“Kol, come on,” I said, a little frustrated, “can you please put on your shoes?” We were sitting in the entryway at Silke’s, just the two of us, while Agnes, Sully and Silke stacked wood outside. Kol had come inside to pee, and, it having taken a long time, I had come inside to find her dawdling on the stairs. “Here,” I said, grabbing her left shoe from her right hand, “it goes over here.” It had been like this all afternoon. She turned to me with a pained expression, choking back tears.
“Oh, goodness, Kol,” I said, softening a bit, “what’s going on?” I dropped the shoe. She whimpered as a few tears welled in her eyes, not daring to speak. I smiled hopefully and relaxed my shoulders. “Do you just want to go home?” I asked. She shook her head between stifled sobs. “Okay,” I said, shrugging, strategizing. I wonder if could borrow Silke’s car. Kol had been rude to Sully on the long walk up, then refused to eat dinner. Afterward, when we went outside to stack wood, she lingered alone while Agnes and Sully played. Fact is, she had been crotchety the whole afternoon, and I was getting tired of it.
I picked the shoe back up. Then, for whatever reason, fortune touched my heart. I had an idea. “Kol, what were you doing on the stairs?” I asked.
There was a time when Kol and I saw each other almost every day. She was, in many ways, Agnes’s first regular playmate. Having just moved to New Buffalo, the small community in which we now live, I was a young father with a failed marriage and a part-time job. Agnes was three years old. “Sol has a little girl,” one of my new housemates told me on the second day, “they live next door.” Like me, Sol was also a single father, and, like me, he still got along with his ex. Kol was two.
Within a few weeks, Agnes and Kol were fast friends. It was a formative time for all three of us. The girls still shuttled back and forth from their mothers, but we quickly fell into a rhythm at New Buffalo. Since I only worked part-time, I had one hard and fast rule – I did all my work and chores when I was alone. When Agnes was with me, we just played and explored. And it worked. The three of us discovered all sorts of things at New Buffalo and the surrounding Hondo Valley. We walked to rivers, climbed trees, and played with Sol’s goats. It was great, and Agnes, Kol and I named most of the places that are now mildly famous amongst our friends and playmates: the pond, the mud pit, the horse skeleton, the climbing tree, the chicken shop, and more. It could hardly have been a more idyllic time.
Then things changed. Sully moved in a year and a half ago, when Agnes was four, Kol was three, and he was two. We had always had friends visiting, but now we had what amounted to another sibling…and a boy. Agnes navigated that transition fairly well, but like any youngest child Kol begrudged the presence of Sully with an attitude bordering on cruelty. But in time, the three of them found their groove, and Sully and Kol even fell to playing when Agnes was not around.
Then school started in earnest. Agnes began kindergarten. I quit my part-time job and became a full-time kindergarten teacher. Francis joined an affiliated preschool. Good friends since before our children were born, Sully’s parents and I now not only lived together, but shared a lot of the same values and intentions for our kids. Then Allison, my ex-wife and Agnes’s mother, moved in with us at New Buffalo, along with another teacher and friend.
At the same time, Kol’s mother, who lives in town, met another man and enrolled in college. The campus offers affordable childcare for full-time students. Who could resist? So, since last fall, Kol has been with her mother five days a week and only at New Buffalo, that is, her Dad’s earthen hut next door, on weekends.
But now we were at Silke’s house. How could I have forgotten? As a full-time kindergarten teacher, with a fledgling blog and intimations of vast publishing fortunes, amid plans to create a first-grade class in the fall of next year, I had entirely forgotten that, last year, I brought Kol and Agnes once a week to Silke’s outdoor kindergarten. It was our Wednesday, the two girls exploring creeks and dry canyons while the older kids jumped from boulders and, at least at first, intimidated me with their energetic romps. What were these five- and six-year-olds? Bionic?
By midyear, Agnes had turned five and began to follow the older kids, not only physically, but psychologically. She was keen on the social dynamics, if not always a player. But Kol, who wouldn’t turn four till summer, was still a toddler. She and Agnes played well at home, but at school Kol mostly dawdled along with me, or by herself. Strong-willed and fiercely independent, she never had a hard time finding her way.
And so it was that afternoon too, at Silke’s, Kol falling behind on our walk, or running too far ahead, yelling at Sully. She never heeds me, I thought, both annoyed and mildly pleased. She refused to eat dinner once we arrived, a trend I have become accustomed to. She used to delight in my fresh apples, baked bread and roasted peanuts. Now, whenever I put a plate of food in front of her, she stirs it uncomfortably and says, “I’ll eat when I get to my dad’s.”
But it wasn’t until we went outside to stack wood, Agnes and Sully running to the little schoolhouse to get dolls, that I saw how lost she was. “When was the last time you were at Silke’s, Kol?” I had asked her on the way up the gravel drive when we had first arrived. “Oh, I don’t know,” she answered. “Yeah, me either,” I replied. “We did a lot of things during Christmas…” then I trailed off, recalling those fond memories, Agnes and Sully cutting the Christmas tree, making ornaments, hanging stockings, opening presents…but I couldn’t picture Kol in any of it. Where was she? “Well, I went to Arizona with my mom and her friend,” Kol offered, shrugging it off.
As I stacked wood with Silke, I kept hoping Kol would fall in with Agnes and Sully, or us, but I could see that she preferred to linger by herself. She kept crawling under the bushes. Suddenly, after I set a particularly heavy log on the pile, I turned and found her right next to me. “I have to pee!” Kol said, with clasped hands and mild urgency. “By all means, pee,” I said, waving my arm to indicate the vast acres of bathroom available to one and all on the mighty Hondo Mesa. “No, I can’t pee outside,” Kol said. I squinted my face in disbelief, then recalled our months of practice.
Peeing, even pooping, outside is such a natural and normal part of our days that I almost forget all the trials and tribulations with Kol. At first, more than two years ago, there was no resistance, but I had to hold her as she leaned back comically, as if she were in a lounge chair. Agnes would giggle, and say “What are you doing, Kol?” Agnes, having hardly worn diapers at all, was a natural squatter. I cannot recall a single accident after she turned two. So, you can imagine how annoying I am with other parents. In many ways, Kol leads a more rustic life than our own, but for some reason peeing outside is not in her repertoire. I spent months, years, working on this with her, hoisting, holding, tipping, falling, often sharing a clean pair of Agnes’s pants, wiping my hands on my own. All to no avail, and soon, as she turned three, then four, it became more of a psychological issue than a physical one. I gave up. Besides, as a male, I have a distinctly different set of mechanics, so how was I to know?
“Okay,” I said to Kol, “run inside. You know where the bathroom is.” She turned and took off towards the door. I looked to Silke, who was setting aside large pieces of wood to be split. “There’s part of me that misses her, you know…” and I trailed off. Silke looked at me with knowing eyes. How many children must have come and gone in her life after more than thirty years of kindergarten? “She was the first child, really,” I said, “…after Agnes. Now I see her on weekends here and there.”
Agnes and Sully, having set their dolls down for a nap, walked out from behind the gate. “Here,” I said to Agnes, holding out a giant log, “can you bring this over to Silke?” She carried it dutifully in both hands, proclaiming, “Sully, it’s so heavy!” Then Sully picked up a log, declaring it, “the heaviest one-hundred.”
We piled and sorted for a little while, till, looking up, I asked, “Where’s Kol?”
“Oh, she went inside to pee,” Agnes said.
“Yeah, I know,” I answered, “but it’s been a while. Will you go in and check on her?” Agnes ran off. Sully followed. A minute later, the two came back out the door. “Kol’s not anywhere, Dad,” Agnes said, shaking her head.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “Did you look in the bathroom?”
“Yes. She’s not in there. She’s not anywhere.”
“Alright,” I said, dropping a log on the pile with a wooden clonk, “I’ll check on her. You guys see if you can get these logs onto the roof.” Francis looked at me blankly for half a second as I walked by. Then I heard him sputter and shout, “no…!” I love these kids.
There was a moment in the entryway when I almost ruined everything. I could see that Kol was sad – she had been clunking along all afternoon – and though I longed to be a source of comfort for her, I guessed that maybe she needed her Dad, someone who didn’t serve lentil soup or give a damn about where she peed. I understood. “Do you just want to go home?” I asked. Between tearful expressions, she shook her head yes. “Okay, okay…” I said softly.
Then, for whatever reason, I recalled Kol, only moments ago, when I had first walked inside. She had been lingering on the stairs. That’s why Agnes and Sully didn’t find her, I had thought, she must have gone all the way upstairs. “Kol,” I had said in a scolding tone, “you know it’s not okay to wander in Silke’s house alone. You need to come outside with us. Or you need to ask.” She didn’t answer, but she did come down. And I had left it at that, assuming she was just curious. Silke’s house is, after all, a sort of fairy tale.
But now, softened by Kol’s tears, I spoke in a gentler voice, one of curiosity not reprimand. “Kol,” I asked, “what were you doing on the stairs?”
Her face twisted into a tortured expression. Tears came freely. “I just…wanted…to see the nap room…” she said, choking on the words. Oh, Kol, I thought, and my heart melted. The nap room. Of course. How could I be so callous?
I had been so focused on our day, our walk, our dinner, our tasks, that I entirely missed how reminiscent this visit was for Kol. It had probably been at least a month, maybe two, since she had even been here. Sully and Agnes visit Silke all the time, not just for play, but for school, whereas Kol now attends a very different school on the opposite side of town. But of course she would remember the house, the backyard, the chickens, Silke and, duh, school. In deep winter last year, amidst snow and freezing temperatures, on our Wednesday visits with Agnes, Kol, like all the children, would have occasionally been invited to take her boots and snowsuit off, climbing first one, then a second set of stairs to Silke’s third floor loft.
With wooden planks and dim windows, Silke’s loft has the look and feel of an old weathered boat. There is even a round port window in the western wall, a relic from an old wooden ship. Midwinter, after lunch at school, we often told beautiful stories here, and read fairytales while the children rested. The nap room. Of course Kol would remember. And me, the hurried father with lentil soup and logs to stack.
“Oh, Kol,” I said, my throat softening with compassion. Her eyes met mine, and she looked, just glanced, wondering if I would notice, if I would really care. But I did notice, and I did care. Seconds ago, I was about to march her back home to her dad, but now, due to some stroke of luck, I saw what had been lingering in her the whole afternoon. The nap room. “Okay,” I said, already strategizing, “what if we go outside and finish stacking the wood. It’s almost dark. I’ll ask Silke if we can go upstairs afterward and read a few books, maybe tell a story. Would that be nice?” I smiled. She shook her head, and I watched as the muscles softened around her eyes. I could almost feel the back of her throat relax.