The Boy in White

Portrait of artist Martin C de Waal

The Boy in White

I met him on the field out back. It was one of those fields where people dumped their trash, which made it a great place to play. Not a place where poppy flowers would want to grow. I walked alone through the tall grass in green rubber boots and dark blue shorts. The woollen shorts itched with each step I took, but my mother made me wear them anyway. I also wore my sailor shirt. I wore that shirt almost every day back then.

I saw him from a distance, all dressed in white: a crisp clean white shirt, white pants, pale skin. He was leaning forwards with his hands held together, his skinny arms crossed. A halo of brown hair was the only thing that interrupted the white silhouette. The boy noticed me now, took a deep breath and raised his voice:
“Hey, little sailor! Come here! I need to show you something!” Without knowing if it would be wise to approach the boy in white, my boots moved closer to him with each step I took. When I was only a few steps away from him, I deliberately began to wander off. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” Even though we hadn't even met, having the boy in white think I was afraid of him was the last thing I wanted.
By wandering off, I think in hindsight, I only wanted to show him I didn't know everything yet. That I was much younger than him. That my mother would never have dressed me in all white, because she knew I would return home with stains on my clothes. The kind of stains young boys make. Stains that didn't matter much as long as they stuck on an old sailor shirt.

“I want to show you something!”

“Hold on, I’m coming.” The boy in white was even more impressive up close, besides his clothes there was something impeccable about him.

“You have to be careful, because it can break quite easily and if it does, it's all been useless.” The boy still had his hands closed and bulged one of them slightly, creating some space between his palms as he carefully brought his cupped hands closer to me.

“Do you promise not to touch it right away, or get so scared you’ll break it?”

“I promise.” I didn't really understand how I could promise such a thing and became a little nervous. What could he be holding? It became clear to me that the boy in white knew a great deal about the things you could find in this field.
It was very hot that day, it seemed you could touch the heat and poke at with your fingers, my shorts started to itch even more. Did I want to see what the boy was holding? I was convinced he was about to show me something that would change me.

The boy in white moved his hand away. It revealed a bright green caterpillar.
A caterpillar without any feet.

“So what’s so special about a caterpillar?”

I had to make an effort to pronounce the word properly.

“No, it’s not a caterpillar. It’s something else, something very special.”

He looked at me with affection, I felt uncomfortable. Like when grownups laughed at something I said at a birthday party even though I wasn't at all joking.

“What is it then?”

“It’s a cocoon.” Said the boy in white. “Soon a butterfly will emerge from it. Do you know what a butterfly is?”

Of course I knew what a butterfly was. I wasn’t that young.

“This might be the most precious thing there is.”

“But why? What makes it so special?”

“If we become friends and if you come back to this field with me one day, I’ll explain, deal?”


He did hold the caterpillar as if it was the most precious thing in the world and placed the creature on a large rock as if it belonged there. We passed a burnt-out car as we walked away from the field and the sight of it made me wonder why some people take care of certain things while others abandon them and what exactly made the difference. I knew that some people took care of their belongings as if others were watching them.

In the following weeks we saw each other almost every day, always meeting at the field out back, never at one of our homes or one the schoolyard. As if it was necessary that we would meet each other on neutral territory, before we were able to face a place that belonged to his or my world.
I would know him the way I had come to known him that first day: in white clothes in the tall, unkempt grass in the field. At least for as long as that summer allowed. I felt good around him. He made me grow and protected me against things we had created with our own imagination. Dragons, knights on horses, old people and the kind of words they used.

The house of my parents served as our castle. When I asked why we never played at his house, he told me it was the delicious lemonade my mother made. I wondered if his mother knew how to make lemonade at all, but was too shy to ask him.
I would never get to see his parents or the house he lived in. He did introduce me to the fanciest castles and princesses, with high towers and shiny gowns.

Back then I believed there was no world outside the space I was in at any given time; that there were no other people than those surrounding me. When I left home, my mother and the house we lived in vanished until I returned. Streets were only rebuilt the moment I decided to walk on them. Countries only started to exist if we travelled there for the holidays; a complete land and its inhabitants emerged so we could fly there. Everyone I knew solely existed for me. There was nothing except for what my eyes could see and my imagination could create.
The boy in white was the first to make me realize that people live their own lives while I live mine. That the world does not end where I cannot see.

He did not live in our street and he did not go to my school. He always wore his hair in a big quiff . He was tall without being lanky, knew how to handle his length. Maybe that was what revealed his age. The other tall kids in my class walked like rusty dolls seemingly surprised by their newly gained length, while his pace was steady and deliberate. He was shy, but it was the kind of shy only some people knew of.

I would probably never find out who he was, he didn't remind me of anyone I knew, but instead he made me think of the people I imagined to get to know later in life. He talked a lot, but not in the way I was used to.
Each time I felt something was off and wondered who the boy in white really was, he would say something I recognized. Maybe not exactly at that same time, but something I had felt before or knew I would feel much later. And he was the one to said it out loud in the fast and whimsically way he spoke. “Have you seen my new shoes? Let’s go to that other field, the one that has poppies. Never isolate yourself! That’s the worst thing you can do.” He would advice me in the most fleeting ways.

When everything indicated the summer was about to end, we returned to the field. The last day I saw him as a boy. Now I know it didn't matter to him, to the boy in white that cocoon he held was one that would bring forth thousands of butterflies.

“Can you see them?”

“See what?”

“The butterflies. You know, from the day we met. Out of that cocoon came a butterfly and today they are everywhere!” He said it as he pointed his finger to the sky. I thought it was best to keep still. “Can you see? Look at that big one over there! And that purple one! These are the prettiest butterflies I have ever seen. We are lucky today. Let's lie down somewhere.”

I had seen a small white butterfly once. I had tried to catch it, and had damaged it a little. Today however, there was not even a little white butterfly. The sky was blue. It was that year’s summer blue and it wasn't interrupted by anything.
The boy in white knew that. All he wanted to know was whether we were best friends. No, he wanted to know if he was understood.
I did not dare to tell him I didn't see anything, here in the field on yet another hot day. I couldn't bring myself to tell him we're all alone, but that he might be a little more alone because he understood things no one else seemed to get.

“Yes, I see them now! I can see them too!” I said. An even bigger smile appeared on his face. It was to become the smile that would be cemented in my memory.