People think that teaching little children has something to do with
helping other people, something to do with service. People think
that if you teach little children, you must love them. People get
what they need from thoughts like this.
People think that if you happen to be very fat and are a person who
acts happy and cheerful all the time, you are probably pretending
to be that way in order to make them forget how fat you are, or
cause them to forgive you for being so fat. They make this
assumption, thinking you are so stupid that you imagine that you're
getting away with this charade. From this assumption, they get
confidence in the superiority of their intelligence over yours, and
they get to pity you, too.
Those figments, those stepsisters, came to me and said, Don't you
know that we want to help you? They came to me and said, Can you
tell us what your life is like?
These moronic questions they asked over and over: Are you all
right? Is anything happening to you? Can you talk to us now,
darling? Can you tell us about your life?
I stared straight ahead, not looking at their pretty hair or pretty
eyes or pretty mouths. I looked over their shoulders at the pattern
on the wallpaper and tried not to blink until they stood up and
What my life was like? What was happening to me?
Nothing was happening to me. I was all right.
They smiled briefly, like a twitch in their eyes and mouths, before
they stood up and left me alone. I sat still on my chair and looked
at the wallpaper while they talked to Zena.
The wallpaper was yellow, with white lines going up and down
through it. The lines never touched--just when they were about to
run into each other, they broke, and the fat thick yellow kept them
I liked seeing the white lines hanging in the fat yellow, each one
When the figments called me darling, ice and snow stormed into my
mouth and went pushing down my throat into my stomach, freezing
everything. They didn't know I was nothing, that I would never be
like them, they didn't know that the only part of me that was not
nothing was a small hard stone right at the center of
That stone has a name. MOTHER.
If you are a female kindergarten teacher in her fifties who happens
to be very fat, people imagine that you must be very dedicated to
their children, because you cannot possibly have any sort of
private life. If they are the parents of the children in your
kindergarten class, they are almost grateful that you are so
grotesque, because it means that you must really care about their
children. After all, even though you couldn't possibly get any
other sort of job, you can't be in it for the money, can you?
Because what do people know about your salary? They know that
garbage men make more money than kindergarten teachers. So at least
you didn't decide to take care of their delightful, wonderful,
lovable little children just because you thought you'd get rich, no
Therefore, even though they disbelieve all your smiles, all your
pretty ways, even though they really do think of you with a mixture
of pity and contempt, a little gratitude gets in
Sometimes when I meet with one of these parents, say a
fluffy-haired young lawyer, say named Arnold Zoeller, Arnold and
his wife, Kathi, Kathi with an i, mind you, sometimes when I sit
behind my desk and watch these two slim handsome people struggle to
keep the pity and contempt out of their well-cared-for faces, I
catch that gratitude heating up behind their
Arnold and Kathi believe that a pathetic old lumpo like me must
love their lovely little girl, a girl say named Tori, Tori with an
i (for Victoria.) And I think I do rather love little Tori Zoeller,
yes I do think I love that little girl. My mother would have loved
her, too. And that's the God's truth.
I can see myself in the world, in the middle of the world. I see
that I am the same as all nature.
In our minds exists an awareness of perfection, but nothing on
earth, nothing in all of nature, is perfectly conceived. Every
response comes straight out of the person who is
I have no responsibility to stimulate or satisfy your needs. All
that was taken care of a long time ago. Even if you happen to be
some kind of supposedly exalted person, like a lawyer. Even if your
name is Arnold Zoeller, for example.
Once, briefly, there existed a golden time. In my mind existed an
awareness of perfection, and all of nature echoed and repeated the
awareness of perfection in my mind. My parents lived, and with
them, I too was alive in the golden time. Our name was Asch, and in
fact I am known now as Mrs. Asch, the Mrs. being entirely
honorific, no husband having ever been in evidence, nor ever likely
to be. (To some sixth-graders, those whom I did not not beguile and
enchant as kindergartners, those before whose parents I did not
squeeze myself into my desk chair and pronounce their dull, their
dreary treasures delightful, wonderful, lovable, above all
intelligent, I am known as Mrs. Fat-Asch. Of this I pretend to be
ignorant.) Mr. and Mrs. Asch did dwell together in the golden time,
and both mightily did love their girl-child. And then, whoops, the
girl-child's Mommy upped and died. The girl-child's Daddy buried
her in the estate's church yard, with the minister and everything,
in the coffin and everything, with hymns and talking and crying and
the animals standing around, and Zena, I remember, Zena was already
there, even then. So that was how things were, right from the
The figments came because of what I did later. They came from a
long way away-the city, I think. We never saw city dresses like
that, out where we lived. We never saw city hair like that, either.
And one of those ladies had a veil!
One winter morning during my first year teaching kindergarten here,
I got into my car--I shoved myself into my car, I should explain;
this is different for me than for you, I rammed myself between the
seat and the steering wheel, and I drove forty miles east, through
three different suburbs, until I got to the city, and thereupon I
drove through the city to the slummiest section, where dirty people
sit in their cars and drink right in the middle of the day. I went
to the department store nobody goes to unless they're on welfare
and have five or six kids all with different last names. I just
parked on the street and sailed in the door. People like that, they
never hurt people like me.
Down in the basement was where they sold the wallpaper, so I huffed
and puffed down the stairs, smiling cute as a button whenever
anybody stopped to look at me, and shoved myself through the aisles
until I got to the back wall, where the samples stood in big books
like the fairy-tale book we used to have. I grabbed about four of
those books off the wall and heaved them over onto a table there in
that section and perched myself on a little tiny chair and started
flipping the pages.
A scared-looking black kid in a cheap suit mumbled something about
helping me, so I gave him my happiest, most pathetic smile and
said, well, I was here to get wallpaper, wasn't I? What color did I
want, did I know? Well, I was thinking about yellow, I said.
Uh-huh, he says, what kinda yellow you got in mind? Yellow with
white lines in it. Uh-huh, says he, and starts helping me look
through those books with all those samples in them. They have about
the ugliest wallpaper in the world in this place, wallpaper like
sores on the wall, wallpaper that looks like it got rained on
before you get it home. Even the black kid knows this crap is ugly,
but he's trying his damnedest not to show it.
I bestow smiles everywhere. I'm smiling like a queen riding through
her kingdom in a carriage, like a little girl who just got a gold
and silver dress from a turtledove up in a magic tree. I'm smiling
as if Arnold Zoeller himself and of course his lovely wife are
looking across my desk at me while I drown, suffocate, stifle, bury
their lovely, intelligent little Tori in golden
I think we got some more yellow in this book here, he says, and
fetches down another big fairy-tale book and plunks it between us
on the table. His dirty-looking hands turn those big stiff pages.
And just as I thought, just as I knew would happen, could happen,
would probably happen, but only here in this filthy corner of a
filthy department store, this ignorant but helpful lad opens the
book to my mother's wallpaper pattern.
I see that fat yellow and those white lines that never touch
anything, and I can't help myself, sweat breaks out all over my
body, and I groan so horribly that the kid actually backs away from
me, lucky for him, because in the next second I'm bending over and
throwing up interesting-looking reddish goo all over the floor of
the wallpaper department. Oh God, the kid says, oh lady. I groan,
and all the rest of the goo comes jumping out of me and splatters
down on the carpet. Some older black guy in a clip-on bow tie
rushes up toward us but stops short with his mouth hanging open as
soon as he sees the mess on the floor. I take my hankie out of my
bag and wipe off my mouth. I try to smile at the kid, but my eyes
are too blurry. No, I say, I'm fine, I want to buy this wallpaper
for my kitchen, this one right here. I turn over the page to see
the name of my mother's wallpaper--Zena's wallpaper, too--and
discover that this kind of wallpaper is called "The Thinking
You don't have to be religious to have
An adventurous state of mind is like a great dwelling-place.
To be lived truly, life must be apprehended with an adventurous
state of mind.
But no one on earth can explain the lure of adventure.
Zena's example gave me two tricks that work in my classroom, and
the reason they work is that they are not actually
The first of these comes into play when a particular child is
disobedient or inattentive, which, as you can imagine, often occurs
in a room full of kindergarten-age children. I deal with these
infractions in this fashion. I command the child to come to my
desk. (Sometimes, I command two children to come to my desk.) I
stare at the child until it begins to squirm. Sometimes it blushes
or trembles. I await the physical signs of shame or discomfort.
Then I pronounce the child's name. "Tori," I say, if the child is
Tori. Its little eyes invariably fasten upon mine at this instant.
"Tori," I say, "you know that what you did is wrong, don't you?"
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the child nods its head. "And
you will never do that wrong thing again, will you?" Most often the
child can speak to say No. "Well, you'd better not," I say, and
then I lean forward until the little child can see nothing except
my enormous, inflamed face. Then in a guttural, lethal,
rumble-whisper, I utter, "OR ELSE." When I say "OR ELSE," I am very
emphatic. I am so very emphatic that I feel my eyes change shape. I
am thinking of Zena and the time she told me that weeping on my
mother's grave wouldn't make a glorious wonderful tree grow there,
it would just drown my mother in mud.
The attractiveness of teaching is that it is adventurous, as
adventurous as life.
My mother did not drown in mud. She died some other way. She fell
down in the middle of the downstairs parlor, the parlor where Zena
sat on her visits. Zena was just another lady then, and on her
visits, her "social calls," she sat on the best antique chair and
held her hands in her lap like the most modest, innocent little
lady ever born. She was half Chinese, Zena, and I knew she was just
like bright sharp metal inside of her, metal that could slice you
but good. Zena was very adventurous, but not as adventurous as me.
Zena never got out of that town. Of course, all that happened to
Zena was that she got old, and everybody left her all alone because
she wasn't pretty anymore, she was just an old yellow widow-lady,
and then I heard that she died pulling up weeds in her garden. I
heard this from two different people. You could say that Zena got
drowned in mud, which proves that everything spoken on this earth
contains a truth not always apparent at the time.
The other trick I learned from Zena that is not a trick is how to
handle a whole class that has decided to act up. These children
come from parents who, thinking they know everything, in fact know
less than nothing. These children will never see a classical manner
demonstrated at home. You must respond in such a way that
demonstrates your awareness of perfection. You must respond in a
way that will bring this awareness to the unruly children, so that
they too will possess it.
It can begin in a thousand different ways. Say I am in conference
with a single student-say I am delivering the great OR ELSE. Say
that my attention has wandered off for a moment, and that I am
contemplating the myriad things I contemplate when my attention is
wandering free. My mother's grave, watered by my tears. The women
with city hair who desired to give me help, but could not, so left
to be replaced by others, who in turn were replaced by yet others.
How it felt to stand naked and besmeared with my own feces in the
front yard, moveless as a statue, the same as all nature,
classical. The gradual disappearance of my father, like that of a
figure in a cartoon who grows increasingly transparent until total
transparency is reached. Zena facedown in her garden, snuffling
dirt up into her nostrils. The resemblance of the city women to
certain wicked stepsisters in old tales. Also their resemblance to
handsome princes in the same tales.
She who hears the tale makes the tale.
Say therefore that I am no longer quite anchored within the
classroom, but that I float upward into one, several, or all of
these realms. People get what they need from their own minds.
Certain places, you can get in there and rest. The classical was a
cool period. I am floating within my cool realms. At that moment,
one child pulls another's hair. A third child hurls a spitball at
the window. Another falls to the floor, emitting pathetic and
mechanical cries. Instantly, what was order is misrule. Then I
summon up the image of my ferocious female angels and am on my feet
before the little beasts even notice that I have left my desk. In a
flash, I am beside the light switch. The Toris and Tiffanys, the
Joshuas and Jeremys, riot on. I slap down the switch, and the room
Result? Silence. Inspired action is destiny.
The children freeze. Their pulses race--veins beat in not a few
little blue temples. I say four words. I say, "Think what this
means." They know what it means. I grow to twice my size with the
meaning of these words. I loom over them, and darkness pours out of
me. Then I switch the lights back on, and smile at them until they
get what they need from my smiling face. These children will never
call me Mrs. Fat-Asch; these children know that I am the same as
Once upon a time a dying queen sent for her daughter, and when her
daughter came to her bedside the queen said, "I am leaving you, my
darling. Say your prayers and be good to your father. Think of me
always, and I will always be with you." Then she died. Every day
the little girl watered her mother's grave with her tears. But her
heart was dead. You cannot lie about a thing like this. Hatred is
the inside part of love. And so her mother became a hard cold stone
in her heart. And that was the meaning of the mother, for as long
as the little girl lived.
Soon the king took another woman as his wife, and she was most
beautiful, with skin the color of gold and eyes as black as jet.
She was like a person pretending to be someone else inside another
person pretending she couldn't pretend. She understood that reality
was contextual. She understood about the condition of the
One day when the king was going out to be among his people, he
asked his wife, "What shall I bring you?"
"A diamond ring," said the queen. And the king could not tell who
was speaking, the person inside pretending to be someone else, or
the person outside who could not pretend.
"And you, my daughter," said the king, "what would you
"A diamond ring," said the daughter.
The king smiled and shook his head.
"Then nothing," said the daughter. "Nothing at
When the king came home, he presented the queen with a diamond ring
in a small blue box, and the queen opened the box and smiled at the
ring and said, "It's a very small diamond, isn't it?" The king's
daughter saw him stoop forward, his face whitening, as if he had
just lost half his blood. "I like my small diamond," said the
queen, and the king straightened up, although he still looked white
and shaken. He patted his daughter on the head on his way out of
the room, but the girl merely looked forward and said nothing, in
return for the nothing he had given her.
And that night, when the rest of the palace was asleep, the king's
daughter crept to the kitchen and ate half of a loaf of bread and
most of a quart of homemade peach ice cream. This was the most
delicious food she had ever eaten in her whole entire life. The
bread tasted like the sun on the wheatfields, and inside the taste
of the sun was the taste of the bursting kernels of the wheat, even
of the rich dark crumbly soil that surrounded the roots of the
wheat, even of the lives of the bugs and animals that had scurried
through the wheat, even of the droppings of those foxes, beetles,
and mice. And the homemade peach ice cream tasted overwhelmingly of
sugar, cream, and peaches, but also of the bark and meat of the
peach tree and the pink feet of the birds that had landed on it,
and the sharp, brittle voices of those birds, also of the effort of
the hand crank, of the stained, whorly wood of its sides, and of
the sweat of the man who had worked it so long. Every taste should
be as complicated as possible, and every taste goes up and down at
the same time: up past the turtledoves to the far reaches of the
sky, so that one final taste in everything is whiteness, and down
all the way to the mud at the bottom of graves, then to the mud
beneath that mud, so that another final taste in everything, in
even peach ice cream, is the taste of blackness.
From about this time, the king's daughter began to attract undue
attention. From the night of the whiteness of turtledoves and the
blackness of grave-mud to the final departure of the stepsisters
was a period of something like six months.
I thought of myself as a work of art. I caused responses without
being responsible for them. This is the great freedom of
They asked questions that enforced the terms of their own answers.
Don't you know we want to help you? Such a question implies only
two possible answers, 1: no, 2: yes. The stepsisters never
understood the queen's daughter, therefore the turtledoves pecked
out their eyes, first on the one side, then on the other. The
correct answer--3: person to whom question is directed is not the
one in need of help--cannot be given. Other correct answers, such
as 4: help shall come from other sources, and 5: neither knowledge
nor help mean what you imagine they mean, are also forbidden by the
form of the question.
Assignment for tonight: make a list of proper but similarly
forbidden answers to the question What is happening to you? Note:
be sure to consider conditions imposed by the use of the word
The stepsisters arrived from the city in a grand state. They
resembled peacocks. The stepsisters accepted Zena's tea, they
admired the house, the paintings, the furniture, the entire estate,
just as if admiring these things, which everybody admired, meant
that they, too, should be admired. The stepsisters wished to remove
the king's daughter from this setting, but their power was not so
great. Zena would not permit it, nor would the ailing king. (At
night, Zena placed her subtle mouth over his sleeping mouth and
drew breath straight out of his body.) Zena said that the condition
of the king's daughter would prove to be temporary. The child was
eating well. She was loved. In time, she would return to
When the figments asked, What is happening to you? I could have
answered, Zena is happening to me. This answer would not have been
understood. Neither would the answer, My mother is happening to
Undue attention came about in the following fashion. Zena knew all
about my midnight feasts, but was indifferent to them. Zena knew
that each person must acquire what she needs. This is as true for a
king's daughter as for any ordinary commoner. But she was ignorant
of what I did in the name of art. Misery and anger made me a great
artist, though now I am a much greater artist. I think I was
twelve. (The age of an artist is of no importance.) Both my mother
and Zena were happening to me, and I was happening to them, too.
Such is the world of women. My mother, deep in her mudgrave, hated
Zena. Zena, second in the king's affections, hated my mother.
Speaking from the center of the stone at the center of me, my
mother frequently advised me on how to deal with Zena. Silently,
speaking with her eyes, Zena advised me on how to deal with my
mother. I, who had to deal with both of them, hated them
And I possessed an adventurous mind.
The main feature of adventure is that it goes forward into unknown
Adventure is filled with a nameless joy.
Alone in my room in the middle of Saturday, on later occasions
after my return from school, I removed my clothes and placed them
neatly on my bed. (My canopied bed.) I had no feelings, apart from
a sense of urgency, concerning the actions I was about to perform.
Perhaps I experienced a nameless joy at this point. Later on, at
the culmination of my self-display, I experienced a nameless joy.
And later yet, I experienced the same nameless joy at the
conclusions of my various adventures in art. In each of these
adventures as in the first, I created responses not traceable
within the artwork, but which derived from the conditions, etc., of
the audience. Alone and unclothed now in my room, ready to create
responses, I squatted on my heels and squeezed out onto the carpet
a long cylinder of fecal matter, the residue of, dinner not
included, an entire loaf of seven-grain bread, half a box of
raisins, a can of peanuts, and a quarter pound of cervelat sausage,
all consumed when everyone else was in bed and Zena was presumably
leaning over the face of my sleeping father, greedily inhaling his
life. I picked up the warm cylinder and felt it melt into my hands.
I hastened this process by squeezing my palms together. Then I
rubbed my hands over my body. What remained of the stinking
cylinder I smeared along the walls of the bedroom. Then I wiped my
hands on the carpet. (The white carpet.) My preparations concluded,
I moved regally through the corridors until I reached the front
door and let myself out.
I have worked as a certified grade-school teacher in three states.
My record is spotless. I never left a school except by my own
When tragedies came to my charges or their parents, I invariably
sent sympathetic notes, joined volunteer groups to search for
bodies, attended funerals, etc., etc. Every teacher eventually
becomes familiar with these unfortunate duties.
Outside, there was all the world, at least all of the estate, from
which to choose. Two lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay best
express my state of mind at this moment: The world stands out on
either side/ No wider than the heart is wide. I well remember the
much-admired figure of Dave Garroway quoting these lovely words on
his Sunday-afternoon television program, and I pass along this
beautiful sentiment to each fresh class of kindergartners. They
must start somewhere, and at other moments in their year with me
they will have the opportunity to learn that nature never gives you
a chance to rest. Every animal on earth is
Turning my back on the fields of grazing cows and sheep, ignoring
the hills beyond, hills seething with coyotes, wildcats, and
mountain lions, I moved with stately tread through the military
rows of fruit trees and, with papery, apple and peach blossoms
adhering to my bare feet, passed into the expanse of the grass
meadow where grew the great hazel tree. Had the meadow been
recently mown, long green stalks the width of caterpillars leapt up
from the ground to festoon my legs. (I often stretched out full
length and rolled in the freshly mown grass meadow.) And then, at
the crest of the hill that marked the end of the meadow, I arrived
at my destination. Below me lay the road to the unknown towns and
cities in which I hoped one day to find my complicated destiny.
Above me stood the hazel tree.
I have always known that I could save myself by looking into my own
I stood above the road on the crest of the hill and raised my arms.
When I looked into my mind I saw two distinct and necessary states,
one that of the white line, the other that of the female angels,
akin to the turtledoves.
The white line existed in a calm rapture of separation, touching
neither sky nor meadow but suspended in the space between. The
white line was silence, isolation, classicism. This state is one
half of what is necessary in order to achieve the freedom of art,
and it is called the Thinking Reed.
The angels and turtledoves existed in a rapture of power, activity,
and rage. They were absolute whiteness and absolute blackness,
gratification and gratification's handmaiden, revenge. The angels
and turtledoves came streaming up out of my body and soared from
the tips of my fingers into the sky, and when they returned they
brought golden and silver dresses, diamond rings and emerald
I saw the figments slicing off their own toes, sawing off their
heels, and stepping into shoes already slippery with blood. The
figments were trying to smile, they were trying to stand up
straight. They were like children before an angry teacher, a
teacher transported by a righteous anger. Girls like the figments
never did understand that what they needed, they must get from
their own minds. Lacking this understanding, they tottered along,
pretending that they were not mutilated, pretending that blood did
not pour from their shoes, back to their pretend houses and pretend
princes. The nameless joy distinguished every part of this
Lately, within the past twenty-four hours, a child has been
A lost child lies deep within the ashes, her hands and feet
mutilated, her face destroyed by fire. She has partaken of the
great adventure, and now she is the same as all
At night, I see the handsome, distracted, still hopeful parents on
our local news programs. Arnold and Kathi, he as handsome as a
prince, she as lovely as one of the figments, still have no idea of
what has actually happened to them--they lived their whole lives in
utter abyssal ignorance--they think of hope as an essential
component of the universe. They think that other people, the people
paid to perform this function, will conspire to satisfy their
A child has been lost. Now her photograph appears each day on the
front page of our sturdy little tabloid-style newspaper, beaming
out with luminous ignorance beside the columns of print describing
a sudden disappearance after the weekly Sunday school class at
St.-Mary-in-the-Forest's Episcopal church, the deepening fears of
the concerned parents, the limitless charm of the girl herself, the
searches of nearby video parlors and shopping malls, the draggings
of two adjacent ponds, the slow, painstaking inspections of the
neighboring woods, fields, farms, and outbuildings, the shock of
the child's particularly well-off and socially prominent relatives,
A particular child has been lost. A certain combination of
variously shaded blond hair and eyes the blue of early summer sky
seen through a haze of cirrus clouds, of an endearingly puffy upper
lip and a recurring smudge, like that left on corrasable bond
typing paper by an unclean eraser, on the left side of the mouth,
of an unaffected shyness and an occasional brittle arrogance
destined soon to overshadow more attractive traits will never again
be seen, not by parents, friends, teachers, or the passing
strangers once given to spontaneous tributes to the child's
A child of her time has been lost. Of no interest to our local
newspaper, unknown to the Sunday school classes at
St.-Mary's-in-the-Forest, were this moppet's obsession with the
dolls Exercise Barbie and Malibu Barbie, her fanatical attachment
to My Pretty Ponies Glory and Applejacks, her insistence on
introducing during classtime observations upon the cartoon family
named Simpson, and her precocious fascination with the music
television channel, especially the "videos" featuring the groups
Kris Kross and Boyz II Men. She was once observed holding hands
with James Halliwell, a first-grade boy. Once, just before naptime,
she turned upon a pudgy, unpopular girl of protosadistic tendencies
named Deborah Monk and hissed, "Debbie, I hate to tell you this,
but you suck."
A child of certain limitations has been lost. She could never learn
to tie her cute but oddly blunt-looking size 1 running shoes and
eventually had to become resigned to the sort fastened with Velcro
straps. When combing her multishaded blond hair with her fingers,
she would invariably miss a cobwebby patch located two inches aft
of her left car. Her reading skills were somewhat, though not
seriously, below average. She could recognize her name, when
spelled out in separate capitals, with narcissistic glee; yet all
other words, save and and the, turned beneath her impatient gaze
into random, Sanskrit-like squiggles and uprights. (This would soon
have corrected itself.) She could recite the alphabet all in a
rush, by rote, but when questioned was incapable of remembering if
O came before or after S. I doubt that she would have been capable
of mastering long division during the appropriate academic
Across the wide, filmy screen of her eyes would now and then cross
a haze of indefinable confusion. In a child of more finely tuned
sensibilities, this momentary slippage might have suggested a
sudden sense of loss, even perhaps a premonition of the loss to
come. In her case, I imagine the expression was due to the
transition from the world of complete unconsciousness (Barbie and
My Pretty Ponies) to a more fully socialized state (Kriss Kross).
Introspection would have come only late in life, after long
exposure to experiences of the kind from which her parents most
wished to shelter her.
An irreplaceable child has been lost. What was once in the land of
the Thinking Reed has been forever removed, like others before it,
like all others in time, to turtledove territory. This fact is
borne home on a daily basis. Should some informed anonymous
observer report that the child is all right, that nothing is
happening to her, the comforting message would be misunderstood as
the prelude to a demand for ransom. The reason for this is that no
human life can ever be truly substituted for another. The
increasingly despairing parents cannot create or otherwise acquire
a living replica, though they are certainly capable of reproducing
again, should they stay married long enough to do so. The children
in the lost one's class are reported to suffer nightmares and
recurrent enuresis. In class, they exhibit lassitude, wariness, a
new unwillingness to respond, like the unwillingness of the very
old. At a schoolwide assembly where the little ones sat right up in
front, nearly every one expressed the desire for the missing one to
return. Letters and cards to the lost one now form two large,
untidy stacks in the principal's office and, with parental appeals
to the abductor or abductors broadcast every night, it is felt that
the school will accumulate a third stack before these tributes are
offered to the distraught parents.
Works of art generate responses not directly traceable to the work
itself. Helplessness, grief, and sorrow may exist simultaneously
alongside aggressiveness, hostility, anger, or even serenity and
The more profound and subtle the work, the more intense and long
lasting the responses it evokes.
Deep, deep in her muddy grave, the queen and mother felt the tears
of her lost daughter. All will pass. In the form of a turtledove,
she rose from grave-darkness and ascended into the great arms of a
hazel tree. All will change. From the topmost branch, the
turtledove sang out her everlasting message. All is hers, who will
seek what is true. "What is true?" cried the daughter, looking
dazzled up. All will pass, all will change, all is yours, sang the
In a recent private conference with the principal, I announced my
decision to move to another section of the country after the
The principal is a kindhearted, limited man still loyal, one might
say rigidly loyal, to the values he absorbed from popular music at
the end of the nineteen sixties, and he has never quite been able
to conceal the unease I arouse within him. Yet he is aware of the
respect I command within every quarter of his school, and he has
seen former kindergartners of mine, now freshmen in our trisuburban
high school, return to my classroom and inform the awed children
seated before them that Mrs. Asch placed them on the right path,
that Mrs. Asch's lessons would be responsible for seeing them
successfully through high school and on to
Virtually unable to contain the conflict of feelings my
announcement brought to birth within him, the principal assured me
that he would that very night compose a letter of recommendation
certain to gain me a post at any elementary school, public or
private, of my choosing.
After thanking him, I replied, "I do not request this kindness of
you, but neither will I refuse it."
The principal leaned back in his chair and gazed at me, not
unkindly, through his granny glasses. His right hand rose like a
turtledove to caress his graying beard, but ceased halfway in its
flight, and returned to his lap. Then he lifted both hands to the
surface of his desk and intertwined the fingers, still gazing
quizzically at me.
"Are you all right?" he inquired.
"Define your terms," I said. "If you mean, am I in reasonable
health, enjoying physical and mental stability, satisfied with my
work, then the answer is yes, I am all right."
"You've done a wonderful job dealing with Tori's disappearance," he
said. "But I can't help but wonder if all of that has played a part
in your decision."
"My decisions make themselves," I said. "All will pass, all will
change. I am a serene person."
He promised to get the letter of recommendation to me by lunchtime
the next day, and as I knew he would, he kept his promise. Despite
my serious reservations about his methods, attitude, and
ideology--despite my virtual certainty that he will be
unceremoniously forced from his job within the next year--I cannot
refrain from wishing the poor fellow
Excerpted from MAGIC TERROR: Seven Tales © Copyright 2001
by Peter Straub. Reprinted with permission by Fawcett Books. All