From “We Show What We Have Learned,” the title story in Clare Beams’s debut collection from Lookout Books.


The day the disintegration began, we were learning about Native American civilization. We were always learning about Native American civilization—we began each year with it, and then we might, as on that day, when we were supposed to be talking about the Civil War, make several unexpected detours back to revel in the quietude of that life so close to nature. The teachers all loved these lost things—vanished ways of life, great men who died early, extinct animals—and Ms. Swenson loved them even more than most. We watched while she drew a wigwam on the board. Ms. Swenson was very bad at drawing, worse even than the worst of us, because she was crippled by second guessing. She darted in to draw a line, darted back to look at it, darted back in to erase it and start over. “Is that straight?” she asked us, but wasn’t it supposed to be rounded, wasn’t that the whole point? Finally she sighed in a way that meant she was giving up and settling for the misshapen thing she had produced. “You see, children, the hole was put there,” she said, pointing, “so that the cooking smells could escape. It’s ingenious.” Her hands began to wave desperately and hopelessly, as if she were trying to breathe with them, like vestigial gills. There was something beautiful about her excitement in these moments, irresistible target though it was. “The early colonists were never so ingenious. In many ways, the civilization they would brutally overpower was vastly superior to their own.”

Abner Harris raised his hand. Ms. Swenson never did learn not to call on him. Perhaps she was distracted by the glimmering vision of wigwams in her mind, a whole village of them where she might have lived gently and happily in our absence. Tending plants, fetching water from the stream, watching smoke rise toward bright stars. “Yes, Abner?” Ms. Swenson said.

“Is that what holes are always there for?”

“Is what what they’re always there for, Abner?”

“So smells can escape? Is that what, like, Sarah’s hole is there for?”

“Sarah’s hole?” Ms. Swenson said, musingly, still failing to understand, though Sarah was already blushing. When Ms. Swenson got there, two red spots appeared high on her cheeks. “Abner, that is inappropriate,” she said and yet managed to sound as if she were asking for permission to reprimand him.

“What is?” Mock innocence was mortally wounding to her; she couldn’t help taking it at face value. We waited, snuffling into our hands and tasting the salt of our palms, chewing on the skin around our fingernails with the glee of what was coming.

“To speak about the . . . ” she flopped like a speared fish, “private parts of others.”

“But Ms. Swenson,” said Billy Nichols, drawn to the blood in the water, “which parts are private? I forget.”

We squeaked our sweaty hands against our desks in joy. Now she would have to say them, say those words. What could be more wonderful? We would hear them from her lips.

And that was when it happened. We would wonder, ever after, what caused it: the force of the bottled-up, forbidden words we were calling forth or the hammering blows of the humiliation we were delivering. Whether the force came from within or without. Ms. Swenson, in her agitation, flicked her webby hair behind her ear, chalk still in hand, and in the process flicked some object off herself. It flew forth with so much force that the act would have seemed intentional but for the puzzlement on her face. An earring, we assumed, at first. But the earrings Ms. Swenson wore were not as large as this.

Hannah Perkins, in the first row, began to scream. She was peering over the edge of her desk at the thing on the floor, and she curled her feet up under her as if to keep them away from a mouse. We left our seats and clustered around the space in front of Hannah’s desk.

The thing on the ground was an earlobe.


From “We Show What We Have Learned,” the title story in Clare Beams’s debut collection from Lookout Books.
©2016 Clare Beams.