Watch with the sun in your eyes, a little girl of three. Four, maybe. Not quite a baby but not quite grown enough for the word to be inappropriate. Watch as she climbs with uncoordinated hands and legs up a slide, completely graceless, completely serene. She is unaware, and sweetly uncaring, of the impatient kids who queue up behind her. There’s a mini storm brewing behind her of children’s bursting, cyclic energy waiting to explode at the top where they let go, and plummet gleefully on the slide. There’s queue of scorn and good upbringing behind her, a temptation to push her aside, even over, maybe. A serpent of impatience and cruelty waiting just so that she is done with her slow turn on her hands and they can all have their quick thrill.
The girl climbs on, unaware what’s going on behind her, body bending to the demands of the ladder that she just cannot tame under her wayward hands and legs. Her face shows no fear, only a heartbreaking earnestness towards her task. She knows not that other children do it better than her. That those behind her are like her in size, shape, age and impatience. She knows not that she will not have their empathy. Her foot slips. There’s a barely-suppressed groan from behind her, as the serpent gets ready to strike with the venom of unkind words, the kind you find only in playgrounds of children. But she’s a star. She has not let that hurry her into climbing like it would an adult. She climbs only like she knows how. And suddenly, just when the snake-kids behind her are at snapping point, she is at the top. The sun is setting and you can’t see her face. Only the glorious silhouette she’s become, the gold of a setting sun tattooing its gentle fire all around her little form, trying to confine her in its soft-filter picturesqueness. Except the sunlight didn’t account for her hair; it’s a mess and plays with the breeze, collecting the sun’s fire from her outline and sending it away in waves from the top of her head, like a well-meaning baby Medusa of light.
She’s up there and because her face is hidden in the light, you can only imagine her smile, the gently raised cheekbones of her pure face the only clue. A smile that comes from anticipating that cold sweep to the earth, releasing every little fear and embarrassment she boldly hid in her heart. In that brilliant moment, she starts to sit down and the summer cotton of her frock billows all around her in a perfect umbrella. The breeze collaborates with her victory climb and the umbrella is a poster for all that is innocent about her. Despite it being there only for a second, because it is there only for a second before she sits down, and decides to claim fruit of her journey by taking a tiny, exciting ride down, down, down to the earth. She, as the axis of her one-second umbrella, too is innocence.
My grandmother, a woman of love, humour, music, bad teeth and temper lost most control of her arms and legs due to a particularly bad case of spondylosis. In time, she was confined to her bed and her room. She ate there, watched tv there, read books there. She saw visitors there. She ate her apple there. Drank her coffee there.
Her skin was smooth, like a tautly-stretched, moist balloon once it has burst. When she would eat something that needed to be picked up with her hands, I would watch her. Her hand made a slow, heavy, waving descent to the bowl she intended to pick up her piece of apple, or orange, maybe banana, from. When it touched the bowl, it would rest. A limb in thought. Her fingers with taut, smooth, honey skin would stretch like a scared little ET and try to pick up a piece of fruit. The sneaky old piece would shift just when she got a grip on it, leaving a minuscule pool of nectar in is place. Her hand would try again, lifting like a dumb giant and dropping back into the bowl. My grandmother had no will against this recalcitrant limb. The fruit would behave itself this time, recognising the limitations of the bowl it was in. Yet, elfin by nature, it would slip out again to hide between other pieces of fruit. Third time lucky. She would have the fruit between her exquisitely awkward fingers and the slow rise to her mouth would start. Sometimes, she won, some times the piece of fruit, finding its freedom in the folds of her starched upper cloth. The days she won, I watched her gnawing slowly, laboriously at her fruit and when she had a few satiating bites of it, she would turn to me a give me a big smile. I have never seen anything more innocent.
Sometimes you look into the mirror and all you see is everything you’ve become. The faces you put on for people, all you. Different parts of you. Even when you cry, it’s a face. One that you gaze at through your pain, despite your pain to look for aesthetics. Are you beautiful when you cry. Those days when you smile at your reflection and you can’t see anything right with it, those days you make faces like you were a child, tongue out, nostrils flared; indelicate, ugly and utterly free. Suddenly, one day, there’s no face to put on, no tears to wipe delicately, no bad teeth to look at you smile, no faces to make, and you’ve had enough sleep, you’ve eaten well and there’s nothing that happened the day whole day that has made it exciting. An absence of the mean, a presence of the cognisant. You are perfectly ordinary. And that does not make you sad. Look again in that mirror. Because, that too, is innocence.