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“…and when we no longer know which way to go,/ we have begun our real journey.”
Wendell Berry

Of Grey Eyes Staring Black Holes Into the Wall

At bedtime, there was the talking and reading, the warmth of the bed and of the Mother’s body and sometimes of the Grandfather’s hand. The Boy spent many hours on laps and in beds under duvets or blankets, being read to and in conversation or just being tickled.
The Mother and Grandfather had created a bedtime routine which would involve what they called “tickles”. They were not tickles in the sense of being proded wildly with lots of giggles. Rather, they were an intimate and sensuous form of being stroked, especially on his back, which tickled when it was just the fingertips. The Boy would delight in this attention and never wanted it to end.

His grandfather’s tickles were clean. He sat on the bedside and would at some point tell him that he had run out of tickles and showed the Boy his hand, pointing at an imaginary gauge. The Boy would always find a few more and then, finally, let him go to the Queen Bess.

His mother brought to his bed the lightness of her healing touch and the fierce charge of her despair. She gave him the gift of conversation, the tireless effort to make sense of her bewilderment but also the heaviness of the world weighing on her shoulders. In many long hours and from the earliest age, she discussed with him many a subject that was burdening her heavy heart: his father’s alcoholism and their turbulent relationship, her upset at having found the Father watching naked women please men in grown up ways, her compassion for the coldness of the Father’s upbringing and his family’s Nazi-past, and the blame and shame the Father carried for his seven-year-old sister’s death by drowning when he was barely 14, her mother’s narcissism, her struggle with not being taken seriously for her disabling bouts of hay-fever, her secret pregnancy and miscarriage at 17, her personal struggles with life as an English woman in Germany from the age of 26. The Boy understood that the Mother and the Father had had difficult lives. They did not have it easy. The Boy felt sorry for them. He could see that he had it so much better.

The Mother praised the Boys ability to listen and his mature understanding beyond his age, and he lapped up the attention and took in the words with his ears and through his skin as the Mother talked and stroked.

Sometimes, despite all of the heaviness, he wanted the Mother to be there with her tickles. He liked it very much and he often asked for more. In time, to separate what was good for the Boy and what was better left with the Mother, he developed the habit of lying with his back to her, facing the wall, so that he could bear it. I don’t think the Boy would have noticed it by himself but she helped him sometimes by getting very angry with him when he asked for more: “I give so much but you want more and more.”

“Do you not care about what it was like for me that you always have your back to me and always ask for more?” says the Mother to the Boy.

Sometimes, the Boy wants her to go but he can’t say so because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Her life is so hard and it is worse when her feelings are hurt. Better to bear it and wait for it to go away. Like now, when the Mother says that it is time for the Boy to give back and stroke the Mother on her back. She turns around and pulls up her top so the Boy can stroke the Mother.

The Boy freezes. He gulps. He can hardly move his hand. It feels awful. Although it is so heavy, he makes his hand move anyway. Anything to make her stop. Moving his hand revolts him. It makes him feel sick to the stomach. Touching the Mother’s skin in this way feels all wrong. He does not want to. He wants to scream but he does not. He wants to say that it is wrong. But he cannot. He cannot NOT do it. It is the same hand the Mother burnt with the scalding porridge when she wanted to teach him a lesson. There is no space for him to choose freely, be just himself, be the Boy and follow the Boy’s own instinct. The Boy has been gobbled up by the hungry Mother.

The Mother tells the Boy that he is very gentle and very good at stroking. It goes in. It hooks him in a deep place. The Boy hates it. He can’t bear it. Then, she’s gone. He can breathe again. The bedding cools down. It is refreshing. He folds the bedding between his legs and rocks himself. It feels good. The soft cool fabric on his skin. He moves his face against the brushed cotton of his pillow.

It only happened the once this way. Maybe twice. Yet, perhaps, it was a blessing that it did. It tore away the cloak the Boy was under and allowed him to take away a glimpse of something that had been happening to him all along in ways that left no trace in memory but shaped him nonetheless. The Boy did not understand what he was seeing then. Something wasn’t right but he could not put his finger on it.

As the Boy grew older, he noticed the Father come to his bed when the Mother was saying good night. The Father would come and go and then come back again and perhaps another time. He’d look and he’d clearly have something to say but he didn’t.
The Mother would say, “Are you ok?”
“Just checking,” he’d respond.

Then one day, the Father’s checking had worked him into a state which no longer allowed him to withhold his words. “Don’t you think he’s too old now for you to be lying in bed with him like that?” he fumed, staring at her over the rim of his glasses as he does when the Father is drunk. After a few moments of an awkward silence, he storms off.
“He’s just jealous,” the Mother says.
“But he’s the Father!” the Boy winces silently. He is not yet 13.

One evening, the stroking and talking is particularly intense. The Boy feels a loud “No!” shouting, screaming, boiling in him but he cannot say it to her. The Boy wants the Mother to get out of his bed. But he just cannot say it. She blocks the exit from his bed and ahead of him is only the white ingrain wallpaper. He cannot leave either as he cannot bear the inevitable emotional response, her sobbing and pain, his utter shame at hurting the Mother. Instead, he screams inside. With the pressured echo of the unspoken “No!” coursing through him, the Boy begins to see black cloud-shaped patterns in the wood chips of the wallpaper akin to feeling weak and dizzy just before losing consciousness. When he focuses hard enough, the Mother’s voice fades and the black holes in front of him open up wider. Instead of fighting for himself, the Boy allows the black holes ahead to swallow him up. He learns to freeze and bear it. Some fire in his eyes, some light goes out somewhere as he resigns himself and he stares at the wall out of grey eyes, imagining he can instead burn black holes into which will take him somewhere into another dimension where he can’t feel the pain.

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