I was always a strange child.
When I was seven, I used to cover my drawings with another piece of paper, shaded in black, so you’d have to hold it up to the light to see the images behind it. One was of a beautiful dead woman at the bottom of the sea, draped in wilting flowers. Every year, her lover would return to the place where she had fallen to her death to drop another rose.
When I was eight, I frightened my parents by building a guillotine out of Tinker Toys, which didn’t actually work. I used piano wire to make hoop skirts for my Barbies and cut out little folded fans with drawn-on birds and landscapes. I painstakingly covered their faces in white paint, drew exaggerated beauty marks, and pinned cotton balls and feathers into their heads until they looked just like 18th century aristocrats. I only owned one Ken doll, though, which complicated my reenactment a bit.
And when I was eleven, I won an award for a Thanksgiving short story I casually penned one day in class. My parents’ faces were so proud when they asked me to read it to them, then slowly fell as they realized it was written from the point of view of a turkey whose wife had been pulled from their humble wooden shack for slaughter, about how his heart had burned upon watching the pink-cheeked farmer’s daughter, with her bouncy blonde curls, giggling as she dragged his shivering wife to the block.
My grandmother proudly pulled the turkey out of the oven later that night. I was genuinely surprised when my parents went awkwardly quiet.
Maybe it was their fault for buying me all those kid-friendly Shakespeare books, or letting me watch Wagnerian operas at two, but I had never been the type to sell lemonade for a quarter with an adorably messed-up, hand-painted sign. Because I was too swept up in the beauty of tragic romanticism to understand what a creepy little kid I was.
But in time, I learned that adding a few punchy pop songs to your opera death-scene playlist was socially helpful. That maybe you shouldn’t bring up the history of torture and what it might mean about human psychology when people are discussing politics, or that when you’re in mom circles, maybe you keep to yourself that trying to make friends with bullies is really bad advice for children because sometimes, just windmilling your arms works ten times as well.
I had nearly forgotten that dark imagination until its echoes crept up on me today, in the form of my five-year-old daughter Brontë…
It would be Brontë, the child I named for my love of the Brontë sisters. I was in high school, having lost my taste for books for years, even though I felt guilty about it because reading was something smart people were supposed to do, even though it bored me senseless until I was forcing my way through a school-required Wuthering Heights and found the scene where Heathcliff runs to the broken window to scream for the ghost of Catherine to return…
Well, I was playing with the kids outside when I finally asked them why they kept throwing flowers into the rickety birdbath in the back of the yard.
Brontë’s face took on a quiet, reverential tone as she solemnly spoke to me…
“This is NOT a birdbath.”
“Okay, what is it?”
She took a breath. “This… is the monument to our dead queen.”
And, shocked that she knew the word “monument,” I prodded her further: “Oh?”
Pointing to the pool house, she continued: “That was her house and we don’t go in there. She was very old and very nice. She had long white hair and always smiled. She was so… kind. The bad guys killed her,”
Then, wiggling the top of the birdbath, she said, “You can never push this over because if you do, you will break the queen’s bones and destroy her soul. They killed her father too, but they cut off his head and all his body is in pieces so we can’t find his body, which is a very sad thing.”
“I see,” I told her, trying not to disrespect the sacred site with too casual a tone. Bridget nodded sadly, placing another picked flower on the birdbath and grabbing my hand. She walked me over to the gazebo to explain how this was her house, where they serve tacos, and sometimes chocolate cake.
“And we play hide-and-seek,” Brontë added. “And you should play with us…
But DON’T knock over the queen’s bones.”
“Okay, I won’t.”