The thing about Leo Whittaker is that although he was not liked, he was not unlikable, as some children certainly are. Grown-ups, especially teachers, won’t always acknowledge this, and I don’t particularly care to acknowledge it myself, truth be told. But it’s a fact—some children are simply foul. Not Leo, though. Not at all. Leo was just a bird-boned slip of a boy with blue veins pressing through his clear skin like a curvilinear map of rivers. He was a placid child who committed none of the usual offenses that tend to mark first-graders. He neither picked his nose nor pushed and shoved the girls nor licked the bottom of his shoes nor tugged at his penis absentmindedly throughout the school day. And even for a first-grade boy, Leo wasn’t the slightest bit dirty or smelly—although, to be fair, none of our students at Rolling Meadow Waldorf School were dirty or smelly. They were too well-heeled for that. Some of our families did reject chemical deodorants—so inevitably those children would ripen by sixth or seventh grade. But I digress.
If anything, I found Leo more charming and likable than most seven-year-olds, what with that sweet, clear diction of his, those dark raisin eyes, that uniform of green corduroy pants (green “for grass” and corduroy “for the extra nice feeling of it”) and bright argyle sweaters. I admired his tidy lunches of almond butter on sourdough, dehydrated pineapple wrapped in waxed paper, and glass jars of sauerkraut (homemade—his mother also fermented her own sourdough starter, yogurt, and kombucha). Speaking of fermentation, Leo shared his mother’s knowledge of the art and science of it, on which he sometimes expounded. “In Latin, ferment means to leaven,” he told me early on that September. “That word is old-fashioned,” he explained. “It means to wake up. Or turn something into something else.”
Leo was an advanced reader in first grade, which set him apart, because we didn’t formally teach reading at Rolling Meadow until second grade or even third. We felt it was better overall not to pressure children too soon with abstract academics. But Leo already had the key to the kingdom, and was often absorbed in one of those Eyewitness Books about Egypt or wild animals or what have you. And then there was his fascination with our dolls, those sweet flannel things stuffed with clean wool with their round heads sewn perfectly smooth and faceless—all the better for imagining—and framed by silky, close-cropped hair. “Dolls are for Little House,” the other boys often chided Leo. And it was true: in our school, dolls did belong primarily to the Little House—that’s what we called the low, asymmetrical nursery school building on the east side of our grounds. The Big House, a two-story brick building across the field, held classes one through eight, or—as we all said simply—“the grades.” The Big and Little Houses were separated by a hundred yards at most, but Humboldt’s cosmos may just as well have lain between us as far as the children were concerned. After all, the Little House was for making porridge and playing house and napping on cots in the afternoon, a soft babyish place filled with soft babyish toys, while the Big House was for real school, a place of wooden desks and chalkboards and days filled with numbers and letters and lesson books. The only real remnants of the Little House in our first-grade classroom were those three special dolls hand sewn and ferried over in Moses baskets by the Little House teachers on the first day of school—as a blessing. As I have said, Leo found them enchanting.
But neither his love of the dolls nor any of his other habits made Leo unlikeable—not even his kraut, despite the smell. (Foster Cross loved sardines; Maisie Bishop ate Vegemite with crackers; and Jeong Malloy, whose American parents had adopted her from Korea and were intent on raising her in what they considered a culturally sensitive manner, brought kimchi at least twice a week.) No, the kraut was not the problem. The problem was that Leo—I don’t know how else to put this—was simply different. And children are not typically keen on difference, especially when they don’t have a word or a label for it, which was the case with Leo. You see, at Rolling Meadow, we frowned on labels. We believed children should unfurl like ferns—organically, according to their own timetables, no hothousing. All would work out as long as the child wasn’t forced to bloom on a schedule.
And we were right about this in many ways. But not all.
* * *
In defense of Leo’s classmates, I should point out that Leo shared virtually none of their interests or passions. To their beloved handclapping games—Miss Mary Mack and Say, Say Oh Playmate—he would shudder and pull away. “I don’t like the feeling of skin,” he would insist. “Especially on other people’s hands.” Rope-skipping contests? Leo could stand neither the texture of the hemp rope nor the sound of it slapping the asphalt. Hopscotch and jacks were also out—the sweating, the touching. But Leo did take a shine to one of the first-grade games—the one game, in fact, that eventually became the whole class’s favorite, Family, Family. This oddly repetitive name belied a byzantine and shape-shifting world of make-believe invented and governed by the children themselves.
At first, I thought Family, Family was just a more complicated version of house, in that it involved mothers, fathers, and dolls as babies. But it soon became clear it was more than that. The children played during recesses and lunch and breaks and every other spare moment. They even, when they could get away with it, played the game during our lessons. Indeed, they played Family, Family everywhere—the classroom, the grassy field, the woods—but of course, our special dolls were not allowed outside. “Who cares?” Lila Baxter said. “We’ll be our own babies!” And so they were. And at the outset, roles and family units reshuffled moment by moment. “I’m the mom now,” a big sister might shout to her uncle, “and you can be my baby!” Leo preferred being a dad, with a parenting style tailored to his own aversions and phobias. “No, no, no! Don’t touch her skin!” he’d scold. Or, “For heaven’s sake, put your sweater on before you catch your end.” Some first-grade babies very much enjoyed Leo’s fretting and vied for him as their father, to his surprise and delight.
Soon, however, families concretized. Most were headed by a mom and a dad, but one had two moms and Leo was a single father. Regardless of their makeup, once families were set, they were set. The only way left into the game then for the few children with no other role was to be a baby, which is what became of children like Travis and Cara. I believe this was also when Foster Cross called for an end to Leo’s turn as a dad. “You’re hogging,” Foster said. “But I guess you can be a baby . . . if you want.”
Baby Leo especially liked Lila as his mother, but he was quickly traded away to Jeong and Maisie. Then came the day Darren demanded that babies no longer walk or talk. “That’s more real!” he said. Negotiating the rules of Family, Family took up more time than the actual playing of it, primarily because no one was remotely in charge of the thing. Lila had invented it, but her authority had collapsed almost instantly. Therefore, she had no real say about the rule that ultimately banned babies from choosing their own parents, leaving them at the mercy of being chosen or not, and thus paving the way for orphanhood.
Which is exactly what happened to Leo.
* * *
In those first glossy weeks of September, the three Little House teachers tried to warn me. They would—when their own morning lessons were over—cross that dry Sargasso Sea of flattened grass to the Big House and float curiously past my classroom like fairytale mothers. We all thought of them that way, with their long skirts and aprons swishing just above the polished tile floors. They would peer into my classroom—or, if my door was closed, gaze through its small square window. On many occasions, I felt a hot prickling of nerves down my neck and across my clavicle bones, only to look up and see the uneven floret of their narrow faces at the glass, which would by then be fogged with their breath as they strained to see how their little ducklings were faring under my fledgling wings. You see, not only were the first-graders new to the Big House, but so was I. It was my very first year of teaching: these children and I were just beginning what was to be an eight-year voyage. At Rolling Meadow, as at all Waldorf Schools, teachers in the Big House pledged to teach the same group of students not for just one year or two years, but from the first day of first grade all the way through to the eighth-grade graduation. Imagine, one teacher with the same children for almost a decade. We practically raised them! It’s no wonder the Little House teachers were nervous for me. It’s no wonder I was nervous for myself.
Of course, I already lived and breathed Rolling Meadow by then, with my own sweet son Henry having begun in the Little House five years earlier, when he was barely three years old. Just a baby! Though of course like most mothers I was foolish enough at the time to think three was a big boy. Now, at eight and a half years old, Henry was in second grade, the classroom next door to mine, with Mr. Whittaker, Leo’s dad, as his teacher. This is how it was at Rolling Meadow, all of us teaching each other’s children like one big family. We even touted that in our brochures, how our teachers were like a second parent or a favorite aunt or uncle. Of course, anyone who has actual parents or aunts or uncles knows this can go many ways. For my part, I was relieved that Henry was in Thomas Whittaker’s class. Thomas Whittaker had been at Rolling Meadow longer than any of us. He had already taught one group of children all the way through eighth grade, then he’d done the same with a second group, and now, with Henry’s class, he was on his third time through the eight-year cycle.
“We’re too lucky,” I always told Whittaker. And it was true. Parents in Mr. Whittaker’s class tried and failed to disguise our smug expressions of having drawn the long end of the stick, of being astonished by our own dumb luck in a place where everything was supposed to be fair and equal. Mrs. Pinter, on the other hand—our fourth-grade teacher—was clearly not cut out for the job. Shoddy, we would whisper about her students’ paintings hanging in the hall. They’re not even trying for her. Likewise, the parents in Mrs. Pinter’s class made little effort to hide their hangdog disappointment over their assigned teacher. Frankly, they displayed dread, like people watching from the porch while a green sky sucks itself down into a funnel. “What if Henry had ended up, by the fault of astrology alone, in Mrs. Pinter’s class?” I would sometimes joke with Whittaker. We all gossiped this way about each another. But there was nothing in it. At Rolling Meadow, we teachers taught in freedom and governed ourselves—we were even called a Circle of Teachers, deciding all things in a collective and nonhierarchical manner. No principal to quash our creativity! In this environment, to openly criticize a colleague was not only awkward, but a bit like asking for it yourself, if you know what I mean. Besides, Mrs. Pinter’s daughter, Polly, was in my first-grade class. Which is exactly my point: all of us at Rolling Meadow were woven together like a tapestry. And Thomas Whittaker was a golden thread among us.
But of course, what I was trying to tell you about was the Little House teachers, and how they warned me.
* * *
“Oh, Leo Whittaker,” the Little House teachers chirped to me that autumn when we passed one another on the play yard or in the faculty room. “He’s a bit of a gray duck, isn’t he, Ms. Mallery? Keep an eye on him, won’t you?” And I tried. I did. But all through September, I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to truly see anything. I hadn’t yet gotten my “classroom legs.” That’s a sailing metaphor, but what comes to mind when I think of that time is not exactly the sea, but something less poetic—that pure bastard child of the American gambling and entertainment complex known as the “money blowing machine.” Imagine being shut into one of those contraptions with the clear glass walls and powerful fans. Dollar bills swirl while you flail and contort yourself to catch one, two, maybe even five if you’re agile and lucky, before the wind dies. But then imagine that the wind never dies, and instead of dollars, it is children slipping through your fingers.
When the month of September finally snapped its mouth shut, it was on the day of our annual Feast of St. Michael festival, or Michaelmas. I watched my first-graders gallop around the field clutching tinfoil swords in their fists, yellow gauze capes flapping behind them, the girls with blue asters braided into their hair. Parents milled about in pairs and clusters, stirring stone soup and ripping apart steaming round bread loaves and slicing Granny Smith apples for dipping into raw honey. Eventually all of the children sat down on the grass, dipping and chewing and waiting for the dragon—a giant silk puppet carried by the eighth-graders—to slink out from the woods, and for St. Michael—usually played by Mr. Mark, our beloved woodwork teacher—to stride out from somewhere on the other side of the chicken coop and the gnome house. Until recently, St. Michael’s job was to slay the dragon to a grisly death, but changes to the script now required him to extend his sword stoically and tame the beast nonviolently instead. The children, being children, were nonetheless bloodthirsty, and stiffened in anticipation of the kill—cheeks bright with the heat of the afternoon, fingers sticky with honey—as all around us, swerving drunkenly through the air and in the dry grass, came the bees, golden and heavy with the change of seasons, wings glinting in the thin light, stingers ready, mouths searching.
* * *
With the unfurling of October, we fell into a rhythm. Our little boat righted itself, and it might have sailed smoothly, had it not turned out that my seasickness was not all from teaching: I was several weeks pregnant. This turn of events was abysmally timed, what with me being right at the outset of the eight-year pledge. Of course, there was no rule about getting pregnant—life happens—but still, you can see how the timing was not ideal. Yet the first-grade parents were gracious enough, truly they were. And I imagined the children themselves might be rather excited at the news, what with their obsession with Family, Family.
I decided to make my announcement to the class first thing on a Tuesday morning as my students were filing into their rows of desks—Sun Row at the front of the room, Planet Row at the back, Moon and Star in between. “Circle, circle, round and true, you see me and I see you,” I sang out as I drifted to our large braided rug next to the cubbies and sat myself down cross-legged, tugging my blue wool skirt around my knees. The children formed a lopsided circle around me, wriggling forward in anticipation of what fun might lie ahead now that they had been called unexpectedly away from their desks. When they were all wide-eyed and quiet, I whispered, smiling broadly all the while, that I was going to have a baby in the spring. I looked from face to face. “Ms. Mallery?” Travis said finally. “Is it is it snack time yet?” Cara, who had been picking away at her elbow, held something up. “Foster!” she shouted. “I got the scab!” Only Leo widened his eyes and tilted his head until his ear nearly grazed his shoulder. “A baby?” he whispered back to me. Leo Whittaker, it soon became clear, was smitten with the idea of my unborn child.
* * *
Had the advent of my pregnancy—or at least, my knowledge of it—not coincided more or less with the birth of Family, Family, I may have been more aware of the slow unraveling of that game, who was being let in or left out of it. As it was, I was mostly focused on keeping my breakfast down while staying ahead, or at least not too far behind, with my lesson planning. You might be shocked at the great effort and time it takes to memorize all of the fairy tales and songs and number games and so forth that make up a first-grade day. Besides that, I can’t deny how charmed I was by Leo’s heartfelt fascination with all things related to my baby. “Ms. Mallery,” he said one day during lunch, not long after he was apparently orphaned in Family, Family. He was standing at the corner of my desk, eating his dried pineapple. “Do you think your baby can see us from inside you? Around your belly button, where the skin is thinner?”
“We can’t know for sure,” I said. You see, Waldorf teachers don’t believe in quashing the magical ideas of children too soon.
“I hope your baby can see me,” Leo said, “because then it might know me better when it’s born.”
Another time that October, Leo drifted over during knitting hour—an hour that was especially trying for him. Not only could he not keep left straight from right, he also confused the back leg of the stitch with the front leg and the over the fence with the under. Mrs. Olson, our handwork assistant, was constantly helping him to cast off, untangle, and begin again, and Leo was losing motivation to care about the scarf he was failing to produce as he watched his classmates’ rows of red and yellow and blue grow stripe by proud stripe. So he drifted. “Ms. Mallery,” Leo said to me that day. “My dad says babies are boring when they’re brand new. Extremely boring. Is this true?”
I laughed. Thomas Whittaker, twice divorced, had two grown sons from those earlier marriages—but his third and current wife, Nan, had desperately wanted a child, since she hadn’t yet had one. Hence, Leo. “Well,” I said to Leo, who was gazing up at me so expectantly with those dark raisin eyes. “I think newborn babies are quite magical, because of how pleasant they feel in your arms, and how delicious they smell, especially their fuzzy heads. And because of how they look at you in a peculiar way, as if they have been searching the wide world for you forever with their deep-ocean eyes. But it’s true that they can’t walk or talk or play with toys—or, really, do much of anything other than sleep and eat and dirty their diapers. So, some people might call them boring, yes.”
“I guess I can’t know how boring they are until yours is born,” Leo said. “But when your baby grows big enough to for sure not be boring, I’m going to teach it all about the whole wide world. Also, I’m going to give it a present.” With this, he patted his argyled tummy. That’s when I saw how he had stuffed the waistband of his sweater into his corduroy pants—how the sweater bulged out. “I’m growing a baby,” Leo said, catching my gaze. “A baby for your baby. See?” He pulled the neck of his sweater out and reached down to extract a mass of brown and purple yarn. It vaguely resembled—if you really used your imagination—a small doll.
Over the next days, Leo divulged more and more to me about his yarn baby. “She’s a girl,” he told me. “Because I hope you have a girl. But even if you have a boy, I will be his friend.” Leo’s baby was made of the longest unbroken strands of discarded wool yarn he had collected from his many false starts on his scarf, those discards he’d stuffed into the bottom of his calico knitting bag. In that sense, Leo had fashioned this baby from his own failures. “I think I might wait to name her until your baby is born,” he said. “But I have six ideas so far for names in my notebook. For now, I call her Yarnie.” At all times, Yarnie stayed under Leo’s argyle sweater—except overnight, when she slept in Leo’s cubby inside his knitting bag to “keep us all safe.” Leo told me as much one afternoon while he watched me drawing a mountain on the chalkboard, its two purple peaks forming a perfect capital M. “But that’s a secret, Ms. Mallery. Don’t tell anyone. Because Yarnie is special. She’s like the starter in sourdough—or the mother in kombucha. She has extra life in her.”
Here, he paused and leaned far forward, resting his elbows on my desk. “And just because she’s made out of yarn doesn’t mean she’s not real,” he said. “You told us real is whatever we believe in.”
* * *
I didn’t think of myself as betraying Leo when, during recess that afternoon, I said to Thomas Whittaker—we were leaning against the woodshed drinking coffee and watching the children play Simon Says—“I take it you and Nan aren’t trying for a second?”
He pretended to choke. “Why would you ask such a thing? Just because you have a tadpole, you’re free to ask such things?” He gave my arm a little pinch. Suddenly, he looked his age, or older. Softer. No one would say Whittaker was attractive, really. At least, I wouldn’t: those saggy corduroy pants (apple, tree), the thinning comb-over. The Adidas with ragg wool socks. The one missing molar and the hole it left behind next to his lower left canine (to be fair, visible only when he laughed). Whittaker himself had attended a Waldorf school in California—the only one of our faculty who had. Maybe that’s why the women of Rolling Meadow were so enchanted with him. And that was another thing about our school—the way we could flirt a little without being taken the wrong way. Whittaker was like my older brother. There was no danger in it.
“I’m not trying to be nosy,” I said. “It was just something Leo mentioned. About babies being boring.”
“Oh, I was just squelching his latest obsession.”
“Mating. Those Eyewitness books have got him asking questions—extremely literal questions.”
“I guess that explains his interest in my baby.”
“I didn’t realize he had an interest.”
“Well,” I said. “He’s making a—he says it’s a present for my baby, for when it’s born. But it seems more like some kind of poppet.”
“You know, those folk magic dolls—Middle Ages stuff, for protection and whatnot. He keeps it in his sweater during school. You haven’t seen it?”
“No,” he sighed. “I most certainly have not.”
* * *
Days passed before the other children noticed Leo’s baby bump, because for the most part, they took little notice of Leo in general. But it was inevitable that they would finally catch wind. Children always do.
“Leo has a baby in his sweater,” Foster Cross told the class one Thursday after painting. “He doesn’t know boys can’t have babies!”
“Leo doesn’t even know he’s a boy!” yelled Darren, rocking from foot to foot.
“I don’t believe he has a baby in there,” Foster said. “He’s just pretending to have a baby ’cause he thinks then he can be a dad in Family, Family again. But he can’t! Leo, you can’t! So show us, Leo, if you really have a baby. Show us!”
“Yeah, Leo, show us!” Darren said.
“Show us! Show us!” the children chanted, their clear soprano voices dipping half an octave from the villainy of their demand.
“No,” Leo said, backing away. “I can’t. She’s not born yet.”
“Children,” I said, clapping my hands. “That is enough. Anyone in our class who wants a baby can have a baby, including Leo. And Foster, if you so dearly want a yarn baby, you can make one of your own.” He didn’t, of course. Because Leo already had. Instead, his interest in what was under Leo’s argyle sweater grew more intense.
Leo took to wearing a belt with his corduroys—a wide, khaki web belt that cinched his pants so tightly around his waist that the corduroy formed pleats. He spent more time by himself in the book nook and the sandpit. “Ms. Mallery?” he said one recess, just as I was getting ready to ring my cowbell to line the children up. Leo was digging a tunnel aimed for South America, because, as he explained, this would avoid the Earth’s molten core. “Ms. Mallery?” he said that day. “Growing a baby is a little like fermenting, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” I said. Leo’s face crumpled. “But I’m no expert, Leo, on babies or fermenting.”
He stood up then and wrapped his arms around his plump sweater belly and suggested that Yarnie, while not a traditional name in America, could be a real name, if we said it was, because people are making up new names all the time. “Ms. Mallery, do you like the name Yarnie?” he wanted to know. “Do you think it’s pretty?”
* * *
One afternoon at the end of October, I came back to our room after Miss Marla’s Spanish lesson—she was teaching the children a darling verse for our Hallowmas festival the next day—only to find Leo at his desk in the middle of the second row, rocking back and forth in his chair. The other children had formed a circle around the outside of the desks. “Throw it to me!” they shrieked, and, “My turn!” and, “Now me!” Cara was jumping up and down and grabbing at the air and then clutching her fists to her chest, and Foster was snatching back at the air screaming, “No! I caught it!” All of them were jumping and throwing and grabbing frantically at nothing at all.
“What in heaven’s name is going on?” I said. But none of them even pretended to stop themselves. My voice had lost whatever slim magic it had ever had.
“Throw it this way!” Maddy yelled.
“No!” Darren yelled back. “You dropped it already! Do you want Leo to get it back?”
“You’re all lying!” Leo cried, slapping his palms on his desk. “You don’t have her! None of you do! She’s not born yet!”
“First grade!” I yelled, my voice higher and shriller than I liked ever for it to be. “To your seats, now!” I began rubbing the palms of my hands together, and Lila Baxter, bless her heart, began immediately to do the same. Her eyes looked heavy, about to spill, and so I rubbed my palms faster and harder, and soon half of Sun Row had joined me—Milo and Joeng and Cara were already in their seats and the others were filing in too—and the sound of their hands was lovely. I began to snap my fingers, left and right, and the children in Moon Row, which was behind Sun Row, followed suit—Travis and Katie and Polly, but not poor Leo, whose head was on his desk. By now the children knew exactly what was happening, and they were all scrambling to their desks. Foster was climbing over Ian and Maisie in Star Row to get to his seat faster, and just as he plunked himself down, I looked straight at him and began to clap my hands, while the children in Sun Row continued rubbing their palms together, making that nice soft whirring, and those in Moon Row continued snapping, and only in Star Row did the children clap with me, softly at first, but then with more and more force, until finally I looked to the very back, Planet Row. I began stamping my feet then, and those children followed suit, stamping harder and harder, until the symphony of wind and rain and thunder we were conjuring became so transfixing, so hypnotic, that the temperature in our classroom dropped by several degrees and the scent of wet pine rose from the skin of our palms, and we were in awe of ourselves, and we never, ever wanted it to stop.
* * *
When I entered the classroom the next day—Hallowmas morning—Leo was on his knees facing his cubby, shoulders quaking. A small group of children swarmed around him.
“Leo, what’s wrong?” I said, kneeling down.
“She’s gone.” He swiped at his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Yarnie is gone.” Leo’s calico knitting bag lay on the floor in front of him, inside out.
By now some of the girls had also begun to cry. Maisie and Jeong were searching under pillows in the book nook and Lila was trying to rub Leo’s back even as he scooted away from her. “We’ll find your baby, Leo,” Lila was saying. “I promise we will.” I suggested we check every child’s knitting bag one by one, just to make sure the baby hadn’t gotten into one by “mistake.” Bag after bag turned up babyless.
Finally, I had no choice but to usher the children to their desks for our morning verse. They tromped single file, heads hanging, into their celestial rows. Then they dutifully crossed their arms over their chests. All but Leo. He stayed on the floor by his cubby, crying quietly. “Children,” I said. “I am so very disappointed. I cannot tell you how disappointed. I can only hope that Leo’s yarn baby will find her way back into his knitting bag by the end of this day. If that happens, everything will be wonderful in our classroom. Everything will be forgiven without question. If, on the other hand, Leo’s yarn baby does not come back today, you will stop playing Family, Family forever. Do you understand?”
A wave of nods passed through the field of their faces, catching briefly on the empty spot where Leo should have been. We stood for morning warm-ups, and when we were finished, I got out our basket of colored beeswax. Surprisingly, Leo loved the beeswax as much as the other children did—for its smooth warmth in the hand, its sweet smell, and the way it could be shaped into tiny animals, trees, and even people. Still, he would not budge from where he knelt by his cubby. So the rest of the children pulled sullenly at their wax until I passed the basket to collect it again.
Only when we lined up to go outdoors for pumpkin carving did Leo finally raise his eyes to mine. “Will the second grade be outside, too?” he wanted to know. The promise of seeing his dad always buoyed him.
“Yes,” I said. “All the grades will be carving pumpkins for the festival.”
With that, our whole class, including Leo, lined up two by two.
* * *
The play yard was a blur of commotion: the middle-schoolers armed with Sharpie markers and safety carvers helping the younger children draw their desired jack-o-lantern faces and then attempting to produce something resembling that vision. I waved at my boy Henry, but he was too deep in concentration to wave back.
“Don’t you love Hallowmas?” I said to Whittaker.
“I do,” he said. “I especially love seeing these cool eighth-graders elbow deep in pumpkin guts.” He aimed that at Paul Libby, the decidedly uncool but kind eighth-grade boy helping Leo. Paul was scraping out piles of orange gunk. No pumpkin guts for Leo’s delicate hands.
“He had a rough morning,” I said.
“You mean that yarn doll? I’m kind of relieved. That was getting too weird.”
“It was kind of weird,” I said. “But it was sweet, too, the way he carried it in his sweater like that. I have a hunch who took it.”
“Forget about it,” Whittaker said. “I know I sound cold hearted, but you have to take the long view. That ball of yarn was not making his life easier.”
“Oh, but Thomas, that little yarn doll meant something to him. It was so … Leo.”
“Would you feel the same if it were Henry, digging in the sand alone at recess with yarn stuffed down his shirt?”
“Okay,” I said. “I do see your point. But still, I think it was sweet, and I believe Leo will find his way with his classmates, eventually. With or without his Yarnie. I know he will—all of them will.”
As we spoke, eighth-graders began dragging the tarps to the dumpsters to shake off the slime. The three Little House teachers helped carry the finished pumpkins to the back entrance, exclaiming over them—“Aren’t you a handsome fellow?” and “Oh, my, what a scary face you have!” They even gave the pumpkins little kisses to “bring them to life” before lining them up cheek to cheek beside the door.
I wandered away from Whittaker to admire the finished jack-o-lanterns for myself—the traditional gap-toothed smiles were my favorite—before drifting deeper into the play yard toward a gathering of first-graders that looked, I realized with a stab of anger, a lot like Family, Family. Especially since Travis and Cara were crawling on the ground, and I knew them for a fact to be babies. I was about to ring my cowbell to break up the game when I spotted the purple yarn vining through the grass like a stem of pokeweed. I knelt down and pulled at the strand. It drew easily from one side, so that soon I had gathered it several feet to its end. I followed the rest of it in the direction it led—away from Family, Family, away from the center of our grassy field, toward the north end of the grounds. I followed it and followed it, pulling and winding the strand into a ball that grew larger and rounder as I went, until finally I came to the shallow kidney-bean pool outside the henhouse, with its floating lilies and water lettuce, its three iridescent koi fish, and, in the narrow end of the bean, where the branches of the small willow swept across the surface of the water, the last sodden ends of Leo’s yarn baby, tied in a clumsy bow to the end of a long willow tendril.
* * *
I cannot remember now if the first-graders were still playing Family, Family when I cut back across the center of the grassy field. To be honest, I don’t recall any children on the field. I remember walking alone. But that can’t be right, because recess was not over. I had not rung my bell. I would not, in fact, ring my bell. The other teachers would eventually ring their bells, and my students would come running with the children from all the other grades. They would scramble into two straight lines right next to Mr. Whittaker’s students, and Mr. Whittaker would cover for me, as we sometimes did for one another. He would start counting the heads—second-graders first, then my class. But almost as soon as he began counting, he would already know, and Lila would already have told him, “It’s Leo, Mr. Whittaker! It’s Leo who’s gone!”
By then, I would already be in the Little House—now empty for the day and eerily quiet—breathing through the sharp cramp coming over me and inhaling the scents leftover from the little ones’ morning: the warm comfort of oatmeal, cinnamon, and chamomile; the earthy cloves from the “kitchen corner” with its wooden play stove and round table and perennially favorite tool, the mortar and pestle; the strange and sulfurous smell of the Prussian blue watercolor paint that never quite dissipated between painting days. I made my way down the cool, dark hallway, past the children’s little wooden cubbies—their hand-painted nametags so delicate and sweet, this one with a nest of tiny robins, that one with a wide-eyed baby fox—and into the main nursery room. That’s where, when all the little ones went home at noon, the dollies then slept together until the next morning, swaddled in plain cotton blankets and tucked neatly into their pine cradles. Except now the faceless babies were strewn askew across the wool rug and their cradles were empty, save for the one pushed up against the gauzy pink curtains of the north window. There, curled tightly on his side, breathing softly, argyle sweater untucked, wet stockinged feet hanging over the pine footboard, was Leo, his face smooth and pale, staring blankly at me.
Jeannine Ouellette serves as nonfiction editor for Orison Books and reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly. She has authored several educational books and the children’s picture book Mama Moon. She is a recent prizewinner in the Curt Johnson Fiction Awards and Proximity’s Essay Contest and her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Utne, The Rake, december magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, and Nowhere, as well as anthologies such as the Nowhere Print Annual, Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Feminist Parenting, and Proximity’s forthcoming print anthology. Jeannine is founder of Elephant Rock, a creative writing program based in Minneapolis, where she lives near the banks of the Mississippi. She is currently completing her first novel.