The Peace Garden
by Frankie Thomas
Nonviolence meant nothing to us back then. To us, the word “Quaker” was simply a catch-all explanation for anything weird about our school: it was a Quaker school, so we called our teachers by their first names. It was a Quaker school, so we weren’t allowed to play war, not even the card game War. It was a Quaker school, so we began each day with ten minutes of Silence, which we liked to enliven by coughing, first surreptitiously, then with increasing volume and frequency until the whole Meetinghouse roared with it and the principal, Brian, was forced to break the silence with a prim “Stop coughing, please.” It was a Quaker school, so we had recess not in a playground but in something called the Peace Garden, on whose wall was a peeling anti-Vietnam mural (dove, tentacular sunflower, war is not healthy for children and other living things in gentle lowercase) painted by the children of our parents’ generation.
The Peace Garden barely fit all fifteen children in our second grade class, as long as only the boys ran around while the girls disdained them from the sidelines. It was fenced off by wrought iron pickets whose militaristic spikes had been sawed off because it was a Quaker school. If we positioned ourselves carefully outside the teacher’s sight line, Ruby and Ash and I could spend the whole recess hour tossing pebbles through the fence at the cars parked along Fifteenth Street. We only occasionally managed to hit our targets, but I’ll never forget that satisfying clank. I don’t think we ever got caught; the game most likely ended when we ran out of pebbles, because the only ones available were on the sidewalk, within arm’s reach through the bars of the fence. The Peace Garden was paved in concrete and barren of pebbles or anything interesting except, improbably, a single tree.
It was a crabapple tree, I believe, gnarly and dwarfish and wan against the black iron fence. Its branches hung invitingly low to the ground, but all climbing attempts were swiftly thwarted by the teachers. (New York private school parents are a litigious bunch; the school took no chances.) Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the tree had a strange pull on us, especially me and Ruby and Ash—we spent every recess period underneath it. And what I remember with surprising clarity is that, eventually, the tree spoke to us. It didn’t feel like a game; I don’t recall any of us “doing a voice” for the tree, or translating for each other on its behalf, or even pausing to come up with its lines. In all likelihood, this was in fact what we were doing, but I have only my memory to go by, and in my memory the tree speaks.
She—we perceived her as a woman, an elderly one—began by asking us, “Can you keep a secret?”
Even now, if I concentrate, I can still summon up the sound of her voice—so rich with authority that all other adults were by contrast automatically exposed as frauds. Later, when our teacher Denise called us back inside, it was in a voice so saccharine and mannered that nothing out of her mouth could ever feel true again. When our nannies picked us up from school at the end of the day, their voices were stretched taut with terror—of us?—and we wondered why we’d ever been afraid of them. And when our mothers came home at night…well, we still liked our mothers, most of the time. But we had never taken them seriously to begin with.
We assured the tree that we could keep a secret.
“It’s sad,” she warned us.
“I like being sad,” said Ash. That was Ash’s thing—happy people, she believed, were stupid and annoying, and she much preferred to be unhappy. Ruby and I puzzled over the implicit paradox there, but it was true that Ash never smiled, and I felt foolish whenever I caught myself smiling in front of her.
The tree’s leaves trembled; her boughs bowed. She said, “I’m dying.”
Most of us had a dead grandparent or two by this point, but none of us had ever had an adult discuss death with us so matter-of-factly, and we were awestruck. We bombarded the tree with questions. Oddly, she had no words of comfort or promises of an afterlife, which is one reason it doesn’t seem in retrospect like we were just making it up. Once, during a playdate, I asked Ruby if she shared my fear of death. “Not at all,” she said, and proceeded to describe her own personal vision of heaven: an orgiastic candyland featuring faucets of hot and cold running chocolate, continuous chocolate-flavored precipitation, languorous naps on giant chocolate marshmallows. I hoped she was right, though I worried about Ash, who hated chocolate.
The tree had a bleaker outlook. “No one will miss me when I’m dead,” she said. “No one will even notice.”
I remember actually crying when she said that, which was embarrassing, but for once, Ash didn’t make fun of me.
“But why are you dying?” Ruby wanted to know. I’m sure it was Ruby who asked; she always received praise for asking good questions in class, and if at times I secretly hated her, that was one reason why. “What are you dying of?”
“People,” said the tree. “People are killing me.”
It was strange to continue the school day after these conversations. During this time we were preparing for the class play, our own theatrical adaptation of Benjamin the Meetinghouse Mouse, to be performed on-book at the next monthly assembly. It was difficult for me and Ruby and Ash to muster much enthusiasm for it: the tree’s sorrow weighed us down like the lead smocks we wore to get X-rays at the dentist. Other children giggled and goofed off and messed up their lines, and we observed them with increasingly savage contempt. They had no idea. No one had any idea but us.
I think it was Ash’s idea to make get-well presents for the tree. Our supplies were limited to what we could find on the ground: twigs, crispy brown leaves, the neat mat of soil that surrounded the trunk. But Ash was artistic, and following her instructions, we created intricate little fairy houses—stacking sticks like Lincoln Logs, daubing them with mud, papering them over with leaves. If we were lucky, we might reach through the bars of the fence and grasp a shard or two of green glass, which we used as jewels to decorate their roofs. I wish I had a photograph of these structures, because I recall them being marvelous, certainly superior to the feeble glue-and-cardboard projects we created in art class. But as sturdy as they looked, they never lasted the night: the next day we’d find the sticks and leaves scattered across the ground, as though our houses had never existed. We were frustrated. Where did they go?
But the tree reassured us. “They’re working,” she said. “They’re making me stronger.” And so we kept building them. I suppose at some point they stopped being get-well gifts and became something closer to offerings, a daily ritual, with the implication that we would lose the tree’s favor if we stopped. I make this distinction in order to explain the enormity of what happened next, the sheer sacrilege of it.
One day our class was walking in a line through the school—from the cafeteria to the Meetinghouse, let’s say—and on the way we passed through the Peace Garden. Another class was having recess in there, the fourth graders, looking intimidatingly big and cool. Two boys—one angular with white-blond hair, the other fat with a backwards baseball cap—stood at our tree, kicking and laughing. We only glimpsed them briefly, but our suspicions were confirmed at recess when we found our fairy houses gone.
“Look,” said Ruby grimly. “A handprint.” It was faint but distinct in the dirt, right where the house had been, we were certain of it.
We could hardly comprehend the evil of it. Who were these boys? Ruby consulted her older sister, who was in the fourth grade, and reported back: their names were Colin Isquith and Billy Blatt. Even today, those names provoke a shudder of hatred in me. I can still bring their faces to mind, and though I intellectually know them to be the faces of little boys, they somehow seem impossibly, invincibly old.
We prostrated ourselves before the tree—threw our arms around her trunk, pressed our cheeks against her bark until our faces came away scraped and dirt-streaked. We were so sorry; we were so angry.
“People,” said the tree, “are wicked.”
Ash nodded, so I did too. But Ruby, troubled, asked, “Are we wicked?”
“As long as you help me, you are good,” said the tree. “And as long as you are good, I will help you.”
That was when we saw it: an iron nail on the sidewalk, just inches away on the other side of the fence. We scrambled to fetch it and took turns passing it around. It was long, about as long as our fingers, and scaly with orange rust. With a thrill, we ran our fingertips lightly over the point to ascertain its sharpness, which was exactly as sharp as it looked—sharp enough for our purposes. We set about building our trap, which was ingeniously simple: we rebuilt our stick house in the same location, right over the handprint, with the nail in the center, planted headfirst in the dirt and pointing straight up.
To be clear: we knew what we were doing. Yes, we understood what would happen if Colin Isquith or Billy Blatt attempted to smash this house; I had a vivid and satisfying mental image of the nail piercing a boy’s hand clean through. Yes, we were aware of the dangers of tetanus, and in fact we considered this a bonus. To what extent, then, was this attempted murder? Can a seven-year-old truly intend to kill? I’m not sure. All I can say is that it felt so justified, so righteous—perhaps the only time in my life I’ve ever felt myself to be doing a good thing, as opposed to a merely correct thing. Because it was a Quaker school, we were subjected to a lot of talk about something called the Inner Light, and if that wasn’t what we felt in the dappled shade of the whispering tree, with our knees grinding into the concrete and our hands cool and gritty in the dirt as we orchestrated the destruction of our enemies—if that wasn’t the Inner Light, then I’ve never felt it at all.
On the day of the monthly assembly, our teacher, Denise, announced a last-minute change of plans: we would not be performing our play after all, because the principal, Brian, had an important announcement. When one of our classmates whined about this, Denise made her sit at the time-out table; this girl was not usually a troublemaker, and seeing her cry at her punishment was compelling enough to outweigh any disappointment about the play.
At the assembly, Brian (never Principal Brian, just Brian) wore a suit and tie. The Meetinghouse had no podium or stage, so as not to elevate anyone above anyone else, which made him look short. Calmly, with his head bowed and his hands clasped in front of him, he made his announcement.
“Billy Blatt is dead.”
Human memory is perverse: I can still recite Benjamin the Meetinghouse Mouse word for word (“Sometimes Friends are moved to speak / But Benjamin Mouse was moved to squeak!”), yet my recollection of this assembly ends right here. I have no idea what Brian said next, or how the other children reacted, whether they wept or whispered or coughed during the Silence that surely followed. All I remember is that Ruby and Ash and I looked at each other, grinning, and Ash mouthed, “Yesss!” And in all honesty, this moment stands out as the happiest of my childhood.
A letter was sent home to our parents with advice on how to discuss the situation. No such discussion took place in my household, but I did retrieve the letter from the recycling pile, and this is how I know exactly what happened to Billy Blatt. It wasn’t tetanus, and tetanus was in fact a poor plan: I now know we were all vaccinated against it. But his death was attributed to a playground injury, a small one that went unnoticed until it was too late. His fever and vomiting, misdiagnosed as a stomach bug, was really an infection from the cut that spread through his body. He died of sepsis.
Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on my own culpability. When guilt seizes me, as it occasionally does when I’m already feeling guilty for unrelated reasons, I remind myself that there’s no way of knowing if Billy Blatt even touched our trap; that his injury could have come from anything, not necessarily the nail; that even if it was the nail, children hurt themselves all the time, and thanks to antibiotics sepsis is vanishingly rare, a freak accident. But this last thought unsettles me still further. What were the odds that such an unlikely fate should strike the very boy on whom we wished it? Where did that nail come from, and how did it appear so suddenly the moment we needed it? Whose idea was it to build that trap? No one’s, as far as I can recall—it was instinctive, intuitive, like everything we did around the tree.
I’ve never spoken about this with Ruby or Ash. We don’t really talk anymore, though we ran into each other at our ten-year high school reunion (we were all “lifers” at the Quaker school) and caught up a bit then. Ruby, who had just passed the bar exam, was a human rights lawyer; Ash, who got arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests, was now an organizer for Black Lives Matter; I was in grad school, studying to be a social worker. We joked about how well the Quakers had indoctrinated us.
“I’m disappointed none of us became an eco-terrorist,” I said, which was the closest any of us came to mentioning the tree.
“That’s what I should have done,” said Ruby, who had become quite funny, much more so than I remembered. “I’m already sick of human rights. What did humans ever do to deserve rights, anyway?”
“Here’s to nobody knowing we’re terrible people on the inside,” said Ash, and the three of us clinked our beer glasses and laughed madly. I wondered if we were all thinking about Billy Blatt. I wondered how often they thought about the tree, but I didn’t ask. For all I know, I’m the only one who remembers.
At the end of our second grade year, recess was relocated to the middle school courtyard so the Peace Garden could undergo safety renovations, bringing our relationship with the tree to a natural end. We did manage one final visit: the three of us left class one day on the pretext of going to the bathroom together, then sneaked out to the empty garden. We hugged the tree and apologized for letting her down.
“Fear not, little ones,” said the tree. “You’ve made me stronger than ever. No human can hurt me now.”
I continued to worry. But while the Peace Garden renovations were dramatic—the ground repaved, the fence reinforced, the mural extended to include a platitude in memory of Billy Blatt—somehow, the tree was spared. As of this writing, death still hasn’t come for it: I make a point of walking down Fifteenth Street whenever I’m in the neighborhood, and the tree remains just as I remember it, gnarly and dwarfish and wan against the black iron fence. Recently I passed it on a school day during recess hour and watched a boy attempt to climb it; he was three feet off the ground before the teacher stopped him. I had to laugh. Children always find a way, don’t they?
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and “Equinox,” which was serialized on The Toast. Her fiction has also been published in H.O.W. Journal, Pear Noir, and BLOOM. A lifelong New Yorker, she attended City College and really did go to a Quaker school for thirteen years.