A recently-divorced father experiences the isolation and stress of single parenting when his young daughter develops a rash in a short story by Belgian author Lize Spit.
Peter doesn’t buy everything on the list. Checking off the groceries among the packed supermarket shelves, all he can picture is his daughter at home by herself: curled up on top of the duvet, nightshirt on backward. As he was leaving, it seemed somehow dangerous to wake her from this peaceful, perfect position but now, with a display cabinet of chicken wings staring him in the face, all he can think of is her pointed shoulder blades peeping out of her V-neck. He decides to get a move on.
It’s still dark as he drives out of the supermarket parking lot. The shopping bag on the passenger seat beside him contains a loaf of bread, a pack of dog biscuits, two boxes of Quaker Oats, a punnet of raspberries, and two quick-n-easy chicken breasts. The stretch of road from the small-town shopping center to his home is almost one long straight line. There’s not a car in sight all the way to the horizon, where the landscape dips and rises and the road becomes a promise.
That’s exactly why Peter likes living here. The next-door neighbors are three hundred yards up the road and keep themselves to themselves. Peter knows they collect the Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom but only because Part 9: From Okapi to Parakeet wound up in his mailbox by mistake a few months ago. He had gone round to deliver it.
The closer he gets to home, the faster Peter drives.
Thirty yards from his own driveway, he hears a dull thud. The car swerves and screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. He sits there for a second or two, listening to the beep that tells him there’s something too close to his bumper. Through the leaves on the roadside trees, he can see his kitchen. The light in the cooker hood is still on.
How often has he stood here in the dark of the evening, watching his daughter move through the lit-up house? It was from this distance he first saw how Lena ran with her arms slightly out to the side, as if her shoulders were having trouble keeping up. Had they always been that way? he had wondered. In any case, he had only noticed since the divorce.
Peter gets out of the car. The neighbors’ lights are already on, glaring in the distant dark.
The car’s indicators shine on the road’s surface, making a deserted dance floor of the tarmac. Nikita is lying between two reflective white stripes, slap bang in the middle. The longer Peter looks, the less he sees the symmetry.
Peter hadn’t exactly wanted the dog. It was more a matter of not daring to say no. A little while after he had delivered the wayward encyclopedia to its rightful owner, his neighbor’s wife had come striding down the stretch of road with the air of someone determined to make a change. She was pulling a cheery bundle on a leash.
“This little guy could do with some company,” she said to Lena.
The Labrador wagged its tail and licked Lena’s ear. The neighbor’s wife went down on one knee, looked Peter’s daughter in the eye, and dried her ear with her sleeve. “It’s a boy. How about we call him something beginning with N? Nero? Or how does Nelson grab you?”
When the neighbor’s wife had slung the leash over her shoulder and marched back up the road alone till she and the tarmac were swallowed by the valley, Lena decided it wasn’t a boy at all. There was only one name for her new dog and that was Nikita.
This marshy ground by the stream was the exact spot where Peter sometimes let the dog out if the evenings were too cold or if he wasn’t feeling up to a proper ramble. He would watch as the dog flattened its ears to its head and did its business. A different ritual from Peter’s own; Nikita squatted deep to pee and kept a safer distance from the ground when producing a turd.
But now, looking at the dog’s insides, he and the animal seem all too similar: both red, both wet.
Peter takes hold of the collar and drags the carcass over to the side of road.
He shoves it down the steep bank and it tumbles into the dark stream below. He waits for a sound, a sign that the animal has hit the bottom, but there is no splash, no splat; there is only quiet.
On the road all that remains is a puddle of blood. Peter roots around in the bag of groceries on the passenger seat and grabs the family pack of porridge oats. In the beam of the headlights, he reads the serving instructions and tries to calculate the amount of blood. Six tablespoons of Quaker Oats to one cup of warm milk. Half a box should do it.
After the divorce, Peter had bought this high counter and two bar stools instead of a kitchen table. A kitchen island caters to the needs of the modern family, the salesman had said. The picture in the brochure he slid across the counter towards Peter was of a father and daughter. But ever since the arrival of the bright-green island—and especially in her roomy nightshirt and with the pink lumps covering her skinny legs—Lena has looked like a little girl who used to be bigger and happier.
Peter picks up the half-empty packet of porridge oats. This time he follows the serving instructions to the letter. He dishes up the porridge as shown on the box: two china bowls, filled to within a thumb’s width of the brim and topped by a raspberry that appears to have fallen from on high and had a happy landing.
The more the oats swell, the more they start to look like sawdust shoveled over a pool of sick.
Lena presses the back of her spoon into the slurry, trying to salvage a spoonful of milk. Peter gets to his feet and goes in search of the loaf.
“Why’s it called porridge anyway?” Lena asks.
It’s her age. Not just her age but the conviction of a dad who likes to put everything down to his daughter’s age and who seeks reassurance on an Internet forum for single moms. Lovemummy1 is always quickest to reply. Asking “why” all the time is completely normal, she said a while back in response to his question about Lena asking so many questions. My little boy is in that phase now too. And just you wait: there’ll come a time when “because” won’t cut it anymore. AND THEN YOU’RE REALLY IN TROUBLE!!!!!
Lovemummy1 sometimes writes entire sentences in caps lock, ending in a flurry of exclamation marks and ones. Just the type of thing that gets on Peter’s nerves, yet coming from her, it seems cheerful, almost brave. It makes her contradictory opinions seem somehow indispensable.
In a thread about breakfast cereal a few weeks ago, Lovemummy1 had taken a tough line on Honey Pops, insisting you might as well feed your kids pure honey. Porridge, on the other hand, would be digested far more slowly. Peter emptied every box of Honey Pops they had into the bin. He noticed a difference the very next morning: Lena’s urine smelled less sweet. Lovemummy1 was to be trusted.
Lena is wearing the nightshirt they bought yesterday. On the night he arrived home from the supermarket, Peter had acted as if nothing had happened. He had said the dog was off playing somewhere and promised his daughter a present; her choice, whatever she wanted. A cornetto wasn’t going to cover it. The shop Lena insisted on going into specialized in motorcycle accessories and T-shirts with printed slogans.
She stood for a while looking at a black T-shirt with white letters on the back. If you can read this, the bitch fell off. She wanted to know what it said. Peter stood there fumbling for a kinder way to say “bitch.”
“It means if you can read this, you don’t need glasses.” The woman behind the counter came to his rescue. Small breasts like Lena’s mother’s, beneath a clinging T-shirt with a Jack Russell on the front. “I want the T-shirt the lady is wearing. The one with the dog,” Lena said. This struck Peter as a good and a bad sign.
Lena wanted to try on the T-shirt in the changing room. Even the smallest size hung off her like a nightie. It was there, in the neon light, that Peter first noticed the rash on her legs. Small pinkish bumps, dimpled on top.
Lovemummy1’s response to this question popped up within a matter of minutes. TRY CHANGING YOUR WASHING POWDER. IF IT GETS ANY WORSE, GO TO THE DOCTOR!!!
With the point of his knife, Peter lances a cherry that’s floating in the jam. It’s quicker to make Lena’s sandwiches himself. When he folds the bread in half, a thick bump appears. He slides the knife into the fold, spears the cherry again and pops it in his mouth.
Countless forum moms are bound to have an opinion on dipping your knife in the jam after you’ve licked it. Peter screws the lid on the jar.
“Why is a jam jar round?” Lena asks.
She only asks questions about things she can touch or what she sees on television. Why are oranges orange? Why does a penguin have wings if it can’t fly? Why does Daddy have hair on his legs?
If she can’t see it, if it isn’t in the room, it doesn’t exist.
Had it been that way before Peter had vacuumed up every stray hair tie after Lena’s mother left? Was he taking advantage by simply removing the unopened pack of dog biscuits from the kitchen?
Lovemummy1 had done her best to reassure Peter: children stop asking questions when they learn to wipe their bottoms.
Lena had already given that a go. It ended up being more smearing than wiping: on the toilet seat, up the small of her back, over the walls. Peter didn’t know what he dreaded most: cleaning up the mess or explaining why things hadn’t worked out with her mother.
It’s day two of the rash. They are going to eat mince and potatoes, at Lena’s request. It’s Lena’s mother’s recipe. Peter peels the carrots and spuds but substitutes quick-n-easy chicken for the mince. Just for the sake of changing something.
Lena’s chin almost touches the brim of the bowl as she slurps up the gravy. The meat makes it taste slightly sour. In silence, Peter looks at the bumps that seem to crawl out from under the neck of Lena’s sweater. It’s as if they’re up to something, the kind of quiet conspiracy in which insects specialize. He gets to his feet and lifts up her sweater. Dozens of little warts seem to be marching up and down her back and on down between her buttocks.
Peter is no expert on the animal kingdom, but he remembers reading an encyclopedia entry on ants, how they steadily demolish a loaf, crumb by crumb.
He lifts Lena from the stool, finds her a coat, and drives her over to Dr. Bossuit.
The warts turn out to be something you don’t see every day. This almost sounds like a good thing. Water warts, Dr. Bossuit explains. Not a condition you can leave to clear up all by itself. He prints his instructions on the prescription in block capitals and sends Peter off to buy an anesthetic cream. He tells him to apply it to Lena’s skin and bring her back before the doctor’s office closes so that the warts can be removed.
In the car on the way to the chemist’s, Lena looks at her father’s glasses.
“Why don’t I have glasses?”
“Because you don’t need them.”
“How do you know I don’t need them?”
It is nearly closing time when they arrive at the chemist’s. They are the only customers in the shop.
“Apply thickly and rub it in well,” the sales assistant advises.
“All over?” Peter asks.
“External use only, sir. And go easy on her arms and thighs. You need to leave it for half an hour.”
Lena is standing next to the counter. She tries on one pair of reading glasses, then another, acting as if the world has suddenly swum into focus. Seventeen euros later, they are on their way home with the glasses and the cream.
Within thirty minutes, Lena is standing in the living room, glasses perched on her nose. The knickers she is wearing are too small and dig into her puppy fat. Her short legs and the glasses remind Peter of Brainy Smurf, except the cream has turned her grayish white, not blue. He takes off her knickers.
The cream gets everywhere, even up between her legs. It takes a mother to soothe this kind of crying.
He sits Lena in the bath and directs a stream of water between her legs, not too warm, not too strong. In the meantime he grabs his mobile and calls the chemist’s. No answer.
ONCE THE CREAM’S ON, WRAP HER IN PLASTIC WRAP SO IT WON’T RUB OFF AND END UP ALL OVER HER NIGHTIE!!11!1 writes Lovemummy1 on the forum, three seconds after Peter’s post.
Peter presses a handkerchief between Lena’s legs. He has no idea if it’s helping but at least it’s not making the crying any worse.
Now it’s just a matter of remembering where he keeps the plastic wrap, the expensive kind you can use in the microwave. Under a layer or two of this stuff, Lena’s skin will have to absorb the cream completely and succumb to numbness.
Soon Lena is wrapped from head to toe and sitting on one of the kitchen stools watching a cartoon. Tom and Jerry are tearing frantically across the screen. Jerry flattens Tom with a steamroller and then inflates him by blowing through a straw; the mouse keeps blowing till the cat starts to float like a balloon.
Lena giggles and the plastic wrap tightens around her chest.
The doctor is able to see them an hour later. It’s already dark when he shuts the door to his office behind them and turns the key in the lock.
He asks Lena to undress behind the screen and she comes toddling out half-naked. The cream shows through the clear layer of plastic wrapped around her body; it has mixed with her sweat and turned runny.
The contours of Lena’s shoulders are sharp, solid and square. Peter is impressed; these are shoulders that will stand her in good stead.
She climbs onto the table. The doctor feels for the loose edge of the plastic and slowly unwraps Lena like a squidgy cheese portion. Grease stains speckle his shirt.
The little knife he removes from his drawer is disguised as a sharp-edged spoon. The doctor asks Lena about her toys. She answers very politely, and lies still.
No, she doesn’t like dinosaurs.
Yes, she likes riding her bike.
The heads of the warts are steadily scraped away. Peter can hear it in Lena’s voice each time the mush is squeezed from a pustule.
Dr. Bossuit’s reading glasses are perched at the end of his nose. His eyes switch between the scraping and the emptying of the spoon into a disposable sick bowl. Peter can’t bring himself to peer over the cardboard rim.
The conversation between Dr. Bossuit and Lena lasts half an hour. For every answer there’s a pink pockmark in her skin.
Before they leave the doctor’s office, Lena gets to pick a treat from one of two glass bowls for being a brave girl and not crying. She can choose between a Long John fruity chew and a little toy car.
Crybabies probably get both. A lesson she has yet to learn.
At home, Peter runs a bath and pours in some Dettol to disinfect her wounds. He puts in too much, just as he allows her to dollop too much ketchup on her plate so she can’t taste her vegetables.
The milky cloud stings in every indentation. As she settles into the pain, the second half of the strawberry-flavored Long John is ready and waiting on the edge of the bath, still in its wrapper.
The warts stay put. After five more sessions, Peter is told to forget the cream and the plastic wrap. A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson hangs on the wall of the doctor’s office alongside a picture that doesn’t seem to be of anything much at all. I have a fear that I cannot say. There are twenty lines in the poem but Peter keeps returning to that one sentence. The more he reads it, the more he sees what he has lost.
Lena is sitting at a little table in front of him, working away with colored pencils. She never draws at home. Her small body is hunched over the paper so that Peter can’t see what she is drawing. Four firm strokes of her arm—that could mean four legs or two pairs of two.
In spite of all the scraping, her warts are no better. Little bumps have appeared on her eyelids and there are other bumps that hurt when she pees.
“It’s time we changed tack,” says Dr. Bossuit while they are still out in the hall. He estimates the number of warts at sixty. Three sessions should do it.
He tells Lena she can call him Raymond.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because,” Raymond answers.
In his office, the doctor lets Lena in on his secret. “Freezing doesn’t hurt at all. I’ll tap you with this magic wand. The tip is so very cold that in two weeks your warts will drop off all by themselves.”
To set a good example, Peter lets the doctor freeze an old wart on his thumb.
“Have you and Daddy ever made a snowman together?” Dr. Bossuit asks as he lays out his instruments.
Peter looks at Lena, wondering if she remembers. Last winter when the family was still whole and Lena could only just walk. Peter and his wife tried to roll the head to the far end of the white garden where the snowman’s body was ready and waiting. When Peter lifted the big ball of snow, it broke in two. The headless body stood in the garden for the rest of the week. Strangely enough, the fighting stopped till the thaw set in.
She was gone with the first of the spring sunshine.
“Remember?” Peter asks.
Peter holds out his hand and Dr. Bossuit presses the magic wand against his skin. He expects to feel the numbing chill of a harsh winter, but it burns as if someone has stubbed out a cigarette on his thumb. He clenches his teeth. Lena looks away at the two jars on top of the cabinet. Long Johns on the left. Cars on the right.
“Can I ask a question, Daddy?”
Peter nods. Here it comes. What happened that winter? He squeezes her shoulder with his free hand.
“How long is a Short John?”
Dr. Bossuit places compresses at the ready, dips the wand back into the cooler, and turns to Lena. It’s time for her to climb onto the table.
“I bet you like playing in the snow too, eh Lena?”
Lena nods. Dr. Bossuit gently forces her body down on the table and places one arm on top of her.
“And you like watching cartoons?”
Lena’s body tenses as she tries to get up but the doctor’s arm is stronger. She shakes her head. No.
“And what about pets? Do you have a pet?”
The doctor presses the ice-cold tip against her skin. It stinks of decay before it has even touched her.
“Vershoudfolie” © Lize Spit. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by David Doherty. All rights reserved.