The Innocents

by Teddy O’Brien

How terrible to be young at a time like this.
How regular, and how terrible. I think this as I pass
a trio of children on my way to the store,
leashed by their mother’s arms.
I mourn
the silence of their small muzzled mouths,
and how their eyes, seeking concessions from the great anonymity of the world,
find none.
And as we pass the vast silence of the swing-sets,
even the youngest knows better than to ask.

As a child, no one really understands
how much of you there is.
The space between your ribs
can admit a planet without difficulty,
and that is only the least of your troubles;
more troublesome by far, how your heart
clings to the slightest things — a popsicle, a used Band-Aid,
a battery, a fork, a piece of gum.
With these and other treasures you fall in love
so easily, so quickly, and so deeply
that your small heart breaks a thousand times before breakfast,
and always it tries again, howling
questions you will pretend to forget with age—
Will you love me? and Will you love me, please?
And answers resounding return

varying in their sources but never
in their silences,
always their terrible silences.

As a child, your heart is a muscle the size of your head.

You are becoming aware of the unspeakable depths
of yourself, and you wonder
if this darkness is you,  
if this could possibly be you,
and if you are alone in it. You have a sinking suspicion
that you are alone in it.
There are moments
when you watch the Day-Glo dinosaurs on your bedroom ceiling
or rub the texture of the living room carpet beneath your cheek
and it will be a long time before you call it anguish,
before you call it ennui, before you call it
three o’clock on a Monday, 
so long before you learn the many names for loneliness.
There is so much inside you that you cannot explain.
And were it not for the fact that you are desperately
and irrevocably in love with the world,
it would be impossible
not to be afraid of it.

You will lose this,
or pretend to – and be less afraid, or
pretend to – but I wonder if you will miss it.
You understand tragedy better than any of us.
It lies in that casual wildness of spirit
which allows you to fall again and again
from the swing-set seat, to shred the skin of your knees
without a whimper,
and to look at me over the fold of a mask
while a smile pushes your cheeks over its brim,
knowingly, as if to say:
‘Worry less. This, too, shall pass,
this trial and the next, and the next;
of that much I am certain. After all,
I spilled my cereal this morning.’


Teddy O’Brien is a writer from Salem, Oregon and a student at Stanford University. Her work has been previously published in The Oregonian and was selected as a finalist for the Lex Allen Literary Festival Poetry Prize. She lives in the Bay Area.