In the evening, I watch my five-year-old battle with open abandon against the Empire. He stands in our front lawn, alone, swinging a bloated, red, plastic baseball bat. It floats around him, glowing in the sun, just like a lightsaber should.
“Darth Vader,” he says, “You are not my father. I will destroy you.”
He’s Luke of course, and he is himself. He swings a bright light called a weapon. Sometimes, my son accepts this paternity. Sometimes he loses his arm to Vader. Sometimes he cuts off Vader’s arm.
For a long time, I suffered when I watched my son pretend to kill another human being this way. My son understands Vader as human. A being. What had I done wrong to give him the impression that any person should be destroyed?
I watched and worried and let that worry obscure my memory. It took me too long to remember that I was not an innocent child. The adults circled with a nuanced language I didn’t speak. I knew of villains. Bad guys. They could be named. Addressed. They could be vanquished.
“Vader,” he says and takes a swing. He pretends to kill Vader, but Vader never dies. It’s as if my son is in a dream and wakes up before Vader can take the last breath that would end this vital relationship. And that’s what it is. A relationship. Vader is a part of his life. He’s a part of our lives. We talk about him at the dinner table. Vader doesn’t eat. Or nap. Vader is not cute. He fights. Vader falls to the ground. My son laughs, only to raise his saber once more. Vader pops back up, ready for another battle.
My son damages his Darth in the yard only to come inside where he turns his Legos into weapons. He calls them blasters. They shoot round black discs through the air. He has started shooting them at me.
“No thanks,” I say. I start to remind him of the rule: don’t shoot at anything with a heart. Nothing living. I’ve asked him to understand one thing: “When you pretend to hurt me, you actually hurt me.”
I think he does his best, but it’s very hard. My husband and I move in the periphery, and his hands seem to automatically rise into a frighteningly natural position. He pinches his face in concentration, and in case we don’t get it, he makes the sound of a laser when he shoots, a sound he has learned by watching The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. He takes his shot.
“When I grow up,” he says, “I want to make Star Wars real.”
I stare him down.
“We are real,” I say.
He looks at me with annoyance. Pity. Don’t I know this is just a game? Don’t I know the rules? We are just fine. It’s only pretend, lady. My son hasn’t caught or killed Darth Vader at all. He doesn’t want to. If the monsters ever get caught or catch us, the game is over. The chase will end. We won’t be able to outrun that which we fear.
He shoves the tip of his light-saber into the dirt and makes a ditch that he fills with water from the hose. He digs down into the earth, making something only he can see.
My husband and I sit on the steps, watching him without being watchful, pleased that he is engaged in something that doesn’t need our attention. For a moment, we talk as if no child is there because he isn’t. He’s in his own world. He ebbs beyond us, making a world that will never be ours.
Suddenly, he moves toward us. He takes a ready stance, holding the red bat in the air. The light from the sun setting in the distance touches the top of his hair. I can’t see his face. He could be anyone, any child, a stranger, as everyone is a stranger, another person I do not know and will never know, living a life of his own, and shining in front of me his particular, vibrant, distant, ever-changing universe of a mind. For one, singular moment I stop pretending that I will keep him safe. I become a quiet telescope. I watch him move the light.
Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s essays have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Drunken Boat, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Recently awarded a 2017 fellowship at Bloedel Reserve, she is also the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award and a Washington State Grant for Artist Projects. After earning an MS in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, she moved to Walla Walla to teach creative writing at Whitman College.