Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
On the day before Halloween, my son’s teacher tells me, with the seriousness of a funeral director, that Noah has decided he does not want to be Peter Pan after all. Noah stands close beside her and he is dead serious, too, as if after she breaks the news he will be the one to show me the pine box where Peter Pan now sleeps. The furrow in Noah’s brow deepens and I imagine planting in it ranunculus, heliotrope, chrysanthemum. Flowers we can pick to take with us when we pay our respects to the boy he has chosen not to be. His teacher speaks in a hush. “He’s decided instead…” she says. “Shit,” I think. Unlike Wendy Darling who can sew shadows onto the foot of a boy who will never grow up, I can’t sew. But weeks before I had ordered the whole costume from Etsy: the green felt hat, the quiver and arrows, the tunic, the brown sash, the green tights. And now, at the last minute, a costume change. “Instead,” she says. “Oh god, what?” I think. “Instead,” she says, her voice growing dim, “he would like to be Martin Luther King Jr.”
I can’t say no. I mean, I could say no but then I would be the mother who told her son who wanted to be Martin Luther King Jr. that he must be Peter Pan instead. What am I supposed to say? “You can’t be Martin Luther King Jr., I already bought the green tights?” Or “I’d prefer you imagine yourself as a very, very old boy than as the most visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement?” I was cornered.
It was already three o’clock. I needed a black suit. I could draw the mustache on with eyeliner. I needed black shoes. A white button-down shirt. I dropped Noah home, and ran off to Target. I pass the girl’s department, and a T-shirt flashes at me: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Sorry, Nibs, Tootles, Slightly, Curly, Twin One, and Twin Two. Sorry, John and Michael. Sorry, my sons: the future is female. Sorry, Peter Pan, we’re over you.
I think a lot about boys. About raising mine to be sensitive, and effective, and strange, and lovely, and kind, and funny, and brave. I want them to be boys who keep their shadows on, and who belong to a future. Boys who understand the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Worry picks at me like Hook’s metal claw. I want their boyness to bloom. I want to keep them safe.
“Some idiot kid,” says my mother, “probably told Noah he can’t be Peter Pan because Noah is black and Peter Pan is white, so he figures his only other choice is to be MLK.” “No, no,” I say. “Trust me,” says my mother. “I know how this stupid world works.”
My mother is no Mrs. Darling. She is no Victorian. She knows children can be as innocent as they can be heartless. I sensed she didn’t approve of the story from beginning to end. I wasn’t sure if I approved, either. There is frankly something chilling about sending a seven year old out into the world dressed like a great man in a stiff black suit who was shot in the neck at the age of thirty-nine.
On the other hand, it’s Halloween and this whole Southern town I live in is riddled with ghosts. So what’s one more? Plus it’s no more chilling than sending your son out into the world dressed like a boy who at the end of the story can’t even remember the fairy who drank the poison meant for him. Or like the boy who tries to stick his shadow back on with soap, and then takes credit for successfully sewing his shadow to his foot when everyone knows it was Wendy who did it with her housewife cleverness. God, I hate Halloween.
As I walk Noah to his classroom, the other mothers smile at him sweetly. Maybe a little too sweetly. My husband suggests he carry a Bible. We decide instead he carry a rolled-up piece of green construction paper that says on the outside “I Had a Dream…”
“I’ll just be an owl,” says my five year old, Eli. “Thank you,” I say.
In J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, the Lost Boys live in a room at the bottom of hollowed-out trees, each tree custom-fit like a coffin. And at the center of the room is a Never Tree that tries “hard to grow … but every morning they sawed it off,” like a boy who wishes to grow up, but is stopped midwish, and turned back around. Neverland is as much a tomb for the unloved and forgotten as it is a map of a child’s mind. It is a place ruled by a boy with a memory as thin as the skeleton leaves he wears. Peter Pan forgets Wendy midair, and he forgets Tinker Bell, and he forgets Hook. “Long ago,” says Peter, “I thought, like you, my mother would always keep the window open for me, so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another boy sleeping in my bed.” Like Mr. Darling, who locks himself in Nana’s dog kennel as punishment for losing his children to Neverland, Peter Pan locks himself in childhood to punish himself for being forgotten by his mother. By never growing up, Peter Pan becomes the boy he is forever replaced by.
I look up Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother: Alberta Williams King. Six years after his assassination, she, too, was shot and killed while she played the morning service on the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Had I known this? Had I forgotten? Who forgets such a thing? Who forgets that Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother was shot and killed at her organ in a place called Ebenezer, which in Hebrew means “the helping stone.” She was shot while playing “The Lord’s Prayer.”
If all the lost boys live in Neverland, then maybe all the lost mothers should live in a place called “The Helping Stone.” I look up Ebenezer Baptist Church’s website. There is mention of Martin Luther King Jr., but no mention of his mother. There is a job opening, and an order of worship. There is mention of the balconies, and the stained glass, and the organ, but not the mother who died playing it.
There is only one thing Peter Pan never forgets, and it’s that he wants a mother.
J.M. Barrie, in his introduction to the play Peter Pan, writes that he came up with Peter Pan by rubbing five brothers together, “as savages with sticks produce a flame.” He writes that he has no original manuscript of Peter Pan, nor does he have a recollection of even writing the play. He describes himself as a shadow that follows his own body through a field at Pathhead Farm, digging up holes and unearthing islands he himself had once buried. He scavenges, picking his own bones for its remains. Like the crocodile who follows Peter’s ticking, J.M. Barrie follows a ticking, too. As if the splinters of boyhood left inside him might be the insides of an old clock he can hear in the distance. In only a few minutes he’ll be exactly on time for the hours and hours that passed.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” eleven brothers are turned into wild swans by their stepmother. Their sister breaks the spell by gathering the stinging nettles that grow on the graves of the churchyard, and out of them she spins and weaves eleven coats with long sleeves. She throws the coats over the swans, and turns them all back into boys. But she doesn’t have time to finish the last sleeve of the coat, and so the eleventh brother is left with a wing instead of an arm. Of all the fairy-tale boys, the eleventh brother is my favorite. I want him to let Peter Pan touch his feathers, while he quotes Carlo Levi in a strange and golden voice: “The future has an ancient heart.” He might even say it twice more: “The future has an ancient heart. The future has an ancient heart.” I want my sons to touch the boy’s wing, too. To touch the part of the boy where the spell could not be broken. The place where he was marked by a Neverland.
I am making a list of costumes for my boys for next Halloween: Clock, Sleeve, Heart, Kiss, Hook, Spell, Wing, Shadow, Ship, Thimble, Organ, Stone, Stinging Nettle, Prayer, Island, Lost, and Found. They can each choose three: a first choice, a second for when they change their mind, and a third for what they’ll never be.
Right before winter break, Noah comes home with a gift for the family from his teachers. It’s a snow globe with his photo inside. Except in the photo he is not only Noah, but Martin Luther King Jr., too. His drawn-on mustache is a little smudged, and his eyes are shining, and the snow is falling. It’s a very sweet gift, and he keeps it on his windowsill in his bedroom. Sometimes I imagine it growing wings and flying away. I crack the window open. But the globe stays still: the scene of my son dressed like a hero, surrounded by water and glitter, suspended in a Neverland.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.