Deep within, buried in the fabric of the past, there is a little boy crying for his mother. He reaches for her, and she holds him close; he can smell the scent of Tide emanating from her clothes as she crushes him against her chest. But fear rises off her, and alarm emanates from her. He tries to soothe her, calm her down. “Mommy,” he calls, but there is no answer. And he tries desperately to connect with her, and stem the tide of words that are called forth. He wants to stave off the ultimate disappointment, the blows that she will extend with her lips, the razor-tipped, barbed words that she cannot help. But they do not know she cannot help it, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.
And so he watches. And he remembers himself, cuddled close, held against her chest. He breathes deep again, calms himself. He runs his fingers through her hair, russet curls that he twines around his hand. He will keep her safe, he thinks. He will be strong for her. No matter what she says and who turns away from them because of it, he will stand by her. She is his Mother, and he loves her. And even though no one else can know what is wrong, because it is their secret, he has strength enough to be lonely for her, to be everything she needs and wants him to be.
Brilliant, caught within a world bounded by the four walls that close him, he reads to himself, fascinated by the world within the written word. He pores over pictures, figures, plays with toys, humming to himself. He cares for his little sister, watching her sometimes when Mommy must go out and Daddy is away at work. He knows how to be very responsible. Mommy compliments him on his maturity. Daddy just assumes that he will do what he is expected to do in order to make them proud. Daddy is always very tired when he comes home; he doesn’t usually have the strength to make dinner. When Mommy has taken her medicine, she will make it, and smiling, give Daddy a kiss on the cheek before sitting down. Sometimes she will wear a flower in her hair. It is usually a rose. On those days, Daddy smiles.
But more often there are the days when Mommy sits sullen and cold, entranced by a vision she sees just outside the window. He has wondered what it was. Like a Lady of Shalott looking only into her mirror, Mommy looks into the window, her fingers moving as though she, too, knits a secret bespelled web of dazzling colors. But when he looks at her fingers he sees nothing; he only pretends to see in order to protect her. It is there, he is certain, her loom of magic, and the colors that she weaves. Mommy tries to get jobs, and sometimes she does, but she always thinks that after a little while she can stop taking the pills. After all, she feels well, so why does she need them? But then she will get angry again, and the words will come, the black, ugly words that spill out of her mouth and hurt everyone around them. And he will be very silent and still, and later, when it is over, and his sister is safe in bed, he will cry himself to sleep.
He won’t let her see his tears. Mommy shouldn’t know about anything that will upset her; that is his unspoken pact with his father. Daddy works very hard, so he tries to make sure that nothing will upset Daddy either. Sometimes he requests things he simply cannot have. They can’t afford it, you see, with Mommy unable to hold down a stable job. He remembers the time that he asked whether he could go on the trip to New York. It was the class trip and he was excited to go, especially because his friend Tal was going. But Daddy just looked at him with sad eyes and told him that he wouldn’t be able to go. For one thing, they needed someone to watch his little sister when Mommy went to see the doctor and Daddy was at work. And for another, they simply didn’t have enough money.
He’s smart as a whip, he knows. That’s what they say about him, and he reads his own report cards and monitors his own grades. So he knows that Rebbe likes him. Although Rebbe is worried about the fact that he doesn’t come to school with packed lunches and seems very tired all the time. He wishes Rebbe wouldn’t write these things. They bother his father, when his father takes the time to hear them. And his father works so hard. Sometimes, it seems that a little boy has a lot more discernment than the Rebbe does.
But something awful happened today, and it was that something in particular that he is trying not to remember. That is why he has burrowed under the covers, choking his head in the fabric, so that he won’t let out the scream, or the sobs. Mommy said her black words today; it was the day that the black, stick-like words rose up to choke her in her mouth. She couldn’t remember right. So she was talking to Tal’s father and she started saying wild things about him, how he doesn’t raise Tal right, and he doesn’t treat him right, and her little boy is not going to have anything to do with Tal from now on. And Tal’s father looked so surprised; you could have wiped the shock off his face, it hurt him so badly. He was fumbling for words, struggling. He was trying to talk sense.
He wanted to say something that day, wanted to speak up and tell Tal’s father not to try. It was just one of Mommy’s days, the day when the black words choke her and she says things she doesn’t mean. But they don’t know Mommy is sick, because it’s a secret, and he knows he’s not supposed to tell. So he watched Tal’s father and he saw Tal’s face and now he feels sick, so he’s got his head facedown against the pillow, under the comforters, as though that way he can stop everything from happening.
He knows he’s strong. And he knows he can deal with it if Tal leaves him. But he doesn’t want Tal to leave him, because Tal’s actually his friend and he doesn’t have many friends. They’re hard to come by when you’re the son of the Lady of Shalott, the magic lady with her webs and spells and the mysterious curse that has been laid upon her. There’s no escaping that curse; she can’t escape the magic. And sometimes, the magic is good, and she dances, and is sweet, and she smells good, because she’s prayed some perfume on her wrists and behind her neck, and slipped a rose behind her ear. And those are the nights that Daddy’s happy, and he is happy, too.
But sometimes she lashes out, as though she will succeed in hurting whatever it is that is eating her up on the inside, clawing at her in its struggle to get out. He watches it and tears start in his eyes because he knows how hard it is for her. And he feels selfish wanting Tal for himself. But he loves Tal and wants to stay friends with Tal. Except Tal won’t want to play anymore, because he doesn’t know about the curse and the magic and the fact that Mommy’s got a secret that she can’t tell to anyone. And he doesn’t know how late Daddy comes home at night. Because he can’t tell him, even Tal. There are some things you just don’t tell.
Mommy’s got that look again, on her face, that wild look, and he sees that he’d better go to his sister, who is crying. For some reason, sometimes, Mommy can’t tolerate the crying; her head is hurting her and she needs everyone to be very quiet. He knows Mommy doesn’t mean it when she yells, because she is sweet and good and loving, and he knows that she can’t help it. But deep within, in a dark place very hidden, even from himself, he knows that he is scared, and the scary feeling bubbles up. He pushes it down, trying to put it away, but he’s waiting for Daddy to come home and make things better and he’s also wondering what will happen with Tal, and most of all he’s hoping that the curse will go away so that Mommy can be free again, and happy like she was, a long time ago. Sometimes she is happy. He has some pictures where Mommy’s smiling.
He has some pictures where he’s smiling, too.
Oh, Mommy, he calls silently within his head. Can’t I help you? The phone is ringing; he goes to pick it up before the jangling noise bothers her.
Tal is calling. Maybe it will be all right, after all.