published in The Long Story 9 (Spring 1991): 53-74.
The Wickedest Child
The wickedest child was five years old and she was the wickedest child in the world. She had her mother’s word on this, so there was no reason to doubt it. When she spilled her milk or left her crayons lying around or lost her pencil or refused just then to take a bath, when she said she’d rather not go to school that day, when she shouted with exuberance or wept in despair, when she did, in short, the things that children do, her mother would accuse her of being stupid and stubborn and spiteful. Then she would say, “You are the wickedest child.”
If it stopped there, or even if the child felt compelled to defend herself and was answered with a grappling flurry of pinches and slaps, the wickedest child was actually relieved. But it usually went on to things that were more dreadful than the things done for her “own good.” Her mother would walk to the telephone and, brandishing the receiver with one hand and holding her other hand over the phone as if to dial, she would say, “I’m gonna call the police to come and put you in jail. Or maybe I’ll call the preacher to take you to an orphanage where you belong.” If these threats did not elicit sufficient misery on the child’s part, the mother would go on to the best one yet: “I will call your father at work to tell him how bad you are and he won’t ever come home and we will never see him again!”
The wickedest child could not remember a time when she had not been bad. It seemed as if she had always known all the attitudes of supplication. She knew how simply to fall on the floor at her mother’s feet and sob and beg for mercy, she knew how to whimper a host of apologies as she was dragged by the arm or the collar to the site of the telephone, and she knew how to hold her arms out, palms forward in a gesture of helpless appeal, how to lift her eyes ceilingward in helpless submission. Formal spankings had always been the duty of the father, and they were preceded by explicit details of her crime and a lecture on the function of punishment, though lately the explanations had diminished to “upsetting your mother” and “bend over.”
But the father was seldom at home, and the mother preferred a style of impromptu punishment that took the child by surprise, was preceded by vague explanations, if any, and usually consisted of chasing the child down, for she almost invariably struggled and tried to get away, and then letting the blows fall where they would. The mother still did this from time to time just to keep the child in line and remind her who was boss, but she found it tiring, especially now that she was pregnant again, and she was happy to have the expedients of the threats. With the threats she could make the child admit or submit to anything, and sometimes a simple gesture toward the telephone could lead to whole days‑‑endless days for the child‑‑of quiet compliance.
The threat of prison was the weakest for the wickedest child, for she thought the worst thing about it would be being taken away by strange people in uniform. Being locked up, unloved, and never getting to go outside seemed to resemble her present situation too much to make it wholly unbearable. The threat of the father’s absence got the strongest response. Indeed, it horrified the child, but she was not quite sure that it was not also something that was already happening.
When the child asked the father why he was away from home so often, he always said that he had to work very hard to help the sick and the dying and there were very many of them. But when she asked the mother the same question, the mother always said that it was because the child was the wickedest child and her father therefore did not love her. Announcements of this sort frequently led to the thing the child dreaded most, which was those times, sometimes when the child was certain that she had done absolutely nothing bad, when her mother threw herself on the bed and wept and wailed and beat her fists against her pillow. Then the child knew that she had hurt her mother deeply. The only thing she could figure out was that if her father stayed away because she was wicked and he did not love her, then the mother, too, was deprived of his love, and it was all the fault of the wickedest child simply because she was there.
When the child tried to think this through, her mind met a wall of impenetrable darkness and her body felt as empty and insubstantial as a dried corn husk rasping against its stalk in the wind, for she could come to only one terrible conclusion: her mother would be happy only if the wickedest child did not exist. It was a thing that the child tried not to think about because it was always there and she knew it better than she knew even her yearning to be loved and respected. It inevitably destroyed any hope or pleasure she might have, no matter how small.
Early on, the mother had hit on the brilliant pedagogic device of the invisibility, omniscience, and omnipresence of God. Reminding the child that she was always being watched by God and that he knew just what she was doing even when there was no one else around, and reminding her that God’s punishment was infinitely worse than anything her parents could dole out had had a remarkable effect on the child for a while. The child, of course, had attempted to trick God into making his presence known by doing disgusting things like picking her nose. When this failed, she designed other sorts of experiments that almost proved conclusively that God did not report everything to her mother.
The child still suspected, however, that God might just be storing things up for a special occasion of humiliation. Her mother might just reach into a kitchen drawer one day and pull out something like a Bible, for God had His Word, and read a long list of crimes that the wickedest child could not remember but had somehow committed because there they were in print and she had a perpetual feeling of guilt as internal proof.
She often imagined the scene. There she would stand with her head hanging, waiting for a gaping flame-rimmed hole to open up in the kitchen floor, listening for hours to the likes of “played with father’s best pen, broke it, and hid it under sofa cushion,” “threw bacon in garbage can rather than eating it when mother left room,” “peed in bath water,” “ate end off green crayon, then turned upside down in box to hide teeth marks,” “called another child ‘stupid, stubborn, and spiteful’ at school,” “ripped best shirt and hid it under mattress,” “broke vase and buried it in back yard,” and on and on. God’s Word, coupled with the frequent sins of refusing to do as she was told and asking why she must do it would send her to the orphanage for sure.
The wickedest child had learned from a series of indirect and intermittent questions (her mother didn’t like questions) that what distinguished children at the orphanage was that they had no parents. She had concluded that this must be worse than simply being away from parents or having them stay away from you. Because the child knew that it was the preacher who, according to her mother, had the power to send her to the orphanage, she was extremely quiet and pious in church. But she had to pinch herself through the whole endless hour to keep herself from crying out because her heart knocked around in her small chest so wildly that she thought it would burst. The worst moment was when they all filed out of church, and when her mother and father shook hands with the preacher, the representative of an invisible God to whom no appeal could be made. As they smiled and chatted as if the wickedest child were not in fear for her life, the child was certain that some sort of agreement had been sealed. Any minute now the preacher would grab her and take her right then to a desolate and beige open range where there was not a single tree and where poor unloved children milled about in the hot sun all day long and slept on the cold ground all night without even a blanket and never even uttered a sound because their hopeless loneliness was unspeakable and there was no one ever to hear.
Finally, when the child was safely in the car and her family was on its way home from church, she breathed the deep air of relief. But the relief always rapidly disintegrated in the face of the undeniable: unless the wickedest child disappeared or became too small to see, there would always be another time and her mother could always simply use the telephone.
The wickedest child rendered a visitor to her classroom speechless one day by saying, in response to the question of what she wanted to be when she grew up, “I want to be invisible, like God.” The child was perturbed when the question was immediately readdressed to someone else, which meant that she had not said the right thing or that she had not been understood, for the child had thought long and deeply about this. If to be good was to escape being punished for your own good and getting what you deserved, and if God was everything that was good, then surely one’s survival ultimately depended on being invisible like Him. If she were invisible, then surely she would be good: her parents would no longer punish her because there would be no trace of herself. She would be happy then because she still existed to herself but had made her parents happy by making it appear that she didn’t exist. It seemed like the most reasonable thing in the world. It had the added virtue of letting her get away with her life.
The wickedest child had started to work on the problem of becoming invisible at an early age, but she had had no success yet, no matter how much she longed for it or how long she held her breath or how fast she turned around and around until she fell. While invisibility still seemed a desirable thing, the child was concerned that it not be an invisibility exactly like God’s. She did not want, for example, to know everything, because she had enough to think about already. And she certainly did not want to be everywhere at once because it was hard enough to be in one place. She just wanted not to be punished for being wherever she was. She wanted an invisibility that would let her stay in her body but that would make her body something like a room that was all hers, some place her mother couldn’t just traipse into and say, “What no good scheming are you up to now, you Devil?”
The wickedest child had entertained alternatives to invisibility, one of the best of which was simply becoming very, very small. She had the evidence of her own senses to prove that she could see little things that her parents could not see. It took only a few lectures about lying to make her stop telling them about the water people who lived in sea shells, the tiny people with wings who lived in moss and sometimes in trees, or the small and terrifying family of tigers who lived under the bed and got big at night and lived in the closet in the day.
The wickedest child had always been too shy to have any friends, but she had spent whole treasures of time trying to make friends with the little people. First she had placed sea shells in water in the bathroom sink, but the magical finny things with faces and arms like hers were skittish and would dart back into the shells before she had time to ask if she could go with them. The only other route to the sea people had been closed off when her attempts to breath underwater in the bathtub had proved unsuccessful and had, moreover, resulting in particularly stinging blows to her naked body for doing what her mother referred to as “scaring me to death.”
Then there were the winged wood folk with whom she had become acquainted when she had stayed with her grandparents and spent every day but Sunday playing in the woods and along the banks of a brook while her grandfather worked in the fields. They mostly lived in the moss and mysteriously moved their camp from day to day so that most of her day was spent in relocating them. They had sweet voices that one could barely hear on the breeze. However, they were not particularly friendly, despite their iridescent wings, and she had been unable to make an appeal to them, though she was on the verge of catching their attention when her parents came and took her far away to the new house where they now lived and where there was no moss.
She had tried very hard to become very small before her parents came to take her away from her grandfather, who was the only person in the world with whom she felt safe, but her parents had come, and then she was with them. On the long drive to the new house (“five states away!” the mother kept saying) they fed her bits of stunning information in their usual indirect and fragmented way.
By the time they got to the new house she had ascertained three important things. First, her collection of sea shells and rocks had been left behind (“no room!” the mother said) and they would be living in town instead of in the country, which meant that all projects of diminution were forestalled. Secondly, she was to be enrolled in school because it was “time” and she already knew her letters and her numbers to twenty, because they knew she was bored and she had been getting in her mother’s hair. Finally, she was a big girl now and would have to start acting her age because there was a new baby on the way. In several months (“don’t ask how many days that is,” the mother said) she would have a brother or a sister, and if she helped her mother care for the baby, one day it might be her friend.
The wickedest child was so excited about learning to read by herself and so excited at the prospect of a baby that might be her friend that her mother reached into the back seat and pinched her hard to calm her down. Later she asked a very important question about the baby, but the mother said, “It’s none of your business.”
In the new house, the wickedest child got to sleep on a cot in a hallway instead of in her parents’ room, and the tiger family developed a new trick. She had pulled her father aside when they were packing the car and asked for some reassurance that the tiger family would not be in the new place where they were going, because even though the father insisted that she just dreamed about the tigers, he was at least sympathetic on the subject and had never accused her of lying. He had let her inspect everything that he put in the car, and the only thing she had not looked into was her mother’s suitcase, because it was the last and there was not time.
On the very first night in the new house, the child saw the mother’s suitcase open on a chair and realized that the tiger family had hitched a ride in the pocket of the lid. There they were, sort of peeking out and looking smug, just like tigers always did. The mother had punished the child severely for crying out in the night when the tigers first started to come and had accused her making them up to stall going to nursery school when the child pointed to them in the closet in the daytime. She dared not say a word.
She lay on her cot on the first night and told herself that it would probably take the tiger family a while to get out of the suitcase and find the place where she was sleeping. In the world of small things, the tiger family had the distinction of being able to become frighteningly big at night, and they had tormented her in their tigerish way for years. They came in the dark before she was asleep and they usually just stood around the bed and glared down at her in threatening silence, although they sometimes did awful and mysterious things such as swabbing her belly button with merthiolate. Now when the lights went out the wickedest child heard a sort of scrambling sound under her bed, and when she looked at the wall she saw a glimmer of light creep up from under the bed followed by a single tiger paw that proceeded to claw the wall in a slow gesture of threat over and over. Even with the sheet over her head she could hear it, and every night she lay in terror until it exhausted her and she went to sleep.
The wickedest child did well in school and was very proud that her teacher said she had “great appletude,” because it pleased her to please someone, and she knew from experience how important it could be to give the answers that adults had in mind when they asked questions. But getting to school was as much a nightmare as the tiger’s paw. Since the wickedest child was already guilty of everything anyway, there were certain things to which she would not willingly submit. She drew the line of rebellion at being ordered to do anything that lacked reason or reward, and she hated restriction of any sort. But she was especially fierce on the subject of anything that got too close to her body. She was trying very hard to be a big girl and she had even given up asking to sit in her father’s lap, but she told her parents every morning that she was not going to put her panties on because they were too tight, they hurt, and they left red marks. Every morning she received a spanking, followed by the tearful donning of the panties, followed shortly thereafter by her arrival at school, where she did very well in everything except recess.
Between the hell of getting to sleep and the hell of waking up, the wickedest child started to dream of flying. These nightly transformations into an unfettered aerial existence almost made everything else bearable, because if she could learn to fly during the day, then she might simply fly away. She had only been able to imagine how it might be to be very small or invisible, but she had actually experienced being lifted up by exhilarating breezes until her parents’ house below disappeared and she could see only the tops of the trees. Other times, she would simply float in a great blue lake of air or zoom down to follow the zig zag of green rivers or to land with a little thud in meadows or on hills where there were no houses at all. It was the first time in her life that she had ever felt an exultation in mere being. It was better even than reading or waiting for the new baby to come.
Excited by these dreams, the child undertook various projects of flight after school each day. First there was the expedient of leaping from the swing on the big water oak, but when she got the swing high enough to fly out of it, it was too difficult to coordinate letting go and propelling her body forward. She fell with a great thud that turned into blackness darker than night. When she came to, her mother was leaning over her slapping her face, and she screamed “You almost scared me to death!” before ordering the child to stand up and then stalking off to the house and slamming the door, which she proceeded to lock.
After the swing, she tried flying leaps from branches and tree stumps, but this only made a perpetual hash of her knees and forearms. She stoically bore her mother’s complaints about her stupid clumsiness during bandaging. She was certain of eventual success, and that would mean that she would never have to hear her mother’s endless shrill complaints about anything ever again. Then she came upon an idea that was sure to succeed once she worked the kinks out.
Her old tricycle, small as it was, could still be put to use. If she could get it going fast enough on the crest of the slope next to the house, she could scramble up onto the seat and then leap off. This resulted only in new wounds in new places, but the dreams kept her hopes up and she persisted. Every time her mother treated her to the scene with the telephone or pinched her because she had hurt her knee again or slapped her because she had asked again when the baby would come, she turned her mind to the perfection of schemes for flying. Her father was home one day and, noticing her peculiar tricks with the tricycle, asked her what she was doing.
“I’m trying to fly,” she said.
“But people can’t fly. Only birds can fly,” he said.
“But I have been flying, Daddy.”
“When have you been flying?”
“At night,” she said, “when I sleep.”
“You mean you dream you are flying. Like the tigers.”
“No. I see the tigers before I go to sleep and sometimes in the day. I fly when I’m sleeping.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can fly when you are awake,” he said. “Leave flying to the birds in the daytime. Don’t you know what dreams are?”
“Yes,” she said, wishing he would just go away. “A dream is like a majin, a majin . . .” She gestured solemnly in the air.
“Imagination,” he said. “It’s not a real thing. It’s something you make up.”
“But I didn’t make it up. I felt it. I saw,” she said, driven to tears. “And Mama told me that made-up things and majin-nation were lies that came from the Devil and hurt people.”
Since he was so seldom at home, the father hesitated to contradict anything the mother had told the child. He sighed and said, “Well, haven’t you hurt your knees with this foolishness? And look at your hands. You know it hurts your mother to have to keep patching you up. Do you understand?”
The wickedest child did not understand, but she knew the correct response: “Yes, sir.”
“All right, then,” he said, patting her on the top of her head to make things final.
A few days later she gave the tricycle ploy another shot, but she got mud on her best blue shorts, which led to a confrontation with her mother of the most humiliating sort and a formal spanking, which her mother seldom gave, usually opting for a scene of threats, grappling slaps, or a subtly and suddenly placed foot that simply tripped the child and made it fall on its face, in which case the mother had the added pleasure of saying “Fool!”
The mother’s formal spankings, on the other hand, required a bare bottom and consisted of eleven stinging blows with the palm of the hand accompanied by the Words of invisible God: “Thou. Shalt. Honor. Thy. Father. And. Thy. Mother.” The last two blows received particular emphasis. The wickedest child was forbidden to cry out during this or to weep afterwards, so she had learned to count the blows and then afterwards to wonder, since she had yet to learn about syllables, why there were eleven blows for eight words. Thinking about such things was the best way not to cry. When it was over, her mother screamed, “You are wearing me out with your wickedness!”
Thinking about things had the virtue of silence, and silence, according to the mother, was a golden thing, though the child had always considered it rather gray and bluish. But thinking had a great virtue as far as the child was concerned, for as long as she was thinking and was quiet, and as long as her mother didn’t suddenly appear with one of her accusations or one of her equally frightening outbursts of rare affection, the child was in territory where her mother could never ever set foot. She had, for example, been thinking about numbers for ages now, and her mother had never said a word about it. This was a final proof of a thing that just now meant more to the wickedest child than just about anything else: her mother could punish her for things she said and things she did, and she could punish her for simply being there, but her mother could never punish her for the things she really thought, because her mother could not read her mind. It was a small thing, but there was refuge and safety in the place inside where she thought, and there was no place else to go.
Attempts at flight were thereafter limited to furtive jumps and leaps. It was clear that she would have to take off from a position with her feet on the ground.
In school the transition from enumeration to addition and subtraction was posing irresolveable uncertainties for the wickedest child. No matter how much she wanted to fly away, she tried to make sense of things according to what she knew. The number one was clearly her father, and two had her mother’s with-child belly, and she knew that they had added together to make her, so she must be three. This meant that if she subtracted her mother from herself only her father would be left as a solitary line, which seemed to make sense. However, her parents had also added up to make the new baby, who then must also be the three, which meant that she was not the three since it made no sense for two people to be in one places without any difference between them, unless children were not people (a speculation that she set aside for another time).
She could not imagine herself as a four, because the four was orange and had the aspect of a canceled one, which made it unacceptable for aesthetic reasons. Then it occurred to her that maybe all numbers were simply the first three but in different situations: here they were at home eating dinner at the kitchen table, but when they became four, five, and six, they were on their way to the grocery store, or if poor orange four was left alone to be sad and they became five, six, and seven, then they were moving to a new town and four had to go to school, and so on. But there were more people in the world than her family, and her grandparents and her teacher and the landlady and all those people she did not know must be somewhere in numbers, so maybe numbers were just people after all, but all scrambled up and not doing anything in particular. Maybe all that mattered was next-to and before and after, since the sequence would not add up to itself. Surely the people her father saw at the hospital were fifteens or eighteens or any-teens, stumped up on the crutching one. Clearly, addition and subtraction were simply impossible.
Numbers might never have posed an even greater problem if the wickedest child had not asked her father for a watch of her own after she had asked her mother what time it was for the tenth time in a row one Saturday morning when the father was supposed to get home at eleven and the mother had slapped the child and threatened to send her to an orphanage if she ever asked what time it was again. They had actually been trying to explain time to the child since she started school, but the wickedest child simply could not tell the difference between one hour and the next or between one day and the next except by what happened in them. This time was anticipation, while that time was disappointment, this terrifying, and that reassuring, this full of humiliation but that full of magic. This time was yellow with grass in it, while that time was blue and had birds. If, however, her parents did things by time, the only thing for her to do was to learn to tell time for herself. She thought of time as a great key that would help her win her parents’ love and prove to them that it was not bad for her to exist. Learning to tell time would help her unlock the secret of their erratic behavior, part of which, of course, was their granting her wish for a watch and then hounding her day and night because she could not use it.
The father had spent a good and patient hour trying to teach the child to tell time by the wristwatch with the practical black band and large numbers. But the wickedest child had a knack for driving just about anyone to the limits of pedagogy every time. She had patiently listened and responded correctly by rote to a few questions. He thought the matter was at an end when she said, “But it’s always moving, and how can you be sure of what time it is if by the time you say what time it is it is already another time? And how come number one in the clock sometimes means itself but sometimes means five. How can something mean something else even if the hand is big? And why does time just make a big circle that always looks like the same circle when time is always different? And where does time go if you forget to wind the watch?”
The father went through his explanations again more slowly and in a slightly louder voice, like a person in a country whose language he does not know who thinks that if he simply repeats himself at a different tempo in a different pitch he will make himself understood. The child employed the same tactic when she repeated her questions at the end of the explanation. The father was finally compelled to observe that the time one told and the time one lived were not the same thing exactly. This led to a whole new area of questioning and the beginning of a lecture on the notion of utility that was interrupted when the mother suddenly appeared in the doorway. She looked at the child and said, “Stop asking your father stupid questions and wasting his time.” Then she looked at the father and said, “She’s just trying to get your attention.” The father picked up his pedagogic pencil and pad and said, “We’ll talk about it another time.”
The father and the child did talk about it another time, again and again on the rare occasions when he was home. Attempting to cultivate some sense of duration in the child, he arranged exercises in which they “timed time,” but the child simply could not tell the difference between a minute and an hour. He would clock two minutes, ask the child how much time had passed, and she would say “ten hours.” Finally, the father just gave up, diverted the child’s attention to other activities, and secretly worried that she had some sort of brain damage.
The mother, on the other hand, had designed her own temporal exercises for the child and did not tire of repeating them. “What time is it?” she would ask the child, and the child, who was not yet convinced that the watch had anything to do with real time, would simply come up with numbers of hours and minutes that sounded like the time she felt. “You’re wrong,” the mother would say, twisting the child’s arm to look at the watch and announce the “correct time” with a snort. “Stop it, Mama, you’re hurting me,” the child would say. Then the mother would say, “Stop your whining. You know how to tell time and you’re just doing this to spite me and get your father’s attention.” If the child responded with silence, it was a draw, but if the child denied the accusation, the old grappling scramble and pinches would ensue, culminating in blows to the side of her head.
Wearing the watch and persisting in her contemplations of time became a point of honor with the child. After a week or so of her mother’s quizzes, she began to ignore the mother’s questions and to get as far away as soon as possible. This led the mother to a new series of tests of the child’s hearing that had the same tone and the same outcome as the tests of time. The mother became more and more determined to stop the child’s willfulness once and for all, and just any old punishment would not do. Finally, she came up with a threat that could make the wickedest child as meek as a mouse for days on end: “If you don’t pay attention to me when I’m talking to you,” she said to the child, “you’ll hurt the baby and then you’ll really go to hell.” This made the wickedest child rise to new heights and flourishes of supplication, and it took only one repetition to elicit total obedience: no more refusal to wear panties, no more preferring something else for dinner, no more stalling in the bathtub, no more jumping out of trees, no more of this idiotic time business, and no more wondering when the father would be home. Long weeks of prompt cooperation ensued, and the mother could put her feet up at last, exerting herself only to slap the child’s legs occasionally as she passed through the room, just to keep her in line. And the wickedest child was on the verge of figuring out what time was: huge soundless and shadowed stretches of it surrounded her on all sides and all of it was filled with silent and deliberate effort not to “upset” her mother. She was paralyzed by the fear that she might hurt the baby.
The mother of the wickedest child had her own private difficulties with time. One of them was that the child had deprived her of the best time of her youth. She was not even twenty-four years old now, and five years during which she might have escaped the tyranny of her own parents to make a life of her own and enjoy the love of a man had been sacrificed to the tyranny of a demanding child. She felt as if she had only traded one master for another to whom she did not even owe respect. First of all, it had occupied and distorted her body until she had felt only revulsion when it was born. Then every day made it clearer that there was no escape. Everything had to be planned and done because of the child, who seemed endlessly dirty or hungry or sick. When she had not been catering to the child’s endless needs, she had been working, and the father had always worked so hard that he barely had time even to sleep. Even when they were not at work they had no time alone together and no time to themselves: the child was always there, always wanting something, always needing something, always making a fuss, always prying and intruding and demanding attention for itself. As if nobody else ever wanted anything.
Another problem with time was that if they had been married a month and a half or so earlier, the child would not be a constant reminder that they had made a mistake, and she would never have had to suffer the disdain of others, particularly her mother-in-law. If only it would be a good child, then it would not be a mistake. The new one would make things right and they could start over, if only she could get the other one to cooperate and stay out of the way.
It always amazed her that the child seemed not to realize just how good she had it and that she should be grateful that she even had parents and particularly grateful that she had parents who did everything for her. Her own parents never would have simply threatened or given the little love-taps that the child got. Her own parents would have thrashed away at the first sign of disobedience. In fact, they had frequently beat her so furiously that she had not even been able to crawl away afterwards. Why, she thought, she had never done that to her child.
Furthermore, she doubted that the child really suffered or got the point when she was threatened or punished; otherwise, surely the child would not persist in her wickedness. But even if the child did suffer, she thought, it was short-lived‑‑the child could not even tell the difference between one day and the next‑‑and it was nothing compared to what she had suffered and was suffering for the child. The whole world knew, after all, that children must be punished or they will shame their families, that children will find out soon enough that life is a vale of tears and there’s no sense in spoiling them, that they should be made to be grateful for what they have, and that it is necessary for their own good to do things to them that they do not like, no matter how much they protest.
And the child was constantly coming up with new ways to irritate her. She had waited in vain for the child spontaneously to show signs of manners, to offer a word of thanks for her parents’ generosity, to offer to help around the house and to be generally considerate and cooperative. That the child did not instinctively respond to these silent expectations was a sign of her waywardness. The child was sullenly silent around strangers unless she was having one of her unmanageable fits of chattering, and she seemed not to know how to handle herself around other people. The mother simply could not understand this, and concluded that the child acted like a wild animal out of spite or that the child was just stupid. And why should the child persist in trying to get their attention when she had already had all the attention in the world?
Still, after she had let the child know that she must do as she was told and not as she pleased, after the exhilarating righteousness of her rage had passed, after she was no longer angry with the child for forcing her to do the things she did, she was overwhelmed by intense feelings of tenderness. She loved the child then as if it were the most precious thing on earth. Then she would make plans for toys for the child, clothes for the child, things she could give it or do for it that would please the child and make her herself feel like a good mother. Out of her own bottomless fund of yearning and disappointment, she would decide that the child needed a fine set of colored pencils, a picnic, or a new dress that she would sew herself to make her happy.
Then she made a picture in her head‑‑full-page, full-color, glossy‑‑in which the child sat happily, carefully and quietly choosing colored pencils from a neat box and drawing, with a skill remarkably beyond her years, a house, a tree, a redbird. The beaming mother in this scenario, wearing the latest in maternity fashions, bent toward the child like an angel in response to the child’s sweetsoft request for advice or approval. And later the people in this picture greeted the tired but happy husband home from work with smiles and endearments, and the child, having prepared herself for bed and not having left a single drop of water on the bathroom floor, would sweetly bid the parents good night just before they sat down to a plain but wholesome meal, artfully presented. And while the child dreamed of big pink clouds and cheerful fluffy blue sheep and never cried out in terror in the night, the parents discussed purchasing handsome modern automatic appliances in pastel colors, and kissed, and drifted off to a simply-but-elegantly-appointed bedroom (the resourceful mother had stitched the dotted-swiss curtains and matching shams and chair covers herself) that was very far away from where the child slept.
The mother had a whole magazine-rack full of lovely pictures of peaceful, loving family life in her head. She had started collecting them when she herself was a child: everybody was happy, things were going well, everything was in order, and she was just about to present her husband with another little well-behaved angel, already wrapped in a blanket of a color appropriate to its gender. The delivery had been remarkably easy, mother and child were doing well, and flowers were pouring in from everywhere. The wickedest child, proud and eagerly waiting at home to help her mother, was also making straight A’s in the school that her parents had happily sacrificed to pay for. Then the mother was full of love, and modern life was just one bang-up treat after another. Everything was going to be all right.
When the tenderness and the dreams came over her, there was nothing she would not do for the wickedest child. Everything the wickedest child did was a sign of just how special she was and how special her parents were too. She gave the child special treats and read to her and even initiated games of toss and checkers. She patted the child on the shoulder before it went off to school and tucked it into bed at night. She purchased Family Home, Ladies New Age, and Child Life from the drugstore to read up on how to have a perfect life. She re-read the old romances she had read as a teenager, particularly the series about Clara, who is poor but whose inner nobility shines through and she marries a handsome rich man and rides off in a fancy carriage and sends her poor old parents money, the least she can do for their teaching her the right and rewarding values. And she envisioned a future for the wickedest child and even a present for the wickedest child not unlike the present and the future that she had often envisioned for herself after her parents had beaten her half to death.
Now that the wickedest child was behaving so well, the mother could indulge in one of these bright and cheery moods, and she came up with the idea of having a party for the child. Home from school, the child was sitting at the kitchen table eating crackers and cheese when the mother said, “I know, let’s have a party!”
Not even looking up, the child said, “Party.””Yes,” the mother said. “We can have a tea-party. Well,” she laughed lightly, “I guess you’d rather have co-colas. But we can have a party after school and invite all your friends.”
The wickedest child wouldn’t do anything in the world to hurt the baby, but she had to say it: “But I don’t have any friends.”
“Sure you have friends, silly,” the mother said. “We can have cake and candy and nuts and co-colas, and a good time will be had by all! Let’s have a party!”
Assuming that her mother knew something she didn’t, since adults always knew things that children did not know but had to guess, the wickedest child said, “OK, Mama.”
“Well, you could at least smile,” the mother said. The child looked up with an obedient grin. “You need to wash your face,” the mother said; “We’ll have the party next Thursday.” And then she added, “It’s set,” because she had recently read a story in which a mother in similar circumstances said that to a cheerful child. When the child asked if she could go outside, the mother said, “Of course you can, my sweet!”
Now the wickedest child feared her mother’s displeasure, whether it showed itself in ridicule, slapping rages, or fits of weeping. And she knew that she could not upset her mother for fear of hurting the baby. But the one thing she found even more terrifying than her mother’s rage was a bout of sudden cheerfulness and affection like this. It wasn’t that they always ended abruptly in some sort of catastrophe, for the child would pay any price to see her mother happy as long as it lasted. It was that she was not altogether sure that she had anything to do with how long it lasted. She felt that she had to play some part in it, but, not being privy to her mother’s internal drama, she wasn’t sure just what she was supposed to do.
She knew that her mother was her real mother and that she was really her mother’s child, but when the mother acted this way, it was as if she had said, “OK, let’s play-pretend that I am your mother and you are my child, and we’ll act like Mrs. Brown and Sally in your school reader, OK?” The child was perfectly willing to go along with it, but it gave her the uncomfortable feeling that she was playing a game whose rules she did not know and that she might do something without knowing it at any moment that might put an end to games forever. She finally decided that she would simply have to trust her mother and do the best she could.
The wickedest child was not sure how far away or near the party was, but she thought that was just as well because it allowed her to entertain an unusual hope that the prospect had quickened in her. Her mother had said that she had friends and that they would all be invited to the party. This must mean that she had had friends all along and that she simply had not known who they were. Setting aside the problem of numbers and time, the child speculated about the friends who would be at this party. Maybe her mother had just been kidding about not seeing the water people and the wood fairies. Maybe she had secretly arranged to have them at the party as a surprise for her daughter. Maybe when she got to the party they would all be there but bigger.
Or maybe there were some children at school who were her friends. Whenever she finished her work early and had the leisure to look around the classroom, she gazed first at this little grubby hand clutching a pencil and then at that black hair falling on the paper, at this skinned knee like her own or at those scuffed brown brogans there, worried at the heel, and she thought that any of these things might be a sign that the owner was her friend but she had never known it. When the organized play at recess ended and free-play ensued and she stood lonely at the edge of the playground watching as though she were in fact as invisible as God, she looked from face to face, wondering which were the faces of her friends. She marvelled at the surprise that must be in store for her and she thought that everything would change now, everything would be different, all the past would be something she imagined or something she dreamed.
Then one night her mother said, “Now don’t forget, the party is tomorrow.” The wickedest child laid out her peacock blue pedal pushers and her favorite green shirt with the special hole in it, but when her mother saw she simply said, “You can’t wear that to the party!” Not wishing to hurt the baby, the wickedest child promptly said, “OK, I won’t.”
When the wickedest child got home from school the next afternoon, her mother had already set things up for the party on the patio. It looked like something in a dream to the child, and was, in fact, a dream that the mother had seen in a magazine. The tablecloth, paper plates, cups, and utensils were all in matching pastel greens and pinks. The mother herself had made a cake covered with pink roses and rimmed on the edges with a rick-rack line of green. There were more cold co-colas than the child had ever seen at one time, and there were tiny paper nut cups filled with peanuts and pink and green candies. The child had not know that such wonderful things existed.
“Go get ready,” the mother said, and when the child balked in the apologetic way she had recently developed, the mother said, “You mean you do not even know what you are going to wear?” She stared at the child and finally said, “Well, at least go and wash your face and hands. It’s almost time.” Then she laughed in a high, airy way that the child had never heard before. It made her heart beat fast, but she didn’t know why.
The child sat at the party table facing her mother, who leaned against the patio door beaming in her smart purple-checked maternity outfit and viewing the scene before her with great pleasure. When the wickedest child reached for a peanut, the mother said, “No, no. Wait until everyone gets here.” By the child’s reckoning, ten hours passed, and she was on the verge of beginning to fidget despite her constant admonitions to herself not to do anything that might upset her mother.
Then suddenly the mother said, “Where are your friends?” at the same moment the child said, “When will they get here?”
The mother’s smile faded. She stepped to the edge of the table and put her hand down on it with the rigidity that usually presaged some drawn-out and humiliating inquiry. The child instinctively shifted in her chair and put one foot firmly on the ground in preparation for flight. The mother said, “How should I know when they’ll be here? Didn’t you tell them when to come?”
The child’s mind became a big dark place. The pounding in her ears was so loud that she could not hear inside the words that she could repeat to her mother to make everything not be bad. She was trying to play the game and knew that she had to choose words carefully. Finally she found something that seemed both neutral and true: “But I don’t know who they are, Mama.”
“How can you have friends and not know who they are, stupid? What did you tell them when you invited them? If you told them the wrong day, you made me go to all this trouble for nothing!”
The wickedest child’s mind raced. What did her mother want? What was she supposed to say? Did her mother want her to make up pretend-friends? Was it a pretend-party and she just hadn’t caught on? The mother began to shift slowly around the table toward the child, who kept thinking there must be something she could say to make this stop if she could only figure out what her mother wanted. Whole days seemed to pass and the palms of her hands were wet. She ran her mind through the strange new neighborhood and finally hit on the name of a child she had met once. “How about Elizabeth?” she said.
“You mean Elizabeth around the block?” the mother said.
“Yes,” the child said, “Yes.”
“Well, where is she?!”
“She’s around the block, Mama.”
“Well, didn’t you invite her?”
“I can, Mama, I can now. I can go and get her right now. Right now.” And the child stood up and ran from the yard and started to walk down a sidewalk that she’d never been down alone before.
She did not know Elizabeth, and she was not sure just now what knowing people meant, but she and her mother had been out for a walk around the block one day, and she had met Elizabeth, exchanged a few words about where they were in school, and petted her dog while the mother chatted with Elizabeth’s mother, who was pruning a rose bush in the front yard. The child remembered that on the way home the mother had said, “What a nice family. And little Elizabeth--she’s a year ahead of you at the same school-- ice-skates in the Ice Pageant dressed as a little black sheep. Isn’t that nice? Maybe you’ll be friends.”
The child had been mildly interested in Elizabeth, but she was too shy to make any overtures of her own, Elizabeth never sought her out, and she never saw her at school. She had forgotten about Elizabeth until a few minutes ago. Now she remembered as she walked that what had really fascinated her had been the idea of a girl ice-skating dressed as a black sheep. She had never seen ice-skating, but she had seen pictures of it and she knew that sheep had four legs. She had given a great deal of thought to whether Elizabeth wore skates on her hands too and what on earth she did with her knees.
She thought about the black-sheep skating problem again as she walked down the endless street to turn a corner and look for a house that she had seen only once. She made a few bounding leaps, hoping that full flight might come to her suddenly in this time of need, but it just hurt her feet when she came down on the concrete. She was trying to put a picture puzzle of a house together in her head, trying to imagine if Elizabeth’s house would be gray with white trim or brick with yellow or blue with none, when things went her way for once. She noticed Elizabeth sitting on the front steps of a house just a few feet away. The wickedest child prepared herself for the next stage of her task, approached the steps and said, “Hi. I’m having a party. Will you come?”
“Who are you?” Elizabeth said, looking down her nose.
“Oh, I’m nobody. But I live around the block and one day when I was with my mother I met you and petted your dog and you have a black sheep costume,” said the wickedest child.
Something must have worked. “When?”
“Oh, I don’t know. At the beginning of school.”
“No. I mean, when’s the party,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, now. Now,” the child said. “Please come. There’s cake.”
Something had worked. Elizabeth went into the house for what seemed like hours, then she reappeared with a boy who was a bit taller than she and said, “Mother says I may go if my brother Stephen goes with me.” The three of them walked back to the house of the wickedest child, Elizabeth and Stephen chatting with one another as if the wickedest child was not even there, and the wickedest child scampering to keep pace with them.
When they got there the mother was all smiles and that funny laughter. She cut them pieces of cake and chattered about the weather, which was getting quite grim. Then she said, “Well, I’ll leave you children alone so you can have fun” and disappeared into the house. The wickedest child had just succeeded in pulling two children out of thin air to please her mother. When the door closed behind her mother, she realized that it still wasn’t over.
“What a stupid-looking cake,” Stephen said. He and Elizabeth both laughed and said in unison “stupid-looking cake-a-rake-a-roo.”
The wickedest child, who had a good bit of practice at changing the subject, said, “Let’s go play.” She got up and walked away from the table, knowing they would follow but not knowing where she would lead them, because she still had the game she was playing with her mother in her head and she couldn’t think of a single game in the world to play with other children. With relief, she heard Stephen say, “I know a game, but we have to find where to play it.”
They made a circuit of the house and Stephen led them into a patch of tall weeds behind the dilapidated garage. Elizabeth and Stephen positioned themselves across from each other as if to play a game of catch, and when the child started to walk closer to them, Stephen said, “Stay there. You just watch for now.” Then he said, “OK, Elizabeth, get ready to take your medicine.” Elizabeth turned her head toward the child with a smirk on her face. Then she looked at Stephen, unzipped her jumpsuit and wiggled out of it, letting it drop around her ankles. “Panties, too,” he commanded, and Elizabeth pushed her panties down below her knees, then pushed them down around her ankles when he said, “All the way down.” The wickedest child was terrified.
Stephen turned to her then and said, “Now you do it.” The wickedest child said, “No,” and responded to his insistence with a host of no’s. She didn’t understand the game, but she knew that there was no way to run when your clothes were down around your ankles, which was why she tried not to go to the bathroom when her mother was nearby. It didn’t look like any fun to her. Moreover, although she had to bear the commands of her parents, she had decided as far back as nursery school never ever to bow to the commands of other children. “Please, let’s play something else,” she pleaded, her voice sounding like a small thing in her head.
She was relieved when Stephen and Elizabeth followed her out of the weeds, but then halfway up the driveway Stephen said, “Do it here, Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was shucking her clothes off when the child said, “Please. Please stop.” As Elizabeth struggled back into her sleeves, Stephen came up close to the child and shoved her hard in the chest as he spit out each word: “You stupid stubborn. I could make you do it.” The wickedest child almost toppled over from the force of the last blow, but she backed up, regained her balance, and said, “Just you try.”
The three of them stood there in silence for a hundred years. Finally Stephen said, “You’re no fun and your party stinks. We’re going home.” And as Elizabeth pranced off behind him, she looked over her shoulder at the wickedest child and said, “You’re no fun.”
The wickedest child watched Elizabeth and Stephen skip off down the street. She wondered with terror if Elizabeth’s black sheep costume had anything to do with the game. She reflected that maybe Elizabeth and Stephen were not really children but were from the tiny zoo under someone else’s bed. Or maybe they were her friends. Maybe this was what it meant to have friends, in which case, she decided, it had been better to have no friends at all.
She walked around to the side of the house and stood on the patio staring at the party things still laid out on the table. The air smelled like rain and the wind had started to blow, whipping up the edges of the table cloth and making the little paper nut cups scoot toward the edge of the table. Several unopened co-colas stood sweating in a group as if waiting for something to happen. The icing on the cake had started to slide off in big buttery gobs. Elizabeth and Stephen’s unfinished pieces of cake still lay on pastel plates next to half-finished drinks.
The wickedest child sighed with dismay at the thought that if things could look as if they were in the middle of themselves when they were already over, she would really never be able to tell if she was doing a thing or had already done it or had yet to do it. If that was the case and if time was when one did things, then she would never be able to tell time. She stared at the watch on her wrist and it still made no sense. She looked at the numbers and felt the old reassurance on getting from one to two. But her head started to spin when she got to three because the baby would be three when it got here. Then it dawned on her that without doubt Elizabeth and Stephen were five and six, and knowing something about numbers was suddenly an awful thing because it could be a thing for sure and still make no sense. She hated time. It would send her to the orphanage yet. Then she heard her mother sobbing loudly in the bedroom, and she felt as if her chest would burst.
In the dark bedroom the wickedest child could barely make out the outline of her mother, who lay on her side facing the wall. Her mother always lay on her side now to cry in bed ever since the baby had come into her stomach. Before the baby, she always just threw herself face down on the bed and screamed into her pillow. The child could not think what she had done to hurt her mother, but she knew that her mother cried because she was the wickedest child.
The bed was so high that the child could barely put her hand up on its edge, which she did now, choking back her own sobs to speak to her mother in her most supplicatory voice. “Mama, please, please don’t cry.” Another hundred years passed. She said, “But what have I done? What can I do?” As if in response her mother wept louder than ever and the bed shook with her sobs. Then without moving, her mother wailed, “Get out of here! Can’t you ever leave me alone!?”
Sitting on the edge of her cot in the hallway, the wickedest child listened to her mother weeping. Soon after it got dark, she heard her mother get out of bed, go out onto the patio, and start taking things into the kitchen. Then she heard her mother breaking things in the kitchen. She thought it would never end. When it did, the silence was even worse. She knew then what time was: it was something that you couldn’t get out of that never ended. It was something that was always the same even when it looked different. When she heard her mother walk to the telephone, dial, and ask for her father, she covered her ears so she would not have to hear.
Another hundred years were passing when she heard her mother cleaning up in the kitchen. When she heard her father get home, she thought: he came home even though she called. He came and stood at the foot of her cot, and she stared at the tiny brown spots on his white shoes because she couldn’t look up at his face. If she looked up at his face, she was afraid he would disappear, she was afraid she would cry out and not act like a big girl. He said, “What have you done to your mother?”
The wickedest child stared at his shoes and tried to think what answer the question had in mind. “I don’t know,” she said; “I tried not to hurt the baby.”
He said, “Don’t you know that your mother loves you just as much as she will love the baby?”
She stared at his shoes for another hundred years, and then he went away. She knew that the spots on his shoes were blood from the sick and the dying that he was away from home to help. She had long ago given up hope that everyone would get well and nobody would die, had long ago given up hope that he would help her. There was no one sick or dying here.
When she was sure that her parents were in the kitchen eating, she got up and went to the bathroom. She put her pajamas on and was on her way back to her cot when her father called her name from the kitchen. She waited to see if he would say anything else. She needed him to say something else. Instead she heard her mother say, “It’s no use to ask her to eat nothing now. You know how sulky and stubborn she is. She is the wickedest child.” Her father didn’t call out to her again, so she quietly went back to her cot.
The wickedest child tried to cry but couldn’t. A big dark feeling blossomed up inside her, and she couldn’t catch her breath. It was bigger and more horrible than anything she had ever felt. It was the feeling of screaming and weeping and banging her head against the wall in frustration and pain and rage and despair, but it was worse because it was all inside and it didn’t have a voice. It was just a dark filling up of herself like the night time or like things that were too heavy for her to lift. It was worse even than thinking about when things died or went away because it was a feeling like things never were alive to die or there to go away and be someplace else in the first place.
Suddenly the wickedest child thought that there never had been any sense in trying to be invisible or too small to be seen: she already was invisible, she had always been too small to see. She opened her mouth but could not make a sound, nor could she move her limbs. Her own body was the heaviest coldest thing in the world, and she was all inside. It would always be the same, and that was what time was.
When the wickedest child thought about what her father said about her mother’s love, the big dark feeling turned into anguish and horror. At least she knew how to try to appease her mother and she could defend herself if she had to, but the baby would be defenseless against the mother’s love. She had looked forward to the baby’s coming because it meant that she might have a friend, that she might not have to bear her mother’s love alone. But how could the baby possibly be expected to bear the things that it took all the wickedest child’s wit to endure? She could not fly away yet: the baby would have to be protected. If she was there to suffer the things the mother did, maybe the baby would be safe, maybe the baby would never have to know this feeling of sitting on the edge of the cot in the dark and turning to stone.
She lay down and got under the covers and thought about the numbers again. At least now she knew who five and six were, so maybe she could figure out the rest. She wondered if invisible God had a number, but probably only big people were allowed to count that high. She decided that the worst thing about the orphanage would be that one didn’t have a number there and didn’t count.
Soon the house was quiet and dark, and the dreaded tiger paw crept up from under her bed. She didn’t cover her head with the sheet because everything was going to be like this from now on. She watched the claw scrape down the wall a few times. Then it did a new and terrible thing: it started to scribble slow horizontal lines across the wall in black ink. When it got to the third line, she realized that it was doing arithmetic, but doing awful things like adding one to seventeen to get five. The wickedest child lay in her bed, stiff with fright and smelling the fear in her own sweat until sleep came. Then she dreamed again of flying.
published in The Long Story (Spring 1991) 53-74