The Boy with the Newspaper Kite
By John W Prince
The tiny village where the Boy lived was surrounded by dairy farms, prosperous and not so prosperous, dark spruce woods, green meadows, and table-flat marshes along the river that flooded and became broad, shallow lakes when the spring freshets came. The house where the Boy lived, box-like and tiny, sat beside the mainline railroad track. Close by was the little rust-red and ivory railroad station house, surrounded by a raked, flat field of clinkers and leftover coal ash from the black, fire-belching steam engines.
The station master was old, tall and gaunt with tufts of white hair and the slow gait and dour expression of one who brooks no interference or interruptions. Most people in the village called him simply “Old Sid.” As far as the Boy knew, the old man had no friends. No one ever visited him in his tiny station office decorated with his hand-drawn water colors of flowers and local scenes. No one helped him carry the heavy buckets of coal to feed the pot-bellied waiting room stove that kept the frost at bay throughout the long winter. No one came to talk and smoke with him by the bright, tall flowers in their neat beds beside the station.
Old Sid and his wife had operated the general store in the village, raised their family, and then sold the store to a young couple. Then he became the station master. Not that there was very much to do. The south-bound milk train went early in the morning, stopping at every village to pick up the people who worked in the City. And, of course, the big ten-gallon cans of milk which the farmers carried up into the into the rail car, grasping the handles in big fists, and holding the cans between their knees as they walked with an exaggerated waddle
The same train returned in the evening, bringing back empty milk cans that clanged loudly as they were lined up on the platform. And the commuters, ready for a hot supper and a few hours of sleep before they repeated it all over again. The only other traffic on the line was the occasional work train and the nightly great, snaking “way freight,” sometimes more than a mile long. It punched through the darkness, drawn by two great fire breathing steam engines running in tandem, showering steam and hot cinders, their enormous weight and power shaking the sleeping Boy in his bed in the tiny house.
It was well known that Old Sid hated kids, fixing them with his old, piercing black eyes under the bushy brows when they ventured too close to him. or his marvelous flower garden. There was even a rumor among the children, that some of their contemporaries were buried under the flowers, and that the old man was just waiting to get his hands on another young body to help fertilize his brilliant peonies and robust, multi-colored bedding plants. When the children’s imagination conjured up the bogyman in their dark beds late in the night, they saw the image of Old Sid.
It was the Boy’s habit of spying on the old man that brought them face to face for the first time. He pretended that he was an Indian scout, skulking noiselessly thorough the chokecherry bushes, emerging opposite the station, flowing unseen across the black clinkers to arrive crouched and breathless under the window of Old Sid’s office. Pulling himself up and peering through the grimy glass he could see the station master’s art thumb-tacked on the walls, each one carefully signed with the date. Sometimes, and these were the times that were the most exciting for the fearless Indian scout, he would watch Old Sid himself, hunched over his desk, working on a pile of papers, unaware that a pair of keen eyes were observing his every move.
It was spring, when the leaves were struggling to unfold, and the wind was blowing, making little fields of waves scoot across the dark freshet water that covered the nearby marshes. The new sun shone down on the Boy. He felt the warm dampness of April replace the cold dryness of winter, touching the painted clapboard walls with bare hands that too long had felt only the wet texture of grey woolen mittens.
Suddenly a shadow and Old Sid was standing beside him, towering, motionless and bristling. Caught! Every fiber in the Boy screamed at him to run, fast, anywhere, but his feet were rooted in the spring mud and clinkers, and he just crouched motionless where he was and stared unblinking, not daring even to breathe. The wrinkled face was tired with years. The mouth, which seemed fierce at a distance, up close just looked old and weathered. The old man stared back with puzzled eyes, seeing the youngster paralyzed with fear, cowering against the building, waiting for his punishment.
“Can you make a kite?” he asked, quietly, not moving from his stance over the Boy. “I – I – I don’t know,” the Boy stammered not knowing what kind of an answer might save him from a dark and cold eternity buried in the flower garden. “I never made one before.”
“I’ll show you how.” He turned away and, without looking back, led the way across the clinker road, and through the path in the budding chokecherry bushes, to the winter-depleted woodpile in the Boy’s dooryard. It was a strange beginning. The old man, raising a tiny cloud of black dust as his boots shuffled through the clinkers, knowing that the boy would follow. And the Boy, rising and following a few paces behind in the man’s footsteps, not knowing exactly why, but in the way of small boys, not questioning.
“Do you have any dry cedar, about this long?” The old man gestured with his hands to the Boy behind him. “Yes,” the Boy answered, quickly running a· few steps to catch up. “We’ve got some we use for kindling.” He lifted a pile of grey, weathered boards in the woodshed and pulled out a piece of fragrant cedar, split from the red inner rings of the tree, dry and straight grained. Old Sid held the Boy’s double-bladed axe and, fumbling a bit as if out of practice, cut two long thin splits off the edge of the cedar, each about the thickness of the Boy’s little finger.
“We need some newspapers, a big needle and some strong thread.” He didn’t look up from the splits as he shaved them true with the sharp blade of the axe. The Boy pulled old newspapers from the bottom of the kitchen wood box where they were being saved to start a fire in the cast iron range. His mother, spurred by his impatient insistence, produced a shiny darning needle and a spool of heavy black thread, wanting to know, “What in heaven’s name is Old Sid up to now, that crazy old fool? And make sure you bring all that stuff back.”
The old man sat on the chopping block folding the newspaper in mysterious ways that only he knew, sewing it to the cedar splits he had fashioned into a cross. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He shuffled off to the station, returning in a few moments with a big ball of strong, brown twine. On the way it seemed that he held himself more erect, and that he had lost some of the old-man gait.
The newspaper kite was beautiful. A work of art! A huge diamond-shaped plane of carefully sewn newspaper, punctuated with neat stitches of thick, black thread and patterned with the ads and headlines and stories of momentous events that took place somewhere else in the world. The tail was long and even, and when the Boy held the kite as far as he could over his head, the newspaper bows knotted in the tail still spread out over the wood chips and sawdust. The kite felt light and fragile, springy and tough like the little spruce trees that sprouted in the meadows and popped back straight up even after you stomped on them a whole bunch of times.
Old Sid’s bony fingers carefully knotted the twine around the center of the crossed cedar splits, tugging sharply to test the strength of his handiwork. “Now, let’s see if it’ll fly.”
He led the way across the tracks and into Art Dodge’s field carrying the kite, followed by the Boy who carefully hugged the long tail of scrunched up newspaper and brown twine. “You take the string and the kite and run down the field, into the wind. When you feel it take off, let the string out a little, but not too fast, or the kite will just crash.”
Old Sid placed his dry, wrinkled fingers over the Boy’s smooth hands, showing him how to hold the string up near the cedar cross, just enough to give the kite its freedom to fly, yet not enough freedom to drop into the newly thawed earth. “Now, run hard!”
The Boy was already running down the field, his winter boots crunching the dead corn stubble, raising a little dust that settled quickly onto the wet, brown dirt and was gone. The kite felt alive, bobbing in his hands as the wind attempted to pluck it from his grasp. He felt the kite pulling hard and let out the string. It wobbled in the air for a brief moment and then nosedived into the stubble.
“Again,” Old Sid called, cupping his hands like a megaphone to force the words through noise of the wind. His face no longer looked fierce and foreboding. The Boy picked the kite up and ran again, harder this time. The old man gave him his strength. The Boy tried to outrun the wind and the wind tried to pull him into the sky holding onto the kite. He let the string out again, just a bit, and the wind pulled, and the kite flew, higher and higher, tugging at the string to be free. But the Boy had miles of twine. Higher and higher the kite soared, easily riding the wind, the long tail of newspaper and twine swinging back and forth like a multi-bowed pigtail, laughing at the mortals peering up at it, rooted to the earth. Old Sid was beside him, leaning down awkwardly, guiding his hands, quickly pulling in the string when the wind grew tired, and letting it play out when the wind recovered. Higher and further flew the newspaper kite until it seemed that it would disappear right through the sky. Still the wind pulled, and the string slipped through their fingers until their wonderful creation was just a speck far out over the watery marshes. Time slowed and stopped completely. Only the wind and the kite and the old man and the Boy remained.
After a long, long time Old Sid spoke quietly. “Let’s bring our kite home now.” They pulled on the string and the wind protested, trying to wrest more line from their hands. But together the old man and the Boy proved stronger. The twine was stout and the wind could not break it and carry the high flier away into the sky; so it held its breath, and they watched as the newspaper kite, robbed of its power, dropped into the cold freshet water far out on the marsh. The old man sighed, but his expression was not one of sadness. “We’ll make another kite tomorrow.” He took his bone-handled jack knife and cut the twine. They walked back across the field side by side, their feet crunching in unison in the dry corn stubble. The Boy held his hand out and the old man took it in his larger one and held it tightly. Together they went up the clinker road in the waning spring light, striding with the happy steps of a boy, the old man’s eyes sparkling under the grey, bushy brows.