Jim Heynen is the author of several collections of historical flash fictions, including The Youngest Boy, The Boys’ House, and The One-room Schoolhouse. For fifteen years he was writer in residence at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. The following stories are from Jim’s new collection titled The Boys’ World: Historical Flash Fiction, Rural America.
The tornado did not hit the farm where the boys lived, but it got close. When it was all over, the boys wished they had not been sent into the cellar while the grown-ups watched the tornado dangle from the bottom of a dark cloud and then explode when it hit a cornfield and moved whirling along to take out trees and farm buildings and what-have-you.
The grown-ups got to see this. The boys didn’t. All the boys got from that tornado was what the grown-ups told them. Sure, the boys sat and listened. What else could they do? That didn’t mean they were happy that they spent the whole time staring at the brick cellar walls while the grown-ups got to have all the fun of watching the tornado rip the world to shreds.
At least the boys got to go for a ride the next day and look at all the damage. A piece of straw was stuck like a nail right into a tree. A manure spreader was twisted like a dishrag and had its back wheels turned upside down. There was a big dead pig out in the middle of a field. It had started out two miles away before the tornado picked it up and twirled it around for a while before slamming it down into a plowed field. There was a little red shed that the tornado lifted off the ground and then put down with a wheelbarrow inside it that wasn’t there before.
The boys got to see all these results without seeing the action. It was worse than seeing the scoreboard that showed the final score of a softball game without getting to see the real game.
The boys sat quietly looking down at their feet when the grownups told what they saw during the tornado. But the boys did make the best of the tornado when they met new kids. That gave them the chance to tell about the tornado they didn’t see. They didn’t skip any details the grown-ups gave them. The boys even added details of their own. Why not have a cupola ripped off one barn and put on top of another barn? Tornadoes did strange things. The more often the boys told about watching the tornado the better their telling got. Now the people listening to them were in the cellar while they had seen the real thing.
The oldest boy was sure he would win this one. He started by putting both hands flat on the kitchen table and told the story of how he got the scars on his hands and fingers. The long one on the inside of his pinky was his pride and joy because he couldn’t stop bragging about it.
I was reaching to get this little pig out of that ball of barb wire somebody left right outside the hoghouse, he said.
It was a big one, all right, about an inch long from his right pinky knuckle almost all the way up to where the fingernail started.
The other boys looked at their hands. They couldn’t match that scar, but one of the boys tried by showing the red-circle scar on his right elbow.
That’s nothing, said another one of the boys. Look at this.
He put his finger to his nose.
The other boys leaned in. That’s nothing, said one of the boys. You can hardly see it.
They all went back to looking at the oldest boy’s pinky scar.
But you cheat, said one of the boys. You kept scratching the scab off.
That’s not cheating, said the oldest boy. A good scar is a good scar, no matter how you got it.
The other boys knew the oldest boy was right about something: if you wanted a good scar, you had to scratch the scab off when it was starting to heal.
While the oldest boy was not looking, the other boys looked for any scratches they might have that were not totally healed yet. They scratched at these scabs. It was the only way they could make sure they might end up with a scar worth bragging about too.
Look! shouted the youngest boy. He pointed at the sun that was setting over a tasseling cornfield with silos and the pointed roofs of barns in the far distance. The setting sun made everything look beautiful to the youngest boy.
What? said the oldest boy and looked where the youngest boy pointed. Then he said, Oh, sunset. Happens every night.
Not like this! said the youngest boy. Look how that big cloud is putting its arms around the orange head of the sun!
Looks like a rain cloud, said the oldest boy.
No, it’s a friendly cloud, said the youngest boy. It wants to be friends with the sun. Look, the sun is smiling.
The distant line of the horizon was a smiling, curved line across the setting face of the sun.
It’s just another sunset, said the oldest boy.
No, said the youngest boy. We’ll never see a sunset like this again.
The youngest boy stared at the sunset. The cloud and setting sun were best friends now, and they were saying goodbye. The youngest boy’s eyes turned to the sky. The blue sky must have seen what the youngest boy saw and thought the friendship between the cloud and sun was so sweet that it turned into a pink blushing sky.
We’ll never see another sunset like this again, said the youngest boy.
The oldest boy looked again at the sunset. Maybe the youngest boy was right this time. The oldest boy couldn’t stop staring either. There would never be another sunset like this again.
The boys learned something when they watched an older neighbor boy start a fire by spinning a stick really fast on another stick close to a little pile of dry leaves. It was like magic.
The boys decided to work their own magic with what they had. What they had was a can of cream they carried to the house after the cows’ milk had gone through the cream separator. The men carried the skim milk to the pigs, and the boys carried the cream to the house.
But before they got to the house, they took out a cupful of that fresh cream. After supper they poured that fresh cream into a tin can. They found a fresh stick and kept a few of its little branches on it. This was as good as an eggbeater if you spun it around as fast as the neighbor boy spun his stick to start a fire.
Using a stick to make whipped cream took a lot longer than they figured it would. But they took turns, each boy trying to spin their egg-beating stick faster than the boy before him. Just when their hands and wrists were getting so tired that they didn’t know if they could go on, a grown-up showed up. She looked down at what they were doing.
Here, she said, you’ll want a little sugar in there. She poured in some sugar as one of the boys was getting the cream nice and thick.
The grown-up also had a little bag over her arm. She pulled out a strawberry pie and little plates with forks. That whipped cream will go real nice with this pie, she said.
The whole day was made of magic!
The boys knew who should get the thanks. It was that neighbor boy who showed them how to start a fire with a stick. That’s where the magic of the day started. The grown-up with the sugar and plates? She was just a freeloader.