One Summer With Dill
_by Rebecca butler
I'm browsing the avocados when I hear a thud on the ground behind me. I turn slowly and see a little girl thrashing around on the ground in distress. "Hurry!" She whispers urgently in a thick Australian accent. "Before someone sees me!" I retrieve a cloth napkin from my pocket and wipe off her legs as another woman looks on in concern. "It's okay," I tell her. And then I whisper, "She turns into a mermaid when she gets wet!" The woman smiles at us but my daughter looks at me like I have betrayed her. Her secret is out. After two months of secretly parenting a mermaid, I just couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer.
The good thing about your daughter being a horse is that she isn't quite as pokey as a little girl. She does everything at a gallop and she doesn't have hands to carry a bunch of toys. That means when we're walking somewhere she's usually moving too fast to stop and inspect every rock, insect, and blade of grass; and when we go somewhere we don't have to wait for her to put on her dolls' coats and hats and get their diaper bags ready. That said, my daughter is still a slow poke and the whole family is sitting in the hot car waiting for her. As always, she is the last to come out the door. She's at a slow canter as she navigates the cross-country jumps that have taken over our front yard, She is clearly lost in her own thoughts and when she walks in front of the car my husband beeps the horn once to startle her. She throws her head back, rears up, and lets out a very convincing, "Nei-i-igh!" After nearly 6 months of being a horse all day every day, her instinctual reaction to being startled wasn't to jump back and scream like a little girl; it was to rear up and whinny like a horse.
Before we leave for the park, Sage watches a 15-minute youtube cartoon where one of the characters has a French accent. That's all she needs to create an awkward situation for me when another parent comes over and starts speaking to me in French. "I'm sorry," I say, "I wish I spoke French, but I don't." She looks surprised and asks me if Sage is my daughter. I look at her across the playground, leaning dramatically against a pole, animatedly relating some story to another little girl who is leaning just as dramatically on the pole next to her. I remember the French cartoon and, after some inquiry, I discover that my daughter just arrived here from Paris. Apparently we are just visiting family here. The woman laughs and tells me how convincing her accent is. She says she should get it on video; her family would get a great kick out of it.
"All right, Dill, you stay here with your sister and I'll be back with our snacks in about 10 minutes." I cringe a little; I hate to admit it, but there's something about the name Dill that I just don't like. My kids are hanging side-by-side from a huge, weathered wooden play structure in a camp ground in Indiana. They've been playing all afternoon with the boys from the camp next to ours. The playground is dotted with sunlight, nestled right into the forest just down the path from our campsite. I go back to our camp to gather our picnic and head back to dole it out to my hungry kids, but Dill meets me halfway, tears streaming down his face. "I hate myself! I'm just a liar and I hate myself!" My heart leaps into my throat. I try to grab him, to gather him into my arms, but he slips away and runs into the woods. I am torn between following him or going back for my daughter first. I hurry to the playground and find her facing down two little boys and their mother. My daughter's hands are on her hips and her chest is puffed out. Lotus is only 5 years old but when someone messes with her sister, she is a force to be reckoned with. I tell her to come with me. The boys' mother looks indignant as she approaches me, but I have to find Dill before he gets too far away.
Lotus and I push our way through brambles and tiny new pine trees, deep into the woods, where we find Dill clinging to a tree, sobbing. Lotus tells me that when the boys found out that Dill was actually a girl, they threw a rock at her and called her a liar. They chased her and teased her until she finally ran off. When Lotus told their mother what the boys did and asked for her help, she backed them up. She said that Sage is a liar, that if she doesn't want to be teased, she shouldn't pretend to be something she is not.
It takes Lotus and me almost an hour of standing in the darkening woods, giving Sage the space to cry and trying to reassure her that playing make believe is not the same as lying. Sage hugs the tree the entire time and swears she will never be Dill again. I wonder if I'll ever stop missing the helpful, cheerful boy that I spent the summer with.
When we exit the forest, the boys and their mother are walking up the road. The mother tells me that she is offended by Sage's lies and that she owes them all an apology. I look at my daughter's tear stained face, hold her fast when I can tell she is thinking about bolting back into the woods, and wonder what it is about Dill that is so threatening to this family.
This isn't the first time that Dill has made someone uncomfortable, although it is the first time that any of Sage's characters have elicited violence from other children. Since she became Dill at the beginning of the summer, we had cut her hair short and spent several afternoons browsing thrift stores, collecting cargo shorts and black t-shirts so she could be fully in character. Our family's best friends are a lesbian couple whose experiences of fighting for human rights and questioning gender roles proved invaluable for our family that summer. They stood so strongly behind Sage that it brings tears to my eyes when I think of the long conversations they had with her about gender identity and how it is a social construct that she need not be concerned with or limited by if she didn't want to be. I know that Sage internalized these messages, that our friends helped her come to these conclusions on her own, yet it wasn't enough to protect her from the negative reactions of some very insensitive people.
Sage was fascinated with a regular at our favorite cafe, a transgendered person whom she nicknamed "Pink". Pink spent every summer afternoon outside the cafe, chain smoking and writing in her notebooks. As soon as she saw us coming, she always put out her cigarettes and waved away the smoke, capped her pen, and patiently prepared herself for Sage's onslaught of questions about her new hair color, her outfit, and sometimes her gender identity. Sage fawned over Pink's sparkly short skirts and extravagant high heels and was delighted at the transformation when she occasionally saw him as a man.
Pink was a character study for her, not much different from the French girl in the cartoon, yet Sage's fascination with her made some people uncomfortable. Another cafe regular leaned in to me one morning and asked me earnestly, "Are you sure your daughter should be sitting with him?" I looked at Dill, doubled over in his chair, inspecting the most spectacular leopard-print platform shoes he had ever laid eyes on. Pink was doubled over too, explaining the meticulous process of covering them in the leopard-print duct tape. "I think she's just fine over there." I turned back to my coffee.
Today Sage is a fashion designer, clad in moon boots, a simple grey dress, and some pants that she made last summer from this wild fabric that she loves. It's printed with about 20 different kinds of dog faces but somehow she actually turned it into a pretty cool pair of pants. As she unloads her art supplies and fashion portfolio, someone at the next table spots her and asks her to design a custom dress for an upcoming event. Sage studies our friend for a moment, nods and gets right to work on the dress. I don't think it even crossed her mind that some people might think it odd to see this muscled, tattooed black man clad in a sparkly green evening gown at his next party, his bald head crowned with a tiara and veil. I feel a sense of relief when I realize that I can stop mourning the abrupt way that Dill exited our lives. The lessons he taught us are still fresh and I'm pretty sure he's still in there somewhere.