Until now I’d heard it enough that I half-believed it, but everything finally lined up. The underlying fraudulence I’d always felt – the same I’d cement over with a smile and ‘thank you’ as I did here – burst forth, flooding out any notion that I may have been a worthwhile parent.
With Shannon toe-walking between colonial graves in the tight yard outside Trinity Church, Newport’s Congregational, I shuffled along, holding an arm out whenever she needed ballast. Yellow tassels dangled from overhead oaks where a pair of migrating warblers gamboled, while lower, a robin knocked a white petal off a streetside dogwood, sussing out a nest site.
Shan knew this place. We’d walked Newport nearly every day of her four years, drawing everything from tacit scorn to pop-eyed bewilderment. Now, though, older, her autism had bloomed enough that people understood. When the woman paused on her way down to the shops on Thames Street, then, she added to the line of over-the-years, well-intended comments.
“Hi. I’ve seen you two for a while. I just wanted to say you’re a very loving parent.”
I looked up, grateful for the sun-forced squint.
“Thank you, Miss. That’s very kind.”
Prying an eye long enough to make contact, I returned her nod. Shan tugged a sleeve then hopped atop a flat grave while the woman turned and headed toward Thames. Still flushed from early morning just a few hours before, I half-thought to run her down and make the correction.
The joke, God’s joke, came to me when I was eleven, maybe twelve, taking less than a second to tell. A neighborhood pond had frozen just right and a dozen or so of us played hockey. We’d either lost the puck or never had one, and an errant pass sent the tennis ball skipping toward the inlet, the warm springs of which had left an opening. Someone’s dog, a golden retriever –bull-headed, male, with the breed’s signature congeniality – chased after. I told the others I’d go, leaving me alone with the dog.
The ball rolled into brush just to the right of open water. I didn’t skate well, but the ice hampered the animal, though not quite enough. Thirty yards from the other kids, then, I carved a stop just outside thin ice, a few feet from the golden, who chomped the ball and stared.
Having been around dogs since birth I knew the come-chase-me posture. No malice, no guile, no ploy, only amicable mischief, and at any other moment – any split-second of my life – I would have obliged. Instead, I shook, or something shook me. My eyes blanked and the stick started up. The dog reared his head. Turning, he dropped the ball and retreated, then turned again to lay on the ice, tail still, nestling his jaw between clenched forelegs. Flattening his ears, he looked to the ice.
“Come on,” someone shouted.
Still quaking, I reached the stick out, teasing the ball off thin ice before turning and slapping it toward the others. Skating that way, I looked back. The dog hadn’t moved. He was the only one that knew, knew that if we’d been just steps closer I would have shattered that stick over his head and speared him with the remains simply to get a ball. I knew, too, and didn’t forget. A couple years later, in high school when I read Lord of the Flies, it only did what the best works do, confirmed what I knew through experience. If there was no rotting pig’s head on the ice that day, there was certainly a voice:
“It’s all so nice, isn’t it? But now you know. If I move things at all, just an inch either way, everything reverts.”
Such an encounter takes things out of you. For most of my life I rarely lost my temper, never for long, fearful of those shivers that dog unwittingly induced. For a time I even thought I’d beat it, but throughout that time I’d never been a parent.
I’d come close, but had never snapped. Not long before the woman passed the graveyard, though, with dawn breaking back at our apartment, the incidents of near-boiled blood over the last four years combusted. Shan’s little sister Flannery slept with Karen downstairs, and with Karen working I usually got up to try and quell our daughter’s many night spasms.
Shan is primitive, nearly wildlife, and can elicit a reciprocal state. She’d already been up a handful of times, screaming for God knows why. Nights had passed this way and with light breaking I knew she’d be up for the remainder.
At four she was still small, tiny, and I seized her armpits, full-forcing her chest twice against mine. Air went out of her and I did in rage what I’d done so often in love. I squeezed. Deep pressure soothes many autistic people, Shan included, with her hips a preferred point. Instead of slow and methodical, however, I flipped her round and jammed her hip against mine. Making a vice of my elbow, I grabbed that same wrist with my other hand and torqued. Air once again shot out of her and I ground her pelvis between my body and arm with a mind toward pulp. Aware enough not to scream, I put my mouth to her cheekbone and growled in a tone I didn’t know I had.
“Jesus Lord God why can’t you shut up? Just shut up for once in your miserable, stinking, little life.”
I’d had an enduring suspicion that if Shan would ever understand a language it would be on-the-hoof savagery, the pre-speech violence of our distant forebears. Whether it was that or the squeezing I don’t know, but the screaming stopped. Needing air and motion, trees and open sky, I sat her on the bed and dressed, then grabbed her and left. Newport’s narrow, colonial streets – so familiar – seemed alien, and with Shan rested on my forearm, tight against my chest with legs dangling, I traversed them back and forth, having walked five, maybe six miles by the time we settled among the graves.
Long before we knew Shan wouldn’t speak I walked her for miles a day in a Bjorn, sometimes reciting whatever poetry I could remember. Bits of Shakespeare, John Keats’ To Autumn, some Robert Frost, fragments of others, William Blake’s The Tiger among them. It’s juvenilia, wrapped by the sinister theology eventually constricting us all:
Tiger Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
How does God, or any creative force, enmesh such beauty with such horror, such love with such fury? Blake describes a tiger, but only to address the same equation within us.
Beneath the sun three gray squirrels hustled each other up the yard’s lone beech, winding round the great trunk in a train. The adjacent bell tower rang eight times, sending the smallest squirrel scrambling to a branch while the others carried on, rasping bark. The woman was gone, absorbed by morning, leaving us alone.
Done with her tomb fumblings, Shan pulled my arm. Hoisting her, I sat on a humped beech root, letting her clamber along my body, squeezing my brows and nose, smiling, grunting and drooling. If she remembered the dawn eruption there was no sign, and anyone walking by might have been stirred by the same tender display that had moved the woman to speak moments ago. Shan, of course, couldn’t speak. The shock, though, was there I knew, free to roam her hermetic interior like an asteroid knocked from its belt, rippling galaxies, searing worlds, crashing into things.
Uneasy, now, with her affections, I tickled her chest while looking around. The season’s first butterfly, a mourning cloak, entered the yard, looping its unsteady career. Milky brown, blue drops pearling yellow borders, it settled on a sarcophagus, dabbling lichen.
Shan grabbed my ears and pulled my face to hers. Hefted with kelp and salt, a harbor breeze came up and I slid my cheek alongside my daughter’s, praying to gods I didn’t know that nothing would ever again move an inch either way. Looking down, I watched the butterfly lift then disappear into the beech limbs, seeking sap, leaving Shan alone with me and whatever organism I encased, the one that had just winked its reminder.