When I was six and my brother and I slept together in the attic of our house (dad said it was a bedroom, Paul and I knew it was an attic) I realized that there was a robber lying in wait beneath our bed. Every night, hidden by the bedspread which draped to the floor all round the mattress, the robber would wait till everyone was asleep, then sneak out, and rob.
Worse, if he got caught in the crime, he would kill the catcher.
This is the truth. Even today I declare the truth of it.
Now, I had one advantage over the robber. He would not come out as long as someone remained awake. And he didn’t know that I knew this rule, or he’d have slain me in a blink.
Therefore, I stayed awake night after night after night.
I told my brother stories. They protected him. First, because the robber heard my wakefulness. Second, because Paul never became curious about my wakefulness. He didn’t know the danger, nor should he, since I was his older brother saving him—saving my whole household, in fact.
We still remember several of those childish stories, Paul and I.
Even after he fell asleep, I kept telling the stories, in order to fight sleep and to find out how they ended.
Imagine how exhausted I had become by October, my first year in school. Sacrifice will wear a kid to death. Anguish and the fear of failure finally drove me to talk back to my mother (dangerous, dangerous, but what could be more dangerous than murder?)
Mother said, “A quarter of seven. Brush your teeth, boys. In bed by seven.”
Absolute, absolutely unwavering regarding schedules and obedience, my mother neither expected nor received disputation. But here’s the measure of my suffering. I told her, “No.”
“What? What did you say?”
“Well. Um. I can’t go to bed, Mom. Never …”
Mother rose to her hind legs. Her forehead developed the advancing inevitability of Ursa Major gone mad.
But I burst into tears of such despair that she paused and tilted her head.
“What, Wally?” she said. “What’s the matter?”
The only place in that house where people could talk in private was the bathroom. I sat on the pot and mom sat in the edge of the tub.
I said, “I’m so tired. I can’t do it any more. I just can’t.”
“Well, I don’t want you to stay awake. That’s why I want you in bed right now. I don’t get it. What’s the matter?”
“There’s a robber under our bed.”
Silence. My Mother blinked once and set her jaw.
“It’s your imagination. There’s no robber under your bed.”
“There is,” I pleaded from the pit of my stomach. “There is, there is!”
“All right,” my mother rose, her mind made up. “Come with me.”
I knew immediately what she was going to do. It horrified me.
I followed her from the bathroom to the attic stairs, and up the stairs. I stood with my back pressed to the wall while my marched to the bed, reached down for the edge of the bedspread, and yanked it up.
I saw. I saw dust-bunnies and toy junk. And I saw no robber … that night.
He would be back. The only thing my mother had accomplished was to separate herself from me and my troubles. As she said, she didn’t get it. She’d proven she couldn’t help us—me and Paul, who down had come to know the truth. Guess whose truth.
So, how we going to save ourselves now? Even our mother?
The woman was right, of course. Pragmatic, she was, reasoning from observable fact to incontrovertible conclusions.
But this is how a rational adult interprets the world.
Children comprehend the world—and work their ways to solutions—by the motions of fantasy. They personify abstractions. They storify dangers and difficulties. This is why I declare the truth of my robber even down to this day and this writing.
This is why I beg all adults never to explode your children’s “silly” fantasies! Who will companion the kid after that?
There is malice in the world. Six years old, in the first grade, I had encountered evil and needed a means both to name it and to survive it.
At school a fifth grade boy used to greet me with punch me in the gut. “Hi, Wally,” he’d say, hardly knowing the effect of his salutation.
Neighborhood kids drove an unhappy widow crazy by sticking gum in her doorbell button—causing the bell inside to ring and ring and ring. I watched her walking down our street in the dark, wearing nothing but a slip, barefoot and weeping.
A kid named Clyde took a garter snake by the tail and snapped it like a whip. Then the snake hung loosely from his hand, its jaw askew, blood gathering there and falling by drops to the concrete sidewalk.
And in that same month my grandfather died.
Blamelessly, children fear dragons in the closet, monsters in the basement, the beasts in the backyard on a windy night. My son Matthew believed there was a hole in his pillow, at the bottom of which giant grasshoppers waited to eat him up.
What shall the adults do then? Why join the story! Write the sort of ending that the old fairy tale do, persuading kids of the powers they already have, by which he, she, their friends, can arrive in places of safety. Hansel and Gretel, for example: they’re terrified of abandonment (a common a fear among children), but in the end find both internal strength and an external companionship by which to plan and share in the slaying of the witch (robber, monster, dragon, beast).
Here is how Paul and I changed our situation from malice to salvation. As we went clumping up the stairs we sang hymns. Shouted the hymns, actually: “Rock of ages, cleft for me!”
We figured that Christian hymns would make a Christian of the robber, and Christians like us—they don’t kill people.
Did it work?
Well, I’m writing to you, aren’t I?