning and Peter would make him go away and never come back.
And he so did not wish to leave Peter.
"Peter," he said to his mirror, "Peter, let us go down to the lagoon. Let's ask the redskins for a drumbeat, and there can be a dance. I know how these things go, because I have heard many things about them. How will we partner ourselves, Peter? Can you hear the drums? Listen now, the fairies are laughing, and they sound like music too. Oh, Peter." He said this last thing very quietly, and then again, and again.
And that was when the real Peter (there are so many real and false things in this land!) came in and surprised James, and took him away to play in the wind and pluck at the backs of great beasts, and they flew like shots over the pirate ship and then Peter thought of an adventure, and it was a very wonderful adventure, and maybe that is why this memory is hiding away, because it really is so little compared to the grandness of everything following.
"Peter," she whispered, sounding out the voice the pale boy had used when saying Peter's name. She didn't know what to make of it, and I feared she might make fun. But no; she recognized something in that voice, and though she didn't know why, she wondered whether Peter had ever dreamed that dance, and how they managed the partnering.
There never was a dance, but I didn't tell Wendy that. James never mentioned it to Peter, who would have found it very dull in any case.
Wendy started to feel tired. Where were Peter's nightmares? the poor dear wondered. These dreams were mostly pleasant things. She rifled through Peter's mind until she found something quite dingy and not made of cloth at all. One side was a blank, but the other held a picture. Wendy held it up to inspect it.
It was nighttime again in this image. It was very dark because there was no moon. James sat at the top of a tree that was many miles taller than was proper, and had branches wide and flat like boards. It was Peter's tree. Peter had cut down the first one for a new house his boys were building, and felt so sad afterwards that he came by and talked to its stump for many days. This cheered the tree immensely, and it grew back faster and grander than it had ever done before. Peter liked to come and sit in its tall branches, where he could see the stars and plot adventures, and he always made his clothes from its skeleton leaves.
This all happened before James arrived, so he did not know this. Peter would have told him, for it was really quite wonderful what he'd done, but he'd forgotten.
James sat curled tight in this high treetop, and the scent of the crushed leaves behind and beneath him was something sweet and dark and a little like warm milk. Peter smelled like this. James touched his own face, over and over, and small black tears fell down his cheeks.
A shadow darted overhead. Peter landed beside James. "You have been gone from the house a very long time," Peter said irritably. When James said nothing, Peter thumped him hard on the back for being so wicked as to not answer the charge immediately.
James moved fast; Peter couldn't avoid the blow laid onto him. James's awkward fist hit Peter on the lip, and Peter was so shocked by this that he sat with his bloodied mouth gaped open while James gulped deep breaths and swallowed tears. "I think I must go home, Peter," he said. "I let it go on too long."
Peter looked confused, and was still hurt by what James had done. "You must do what you like," Peter said at last. Then he touched his mouth and grimaced. "No. Not at all," he said this time, "you must stay here and explain what you did, or we shall have to fight."
"Oh Peter," James said, "it's just that everything is so very dangerous here, don't you see? You don't, I know you don't, but someone must pay attention. How could I bear it if you were killed?" James's voice grew hoarse. "And there are worse things than death, Peter. I know. You saved me from them. But you never think of such things!"
"Why should I?" Peter asked. James clasped Peter's hands and held them very tightly.
"Because they can happen! Someone must be prepared for it. Things might happen at any time. Don't you see?"
And when Peter shook his head, James cried out in a piteous tone and pulled Peter to him. One boy's mouth met the other's, and it was very strange to see.
It looked like a soft touch, which was just as well, for Peter's mouth was still bloody. Peter pulled back and said, "What was that?" If there had been moonlight, he would have seen a ruddy blush on James's lips.
James made a sound like laughter, but sounded mostly as if he were weeping. "Don't you know?"
Peter stiffened. "I expect I do." He didn't really. Peter doesn't know many things that take place in the real world, though you mustn't say so if you meet him. He is very prideful, and might take it amiss and kill you out of spite. Peter put on his most knowing voice and said, "Is that all you were worried about?"
James began to shake as if thousands of fairies had decided to blow across his skin at once. His mouth opened and closed as one defense, one argument, one declaration after another was nearly said, then discarded before his voice could make it true. Instead, he raised their clasped hands to his face, and let Peter feel his cheek; no longer smooth, it held the beginning brush of harsh growth: the start of James's beard.
"You see, Peter?" he said. It was an aching sound. "There are things that can happen, Peter, and you'd never know it till it was too late. I only meant to grow up enough to protect you. The pirates are so big! You're too brave; fear makes the best protection, unless you've got something better yet; let me, Peter, let me protect you, and I promise I won't grow so old that I must die." James let go of Peter's hands, still on his bearded face, and waited. And for a moment James felt Peter's light fingers press against his cheek and trace down his jaw, down, down, then touch -- such a touch! O, such a touch -- the curve of his new-kissed mouth.
It was a surprise when Peter pushed back from him and flew into the air. His shape was dark and nearly indistinguishable from the sky. He floated there, looking down at James. He said, "I don't allow growing up." And stronger, "You are no boy; you're none of mine."
And with that he turned about and flew off.
Oh reader, to see poor James's face! And yet to discover, unbeknownst to that pale boy who sat deathly still beneath the stars, that Peter had forgotten every gesture already; everything, that is, but that James was no longer a young and thoughtless child.
That dingy, pitiable scrap of memory, with all of Peter's thoughts removed from it, fluttered with Wendy's breath. She did not understand. She was afraid that she might someday. What dreams were these? No wonder Peter cried out in the night. Best if she packed it all away and never looked in the little traveling case again.
But this was not to be. The moment Wendy tried to close the lid, the memories were so ill-placed that the lid wouldn't shut properly, and Peter began to cry again, asking questions Wendy could not answer, saying names she thought he'd only dreamed. When she lifted the lid again she saw the contents all jumbled up, with good thoughts battling away with bad ones, strings coming undone, so that memories Peter had very thoroughly forgotten were lying across the top like suits set out for the morning. What trouble that would cause if he woke up! He might remember all of his long life and in a snap become a doddering old man, wondering at his clothes and the children surrounding him; or he might rather jump into the air, fly to the pirate ship, and look into all the portholes until he found what he'd cast from him so very long ago, and my friends, I wished as hard as I could that that would not happen to any of the three you've met here tonight.
Wendy did not want to see any more of these things -- but how could she know what was good and bad if she did not examine them all? Even before that, she had to stop the fighting. She separated combatants, retied packages, and one at a time removed the strange dreams from the case and set them on her lap. Once she'd gotten them all the other memories ceased their fussing and settled immediately.
It would have been very nice if that was all that Wendy had to do, but as she looked upon the dismal heap before her, all ill-used and timeworn and unwanted, she very nearly cried. But something of her thought caught her: these were unwanted dreams, as lost as anyone else on this island. Wendy was still a mother, and she cared for all lost things.
It was when she realized what she must do, and when she knew that it was the right thing to do, that Wendy looked down upon the memories in her lap and saw not hundreds of little pictures, but one grand image formed from the whole, large and cold and deep.
In this picture was James, a youth's beard on his face. He had thrown his fur skin away from him when he'd left the tree, and was walking as if an automaton toward the mermaid's lagoon. He thought to walk in until the mermaids got so angered that they tore him to pieces. Why didn't he fly to his death instead of this slow pace? He'd captured fairy after fairy since dawn, getting a dozen different sorts of dust upon his skin, and still: he could not fly. Sometime between the sunset and the morning, he had stopped believing he could.
The mermaids do not like any boys (excepting Peter, of whom everyone is fond), but they like pirates worse. And what else could this strange thing that planned to walk into their lagoon be? Certainly no redskin would willingly die amongst them, and see, he had no fur, so he could not have been a beast. But a boy? No! Clearly, he was a pirate, and clearly again, they could have nothing to do with him. Pirate blood is very bitter and melancholy, and mermaids cannot bite them for fear of this taste forever in their waters. Leave him to the crocodile, if that creature could be bothered -- it liked to eat in one swallow.
James walked into the water, and walked further on still, and when his feet could no longer touch the sandy floor, he floated, waiting for his death to come to him. He floated for many days, until he felt a net beneath him.
"We'll sing, aye--"
The net caught at him and dragged him up, bumping up in time to the jolly song being sung above him, which was very different from all the songs James had heard on this island.
"And we'll heave, aye--"
He rose above the water in his hemp cage. Beside him was a large wooden ship, the boards all tarred, and where the water peaked against the hull, there was green algae and little shells stuck fast. Below him he saw the disappearing tail of a crocodile that had just had its well-soaked meal taken from it.
"And we'll hang Peter boy for his boots. Aye!"
James was dumped upon the ship's deck. Around him were a dozen or more men, all dressed in a seaman's mode and watching him with interest. After a moment they parted their ranks, and there stood the pirate captain Blackbeard. He was wide in girth and had a magnificent coarse black beard that bushed about his face. James had seen him many times, when during great adventures Peter would do battle with that grand figure. James himself had killed many a pirate on this ship, and he was afraid they might recognize him.
Blackbeard strode forward and plucked up James from the ship's deck as if he had no weight at all. "Is this what I think?" he called out to his men. Questions from captains require immediate response, and so the men cheered loudly. Blackbeard nodded, and he smiled; a gold tooth winked within his grin. "Have you ever been called to the service, my good man?" he said. "Have you ever felt the call of the sea?"
James had never done or felt such a thing. No pirate was he; but he did not want to die -- or worse -- either.
"Yes, sir," he said, and the pirates cheered, and the captain made him a cabin boy with promise of bo'sun if he made it past the first battle. This is not at all the regular way of becoming a bo'sun, but this is a very different ocean from the ones most ships travel on, and so there must be different rules.
Wendy did not know what to feel. She did not know what to think. But I will tell you, if James were there, even with that little bit of beard upon his face, she might have given him a corner of dressing gown to hold if he wished it.
James's days on shipboard were long and tense. Soon his new companions would find out his secret, and then they would kill him, and it would be much more horrible than if the mermaids had done it, because he had a plan now. He kept his mind occupied by watching every movement of the watch, counting the number of men on deck at each bell, listening to the orders and how they were passed from man to man, and all in all, his plan was to learn every thing he might about the running of the ship. This was because he meant to return to Peter, return and give him all this marvelous information so that Peter might defeat his nemesis without a single chance of danger. Peter would take him back then, Peter would understand how useful James could be no matter what the age.
This lasted for many weeks. James became very knowledgeable about the way the winds blew, and how the twisted stars were the map the pirate ship sailed by. He grew a little bit, but just enough to reach the rigging without a strain, and he hoped it was not too much of a betrayal. One day the crew was whispering amongst themselves, and the rumor brought a spark of wild joy into James's heart: it had been too long, Peter and his boys were sure to come.
The pirates were not afraid, but seemed to feel the same sort of happy expectation that James himself did. Every day they sharpened their cutlasses to a wicked shine, and every night they laid their knives by their sleeping sides in readiness. Even James was given a knife, a little knife from the captain's mess, and it would have been a kind gesture if James did not have printed in his memory the fine sword Peter had given him when he'd first come to the island, which James had left at the bottom of Peter's tree with his fur skin. James pretended to sharpen the knife as the others did, but he worked to make it dull instead. When Peter came, he would show he hadn't changed in any real way at all.
The last night that James felt even the slightest happiness, the men were climbing 'round the rigging for the sheer delight of the rope on their hands and feet.
A hundred years is a very long time, oh yes, oh.
They sang long into the night in the forecastle where the men usually slept.
They thought the stars was set alight, a hundred years ago.
The stars were high, the moon was waning, the smell of salt and breezes danced through the ship and the rocking sea was close to lulling James to sleep. Then, listen close! With the sound of leather being brushed by some caressing hand, feet landed on the deck. A little bright fairy light zipped above the sailors, returning to the boys who'd arrived with knives and swords and skins and leaves, and a cheer erupted from voices high and sweet. The pirates woke, but James was already running, and the battle was joined at once. "Peter!" James called, and a little boy attacked him, a boy with thick blond hair and all his first teeth, and how young the child looked, how fast his little sword flew.
Run, James! Dear boy, this is the last of your chances, run while you've still hope.
Whose thought was that? Oh Wendy, oh, dear little mother.
The boy laughed at a cut he laid on James's cheek, and stamped his foot when James avoided a killing blow. What chance was there against this little fury, who refused to see who stood before him?
Perhaps it was the standing. James dropped down to his knees, his dull blade dropped to the deck, and found himself looking eye-to-eye with the boy who'd cast him from the first good thing he'd known. "Peter," he said, and he said it with such deep feeling that the little boy halted the battle for a long moment, and searched James's face with an eye that seemed to light with recognition. James smiled then, a smile that was so sweet and pure! and lifted his hand toward Peter's face, and touched the curve of that soft chin.
Peter took up his sword again, and cleaved that gentle hand 'tween wrist and elbow.
A roar overcame the fierce sounds of war, and there was Blackbeard, pistols ready and knives sheathed along his rounded chest, advancing toward the battle. He gave a shout that was a challenge, and Peter crowed and flew up to dive at the pirate captain, the hand he'd torn from poor young James left bleeding on the deck. The ship gave a mighty roll, itself enjoined in this great fight, and the orphaned hand seemed to grasp at the bloody deck before the water claimed it.
James watched it fall, saw it caught by the crocodile that had followed the ship since the pirates had found him. The crocodile sank down out of sight, claiming what Peter had taken by force.
A cry, a cry! Blackbeard's head rolled past fallen James. The band of boys ran laughing on the deck, cutting here and there until they grew bored of it, and all flew away as the moon dipped low to dream of pleasant things.
When James fell at last, he dreamed as well.
He saw himself a beacon of red flame, centered on his arm. Slowly the fire guttered, and darkness fell about him. In the black night of his unconscious mind, he heard a name whispered, and he could not tell who spoke it.
Three days went by, and James awoke to a world of mathematics. There were ten sailors left aboard; no captains, no, nor men above the rank of bo'sun; and James was short one hand but up one hook.
In the end, all mothers are meant to be witnesses to their children's crimes.
Wendy laid the memories down precisely where they went. She arranged no different thoughts to relieve the night terrors visited to Peter, though she had learned enough that she could have if she'd wished to; she likewise did not say a word of what she'd seen, even when the pirate captain captured all the boys not two days later, and she saw the dark hair and the blue eyes, the fearsome steel upon his wrist and the melancholic thread beneath his voice.
Perhaps, reader, the pity of this story belongs to neither James nor Peter, but to Wendy. She had begun to understand why all mothers are grown up. She was not long for Neverland.