“Well, let’s see now, is there anything missing?”
There were several sheets of colored paper bedecked with crayon drawings spread over the bedroom floor. Ann had obligingly rolled back the rug to provide more drawing surface. They were comparing a yellow one and a pink one side-by-side, the three of them kneeling on the ground and examining with their hands on the floor. Maggie could already see what Erik got wrong, but it didn’t matter if she saw it. He was the one who wanted the help.
Erik looked back and for the between the papers with a grave expression. The bird was on both, and the duck, and the cat (last time he forgot the cat), and the grass, and the pond, and the tree. Maggie’s tree had leaves and his didn’t, but he didn’t think that was missing, they just thought of different trees. He couldn’t remember anything in the story about leaves. “No,” he decided.
“Yes, I think that looks about right to me, too,” Ann said. “Maggie?”
“Now is there anything different?”
That was where Erik had lost the plot and they both waited to see if he could find it. It took him a moment, but he finally pointed at his bird. His bird was on the ground and Maggie’s was in the tree and he knew his was the wrong one because that was how this worked.
Ann had the music open on the floor beside her. “Erik, do you remember why, or do you want the story again?”
He held up one finger, still studying the pages. He had this. He was on top of this. “It’s the cat,” he said, touching it. “The cat scared the bird.”
“That’s exactly right!” said Ann. And it was also, she noted, a lot more words than he’d been using when they tried this without crayons. He wanted to understand the story and he had asked them to help him with it. It was just very hard to understand if he understood the story when the only way he could tell you about it was talking. Hence, crayons. Crayons were wonderful things.
“Do you want to put the bird in the tree or do you just want to hear the next bit?” she asked him.
He was frowning. He wanted to do the whole thing over again and get all of it right, but he also wanted to hear the next bit. He put a large, black ‘X’ over his bird on the ground and put another one in the tree.
“Oh, honey,” Ann said painfully. “You didn’t have to do it like that…”
There was a light tapping on the door and it was pushed open a crack. “Ann?” It was Hyacinth on the other side.
“Oh, just a minute. Please excuse me.” Ann picked up the door, opened it, set it back down, got on the other side of it and closed it most of the way. “We’re having ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in crayon,” she told Hyacinth softly. “He wanted some help with it. He can’t read,” she added, frowning. “Not even a little bit. Did you know that, Cin?”
Hyacinth shook her head, “But I thought it might happen. Sometimes it does. He might get it back, at least some of it. That usually happens, too.”
“Is he upset about it?”
“I’ve distracted him!” Ann said proudly. She dropped her voice again, “But what about poor Em? Do you have him?”
“…but the police were a little rough with him.”
“Why? What did they do to him?”
“You’ll see it. Well, some of it’s under the clothes, but that’s just bruises. He’s having ice in the kitchen. I need to get him a clean shirt.”
“I don’t understand it at all!” said Ann. “Why did they need to do that? They put the handcuffs on him right away! Which is another stupid thing, if I may say so. He wasn’t fighting. They just wanted to stick him with something anti-magic. What was he going to do, I ask you? Make casserole at them? Turn their sugar into salt?”
“Ann, clean shirt,” Hyacinth said.
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I’ll get it. They’ll notice me less.”
They didn’t notice her at all. “It’s wrong,” Erik was saying.
“Well, yeah,” Maggie said, touching the page. “But it looks like you’re mad about it.”
“I am mad about it!”
Ann passed the shirt through the door without opening it further. “Here, Cin.”
Hyacinth folded it over her arm. “Where did you tell him his uncle was? Just so we don’t mess it up?”
“Oh, I just said he was with you. Then he didn’t mind about it. He asked if we could do the story before he got back.”
Hyacinth made a puzzled smile. “That child trusts one of us, I’m not sure which.”
“That child trusts all of us,” Ann replied. “What lie are we telling him about how Em got hurt?”
“He fell down some stairs.”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know as soon as we’ve decided.”
They had ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in crayon (and Mordecai had ice in the kitchen) until Erik was more tired and annoyed than interested (so, not very much longer). Ann separated the drawings by author. Maggie took hers. Erik was disgusted by his at the moment so Ann put them on the table with the music. “I think your uncle would like to see them, anyway,” she said.
“He’s back soon?”
“I’m sure he’ll be back by the time you’re awake.”
He sighed and dropped his head back on the pillow. “Put the good one first.”
He meant the one where he got everything right. It was the first one, also the one with the fewest things in it: Peter, the meadow and the open gate. Ann obligingly shuffled it to the front. Erik had drawn Peter purple, Maggie had drawn him brown. That was a difference, but the story didn’t have anything to say about what color Peter was, so Ann called them both right.
“Erik? Do you want me to stay until you’re asleep?” She doubted he would want any more story, he wanted to be wide awake for that.
But he was already gone.
Mordecai sneaked into his room with as much decorum as the broken door and his newly-acquired limp would allow. (Hyacinth helped him with the door, but he didn’t want her in the room. Truthfully, he didn’t want her at all. He wanted darkness and bed.) Ann had left the curtains open, even though Erik was sleeping. Mordecai approached the window to close them.
There were some crayon drawings on the table with the music. On a yellow sheet of paper, Ann had left him a note in pencil (Ann and Milo had exactly the same handwriting, but Ann signed her missives with her name in a heart and Milo never signed anything): M — Erik drew these about Peter and the Wolf. He thinks you’re upset that he doesn’t understand it. He’s trying very hard to understand it. Please say you’re proud of him. He’s come back a long way.
He glanced over at the small figure in the bed. His thoughts had been nowhere else all day, not even during the worst of it. It was nice to be home with his thoughts at rest. He took the sheaf of drawings with him and sat down on the floor next to the bed. It took him some moments and some pain to accomplish this and he was displeased to note that someone had removed the rug. He had also left his bag of ice on the table, but damned if he was going to get up and go after it. He laid one hand gently on Erik’s shoulder and leafed through the pages with the other one.
Here was Peter leaving the garden for the wide world and a big adventure. Here was the bird and the duck and the cat.
Here was a great big black ‘X’ drawn over a bird on the grass and another bird laboriously drawn in the tree with thick, heavy lines. He recoiled from it.
He began to notice other corrections. That cat was a late addition, you could see the green grass through it. In another, there was a cat in the tree with a dark line scribbled through it that he had taken for another branch. Here was the bird in the pond but drawn over in blue like the water. Here at last was the wolf appearing much too early with the boy and the grandfather and the duck and the cat still in the meadow. That whole picture had been scrawled over with a jagged dark line.
He doesn’t understand it. He’s trying but he keeps getting it wrong.
Far from understanding it, he used to know it. He used to tease his old uncle about not being able to do the noises for the hunters. (“Just then, the hunters came out of the woods…” “…with arrows! Very, very quiet arrows!”) He hardly asked for it anymore, because he was tired of it. He wanted ‘Cinephone Killed the Radio Star,’ or the theme from the Silver Streak.
What am I looking at? What is this? What happened?
He looked again at the body on the bed — less one eye, less the memory of ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ less even the capacity to understand it.
There was more here in front of him than Erik had had to say on any subject since his injury, all the things he did know and his determination to have the rest, and his anger when his reach exceeded his grasp, but all Mordecai could see was the damage.
Erik hissed a breath and rolled on to his back. Mordecai skidded in the papers (he had been observing them on his hands and knees) and realized he had grown afraid of his child.
What are you going to do now? How else are you going to hurt me today?
“Uncle?” said Erik. He sat up. He hissed again. “What… What…?”
“What?” said Mordecai, honestly bewildered.
Erik reached out and brushed the bandage on his cheek. “It hurts.”
Mordecai shook his head. “No it doesn’t.”
“Hyacinth fixed it.”
Erik shook his head. “No. Why?“
“Oh.” Mordecai put his hand on the bandage. For a moment he couldn’t find the lie he had wanted to tell. It was a good thing he already had one or he never would’ve thought of it at all, “I fell down some stairs.”
Erik gasped a horrified breath and began to sob. “Down… down the up-stairs?”
Mordecai drew him into his lap and held him, even as he spoke, “Dear one, I don’t know what you mean.”
“The stairs always I go up,” said Erik. He was wrong and the crying made it worse, but he couldn’t stop either of those things. “The stairs I see. The stairs go where I am but I’m not.”
“The basement stairs?” cried Mordecai.
“Did I fall down the basement stairs looking for you?”
“No, oh, no, I didn’t. I didn’t do that at all. No. Not at all.” And now he was crying, too. He tried not to do it very much, but he couldn’t keep it out of his voice, and certainly Erik could feel him. “Oh, dear one, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. Maybe it hurts a little bit. I fell down the stairs in the front room. It was nothing to do with you.”
“Why?” said Erik.
“Oh, gods, I don’t know. A cat. I was chasing a cat.”
“How a cat?”
“It came in through the bathroom window,” he said. He had to bite his tongue to keep back, protected by a silver spoon. That made him laugh. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm.
Erik pushed back from him. He looked grave but he was no longer crying. “Were you gonna eat the cat?”
“Oh, gods, no!” He laughed again, he had to. “I’ve sworn off cats for life. I’d rather die!” He dried Erik’s face with his sleeve. “Dear one, you know we only did that because we had to, don’t you?” He considered that. “Or do you? I don’t know what you know.”
“I don’t know what I know,” Erik replied heavily, one hand to his head. “It’s just there.”
“It’s not like they told you?”
“I don’t know.” It was more like maybe they told him a long time ago and he forgot, not about what it was but about being told. Someone had told him what to call colors and how to eat with a spoon, but he didn’t remember that, either.
“What do you know about the locket?” He didn’t want the child to think that he just didn’t wear it anymore, or he’d thrown it away, especially if he knew what it meant.
“It was like this.” He made a small oval space with his hands. “You said you’d wear it.”
“Anything about her?”
“Mm-mm,” Erik said.
“It’s a story,” said Mordecai. He winced. “Do you mind a story?”
“I like a story,” Erik said. He crawled out of his uncle’s lap and sat on the floor. “I will listen very hard.”
“Oh. Okay.” Mordecai felt vaguely inclined to start up crying again. He sighed and told the story instead, “During the siege, during the war, sometimes we needed things. I would go out with some soldiers and we would look for things in the city.”
“You had bicycles,” Erik said.
Mordecai nodded. “Sometimes we had bicycles. We liked those best because you didn’t need gas or magic and you could go around things.” He had a feeling Erik was going to pick up this story a lot faster than ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ He had a feeling Erik remembered this story (which he had never heard) a lot better than ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ It was a sinking feeling. Erik knew things because things had been done to him. That wasn’t damage, they were playing with him. This morning’s anger recurred and faded helplessly.
“Your mother would come with us when she could,” he told the child, little knowing what he needed to be told, “because she could do magic very well and she could call…” There was no respectable term he wanted to use. “Well, she could call them, and I couldn’t do either of those things.”
“Why then you go?”
He grinned and shook his head, ashamed. “I don’t know. I guess I was good at figuring out what needed finding. But the thing is we went, and sometimes we couldn’t get back, and we had to stay wherever was safe until we could get back.”
“Mm-hm,” said Erik.
“One night we were holed up in this photography studio. There wasn’t anybody there and it was missing the window in front, but there were still all these cameras. We would get kind of silly at night because we were scared, but we were glad we weren’t dead yet…”
“You’d get drunk,” Erik said.
“Yes, and that. And I’d play violin. I had a violin back then and I kept it with me. So we were in this studio with all these cameras and one of them took instants… I don’t think you’ve ever seen instants. It’s like in the cheap newspaper, the one we get, no color and no sound but you pull off the paper and you have your picture right away. You don’t have to wait. Oh, and they freeze really fast, even faster than the newspaper. They’re almost stills.”
“Mm-hm,” said Erik.
“So we were taking pictures of each other with this instant camera. It was just for fun. We left them there. Well, I thought we left them there. Your mother saved two, one of me and one of her, and they were really embarrassing. I was wearing my tie on my head and she was doing that face. You know? This one.” He pulled down the corner of one eye and stuck out his tongue. Erik giggled appreciatively. “And of course they both froze so we weren’t even looking in the camera. We looked very, very stupid. And she saved them and she put them in a locket. She saved that locket, I don’t know how long, and one night she sat down on my lap and she hung it around my neck, and she showed me the pictures and she told me she had it magicked so I couldn’t ever take it off.”
Erik put his hands over his mouth. “It was?” he said.
“For about an hour,” he admitted. “I did try, just to see if she’d really done it. It wasn’t much of a charm, but I decided I’d leave it on anyway. I thought I’d embarrass her.” He lifted one finger, “This is an important thing to remember about your mother, Erik. You could not embarrass her. She thought it was great. She told everyone I was cursed. And then I really couldn’t take it off because everyone else thought it was great, too.”
“But it’s gone,” said Erik sadly.
Mordecai shook his head. “I have it, but you can only see a little of it.” He undid the top buttons of his shirt and showed the thin gold scar on his chest. “That’s where Hyacinth pushed it through.”
“Oh, it’s there,” said Erik. He laid his hand against the thin thread of gold and shut his eye, as if he might be able to see it like Hyacinth could. Hell, maybe he could. He was different now, and not all of it was things that had gone.
“I wish she’d saved out the pictures. Not the one of me, but your mother. Maybe you would’ve liked to see her, even if she was making a silly face.”
Erik felt around the floor and presented a crayon. “We can draw.”
Mordecai took the crayon from him and shook his head. “It would be very hard to draw your mother with crayon. She was white. Not like people say ‘white people,’ her color was white. Like paper.”
“Like Cousin Violet?” Erik said.
“A little like Cousin Violet,” Mordecai nodded. “But your mother had gray eyes like you, and she liked to wear colors. And she was better than a hundred Cousin Violets,” he added.
Erik opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. “That’s why you fall down stairs.”
Mordecai attempted a protest and then covered it with a hand. He didn’t fall down stairs, but he had experienced a cascading series of coincidences that led to him getting the snot beat out of him in a police station. Disproportionate retribution for an offhand slight that hadn’t even happened yet was exactly the kind of petty bullshit Cousin Violet would pull. “Darn you, Cousin Violet,” he said mildly, afraid anything more might result in a trip down some actual stairs.
“They said you used to be nice,” Erik told him.
Of course they’d say that, Mordecai thought with a sigh. “I ran out of nice for them a long time ago,” he said.
“That’s a story that doesn’t need telling. Are you still tired, dear one?”
“Mm-hm,” Erik said. “But is it sleep now or eat?”
“It’s whatever you need right now,” Mordecai said. “We’re not having any schedule today. Today is too damn difficult for a schedule.”
Erik considered that, frowning. It was difficult to think outside patterns and memory and he didn’t always know what he needed. It was harder without the schedule. But maybe he ought to try that like he tried breakfast and story. Today was a day for trying things. “I guess sleep.”
“Then we’ll do that. You were doing that when I came in, anyway.” Mordecai lifted him gently and put him back in the bed.
“You have my drawings,” Erik noted in passing.
“I don’t like them. I want to do them all again right.”
Mordecai felt his throat narrow to a straw. “I… I don’t know. They’re nice.” And, because there was nothing else in his head but a thin screaming sound, he said what was on the note, “I’m really proud of you.”
“Because of wrong drawings?” Erik said, frowning.
“No. Because you keep trying things even when it’s really hard.” He meant that. “And you’re so much better at it than I am.” He meant that, too.
“I guess.” He sighed. “Can we have Julia?”
“No, dear one. We don’t have Julia anymore.” They had told him that so many times, but it never seemed to stick. It was like he wanted there to be Julia.
“I miss music,” Erik said softly, confirming it. “You used to sing.”
“No, dear one, not me. Julia sang. I used to play.” Unless…
No, that had been too long ago, before there was Julia and after Eileen. The child couldn’t possibly remember that.
“Cry, baby, cry,” Erik sang, “make your mother sigh. She’s old enough to know better…”
‘Couldn’t possibly remember’ cut no ice with Erik anymore.
Mordecai clenched his jaw and fisted his hands. Stop it. Stop playing around with him and telling him things and changing him however you like. Let him heal. Just leave him alone!
“Please don’t, Erik,” the red man said. “I remember it. That was only when you were very little and you needed it.”
“Aren’t I little?” the green child asked him.
Doesn’t he need it? Mordecai asked himself. He had said so, hadn’t he?
“Erik… If you promise you’ll never tell anyone, you can have a song again. Just until you sleep, okay?”
Erik smiled and turned towards him, pillowing his head on his hands. He closed his eye. “Okay.”
What came out of him was the most awful, the worst possible thing. It was only because of all that business about coming in through the bathroom window. He was going to sing that one, then he thought that might make Erik suspicious about the cat. So he sang the next one.
His voice broke on the first word, “Once…” He had to clear his throat and start again, “Once there was a way… to get back homeward…” Oh, gods! Was there anything more plaintive in human language? Certainly not in so few words. He didn’t want to sing that one. He wanted to go back and start over. But now that he had started he couldn’t find anything else. It was like there was no other music.
“Once there was a way… to get back home… Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry… And I will sing a lullaby…”
He did. He promised he would and he did, but by the end of it he was curled up with his head buried in his arms and his voice was little more than a whisper. Mercifully, there was no request for an encore. Nothing from Erik but soft breathing and peace.
Mordecai felt the fingers of his left hand twitching. They wanted the notes for ‘Carry That Weight.’ He wished he could play it through. If he could get to the end of it, he might not feel so miserable. He always did Abby Road when someone challenged him to a whole album. It had such a nice roundness to it, almost like a story but not quite, and it ended happily. But there was nothing to play and he had no more words left in him.
He closed the curtains and he got into bed.
“Once…” he managed softly. He buried his tears in his pillow.