The Good Parent
Really, if you had a child, you would want one like mine. He’s never broken a dish, he smiles beatifically, he treats the most banal object with ludic curiosity. He once turned a Pez dispenser into a disaster relief aircraft, tossing bundles of emergency supplies in the form of hard candy pellets out of the back of the plane. Another time he ran green pipe cleaners as contour lines over mounds of white sand to make a topographic map of a future Antarctic, one without ice. He pointed to vanilla bean pods. “These are boats floating in the melt ice,” he said. “They’re not to scale.”
As a parent, I am always tired, always patient. I show him how to wipe himself, how to find middle C. My singing voice is pinched, so instead of songs at bedtime, I look up ancient myths to recite to him at night. But I can never remember which Greek hero was supposed to have pissed off which god, so I just tell him whatever comes into my head. Usually he is too sleepy to object to the inconsistencies. When I can’t resist it, I make the myths as scary as possible, to see him tuck his lip under his top teeth and clasp his hands together. I mimic the sound of Kronos devouring his sons. I smack my lips and whine in hunger. If he has nightmares afterwards, I rock him with his face against my breasts until he feels safe again.
I feel like I’m becoming this fierce parent that I don’t understand, but with the fierceness turned in on itself. Like a monk flagellating, or a dancer purging food. Would the food be happier not being eaten? What am I talking about, the food is thoroughly indifferent. Thinking about whipping the monk turns me on. I look up classes for savagery management on the internet, but all the sessions are booked for months in advance.
Lately, he’s been staying up late watching TV. His little curls fall into his eyes. He only watches the channels that run disaster footage without any commentary. He watches river banks crumbling, people jumping out of the windows of burning building, whole cities drowning under water, pets buried under mudslides. When I object to the violent content, he hardly even shakes his head at me. Over dinner, he argues that the silence and the focus of the camera on the repeated moment of catastrophe, far from creating a pornographic, voyeuristic experience, actually invokes an ethical imperative, even while it recognizes the limits of the empathetic response. I don’t try to pull him away from the TV after that, I only insist that he eat enough food and drink enough water. He no longer goes to kindergarten. The teacher calls once, twice, not a third time.
More and more, I see him seeing what’s coming. He’s growing lean and sharp with it, in preparation. I’m not sure what’s coming, I can’t see what he sees. I see him growing indifferent to the green trees, and the little cracks in the sidewalk that he hops over, to half-moons, and the route to the library. He turns away from the little pieces of sweet dough that I give him in the kitchen, and his lips are reluctant on my cheek at night. My stories no longer scare him, he no longer tells me my purple panties are pretty. He lets his basil plant wilt and die.
I know what I must do. I must do as he does, and prepare for losing all that I no longer need. Every time I leave home to go to work, I tell him I’ll be back that night. Every time, instead of going to work, I walk to the budding eternity at the edge of the world and stand watching it, shuddering slightly. Every night, I return home.
The last time I leave, I put a postcard on his pillow, one showing a beach in Italy somewhere. I don’t want him to think something bad has happened to me. I try to explain, gently but clearly. “This time it’s different,” I write. “I’m never coming back.”
Even Worse than the Last Time Around
Even worse than the last time around was how the child who had drowned three summers ago – I think it was in July; it was hot then, which is how I mark the beginning of summer – appeared again at the lip of the lake where she had drowned. This was last week in the Berne canton, under the glacier. Two tourists, both women, say they saw the child there on the lake. We were hiking, looking for edelweiss, they said, and we saw a child in a blue dress sitting against a rock. We went on around the lake, looking for edelweiss, but when we came back that way, having failed to find any, we saw the girl was lying down instead of sitting against the rock. So we went to see, and we found that her dress was a cheap polyester with a neck clasp. She was dead.
All of that is what the newspaper printed. It printed that her body had been lost three summers ago and assumed drowned, but how instead she must have fallen into the glacier and been frozen. Now she had thawed and slipped down with the melt water and come to rest on the shore of the glacier’s lake. They say the ice is why her skin, after three years without the benefit of life, was as well-preserved as a rumor. And the rumor is that she was seen swimming naked in the lake two days prior to the tourists’ sighting. At least her hand and her back-swept hair and some transparent parts were seen, they say.
The paper also neglected to mention the other things that people have been finding on the lake shore. A hammer; an 800 year old branch of a larch, a variety that doesn’t grow in the Berne canton; machined parts from a WWII fighter plane; 300 US dollars in various denominations; antlers of a prehistoric deer, soft like velvet; anthrax from the corpse of the prehistoric deer; and variously addressed letters, which have been mailed on, dread trailing them like a stalk with the leaf still attached to it. People have begun to leave town. That the weather is getting warmer is now a pious idea, murmured in the pews. The mayor has set up a department of speculation.
We once thought the future was one of resounding emptiness, like the hull of a boat that meets the swell, and that nothing truly waited for us there. But that was the last time around.
Recent reading: “Alphabet” by Inger Christensen, “Friction” by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Sphinx” by Anne Garréta, and “Under The Glacier” by Halldór Laxness.