The mother's name was Margrethe. She was from Denmark, but had only a faint accent. The boy was named Stefan, and he only whispered. He could hardly contain himself; he had something marvelous hidden in his fist behind his back. His mother urged him to share it.
"No, no, is my little itty tro," he said with great pleased worry.
"Show Harry your itty tro," said the mother. Mattie was alarmed to see the agitation on Harry's face. He seemed to be in a battle to restrain himself from knocking the boy over, as if he was about to say, "I'm going to shoot it out of your hand, boy."
Stefan peered into the opening of his fist.
"Is my itty tro," he chirped. "My little itty tro."
"But what is it?" asked Harry. "What do you do with it?"
Stefan moved his fist through the air like a toy plane. "Zah! Zah!"
Mattie reached for Harry, who was breathing hard now. She felt heat spreading through his T-shirt, and his heart pounding beneath her hand.
"What is his little itty tro?" Mattie asked as nicely as possible.
"I don't know, this is the first I've heard of it," said the mother.
"Is my itty tro!" Stefan proclaimed, and flew his fist through the air. "Zah zah zah!"
Harry studied Stefan in a hard, bored way. Then he said, quietly, too quietly, "Give me the itty tro."
Stefan looked at him, worried as a kitten, and took one step back.
"Give me the itty tro!" Harry said. Stefan made a quiet strangled sound, like the sound a hurt deer might make. Harry raised his fist, and Stefan opened his own hand to reveal a feather.
Somehow they ended up best friends. They played together nearly every day.
Mattie now held Ella in her arms. The rats in the walls were squeaking. God, they had gotten so loud. The scratching had been bad enough, but the squeaks sounded like a mob was assembling back there, lighting torches. Beams and rafters were being nibbled into battering rams. Mattie scurried out, carrying Ella, and went to call her mother.
Isa answered right away, but as usual she was running out the door. "I'll call you later, darling," she said.
"No, Mom. We've waited long enough. The rats are getting worse and worse, and I really need you to pay for an exterminator."
"Oh, for Chrissakes, this can't wait till I get home? Two hours?"
Mattie sighed. Of course it could wait two hours, but with Isa, two hours could turn into two months or two years. "Call me later," Mattie said, and hung up. "Ees go?" Ella asked. Mattie nodded: Isa go, always go, going, going, gone. She was in her prime at seventy-one, an inspiration to everyone in town, beautiful like an aging model in a vitamin commercial, elegant, lively, opinionated. Mattie was in awe of her energy and drive. Her sharp corners had been sanded over the years, and she'd mellowed slightly along the way, was gentler now, sometimes even able to listen.
Mattie wondered, looking at Ella, how different she herself would have been if Isa had been this way thirty years before, instead of so anxious and critical. Mattie could see that Angela's best qualities--her spiritual thirst, her soulfulness, her equal capacity for playfulness and grief--were the direct result of having had a tense and neglectful mother like Isa. Angela had suggested that Isa's gift had been as a foil: looking at her charming unhappiness all those years, Mattie could see exactly who she didn't want to be when she grew up. Either you became like that, as Mattie and Angela hadn't, or you became the antidote for the mother's poison. What you needed you invented, and then gave away, so there would be some of it in your world. What would Ella decide to become--or not? Mattie saw herself and Angela as the trees that grew out of cliffs and boulders above the ocean near Monterey--evergreen creatures, windswept, magnificent, twisty, gnarled pines growing out of the layers of rock, where maybe there had once been some nutrition, maybe there had once been soil from which the trees had sprung, but then the soil had blown away, and they still grew.
From Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, Copyright © October 2002, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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