The flashes and thunderclaps of political turmoil that Zaqqaq Churai was immersed in swirled around the two boys but did not touch them, especially Braq, until he was five. Zaq and Liz, unlike many in their circumstances who might easily have let anxiety swamp them in their day-to-day to lives, suffered fear to roll over and off of them, allowing it no place to rest in their hearts or minds. The parents drew neither son into that brutal world, although Nollo was older and understood something more of what was transpiring in the clashes of politics in Chugrana. “They’ll know soon enough” their father and mother said to each other.
If little Braq heard a momentary and distant rumble of thunder, such as one of the arguments between his uncles and his father, off in the kitchen or on the front porch, he might raise his head from his drawing pad for a moment, cocking it to listen. Then he would hear his father’s self-assured and clear rhythmic cadences of response, and he felt that there was nothing to be afraid of. Bending his head again to his drawing,
the thunder receded into the distance of his inattention.
Besides, these arguments came on only gradually. In early days, the larger Churai family was reasonably convivial, even considering that Elizabeth was Zaq’s second wife, and “white,” and foreign – each of which was enough to cause resentment among many Chugrans. But Zaq was so unswerving in his fidelity to the right, and thus so admired by all, that it would have taken a brash person to criticize him, or to snub his new wife. Jonni Churai did finally graduate to such a degree of brashness as to challenge Zaq, but that was only later. In the meantime, the various branches of the family got along. They visited each other’s homes, and took little trips together, as they were able.
On such a trip, the Churai clan – the eldest brother, Rodit Churai, and his wife, Jerule, and their two older children, Ma’rik and Szu; Zaq and Liz and their two boys; and Jonni – went to one of Chugrana’s few beaches. As an almost landlocked country, Chugrana had only the smallest of beaches suitable for holidays; one of the smallest of these was reserved for the “native” Chugran population, whom the law permitted to go there in unrestricted numbers.
At this time, Braq was only slightly over one year old, and ran all over such tracts of creation as his parents could keep in view. Occasionally, with a sigh, if he had to, he would walk.
On the other hand, he had not yet spoken a single word: only an infant’s prattle. No Rosetta Stone has yet been unearthed to help us translate these childish babblings, but there is no reason to think that, when we do, we will suddenly learn some profound secret of life – unless it is that the world is a blessed thing. Meanwhile, we can still marvel at, and delight in, these secret languages, the vocabularies of which appear to have no words for anything malevolent, but only pure wonder at the beneficence the world puts before these babblers.
His parents were not concerned that he had not yet spoken. They knew that one could not predict when this would occur. Besides, running was precocity enough at his age. That and focusing intensely on the world around him, which is what he was doing at the moment.
He had run all over the flat, slightly damp sand in their vicinity. Now he was squatting on his little putto’s haunches, staring intently at his own footprints in the ochre sand. He stayed that way for a long time, then moved to another one, and peered intently again. Such grueling, relentless work shifts are the stuff of infancy. Finally, Liz went over to see what Braq was doing, whereupon he looked up at her and pointed at one of the marks in the sand. He blurted out “Foot.”
(Really, it was more like “Pfut,” but that is a quibble for lexicographers.)
Liz laughed. She said, “Yes, foot,” whereupon Braq joined her by screaming with glee, and he immediately stomped many more such “feet” into the sand, chanting, “Pfut, pfut, pfut” in time with his march. The rest of the family having their interest piqued came over to see what this racket was. Liz said, “Listen.”
Braq saw his father, his brother, his uncles, his aunt, and his cousins all examining him, and he continued his marching and “pfutting.” Thus the family learned what was to be Braq’s first word. They were all as suitably impressed as such momentous occasions warrant. Except that Uncle Jonni had to say, “Finally!” throwing his palms upwards as if he had been waiting impatiently in deprivation of some millennial event which was his due. And Uncle Rodit had to point out that Braq’s first word was not really accurate because it was not his foot but his footprint he was thus labeling.
Nollo standing off a ways listened attentively to his uncles’ quibbling remarks.
Zaq and Liz said nothing to Jonni’s whining cavil, but only shrugged. Jonni always felt that any good occurrence should have already happened a long time ago; he implied that it was a personal affront to him that it had not done so. Rodit’s pedantic observation was also typical, but Liz took him up on it so far as to say, "I think you’re wrong, Rodit. I think he means his foot and his footprint.”
She was right, a mother’s knack. There was nothing mystical about this insight. She had watched Braq examining both his footprints and his feet, had even seen him bending his rubbery toes backwards, before he erupted with his volcanic torrent of “Pfut’s.” Had she thought further back, she might have recalled all of the “piggies going to market,” and the “dear foot” word baths he had been laved in. She might also have recalled reprimanding Nollo for squeezing “your little brother’s foot” too
hard one day which had made Braq cry.
Liz did not follow any of these introspective pathways. She merely thought to herself that Rodit was a twit and an old maid. Far from being critical of Braq, she thought it was intelligent of her son to have dentified both the object and its pictorial image in the sand, at the same time. Here, her mother’s intuition went off the track. Braq had already identified his foot and pronounced what he took to be its name several weeks earlier. The adults had simply not picked up on this titanic achievement. They may not have been listening at the time. Or, perhaps he said it too softly, or too indistinctly. Or it may be that his puckered little lips, his fledgling vocal cords, and his exploratory tongue just couldn’t work in concert enough to get through even to the expectorant “Pfut,” much less to “foot.” Maybe, after all, the adults were just too dense, too illiterate.
Now, when the plethora of footprints made their appearance to Braq at the beach, he was ready for a new abstraction – footprint. Unfortunately, not having consulted a dictionary, he didn’t know that there was a separate word for this, so for the time being, out of economy, he used “Pfut” for both.
Thus, both Rodit and Liz were mistaken. Braq had already gone through several levels of abstraction, and had gotten them right.
Every child that becomes a human goes through these Herculean mental labors, many times, and not just the gifted ones. Each one builds the edifice of abstractions in his own time, in his own order, and with his own observations. “Foot,” “hand,” “nose,” “eye,” “yes,” “no,” “red,” “blue,” “one,” “two,” “three,” “brother,” “father,” “mother.” Each word naming an idea, each idea a brick in the wall of intellect they are busy erecting, each course of bricks the foundation for the next level of difficulty, and of sophistication.
These infants we deem helpless and ignorant and rudely inept are busy architects, designing and building the most complex structure ever known – a human mind. It is lucky that they pay no heed to our estimate of their powers. Otherwise they might stop and question whether or not they are up to the job. It is also lucky that they are too young to take a course in modern philosophy where they would hear that knowledge is
illusory, and language a tool of distortion, for they would surely stop, cry in dismay, and return to their cradles.
In the process of building these glorious cathedrals of thought, every child that becomes human also reaches a course of bricks where there are several labeled “good” and “evil,” “right” and “wrong.” For some, this may take years to reach. And some who walk among us, seeming human, have never reached that course.
* * * * *
Braq’s family might have relegated his “Pfut” triumph to the oblivion of quaint family recollections, were it not for what happened a year or so later. They had gone to the sea once again, in fact the last time that any of them were ever able to do so. The adults occupied themselves trying to reconcile the contradictory goals of relaxing and carrying on a political discussion. Nollo dragooned his two cousins, Ma’rik and Szu, into
helping him to build a sand fort. They were several years older than Nollo, yet for a reason no one could put his finger on, they both deferred to him.
Braq, once again, ran about the beach. Then, as before, he squatted and stared at the marks left in the sand for a very long time. Whenever anyone glanced his way to check on him, he was still there, apparently building, or making, something – who knew what. At least, it looked that way because he was moving his hands in the sand. He had gone far enough away to be by himself, and would have gone even farther, but Zaq had called to him with this single informative word – “Braq.” He heard it and its tone; he perceptively translated it as “You’ve gone far enough.” He seemed to be content to stop there and do whatever he was doing.
No structure arose from these labors. Maybe he didn’t know how to make sand into a castle. What could he be doing? At least he was busy with something other than the danger of running into the water. Zaq’s and Liz’s eyes flickered frequently in his direction. He kept working intently – though no more absorbed than any brain surgeon in his operating room.
At length, he trotted over to find a likely victim. Everyone seemed busy, but he finally got his Uncle Jonni’s attention, and dragged him over to see what he had done.
Jonni saw a bunch of footprints in the sand. He said, impatiently, “Yes, yes, more feet.” Whereupon Braq laughed, and said, “No – hands.” Jonni looked at him as if to say, “What the hell are you talking about,” but his fear of Zaq prevented this utterance. Instead he said, “What do you mean, ‘Hands?’ ”
Braq, whose speech was far along, being all of two, said, “I made these with my hands.”
It took Jonni a while, but he finally got it into his head that Braq was claiming to have sculpted three pairs of footprints into the sand, so cleverly and realistically that Jonni could not tell them from the true footprints, close by, made by his feet. Jonni cupped his hand and yelled over at the family, “Pláhá!” – this the colloquial Chugran expression ranging in meaning from “Hey!” to “Hail!” to “Pay attention!” or even just, militantly, “Attention.” The adults stopped their conversations, Nollo and the older kids stopped making the sand fort, and everyone trooped over to Braq.
Jonni explained what he thought Braq had done. Braq laughed
outrageously, as one relation or another (including his parents and Nollo) tried and failed to guess which ones were made by his feet and which by his hands. They were undifferentiable. He had even shown in the sandthe different weight his body would have made on each heel, on the ends of the metatarsals and on the toes, and the contour of the arch, as a body runs, or stands, or shifts its weight in different ways.
After a few minutes, Rodit and Jule’s two children grew sufficiently unimpressed, seeing nothing much to marvel at in these sand footprints,to run back to their sand fort. Rodit himself simply said in a perfunctorily polite way, “Very nice.” Braq’s older brother, looking up at the adults,saw that Zaq and Liz and Jule stared at the sculpted footprints, then at Braq, then at each other with a peculiar stillness.
Nollo observed these looks. The adults said nothing. Children,being novices at spoken language, are nonetheless adept at an unspoken kind, an implicit language, as it were. Nollo recognized that the adults’ bodies showed the quietude that takes hold when someone first tells them something which may be good or bad news, they are not sure which: they still themselves, to heighten their awareness; they want their
senses to be at their peak. “This is important – Attend” their bodies, silently, say.
Zaq said, softly, almost to himself, “These are…” and Liz, barely turning her head toward him, her eyes still fixed on the sculpted footprints, said, “…works of art.”
After a moment, unnoticed, Nollo turned and walked back along the beach.
As the remaining adults continued to study Braq’s work, the little boy circled around his sculpted footprints, studying them with the glee of any artist who has succeeded in fooling his audience. Zaq could not restrain himself. He swooped Braq up in his arms and gave him an enthusiastic kiss. Liz joined in. Braq looked happily into the eyes of his parents. hen, with great satisfaction, he began squirming to get down out of his father’s arms. He evidently had more work to do.
The adults drifted back to their chairs, from which Zaq continued to stare in wonder across the sand at his son. Braq went on happily sculpting in the sand. A tide was coming in. When this happens, a slough forms under all such construction projects, even, alas, under great works of art sculpted in the sand, such as footprints. Braq saw some of the footprints start to dissolve in the rising subterranean water. He stopped for a moment in alarm, and stared. He tried to pick up a chunk of sand containing one of his handcrafted footprints. It crumbled to bits.
He tried another. Even worse. He quickly ran to get a small spade. He ran back and tried to lift another wet footprint. It sagged into a limp puddle of shapelessness.
Braq began to cry. The age of two is filled with such great tragedies. Two years old seems to suffer greater misfortunes than Niobe, and to shed more tears. Happily, it can also turn off the spigot of woe with an immediacy that makes one suspect its owner of insincerity, if not outright duplicity. But the owners and operators of these spigots are not insincere – merely easily shocked, easily pleased, and utterly ignorant of any reason
why they should not pour either or both of these emotions at our feet the instant they make themselves felt.
Zaq saw Braq’s distress; he came to his rescue. It was too late to salvage the footprints. Zaq saw the problem, and looked up and down the small beach. He determined the likely line of highest tide. He took Braq’s hand. “I know a better place,” he said confidently. The spigot turned off. Braq felt the pain and fear ebb away even as the shallow little waves ebbed his creation into gruel. He looked up at his father’s calm face.
The trick of raising children successfully is not to weigh them down with profound sermons lifted out of treatises of ethics and philosophy, but to condense those many pages into succinct behavior from which the child will learn, far more powerfully than from any lecture. Two year old Braq could have told you exactly nothing that he learned from such an episode with his father. But the adult Braq could look back and say this, with a tremor of enthusiasm in his voice:
“Father’s tone of voice at the beach, and at other times, said that the world was an easy thing to confront. It told me that I was not to fear this world. It said that if I faced it in a certain way, I could subdue its challenges and make it my servant. It suggested the old truth that knowledge is power.
“He took me up to higher ground, and there he said only two sentences: ‘The water won’t reach here. Make some more footprints.’ But what I heard was also, ‘You are the creator. The work comes from you, not from the sand or the waves. Creation goes with you. You can rebuild, if you need to. And the next thing you build may be as good as, or even better than, the last. Never be afraid to let go of what is hopeless, even to wipe it out if you must, but carry your hopes and your dreams, and your vision to a new place, and start again.’”
Unusual, to say the least, that a man such as Zaq, so deeply involved in vast ideas and currents, should understand when not to pour forth a torrent of words. Thus, with two short sentences, and an attitude, Zaq began arming his son for life.
He tried to arm both sons. He looked a little further down the beach and called to Nollo, who was likewise struggling with his dissolving castle walls. “Nollo, let’s go higher up.” But Nollo gave up in disgust, and left his mortar and adobe walls to liquefy in water and resentment. He yelled, “Never mind. I’m tired of that.” Stomping right through the sand fort in contempt and frustration, he herded the other children away down the beach.