Miss Lehman had just finished her lunch when Franka Cattiace reported that a bee the size of a ham had swooped down the grounds of Saint Christopher Elementary, lifted Scot Aker by the ear and carried him away for good. The post-recess funk had yet to descend on the children who seemed to vibrate with energy as Franka explained the details of the bee-knapping despite Miss Lehman’s protests for silence. Franka’s words were as inexorable as the tide. She had seen him on the playground taking off the bees’ heads with a sharpened Popsicle stick and flicking them into the green generator cube, the one that buzzed when you sat on it. And that’s when the big bee came and hooked him on its leg. Now all that remained was the pirate hat he had made out of the Metro Section. Miss Lehman put her attendance ledger down and took the newspaper from Franka’s hand. It still retained the triangular folds of the hat. She scanned the room again. Scot’s chair sat vacant in the second row closest to the window.
“A bee?” Miss Lehman asked.
“Yes,” Franka said. “It took him to the meadow.”
“If I go down to the bathroom, Scot won’t be hiding in the stall, will he?”
Franka shook her head “No” vigorously and pointed out to the field.
Miss Lehman looked out across the street to the rounded rural hills. Wind combed through the grass knotted with weeds and wildflowers.
“Religion will be postponed this afternoon until Scot Aker returns,” Miss Lehman said. The children made a noise like a sinking steamboat’s whistle. She looked outside again. Franka fastened the latch to the window closest to her desk.
“Heads down, please,” Miss Lehman said.
Miss Lehman put her lunch away and pulled out the green binder marked “EMERGENCIES” Principal Father Rossi had given to her upon her first day of teaching two years earlier. She had yet to use it, but was not surprised when “Boy Taken by Giant Insect” was nowhere to be found in the index, so she followed the last two steps for normal traumas: Alert Office and Wait for Principal.
The class sat in quiet anticipation for five minutes before Scot’s best friend Henry Shea asked to go to the bathroom and, in doing so, opened a deluge of questions. Marcy Appleton wanted to know if the bee was from heaven. Jimmy Crane said it was really an angel and that Scot was in purgatory which caused
Melanie Sturgeon to cry for Scot’s poor departed soul.
“Angels don’t buzz,” Franka said. “And bees don’t go to heaven. They’ve got hives.”
“Quiet,” Miss Lehman said. “Principal Father Rossi could be here any moment.”
Clouds passed over the sun and coated the room in a gluey haze. Miss Lehman stared at the empty desk in the second row and then down at her attendance ledger.
It was early September but already she had learned not to enjoy Scot. For his first book report, he had unwisely chosen a 473-page history entitled Pirates: Barbary’s Lost Souls. It was apparent he had read solely the captions to the illustrations because he had nothing useful to say about the practice in Miss Lehman’s opinion, though he did wear a paper eye-patch and a bandana and sprinkled the presentation with “Ayes” and “Mateys.” For the next few weeks, he walked around with the hem pulled from the end of his dress pants and looked to her utterly shipwrecked.
It seemed a day could not pass without a reference to the book or the lifestyle of piracy. Just yesterday morning Scot interrupted the lesson on multiplication to comment on her favorite pair of hoop earrings.
“Pirates wore earrings too,” he said holding up the book, “so that if they fell overboard and drowned, a person could take the gold from their ear and use it to pay for a coffin. They didn’t want their souls to wander the sea.”
She did not know if a compliment hid somewhere in this fact, but thanked him and then asked him not to bring the book to school any longer.
“Why?” he asked.
“We’re starting a new lesson on bugs,” she said. “We won’t be talking about the sea or pirate burial rituals any longer.”
Scot’s face scrunched and he buried his head in the crook of his arm until she saw only the tufted whorl of his brown hair.
“I’m going to be a real pirate someday and you’ll be sorry,” he said.
“You can’t even swim, never mind sail a ship,” Miss Lehman replied.
“Pirates didn’t need to know how. They kidnapped the captains and crews to do it for them.”
“That may be,” Miss Lehman said, interrupting him, “but piracy is a bit un-Christian, almost as un-Christian as challenging your teacher. It’s bugs for us until Christmas.”
“Arggh,” Scot said.
Still Miss Lehman couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for the boy’s obsession. For the first two months of school, she had surrounded her classroom with pictures of Caribbean waves cresting and taught lessons on crustaceans and oceanic mammals. For music, they sang the song of the humpback whale. A quotation by Jacques Cousteau framed the bulletin board. “When you enter zee ocean,” she read to them in a mock French accent, “you enter zee food chain and not nezezarily on top.” She even tried to convince Principal Father Rossi to take the kids to the Y for a swim lesson, but he told her her classroom looked like a Long John Silver’s.
“Jacques Cousteau was a fine sailor, but he was no fisher of men,” he told her once during a morning confession. He instructed her that science had its place, but the children needed Religion class and he was worried her focus had skewed too far toward fantasy. “Pray a decade of Hail Marys for focus,” he advised and absolved her.
And maybe he was right. To create an entire unit underwater to erase the past two years living and breathing manure and the musk of dried grass was an exercise in futility, as if seeing the pictures and listening to book reports could awaken some lost marine scent deep in the recesses of her mind and bring back her childhood spent on a thin strip of land off the coast of Louisiana. She might as well have stapled shells to her ears.
Every time Scot lectured her on pirates he made that fact more apparent to her. She was in Ohio where there was no ocean, only farms and a few Red Lobsters, and her signature on a contract that assured the repayment of student loans if she could endure teaching these children of the land.
Miss Lehman looked up from her desk now and watched a fly loop above the lights, sending the class into a frenzy.
“Let’s just have art,” Miss Lehman shouted. “Take out your crayons and draw a picture of whatever you wish and we’ll put it up on the bulletin board.”
The class reluctantly agreed and then settled into their task and soon Miss Lehman found herself doodling a picture of a pirate’s hat on her calendar. She scribbled over it and stared out the window and smiled guiltily.
The idea to steal Scot’s book had come to her that morning while she was unfastening construction paper fish from the bulletin board. It still wasn’t clear to her if it had been a breakthrough or a breakdown, but either way, she had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. Pirates raped. They stole. They killed. While each was a better reason in Scot’s mind to read the book, Scot was missing the point. Pirates stole things from people—life, chastity, trinkets—and made those people value them more. They didn’t steal treasures; they made them from nothing. And while she doubted that anyone who had led such a landlocked life could ever know the true essence of being a pirate, she thought perhaps Scot could. Even though he hadn’t said anything about the missing book to her directly that morning, the defiant glint in his eyes seemed weaker, his face more whitewashed than freckled.
Miss Lehman scanned over her blank classroom and the missing seat and then opened the bottom drawer of her desk. Scot’s book on pirates sat safely in the well next to a neon green water pistol and a doll that flatchulated when its stomach was depressed—the first of many contraband items that would remain there appreciating in value until the summer returned. She retraced the “O” in her attendance book next to Scot’s name and tried to think about insects.
Principal Father Rossi blended into the oceanic fuzz of Miss Lehman’s daydream, a black squid in his starched cassock, its pleated tentacles billowing out from his tapered torso, his long and narrow head, his ink blot eyes. If he hadn’t sneezed, she might well have continued ignoring him for another ten minutes. He might well have drifted off into the current of her thoughts along with the boy.
“Scot Aker is not in the building,” Principal Father Rossi said.
Miss Lehman’s lungs felt heavy as he described his search of the school grounds.
“Surely he’s in a stall,” she said.
“No,” he said. “He’s nowhere to be found. Who saw him last?”
Miss Lehman paused and eyed Franka’s alert face. She had stopped coloring to listen.
“Some of the children,” Miss Lehman continued, “believe he was taken to the meadow by a bee.”
Principal Father Rossi shielded his eyes and gestured blindly for Miss Lehman to approach him as if she were about to turn into a solar eclipse at any given moment. He backed up further until he was almost in the hallway as she walked closer.
“Let’s not joke about such things in front of the children,” he mouthed, averting his eyes.
“Bees can lift one thousand times their body weight,” Franka interrupted.
The rest of the class assured Principal Father Rossi of the boy’s frailty and the strength of bees.
“We’ve started a new unit on insects,” Miss Lehman said.
Principal Father Rossi paused and closed his eyes.
“I’ll contact his parents,” he said. “And in the meantime, you and I will go sort out this bee nonsense and reclaim the boy.” He clenched his hands. “Bow your heads children. Miss Lehman will lead you in prayer.”
“Saint Anthony,” he began. The children finished the prayer for him. Miss Lehman mouthed the words.
Principal Father Rossi brought Dalton and Hank, Scot’s two older brothers, to Miss Lehman’s room to help with the search. They slumped against her blackboard as she gave instructions to the school nurse who would watch her class. The two boys were pubescent versions of their younger brother —black hair, acne, scowls — their blue uniform pants spackled with lunch stains, their hands holstered in their back pockets. They informed her they were not going out of concern for their brother, but more to serve out their detentions. They weren’t “taking a bee” for anyone. Franka Cattiace wanted to go as well, but settled for having Miss Lehman carry a crayon drawing of the bee for purposes of identification. Principal Father Rossi placed a pair of wide-lensed sunglasses on his face and led them out the door.
They left after the last angelus bell sounded. Across the school, the ground sloped below the road on a plane of green and then rose into a foothill. At the top sat an old hay barn where stray animals sometimes found shelter. Miss Lehman walked ahead further into the grass thick and tall as palm fronds. Wind swayed the blades in waves, covering them all in swells of green. She called to the lost boy. One of the brothers looked leeward across the street at the busses roaming the parking lot. The other brother yelled a different name.
“Show yourself, tough girl,” he shouted.
They walked directly behind Miss Lehman.
“Aker brothers,” Principal Father Rossi said. “How we will find him if we don’t spread out?”
“He does this all the time,” the older brother said.
“He just wants to be found,” the younger one said.
“Well, then let’s find him,” Miss Lehman said.
The sky was clear, absent of any birds or bugs or wisps of pollen. Principal Father Rossi sent one Aker brother trudging up the hill toward a grove of trees, while the other he told to backtrack, closer to the road, in case the boy was lingering along the ditch. The priest walked ahead of Miss Lehman. The glint from the silver cross on the rosary beads in his hand pierced her eyes.
They walked further from the school.
“I saw your bulletin boards were blank,” Principal Father Rossi said.
“I’m still looking for the right pictures of insects,” she said.
“Insects,” he said. His lips moved continuously as he rolled each individual black bead on the chain in his fingers.
“I have a good biology book though, and I figured we could draw the parts of the bugs and tie it into fractions. I may even have a few accounts of a grasshopper plague in the South they could read for social studies. I don’t have the lesson plan just yet, but I will soon.”
She followed him toward the barn near the small hill. They had stopped calling the boy’s name but could still hear Scot’s brothers in the distance.
“He’s probably at home watching television,” Miss Lehman said.
The priest wound the rosary around his left hand.
“I like you, Miss Lehman,” he said. “But these children need instruction in their catechism. When I hired you, you promised to be a role model for them. A woman of faith.”
Behind the priest, Miss Lehman could see the huge red wooden barn. It looked capsized in the grass, its beveled hull sunk, immobile, facing the sky.
“Well,” Miss Lehman said, ”I thought that by studying the insects and the crustaceans, the children could see the power of God’s creation firsthand and apply that to the importance of their own lives. It’d be like having a personal visit from God in the classroom.”
“No, no, no,” Principal Father Rossi said. “They’re not ready for a personal visit from God. I can think of nothing scarier. What you’re asking for is the kind of solitary acknowledgement that God will never give you. It’s no wonder your children are running from your class. They need guidance.”
In the distance, she could hear an Aker brother shouting the boy’s name.
“He could be anywhere,” Principal Father Rossi said. He walked over and sat down on a flat stone near the barn door.
“He didn’t say anything to you about this?”
“No,” Miss Lehman said.
She hesitated and then sat next to him. He had small hands, freckled and child-like, with the white beads wrapped around his red knuckles.
“I stole something,” she said. “A book.”
“Whose book?” he asked.
“Scot Aker’s, father.”
“I took the boy’s book on pirates,” she said. “That’s why he ran away, I think.”
Principal Father Rossi put his hand on her shoulder for a brief moment and closed his eyes.
“First bees and now pirates,” he said. “Miss Lehman, your class needs faith not fantasy. Are you sorry? Is this a confession?”
“I guess so,” she said.
He unfurled a purple stole from his back pocket and kissed the cross on the fold and placed it over his neck. Miss Lehman blessed herself and paused.
“I stole and I am sorry.”
“I absolve you,” he said. “Take a moment here, Miss Lehman. Reflect on your life. I’ll watch your class and deal with the boy’s parents.”
He reached over and handed her his pair of white rosary beads. In the sunlight, the beads became opalescent. Its gold cross and chain links reflected the yellow and green of the field. She watched Principal Father Rossi walk away to the other two Aker brothers and lead them back toward the steeple on the horizon, leaving her alone in the field.
“Scot,” she tried to shout, but her voice choked off. Scot’s face emblazoned in her memory. His grizzled pirate accent resonated in her ears and in the back of her throat. She tasted salt and suddenly she was crying, thinking of her own isolated childhood on those estuary waters which surrounded her, where the rain blurred the line of the shore to her doorstep. All her life she had learned to watch where she cried. The sea could rise up at anytime and wash everything away and then where would her tears be? But it was too late to stop herself from sobbing. She remembered the rust of her father’s shrimp boat, the one the barnacles sank, and the look on his face as he retold the tale time and time again, hanging his head over cups of whiskey. He tried to dive in and save the doomed vessel but a dockworker held him back and told him he was too lazy for that kind of glory. He never loved the boat so much until it sank. She wiped the tears he left on the table with her hand and licked her palms when he had gone to bed to share for a moment in his sad life. These were lessons no petty theft could convey, and she felt a toxic sense of guilt for thinking it could.
“Scot,” she cried. “Please.”
Miss Lehman waited, but there was no response. She dried her eyes on the construction paper drawing and passed behind the barn to compose herself. She could feel her eyes puffing up. They were probably already red and who knew what her class would say about her when she returned.
She sighed and stared out to a clearing where dandelions encircled the lip of a small pond no bigger than her classroom. The ragged edge of water rested against the dirt and grass and she walked closer to see her reflection in the murk. Her eyes fixed past the algae, and she could almost see the muted colors of yellow and gold there on Franka’s smudged drawing. But there were no bees, no black-eyed Susans with blooms like propellers, no trunk-like daisy stems arching toward the sky: just the scum of algae streaking the surface. Only that the colors of the pond were so dull in her teary eyes was she able to see it deep below, contrasting the dark like a small moon reflecting from up above. She knelt at the edge and spread the algae with her hand and slowly revealed the bloated face of the boy.
Miss Lehman stayed in her classroom until all the busses disembarked and all the wet tissues had balled up tight with tears like wet eggs in her pockets. Out in the meadow, the black van of the coroner bumped along the hills to claim the boy. Principal Father Rossi told her Scot’s father would be coming soon for the boy’s things.
“He’s out in the fields now walking. He lost a leg to a thresher a few years back.”
“Okay,” Miss Lehman said. She couldn’t stop crying.
“He may be a while,” Principal Father Rossi said. “Miss Lehman, if you want, I can give him the boy’s things.”
His forehead was slick with sweat.
“No,” Miss Lehman said. “I can do it.”
She stood alone in the vacant classroom and stared at the empty bulletin board. She was small enough to sit at Scot’s desk without trouble. She lifted open the wooden top and began to pile his workbooks together until all that remained in the hull of his desk were shards of pencils broken in wars, ruptured markers, and the sheared ends of erasers.
She went back to her desk and reached into the contraband drawer and saw the book of pirates shining in lavish marine colors. A corsair with a full sail white as glue. Buccaneers, sealed in time with red waistcoats and powder burned fingers, their pegs planted atop a chest bursting with coins. She felt them all there in the weight of the pages. Inside her pocket, the rounded beads of her rosary were as smooth as a string of pearls. She took them out and placed them gently in the drawer of her desk.
Outside, the sun stuttered through the clouds, and she looked across at the meadow. There the father walked alone toward the school, hobbling through the waves of grass, no longer searching for a boy gilded in pollen. She unlatched the earring from her lobe and held the band in her palm. She clouded it dull with breath and then smoothed the curve of the gold hoop shiny with her wet finger. She waited to place it inside Mr. Aker’s dry hands.