The little boy’s hands were splayed out in front of him, gripping the floor. Overhead the springs of a bed touched the top of his head. He peered past his own chubby fingers, looking through the gap of the bed and the hardwood floor, his instincts having taken him to a place where he might be safe from the madness in the next room. He felt the sickening thud of his heart against his ribs, itself a terrifying, otherworldly feeling. In this choked silence, breath came and went in ragged, uneven gasps, and tears slipped out of his eyes and dotted the floor around him, creating little craters of clean wood flooring in the thin layer of Midwestern dust.
There was something warm around him, moving down the length of his body. His eyes were wide open, staring, as if trying to materialize a different reality than the one before him. He could see feet and ankles in the next room, and explosive noises coming from their direction. The words didn’t make any sense to his young mind: “you’re just a ... you, all you do is drink and then come home ... oh yeah you no good ... this whole goddamn mess ...” and on and on it went, nonsensical, insane, violent beyond measure.
The boy’s existence until a few months before had been quiet and stable, with only a mother who nurtured and sang to him as if he were the only living soul in the world ― the object of all her love and tenderness. Then this large man had appeared ― who at first was tender, but slowly introduced an intensity and instability into the household. His mother now seldom held him, and her soft song was heard even less.
His tiny body moved further under the bed until his bare feet came up against a baseboard and he could retreat no more. The insanity in the next room raged on with one violent outburst overriding the next, the feet rushing this way and that, objects getting dropped explosively, chairs squalling out of place, doors banging open and closed. Violence and love pushed together into an indistinguishable mess, something no child could possibly understand for the simple reason it did not make sense. Yellow urine, warm against his body, ran between his outstretched hands and threatened to move out from under the protective overhang of the bed, exposing him. He wiped at it frantically, listening as his parents threw such violence at one another it seemed a miracle the house didn’t fall down around them. It did not make sense, it could not make sense, and choking down the tears and the violence that had come home with his father, the boy’s heart broke open.
Lying on his belly in his own urine, stuffed under a bed with a week’s worth of dust and dirt, a strange stillness came to him. The fear and the contraction and the sense of a separate, terrified self fell away, and there was only a sense of pervasive peace, an overriding clarity, and an understanding that there was nothing to fear, an understanding that was beyond even fear. The toddler stopped fidgeting. His face relaxed from its spasm as the eyes opened to see everything around them. There was no sense of fear, no sense of what should be, no sense that things were worse or better. There was awareness of his body, and of a silence out of which everything arose. It was a peace deeper than anything his young mind associated with his mother’s embrace or her breast, unbound to anything or anyone. It just was.
The violence in the other room finally consumed itself, leaving an exhausted peace in its wake. Denny crawled out from under the bed, soaked in his own urine and stood, marveling at his hands, at his body, and the look and shape of the room, at the sounds of his mother down the hall and his father muttering outside. The feeling of deep peace faded slowly, like a dream, and the young boy was suddenly, acutely aware of how cold, how awful, his pants felt against his body. Suddenly afraid, ashamed, and sobbing, he ran on tiny bare feet to find his mother, who scooped him up, cooing into his ear, and helped him change into dry clothes. Against this madness that returned from the ravishes of war, she had her ally.
Although the experience was gone, that sense of a peace deeper than anything he had ever known scored itself into the memory of the toddler, burned itself into the forming gray matter of his young brain, leaving a permanent marker for a sensation of stillness outside of time, space, or the sense of a separate self. For a few moments in early 1945, Denis Kelly had been utterly, radically free.
As he was dressed and fretted over by his mother, the safety and security she provided were but a shadow of what he had just experience, and mother would never again comfort him quite the same way. A longing to return to that place of freedom outside of time and place and personhood was implanted, and Denis Kelly would spend half a lifetime attempting to recapture it and make it is own.