It is suppertime, and while the fish sticks bake and the peas boil, the children are seated at the kitchen table chatting with their cutlery.
“Will you play with me while Mom and Dad are busy feeding the humans?” Nine-year-old Molly’s knife asks seven-year-old Paris’s fork.
”Sure,” replies the fork expansively. “My family has four children, and these two,”–polite bows from a soup spoon and a teaspoon–”Are both named Tom: Big Tom and Little Tom.”
“Hi, this is Jenna Sarah,” says almost-four Violet, introducing her fork.
“Hellooo,” two-year-old Phoebe says kindly, gazing round at all the silverware.
“Oh, Mummy, can I have that?” Paris cries, seeing me hacking off the top of a pineapple.
“Sure. It’s your dessert.”
“Can I make a lime-meringue pie after supper?” Molly wants to know.
“Sure,” I repeat casually, smothering a secret fillip of adrenaline.
Having children teaches one a great many things about oneself that one would rather not know. One of my unpleasant discoveries is that I am unable to contain my critical impulses when a child dons an apron. At the same time, I have no wish to demoralize the budding pastry chef, and am aware, moreover, that the only reason I can bake is that, as a latchkey child, I never had a nagging adult peering over my shoulder to see how carefully I was separating the eggs. So I regard it as progress to be able to slip out the word, “Sure,” easily and plausibly, as if I meant it. Perhaps some day I will. Her cakes are getting pretty good.
“No, no,” Paris interrupts, “The green leafy bit on top. For my room. “
“Well–” I say dubiously, painfully aware that the correct answer is, “Sure.”
Last weekend, Paris came back from a ramble with an enormous tree limb and pocketsful of rock, and went straight up to his room. Some time later he was spotted skulking in the kitchen with a mysterious lump under his shirt. When I struck the gong to summon everyone for supper–an act which normally has a gratifyingly Pavlovian effect–there was no Paris, not even a distant, “Just a minute!” So I trudged up to the top floor, turned the corner, walked into his room, and found myself bang in the middle of an actual, believable jungle, with vines, and apes, and jaguars–
“Look out!” Paris yelped from the bed, where he was standing in order to strap a velcro monkey to the belt from his bathrobe, which was hanging from a light fixture on the ceiling.
“It’s feeding time,” he explained, pointing to the floor, where I had nearly trodden upon a stuffed tiger in the midst of devouring a parrot.
“Paris, this is fantastic!”
“See the cheetah? He’s stalking this zebra,” Paris explained happily, showing me an animal-print pillow seated menacingly beside a plastic zebra-head finger-puppet. “And these are vines“–here he pointed to a complicated interweaving of ribbons, ties, and belts, all festooned with stuffed animals and tied around the room, from bed to closet door, from closet door to the great tree limb propped against the wall, from the limb to the light fixture. And tucked naturally here and there were oranges and lemons and–
“Say, that’s where the bananas have–”
“Mummy, I need them,” Paris cried, suddenly panicked at the prospect of my adult practicalities strip-mining his Eden. “You can’t have a jungle without fruit, can you?” He is close to tears. And he’s right. What sort of jungle is it without fruit? Or, a little later, fruit flies? Or rocks piled on the hardwood floor, or peels of tree bark in little heaps along the baseboards?
“Okay, you can have it,” I am saying three days later, as I hack away at the pineapple. “But let the cut part dry first so it’s not too sticky in the jungle.”
“Great,” Paris replies, and returns his attention to Molly’s implements, “I don’t want to be called Book Head at school,” he complains, speaking for his teaspoon. “Yeah,” his fork agrees, “And they call me Spike Face.”
“You were very sensible,” Molly’s fork murmurs to her knife, then turns to Book Head and Spike Face and asks accusingly, “Why do you two have to be so sensible? Can’t you play a couple of pranks?”
“Okay,” says Book Head, “Want to go spray soapy water in the teacher’s face?”
“Ugh,” says the fork scornfully, “We did that last week.”
They suspend the game for supper, and I dash downstairs to make some phone calls before everything closes. It is a day of stupendous domestic breakdown: First my car faints on a busy parkway and is restored just long enough to limp to the repair shop; one lavatory has gone wild and keeps filling itself until water splashes over the top of the tank; now the pipes and radiators are making a terrible metallic whacking sound that gets louder the closer you get to the boiler, as if some madman with a scimitar is trying to cut his way out. I’m on hold for Roto-Rooter when Paris comes racing down the stairs, grabs my wrist, and starts pulling.
“Mummy, you have to come right now!”
“Wait, I’m on the–”
“It’s Bunny!” he yells, “He’s escaped and he’s under a car!”
We sprint out into the cold dark, where we find Molly gesturing towards a parked van and weeping with frustration, “Paris was putting him back in his hutch and he jumped and now he’s… oh, no!”
Twitchy is just visible, just out of reach, tucked peacefully beside a wheel.
“Don’t worry, darling, we’ll get him.”
Paris crouches at the side of the van and roars helpfully: “Rrargh!” he tries, and “Aaaargh!”
Twitchy is unmoved. We wait, crouched and chilled, as Violet clicks carefully out of the house in sequined ruby shoes and Phoebe follows in a pair of Molly’s sneakers.
“There’s Bunny!” Phoebe cries with pleasure, hunkering down on the giant sneakers, “Come here, Bunny!”
“It’s dark outside,” Violet marvels, hugging herself.
Eventually, like the good sport he is, Twitchy lopes calmly out into the open–
–And like landmines, the children explode on to their feet and lunge for him. Flushing them into action is clearly all part of Bunny’s cunning plan, for he instantly puts on a burst of speed, 0-60, streaks past them, and darts into a narrow bit between our back wall and the one belonging to our neighbors that is packed two stories high with bamboo.
“Oh, no!” Molly wails. She climbs up on the wall on our side, peering uselessly down to where the rabbit is catching his breath–and probably sniggering.
“I’ll go,” Paris declares, Walter-Raleigh-like, and strips off his sweater. He does not place it on wet ground for a queen to step on, but he does plunge, without a moment’s pause, into one extremely cramped, spiky, dark place, and his unaffected chivalry makes me almost swoon with love and pride. That’s the kind of boy he is.
Meanwhile, we dainty ladyfolk all hold our breaths and clump around in our outlandish footwear, in the case of Violet and Phoebe, as Paris crashes and fights his way through the fierce stalks of bamboo, and then, unbelievably, from the dark–
“Oh, Paris, thank you!”
The bamboo is so dense that Paris has to hand the bunny out to me before he can extricate himself. Twitchy’s heart thuds under my palm with the thrill of the open road. I pop him back into his house and he whips around it, checking the food and water, before settling down to meditate, or whatever it is that tame rabbits do in their long hours of confinement.
Upstairs in the kitchen, we meet a scene of stupendous culinary abandon: The counters are littered with bowls, pie plates, icing sugar, eggshells, flour, cutting boards, and heaps of fresh lime wedges that have been squeezed to death. Someone has perched a grater and a bowl of limejuice precariously on a kitchen chair.
“I ran out of room,” Molly explains, gesturing to the crowded countertops. Then she turns to her brother.
“Paris,” she says with great seriousness, “When this lime-meringue pie is done, I am going to dedicate it to you. For saving Bunny.”
“Wow,” says he, honored, “My own pie.”
“Well, not your pie–” she adds, quickly, “A pie dedicated to you. But it’s still my pie.”
“Oh,” he says, with younger-sibling stout-heartedness, “Of course.”