His mother named him after a flower, but before he was three Nigella knew he was a cheetah. He ran fast, tired quickly, and slept often. He liked to lie in the tall prairie grasses in back of the house. He never had to think about what others thought of him, not yet having crossed the threshold into the rest of his life, where he might make a mistake, or be one.
Unlike many children, Nigella did not want to own an animal. He was one. What he did own, or rather, assume, was the open land with a few strategic trees and clusters of bushes that spread flat northward from his back door. That was where he spent much of his time–running, sleeping, and playing.
Nigella never had to understand how lucky he was that his parents acted out of a devout faith in what they felt they did not need to fully comprehend. Other families did it with religion, thoroughly and without doubt believing in unison a set of stories, a whole system that was so much a part of their lives that it went beyond mere imagination and became a central reality infusing and guiding all aspects of their lives. One can believe that the sun is a ball of fire and at the same time believe it is a god. So Rosa and Leo simply believed other stories and believed their son. They knew their boy was a cheetah as one knows the earth is animate and in need of respect and nurture.
Nigella never had to understand how unusual it was that, not just one, but both parents delighted in having a son who was a cheetah. In soft late-night or early morning conversations, in bed together, heads on the pillow and noses almost touching, Rosa and Leo made note of the fact, and affirmed their thanks, that Nigella was not nocturnal or a vegetarian.
Rosa and Leo wanted to preserve Nigella’s habitat for as long as possible. They planted clusters of tall grasses good for hiding and stalking. They sacrificed a vegetable garden so that the large back yard could be kept uninterrupted for high-speed pursuits and predatory maneuverings –- rapid accelerating, decelerating, dashing and ducking.
In their social world of friends and acquaintances, introducing a son who was a cheetah became an education Rosa and Leo did not know they were acquiring until they had quite mastered it. They learned a new tuning. They recognized those who smiled with ready acceptance of something perhaps never encountered before, not missing a beat. They recognized the type who responded with exaggerated enthusiasm. Not infrequently they found themselves observing the subtle recalibration that some people made (it seemed to happen somewhere behind the eyes) when Nigella asked his mother for a bite of gazelle. Sometimes Nigella’s parents charged through social protocol and corrected those who misfired with a comment about how much they like leopards. Always, they saw through the condescending roars of adults who did not understand they were addressing a small human who knew words like “biotope” and “dorsal crest”. At any one of such moments Leo or Rosa might be observed interceding quickly and matter-of-factly: “Nigella, shall we go find some water?”
One day Rosa took Nigella to her ceramic studio, and they played with clay, making one thing after another, rolling out big slabs of stoneware and cutting shapes of many sizes, scoring and wetting and attaching the shapes together until they had pots and boxes, trivets and candle sticks, even shoes and crowns and robots. Rosa fashioned a platter that she had in mind to paint with the scenery of the sub Saharan savanna. She could serve Nigella’s meals on it, better than a round dinner plate for evoking the grassland or shaded ground under a marula tree.
By the time he was four, Nigella was reading along with his mother and father. At the end of every evening Nigella folded his narrow flexible body between his parents and heard a story told through the dramatic voice of his mother or the rhythmic voice of his father, or sometimes both. The stories were told as though every one was true, whether they really happened or not. During these evenings and occasional mornings of imagined journeys, Nigella was very much a boy. It was during these times, as well as times spent alone with books, that he absorbed as much knowledge of cheetahs as his young mind could contain (which seemed infinite to his parents). And it was thus that Nigella seamlessly had become the subject of his keen interest. His mother and father did not ask, “Why do you want to be a cheetah?”, since they thought that would be as silly a question as asking, “why do you want to be a human?”
Thus, no one had ever said to Nigella that he was not a cheetah until he went to school, which was a momentous day for his parents but a more complicated day for Nigella. It started out well enough, waking with the sun, eating a hearty spread of springbok, and allowing his mother to groom his mantle and dote on him. His father beamed as he looked across the table at his son and commented on what a good day it was for an adventure, acknowledging a new phase in Nigella’s life but reassuring him that he would still have time when he came home from school for late afternoon hunts. A few months ago Leo had built for his son a long limb-like observation perch attached to a big tree trunk by the raspberry patch. Leo was imagining it as a perfect after-school spot.
It was a Monday. The warmth of summer had not yet left the ground. The beginning of the walk to school was familiar to Nigella, until they took a turn away from the line of gingko trees (to Nigella they were shea butter trees) that had always marked the rhythm of Nigella’s stroll to one of his favorite watering holes. For several weeks his mother or father had been incorporating a stroll past the school into their frequent walks and hunts, pointing out the small yellow house that would soon become a part of his day. But on this day his muscles contracted ever so slightly when they veered off at an abrupt angle, turning down a path he did not know well and moving farther away from familiar terrain. The views, the ground, and the vegetation were different from those of his home range, and there were too many tall trees, long lines of bushes, and walls that blocked his sight lines and prevented him from spotting hyenas or lions or other predators. It had always been his habit to stay in more open areas. Rosa heard Nigella chirr. Leo took his hand.
The School was ringed by a grassy yard, tall shrubs on two sides, and, corralling it all, a wooden fence the height of his mother. Nigella cautiously peered through the slats but could not see any activity. The enclosure made him nervous. They entered between two high heavy posts, cold and hard to the touch, not like a tree. Through the open doorway they met a cacophony of sound–young voices, shrills and laughter, knocking objects, and music. He listened for chirping or yowling but heard none.
Nigella tugged on his father’s hand, “I don’t want to go in.”
Rosa had just about stepped inside, saying something to Leo about happiness. She was smiling in anticipation. Nigella was not. Rosa looked at Leo and then down at Nigella.
“Oh–what’s the matter, Love?”
“I don’t want to go in.” He could see through the doorway to the back of the house. There was constant motion. “There are too many animals.”
Leo looked at his watch, and then his eyes rose to meet Rosa’s. “Okay, let’s just rest here for a minute on the porch. There’s no hurry. Or do you want to look around the yard for a minute while no one else is out here? Everyone is inside at the moment.”
Nigella nodded as his eyes shifted back and forth, taking in what he could through peripheral vision. He stayed between his parents while they went back down the steps and took a turn around the outside of the building. He was feeling the urge to run, but there was not enough space even for a short dash. He became alert. He needed a plan. He needed to find a way to be in a place where he did not want to be. Here, where there were too many plants and too many people; too many structures and too little open space. He felt pressure building up in his legs and around his heart. If he had known the word for it, he might have said he was feeling claustrophobic. Instead he felt he had wandered into a thicket not at all right for his survival.
“Nigella, look at the fun stuff they have here in back!” said his mother, trying to sound cheerful and optimistic.
Leo said to her softly, “I should have thought of this when we visited – there’s no place to really run and maneuver. I should have prepared him.”
In the back of the school the shrubbery opened up a bit, but the school had filled the open areas with huts, garden, sandboxes, and climbing structures. Nigella leapt up to the top of a hut and lay low, surveying the surroundings. He noticed moving heads through the back windows. He considered what this meant for him. What would he eat? Would he have to talk? His attention took on a sharper focus.
“Hey, Sweetheart, how about we try going inside and meeting the other children?” Leo looked up at Nigella and held out his open arms.
When they had interviewed the Head of School and admissions staff, and the school had interviewed them, Rosa and Leo had mentioned that Nigella believed himself to be a cheetah when he wanted to be, and at other times he was simply a boy and functioned perfectly fine as such. They had explained that inhabiting “cheetah” and “boy” entailed no more effort than inhabiting “father” and “anthropologist”. It had never been a problem in their family. Later, when Leo and Rosa had decided that this was the best school for their son, they had made another visit to the Head of School and had asked, or, more accurately, had suggested, that it would be best for everyone involved if they refrained from asking about Nigella’s self-identification. He’s only four, after all, and should not have to question or defend what he is, Rosa sensibly clarified. If everyone at the school accepted that he was a cheetah, they would soon see that he also behaved just like a little boy, and then there would not be any problems.
Nigella leapt into his father’s arms. Leo wanted to take Nigella home where he would feel comfortable and safe. Helping his son through a life transition meant helping himself also. Even as an adult, he had never been able to sustain the right balance between the imagined life and the functional. He did not want Nigella to lose his first world, the world he inhabited before he had to learn to say hello and goodbye and thank you, before he had to figure out the language to help others understand him, especially the others who needed extra help because they had lost touch with their own first worlds. Leo and Rosa were hoping the school would be a place where Nigella could be both cheetah and boy. They did not feel it was too much to ask.
“Okay, Cub, let’s go see together what there is to see.” Leo carried Nigella through the side yard and into the front door. He felt a subtle tightening in his son’s familiar body. Rosa followed. A teacher came up to them and said something to Nigella, but Nigella wasn’t paying attention to him.
“Hey, Love,” said Rosa softly, looking up at Nigella’s face perched on Leo’s shoulder. “You’ll stay here a little while, we’ll be at home, and then we will pick you up in a few hours, okay?”
“Where will I eat?”
“You’ll eat with the others in the room next to the kitchen. I bet it will be good. Maybe they’ll have some tender gazelle!” Rosa gave Nigella a conspiratorial smile. Nigella gave his mother a smile of labored consideration and acquiescence.
Nigella looked around. He peered out from behind his father’s collar and saw a circle of girls and boys on the floor listening to the teacher telling a story. The teacher was holding a book open and showing the children the pages while he read. It was a story about two elephants named Crooked Tail and Straight Tail.
Bringing Nigella around off his hip and kissing him on the forehead, Leo set his son down just outside the circle. The teacher continued to read. The children made a space for Nigella to enter. Nigella was looking at the paintings in the book. They reminded him of the books he had at home about cheetahs. His body relaxed a bit. Rosa and Leo each gave him a hug from behind, whispered “See you in a bit” and “I love you” in his ear, and turned to leave. While the teacher was flipping the next page, Nigella turned around quickly and gave a small wave, and then turned back to look at the painting of Straight Tail drinking from a pool of water under the shade of a tree. Crooked Tail and Straight Tail were young brothers following their mother around learning how to find water and food and use their trunks.
The teacher read in a bright expressive voice. When he reached the end of the story, closed the book, and set it on his lap, the tightness in Nigella’s chest returned. He heard the teacher saying his name and something about a new child and a welcome and being helpful, but mostly he was surveying his surroundings – it all looked a bit like his house. He stood up with the others, but then the herd split up and went in different directions, scattering to tables and behind walls to other rooms.
“Good morning, Nigella! And welcome! My name is Royo. I’m glad you got to hear most of Crooked Tail and Straight Tail. It’s one of our favorites here. Would you like to explore the book corner a little and look at the book we were reading more closely for a few minutes? Everyone will be doing different activities for a while until we go outside.”
Nigella nodded, took the book, and settled back down on a soft cushion. The teacher pulled several more books from the case and set them down next to him. Nigella glanced at the assortment and noticed all the covers had pictures of animals on them. He opened Crooked Tail and Straight Tail and started reading the story from the beginning, the pages he had missed.
“How is the book, Nigella?” Sally, another teacher, was walking toward the book corner.
“Good.” It was the first word Nigella had spoken since his parents left. If he had been at home he would have said more. He would have told his mother and father about Crooked Tail and Straight Tail. How Straight Tail always lagged behind Crooked Tail, because, although his tail was straight, his trunk was crooked, and he was always tripping on it. He would have explained how he read in the back pages of the book that elephants don’t eat meat, and he wondered what that would be like. He would have asked Leo and Rosa if he would ever have a brother or a sister.
Sally was talking to him. “Some day soon I’d love to have you tell me about cheetahs. I bet I could learn a lot from you!” Sally was extending her hand to Nigella–an offering to follow her. “But we’ll have plenty of time for that. Right now we’re all going outside for a while. The day is beautiful.” Nigella liked Sally’s smell, and her statements left no room for questions.
Nigella looked through the next room and saw that the others were heading out the back door. He got up off the rug and put his hand in Sally’s. As they moved toward the back door the crush of children crowded the wide hall with bodies. Nigella felt his throat stiffen. He wanted to turn around, go out the front door, left out of the gate, and run until he reached home. He wondered how fast a kid elephant like Crooked Tail would run. He’d only seen elephants in zoos, and there was never room for them to run. Zoos made him sad. Nigella felt restless. He pulled his hand out of Sally’s and tried to move forward.
“Do you always pretend to be a cheetah?” a girl with a smear of paint in her hair was jostling him on the way out the door.
“I’m not pretending.”
“Well you’re not really a cheetah.”
Nigella paused but remained silent. He moved to the periphery, scooting along the wall and finally over the threshold until he reached the relief of the outdoors. In the back yard he climbed up onto the roof of the hut where he had been earlier. His chest relaxed a little as he lay on his stomach. From there he could survey the area again and scout for prey. It was noisy and chaotic in this small yard. He wondered if he could scale the fence. He was hungry. He spotted a small antelope circling the sandpit below him. He leapt down in one abrupt motion, and lunged. He caught it by the neck and bit hard.
The boy was screaming and crying. Nigella was not moving, but he was staring at the other boy. Quickly he turned his startled small face up towards the teacher who was dashing towards the confusion of children that had formed around him.
“Nigella! Nigella! What has happened??!”
Nigella felt his heart beating and his chest heaving. He glared at the boy’s neck and then turned away, but Sally was also hurrying down the stairs and coming towards him. The other teacher was talking, but her voice seemed vague and distant.
How was he going to eat without hunting? How was he going to hunt without running? And how was he going to run with no space? Nigella needed to go where he could run, but he was being guided through the door into the kitchen with Sally’s arm around his shoulders. He was standing near the sink. Sally was talking to him earnestly, gently holding his wrists, then his shoulders, squatting so her eyes were level with his. He was breathing quickly. He said not a word. He smelled Sally’s scent and looked at her shoes.
In the late afternoon the sun cast a long shadow across Nigella’s back yard. Leo had come to retrieve Nigella from school, and now they were home where Nigella had wanted to be all morning. Rosa was talking to him in long sentences while he lay on the perch his father had made for him. He was still hungry.
The weekend was just ahead, so Nigella did not go to school for two days. And for several more days after that he continued to stay home, sleeping and running and hunting, sometimes with companions of his coalition and sometimes alone. He did the usual things he had done before the day he entered school. But it was not the same anymore. Because he felt he ought to, he tried to think about what had happened that day, but he had trouble with the memory. The part that came to mind with greatest clarity was the story corner and the pictures of Crooked Tail and Straight Tail.
Nigella could see that his mother and father were trying. He knew they had had conversations with the adults at the school. He could see they were making a special effort with reassurances and enticements about the discoveries and riches of school. They tried to explain how they each knew themselves as many things that were not always active all at the same time. Leo talked about his sister who was a veterinarian, who also knew she was a skier and a mother and an environmental activist. Rosa talked about Nigella’s grandpa who had been a chemist but also a botanist, and a musician in a band. But he couldn’t act on all of those at the same time. On the other hand, he was both an Italian and an American, and those he could be all of the time. Listening during these conversations with his parents, Nigella felt comforted. But something had changed–in the house, in his parents, in himself, in his world–and he was beginning to have the feeling that it was never going to be like it used to be such a short time ago.
“Am I going back to school?” Nigella asked about one week later.
“Yes. We think it will be good, maybe in a week or two. It takes time to be in such a different place from what you’re used to. They will learn from you, both your teachers and the other children, and you will learn from them. Maybe we’ll just take you a few times each week for a while. We’ll go slowly.” Leo pulled Nigella up onto his lap.
Nigella was silent. And over the course of the next few days he continued to say little. One day he went to the library with his mother and looked at the section where the shelves were filled with slim books about animals—books that told you real facts. Nigella read about elephants. He read about whales. He read about albatrosses and penguins and hawks. Then, as he was carrying some books back to the cart, he noticed a colorful hanging model of the solar system stretched across the ceiling and below it an arrangement of books about planets and rockets and space stations. He unloaded his arms of the animal books, letting them slide onto the small round table. Standing quietly in front of the display of space books, he selected one with a picture of an astronaut on its cover. Nigella adjusted himself into a small chair, opened the book, and started reading.
©Lillian Hsu 2013