I went to the babysitter’s to pick up Julia, who was two and a half years old, and she said that she had been “a little bit sad for a while” because her mother, who had a new part-time job and had dropped Julia off a few hours earlier, had gone away for “quite a long time.” There were tear stains on Julia’s face and her eyes were bleary and red. I am Julia’s grandfather by association (I have no children of my own) and this was the first time I had ever seen her so unhappy. She looked older than her age and very tired, and I felt helpless for a moment until she came into my arms and reassured me that she wasn’t overwhelmed by the sadness, which she said would go away as soon as she started feeling happy. I took her out to the car and put her in the car seat, which had a complicated fastening system that I could never remember how to work. As I fumbled with the straps, Julia said: “We really have to deal with this now,” and she pulled the centre strap into its proper position. Julia had been talking in complete sentences for several months, and what she had to say often seemed to reflect a secret life that she lived somewhere beyond my ken. As we pulled into the main street, she called out, “Turn here! Follow that truck!” and we went on for a few blocks and I asked her if she was happy yet and she said: “I’m a little bit happy now.” Then she said: “But my imagination won’t come true.”
We got home and ate cheese sandwiches and Julia went over to the bookcase and pulled out Baby Moses, a Bible Story Chunky Flap Book that no one in her family will admit to having purchased, but which has been in Julia’s book collection since shortly after she was born. We sat down and Julia began to recite the one hundred and thirty-one words of its text (none of which is “God” or “Jews”), and to open the little flaps on each page, revealing first the image of Moses in swaddling clothes in his mother’s arms, and then the Pharaoh’s soldiers searching for boy babies in order to kill them. (This is the part of the story that I find the most painful, but it has never bothered Julia.) Under the next flap lay the basket in the bullrushes; when we got to it Julia faltered, and I felt a slight panic at what was coming up, which was the image of baby Moses, alone in the basket, floating away, and a line of text reading: “She set Moses afloat, on the river.” Now Julia’s voice broke and she said, rather desperately: “I’m getting sad now!” We stopped reading and I tried to console her by reminding her that we already knew the end of the story, which was happy, even if this part of the story was sad. Julia turned a few pages ahead, as if to reassure herself of the ending, and then closed the book. “I’m not sad now,” she said, and she got down from the sofa and went over to the toy box and began pulling out stuffed animals and laying them on the carpet. Then she cleared a space for one of them and I saw that she had chosen the koala bear with the velcro paws, within which was enfolded a tiny, baby koala.
The play with the koala family was simple and direct: first Julia unvelcroed the baby koala and took it to one side of the room and she took the mother koala to the other side, and then she began moving back and forth between them, crooning to them and comforting them in turn. She was soon absorbed in these actions and she seemed to be oblivious to my presence. She moved the koalas closer to each other and then farther apart, as if testing the distance between them, and she reunited them and then separated them again, and so, accompanied by the sound of velcro rasping and Julia crooning, the ancient story of the child abandoned by her mother unfolded in my living room, which seemed in those moments, after lunch on a rainy afternoon, to be invested by mythic structures. Eventually she put mother koala and baby koala together for the last time and said, “Here you are.” Then she covered them up with a blanket. Later we went for a walk and she fell asleep in the stroller. When she woke up I asked her what she had been dreaming and she paused for moment and said, “I had no dreams at all.”