The Child of Time
Normally, I could tolerate English Class. Now that I am a sophomore, I have taken this type of class for about eight years now, where we get assigned something to read, and then have to discuss it in class. Most of the time, it’s not terrible. Nothing I would pick to read myself, but usually semi interesting. Edgar Allen Poe is good for creeping out the girls in the class, and then last year we read A Rose for Emily and everyone was kind of weirded out with that one. But this year, not only is Ms. Robinson telling us that we have to read these stories, she is making us read them out loud in class. She seems to think that we won’t read them at home the day before class (we won’t) and that skimming it while she asks questions isn’t enough to understand the story (really, it is.)
I looked over at my best friend, Mikall, and he was counting the paragraphs until it was his turn to read. He hated talking in class, much less reading aloud. I didn’t like it either, but I didn’t have as much as a problem as he did. I wished I could take his turn, but when I asked Ms. Robinson earlier in the year if I could read for him, she said no, that he needed to learn. Whatever, what job needs you to be able to read short stories aloud besides an English teacher?
Brittany Houston started reading the story and all I could think was, No. She got the voice all wrong. As I thought that thought, I started to wonder, why would I think the voice should sound different? I started reading the story. (No, I didn’t read it last night, why should I when I knew we would read it in class.) I could almost see the face of the narrator — an older tribeswomen, talking about the coming of the Child of Time.
The days were dark, our horses were dying, and we begged the gods of the sky and the land to save them. Our people were usually much blessed by the gods of the sky and the land. They had blessed us with horses, with food, with enough rain. And now the blessings were ending and we didn’t know why. What did we do to displease them?
The Child came among us, he did not speak our tongue, he blurted out rough syllables, as if he had no one to teach him language. He was dressed in odd clothing, not skins like our people, and not the strange cloth of the white man we had seen. His hair was shorn, not long like a child. He was a child dropped on us by the gods and he would be our savior.
The child was blond, and wearing Nike basketball shorts, the kind that were bright red satin and hung just below his knees. The matching tank top proclaimed the child to be a fan of the Pacers. He wore Nike basketball shoe, but tied near the foot, not up around the top of the hightop. Yes, I could see why the tribeswoman would think the child dressed strangely. And the child had just gotten his hair cut, so it was shorter than usual. Wait, why would I even be able to picture that?
The next reader started the next paragraph. There was some kind of infestation, something that was making the tribe’s horses very sick. The story had details about the illness, but it wasn’t quite right. How did I know this? I glanced over at Mikall. He had beads of sweat on his forehead as his paragraph approached. I wondered how I could interrupt in such a way to help my friend.
I raised my hand. “Ms. Robinson, I seem to remember seeing this before. Is it a movie or TV show of some kind?”
She stood up from her desk. “No, I don’t think so. Didn’t you read the introduction? This story was writing in the early 1700’s and just found in an attic in Massachusetts about four years ago. I can’t imagine someone made it into a movie yet. And it’s very controversial, remember? We are using it to talk about cultural appropriation. Brittany, can you remind Joshua here what cultural appropriation is?”
Brittany sighed, as if she had no time for dumb gamers like me. “It’s when white creators use the culture of other races and ethnic groups as if they made it up.”
“That’s good Brittany. Do you think that this author was using cultural appropriation?”
“No, this author was from the early 1700’s and probably just thought he was telling a good story of something that happened to the Native Americans he was familiar with.”
“And how could he tell the same story without the appropriation?” Ms. Robinson was still asking Brittany, but she was staring at me.
“He wrote it as if he was the tribeswomen, instead of letting her tell the story. He could have been another character.”
“Very good. Now, Joshua, why don’t you read the next paragraph.”
I put my head down and looked for the next paragraph to read. I glanced over at Mikall, who relaxed in his seat. I managed to snag his turn. But as I read, the story still seemed wrong.
The Child lived among us, he ate with us, he played with our children. Then one day, he breathed on the horses and the grass they ate. He breathed and breathed, a smoky, smelly could of breath. What magic was this?
Mikall found me outside at lunch, “Dude, you saved me, thanks.” He sat on the bench next to me.
“No problem. But did you read the story?”
“Yeah, like some time traveling four year old saved their asses from some type of beetle with his magic breath, then disappeared. Weird, huh?”
I felt a rumble in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten my lunch quite yet, the story was bothering me, and I didn’t know why. “Are you sure it’s not a show we’ve seen?”
“No, dude, I never heard of that before. Magic kids aren’t my thing.” Mikall looked at me. “You remember something about it?”
“Yeah, it’s wild, like a fuzzy dream. Maybe I read the story before bed last night and dreamed it. But I could see the woman’s face, I could hear her voice, and those weren’t the right words.”
“Josh, you just dreamed the story different than what the writer wrote. You just have time travel on the brain. That was some magic child, like maybe the people in the tribe were smoking something and they imagined the child, and that’s why he vanished.” Mikall shook his head, “Don’t overthink things, dude.”
I did have time travel on the brain. Well, not necessarily time travel, but time in a sense. Back when we were ten, Mikall and I found this watch and we believed that when we pulled on the knob, time stopped. Looking back, I know that was the magical thinking of being ten. We were high school students now, teenagers. Four years from adulthood. Magical thinking was for kids.
“You still think about it, the watch, don’t you?” Mikall said.
“Now and then, yeah.”
“It wasn’t real man, we know that now.” Mikall stood up from the bench.
“That story, it was like I was there.”
Mikall turned and looked at me. “That kid in the story was 4. We were ten when we found the watch…”
The watch. We had found it on the golf course while looking for lost balls. Magical thinking aside, it did stop time when we pulled the knob. And we may have used it to win a Little League game or two.
“The watch didn’t work like that. It froze time. We would have to freeze it a long time to appear to travel in time. But Ms. Robinson said that they tribe that this story was about, they were here, on the same land our school is built on.”
“Mikall, think about it. We were 4 once.” I wasn’t sure what I wanted him to think about, but I could feel the dirt under my barefoot four year old feet. Either I was losing my mind, or I was that child. “Maybe after school, we should go talk to Mr. Wallace.”
“That old man at the Watch Repair shop? What does he know about Native Americans. And neither one of us wears a watch, so it’s not like we can go ask him to look at something.”
I took a deep breath. Mr. Wallace was the man who repaired that pocket watch we found back then. He is also the man that returned it to its owner. He said that it was a special watch. Maybe he would know something. “I’m going after school. You can come or not.”
“I have track practice. And don’t you have band or something?”
“Skipping it. This is important.” The bell rung for us to go to fifth period. Mikall shrugged and walked off to his science class. I had history, but spend the whole rest of the day wondering how to ask Mr. Wallace for help.
When I got to the shop on Front Street, it looked dark inside, but a faded sign said “Open”, so I pushed on the door to go in.
“Dude, wait for me!”
I turned and saw Mikall running up the street. “I ran here, that’s track practice, right?” He grinned and walked into the shop in front of me.
Mr. Wallace was at the counter near the back of the shop. He was polishing a watch face with a bright white cloth. He would rub the watch, then hold it away from his face, checking the finish. He then started rubbing the watch face again. “I thought I would see you boys again sometime. Did you find that watch again?”
I felt a bit queasy. Mikall shook his head. “No, Mr. Wallace. We were just around town and thought we would drop in and say hello.”
Mr. Wallace put the watch down, and pushed his glasses higher on his nose. He looked at us through the bottom of his glasses, tilting his head back. “Really, just to say hello.” He didn’t sound like he believed Mikall.
I swallowed hard. “Well, sir, we just read this story in English class. And it was kind of weird and we thought maybe you could help us understand it.”
Mr. Wallace went back to polishing the watch. “The Poe story? It’s not a watch, the man murdered someone and was losing his mind.”
“Um, no sir, not that story,” Mikall said. “It’s a different one, it’s about the Native Americans that used to live on this land and there were some beetles.”
“Oh that one, the portal beetles.”
Portal beetle? I didn’t remember them being called portal beetles. Mr. Wallace must have seen my confusion.
“Yes, Portal beetles. We had them pretty bad about ten or so years ago. They infested the whole back of the work shop. Took a whole bunch of Raid to knock ‘em back.”
“Raid?” Mikall asked.
“Yes, the stuff in the black can. The yellow can stuff wasn’t strong enough. But we got them out of here. Didn’t know where they went, but then someone came in to get his watch fixed.” Mr. Wallace looked at me. “And he brought his four year old son with him. While I was working on the watch, I think I was just changing out the battery, you know, something easy, the little boy was wandering around my shop. There’s nothing dangerous back there, but he came running out and said, clear as day, ‘Bugs!’ And then he grabbed my can of Raid and ran back to the storage room. We laughed, the dad said that they had had some beetle issues as well, so the boy knew what the black can of Raid was for. Anyway, I put the cover on the watch and the man and his son left.”
Mikall and I looked at each other. “Mr. Wallace,” Mikall asked, “why are they called portal beetles?”
Mr. Wallace winked at me. “They tend to show up around portals, like time portals.”
“You’re just playing with us now,” I said. “Because you said that the man had them at his house too..”
Mr. Wallace looked totally serious. “There are multiple time portals in this town.”
I wanted to think he was teasing us, but there was something in his voice. And the breath that killed the beetles in the story, that could have been how those people would describe a spray can. No, no, I was falling for it. This was not true. It was a watch repair shop, not a time portal. And what, he was saying my house had a time portal as well? Because I could remember coming here with my dad many times over the years, but I did remember bugs. I looked at Mr. Wallace.
“You’ll understand more one day, Joshua. You too, Mikall. For now, you should just keep your thoughts to yourself. Wouldn’t want the wrong people know about your past. “ He winked again. “I don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on cheating in Little League.”