Wayward Children and Their Guardians
by Thomas Gough
From my wicker chair, I survey, I hear, and I work ever on my childhood like a man upon his memoirs. On the radio, the voices grow profane with age. A body is a thing, it seems, which may be shorn and frayed and sometimes split. At the bottom of my bowl, a cherry since, after all, isn’t it spring here in New Zealand? But what is there to do? On a morning like this, I can sit and look west over the cleared bush to the cleared Tasman, but how can I eat a cherry?
What else I can’t do is love. Adults, I mean. I can love-talk with adults, I’ve decided this. I can sit on my wicker chair with Firanca, the mother who is staying with me now, and I can love-talk and gaze and gaze and sometimes we catch each other checking the clock, which binds us on account of Phillip’s breathing medicine. Phillip is her oldest, and he understands charity, but not enough to hate me for it. Veronica is the youngest, a wanderer.
Toys are nothing like what I would have imagined them to be back in the days when I believed fathering would be something that befell and captured me, like mist. But here at this age in which I’m uncovering the bearable secret of diminishing lust, children’s things cover up my floor. Teaspoons and hollow tape cassettes and floppy leather purses.
Firanca’s two children are up in their beds making the air clammy with their breath. Firanca and I take turns with the medicine. When I creep in to administer it, four-year-old Phillip wakes, his rattling vanishes, and without it, I hear the whispers from Veronica’s nostrils. Phillip’s eyes stay closed, but he opens his mouth. After he swallows, I do not lie him down right away, but cradle him for a moment in the musty dark. In my arms, his breath will be silent, and, among the susurrus of Veronica’s breath, I can sometimes hear the sound of our sea’s little waves.
One morning, I asked Phillip did he remember taking the medicine each night. He didn’t. Which meant, I guessed, that the cradling was also lost on him, but I didn’t have the heart to ask.
Firanca, who doesn’t think she’ll need my help much longer, doesn’t know what to believe. On the radio or from my mouth. She is ancient for a fertile woman, forty-three, and what she would like to maintain is the old way of thinking, but she can’t remember exactly what it was. It was harder, of this we’re both certain, though our old ways are the old ways of different countries. Even so, we know you could be hungry following those ways. And the world was more rich with smells, though mostly we remember them as foul.
“But it could be us,” Firanca says. “The olfactory sense is the most complex.”
“Because it leads us to back to memory and gives us a way to escape the present?”
“Who wants to escape the present?”
“I do,” I say. “I spend all my hours without children in them returning to my childhood.”
“And you think this is escaping the present?”
Firanca plucks the cherry from my bowl. I watch her chew and think she is heartless because she believes in everything.
When I hear such news as a crumpled-up girl, still living, in a way, among the debris of her family, when I hear she is found with the ribbons of a festival still in her hands, without mother or father or any member of her family or the use of her legs, I think of the children who stay in my home, the ones I help on their way to somewhere else. But I don’t think of them in the first moment. For the second prior to thinking of these children, I think about myself, and in my thoughts, I am a child.
In many ways, this child of my own self-pity resembles the physical one I know from pictures of my youth. It is, for one, sitting or walking or merely floating in ambient ether on the far side of this globe, not too much further from the North Pole than I am now from the South. For another, it is round-faced and shorter-limbed, as I don’t doubt I once was. But the innocence of it is wrong, is invented. For as far back as I can remember, I was never innocent. The details of what is worst were lost on me, as they sometimes, quite mercifully, still are, but I knew in the way I believe three-year wandering Veronica knows, that I was something insignificant which did not want to be.
But knowing I was not innocent doesn’t change a thing. I still end up wallowing over this childhood I’ve created. Midway into recognizing the shamefulness of my indulgence, I don’t stop myself and seek out the truth in my own heart. Not even in my own heart. Let it lie buried there, I think in a stolen and misdirected rage, like that girl who was buried up to her neck.
And I do not put the children in my house in the same situation as this girl on the radio. I may allow the bombs to fall upon this far-off corner of the world, but they will not pierce this roof. They will land out in the paddocks and cast the cattle into the sea, but my home is safe, it must be safe, even in my own imagination.
And when I hear the tremors of earthquakes approach like a flash of hail over the mountains, I run for the children and pile them in the doorway, but it is not to save their lives. This is the drill, that’s all. Preparation for the danger that will befall them in some other place. Here there is no danger. Here there is only comfort. Fresh bread, clean floors. The view to the slate-gray sea.
And when I hear of this girl among the debris, when the radio says her name is Maris and that she is four and that she excels in reading or that Maris is crying out for someone who will not come, even days after the bomb has stopped falling, and that she is still crying, still capable of excelling in reading if she turns again to books, I want to broadcast my own dreams back across these airwaves in return. I want to tell Maris and all the listening world how I am still lost in the dark in my sleep, and my father is still alive, still driving us through tall grass, though I’m screaming violently for him to go backwards, to go back, to stop.
“Please, Daddy, stop,” I say. But only in dreams. I do not talk in my sleep, I do not run out in my dead-end street and yell madly in my foreign accent. And in the end, I am glad I stay silent and listen until the story passes and the next one begins, and I may release myself to go out to my back porch and stand there looking into the darkness, expectantly.
One day, Phillip and Veronica’s grandmother comes up from Wellington on the bus. Firanca, who says she does not love her mother and it’s not my business why, is not here when the taxi arrives. She is down in town, ambling along the road where her daughter often wanders, loitering, I bet, in the diary. Flicking stones at trees, as I’ve seen her doing in my garden.
The grandmother introduces herself as Mrs. Preston. On the doorstep she thanks me, and I show her to the back porch, where the children have disobeyed me.
I say, “I told you not to eat all the biscuits.”
But now they are running toward Mrs. Preston’s legs and she is bracing herself on the wicker chair.
I say, “I’ll let you catch up,” and then I wait for someone to disagree with me. For someone to point out that this is my house and I am like a father to these children and I can stay if I’d like to, but no one says this, and I feel shameful enough to leave all on my own.
From inside the French doors, I see three-year-old Veronica talking. I can’t hear a word she says, just see her mouth moving and moving and moving like it almost never does. Now, as I watch, I see she is crying. Her head falls upon her brother’s lap, and Mrs. Preston’s hand upon his head. A Rubens painting of the refugee family. Behind them, the sky cooperates. Shafts of lights dropping from black clouds upon the black water. The crooked limbs of bare spring trees.
I’m meant to help, to care, nurture, but not to love. One mother told me this, back when I first opened my house to wayward children and their guardians. It was winter, and we were sitting in front of the gas heater in my great room. We were drinking tea, and this woman, Jenny was her name, said, “You can care for them, but you’re not meant to love them.”
I thought of her children upstairs. The youngest was named Maya. What Maya loved to do was touch my face. Jenny thought this was rude, and she would slap Maya when she did it. Not hard, you understand. A little whack on the hand to make her see. Something from the old ways.
In the moment before Jenny had said that about caring for them without loving them, I had been thinking of Maya’s hot fingers on my cheeks. I had been thinking in that way that was a memory and a longing at once.
When I think of Maya, this is what I still feel. Her palm sewn together of rumpled proteins. That touch is gone, but, thinking of it, I find myself still waiting to feel it again.
I’m not meant to love, and yet I do. This is the secret I keep that everyone knows. But a secret is not what is unknown, only what it is unsaid.
Down on the road to the beach, I meet up with wise Firanca. She is walking with a much younger woman, and the younger woman is carrying a picnic basket. This woman is a mother, I think, before meeting her. There is no clue to this in the woman’s bearing. Nothing about her appearance. I simply know.
“Risa,” the woman says. I take her hand, and by the way she touches me, I know Firanca has been talking about me to her. I also know this woman needs my help. She has children and memories she thinks I don’t want to hear. Maybe she has heard the story of Maris, of the ribbons in her hands, and, hearing this, has examined again the shadows of violence in her life.
I tell Firanca that her mother is still up there. She’s getting on famously. Veronica is weeping and Phillip is filled with sudden affection for her. Then, together, the three of us walk the way I was headed down to the water.
The beach is empty and the sky is almost black. There is no longer any trace of the sunlight I saw from my pack porch. The water is rusty foam and even from a distance, it chills me. The wind makes it impossible to talk, so the three of us stare. At each other, for a moment, and then in front of us again.
There is no sun to make out, but the shade of gray changes in the sky, and after a while a jeep comes driving up the beach, speeding in the mist off the sea. By the tightening of our bodies, I see that all of us understand we are not seen. But this beach is littered with driftwood logs, and seeing this, my shoulders fall. Because the driver thinks we are wood, we will be spared.
After the jeep turns and heads back up onto the road, Firanca says she thinks her mother is probably gone by now. She says this to Risa, not me, and I know it is a way of telling Risa that what she hopes about me is true. I can be here alone on the beach with her, with her children, in my house, where the doors lock and I hold all the keys.
Risa and I begin walking. The wind is picking up, pelting us with bits of sand, and so we go along with our eyes half-closed, stumbling so that the corner of her picnic basket meets my ribs, and my bare feet come down, painfully, on hers. Walking this way, climbing half over each other in blindness and silence, we end up out of sight of the road and of the white glint of the corrugated roofs beyond the dunes. We end up around a corner, on a narrow beach under pines.
We go to the edge of the dunes and Risa puts down her basket, and when I look back at the sea, it is nearly dark. The clouds roil and sag, and out on the water, it looks like it’s raining. Then the wind cracks the pines over our head, and I recognize where we are. Firanca and I followed Veronica to this point once when she wandered.
I say, “Firanca’s daughter wanders. She’s only three, but she’s a terrible walker.”
“I know,” says Risa. “She told me.”
“She wandered here,” I say. “We once found her right here.”
Then out in front of us, a window opens in the cloud. A portal to stars and clean black space. Beneath it, the sea hisses and crashes and runs nearly up to our feet, but only I seem to notice this. Risa, I see, is staring. A sheet of cloud is already covering up the hole, and she’s staring. She’s staring up at this tiny patch of stars. On a clear night, who would see them, but tonight we are astonished. Three, four, five, a box and handle. Cart, dipper, torso and tail, ship and sail.The smell of pines comes out of the trees, and we hear the sound of the branches rubbing, shushing us, though there’s no need. We are quiet. Quiet as the cloud closes on the sky. Quiet as the sound of voices comes down the beach. It’s a family out for an evening walk, though we can’t see them. We can only hear the screaming of girls as they run, as they come toward us, screaming and fleeing, right here on this side of the world.
Thomas Gough is the pen name of Thom Conroy, an American who teaches creative writing at Massey University in New Zealand. His fiction has appeared in various journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Quarterly West, and Connecticut Review. (3/2008)