It was always the same—the breathlessness, the palpitating heart, the constricted throat. Gasping for air on a street corner or cowering in a doorway as they passed, Martin Reiss suffered from an inexplicable fear of children.
Those who knew him excused his displays of consternation when suddenly confronted by a child as the mere fussiness of a middle-aged bachelor. After all, who can fail to sympathize with the anxiety of a gentleman in a white suit surrounded by a jostling mob of urchins with chocolate ice cream cones in their grubby little hands? But though Martin was especially attentive to his appearance, cleanliness had nothing to do with the panic that engulfed him at the sight of a ragged team of small stickballers rounding his corner on their way to a sweetshop. The terror inspired by the approach of the jabbering boys was, in fact, somewhat less intense than the cold shudder engendered in him by a pair of little girls in starched pinafores, holding hands and watching him over their shoulders as they passed. And from milk-sweet babies swaddled in lovingly embroidered blankets of the softest cotton, Martin recoiled in dread and revulsion. Though others might explain away his anxiety as simple crotchetiness, the flutter of his pulse whispered to him the disturbing truth: he was infected with a wholly unnatural fear.
He had tried on countless occasions to divine its murky origins, hoping to isolate the virus and render it harmless. Perhaps, he had thought, in the snowy fields of memory, among the barren trees of the past, he might recover the early cruelties of his playmates that must have so frightened him as a little child. He might recall the taunts and constant insults of the other boys, bullying him about the schoolyard and terrorizing his walks home. Perhaps, if he listened very carefully, he might hear among now faint laughter the whimpering entreaties of a child abused by his fellows. But Martin remembered nothing of the sort, not a single incident that could explain his feelings.
His childhood had been unremarkable, according to his mother. He had been serious, yes, but certainly happy, she assured him. Though he was too ashamed to reveal his problem to her, he pressed his mother for more details. Everything confirmed what she had already told him. For instance, the scrapbooks she treasured of his neat penmanship exercises and scrawled crayon drawings revealed no predilections or obsessions that might have foreshadowed his phobia. His paragraphs described field trips to bottling factories, explained the customs of North American Indians, offered seasonal greetings to his parents. The clumsy artworks depicted a flower, a bunny, the Santa Maria. No matter how meticulously he examined the landscape of his early years, he found no dimples where the soil had been pocked with the seeds of his strange misgivings.
Martin, unable to identify a cause and casting about for a more rational explanation of his attacks, had persuaded himself, on one occasion after another, that the breathlessness, the palpitating heart, the constricted throat were symptoms of some medical condition. Perhaps he suffered from too little exercise; he had meant to take a walk each evening in the park, but darkness fell early here in the North. Perhaps at forty-one, he was simply aging, after all. His doctor confirmed his diagnoses: he was indeed forty-one and out of shape. But beyond that, the tests detected nothing. As his doctor politely put it, “These symptoms are not the manifestations of a physical malady.”
Martin resisted, for months, the notion of consulting a psychiatrist. He convinced himself that it would pass—whatever it was—on its own. He would outgrow it, he persuaded himself, refusing to consider whether a forty-one-year-old could outgrow anything.
But eventually he admitted that there had been no sudden onset of symptoms; the panic had always been there. He recalled an incident in college when, strolling with a young woman through a playground, they had been accosted by a band of children. Though he could not remember why, the little boys and girls had clamored around them. While his friend knelt among the children, laughing at their excited questions and stroking their hair, he backed away, pale and anxious. He tried to make an excuse; it was his stomach, he insisted. But the young woman sensed something else. They never dated again.
Still, though it might have always lurked within, he recognized that it had gotten worse in the last year. For a long time, he had been able to repress the most debilitating symptoms of his fear, but now he realized he was beginning to lose control. Where a few years earlier he had reacted only to noisy groups of children, now he found even a single child forbidding.
One morning, unable to leave his apartment because of two children sitting on the stoop, he telephoned for an appointment with a psychiatrist whom his doctor had recommended to him months before.
A few days later, sitting in an armchair next to the analyst, Martin strained to find the words that would convey his feelings about children as precisely as possible.
“They seem so strange. You know, with those swollen heads of theirs on top of those stumpy little bodies. And so silent and watchful. Have you noticed that—how they’re always watching us?”
“They are funny little monkeys, aren’t they?” Dr. Hermann agreed. “But silent? I don’t know, perhaps you’re right.”
“I don’t mean to give the impression I’m paranoid or anything. It’s not as if I feel threatened by them, exactly,” Martin added, trying to smile as if amused at the thought of a grown man falling prey to children.
“Of course, what could they do?”
“Precisely, what could they do?”
“But still, they worry you, don’t they?” the doctor asked sympathetically.
“Well, yes, but it’s only natural, isn’t it? They’re so different from us.”
“The way they think. And the way they look.”
The doctor stopped writing in his notebook. “Isn’t there something else you want to tell me, Martin?”
“Tell me,” the doctor whispered, almost conspiratorially, “have you felt the urge to strike back at them—for worrying you so much?” He paused and took a deep breath. “Have you ever wanted to hurt a child?”
Martin turned in his chair and faced Dr. Hermann. “Hurt a child?” He shook his head as if he were disgusted with the psychiatrist.
“You would tell me, Martin, wouldn’t you?” the doctor continued. “If you don’t tell me everything, I won’t be able to help you, you know.”
Martin finished the session, but he declined to make a second appointment. Dr. Hermann had not understood him, he felt; so how could the psychiatrist cure him?
In the days that followed, Martin grappled with his fear. He made up a little exercise to overcome his anxiety. He would spend ten minutes each evening reading the paper in the park. He promised himself that he would remain at his bench no matter what happened—even if a child came and sat next to him.
His resolve was tested the very first evening when, as the engorged sun tottered on the treetops of the park, a little girl dashed across the lawn to his bench.
“A dog,” she said breathlessly, trying to staunch her tears.
He folded one wing of the paper behind which he hid. The child took his terrified silence for impatience.
“A dog,” she explained between sobs, “a dog was chasing me.” Her body shook as she gulped down two or three breaths. “Over there.” She pointed past a stand of poplars.
Martin, attempting to control himself, stared at the trees.
“I was trying to get home,” she explained, “but the dog chased me. It wouldn’t stop barking.”
The man laid the paper beside him on the black metal slats of the bench. Though breathing with difficulty, he managed to cough out a few words. “It’s gone. The dog’s gone.”
The little girl turned around and squinted back across the lawn. “Really?” she asked skeptically, still sniffling.
“Yes,” Martin wheezed, “all gone.”
The child, calmed, turned to him. “I’m Heather. What’s your name?”
He noticed his hands were trembling. “Martin,” he whispered.
“I have to go. Mommy will be mad at me.” Heather started down the asphalt path toward the great iron gates at the entrance of the park. Then she stopped and waved. “See you tomorrow!” she called.
Shaken, Martin watched her skip away.
That night, tossing in his bed, he tried to convince himself that Heather might serve as a vaccine against his fear. He had survived his first encounter with her. Perhaps if he were to manage five or ten minutes with the child every evening, he might little by little inoculate himself against the unreasoning dread that had stricken him in the park. For the first time, he made no excuses for his behavior. He admitted to himself that he had either to immunize himself somehow against the debilitating fear that, hours later, still made him shiver, or else—very soon, he felt sure—to surrender unconditionally to its inexorable demands. He understood the consequences of yielding to such irrational terror: the world would constrict around his throat like a noose. He would not be able to go to work, to walk about the neighborhood, even to leave his apartment.
So, the next evening, he hurried to the bench where Heather had met him. Martin waited half an hour in the failing light before, both relieved and disappointed, he folded his newspaper under his arm and began to follow the path out of the park. Just as he reached the marble sundial near the entrance, he felt a tug at his coat. His startled reaction made Heather laugh.
“You’re funny, Martin,” the child said, still giggling. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” the man answered hoarsely.
“Can’t you play a little while?” The little girl grasped his hand and tried to drag him back.
It was as if all the breath had been sucked out of him. He teetered, like a tree sawn in two at its base hesitating for a moment before pitching down onto the forest floor. But just as he thought he was about to faint, Heather released her grip and darted off toward one of the peacocks that roamed the park, the gift of an eccentric patron. Martin stood, unsure of himself, rubbing his hand. “Have to go,” he mumbled, barely aloud. He hurried—trying to disguise his panic with small, awkward steps—toward the gates.
“Martin!” Heather shouted after him.
He made himself stop and turned toward the child. She stood beside the bristling peacock, whose shimmering feathers fanned open to reveal a hundred pairs of dark eyes. “Tomorrow,” he mouthed across the grass.
The encounter left Martin wretched and nearly hopeless. He had not fully realized how deep into his heart the roots of his fear had plunged. But Heather’s brief touch, that small hand, had laid bare the truth. That night, as he tried to ease out of his anxiety with a warm bath, he was frightened to discover himself grasping his wrist and considering how simple it would be to open a vein, to bleed the fear out of himself. He slammed his fist into the placid water, splashing the wall with dark bruises.
Grimly determined, he waited the next evening, without even the screen of his newspaper, for Heather. Then, flashing among the shadows of the slender trees that bordered the playing field, the little girl came running. Martin suppressed an urge to flee and, instead, sat up straight, his fingers curling tightly around the edge of his seat. He concentrated on breathing evenly.
“I knew you’d be here,” the child squealed, delighted, as she wiggled onto the bench.
“Do you want to play? I’ve got a ball. I found it in the trees.” She held up a tennis ball. “I’ll throw it to you.”
Martin forced an “OK” out of his mouth.
“Goody,” she said as she jumped up and ran down the path a few yards. “Ready?” She gently tossed him the ball, which came to rest at his feet. “Now throw it to me.”
The man reached down, then rolled the yellow ball in the child’s direction.
“No,” she insisted, “I can catch it. Throw me the ball.” She flung it back to him. It skittered along the asphalt past the bench.
Martin got up stiffly and retrieved the ball. He threw it, underhand, to the little girl, who tried to clasp it to her chest as it fell toward her. She giggled when it slipped to the ground and bounced away.
Martin felt himself relax, just a bit, as he watched Heather scurry after the yellow ball. She ran back until she was just a few steps from him and threw it with all her might. The ball whizzed past his ear.
“Not so hard,” he complained, annoyed, then realized as he followed it down the path that he had spoken to her without trembling. Pleased with himself, he lofted the ball toward her; it bounced over her head.
“I bet you could throw it,” the little girl huffed as she tossed the ball back, “all the way to the trees.”
Martin began to feel a kind of exultation: he was playing with a child. “Sure!” he shouted.
The man turned to the darkening woods, weighing the ball in his hand. He took two or three steps and then, with all the force he could muster, hurled the ball across the field. It disappeared among the shadows of the poplars.
Heather, whooping, ran after the ball. Martin followed her.
“Here it is,” the little girl called, just inside the stand of trees.
Martin, smiling, came up to her. He was breathing normally.
The child lifted the yellow ball toward him. In the twilight, it glowed almost golden in her delicate hand.
Suddenly, Martin realized what Heather was offering him. If he could reach out and take the golden ball, the spell would be broken, the fear would be shattered into a thousand tiny shards. He watched his hand flutter across thin air.
As he grasped the ball, he caught Heather’s small fingers in his own. He wrestled with himself, desperately hanging on as his body tried to shake free of the child’s touch. He closed his eyes, determined to crush his terror.
Perhaps it was the darkness settling over the woods or the startling cries of the night birds in the trees overhead, or maybe the man was simply hurting the child, but whatever misgiving shivered through her, she began to struggle against his grip.
Martin looked over his shoulder. He could see the tops of the trees leaning in over him and above them the swirling pinks of the sunset smudged across the sky. But already the pink was bruising purple, and when his head turned over the other shoulder, toward the great iron gates at the end of the path, the purple there was thickening into night.
He heard a child—a little girl, perhaps—weeping and calling his name.
His grip tightened into a fist, and muttering something unintelligible, he began to limp deeper into the woods.