Greatly appreciative of Autism Speaks for posting this on their blog, about how our typical and atypical daughters work off each other to inform our lives in a much deeper way than would otherwise be likely:
With an eye on Shannon thirty yards down the slough, I closed the few strides to Flannery. Each daughter sat on a mud bar, with Shan hurling fistfuls of silt to the rising brine while Flan constructed her diorama. Salt from an ocean dip laced our skin as the sun drew out more in sweat, and I watched a small, oval shadow pass through Shannon toward me and her younger sister. Expecting a gull, I looked up, watching the osprey’s mottled breast and cocked, gilded eyes scan the channel before gliding across the road to the bay, for the richer odds of menhaden schools or a sun-drowsed, surface-drawn fluke.
“Here, Flan,” I said, dropping three dozen broken reed lengths next to a cross-legged, mud-spattered knee. “For your church.”
“Thanks, Dada,” she said, poking a reed stem in the salted mud, a finale to one of several structures in the growing village. “I’m going to do the church next.”
Taking another look at Shan, I snapped twice and clicked my tongue, something I’d done since I could remember. Speechless and autistic, it’s a way to remind her we’re still around. Sometimes she turns, mostly she doesn’t. Here she just kept on with her fun.
Whispering past her, another tide pulse silked along either channel bank, dug years ago when engineers reworked a salt marsh to make one of Newport’s beaches more attractive. Despite the reconstitution, the ditch network still functions mostly as a marsh, having re-naturalized enough to mask the long ago tread ruts and odd hydraulic clefts. Embedded, then, within salt grass roots, ribbed mussels lined both banks in cobblestone veins while a mixed school of sheepshead, mummichogs, and sticklebacks – mink-wary, kingfisher-wary, young striper-wary – foraged mosquito larvae beneath the cut bank across from Flan’s budding church. Flushed with the pulse, the aroused school disbanded a bit before re-cinching, excited by the liberties the deepening water afforded.
Blue crabs, too, normally offshore, were in to spawn. As with much marine life, the marshes are a nursery to them. Skitching sidelong our way, two materialized from the morass of rotted spartina along the channel bottom. Claws clenched below shell-socked eyes, one followed another in pursuit, their collective legs trailing a single cloudbank that with the tide dispersed upstream. Shannon must have seen them, too preoccupied with her repetitive splashing to care, but Flan, I knew, would want to catch them. Ill-tempered to start, the strong-clawed creatures would be particularly testy now. Luckily, I had a story to tell.
“In a second two crabs are going to scuttle right by us. Just watch them, ok?”
Shan pitched another double fistful of sand, kneading her fingers in time with the ripples. Despite this, an egret – blank white – poised where the channel bent just before the freshwater impoundment berm. Motionless, the bird fixed, awaiting a mistake by the increasingly careless baitfish.
“Can’t we catch the crabs, Dada?,” Flan asked, ignoring her church a moment to look in the channel.
“Not these, honey. They’re super feisty.”
“Super-super. When you were in Mama’s belly Shannon tried to pick one off the beach. I put my hand down first and it pinched this finger and made a dent. It wouldn’t let go.”
“Did you cry?”
“I thought about it.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Ok, I didn’t, but Mama laughed when she saw my face. It hurt, and if one grabbed your little hand it would hurt even more.”
“Ok, but can I see them?,” she said, standing.
“Sure, they’re right there.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, look.”
The follower hadn’t made progress, just keeping pace as the two passed by.
“They’re blue,” Flan said. “like the ocean.”
“They sure are. They mostly live out there, but come in here to have babies. Remember last year, on the dock in town, when it looked like it was snowing underwater?”
“Oh yeah. Those were the crab babies. The lady told us. They looked like little ghosties. You see those two little sticks next to each other?,” she said, pointing back to the village. “They’re going to get married in the church and have babies too.”
Sitting back down, she resumed her construction as the crabs disappeared up channel to clack out whatever randy umbrage was due. Downstream, Shannon hurled another load, laughing, while at the bend the egret snaked its head lower, freezing the bill just above water, an art, I imagined, to veil its telling shadow.
Most times we have the network to ourselves, but the crabs draw attention. Hearing male voices – boys’ – within the reeds to the left of the egret, I looked. The vegetation screened them, but a hunk of meat arced up then down, tethered by fishing line.
“Not there, idiot. There. Ahead of them.”
“What? There’s two right there.”
Shan continued with her sand, laughing with the new sounds. We’re lucky. It might be the severity of her condition, but sudden noises or unexpected strangers don’t upset her as is common. Such things, in fact, often baffle her to giddiness. For her part, Flan heard too.
“What are those boys doing, Dada?,” she asked, craning.
“Fishing, Flan. Or at least crabbing. People catch the crabs to eat when they come in to have babies.”
“No. Just chicken and string. The crabs pinch and don’t let go. The people pull them right in.”
“Do they pinch the people?”
“Sometimes, I think. I’ve never done it.”
Something plunked near the egret, a deep slurp, forcing the bird into heavy air. Flapping our way, it peeled, gliding up and over the impoundment, gold legs stretched behind. In the scrub willow shading the berm a yellow warbler blistered out a few scolding notes, while the male, sun yellow, flew ten yards then perched in full view, trying to distract from the nest. The boys, though, didn’t notice.
“Let me have it. I caught the first one.”
“Yeah, then you tangled the line.”
“Seriously. Why’d you jump? It didn’t even pinch you.”
“They’re up here,” a fourth said, coming into view along the pool the egret vacated, stopping where the channel legs made their right angle. “Just bring everything here.”
Emerged from crunching, swaying reeds, one kid came out followed by two, all filing behind the first, who still stared in the pool. Two carried buckets, setting them down when the lead raised a lithe, sun-darkened arm.
“Ten. There. Give me the bait.”
The rear kid complied, passing the rig from one set of hands to the next. When it reached the lead he took it then tossed in the chicken. Drawn to Shan’s movement and laughter ten yards off, the two middle kids turned. With Shan scooping sand I snapped and clicked. The boys pivoted back, watching the line as the lead kid teased the bait, jiggling an upstretched hand.
“He’s got it! He’s got it!,” one shouted.
“Jesus,” the handler said. “These things are so stupid.”
“Jerk it,” the fourth said.
“No, that’s what you guys do. Slow and steady. That way you don’t rip it away.”
Stepping back, he beached two crabs. Flan, straining, couldn’t see. I hoisted her to my shoulders, where she watched the three rear kids crowd the catch. One stretched a bucket lengthwise along the bar while another tried to herd. The third reached, then hopped away, provoking collective laughter from the wranglers. Having spooled the line, the catcher threw the meat in the reeds.
“Hurry,” he said. “We have to go.”
Lowering Flan, I set her back in the mud. Beach peas were in bloom, spackling the diminutive dunes encasing the channel with white-tipped, lavender lobes. Buzzing softly, bumble bees fussed among them.
“See the bees, Flan, in the flowers?”
Nestled before her half done church, she stuck the two reeds in the floor, side by side.
“Will they kill the crabs, Dada?”
“They will, Flan. But it’s ok. They’ll go to heaven.”
“Ready for the wedding?,” she said.
“Ok. This is the girl, and this is the boy.”
As she went through her paces, I turned. Shan had quieted, running fingertips the length of her bare legs as she does, staring at water, staring at sky. Further down the kids had bucketed the crabs. By the silhouettes it looked like they had four or five. One boy peeled back the lid, poking a stick in.
“Come on. Hit it. You’ll never kill it that way.”
“Here. You do it.”
The one who caught the final two was in the water, up a little ways toward Shan. Hunched, he wrenched something loose then stood, dripping, holding half a rusted sign post. Splashing ashore, he approached the others, pointing.
“Pop the lid.”
One did. Inside the bucket shadows tried to scale the sides. Poised above, the boy torqued five times, jabbing, then dropped the post, walking toward us.
“Come on. I said we have to go.”
Gear in hand, the others fell to walking.
Taking a half step from Flannery, I placed a hand on her head, asking what the priest was saying. Shan, still stroking her legs, never turned as the kids marched by, bucket hinges squeaking. Before they reached Flan and me the boys angled, gaining the faint trail to the beach. Pocking the sand single-file, they left a lone tread and were gone. Flan went on with her story. Squatted beside her, I watched Shannon. Two cabbage white butterflies twirled about her legs before scripting over the channel, settling into flowers.
“The water’s still now. Slack, like you said.”
She was right. The tide had stopped. Baitfish moved in a dark cloud, strays daring away, while from somewhere down the bend a kingfisher rattled. Undulating into view, it perched on a willow across from where the kids had been then shook its crest. Bowing, it began its vigil. For an hour, maybe less – I never remember – the marsh would repose before everything turned, flushing things ready and unready out to sea.
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.
Perched on the second highest of five granite steps, I palmed the sweating slab while the old factory floor above, limestone it seemed, leached drops onto my back and shoulders from thin, chalky stalactites. A cutout let sun in just behind me, where ages ago the steps, for some reason, allowed river access. Below, Shannon flicked water from the shaded pool where she sat to the nearest of several drying in the sun. Droplets rained with each aimed shot, and as she does she cocked her head to study the patterns with a single eye, usually the left. When a given outlay piqued her, she let out a sustained curdle, something like a tree frog’s. The handful of people in the narrow, shallow gorge looked over the first few times, but by now had grown accustomed.
Further out, where gravity alone coaxed the current along, Shan’s little sister Flannery hopped from boulder to ledge to boulder, dipping in and out of pools fed by dying, offshoot rills. Steeped in shade, I called over.
“Careful, Flan. Remember: dry rock walk, wet rock sit and slide.”
“Look, Da-Da, look!,” she said. “I’m an otter!”
Laying her bare chest on the algae mat blanketing a rock, she slid to the pool below, pressing moisture from the tangle as she did. Coming up, she knelt beneath the ledge, taking the dripping water and shaking.
“This is how otters take baths, Da-Da.”
“Now catch a fish, Otter.”
Puffing her cheeks, she submerged, then popped up, hoisting a stick.
In the drop below, where throughout spring white torrents churned down to the bridge, a girl, twelve or so, lolled in chest high water. Floating on her back, she spun, legs needled to the sky before frog-kicking toward bottom. Re-ascending, she eased her face through the surface then waded ashore, tilting to wring water from a rope of red-blonde hair.
The main current filled the pool, falling over the ledge in a sheet, a pattern repeated in four or five successive catches until the water slowed from the first of three dams beyond the bridge. In the pool below the girl, an elderly woman tended three boys. Their wet, black hair glossed in the sun, matching the sheen on five hickory-perched crows surveying us from the opposite bank. The tree’s broad, green leaves mingled with the red-tinted ones of adjoining maples, the first of the season to turn. Beneath, just outside the wire fence, someone had parked a red pickup along the cul-de-sac. A young woman, one arm dyed in tattoo, opened the passenger side, the fourth such in the hour we’d been here. Vanished behind tinted windows a while, she exited like the rest.
In the river the two youngest boys sat in the shallows, fiddling with plastic toys, while the oldest, an early teen, dangled his legs over the ledge where the pool drained, holding a fishing rod to the water below. The squat, graying woman sat on a blanket, smiling and muttering to the oldest. Between the distance, my limited Spanish, and the murmuring falls I didn’t pick much up, but did hear her say it was too hot to fish.
The only other person here, the girl’s father I guessed, sat in a lawn chair in line with the crows. Just inside the fence, he’d found a flat spot beneath a gnarled apple tree, one that younger hardwoods were sun-starving. Arms folded, he pressed his one boot firmly on the ground. The other leg was gone, sheared at the groin, with crutches laying either side of the chair. Ten years younger than me, maybe more, his red beard nevertheless tipped he’d gone gray where men do first, in the chin. Occasionally looking down at the girl from beneath a black ball cap, he mostly stared downstream, where around the bend, in the pair of long, high, granite buildings that still remained, his grandfather, grandmother too maybe, likely filled out their lives among hissing pistons and twirling bobbins, spinning thread.
At five, Flan understood now that I had to be near Shannon, and she busied herself turning over what stones she could, looking for nymph life. Shan – who unwittingly brought us here when I hooked into a weedy parking lot behind main street to change a leaky diaper – still slung her water. After the long, weekly drive from Rhode Island and her intense therapy the sight of the river had been too much, and we slipped through a torn flap in the fence, skirting the sun-cooked factory floor – veined in dandelions and fireweed – to the water. Dumb luck for me she picked the steps and shade, and I’d caverned here like a desert snake.
In a mesh of river rocks and crumbled floor bits, a fish spider – gray, hirsute – clenched beside a crevice, while above it a half cup of lichen and moss was spittled to a support pillar, a phoebe nest. With the chicks gone and Flan having seen enough beneath bridges and pavilions that spring, I didn’t bother calling her. Without words to explain or birds to see, I let Shan be as well. Water soothes her, and would, I knew, cleanse whatever diarrhea I’d missed, especially with the upwell. Cut off from the river, this pool nevertheless had a spring, and algae tresses lapped Shan’s naked legs like eels while a crayfish, aroused by disrupted silt, emerged behind her, whisking its antennae.
Like so many New England place names this one – Willimantic – is a Native mash-up, meaning ‘where the swift waters run’. With Shannon having started therapies here a year before, we’d driven over the river once a week since. Hemmed by dams upstream and down, this stretch likely lacks its original punch, but still, from the bridge, it’s a sight.
The dams went in maybe two hundred years before and I doubted a sea-run fish had been upstream since, but under the factory remains I could blank out everything, even my daughters, and see them, the salmon, bunched in every pool, silver shading to bronze, itchy and ripening. They needed rain, enough to gain the cascades to spawn. Only forests clouded the banks, dank, rank forests stuffed with chestnut and elm alongside centuries old maple and oak.
People met the fish, Lord knows from which tribe, maybe one of those running the nearby casinos now. Some netted, some speared, some draped split carcasses over cottonwood racks, feeding smoke fires. At dusk, with the people gone, an otter pack chirped while a black bear sloshed, and wolves – out of their wares, sloshing themselves – snarled at one another’s ineptitude. Later, upstream beneath the Milky Way, a cougar padded along a worn timber. Setting over the eddy, it waited.
“Da-Da!,” Flannery shouted. “Da-Da! Come look! I found a monster!”
It’s a struggle to give Flan equal time, but knowing Shannon would be content for a while I risked leaving. Slipping out from under the old factory, then, I broke off a few dewy stalactites with a clumsy shoulder then stepped around Shan, standing in the sun to stretch, working out some newfound mid-aged stiffness. In the pool just a silt puff marked the burrow where the crayfish had scuttled.
Step-stoning more than walking, I reached Flan, bending to her cusped hands. Still not used to glasses, I’d forgotten them, but the bug was big enough that its outsized eyes and spade-shaped thorax gave it away.
“Holy Cow, Flan. That’s a dragonfly nymph – a baby, a dragonfly baby.”
“A dragonfly baby? Where’s its mama? Is that her singing in the trees?”
Always present, the katydids had escalated their hums, weaving songs throughout the young hardwoods in a collective tremolo.
“I don’t think so, Flan. Even though this is a baby its mama probably laid it as an egg two or three years ago.”
Slate gray, the nymph crept in Flan’s drained palms, seeking water, seeking dark.
“Is she dead? The mama?”
“It’s hard to say, Flan. Maybe.”
Shannon shrieked, a happy sound, and I turned to see her gape at plump splashes in her one-eyed way. Above her our car sat cock-eyed among ribbons of grass sprung from rifted pavement. The church beyond, a Congregational, maybe Methodist, loomed over adjacent stores. A half dozen chimney swifts crisscrossed one another around the steeple, gliding on several wing pumps apiece before coasting, exciting one another for the pending migration. One slipped through a missing steeple slat before re-emerging through another. I looked back to tell Flan, but she’d turned, having released the nymph to resume her searching.
The eldest boy had stopped fishing. Resting his elbows on the lip of the upstream pool, he looked up at the girl.
“You ready for high school?”
“I guess. Same stuff, different building, right?”
“Right. You’re ready.”
“Jaime,” the woman said. “Ayudar sus hermanos. Quieren pescar.”
Rolling his eyes, the boy smiled, then turned. Playing with their boats, his brothers sat in the river as before. Smiling and knitting, the woman looked at the oldest, gesturing to the fishing pole laying on the rocks.
“Ayudar sus hermanos. Es la hora perfecta para pescar.”
Picking up the rod and sitting, the boy dropped his line to the pool below.
On the bank one crow then another stepped off their hickory branches and dropped into the gorge, followed by the remainder. Gliding downstream, the sun molted each black back to purple, then back to black then again. The man had started them. Having gathered his crutches, he stood on the one leg.
“Come on, Em. We have to go.”
Toweling off, the girl looked up.
“Sorry, hun. I told your mom you’d be back by now, and I have an appointment tonight.”
The apple tree curved dead and living branches all around him, further pocking what light the hardwoods let through. A descendant from when orchards were the only trees in these valleys, its few scabby crabs clung to here-and-there limbs while the clambering girl sent a pair of early drops tumbling downslope. Having folded the chair, the man handed it to his daughter, who steadied a palm on his back as he crutched the few feet uphill. A brown sedan pulled in behind the pickup, and as the girl eased her dad through the torn fence a man in a brown blazer got out and tapped a truck window. A door opened, and he stepped in.
“Da-Da,” Flan said. “Look.”
The isolated pool she hunted was deep enough, and she slipped beneath the surface with her arms breast-stroking in unison with her legs. I’d never seen her swim with such ease. Putting her hands on a rock at my feet, she pushed her face through the surface.
“I’m a seal now.”
Her smile was a comfort. Brush-ups with mortality, recently, such as the missing dragonfly mother, often bore into her a little too deep.
“You certainly are,” I said.
Sitting on an exposed rock, she crossed one leg over another and leaned back, looking upstream, while over by the old factory floor her sister had stopped splashing. Having lowered into the pool, only her face and feet were above water, a common repose that would give me and Flan a bit more time, how much I couldn’t know.
Beyond the water spilling from one ledge to the next, nothing in the gorge seemed to move. Even the sticks and grasses Flan had just rippled round the edges re-settled to still life, belying the inevitable as the fall rains approached. Past the bridge, the first dam’s static hum boiled away. Even that, though, would end. Like most New England dams, these are in terminal neglect, and either a hurricane or one freshet too many will see them fall. We forget that. Water can be diverted, channeled, even stayed for a time, but it only knows one direction, and eventually finds its way.
There were five of them in the neighborhood, Rose-of-Sharons, five not fenced anyway, and I sat Shannon down among the dropped blossoms of the one alongside the Baptist church. Crickets fiddled from untended foundation edges while a siren ramped up by the hospital, then faded. Beyond that everything, even Shannon, was quiet.
Streetlight here is minimal, but the hundred or more white, rolled-cigar petal falls all around her picked up what they could to mark their scattershot pattern, the way tide-shuffled moonstones do on the beach when we nightwalk there. Though less dependent on ritual than most autistic kids, Shan still craves it, and even in this, her fourth year, these petals had become an ephemeral favorite.
Sleep comes late for her, with commotion her only path to it. Newport’s nightlife bustles into September, and she’d enjoyed the ice cream shops and blinking arcade, the street most of all, sounding like a snared raccoon throughout, but after the pleasant, muggy walk in my arms back to our quieter blocks she needed familiar objects and manufactured patterns of her own, a way to gently absorb, we think, all she takes in.
Shaking the branches above her to rain down thirty more flowers, I stooped, sweeping blossom bunches between her bare feet before stepping away. Ever wordless, she scooped, spreading two handfuls wide before dropping, seeing whatever she saw as the lavender-tipped cylinders re-settled on the sidewalk. This would take us to midnight, I knew, when I’d creep back in the apartment to lay her down without fuss, the only way we had of giving Karen and our one-year old Flannery the peace they needed, a routine we’d stumbled upon in March and had practiced since. Bending occasionally to re-pile flowers, I otherwise listened to crickets while surveilling the small city night.
Like anywhere, dark here makes a difference. Well back from Thames Street, where we’d just been and tourists thronged, and far enough from Broadway, where locals cavort, these residential blocks aren’t busy by day but are near stillborn at night. Wildlife, though, does move, and in walking Shan all those late hours it was common to see more skunks and possums than people. Still, I had an eye out. There had been several beatings in recent months, one close to fatal, all at night. Teenage kids stirring what teenage kids do it was hoped, but the race riots flaring around the country brush-stroked the obvious overtones. Shan’s ten fingers curled around two more flower loads before her hands divided. Studying what patterned out as the petals dropped, she cooed.
Rearing her face skyward, she twisted her head side to side like a sturgeon making a rare surface foray. Agape, she let out another soft syllable as her wall eyes took in whatever Newport’s lights let through.
“Stars,” I said, “stars,”, then watched her dip back to the flowers.
In the street, a ring-necked snake, black, orange-collared, undulated along the curb. The length of a nightcrawler, not much thicker, it stopped, easing its head up to the cement top. I couldn’t see the tongue flicks, but knew they picked up whatever Shan and I emitted. More interested in cricket pheromones, it ascended, ribboning a foot behind my daughter before slipping into the fox gloves and chickweed edging the church. I’d seen enough smooshed into the streets to know they were here, but this was the first live one. Where it vanished the crickets went quiet, just another vignette of all we never see.
Shan had played here before. Even without the flower falls she often clambered out of my arms to busy herself. Earlier that summer a yellow and black butterfly, big, a tiger swallowtail, drew her into to the mulch and weeds, while most times the ant columns kept her on the sidewalk.
A few days before, Sunday, it had been music. The Rose-of-Sharons had started to drop, but the piano lilt coming through the vent windows atop the bricks broke her away. Soon singing accompanied the notes – a voice here, two there, until ten or so, some out of key, unisoned the soft, simple hymn, something more in line with New England’s brimstone pedigree than anything I might have imagined.
Eyes toward the vents, Shannon ambled into the faded wood chips, where the softer matter had leached away years ago. Too gentle for excitement, the tune simply held her in place like a charmed snake. Down the half block by the open church doors members filed in, mostly mid-aged to elderly women, dressed in smart, clamped clothes despite the heat. The bulk wore an odd, box-like hat atop their hair.
When Karen and I moved to Newport we only knew what everyone does, of beaches and mansions, but nothing of its common underbelly. We slipped into it, though, and after years of Shan’s wordless company I’d gleaned bits of its history, mostly abstractions until now.
Yellow-clad, deeply wrinkled, a final congregant hunched in her chair, wheeled by a broad-shouldered man in a blue suit. The two groups chatting at the entrance parted, then nodded, a gesture the woman returned as she wheeled through.
All that summer, further up the neighborhood, Flannery had been doing much of her early walking in a large cemetery, stumbling after cottontails, tweeting at robins, a place where Shan and I had spent God knows how many hours doing the same. Early on, downhill of the weather-blanked colonial stones, past the fresher, more ornate Catholic ones, Shan once staggered around a pink-blossomed cherry tree, one of several shading a patch of tilted markers separate from the rest. “God’s Little Acre” a sign said, payment to slaves and free blacks, and watching the old woman enter the church I wondered if she belonged to that line or a more recent influx, a daughter, say, within the Great Migration, a splinter of which worked the Goat Island torpedo plant when that was necessary. As the church doors closed, the chorus gathered, and before it stopped Shan stepped to the wall, palming its bricks, feeling whatever pulsed in the desiccated clay.
With the deepening night even lights around Thames and Broadway blinked out, clarifying the sky. Cassiopeia’s ‘W’ was up, brightening with the fading summer, while over to the north a cock-eyed Big Dipper showed.
Shan had stopped cooing, a sign of waning. On a house opposite, atop a rusty air conditioner, a slumbering pigeon purred, while footfalls shuffled behind us. Turning, I stepped to the sidewalk’s center, squaring to two figures. If I couldn’t see their faces, though, the outlines indicated women, older ones. Shadowed by the Rose-of-Sharon, I’d started the shorter of the two, but she continued alongside her friend and I moved to the side, unveiling Shannon.
“Hi,” I said, unable to see much of either face.
“Hello,” the taller one said. “We didn’t see you, only her. I thought we’d have to call somebody. She’s getting so big. She really does like flowers, doesn’t she?”
I wasn’t sure when Shan and I had last been apart. Months it seemed, maybe more.
“She does. Yes. I . . . do you know her?”
“We see you around. Everyone does. She’s so sweet. Kind, in spite of it all, isn’t she?”
“Yes. Thank you. Thank you.”
Neither woman talked to Shan nor even gestured to do so, a great relief, and I guessed one or the other had an autistic relative.
“They keep you up late, though, don’t they?,” the shorter one said, eliciting a quiet, collective laugh.
“Yes, they do.”
Shan looked up. Never in my eyes, but up, then raised her hands. Cupping her armpits, I hoisted her to my shoulders.
“Well, you take care of her,” the tall woman said. “God made her special, for you and everyone. She sees what we don’t and doesn’t what we do.”
Crickets tenored, and I shifted a shoulder to better balance my daughter’s weight.
“Yes, Miss. She does. Thank you. Very much. Have a great night.”
“You too,” each said as we split.
On the way home Shannon spilled across my head, asleep, one arm dangled along my cheek. Passing through dark and shadow, through a lone streetlight’s dim purview, I wondered if we’d ever do it, all of us across the world. Lock arms, ball tight, let out a single note. No song, but a hum, something to pierce the clouds and sky, the stars too, maybe the sun, our signal that we’ve had enough, enough of ritual, enough of pattern, enough of all that’s seen and all that isn’t.
If there’s a template for parents raising a child with autism my wife Karen and I likely followed it. Before having kids, neither of us knew much about them. Our first born Shannon smiled on time, walked on time, and said the only handful of words she’d ever say on time. To us, all seemed exhausting but well.
Like so many people, too, we spaced our two kids two years apart. When Karen was eight months pregnant with our second daughter Flannery, then, Shannon’s development had taken a turn toward God knows where, and we spent the next five years as most newly diagnosed families do, in the autism cocoon – reading, sleeping, breathing, battling, and trying to love a condition we soon realized no one on earth truly understands.
Though we eventually emerged to cobble together some sense of normalcy, we’ll always wear the same tinted glasses every autism family does. They color everything. Karen and I see education, faith, each other, social ties, and all of life through the spectrum, Disney movies too, or more accurately how Flannery sees them.
Early on, we read that one of the best things for a child with autism is siblings. In our case this has been infinitely so. Though Shannon, now eight, doesn’t talk or to our knowledge understand language, Flannery speaks enough for both of them, plus ten kids more. She models for Shan, engages her, and is no longer put off when her sister doesn’t reciprocate.
This wasn’t always true, and when Karen took a then three-year old Flannery to her first movie, Frozen, Karen read in her daughter’s body language that Elsa’s and Ana’s story – a girl endowed with precarious magic cutting herself off from her bouncing, joyous little sister – had an acutely personal punch. This carried over, where Flannery has often been a better interpreter of Shannon’s condition than any specialist we’ve known.
Shan enjoys a few short clips from scattered Disney movies, including the Stravinsky segment of Fantasia, where crocodiles chase hippos around. Shannon is only eased by three things for any length of time: water, motion, and countless repetitions of these Disney clips. Not long after her Frozen experience, Flan watched her sister watch the snapping, clacking reptiles, then said, “I think Shannon has a crocodile in her brain. When she’s near water the crocodile is happy, but sometimes the crocodile bites her brain.” It’s become a family staple.
Three years on, with Flan’s understanding of the world and the stories people make of it all the greater, I recently took her to Moana. We loved it for all the reasons everyone did, the great story most of all, but the songs and sturdy themes as well. Flannery, though, was born with her autism-colored glasses and sees much if not all the world through those complicated lenses. Like many children, she ponders slow and deep, and a couple days after Moana she was painting at her easel, then stopped.
“I think Shannon has a green heart,” she said. “A little stone like Te Fiti. Mostly she’s green and flowery and happy, especially in water, but when Maui steals her heart she turns into a lava monster. I wish Maui wouldn’t steal her heart.”
Shannon had taken us through some bruising months. These things come and go, but this stretch had been particularly grueling, both for its length and troubling signs of self-injurious behavior. Most of the time she was fine. We’re quite lucky in that Shan’s core is indeed green and flowery and happy, but when that glowing rock is stolen, the lava balls fly. Two teeth, incisors, were having trouble coming in and were our chief suspect, but as always with autism we simply didn’t know.
Karen works late, and I often have both girls for protracted periods. We go outside mostly, but this was winter. Shannon loves the public, with pools and big box stores being favorites. Usually such outings are pleasantly chaotic. This winter, though, was different. More often than not an hour, sometimes more, would go by without incident before the floor dropped out. She rolled, kicked, screamed, and hit her chin so hard that her eyes often lolled like an imperiled boxer’s. Flannery had been taxed immensely. The calm she needed, the one-on-one attention she craved, were largely unavailable.
Like every neurotypical kid growing up alongside autism, she was attempting to process what no one really can. Story, though, has buoyed people since we drew on cave walls, and we most often apply what we see, hear, and feel in stories to our own lives. To us, then, Flannery has been something of a god, or at least a myth-maker.
Like the vast majority of autism parents, Karen and I are ordinary people contending with a wildly extraordinary child. Though we do research, and listen attentively while professionals detail synapses and connectivity and sensory integration and all the rest, we don’t understand much beyond concept. Flan, though, clarifies. If a crocodile and darkly magical sister un-muddied the waters, a stolen green heart and the ensuing volcanic rage have given us a metaphor to float upon. Whenever Shannon’s normally peaceful waters, then, boil and roar, we know – though it’s not always easily abided – that eventually Maui will repent, and slip that soft, green-glowing gem back where it belongs.
Switchbacking the mealy drifts and softening ice slicks, I found dry rock where I could, comforted by Shannon’s ease up on my shoulders. Though she was six now and had yet to say a word, her intuition often plugged that gap. As soon as we’d stepped off the lip toward Narragansett Bay, then, she’d arrested her bodily fidgets in deference to sensed perils underfoot. Besides, it was time. Equinox had passed, and with the gusty, blizzard-heavy winter finally giving way, the billow of sun, salt, and windless water numbed us through.
Out front, past the outcrops exposed by low slack, the fowl seemed likewise dazed. Eiders, a thousand or more split in three rafts, bobbed in lazy solace. Up top, Shannon shifted. A pair of gulls, silent, yellow-billed, materialized above, tracing sleepy, downward circles to see what might be thefted. Unsatisfied, they made their way over an eider clan and settled, blanching into the white-backed drakes’ patchy albedo.
Bottoming out, I tucked into a favorite channel that only low tide allowed. Winter hadn’t changed a thing. As we came to the top of the tide pool chain Shannon bounced on my shoulders then kicked up her feral vocalizing. Other than shoulder rides, splashing is the only thing that engages her beyond a few seconds, and she threw a leg over my head, hooting and rasping like an owl wrestling a mink. Picking out a bare patch among the mops of bloated bladderwort, I sat her by still water, where she nestled in, dunked a hand, and tasted. Months of chlorine and soapy bathwater evaporated, and her smile pulled one out of me.
“Salt, Shan. Salt.”
Stirring and licking, she quieted, fixed by the sea lettuce draping the slipperier rocks all around. We hadn’t seen green in five months, let alone so much so deep. Trapped sunlight blurbed about each verdant ribbon like bulbous organisms coming out of winter. Whatever they etched in me, Shan’s wordless mind took a deeper hit. She was gone, and I settled on a rock, listening to the feeble swells hush in and out of countless crevices.
Twenty yards off another duck, tiny, squirted through glassy water, flaring its white head patch. A male bufflehead, another winter resident. Waiting for his harem he didn’t wait long, turning to watch four dusky hens snap through the surface. Popcorn ducks Shan’s little sister Flannery calls them. Soon, maybe today, they’d be off, bound for breeding grounds up the coast.
The five ducks turned in unison, pat-patting pink feet before lifting toward the eiders. They’d heard what I did, something I hadn’t in years, air popping its valve. Slick, smooth, and gray, the big-eyed seal head cut a wake around tilted slag. Sipping breath, it dimpled beneath, then as suddenly returned, launching on an outcrop twenty yards away. I hadn’t been this close to one since leaving Alaska, when Karen called years before to say she was pregnant. The animal slid forward, stopped, then lowered its head, deflating into kelp and sun. Like the ducks, it had its calendar. Soon enough the pods would bunch, finning out of the bay for northern pupping waters.
The bears, I thought, would stay, not the seals. For ten years I’d worked for biologists gathering salmon data. Count fish, catch fish, tag fish. All of it was in the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, most on the spawning grounds, where bear tracks, bear scat, bear stench, bears alive were a subcutaneous presence. Trails up and down every creek, muddied from pads and claws and the drip-drop persistence of spruce. Fish carcasses everywhere. Sockeye and chinook, pinks and cohos, bellies torn, roe stripped. Heads on moss, heads on stone, heads in mud. Back bones, rib bones, gill plates. Blood on leaves, blood on rocks. Ivory milt sacs, jay-poached guts, sapling-snagged, dangling. Bodies in half, skins flayed, skulls nipped for brains, and everything, everywhere, even you, rank with rot and abundance.
The dreams come heavy, at night, in day, all winter, where the big, brown, blubbery forms transmute to whatever slumbering brains might make. Moonlit bears, the marbled ones, bathed in aurora, regimenting the tide flats, gold-plated chinook columns filing by, unmolested. The slithering one – bear head, snake body – coiled round your spine, loving, or lethal, hard to say. Bear faces – sleeping, dead, meditative – hung in stars, hung in the moon, inlaid in spruce, in rock, twirling round the blue bergs littering glacial outflow. Now, here, the winter bears, the sow and two yearlings, sloshing downstream with last night’s snow sloughing off spruce, plopping sunny creekwater. Fungused-up and wine-red, the last cohos lilt alone and in pairs, a bit of final protein before the big sleep. Magpies watch, ravens watch, eagles watch, and by the tracks on the near bank you know that wolves, in their way, watch too. With her offspring trailing, the sow slogs forward, passing through each plumed breath, buttressing the glistening rime up and down that greasy coat. You should say something, but don’t. As groggy as her, you’re too bemused anymore to tease real from imagined, and you stand mute, happy among the hybrids.
The seals I saw mostly from afar and rarely dreamt them, not until Shannon anyway. Lined in their liturgies, they crowded the deltas or speckled the ocean just outside, pilfering thronged fish. Sometimes, though, I’d hear those breaking valves close by a canoe or near shore. A head would rear, look, and it wasn’t hard to see it, that old Celtic notion of seals as drowned souls. They’d made a new life, mostly at sea, human when it suited, coming ashore to seduce, kidnap, or play, depending.
Once I took a canoe up a small, winter-barren river. Coming out of the headwaters I hadn’t seen anyone in days and hit the estuary at peak tide. Early March. A few sea-run rainbows, steelhead, ghosted calm water beneath overcast skies. Drawing a stroke, I drifted toward a tight school, scattering them like well-whacked billiard balls, though I was their lesser demon, as just offline of the canoe a submerged, shadowy bulk glided upriver.
Inverted, it rolled, close enough to poke with the paddle, then lifted its lids, where I looked into dark glass looking into me. Flippers flapped and it was gone, silent. I wasn’t a threat, but creatures live by what they see, what they remember, what ancestry couches in mythology. The Natives there, the Tlingit’s, still hunt seals, and a handful of times I watched limp bodies lumped onto skiffs. Looking upriver, I saw the steelhead chaser peer down from bankside alders a hundred yards north. It turned and I turned, and it seemed that was it, though years later, maybe ten, with the bears long faded from New England dreams, Shannon dipped beneath lake water for the first time. Swimming, somehow, comes easy, and as her little form breasted open-eyed for the surface, all I saw was that seal.
With meltwater seeping downslope, the hour lazed on. Focused on the tide pool now, Shannon gazed cock-eyed at the countless ringlets made by flickering fingers. When the water stilled, she re-showered, astounded by patterns whose nuanced distinctions I’d never see. With each spray she hunched over, extending her arms, working ten fingers to shape whatever she saw in those ripples. Hers was about the only motion around. Catatonic, the eiders moved just enough to hold position, while having drifted back in, the buffleheads swayed in like moratorium. The seal, too, seemed dead. Stuffed with squid, maybe a few flounder, its mottled form blended into rock. If I hadn’t seen it haul out, I wouldn’t have seen it all.
We met a woman across the bay, a mother whose teenage son has similar afflictions to Shannon. No words, spoken or understood. Little grasp of, or maybe interest in, customized human bustle, either our practical protocols or kaleidoscopic subterfuge. Such people are uneasy curiosities, revenants from our outset, before language and all that ensued pried us loose, but to passersby they remain just that, primitive baubles, and are as quickly dismissed.
Parents, though, maybe through bias, see more. Orbiting their wordless kids as moons might white dwarves, they lock in, wordless themselves, imbibing through gravity influences language can’t grant, and this mother had an identical perception to my own.
“Seals. Whatever thoughts flow through his mind are seals, swimming deep. They’re his world, but I’ll never know, hear, or understand them.”
“My God,” I said. “Me too.”
With the bay so still, I looked down at Shan, at the wresting fingers, the splashes, her concentration, and speculated on that flippered shadow and light coursing her depths. Unbarnacled by words, by any history but her own, they silk the dark fluid unimpeded, free-forming cosmologies neither I nor anyone I know would think to conceive.
I’ve read seals have gone back. If fossils can be believed, seals and whales and all the rest were on our trajectory, leg-bound, but for some reason turned, inhabiting two realms now, water and air.
As she does, Shan eventually roared. All that input bundles tight, needing release, and she let it out in declarative fashion, re-animating the buffleheads while startling a purple sandpiper, who lifted out of a nearby crevice, peeled, then re-stationed a few ledges down.
With a huff, the seal turreted its head our way, shuttering those black eyes once, then twice. In kind, Shannon reared her own head, swiveling it side to side. So much of the day it seems she has a wasp’s eyes, a dragonfly’s, dialing her hexagonals to find the proper frame. Fixed, she tilted, recording. God knows what they saw in one another, but doesn’t God, all of it, traffic in that unbent light between us? The seal oozed forth, making hardly a crease as it slipped back to water.