The Right Child
1013 words long
It's not about wardrobes or rings or rabbit holes and things. It's only ever been all about you.
Notes from the author:
I learned two important lessons from reading Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia. First, I learned that authors can be cruel to their readers, and that no character is guaranteed to survive. This lesson stood me in good stead when later, in high school, I was assigned to read A Separate Peace, arguably another book in the same literary genre. Aimed at a different age level, sure, but it follows the same pattern: Protagonist meets interesting secondary character who teaches them a lot of important life lessons and then, for no better reason than that the author insists on the protagonist learning one life lesson more, dies. It’s emotionally manipulative and I call shenanigans—but again, see above: Authors can be cruel.
Secondly, I learned from Bridge to Terebithia that rope swings are not to be trusted. Ever. It’s a pretty sound lesson for life, I think.
It wasn’t about the rope. It wasn’t about the swing. When it happens, it’s never about the apparatus at all. Anything might do: a hollow at the base of an old tree, a favorite shirt worn to ribbons, the back seat of the family station wagon. Anything at all, given the right child. And, given the right circumstances, any child could be the right child.
Amanda had a great imagination. That’s what her parents always told her, growing up. It wasn’t a compliment. It meant, depending on the circumstances, that Amanda was paranoid, or out of touch with reality, or simply a freak. An embarrassment. It meant Amanda should be ashamed of the things she imagined. By the time she was old enough for school, she just about believed them, and when her teachers said she had a great imagination, she heard her parents’ echoes in the words.
Any child could be the right child. Any child could potentially stumble upon the opportunity to escape. But the world begins, almost from the beginning, to gnaw away at possibilities. It tells children that fantasies won’t pay the rent, that escapism is futile, that “what do you want to be when you grow up?” has right and wrong answers. That imagination is something to be ashamed of. It makes the opportunities harder to recognize. Unrecognized, eventually they stop arising.
The rope swing in Amanda’s back yard became her opportunity. It gave her room to think. Sitting alone in her room, her parents’ voices were still with her: “Don’t be silly.” “Don’t waste time thinking about it.” “Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” “You have a great imagination.” But on the rope swing, spinning around, she could empty her mind of others’ voices and make room for her own.
At first the swing made her motion-sick, the way it went round and round. But she decided she would conquer that. She made her breathing deep and even. She focused on the dizzy buzzing not in her stomach but in her ears, in her head, and the space that opened up inside it. She gave herself to the thoughts that happened in that space, where she became able to stay for longer and longer periods of time.
A school friend had given her a compass for her ninth birthday. It was one of her most prized possessions. “Look,” her friend had said, “it works by magnets. Like the magnets on the fridge. Only it’s the biggest magnet of all, the north pole, so you’d think we’d all feel it pulling on us, right? It should pull the nails right out of our houses and fillings right out of our teeth, shouldn’t it? But it doesn’t. All it pulls on is the pointy part of this needle. It’s magic, that’s what it is.”
Amanda was already beginning to discount the idea of magic. But she held the compass when she spun on the swing. The faster she spun, so too did the needle, around and around, doggedly attempting to preserve its path to the north pole.
Any child could be the right child. It could have been Amanda. In a trance of circular motion, she might have followed the spinning compass needle into that yearned-for escape. But her parents had done their work too well, and her school was busy applying the finishing touches. There was no magic in the rope swing, only a comforting sensation that she’d allowed to distract her from the serious business of growing up.
Twenty years later, give or take, Amanda returned to her parents’ home....
This has been an excerpt from the Friday Fictionette for May 27, 2016. Subscribers can download the full-length fictionette (1013 words) from Patreon in PDF or MP3 format depending on their pledge tier.
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