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They were in the garden when Tilda arrived, back from Uzbekistan.
“Leisure. Privacy. God, we forget. It’s good to see you, Michael,” she said to her brother as he embraced her.
Caroline was on the other side of the yard, on her knees next to Danny in the new sandbox. Danny would not play with the shovel, he wouldn’t sit on the bench or touch the sand with his fingers. He was only standing next to his mother because his father had told him to.
“Same old, same old?” Tilda asked Michael, after she had watched them for a moment.
He shook his head and turned away, unwilling to discuss it.
“Danny, boy!” Tilda called and both Danny and Caroline looked over.
“Oh, Tilda,” Caroline smiled and dropped the shovel. She stood up and walked over to her sister-in-law.
“I missed his birthday,” Tilda said, “but I didn’t forget. Can I give him something now?”
“Of course,” Caroline said, squeezing Tilda’s hand before letting her walk over to the sandbox.
Tilda slowed her steps the closer she got to the boy, kept her hands still at her sides. When she was directly in front of him, she crouched down and said: “Sorry I couldn’t be here last weekend. Can I still wish you a happy fourth birthday?” She reached out a hand to tickle his tummy but withdrew it before her fingers made contact.
Danny eyed his aunt without answering. Then he tilted his head so his flaming red hair fell in front of his face like a curtain.
Tilda tilted her head too, made a goofy face, and stuck her fingers in her ears trying to make him laugh. After a while she gave up and pulled a present from her pocket. “I’ve brought something for you,” she said with some mystery. The shiny, wrapped package was small and rectangular, about the size and weight of an action figure.
It was a harmonica.
Danny had never seen a harmonica before but he put it straight to his lips and blew. The sound startled him – delighted him. Out of his own puffed-up cheeks came the lonely whine of a mighty steam train’s whistle. He looked at the object from every angle as if trying to understand how it worked, how it could make him hear a train that wasn’t there, looked back at Tilda and smiled.
Tilda raised her eyebrows and turned to her brother and sister-in-law, grinning while Danny put the instrument up to his mouth again and began to march around the room.
After that, he carried it with him everywhere.
Two months later, when the novelty of the harmonica had not worn off, Michael suggested Caroline buy Danny another present. They were sitting at the table finishing bowls of rice pudding when Caroline disappeared for a moment and came back with a flat package covered in plain Manila paper. While his parents watched, Danny peeled back the paper to find a picture book called Who Will Comfort Toffle? A Tale of Moominvalley. He lifted it up, ran a hand over its cover, put it back down, and picked up his harmonica.
“That thing will drive me nuts,” Michael said, scraping the legs of his chair across the floor as he stood up to leave the table.
When Danny was ready for bed, Caroline brought the book up to read to him. She had flipped through the pages several times already and felt like she knew the characters. As she climbed the stairs, she imagined their voices, not quite the same as human voices.
Danny leaned his warm body close to hers and helped to turn the pages. The illustrations were vivid, the colours bold. Toffle was a lonely boy with shaggy hair and frightened eyes who walked through a dark forest filled with creatures called fillyjonks and whompses, past tall trees and lighted huts, looking for a friend to comfort him. When they got to the place in the story where Snufkin appeared, Danny put a hand down on the page. He stared at Snufkin. His mouth fell open. Snufkin was a red-headed boy like Danny. He was standing in an empty field of flowers wearing a green coat and trousers, a floppy hat and black gloves. He was playing the harmonica.
“That’s me,” said Danny.
“He’s called Snufkin,” said Caroline.
Danny traced Snufkin’s outline with his finger while Caroline continued reading. “That’s me,” he said again.
“That’s Snufkin,” Caroline corrected. She kissed his temple.
He let her turn the page and finish the story. At the end, Toffle finds comfort with Miffle and they live happily together in a white seashell on the beach.
When Danny was five and in kindergarten, his teacher called him non-communicative.
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Michael said. “It’s just his disposition. We don’t talk that much either.” But he went along when Caroline took their son to see Dr. Yawarski.
They stood in the hallway of the downtown clinic observing Danny from behind glass as if he were a rare specimen.
In a low voice, Dr. Yawarski said, “Do you notice how he’s reluctant to join the group?” Several children were playing together constructing a castle from wooden blocks while Danny walked around the perimeter of the room, trailing his fingers against the wall. “He appears slow to respond to social stimuli. It could indicate any number of things: inattentive ADHA, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism.”
Michael sighed and turned away from the glass. He paced a few steps down the hall, came back and whispered into Caroline’s ear, “Let’s get out of here.”
Spring came early that year.
“Come on Snufkin, let’s plant the flowers before Aunt Tilda arrives,” Caroline called to Danny one day after lunch.
“A field of flowers,” Danny called back. When he came skipping out onto the porch where she was standing, the smile on his face warmed her insides like the sun.
“A field,” she nodded. She held up his fleece so he could slip his arms in and they walked out to the garden together.
“Little My is not happy with me,” Danny said.
“Little My is never happy with anyone,” Caroline replied. Their yard fell away to a ravine at the back where Danny thought evil snakes and giant lizards made their home. At the edge, she’d decided to plant a blue and white border of flowers, delphiniums, daisies and cyclamen, so he wouldn’t be so frightened anymore.
“She wanted to float on the clouds again, but I wouldn’t go with her because of last time.” He ran ahead of Caroline then circled back. “Besides, I’d rather go to the sea with Moomintroll and Moominpappa.” On the shelf in Danny’s room, there now lay five books with the tales of Moominvalley.
“We’ve no time to go to the sea today, Snuffie, Aunt Tilda will be here before you know it.”
“But Aunt Tilda would love the sea! She could sail around with the fillyjonks in their red boat.”
“Here,” Caroline handed him a package of wildflower seeds. “After I rake up the soil, will you toss the seeds around?”
While Caroline raked, Danny talked to Little My and played music on his harmonica. When the soil was ready, he scattered the seeds haphazardly onto the ground.
Tilda arrived around four o’clock with a box of Turkish Delight under her arm. “They say they won’t go off,” she said to Caroline, “but I’d put them in the fridge if I were you.”
Caroline thanked her as she left the room and stared at the writing on the label, strange characters she didn’t recognize. She imagined Tilda in a hot, noisy market amid stalls reeking of incense and animals. Bearded men smoking pipes would wear white, linen tunics and walk goats like dogs through meandering alleyways. When Danny grew up, Caroline knew, he would not follow in his aunt’s footsteps.
She filled a bowl with the chewy candies and placed it on the coffee table while Michael poured out gin tonics. In the fading light of the afternoon sun, they settled onto the sectional couch and a wing chair to listen to Tilda’s latest stories.
“But enough of my news,” Tilda said when Michael got up to make more drinks. “I want to hear about you. And about Danny. Where is he, by the way?”
“Where is he, indeed?” Michael said, tapping Caroline’s shoulder as he passed her on his way to the kitchen. “Why hasn’t he come out? Or didn’t he come when you called him?” At the side of his mouth, a muscle twitched. “He won’t come if you call him Danny,” he said to Tilda.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s playing in his room,” Caroline said and stood up. “I’ll go get him – he has things he wants to tell you.”
“He’ll speak to me now?”
“He’ll speak nonsense to you,” Michael said. “Isn’t that right, Caroline?”
Tilda looked from Michael to Caroline as Caroline left the room. Then she tiptoed to the kitchen to get the story from her brother. She hurried back when the footsteps were loud and fast down the stairs.
“Aunt Tilda,” Danny called, running to her. “I didn’t know you were here. I was playing with my friends.”
Tilda held out her arms. “My gorgeous little boy.” She ruffled his hair, nearly grown to his shoulders, and made room for him next to her on the couch.
“I’m Snufkin,” he said.
“If you say so,” she smiled.
“And Mymble and Little My are coming too,” Caroline said, settling into the wing chair.
Tilda looked at her.
“No, Mama,” Danny said, “they wanted to go to the cave.”
Michael brought out fresh gin tonics.
“Well, it’s sunny here. I’m glad you didn’t go to the cave,” Tilda said.
“But it’s no problem, Aunt Tilda, even if it’s dark. The Hattifatteners know where there’s light.”
“Please,” Michael said, holding up a hand. “Can we stop it? I’m not in the mood today.”
“Hattifatteners don’t make any noise,” Danny explained, “and they can’t hear, but they know where the lightning storms are.”
“They look a little like fireflies,” Caroline added.
“I said I’m not in the mood!”
From the corner of her eye, Caroline saw Michael do a twirling motion at the side of his head. Crazy, he meant. She stood up again. “Come with me Snufkin,” she said to Danny. “We’ll go check on the flowers we planted.”
“You’re encouraging this, Caroline.”
“Okay,” Danny said, getting up to follow and patting his pocket to make sure he had his harmonica. “Because we wouldn’t want them to grow wild, right?”
“Exactly. Like that year after the flood—”
“When they grew up the walls and—”
“Give me that harmonica,” Michael said, stepping out in front of Danny.
“No,” Danny said, swerving away.
“It wasn’t a question, Danny. Give me the harmonica.”
Michael grabbed his son’s wrist, held him still against his legs, and fished the harmonica out of his pocket.
“No!” Danny began to shake his head violently.
“This came from you,” Michael said, turning towards Tilda, holding up the instrument. “And now he’s lost in a fantasy world. Take it back.”
Tilda stared at her brother. “Oh, Michael, I couldn’t.”
She shook her head.
“Okay, fine.” Releasing Danny, he walked with the harmonica into the kitchen, threw it into the sink and turned on the garburator. An awful metal-on-metal screeching filled the room and Danny began to wail.
“My harmonica!” he cried and ran towards it.
“Michael!” Caroline cried and touched her hair.
“All gone,” Michael said and held up empty hands.
Danny stood on his toes trying to see into the sink. “No!” He kicked at the base of the cupboard below.
“Time to join the real world, Danny.” Michael tried to place a hand on his son’s shoulder but Danny ducked and ran away. “He’ll be fine. Just give him a few minutes.”
From the edge of the room Caroline watched her husband’s face, saw his features change, heard him speak in a different voice. He’ll be fine are the same words her own father would have used. “No,” she said, letting go of her hair. “He will not be fine. He isn’t fine.” She turned from the room and went after her son.
In the backyard, she called Danny, then Snufkin, then Danny again. She went to the front, down the driveway, and into the street. She checked the neighbour’s yard, she called again. Finally, she heard a faint whimper in the backyard. “Danny?” She ran towards the sound, which was coming from deep in the infested ravine where he would never go. “Danny?” When she got to the edge, she peered down the bank and saw him lying on his back in the soil. His body was limp, his legs were dusted with black, but he seemed physically unharmed. “Are you okay?” she asked, making her way down. “Have any lizards stuck their giant tongues out at you? Have any snakes tried to bite you?”
He sat up, “There are no lizards, Mama, and no snakes.” His face was red from crying and his nose was snotty but his voice was surprisingly calm. “I know that’s just pretend.”
When she reached him she sat down next to him on the ground, “I’m sorry about what Daddy did.”
He was looking straight ahead, knees bent, arms bare and wrapped around his shins.
“He’s just worried about you. He thinks you’re too old to believe in Snufkin.”
“But my harmonica!” Danny flung his arms out.
“I know. Oh, baby, I know.”
“It was my harmonica!” He began to cry again.
“Shhhhhh,” Caroline said, holding out a hand.
Danny crawled into his mother’s lap and leaned his head against her chest.
“Some people” she whispered, “just don’t understand. This world works fine for them.” She rocked her boy gently and stroked his hair. “But I understand. And I have an idea. What would you say, Snuffie, if we ran away to Mooninvalley? If we lived in a place where we slept all winter and when we woke up, the flowers were already in bloom? We’d make friends with Mymble and Little My and drink berry juice for breakfast.”
Danny stopped crying and looked up at his mother.
“We’d help the fillyjonks repair their boat and every day we’d have a new adventure.”
When he blinked, a tear rolled down his cheek.
“Before we go, I’d buy you a new harmonica.”
Words were forming in his mouth but he couldn’t get them out. Up above, a door slammed and footsteps landed on the wooden porch. Someone walked across.
“That’s Aunt Tilda,” he said and wiped his face. He hesitated another moment before crawling out onto the grass. Then he stood up and began to climb the bank.
Caroline waited, watching him go, but when she made a move to follow, her eye was caught by a twitch in the grass. She sat up straighter, her body stiffening, knowing what it was. If she moved, the snake would strike her. She held her breath and closed her eyes. She pictured Danny up top running towards his aunt, hair rising and falling like bright butterfly wings. Absently, she touched her own red hair, wrapped a finger around a lock.
Redhead! Redhead! Fire in the woodshed!
It was warm on the day, many years ago, she was chased home after school. For no reason she knew, two girls from another class had followed her around at recess calling her a witch, threatening to cut off her hair. When the bell rang they found her, flashed a pair of scissors, and made her run, terrified, out of the school yard. She flew down three blocks past the Catholic school, past the variety store, past the crooked mailbox, through her own backyard and into the neighbour’s yard. When the girls caught up, they called for the witch, they searched in her garden, under her porch and in her garbage bins while Caroline hid in her neighbour’s dog house behind a bale of straw.
It was almost dark by the time she was missed, her father home after a hard day at work.
“You think it’s funny to make your mother worry like this?” he was saying when he woke her. As he stuck his arm inside, she uncoiled her body and made herself thin to escape his reach. She pushed her back against the cedar boards, watched his sausage-like fingers grope for her dress, and wriggled through the opening onto the stones at the front. Standing up, she tried to explain about the girls but it only seemed to make her father angrier. “All over a little teasing?” He grabbed her wrist and spun her out in front of him, gave her a shove her towards the garage. Inside, he took her to the corner where he stored his tools, turned on a light and lifted her onto the workbench.
She stared down at her fists while he stepped away and noticed clumps of fine hair inside them. Why was she the only one with this wretched shade? Why was she the one who was different? The dull, low-pitched buzz of an electric razor interrupted her thoughts. As her father came at her with the instrument raised, she let out a piercing cry. Her fingers flung open to cover her head and the crimson clumps fell to the floor below.
Tilda was leaving, calling good-bye. Caroline opened her eyes. She looked for the snake but it was no longer there so she leapt to her feet and climbed the bank in swift steps. When she reached the top she shouted good-bye and Tilda waved and shouted back.
Three months later, the next time Tilda returned, Danny was six years old. Though he never spoke of the harmonica, he was still interested in music and for his birthday his parents bought him a ukulele. They enrolled him at the Children’s Music Academy, where he made a new friend, a girl called Mila who had freckles all over her face.
“No, they’re not magic spots,” he insisted to his mother as she drove him to his lesson.
Caroline looked at him in the rear-view mirror and saw him twirl his finger at the side of his head.
The wildflowers they’d planted never took root, but the delphiniums bloomed among the daisies and cyclamen. A pretty blue and white border marked the boundary that separated their yard from the ravine below.