“Did you see that?”
“Up there in that tree by the slide. There’s a kid up there, look.”
We raised our eyes from where our children were playing in the sand and peered up through the branches of the tall pine. It was true, there was a boy shimmying along one of the tree’s narrow branches, at least twelve feet off the ground, the limb flexing under his weight. We watched with horrified fascination as he edged out further from the trunk until there was a sharp crack and the bough broke away beneath him. Just in time, the boy sprang upwards, clutching at another branch overhead.
“Who’s supposed to be watching him?”
We looked around. It wasn’t hard to pick her out; she was the only other adult at the park, sitting twenty feet away at one of the picnic tables near the climbing wall. A strange floppy hat obscured her features, but when she shifted on the bench we glimpsed the pale monkey face of a sleeping infant. At the woman’s bare feet, a huge black dog lay panting in the summer sun, a child of indeterminate sex, around three years old, digging in the grass near its hind legs.
“We should talk to her,” we told each other. “Shouldn’t we?”
We glanced back down at our children and their sandcastles. When we stood up for a better view of the boy in the tree, Jasper pulled on his mother’s elbow.
“Can I climb up there, Mommy?”
We shook our heads in staunch unison.
“Oh, no, honey. It wouldn’t be safe.”
Violet’s mother pointed and we all gasped as the kid dropped suddenly, his thin arms extending and branches whipping upwards as he tumbled out of the tree. He hit the ground hard, making us wince.
“Are you ok?” We called over to him.
The boy ignored us, rolling to his feet and rubbing his palms against his skinny thighs. He was younger than he’d looked up in that tree, only five or six, but there was an uncanny maturity to the way he pushed back shaggy brown hair, sauntered over to the manicured edge of the sandpit and squatted down to observe our children at play. As if he belonged and we were the interlopers.
It was our first time meeting here. Our playgroup had been getting together outside all summer, choosing a different park each week. Today, we had driven up to the top of Mount Royal, muscling our strollers up the uneven gravel paths to reach the tame wilderness of this playground.
“I’ve seen him here before,” the twins’ mother whispered. “A few weeks ago, when we were here for a birthday party. He kept hanging around, watching the other kids. Last time he grabbed a sandwich right out of Preston’s hands, then took off into the woods when I tried to talk to him.”
“He’s covered in scratches, look at him.”
He crouched a few feet away from our children, his hair matted behind his ears and his faded green t-shirt ripped at the sleeve, exposing a constellation of mosquito bites on one shoulder. He was nodding to himself and dragging a stick through the dirt, watching our children play with their Star Wars figurines and plastic Disney shovels. There was something vaguely threatening about the intensity of his focus, like a hunter stalking his prey. We moved a little closer, ready to intervene if necessary.
Over at her picnic table, the boy’s mother was still sitting placidly on the bench, gazing off into the forest beyond the park’s edge. As we watched, the smaller child lurched upright, hoisted up a striped smock to reveal a chubby naked bottom and started to pee into the grass against the dog’s foot. The dog shook its damp leg and we all recoiled as the girl lifted her dress above her protruding belly button, bouncing at the knees so the stream of her urine wavered and sparkled in the sunshine.
Ignoring her daughter, the woman twisted on the bench to lean back against the wooden table. With one nonchalant movement, she pulled down the loose neck of her blouse so that a bluish-white breast flopped into the daylight, then pressed her baby’s head against the wide brown nipple. At her feet, the little girl let her shapeless garment fall back over her legs and collapsed against the dog’s flank.
We met each other’s eyes and turned away, embarrassed by the woman’s lack of inhibition. We’d all breastfed our babies, but this was a park, not a nude beach.
One-year-old Coco chirped in excitement, drawing our attention to where she sat in the sand. She pointed her chubby fingers up at the trees and warbled one of her new words: “Écureuil!”
“That’s right! It’s a squirrel!” We all beamed down at her, sharing her delight at the squirrel’s feathery grey tail frisking along the branches. “Her French vocabulary is improving so fast!”
Coco’s mother nodded proudly. “Those Bébé Bardot videos are really paying off,” she said, adjusting her daughter’s sunhat.
Just then, something whistled through the air and struck the branch below the squirrel. We turned to see the boy from the tree gathering pieces of gravel from beneath the swings. Before we could move, he reached back and whipped another stone, his eyes tracking the squirrel as it raced up the tree trunk.
Behind him, the twins took hesitant steps forward. Lance bent down to pick up a pebble of his own.
We reacted instantly. “We don’t throw rocks!”
“You know better than that, Lance. You don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“He never actually hits them,” murmured another voice, amused. The woman had walked over to us, her infant tucked into a colourful sling.
“Oh.” We nodded at her, uncertain. “Of course not. We just want to make sure nobody gets hurt.” We looked at each other and then changed the subject. “Beautiful day for the park, isn’t it?”
“We’re always here. Rain or shine,” she said, her smile revealing a missing incisor.
“That’s great.” Another awkward pause. “So, you’ve got your hands full, don’t you? At least your daughter seems calm over there with the dog.”
“Yeah, that’s her favourite spot. My boy prefers to sleep higher up.” She waved a vague hand towards the crowns of the maples. We followed her gesture, looking in vain for a tree fort as she moved past us to speak to her son.
As she walked away, we turned to watch our toddlers scoop shovelfuls of sand and the older children broke into a chasing game. While they were occupied, we seized our chance to talk through the week’s small emergencies: Edith’s sleep regression, waking her mother every two hours all night long. The stomach virus going around. The twins’ refusal to eat anything for supper except boxed macaroni and cheese. The exhausting minutia of modern motherhood. We avoided our deeper, more private worries: the five nights a week that Violet’s father was spending on the couch in his basement office. The tuition at Preston and Lance’s private school that had already led to a second mortgage on the house. The afternoon glasses of wine we couldn’t stop ourselves from pouring earlier every day.
As we talked, we shook out our blankets, unpacked Tupperware from the bottoms of our strollers, set out platters of crackers, cubed cheddar and sliced fruit.
Our conversation broke off when the woman’s little girl stood up, brushed off her smock and wandered towards the playground structure where our older children were clambering across the nylon nets. The black dog came with her, nosing at her small hand until she gripped the scruff of its neck.
We all stiffened, alert to the possibility of danger, but we needn’t have worried. Spooked by the big dog, our kids scrambled down the ropes and ran back toward us, to the safety of our picnic blankets. We hunkered down with them, handing out juice boxes and animal crackers as consolation and distraction.
Dylan had forgotten her American Girl doll under the monkey bars and the other little girl trotted straight to it, hoisting it by the layered blond bob.
“Mommy,” fretted Dylan once she noticed. “Make her stop! She’s getting it all dirty! She doesn’t know how to play with it, look!”
The girl was stripping the pink tulle skirt off the doll, sliding down its white cotton underwear and examining the toy’s seamless plastic crotch. The dog lost interest and ambled away, yawning. It sniffed its way back through the playground and rejoined the woman at her picnic table.
“Go and ask her nicely, Dylan. I’m sure she’ll give it back.”
Dylan looked at us doubtfully but set her small shoulders and marched over to defend her property. As she approached, the girl frowned and turned her back, scooping up a handful of sand and sprinkling it into the doll’s silky acrylic hair.
“That doll cost over a hundred dollars,” said her mother in an undertone, gritting her teeth in a rictus of encouragement as she waved her daughter forward.
Abruptly, the girl dropped the toy, dusting her hands against her round belly. Dylan snatched up the doll and cradled it against her Gap dress as she hurried back towards us. The other girl followed, her blue eyes wide as she surveyed our picnic. She extended grimy fingers toward the cut-up strawberries.
“Wait!” said Violet’s mother. “Does she have allergies?”
“She was eating ants before,” pointed out one of the twins.
We stood, uncertain, before exchanging glances and moving the food out of reach. The girl’s eyes narrowed and she made a low growling noise before turning tail and fleeing back to her mother. Anxious to preserve the peace and head off a tantrum, we boosted our infants onto our hips, left our children sitting on the blankets and hurried after her.
“Excuse me,” said Colby’s mother. “Your daughter was interested in our snacks. We’d be happy to share; we just wanted to make sure there weren’t any allergies to worry about.”
“Allergies?” the woman repeated.
Coco’s mother stepped forward, raising her chin. “Absolutely, you can’t be too careful. My daughter has a peanut allergy, and we avoid all legumes and tree nuts, just in case. In fact—”
The woman cut her off with a sneer. “We don’t believe in allergies.”
We stopped, nonplussed. Her daughter advanced, whining, and the woman tugged down the other side of her shirt. The girl reached out eager hands and latched on beside the infant, nursing enthusiastically. The sound of her sucking filled our silence.
As we hesitated, the woman shifted on the bench, her baby pulling abruptly away from her breast so the bare nipple glistened brown and wet in the sunshine. “Twenty years from now,” she said flatly, “When the oil runs out and we’re scrabbling in the dark, we’ll see how your children cope with their allergies.” She wiped the baby’s face and raised it to her shoulder to burp, her eyes looking past us, into the cloudless sky. “When the cities are underwater and the epidemics hit, your kids will be dead. Sickness. Starvation. Mine will know how to survive.”
We backed away, catching each others’ widened eyes and trying to hide our smirks at the woman’s obvious lunacy. As our group reassembled away from the crazy woman, we heard the sudden, high-pitched clamor of familiar voices. Our children had deserted the picnic and crossed over to the line of trees behind the playground. Their toys lay abandoned behind them; the Tonka dump truck overturned in the sand pit; the doll facedown in the dirt. One of the twins was shrieking, his arm extended over his head in triumph, swinging the limp body of a dead squirrel. The rest of the kids were leaping at him, jostling to snatch at the animal’s bushy tail.
The boy from the tree stood off to the side, arms crossed. We stared across the park at him and at our brawling sons and daughters, their beloved faces disfigured by savage delight. The ground seemed to tilt as we felt the bonds between us suddenly shiver and dissolve, each of us reduced to individual, open-mouthed mortification. We each stood alone with our shame, appalled by our children and unable to meet each others’ eyes.