This story is from a book of interrelated stories called The Nutmeg Tree (most of the time. I change my titles a lot!) I managed to work in some of my favorite things: snow, Narnia, Wendy houses. I hope you enjoy it!.
The Winter Prince
Bobby Harris decided regretfully that he was just too bloody to go to the library. Everyone would make a fuss and Miss Carver would be upset. He was disappointed; he loved to go to the library any day of the week but especially on Friday afternoons. Miss Carver always saved him a piece of the gingerbread cake she brought in on Fridays to celebrate the end of the week, and she usually had a few minutes to sit and talk to him about new books for the children’s department. She called him her acquisitions consultant. Miss Carver would order the books he recommended, as long as he had good reasons to back up his choices.
He loved sitting in her cozy office with books piled neatly on her desk and on the table under her window. It must be the best job in the world to be a librarian, he thought, but he knew only ladies could be librarians. He had the publisher’s catalog she’d lent him last week in his bookbag with his choices all circled, and he had his arguments all ready in support of the books he’d chosen.
For the little kids he picked books with funny rhymes, or books of fairy tales with beautiful, detailed pictures. For every age group he liked interesting books about animals, usually with pictures. For bigger kids, like him, he chose books about regular kids who got involved somehow with magic.
Sometimes they found an old lamp at a flea market and it turned out to grant three wishes, or someone happened to give them a magic lotion that made them able to fly. These magic things always came with their own problems that had to be worked out in real life, like explaining to your parents how you came to get stuck on top of a church steeple. There were some good ones in the catalog today. He couldn’t wait for them to come in so he could read them.
Well, it was all his own fault that he had to miss his visit to the library this afternoon. Bobby paused where the path veered off towards home and reflected. He couldn’t go home, either. His father had a class and his mother was in Boston showing some of her pottery to a gallery owner. No one would be home to let him in because he was supposed to be at the library. He could spend the whole afternoon in the woods behind the old mill.
He loved the silent winter woods, the icicles on the trees, the way the little stream froze with all its little ripples and waves in place like they had been carved from glass. Maybe he could wash some of the blood off with snow before he went home, so he wouldn’t have to have a big discussion with his father. Beaten up again. Weak. Unpopular. Bobby struck off across an empty clearing towards the woods. It was all his own fault. He’d been stupid, stupid and careless.
The first stupid thing had been the spelling bee. Every week he told himself he wouldn’t win this time. This time he’d mess up on purpose, sit down with the other boys, let Becky and Martha fight it out. They were both pretty good spellers. While Mr. Smathers was busy picking out the next word and listening to the smart kids spell, the kids who were out of the spelling bee kidded around and passed notes. Bobby wanted to be part of that for once, instead of always being the last kid left standing, the ultimate winner in a sport nobody cared about. But he was the best speller in the class. He could spell any word he’d ever read, lots of words he couldn’t even pronounce, some words he couldn’t remember ever even seeing.
When Mr. Smathers said antipathy or expeditious or strategic, Bobby saw the word hanging in front of him in the air with each letter clear and in its own place, and somehow he just didn’t have the heart to do anything but name each letter in turn just as he saw it there. I’ll just spell this word, he thought every time. Maybe I won’t know the next one. But that never happened and eventually Becky or Martha would mess up on a word he couldn’t believe they couldn’t spell, a word like experience or coronet, and he would be left standing up in the front of the room all alone again.
Today had been awful even before the spelling bee began. Mr. Smathers had said right out in front of everyone, “I’ve got a new list here for you, Bobby. Ninth to twelfth grade words. Maybe we can find you some challenging ones on here.”
“But we can’t spell high school words, Mr. Smathers,” protested Martha, bobbing up and down in her seat with indignation.
“No, no, this isn’t for you. I’m only going to take words off this list for Bobby, just to make it a little harder for him. The rest of you will have words off the regular list.”
Bobby felt like running out of the room, out of the building, far out into the snowy woods where no one could see him, no one could know what a freak he was, no one could hate him. But he sat quietly looking down at his desk, feeling his ears get all hot and with a shameful pain in his throat like he might cry.
They picked teams for the spelling bee and he was picked almost last, but not dead last like he was for soccer and softball. He was the best speller in the class, but he never got picked first. The kids on his side didn’t really want him, even though he always won. He was never really on their team.
And then he made the biggest, stupidest mistake of all. He laughed at Jeff Conover when Jeff spelled maximize “maximeyes.” Most of the other kids laughed too, and Martha laughed the loudest.
Martha Patterson had long straight blonde hair and could say mean things in a funny way. She was the most popular girl in their class, and even the eighth graders talked to her. Bobby hated her. She reminded him of the evil witch in The Snow Queen. He always pictured her little white face surrounded by white fur, and her mean little red mouth laughing, showing her little pointed teeth, as she drove a splinter of ice into someone’s heart.
But everybody knew that Jeff Conover loved Martha. Maybe she knew it too; maybe that was why she laughed so long and loud at him. Jeff was the biggest kid in the class and he was almost a whole year older than most of the other kids. Bobby was the youngest. He’d been able to read before he turned five, so he went to first grade that year instead of kindergarten. Jeff wasn’t all that smart but he was big and mean and tough. Usually nobody messed around with Jeff or his buddies Mark Johnson and Steve Ferrars, but today the whole class was laughing together at Jeff.
Being laughed at made Jeff feel bad, and when Jeff felt bad he acted even meaner than usual, because he needed to make someone else feel bad too. His teacher last year had explained that to Bobby and his parents. She seemed to think that this was an interesting and unique thing about Jeff, and it seemed like understanding it made her feel better. She seemed to think that understanding it should make Bobby and his parents feel better too.
But Bobby had forgotten about this special feature of Jeff’s, or hadn’t thought about it enough, or at all really, when the bell rang at the end of the day. He was in too much of a rush, too eager to be on his way to the peace and comfort of the library. That was when he’d done the biggest stupid thing. Even now, with his head throbbing and a strange burning feeling in his stomach, he had to laugh a little at his own stupidity.
He had so many systems worked out for moving around the building safely. Never go to the boys’ room. It was their second favorite place to jump him. Their very favorite place was the locker room by the gym, so on gym days he wore gym clothes under his regular clothes so he could change fast, or pretended he had forgotten them so he wouldn’t have to change at all.
The best thing to do after school was to fiddle around in the hallway by his locker until everyone left. They might lose interest and leave without getting him. If they did get him they would have to make it quick there in that open space where any minute a teacher might walk by. But today he had headed for the main doors as soon as the last bell rang. He wasn’t watching his back or looking to see when Jeff and the others left. They got him right outside the door.
He also had systems and rules for what to do when they did get him. The most important thing was to stay on his feet. Only one guy at a time can hit someone standing up against a wall or a bank of lockers, but a lot of guys can kick him if he falls down, and shoes hurt worse than hands.
He also had to be prepared for being slammed against the wall, to keep his head from hitting it. He felt the back of his head now, gingerly. No lump, at least. Actually, the back of his head felt strangely flat, but his hair was sticky with blood. He’d sure blown that rule today. And just his luck that they’d gotten him outside so his head slammed into the brick wall of the building instead of the usual metal lockers.
Usually he didn’t care too much about getting hurt. What bothered him most was the embarrassment, and knowing that everyone, everywhere he went, would know that people hated him. And he knew people noticed, because everyone gave him advice. The ladies at Angelica’s bakery would all look at him and click their tongues when he went in with his mother. Just ignore them, they’d tell him. If they can’t get a rise out of you they’ll lose interest.
When his father took him along to the observatory, the other astronomers and their students would tell him it would be better in high school and much, much better in college. He would meet other smart kids like him; he would have friends.
He understood what they were saying because of the library book he was reading now, a great book about wolves. He liked reading about the wolf packs and how the wolves smell out a wolf from a different pack and attack it, but they try to protect a wolf of their own pack, even from humans. He was a wolf from a different pack, he told himself, but someday he would find a pack that thought he smelled just right, a pack that thought he smelled like he belonged.
His parents tried to help too. They went to school and talked to his teacher and the principal. Best to let the boys sort this out on their own, everyone told them. His father finally told him to hit back. Maybe it will surprise them, he said. Maybe they’ll decide it’s not so much fun. But his whole life Bobby had been taught not to hit, not to hurt anyone or anything at all. His mother carried bugs out of the house in Kleenex to avoid killing any living creature. Bobby never even wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, never mind punch them in the nose.
But his father seemed to think that it would work, so he tried it a couple of times. It turned out he just wasn’t very good at hitting. He certainly wasn’t as good as someone like Jeff Conover who’d been practicing every day for as long as Bobby could remember. And it made him feel ridiculous. Even while he was trying to punch Jeff and the other guys he felt stupid and unconvincing.
So mostly he tried to ignore them while it was going on, even though they didn’t seem to be losing interest at all. He concentrated on observing his own rules about staying on his feet and protecting his head, and he tried to imagine he was somewhere else while he waited for it to be over.
Often he imagined that he was with his own wolf pack, that they banded together and drove away the humans, and that they all crowded around him and pushed their long beautiful gray and black muzzles against him and breathed in his good, familiar smell. He buried his hands in their thick ruffs of fur and they licked him with their rough pink tongues and surrounded him as they walked through the snowy forest to their pack’s own lair.
He was in the outskirts of the woods now, and the special hush that he loved there surrounded him. The sun glowed red behind the trees, turning the bare branches into long fingers pointing at the sky. He didn’t have much time before it was dark on these gray winter days, so he headed for his favorite place, the little stream that he had found this winter. Looking at its ripples and miniature waterfalls, he could pretend it was a tiny river preserved in ice.
A light snow started to fall as Bobby knelt by the stream. He wondered if he could really see fish at the bottom of the stream, or if he just thought he could. The snow blew around him, swirling and dancing in the crisp air. This, he thought, was how it must have been when the four children first went through the wardrobe and found Narnia motionless under its enchantment of snow, before they broke the winter spell and became kings and queens of his favorite imaginary land. For a minute he felt he could step through the shimmering veil of snow into a whole new world of magic and adventure. It was just about to happen.
A bright drop reddened the ice and Bobby shivered. The moment of almost-magic was gone. The blood seemed to be coming from the corner of his mouth, but his lip didn’t hurt. Too cold, probably. He didn’t really remember being hit in the face, but maybe he had been. He dabbed at his lip with some snow. He didn’t always remember exactly where they hit him.
He felt cold suddenly, and tired, and his stomach hurt worse than before. He would go sit on the fallen tree on the other side of the stream and rest for a while before he went home. When he got to the tree he didn’t feel like climbing up to perch on top of it like he usually did. He just sat down in the snow and leaned against the side of the tree.
He wouldn’t think about school anymore, not until Monday. Even God took the weekend off, as his mother would remind his father when he worked too hard at the end of the semester. He would think of something nice, something to take his mind off the pain in his stomach and his head, something warm.
He remembered when he and Becky Mintz had played Peter Pan all one summer when they were eight and nine. It started when they heard Becky’s grandmother call the kids’ playhouse in the Mintzes’ yard a Wendy house. They played there all summer, not caring that the other kids thought nine year old girls shouldn’t play with boys, not caring that the other kids thought pretend games were babyish.
It only lasted until school started again in September, but he could remember how real Peter Pan had been for him and Becky all that summer. The Lost Boys, sometimes imaginary and sometimes represented by the single figure of Becky’s little sister, Penny, were their loyal band, and Never-Never Land unfurled like a map over the summer Massachusetts landscape around them.
Bobby was feeling better now. He was almost lying down in the snow, and as long as he didn’t move his head it didn’t hurt. His stomach still burned, but it felt very far away. His legs seemed even further away. That was right, he guessed. No matter what, your legs are always further away than your stomach. It was a silly thought, the kind he sometimes had just before he fell asleep.
Darkness was drifting through the trees and settling all around him. When he heard the crunch of snow underfoot he thought his wolf pack had come for him. But when he opened his eyes there was only one big white wolf sitting in the snow in front of him. Behind the wolf, a horse with a tall rider waited. With the wolf running ahead to lead the way, it was as easy as sleep to ride northward with the prince through the darkening woods.