Here it is, another Sunday night, another week gone, and I haven’t written one word worth keeping. My characters refuse to communicate anything needed for this story to progress. It’s been one hell of a week. My nine-year-old daughter, Beth, has had chicken pox for eight days. For six days she was crabby and itchy and demanding. Each morning, though, when I had to leave for work, any maternal guilt over leaving her evaporated because her sitter was kindly and efficient. Good old Paula knew what to do and had more patience than I could muster.
By the time I got to the first house and unpacked the cleaning supplies, relief at the freedom of mindless work took over. I let myself be aware, vaguely, of other people’s untidiness, but mostly I considered those awkward characters in the story I was writing: the board members of a charitable organization, like so many I had sat on or worked for. Three of them were hatching a plot, a coup, a change of direction, and trying to fool themselves into believing righteous reasons for their skulduggery. Four houses, two hours each, and I caught the bus home, reluctantly replacing the fictional world of petty intrigue with pox and fever and a resolution to be patient. Paula reported on Beth’s day. Away she went, and Beth’s complaints began.
I fetched calamine and Tylenol, drinks and Popsicles. Horrible things to feed a sick child: sugar and chemicals. Feeling I was paying her off in poison for moments of peace, I walked three blocks to get movies that she talked and fussed through. They only served to distract me from every thing except dinner dishes and domestic drudgery. I sat with the story in front of me every evening, but it was as unknowable as a code in a foreign language; I just cannot hear my thoughts while strange video creatures are rescuing divers from the abyss two feet away or while the bank forecloses on yet another poor but honest farm family. I tried paying attention to the movie characters to learn something about dialogue but got caught up in the stories until I had to fetch something else.
Friday evening, Beth grew worse. She was so sick she just slept or lay silent while I sat by her bed, watching and worrying. I was guilty and embarrassed to find myself making notes at three in the morning for some future piece of fiction, describing her trembling frail movements, her pallor, and fevered muttering. I set aside my pen and watched her all night, remembering my mother explaining the importance of the night shift in nursing. Things can change fast, she had said. People get better or worse at night. People die most often in those small, tired hours before dawn. I watched until morning.
We spent Saturday watching videos and dozing on the couch. But then, late Saturday evening, her temperature rose to one hundred and five degrees. Trained by my mother to care for my siblings in just such a state, I wrapped Beth in cold, wet towels. She didn’t even object. I lifted her into a chair while I dragged her mattress into the living room and then laid her on it, naked and wet, under an open window. She thrashed and sighed, cried out against something in her dreams, as I sat on the floor beside her, and in the light from the street lamp, asked my long-dead mother if I should call for help. No, she responded, or I imagined. They don’t want an infectious child in the hospital, and they could do nothing more or differently than I was already doing. She had done this herself, with all her many children through their many childhood illnesses, with no help except years of nurse’s training and experience.
At two in the morning, Beth’s temperature hadn’t gone down. She stopped her restless movement and didn’t answer when I said her name. In the cool night breeze, I dabbed her torso with rubbing alcohol and tried to chafe some warmth into her icy, blue-mottled hands and feet. Her eyes rolled under trembling lids. I brought the phone and set it beside me, watched for some sign of a seizure, silently cursed her father for his disappearing act, leaving me alone in the night with death hovering over our baby. Because I could think of nothing else to do, I sang to her, every nursery rhyme and lullaby I had ever known in the hope that she would come alive enough to tell me nine years was much too mature for such nonsense.
She woke up at six this morning, hungry and talkative, temperature down to one hundred, suddenly interested in everything around her. She claimed not to remember my night-time lullabies. I gave her the requested toast and jam and apple juice, and thought I’d finally be able to get to work. She drank the juice, licked the jelly off the toast and talked. I supplied her with crayons, paper, pencil and pen, glue, scissors, sparkles, and an illustrated art book to cut up if she wished. She had story books, cartoon books, and offers of anything else we owned that would keep her busy and quiet for at least half an hour. I settled fast at the kitchen table with the uncooperative dialogue.
Nothing worked. My characters remained mute, but Beth had a week’s talking saved up, and it had to come out. I told her, “You’re well enough for me to yell at you, you know.”
“Just because I’m talking, it doesn’t mean you have to answer me.”
“Fine,” I said, and I didn’t respond for about half an hour as I sat at the kitchen table re-writing the scene, hoping for the board members’ conversations and motives to come clear. The scabby-faced child stood just out of arm’s reach and talked. She exclaimed about my grey hairs and messy handwriting, commented on my new wrinkles and bad posture. I might as well try to write something else, I thought, maybe something on the theme of patient endurance attaining all things, but that aphorism was quite obviously a bald-faced lie.
She circled the table where I sat. I caught her eye and tried to stare her down. She asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m thinking about camping up north and the mosquitoes. Remember how satisfying it is to slap a mosquito when it keeps buzzing around.”
She sighed. “It’s just that I’m very, very hungry because I haven’t eaten all week.” Tears filled her clear blue eyes, wet her lashes and the heavy circles of bluish grey underneath. Her face was delicately pale between the red spots. Curls of hair hung limp against her red-spotted cheeks and shone in the brief appearance of late afternoon sun. She began to sing lullabies, nursery rhymes — the same ones I had sung to her in the night. I felt my mother’s expression take over my face, the one she had when gazing speculatively over the top of a tattered magazine at her clamoring batch of children one long, dark, winter afternoon; the expression she wore when she said that now she knew why mother pigs eat their young. The fictionalized dialogue blurred with my own tears. Mom had told me years later why she said that, but, while at university, I had done some research and found out that mother pigs did, indeed, sometimes eat their young, especially when they were under stress of crowding or lacking food and sanitation. With no such excuses, I laid down my pen and got up to make dinner. Beth was very helpful, especially with advice and directions.
After she had eaten enough for two people, she settled down with an old thesaurus. “Aha,” said I to myself and sat down to wait for my mute characters to speak to me or to each other. Beth laughed out loud, and I resisted looking up. When she exclaimed indignantly about the synonyms for child, I bit my tongue, but when she roared in delight and said, “I can tell this book was written by a smart woman,” she had my attention. She read out the antonyms for man, mistaking them for synonyms. She loved the word ‘pantywaist.’
“I’m going to use this,” she said.
I really hated to do it, but I had to show her what the book meant. We cuddled up on her mattress and became indignant together about ‘manly’ being synonymous with ‘brave’ and ‘undaunted’ above the note: ‘Antonyms-see female, weakness.’ We had a long discussion about society and genders, inequality, and primitive attitudes. This led to talk of families, the future, and her possible career choices. She was sure she could be a doctor, fly an airplane, and make beautiful pottery, just as long as she never had any children. “Or if I have any,” she said, “I’ll give them to you.”
So now it’s after midnight, and I have to be up early for work, but I keep writing and re-writing without being able to hear what the characters are really saying to each other. Beth is talking in her sleep, and I can’t hear what she’s saying, either. I go to sit by her bed. She moves restlessly. I smooth her tangled curls back from her temples and consider the awful possibility that I may never know how to make characters define themselves or their motives. Beth lifts one hand and laughs out loud with her own dream characters, and it comes to me, suddenly, why my mother cried as she got out the mixing bowl, flour, and sugar to help us make cookies that winter afternoon on the farm. I think I understand what she knew and didn’t say about why mother pigs sometimes, but only sometimes, eat their young.