...we need the Sugar Plum Fairy and a Nutcracker Prince.
I’ve always considered myself a fairly laidback godmother, so it came as quite a shock when I discovered that Clive, who was then age 8, thought that I was the rat king, from the Nutcracker.
The whole thing started one Sunday afternoon when Clive and I were off to see the Nutcracker. A children’s Christmas tradition, so I am reminded.
This, unfortunately, was not the over-idyllic version, but an extravagant story of puppets and rats becoming the projection of the dreams of an adolescent girl. Closer to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s dark vision.
Around one in the morning, a blood-chilling shriek pierced the air. Larissa and Ed rushed into Clive’s room, he was sitting up in bed, and he appeared to be extremely frightened. He was scared. Of what? Both where genuinely surprised, for up until this point in his life, Clive had never shown any indication of being scared. He was scared of the rat that was chasing him. Absurd there were no rats here. Yes, there were, and there was one under his bed right now. They looked under the bed, just to make sure that some rat hadn’t put one over on them, but there was nothing there except an empty cereal box and some toys that had been missing.
Then it suddenly dawned on them that Clive was having a delayed reaction from seeing the Nutcracker. Both sat down on the edge of Clive’s bed and together they tried to allay his fears.
First of all, they pointed out, he could not have been chased by a rat king, because he was still in his bed; he must have dreamed about it. Secondly, there could not be rats anywhere in the neighborhood, because the enchanted Malibu homeowners’ association would not permit it. Thirdly, even if there were a real rat king in the neighborhood, how could he get into the house without a key? Lastly, rat kings are fictional creatures they live only in people’s fantasy.
“He was just a make-believe rat king, dear”, said Larissa in a soothing voice.
“If he was just make-believe, how could he cause so much trouble?” ask Clive skeptically.
After dad finished his long explanation of make belief to his eight-year old he ask,”Now do you understand about make believe?”
“Yes”, he answered, “but I’m still scared. I want to sleep in your bed.”
Before long, Clive was sleeping peacefully.
Larissa called me the next morning to inform me that there could be no more scary entertainment for Clive until he was a lot older. Apparently, this proofed too stimulating to him.
The same nightmare, apparently, returned five nights in a row. I was wondering if he was overdoing a good thing. How long could a person-even an eight-year-old-go on being frightened by the same rat?
I ask Larissa what she indented to do next. “Well,” she said, “I was talking with our neighbors today, and did you know, dear, that they have been taking Billy to a child psychiatrist ever since he bit his piano teacher?”
“I heard the teacher play, and I don’t blame Billy,” I said.
“No, I am serious,” said Larissa. “Maybe somebody like that could help.”
I could see she was not going to be satisfied until she had sought the advice of an expert. I could hardly wait for the outcome.
Larissa called me the next day. “How did it go?” I ask. She sounded evasive. “I will come to see you right now.”
When she arrived, she flashed me a rather peculiar smile.
“What’s all the secrecy?”
“I’m afraid you’re not going to be pleased,” she began hesitantly.
“You mean I am not going to be able to take Clive to any more kiddy matinees?”
Larissa fortified herself with a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “Dr. Freeman doesn’t believe the ballet has very much to do with Clive’s nightmares. He says the ballet just acted as a trigger mechanism that set off symptoms of some deep-seated psychological problems that are disturbing him. According to Dr. Freeman, Clive is going through a rough stage. He is in love with both of us, and he has a conflict over this.”
“What has that to do with rat kings?”
“It’s very simple. In Clive’s dreams, the rat king is merely a personification of his godmother. It is not a rat king he’s afraid of-it’s you!”
“Me?” I could not believe my ears. “Are you trying to tell me that Clive thinks I am a rat king? Is that what that quack told you? Why, that’s absurd. Why should Clive be afraid of me? Why-I’ve been nothing but nice to him ever since he was born. Rubbish! If the ballet didn’t have something to do with it, why is Clive suddenly dreaming about rat kings?”
“The rat king is only a symbol”, explained Larissa. “It just so happens that you took him to see Nutcracker when he was on the verge of this new stage.”
The next weeks were devoted chiefly to making Clive think of his godmother not as a rat king. We spent many (happy?) hours together. I did not do any punishing, nor did I speak any harsh words to Clive, no matter how much his behavior warranted it. I simply turned the case over to Larissa. She would see to it that he got his just deserts.
Dr. Freeman had recommended an excellent system. Larissa was the disciplinarian, and I was the amiable social director. There was only one problem with the system: the situation was not improving.
Ed was getting tired of the situation. “I’m sick of this nonsense,” he finally said one morning after a sleepless night.
He did not tell Larissa, but he decided the he’d been patient enough, and that the time had come for action.
It was half past twelve, when Clive came tiptoeing into the room.
“Daddy, there is a-“
“Out!” Ed roared, sitting up in bed and pointing to the door.
“Don’t give me that rat king routine. Go back to you room and go to sleep.”
“That’s no way to speak to our son, can’t you see he is frightened?” said Larissa.
“Frightened my eye. What he needs is a good sound spanking.”
“Nobody is going to spank this poor defenseless child-you big bully,” said Larissa, “Why he be traumatized for life.”
With that, Ed moved himself into one of the guest bedrooms and tried to go to sleep.
Just as he was drifting off he saw a figure steal into the room and over to the bed. He was short and wearing pajamas.
“Daddy,” said Clive in a loud whisper.
“What do you want?” ask Daddy.
“I did not have a nightmare tonight,” said Clive.
“Well, if you did not have a nightmare, what were you doing in our room?” Ask Ed.
“I just came to tell you about the mouse.”
“Mouse? What mouse?”
“The one that woke me up. I heard a noise and I went in the bathroom and there was a mouse.”
“It is running probably all over the house by now.” Said Ed.
“No, it isn’t,” said Clive. “I shut the bathroom door on it. It is still in there. I just heard it squeaking.”
That’s about all there is to the story. Ed cornered the mouse and there were no more nightmares.
But one day, two years later, when Mercedes was turning eight, she came to me and said, “Will you take me to see Nutcracker?”
“I’m afraid not,” I replied. Nutcracker is much too scary for children. It may give you bad dreams.”
“You took Clive to see it,” Mercedes reminded me.
“Well, I’m not taking you,” I said. “And that’s final.”
You can imagine my dismay when Mercedes said to me a few weeks later, “Guess what? You don’t have to take me to see Nutcracker. It’s going to be on television.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have let this frighten me, but on the weekend Nutcracker was scheduled to air, I made sure the television was not working. Being a rat king once in a lifetime was enough for me.