catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 15 :: 2003.07.18 — 2003.07.31


Calvin's experiment

As far as Calvin was concerned, everything was going wrong. His English teacher put only the words he didn’t know on his vocabulary test; a larger schoolmate had bullied him into giving up a dollar; while playing goalkeeper in a tie game of soccer, he juggled the ball into his own net just before the whistle blew; and his older sister borrowed more of his CDs without asking. The only good thing was that his parents had stopped arguing every night, but that was only because his father had moved out of the house.

Most of all, Calvin was worried about his science project. That is, he was worried about not having one. He didn’t like mice or hamsters or turtles. He didn’t want to risk blowing himself up by mixing chemicals. Stars and planets bored him to tears. Dinosaurs were for little kids. So what was there? The trouble with not doing a science project was that he would have to take seventh-grade science again next year and Ms. Hood would still be holding the science project over his head. Calvin could just repeat seventh grade until he was sixteen and then quit school, but being four years older than his class mates wouldn’t be any fun.

Calvin stared out of the window of his room. The view of the apartment building next door was so dull that he couldn’t think. His sister was playing music too loudly for him to think anyway. Besides, he didn’t want to think about his project anyway. His cat, Pepper, was sprawled over the schoolbooks Calvin had dropped on his desk and so he stroked the cat’s fur as an alternative to thinking. Then Calvin turned on his computer and played some games that kept him too busy to think.

“What should I do for my science project?” Calvin asked Pepper.

Pepper purred, showing that he was not worried about science projects. Calvin thought it must be nice to be a cat and not have to worry about teachers like Ms. Hood or parents like his parents.

When he got tired of playing computer games, Calvin clicked on the Internet. There were two e-mails for him. The first was from his classmate Mike.

Dear Cal: My ant farm is doing real good. It’ll be the best science project in the school. What’s your project? Putting nails into coke bottles to see if soda is as bad as they say it is? mike.

Calvin was glad he had such good friends. He thought of answering with the message: “I just decided that my project is pounding nails into your face to see what happens,” but he thought better of it. The second e-mail letter was from his father. Calvin knew what the message would say, but he read it anyway.

Dear Calvin,

I hate to have to say this, but it just won’t work out for me to take you out next Saturday. I’m behind in my work and I have to catch up before it’s too late. Besides, I hear you have a science project that needs doing. Get a good start on it this week and then next weekend we’ll have a great time because we won’t have to worry about the project any more.

Love, Dad

Calvin shrugged. He didn’t need to spend Saturday with his father. It was his sister who needed the time, and she was the one who usually got it.

Without thinking about what he was doing, Calvin clicked on one of the Search engines and keyed in “science projects.” It turned out that the search engine came up with more sites than there were hamburgers at all the fast-food joints in the world. Calvin closed his eyes and held the scroll button for seven seconds. Then he clicked on whatever site the cursor was pointing at.

For countless seconds, Calvin watched the screen, bemused as vague shapes of color filled in. Calvin’s first guess was that he was going to end up with a picture of a purple elephant. His second guess was that it would be a pirate ship on a purple ocean. What finally materialized was a picture of a dense forest, but with trees quite different from what Calvin had ever seen before, even in Internet sites with fantasy games. The slender tree trunks were dark purple with silver and red leaves on their branches.

“Come on computer, how am I going to do a science project with trees that don’t exist?” asked Calvin.

However, Calvin’s curiosity was piqued just enough that he scrolled up and down the screen, ever ready as he was to procrastinate over his science project one more time. After a little while, it seemed that there was nothing else on this site except for the trees. Calvin was just about to give up when he saw a man riding a black horse and wearing a coat of mail speed by. Off in the distance, there was a city surrounded by white city walls. Inside the walls were buildings tall enough to belong in New York, except that they looked more like medieval castles. From one corner there arose a silver cloud of smoke that was flowing out of a lavender smokestack. The rider disappeared in among the trees. Then, three unicorns galloped after the rider in hot pursuit. The unicorns, in turn, were followed by a pack of silver wolves, howling a loud but sweet melody. Soon, the wolves, too, were gone, and there was nothing left on the screen except for the trees.

Calvin scrolled down the screen some more, hoping to see more action. At last, he spotted a small animal walking along a branch of one of the trees. It could have been a squirrel, but just then, the picture enlarged itself until it was apparent that it was a cat that was walking on the branch and not just any cat, either.

“Pepper!” Calvin cried out.

Calvin reached into the screen to retrieve his cat, and next thing he knew, he was precariously balancing himself on the slender branch. He reached up and closed his hand over a thin branch above him. It felt like velvet, but it was firm enough to hold him. Pepper jumped up to the branch Calvin was holding on to and sniffed at the silver and red leaves.

“Do they smell good?” Calvin asked the cat.

Pepper took his time responding to Calvin’s question. Without even thinking, Calvin tore off a twig to look it over. The branch he was sitting on disappeared, and Calvin barely caught himself on the lower branch to keep himself from falling to the ground. Somewhat shaken, Calvin looked up. There was no break in the tree, no sign that a branch had just broken off. Once he had collected his thoughts, Calvin broke the twig in his hand to see what the inside was like. H e saw was a thread of golden light but then he saw nothing but his hand.

Calvin tried to think about all this, but he could not think. One part of him wanted to just sit in the tree forever and enjoy its beauty, but another part of him nagged him with reminders that there were other things he had to do in life. Things like receiving e-mail letters from his father canceling Saturday outings and other e-mails from so-called friends taunting him about his lack of a science project. Maybe staying in the tree wasn’t such a bad idea. Pepper was still exploring every inch of a branch above him as if he could spend the rest of his life up there. But the Calvin asked himself what would he eat for the rest of his life if he stayed in the tree? He wasn’t feeling hungry at the moment, but he knew he would in an hour or two. On the other hand, there was the strange city he saw while scrolling down the computer screen. Maybe he could get a job there and maybe the teachers in the schools didn’t require science projects.

Calvin’s eyes followed Pepper who was sniffing the tree with even greater intensity. Clearly something was up there. Calvin climbed back up to take a look for himself. What Calvin saw there were several round golden fruits just waiting for him. Calvin picked one of them. It felt like a ball of furry light in his hand. He put it to his mouth. Then a terrible thought made him jerk it away. What if the fruit was poison? Calvin smelled the fruit. It smelled like a blossom full of sunshine. But that did not prove he could trust it. Then he knew what to do. Perhaps it could even be his science project.

“Pepper!” Calvin called.

The cat never came when he was called, of course, but he was already close by. Calvin put the piece of fruit to Pepper’s nose.

“What do you think, Pepper?”

Calvin fell with a thud. His head swam for a moment before it cleared. He tried moving his aching arm. It felt okay. He finally realized that he was seated on the floor of his room, looking up at his computer desk and Pepper was asleep on top of his schoolbooks. Calvin scrambled to his feet. The computer wasn’t even on. He must have been dreaming. But the fruit was still in his hand though it was melting fast. Calvin clapped one hand over the other to save it, but it was gone in no time. Dejectedly, Calvin opened his hand. It wasn’t empty after all. Three seeds rested on the palm of his hand. In a flash of inspiration, Calvin knew he had his science project after all.


The school gymnasium buzzed with parents and teachers admiring the ant farms, hamsters on wheels, flashing lights and multi-colored test tubes of their children’s science projects. Children bubbled their explanations of what they had done to their beaming elders. Almost every project had a ribbon on it declaring it either a prize or an “honorable mention.” One exhibit off in the corner, however, was not marked by any ribbon. On the table were three glass jars, each containing a different kind of soil. Mounted on a poster board, was a poorly typed explanation of the project. Parents who even noticed it shrugged their shoulders and their children snickered.

“It’s a good thing that isn’t your project,” one father told his son.

“It sure is,” the boy replied with a derisory smile.

It was with a sinking heart that Calvin brought his mother into the gym, as late as he could manage it. For the first time, he was glad his father was too busy to share the disgrace, and that his sister had stayed home to listen to his CDs.

“Now am I finally going to find out your deep dark secret?” asked his mother.

“Yea,” said Calvin, trying to sound a little enthusiastic.

His only remaining hope was that the trees would make their presence known at the last minute. After his tongue-tied embarrassment that morning before his class, that was like expecting a baseball team to score ten runs in the ninth inning with two outs and nobody on base to win the game. The situation was not helped when Calvin saw his friend Mike standing at the refreshments table. Calvin tried to slip past unnoticed, but couldn’t, and he was subjected to the “shame, shame” signal that Mike made with his forefingers.

“What’s all that about?” Calvin’s mother asked.


That was the kind of support Calvin was getting from his friends in his hour of need. Their reaction to his presentation in class that morning had made Ms. Hood appear to be the milk of human kindness personified.

After planting the seeds, a week of misery had followed when nothing happened. Calvin stared at the jars for hours, demanding that the trees appear, but saw nothing. He finally became so impatient that he dug into the dirt of one of the jars to see if the seed was germinating at all. It wasn’t. Calvin had to resort to writing reports that tried to explain how he had really tried to do a science project but gained no results from it. It didn’t help Calvin’s disposition when his mother asked him what those dirt-filled jars were doing in his room.

“It’s my science project.”

“And what is your science project?”

“Top Secret.”

Every time Pepper came into Calvin’s room, he walked over to the jars and sniffed at them. If he smelled anything interesting, he didn’t let Calvin know. Then one afternoon, Calvin came into his room and saw Pepper floating in the air.

“What are you doing?” Calvin asked the cat in alarm.

In a sudden panic, Pepper hopped back down to the floor. Only then did Calvin realize that Pepper had jumped down from where the trees were supposed to be growing. He dashed over, but saw nothing and felt nothing.

“What was it, Pepper?” asked Calvin.

Pepper twirled his tail and looked up at Calvin as if he was wondering what amusing episode was going to happen next. Calvin couldn’t sleep that night. He tossed about in his bed and looked over at the shadowy jars, then pounded his fist into his mattress when nothing happened.

By this time, Calvin had just about given up on his project, but that afternoon, he came home from school and saw a slender thread branching off from what had to be an invisible trunk. Calvin rushed to the branch, only to have it disappear. Calvin put his hand where he had seen the branch, but he felt nothing. He walked back to the door. There was no branch to be seen. All Calvin could do was plunge both fists into his mattress.

That night, Calvin suddenly woke up. The far end of his room was burning up!

“Fire!” he yelled.

In a matter of seconds, the overhead light was on in his room, Pepper had fled, his mother was standing in the doorway, and a very cross-looking sister was standing out in the hall.

“Uh—where is the fire, Calvin?” asked his mother.

Calvin was tongue-tied, for there was no fire. Everything was as it should be. The dirt-filled jars were by the window. Calvin gulped. The leaves of the trees he was trying to grow were supposed to be red and silver! He had let them slip between his fingers yet again.

“Looks like you had better put your imagination back to sleep,” said Mother.

“Keep your nightmares to yourself next time,” said a less sympathetic Sarah.

After his mother and sister had left, Pepper cautiously returned, and the light was put out again, Calvin sat up against the bedstead, straining his eyes for a sight of the red and silver leaves. Picking up Pepper, Calvin walked over to the jars and put his hand out to where he had seen the blazing leaves. He felt nothing.

“Do you see anything?” Calvin asked Pepper.

Pepper jumped out of Calvin’s arms and returned to the bed and made himself comfortable there.

The next day, Calvin spent hours working on his project. He tried putting the jars in every position, every angle, and every intensity of light to see what made the trees visible and what didn’t. There was one thrilling moment when he was sure that a night light in his otherwise dark room had shown up the trees he was growing. For a few seconds, Calvin even felt the velvet branches of the tree. This gave Calvin visions of how he would awe his class and then the whole school by making the trees suddenly appear out of nowhere by a slight movement of light. His picture would be in the paper and scientists from MIT would come to see him. But before he knew it, the vision was gone.

Calvin got Pepper in the act by placing him in front of the jars and demanding that he give evidence of seeing the trees. Each time Calvin tried that strategy, Pepper looked elsewhere for something interesting to do. But later, when Calvin was doing some other homework on his computer, he saw Pepper out of the corner of his playing with a dangling toy the way he played with Christmas tree ornaments. Calvin slid the chair around with a squeak that made Pepper look away.

“What did you see?” Calvin asked Pepper desperately.

But all Pepper seemed to see was a comfortable lap to curl up in.

Calvin resorted to logging on the Internet and calling up another search for “science projects.” Again, there was quite a long list of entries, but none of them offered what he wanted.

When the fateful day came, Calvin made up his mind that his best bet was to give such a stirring presentation of his experiment that Ms. Hood and the class would be swept away by his eloquence. Not surprisingly, writing out a script for such a presentation proved impossible, but Calvin consoled himself with the conviction that he would be fired up when his moment came and he would really sock it to his classmates. Since Pepper had become an important part of the experiment, Calvin managed to get permission to bring the cat to school.

Calvin spoke straight from the heart as he had promised himself he would. The first few times that some classmates rolled up their eyes and covered their mouths, Calvin ignored them, knowing he would have the last laugh. He did his trick with the lights, turning them on and off and then pulling the shades as well.

“Now, just keep you eyes open for the surprise of your life!” Calvin proclaimed.

Everybody in the class cracked up and Ms. Hood had to wrap on a desk to restore order.

“Please continue, Calvin,” said Ms. Hood.

“Now that you are convinced that the trees are not there because they are invisible to the human eye, I will demonstrate their visibility to the eyes of a cat.”

Calvin placed Pepper in front of his jars and held his breath. The laughter became so loud that Pepper turned around and stared back at the children.

“Come on, Pepper,” Calvin urged.

Pepper sniffed at one of the jars and then hopped off the table with withering indifference. He sniffed at the legs of a girl and the notebook of a boy, then strolled to the back of the room until he found a window sill to his liking and jumped up on that. Ms. Hood wrapped on her desk again to restore order in the classroom.

“It seems to me that you have done a Fantasyland Project in place of the Science project which I thought I had asked of you,” said Ms. Hood with enough ice in her voice to freeze a forest fire.

“It is scientific!” Calvin cried. “The seeds I planted are like the quarks in neutrons and protons! You can’t see then, but they’re there!”

“However,” said Ms. Hood, “we infer the existence of quarks from their effects in the material world in the course of various experiments.”

Calvin’s face fell. He only wished he could fall through the floor. Rather than giving Calvin some benefit of the doubt, Ms. Hood borrowed a trowel from the maintenance department, dug out one jar, then filled it up again. Calvin could see from the gloating looks of his classmates that he would never hear the end of this non-project for the rest of his life.

“This is it?” asked Calvin’s mother uncertainly, once Calvin had led her to the forsaken corner of the gymnasium.


The truth was out. Only it wasn’t the truth. Calvin had really seen the tree, climbed in it, glimpsed a whole forest of velvet trees, picked the fruit and planted the seeds. How could he help it if the trees didn’t know enough to follow scientific procedures?

“It didn’t work, did it?” said Mother.

“Not really, but an experiment doesn’t have to work to be a project.”

“But there’s—nothing here,” said Mother.

“Mrs. Pringle?”

It was Ms. Hood.

“Yes,” said Mother.

“I’m afraid I should have a word with you.”

“I was afraid of that,” said Calvin’s mother.

To listen to his sad story all over again from so unsympathetic a source was more than Calvin could bear. He started to run out of the gym, but he bumped into a boy, the wrong boy to run into. Tomorrow, Calvin would have to give him two dollars. Before Calvin could make another move for the door, somebody’s father ran into him.

“Sally!” cried a woman.

“Catch her, she’ll fall!” cried another woman.

Hearing the commotion over in that corner Calvin looked saw the problem for himself. A little girl was floating in mid-air! He gulped and ran back to his science project.

“I said catch her!” cried the girl’s mother.

In a sudden panic, the girl started to fall.

“Grab the branch!” Calvin cried.

She did and bounced in the air as if she really were dangling from a tree limb.

“Climb back up it,” Calvin prompted her.

“I can’t.”

Calvin sliced his way through Sally’s panic-stricken parents and jumped up onto the table.

“I’ll help you.”

Calvin pushed the girl up until she could get a better grip on the branch and sit comfortably. Her mother screamed again, but Sally sat triumphantly on the branch nobody else could see and silver leaves reflected off her face. A hush fell over the crowd. Sally made the motions of picking several pieces of fruit and eating them.

“Now you can see the tree I planted!” Calvin yelled out triumphantly. “I told you I planted it and it was hard to see but you can see it every once in a while! Look!”

“Sally, Will you come down right this minute before you break you neck!” the girl’s father cried.

“No!” Sally yelled

But she fell anyway. The girl’s father rushed in and half-caught her, half eased her back to the table while jars and poster board crashed to the floor. Sally burst into tears while her mother collected her baby and smothered her with anguished concern. Sally’s father turned an irate face in Calvin’s direction.

“Next time you do a science project, you keep my daughter out of it, understand?”

Calvin nodded, holding back the tears of frustration that all but overwhelmed him.


It was the girl’s mother again. She scooped her girl to keep her from running back to the wreckage of Calvin’s science project.

“Looks like your project was to see how many little children you could kill,” one girl taunted Calvin.

“You almost succeeded,” said a self-righteous boy.

While driving Calvin home, his mother was mercifully silent. Calvin found himself looking for velvet trees with silver and red leaves. Every light in the shadows, every pair of headlights from a car made him jump at the sight of a velvet bough or a silver leaf. But each time, he was fooled. He wondered what kind of man that horseback rider wearing the coat of mail was. What if Calvin had called out to him that day? Given the way his project turned out, maybe he should have stayed in the strange land and tried his luck there. It appeared that he would never get another chance to visit the forest or the city beyond it again. That night, Calvin dreamed of silver trees dancing in the streets and wrapping their branches around passing cars but eluding all who would chase them down.


The next morning, Calvin came down to breakfast as late as possible. He gulped down a bowl of cereal and carried his half-buttered toast out the door with him. Once he was close enough to the school for his classmates to see him, Calvin pretended he was invisible and deaf to all taunts. In the classrooms, he acted as if the school did not exist and his teachers, for once, returned the compliment. Only in the crush of students on the way out the door did reality intrude on him in the form of a small white envelope thrust upon him.

“From my sister,” said a girl, making a face as if she were eating a castor oil souffl?.

Outside, Calvin took a deep breath and opened the envelope grateful that Valentine’s Day and its ordeal of insulting cards was over with for the year. Inside was a piece of paper with the words “thank you” scrawled kindergarten style, and signed “Sally.” Calvin smiled to himself and stuffed the note into his satchel.

That evening, Calvin was seated at his desk and Pepper was sprawled over Calvin’s book bag, purring over all the strokes his inconsolable master would give him. Schoolwork was the last thing Calvin wanted to think about, let alone do. He leaned back in his chair and started to daydream about the forest and the city he had lost forever. Pepper, disgruntled over not being the focus of attention, sniffed at the school bag. Then he stuck a paw inside and a golden fruit tumbled out into Calvin’s hands.

Father Andrew Marr is the abbot at St. Gregory?s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. This summer, he is teaching workshops at the Carnegie Center for the Arts to help children create their own fantasy stories. You can find more of his stories at his site, Holy Dragons, Holy Unicorns.

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