Once upon a time, there lived an old woman with her two lovely daughters, the eldest of these named Why; the younger, What’s That.
The old woman, the equally old man who was her husband, and Why and What’s That all lived together in in a large southern city out of reach of previous hurricanes but currently very gloomy, in a brown brick house surrounded by a picturesque picket fence intertwined with browning morning glory vines.
Why ask why Why had been named as she had? It suited her, just as What’s That’s name suited her sister, though now that What’s That was three, she was growing out of her first name and into a new one — Look At Me Right Now, perhaps, or If Her Name’s Why, Then My Name Will Be Why NOT.
— Is God real? Why asked one afternoon, elbows propped up on the table while she ate her after school snack. She chewed pretzels thoughtfully. — Who exactly is the Devil?
The Devil, the old woman figured, must’ve been brought to Why’s attention by someone in her class, because, though the conversations in the brick house rambled over many topics (— There’s Barack Obama! What’s That could exclaim when she saw the morning paper) the Devil was one that, surprisingly, had never before come up.
Ummm, the old woman stuttered, stalling for time.
— What does “lost their lives” mean? How does anybody lose a life?
What’s That contentedly rolled a Lightning McQueen matchbox car along the edge of the table-top, and the Old Woman knew that, though What’s That appeared not to be listening, anything the Old Woman said could easily become a reason to wake up in the middle of the night (What’s That being the sort of child who, on a recent camping trip, might wake up at three a.m. in a rented tent from REI to cry out It’s dark. I can’t see my face!)
The Old Woman also knew that the principal of Why’s school had addressed the students on the anniversary of September 11th, and had probably chosen the phrase lost their lives carefully, so that any really hard questions wouldn’t come until the children got home from school.
Yes, God is real, the old woman said carefully. Lost their lives means died. Carefully skating around the question about the Devil because she had no clue how to answer that.
I want more camel -loupe! interrupted What’s That.
Why are some people so bossy? Why continued. After we finish our snack will you take us to ride bikes? Why did you let me drink alcohol?
Alcohol? asked the Old Woman.
At the Farmer’s Market. You said that watermelon drink had alcohol in it.
Oh, said the Old Woman. Caffine. It had green tea in it. Not alcohol!
It was urban tea? said Why.
Urban tea? repeated the Old Woman. Oh, you mean Herbal Tea!
Yeah, said Why. She stood up from the table, still chewing pretzels. Can we go ride bikes now?
I don’t know if there’s time before dinner, said the old woman. She looked at up at the clock on the wall, which said it was five minutes later than the clock on the stove, which said it was ten minutes earlier than the clock in the bedroom.
Why, she realized, even time’s elastic! And for a second of it she felt blessed by this life that parenthood bestows upon one — so rich, nonsensical, and strange.