Advah was perched on top of an old, half-rotten log, some distance away from the girls and I. A stray chicken or two scratched beneath her, but by and large she was alone. Just moments ago, I had watched her walk over to the stump, stopping to turn her gaze toward me for a moment. Her huge eyes locked in mine, just for a second, then she cast her head down and completed the three or four steps to the top of the weathered stump and sat down, her shoulders slumped in a posture of dejection.
I was making small talk with Jean Ellen, Francis’s grandmother, who was visiting for the week, as a veritable herd of chickens - now some forty strong - pecked at our feet. “Who needs a TV?” I said, primming up my feathers, “I could sit here for hours.” It’s true, but I was boasting. Four kids straggled in and out of the yard, collecting eggs, making a “chicken shop”, while hens, black gold, spotted, and white, dodged about our feet. Every now and then I interrupted my conversation with Jean Ellen to shout unnecessary remarks to the kids - “Pema! Ada! You can put the leaves in that basket over there!” - as if the whole affair were conducted under my direction. This was my domain. I’m the big bad Dada, and I had my feathers all in place.
“Shimmer Green!” Pema shouted, pointing excitedly as the new rooster, barely distinguishable from the hens of the same variety, darted between the cackling birds. An Australorp, whose all-black feathers fluoresce a magnificent green, he was a gift from a friend of a friend, who had given us all her chickens, essentially doubling our brood. I had had an apprehension about a rooster in our midst, as had others, but he had proven to be mild mannered. Once we got acquainted, Pema and I began to refer to him affectionately as Shimmer Green and the name stuck.
This was, after all, also Pema’s domain. She had been excited all week. It was Thursday, a day we would usually have spent with Silke and her outdoor kindergarten, but Silke was out of town on spring break, and we were hosting a few kids at our place for the day. Ada, a regular playmate of ours, was with us, and Francis, who is more like a little brother. But the real treat was Advah, whom Pema was nearly delirious with anticipation to host.
Advah and Pema are almost exactly the same age, Advah having been born eight days before Pema. Our families have orbited each other since early on, but somehow we never formed a nucleus of direct connection. Instead, Advah and Pema have always played in the context of larger groups, like Silke’s kindergarten, where the mingling is diverse. Advah’s mother had approached me a few weeks earlier. She would be out of town, she told me, during spring break, and her husband, the owner/operator of a restaurant in Taos, could not be with Advah all day. Could I take her Wednesday and Thursday? Pema and I saw it as a great opportunity to connect.
We had spent the previous day together, just Pema, Advah and I. Ruby, whom I had expected, stayed home recovering from the flu. Pema and I nursed colds, and a thick green mucous descended from Advah’s nose every so often. Everyone, it seemed, had been sick, and we made a joke of it. It was cold in the morning, so we spent the time riding bikes and the rocking horse in the Buffalo Room. At one point, I went to retrieve something from our bedroom and the girls followed me. As we passed through the sunroom, Advah gaped through the wide windows. Two enormous, strange looking birds sat but inches from our noses. I forget how shocking the turkeys are to fresh eyes. Kerim, hearing our chatter, came out of his room and said hello. He, as all my housemates, are used to me dragging several kids around, but Advah was new and he wanted to introduce himself.
“Do you like the turkeys?” Kerim asked, smiling widely to reveal the gap in his teeth. Advah nodded. “Want a feather?” Kerim reached into a large white bag filled with dozens of loose feathers he had collected from the yard. Advah smiled. “Take as many as you want,” he said, “Got any sisters? You can bring one for your mother, your father…” Kerim, one of the most bigoted and intransigent old men I’ve ever known, is also a big softy. He adores children, having raised two of his own. Like me, he had a hand in the upbringing of many children, many of whom visit him frequently now like old pals.
“What’s your name?” Kerim asked, “You like eggs?” He turned to retrieve a carton of eggs from his room, collected from the chickens out back. Advah turned silently to me. “This is Advah!” Pema shouted, pleased to make the introduction. “And that’s Kerim,” she added, as Kerim ducked through the short doorway and handed Advah a carton with half a dozen eggs, blue, cream and reddish-brown. “Here,” he said, “You can put your feathers here,” and he piled a whole handful on the empty side of the carton.
“Advah,” I said, “tell Kerim what your name means.” She looked at me and shook her head. She had told me once, weeks ago, while we sat in the forest together, and I was entranced. “You know when you throw a pebble in the water?” she had told me, under the cover of the trees. “Yeah,” I had answered. “And there are circles in the water?” she continued, inflecting her soft, innocent voice like a question, to make sure I understood. Evidently, she had rehearsed this story many times. “Yeah,” I answered. “Well, that’s my name - the circles in the water.” It took me a few seconds to grasp, and then my eyes brightened. “Wait,” I said, “Are you saying that your name means the ripples in the water?” She shook her head happily. It was so beautiful I could hardly stand it. Now, I retold the story to Kerim, as Advah looked on impatiently. Perhaps I was rushing things. We thanked Kerim for the feathers and the eggs, and moved on.
New Buffalo is a paradise for kids. It took an hour or so for Advah to sink in and realize that we were going to keep meeting new faces, but once we got our rhythm, we ran the gambit - the chickens, the mud pit, the greenhouse, the pond, the climbing tree, and, finally, back to the Buffalo Room. A circuit like that fills the entire day without even thinking about it. Plus, I had a secret weapon - cinnamon raisin bread, which I had baked fresh that morning. By the time Advah’s dad picked her up late that afternoon, we were solid buds.
But buds are not the same as mama’s and papa’s, and there had been a few times throughout the day, particularly trying to share that damn baby stroller, where we floundered. Advah respected me as an adult, and she was familiar with me from all the time we had spent together in kindergarten and elsewhere, but I was not, as yet, a comforting presence. When the going got tough, which, thankfully, was rare, she preferred to stick it out herself. She was not ready to be comforted by me, and I respected that boundary. We were just getting to know each other.
I had all this in mind as I continued to glance over Grandma’s shoulder in the chicken yard. Pema, directing the affair with blatant pride, was coordinating the movements of Ada and Francis, setting up shop, running under eaves and low hanging branches. She knew the routine. But Advah, who had been crawling on the ground and clucking only minutes ago, was now sitting idle on the stump, without even glancing in their direction. What had gone wrong?
Then I recalled, she had glanced at me. At the time, I thought it was just a general check in. I’m over here. You’re over there. That kind of thing. But, still chattering mindlessly with Francis’s grandmother, I was beginning to read more deeply into Advah’s body language and recognized there was more at play. I smiled an inward smile and set my teeth. She had glanced at me. Well, shucks.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said to Jean Ellen, surprised, as I turned to give her my regrets, to find myself already a few steps away. I walked casually, but pointedly towards Advah, my eyes scanning the periphery - chickens, Pema and Ada under the roof, Francis with a stick. I was on a mission.
Advah’s head hung between her shoulders, and her thick, curly hair shielded her face like a veil. As I walked up, she lifted her head slightly, revealing the whites of her eyes, and her pouting lips. She was ready to cry, which I hadn’t anticipated. But she was not in a place where it was comfortable to cry, and I could feel the stiffness even within her drooping frame.
“Hey Advah,” I said, easing my way into her and leaning on the stump. I wanted to get close, but I knew we weren’t ready for that, so I tried to make up for our lack of intimacy by slouching. I can go full-on slapstick if that’s helpful, but we weren’t there yet. We had to get real first.
Advah, I had already discovered, was used to being with adults in charge. When a grown-up comes sidling up to you in the playground with a casual, but determined look on his face, well, we all know what to expect. A conversation, a moral couched in a brief story, followed by an admonition to perk up. I was hoping she wouldn’t hold me to that. I wanted her to know that I was real, and that I cared about her. I do. But you have to earn that kind of trust and intimacy, and I hadn’t yet had enough time with her to do that, and we both knew it.
“So, what’s going on?” I asked, in a tone that I hoped conveyed my earnestness. She didn’t take the bait. Instead, she turned to look at me, and with slow, sad lips, said, “Well, they’re being mean.” She stared at me just long enough for me to observe the tiny flakes of dry skin on her lips, then looked down at her hands. Damn, a perfect performance. This was exactly the schoolyard conversation I had hoped to avoid. The whole word, mean, is a wild goose chase, a distraction from the truth. I knew Pema and Ada needed a little cajoling now and again to include Advah, but I’ve never known them to be mean. They were eager to play with Advah, and they had easily navigated similar hiccups earlier that morning. But whatever the words, the emotional content of Advah’s bearing was unmistakably real, and I hoped to lean into that gently, like movement into water. Like ripples, I guess. I moved to the other side of the stump and sat down.
“Tell me about it,” I said, watching Pema, Ada and Francis from my new vantage point. Advah and I were shielded by two small trees and several shrubs whose branches, though bare, nevertheless provided a sort of sanctuary. Beyond them, we could see Pema and Ada gathering leaves, attracting an army of chickens, who think everything a human drops might be food. It makes for an easy game.
“Well, we were playing and they wanted to play with Francis, and I…” she trailed off.
“Yeah?” I answered, encouraging her.
“Well I didn’t want to play with Francis, but they did, and…”
Damn. Francis. I knew this game too. Francis is only two and half. His parents, old friends of ours, moved into New Buffalo last fall, when he became more of a little brother than an occasional playmate. Ruby, who lives next door, is also sort of like a sister. All three kids, each an only-child by family, are now more or less siblings. Ada, too, is also familiar with this. By and large, I’m grateful for the diversity this brings, but as all parents know, siblings can be hellish sometimes.
Francis is a unique sort in our group, not just because of age, but because he’s the only boy in a world, for better or worse, of girls. Pema and Ruby, who had all of New Buffalo to themselves for so long, had a hard time adjusting to his presence in our lives and this erupts in conflict all the time.
Pema and Ada know that we have to navigate playtime with Francis too, and we are regularly discovering how to play together, and how to eat together, while giving each other space to be who we are. Advah, on the other hand, has an older sister and is more comfortable playing “up”, with children that are older than her, not younger. “My sister is mean to me,” Advah had told me the day before, quite casually, as if she were proud of it. “We fight all the time.” This is her language, a mature, if feigned cynicism, an example of her social milieu. Francis, though at times obnoxious, could hardly be described as mean.
All this was in the background as I sat listening to Advah. I ached for her, as I understood that she was not in her comfort zone, not even with me. I was used to our encounters in the forest and at the river, where her wide eyes would indicate her fascination with small mushrooms or tiny carpets of moss, whatever happened to be at hand. We had shared many moments like that, nestled under tree branches or sloshing through the wet snow, but we had never seen a nasty cut through, or navigated a painful argument. There was a distance I could not breach, and I didn’t know how to reach across that void.
“Pema! Ada!” I called, “Can you come here for a second?” They looked up, uncertain. “Please?!” I shouted. Putting down their buckets, they dutifully walked up, Francis ambling behind.
“Hey girls,” I said, resting my hand for the first time on Advah’s back, “I think Advah needs a little inviting…” Pema interrupted before I could finish, “We told her to play with us, but she doesn’t want to.”
“Well,” said Advah, “Francis…” and again Pema interrupted, unable to hear Advah out. “She doesn’t want to play with Francis, but I said it’s okay for him to play with us.”
That was true, by and large, exactly what I had told Pema countless times. But I was starting to clue in a bit. “So, Pema and Ada,” I asked, “Are you saying you want to play with Advah?”
“Yeah,” Pema said, matter-of-factly.
“Mm-hmm,” answered Ada.
“Advah, do you hear that?” I asked, “It sounds like they do want to play with you.”
“Yeah,” she answered, “but they want to play with Francis, and I don’t.”
Okay, now I was really getting it. Hoping for the best, I said “Well, do you want to come down and try to find a way to play together?” But Advah just wearily shook her head and looked away. Pema and Ada, happily playing, shrugged their shoulders and walked away, too involved in their game to care.
I rubbed Advah’s back. I now had the sense that the situation didn’t need to be resolved so much as acknowledged. I figured if I helped her say what was on her mind it would help move things along. After all, that’s what I need when I’m down. With the other kids now safely at a distance, behind our little shrubbery, we had our privacy again and maybe we’d just sit and be real for bit.
“You miss your mom?” I asked, trying to acknowledge that I understood I wasn’t all that comforting.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Sometimes,” Advah began, without any impulse from me, “little brothers make it hard for big sisters, because little babies need lots of attention.” I looked at her, and my whole body relaxed. It finally dawned on me. My gaze softened, and the folds of skin around my eyes receded. I wasn’t in pursuit anymore. I had landed. The back of my throat eased, and my voice became incrementally softer. I no longer slouched awkwardly, but folded my body into the stump as if we had never been apart. My hand on Advah’s back became real, not forced.
“I hear you’re going to have a little brother soon,” I said.
“Yeah, and sometimes it’s hard for big sisters too.”
I rubbed her back. I’m an awkward person, actually. I have none of the softness of a mama. I’m a dada through and through, all bones and gristle. But I care. “Advah?” I said, “Can you hang out for a moment? I’m going to go talk to Francis’s grandmother.” She nodded her head with consent, as if nothing mattered.
“I’m really sorry for asking this,” I told Jean Ellen, after running through a brief recounting of the scene. I felt awkward, because she and I were also relative strangers. “Normally, I’d prefer to work all this out with the kids, but this is just too complicated. Advah is too new to me, to New Buffalo, to Francis, everything. I think I need to steer the girls in another direction. Can you take Francis and engage him in another way?”
By the time I was back at the stump, Francis and Jean Ellen were making their way through the gate. “Francis and his Grandma are going to go to town in a little bit,” I told Advah, reaching my hand out for hers. “Do you want to come down and play with the girls?” But it would take more than a few minutes for Advah to release her emotions. She looked at me, her lips still quavering with that nearness to tears. Now that the trigger of her emotions was gone, she was no longer on guard. But I could see that the ripples were still trembling the surface.
“You miss your mom,” I said.