My daughter Kelsey had just started fourth grade. It was a wonderful time, and I felt so close to her. We were two peas in a pod. My little troublemaker.
My sister told me that it was a particularly good time to be a parent: when your kids are at an age when they really care about what you say because the other kids at school are mean. At that age, just for a brief time, children listen to their parents, and try to emulate them, too.
I was on my way to pick her up after class; the school had called me for a special meeting with her teacher. And I felt lucky to have such a nice daughter.
“Your daughter has been an absolute menace. A real troublemaker, more than any of the other students …” Ms. Mani, Kelsey’s teacher, said this to me as soon as I sat down — the nerve of this woman! How rude. She was ugly as well. Her hair had nasty, chunky blonde highlights, the kind that a woman who doesn’t sleep with her husband gets.
“... to this class, to the other students. She writes nasty little messages in their notebooks, awful things about how they look and how they talk.” Ms. Mani rubbed her knuckles.
“Today was Eileen’s birthday. Her mom brought in a cake, and we sang the birthday song. While I was cutting the cake, I found Kelsey trying to steal the birthday candles. I told her she couldn’t have them. Then later, I found her digging through the trash for them. And when I pulled her aside to talk about it, she said such horrible things to me. I’m not used to that kind of behavior, ma’am.”
But none of that surprised me because I had raised her to be a troublemaker. When Kelsey was young, we played pranks on her dad, like scaring him at the front door after work, and leaving little surprises on his office chair. She always giggled so hard afterwards …
Ms. Mani kept rubbing her knuckles, as if trying to scrub something off of them. She couldn’t look me in the eyes.
In hindsight, she seemed like a kind woman, someone who thought highly of others. It must have been hard for her to speak negatively about her student.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your daughter,” said Ms. Mani. “You should just talk to her. She needs to talk to someone else about this.”
I thanked her and promised that we would talk about it. I also gave her some advice: Go to a bar, take a few shots, and forget all about it. Then I closed the door behind me.
I picked Kelsey up and on the way home, she was silent. It was unusual of her to be so quiet. Normally, she would be telling me about all the things she did in class, or about some other kid in the class, or about some fun game she played at recess. But today she held the seatbelt with both hands and stared at her knees, with a tight little pout on her lips.
“Honey, how was your day? Don’t worry about Ms. Mani, I talked to her and we worked everything out.”
Kelsey didn’t say anything. She rolled down the window and stuck her head out. After a few seconds, she popped back in.
“It’s really fine? Ms. Mani said such mean things. I thought I was in trouble.”
I reassured her that everything was alright, and turned up the radio.
Outside, the leaves were beginning to turn. The countryside was painted with green, yellow, and orange. Such a nice time to be driving around with my daughter, enjoying the scenery and blasting the Fugees.
About five minutes away from home, I had a great idea, something to cheer her up. We were driving past a farm stand, the kind that sells seasonal produce and flowers. I pulled over, making sure to use the parking brake because the farmstand was on a long hill. Kelsey asked me why we stopped.
“I’ve got a surprise for you, sweetie. Stay in the car, and keep your eyes closed.”
Quickly, I bought the biggest pumpkin they had, and rolled it into the middle of the street. I told her to come out and open her eyes.
“One time in high school, I did this with friends. See that long hill that we drove up? Watch.”
I gave the pumpkin a big push. It started to roll down the hill, gaining speed. Kelsey watched intently, and I did too.
roll roll roll
and finally it broke apart, leaving a pulpy mess on the road, a little orange blot all the way at the bottom of the hill.
“Again, again!” Kelsey laughed and jumped around. She could barely contain herself. “Let’s do it again, Mom! That was so great.”
But it was getting late, and the sun had almost set. I told Kelsey that it was time to go home. She shrugged and hopped into the passenger seat.
Whew, what a day! I sat on the steps outside the front door of the house. Kelsey was in her room doing homework.
On most other days, while Kelsey does her work, I use this free moment to get some “mommy-and-daddy” time with Jack. But he said he was running late at work, and I felt idle, especially after such an exciting afternoon. I watched the cars drive by, the red brake lights flashing like bullets in the dark.
I had another great idea: Kelsey could help me make dinner! I went inside and crept up the stairs. The hallway was dark, but her door was ajar. I tip-toed up to her room, and snuck a peek inside.
There she was, my darling daughter, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She was rummaging around. And then I saw it: candles of all sorts. Birthday candles, Hanukkah candles, the little tea lights we use when the power goes out. She arranged them in a little circle.
Then she pulled out a lighter — where’d she get that? It looked rusty and dirty, the kind you get from a gas station. I wanted to interrupt her, but I stopped myself. She was responsible, and I knew she wouldn’t hurt herself.
With her cute, little thumb, she lit the lighter. The flame was unmistakably blue. I thought it might be a trick of the light, but it really was blue. She held the lighter over each of the candles, and one by one, they too ignited into blue flame.
It was not an ordinary fire. The heat warped the air like a lens, projecting flickering images.
In the flames, I saw many things: the faces of old men and women; hungry wolves on a snowy field; bloody spears on a battlefield; a legion of crabs swarming a dead whale; rotting wood; rotting leaves; a golden skeleton; the skull of a bear; a woman’s hands with nails that were far too long; a cave lined with broken glass; a field of flowers eaten by locusts; the wheel of a wagon; the dark depths of the seas … horrible things … things I had not seen before.
Then I heard voices, whispers upon whispers. I could not understand what they said. But they seemed to be speaking to my Kelsey, my cherished daughter. They hung on her every word, swarming with sound after each of her statements. She was telling the flames about her day.
When she got to the part about rolling the pumpkins, the candles sputtered and crackled. I couldn’t look away from the images in the flames, and they began to change faster and faster: aged skin crumbling to dust; an unraveling thread; dark, churning waters … I couldn’t look away …
All the while, Kelsey was laughing. She told each moment of her story — the pumpkin rolling down the hill, bouncing, bouncing — with intense excitement, the joy of being reunited with a friend. She swung her arms, giggling so hard that tears dribbled down her cheeks.
Who was this little troublemaker?