The seagulls were pecking at carrion and the children were playing with dead jellyfish. Sandy hunks of flesh hopped like mangled marionettes under the birds’ rapacious beaks. The four children in yellow slickers ran around their shiny new toys. The squeals of seagulls and children collided overhead in the chilly ocean winds. Together they hurled a cascade of shattering glass into the sea. With each wave, ebbing and flowing, roaring then whispering, the sea drowned out the glassy chorus. The seagulls skittered away when the foamy fingers of an especially large wave reached for them. The children yelped with cowering delight in a barrage of sea spray. One child especially, Peter McCleaver, had a musical laugh that rose above even above the bellowing sea.
A very tall, very thin man stalked into the circle of deliriously happy children.
“Peter, get away from those jellyfish,” Elton McCleaver commanded. “They’re dead but they can still sting you. They’re not toys. Let’s get back to the car. Mother’s waiting.”
“Sting?” five-year-old Peter said, jerking his head back and thrusting his tongue out in disgust. Disgust succumbed to mischief. “Play with us, daddy! It’s fun!”
“Peter, I would play, but these aren’t toys –”
“They’re … ‘dead’?” Peter said diffidently.
“Yes. Yes, Peter.”
“Dead? What does that mean, daddy?”
Peter’s older friends, arm in arm, formed a smirking three-headed yellow monster. Peter was naïve. He didn’t even know “about Santa,” or what girls “had,” or where babies “came from,” or, apparently, what “dead” meant. His slightly older friends, however, did know all this – and more.
Elton McCleaver was an intelligent man; a surgeon, in fact. He did not believe in talking at a child’s level. He talked like an adult to his son and expected him to respond like an adult. Despite his general frankness, though, Elton acted with an unwitting reticence toward his son about death. He wasn’t consciously shielding the boy. But as a surgeon he dealt with death so often that he unwittingly confined it to his professional, adult conversation.
“Yes, son. Dead,” Elton fumbled for words. “Like a – like a very long sleep,” he explained.
“Like sleep,” Peter repeated solemnly.
Behind them, the ocean roared with frothy derision.
* * *
Father and son were walking along the beach. The other children had run home. The gulls remained behind, pecking and skittering, skittering and pecking.
“Daddy,” Peter said, “I thought a game was for my jamination.”
“For your what?”
“For my, um, gimaniation.”
“You mean for your ‘i-ma-jih-nay-shun’.”
“Yeah! I was using my, um, i-magi-nation with those jellyfish. I was pretending they were alive. It was a game, daddy. I was a wizard and I was swooshing them up and making them dance. And they were singing to us, daddy,” Peter explained.
Elton looked at his son blankly. “Well that’s good, son. Like I say, use your imagination. That’s why I got you those wooden blocks instead of some other fancy electronic toy: so you can imagine. That’s the best fun,” Elton said.
“So, I can imagine this beach is a spaceship?”
“And we are two space fighters?
“I can imagine anything?”
“Well,” Elton hesitated, “I suppose you could imagine anything. There’s no limit, I suppose. The human animal is pretty amazing. Remember what I told you about the human spirit? Remember I said it’s the spark–”
“Yeah! You said it’s the thing in us that makes us laugh even when we’re sad! And it makes us smart to remember stuff,” Peter said. He shivered against the icy wind. The sky was bleak and heavy, like lead, and it pressed Peter into the soggy sand. Exhausted, Peter trudged beside his father.
“Correct,” Elton answered crisply. He gazed down at his small son, stumbling beside him. Elton’s paced soliloquizing was a tender contrivance for his son’s sake: it was the sort of talk boys needed. Conversation among his peers, however, was as sterilized as a new scalpel from words like “spirit” and “imagination.” But now he saw his son’s tiny frame and thought desperately of his tiny spirit. He blinked back tears over a faint smile. His hands tingled. Suddenly he hoisted his son by the armpits and began tickling him. Peter tensed with alarm. “Daddy?” he thought.
“So, when you paint or laugh or even when you play with jellyfish, Mr. Jelly Belly Spacefighter,” Elton said, chuckling as his son writhed in blind rapture, “that’s your spirit.” This rare giddiness surprised them both.
“Is this my daddy?” Peter wondered.
“Is this me?” Elton asked himself.
By unveiling his own boyish spirit, by ceasing to be an professional adult for these few unstitched moments, Elton McCleaver gave his son a divine power: the human spirit afoot. Laughing wildly, Peter no longer felt the wind or the sodden sky. This moment, and his father’s indelible lesson in joy, became his North Star. Spirit, imagination, love – these had transformed the wooden blocks of a murky beach and a contrived conversation into eternal delights. Peter felt warm and clear-sighted. Peter felt older, more alive. His spirit was afoot.
* * *
Peter, now seven, was running across his backyard one day to retrieve his prodigal basketball. He bent down and noticed a small white lump at the base of a tree. He approached the lump. It was a mouse – a dead mouse. Peter frowned. Poor mouse, he thought. Peter nudged it with his shoe, but it was stiff and still as before.
“Like a very long sleep....”
Peter grinned. The North Star twinkled inside him and his hands tingled.
He saw the mouse hop up from his earthen bed, yawn dramatically, put on his thimble hat and peanut-shell shoes, grab his matchbox suitcase, and dart away into the bushes, chattering a silly melody.
“Dream mouse dreams tonight, Mr. Mouse,” Peter whispered.
* * *
A year later, as he and his mother, Debby, waited for the ambulance, Peter stared at his father’s faintly blue lips and eyelids. “Blue means cold, son,” he remembered his father had explained to him. (What else did he say about blue? What was the rest of it again?)
Blue means cold. So Peter ran to the hall for a blanket to warm his father. He trembled, trying to walk evenly, trying to forget how his daddy had grunted and grabbed his chest and then fall down the stairs like a tree.
Debby McCleaver was kneeling beside her husband emitting long, squeaky sobs. Peter returned. But as he tried covering his father, his mother snatched the blanket from him.
“He doesn’t need a blanket, Peter,” she said.
“But he’s cold, mommy,” he answered.
“No, Peter, he’s not cold. He’s …”
“Sleeeeeeping!” Peter shouted maniacally. He flung his arms above him, as if warding off a vulture. “He’s just sleeping, mommy! Like a bear! Sleeping, like daddy told me.”
“No! He’s … he’s dead, Peter.”
Peter blinked. He remembered jellyfish and musical wizardry. He remembered the mouse and his silly tune.
“It’s the spark in us that makes us laugh even when we’re sad….”
The North Star sank into endless darkness. Peter felt an enormous bubble, as old as he was, burst inside his chest. In grunting and falling, Elton McCleaver had punctured the bubble. He could not re-inflate it, however, because he was cold.
“Blue means cold, son,” Peter recalled his father’s words, “and cold means dead.”
* * *
Decades wandered away, and so did the people who filled them. Peter McCleaver now lived alone, retired from a rewarding career as a surgeon. The North Star had eventually returned from the depths – about the same time Peter let his dad “die” and not just “sleep forever.” Peter’s wit stayed as sharp as a scalpel, and his imagination never stopped beating.
But one day his heart did.
Peter was buried with all due sobriety in the same lot as his father and mother had been, and as his children would be. The duly sober mourners had disappeared with the sun. Their gloom lingered. The woods were dark and quiet. Crows perched disconsolately, nibbling on withered figs. There was no music. There seemed to be no joy, for joy springs forth only in the eyes of a person. How Peter had strained his eyes to see joy in all things! But now he, the jolly stargazer, lay with cold sunken eyes.
Yet –! Yet now joy gazed down at Peter. A sudden rude breeze scattered the crows into the night like chaff. Joy grinned at Peter and then burst forth into a silent, unending hymn. There was music yet! Though Peter’s ears did not hear, and though his hands did not tingle, yet joy sang its endless song of love. The forest trembled with delight; the moon set the silent symphony aglow; the air hummed. And the conductor, as unseen and as real as the night, beamed with endless delight.