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For all I know, Mr. Peters is a ghost himself now.
Back then, though, he was an elementary school teacher in a Department of Defense School, one located on a military base in Panama, Central America. The year was probably 1985.
He was a funny, quirky man of about fifty, with a white mustache and hair gone to grey. He liked to say things like, “great green gobs of greasy, gooey gopher guts!” and tell funny stories of his childhood growing up in Portland. At least, I think it was Portland.
He was a little like a big kid himself, and all the children loved him.
I was a sweaty, little fat kid, bullied and lonely, sweating out the days in Panama, where my father was stationed in the Army. We lived in an apartment block for military families, one of a number of them situated in a kind of circle, around an immense courtyard, with some playground equipment and a few sparse palm trees.
Bananas grew on the palms coming up our front walkway. Occasionally, you could spy a ring-tailed iguana basking in the sun. Oh, did I mention the very aggressive blackbirds that would swoop down and steal locks of your hair as you made your way down the sidewalk?
At the time, I was into King Arthur, fantasy cartoons, knights, dragons…and those little books on ghosts and UFOs they use to publish to warp the fragile minds of young children. At any rate, I escaped into a fantasy world quite frequently and was accused of being a “daydreamer” by my teachers. Oh, if they only knew the half of it!
Mr. Peters made it a point to read to us as we sat at our desks at noontime, munching our sack lunches. I usually had a bologna sandwich and chips, with maybe a little Ziploc baggie of carrot sticks and celery. We got fresh milk from the cafeteria, but why it is I don’t really remember ever eating a hot lunch there, I can’t explain now. I suppose we must have at some point.
Mr. Peters had just read to us an excellent book about four children who escaped from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. It came vividly alive as he got through it, day by day, and all the children listened with rapt attention. Some even cried when one of the children was taken ill with tuberculosis. I think this character died, if I remember correctly. If so, there couldn’t have been a dry eye in the house when it happened.
But he finished the last chapter early one day, with plenty of time to spare for lunch; so, pulling his chair up to the center of the chalkboard, and leaning back in his chair a little, the wizened old man with the grey moustache, who was so adept at entertaining us children, smiled and said, “Well, gang, I haven’t decided on a new book yet, but maybe I can come up with a story to tell if I really think hard. Hm.”
But he already knew good and well what story he wanted to tell, as he launched into it immediately.
“This is a story my troop leader used to tell around the campfire to get us to sleep when I was a kid. It’s a little bit…well, you’ll just have to hear it for yourselves. It’s called, ‘The Golden Arm.’”
Little heads turned around in wonder, and little faces broke out in excited smiles. I always liked scary stories, and this promised to be a doozy. I ate a moon in my bologna sandwich and settled in.
“Once,” began Mr. Peters (in what was, presumably, his spookiest, most mysterious voice), “back during the Middle Ages, there was a brave, true-hearted king who loved to hunt and joust.”
Suddenly, he backed up a bit, looked slightly concerned, and said, “Now jousting was this sport—”
And he got up, took chalk in hand, and started to draw, badly, on the blackboard.
“They did this sport way back then, where they had this long sort of wooden divider, like this, and maybe they had some colored flags or ribbons hanging down the middle. And one knight would ride going one direction, holding his spear or lance out over the barricade, and another knight would ride in the opposite direction, holding his lance out. And the winner was whoever managed to ride without getting knocked off the horse.”
And Mr. Peters drew all of this out for us in stick figures on the board, and we were all at full attention now. He put the chalk down and slowly sat back down, saying, “Anyway, I think you guys get the idea. Well, the king loved the games, and he loved jousting, and one day, during a big courtyard celebration, he was sitting in the stands eating his lunch, which was probably like roast pheasant or something, when the queen leaned over, and whispering in his ear, pointed out the sudden appearance of a strange, glittering knight that neither of them had ever seen before. The king couldn’t quite believe his eyes, but it looked as if the strange warrior was wearing a suit of armor made of solid gold!"
Mr. Peters gave a mock expression of surprise. Someone gasped; another giggled. A few whispers tittered around the room.
“Well, before anyone knew what was happening, the strange golden-suited knight came riding up and the king greeted him from the stands saying, ‘Ho stranger! What then is thy name, and why comest thou?’
“And the Golden Knight replied, ‘I have come far, over many lands, to seek the hand of the fairest maiden in all the land.’
“At this, the princess clasped her hands together, tittering, for she knew the Golden Knight was speaking of her.
“The king, however, grew enraged, drawing his sword and proclaiming, 'How dare you, you insolent cur! Why, I’d never let you marry my daughter! You’re nothing but a scoundrel and a cad!'
“The Golden Knight (whose face was still hidden by his visor) then proclaimed, 'Then, Your Highness, I challenge you to…a duel!'
“It was the work of a few moments for the king to suit up. Soon, both warriors were seated on their horses at opposite ends of the field. Each had his lance in his hand. The princess leaned far over the royal box, a white veil in her hand. She soon dropped it, and both the king and the knight raced toward each other with their lances drawn.
“The two horses drew closer and closer as the crowd held its breath. Bang! The two men collided, each thrown from their horse!
"For the Golden Knight, it was all over; the end of the king’s sharp lance had stuck right in his eye, killing him instantly! Blood was everywhere! People gasped and fainted! But what they were really concerned about was the condition of the king.
"The king lay on the ground, clutching his arm. He seemed to be okay, except for his arm, which most everyone assumed was merely broken. But no! It was much worse than that!
“The king lay in bed for days, on the edge of death. Finally, his great physician decided that the only recourse, in order to save the king’s life, was to…amputate. You guys know what that means, right?”
Mr. Peters gulped and made a scary face when he said the word “amputate.”
Some smart kid said, “It means they want to cut his arm off.”
“Yep,” said Mr. Peters gleefully. “Just pull out a saw and cut that sucker clean off!”
The kids gasped and went, “Ewww!”
Mr. Peters continued.
“Anyway, they decided that that was what they had to do. But, so that the king would not be missing an arm, and appear weak in front of his subjects, his great physician hit upon a plan: they would fashion the king a substitute arm! One made entirely of…gold!
“So they took the king’s arm. Must have hurt like mad, not having any anesthetic in those days…er, anything to dull the pain. And, while the king healed, they brought in the greatest craftsman in all the land, to take measurements of the king’s arm, and to fashion the golden arm he would use in its place. And this is what he did.
“He fashioned the arm from solid gold, alright, and laid in precious stones and jewels, so that it glittered in the firelight. The king was soon up and about, and, when fitted with his new arm, soon took to wearing it proudly. He grew so attached to it, as a matter of fact, that people began to whisper that he secretly loved it.”
Mr. Peters leaned back in his seat and yawned. Kids were finishing up their sandwiches. My mind had fixed on the story, and I could see every scene as it played out, almost as if it were a television program. I stuffed my trash back in my brown paper lunch sack, and leaned forward, suddenly unaware of how much I hated school.
“So the king became famous for his golden arm, and it was the wonder of the entire kingdom. Now, after a few years, it was the great misfortune of everyone to have the good king grow very ill, and take to his bed. Soon, everyone in the kingdom realized the awful truth: the king was dying!
“One night, just before his time, the king called everyone into his bedchamber and made one last request.
“He wheezed and choked, and raised up from his pillow, and grabbed his breast, and said: ‘I am soon to leave this world, but before I go, I would make one last request of thee. See that thou dost bury me with my precious golden arm, that I may journey with it to the land beyond! I tell thee: do not fail me, for, if my golden arm is not with me as I sleep the eternal slumber, my curse will be upon thee, and all the land!’
“And with that, the king coughed and choked, and wheezed, and bulged his eyes, and fell down on his pillow, and breathed his final breath!
“Well, soon the king was buried in a lavish funeral, and of course they buried him with his beloved golden arm. Now, the king had a son, an evil, scheming lad who had grown up spoiled. He was angry that his mother would reign as queen, and he still be only a prince. So he set out in his mind to do a very wicked thing. He poisoned her!”
There were a few surprised gaps from the audience. Mr. Peters seemed to be getting his second wind. He said:
“He did it in such a way that no one suspected, but soon, his mother fell ill, just as the king had, and died. Now, the prince was seated on the throne, which he felt was his birthright, and soon he was having a grand old time, treating the people horribly and abusing his power, and spending the royal treasure. He was a real rotten ruler, in other words.
“Soon, after gambling away a vast amount of the royal loot, the evil prince found himself in deep trouble, as he no longer had the money to pay his troops, and his subjects would surely revolt. So he called a meeting of his closest advisors, and one—a grimy, weasly little fellow who was always sniveling bad advice—said ‘Sire, why are you so worried about running out of money? Wasn’t your father buried with an arm of solid gold, laid in with fine jewels?’
“The young prince knew immediately as to what his advisor was referring. It did seem like an ideal way to pay off his debts and rescue his throne. But did he dare to steal the arm which had been so sacred to his father? Would he really become the victim of a curse?
“He worried over what to do. Finally, deciding he had no other choice, he sent two of his hired thugs to the crypt below, in the dead of night.
“They stole swiftly down the winding stone stairs, into the darkness, choking on the dust and cold damp as they batted away heavy webs. Finally, they came to the tomb of the old king, and, using a pick and crowbar, opened it, revealing the ghoulish remains…and the legendary golden arm!
“Fear and terror beating in their chests, the two goons tore the thing from the decayed skeleton, quickly slamming the lid of the stone coffin. They went, as quickly as they could, up the perilous steps, jumping often at their own shadows as they were cast by the light of their torches.
“They quickly took their macabre trophy back to their master, who was waiting nervously in his private chambers. He gasped when the thing was unwrapped and he saw it with his own eyes. Then a gigantic smile played across his face, because he knew he had found the answer to his money troubles.
“Well, it was not many days later that one of the two goons who had taken the arm was drinking in a tavern, not far from the castle. Suddenly, a fight broke out between two men, both of whom drunkenly pulled their swords and began to wave them in the air.
“The patrons dodged out of the way, and so did the thieving goon--but not fast enough. He was run through the heart by one of the men, blood gushing out from between his fingers as he staggered and fell to the floor.
“He coughed and hacked, and, as a man leaned over to hear his last words, he spat out ‘It’s him! The curse comes ‘round. I did it! I stole the thing! I’m fallen victim to the curse of the Golden Arm!’
“And with that, he died.”
It was so quiet in that classroom, you could hear a pin drop.
“Well, this disturbed the young prince greatly, but he did his best to forget it by drinking and partying, and having gala celebrations and feasts, and squandering what little money he had left. Meanwhile, the other goon who had stolen the golden arm went fearfully to the young prince, and told him that he was greatly afraid for his life, and begged the young prince to return the arm to its proper place and then to release him from service, so he could go away and hide.
“But the arrogant young prince would have none of it.
“‘Pshaw! Fear not, dear fellow! The death of your comrade was, surely, nothing more than a strange accident. You will quit this foolish prattle, and accompany me on the hunt tomorrow!’
“And with that, the young prince dismissed the poor man, who was trembling so badly he could barely stand straight.
“The young prince, privately, began to worry. But the next day, with the sun beaming behind the green, green branches of the forest trees, the royal hunting party set out with their hounds, and the terrified goon rode with them.
“After several hours of the dogs chasing the fox through the underbrush, and the men on horseback chasing the dogs, the party stopped to rest, whereupon the man who feared he had been cursed pulled the reigns of his horse in order to dismount.
“Suddenly, though, the cunning old fox leaped from the nearby bushes, startling the animal, and the man’s horse reared back, throwing him to the ground while it pranced about, crushing him beneath heavy hooves.
“The onlookers were all startled into speechlessness, and most especially the prince, who bent down low to the battered face of the dying man, just in time to catch his last words: ‘Tis the curse come round! Beware, Your Highness! You shall certainly be next! Beware!’
“And with that, the man died.
“Well, already the castle was floating with rumors of a mysterious figure, draped in black, roaming the damp stone halls of the place. The servants were becoming more and more frightened, and reporting that strange rappings and moaning could often be heard in the dead of night…
“Well, the young prince was quite disturbed by this, but, imagine how much more disturbed he must have been when, coming back to his room in the castle one evening, he found the place ransacked, with objects thrown about and the bed overturned, as if someone had been frantically searching for something. Well, at first the young prince was furious, and grabbed a sword, and started swinging it about, yelling questions at his terrified guards.
“It soon became apparent, though, that the men had seen and heard nothing, and that no one had entered the room since the prince had left it hours earlier. Baffled, and suddenly very afraid, the young prince decided to move his possessions to the high tower room, a place usually reserved for prisoners, and sleep there instead.
“As a precaution, he had extra guards stationed at each entrance. Uneasy, but exhausted, the prince laid down his head on the cushions of his royal couch, and, despite some tossing and turning, soon found himself asleep.
“Boom! Boom! Skreeeee!”
“What was that? The prince suddenly shot up, now wide awake. He heard it again, as if heavy footfalls and huge iron chains were being scraped across the stone floor.
"Then: ‘Who stole my golden arm?’
“A voice moaned in the darkness. The prince’s heart began to hammer in his chest, but he was too scared to move, too scared to call out to his men for help. Then he heard it again, more clearly than before: ‘Who stole my golden arm?’
“It was like the moan of a dying man. The prince felt his blood turn to ice. He thought he could see a dim shape moving in the darkness at the foot of his bed. His lips trembled in terror. ‘Who stole my golden arm? Who stole my golden arm!’
“The prince then felt an icy hand upon his throat. ‘Who stole my golden arm? Who stole my golden arm? DID YOU STEAL IT?’”
Mr. Peters sprang forward in his chair, his hands curled into claws. Several little kids jumped back. Some giggled. Others were oddly quiet. I munched my bologna sandwich reflectively.
Later, I would revisit the story of the golden arm, while huddled in terror in my own bed. I would close my eyes and imagine the grisly ghost of the old dead king, come back to seek vengeance on the ones who had robbed him. And I could hear his hollow moan:
WHO…STOLE…MY GOLDEN ARM?
WHO STOLE MY…GOLDEN ARM?
DO YOU HAVE IT?