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Home  >  Peer Work
The Etiquette of Children
By Cecilia Worth

Years later, after Mary had grown up, it was always the weasel that memory insisted on first. Only afterwards did her mind circle around to the thing that happened later. Perhaps it was the weasel's vulnerability that etched so deep an impression. And the impotency of her six-year-old self to intervene. Or maybe her mind and memory could more easily embrace the weasel's story because it was the one that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

How small the creature had been, a blur as it ran. It seemed to fly across the  raked gravel in its frenzy to reach the screen of trees that divided the driveway from the flower gardens. As she hovered under the portico of the big house, Mary glimpsed a dark-tipped tail and sunlight flashing on brown fur. She felt herself loft with the animal over a patch of dry leaves and disappear into the woods with a silence that pressed against her ears.

Her father's shouts and the screeching of the chickens had disturbed her nap. She feared the awkward white birds. Yesterday, when the rooster rushed at her, wings spread like a feathered cape, yellow beak thrusting forward determined to draw blood, she kicked at him with her red sandal. Her father had swung her outside the enclosure so fast she bit her tongue. 

The heat of the summer afternoon penetrated the nightie Mary still wore. It was her favorite, aged thin as gauze, its cabbage roses faded to dim washes of color. She imagined the roses as little fires that kept away the bad dreams while she slept.  Nanny said the gown was a disgrace, that it should be torn into rags for Cook to use in polishing the silver tea service. 

"I'm going after that damned weasel." Her father's voice came from inside the garage where he kept his guns.

Later, Mary could only dimly recall descending the front steps, feeling their wood-warmth against her bare feet and the bite of the gravel as she raced towards the trees. Nor was her attention caught by the figure stooped among the flower beds, the man's head raised and turned towards her, eyes shadowed by the drooping brim of his felt hat, shiny with age.

What held her, high in the crotch of an old oak, were two eyes, shiny-black as beads on a necklace, boring into her, taking her measure. Hardly conscious of her effort, she held herself utterly still knowing all the while that the creature could fling itself down, fasten its teeth on her face or her throat. In the same instant, something in her coupled with its wild spirit, yearned towards its freedom to explore mysterious undersides of meadow grasses, the shapes of twigs on forest floors. And, too, the animal was beautiful, its coat gold and mahogany in the afternoon light, a cobweb of softness under her imagined touch.

From the garage came the smack of a wood-slatted door. Mary knew, from the way his feet struck the gravel, strong and determined, that the person approaching was her father. He ran bent forward, head up, arms straight down his sides, fingers clamped around the gun. Looming beside her, he said nothing to her, seemed even not to see her, though he stood close enough to touch, so close that she could smell the laundry starch lingering on his clothes, the oil on the gun.

Mary watched the creature, its movements frozen as the breath in her chest. Then came the shot, its echo ricocheting inside Mary's skull, and the crotch of the tree suddenly empty.

  *  *  *

Under the old oak a breeze crept through the sleeves of Mary's nightie and across her back. She had the feeling that it was blowing right through her as though she wasn't even there. From a great distance floated her father's voice calling out in triumph as he ran towards the house. The suddenness of nothing where there had been something shifted her far from the world of boiled breakfast eggs in china cups, long afternoon walks with her silent nanny, her parents' empty chairs at meals when they were dining out or busy with friends.  Even her mother's rules for proper behavior floated at a distance from her, rules that sometimes earned her spankings when she forgot: not to gulp her milk like a truck driver, not to speak unless spoken to, to play quietly and not disturb others, to take the nearest cookie on the plate.

Mary crept to the hollow under the renegade pine sprung up among the oaks, a place she discovered one afternoon when she slipped from Nanny's radar as she gossiped with Cook in the kitchen.

The duff under the tree's umbrella of green was fine and soft as bath powder. It clung to Mary's dolls where they sat around a worn, wooden shingle, yellowed leaves arranged as place mats.

Mary's hands felt icy cold. She knelt. A rag doll in a blue dress leaned against her neighbor. Mary touched the doll's fountain of yellow hair, dimmed by a skim of forest dust.

"You are slumping again." Mary's voice was the merest whisper. After a minute, she reached, pulled the doll upright. "A lady stands straight."

A small bear, ruffled apron tied behind its back, lay pitched forward across the shingle.  Mary gave the bear a little shake.

 "Your manners are a scandal. Papa will have to use the hairbrush on you."

Mary moved to sit beside the biggest doll. She could not remember a time before Dolondalene. The doll's pillow shape, the way her sturdy cloth torso yielded as Mary pressed her close, the faint aroma of soap and shampoo that clung to her porcelain face and scalp  lessened the sick feeling that had lodged in Mary's stomach. Mary closed her eyes.  "We made peach cobbler especially for you," said Dolondalene, folding the smallest dolls into the soft cushion of her breast. The older doll children banged their spoons, and at the end of the meal the father doll poked up the fire and read stories to them from a big book bearing a painting of a child floating through a blue sky on a magic carpet.

  *  *  *

The dream never felt like a dream. On those nights when something reached into her sleep and snapped her eyes open, Mary knew what she saw was real.

The first time Nanny sniffed and said, "Next you'll be telling me your dolls can talk." 

This night the bad feeling was already in her stomach when she woke, the only sound her raspy breathing. In the gloom the dim shapes of her familiar furniture filled her with terror. Her little table whose matching chairs she could sit on with her feet touching the floor, the bureau whose top drawer she was able to reach without standing on tiptoe were no longer in the places they had been when Nanny put her to bed. Table and chairs crouched in a shadowy jumble where the bureau had stood, the bureau hulking in a dark corner beyond her toes. Even the window had moved, its square of murky light glowing dimly where the closet should be. Twice their normal size, secretive and alive, the objects seemed to watch her, mocking her fear, pressing toward the bed until her terror erupted, shattering all the rules.

Even with the sound of footsteps hurrying down the hall, Mary could not stop the terrible sound of her screams. A sudden thread of light under her door sent the furniture swirling by her eyes. In the next second when the door opened to reveal her mother's silhouette, table, chairs and bureau stood where they belonged, impassive and ordinary, with the window, placid in its reflection of the illuminated hallway, in place by her bed.

Mary flung herself against her mother, ashamed of the mucous that streamed from her nose soaking the robe's silken surface, terrified by her own daring. "Please..."
She felt her mother's hands, light as moth wings, ease her back into her bed. The darkness of the room edged closer even as her mother bent down, eyes gentle, voice soft.

 "You'll wake everyone. Hush. You're a big girl now. With your very own room. Here..." The gentle touch smoothed the eiderdown, tucked its edge beneath Mary's chin. "Go back to sleep now." And the door clicked shut, her mother gone, the perfume she used scenting the eiderdown's crimped binding. 

*  *  *           

The next morning Mary huddled against the old pine. She wrapped her arms around Dolondolene so tightly that the doll burst a thread setting off a hidden, minuscule trickle of sawdust.

Through the silence drifted a sound, high-pitched calls coming to her from a great distance, so faint she might have missed them. She crept onto the strip of mowed lawn between the woods and the gardens. Like a trail of snowflakes against an infinity of blue, the "V" of geese wavered far, far overhead, ribbons undulating in and out of straight lines, streaming north. Mary lay on her back, the skirt of her sundress spread around her, the grass dry and crisp against the bareness of her arms and legs. She imagined what the birds could see below, a carpet of tree tops, things growing, animals stirring. She pictured herself sharing the birds' journey, the boundless space through which they flew. She watched until they blended into a sheen of mist over the horizon, listened until their voices repeated only within her own mind.

As she scrambled to her knees, she saw the gardener bending among the zinnias and marigolds, eyes on her.

Once, playing in her sandbox under the kitchen window, she had heard Nanny mutter to Cook, "That man gives me a chill!"

Mary had heard the whomp of Cook's cleaver, preparations for a dinner party. "He's harmless enough."

There had been the sound of Nanny slurping her tea. "I wouldn't put money on that." 

Then Cook's laughter, "You've just got an itch that only one thing will satisfy."

Nanny had smacked her cup into its saucer so hard Mary thought it must have cracked. "He's not looking for anything I've got."

Now, drifting in a dream set off by the wild geese, Mary looked on from the garden's edge, watched the man's hands, dirt clinging to the work-roughened skin, sculpt mounds of earth around green shoots.

"Come see," he said, his voice hoarse, almost a whisper.

He often invited her to look on as he chopped at weeds with his hoe or pinched dry seeds into the hollows of damp earth. Lately he had shown her how to open the faucet that released arcs of water over the garden and how to carry miniature containers of newly sprouted plants. Something in her knotted and shrank when his hand lingered on hers, the calloused palm moist and overly warm.

"You're my special helper," he would say, and Mary's caution thinned, nudged aside like shadows under weak sunlight.

Now he fingered the delicate new shoots with a slow deliberation that compelled her to move closer, stepping down the path of freshly turned soil between the flowers, red, gold and orange in the bright, hard sun.

"Are you playing by yourself today?"

She nodded, kicking the dirt with her toe.

"I am going to the tool shed to eat my lunch," he said. "I have something nice for you there. Would you like to see what it is?"

Mary was aware of an urge to say that her parents were waiting, that Nanny had just gone to fetch a jump rope or a rubber ball. But her father was at his bank, and her mother had driven away in the green Buick. Besides, well-brought-up girls did not tell falsehoods. And Nanny never played games. 

This morning there was an intimacy in his voice, a coaxing that enveloped Mary and drew her in, summoning her with the fullness of his attention.

"There's a piece of peach cobbler in my lunch pail."

Mary stared. When a grown-up offered a treat, it was rude to show yourself as ungrateful. You accepted politely, even if the treat was not to your liking. You looked the grown-up in the eye and said thank you and yes, please. 

"You're such a nice little girl." His eyes regarded her almost lazily. "We'll have a good time."

Mary turned to look at her house, saw beyond the trees the upstairs windows, rectangles of sightless eyes. She did not want to go back to Nanny who would be cross, to the nap in her darkened room or to the afternoon walk when Nanny's hurrying her along made her legs ache. 

"Come," he said.

And Mary followed, along the furrows of dark earth, past sun flowers drooping in the heat, past the vacant branch of the tree that had sheltered the weasel, past her secret hiding place where Dolondalene waited, her innards sifting into the duff. She followed, smelling the acridity of the man's sweat, the mustiness of his clothes, hearing his breath as it wheezed in and out of his nostrils, feeling the wood yield as she climbed the worn wooden stairs, the flimsy door shudder as he pulled it open, listening to the pat, pat of her bare feet as they took her into the shed's interior, cloistered, quiet and dark. 

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