The boy with the oversized head that is oddly square in the bovine sense unscrews his thermos with two agile hands and peers inside. Split pea. Yet four or five peas have failed to split or puree and lie floating on their side like dead fish on the surface of a murky sea. He places the thermos on the lunch table with an audible thud and begins to wail from the depths of his thick woodsy chest, already a sizable barrel for a four-year-old. Mrs. Weems strides over and places a wide paddle of a hand on his shoulder. ”Aster, why are you crying?”
“I want my Mommy,” he answers, not because this is true but because that is why all the other children cry and it appears to be the acceptable response. He sobs with abandon and lets his eyes and nose flow like mudslides down his face, but the more he cries for his Mommy, the more he truly begins to miss her. He no longer mourns the flaws in his unrefined split pea soup, instead he yearns for the sour smell of his mother’s skin and the milk that pours out of her in hot waves, filling his mouth with animal sweetness.
The janitor, alarmed to hear such a deep wail, pokes his head with the ruddy mop and strange milky eyes into the nursery. “Everything all right?” he asks, making all of the children scream with horror.
“Yes, everything dandy, Mr. McBride,” says Mrs. Weems.
“Sorry, forgot my shades.”
“That’s alright, Mr. McBride.”
Aster’s mother has remembered to place two of everything in his lunchbox so that none of the items will ever get lonely. He chokes back tears, catches his breath, makes two spoons cradle each other, and then stacks one apple on top of the other. He quickly eats the second bread roll so that it won’t have time to mourn the loss of the first then places his apples back into his lunchbox, unable to bear another, even temporary, separation. It’s dark inside the lunchbox, he thinks, they’ll need each other. He smiles again as he attaches the metal clasp.
Each time he successfully mimics one of the other children, he feels the circle of preschoolers opening wider to let him in. He squeezes in between Josh and Anthony on the floor and helps them demolish a bridge. It’s the little things that help him blend in, like wearing his socks rolled down the way Philip does, or squeezing boogers onto the ends of his crayons like Stephen or drawing arms and legs with a pen onto his scabs to create clotted, scaly monsters. He has a good throw and he can burp as loud as the rest of them after gulping a half-pint of milk and each of these perfect renderings is a tiny victory that erases, bit by bit, the absurdity of the colossal head.
“You pee like a girl,” says Jeffrey. Aster sits on one of the short toilets with his pants pulled up around his knees so that Jeffrey can’t see that his thing is as massive as his head. The other kids’ penises look like stubby pink erasers and the longer ones dangle like dead fish bait. Aster’s is like sausage, a full serving, and if he shakes it a little too fast, it stiffens into a small yet compelling baseball bat. He can hit a whiffle ball straight across the room with it but he knows he should never share this trick with the others.
The boys exit the bathroom with their pants half-up, abbreviated half-moons peaking over the elastic. Rosa approaches Aster and lifts up her shirt to show him her belly which looks and smells like cookie batter. She pushes her shoulders back, bulging her belly and his guess is that this is some sort of invitation, so he reaches out to touch the creamy surface but she shrieks, “Don’t touch!” He looks back at the teacher to gauge if he has done something wrong again but she is on her hands and knees scraping modeling clay off the floor and Rosa is still standing there with her buttery middle aimed toward him. “Belly,” she whimpers, and tugs at his shirt, so Aster lifts up his own shirt and Rosa presses her belly against his. It feels like a smooth stone that has been baking in the sun all day, and he wonders if they rub stones together, like he does in the garden behind the tangle of rose bushes, will they create a little spark, an infant flash of hand-held lightning? He bumps his belly against hers but Rosa falls back and her skirt flies over her face so he can’t tell if she is laughing or crying. He closes his eyes and when he opens them again, Rosa is gone.
Aster draws while the other children nap. You’re allowed to do something “quiet” if you can’t go to sleep and Aster can’t let himself fall into the dark maze of slumber without the sweet sleep elixir from his mother. He shrugs off sleep and grasps colored pencils and in the hush of shifting baby bodies, he draws a girl with curly hair and cat ears and a shirt dotted with tiny cornflowers. Her middle is aflame, scattering rays of sunshine, and one of the rays lights up a tree and makes it swell in a dazzling blaze. The bark on the tree is flaking, tiny eggs in a nest are cracking and frying, a bat, hanging from a branch, has singed hairs, orange-tinted ashes float to the heavens and stick to the clouds. The leaves, a glorious display of uniqueness, ignite, one by one, flaunting flaming baptisms and fiery funerals all at once. As an afterthought, Aster adds a spit with marshmallows and plunges it into the center of the girl’s flaming body.
An hour later, the children are rising from their warm cocoons and Aster saunters over to Rosa to show her his drawing. She pushes aside her matted curls and looks at the picture through sticky eyes. And then slowly, like a heaving volcano, she begins to explode.
Aster’s teachers have spread out his drawings on a table before his mother. They stand there with their arms crossed, nod their heads and say nothing.
“They’re very detailed,” says his mother.
“Yes, graphic detail,” says Mrs. Weems, trying to wipe mayonnaise off her lips but only smearing it across her cheek.
“I mean, quite detailed for his age,” his mother continues.
“Yes,” says the other teacher who likes to go by Jill, with a ‘but’ left dangling silently.
“Look at the clocks with the numbers drawn on them correctly, you can see them even though they’re under water. And the ships have masts and sails and—“
“—drowned sailors,” says Jill, who is starting to feel hot in her kaftan bought in Marrakech from a man who wrapped his goods in the torn pages of smutty magazines. She sweeps her long hair in a bun and pokes a colored pencil through it.
“Look at the balls on the Christmas tree.” His mother is smiling and almost breathless with delight. “Each has a different face drawn on it.”
“Those heads hanging from the tree? Each one is a drawing of a classmate.”
“Uncanny resemblance. Ghastly.” Mrs. Weems shakes her head.
“And this room here,” his mother persists, “the perspective is almost perfect.”
“The skill is evident.“
“No one has ever taught him perspective,” says his mother.
“Sure, he might be a genius, but that’s not the point,” says Jill, plucking the kaftan with her fingertips to create a breeze between the embroidered cloth and herself.
“But surely, we all wish to nurture—" starts his mother.
“A violent nature?”
“Violent?” She looks at one teacher and then the other with eyes like the empty cups of beggars.
The teachers look back at her but do not answer. They let it sink in.
“Is the father present in his life? Is he, in any way, in the way that some men are, somewhat aggressive, perhaps?”
“No! His stepfather? No, no. Quite the opposite. He maintains a distance.”
“He’s a very busy man.”
They nod. “And his biological father?”
Aster’s mother’s flesh turns pink as an undercooked chicken’s and she turns to look at clouds collecting outside the window. Are they billowing and swelling in the shape of a bull? She gasps. His biological father, damn him, is always present.
The janitor comes in to change a flickering light bulb while the children sleep. Aster is the only one awake, busy drawing an avalanche on the blackboard because you can’t draw snow on white paper with a white crayon. He taps away with his stick of crisp white chalk when the blind janitor saunters over.
The janitor points to his dark shades and says, “What?”
“Snow and stuff.”
“You the little sport with the great big voice?”
“Who’s your best friend here?”
“You got any brothers or sisters?”
“I have a cat.”
“Cats are family. I have a cat, too.”
“What color is he?”
Mr. McBride scratches his reddish stubble with long fingers that peak with perfectly white crescents.
“There’s no such thing as a blue cat.”
“Really? Makes no difference to me. If I believe she’s blue, she’s blue.”
“Want me to draw you a blue cat?”
“Makes no difference.”
“I only got white chalk anyway.”
Mr. McBride laughs and pats Aster on the head. He starts to wrinkle his nose as his delicate hands discern the bumps like budding horns, the coarse hair, the immensity of it all but then breaks into a big smile and gives a few more pats to the boy’s furry crown.
Aster lines up his toys on the rim of the bathtub and throws them in, one by one, making a big wet noise to accentuate the tiny splash that puckers like a navel on the tub’s smooth surface. He pushes the smallest duck in first and then makes the mother duck follow suit immediately. Then he pushes in a wind-up mouse that no longer unwinds, a hot dog with legs and a tiny taxicab but pauses at Superboy. He watches him teeter on the slippery edge and it’s almost unbearable, this solitude, cold and wet on the precipice. He thinks he sees him tremble but he waits a moment longer, bites his lip and faces him with clammy eyes slit horizontally, like a deadly octopus’s. And then in a single sweeping motion he grabs him, flings him into his mouth and crunches. Superboy grows limp. Aster sighs with relief.
When he tells his mother that the girls cover their mouths and laugh at his head or that the boys use it for target practice, she kisses his head and says things like, “Every child is different, every child is special in his own way.”
His Nanny always has more to say. She feeds him banana cake and caramel popcorn and lets him paint her toenails while she chatters and sips peach schnapps. “Don’t you cry about this bullish head. You are more human than most people. Definitely more so than that lady, your mother,” she mumbles, much too audibly. “She wanted to do the whole animal thing, to suit your father, and then she wanted to feed you milk the way beasts do. Maybe that outfit fooled your father, or maybe it just revealed to him her true nature, but you wouldn’t have the animal, not you, you wanted the lady, in the flesh, because you are no animal.” She doesn’t make sense to Aster but before he can interrupt her banter, her neck is bent at a strange angle, her eyes roll back and she’s asleep.
Before he went to nursery school, his Nanny used to nap beside him in the afternoons, exhausted, taking up most of the bed with moist folds of flesh spilling out of the neck and armholes like salty pancake batter. Her heaping chest swelled as she snored and the sound kept him happily awake, away from his nightmares, until he could resist no longer and the rhythm of her gravelly exhalations sent him into a nether land where it was dark and confusing but always possible to return if he just followed the sound of her breath.
But at the nursery, he’s afraid that he might be plunged, in front of his schoolmates, into that nightmare that he has most nights, the one where he is in a pitch-dark place, he cannot feel anything around him with his hands, but when he tries to move, his head butts a wall. He changes position and his head butts a wall to the left and when he turns right, his head rams into something solid and fixed. It’s so solid and the vibrations in his head are so painful that he imagines his obstruction is not a mere wall but a mass of matter that continues behind this surface infinitely, like he is trapped in the center of the earth, with all of the weight of the cosmos bearing down on him from all sides. To the left once again he is able to run a few steps and he gains courage, only to ram his head even harder against a new barrier. And so he runs and runs in painful circles until he cries out in his sleep and wakes in a trembling heap. The bed is wet and cold and he rolls out to tiptoe to his mother’s room. She has started to sleep alone in order to wait for him, as her husband finds this most inappropriate. “He’s too old to sleep with his mother.” She doesn’t dare tell him that he still breastfeeds.
He curls into his mother’s lap and grabs hold of the left nipple, his favorite one, and holds the right one with his other hand so it will not feel slighted. He closes his eyes, hums like a creaky door, and sucks; sucks while his hands slide down flat against her warm belly, the center of this daughter of the sun, and waits, waits for the trillion filaments in her belly to ignite.
In the nursery garden, he stands alone under a tree and pretends to enjoy kicking stones. The janitor walks over in short sleeves even though it’s February and the hairs on his arms are long and red and Aster thinks he sees liquid rust draining from his pores like a flaky bicycle forgotten in the rain. The janitor stops at the tree and holds out his hand. “Will you draw me a blue cat now?”
“Where did you find blue chalk?”
“It wasn’t easy.”
Aster takes the blue chalk from his open palm. It’s been used on one side and Aster wonders where the chalk was taken from, if it was nipped from a full box of chalks. “Do you have any more?” he asks.
“Not blue, just a couple of white ones.”
“Can I have one?”
Aster takes the white chalk and lays it tenderly next to the blue one.
“How about my cat?” says the janitor.
“Explain while you’re drawing.”
But Aster does not say a word as his chalk slides across the blacktop. He works in silence as he always does, drawing the janitor’s blue cat devouring a white mouse, so the janitor talks.
“I wasn’t always blind,” he says. “My mother said I could see perfect from the day I was born. Other kids, they can’t so early on, you know. I could even see in color from day one. She used to put my favorite toy in a red box and I could pick it out from the other colored boxes. I just used up my seeing days too fast. Your days of sight are numbered. Last thing I remember is seeing blue. The color blue. Maybe it was the sky.
“An old woman took my eyesight. Her seeing days were coming to an end and she knew it. She used to stand outside the school and watch us play. Teachers told us to stay away. I overheard them saying once that they thought it was a man dressed as a woman, some pervert, cause she had a big bald spot at the top of her head and a beer belly. I made a bet with the other boys that I would find out. I planned to kick her in the giggle berries.
“One day she was carrying bags from the supermarket and I told her I would help her carry them home and she was more than happy. The bags were full of cans of corn and they were so damn heavy, my hands hurt so much and I was sweating by the time we got there. She rubbed my hands with cold cream and I started to think twice about kicking her in the nuggets.
“She brought me some juice and I drank it all down. Next thing, I wake up and it’s all dark and my pants are gone. I found my way out and into the street but it was so dark I got lost, must’ve been past midnight, I thought. Someone found me without pants or drawers in the middle of the street. It was broad daylight, I just couldn’t see. Never saw again.”
Aster has stopped drawing and he sits with his mouth open, breathing heavily. “She poisoned your juice?”
“Never trust anyone, son.”
“The old witch poisoned your eyes!” And tears appear in Aster’s eyes like trembling jellyfish.
Mr. McBride nods and smiles sympathetically. “You’re a little young for lessons.”
The following day at recess, Mr. McBride brings Aster an orange stick of chalk and a broken purple one but Aster closes his eyes and shakes his head at him.
“Yeah. They say I should exercise more.” And he skips off on one foot to show how serious he is about it. “Run, climb, play more,” his mother said, “and draw inside. Better yet, draw at home where I can see you. I want to see every single drawing you make, and I can’t if the teachers keep stealing your drawings.”
It’s true that his teachers have been taking his drawings away for some reason but Aster had never thought of it as “stealing.” Were teachers allowed to “steal?” He’ll quit drawing at school, he thinks; no one likes his drawings, no one except the blind janitor who can’t see them anyway.
He is lousy on the balance beam and terrible on the monkey bars. “Keep trying,” he hears his mother saying. “It’s the weight of your head,” his Nanny tells him. “A head like that is meant for breaking boulders, mountains, mountains of men!” she says, “not for ballet moves.” But look at tiny Alice, hooking her knees over the bars and dangling like a spring leaf. Her eyes meet his and she flings her arms recklessly toward the ground and makes her body sway so that her long hair sweeps twigs scattered on the ground, to and fro, to and fro. With the tip of his shoe, Aster delicately steps on a tuft of her hair. Alice shrieks. “Accident!” yells Aster and ascends the ladder of bars next to Alice. He falls, backward, like a man fainting, and then he falls backward a second, a third time and instead of crying, he rams his head with all his strength against the bars. They dent. Aster strikes a second time and the bars bend like injured fenders. Philip comes over and says, “Wow,” then slams a truck into Aster’s head and watches it fall to pieces. This time Philip is not impressed and he cries, “Look what Aster did to my truck!”
He is placed in timeout again, a dim corner where he is meant to stare at concrete blocks painted lilac and the graffiti of some child who thought it wise to scribble “SNOT” on the wall during timeout. He looks down at his sneakers and brings the two shoes closer together to let the toes touch ever so slightly. He feels tears well up and his nose getting drippy and just then, a building block hits him on the back of his head. Then a dinosaur, a toy car, a puzzle piece. Then the box where the piece came from, a car, the garage. But it’s the tiny hairpiece of a plastic doll that nicks him in the eye and gets him out of the corner and across the room where he knocks over a tower of blocks with his horns, then a play kitchen, a slide, a stack of board games and he is crying “Mountains! Mountains!” when he finally lands in the overstuffed groin of Mrs. Weems with the unsettling fold bulging beneath the zipper and the blow sends her moaning, backwards, in a red flood of pain and Aster can see the color, see it spreading into his eyes and blurring his vision. The color is everywhere, the room has gone red. Veins are swelling and pulsing until the color has risen over the lids of his eyes, has grown inky black and made him blind. My seeing days are over! He tries to run. And then he hits a wall. He clambers to his feet but soon enough he hits another wall. The janitor, who has heard the abysmal screams, runs into the nursery but he can’t catch the boy, can’t keep up with the thundering collisions. “Stop, boy, stop!” Aster crumples to the floor and cries “Mama! Mama!” But she is not there. No one is there. He is trapped, alone, within his mountainous head.
Originally from New Jersey, Maria has been living in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter for the past twenty years, working as a dancer, choreographer, and small business owner. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Split Lip, Sleet and Bluntly.