by Susan Jane
‘God, that’s so bizarre, Rachel. She’s talking to air.’
Amy turned to her friend and, as she often did, spoke with a slim cigarette bobbing between her lips. The sun that had baked the playground all afternoon was receding, and the two women were sitting on the smooth lip of the park’s giant fountain.
I mean, she’s really into it.’
Rachel’s three-year old daughter, Paris Lee, was perched atop the junior jungle gym, a dwarfed version of its parent which stood ominously nearby. One tiny hand held fast to a rusting blue bar, while the other gestured animatedly. Balanced precariously on a horizontal beam that was part of the structure’s octagon weave, the child seemed to be conversing with great enthusiasm. But there was no one else in sight.
Rachel wondered if the girl’s bum was cold; it was late summer and a slight nippy wind had arrived. She waved at her, but Paris didn’t notice.
Amy finished her cigarette and tossed its broken body to the hard earth. It died beneath the stamp of her boot. ‘So who do you think she’s talking to? Santa Claus? The Tooth Fairy?’
Rachel twisted a chunk of her sable hair around her fingers and tugged nervously. ‘I don’t know. People she makes up in her head, I guess. Repeats things she’s seen on TV, conversations she’s heard.’
‘And she has no friends?’
Amy shook her head and made a clucking noise.
‘She isn’t interested in other children,’ Rachel said, slightly defensive. ‘Once in awhile, they’ll go up to her and try to engage her, but she just shuts down. Goes off into a corner to play by herself.’
‘Hm. She’s a loner, like her mother.’ Amy good-naturedly nudged her friend’s ribs.
Rachel frowned. ‘She’s not an unhappy little girl. Is that how it seems?’
Amy looked at her friend and felt a stab of compassion, thinking how Paris didn’t smile as much as a little girl should. But she spoke with certainty. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I think she’s precious. And you’re doing a super job with her. It can’t be easy, all alone.’ She grinned to try to lighten the mood. ‘Besides, she’s got those fine nappy earmuffs. What’s not to be happy about?’
They both laughed.
* * *
The earmuffs were hot pink rabbits’ fur; two vulgar fat spheres on a plastic half-circle. They were a gift from her grandmother for her third birthday, and Paris adored them. Since Rachel couldn’t think of a way to thoroughly clean the delicate pelt, the fuscia hairs had become dingy and matted over time. Several attempts by Rachel and her friends at enticing the child with brand-new earmuffs had fallen flat. As with most children who have claimed a beloved possession, no substitute would do.
Paris wore the earmuffs at night.
‘They keep the Nimsies out,’ she’d told her mother one night. She was matter-of-fact and quite serious as she lay there with her dark hair fanning out over the pillow.
Rachel’s heart twitched at her daughter’s words and she leaned forward, shaken. ‘Nimsies?’ she asked with forced exuberance. ‘And who are they?’
‘They are…’ began the girl. Paris looked at her mother and waited.
‘Yes, fairies! They want to talk all night, and I can’t sleep.’
‘Well what do they talk about?’
Paris looked past her mother, her dark eyes placid and moist. ‘Just stuff.’
‘Just stuff. Fairy stuff?’
The girl thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘Fairy stuff.’
‘Mommy, you’re sad.’
‘What? No…’ Rachel mustered her most dauntless grin. ‘I’m not sad at all. I’ll tell you what you are, though. Silly. Silly-looking with those funny pink things on your head.’ She prodded the girl’s navel gently with her fingertip, and Paris squealed. ‘Don’t your earmuffs fall off while you sleep?’
Paris shook her dark, shiny head. ‘Nope.’
As she shut off the lights and started to leave the bedroom, Rachel felt her daughter watching her. She turned around. The little girl’s eyes reflected light from the hallway. ‘Paris, I’m right in the next room, lovey. If you’re scared.’
‘They won’t fall off,’ she told her mother somberly.
And they didn’t. When Rachel returned to her daughter’s room the next morning to wake her, the fuzzy orbs were securely in place, and the girl’s dainty ears were hot beneath them. Paris herself seemed to be lying in precisely the same position, as if she hadn’t moved an inch the entire night. It was as if she’d willed herself, even in sleep, to stay put.
* * *
Paris’ nursery school teacher was a blonde waif of a woman named Ann Banks. One morning she asked Rachel to hang around for a bit of a chat when she came to collect her child at lunchtime.
When Rachel arrived at the close of the morning session, Ann was perched atop one of the round childrens’ tables. A binder rested on her bony knees, open to a expose a pad of paper. It was scribbled with notes that Rachel could not decipher at a quick glance.
She motioned for the girl’s mother to sit down. ‘I wanted to talk to you about our little Paris.’
‘Alright. Talk away.’
‘I should begin by saying that your daughter is an absolute charmer, terribly bright. But she has been exhibiting some odd behaviors recently. Is there anything going on at home that might be troubling her?’
Rachel picked at the wood-simulation Formica where it was already chipping. She knew where the conversation was going. ‘Trouble at home? No. Not at all. Things are fine.’ She looked at the woman. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, it’s just that lately she’s been uninterested in group activities with the other children. She seems to prefer more solitary play, stealing off into a corner by herself. She seems to develop fixation with certain toys and plays with only those items day after day.’
The teacher gestured at her notepad. ‘Despite all that, she appears to have a healthy imagination. I think she’s even got herself some make believe friends.’ She chuckled. ‘I watch her have these sprightly discussions all by her lonesome; it’s quite intriguing.’
Seated cross-legged on a brightly-colored carpet, Paris was lining up plastic animal figures in an arc. Once they were all properly aligned, she’d knock them over with one sweep of her palm. Then she would begin again, arranging the lions, elephants, zebras and whatnot in precise position. Occasionally she’d pause and grow still, her eyes vacuous and unblinking.
‘See there,’ Ann said, gesturing. ‘See how she suddenly stops playing. Does she do that often at home?’
Rachel shrugged. ‘Sure. She zones out sometimes. Don’t we all?’
Ann smiled warmly at the woman. ‘Yes, we do, and I suppose kids do too…’ She trailed off and was thoughtful for a moment. ‘It sounds strange, but you’d almost think she was listening to something, she was hearing something. I could be wrong, but Paris seems to be paying rapt attention to something rather than spacing out.’ She turned to the woman. ‘Rachel, I don’t want to alarm you, but I’d like Paris to see a specialist dealing with autism in children.’
The girl’s mother rubbed her brow, suddenly tired. ‘Autism?’ The bitter word tumbled around on her tongue; she tasted it, acerbic and familiar. ‘Ann, Paris isn’t autistic,’ she said firmly.
Ann placed her hand on Rachel’s. It was warm and dry. ‘Oh, I’m not saying for certain anything of the sort. I just think, based on certain factors, it’d be best to rule it out.’
‘You don’t understand, I can rule it out right now, Ann. She’s an imaginative little girl. I was the same way when I was that age. Quiet. Kept to myself. Had plenty of imaginary friends.’ She tried to laugh, but it became stuck in her windpipe and sounded more like a grunt. Unease had settled itself in her chest, and she felt a slight aching beginning behind her eyeballs.
Ann tapped the end of her ballpoint pen on her lip. ‘What about the earmuffs? Still the fixation with those? Is she still insisting on wearing them to bed?’
Rachel paused for a moment before responding. ‘Yes.’
‘Have you tried taking them away? Refusing her?’
Rachel remembered, and shuddered at the thought. ‘Well…’
One evening several weeks before, Rachel had left Paris in the care of a babysitter; the sweet teenaged daughter of a family that had just moved in up the road. Incredibly, in her haste to get out the door, Rachel had neglected to mention the earmuffs and her daughter’s fixation with them. She returned home late that night to find the seventeen-year old splotchy-faced, eyes puffed and sticky with spent tears. “I told her she couldn’t wear earmuffs to bed, she couldn’t, who wears earmuffs to bed? And she just came all undone!” The girl held out her naked arm and showed Rachel where the skin had puffed up hot and raw around three crimson crescents; tiny red smiles. “She pinched me! She drew blood… she drew blood!” She recounted how the toddler had stood rigidly by her bed, eyes frantically searching the white painted surface of the table. She spoke of the low, rumbling wail that was born in the girl’s throat and swelled at once into a magnificent shriek. When Paris crumpled to the floor and began to dash her forehead against the rug, the sitter wasted no time in retrieving the earmuffs. The storm passed as quickly as it had begun.
Rachel had ushered the rattled young woman out with a generous tip and a hug. For days afterwards, she cursed herself for being so foolish, so thoughtless.
She cleared her throat and regarded the teacher with a steady gaze. ‘Yes, I have tried to take them away. She was very upset. She needs them… to sleep. I see no harm in letting her wear them.’
Ann might have wanted to disagree, to spout some advice about the rewards of ignoring tantrums, but she didn’t. Instead she sighed, and said, ‘Well… In any event… You probably want to get her home.’
She hopped off the desk, ending their conversation. ‘Please, Rachel, try not to worry. It’s probably just a phase she’s going through, one that will pass on, like bad weather.” She began rifling through her binder. ‘Let me give you the name of this therapist, I know I have it here somewhere.’
Rachel numbly stood and took the business card from the teacher. She thanked her and called for Paris to end her play.
‘Oh and one more thing,’ Ann called as they headed out the classroom door.
She turned around.
‘The therapist has flexible office hours and accepts most health insurance plans.’
Rachel nodded without speaking, and closed the door behind her.
* * *
She felt lifted by relief as she drove away from the school, cracking open her car window to let the brisk air wash over the two of them. Rachel remembered that they had nothing for dinner, and steered the car towards the grocery store.
The market was sardined with elderly couples and mothers of young children, sporting sneakers and coupon organizers. She planted Paris in a kid-friendly carriage and pushed it towards the produce aisle.
The girl held her arm out as they wheeled along a citrus gradient; grapefruits and blood oranges stacked with a perfectionist’s zeal. ‘Grapefoo,’ she said. Rachel plucked the softball-sized fruit from the pile, bagged it, and gave it to Paris to hold.
‘Hi cutie’ A painfully thin, flame-headed woman in a black coat paused at the carriage, and when Rachel turned around, her face was close to Paris’s. ‘What’s your name?’
The girl fixed her stare at the woman’s hands and did not respond. They were bejeweled, heavy with diamonds which reflected fragmented light in the cold flourescence of the store.
Rachel smiled kindly at the woman. ‘Her name’s Paris.’
‘Paris! Ooh la la’ Her eyes were warm coffee brown as she regarded the little girl. ‘What a glamorous name.’
Paris was still gazing at the woman’s fingers. The soft curve of her lower lip had begun to twitch. She looked up at the lady and spoke calmly. ‘Peter…’
The woman had gone still. The carry-basket she was clutching stopped swinging.
‘Peter says to tell you he’s safe.’ Paris blinked once and then disengaged her gaze. She swung her legs and began to hum.
The basket clattered to the floor and several oranges rolled across the linoleum. Rachel scrambled to gather the items on the dusty tiles as the woman stood there dumbly.
‘I… I’m so sorry,’ Rachel muttered, and handed the replenished basket to the dumbstruck lady. She snatched the bag of fruit from her daughter and tossed it into an abandoned carriage nearby. Heading towards the exit hastily, she turned her head only to utter another feeble apology.
The woman was standing there with one hand covering her mouth, eyes steeped in tears.
* * *
‘Paris, I told you not to tell things like that to strangers,’ she admonished once they were back in the car. ‘Didn’t I? Remember, we talked about this.’
‘Mommy, the Nimsies are singing,’ the little girl cried gleefully, baring her tiny white pebble teeth.
‘Paris, love, listen to me. Mommy wants to talk to you for a minute. I want you to think about what I told you about telling people things… things the Nimsies said to you.’
The little girl, strapped snugly into her car seat, wasn’t paying attention. She was humming again, chewing on the string of her coat hood and staring off into space.
‘Paris!’ Rachel rammed the heel of her hand against the steering wheel.
Paris began murmuring as they pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main road.
pretty yes I’m pretty oh hello no yes I like dogs too do you like ice cream I do my mom makes me chocolate cones you’re nice oh I like to sing too!
She knew she’d lost her. Rachel inhaled deeply, begged for patience, and turned up the radio. She found a loud rock song and let it bury the chatter from the backseat with its droning beat.
* * *
That night Paris was sober as they dressed her for bed. ‘Mommy.’
‘What, love,’ the girl echoed.
‘What is it that you want to tell Mommy?’
Paris stretched her arm taut and let the pink sleeve of her nightgown slide over it. ‘Nimsies fly.’
‘The Nimsies fly?’
‘They fly and they float. In my ears.’ She tweaked one ear with her tiny French-fry fingers.
‘The Nimsies fly and float in your ears?’
Paris affirmed this with long, slow nods of her head.
‘Well, here,’ Rachel produced the cherished pink earmuffs and placed them on her daughter’s head. ‘These will help, won’t they? To shush the Nimsies?”
‘Yuh,’ the girl consented.
‘And if you’re frightened, or if the Nimsies tell you scary things…’ She waited.
‘Sing a happy song real loud,’ Paris finished, searching her mother’s face for approval.
Rachel nodded and seized her daughter’s waist with two hands. She pressed her face into the swollen toddler belly and breathed in the scent of laundered cotton. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ she muttered. ‘This is our cross to bear, yours and mine.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Paris repeated. ‘I’m sorry love.’ She mussed her mother’s hair with her hands and giggled.
* * *
They fly and they float. Rachel slipped beneath her covers and rubbed her bare legs against the cool cotton sheets. She closed her eyes and thought of the first time she heard them. She was nearly five and her father had been dead for forty-eight hours. A brain aneurysm had struck him down where he stood, as a mail sorter at the post office. They’d found him face down in the mail bin with a rigid fistful of letters.
Rae, babes, I miss you so. Tell Mum I love her.
It was something like a whisper but barely so; more like the rustle of a moth’s wings in her ear. At that moment Rachel could smell her father as if he were right there, the familiar musk of his skin and the balsam soap he used. She had reached out and batted the empty air with her hand, wanting him to enfold her small fist in his large hairless hands. But there had been nothing there, only a voice.
As if she had opened the floodgates, there were soon more; a chorus. Nimsies. Disembodied voices like bantam spirits circling her head. Some only recently passed, others long expired. They sought her out and trailed behind her like desperate parasites. They cried to her and sang to her and begged to be heard.
She smiled as she thought of her mother. Of her fierce defiance and protectiveness whenever someone declared, That little girl is an odd duck. She’s not right in the ol’ cranium, that child.
Her mother told her instead, God must have picked you himself. Why, you’re a very special kind of messenger!
She sat upright in bed, and reached out and opened the drawer to her oak nightstand. She rummaged through its contents and plucked out two earplugs from the box she had in there. The small wax nuggets softened between her warm fingertips as she rolled them around, before inserting them into her ears. After thirty years, the task was like second nature to her.
Rachel extinguished her lamp and settled into the blankets. Tonight, the dead would be silenced, and she and her child would sleep.