My daughter will not say "I love you." I think the last time she even attempted it was age 2, one night, half awake, when it came out "I lud you." It worried me that she didn't progress further, or even try. She hadn't bonded with any of us, perhaps, or maybe she felt alone and disconnected? But she wouldn't give up nursing, sleeping with us, clinging to me like a piece of Saran Wrap.
I had come from a family that exhaled the words like cigarette smoke, ad nauseum. "I love you. I love you. I love you." It made everyone else feel secure. It made me doubtful. Had I passed on this doubt in utero, through the fine membranes that connected us? Was I one of those mothers skeptical enough to infect my own fetus with suspicion? Words can mean so much ... or so little.
Other countries where I've lived didn't have words for love. "It's implied," my Nepali boyfriend would say, handing me a cup of tea with yak milk. Huh? Implied? Being American, I was not good at implied meaning. I was used to everything being beaten to death, until love too resembled the stray dogs flattened on Kathmandu's side roads. In that sense, "love" roamed the streets all night long, rabid and wild, and usually it was dead by the time the Hindu prayers rang out at dawn -- road kill. The stench hanging over the city. I would bike past sacred cows with red tikas on their foreheads and think, "It's implied," my handkerchief over my nose. Love stinks, I thought, even implied love.
When my daughter was 5, it became a game for us to get her to say it. We would trick her into it. Her brother, especially, was bothered. He was one who carried his heart on his sleeve, love exuding from his pores. He did not get this from me. He loved everything. He loved the fish we slaughtered from our commercial boat each summer, he loved "poor people," chickens, Shakespeare and sword fighting. He loved detective work and tea sets. He loved his sister.
"Why don't you say it, Sylvie?" he implored.
"I don't like to," was always her curt reply.
"Don't you love us?" he grasped.
"Yeah, I just don't like to say it."
It was the "yeah" that grabbed me and made me realize, not only was she OK with what she felt, she had defined it, knew what it was and was especially OK with not feeling obligated to appease the rest of us. It wasn't about us, and for that I was jealous. How brilliant. While the rest of the world was doing back flips writing songs and poems and sonnets about love, she, at only 5 years old, was totally free. If we needed to hear those words, it would not be her problem.
I envied her. I wanted that freedom for myself. And one day, over a cold cup of tea, I felt the smallest twinge of what it must be like to be her. But it didn't come easy. I had just been duped by someone who called himself a writer. I'd let the words blindside us, all of us -- let them seep into our lives, though the whole time they had had that tinny, not real, feel to them. I'd forgotten the dead dogs, and instead got caught up in the wild, roaming streets and moonlit nights. I burned candles to mask the stench. My son, susceptible and trusting as usual followed my lead, but not Sylvie. Sometimes she would look at me quizzically, wondering why I didn't see through this stranger in our midst.
All around us the signs were there, poetry etched in fog on the bathroom mirror after a shower; notes telling me of his presence lay next to me on the pillow or taped to the coffee pot the minute I awoke. By noon, the frozen chicken thawing in its little Styrofoam tray would have his slanted scrawl written in Sharpie marker across the clear plastic, "I love you -- you mean the world to me." Beneath it, blood pooled up in the empty cavity and I could see pinholes on the bird's flesh from where the feathers had been plucked.
I could not leave my car outside the local coffee shop without finding some tangible sign of him left under the wiper or on the dash. Balancing my coffee cup, I would stuff remnants of wet, sodden scraps torn from notebooks into my pockets -- screaming of love, that apparently the whole world should know about. Sylvie would purse her lips, buckle into her seat with a click that was almost mocking. Yet I refused to acknowledge what I knew she was thinking. She let me delude myself -- to a point -- but she maintained her cool, assured presence. She felt sorry for me, and as he danced around us, I let her.
Until one day when he packed up all his pens and notebooks full of beautifully crafted half truths and drove out of our lives with such force -- we winced. I imagined him driving cross-country with our secrets in his trunk. Feeling gutted and vulnerable, I wondered which roadside trash bin he would discard them in. Somewhere in Canada, perhaps, or maybe carry them all the way to the East Coast -- that place that Alaskans fear, where everything about us is seen as some kind of aberration. Even from this distance, the stench was unbearable. But soon, I could not smell the deception anymore, though I thought I saw the tip of his cigarette, felt its heat as the ashes grew with every mile, until it too faded somewhere beyond multiple mountain ranges, red ... then barely orange changing to just wisps of grey smoke until finally ... nothing.
Months later, when the bruises start to fade, I think maybe I am ready. Maybe I have finally learned something. Now maybe Sylvie can teach me what it means to be free.
"You know that feeling, right?" I ask her one night. "The one you don't like to talk about?"
"Uh-huh," is all she says. God, to be her, I think enviously, unable not to push further.
"If you could give it a name, what would you call it?"
Our faces are inches apart. She presses her nose to mine and says matter-of-factly, as if she's been waiting her whole short life for me to ask, "Mallard."
"What?" I'm so tired, so old, so very lost.
"Mallard," she says. "My favorite thing in the world, a mallard."
I take this in slowly, thinking of the many ducks we've hatched, raised, snuggled with and nurtured over the years. And all of them have died some kind of harrowing death, either by dogs, wild mink or eagles. One, named Gladys, was accidentally squashed underfoot at 4 days old. At her young age Sylvie has loved and lost, probably 12 times or more, her favorite thing in the world. And she still believes in the feeling enough to put that much weight into the word. She is so much braver than me, I think.
Later, curled up after reading, our arms and legs intertwined like licorice ropes, her breathing grows heavy, ready to fall off the edge of that cliff into the sea of sleep.
I whisper into her ear, "I mallard you."
The sweetest, sweetest words I've ever heard drift back to me, "Mallard you too."