What is Sweet

by Sonja Larsen

Every time I see him I think of candy.  I think of that letter he wrote when he was four years old.

Dear Santa. My mommy is dead. I have been a good boy. I want some candy and Lego. 

Now he is ten years old and the fattest kid in the centre. The other kids make fun of him on the field trip up the snow hill. The swish-swish of his snow pants as they rub together between his thighs; the pants are men’s pants and much too long. The way he breathes, as he walks up the hill: slow heavy breaths like someone trying to contain their rage.

Six years is a long time for both of us.  More than half his life.  Longer than I’d ever been in one city, much less one job.  Even back then I wondered at the wisdom of posting letters to Santa up on the daycare wall, or asking the children of Buddhists and Hindus and junkies to believe in Santa Claus at all, but I was new, so I kept quiet.

Every year the boy gets a little bigger, already my weight and inching up to my eye level.  Next year he will probably be taller than me.  I walk beside him because I always get the loners and the slow walkers on field trips.  When I was a kid, I was one of them too. I’ve been here forever, at the end of the line.  Some kids hardly seem to feel the natural world: cold, gravity, speed. But me and the boy, we’re the type of people who feel it all the time: we are carsick, phobic, clumsy and asthmatic.

The snow is coming down, thick and steady and the other kids seem to disappear in and out of landscape, their faces obscured by the mist of their breath and the falling snow.  Some of these children have never seen snow before. Hakim from Nigeria, all elbows and knees thrashing his way through the drifts, and quiet Daksha from India who follows the other girls lead as they guide her through the rituals of snow angels and snowflakes on the tongue.  Like this, they urge and she shivers but follows.

Through the air, mingled with laughter and other conversations, certain words seem to swirl around the two of us: Fatty, Baby, Teacher’s Pet.  I wonder if it is helpful to assume that each of these comments are directed at him, although there is no other explanation, just as I know the perpetrators will deny it if I challenge them.  This is another thing I remember from when I was a kid, the new kid, that the intervention of adults, the loud proclamation by the teacher that you were to be left alone, could instead be a renewed call to attack.  And I can’t manage all of it, the children, the boy, the hill. So I pretend not to hear, which I know is another kind of mistake.

Just once, I said to him at the bottom of the hill.  It’ll be fun. Just try it once. 

And I want to believe that.  I need to believe that.  That when he gets on the sled, the sled I am pulling up the hill for him, he will be pulled down into a moment of pure white joy, something he will remember for a lifetime, or even only something that will trick him into forgetting this long difficult walk.

Just once; you don’t have to go again if you don’t want to. But you’re going to love it, I promise.  And as soon as I say it I know it’s a mistake, this promise.  But everyone knows you can’t take back a promise.  You can only keep it or break it.

The letters to Santa were posted on the daycare bulletin board.  For days I watched the staff and parents admire the drawings and colourful signatures attached to each one, laugh at the hopeful requests. But at his, their faces changed.

Dear Santa. My mommy is dead. I have been a good boy. I want some candy and Lego. 

Candy and Lego.  It was such a cautious request, such a tentative belief.  He doesn’t ask Santa for miracles, he doesn’t ask for her to come back.  He just wants more of what he’s learning this tragedy will buy.  Candy and Lego for a good boy.

Was he a good boy? His Granny asks every day when she comes to pick him up.  I always say yes.  I say yes even though he cheats at board games and steals extra snacks. I say yes because if I don’t, I know Granny will call him a bad boy.  And he is a good boy, as good as any.

When I asked about the letter, about the little boy who kept asking me new questions about mommies and death, one of the daycare staff told me what the boy did not know, might never know.  That it was his crying that made the neighbours break into the room.  He’d been alone with her body for four days.  The next morning I woke up and I thought: this is day one.  And all day I imagined it: his tears, his small hands tugging, demanding, and her body turning hard against him.  I imagined his voice echoing in the room, and how each of his baby words was just another word for want, for need and how he probably used them all hoping she would give him something, anything.  And the morning after that I woke up to day two.

And now every time I see him I think of candy.  This small repetitive act seems like its own lesson on how memory can be trapped inside the body.


Last night my boyfriend and I stayed up late to watch Shackleton. I didn’t want to watch it; I was not interested in heroic tales of white men exploring far off places. I’m bored by that story, in all its manifestations.  Still, there was Branagh and popcorn and nothing better to do.

My boyfriend had read a book on Shackleton, so afterwards he filled in what the movie left out, the backstory and the small details.  He said what the men missed most during their ordeal was sugar.  Not even wine or women could seduce them more than a dream of cake, although he didn’t say it that way.  He is a scientist so I believe him when he tells me this craving for sugar is almost universal.  Even animals want what is sweet. And the reason is because in nature, what is sweet is rarely poisonous and easily converted into energy.  At our most stressed, we all wanted what was safest, what was easiest to absorb.  Even after a day of thinking about it, I can’t decide if he deliberately told me this just as I reached for the leftover Halloween candy. Am I stressed? Does his mind even work that way? I should know these things but I don’t.

I was surprised by how much the story moved me.  The men’s willingness to sail away from everything they knew, their simple desires.  Walking uphill with the boy I consider telling him about arctic explorers and what they went through, but instead I find myself saying:

Knock Knock

Out of the corner of my eye I watch him try and resist.  I watch him survey the hill ahead of him, the other children slipping and weaving on their walk upwards. Finally he gives a deep sigh.

Who’s there?


Wooden who? he says impatiently. He doesn’t want to be caught playing this game with me, and I can’t really blame him.

Wooden you like to know!

He scoffs.

That’s the stupidest joke I’ve ever heard.

Yeah probably, I say.

Still the next minute he says Knock Knock and I’m relieved that my strategy, if I can call it that, has worked.  He’s distracted, from the hill, from the other children, if only for a little while.

By the time we reach the top of the hill, many of the others have gone down already.  I can see the grooves where the sleds have ploughed through, and smudges along the side where their hands and feet have touched. Down the hill a new line of children are walking back up, white snow on skin the colour of birch, wet cedar, and teak.

The boy wants me to ride down the hill with him.  I’m irritated and touched. Does he even like me?  This is probably another thing I should know after all this time. Maybe he doesn’t know either. Sometimes he seems to look right through me. Other times he says hi and wants to talk. Mostly what he wants to talk about is hockey.  All I have is a willingness to listen and second-hand opinions I’ve stolen from my boyfriend: So and so is a bum, the Flames won’t make the Stanley Cup. He is a good boy, as good as any, but we don’t have a lot to talk about.

But now he has this request; it will backfire.  For one thing the other kids will notice, and for another it’s strictly not allowed.  I try and talk him out of it.

Just once, he says to me.

He is willing to try it once, if I go too.

And the next one you’ll go alone?

I promise, he says, and I take it because even though it might be a lie, it’s the only thing he has to offer me in exchange for his fear.

The sled slips easily into the grooves made by the other children’s tracks and the speed hits me in the stomach where it always does, the fear in my head just an afterthought. The boy’s boots are at an odd angle on the bottom of the sled, driving the fine snow into our faces until all I can do is shut my eyes and hope for the best.  And hoping is what I’m doing when the sled flips. I feel the boy’s weight fall against me and hear a small snap of what must be plastic.

The world is changing at an amazing rate, my boyfriend told me last night. In a hundred years the places Shackleton explored will be virtually unrecognizable. Icebergs that have been around for thousands of years are disappearing.  In a hundred years from now, even the shoreline of this very city will be different than it is now.  Maybe he was trying to tell me that it doesn’t matter, what is happening now, in the silence between the two of us, in the sad stories I bring home from work.  When the ocean rises, the basement apartment on Powell Street where they found the boy will fill with water too deep for land creatures and not quite salty enough for ocean animals.  In the big picture, this is just a moment, an insignificant moment.  Or maybe he was only telling me this because he wants his own sad stories, or because he is interested in facts and I claim to be interested too.

You think too much, he says to me sometimes, but really he means: you think about the wrong kind of things.

The boy is sitting in the snow holding his arm, tears running down his face. My first thought is relief that he isn’t angry. I’ve seen him fly into a rage over the smallest things.

Someday this boy might become something else, a man I do not want to know.  A man with a hunger that nothing can ease.  But today he is just a boy holding out his arm to me so I can make it better.   And as my fingers, cold and light, trace their way along the surface of his skin looking for where it hurts, I can’t help but wonder if the chill of my touch is reminding him of those four days, of everything he remembers but does not yet know.

As a child Sonja Larsen went to eleven different elementary schools and lived in several communes and one cult. As an adult she has worked as a telephone solicitor, bartender, secretary, teacher, and youth worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She has a lot of stories. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Room, Descant, Scissors and Spackle, and the Globe and Mail as well as on the web most recently at Litro.co.uk. Her website is www.sonjabegonia.com.