At first, it was a single pea.
He had scooped it carefully into his teaspoon and was bringing it closer to his open mouth. The other family members around the dinner table paid little attention. After all, there was no longer any mystery to this daily art. He was six years old. He rode a school bus and attended first grade. The luxury of being handfed was a distant memory. But that evening as the pea drew closer, a slight tremor awakened in his fingers. His wrist twisted, and the pea shot past his shoulder. He glanced at his family. Without pause they continued feeding.
He gathered another pea into his teaspoon, raised it close to his lips. Again his hand began to tremble, and the pea bounced off his forehead. He laughed gleefully, and his arm fanned up and down. The mother looked sharply at him and clucked her tongue.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
“Mama,” he said, wonder glinting in his eyes. “Look, I’m dancing.”
After that evening, there would be other foods, and he soon became famous for the trajectory of his meals. There were the apple slices (his favorite) and the boiled bean sprouts (of which he was not so fond). There was the fresh orange kimchee mottling the yellow wallpaper, the nonchalant toss of his birthday cake that the mother had baroquely iced. And, of course, there were the fruit juices. The house grew tense.
In the afternoons, he wandered from room to room, head bobbing back and forth as his arms flapped against the black lacquer cabinets. He struck free the Lenox angels from their pedestals and watched them plummet, their painted limbs exploding into a celebration of shards against the marble floor. Like a little chicken, the mother noted disapprovingly, and then smiled to herself for the next three days. But at night she tossed and turned. She dreamt of vast barnyards filled with shattered porcelain fingers and wings, each fragment slowly pecked clean by her little boy.
There were other concerns in the house. “Why does he get to stay at home in bedclothes?” the older brother erupted, voice aflame with ire. “Dancing his little dance, hurling his food here and there. Who does he think he is? A prince?”
A tricky question, despite its rival tone. What was there to say? “Quiet!” the mother screamed and raked her knuckles against the oldest son’s crown. But in her heart she knew it must be asked. What had her boy become? Not a prince, but some unearthly, flightless bird.
The days passed, and by now the tremors never rested. Morning and night, his gums bled as his teeth gnashed together. His forearms were bruised burgundy by the table edges. His eyes darted back and forth before unmoving things. And there was talk. There were the phone calls from the one-armed first grade teacher Mrs. Benson who kept tabs on her lost left fingers. There was the missed field trip to Impressions Five. Subtraction would begin next week. “Not a promising start to first grade,” Mrs. Benson admonished. “Your boy may be left behind.”
“My boy,” the mother moaned softly as she cradled him on the chaise. She watched his limbs wade an unholy breaststroke. “Where are you swimming to?” she wondered aloud, pressing her forehead against his twitching cheek. “When will you return?”
At last, there was the Saturday of the pomegranate juice, and the father took matters into his own hands. He snapped a photograph of the living room carpet and showed it to his colleagues in the doctors’ lounge. “Absolutely canine,” he cried. “Look at this. We must lay newspaper all around him.”
Grizzled surgeons grew soft and patted the father on the shoulder. “Do not despair,” they advised. “Take him to the sixth floor. We have a man there who has results with such behavior. There is no shame inquiring.”
From his mobile phone, the father urged the option to the mother. “He has had results,” he explained. “He has studied both body and mind. He will put a stop to the boy’s antics soon enough. After all, who does he think he is?”
“Quiet!” the mother implored but could not say more.
That evening, eyes spider-webbed and raw, the mother strolled from room to room and viewed the Pollock of each Persian rug. With grim admiration she noted the pomegranate juice, the brilliant juxtaposition of chocolate and codfish stew. It was not so bad, a touch of genius right there in fact. But from upstairs, she heard her son’s arms thudding against his headboard. “Papa,” she heard him call, voice syncopated by his restless limbs. “Papa, please tell me when I may stop.”
And so to the sixth floor it would be.
“We should like to observe the boy,” a cherubic nurse explained. “In isolation, if you please.”
For six days, they measured the range of his sensitivities. To light and darkness, the distance of the sky. They studied his reaction to fern and flower, the effect of weightlessness in a wading pool. During the fourth afternoon he stared at pictures of distant stars and a waning moon; day five brought drawings of long dead fish and fowl. Finally, the father and mother appeared by the bedside, one by one, to see what good work had been done.
“Sydenham’s chorea,” the silver-maned physician proclaimed, “not your boy’s fault at all. Quite rare, the most exceptional case I have encountered.” The physician displayed the vials of antidote at his disposal. “An aperitif,” he announced, “and then on to the main course we propose.”
“Oh yes,” the father and mother said.
Thus on the seventh day the dancing began to stop, and their son lay under the physician’s watchful eye. From atop the white bed sheets, he stretched his thin arms wide enough to embrace them all.
“My boy,” his mother wept.
One last tremor like the first. She hugged him tightly, and so it was.
Hun Ohm is a writer and intellectual property lawyer. He lives in western Massachusetts.
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