David's Heart Song by JL Bogenschneider
PN editorial intern Willow Grosz talks about today's story: Like the conversation with the questioning child in the story, “David’s Heart Song” doubles back on itself, weaving, but also only ever moving in one direction. In this conversation, you may not understand the question, but you’re expected to answer anyway. By the end, it becomes apparent that this piece has figured out a new way to beg the q: when I’m finally a grown-up, I’ll have all the answers. Right?
David's Heart Song
The question confuses. He asks his son, but the son sees no difference, is at that age where questions of any nature are second–n., and which frequently wrong-foot his parents. He doesn’t know where this one has come from and in truth he doesn’t care, preferring to see it as an instinctive enquiry, a deep one, a search on the son’s part for a meaning as to who he is and who he might be; also of the nature of the world around him, although this is probably overanalysing matters and the truth more likely being that he heard the word and phrase on television, or at school. Regardless, he tries to answer, feeling his way round a few ideas before committing. He knows his son and knows also that one answer will not be enough, that whatever he says may necessitate a whole series of sub-enquiries, each of which should compress the previous answer into a smaller, more manageable parcel of information, so that he – his son – can arrive at an approximation of an understanding best-suited to his needs. He tries to anticipate the above, compressing it himself within the timeframe of fractions of seconds, the way thoughts work, so he considers that a human is a person, is a being, is a me or a you, which is a living creature, but not an animal like a tiger, a monkey or a dog, although a human is certainly an animal--no: too much, too un-needed--but is a person with two arms, two legs--no: precludes paraplegics and the disabled-from-birth and so on--but is a person all the same, that is: a human is a scientific thing, a genetically distinct--no: too complex--being that lives and breathes, and cares or doesn’t care, but can choose to care or not, although sometimes can’t, but also--he supposes--can choose not to live or breathe--although again: too much. . . But a human, physically, can look like him, or other people; yes, people, he knows what people are, surely? Well, like that, but they can appear different, although generally look the same--hoping a distinction will go unrequested, because he isn’t sure he can parse the paradox himself--but a human is a person and ‘human’ is also a quality (does he know what a quality is? Again: hoping, although the correct word might be human-ness; actually, humanity, except for that doesn’t feel right so let’s stick with human-ness, which sounds like the helpful sort of word a child might use). But that this quality can really be many different things: compassion, which is caring about someone; sympathy; understanding another person, or at least trying to, even if you fail. . . Personal realisation in-situ: humanness, humanity, the state or quality of being human seems to pertain to how we, the people, relate to one another, although it can also extend to how we relate to and understand [and try to understand] and act towards and interact with, other non-human creatures and the non-sentient environment [although again, maybe too much for him] but that it appears to be how we relate to other humans and, but not restricted to, living things in general. So how to relay all this and still keep it simple? “A human is a person--like you or me--and human, or being human, means how we act, in the things that we say and do, toward other people and even toward other things like animals and the world, and being human might mean that we are kind to others, or that we show how we care about them, that we might like or even love other people, and again, maybe also animals, but the way you love us, say, or how you like your friends, and it’s things like thinking about others and being considerate and in little ways like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, the way you always do, and in doing nice things for other people and not being selfish--which I know you’re not--and I think a good way of looking at it would be that being human, or a human being (the pun goes unnoticed) is a state, a quality. . . a way, of being kind and good to others.” And he is pleased with this.
. . . and then his son points to an article in the newspaper, something which, the reading of, he didn’t even realise he--the son--was capable, that is to say interested in, and it’s an article about an incident, an assault, a gay-bashing is what they would have called it years ago, but now it’s a hate crime and it’s not that his son doesn’t understand the word ‘hate’, or even ‘gay’, things being much better now, he thinks, and it no longer being taboo at home or school to talk about such things anymore so that it makes no difference to his son if a person is gay or not, and again, is a sort of second-nature thing which he doesn’t question, and the article is also about humans and their rights, which--he presumes--is where the question came from in the first place, but the specific thing that his son is asking about is the nature of the act, the reason for the violence, the assault and the hate, and it’s one of those moments of childhood innocence (which innocence, in adults, can become ignorance) that he takes pride in, of which he can say: We taught him that and he is genuinely and literally heart-warmingly happy that he could have had a hand in producing a child capable of asking such a question, but the problem being that he now doesn’t know how to answer it, isn’t sure how to say to his son that that’s the way things are sometimes, that there are people out there, lots of people--hundreds and thousands and millions of them--who are prepared to do a thing like that: to hate someone and hurt them so much for the simple fact of who they are. That not only did people like that exist, but that he--his father – was one of them, inasmuch as he was also a person capable of hating--but not hurting, never that--or maybe just disliking another person for a fact of who they were, if to a far lesser extreme and manner than in the example cited, and that also one day it was likely that he too, the son, would grow up to be that sort of person, that everyone was that sort of person to some degree or another, because part of being human might also mean having the capacity to do such things and that, of course, the fact of a person’s human-ness has little to do with notions such as goodness, badness and kindness, but--oh, he didn't know--possibility?, potential?, and he struggled to essay it in his head that this might well be an alternative and more accurate--if much more sad--answer to his son's questions: that there are many things that make us human, not all of which are positive (and now he begins to realise how naïve and woefully inadequate his previously thought-to-be well-thought-out answer was) but that one of those things might be an innate tribalness that values sameness and denigrates the different, that finds comfort in the herd and fears the minority so much that it might go to any lengths in order to defend its primacy, and he can’t simplify any of these ideas and words for his son, can’t even imagine how to break them down into smaller parcels, being not even sure if he could understand such ideas himself at that level and it’s moments like this that he hates being a parent, a person, a fucking human being, and it just breaks his heart sometimes, really, it does.
JL Bogenschneider is a writer of fiction and has had work featured most recently in Ambit, Bare Fiction, Hobart , and The International Journal of Flash Fiction.