“Have you seen these?”
Bright streaks adorn the pages in my wife’s hand. “No,” I say.
She gives me one. “They were hidden behind his nightstand.”
A house sits at the first page’s center. Lightning branches overhead, an explosion nearby. Tiny stickmen flee the carnage. Around the margins, warnings of DANGER. Small-print narratives detail the destruction of mudflows and firestorms.
“There’s more.” My wife unrolls a torn page of construction paper. No pictures here, just our son’s unmistakable scrawl. Between the page’s rip and my boy’s sloping words, I have difficulty telling where to begin. I hold the curling paper at the top and bottom, a scroll-reader’s pose, and consider the manifesto of my son’s worries.
The list surprises me. Our boy seldom expresses fear or concern. He is a question-asker, a boy keen on how and why, inquiries usually followed by silent digestion. Other parents often comment on his even disposition. Yet the paper in my hands betrays a deeper current.
Worrie one—When at night I hear noises
Worrie two—Tornados will come at night
Worrie three—that I will have bad dreams
I wonder if, given the space, he would have written more. I imagine him alone in his room, creating and hiding these pages after goodnight kisses. I smile. Then I don’t.
Art books are one of my more benign vices. I enjoy their heft, the glossy shine of their oversized pages. I enjoy their encapsulation of a creative life, the arc from novice to master and the subtle motifs within. With my boy’s drawings by my side, I return to Basquiat.
My vocabulary of art appreciation is slim, but I don’t think spoken language is necessary to appreciate the visual. Words codify. Words explain. The communion between painter and audience travels a more visceral route. At my desk, I long to pen the most delicate and brutal of human offerings, but tonight, through the lens of an artist dead this past quarter century, I consider my son’s work in terms unbound by language. I flip another page in the book then reconsider my boy’s picture. In each, echoes of wonder and fragmented comprehension. In each, misspellings and random digits and nightmarish distortions, testaments all to a child’s perspective of a swirling, incomprehensible world.
In my son’s drawing WARNING rides in the clouds, a proclamation in bloody letters. The below, in purple: huricane can smash your sheleter. Run for your life.
When I was ten, my family visited Washington, DC. We snapped pictures of monuments and memorials, toured the Smithsonian. In a gift shop, I purchased a cardboard-covered booklet of thirty-some pages, a history of Abraham Lincoln. I remember nothing of the book beyond a single picture near its end. In the photograph, four conspirators hang from the gallows. A white hood covered each head, one a woman in a long frock, their broken necks marring their bodies’ plumb symmetry. A haze blurred one of the men’s bound feet. A fault of primitive photography, or—to a boy of ten—perhaps the captured moment of a soul abandoning the body.
I pictured that soul, murderous and bloody, as a prisoner of this earth. Robbed of its human form, that spirit lived on in the blizzard gusts that shook my bedroom window, and come summer, it howled alongside the brawling alley dogs. I saw it grinning behind the feral eyes of Charlie Manson and his children. I heard it in the shouts of Vietnamese soldiers herding refugees from their burning village. Throw the book away, called the sensible voices, but I was a curious child, enthralled by my own fear. The more I looked, the deeper I drowned. The scene expanded, and I thought of the men just out of frame who’d knotted the ropes. I thought of the carpenters who’d hammered the gallows, the masons who’d bricked the prison walls. I thought of the judge who’d sealed the four’s fate with a bang of his gavel.
Alone in my bedroom, I stared at that picture, my eyes wide. More fearful than the gruesome image was the realization that the venom of that moment was not snuffed by the snap of a rope. Hate, unlike the body, did not know pause or death. Hate thumped its chest with every gory headline. Hate crowed with the war’s weekly body counts. I closed the book but could not sleep, convinced a malicious current swirled about me, an unseen tide with the power to claim me before my next heartbeat.
The single-digit nights of January. The river frozen and piled with snow. In our nighttime yard, moonglow on trampled snow. I wake to my son’s cough and his cries for us to come. He gags and spits up mucus, and as my wife strips his bed sheets, I peel off his sweat-soaked pajamas. In his bloodshot eyes, pain and confusion. Four days of fever follow, a one-two punch of bronchitis and a virus. My son orders me not to say anything funny because each laugh deteriorates into a rib-rattling fit. His temperature spikes, dips, spikes again. He is all at once clingy and cranky. We drug him with Tom and Jerry, and the boy who never naps spends his afternoons drifting in and out of a glazed sleep.
On the second day of his illness, I return from work to find him passed out on the couch. His fever runs high today, and I rest my hand against his warm forehead. In the kitchen, my wife recounts the fears he’s confessed today. Will the virus eat into his heart? Could he have scarlet fever and go blind like Helen Keller? What if he’s inadvertently swallowed poison or ingested a parasite? Might he die?
Among my son’s pictures is a sealed envelope. The envelope bears no markings, and with our curiosity stronger than our respect for privacy, we break the seal and unfold the paper inside. At the top, a spectrum that runs from green to red, a narrow band with ends labeled light and heavy. Below, landforms outlined in jagged black. In the sea, a chain of double boomerangs, the weatherman’s hurricane symbol. DANGER warns a banner of capital letters.
An island sits at the paper’s center, a black-bordered mass smothered by red and yellow. Explosions. Lightning. An arrow escapes the cataclysm, and at its end, the label US. Does he mean our country? Our family?
I wait for my boy after school. He’s better, still sniffly and congested, but his fever is gone. Frigid winds blow across the athletic fields. Above me, the flag snaps atop its pole. Their teachers in the lead, the kindergartners exit first. The children squint in the cold sun. Many hold hands. A trio of girls passes, their arms linked. “Walking feet, everyone,” the crossing guard says. A knit cap falls to the pavement, and the line halts until it’s claimed. One boy pretends to swim into the gust; another performs a robot’s march.
My son emerges from a different door. His blue coat is unmistakable, his hood down despite the cold. Older children surround him, the lot of them pausing as the kindergartners cross to the busses. My son’s greeting is cordial yet reserved, the preschooler’s hugging reflex only a memory. Our plan: a short walk to the local library, a hunt for books on his latest fascination—The Roman Empire. We kick ice along the way, a winter’s game of soccer as he shares his stories of recess games and classroom discipline. Then silence, our faces numbed by the wind.
Warm inside the library. Feeling returns to my cheeks, my nose dripping. My son coughs, and the worried father evaluates the sound that echoes in this hushed space. In the history aisle, we forsake the wonders of Greece and Egypt to fill our hands with tales of ancient Rome. At a child-sized table, my son leans close to study a double-page layout of swords and shields and crested helmets.
How many times have I seen him in an identical pose, mesmerized by images of shipwrecks and volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. Yet self-awareness has changed the boy who could not reason a world without him as its center. Childhood’s most fragile bubble has burst, leaving him in a landscape as frightening as it is vast and beautiful. Worries, yes my son, I have them, too.
From the kitchen come good smells and the rustle of pans. In the living room, my boy flips to a picture of the Coliseum. Six-thirty, and when I catch the newscast’s lead story, I hit the remote only to revisit the horror on another network. My son glances up from his book. “What’s this about?”
I should have turned off the TV earlier. Do I shield him or take the opportunity to address one of life’s sad truths? Remote in hand, I go to his side. “I’ve got to turn it off if something comes on I don’t want you to see.”
The story is from Moscow, a suicide bombing at the airport. Dozens have died. Shaky cameras capture a concourse of billowing smoke, a stampede of shock and confusion. Ambulances veer and police wave everyone back. The story is hours old, the details sketchy, the body count destined to rise. Suspects are numerous, but as yet, no one has claimed credit.
“Who do you think did it?” my son asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Russia is pretty far away, isn’t it?”
“Why are they fighting?”
“Could be any number of reasons. But none of them are good enough for hurting innocent people.”
Footage of previous attacks plays, a recent history of bloodshed and twisted motives. “Can that kind of thing happen here?” he asks.
I put my arm around him. I don’t know what to say. I wait, and if he asks again, I will struggle to lend words to the unspeakable currents that churn in the hearts of our kind.
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