Jan/Feb 2004  •   Fiction


by Nita Sembrowich

Are children fantasists, or are they realists? Or is that opposition itself a delusion, an invention of adults?

We were scarcely past childhood when we met, you and I. You read Irish myths and talked about the Otherworld. You would have liked to go there. But the Otherworld is this world, you said. And you quoted a passage from Chuang Tzu:

A boat may be stored in a creek, a net may be stored in a lake; these may be said to be safe enough. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry them away on his back. The ignorant do not see that no matter how well you store things, smaller ones in larger ones, there will always be a chance for them to be lost. But if you store the universe in the universe, there will be no room left for it to be lost. This is the great truth of things. Therefore the sage makes excursions into that which cannot be lost, and together with it he remains.

I, too, would have liked to go there. You put a name to what I'd longed for all my life, a sound of flutes on the edge of sleep, a harmony glimpsed in trees or clouds, a joy felt in dreams. Together we were conspirators, refugees from a state under siege, unrecognized by the world.

At the same time, I wanted love. This was not wrong. Apprenticed to yearning from an early age, I had experience of its rigors. Nevertheless, I underestimated them. For me, then, love remained a partiality. I had yet to acknowledge it as a work and discipline of the entire self.

Your histrionics irritated and fascinated me. I watched as you drank dozens of cups of tea, lining them up in rows. You'd come in at dawn from walking all night, your hair wild, not remembering where you'd been. Did I love you, or the night, or an idea?

I didn't walk all night, although maybe I wanted to. I stayed safe indoors. Outside, you wandered solitary through darkened streets, peering into windows, looking for a home.

When you made love to me, I lay clenched within myself. Once afterwards, stretched beside me, you spoke out of the dark: "Every so often you realize you're still alone, and then life seems so terrible." Seized by desolation, I broke into sobs. You held me then, soothing me, telling me how sorry you were for speaking so thoughtlessly. I didn't have the courage to admit I'd cried at hearing you voice the truth.

Once also, long ago, you lay trembling in my arms. I asked what was wrong. You said, "There's a door in my mind I'm afraid to open."

We were adults after all. When did it begin?

I've seen photographs of you as a little, light-haired boy, beautiful and somehow poignant. As a child, you told me, you wanted to die.

One day, left to yourself for some reason or other in that eccentric, fanciful house your father had built before you were born, you ventured into the cellar. There, you came to a wooden door. The door was locked, but a key hung from a nail in the wall beside it, within your reach. You took it down. It was large, antique in style, like a key to church or a castle. You inserted it in the lock, and to your own surprise, opened the door.

You stood on the threshold and stared. Beyond, you saw rank upon rank of dusty bottles, ranged on shelves. Then, you couldn't have known this was your father's collection of pre-Prohibition liquor; you knew only the bottles contained a potent and forbidden substance. Up on the highest shelf, glinting dimly in the shadows, sat a bottle with a ship inside.

Awestruck, you gazed and gazed. Then you shut the door, returned the key to the nail, and went quietly back upstairs.

You said nothing of your discovery. But you thought of it often and couldn't resist stealing back down again to the cellar at the very next opportunity. This time, when you took the key from the nail, you found it wouldn't fit the lock. The door remained closed. You never saw that room again.

"Years later," you told me, "my father's collection almost killed my sister."

By then your parents had moved to another state. There, unknown to everyone except maybe your mother, your father had sealed the bottles into a secret compartment under the porch roof. One afternoon, your sister and a friend had said good-bye and were just going their separate ways, your sister back into the house, her friend down into the yard, when all at once, with an apocalyptic cacophony, the bottles fell from above and shattered on the floor of the porch between them. Your sister and her friend were stupefied but miraculously uninjured.

As a child, I remember, I was most afraid to die.

When I was very small, I believed in Santa Claus. Also Dracula, the Werewolf, and so many other, nameless monsters. Now, I'm reminded of a story you told me about a nephew of yours, how he once drew a whole pageful of monsters of every description and scrawled across the bottom, in his boyish hand: THERE IS NO MONSTER. Reassuring words of some grown-up, no doubt.

I was afraid of Santa Claus. Every year I stood in line with my mother, wide-eyed and silent with the effort of suppressing my terror. I did it to please her. I also thought it my duty to placate him, that variable stranger in red flannel and polyester fleece. For this I braved the crowds, the enormous, shiny beard and moustache, the exploding flash. When my turn came, I walked to that lap as if to the altar of some sanguineous god, feigning the eagerness expected of me. I have them still, in one of the family albums, four or five near-identical photographs of myself frozen, smiling, in Santa's arms, dated at yearly intervals: fruits of my sacrifice.

I don't know when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. For me there was no one moment of revelation, only an accumulation of evidence and observation that finally convinced me of his inauthenticity. Then, too, there were the data and opinions proffered by my classmates, who readily compared notes on Santa Claus, sex, and other controversial topics.

By the time my mother sat down gingerly to disabuse me of the faith she had herself worked so hard to instill, I had been long an unbeliever. This too I sought to keep from her, pretending more surprise than I felt.

"When I found out, honey, I cried and cried," my mother said, smiling. In her expressions, even her smile, I remember always a hint of something dangerous, something I didn't dare rashly provoke. "On Christmas morning I'd run outside and swear I saw his tracks."

Your parents eschewed Santa on moral grounds. Primarily I suppose they viewed him as vehicle and embodiment of exploitative self-indulgence. Moreover, he was a lie, a form of condescension. They would not condescend to shield you from truth.

Was this why, in your high school yearbook, you took as your motto T.S. Eliot's phrase: "Humankind cannot bear very much reality?"

Doubtless, Santa gave my mother respite from her reality: Daddy with the d.t.s, flour-sack dresses, the mockery of schoolmates. In his gift, however humble, of a few oranges once a year, she recovered something of the childhood stolen from her and clung to it ferociously, as indeed she clung to me.

For this reason, I can begin to imagine how it must have been for your mother.

You never knew your maternal grandparents. You learned most of what little you know of them from your great-aunt, your grandfather's younger sister, when she was already in her nineties. He had been handsome, slim and fabulously charismatic, with flashing dark eyes, the legacy of an Italian adventurer a few generations back. Your grandmother didn't stand a chance. According to your great-aunt, she was "ordinary," a simple girl in flowered frocks, in awe of her husband's panache.

"He was a walking schizophrenic," your great-aunt told you, somewhat scornfully. She herself had never married. Somehow I picture her always in Wellingtons, with an air of matter-of-fact practicality. Yet she lived a romantic life as a writer and illustrator of exquisite children's books. Even in old age, nearly blind, she drove her car with reckless enthusiasm. On that occasion she spoke in answer to your queries, in the parlor of her little house cluttered with bric-a-brac, chinoiserie, and the paintings of her grandfather, a landscape artist of enduring renown.

Her brother's marriage had been a failure. "He was always off somewhere. He would disappear for days, doing God knows what." Your grandmother couldn't cope and fell perpetually ill. At the age of twelve, their only child, your mother, was sent to your great-aunt, whom she adored. Albeit flummoxed at finding herself willy-nilly a mother to your mother, who was, as she put it, "wild," your great-aunt raised her to adulthood.

"When we were children, he had a silly trick," your great-aunt said, returning to the subject of your grandfather. "He'd take me for a walk in the woods, and when we got to a certain clearing, he'd tell me to shut my eyes. Then he'd tell me to open them. I'd look and see oranges falling down around me. He claimed they fell out of the sky. I only pretended to believe him. I peeked, you see, and I saw him doing it. He'd take the oranges out of his pockets and he'd toss them up high, into the air, when he thought I wasn't looking."

Your mother never talks about her childhood. Yet not long after your conversation with your great-aunt, she told you a story.

When she was very small, she lived with her parents in Tarrytown, New York, on the edge of the woods. I remember those woods from my own girlhood, though I saw them only in passing. My parents and I would drive by them on Sunday outings to the Howard Johnson family restaurant near the Tappan Zee Bridge. Even then, I understood they were supposed to be haunted. "Ichabod Crane," my father would invariably intone in a sepulchral voice, as we drove into or out of Tarrytown. "Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman."

In the suburban town in which I grew up, the woods were tame and diminished, scarcely woods at all. Still, there was my body, which tediously peed and pooped and vomited, or broke out in chicken pox. There were my parents and grown-ups in general, giants with inexplicable reactions and demands. There were days and there were dreams.

There were seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and years. They moved slowly, ever so slowly, except when it was fun, and always in one direction. At any moment, without warning, almost anything could break or disappear.

Was it like that for your mother?

Of course, she told you nothing of that. She only related how her father, your grandfather, tried to convince her there were goblins in the woods. In the evenings, he would steal outside and light miniature lanterns he placed here and there on the lawn. Then he would return and lead her to the window, pointing.

"Look," he would say. "Fairy lights."

Though she knew he had made them, she humored him, affecting credulity.

At that moment in her narrative, she paused and leaned toward you.

"But there really were goblins in the woods! I saw them!"

Apparently, she observed them on more than one occasion, though I can only remember the first.

One afternoon, her father was pulling her through the woods in a little wagon. Out of the corner of her eye, in the underbrush, she caught a slight movement. She turned her head and saw them, diminutive leaf-colored beings peeping back at her around the trunk of a tree. Then they were gone.

She never told her father.


The passage quoted above comes from Chuang Tsu, Book 6, Section 6. The Texts of Taoism trans. James Legge (Sacred Books of the East vols 30 and 40, published 1891), vol. 1, p. 242.