“Oof, this is sad,” I said, interrupting myself.
“Stop reading it!” The veins in August’s neck—so babyish at six—pulsed. This was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I was settled at the dining table reading the newspaper aloud, a story about an old lady and her nephew. August definitely needed to hear it. At my feet, baby Juniper giggled in her sleep. She was napping in her plastic car seat—car seats only come in plastic—while I sipped Barley Brew. Less acidic than coffee, plus no caffeine. Coffee will kill you. It will.
I went on reading: “He worried he might never see her again.” Then, June-Bug screamed.
“August!” I yelled. He had hold of the baby’s one sparse patch of hair. How do you gently un-pry tiny, locked fingers? August fought so hard against me that the whole map of veins on his chest turned blue—he hadn’t gotten dressed yet and was wearing only hemp pajama bottoms. My hands were sweating, and his fingers kept slipping from my grasp. The baby wailed like a trapped animal, which she basically was. When I finally got August’s fingers uncurled, a tuft of fine hair floated out.
“August!” I said.
He stared at the strands of gold on the hickory floor.
“Well,” he said finally. “It was very poorly rooted.”
The next morning, August woke early. “How ’bout pancakes?” I said. I had buckwheat flour to use up, plus frozen organic blueberries.
“Mama,” August said, “I’m glad we don’t eat dead animals.”
“Mm-hm.” I’d been working, though subtly, to dampen this narrative ever since August said this exact thing at a friend’s house after she had thoughtfully prepared chicken alfredo so that our family could enjoy the pasta while hers enjoyed the rest.
“Mama,” August repeated, “I feel passionate about not eating animals. Very, very passionate.”
August was passionate because I read to him every day. Magazines, history books, news—you name it. The world is full of stories. It was my job, not his, to make sure he heard the right ones—puppy mills, strip mining, gun violence, seabirds stuffed with polluted plastic. We learn best from tragedy. Take August’s “pet toad.” That’s not a lesson I planned—it just happened! Hot sun, coffee can, a few blades of grass—instant Easy-Bake oven. If only we hadn’t taken a nap after lunch . . . but anyone could have forgotten. Of course, I sent August out to look in the can himself. The way he crumpled . . . it frightened me. I thought, things do snap. But when the sobbing finally let him go, my boy’s heart was softer. It was.
Later, after I’d kneaded my bread dough and left it to rise overnight in the fridge, I nestled Juniper against me in my big bed to nurse. “August!” I said. “Time for a story!” He climbed up next to June, and I started reading yesterday’s article from the beginning—ad-libbing, really, because it was short, and I already knew the ending. “In a small village . . .” I began. Then, “Here, scooch over. That’s better.” August rested his head on my chest, across from the baby now. Naturally, children resist their parents, but August knew what he needed. I could feel the little puffs of his breath, still sweet.
“. . . there lived a sad old woman in a run-down home. No one visited.”
“Her kids didn’t?”
“She had a nephew,” I said, “who had no time for his old aunt, until one day he worried he might never see her again.”
“Because she would die?”
“Because he loved her. He decided to come for Thanksgiving. The aunt bought piles of food, a turkey—”
“Turkeys are cruel.”
“Well, turkeys aren’t cruel, and most people do eat them at Thanksgiving. Anyway, she also made pecan pie from scratch, and her little apartment filled up with wonderful smells. While the pie baked, she rested her eyes. But she slept too long, and the pie scorched. She jumped up to take it out, but she grabbed a dishtowel instead of a hot pad. The towel dragged on the hot bottom of the oven.”
“The towel sparked and caught fire,” I said slowly. “The old aunt panicked and waved it around to put it out. But instead, the flames spread, the fire and smoke . . .”—August reached across me and put two fingertips on Juniper’s closed eyes, press, press, press—“. . . spread everywhere, and she was trapped,” I said, pulling August’s hand away from June’s face. I was revving up. “And when the firemen arrived, the old aunt was burnt to death, August. Burnt to a crisp.” I held his shoulders firmly. “Isn’t that sad?”
Teaching sorrow, I believed, was a stronger shield against hard-heartedness than teaching kindness: share your toys, don’t hit your sister, pick up those expensive wooden trains. The way I saw it, sorrow was humanity’s last hope. It gave children a chance to catch their breath and feel the broken pulse of the world. Especially children surrounded by too much goodness. Don’t they crave sadness? Depend on it?
The next morning was beautiful. It was. I had already popped the bread into the oven and was reading the paper, June-Bug at my feet, when August padded down.
“Good morning, little love,” I said. “Come read with me.”
“Okay,” he said. But he drifted toward the kitchen.
“Bring the tangerines?” The thought of a sunshiny clementine made my mouth water.
In the kitchen, drawers opened and closed. A chair scraped the floor, a cupboard door banged. Something else.
“Just a minute, Mom.”
He didn’t call me Mom, not yet. I was still Mama.
“Gus-Gus?” I called again.
That’s when I caught it. The sweet, woody smell of burning muslin, the white veils of wafting smoke.
Jeannine Ouellette serves as nonfiction editor for Orison Books. She has authored several educational books and the children’s picture book Mama Moon. She is a recent prizewinner in The Masters Review Fiction Contest, the Curt Johnson Fiction Awards, and Proximity’s Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Utne, The Rake, december magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Nowhere, as well as anthologies such as the Nowhere Print Annual, Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Feminist Parenting, and Proximity's forthcoming print anthology. She recently completed her first novel.