The child is scared. Shrieking. She cannot get down. The child is four, in a whorl of terror.
The mother is livid. Screaming. She thinks the child is weak, girly, daunted by life.
Log line: The child has egged herself on up the scaffold of her mother’s judgment and is stuck at its apex.
They are at a playground, where so much of adult grief is previewed, or so the mother thinks, because some part of her is always elsewhere, exploiting her life for drama. She is certain she will tell this story later and derive pleasure from its horrors—already she understands its horrors.
The mother, Mom, Mommy-I-just-love-you-Mommy, thinks she has brain cancer. Blood clots tethered to her veins by little more than fate. A heart defect no one will have known she had until the autopsy. She is afraid to go to sleep because what if she dies before she can prepare her daughter, so that at 6:00 am, refreshed and full of joy, this little turkey-monkey-love-of-my-life will bound into her room only to find out Mommy, wake-up-Mommy, is dead.
The mother thinks: It’s not that monsters don’t exist; it’s just that no one’s ever seen one. I could be the first. What if I’m the first?
These days, it’s not as hard as it sounds to live like this.
The mother’s name is June, though she was born in July. Always so close to being right. She does communications for an oil company and often hears its name mentioned on the evening news among other evils despoiling the planet. Now and then she considers investing in cryogenics, except what is the point? June often thanks God she will pass before global warming shuts up the deniers for good, but then she realizes there’s still her child to worry about. And her child’s child. If June is lucky, she will not have enough time to bond with her grandchild, because though she has human feelings, she does not want them. She cannot get another pet for fear of having to endure the pain of its loss. She cannot stay married for fear of having to nurse this man into old age and death. She cannot abide the thought of her daughter being unable to defend herself against the future. Her daughter, stuck on the top of this ridiculous ladder, arched like a rainbow that’s just high and narrow enough to make it impossible for her to be rescued, this child who’s now sobbing so hysterically that other children have begun to crowd around and shriek with her, the shrieks of one conducting the others in a chorus of anxiety because a little help here?
Just now, before, June was reading about a financier who’d given up on finance to start a carbon-capture company. He was charismatic. Galvanized by the urgency of now. He’d found a way to harness a natural solvent to absorb carbon dioxide when dry and release it at high concentrations when exposed to moist air. A humidity swing, it was called.
Was doom certain? When confronted by friends terrorized by the promise of tomorrow, June parried with an optimism that beat them back into the refuge of hope. But on her own, she romanced dread with more ardor than she had for anything else.
The child is, perhaps, “highly sensitive.” She absorbs the world’s anguish and makes it her own. June, whose college boyfriend once told her she thumped around like Godzilla, finds this quality sweet and impractical. She says, “Just calm down, baby. You need to calm down. The more hysterical you are, the harder you’re making it.”
The ladder is actually shaking. It’s not sturdy at all. The child has her butt in the air, downward dog, which has displaced her center of gravity and made her situation more dire. She has no idea how to use her body. She’s helpless and can only flaunt her helplessness absent trying to solve for it.
June looks up, sees her child silhouetted against the sky polluted with pinks and blues and says, “Sweetie, you can do this. Put your hand here and your foot there. Just breathe.”
The child’s screaming can now be heard several blocks away as it escalates from fear of failure to the certainty of pain.
June’s oil company had, in fact, offered one week’s paid leave to any employee who wanted to embed with the financier’s team and report on its progress. The only way to continue wrecking the planet for profit was also to support its remediation. PR 101. June’s husband had encouraged her to go. “Maybe they could use some communications help,” he’d said. The child, who recycles conscientiously and talks at length and with sorrow about the turtle mouths being jammed with plastic, had asked if she could go, too.
This technique of modern storytellers in which ostensibly disparate narratives are dragged into the double helix of creation—it is a way of aggrandizing the petty and globalizing the grotesque. This is what June thinks as she meanders through all the ways fear of the Big Problems maps onto intolerance for her child’s frailty.
And yet: the other day, June requested from her library a book about highly sensitive children, thinking, I’m educating myself; I am taking this seriously. Except a serious parent would have bought the book, dog-eared its pages, and referred to it with biblical frequency.
There had been, as well, another mass shooting. And another. The news splashed across the front page of the paper, and there was her child, who had just learned to read, sounding out the headline while June scrolled on her phone through videos in which interspecies grooming was a phenomenon to behold.
The child does not want to get down. She does not want to quit the effort of impressing her mother, so even as she is sobbing, she is also yelling, “I do not want to give up!” A boy standing below her shouts, “What’s happening to you?”
Composure mans the gate, always has. June does not like confrontation. She is shaken when people are angry with her, though, secretly, she loves feeling angry herself. The power of its release. The endorphin rush. But composure mans the gate. It would be unseemly to let loose her fury, which will crash over her child like a tsunami, with equal result.
The child. She is gentle and kind and funny and smart. She’d wanted to know what a maaa-sah-ker was.
The thing is, the financier’s seed money was running out. The science was promising, the prototypes were promising, but where were his proof points? Now his company petitioned June for donations at least twice a week. She sent $40, which got her a tote emblazoned with the company’s logo, which she uses to store the child’s princess costumes. Costumes June had bought thinking: If I do not make appalling extensions of stereotype forbidden, they will lose their appeal. The child sleeps in one of these costumes every night and often, in photos, can be seen posing with hips at a diagonal and one foot angled away from the other as if intuitively to flatter her figure.
Other parents have begun to encroach on the scene. June can feel one on her flank even as she’s focused on her child, whom she is now begging to calm down and descend the ladder, her voice plaintive but pinched and tipping to anger. The child’s hands have begun to tire and her body is wobbling and probably she will fall and break her arm. June does some math. The nearest hospital is only blocks away. The child will miss a few days of school. But she’ll get a pink cast and be happy about that, and as soon as June decides the worst that can happen is still manageable, she’s able to settle the butterflies that have gone wild in her stomach. She loves this child to unreason.
After the newspaper episode, June had found the child crying on the couch and asked why. “Is it because of what you read?” She could not believe she’d left the computer screen open. Mass shootings, global famine, rising tides.
But the child did not know. “I can’t control my feelings, Mommy.”
“Yes you can,” June said, and spent the rest of the afternoon in argument with herself about whether excess feeling is bad or just its expression.
The standoff on the ladder appears to climax just as June exhausts her reserve of good parenting. Or exhausts her faith that good parenting can help. She extends her arms in the air. Stands on tippy-toes. But all the same, her child is about to fall. June tries to anticipate where so she can catch her, but the chances are still good the child will mangle her face in the process, whacking it on one of the rungs and plummeting awkwardly and unpredictably, and the more June reckons with these scenarios, the harder her composure works to hold its ground. But it is no use. Finally, in a great roar, fury charges out of June’s mouth like a pack of wild boar, mowing down the gates and raging through the countryside until finding prey in the small child, who is immediately devoured. June yells at her to stop shrieking right now, but it’s not so much what June says as the rage and pitch of her voice as she says it. Her voice is so loud, she can’t hear anything else, until the parent who’d been on her flank steps in and says to the child, “Why don’t you come down now?” with all the tenderness of a fairy godmother. Then this parent issues a set of gentle instructions, and in five seconds the child has returned to the rubber mat, wiping her nose and sniffling.
June rushes to hug her, even though the self-slaughter of shame has her bleeding out and ready to die. Weakly, she attempts to explain her behavior to the audience of parents around them. She says she was just trying to snap her child out of it because this technique—almost like a slap to the face—is what usually helps, and then she stops to marvel at the ease with which she is able to fabricate exculpatory context, even as it doesn’t appear to work. “You know your child best,” one parent says.
That night they watch Mister Rogers to relieve the day’s unforgivables. But there will be no relief—not for June, who later gets into bed next to her husband and piles on him everything she’s done until the pile gets so high it crowds her out of the bed and into her daughter’s, where she will spend the hours before dawn holding her and thinking: A massacre is when everything you don’t like about yourself wins.