The unnamed narrator, the father of a nine-year-old boy nicknamed “Schatz,” notices one morning that his son is shivering, pale, and in pain. He asks the boy what’s wrong, and his son responds that he has a headache. The father twice tells him to go back to bed, but the boy refuses, instead getting dressed and going downstairs. When the father comes down and sees his son sitting by the fire, looking ill, he feels the boy’s forehead. He can immediately tell that the boy has a fever, and he sends him up to bed. The boy obeys his father, but he still insists that he’s fine.
The boy is clearly sick, but he is determined not to be incapacitated by his illness. He wants to dress and go downstairs like his father, not lie meekly in bed and be coddled—perhaps an effort to seem more mature. In vain, the loving and protective father wants his son to stay safely tucked away in his bed.
The doctor comes to examine the boy. He takes the boy’s temperature and says that he has a fever of 102 degrees. Downstairs, the doctor leaves medicine with the father and diagnoses the boy with mild influenza. The doctor says that isn’t dangerous as long as the boy’s fever stays below 104 degrees and doesn’t turn into pneumonia.
The doctor examines the boy and announces his temperature, but he exits the room without explaining his diagnosis to the boy—a significant lack of communication that catalyzes the boy’s anxiety. Downstairs, the doctor and the father discuss the condition and recommended treatment in the patient’s absence, not thinking it necessary to include him in adult matters.
Back upstairs, the father offers to read aloud to his son from a book called Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates. He notes that the boy’s “face was very white,” and that he “seemed very detached from what was going on.” The boy can’t follow what his father is reading, but he won’t go back to sleep, either. Eventually he tells his father that he doesn’t have to stay in the room “if it bothers you.” His father denies this, but the boy only repeats himself, “No, I mean you don’t have to stay if it’s going to bother you.” Reasoning that his son must be feeling a bit lightheaded, the father gives him more medicine and leaves him alone to rest.
The book that the father chooses to read to his son, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, chronicles the adventures of infamous pirates. Pirates promote ideal masculinity as fearlessness and toughness, not humility or thoughtfulness. This model of manhood and heroism prompts the boy to conceal his fear of dying and suffer in silence rather than accept comfort or seek clarification about his illness. The boy’s belief that he needs to prove himself a man by shouldering a painful burden alone is incredibly isolating. Meanwhile, his father, who has protected the boy from potentially hearing any bad news from the doctor, is now unable to understand why his son would be distressed—the beginnings of a profound miscommunication.
The father heads outside with his dog to hunt quail. The landscape is coated with frozen sleet, and he falls twice while crossing a frozen creek. He targets a covey of quail and kills two before they scatter. Due to the icy conditions, he misses five more but manages to hit another two. Rather than being disappointed, he feels happy to have found a covey so close to home and to have so many birds left to hunt in the future.
The father cannot help his son recover from the flu any faster, so he turns to hunting to pass the time while the fever runs its course—an ironic choice, as he occupies himself with killing while his son believes he is dying. Hunting is another conventionally male pursuit, and it fulfills the purpose of providing for his family. The father’s apparent satisfaction in upholding his masculine, fatherly role illustrates his ingrained paternalism that blinds him to his son’s growing maturity.
When the father returns to the house, he hears that the boy hasn’t allowed anyone to come into his room, insisting that no one else must catch his fever. The father goes in anyway and sees the boy looking just as he had left him: pale, feverish, and stubbornly awake. The father takes his son’s temperature again, and the boy asks what it says. It’s 102.4, but the father says it’s only about 100 degrees. The boy responds that the doctor said it was 102, and his father tells him the temperature is nothing to worry about. The boy admits that he can’t help thinking about it, and his father tells him to stop thinking and “take it easy.” The boy says that he is, but his father observes that “he was evidently holding tight to himself about something.”
Since the boy thinks he’s dying, his self-imposed isolation is an attempt to protect his family from his supposedly fatal fever and tragic death, imitating the protective and masculine behaviors that his father models. Nonetheless, by denying his family the chance to stay with him during his “last moments,” the boy disregards their will. His father continues to show the same disregard for the boy’s right to the truth as he downplays the fever and fails to explain the diagnosis.
The father gives the boy the next dose of medicine, and the boy asks if it will do any good. “Of course it will,” his father says, and starts to read aloud again until he realizes the boy still isn’t following along. The boy then asks what time he’s going to die, and his father reassures him that he isn’t going to die. The boy replies that he heard the doctor say his temperature was 102 degrees. His father assures him that people don’t die of 102-degree fevers, but the boy insists that he learned from his classmates in France that a fever over 44 degrees is fatal. The father realizes that his poor son has spent the whole day waiting to die.
Here, the father finally understands the boy’s strange expression and behavior, and the gravity of the father and son’s miscommunication becomes clear. In trying to comfort the boy and downplay his illness, the father only exacerbated the boy’s anxiety. The boy’s confusion about different temperature scales shows how even the most objective facts, like measurable body temperature, can be misinterpreted with terrible consequences in the absence of clear communication and trust.
The father explains to the boy—“poor old Schatz”—that the two countries use different thermometers and measurements of temperature, just like they use different measurements of distance—miles versus kilometers. He explains, “On that thermometer thirty-seven is normal. On this kind it’s ninety-eight.” The boy asks if the father is certain and then merely says, “Oh,” but he visibly relaxes. The next day, the boy had loosened his “hold over himself” so considerably that “he cried very easily at things that were of no importance.”
The two different systems of measurement for the same phenomenon—like Fahrenheit and Celsius for temperature or miles and kilometers for distance—illustrate the radically different ways in which two people can interpret the same situation. It is significant that the boy cried over “things that were of no importance” the following day. This behavior, which contrasts sharply with his self-imposed isolation and stoicism, suggests that he’s let go of his attempts to appear mature and masculine like his father and can instead relax into being a child again.