“You should have lied, boy,” the man he called stepfather had said.
Now sitting in his room, tears still burning in his eyes, the boy thought about the leaves slowly turning to ash. He had been fascinated by the amber glow of the flames steadily creeping across the dried edges, little by little eating through the leaves until there was nothing left but a pile of gray dust and skeletal remains. He had burned each leaf slowly, one by one, studying it until it disappeared. In that moment, he had felt powerful–as any child of five would–with the discovery of taking something and turning it into nothing.
He didn’t feel so powerful now.
“You should have lied, boy,” his stepfather had said.
The ominous clink of the belt buckle had made the boy freeze in his tracks, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had known what that sound meant even before his stepfather’s shadow fell across the stem of the burnt leaf, still held proudly in the air for all to see.
“Look at this!” he had said, waving his trophy toward his mother.
“Were you playing with matches?” was the only response he got.
I should have lied, he thought, gingerly perched on the side of his bed. He thought of the leaves turning to nothing. He thought of the crack of the wide belt, still felt the sting of leather against flesh, the blows he didn’t understand. He thought about how his mother had avoided his tear-filled gaze–didn’t seem to hear the cries that burst from within him involuntarily.
Why wouldn’t she look at him?
The boy imagined the fire spreading. He imagined the ashes.
I should have lied, he thought.
Wiping his nose on his sleeve, the boy determined not to make this mistake again. He felt the rage grow inside his chest. In his now clenched fist he still held the charred stem of the leaf, his fingernails digging into his palms as he attempted to crush it in his little hand. Releasing his grip to check the damage, he was disappointed to find the stem still largely intact, in spite of having previously been made brittle by the fire.
His rage dissipated into despair.
This was no trophy. This was a mistake. The boy now looked with shame and anger at the remains of his leaf, wondering how he could have been so stupid to think anyone else would appreciate it the way he did. No longer a source of pride or interest, the boy saw only a reminder of what had just occurred.
He cast the stem to the ground and with all his might he stamped his foot on it. He picked up a toy truck and smashed the stem over and over. He dropped a heavy book on it, and even tried punching it a few times.
Still there it remained.
(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.