TW: self-harm/attempted suicide
A child is invincible because nobody lets them believe otherwise. Nobody has the heart to. And in a sense, there are plenty of children who are; they have adults who would do anything for them, and that is just as good as any armor. Perhaps better.
When Mummy comes home blue from the hospital, her hair askew and standing dead on her feet, all her child must do is smile for her and she finds the strength to scoop it up and vow, “you are my sunshine.” When Papa is angry and frustrated because his back hurts from sitting at his computer all day, a drawing of him and his dog makes him beam. When Grandpa has a bandage on his hand from hurting himself while working on the car, he asks for a kiss and promises, “that should fix me right up.”
A child can fix anything.
So when a child is told that it must stay inside, it is cause for bewilderment and then outrage. Wherefore this imprisonment?
“There’s a man who’s broken out of jail,” says Mummy. “He’s very, very dangerous, and we don’t want to risk having him find you and hurt you.”
This is an absurd notion; whatever could this man do? This child is the healer of wounds, the bringer of joy. It reminds Mummy and Papa that this “dangerous man” has got nothing. No, nothing.
Papa says that the child is “braver than a tiger, braver than me. That’s why you’ve got to stay nearby. I get so scared; you can be brave for the both of us.”
Grandpa comes to stay with the child’s family until everybody stops talking about this Dangerous Man Who Has Broken Out of Jail. Soon it is abbreviated to That Man, and for days it is no more than a word to the child: Thatman.
One morning, while digging about for the Funny Papers, the child notices a black and white picture. It is a picture of a stony-faced man who looks as old as Papa, but with his hair longer than Papa wears for his pictures. His eyes are sunken and look flat as dull stones. He’s holding up what looks like a small whiteboard, the kind they practice numbers on at school.
What catches the child’s attention isn’t the numbers or the letters that make up the name; it’s the extra finger on the man’s left hand, supporting the sign just under what it recognizes as the letter “O.” The child feels a thorn of envy: how cool is that?
Soon after, the picture is forgotten in favor of finding the Funnies and the man’s exhausted expression becomes no more memorable than the cat and mouse who torment one another from frame to frame.
For the first two days, the house is bearable. Fun, even. Since no one is allowed outside, the child can watch more TV than usual. Grandpa brings along the box of board games and books that are saved in the closet for when the child visits, and it’s a treat playing with these rarely-seen marvels. Ships are shot, ladders are climbed, and hippos are fed. But come the end of day two, when the games have all been played twice over and the books read in all the usual voices, no one wants to pretend anymore that it’s an adventure, and all seem to retreat to corners of the house to nap or work those puzzles from the paper.
The third day, when Mummy goes to work, Papa’s normally silent sheepdog spends hours howling at the passersby. Papa sits at the computer and barely moves, his gaze focused more on the window than the screen. That night, the grown-ups try to teach the child card games, but the child is desperate to see an unwrinkled face and leaves them to play among themselves. An hour later it hears them arguing loudly.
It rains that night, and the child’s skin feels dry and itchy under the blankets. The irritation creeps inside and eats away like a termite at wood. Left unsoothed, this sort of problem only grows. It can cause entire castles to collapse, with no brick left standing.
When the fourth day of the siege begins, the tower falls. The child doesn’t watch TV or pick up the books or play with any of the toys that have since become boring. It sits as though rooted to the windowsill, watching the sun filter through the leaves of the ornamental plum, watching like a beggar ogling a feast.
What’s the worst that could happen? it thinks. It’s my own backyard. They don’t need to see me; I’ll even bring the dog with me. In books, dogs are always protecting children.
It’s easy for the child to get the dog to come into the purple-painted room, then close the door and get the window open. From there, it’s even easier to get outside, and the plants cushion the short drop.
The fat sheepdog has more difficulty, but they manage to wriggle him out in the end.
It’s the best decision of all. The best because, yes, it’s a wonderful day. Nobody’s wishing they’d brought a sweater or a jacket along because it’s perfectly warm and sunny without even a breeze to move the trees. Even more impressive about this day? The child has not been caught. It celebrates by picking up a stick beneath the oak tree and yelling Fetch!
The stick is thrown down the hill where they go sledding in the winter. At the base is an expanse of forest, stretching out between the neighborhood and the distant river. The child knows well enough the little way it has explored with Papa. It is not intimidated. It hurls the stick even farther down the hill and into the tree line. The dog follows then stops, its shaggy head tilted and its tongue flopped to one side. The stick is nowhere to be found. But the forest is full of sticks, the child thinks. It should be a short errand to find one just as good, if not better.
It turns out there are more leaves and grass than sticks, and all the branches are too high to grab and break. But then this is Papa’s Tiger, who is nothing if not fearless and determined, so the child soldiers on, getting closer to where it knows there is the small, thin line of the creek, the shore littered with snail shells and crawling with frogs.
At last, there is a stick, beneath an ancient, tall oak just blocking the view of the creek. Along the shore, the child recognizes Mr. Pahlke’s red and white striped shirt as its owner kneels by the water. The child considers saying “hello,” certain that the kind old gentleman will invite the child to come see Mrs. Pahlke, who always has shortbread cookies freshly baked. It begins to take a bold step forward, the greeting on its lips, until it realizes that this is not Mr. Pahlke at all.
The child watches as the man in the shirt swirls an old-fashioned single blade razor in the water and carefully lifts it to his stubby head and face. Dark brown, oily waves of hair drop from his head and into the water. The shirt fits him badly, the child thinks; it is far too big around the shoulders and hangs on his waist. His shoes are too big as well, and the child recognizes that they also belong to Mr. Pahlke. They are his favorite yellow galoshes.
A hand now reaches up and smooths over the bare scalp, six fingers feeling for rough spots. Thatman. The child ducks behind a tree, eyes wide and staring straight ahead. Somewhere above a bird calls. It breaks in flight.
The child considers possible courses of action it could take. It could run because running is a thing the child is very good at. It could hit Thatman over the head with the stick, knock him out, and yell for the dog to get Mummy and Papa and Grandpa while the child stands guard. It could stay hidden, wait for Thatman to go away, then hurry back up the hill to the window and the purple room.
The child rather likes the sound of the second option, but no matter how hard it tries, it cannot move. The hiding spot grips its feet, planting them firmly among the oak leaves. So, turning only shoulders and neck, the child peers silently from around the tree.
Thatman sits still. The child studies the small man’s bony back. There is such a tiredness in the line of his shoulders, more tiredness than the child has ever seen before (years from now, the child will watch Grandpa’s slow fading and remember the line of those shoulders; it will recognize the weight stacked so carelessly upon them). Now, in a slow, almost painful movement, Thatman holds his six-fingered hand aloft, the sunlight passing through the fingers in five little windows. The other hand, the one with the razor, is lifted as well, and the child can see it shaking.
Perhaps he is comparing hands. Perhaps he is glad about what he sees.
Then both the hands come back down, resting upon the earth. Thatman’s back hunches and the weary shoulders become a tense, rigid line, drawn tight like a stretched rubber band. They quiver, and in that moment, the child imagines it could pluck at the man’s shoulders and make a noise, a sort of “thrummm” that would fill the forest with a low rumble down to the damp floor.
Instead, what he hears is a sort of “snick” as the blade of the razor gleams bright and shiny. Thatman breathes heavily through his nose, holding the razor before him, low to the ground. All at once he sinks down quickly, his body bobbing like Mummy’s when she’s standing and slicing a carrot.
There is a high whimper and a word the child has only heard snorted from Grandpa in the garage when he thinks he is alone. But here it is sadder. Broken sobs leak from Thatman as his right arm works and his left arm shakes wildly. He bobs up and down, up and down, all the while forcing the razor.
The child has seen many things over the course of its short life, some better remembered than others. It has seen the wide river and a Great Lake; it has seen a mountain and a mine. Although it does not quite remember, it has seen even a funeral. It has seen a playmate sent home from Daycare when a staple went through his finger and the blood flowed as freely as the tears. That was pain—confusion and agony blended together like watercolors.
It has never seen anyone hurting themselves this way. On purpose.
The child feels neither fear nor revulsion, but a sense of awkwardness. Like an actor uncertain of their cue, it remains stuck. What does Thatman need to stop hurting? A hug and a kiss work with skinned knees, with stubbed toes and aching heads as well. But how do you comfort this? It’s terrible. And it’s transfixing. The muffled curses and cries become an incantation, and the child stands on rooted feet, mesmerized.
Then the dog barks.
As though jolted from a dream, the child turns to see how Thatman reacts. He is still insensible, whimpering as he works his hand.
By now, the child knows Mummy and Papa must be searching. With one more quick glimpse at the puny bald man’s agony, the child runs on tiptoes, silence and speed, away to the tree line and back up the hill. With each footfall, its heart pounds, and the rhythm syncopates with the grunts and muffled cries it leaves behind.
At the top of the hill, they’re all waiting. It knows they are there before it arrives as the dog crests the rise and begins to bark as it always does when it sees Papa. The child is not spanked right away, as it is certain it will be. Instead, it is pulled into a tight embrace by Mummy.
“Do you know how scared I was?” she demands. “I was miserable, you really hurt me.”
Then the child tells all.
The police are called and it turns out the child is not punished that night but only squeezed and wept over again when the police finally leave. Mrs. Pahlke gets her husband’s clothes and razor back after Thatman’s unconscious body is found.
For a long while afterward, the child does not voluntarily leave the house, frightened that if it so much as glances sideways at the woods it will not be able to look away. In years to come, it will develop a habit of holding one hand to the sun, perhaps trying to decide if it likes what it sees. There will be days when little else but failure and emptiness glare back at it like an ugly growth.
But until then (and long before all that), the child will simply declare its hurt. And for many nights in the old house, it will slip from the bed and curl up on the floor next to the warm breath of the sheepdog. And there it will sleep.
Helen Waldmeir is a graduate of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA where she majored in Creative Writing and completed a minor in Classical Studies. Her work has benefitted from workshops at both the Chesapeake Writer’s Conference and the Kenyon Review, and she has published in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal.