A Reassuring Tale for a Boy

by Sheila Heti

Fourteen years ago, long before you were born, I had another child. He was born sickly, pale, one eye wouldn’t open — and that one eye never opened. The doctors told us this child would never live, and I suppose in another culture we would have killed the child rather than waste resources on a being who was sure to end his life so soon, and in great suffering. But we were selfish. We had been trying for a child for ten years and then when he came along we thought it was a miracle. We should have taken his sickliness for proof that we were never meant to have children together — that the Gods were telling us so. How happy I was when I was pregnant! And how happy I was up until I held the child in my arms. Then, a shadow seemed to pass over the room — like a dark bird with a great wingspan passing overhead — and a shudder went through my entire body. Looking at his body, I knew he would grow up to cause me great pain. I felt repelled suddenly, and wanted to throw him from my arms across the room. But of course I didn’t. And I fed him from my own breast, and we did everything we could to treat the doctor’s verdict as though it wasn’t true. We tried to believe he would outlive us, and be good.

I know you have heard of that other Christmas miracle — the boy born in the manger, who was God’s own son. This child was also born on Christmas day, but the miracle came from the other end — from the Devil. It was clear even before the child began to walk that he was the Devil’s own. He would torture small animals, catch caterpillars in the lawn and sever their innocent heads from their writhing bodies. He bit me when he suckled and so I stopped nursing him. He would keep us up all night with his screams — like a wild animal trapped in a cage, he would scream! There was no comforting him. We walked around like zombies, half-dead, in tears, eventually turning on each other in our agony and frustration. We told each other it was a phase, he would grow out of it, learn kindness, gentleness, empathy, but as soon as he learned to talk it got worse: I don’t know how he learned to swear but he sensed there was something forbidden in those words and called me a cunt, a bitch, called us useless pricks, asshole fucks. It maybe sounds funny now, or at least interesting, but the hate with which he spat those words made it horrible. Was this venom real? Was there really tar running through his veins where blood should have been? What had we done to deserve this fate — had we wanted a child too much, ignoring the signs of the Gods, persisting in our own blind need? The child was a rebuke against all human wishes: don’t wish for anything, I am telling you now. Let the Gods do with you what they will. Be content with your lot. Don’t push the universe for more.

Well the first ten years of his life were a nightmare — he bit other children once he started going to school, and then was kicked out of every school he attended, so that by third grade I had to school him at home. But there was no schooling. The child would not learn, he would not sit, listen, pay attention. He could not read or write. He was hardly better than an animal, and even less civilized — at least a good dog obeys. It was the end of our marriage by the child’s seventh year on this earth, and I don’t blame him for leaving, I only wish I had left first. Did he ever come around again to see his own son? No, never. Do I blame him? I do not. I would have given him up to anyone who would have him. Does the word ‘love’ have any place in a relationship with a creature who despises you, and seems to take glee in causing you to suffer, as this child did? I only had to burst into tears from frustration and grief for a delighted, twinkling, little joyful laugh to erupt from his foul smelling mouth. I could not be the servant of this servant of the devil until my dying day, I finally decided. Something had to be done. That is when I went to see Mister Harry, who was reputed to have the ability to talk to the dead, to dislodge malevolent spirits from their human hosts. I brought the child with me. Mister Harry talked to him, then showed him into another room. Then he sat me down across his oak desk and told me that it was his opinion that the child was indeed possessed by the spirit of a black, tar-beaked eagle — that an eagle must have passed when I was giving birth and dropped its spirit into the child, and I remembered and told him of the shadow that had passed over the hospital room that day. Yes, he said, that was it. The tar-souled, tar-beaked eagle. He had seen one other case of this before. What can be done? I asked in tears, relieved and horrified, but certain that I would follow whatever course of treatment he advised. Only one thing will dislodge a spirit as sticky, as evil, as that of the tar-beaked bird we are speaking of, and that is to kill the body in which it resides. Kill the boy, and the eagle-spirit will depart. Then bring the boy immediately back to life.

I felt the blood drain from my body entirely. My teeth began to chatter coldly, and my whole body began to shake. But what if we can’t bring him back to life? I asked. What if he stays dead?

Mister Harry assured me that he had perfected the technique of killing a body, then bringing it back to life, and then he implied — which was the most evil suggestion I had ever heard — that perhaps it would not be so bad if the child was not able to be brought back to life.

To kill my own son! I grabbed him from the other room and ran. Lying in bed that night, my heart still continued to beat hard, because it was true, I realised: what Mister Harry had said was true. I wouldn’t even have minded if the child had been killed, so my life might regain its peace. But I would never return to Mister Harry, I promised myself.

Yet once the thought was in me, it would not leave. I meditated day and night, always turning my mind from it as soon as I realised I was thinking about it again — could I kill him? Should I? I could. I would. No, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

But as I was deliberating this, what do you think was happening with my son? You must be thinking to yourself, Mama, he was plotting to kill you.

It was so.

One night I crept into his room and saw that he had been hoarding guns, knives, ropes, and other devices that could only have one use: the torture and murder of another human being. And who else did he know but me? He still wasn’t in school. He had no friends. He knew no one except his own mother.

Yet if he killed me, he would have no one in the world to take care of him, and who knows how many others he would kill once he was out of my sight? I had to save him — and his innocent victims — and myself. So I returned to Mister Harry, bringing the boy with me, and told him, once the boy was waiting in the next room, that I was ready: I wanted to go ahead with the plan. Kill the child, release the demon possession, and bring him back to life, unpossessed. Mister Harry immediately set to work, plugging in electric wires and unlatching and latching straps, all of which were hooked up to a wooden table in the shape of a cross, and then I went to the next room and told my boy that the doctor would be in, momentarily, to give him a shot — an inoculation against the winter flu. My boy looked at me suspiciously, but said nothing. Then Mister Harry entered the room, and before my boy could protest, he grabbed his arm, and jammed the needle in. The boy screamed and flailed and fell into a faint.

Now! Mister Harry said, and we hoisted his living body into the next room and onto the wooden cross. Mister Harry strapped him in and pushed the electrodes into his flesh, and then went to the box with the dial on it, and said to me, You might want to look the other way. I did. But even turned, I could see the bright flash light upon the wall, and I heard the gurgling from my son’s throat, and then the almost electric silence that followed, in which the air itself seemed to crackle, and then I heard Mister Harry begin to speak in a tongue I did not recognise, words that seemed to be inside out, twisted and coiled, rapid and high-pitched, drawing the evil bird out of my son, and then, when he stopped speaking, I again saw the flash of lightning, and I couldn’t not look anymore — I turned around, and there was my son, a blackened ashy corpse, burned through to the bone, flesh melted onto bone and blackened and toughened, his one eye popping out at me, his hair on the floor in a clump.

You killed my son! I screamed. You burned him to death! And Mister Harry turned to me with a smile, the same evil smile my son had smiled at me so many times when I had similarly suffered, and I saw a little wing flap on the back of Mister Harry’s head — and I understood that the bird had gone into him, the tar-beaked eagle. I flung open the door and ran from the room, ran as fast as I could back to the house and locked myself in, and didn’t come out for weeks.

One day, there appeared at the door a package. I brought it in and opened it. It was the urn you see now on the mantelpiece: your brother’s ashes were returned to me. That evil man had killed my son, and the spirit of evil had gone into him and made him more evil, I suppose, with every bad child he killed, for dark spirits that exit bodies have to go somewhere, and who else was always around? And what can I say for my own life? Now I have you, my beautiful child, to live with me here forever, and I am happy at last.

Sheila Heti is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including the novels Motherhood and How Should a Person Be? and a book for children, We Need a Horse.

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