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This is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, skip down to Read More. If not, here's links to background information in the sidebar to the right, third item from top.
P.S. The episode wherein a two-year-old is discovered to be able to read because they read the paper headline about Martin Luther King Day? -- Actually happened, exactly that way, with my godson.
The April that Margie was two and a half, and Gillam was four months, Myra decided in addition to taking the kids to a seder, she wanted them to dye Easter eggs and have a hunt in the back yard.
"Are you gonna feel weird about having an Easter thing?" she asked Ginny.
"Well, if you want to throw a passion play or have a crucifix anywhere within a hundred yards of this house, yes. But all the stuff children get from Easter -- no, the Christians stole it from the pagans, I think we should steal it back."
"You know, my fundamentalist grandparents hated it that we dyed eggs or believed in the Easter bunny. They also didn't want us to have a Christmas tree."
"There you go. Whatever grandmommy couldn't stand, let's roll it in through the front door."
"What kind of eggs should we get?" asked Myra.
"What on earth do you mean? You do know bunnies don't really lay eggs, yes?" Ginny looked amused.
"I mean organic brown eggs, which are the only ones I want the kids to eat, or Safeway crap white eggs which will dye ever so much better?"
"These children are NOT going to eat an egg which has sat out for any length of time, not unless salmonella is part of your holiday plans. So go with the white. In fact -- let me make the dyes, okay?"
"Hallelujah yes. I mean, oy gevalt."
"Off the bubble, but I get your intent."
After dinner, they pulled the low art table from Ginny's wall to the center of her studio and spread thick layers of old newspaper over the entire floor. Ginny's lineoleum was already paint-encrusted, but Myra knew from past experience that egg dunking can result in tidal waves. And Ginny's cups of dye were of lethally deep colors.
Myra put on expendable sweats. Ginny of course went au naturel. They stripped the children down to underwear and diaper, and Myra sat crosslegged on the floor with Gillam in her lap. Margie, determined to be like Ginny at all times, preferred to wander around with a cheap paintbrush in her hand, dropping by regularly to daub color on her oval canvas sitting in an egg cup.
Ginny vanished almost immediately into Painterland. She was hunched over her egg, with a pallete cribbed from a piece of egg carton and an array of tiny expensive brushes she warned Margie absolutely not to even think about touching.
Myra spent most of her time keeping Gillam from putting anything in his mouth. Baby slobber mixed with the dye on his egg and Myra's hands. He was having a blast, trying to heave himself upright and reach all the cups on the table.
Margie, channeling Ginny, kept looking off into the far distance or staring down at the floor as she visualized her next brush stroke. Ginny was missing this performance; too bad, it was fun to watch whoever was doing it. As she came in for another lick of paint, Margie said "I thought Martin Luther King Day is in January."
"It is" said Myra. "Remember, we took you to the march and it was really cold? And we got you hot chocolate?"
"Can I have some hot chocolate after we dye eggs?" Margie was always swift to seize a sugar opportunity.
"No, you'll have enough chocolate tomorrow." Ginny did not look up even at that. Myra had insisted on at least one chocolate bunny in each basket -- "If they throw up or become baby axe murderers, I'll deal with the mess", she said.
"You certainly will" said Ginny.
Margie changed colors on her brush and said "How come the paper says it's Martin Luther King day, then?"
"What paper?" asked Myra.
Margie pointed to one of the front page headlines spread on the floor, already yellowed from just three months ago. The big type read "Martin Luther King Day In Westlake Plaza".
Ginny abruptly parachuted back from Painterland. "How do you know what that says?"
Margie used her bare big toe to touch to each word as she read them out loud. Ginny turned and stared at Myra. Myra pointed to the egg carton and said, "Margie -- sweetie, what does this say?"
Margie peered at it a moment: "Grade A, egg--eggelan--egglands best. Where is eggland, is that like England?"
Ginny said softly "For shit's sake."
Myra said "Go get a box of toothpicks. Let's throw 'em on the floor and see if she can tell us how many there are at one glance."
Ginny pulled Margie gently over to her: "How long have you been reading, baby?"
"I don't know. It's not that hard. Words are everywhere, especially in our house."
Myra looked over at the shelf of erotica which they had placed on the bottom, out of visitors' line of sight. "Tomorrow I'm rearranging all the bookshelves."
"She can climb like a monkey" reminded Ginny.
"I bet Gillam can read too" said Margie. "Here, read this, brother" she commanded, pointing to another headline on the floor.
Myra covered Gillam's eyes. "I don't want to know if he can. I told you about taking all those herbs from your friend Nancy when you were pregnant." Gillam tugged delightedly at Myra's hand, thinking they were playing peekaboo.
"Oh, yeah, as if it's not you and your language-obsessed petri-dish of our home." They were both laughing hard.
Myra said, "Margie, I am really, really, really proud of you. Tomorrow we'll go to the store and you can pick out books you want to read. There is a section just for beginning readers."
Ginny cired "See what I mean? It's YOU brought this about." Then she added, "Just remember, chocolate kills brain cells."
When Gillam turned seven months old, he was already proficient at cruising furniture and outstretched hands -- there were always hands ready to help him cross open spaces, because of his ear to ear grin and chortles of excitement at increasing mobility. He watched Margie and Truitt with longing as he sat on the floor with Carly. Carly was still in an infant carrier much of the time, and Gillam seemed unclear on where he fit into the spectrum of little humans, but finally decided he wanted to be a walker. He worked at it nonstop. He took his first steps away from support, out into the open area, during his seventh month. His grin would fade as the seriousness of his effort enveloped his body, and within a step or two, he'd crash back onto his diapered ass with a thump and a sudden exhalation.
Whenever he fell, Myra got into the habit of saying with delight "Kaboom!" This always made him laugh, and he'd crawl to the nearest piece of furniture to pull himself upright again. After two weeks of hard work and lots of "kabooms", he made it across the space between the dining table and the living room chair unassisted. Myra and Ginny more or less went out of their minds, and he did too, falling backwards with flailing arms and then calling out "boo!", which was his version of kaboom.
Two days later, he began crying whenever a diaper was put on him. Myra had caught him several times at the potty chair in her study bathroom or their bathroom upstairs that Margie still used when an adult wasn't immediately available to hold her on the big toilet. He would try to pull down his diaper, and she began helping him, setting him on the potty and explaining what was expected of him. He caught on to the concept, at least, though control was still hard for him to manage.
When he began rejecting diapers, Myra bought him an assortment of superhero briefs and set up a bowel and bladder schedule, where he would be taken to the potty at regular intervals before the urge overtook him. In this way, he began cracking the final infant to toddler barrier, far too early as far as Myra was concerned, but it was his drive, not hers. When he pissed or crapped his briefs, he wept in a humiliation that upset her tremendously. She kept reassuring him he was a baby, it was all right, he could put on a diaper. Still, he associated diaper with Carly, not the big kids, and his adoration for Carly didn't change his determination to grow up fast.
The last week in August, Myra was making lunch while Ginny was in the back yard, gardening. Gillam was circling the dining table, using chairs as balance when necessary but mostly under his own steam. Margie had a used scooter she'd cajoled Ginny into buying for her, and she was zooming it around indoors, dangerously close to Gillam at times. Myra was having to watch them both vigilantly and lunch prep was interrupted often.
Margie careened through the dining room into the study, just missing Gillam. He flinched and fell down, but looked up expectantly at Myra who obliged with "Kaboom!", making him giggle. He was in briefs and shorts at the moment, and Myra was just thinking it was time to make a trip to the potty when Margie shot back through the kitchen. This time, it was Myra who jerked backwards. She grabbed for the counter, but her hands were wet from rinsing lettuce and her grip slipped. She fell sideways, onto her outstretched left arm. In the last few seconds before her hip and shoulder made full contact with the floor, she felt something snap in her left wrist. There was no pain -- not yet -- but a sick sensation flooded through her.
Gillam, watching from the dining room, got a look of pure joy on his face and he cried out "Boo!" to her. She tried to smile back at him, and he began making his way toward her, but at that point the pain arrived. "Oh, holy FUCK" she moaned.
Margie was standing in the hall, looking on in dread. Myra rolled flat on her back and called up to the ceiling "Margie! Margie, go get Mama. Get Ginny."
There was no answer, and no hint of motion from Margie. Myra leaned her head forward and looked past her feet, spotting Margie standing frozen with a stubborn expression on her face. Myra said again "Margie, I need help. Go get Mama to help me."
"I didn't mean it" said Margie. "It wasn't my fault."
"That's not the point, Margie. Go get me some help."
But Margie dropped the scooter and instead began heading for the stairs.
"Margie!" Myra yelled at her sharply. "Marjorie Rose, you come back here this instant!"
Margie, however, skedaddled. Gillam had reached Myra's side and wanted to crawl on top of her, over her wrist. She yelped in pain and pushed him away with her other arm, a little abruptly. He looked utterly shocked, then began crying. She struggled to sit up without using her left arm, trying to scoot around on her ass so her right side was facing him and she could hold him, but it wasn't easy. His wails grew piecing, and finally Ginny heard them outside. She opened the sliding door, poked her head in and said "Is he all right?"
"Help!' said Myra. Ginny dropped her trowel and bustled in, picking up Gillam with grimy hands, saying "What happened, baby boy? Where does it hurt?"
"Not him. Me" said Myra, through a clenched jaw. The pain was beginning to make her lightheaded. Ginny saw how she was cradling her left arm and bent over, reaching toward her. Myra jerked backward and said "I think it's broken. Margie and that fucking scooter made me fall, and I landed on it."
Gillam was leaning away from Ginny, trying to reach Myra, but she couldn't take him. Her head shake sent him off into fresh hysteria.
"Oh, Gillam, sweetie, I love you so much. But Mama's got an owie, I can't use my arm right now" she tried to explain. He wasn't taking any of it in, however.
"Okay, I have to wash up and put on pants" said Ginny, "Then I'll get us to the emergency room." She headed for the bathroom, carrying Gillam who looked over her shoulder pleadingly at Myra. "Where's Margie?"
"Hiding, the little shit. I asked her to go get you, to help me, but she decided it was about punishment and ran upstairs" said Myra grimly.
Ginny paused to yell up the stairwell "Margie! Put on socks and your jellies, and come downstairs, we have to take Mama to the hospital."
There was no sound from upstairs. Ginny went on to the bathroom. Myra began thinking out a plan for standing up. Once she was upright, she suddenly thought she might faint, and she lay her face down against the cool counter, closing her eyes and willing herself to stay conscious.
Ginny's voice said sharply "What's wrong?"
"I'm dizzy" said Myra.
"Here, sit down at the dining table" said Ginny, setting Gillam on the floor. She helped Myra to a chair and said "Breathe slow and deep. I'm going to get Margie."
Gillam crawled over to Myra's chair and pulled himself to standing, reaching up to her. She tried to pick him up one-handed but couldn't quite manage it. He fell back on his ass, and although she said "Kaboom", he burst into tears again. Bawling, he climbed up the chair and clutched at her. When she didn't pick him up, he pressed his face into her thigh and shrieked. She kept rubbing his head and telling him how much she loved him, that she wanted to hold him, too, she just couldn't right now.
He was still crying when Ginny came downstairs more or less dragging Margie. When Margie got to the living room, she glanced at Myra, then refused to look at her again. She said to Ginny "Can I take my scooter to the hospital?"
"No!" shouted Myra over Gillam. "You are never to play with that indoors again."
Margie looked at her in horror, then began crying as loudly as Gillam.
"Oh for shit's sake" said Ginny. "Look, I'll take them out to the car in stages. Are you safe to walk, or -- "
"I'll make it" said Myra, gently disentangling Gillam from her leg so she could try standing. Ginny picked up Margie and hauled her out the front door. When she returned, Myra had made it to the living room chair, where she was resting and still fending off Gillam. Ginny stuffed wallets into her pockets, hers and Myras, grabbed the keys, and picked up Gillam, who pushed at her, trying to reach Myra instead. Myra noticed Juju hiding under the dining table.
As Ginny went out the front door with Gillam, Myra got slowly to her feet again. Any kind of motion made the pain so bad she thought she might throw up. She walked gingerly to the bathroom and looked for the old bottle of Vicodin from years earlier. By the time she found it, Ginny was beside her, saying "What do you think you're doing?"
"I have to take something, I'm in agony" said Myra.
"Not that" said Ginny firmly, "It's out of date. Here, you can have three ibuprofen. I'll grab you a glass of milk. Head on out to the car, the kids are screaming their heads off alone out there."
The wait at the emergency room was two hours. They had no toys or books for the children, but once Myra was sitting, Ginny lifted Gillam into Myra's lap, nestled by her right arm, and he dozed off from exhaustion. Ginny was busy filling out forms and yelling at Margie to stay nearby, don't touch that, stop asking questions. Half an hour later, Gillam woke up and grabbed at his crotch urgently.
"Oh, hell, Ginny, he doesn't have a diaper on" said Myra. They didn't make it to the bathroom in time, and he was returned to Myra's lap weeping again with soaked shorts.
"I'm going to find the gift shop or someplace to buy diapers" said Ginny. "And snacks, they haven't eaten in too long. Will you be okay?"
"Yeah, he'll stay glued to me for a while" said Myra. "But what if they come for me?"
"Tell 'em to carry Gillam, serves 'em right for making someone with a broken bone wait like this" said Ginny crankily.
She strode off, pulling Margie impatiently. Gillam's moisture slowly soaked through Myra's lap, and he began sucking his thumb, but he was content to press against her and watch the goings on with wide eyes. Ginny was gone almost 45 minutes. When she returned, Margie was drinking a bottle of juice, and Ginny had a bulging bag. As she changed Gillam and put on a pair of too-big new shorts, she said "I called Allie. Got her at home. She'll be here soon to take the kids."
"Hallefuckinglujah" breathed Myra. Ginny handed her a granola bar and another container of milk, then sat down with a child on either side, feeding them fruit wraps and peanut butter crackers.
Allie's arrival coincided with a nurse calling Myra's name. Myra said to Ginny "I'll be okay, you stay with them". But Ginny did a quick handover and chased Myra down the hall. After a painful exam and x-rays, Myra was put into a cast, handed lots of paper which Ginny took from her, and swiftly abandoned again.
On the way home, Allie following, they stopped to fill her Percocet prescription and grab take-out pizza. Myra took one of the pills as soon as she got them; the throbbing was consuming all her attention again.
At home, Ginny threw the scooter out into the backyard and put away Myra's beginnings of lunch while Allie served pizza to herself and Margie. Myra sat at the table, holding Gillam and sharing a piece of pizza with him. Fifteen minutes later, the Percocet kicked in and she became very serene.
When Ginny joined them to eat, Allie asked her "What are you going to need to handle the next six weeks?"
Sprinking pepper flakes onto her slice, Ginny said "I don't know. We'll see as it comes up, I guess."
"I can lie down on the daybed with him and read to him" said Myra.
Ginny looked at her. "Well, that will take care of an hour or two each day, My. But what about pottying, and cooking, and dressing them, and -- oh, hell. We'll just have to manage."
"We can manage" said Myra dreamily. "We're amazons, we can do anything."
Ginny studied her face and said "How's your arm?"
"Just fine now" said Myra. Ginny shared a glance with Allie and said "Happy hour."
Allie grinned at Myra and said "Enjoy it while you can." Then she pointed out "In a week -- no, ten days, Margie'll be going to Montessori. That'll occupy her for a big chunk of the day. And you've got scads of stuff in the freezer -- just plain roasts and casseroles, even Tiny Tim there can defrost and stick something in the oven."
"Tiny Tim? Like with Scrooge?" said Margie, interested.
"God bless us every one" murmured Myra. Gillam beamed at her.
"I'm right-handed" remarked Myra. "I can still hold a pencil."
Ginny began laughing. "No worries, then, we've got it made."
"Can we watch Scrooge?" asked Margie.
"Sure" said Ginny. "Videotapes are going to be my good buddy for a while. Finish your pizza first, though."
If Ginny didn't have the children firmly engaged in an activity when Myra went to her desk to write, Gillam made a beeline for Myra's study. He was still walking on the toes of his feet, and she'd hear the rapid staccato of his little leather shoes approaching like the ticking of Captain Hook's crocodile. She could never resist turning in her chair to see his rosy-cheeked face veer around the corner and go into ectasy at finding her waiting on him.
She would swing him up to sit on the desk itself. He would look at the array of pigeonholes and drawers, full of fabulous grown-up things and paper with unreadable (as yet) writing all over it, then glance back at her with liquid brown eyes between thick dark lashes. He'd say "I touch?"
She would remind him "What are the rules?"
"Put evryfing back wear it goes, and don't touch dat drawer", pointing to the drawer where she kept her Exacto knife and scissors.
"Okay, go ahead."
His deft little fingers snaked methodically into every recess, pulled open each drawer, and examined everything as if he'd never see it before. She had shown him where the three secret drawers were, and he usually saved those for last. Once a day she hid a surprise in one of the secret drawers: A sticker he could put on himself, a plastic charm or marble too big for him to swallow, a piece of dried fruit, or a note from some character in a book he liked.
One day the surprise was a tiny fold of paper, no bigger than the nail on his little finger, which when unfolded was only four times that size and covered with an almost microscopic script she'd labored into place with a Rapidograph. He was utterly enchanted, and scooted to the edge, asking her to help him down. He ran tippy-toe into Ginny's studio, exclaiming "Look, Mama, a baby note!" She read it out loud to him. It turned out to be a letter from some fairies who lived in the back yard. After that, fairy letters arrived intermittently, causing tremendous excitement and speculation between him and Margie.
When he was done exploring her desk, he would slide into her lap, mashed as close to her as he could get, and point to whatever she was writing at the moment. "Tell me a story?" he'd ask.
She would pick up her latest poem or essay and read it to him. He listened intently, as if he completely understood what she was saying. She was aware that Ginny was listening, much more comprehendingly, from the other side of the wall. His hand would trace her fingers over and over as she read, his other hand in his mouth. When she was done, he always declared "De End!"
Then he would say "I tell you a story, Mama."
"Okay. I'm ready."
"Once upon a time. Dere was a boy. He could wistle. Dere was balloons on his bicycle. He ate some ice cream. More ice cream, because he was goooood. Mama said he was good. De farmer cooked his daddy in a pie. De End."
"Wow, Gillam, that was a great story. An interesting character, that boy. He was good, and he had balloons on his bicycle, and he could whistle which is something I can't do. And did he get to have lots of ice cream because he was so good, or because he lost his father tragically in the same way that Peter Rabbit did?"
"Yes" said Gillam, apparently gratified at her analysis.
"What shall we do now?"
"Sing" said Gillam.
"Okay, I'll start and you join me: When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother, what will I be?"
Gillam high, piping voice chimed in: "Will I be pritty, will I be rich, here's wat she said to me -- Kay sara sara, watever will be will be, da future's not ours to see, kay sara sara, wat will be will be."
A few second later, he said "Anuvver one."
"Okay. Where are you going my little one, little one, where are you going, my darling my own? Turn around and you're two, turn around and you're four, turn around and you're a young boy heading out of the door, turn around, turn around, turn around and you're a young boy heading out of the door."
Gillam always looked intrigued by the idea of his being able to go out the door on his own.
"Where are you going my little one, little one, little t-shirts and overalls, where have you gone, turn around and you're tiny, turn around and you're grown, turn around and you're a young man with babes of your own..." Myra felt herself choking up at this point. She stopped and he twisted around to look at her face. She managed not to cry, but she didn't think she could finish the song. After waiting a bit, he said "Da fishies?"
"Okay." Myra used the baby voice her own mother had used singing this song: "Down in da meadow inna itty-bitty pool twam fwee widdle fishies anna mama fishie too, 'Twim' said da mama fishie, 'Twim if you can', and dey twam and dey twam all over da dam -- "
Gillam began tensing himself up in delighted anticipation of the chorus.
"Oop-boop-biddum-boddum-waddam-aSHOO!" With the last word, she leaned toward him and screamed in a joyful voice. He broke out into giggles. "Oop-boop-biddum-boddum-waddam-aSHOO! Oop-boop-biddum-boddum-waddam-aSHOO! And dey twam and dey twam all over da dam."
They giggled together for a minute, then he said "Again."
She started over.
After lunch, Myra said to Ginny "I need to sharpen my knives. Will you keep the kids occupied for half an hour while I take my hone out on the deck?"
"Sure" said Ginny, spreading her yoga mat on the living room floor. Twenty minutes later, Myra was done with the cleaver and her two chef's knives -- the Global solid and the Tojiro stainless -- and was about to move on to her paring and boning knives, when she saw a shadow from the corner of her eye. She followed it to Gillam standing at the glass wall of the dining room, watching her solemnly. Beyond him, Ginny and Margie were in matching poses on the mat. Margie's eyes were closed in concentration, and her face, now definitely child instead of toddler, was so beautiful Myra felt like it gave off light. Myra's gaze returned to Gillam.
She went to the sliding door and called in "Gin, I've got Gillam with me for a bit." There was no reply, but Gillam streaked down the hall toward her. She set him on the bench, several feet away, and said "These blades are ever so sharp, sweetheart. You can watch but no touching, not until you're older. When you have more muscle coordination, I'll teach you how to use a knife and how to sharpen them with me, okay?"
"How old?" said Gillam.
"Oh, ten, I guess." Myra could tell from Gillam's expression this was an unimaginable age.
She explained what she was doing as she went along. He leaned forward but stayed on the bench. The scene felt familiar to her in an almost preverbal way. She had loved her mother as Gillam loved her, without reservation. It made her heart ache to think of how pure his love was, how consuming his interest in her and all that she did.
When she was finished, she wrapped the knives again in a towel for carrying and said "All right, you were extremely cooperative. How about in exchange I do something with you that you get to choose?"
His grin was absolute. "Puppets!" he declared.
Oh, crap. This drained her creative energy and play sessions always lasted at least an hour. She stood and said "Okay, go pull 'em out and I'll meet you upstairs after I put away the knives."
He raced ahead of her into the house, scrambling up the stairs after saying briefly to Margie "Mama's gonna play puppets!" Margie was right on his heels.
Ginny, now in the kitchen drinking water, said "I thought you were going to try to write this afternoon."
"I was" said Myra ruefully. After a moment, she said "You know how I'm in love with you is like nothing else I've ever felt. But they -- it's not exactly the same, but it's no less, how I feel about them."
Ginny said softly "I know. Same here. Scary, ain't it?"
"And we're not just the first passion of their lives, we're the standard by which all other love will be judged" continued Myra. They looked at each for a few long seconds. Ginny gave her a kiss and said "I need to go through the compost pile. Come get me when you want to switch."
Gillam's piping voice came down the stairs, asking "Mama, do you wanna be the bunny or the saber-toof tiger?"
Myra said, beginning her climb, said "I'm Smilodon the Terrible, and I'm going to eat you both up!", ending in a long growl. She heard two delighted screams from above.
August 1994 -- Gillam and Carly are 3, Margie is 5, Truitt is 6
Ginny and Myra took Pat and Patty's children for the day one sunny Saturday. They stripped them all down and put them in the pool, with waterwings on Gillam and Carly just in case. The sliding door was open, Myra at her desk, Ginny grinding pigment, both of them keeping an ear and eye out for all four childen.
Gillam got out of the pool at one point to chase a ball someone had thrown, and Carly crawled up the steps after him. Gillam tossed the ball back in, but before he jumped in after it, he stopped to talk with Carly at the edge of the pool. Myra had glanced up and was watching them as Gillam took his penis in one hand and was pointing to his foreskin with his other hand. Carly bent over to look at it closely. Myra couldn't hear the discussion, but when it looked like Carly was about to put his hands on Gillam's penis, Myra got up and swiftly crossed to the door.
"Gillam? Carly? Would you two come here for a minute?" Myra noticed that Carly looked guilty, but Gillam did not. They came, wet but not dripping, into the study.
Myra kept her voice light and interested. "Hey, I noticed you were about to touch Gillam's penis, Carly. What are you two talking about?"
"He saw mine was different than his" said Gillam. "It's because of circumcision, right?"
"Right" said Myra. "Carly has been circumcised."
"So I was showing him how mine moves, that piece at the end. But he doesn't have a piece that moves, like Zayde doesn't either."
Carly's face looked worried. He wasn't joining in with Gillam's carefree explanation.
"So, Carly, did you want to see what it felt like -- how the foreskin slips back and forth on Gillam's penis?"
Gillam nodded, and then Carly did, too. Gillam said "I told him he could."
Myra was amazed at how even her tone was. "Well, then, that's all I wanted to know. And here's some guidelines to help you if this comes up again. You know about private spaces and public spaces, right?"
"Yes. You said our backyard is a private space unless we have company, but Carly isn't company" said Gillam.
"That's right, he's your best friend" said Myra. "So there's four rules about touching each other in private places and private spaces. Rule number one is that you have to ask permission of each other, which you did. But part of permission means you get to say no without the other person being mean to you or getting mad because you said no. No means no, and there's nothing wrong with feeling a no. Does that make sense?"
They nodded. Carly's expression was unreadable, but Myra had the sense this was maybe a new idea for him.
"Rule number two is that you have to be the same age, within a year of each other, until you are grown-ups."
"We are the same age" said Gillam, now curious but not yet defensive.
"Yes, you are, so that's good" said Myra. "But how about Truitt? Or Margie?"
"They're older than us. Does that they can't touch our private parts?" asked Carly.
"Not without asking one of us first" said Myra. "And definitely no grown-ups get to touch you except your mamas, your grandparents, or a doctor. Any other grown-up wants to touch you, you just tell them they have to discuss it with us first. The next rule is that you have to touch each other nice, in a way that feels absolutely okay with the other one. Gentle and kind, that's the rule about all touch."
"Bunny rabbit hand" said Gillam.
"Exactly. And the last rule is that if something you are doing makes grown-ups around you get upset, then it would be smarter to not do it in front of them. It doesn't mean it's wrong, not if you are obeying the other three rules, but sometimes grown-ups run out of slack and you have to not push them. It's a no win situation to push on someone who has run out of slack."
She wasn't sure this last idea was really getting across to either of them. She wasn't completely sure she should be giving them such inside information, either; but so many children were hurt by adults who snapped, she wanted them to have some concept of options around those minefields. Carly said "Does it upset you?"
"Not in the least" Myra said with a big, hopefully not too fake grin. "Or Ginny. So you two can go ahead. Just a quick recap -- permission, same age, no hurting, only do it around grown-ups who say it's okay with them." She counted these off on her four fingers as she said them, then reached out and rubbed Gillam's ear affectionately. He grinned, turned to Carly and said "Let's go in the kitchen, away from Margie and Truitt." They pattered away from view of the pool but still in Myra's line of sight.
Myra walked around the corner into Ginny's studio, where she found Ginny standing, about to come to meet her. She sat down on Ginny's daybed heavily. Her entire body was shaking. Ginny sat down next to her and put her arm over Myra's shoulders. Wild giggling began in the kitchen.
"Wow" whispered Ginny. "That was...remarkable."
"Really, Gin? Was I okay?"
"Hell, yeah. I think we should print up your rules and hand them out on the streetcorners" said Ginny.
"And..." Myra felt some unnamed emotion rising in her. "What they're doing -- it really is okay? They're not hurting each other, are they?"
"Of course not, Myra." Ginny leaned over to look into Myra's eyes. Myra began crying quietly. "Oh, sweetheart, you can't quite tell, can you? You're finding your own way here, aren't you?" Myra lay her head on Ginny's shoulder to keep her sobs quiet. She heard Gillam say "It tickles" with a peal of laughter.
"These children are so lucky to have you in their lives" whispered Ginny. "Nobody is getting hurt, or lied to. Everything is okay, angel."
Suddenly Carly said "I need to peepee." Ginny called out "Go ahead, Carly. Use the potty in the bathroom near Myra's desk."
"I'll go with you" said Gillam. The sound of running footsteps crossed the room behind them. More giggling came from the bathroom in a minute.
"I need to make sure they're not spraying the walls" said Ginny.
"I'll watch the two in the pool" said Myra, sitting up and wiping her face. She walked to the door and saw Margie heading across the yard toward her red wagon by the playscape.
"Margie!" she called out. "Only pool toys in the pool."
Margie stopped and put her hands on her hips in frustration. "But we don't have enough!" she complained.
Myra looked at the tangle of tubes, floats, balls and a big green dragon bobbing in the corner of the pool. Under her breath she said "Then suffer." Out loud she said mildly "You heard me."
Margie ran back to the pool and did a cannonball, narrowly missing Truitt. Pushing people to their limits was Margie's stock in trade. Gillam and Carly emerged from the bathroom and squeezed past her in the doorway, trotting back to the water. Ginny came up behind her and said "I'll make dinner tonight. You can go write some more."
Myra turned around and said "What's the menu?"
"Some kind of veggie quiche, cucumber sticks, an avocado salad, and if we let them eat on the desk, we can split open a watermelon and let them demolish it."
"They'll want carbs, you know how they are" reminded Myra.
"Then I'll stick some Ak Maks around the edge of the avocado salad."
"Sounds great. I'm already hungry. I think maybe I'll go swim with them for a bit, get my blood flowing." Myra began peeling off her clothes. Ginny interrupted her with a light kiss, then headed for the kitchen. Myra went toward the pool, the children raising a cheer when they saw her approaching.
When Myra got up for breakfast, Ginny was in Painterland. The children and Hannah were out of the house. She made herself a fried egg sandwich and sat with Alice on the deck to watch birds at the feeder while she ate. When she came back in, she put on the Holly Near album with Ronnie Gilbert and sat down to write. After an hour of solid work, she heard the front door open and the rush of sneakered feet in her direction. She got up quickly, hid behind the first row of shelves, and waited until Gillam skidded into view beside her daybed. She jumped out yelling "Boo!" and he shrieked, then jumped into her arms. Margie appeared behind him.
"Whatcha been up to?" she asked them.
"We walked Juju and we went to the park and Juju wouldn't go down the slide" said Margie.
"Yeah, doggies don't like playground equipment" said Myra.
"Then we fed ducks at the pond, except Juju wouldn't stop barking" said Gillam.
"She was worried that one of them was a secret outerspace monster duck, and she needed to protect you" said Myra. Margie laughed heartily, but Gillam was considering the idea.
"Okay, let's go rustle up some grub" said Myra. In the kitchen, Hannah was already pouring glasses of juice. Myra sliced edam and put it on plates with last night's three-bean salad, cherry tomatoes, mandarin oranges and broccoli florets. When Gillam asked for a piece of bread, she gave them each a corn cake instead. Hannah was finishing off the last of the minestrone, also with corn cakes and a bit of edam.
Myra wasn't hungry yet, so she sat at the table and talked with the kids. Margie had concocted another elaborate set of plans for her birthday, still almost three months away. Today's version involved camel rides, filling the hot tub with ice cream, and making sure she had a present starting with each letter of the alphabet. She was having trouble with X, however.
When they were done eating, Margie asked if they could have dessert. The fantasy of a hot tub full of ice cream was working on her, Myra could tell.
"Not for lunch. Do we ever have dessert for lunch?" said Myra.
"If it's a special day" suggested Margie.
"Well, today is run of the mill, so no go, flo" said Myra.
"She called you Flo" giggled Gillam.
"My name is Marjorie Rose" said Margie, a little huffy.
Myra was rinsing dishes and said "Just be glad you weren't a boy. If you had been a boy, we were going to name you Marmalade Rabbit."
"Nuh-uh" said Margie, genuinely shocked.
Gillam began chanting "Marmalade Rabbit, Marmalade Rabbit!" Myra regretted what she'd just done. But Margie knew how to fight back. She jeered at Gillam "Oh, yeah, well if you were a girl they were going to call you -- Giddyup Diaper!"
Gillam's eyes went wide, and then her ploy completely backfired. He collapsed into giggles, crying "Giddyup DIAper" with helpless glee. Margie joined him, as did Myra and Hannah.
Finished in the kitchen, Myra was about to return to the study but glanced at the chore chart on the fridge and turned back to say "Did whoever was supposed to feed Juju this morning do their chore?" It was Gillam's turn, and there was no star in the box -- Gillam never forgot to stick on a star for a chore.
Gillam put his hand over his mouth, then rushed to the cupboard where they kept Juju's food. Hannah said "We're going to play dominoes, join us when you're done" as she and Margie headed upstairs. Myra dodged a dancing Juju and went back to her desk.
Myra was leaned back in her chair, singing along with the record she had restarted, feeling emotion pounding through her veins to the chorus
"And all who know these two good arms
Know I never had to rob or kill
I can live by my own two hands and live well
And all my life I have struggled
To rid the earth of all such crimes."
She went on to the next verse, her eyes closed, grief and anger almost straining her voice:
"Who will remember the hand upon the switch
That took the lives of two good men in the service of the rich?
Who will remember the one that gave the nod
Or the chaplain standing near at hand to invoke the name of God?"
("Sacco and Vanzetti" by Ben Shahn, 1927)
Tears were coming to her eyes and she stopped singing for a moment. She opened her eyes, and Gillam was standing next to her chair, watching her face.
"What switch, Mama?" he said. "What rich?"
"Oh, god, Gillam" she said. She swung around in the chair and turned off the stereo. "This is a song about Sacco and Vanzetti...oh, god, honey, it's a sad story, I'm not sure if you should..."
He held out his arms and she picked him up, set him on her desk in front of her, and he said "Tell me. Tell me why you were sad, Mama."
She told him a very expurgated version, but there was no softening the brutality of a death sentence, even leaving out the meaning of such a horrible word as the "switch". He stared at her and said "They died? They really died? Somebody made them die?"
"Yes, long before I was born" she said. "And the chorus is words from their actual letters, things they said about who they were and what they believed in. That they were good, honest men who worked hard..." In spite of herself, she began crying again, and suddenly Gillam burst into tears, too, sliding into her lap and wrapping his arms around her neck. She felt awful, like she was subjecting her child to things he shouldn't have to hear about, but she couldn't quite stop her own weeping, much less Gillam's.
In a minute, she felt arms come around her from behind, arms that smelled of linseed oil, and Ginny was kissing Gillam's cheeks, saying "It's okay, baby, it's really okay." Myra turned and let Ginny pull him into her arms. He clung to her, sobbing "They died, Mama, somebody made them die!"
"I know, it was a terrible wrong and it's okay to be sad about it" said Ginny. She met Myra's eyes. There was a streak of navy blue paint on her neck. Her face was so kind that Myra let herself cry as hard as Gillam, covering her face with her hands.
A few minutes later, when they were both able to draw a long breath again, Gillam reached for her and she returned him to her lap. Ginny bent over and gave Myra a sweet kiss, asking "You okay now?" Myra nodded, and said "Bless you."
"Just don't read him 'Justice Denied in Massachusetts', not yet" said Ginny with a soft smile. She went back to her studio.
Myra got a kleenex and helped Gillam blow his nose, then blew her own. He said "You want to come play dominoes with us?", a hopeful expression on his face.
"No, I really need to work, angel" said Myra. "But you should go play. Get a drink of water if you need one."
He slid off her lap reluctantly. "I'll see you in a couple of hours" Myra said.
"Okay" and he suddenly raced off.
She sat looking at her desk for a minute, trying to forgive herself for dragging her baby into an emotional quagmire. Then she rolled her chair back to the poetry section, found her anthology of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and rolled back to her desk to read.
Late October 1994
Sunday after brunch, Myra sat down at the art table with Margie and Gillam. She shoved drawing paper over to them which had a big circle already on it, and handed them each a pencil and a ruler. "Imagine that this is a drawing of a pie, and it's time to cut it so all four of us here get a piece. How would you do that?"
Margie was way ahead of Gillam. Somewhere she already had the basics of this concept, and although her ability to draw a straight line was incomplete, she freehanded it fairly well. Myra showed her how the ruler could help, and Margie redid her quadrants. After watching her, Gillam gave it a try, too, with less comprehension or execution.
Myra took another sheet of paper, drew another circle divided into four, and held it up, saying "If this was not a piece of pie, what else could it be? What does it look like?"
A series of wild guesses ensued. Myra heard Ginny go into giggles over Margie's shout of "Armadillo!" Myra took her pencil and wrote 12, 3, 6 and 9 at the ends of the bisecting lines and held it up again. "Now what does it look like?"
Gillam finally scored. "A clock!" he said.
"That's right. A clock tells us the time by showing us what hour and minute it is. Now, in between these numbers are the others, in order. Can you count out loud to 12, slowly? I'll fill them in as you say them." When Myra had the lines and numbers installed on the clock face, she explained the hours in a day and minutes in an hour. It was really too advanced for either of them, but her goal was to help them be able to read a clock in a rudimentary way, not grasp all the details of arc or sun and planetary movement.
She took down the wall clock from the kitchen and let them practice reading and setting times on it. The kinesthetics of this did penetrate, and eventually they could do rough readings of hours and half-hours.
"Now, you're going to need this skill because Mama and I are going to change our schedule here in this house." Myra explained how from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening, the children were going to have the attention of Hannah plus only one mother at any given time. The other mother would be "at work", even though she was still in the house, and was not to be disturbed.
It didn't sit well with either of them. Margie looked obstinate, as if determined to defy the new order. Gillam's forehead creased in worry. "When you're working at your desk, I can't come talk to you?" he said to Myra in a tragic voice.
Her heart sank. "If you really need to, and there's no one else for you to turn to, of course you can come talk to me. But if it can wait until 5:00..." His expression plainly asked when would he not need to really talk to her?
"It's so I can write, honeyboy. I have to go deep into my thoughts, so deep it's like -- like time travel. Like I go to another place. And if I get interrupted, if someone makes me come back in my thoughts, I lose all that concentration."
He didn't understand this, he just didn't. He was too young.
"It's like when I'm on the phone. Remember how you can't interrupt us when one of us on the phone, because that's rude? We can't talk to two people at one, and we're already talking to somebody? Well, it's like that -- I'm talking to myself in my head" tried Myra.
"And it would be rude for me to come bovver you?" he said earnestly.
"Yeah. But only for four hours a day. From here to here" she pointed on the clock. "All the other times" -- she made the hour hand swing -- "You can talk to me as much as you want."
The worry lines were still there. "Look, we'll give a try tomorrow and see how it goes, how about that?"
"But not today?"
"No, today I'm all yours. Listen, go get your shoes and socks, and we'll go out to the Pacific Science Center for the day, that sound like fun?" They raced off, and Ginny said "I'll go with you."
"You don't have to" Myra said.
"I want to. You did good, Mama Bear."
The next morning, Monday, Myra was up by 9 a.m. and chatted with Gillam through her breakfast. Ginny had dropped Margie at Montessori and was sequestered at her worktable. After Myra was dressed, she and Gillam went out to buy a few groceries. When they got home, she and Hannah played Hi Ho the Cherry-O with Gillam until it was time to pick up Margie. Hannah left to do this, but Gillam opted to stay with Myra as she began making lunch. The four of them ate lunch leisurely. At 1:00, the wind-up alarm Myra had set began ringing on the counter.
"That means it's time for me to go to work, and time for Ginny to get off work" said Myra, pointing to the 1:00 on the dial and letting Margie turn off the bell. "Here's Mama's plate for lunch. Give me a kiss, I'll see you both again at 5:00, and go tell Ginny it's her turn to be with you."
Margie ran a lot more exuberantly than Gillam did. Myra set her dirty plate in the sink and forced herself to go to her desk. As Ginny walked by, a kid holding either hand, she said "I'll get the screen finished as soon as Allie and I are able to."
Myra waved at her, and gave a wink to Gillam, who did not light up like he usually did.
After eating, Ginny and Hannah took the children upstairs. The silence was deep, and Myra's guilt pangs disappeared. She plunged into her plot arc for Skene, and an hour passed without her surfacing. In the far back of her mind, she heard a clatter of several steps coming into the kitchen and the tap run, but it really didn't register. Nor did the earnest whispering going on just around the corner. In her peripheral vision, shapes glided out the sliding door into the back yard, but she didn't look up.
Half an hour later, a cough nearby sent an electric shock through her scalp. She jerked her chair sideways and saw Gillam sitting on her daybed with a pile of books beside him. He looked up at her reaction.
"How long have you been there?" she said, her heart racing.
"Since they went outside, Mama said I could if I didn't make any sound at all" he said defensively.
Myra got up and went to the deck. Gillam looked guilty and stayed on the daybed.
Ginny said "Oh, hell, did he break his promise? I thought it might be too much for him."
"No, he just coughed. I literally didn't know he was there until then. But Ginny, is this fair to ask of him?"
"Here we go again. Yes, Myra. He insists he'd rather read nearby than do what we're doing, and honoring that choice has got to be good for his character. He knows that if he gets bored, he can come out here. Go back to your desk, I can tell you're going great guns over there" said Ginny firmly.
Myra sat back down in her chair, not sure if she should look at Gillam or not. Finally she grinned his way and said "Good job with the quiet thing. Let's go on as we were, boychik." She blew him a kiss and picked up her pencil again.
For a few minutes, she noted the turning of pages and the occasional breath, but after that, she forgot the present world again.
At 5:00, the alarm sitting beside Gillam went off and nearly gave her a heart attack. He jubilantly turned off the ringer and shoved himself off the daybed, sliding into her lap before she could quite set down her pages.
"Wow, Gillam -- did you read all those books?" she asked, pointing to the strew on the daybed.
"Yep. And I fell asleep, but then I woked up again and read some more" he said proudly.
"I'm absolutely astonished. I know it's Monday, but this is a red-letter day. I'm making oatmeal cookies for after dinner, you want to help?"
At the end of June, Myra took Margie downtown to the map store to browse. They noticed a flyer for an orienteering event the following weekend designed for children, and got a description of the process from one of the clerks. Margie was wild to go, so the entire family went to Volunteer Park the next Saturday. Margie and Ginny registered for the training. Gillam had a model boat he wanted to play with at the lily pond, and Myra stayed with him, trying to keep him from getting too wet. After the training and a short course, they ate at George's Deli where Margie rattled on about about controls, catching features, and southward orientation. Myra only understand portions of Margie's new passion.
Another orienteering challenge open to children was planned for mid July near Cle Elum. Margie pored over topo maps of the ridge and persuaded Myra to buy her an expensive compass, but it was Ginny who was sharing this interest with her. They set out very early on Saturday. Once they arrived and registered, Margie seemed to forget Myra and Gillam even existed. Ginny gave them a hasty kiss as she was dragged away by Margie.
Myra looked around and spotted a small hill in the opposite direction from the orienteering course. "Let's hike over there and find a place to hang out" she told Gillam. She wrote a note saying where they were and stuck it under the windshield wiper of their car. She stuffed extra water and some snacks into her pack, and they slowly climbed the hill, chatting cheerfully.
The other side of the hill looked down over a creek, and the crest had a small clearing surrounding by trees. Myra sat down against a tree at one edge of the clearing; the grass around them was about a foot high, and the tree was wide and flat against her back. The sun was full on her, and she felt instantly bonded with the earth. Gillam sat down between her legs and leaned companionably against her. He had just discovered Maira Kalman at the library, and he had eight of her lavishly illustrated books in Myra's pack. He opened Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman with a sigh of pleasure and began reading.
(Max the Dog Poet sneaks out to run away to Paris, from "Hey Willie See The Pyramids" by Maira Kalman)
After a while, Myra was so still she had trouble staying awake. There was bird and insect noise, occasionally a rustle of breeze or Gillam turning a page. Otherwise the silence was delicious. Her binoculars were in the pack, but she was utterly happy just being in one golden moment after another.
In this drift, she seemed to sense the motion rather than actually seeing it: Across the clearing, something emerged from the scrubby trees and began walking lightly through the tall golden grass in their direction.
It was a coyote, tail held straight back behind him, neck ruff laying in all directions.
For the first instant, all Myra could think about was how stunningly beautiful the colors of his coat were, and how well they blended with the grasses coming up to his chest. She wished Ginny could see it, so she could paint it and capture the moment forever. With her next heartbeat, she realized the coyote was not seen them -- they were that still, down on the ground with their silhouette masked by the tree behind them. She almost stopped breathing, and wondered if Gillam saw the coyote, but did not dare move her head even a fraction of an inch to check. After another couple of seconds, she became aware of a shift in Gillam's stillness, and this persuaded her that he, too, was watching the coyote approach them.
Just at the point when she was wondering how close she should let the animal get before alerting him to their presence -- hunters who feel cornered are dangerous -- the coyote stopped abruptly and pointed his nose up into the air, taking deep sniffs. They were downwind of him, so he could not get a full scent, but some little tendril of their odor must have reached him -- perhaps their trail when they had walked in from that direction an hour ago. Now on full alert, he scanned his entire field of vision, at one point looking directly at them -- Myra did hold her breath, then, and did not blink her eyes -- but his vision was attuned to motion, not color, and incredibly he did not see them.
Standing in the open no longer agreed with him. He went into a crouch and took one slow step toward them, stopped in evident confusion because the scent was still there, a horrible reek of human, and he took another look around. Myra suddenly wanted to giggle, but held herself stony still. In half a minute, he took another slinking step, and was stopped again by his nose. His eyes were wide and disturbed -- was it possible humans had figured out a way to become invisible? On his third step toward them, she realized it was time to draw a boundary. In a quiet, friendly tone she said "Hello, there, brother."
He went straight up in the air with a high yip, and in the next instant he had vanished. Myra literally could not later remember having seen him run away, he was that fast. Gillam wheeled to face her, standing up and throwing his arms around her neck, and they laughed so long their bellies hurt. When they had finally calmed down, Myra set them off again by remarking "He's going to be telling all his friends tonight about the humans who appeared out of thin air".
They ate a couple of bananas, then shared an orange, Myra urging Gillam to drink lots of water. When they were done, she suggested they lie down on their bellies in the grass and see what else happened along -- beetles, butterflies, perhaps a bird if they were still enough.
After half an hour of resting their chins on their folded arms, a shadow at the base of the grass a few feet to Gillam's left revealed itself to be instead a small hole in the ground, from which cautiously emerged a small, sleek mouse. She, too, sniffed the air. Myra wondered if she smelled banana and orange. The mouse, likewise, seemed not to tumble to their presence, but this sort of thing had happened to Myra before and she thought perhaps the tiny hunted of the world could sense threat on a primary level. Perhaps this mouse knew they were there, but also knew she had no reason to fear them.
She went over to a nearby stalk of grass and reached up it with small pink hands, slowly bending the blade down until the feathery top of the grass was an inch from the ground. She walked along the blade with her hands continuing to hold it down, and when she reached the top of the plant, she leaned her head out and began munching on the tiny seeds clustered along the awn. She was very thorough and showed relish. Myra wondered what the seeds tasted like. When the mouse had harvested that grass's top, she let it go, the stalk springing back upright. She approached another stalk and repeated the process.
Myra lost all track of time. Her world was completely physical, Gillam tucked along her length, mouse eating seeds, bright sun and the smell of dirt and occasionally a bird call. She marveled at Gillam's ability to stay still for so long. Then, in an instant, the mouse zipped back into her hole. Myra wondered what had scared her -- she turned to look at the sky, wondering if a hawk had flown over. When she saw nothing but blue, she sat up and said "Gillam, get in my lap -- I hope she didn't sense a snake approaching." But as he was scrambling into her arms, she heard Margie's voice talking loudly, and then Ginny's laconic reply. When she looked down the trail, she saw their heads coming over the crest of the hill.
She called out a hello and began stowing away Gillam's books. Before she zipped her pack, however, she handed Gillam a package of peanuts and said "Ya wanna give Mousey a Christmas morning?" He grinned and opened the peanuts, sprinkling them around the almost invisible burrow in the grass. Then they walked to meet Ginny and Margie, Gillam holding her hand tight.
(Blue Rudder by Liza Cowan, © 2007)
Early August 1997 -- trip to the Gulf Coast
After renting their car and Winnedyko, and eating lunch at Gaido's, Myra, Ginny, Allie, Margie, Gillam and David checked into the Seawall Inn because their deep-sea fishing trip began early the next morning nearby. Then they took a historical tour of Galveston focused on the terrible hurricane of 1900, which had destroyed the city. They ate dinner on Water Street and walked along the beach until bedtime.
The next morning, after big doses of Dramamine, they drove to a jetty where they met up with Ruthanne, a fishing charter captain recommended by Harm. They had a cooler full of water, ice and snacks from the convenience store plus a boxed lunch provided by their hotel. Allie had arranged to rent fishing tackle from Ruthanne directly. As they set out from the harbor, Margie and Gillam shrieked often at dolphin sightings. Myra was more focused on the birds, glued to her binoculars. Ginny went from person to person rubbing sun screen on them.
After an hour of charging through open sea, Allie said she couldn't stand just sitting any more, she wanted a line in the water. Ruthanne told her she wasn't likely to hook tuna or snapper until they were 30 miles out, but Allie said she'd take her chances and rigged a lure designed for those species, which she and Ginny had agreed were their main goals -- eatin' fish.
After another half hour, two things occurred at the same moment: They all heard a distinct sibilant whir on Allie's reel, and Allie said "Whoa, nellie!" David held Margie back as Ginny crowded in closer to Allie. After a few minutes of Allie maneuvering, the fish jumped from the water, far behind the boat, and Ruthanne called from the wheel "That's a tarpon!" Allie gave a banshee shell and her face settled into joyous competition.
Myra was not so pleased. Gillam's face was also troubled. She suggested they go sit at the front of the boat and look down into the water they were surging through. Gillam didn't hesitate.
Once they were positioned over the prow, spray slowly soaking their faces, they shared a few minutes of silence. Occasionally they could hear shouts from the back of the boat, mostly Allie and Ginny. Then Gillam asked "What kind of fish is a tarpon?"
"Big and silvery. Open ocean. Predator fish. It's not something people usually eat. Mostly it gets fished by humans because it fights really hard." Myra was opting for complete honesty.
Gillam looked at her. "Then why is Allie trying to kill it, if she's not going to eat it?"
"My guess is that she will let it go, once she's caught it. That would be most like her" said Myra.
"But doesn't it hurt to get caught?"
"I'd imagine, Gillam. I've heard people say that fish don't have the same nerve endings we do, but you'd have to be pretty numb to not feel a big hook lodged in your mouth."
She saw a ripple of distress pass through his body.
"I don't understand why we ever have to kill anything" he said.
"I like it that you'd rather not" answered Myra. "I'm with you on that. But biology has us caught in a dilemma. We can't, as creatures, produce our own nutrition. Only plants feed themselves without killing something else living -- they create their own nutrition from sunlight and water and minerals in the soil. And a long, long time ago, at the very dawn of time on this planet, some organisms came along who discovered they could steal the nutrition of another plant instead of making their own. Stealing was a shortcut, a way to get big and strong faster than other plants. Then the first ancestors of animals developed, little organisms that figured out how to move around, and they got even stronger because they could eat plants from wherever they wanted. This process kept getting added onto, the process of movement and of stealing other living things' nutrition, until finally the animals started eating each other. And now we're here, and the only way we can survive is by killing a plant or animal -- or in some cases, just stealing from them, like fruit and milk."
"If I just ate fruit and milk, then nothing would die, right?" asked Gillam, hope in his eyes.
"Nothing except you. You have to have some veggies and grains. But yes, you could really change your impact on the food chain. I mean, technically a carrot dies when you pull it up and eat it. But a carrot is really the root of a plant which has already done its job on this earth -- it has already produced its seed -- so it would die anyhow. And most of the grain we eat are the seeds of those plants, way more of them than the plant needs to reproduce. So, yes, you can come up with a diet that doesn't needlessly take much life. If you want to do that, I'll cook whatever you ask for."
His small fingers were so tight on the handrail, she could see the blanching of his knuckles. Another big cheer came from the back of the boat. Then he said "How come you eat animals, then?"
"Ah, well...I was vegetarian for seven years, you know, before you were born. Lesbians in my generation tended toward vegetarianism. We understood, still do understand, that the same culture which mistreats animals is the culture that sees women and children and people of color as less important than white men. It's all on a continuum." She wondered if he knew what that word meant, but he didn't ask for a definition, and he usually would if he needed it.
"After a while, though, I got anemic. Which means I didn't have enough of a certain kind of vitamin in my body. Maybe I just wasn't doing it right, or maybe it's because my body is -- different. At any rate, I began eating meat again, and my body felt better as a result. But, Gillam, I try to do it with at least an awareness of what it means. When we say grace before each meal? -- during my moment of silence, I always think about the plants and animals who had to die so I could eat that particular meal. And I thank them, and ask god to keep me in balance." Once it was out of her mouth, she realized she should have passed this on to her children a long time ago, should make grace an active process instead of quiet meditation, at least some of the time.
After a while, Gillam said quietly "I like how it tastes. Meat, I mean. And broccoli, too, and eggs."
"That's normal, honey. Omnivores like what they eat, otherwise we wouldn't eat it." She took a breath, then said "I once read something by Annie Dillard -- you know who she is?"
"Maybe a writer?" he ventured. Safe guess.
"My favorite writer of all time." He took that in. "I read aloud one of her essays to you and Margie last year, about the exploration of the poles?"
"I remember -- you cried when you read that part about the South Pole guys who died." said Gillam.
"Yes. Well, Annie Dillard quoted an Inuit -- which is a culture that lives exclusively on the flesh of animals, year round -- and what the Inuit said was something like 'The greatest danger we face in this life is that everything we eat has a soul.'"
Gillam was startled. He fixed his large brown eyes on her and said "You mean, animals have souls?"
"I don't know for sure. But apparently in Inuit culture, they believe they might. And the bigger message is, we have to steal their souls to survive, yet we don't have to be arrogant about it. There's a terrible danger in believing you have the right to steal. Humility is the only appropriate attitude to take when we are forced to rely on the generosity of others, the generosity of nature."
The boat slowed down suddenly, and the cries from the back became pronounced. Myra could hear Margie's shouts mixed in the adults.
"Do you want to go look at the tarpon before they throw it back?" asked Myra.
"Will it be bleeding?" asked Gillam.
"Then no, I don't. I'd rather think about it being in the water, and all the other fish that are underneath this boat right now, living in the fish world" he said.
She stepped over and held him from behind, her heart beating fast. "I like that idea so much, Gillam."
Ginny's voice came from behind them. "Hey, you two wanna see this beauty?"
"No, thanks" Myra called back. "Let it go."
After a minute, the boat returned to full speed. Myra heard Ginny come up behind them.
"You okay?" she asked gently.
"We're fine" answered Myra, turning to give her a kiss. Ginny's cheeks were flushed. "We're pondering deep thoughts."
Ginny bent over and kissed Gillam. "You want to switch out moms, you just let me know, okay?" He nodded.
"I'm already hungry" Ginny said. "Fresh air, I guess."
"There are snacks in the cooler -- lots of fruit, and some kind of nature bar" offered Myra.
"Nah, I'll wait. Maybe we can all eat lunch in an hour" said Ginny, heading back to the stern.
"Gillam, I have a treat I was going to share with you and Margie tonight, but I brought it with me today and maybe you'd like to see it now." His face lit up. "My agent Mai just came back from a trip to London, and she brought me a new children's book that is all the rage over there. It's about a little boy who turns out to be a wizard -- his name is Harry Potter. Would you like to sit down on the bench with me and we can start reading it together?"
Gillam scooted to the bench and sat down excitedly. Myra retrieved her pack and pulled from it "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". Gillam grinned at how thick it was. They studied the front cover, then opened it and began reading.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.
Monday, November 26, 2007
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