“I want yogurt,” Phoebe says querulously, pointing into the open refrigerator. The whine has crept back into her voice in the past few days. My stomach tightens unpleasantly.
”How do you ask properly?”
“Please may I have yogurt?”
“Of course, sweetheart” I reply, and hand her the little foil-topped container. Outside it could not be a more perfect autumn afternoon: Sunshine, chrysanthemums, squirrels, the gratifying sounds of workmen scraping old paint off windowsills, etc. Inside, however, something has curdled.
“I want chocolate–”
“How do you–”
“Please may I have chocolate milk?”
“Certainly. Have some yogurt first. Then I will make chocolate milk.”
Phoebe pokes at her yogurt, and I brace for a round of renewed shelling. I don’t know whether all fourth children are as naturally lawless as she; I do know that none of her siblings ever even flirted with the use of banned weapons such as all-out screeching to get one’s way, biting the hand that feeds, or flinging oneself down and drumming furiously with one’s heels. Phoebe deploys this arsenal with fearsome abandon. It’s no fun for me, less fun for her father, and utterly outrages her brother’s and sisters’ sense of family law. Frankly, sometimes she acts like a three-year-old.
Now the mutineer dips a spoon into the yogurt, lifts it up, and deliberately lets the creamy stuff slide down past her open mouth, on to her chin, and then plop on to her navy blue dress. It’s like the scene in Salem’s Lot where the chocolate pudding drops out of the baby’s mouth, except the child in this case has not been bitten by a vampire and consequently has no excuse.
“Phoebe!” I reprove her sharply, “That is naughty bad!” This in our household is strong language. It works.
Phoebe’s face screws up, her cheeks flush scarlet, and out comes a mournful, pathetic, heartbreaking, “Waaaaah!”
“Oh, darling,” I sigh, reaching for her, “Why do you–”
And then the cause of everything becomes clear. The dear little malefactor has a fever.
“So that’s why you’ve been so beastly.”
“I’m not beastly,” she cries, “I’m a fox who licks people, you know!”
“Quite right,” I soothe, stroking her hair and kicking myself. It is one of those certainties in life that no sooner do you begin to despair that your amiable child has turned bolshevik, no sooner do you raise your voice in exasperation, than the illness that has been percolating in your child is manifest. And you, of course, feel like a heel.
“She’s been getting sick,” I tell my husband on the phone, after putting Phoebe down for a nap. “I feel like a heel.”
“No, really, it explains why she’s been so unspeakably cranky.”
“Meg,” says my husband gently, “She’s been like this for months.”
Phoebe is still conked out when the other children arrive home from school. Molly disappears behind the house to replenish Twitchy’s supply of parsley, and Violet and Paris rush into the house to find paper, tape, and pens.
“It’s for Halloween,” Violet says earnestly, her hair in her eyes and paper spilling from her arms.
“But that’s not for three–”
“O.k., Violet, let’s roll!” Paris crows, and even in this context that phrase gives me a pang. It was just such a day as this…
He drops to his knees in the hallway, Violet gets down beside him, and together they set to scrawling pictures to tape to the front door.
With Phoebe asleep, the tranquility is remarkable. Leaving the front door open, I take the phone outside to return calls in the fresh air. A moment later Paris bounds down the steps and thrusts a drawing at me. “Look at his sharp teeth! And this guy? He’s a skeleton!”
Violet joins us. “Mummy, see? A pumpkin! And a ghost, and a tree, and this is me.” She points to a stick figure wearing a skirt.
“Don’t keep drawing yourself in the pictures,” Paris says critically, “People will think, what’s Violet doing with all those witches and pumpkins?”
I laugh. “I don’t think it will be that obvious who–”
“Wow!” comes a thrilled cry, and Molly reappears carrying a huge silver tray. It is embossed with kingly men who look vaguely Assyrian, and big enough to serve a boar on.
“What’s that, the platter of Nebuchadnezzar?”
She is bubbling over with the thrill of acquisition. “The neighbors put it out with their garbage and I saw it and I quickly rang the doorbell and asked them if I could have it and they said I could–” She breaks off to admire the enormous disc.
“Cool,” says Paris. “Violet, are you ready?”
“What do you think I should do with this? Boy, do you think it’s worth something?” Molly taps the vast platter with her knuckles. “What should I do with it?”
“I don’t know,” I say, guessing her thoughts.
“Do you think it’s solid silver?”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
Molly’s knuckles continue their speculative tap-tap-tapping. Meanwhile, Violet and Paris have arranged a curious tableau at the front door. On the step is a cardboard box of children’s shoes. Violet is perched on a small stool, near the doorbell which–long-time readers, I blush to admit it–I installed only this week.
“Children, you’re going to have to clean that–”
“Okay, one more time,” Paris says to Violet, propping a mop up beside her stool. “You know what to do. Ring the doorbell, say ‘hahahahah!’”–he makes a witchy laugh–”and push that over.”
Violet nods doughtily. As I watch, Paris goes towards the street, turns around, and commences approaching the house with extravagant caution, the very picture of a terrified trick-or-treater. Reaching the front door, he slowly reaches into the box and removes a blue clog, glances up at Violet, shrieks, flings the shoe into the air, and runs away.
“Violet, you forgot to–”
“Hahahaha!” She cackles belatedly, rings the bell, and knocks over the mop.
“Darlings, don’t ring the bell. Phoebe’s asleep.”
“Poor Phoebe,” Violet frowns sympathetically.
“I might sell it, I might not,” Molly says, lost in a fiscal reverie. “What do you think I could get for it?
“C’mon, Violet, I have a great idea!” Paris and Violet thump upstairs. A moment later someone strikes the gong, and Paris’s distant voice says, “Sorry.”
“Maybe $10…maybe $50.”
“Wouldn’t it be more than that?”
“What, you want to flip it for cash so that you can buy jellybeans?”
“Well,” she says shyly. Tap-tap-tap. “Yes.”
Suddenly there’s a yelp from upstairs, and “ow!” and a out of the window just above the front door comes a fine spray of miscellaneous items: pens, pencils, hair bands, and a pair of red patent leather shoes.
“Hey!” I cry, running outside and looking up, “Cut that out!”
Paris’s face appears at the window, then Violet’s. “Sorry, but–”
“Wait a minute.” The ground is littered with objects. The air is warm and fragrant. Molly comes to stand beside me, looking up too, her giant serving platter hugged to her chest. I feel a grin spread across my face. “Is this part of the Halloween rehearsal?”
They grin back at me, and Paris nods. “We were pretending it was water pouring on to the heads of the trick-or-treaters!”
Abruptly, a third blonde head appears in the window. Phoebe has clearly been awake for a while, for she has got herself up in an old-fashioned, blue-and-white-striped 1890’s-style boy’s bathing suit, a pink hat with bunny ears from Japan, and, so far as I can tell, is carrying at least two handbags.
“Phoebe!” everyone yells.
“I’m feeling better now,” she announces with a radiant smile. “I don’t have a sword throat any more.”
Just then, from inside, we hear the loud, charmless ding-dong of our freshly installed wireless doorbell. Yet the button is right in front of us, innocent and untouched. The children and I are exchanging apprehensive glances–”Could it be a ghost?” I can see them thinking–when I notice a woman walking away from the house next door.
After a year without any doorbell whatsoever, it turns out we now possess one that runs on the same frequency as the people next door. Sorry John Donne, but when we hear the ring, we will have to ask: For whom does this bell toll? For it may not toll for us.
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.