Four-year-olds say the darndest things, comme disent les Américains. And it isn't just their language acquisition and play that amuses and amazes, it's their imagination, their flip switching from the natural to the supernatural, their gullibility, their enthusiasm, their earnestness and their resilience.
I've been spending quite some time with a four-year-old lately. She's clearly an exceptional four-year-old, but we've all heard that before. I marvel at the speed with which she absorbs and recapitulates language, testing new words, like 'unconscious' and 'ruined', in different situations, adjusting to adult reactions without seeming to, launching into sentences with no end in sight, repeating but subtly altering the same ideas in subordinate clauses that end up in linguistic contradiction and confusion while still succeeding in getting the emotional meaning across.
The kids I've had to do with spend a lot of time in adult company, and are keen to do adult things, like cooking and gardening – at least around the age of four. With no clear distinction between work and play, everything's an adventure [and what are cooking and gardening if not magic – a seed becomes a plant, a mess of paste turns into a cake], and everything's done with an air of confidence, or bravado, and pride. ''I'm a really good shell-washer", my current four-year-old friend confided to me, after spending some time ''making all sparkly" a shell to decorate the dining table.
Although she has fears – which are often courted [she likes to turn the lights off and put candles on, and then to be frightened a little by the safe adults around her] – she also expresses the dangers of her world in matter-of-fact ways.
She currently lives next door to me, and sometimes comes over here, escorted by her mum, to play, and when she has to go back, she makes me accompany her ''in case somebody steals me''. Her tone is almost world-weary, as when she tells me that soon all the water will run out and no more rain will come and all the plants will die, and us too. World-weary but not at all sad, or not obviously so.
Her absorption of all that adults say is tempered by self-will. For example, an attempt to argue about her water predictions might be met with a flat refusal to change her views. Better to simply present a different story to her, in an indirect way. Arguing with her in general can lead to tantrums, though they can be diverted more easily than in earlier years.
She develops theories about things, sometimes wildly concocted, often ingenious and insightful. She believes Australians are very fond of lion meat, which they import from Africa in large quantities, and which they eat to make them big and strong, but people from other countries don't like it because it makes them sick. She likes to watch documentaries, and has asked interesting questions about the planet and why we don't fall off of it. Looking at photos, she reminisces about the past, about holidays by the seaside, and produces startling memories of places and incidents. Occasionally the child becomes mother to the woman, and it's an eerie and exciting moment.
This four-year-old has trouble in her life she barely knows about. Her dad is in jail, again, and her mum has much within herself to struggle with. Naturally we wonder and worry about her future, and what her combination of gifts and circumstances will produce. Under the circumstances, we prefer to focus on the gifts, and to dwell rather on the present. In fact, in spite of all her potential, I find myself sometimes wishing she'd never grow up, that she might perpetually dwell in this age of rapid expansion, experimentation, and strange certainty, in which saying it makes it so.
But things will change, plans are afoot, and it already looks like my days in her company are numbered.
I wonder about someone stealing her. Two stories come to mind. On September 7 1640 the philosopher René Descartes lost his only child, a daughter Francine, aged 5. She died of scarlet fever, a disease easily curable today. The philosopher was very fond of her, loved to play with her in the garden, and formed ambitious plans for her education. A few months ago, in a working-class suburb north of here, only a few streets from where I grew up, a woman had a meeting with her ex-boyfriend, a meeting intended to sort out their differences, to see if their relationship could be repaired. Unfortunately things got heated, and when the woman accused the man of being just like his father, he lost control and strangled her to death. When her body was discovered, her four-year-old daughter was sitting next to it, or should I say her, or should I say it?
These are distressing tales, but they bring to mind the fragility of life and of family.
Kids are safer today, in Australia, from the kinds of life-threatening diseases that so easily threatened them, and their labouring mothers, in earlier times, but they're still far from safe from aggressive outbursts, abuse and neglect, as well as from their lack of full awareness of their vulnerability – what we describe as a state of innocence. And of course there are other threats to their magical sense of themselves and their world, for they're bound to discover that they're not so strong or swift or clever or even fortunate as they once thought, and that some changes are permanent. Still, such discoveries are gradual, and are hopefully compensated for by new challenges, a new questioning. Meanwhile, to be allowed to act as a guide of sorts through such a period, involving so much serious business in practical magic, is indeed an honour.