Lionheart

by Alice Hoffman

In 1908 the first automobile arrived in town, driven along the sandy King’s Highway, with the horn honking so loudly that sea fowl and hunting dogs took up the racket until the whole town was vibrating. Things shook and rattled and fell apart in a matter of minutes. Early Macintosh apples tumbled from the trees. Milkweed was blown off its stalks. Girls who had sat down to do their mending pricked themselves with needles and drew blood.

It was Jack Crosby who was driving the automobile, the Crosby son who made his fortune in oysters and lived on Beacon Hill, not the other one, Edward, who’ d drunk himself to death on his boat docked in Provincetown. Jack Crosby had initiated the Crosby Fellowship, which would send one local boy to Harvard each year, and the first recipient was Lion West, the smartest boy in town. The best-looking one with the nicest temperament, too, if his mother, Violet, had anything to say about it, and she was a woman of good judgement who had raised seven children in all, three other sons who were perfectly fine boys, and three wonderful daughters.

The children who followed Violet’s first-born, those wonderful daughters and fine sons, were Gemma, Susanna, Huley (after Violet’s sister, who had died of fever while traveling in Egypt), George Jr., Seth, and John. Anyone would expect even the most loving mother to get the names of her children wrong every now and then, especially when there were so many of them, to call for red-haired Gemma when it was dark, moody Susanna who was needed to stir the split pea soup on the stove, to scold Seth for the window John had in fact broken. But Violet never forgot who Lion was. When the other babies were born they had squeaked like mice, but this was a child who had roared, and so she’d decided upon his name. He was not like anyone else, that much was evident, and he never would be.

“Are you sure?” Violet’s husband George had asked when she told him what the child’s name would be. “It’s a big name to live up to.”

“That’s all right,” Violet had assured George. “He will.”

The other children arrived over the next ten years, one after the other. Dark or light, son or daughter, they were all embraced and loved. Still, no one took anything away from Lion. The other children had to share rooms, the girls in one, the boys in another, with bunk beds built into the wall. But Lion had a room all to himself in the attic, to make certain that when he entered school he could study in peace and quiet.

Not that Lion West was a stuffy scholar. Nothing of the kind. He was an outdoorsman from the start, and preferred skating on the pond or fishing with his father, George, whom he idolized, to classrooms and books. Being smart had just come to him naturally. He didn’t have to work at it in the least. For penny candy or chores exchanged, Lion would gladly write up experiments for science class or solve mathematics problems for his younger brothers and sisters. But soon enough they stopped asking for his help. And that made sense. The West children knew what their teachers expected of them, and even more importantly, what they were capable of. Oh, you’re Lion’s brother, the teachers would say. You’re Lion’s sister. Well, you have a lot to live up to.

By the time Lion was in high school, the mathematics instructor, Mr. Grant, asked the boy to teach the more difficult lessons, so as not to embarrass himself in light of Lion’s greater grasp of the material and his almost unearthly knowledge. After a while, Lion seemed to be speaking a different language. He didn’t mean to. Surely, he had no desire to elevate himself above anyone else. He played ice hockey with the brothers and let his sisters tie ribbons onto him on May Day, even though he knew the girls aimed to dance around him chanting solstice rhymes. He cut blocks of ice from the pond with his father till his fingers turned blue; he took care of the horses and the chickens; he danced with the local girls; he sneaked up to the deserted cottage on the bayside and shared drafts of ale and off-color jokes with his schoolmates.

But his involvement in such day-to-day activities could not change who Lion was. No one understood him. Not really. No one even came close.

“It’s like this, Dad,” Lion would say as he tried to explain complex algebra to his father, the books splayed open in front of them on the kitchen table, columns of figures that were indecipherable to anyone in the house hold, save Lion.

George would laugh, impressed not only by the boy’s intellectual abilities, but by his kind nature.

“I could describe a halibut to you scale by scale, but don’t show me figures,” George said.

Violet West was not surprised by any of it. Not how tall Lion was, nor how handsome, nor how singularly talented. She had watched him as a baby in his cradle and had known then and there. She had held his hand when he was a toddler and been certain of it. Lion was meant for great things. The certainty of who he was, the clarity of who he could be, made Violet love her eldest son all the more. When George got up from the table, confused by advanced mathematics, calling himself an old dog who was long past the age of learning any new tricks, no matter how good a teacher Lion was, Violet waited for her husband to leave the room. Then she sat down with Lion. She let him teach her the solutions to some of the easier problems, and if mathematics didn’t come naturally to her, at least she understood bits of his language. What he loved, she loved, whether it be numbers scrawled on a page, or hot apple pie; whether it be biology, astronomy, or hot pepper soup. Sometimes they would sit in the parlor together, both reading, in entirely separate worlds to be sure, but joined somehow. When this happened, other people in the family couldn’t bring themselves to disturb them. All that could be heard in the parlor was the sound of pages, turning.

The other children noticed the special connection between mother and son, but they didn’t resent Lion. They felt sorry for him, as a matter of fact. They might not have been as smart, but they weren’t fools. To be loved so intensely tied Lion up and freed them. All the brothers and sisters understood this, and they acted accordingly. Susanna, for instance, had no fear that she would break her mother’s heart when she married at seventeen. George Jr., never much for books, knew no one would try to stop him when he left high school to work alongside his father as a fisherman. There was a camaraderie among the children, a ring of good fellowship. They liked games and challenges, ice hockey and relay races. One June evening they had all decided to play tag in the woods after supper. It was a summer night and the fireflies were drifting through the woods and the children, save for John, who was only eleven, were all too old for such games, which made them all the more enjoyable.

Lion had come up the drive to the house, thinking about his future. He had graduated from high school, and had spent nearly two years working with his father on his boat, joined now by George Jr. But then the idea of college had come up, perhaps Violet West had gone to the town council or perhaps the town council had come to her, the sequence of events wasn’t really clear.

All the same, Lion seemed to be on the path to college. He had just been to the town hall, directed there by his teachers, especially Mr. Grant, and by the mayor himself. Lion was twenty, a bit old to start college; still, he had applied for the fellowship to Harvard. He knew that Jack Crosby was shifty, that he’d taken over some of the older fishermen’s oyster beds at a fraction of their worth. Crosby was said to disdain shellfish as disgusting and unnatural, choosing to serve only beef for dinner at his house on Beacon Hill. Whatever he was, Lion considered himself to be a fisherman’s son first and foremost, and he carried a fisherman’s resentment at the bosses who seemed to be taking over the industry. At the very last minute, as Lion stood there in the town hall, told he’d be a shoo-in for the fellowship, he’d taken his application and folded it into his pocket. He’d have to think about it some more, he told the town officials. He’d need a little more time.

Lion was considering his future as he walked toward the house on the summer night when his brothers and sisters were playing tag. Could he really leave home? Could he be elsewhere when the red pears ripened, when his father chopped ice in the winter, when they took their boat out on the bay in the early mornings when fog was closing in and the whole world seemed made of clouds?

Lion could hear laughter weaving around trees as he neared the house, and several shouts of surprise from deep in the woods. Though the dark had fallen in sooty waves, he could narrow his eyes and make out several familiar figures. There was his sister Huley, in her favorite gray dress, running to hide in the barn, and Gemma, easy enough to spy with her red hair. There was poor John, tapped to be It, traipsing through the woods after his older brothers and sisters, doing his best, but never quite catching up. Hundreds of fireflies were rising from their resting places in the tall grass, the males burning yellow with desire. The summer constellations were appearing in the dome above them: Libra in the west, Ursa Major, the she-bear in the northern sky, Virgo, the goddess, always watchful.

Lion stood there for a moment, gulping down the sweetness in the air. He realized that although he heard his brothers and sisters shouting as they ran through the woods, he couldn’t understood a single word they were saying. Here he was, at the age of twenty, a man with extraordinary talents, and yet he felt like crying. He wanted to be just like the rest of them. He wished for it desperately.

Violet found the application in his pocket on wash day. She took it out, unfolded, read it twice, then put it on the top of the bureau in her bedroom.

“He filled it out, but he didn’t turn it in,” she told her husband when George came to undress for bed.

“Maybe he doesn’t want to go.”

George got in bed beside his wife. They had been married for twenty years, enough time for him to know that although her back was to him, she wanted to talk about this. George slipped his arm around her waist. His love for her felt heavy in his chest.

“He’s meant to go,” Violet said. “How could anyone not want to go to Harvard?”

George West had salt on his skin no matter how often or how thoroughly he washed. He thought about how he’d always wanted Violet, even before she’d ever bothered to look at him, how he’d admired the way her mind worked.

“I wouldn’t want to,” he said.

Violet turned round to face him. The room was dark but she could see him perfectly well.

“Do you ever think about it?” She didn’t like to bring up the subject, and she knew George liked it even less. There’d been another man before him, Lion’s father. It had all been a wretched mistake, except for the outcome, which Violet had never regretted, not ever, not once.

“Never,” George told her.

“How could you not?” As for Violet, she thought about it every day, even after twenty years.

George laughed. “I think about fish. I think about you.”

“No you don’t.” Violet laughed. When she laughed she sounded like a girl again, but then she started crying. She tried to hide it, she turned away; all the same, George knew.

“I’ll talk to him,” George said. “He’s my son.”

It was a few days before George could manage to get Lion alone. Since George Jr. was now fishing with them, the boat was no good. The house was too crowded, the days too short, and so George asked Lion to go hunting with him.

“Hunting?” Lion said. They’d never done so before. “What would we hunt?”

“Muskrats,” George said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for two men who had never gone hunting before to suddenly go after creatures who did no one the least bit of harm and had no worth to anyone except each other.

Lion thought it over. He got his coat and put on his heaviest boots. It was spring, mud season, and they were going out to Halfway Pond, the best area for muskrats, if that was what a man was after. They left early, while everyone else was asleep; they took the horses and rode down the King’s Highway, then into the woods. There was a fellow who lived out here, by Halfway Pond, old Sorrel McCluskey, in a cabin he’d built on town land, who’d pretty much hunted the place clean and wore a coat made out of the pelts of the muskrats he’d caught.

“Bad weather for hunting,” Sorrel said when they stopped by his cabin to pay their respects. “Muskrats like fog. Foxes like rain. A clear day’s good for nothing.”

Well, they would see about that. There were fisherman, after all. They had patience and plenty of time. There probably weren’t more than two muskrats left in the area, but that was fine.

“Your mother wants you to apply for that fellowship,” George West said after they had both gotten comfortable. They had a nice view of Halfway Pond, but it wasn’t any prettier than the pond on their own property.

“The thing is, if I apply for it, I’ll get it.”

“I think your mother knows that.”

“She doesn’t know me the way you do, Dad,” Lion said to his father. “The way we feel about this place.”

George had brought along a breakfast of two ham sandwiches wrapped in kitchen cloths, and the men set to eating. It was so odd that George felt closer to Lion than he did to any of his natural children. Was it because Lion had been first, or because Violet had needed him so at that time? Or was it simply because of who Lion was and always would be: George West’s favorite son. While they had potato salad, George thought about telling him the truth—that George wasn’t his father, that his real father had been a better man, a smarter man, a professor as a matter of fact—but if George West was anything, he was honest, honest to a fault. To say Lion wasn’t his son felt like a lie, so instead he said, “Well, she’d like for you to apply.”

They didn’t catch anything that day, but Lion brought his application back to the town hall later in the week, and the entire family was proud of him when Jack Crosby came to town to present him with his fellowship. The whole town planned to gather down at the green on that glorious day, more to see Jack Crosby’s automobile than anything else, but there all the same. Lion was to leave with Crosby—that was part of the hoopla—a ride all the way to Cambridge in this gleaming carriage, rather than the old dusty steamer that left out of Provincetown. All of Lion’s sisters dressed up for the occasion, and George West put on his suit, the one he wore to funerals; Lion’s brothers made a plaque, which they hung on Lion’s bedroom door: Here slept the first man in town to go to Harvard College.

After George had sent the children on to the celebration, he got the horses harnessed to the cart and went to look for Violet. She was in the field of sweet peas that were all abloom, at their glorious peak. The goldfinches came here at this time of year, for the thistle. The crickets’ call was even and slow.

George West leaned one foot up on the stump of an old oak tree. Something white moved across the sky, a cloud, a puff of milkweed, the snow-colored crow that live up by the pond.

“Do you think I made a mistake?” Violet said.

She was not yet forty, but she was tired. She realized that this one August day divided the before from the after. All at once she knew Lion wouldn’t be coming back. She was right about that, as she had been about everything else. Oh, he’d visit now and then during his four years in Cambridge, but then he’d go on to Oxford, and he’d be given a position in London, teaching higher mathematics at the university. He was so concentrated on his work, so very busy, that he wouldn’t even fall in love until he was forty-two, older than Violet was right now.

One day he’d be walking through Hyde Park and he’d see a young woman, an American girl, Helen, visiting an aunt and uncle, and he’d feel as though he was pierced through the heart. Nothing in the world of mathematics had prepared Lion for love. Nothing about it added up. He would think about those sweet peas at the moment when he met Helen, how they changed color depending on the sky, pale and pearly at dusk, pink under the noon sun, purple and violet and finally gray as the day disappeared.

Lion would send photographs of his wedding, of course, a small affair in a lovely chapel in Knightsbridge. He would send Christmas cards faithfully, birthday greetings to all his brother and sisters, books he thought his father would appreciate, great illustrated texts about fishing, mostly, hunting, occasionally, as a reminder perhaps of the day they went looking for muskrat.

To his mother, Lion sent a photograph of himself and Helen and the new baby, Lion Jr., framed in silver. They were poised in front of his MG roadster, his favorite possession. It was nearly impossible to see the baby’s face, but Helen looked lovely and young, and there were glorious chestnut trees, and the roadster shone like a mirror. Lion had been a fan of motorcars ever since that day when Jack Crosby gave him a ride to Cambridge. It had taken the best part of the afternoon to get to the city, and the motor had twice broken down, but Lion had been won over completely. He especially liked the feel of the wind, the sense of flying, the way the trees floated by.

“This is the beginning for you kid,” Jack Crosby had told him. He’d had to shout so that Lion could hear him over the rattling noise of the motor. They were both wearing goggles to keep the bugs out of their eyes.

Every time he drove his car, Lion thought about that day. The way his senses had been heightened, the way he’d understood, all at once, what his mother had wanted for him. He thought about it when Helen and he went on holiday, their first after becoming parents, when the baby was three months, old enough to be left behind with a sitter. They needed a bit of time together, they needed the feel of the wind, the flying, the trees floating by.

“Not too fast,” Helen said, even though she knew he wouldn’t listen. Lion had a mind of his own. Always had. The chestnut trees were flowering and there were roses blooming. Going so fast, the air was like honey, warm and sunlit, unspeakably sweet.

At home, their baby was asleep in his cradle. He had a wonderful temperament, and that was lucky for everyone. His babysitter would have to stay on, as it would be at least four weeks after the accident before his grandmother could come over by ship to get him. By then the child was sleeping through the night. If that wasn’t luck, what was? He didn’t make a peep. Not a cry, not a wail. He was absolutely lovely. One of a kind. A nurse could have easily been hired to take him across the Atlantic; certainly he’d be no problem. Even the sitter who’d grown so attached to him had volunteered. But Violet wouldn’t hear of it. No one would make such a far journey with this child, except for her. Not as long as she had anything to say about it, not at this point in time.

Published on January 18, 2023

First published in Harvard Review 25.

2022-12-19T14:44:03-04:00