Walter Kirn on His Kids’ Fears.


Maisie was five and Charlie was barely three when we came across the carcass of an antelope while walking on our ranch in western Montana. The creature was young, the size of a large dog, and its hind legs had been torn away by predators. Its eye sockets were empty, pecked clean by magpies, its petrified grey tongue was jutting out, and the top of its skull had been gnawed on and laid bare. I tried to hurry my children past the sight but they wouldn’t come. They edged closer to the body. They nudged its bloated belly with their feet.

“Come on. You’ll give yourself nightmares,” I said to Maisie.

“We don’t care,” she said flatly. “We love dead things.”

I let my children go on probing the corpse because I’d loved dead things too at their age. Most kids do, and most country kids especially. My own favorite dead thing from childhood, I recalled, was a mummified baby robin I’d found one day stuck to the bottom of a fallen nest. Picking it up and carrying it home, I couldn’t believe how light it was, how weightless, and how perfectly it had retained its living form. I kept it under my pillow for three days. Healthy animals couldn’t be approached – they ran away, they flew up into the sky – but death had domesticated my little bird and made its mysteries accessible. “Poor thing,” my Mom said when she found it. Doesn’t it scare you?” I told her yes, a little bit. It scared me because it was so beautiful.

“How do you think the antelope died? Did something kill it?” Maisie asked me. She and her brother were holding sticks by then and poking them into a ragged, bloody hole in the creature’s throat. Their curiosity was frank and clinical, but I knew how the night would go if I answered them honestly. They’d end up crawling into bed with me, craving reassurance for bad dreams. “I don’t know,” I said.

My children frowned. My job was to tell them the truth. I’d let them down. This failure made them nervous in its own way – far more, perhaps, than the true story behind the slaughter.

“It looks like a cougar kill,” I finally said. “That’s how cougars do it: they bite the neck, cutting the windpipe and carotid artery. Then they move to the back and strip the bowels out.”

“Out where?” Charlie asked.

“Through the anus.”

Maisie interpreted. “I think Dad means the butt hole.” She inserted her stick and proceeded with the autopsy, digging green clods of undigested grass out of the ruptured intestines and shredded stomach. She broke the clods open to reveal their centers, which were darker and wetter, more fully decomposed.

“Yuck,” said Charlie. “Cool,” said Maisie. “I like how the veins on the stomach are so blue.”

But, as I’d predicted, the nightmares came on schedule: Charlie’s at midnight, the whimpering, confused kind, and Maisie’s at three a.m., the full-blown shrieking kind. I had them lie down on either side of me and gave them each one arm. They slept. I didn’t. By morning everything was better, though, and after breakfast my children made me promise that we would go hunting for other dead things soon, as we’ve done every weekend in the two years since. Two years of ribcages scattered in the grass, tufts of fur attached to hunks of hide, and skulls in the mud. And nightmares, naturally. But nightmares they seem to hunger for, my kids, because of what comes after them: Dad’s bed.

Kids like being scared, and I like them scared, I realize (within certain reasonable limits, of course). It demonstrates that they’re growing up and moving away from what makes them comfortable into the realm of the challenging and confusing. It’s also a reflexive show of confidence in me, their omnipotent parental protector. It’s a stage that I have no desire to see end soon, although I sometimes wonder if what scares my kids is what they tell me scares them, or something subtler.

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