This story is based on a loss of innocence, as well as a story Joe’s grandmother told him about a swan when she was young and has a surprise ending. It takes place from Oct 1912 to Christmas 1912 and a little after.
What Max remembered most about that Winter of 1912 was how different the world seemed. Maybe it was because he had been a kid or maybe the world was simply an uncomplicated place back then and a child, as well. People were still shaken here in Bucks County about the sinking of the Titanic only a few months before and felt that it flew in the face of the Almighty to pronounce He who could create the Earth and the heavens couldn’t sink a manmade ship. Most people here still lived and died within the confines of their small towns, having never flown or sailed. There was no need when God’s good green Earth provided everything they ever needed and besides, man was neither bird nor fish.
There was no going back that time in the barn, he recalled. Max had dared Nate, his fellow partner-in-crime to steal cigarettes. Besides, being wrong, he didn’t think Nate would be capable.
“Swiped from Old Man Reilly’s counter when he wasn’t looking. They’re Turkish.”
“Liar!” Max bellowed.
“How’d you sneak out tonight?” Max wondered.
“Down the roof, the trellis and to Frick and Flack’s. You?”
“Told my old man I was checkin’ on pumpkins for Halloween.”
“What’re you gonna be?”
“An April’s Fool!” Nate joked. “Now, shhh!
“Let me see.” Nellie said as Fritz and Flack, (the Gewürztraminer twins) and Raymond looked on.
If they got caught, this would put them into the Big Leagues of getting punished. Max had been the veteran of many instances of his father’s short fuse, but this was something grown-up. This was dangerous.
Nate struck a match several times before success. The pungent aroma made them cough. He was first, then Max and then Nellie. Frick declined and Flack took a puff and choked repeatedly. Nellie didn’t allow her younger brother Raymond to participate in this rite of passage.
“Do you think this is how the grown-ups do it?” Nellie said with a turn and a wicked smile.
“Gosh, you look just like Mary Pickford in that moonlight!” Max cooed.
“Can it, you two! I hear something.” Nate snapped as Flack continued to cough. “Jeepers, be quiet!”
“WHO’S in there?” A voice boomed.
“The jig is up!” Nate blurted and fearfully tossed the lit cigarette. “Scram!”
The gang dispersed into a recently harvested corn field. Shotgun blasts went off. They ran to the safety of the nearby swamp as the barn went up in flames. Then in the marsh, they beheld a horrendous sight. Lit by the hellish fire, a white figure with glowing red eyes screeched up out of the fog. It terrified them. They ran home to their parent’s houses where a whipping was better than getting caught by that thing.
Nothing was left of the barn but embers. The farmer, Jim Granger was hopping mad. He recognized Max and was at the family’s front door early next morning.
Max expected the worst as his father and Old Man Granger hashed it out in the parlor. But when he was told that he’d work for Granger for free instead of getting his hide tanned or reform school, he felt relieved.
Granger had been a peculiar, solitary figure to townspeople. Never mixed in at the barnyard dances, didn’t sit and talk a spell at the general store, neither. He was a stern man with a lined face who always seemed mad at the world. After the first few blow-ups, Max wondered if he should have just taken the whooping. As time progressed, Granger began to ease up on the boy. One night at supper, Granger spoke:
“Sorry fer shootin’ at you. Didn’t know it was just some kids. Thought it was hobos camping out again in the barn.”
“Sorry for burning down your barn, sir.” Max conceded.
“You boys did a fool-hearty thing. Coulda gotten yerselves killed.”
“Don’t you worry none. It were an old barn. It was set to come down. You boys saved me the work.” He smiled.
“Does that mean I don’t have to work it off anymore?”
“No, it don’t mean a dad-burned thing like that! I need the help.” He griped. “And I don’t mind the company.” He said and messed the boy’s hair. “You remind me of my son. He was killed in the war with Spain.”
“Why were you runnin’?”
“We thought you were gonna kill us.”
“I’m done with killin’. Ever hear of the Boer War?”
“Maybe it’s best.”
“We were running cos you were shooting, then we ran into a ghost.”
“The ghost in the marsh.”
Weren’t no ghost.” Old Man Granger chuckled by the lantern light.
“Was too! We saw it! It was white, rose up like a spirit and crying out. It had red eyes, I tell ya! It comes out of the marsh every night! We’ve seen it.”
“Wanna see your ghost?”
“Soon as we clear up these dishes, I’ll show you the ghost.”
Max shook but did what he was told. After supper, he dutifully followed the older man into the barnyard and out near the chicken coops. Granger opened the tool-shed door and lit a lantern. “Look, there’s your ghost.”
Max couldn’t believe his eyes. In front of him, lay the most beautiful swan he had ever seen.
“Can I pet it? I mean, will it bite?”
“No, don’t reckon. Hasn’t bit me. Go ahead.”
Max petted the bird and noticed its wounds. “Is this where you shot it?”
“Told you, I’m done with killin’ things. Hunters musta got him. I’m nursing him back to health. He’s a young’un, just like you. He needs to grow and live. Now why don’t you be a getting’?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. I suppose I can let you have the night off.”
“Would you like to come over? Mama always makes the best ham with all of the trimmings.”
“I’d like that.”
When Granger showed up at the door, all dressed up in his Sunday best and carrying flowers for Mama and a jug of cider for Papa, Max giggled. He had never seen the three so joyous. They took turns at the cider and sang at the piano after a sumptuous dinner.
Upon leaving, Granger smiled tearfully: “Thank you, folks. Haven’t had a Christmas like this since before the war in Manila when I lost my boy.”
“Much obliged. Oh, look…it’s snowing.” Mama said, pulling up her collar and looking into the night chill. Papa smiled.
“Merry Christmas to you and yours.” Granger nodded. “Merry Christmas, Max.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Granger. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“No one works on Christmas, Max.” He beamed and brushed the kid’s hair again. “But come back on Friday. We can look after your swan.”
“Your swan?” Mama asked.
“I’ll explain later.” Max smirked.
Max thought back on that night many times since. So much time had passed and the world had finally grown up and not for the better. He and his buddies had gone off to the Great War and had safely returned home. Nellie was a Red Cross Nurse. He was presently in Paris with her, engaged to be exact. It had only been 13 years since those days but it seemed a lifetime ago.
“Oh hello, Max.” His new friend said.
“Writing the Great American Novel? Can’t be done. I’m writing it.”
“Maybe. Hello, Scott.”
“What’re you writing about?”
“The old days. I think I want to use a nom de plume.”
“The war?” Ernest asked, interested.
“No, even before that. The innocence that was lost when the war came along.”
“Ah, under what pseudonym?”
“I like it. It’s got guts.” Ernest beamed.
“Hmmm. Sounds slightly pedestrian.” Scott balked.
“Anyway, we’re off to drink. You wanna go?”
“Nah. Me and Lilly will sit here and wait for Nellie.”
“How is the fine woman doing?” Ernest smiled.
“Just ducky?” Scott joked.
Ernest shook his head. “Max, you’re the only person in Paris I know who has a pet swan. Others would’ve eaten it.”
“Nah, me and Lilly go back a long way. She helped an old man I once knew get over his shell-shock, the loss of his son and brought me and Nellie together.” Max smiled. “Merry Christmas, Ernest, Scott.”
“Merry Christmas!” They called out as Max finished his story.