When I was eight, I lived with an Alot and a Tuit.
This did not make my mother happy. She was deeply prejudiced against imaginary creatures, especially ungrammatical ones.
It did not help when I pointed out that people talked about Alots all the time, usually when they were mentioning something in the real world, and therefore Alots couldn't be strictly imaginary. And they weren't mythical, either, because Alots didn't show up in any of the books of Greek, Roman or Norse mythology that my mother had bought at various tag sales.
Yes, I was an annoyingly logical eight-year-old.
At this point, I should include a cartoon, but unfortunately my Paint program is not working at the moment. So...imagine somewhat more evolved stick figures of my mom and me. My mom has brown curly hair and an orange dress. I'm wearing a bright pink dress and have a little yellow triangle on my head. (It's a blonde ponytail. Got it? Good.)
The conversation, in three panels, would go something like this:
Mom: You can't talk about imaginary creatures as if they're real. People will think you're crazy.
Little Allie: But I can see them!
Mom: * boggles * WHAT?
And really, describing them wasn't difficult. The Alot was easy. Picture the love child of a grizzly bear and a yak. Give it a squashed-up face like a pug dog, some snaggly teeth, a pair of horns and a perpetual frown and you have something that my mother probably thought of as a monster but that I thought was cute. I pictured its frown not as a scowl but as a worried expression. If I'd been able to, I most likely would have given the Alot a hug.
Then again, I also thought T-rexes were cute. When I was eight, my aesthetics were firmly in the "Your Mileage May Vary" category.
The coolest thing about Alots, as far as I was concerned, was that they could change what they were made of. So it was completely possible to have an Alot of water, an Alot of mountains, an Alot of stars, even an Alot of homework. (I always felt sorry for Alots of homework because Alots were kind and sociable creatures, and no one ever wanted to see an Alot composed of essays, multiple choice quizzes, math equations and vocabulary lessons.)
The Alot was often accompanied by a smaller creature called the Tuit, which rode about on the Alot's back or head. It was gray, had a long flowing tail like a fox's, had very intelligent golden eyes, and could change size, so that sometimes it was about as large as a chipmunk and sometimes it was bigger than a good-sized badger. The one thing about Tuits that never changed was their shape; they were completely spherical. Crouched on the ground, eating nuts or roots—I thought that "roots" mean "herbs" or "weeds"--it resembled a good-sized rock. It was also very shy, so if anyone it didn't know tried to creep up on it, it would roll a fair distance away and then bounce up into the treetops and stay there until the person went away. That was why it was so hard to, as people said, "get a round Tuit."
The Alot and the Tuit were independent animals, showing up precisely where and when they wanted to. I think this was what worried my mother the most. They would go away for days and weeks at a time, lulling her into a false sense of security—perhaps they were finally gone! And then one day I would wander back into the house and announce that I had seen an Alot made of snowflakes or that the Tuit had been sitting under the oak tree this afternoon while I was playing on my monkey swing. If I had only invoked the creatures when I was asking for chocolate chip cookies ("The Alot's hungry, so can I please have two?") or insisted that she back carefully out of the driveway to avoid hitting the Tuit or the Alot, she would have found matters far more comprehensible.
If she had asked me, I could have told her that neither the Tuit nor the Alot were in danger from the car because the Tuit could bounce at the speed of light if it wanted to and the Alot could simply turn itself into an Alot of air. Also, Alots didn't like chocolate chip cookies. They ate mostly grasses and dandelions, though they were very partial to cheeseburgers. (When I was eight, I thought that "being partial to cheeseburgers" was like "enjoying breathing.")
Second nonexistent cartoon:
Little Allie: Blah blah Alot, blah blah Tuit...
Mom (thinking): Why couldn't my kid just have an imaginary playmate like everyone else?
Despite my mother urging me to tell no one about what she called "the imaginary menagerie"--trying saying that three times fast!--I did tell my best friend Sophie. Sophie was, as far as I was concerned, the coolest person on the planet, because at the age of eight, she had settled on her life ambition—to become a witch.
I don't mean that she was a Wiccan. I'm not even sure there were any Wiccans in my area of rural Idaho. And no, she wasn't a Harry Potter fan. This was before Harry Potter. When I say that she was a witch, I mean that she was doing everything humanly possible to become magical. And let me tell you, she worked at it. A day was not complete unless she had brewed a potion or done her best to concoct a spell that would actually do something otherwise impossible. She was the only eight-year-old I ever knew who not only knew what a grimoire was but who had one. Granted, it was a spiral notebook with a floral cover and it was heavily splotched with shiny decals, but it was a witch's book of spells.
I tried to create a grimoire. I really did. But my mother, who was already dealing with a lot, or an Alot, of anxiety due to my seeing the Alot and the Tuit, tended to glance through my notebooks every now and again "just to see what kind of work you're doing for school." I'm not sure what she was looking for, as she checked my homework every day and had no objection to me writing wildly improbable stories or doodling pictures of cats and horses in my school notebooks. She probably just wanted to be sure that the curiously self-willed imaginary animals weren't telling me to go on a very real rampage.
Now, when you have a friend who's exceptionally good at dealing with the weirdness of the world, it just seems like the most natural thing in the world to tell her about the imaginary animals in our very real neighborhood.
Third cartoon, this one in five panels.
Sophie and I are sitting on the floor of her bedroom, mixing a semi-liquid gray-green mess in mugs, an iron skillet, and test tubes. Sophie has wavy brown lines for hair and is wearing a green dress. I, of course, am still dressed in pink and still have my yellow triangular ponytail.
Little Allie: Sophie, have you ever heard of the Alot and the Tuit?
Sophie (scrutinizing a test tube): No...
Little Allie: * blah blah explanation *
Me gazing hopefully at Sophie while she says nothing.
My eyes getting bigger and sadder as Sophie continues to say a whole lot of nothing.
Sophie: I hope you haven't told anyone else that. People will start to think that witches are crazy.
That's right. My best friend, who was no less focused on becoming a magical girl than a gifted gymnast is on making it to the Olympics, was worried that I was going to make witchcraft look bad.
There was an argument. Which is kind of like saying that the Titanic was sunk by an ice cube.
I don't remember everything that was said. I do recall Sophie saying that the Alot and the Tuit couldn't possibly exist because, if they did, they would exist all the time.
I pointed out that there were plenty of examples in true ghost stories of spirits, rooms and even dimensions that only appeared at certain times.
Sophie couldn't deny that; she believed it no less than I did. Nevertheless, she insisted that the Alot and the Tuit were not that sort of creature. That they couldn't be. Why? Well, they just couldn't, that was all!
I think that what really stuck in her craw was that I was seeing something weird and mysterious that she wasn't. Susan Pevensie barred from Narnia could not have been more determined to disbelieve in strangeness than she.
The argument ended as arguments between me and my friends always ended—with whomever didn't live at the address stomping downstairs, slamming out of the house, and vowing never to speak to that vile person again for longer than forever! (Or until the end of the weekend. Whichever came first.)
But I'd learned my lesson. It was bad enough being disbelieved by my mother, but after all, she was a grown-up. Grown-ups had lost some of their senses and couldn't see invisible stuff very well. But Sophie should have believed me. And I honestly couldn't see why she hadn't. I hadn't laughed when she told me about seeing ghosts. And when she decided that, in order to ward off evil at recess, we had to keep circling a tree with a root shaped like an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, I hadn't argued. It just wasn't fair.
Little Allie (with uplifted fist): I am surrounded by SKEPTICS!
So I did what any good discoverer of the strange and the mysterious does in the face of rampant disbelief. I shut up.
Oh, I didn't stop seeing the Alot or the Tuit. And I certainly didn't stop talking to them. But I did stop mentioning them to my mother and to Sophie. It was clear that was what they wanted.
It bothered me, though. It bothered me...well, a lot.
An Alot is curled up in a corner, a Tuit perched on its head. I am standing in front of them, staring at my shoes.
Little Allie (sadface): I'm bothered, Alot.
Not talking about them felt like lying. I wasn't saying that they didn't exist, but I was giving that impression, and I knew that wasn't true. And I was convinced that by not talking about them, I was angering whatever forces made Alots and Tuits able to appear in this universe and that they would just disappear because I'd put not upsetting my mother and not losing my best friend above being honorable.
Eight years old, and I was having a metaphysical crisis.
Things might have continued this way indefinitely if not for Mrs. Gradgrind.
Mrs. Gradgrind was my third-grade teacher. Like her Dickensian namesake, Mrs. Gradgrind was all about facts and reality and making sure that kids never dreamt of anything. She especially loathed girls, and relished telling us, in a thousand different ways, that while we might think that we were going to become mechanics, doctors and astronauts, we were destined to be housewives, teachers or, if we were very bright, nurses. And we needed to accept that right now.
I wanted to grow up to be a witch with my own starship, to discover lost worlds and, when I got a chance, to go back in time, hitch a ride on a pteranodon and hunt velociraptors.
We were not ideally matched.
The worst thing about Mrs. Gradgrind was not her conviction that facts, not cake, were the only thing that mattered, though I knew better than that at four. Nor was it her hatred of girls, her idolatry of boys, or her mad insistence that I could not possibly possess a modicum of intelligence because I had an imagination. The worst thing about her was that she was young--young enough to remember that kids don't live completely in the real world. And yet she didn't remember. No schoolyard charms. No recollections of writing to Santa or waiting up for the Easter Bunny. No ghost stories told on summer nights. Not even "step on a crack, break your mother's back." She had no knowledge of anything that was not empirically real.
This scared the life out of me. Was this what happened when you grew up—you lost not only your memory but every trace of who you were?
The idea that this not only could happen but inevitably would was the stuff of nightmares. And I had a sick feeling in my stomach that by denying the Alot and the Tuit I had accelerated the process.
At the same time, I couldn't pray that I wouldn't grow up that way, because most adults didn't seem to have much memory of what it was like to be a kid. Therefore, praying not to grow up that way was the same as praying not to grow up at all. And praying not to grow up was the same thing as praying to die before you grew up, at least in my book. So I was screwed either way.
And because I was pretending that the Alot and the Tuit weren't real—which had to be a massive offense in the eyes of whoever was in charge of the universe—I was going to be punished horribly forever.
Which meant damnation.
Which meant that I would eventually become. Just. Like. Her.
I spent countless nights lying in bed and shaking in terror, convinced that if I dozed off before I had begged the universe for sufficient mercy, the Devil would scoop out my soul like my mother scooped seeds out of a Jack o'Lantern. And that what was left behind would be the worst monster the world has ever known.
Some of the boys in class had a far more cheerful view of things. They believed that Mrs. Gradgrind was an evil alien robot bent on world domination. I would have liked to believe that, but I didn't think I could possibly be that lucky.
Mrs. Gradgrind and I spent third grade embroiled in a war. My mother spent so much time in the principal's office listening to Mrs. Gradgrind's complaints about me—usually about how I was writing stories that sounded like stories rather than, "See Dot run? Run, Dot, run!"--that she said she should have qualified for hazardous duty pay, and that I should have a Purple Heart for walking into that classroom every day.
I didn't care so much about the Purple Heart. But I did wish fervently that there was some way that I could get her...in a way that she couldn't turn around and present as my fault.
Then, one day in March, about six months after the epic fight between Sophie and me, Sophie was staring out of the classroom window at the woods surrounding our school. I had my textbook open and a paperback mystery inside it. Mrs. Gradgrind was droning on about reading maps, a talent so esoteric that no grownups of our acquaintance had ever mastered it. So neither of us was very concerned about this not becoming part of our skill set.
Suddenly, Sophie sat straight up, then leaned toward the window. "Allie! Look!"
I didn't even glance up from my book. "What?"
"There's an animal outside."
"The school's practically in the woods. Of course there's an animal outside."
"No. It's a big animal. Really big, like a bear. Only...it's not a bear."
I turned a page in my book. "How do you know?"
Her voice was tense, even nervous. "It has horns."
That made me close my book and lean across her desk toward the window.
Now, there are all kinds of rational explanations for the black, shaggy, horned beast standing under a tree and looking wistfully in the direction of the school. It could have been a very young Angus cow—they're shaggy and have horns, and it was rural Idaho. It could have been a Newfoundland dog with a hat jammed on its head, because there were kids around here who owned horrible hats knitted by their grandmothers and who would have willingly made a deal with Satan to get rid of the things, never mind shoving one onto the head of a bear-sized dog. It could have been a folie a deux or mob mentality. Hell, it could have been a joke that Sophie was playing on me.
But at the time, I was absolutely certain of one thing: that was my Alot. Somehow, miraculously, it had found a way to become visible to other people.
"It's an Alot." And I beamed a pumpkin grin at my Alot, wishing with all my heart that I had a camera so that I could take a picture and prove to my mother after school that YES, ALOTS ARE REAL.
Of course, two girls paying no attention to her attracted the attention of Mrs. Gradgrind, and she immediately flounced over to our desks to find out what was more interesting than she was. (Answer: almost everything.)
"There's an animal outside," Sophie started to explain.
Mrs. Gradgrind barely glanced out the window. "Of course there is nothing outside. Don't be absurd. Now, turn around and pay attention to the lesson, or you'll have to spend the summer doing makeup work in summer school!"
I think it was the implicit threat to flunk us both—even though we were both good students—and condemn us to the hellish tedium of summer school that drove me temporarily insane. That's the only explanation I have for what I did next.
"There is an animal out there," I said to Mrs. Gradgrind. And then I called out to one of the boys across the room. "Tyler! C'mere! What do you see?"
Tyler, surprised—for I was not one of his favorite people, nor was he one of mine—meandered over to the window, paused and then stared. "Whoa! What's that? It's like a bear, but bigger."
"And what's that on its head?" asked Nancy Ingram. Nancy was a friend of Sophie and me, despite the fact that she was as unfanciful as even Mrs. Gradgrind could have wished. "It looks like a furry gray basketball."
I blinked, and then peered out the window for a second look. Yes, the Tuit was here now. I couldn't believe I'd missed it before.
Tyler called out to his friends. "Henry! Jack! Dale! C'mon, you gotta see this!" And Nancy, while quieter, was doing the exact same, motioning our friends and her friends forward with a wave of her hand, never taking her eyes off from the Alot and the Tuit for an instant.
Within minutes, all of the kids were out of their seats and trying to crowd closer to the window. And all of them were talking about the Alot, wondering whether it was a cow, a bear, a demon, or something stranger, and debating whether that "furry basketball" was a bird or a bat or just a fat squirrel. And all of this without the slightest prompting from me.
I grinned, basking in the sheer joy of everything going right for a change.
Of course, Mrs. Gradgrind saw the grin and at once put her own spin on it.
Mrs. Gradgrind: You're responsible for this! You set this whole thing up!
Little Allie: ?
Mrs. Gradgrind: You arranged to have everyone pretend to see an animal outside when you know perfectly well there is no animal out there.
Little Allie (death glare): I did not.
Mrs. Gradgrind: The more you tell lies, the worse your punishment is going to be. * grabs my arm * I'm taking you to the principal right--
The classroom door opens and the principal—a bald man in a three-piece suit--is standing there.
Principal: What's going on? I can hear the noise all the way down the—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT A BEAR OUTSIDE?
Principal runs out of the door. Mrs. Gradgrind is left staring at me.
Little Allie (smug): Told you so.
As the principal ran off to call the cops and the fire department and Wildlife Control and everyone else he could think of who might have professional experience with bears, a cry came from Sophie. "Awww, they're leaving!"
This was the one aspect of the Alot's visit that no one ever agreed on. Most of the kids said that the "horned bear" and the "bouncing furball" just vanished, as if they'd never been there. A few of the boys said that the Tuit bounced, climbed or flew up to the branches of a nearby pine tree, while the Alot just turned around and shambled back into the woods. Sophie always swore that a door opened in the side of an oak tree and the two of them walked through the door.
And me? I never saw them leave. I was never really convinced that they had left, really. I figured that the Alot knew that men with both regular and tranquilizer guns were coming, and just turned itself into Alot of nothing. And then, when the cops were gone, it turned itself back into an Alot of everything again.
No one ever found a trace of the so-called bear, incidentally—no tracks, no scent. And I never did tell my mother about the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the Alot. I figured that she'd just be upset and try to convince me that it never happened. And I didn't want to hear that. It was my personal miracle, after all.
Sophie apologized after school that day for doubting me. We spent the next several months searching fervently for doors to other dimensions. We never found any. But we had a great deal of fun trying.
Mrs. Gradgrind spent the rest of the year trying to convince us that magic and magical animals didn't exist. This didn't work too well, especially with a fair number of the girls. They figured that if a horned bear could exist, why not horned horses?
I'm sure that the fact that she quit work before school ended and found a new job at an all-boys' private school in Chicago was a complete coincidence.