To say that Jackson Tyler was a happy child would be a lie. He wasn’t sullen, he didn’t have a temper, and his pretty, little face didn’t own a scowl, but happy? No. He was thoughtful, and found intimate, personal delight about the world in general, but he didn’t often share that because anxiety was a central part of his being. The world, for Jackson, was titanic: he heard everything, he saw everything, he felt everything, and some tastes and smells were so overwhelming that he had an absolute aversion to them. His favorite place to get away from it was the pantry of canned goods off the kitchen. It was dark, it was quiet and canned goods didn’t smell.
This made life difficult for Martha, his stepmother, who was the only mother he’d ever known. Her greatest joy was feeding her family; she loved being a wife, creating a beautiful home with flowers, candles and potpourris on beautifully set tables, with beautifully prepared foods. But, she didn’t have family often because her husband, Harrison, Hank to his friends, was a foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, so he was travelling most of the time, and when he was home he was hustling for the next story.
So, Jackson was her company, but he wasn’t satisfactory, because he didn’t talk much, and he only liked grilled cheese sandwiches with canned pears, at least at this particular moment in his short, five-year history. Eating for him was particularly troublesome if he was involved in an internal drama of imaginings that sometimes came true and sometimes did not, or if some imaginary irritant was bothering him, then, he didn’t eat at all.
One lovely sunny day, after spending the morning in a frantic state of five-ness, Jackson was winding down, minding his own business, sitting on the floor in the dark pantry. Martha, in her haste to get lunch on the table tripped over one of his outstretched legs and fell. Unfortunately, she skinned and bruised her right knee and tweaked her wrist. It took a moment for her to right herself. When she did, she saw him sitting there, teary-eyed and sniveling, balled into a shell, because it was his leg that tripped her.
She lost it. She yanked him off the floor, shoved him out the back door into the light of the day, into the titanic, swirling world, and said, “Why do you have to be so difficult? You cannot come back into this house until I serve lunch.” Then she locked the door.
He threw himself at it, slapped it with his tiny fragile hands, and cried, “Mom, mom, let me in, let me in.”
An eternity passed with no results for his efforts – and then, a bird, pounding its head against a pole at the base of the yard, caught his attention.
Tear stained and shaky, he slowly climbed down the steps and walked toward the telephone pole where it was performing this strange and wondrous behavior. When he got to the base of it, he leaned his hands against it and looked up at the little bird. For one heartbeat, the bird’s head was a blur while it pounded its beak into the wood, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Jackson suddenly knew the world as the bird did, one gigantic, frantic, hunt for food. Hunger was a monster, consuming every one of Jackson’s senses. Together, Jackson and the bird could think of only one thing, “Find an insect, eat.”
In all his five years, he’d never felt so murderous, had never thought of needing food so desperately.
The bird tapped again, and the world blacked out for an instant, and then Jack heard them, he actually heard the insects crawling, chewing, and scratching inside the wooden pole. He cocked an ear when the bird cocked an ear, and listened. His meal was close. The world blackened for an instant as he pounded, trying to reach them. He listened again. There was an insect right under the surface. Crazed with hunger he rapped again.
When he and the bird grabbed an insect, then two, then three, four; Jackson swooned with relief. He awoke when he heard his mother’s voice, “Jacksie. You okay Baby? Mommy’s sorry she lost her temper.”
“I’m okay. I was a bird, Mom. He was hungry. He eats insects.”
“That’s nice, dear. It’s time to come in. I made grilled cheese sandwiches with sliced pears on the side.”
“Okay.” As Jackson followed his stepmother, he felt heavy with sorrow, though somehow, he knew it wasn’t his. How could it be? He was a bird, he’d already eaten lunch. Life couldn’t be better.
He looked at his stepmother, and saw the heavy, woolen shroud of sadness that she wore. He took her hand and smiled. “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’m okay.”
“I know, Jacksie. Mommy’s okay too.”
He wasn’t so sure about that.