I’m weird, I know that. I’ve known it for a long time now, so I’m used to people sometimes looking funny at me. “Used to” might not be quite right, since it never bothered me. I could just tell people thought I was weird.
One time, when I was still in preschool, I was sitting on a bench with an ice cream cone, waiting for my mom, who I guess was shopping or something, and suddenly I saw a magpie walking across the store roof, and even with all the people around I could hear the click of its little claws on the metal, and I just watched it pitter-patter along, first one way then back again.
Then this lady came up to me and said: “Are you all right, little girl?” And I tore my eyes away from the magpie and looked at the lady, and she was pointing to my hand where I had the ice cream cone, but the ice cream was totally melted and running down my hand and onto my dress, or my clothes, and onto the ground. So I guess I’d been watching the magpie longer than I thought.
Then my mother showed up and the lady started in on her: “Is your little girl all right? She was sitting here this whole time without even moving! It was so strange I just wondered if maybe she was having a seizure or something!”
And I said: “Mommy, I was watching that magpie over there,” and I pointed to the roof where of course by then there was no more magpie.
And my mom said to the lady: “You know how children are,” and gave me that look of hers like: Did you really have to do that? But I just shrugged, since it wasn’t like I did it on purpose.
“So you’re sure everything’s all right?” the lady said, as if she didn’t believe us.
“Of course,” my mom snapped at her. “Or do you have a problem with her spilling ice cream on herself?”
“Well, excuse me for caring,” the old hag snapped back. Meanwhile she was starting to be unpleasant, and it’s OK to call ladies like that old hags, I said to myself. I was still little, so I was kind of worried my mom might read my mind and not see the old hag there.
“You’re like a pig, you know that?” my mom said, handing me a napkin, but she wasn’t angry.
“Mommy, am I weird?” I asked.
“Why, is that what that old hag told you?”
“No, not because of her,” I said, and I was being honest. I think I’m weird but I don’t mind. “The kids in school call me that too.”
“Eliška, Sofinka, Anička, Adam, Daniel, the other Daniel, Fanda. Oh, and Johanka.”
“All those kids? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know. I’m telling you now.”
“Are they mean to you? I’m going to talk to the teachers first thing tomorrow.”
“No, they’re not mean.”
“Are you sure?”
I shook my head no, nobody was mean to me.
We were still little kids. Nobody called anyone names, not even Saša, who stank. That wouldn’t start till later, but by then I was used to it. Or at any rate I was fine.
Weird—it’s a dumb word. Anyone can be weird.
“Everybody’s different. Some like watching animals, others maybe like to dance, so there’s no such thing as weird, and you’re not doing anything awful—I mean, apart from dribbling ice cream all over yourself,” my mom said, making a joke of it.
She went to throw out the napkins and the rest of my ice cream with them.
I went over to the drinking fountain to wash my hands, and pressed down on the water so that when I took my hand away, it would squirt way up in the air.
Then the water sprayed all over me and my mom said, “Are you weird or what?” We both laughed.
But I knew my mom was just trying to make me feel better, because she thought I was weird too. She and my dad talked about it a lot, and the reason I knew wasn’t because I was listening but because I knew how to watch stuff. Of course I liked watching natural stuff the best, it’s way more fun than people, but whenever I do watch people I can tell right away if someone’s acting weird, and whenever my parents talk about my weirdness, they act weird too. For instance my dad will come and start talking to me about something totally normal, like I don’t know, like koalas, but he’s clicking his ballpoint pen in and out or drumming his fingers on the table or something like that, and my mom does the same thing, but when she gets nervous for instance she’ll lash out at me and then apologize right away, and she also stares at me a long time, I noticed.
Every once in a while she’ll come up with a brilliant idea out of nowhere, but I know it’s only because I did something again that I shouldn’t have. Like when she decided that I should start going to the breeders club since I like animals so much. Which I mean yeah, I like animals, but clubs are boring, you have to do what they tell you, and you don’t get to have any fun with the animals at all. Plus they’re going to kick me out soon anyway, if they can kick out a child, because last time I let a hedgehog out into the garden and then we all had to spend a really long time looking for it, and Honza, the leader, almost yelled at me. And anyway, a hedgehog’s a wild animal, so why shouldn’t it be able to go outside?
But the main thing about my weirdness is when I’m wrapped up in my own stuff, time passes in a different way. My parents say I’m in my own world, which is a nice way for them to put it. They used to say I was lost in thought, but that wasn’t really accurate, since I’m not thinking but more like observing. When I’m in my own world, time passes differently, which you can tell from the incident with the ice cream. Plus sometimes I get lost—I zone out and don’t see where I’m going.
I can be by myself out in front of the store, though, since my mom knows I’m not going anywhere. But when I do go somewhere, then I might get lost. It’s already happened. The police even went looking for me. I was still really little then, so I don’t really remember it. I just remember I was crying like crazy when all of a sudden a police car pulled up and the police jumped out and grabbed me. But then afterwards my dad said that wasn’t what happened, that a neighbor found me and there were no police, so I don’t know.
But why am I saying this? I guess because I wait for my mom out in front of the store a lot. Or not a lot, but sometimes.
So today I’m sitting there, looking at the pigeons, then I crumble up what’s left of my snack and feed it to them. Then an old man sits down on the other bench and gives a big sigh, which I can understand, it’s hot—all I have on is a T-shirt and skirt and he’s wearing a suit and hat, like he just stepped out of some old-time movie. Meanwhile the pigeons go flying up in the air, which I like a lot, when they fly up right next to you and it makes the air turn in circles and you feel like they might crash into you but they never do. I also love the Indonesian jungle at the zoo, where the kalongs, which are bats that only eat fruit, fly around out in the open, and they don’t crash into anyone either.
Then the man in the suit pulls out a chinchilla like it’s no big deal, I have no idea where he had it, in his pocket I guess. I recognize what a chinchilla looks like, not that I’m such an expert on rodents, but we’ve got chinchillas at our club, two as a matter of fact, Pikachu (named by the boys) and Charlotte (named by the girls). Both of them are stupid names.
I watch the man while the chinchilla climbs up his sleeve then stops when it gets to his shoulder, and from a distance it looks like the chinchilla’s whispering into the man’s ear. It actually kind of surprised me, since Pikachu and Charlotte are stupid and bite, and there’s no way they wouldn’t make a run for it if they were just let free like that.
While I’m wondering how chinchillas are trained and if it’s something I should get into, a boy comes over and sits down next to the man. He’s a little shorter than me, but definitely a schoolboy, since he’s carrying a schoolbag. He gives the man a sip from a baby bottle that he takes out of a baby carriage that I guess he’s watching, so I figure the man is his and the kid in the carriage’s grandpa. Then the man passes the chinchilla to the boy, and it goes right on being perfectly well-behaved, so I guess it’s used to the boy. I decide I’m going to get up and go ask how they trained the chinchilla.
But before I make it over to them, the boy’s mom shows up. I recognize her, because one day I was over at their house with my dad, so my dad could talk over some construction stuff with her. My dad’s a lawyer and deals in construction, I don’t know exactly what, it’s boring. But I remembered that lady, because she had this little brown mole on her face, or more like a molehill, I mean it was huge, like a big brown map, like the outline of a city looking down on it from your window.
But she didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t say hi to her either, since she didn’t notice me anyway. The only ones she noticed were the boy and the man, and I guess it wasn’t their grandpa, because the lady was mad that the boy was handling the chinchilla. Then the boy started to whine, he was still just a tot, saying he wanted the chinchilla and the man was going to give it to him, and the lady said: “That simply won’t do. Pardon me, sir. Come along, Péťa,” and dragged him away by the hand while the boy looked like he was going to cry, and the little kid in the carriage started crying too.
Then the man started coughing so hard I felt bad, since I was right nearby, but I didn’t have anything to drink with me. “Would you like me to get you some water?” I asked. “I could pop right into the store here.”
“No, but thank you, little girl, that’s very kind,” said the old man, shaking his head.
I shrugged. I was just offering, I didn’t actually do it.
“How would you like a chinchilla?” the man said.
“Sure,” I said, “but . . .”
“I can’t keep him anymore. But he’s a good boy. His name is Papík. Don’t be afraid, he’s an amazing creature.”
The man had this bag on wheels and he reached inside and pulled out a shoebox, with no lid, and set it down next to me.
“I carry him around in my pocket, but you can put him in this box till you buy something better.”
Then he just got up and left. He coughed up some phlegm as he walked away, leaving me sitting there with a chinchilla I knew nothing about, but that didn’t matter, I would look up how to take care of it on the internet. He had soft fur and actually a nice tail, unlike the other rodents I knew.
Just then my mom showed up: “What in God’s name is that?”
“Whose is it?”
“Mine,” I said.
My mom looked around as if searching for the true owner.
“Mila,” she said, using my name, which she only does when she’s mad at me. “Mila, I let you have an aquarium and a tortoise, and if you ever even want to think about having another animal again, you better give that mouse back immediately. You know I can’t stand mice.”
It was true that I knew. I had just forgotten. My mom couldn’t stand mice and she was really afraid of rats. One summer we were staying at a cottage out in the country and there was a mouse and my mom actually jumped up on a chair and shrieked, like in a scene from Tom and Jerry. Still, I didn’t laugh, even though it was funny, because it was weird seeing my mom that scared of something, especially something as funny as a little mouse. Then my dad and I just carried it out to the garden and let it go and it ran away from us. But after that my mom didn’t want to stay at the cottage anymore, and she and my dad even got in a fight about it, I think.
“It’s a chinchilla,” I said, though I knew she didn’t care.
“I don’t care! It’s not coming home with us and you know that very well! Now go give it back, then come straight home and show me you have your cellphone turned on.”
I show her.
Of course now that I’m ten, I can go out by myself, but I have to keep my cellphone ringer on all the time and I’m not allowed out after dark. Even then I still get kind of lost sometimes, but I’m not a little kid, so I know how to get my bearings using Google Maps and I can get wherever I need to. So now the only place my parents drive me is to school, since it’s happened to me a couple times that I arrived late and our teacher Mrs. Anteater didn’t believe that I wasn’t trying to skip. But I don’t want to talk about Mrs. Anteater, or even think about her. I don’t like her, end of story.
“Do you hear? Go give it back.” When my mom says “it,” she says it in a tone of voice that suggests I was holding a dead body or a piece of rotten fruit or something disgusting like that.
Then she picks up her shopping bag and hurries off the way she does when she’s mad. I look at the chinchilla wiggling its snout. What am I supposed to do with it? The man has left and I have no idea who he is.
But then I get an idea. I stand up, carefully placing the chinchilla inside the box, and go to try and find the house of the lady with the mole on her face. I know which street it’s on, and I think I’ll recognize it. Even if I don’t know which floor they live on, I remember they had a little Mickey Mouse sticker on the door.
Translated by Alex Zucker