Red Arrow

by

Robert Starr




There was a kathung when Nelson fired the crossbow that belied its size and Samuel immediately pictured the black and white sketch of a medieval catapult he had in a book at home.

"I could watch the arrow for the longest way because it was painted red," he'd tell the police later, looking around the interrogation room with his legs swinging in a wooden chair, wide eyed for any traces of the remarkable criminals who must have passed through there.

And it went up and over the fallow field, arcing gracefully as if it had been thrown from the hand of Zeus himself, suspended at the apex of the curve and hanging at the point where gravity balanced it for a second before the pull continued. It seemed slow as it climbed but on the descent (and at least partially because it looked much smaller going away), the arrow appeared to pick up speed, finally vanishing into the tree line on the other side of the field.

"Now go and find it," Nelson had told him, holding the crossbow down beside his leg and staring off toward the spot where the arrow had disappeared. "It's a game. If you can find it in those woods," he said, bending down to his haunches so his face seemed comically too large and cragged, "you can be an Indian Chief just like me."

"I knew right way he wasn't an Indian Chief," Samuel told the police with a smirk, just in case they thought he was just a kid or something.

But even the two men in the room with him (who thought they'd seen everything), weren't sure how to process this, didn't know what to make of the story the boy had told them. The fat one with a brush cut and flat head had been staring long enough that Samuel had to turn away; the man finally took his hand away from his mouth and said:

"Tell me again what you saw in those woods," and he leaned back in his chair so the coasters squealed on the floor.

"But I've already told you what I saw," Samuel said, looking from right to left because he was suddenly afraid the man's gaze would hold him and make him tell it over again even if he didn't want to.

"I've already told you what happened out there," he finally said when the silence in the room pushed at him from all sides making his words plaintive.

"All right," he finally said covering the slip by feigning exasperation, "I'll tell you once more."

And Samuel smiled from one to the other before he started because the story changed the way they looked at him and gave him a certain footing he enjoyed but didn't understand.

####

Drifters look like Hippies to children. Both radiate a playful rebellion to innocent eyes and young boys especially hope they'll grow up to be either, or that both are somehow only mystical extensions of themselves. Nelson Ford was a drifter who'd been driving his late model Chevy van from the east coast to Toronto; the rust spots and unpainted patches of body filler made it look as if it might be part of a circus to Samuel and he grabbed his bicycle to follow when it passed his house and Nelson slowed to give him a salacious smile.

"I followed him right to the edge of town," Samuel said staring at the wall between the two men because he could see it all again with a fresh perspective and when The Brush Cut coughed, Samuel was shocked to find he was still in the room at all.

"He turned into the field at the edge of town and parked behind the abandoned barn."

Nelson slowed the old Econoline as it found the first ruts in a bumpy road running around the gray barn with the rusty tin roof that had practically collapsed and sat tilting sideways like something dropped on top was sliding off, and that's where Samuel felt the first tingle of real adventure.

"I could see through the missing slats to the back," Samuel said, "and I watched the truck stop on the other side."

He rode up to the front of the building and leaned his bicycle against a corner without taking his eyes off the van. When the engine stopped he held his breath because the resulting silence drew them closer as though he could smell the man's unwashed odor suddenly, as if they'd suddenly become aware of the other's presence outside and off their respective vehicles. One ping from the van's hot engine made him jump.

"I thought maybe he'd lived there and came home from far away to find his home abandoned," Samuel said because the thought had just occurred to him.

Nelson stood with his back to the boy facing the empty field in front of him ending in a tree line at the other side. He put his hands on his hips and turned his head slowly from right to left before he spun back to the van (the movement shocking Samuel into crouching down), and when he looked up again Nelson was already half way across the field.

"I saw he had something in his hands," Samuel said.

As soon as he was sure he wouldn't be surprised again, he followed. But the field was pockmarked with bumps and crevices left from neglect so Samuel had to look down to keep his balance. When he finally picked his head up (realizing with a start he hadn't been keeping an eye on the mystery in front of him), the man was crouching ten feet ahead.

"I couldn't move," he said, and Flathead, who'd been picking lint off his cuff, stopped and looked at him so Samuel got mad and turned his head.

"Go on," the other said with a smile. "We're listening."

And the man in the field was resting his elbows on his knees facing the tree line but cocking his head half way around as if the silence after Samuel stopped walking had alerted him. He picked up a dark metal crossbow that had been resting beside him.

"Do you know what this is?" Nelson said patting the thing at his side but still looking ahead.

"It's a crossbow," Samuel said, proud of himself for knowing the word and eager to be tested further.

"When I was a boy," and now the man seemed unaware of Samuel's presence entirely. "This was a place where me and my brothers could hide out."

He looked down at the ground picking up a clump of the stony earth in his palm. "This was all corn," he said, and ran his thumb over the earth before turning the hand over.

"Come with me," he said.

####

"Didn't you think something was wrong with that?" Mr. Brush-Cut-Flathead said like he'd been waiting to justify his indignation.

"Never mind that," said the other. "It sounded like a great adventure, didn't it Samuel? Real Cowboys and Indians stuff, right?"

But Samuel could see clearly now there was something troubling behind their interest in his story -- that they saw it in a different way and their furrowed brows and serious faces suddenly frightened him.

"He walked me across the last bit of open field and into the forest," Samuel finally said, carefully and slowly measuring his words like teaspoons of an unknown medicine.

And the man walked ahead of him (but Samuel didn't mention that because he knew these cops would want to know why he didn't turn and run), and soon the trees had surrounded them completely, changing the air with the closed space so Samuel could smell the dank moss and cool wet earth underfoot that made him feel something alive was watching and ready to pounce at ankle level.

"This is the spot where I built my first fort with my brother," Nelson said stopping at a small knoll and looking up. "Right there. Right there's where it was," he said, waving the bow toward the canopy.

It was here Samuel felt a twinge that would only become familiar later in life as fear when he was jarred by the abrupt turn the dynamic had taken, when he sensed this grown man was showing him things the same way friends his own age might open a secret box at the back of their closets where their mothers never looked.

"Do you see?" Nelson said, turning and facing the boy for the first time -- his voice soft now that he could see his safe warm place, his face cragged with the joy of feeling his boyhood again.

"And over here," and the man was excited now with the flood of a familiarity he'd thought lost, "and over here we used to have little fires in the winter." And he was gone down the side of a hill, his surprisingly buoyant stride making him hold his arms out for ballast.

"He was showing me the places he played in," Samuel told the police but heard his own voice wobble like a flimsy pane of glass when he saw how those words made Nelson look in their eyes.

"It was the forest where he grew up."

But now both policemen stared back silently.

At the far edge of the small forest was another clearing that surprised Samuel when they came upon it together. It was as if they'd stumbled into the small storage space at the back of the closet in his parent's house (the one where he had to push the wood panel aside), and everything that happened before the moment where the broke through the leaves back into the full sunshine was erased -- the barn, van, bicycle, and even his apprehension about Nelson seemed outrageous and foreign when he felt the warm unobstructed sun on his face.

Nelson walked ahead into the long grass that parted and swished as if the blades were whispering conspiratorially to each other and he stopped far enough ahead that his voice carried back to Samuel as if he was making a pronouncement and not just talking to the boy.

"I was happy here," and he waved the crossbow in an arc across the landscape and, just as it caught the light at the apex of the curve, Samuel saw the red arrow with the silver tip in the carriage for the first time.

His curiosity took charge.

"Are you an Indian?" he said never taking his eyes off the glinting arrow tip.

Nelson laughed and his shoulders curled toward his chin in a parody of merriment.

"Yes," he finally said turning to face Samuel with a calm smile, "some people think I've acted just like one."

"I'll bet your tribe owned all this land, right?"

Samuel was excited now and sure he'd done right by following this stranger who clearly held some victory over adult sensibilities.

"Yes," Nelson said thoughtfully, staring at the boy because he could see himself through Samuel's eyes, "Yes, I'm a great Indian Chief and the white man stole all my land," and he looked sideways across the field, his face suddenly cleansed of sentiment and listening as though something had come to him on a slight breeze, a faint noise he needed to cock his head to pick up.

"That's right," he said quicker now that the sirens Samuel imagined were fire trucks were clear in the distance, "I was a great Indian Chief. Would you like to see what the white man did to my tribe ... to my village?" he said, covering a smirk with one hand and staring with black unblinking eyes.

And there was one thing Samuel would never tell these burly men who looked at each other quickly and involuntarily when he came to the point after this one in his story; he couldn't tell them Nelson aimed the bow and fired the red arrow into the next set of treetops because he wasn't sure he'd sided with them, wasn't convinced Nelson had been capable of whatever horrible accusation lurked just behind their serious faces.

"Now go and find it," Nelson said looking back over his shoulder and speaking in that low distracted voice adults used when they aren't talking to you at all. But then, remembering himself, he became jovial.

"If you can find it, you'll be an Indian Chief just like me," and he smiled and started diagonally back toward the edge of the field.

"I stood watching him go," he told the men in the interrogation room, "and then I walked across the field to the other side."

And here, even though both had eventually walked under the yellow tape to the same spot, the policemen shifted nervously in their seats.

####

"At first it looked the same as the other side," Samuel said with a smirk, enjoying how uncomfortable he was making these two grown men.

"It didn't take me long to find Nelson's village and see what the white man had done," and Samuel slapped his hands palms down on the table in declaration of his new found power over adults.

The first skeleton was thirty feet in.

The white of human bone couldn't be hidden by the green ground foliage just as the dirty blue backpack couldn't mingle with the gray wizened bark it rested against. And Samuel approached the first set of remains without fear or shock -- had he recognized it as contemporary, the wedges of yellow light slanting through the trees wouldn't have mattered, wouldn't have transported him completely (with the leaves slightly rustling), to a place only imagination could build for him.

It was a place where the white marauders who struck these noble warriors down could still be hiding behind the ferns and concealed by the staid gray tree trunks, and Samuel had come to be interested in their demise, with bringing them to justice. He walked slowly to the next one of Nelson's victims (this one only a piece of startling red cloth sticking up from the earth as though nature knew it was a foreign object to be expelled), and finally saw, stuck into a tree one hundred feet in front of him, the red arrow.

By the time Samuel had wrestled this ancient relic of a murdered people from the bark, the renegade white army had captured the last of their tribe. By the time he made it back to the edge of the second forest, the police had him too.

THE END



2005 by Robert Starr

Bio: Rob Starr has appeared a number of times in Aphelion (most recently Billy Goes To Werkworth, July, 2005), and has been published in various other zines (web and otherwise), including Bloodletters. A novel, 'The Apple Lady', is now available from Stonegarden Press (at www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, or directly from www.stonegarden.net); and a short story collection, 'Creek Water', will be available in March.

E-mail: Rob Starr

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