By Shelley Bulmer
In 1923 the first dead jockey to win a race crossed the finish line for a twenty-to-one outside victory. Cause of death was listed as a fatal heart attack, with doctors positioning the catalyst as the moment he realized he was winning. Happily, his body had obliged to stay in the saddle just long enough, making him the first man invited to the winner’s circle posthumously. The bookie who had paid him to lose broke his fingers on a matter of principle before posing with the body for a picture. With no remaining family, the winnings were awarded to his horse, who refused to issue a statement.
Ana was an atheist. At least that’s what she told me. She believed in nothing, in no one, and read stories with such grave cynicism that I couldn’t help but find her adorable. On every test she’d ever taken there were only two answers, true or false. To her, stories were something to be disproven and trust was a fanciful concept for those who hadn’t yet seen what she had. She was a very disappointed individual. She was also eleven years old. For a pre-pubescent, she was extremely faithful to her lack of faith. Against my better judgment, I liked her. But I’d never tell her that; I told myself I’d never fall for another jam fingered sociopath again, even if she was my niece. Once on a sentimental slip up I asked if she liked the boy who kept teasing her at school and she said something about plenty of prospects and a few good years left and she couldn’t imagine she’d be unmarried by my age. Kids are such dicks.
Regardless, she was the one thing in life that fascinated me. What fascinated her was finding new and interesting facts. I assumed it made her happy to know that strange things happened in real life, now that she refused to listen to fiction. Rather than read Harry Potter to her like I used to, she now insisted on Buzzfeed and Wikipedia articles. Since I never showed her what I was reading I couldn’t entirely claim I read them word for word.
“The horse part is stupid. It’s obviously not true, horses can’t talk.”
“Yeah but it didn’t talk. It said the horse refused to say anything.”
“Oh. So then it’s true?”
“Well it comes direct from Buzzfeed so…” I love how foreign sarcasm is to children.
Like I said, Ana was an atheist; she just wasn’t old enough to know what she was talking about. As far as I could tell, her form of atheism entailed rejecting Santa Claus while keeping one eye on the fireplace.
I think the first time her mom told me what Ana had said I just laughed. No one really assumed it would go anywhere but it had been two months now and that officially surpassed anything that had held her attention up to that point. It was longer than the two hours she’d been a vegetarian after holding a baby pig. It was certainly longer than her Nanopets survived, which sadly outlasted the lifespan of her very real hamster. I’d even seen the kid become frustrated with the amount of time it took for cocoa puffs to turn milk brown. So when she said she was an Atheist and actually stuck to it for two months, it began to seem strange.
It was almost as strange as when their dad told me Ana’s four year old brother, Owen, had come out of the closet. Thinking back, I can’t remember feeling a strong attraction to anything but my own feet at that age but we all just thought it was cool he’d taken his finger out of his nose long enough to have an opinion. The strange part actually happened later when his teacher took offence and tried to explain to him that until he hit puberty he was basically asexual. He chose the middle of the church Christmas pageant to unload that one. Joseph’s never had such interesting lines. The real cherry on top was when Ana took the opportunity of shocked silence to calm everyone down by sharing her knowledge from an ill-timed health unit at school. She settled everyone’s fears about Joseph’s sexuality but only by laying down the facts about Mary’s. It was A Charlie Brown Christmas, director’s cut: Linus on lovemaking. I’ve never been so proud.
Unlike her brother, Ana’s declaration seemed less like parroting back the word of the day and I took an opportunity to ask her about it one night when her parents were “on a date”. They insisted they were coming back but I know if I were them I’d be on a flight to New Zealand with fake passports and birth control. Lots of birth control. I always brought my toothbrush when I babysat, as a result.
Ana brushed her teeth clumsily beside me and I caught myself watching her with curiosity. I reminded myself that she couldn’t physically hurt me, I was an adult damn it, so I spat, and spat out my questions.
“Ana, when did you even hear the word atheist?”
“At church. The man who wears a dress said it.”
“Yeah, the pasture.”
“Ok, so what do you think it means?”
“That you don’t believe anything.”
“And you don’t?”
“Since I turned eleven. I had to grow up.”
She primped herself weirdly in the mirror like we’d both seen her mom do.
She even turned to the side and looked at her figure. I had a moment of intense jealousy for every Happy Meal that did not sit on her bony little hips. Then I realized an eleven year old was sucking in her gut and I got angry.
I’d apologized for getting mad and Ana lay in bed with the cookie jar as a result. If her parents really were coming back I would not have to be the one to deal with the sugar high. That and I needed this kid to start equating food with love now if she was ever going to stop looking in the mirror. We settled in and I opened my laptop.
“Only once in history has there been a recorded murder committed by a corpse. Sigurd the Mighty, the ninth-century Norse earl of Orkney, had beheaded a man several hours earlier, winning the battle by a hair and ending the ugly war that had resulted from someone calling someone a ‘three-inch fool’. Like most corpses, this one was bent on revenge, as playing bridge and canasta was generally out when one was always losing one’s head. Sigurd tied the dead man’s head to his horse’s saddle so as to ride home and present it to his wife, because he was a good husband and she liked to show an interest in her spouse’s work. Unfortunately, while riding home one of the corpse’s teeth grazed his leg. Sigurd died from the infection.”
I suppose most people would censor the things they read to children. Our bedtimes had definitely taken on a corpse-filled theme lately. I quickly decided to add a moral to the story to justify myself.
“…And that’s why we brush our teeth.”
She mumbled something between bites of cookie and I was just able to glimpse mounds of chocolate stuck to her gums. Parenting was not for me.
Ana’s parents had come back from their date last night, so that was good. I found myself strangely annoyed when they walked in the door, though, as it meant interrupting my research. I’d spent the entire evening looking up weird facts that I could secretly embellish for Ana. Knowing she’d believe anything I told her was more of a rush than doing laundry during peak hydro rates.
She now sat across from me, her feet dangling freely off the stool as she sipped on her drink. It was a new chapter in my life, one in which I apparently allowed ankle biters to follow me around. As a result of her continued pursuit of adulthood, Ana had requested a trip to the mythical land of Starbucks, where, in her infinite wisdom she had decided to practice moderation and requested the smallest adult drink I could buy: just to try it. I watched her intently, waiting for the shot of espresso to set in.
“Why are there so many people on their computers?” Ana’s eyes darted around, taking it all in.
“Probably all trying to write the next Harry Potter.”
“Cause their moms have rent-free basements.”
She didn’t get it but she didn’t care. Her attention was already elsewhere.
“I hate Harry Potter.”
“What why? Pretty sure you made me read that like five times.”
“It’s all hokum.”
“…What the hell?”
“Mom called it that. You said a bad word. It’s heck.”
“Oh sorry, I guess I’m going to heck.”
The caffeine was agitating both of us, me particularly just by watching her fingers play the table like Mozart on Molly.
“Ana, Ana, hey. Calm down.” I decided this had gone too far and cast around for something to fill her stomach. “Hey did you know you can get Butterbeer here?” Much like with real humans, I rely on consistently refilling the puerile population with uppers.
“Whatever. I’m not stupid.”
“It’s true. It’s a secret though. You’ve gotta know how to order it.”
Her eyes narrowed and she stopped drumming the table as she worked through this information.
I left Ana at the table and approached the barista, proceeding to mumble some instructions in hushed tones, and pointing subtly at Ana. I really needn’t have bothered, she was spinning around on the stool with such fierce concentration several customers started looking for her care worker. The ‘Bucks gets strange patrons.
When I walked back to Ana with her drink she had calmed down enough to completely focus on using the stir sticks for the contents of her nostrils.
She observed me strangely as she raised the cup and the majority of the Butterbeer sloshed lethargically over her face.
“You know Aunt Jaimie, you’re really cynical”.
The cutest Atheist in the world was a young girl named Ana. At just eleven years old she was determined not to believe anything she did not hear from an adult. As was to be expected, certain adults in her life began to experiment with Ana’s worldview and the ones that didn’t inadvertently fed her with ideas anyways. Eventually it was discovered that she attributed the cause of her “atheism” to her eleventh birthday when she failed to receive a letter from Hogwarts and had to accept that JK Rowling had been leading her on for years. By the age of twenty she had written her childhood experiences into an autobiography. It was generally considered “weird” and failed to sell. That same year a book called 50 Shades of Grey outsold Harry Potter. She currently lives with her brother Owen and his partner John.