The Sater Wars by Harrison Kim

In 1960s middle America, two young school boys plot revenge against their cruel teacher; by Harrison Kim.

Fall, 1964, and eleven-year-old Salmon River boys Ken Lee and Stan Harlan discussed the Beatles outside their school. Ken's family didn't have TV, but he'd watched the mop tops and heard the girl screams on the Harlan's set. He wanted more than anything to learn to play guitar.

The two boys waited together for the bus. Their teacher, Mrs. Sater, tasked them with watching the Grade Ones, making sure the kids didn't run out onto the road. The little kids stood under a gnarled willow tree. A thunderclap crashed. The kids all screamed like Beatles girls.

"Those Beatles can sing," said Stan, "if you can hear them over the shouting."

"We could learn to play," said Ken, "and be popular."

"How do you play a guitar?" Stan asked.

Ken dashed up to the road and back, moving his hands and arms in John Lennon fashion.

"Like this," he shouted, as the rain pelted down.

The Grade Ones watched him with attentive eyes.

The thunder crashed again.

"We're getting wet," said Samantha, a tiny kid wearing green boots way too big for her.

"We want to go inside and wait for the bus," squealed round-faced Joyce Felix, pulling on her Indian braids.

Ken and Stan kept poker faces.

"You should be allowed to go in," said Stan. "But Mrs. Sater said no."

"I'm not scared," said Ken. "Thunder can't hurt you."

Another great crash sounded directly above. The Grade Ones screamed some more. A lightning fork lit up the mountainside.

"That's flashy," Stan said. He talked to the huddle of Grade Ones clustered round the willow tree trunk. "Who's your favourite Beatle?"

"We want to go in," wailed Charlie Duteau, a thin single grader wearing a shirt with missing buttons. "I don't care about the Beatles."

Ken answered. "My dad says the Beatles are all the same," he said. "They need a haircut."

He looked at the sky, then ran through the rain and back under the tree to the Grade Ones.

"Crash bang boom," he said. "It's just a noise."

Joyce cowered. "It hurts my ears," she shrieked. "I'm all soaked."

"Mrs. Sater says you'll make the floors messy. You'll get the strap if you do that," Ken continued, "stay out here and wait for the bus."

Stan looked at the kids milling around the tree trunk.

"That's stupid," he said. He ran over and opened the school door. "Go inside," he told the Grade Ones. "Come on."

No-one moved for a moment, then Charlie dashed forward, and the other little kids followed, racing in pell-mell with their muddy boots.

The door banged shut.

"We could get into trouble," Ken said.

"They're little kids," Stan answered.

The boys looked through the window, watched the children moving about the hallway.

"Mrs. Sater's in there," Ken said. "She's got the strap."

As he spoke, the big-hipped teacher flung the door open with one huge arm, and the Grade Ones tumbled out.

"Get out! You've made the floor filthy!" Mrs. Sater yelled.

Her wild red hair flew in all directions around her massive head. Ken figured her arms and hands grew enormous from making pottery. Her house and yard by the river were full of different sized pots. Weekends, she taught painting and ceramics to a group of valley women.

"Get moving kids!" she commanded. "Line up against that wall." She turned to Stan. "I thought I told you to keep them out!"

"They're scared," Stan's voice rose. "They're just little."

"Don't you raise your voice to me!" she yelled. She ran forward and grabbed his hair. "You need to get this cut!"

She tugged hard a few times.

"Ow!" Stan cried. He reached up his hands and pushed himself away.

"You children are weak," Mrs. Sater told them. "You have to learn. How do you think we grown-ups survived a war?"

The thunder rolled again.

"Why did you pull my hair like that?" Stan yelled.

"Only girls have hair that long," Mrs. Sater told him.

The Grade Ones trembled against the side of the school. The front of Charlie Duteau's pants were soaked, Ken saw the pee run along the ground.

"Hold out your hands," said Mrs. Sater. "Palms up. Put your right hand over your left wrist. Come on, form a line."

The kids stood against the wall with their hands out. She began to strap the children, three straps for each kid. Charlie was the first.

"The school bus!" yelled Joyce Felix.

She ran around pointing, as the thunder roiled again, and the strapped kids wailed.

"Stand against the wall!" Mrs. Sater screamed. "Line up!"

"I don't see any bus," Ken said, but then Harry Chagun drove in, his cowboy hat low on his head, peering out from behind the old bus's windshield wipers. He opened the door.

"Come in out of the rain, kids," he said.

Everyone raced on; Ken and Stan waited for the Grade Ones, then moved to the rear. Mrs. Sater waved and grimaced at Harry as the rain poured over her head. She dangled the strap from one hand.

"That's one scary flash of lightning," said the bus driver, as another zap of brilliant white-yellow split the sky behind Mrs. Sater, outlining her chestnut hair in an electric halo. The Grade Ones pressed against the windows, sobbing and staring out at the teacher.

"What the heck happened to you kids?" Harry said.

"We went inside," said Charlie.

Ken and Stan sat together.

"Hey, you don't have to worry Charlie," Stan said. "You're safe on the bus now."

Charlie looked straight ahead and didn't say anything more.

"I think I'm gonna try to make a guitar tonight," said Ken, "out of fence wire and elastics."

The bus plunged through some potholes. Ken looked up. The sky appeared blue again, though it still continued to rain.

"My mom said when it's showering and the sun is shining, we're in a rainbow," he said. He scanned the trees beside the road. "I'm looking for the pot of gold."

"Do you always believe your mom?" Stan asked. He turned in his seat. "My dad said he did some bad things in the war, but he had to do them." He paused and faced away again. "We need to punish Mrs. Sater." he said.

Ken looked at Stan. "What do you mean?"

Stan pressed his knuckles against the bus window. "She didn't have to strap all those kids."

"How do we punish her?" said Ken. "She's way bigger than us."

He leaned over Stan to open the bus window.

Stan ducked. "Remember last September when she got stung by a bee? Stan said. "She had to take the whole day off when her arm swelled up like a balloon."

"Yeah, I remember," Ken nodded.

"We'll put bees in her car," said Stan.

He sat back in his seat to feel the cool air.

"That's a funny joke," Ken said.

"It's a good idea," said Stan, "when there's a war on."

He turned around, cupped his hands, and put his folded fingers to Ken's ear.

"Bees in the car," he whispered. "It's our secret."

Ken smiled. He liked the feeling of Stan's breath in his ear. "Okay," he said.

Stan pulled his hands away. "We're best friends, remember."



Most weekends, Ken's mom took watercolour lessons with Mrs. Sater, in the teacher's pottery filled, musky smelling cottage. Ken went with her once or twice. Mrs. Sater's portraits of the Salmon River Valley sat framed on the walls. One featured the thick-trunked willow tree in front of the school. The tree in the picture looked exactly like the real one, right down to the last twig.

"She's a stickler for detail," said Ken's mom. "She said that one took her weeks and weeks. She had to destroy several that didn't work out."

Ken nodded. He tried painting lessons with Mrs. Sater. It started off okay, but he didn't like the big teacher's hands guiding his. Her fingers felt fat, and pushy.

"You have to learn the basic skills," Mrs. Sater told him, "before you can be truly creative."

"Why can't I do what I want?" he asked her.

"Because it won't be art," she said. "You'll just make a big mess." She looked at him. "A real skill can only be learned through discipline."

When he told his mom she said, "Mrs. Sater's a very talented woman."

"All those artists are high strung," Dad chuckled. "But she's earned a brutal reputation."

He laughed a bit longer than usual as he continued with his wood carving.

"She doesn't let those kids walk all over here, that's for sure," said Mom.



All the bad children kicked out of other schools in the area were sent to Salmon Valley. The Superintendent of Schools knew Mrs. Sater could handle them. The week before the storm, one such child, plump foster kid Ricky Tom, stared out the window after Mrs. Sater asked him a math question.

"Do you hear me?" she asked.

Ricky didn't answer.

Mrs. Sater told him, "Wipe that infantile smile off your face."

Ricky stood up, and in a few arm motions swept the Science flasks and jars off the counter, sent them flying, crashing in all directions. He turned, bolted out of the school as fast as his short legs would carry him, heading for the bridge over the creek. "Let's get him!" Mrs. Sater yelled at the other kids. "Get him before he crosses!"

Her face flared a red-purple color, her fists clenched. She led the children out across the back field. "Faster, kids!" She screamed.

"Let's get him!" the children yelled.

Three and a half dozen feet pounded across the ground. Only Stan stood by the school and didn't run.

Ken cut Ricky off at the willow tree.

"You're not going to dodge around me," he said.

"I'll fight you later," Ricky said, but the other kids surrounded him and Mrs. Sater dragged the boy back to the school by one arm.

She called his foster parents and he never returned. Stan said he'd been moved to Brannan Lake Reform School at the coast.

"Nobody wanted him," said Stan.

"You did a good job," Mrs. Sater told everyone. "Except you, Stan. You're a bystander. One of those people who watches while someone else gets hurt."

She made Stan hold the cleanup pan while Ken swept in the smashed glass.

"You're our top student," she told Stan. "You should set an example."

Stan's mom made a complaint to the superintendent of schools.

"If anyone's gonna complain, it's gonna be Mrs. Harlan," Ken's dad grinned when he heard about the formal complaint.

"Why is it always Mrs. Harlan?" asked Ken.

"She's the only woman in the valley with a college degree," he said.

"Mrs. Sater's supposed to be allergic to bees," said Ken.

He wondered why he'd felt so good chasing after Ricky. He remembered the foster kid's frown, the glare combined with hatred in his voice, when Ken blocked him at the bridge.

"All those kids going after Ricky like a little army," Stan told Ken later. "It's not right."



Two days following the storm, Stan and Ken squatted by the cool creek that rushed by not far from the school. Mrs. Sater's car sat parked on the other side of a barbed-wire fence.

"She's busy with the marking," said Stan. "You can see her working in there."

Ken looked across the fence through the school windows and saw the teacher bent over some papers, her messy hair all around her face. Her massive back showed the definite beginnings of a hump.

The two boys grabbed the plastic bags they'd found in the ditch. They crawled under the fence into Mrs. Copper's orchard next door, then moved to her plum tree. Kenny saw wasps crawling slowly in and out of numerous plums. They hardly made a buzz; they were lazy drunk with sugar juice.

He picked out an unsullied fruit and popped it in his mouth.

"Yum," he said, and spat out the stone.

Stan held a big cottonwood leaf in his hand. He grabbed a wasp-filled plum and flipped it into his bag. "Mine's done. We're not here to eat."

Ken held his container up. It was already full of plum-eating wasps. Stan put a knot in the top of his bag and the two boys watched the wasps crawl around.

"They can't sting through that," Stan said.

"Which one of us is going to do it?" asked Ken.

He tied his bag up tight.

"We do this together," said Stan. "As allies. Let's count to ten."

Ken felt excited and scared, the same way he did when the class went after Ricky. He focussed on the school door. With each number counted, Ken got ready to launch.

"Ten," said Stan.

The boys threw their bags over the barbed wire, then rolled under and grabbed them up. They tore across the parking lot to Mrs. Sater's car. Ken opened the door, and the two boys tossed their fruit wasp bags into the back seat area. Ken slammed the door closed.

"Why did you slam it so hard?" Stan asked, as they rolled back under the fence again and tore down the creek bed.

"I had to make sure," Ken breathed hard, "that it was closed." He looked at Stan.

They loped down the creek and across some fields, then slowed, bumping into each other and laughing.

"Was your bag knot undone?" Stan asked.

"I think mine was."

"I think mine was too" Ken said. He pulled down his fly and took a pee against a fencepost.

"Now it is!" he grinned.

"That's not funny," said Stan.

The boys loped along between two tall rows of corn, to the bottom of the bluffs. They began hiking up the trail to the top. Ken's legs felt powerful and strong.

"We're gonna have to walk all the way home later," said Ken. "But I don't care."

"I think my favourite Beatle is George," Stan replied. "He's the quiet one."

"I like Peter, Paul and Mary," Ken told him. "Especially Mary."

They sat up on the top gazing down at the road.

"There's Mrs. Sater's car!" Stan pointed.

The teacher's twenty-year-old Ford Sedan putted along. Ken imagined Mrs. Sater's big head filling up most of the driver's side.

"I guess the bees haven't come out," Stan leaned over the cliff to look closer. "Are you sure you untied your knot?"

"I think so," said Ken. "You really hate her, eh?"

Stan bent down and threw some rocks over the bluffs.

"It's too bad her car's so far away," he said. "She strapped those kids for going inside in a thunderstorm. She pulled my hair."

"She pulls other kid's hair," said Ken.

"It's still wrong," Stan said. "She likes to punish us. Now we can punish her."

Ken thought about that.

"You think she likes to punish?" he said.

"My dad says some people do," Stan answered. "He fought them in the war."

The boys were at Ken's driveway when they heard ambulance sirens. Ken couldn't stop his legs from trembling.

"What if it's for Mrs. Sater?" he said.

"We have to keep this secret," Stan replied. "My mom says the best thing to do when you're worried is focus on something pleasant."

Ken tried to think about The Beatles.
 

That evening after supper, Ken spent some time in his dad's basement workshop, pounding nails into boards. He strung elastic bands between the nails to try and make different sounds from different tensions of elastic.

"The tighter the elastic, the higher the sound," Ken concluded.

He heard his mother talking on the phone, and she called his dad in from outside.

Ken snuck up the stairs to hear them talk.

"It's about Maude Sater," his mom said. She continued. "Harry Chagun, the bus driver, found her lying on the ground. He said she'd been walking from her car to her house. Her school papers were scattered all over."

Ken flung the door open.

"What happened to Mrs. Sater?" he yelled.

"They don't know yet," said Mom.

"I thought you were busy making a guitar," Dad stated.

"I finished," said Ken.

He looked down. He held the elastic band board in his hand.

"Let me take a look," Dad said.

He picked up the board and ran his fingers over the elastics. "It makes kind of a buzz," he remarked. "Those are a lot of nails."

"You said Mrs. Sater was dead," Ken told his mom.

"No," Mom said. "I didn't say that."

Ken piped up. "She's allergic to bees."

Dad put the board guitar down on the couch.

"Maybe she got stung," Mom said.

"No-one gets killed by a wasp bite," Dad replied. "It was probably a heart attack. She was pretty high strung."



Mrs. Sater's classes were cancelled for two days. By Friday, Mrs. Madler, the substitute teacher, was teaching in her place.

"What happened to Mrs. Sater?" a couple of the kids asked.

"I can't talk about it," said Mrs. Madler.

Ken and Stan sat without a word. On the bus, Stan asked Harry, the bus driver, what happened.

"She just dropped," Harry said, looking out from behind his giant cowboy hat. "Like a sack of rocks."

At noon hour, Ken talked to Stan about the situation.

"I want to go to her car," he said. "Find out if we unknotted those bags."

"Everyone said it was a heart attack," Stan said. "Overweight people get those."



In the next few days, Ken tried to think about music. He and Stan practiced their board guitars. They rehearsed "She Loves You," and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." They didn't know the exact words, so they made them up. Their guitars droned in a bit of a harmony. Mrs. Madler said they could perform in front of the class one afternoon.

"You just need to practice," she said.

"We should do it," said Ken.

"No," Stan told him. "We sound flat."

"What does 'sound flat' mean?" asked Ken.

"Bad," Stan replied.

The first report cards came out, signed by Mrs. Sater before her incident. Stan received the highest marks in the school and earned five dollars.

"I think I'll save up for a camera," he told Ken.

"What about a guitar?" Ken asked.

"I want to take pictures," Stan replied. "So I can remember things."

He already had a big diary which he wrote in every day.

"If I write stuff down," he said, "I can fit it all together later."

"What did you write about Mrs. Sater?" Ken asked.

"I'll show it to you one day," Stan answered.



Ken and his family visited Stan's the next Saturday night.

"Well, they finally found out what happened to Mrs. Sater," Ken's mom said. "The rumour's true. It was a bee sting; a wasp got her right behind the ear."

"Wow, right behind the ear," Mrs. Harlan replied. "She was one tough lady, but that was her Achilles Heel, I guess."

"What's an Achilles Heel?" Stan piped up from where he lay on the floor, watching the Ed Sullivan show.

"It's a vulnerable spot," Mr. Harlan said. He talked in his low voice. "She walked six steps from her car, then dropped dead. "

"If something's got your number, there's nothing you can do." said Ken's Dad.

"Did they find any bags in her car?" Ken asked.

His legs shook again, and he couldn't stop them.

"What sort of bags?" Ken's mom said.

Stan jumped up.

"Mrs. Madler's a pretty good substitute," he interrupted. "She doesn't yell at the kids."

Everyone nodded. Ken's dad re-shuffled the cards.

"No-one shuffles cards as fast as you," said Stan. "Where did you learn how to do that?" "It's my secret," Ken's dad said.

"If you told your secret, what would happen?" asked Ken.

Everyone laughed. Ken's dad continued to shuffle.

"We don't tell our secrets," said Mr. Harlan. "That could get us into a lot of trouble." He winked. "Just give them your name, rank, and serial number."

Stan put his fingers to his lips.

"Let's watch TV," he told Ken.

Ken nodded and tried not to think of secrets as he watched the show.



He hiked up to the teacher's place the next day. Her car sat in the driveway; the doors unlocked. Ken opened the door on the passenger side and jumped in the back. The plastic bags were gone.

"Maybe they've never been there," he thought. "We only thought we threw them in."

A voice came from outside the house.

"Hey, what are you doing in the teacher's car?"

It was Harry the bus driver, who lived next door.

"I'm looking for some plastic bags," said Ken.

"Oh yeah," Harry said. "There were a couple of bags of plums."

"We gave them to Mrs. Sater as a present," Ken said. "She likes plums."

"I'm sure she appreciated the gift," Harry said. "I recall there were a few dead wasps got in there. Must've flown in the window. They get drunk on the sugar and die right in the fruit." He looked at Ken. "You know she died from a wasp sting."

"I heard about that," Ken said. "I didn't know she was allergic."

"There were a few nests around her house," Harry continued. "They were everywhere this year." He rubbed his fingers under his cowboy hat.

"Can I see Mrs. Sater's paintings?" Ken asked.

"Sure," said Harry. "I'm just tidying up, waiting on her family. I think some brother's travelling in from out East."

Ken looked at the paintings of trees and birds and mountains.

"She didn't paint people," he said.

"No, she didn't," said Mr. Chagun.

"She made us chase a boy all the way down the creek," Ken said. "We caught him, and he got the strap and she pulled Stan's hair. She also gave little kids the strap." He paused. "Do you think that's a bad thing?"

Mr. Chagun rubbed his chin. "Not if they deserved it," he said. "Do you think they deserved it?"

"I don't think so," said Ken.



A few days later Ken and Stan sat up on the bluff.

"Do you think it was our fault what happened to Mrs. Sater?" Stan asked. He looked way down at the rocks below.

"Mr. Chagun said all the bees in the plastic bags were dead," Ken answered. "Remember Ricky Tom?"

"Yeah, who can forget that guy," Stan chuckled.

"He gave me a real dirty look when I stopped him from running away," Ken said. "But it wasn't me who stopped him. It was the whole class."

"Mrs. Sater should have let him go," Stan leaned forward as some cars passed along the road below. "I told my mom about it. She said art was her talent, not teaching."

"A bee stung her behind the ear," Ken continued. "That bee had her number. It wouldn't matter what bee it was."

Stan nodded.

"The Grade Ones got the strap because they went inside," Ken kept talking. "They should have stayed out."

He formed his hands into a cup, leaned over and put the hand cup against Stan's ear.

"Do you want to know a secret?" he told him. "That's a Beatles number."

He put his hands behind his head and lay against the rocks.

"You make everything seem funny," Stan laughed.

"I learned that from your dad," said Ken.

"Your dad's pretty funny too," Stan replied.

They sat up on the bluff a while, talking about their dads.



After the funeral, Mrs. Sater's brother from the East sold off all her art. Ken's mom bought one of the teacher's large purple pots, in which she threw umbrellas, walking sticks and the dog leash. Ken stuck his hand in the pot on a few occasions, to check for bees. He thought he deserved to be stung at least once or twice, but there were never any bees in there.

Mrs. Madler encouraged Ken and Stan to practice their elastic band guitars and sing. They finally found enough courage to perform in front of the Grade One to Six class. The little kids clapped; the older kids laughed.

"Mrs. Sater wouldn't have allowed this," Stan told the students.

"We should not speak badly of her," Mrs. Madler admonished, "you might be surprised what she'd allow."



After the performance, Ken knew his old teacher was right about creativity. He and Stan needed to learn basic skills to be called true musicians. Right now, they were only acting. Maybe his dad could give him a job to earn money to buy a real guitar.

"The Beatles don't do kid stuff," he told Stan, "They learned the basics first." He grinned. "That's what I'm gonna do."

"I want a camera," Stan said. "I want to stop time with a photo." He looked at Ken. "The first photo I'll take is of you," he said. "Then you can take one of me."

"If we ever see the Beatles," said Ken, "We can take photos of them."



All night, Ken dreamed about Mrs. Sater, her big arms grabbing at Stan's hair, her giant form running across the field after Ricky Tom, her huge hands in the art class, pushing his fingers and his brush wherever she wanted them to go.

These images let him know what he must never be.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent story. It’s hard to portray children so realistically. Often they’re either miniature adults who are wise beyond their years or incurably cute (and wise beyond their years). But Stan and Ken are true-to-life, and each have distinct personalities. Was it one of “their bees” that killed Mrs.Sater? Probably, but we don’t know for sure. The two boys, especially Ken it seems, will have to live and learn to cope with the guilt and uncertainty.

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    1. Thanks David H. This is pretty much a true story with a few alterations, so I was speaking from experience

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  2. The story had a staccato rhythm to complement boyhood adolescence and a nostalgic rueful tone for its mood. The events haunt the boys and it filters down to the reader, especially so since it comes from experience.

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    1. Intriguing to read your impressions. Who we become is related to how we choose to interpret experience. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. I like the minimalist style: spare writing, few adjectives--only what is necessary. This was true to a certain time of life for the boys. Nice work!
    Cameron Spencer

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    1. Yes indeed we were minimalist kids. It was a vastly different world then. Thanks Cameron S.

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  4. I really enjoyed this. The story stayed true to the perspective of the characters, what they saw and knew. Although this is in the 3rd person, it's unerringly intimate. Like real life - there's a lingering ambiguity which I find compelling.

    thanks,

    David

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    1. Thanks, David for taking the time to comment. Indeed, I think that in looking at the past there are many perspectives. The friendship between the two boys was for me the main key to center the plot and the time and place.

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  5. I always enjoy Harrison's writing. He does an amazing job of portraying realistic characters through excellent dialogue and just enough description. This story is no exception. I found myself teetering between wanting the boys to have been the cause of Mrs. Slater's demise and hoping they were innocent. I really cared about the characters. That is an amazing accomplishment in a short story. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

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    1. Thanks James R., I appreciate the comment. The dialogue took some time to figure out...had to channel back the years and hear their voices. I can now develop those characters in other stories.

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