Jimmy Lad

When still quite young, Helen Keller wrote a short story which turned out to be an almost verbatim rendering of a short story that Anne Sullivan, her teacher, had previously "read" her. Keller was accused of plagiarism, though most of the blame fell on Sullivan. Both Anne and especially Helen contended that nobody had not set out to plagiarize anything, a claim that was met with skepticism.

I believe them. Helen Keller had an extraordinarily retentive memory for one thing; she was fully capable of remembering, word for word, a story that had been relayed to her even six months earlier. For another, this sort of thing has happened to me: I don't mean copying someone else's story word for word or being accused of plagiarism. For one thing, my memory's not that good. But there have been times when I've written something with a remarkably similar premise to that of another book or series (for instance, I came up with a leap-into-books idea long before Fforde's Eyre Affair came out; I'm sure many other people did as well). And I've occasionally run across items in my own stories that have struck a cord--"I think I've read this elsewhere." Usually, I carefully excise those items.

However, in the case of "Jimmy Lad," I would have to excise the entire ending, which kind of gets rid of the story. No, no, I didn't plagiarize anything, but about the same time I wrote the story, I read a poem about a woman taking care of her elderly father, and although I can't swear to it, I think that poem influenced the wording of the last few paragraphs. In any case, I've never felt comfortable about it.

So, here it is--no money earned, nobody's rights infringed. It's a Peter Pan and Hook story; I've always liked my version of their relationship.

Jas. Hook lay on the white bed, his pale, fading profile painted by shadows. The curtains over the nursing home windows swirled, billowing outwards.

Jas. Hook was dying. The man who sat beside the bed was neither glad nor sorry. He had arrived at the nursing home reeling with shock and grief and rage; he had stayed because he had never, to his knowledge, killed a defenseless enemy.

"Jimmy," Jas. Hook called him, his voice drifting from pleasure to contempt. "Jimmy lad."

"It isn't me," had been Jimmy's first, instinctive reaction quelled immediately by the thought, "How can I know?" for he had never been sure of his identity.

"I am youth. I am joy," he had bragged once to Jas. Hook, his boyish arrogance brushed by a curious equivocacy.

Jas. Hook had missed that hint of vulnerability but not Smee.

Clever in his idiocy, pathologically subservient and envious of any who absorbed Hook's attention, Smee had hated Jimmy lad.

"Who are your parents then?" he had jeered. "Who are your mum and dad?"

But Jimmy had not cared for such trifles as parents. His pedigree had been an unexamined mystery. It did not hurt his heart for he had not known he had a heart. And might not now if not for Smee.

This was after the adventures of the Mermaid lagoon, after the banishment of Jas. Hook and the other pirates from the island, after Wendy had returned home and her daughters after her. Smee had come back in his little boat, the rotund body jerking rhythmically as the plumb hands pumped at the oars.

He called to Jimmy. "Pan," he called him, the name Jimmy had given himself before he had any knowledge of parents. "Peter Pan. Come out. It's Smee," and Jimmy came, singing for he had missed the pirates, although he had not felt their absence till then.

He stood atop the cliff overlooking the lagoon, and the mist dispersed around the dark-clad Smee with his thick, petulant voice. Pirate and boy gazed at each other.

"Welcome back, Smee," Jimmy cried. "Have you come to join Pan's band?"

"They've gone, I heard," Smee said. "No one to lead now, Pan. No one to take your orders."

This was true. Lost boys come and go, but less came than went in that day and age of the early twentieth century. Boys went instead to war or to the care of the Almighty State. But Jimmy didn't falter.

"You're enough to play with, Smee," he shouted and wriggled his dagger.

Each of the pirates had felt it: the nick at the neck before Pan leapt heavenward, crowing at his own cleverness and their stupid, adult heaviness.

"No one to bully," Smee raged. His boat bounced over the waves, and he bounced in the boat. "No one to shout orders at. Like your father."

The waves barraged the rocks at the base of the cliff. Jimmy quivered, and a pressure nudged his ribs.

"I've no father," he said, but the sea could not hide the tremor in his voice.

Smee gloated. "Pan's not your name. Nor Peter either. Named for your dear papa, you are. Named for James Hook. He's your father, boy."

Jimmy trembled. The hard rock tore his feet. The lagoon air, no longer sweet and soft, flung salt into his eyes.

"You lie," he cried. He leapt from his perch, his dagger aimed at Smee. Smee cowered.

Yet even as he leapt, Jimmy believed Smee spoke the truth. He fell like Icarus, hurtling downward with no thought but the pulsing anxiety of his heart.

He made—in that last tremendous dive—a small cannonball of fairy dust and fury. He smashed Smee's boat. It shattered, splintering into shards. Smee, loosed to the waves and wind, was lost at sea and drowned.

Jimmy didn't die. The mermaids saved him as he floated in unconscious misery. They could not return him to the island. He was already growing. By the time they towed him to the mainland, they no longer recognized the long limbs, the tightening jaw and expanding musculature. They abandoned him (as mermaids will) in shallow water off the Maine coast. Fishermen, going out with lobster pots, found Jimmy and pulled him ashore.

There was no hospital within sixty miles and the young man wasn't dead, only chilled, his lips blue, his eyes glazed with shock. They took him to a nearby nursing home, and he was given a cot behind the nurses' station. The head nurse fetched new clothes from the laundry.

He accepted the briefs, the mustard-color sweater and the dungarees. He refused to wear the shoes. They didn't force the matter. The head nurse liked him; his dark shock of hair and slanting brows reminded her of her son, gone off to serve in the European War. All the nurses loved his accent. "He must be a soldier from a ship," they told each other, and his description was sent to the War Office in Washington, D.C.

It was the youngest nurse—Polly, by name—who introduced Jimmy to the other British resident. Mr. Fortescue, the nurses called him, unaware that their patient was the great pirate Hook and possessor of more than a dozen aliases. "And how he stared," Polly said later, meaning Jimmy.

For Jas. Hook was not the Jas. Hook Jimmy remembered who would stride about the Jolly Roger bellowing orders and stroking his black moustache. He had become, in banishment, a collection of brittle bones under modest flesh. The sweeping moustache was no longer black but white, matching the old man's silver hair.

Jimmy groomed the moustache every morning, wetting the comb in a basin of water. He soothed the hair back the forehead and sponged clean the pale, dry skin. He discovered lines as he washed: grim tunnels from the nose to the mouth, radiating threads of mirth at the corners of the eyes. These last he had never suspected.

"Thank you," Jas. Hook would say, the voice clear and decisive, the public school accent crisping the edges of his words. "Thank you," without emotion. A duty—his thanks—a necessary emblem of his status: never a mere pirate had Hook been but a gentleman pirate.

"You're welcome," Jimmy would say in the low-pitched tenor he had acquired as he fell from the rock.

Unrecognizable to Jas. Hook who had last heard him speak in the fragile, high-pitched tones of the prepubescent male. Jimmy the boy—Pan as even Jas. Hook had called him—was frozen in memory and memories are defiantly exclusive.

A reporter, one Jackson Smith, unthawed that memory.

"You knew Peter Pan, sir," he said to Jas. Hook in the earnest tone affected by even the most amateur of journalists.

"I did," Jas. Hook said.

He was sitting up, white pillows piled behind him, his maroon dressing gown tossed across his shoulders. "A good day," the nurses agreed, but Jimmy had stayed all the same, stowed on a chair in a corner of the room. Jackson Smith thought him a male nurse. Perhaps he didn't notice the bare feet. Perhaps he did. Jackson Smith was a clever synthesizer of other people's facts and experiences, a compiler of hearsay and rumor. Faced with the unexpected, he had eyes only for the already anticipated.

He said to Jas. Hook, "He's gone from the island. They say Never-Never land has its Pan no more. Any Lost Boys who get there find themselves without a leader."

"Trash," Jas. Hook said.

"What's that?"

"American newspapers. Sensationalism to glut the bourgeoisie."

"Do you know where Pan went?" Jackson Smith said.

"I do not care."

Jackson Smith left unsatisfied, and Jimmy came forward to smooth the sheets and resettle the pillows. Jas. Hook's thin, long-fingered hand clasped his wrist, dragged him downwards.

"Jimmy. Jimmy lad."

Jas. Hook didn't speak again that day. His breath shuddered out of him. Jimmy checked his pulse and took his temperature and proffered medicine which Jas. Hook refused, eyes hot with distrust. Jimmy fetched Polly.

Coming in the next day with freshly laundered sheets, "You're here to kill me," Hook spat at him.

"To watch you die," Jimmy said.

The old man snorted, averting his face. "You think you'll win back your youth?"

Jimmy had, at first. He'd waited impatiently for Hook's last breath, sure it would return him to the island, to his youth and confidence, would vanquish this heart that pounded whenever the old man spoke.

"I wanted your death," Jas. Hook said, and Jimmy laughed as he cleaned the washbasin and sorted the bath items on the bureau top.

"I don't need to be told that. I parried not a few of your death blows."

"I never wanted a child," Jas. Hook told him.

"Nor I a father."

"You robbed my youth and now you gloat over me. You'd eat my flesh if it could take you back."

"Once maybe. Not now. I know," Jimmy said. "I know I was happy on the island. But all I remember is the hunger and the cold, the dark of the nights when the coyotes howled and the mermaids vanished under water. I remember the pain of your hook more than once and the silence in the mist of the water. I know I was happy. I don't remember it."

"I would bury you in the deepest pit. Anything to remove the reminder of my lost years, lost chances. How was I to know I was mutable?"

Jimmy would not answer. He had not discerned his own mortality until Smee's words filled the hollow in his heart with pain.

He watched over the old pirate with the curved metal hand—detached now and impotent—watched Jas. Hook battle the burden of age. And pity assuaged the pain.

He waited beside the bed on the night of Jas. Hook's death. He could not mourn the man's passing, but he cried desperately for the loss of the man's actions in his own life. Who will shout for Pan in accents of despair and anger? Who will creep about the lagoon in my shadow or I in his? Who will lead the pirates to catch the Lost Boys so that I might rescue them again and again and again?

He did not cry aloud. He had learned a control in his few adult years he'd never had as a boy, a stern repose that matched—though he did not know it—the reticent profile of the man in the bed.

Finally, the hand pulling at his sleeve, the struggling whisper, the last words:

"You banished me."

And so Jas. Hook, as he called himself, perished from this earth.

The young man who believed himself Jas. Hook's son prepared the body for the funeral. He undressed the old man, folded each article of clothing, placing one atop the other: the worn pajamas, the fine if shabby underclothes, the royal robe, an exclamation of color against the white, quilted bedspread. The undressing revealed a long, spare body, the skin soft as powder, pale as sand. Jimmy dressed Jas. Hook in a satin shirt with ruffles and a black, frock coat. His fingers brushed the old man's ribs, passed under his arms and back, beneath the knees and thighs. He combed the moustache and trimmed the hair around the ears.

"Like a father dressing a son," Polly would say after. "It gets some of them that way," for she was not so young, she had not seen young men die and old men bury them, "and him so old for all his youthful ways," and even Polly was never sure of which man she spoke.