A Child of Snow
The stranger had large hands and a face slender like a wolf. Taiki liked wolves. The blueness of the eyes and alert slanting eyebrows made him curious and think of snow. He’d seen a greywolf once in Newfoundland, when his father worked there, bounding over white hills until it disappeared into the fog like smoke.
His mother said, Get away from the window. They’re dangerous. But Taiki knew they spoke the same language and would not harm him.
The wolf came again the next week and stopped before the two-pen log house his mother called the godforsaken place and just stared at the front door and porch like it and not he were the nuisance. Only temporary. Like the weather would soon swallow it in an avalanche and the wolf would still be standing there, a howl loud enough to shatter a coward’s skull.
One thing Taiki was not, cowardly. He could stare at you for hours and he locked eyes with the animal and saw what poise and intelligence can be communicated with silence, but didn’t say these things because he didn’t think they needed to be said outloud.
Oh look at the beautiful dog, he’d thought, but all that came out of his slow mouth was, “Dog, dog!” And he pointed excitedly and ran out to the porch and tried to go down into the snow to pet it. They were the first words he ever spoke.
No one there to hear him. Mother, where was she? Off somewhere with someone, he guessed. Nanny Tikaani had heard him say his first word, but Mother said she didn’t count.
“Wolf, it’s a WOLF,” Nanny told him, trying to calm him down. And he liked this word even better than dog and tried to say it, but like all words with the letter L, found it hard to get his tongue around it.
The ones who say love too easy, rarely mean it. Those who find it harder to say, when they say it means much more, Nanny would say to him when she thought he wasn’t listening. Emotions are very private things, you remember that, Taiki. And, although Nanny didn’t say, he knew that she was talking about his mother. The words sank in. Nanny was part Inuit, part French-Canadian and knew the art of survival better than most. She covered her long hair and looked down and kept out of sight so no one would see how beautiful she was.
One day he and Nanny thought they heard mother alone in her bedroom talking to herself, saying she would go crazy if she had to stay any longer in this place, that she could scream and nobody would hear her. But turned out she was on the phone to someone. A man.
He’d loved the snow, but his mother loved the sun and that spring they moved to Africa. He’d loved the cleanness of the snow surrounding the house on all sides. Cleanness was important to him, almost more important to him than family, that was just a word that had no shape, whereas order it was everything. He could go for days without saying anything, in fact, he preferred it.
For their sake, he’d learned to say, “I love you,” but he didn’t. Love was a messy word that had no shape. Not like four. The number of legs on a dog. Or five. The fingers on a hand. Or zero, the shape his father’s hand made when closed into a fist. Not often, but sometimes under the dining table when others weren’t looking. Open-close-zero-one-zero, and in those moments Taiki could tell he was an unhappy man because he could feel him stop breathing. The same look Dog used to get when he was stuck in a room with people, chasing the leash on his own neck, running in circles when he could have been free somewhere out in the fields. Or 07 245, his new favorite, the number of the car license plate of the large black car parked outside his house for days on end. But he didn’t tell his parents because he thought they already knew. Windows covered in dust so you could not see in. So it looked abandoned. But it was not. Someone inside waiting, watching him.
It was still there under the lamplight when she came in to say goodnight. And Taiki would say, “I love you,” eyes wandering back to the window. Her face those moments when he said it. And that was sad, he thought, that she was so dependent on one word to make her happy. Even a false one. But she never stayed long enough to listen and when she was gone he could breathe again. Father was the one who tried to make him talk. Some nights he’d say, I know somewhere in there is the real Taiki. And when he is ready he will come out. Or touch his hand, I understand you more than you think. Sometimes you have to say less in order to see more. Most of the time people talk to you like this, they are really talking about themselves. And Taiki saw his father’s sadness was not the kind that could be lifted with one word.
He’d overheard the houseboy tell his mother, “Ma’am is a very sexy woman.” A lot is lost in translation and the houseboy might not have meant it that way, but Taiki had seen her flattered face lap it up. Dirt cheap water set out in a silver dish. “Compliments are cheap,” he’d once heard his father say, but a woman like her needed them.
Summers in Addis Ababa were crushing. Sometimes when it got so hot that all he could do was lay there and watch the sun he wished he was back in Newfoundland. Where he could sit at the window and see the dance of snow for hours. Here he could watch the wind catch a curtain like a lover and slowly rise and fall. He could look at the flies dive and float and go crazy in the sunlight. And he could stand behind the closet door and watch his mother with her lovers and knew how to hold his breath and not make a single sound.
Some people have two faces, that’s what Nanny had said, but his mother seemed to have more than that. One for Father and one for him and one––the prettiest––she saved for strangers. Her face at those moments in the bedroom so beautiful he wanted to smash it in. And when she was all cleaned up she’d tiptoe into his room.
Is it because you miss Dog? Is that why you’re not talking to me?
Two months before it happened, his mother called in a specialist, Doctor Qawessa.
Does he always talk that way, in third person? the doctor wanted to know. As though discussing another person? And went on to describe his prognosis of Taiki, in third person, as though he was not even in the room. Asshole. Mother’s eyes growing big like a cat’s, all mascara and sickly like spider’s legs. Hypocrite, Taiki had heard her shouting down the stairs at father once, but she wasn’t shouting now. She was smiling up at the tall doctor, straddling the armrest of the chair and listening like. There’s no one else around.
Dr. Qawessa came three times, even when Taiki wasn’t sick. She sent him out to play in the backyard when the doctor’s car pulled up and–
Was only when he realised what his mother was that he stopped talking. Cause if he opened his mouth the truth would come out. But if he kept it closed.
Finish your sentence, Taiki. Father, exhausted but patient, Try and remember to finish your sentences. Don’t leave words hanging there.
You don’t want to hear what I have to say. In his mind, Taiki makes perfect sense. In his mind, he defends himself. In his mind, he is already an adult and they are children, lecturing him about how to live. Children who don’t know what he has always known, that we are all alone. In his mind they are the sick ones forcing him to become like them. Participate in a fake game. Why this need always to talk about themselves? In the first person. Automatically, like they’re the most important thing in the room. Not the second or the third. Or the fifth or the sixth. Or not even in the room, but down the hallway, in a closet, or outside pretending to play in the yard, pretending not to see. How he feels most days. Just a giant eye floating over everything. Wanting to gauge himself out.
When they moved to Africa they bought him Dog to remind him of his real home, Canada. He asked for a wolf, but they bought him an Irish wolfhound instead. Shinasha the cook had picked him cause he was loyal and as tall as a man and more fierce. Woosha is what they call dogs in Ethiopia, she said, so that’s what he called him when they let him out to run in the bleached fields. But when he was home, laying at the foot of Taiki’s bed, he became Dog again. His mother always said she was an untamed thing and liked to have wild things around her, but there is such a thing as too wild and when Dog bit her on the hand she’d “had to put him down.” Those were the words she’d used, like you put down a sack of groceries or you put down a baby, but in this case it meant brought to the back of the property and shot and buried in a hole in the ground.
She’d known Addis was dangerous and Dog had protected him. After that Taiki didn’t trust her anymore. Dog would howl and claw and fight for him. And didn’t need to hear the words to know that you loved him. Dog would tear and bite and howl at anyone who tried to hurt him. All he needed was to see that one little thing out of place and he would go wild.
Most things are as simple as they seem.
The black car parked closer to the house now, engine running
Dr. Qawessa unbuttoning a shirt in the upstairs room.
A child’s toy dropped in the driveway like an invitation to play.
The stranger with the wolfish smile
And Taiki running out to meet him
But somewhere from behind he feels the blow
And falling backwards, finds himself. Drifting home.
Lost again in a world of a snow.
Died: Addis Ababa (age 5)
Resting Place: unknown
A sequel to this story by Mia Funk can be found in issue n. 6 of The Dreaming Machine, Waiting for the Dark
To find out more about Mia Funk, read this interview by Khanh Dinh shared by TDM from The Creative Process website https://www.thedreamingmachine.com/khanh-dinh-interviews-mia-funk-founder-of-the-creative-process/