“I watched you die. Try to remember,” says the father to his son.
This is how the ritual begins.
The son shakes his head, confused. The father kneels at the edge of his son’s bed.
“Try to remember. You were running. You were chasing a goose. You were laughing.”
The son listens. He watches his father’s lips move. His mother watches from the doorway. Every family has gone through this. Fathers lead the sons, mothers lead the daughters, and in those instances it is the father who nods from the doorway instead, curious of the story the mother will tell. There is always some cautious creativity at the beginning of the ritual.
“You almost caught the goose,” says the father. “Your hands were within inches of its neck, but when it flapped its wings again you slipped. The mud took your foot and you fell. You fell on your side. Your head hit a stone. You died instantly. I was watching.”
The boy has just turned five. The average age for boys to begin the ritual in the village is five. The average age for girls is four.
“Try to remember,” says the father. “Your mother and I are dead too. We’re all dead.”
The boy smiles at this new game. “This is for play?” asks the boy. The boy looks at his mother in the doorway. Though it is difficult, the father doesn’t answer. He must not lie but he must not rush.
“I remember,” says the boy.
“You remember?” asks the father.
“I remember. You’re dead and mama’s dead and now I’m dead too.”
He sticks his tongue out. He laughs at the new game. He hops off the bed and the father and son chase each other around the room, laughing and laughing.
“I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead,” shouts the boy with his arms up, running after his father who runs in circles before turning around to chase the boy. “Mama mama mama I’m dead I’m dead,” says the boy, running past his mother in the doorway. He pulls at her hand so she can join in the game but she must not yet intervene, so the father and son chase each other out of the room and around the house and back into the room again.
But very soon the game has gone on too long. The son sits back on the bed. He is anxious.
“I want a different game. I don’t like this game,” says the boy.
The father kneels again before his son. “It’s not a game. I watched you die. Try to remember.”
“I’m not really dead. I don’t want to be dead. I’m not really dead am I?”
“We all are,” says the father.
“Stop playing. I don’t want to play. You’re not really dead are you?” The boy looks to his mother. “Papa’s not really dead is he?”
Now is the mother’s turn. She steps into the room.
“Little Goose, we all died. A long time ago. Please try to remember,” she says.
“I’m not a little goose,” says the boy.
“Little Goose is your name now,” says the mother.
This is the second phase. To many parents it is the hardest phase. It is full of dialogue. The son is assured of his death, and that his name died with him. It is so tempting to give up as the child begins to cry.
He insists he was alive yesterday, even this very morning. He insists he remembers gathering wood with his father, and all of them singing together around the fire. The mother assures him that everything he is remembering is from a long time ago, years ago. He has been dead for a year. He is assured they can be a family again. They can stay a family forever if he would only remember. His parents reach out to comfort the boy, and this is how they get him to run out of the room, out of the house, to the trap of the village outside.
The village doctor is the one who decides when a child is ready. The child must have a sufficient vocabulary, an active imagination, the concept of memory and life and death, and most importantly an awareness of other minds—that other minds have their own beliefs—but the child’s ego must not be so firmly planted that its ripping away would be permanently destructive. There is usually a window of a few months, the village doctor believes. Girls are generally younger when they are ready, and their window is a bit wider than boys of similar age, but inevitably every one receives that crucial visit from the village doctor in which, after a conversation and a brief exam of the hands, eyes, and tongue, the cockeyed doctor turns to the parents and gives his solemn nod.
Now the child sees the doctor again, waiting outside the boy’s house, but he is just another cockeyed man in the crowd. The entire village is there. They are gathered around a small fire in the family pit. Every one of them looks younger than their true age. Faced with this denial of his identity by both parents, the boy looks to them for validation. Without any hesitation, with nothing left to lose after losing himself, the boy asks his question. He asks all of them at once.
“I’m not really dead, am I?” he asks.
They guide the boy to an empty wooden bench before the fire. He sits. He asks his question again and one by one the villagers nod as horror spills over the boy’s face.
“We’re all dead,” they say.
Now they each put a hand on the boy. All their dead hands touch him.
“Try to remember,” they say together and the fire crackles and shudders light and warmth across all their faces. They have practiced this ritual for generations. They are very good at it.
The moment when the boy makes his choice—to believe himself or to believe everyone else—is not easily observed, and neither is it clear if he even knows he has a choice, but when he speaks next it is clear the choice was made.
“I remember,” says the boy.
The father puts his warm palm against the boy’s warm face. The mother kisses her husband. The doctor and the rest of the villagers slip back into the darkness as the fire crackles and the boy’s parents walk him back inside.
It is tempting to believe the ritual is over now, and that there is no third phase. The third is the slowest phase, the longest. It begins when tomorrow, or the day after, maybe even a week from now, the father will find a small slip of paper tucked into one of his son’s books, under his mattress, or behind his pillow. The father doesn’t need to read the words written on the slip of paper. The words are the same for every child. But he will read them anyway. He will unfold the paper and a sigh will escape his lips when he reads the words his son has tried to save. Then the note is burned.
After a dozen such notes are removed and destroyed over a period of weeks, months, and sometimes even years, the third phase will have tapered off and the ritual will, finally, be behind them. The village will declare the child an adult. The cockeyed doctor will lead a great celebration with food and wine and dancing, and Little Goose will celebrate with everyone. He will be happy and his happiness will remain. He will have forgotten the creeping fear of life’s approaching end, just as he’ll have forgotten the notes he’d once tried to write to himself. His only worry will be for the day when the cockeyed doctor assesses his own child, and nods.
But that time is still far away. Now, while his son sleeps, the father pulls a folded slip of paper from inside one of Little Goose’s little shoes. He smiles. Long ago, he once hid a slip of paper inside his own shoe. He can’t help reading it before putting it to the fire.
“You are still alive. Try to remember.”