She looked like a normal infant when the Mom and the Dad brought her home from the hospital. She was wrapped in something soft and pale yellow, a fleece blanket with satin edging. She had a little stocking cap on her tiny head. It was only when she was a little older, after she’d been weaned onto solid food, that it started. It started with a laugh, a gurgle-y baby giggle from her high chair, and then, a little metallic ting. There was a dime on the little plastic tray of the high chair. The Mom took it away quickly, worried the baby would choke, wondering how she had gotten it and if she had been playing with it, if it had come from her mouth. The Mom was a worrier. Sometimes she thought she had been cursed. There was an old witch who lived next door when she was a young girl—she’d always tried to be unfailingly polite but she had a stray feeling that wouldn’t go away, a suspicion that she had done something wrong, said something offensive without meaning to, because ever since that witch had moved away her stomach had always been locked in a ball of anxiety. But then, a few days later, the child fell while testing out her newfound walking skills, and began to cry. The Mom rushed over to try and comfort her and something cold pinged against her skin. Suddenly, she realized the girl’s tears were not tears at all. Her sobs were great crashing waves of coins. Dimes dribbled down her cheeks; nickels flew out from between her lashes and bounced against the baseboards. On a really big wail, a dollar pelted out of her mouth and put a chip in the particle-board coffee table. The Mom gasped and drew back. She didn’t mean to, and she always regretted it. She saw the accusatory flash in her daughter’s eye, as the baby sniffed and drew the copper crest of a penny back up into her nostril. She saw a heartbreak, and for years she knew the source of her child’s animosity towards her, the moment she saw her for who she was and she drew back. The doctor said there was nothing wrong with the girl, she seemed to be a perfectly healthy baby. “Perfectly normal,” he said, except for the obvious. But the doctor became too interested; he kept calling in people from different parts of the hospital to poke and prod at the baby, to pinch her and make her cry so that interns could see the dimes dropping out of her eyes, to make faces at her and make her laugh so that quarters would fly out of her mouth and onto the shoes of the hospital administrator. The Dad objected strongly to this. “She’s not a trick pony,” he said. So they stopped bringing her to the doctor. She was healthy, after all. She was special. The Dad said it was always nice to have a little change around the house. Although he had to wear safety goggles when he tickled his daughter, lest a coin pelt him in the eye, all in all he thought it was a fine thing to have a little girl. And as she grew he developed the habit, after a particularly bad temper tantrum, of sweeping his arms over the floor where she would be laying in a pool of coins, the aftermath of her tears and wails, and collect all the money up in his arms and say, let’s go for ice cream. He would pay for the cones with handfuls of change and put the rest in the jar on the counter that they brought to the bank whenever it got full, to make a deposit. The Mom was less enthusiastic. All of the other Moms she knew were very careful about keeping coins away from their babies, because it was possible that they would swallow and choke on them. She wasn’t sure what preventative measures to take in her daughter’s case. She also hated that every crevice in her home had become a depository for a stray coin. Three times a week she dug through the couch cushions, pulling up handfuls of change; every day she found stray nickels and quarters in the corners of rooms, congregating among the dust bunnies, hidden amongst her daughter’s toys, scattered on the kitchen linoleum like slippery booby traps. As her daughter got older, the Mom realized that the coins were not only the product of laughing or crying, but any emotional reaction. Envy, hatred, love - anything her daughter felt had a monetary output. When the little girl became old enough to plead for things in the store, the Mom would say, “We can’t afford that,” and then the girl’s face would get red and her lip would stick out in a pout and she would begin to beg, and from her clasped hands, soon coins would be falling to the ground, bouncing off the grocery store floor. “Okay, okay, okay,” the Mom would hiss. She was so embarrassed to be stooping to the ground, collecting coins and bartering with her child. She always put the coins in her purse and paid with her credit card. She didn’t like the idea of the transaction, otherwise. The Dad didn’t have as much of a problem with this. He even decided they should put her in swimming lessons instead of dance class, because her excitement for the former had yielded $2.75, while the latter garnered only $1.10. School was the real problem. It didn’t take long to learn that other students didn’t shoot money from their eyes and ears and fingernails when they were scared or unhappy or embarrassed. It also didn’t take long for the boys to learn that they could get change for the lunch canteen by tripping and teasing and kicking the strange girl until she ran away sniffling, leaving a trail of quarters in her wake. That was how she became aware of herself, and that was why she began conducting her experiments. Every morning, she would perch on a pillow, legs pretzeled like she had seen women do in advertisements for supplement bars and tampons, and assume a meditative posture. Slowly she would think of every emotion she could, and would try to feel it. She thought of ‘sad,’ and she thought about how the class hamster had not woken up one Monday morning; she thought of ‘angry’ and thought of a vicious little boy who liked to push her off the swing set; she thought of ‘hurt,’ and she pinched her own arm with her fingernails to feel it; she thought of ‘nervous’ and tried to feel how she felt just before she had to give a speech in front of the class. And after each of these feeling experiments, she would open her eyes and look down and see what coins had collected in her lap and the ground in front of her knees. This is how she learned which feelings it was most prudent to avoid, particularly in public, and which would be her saving grace. There were a few things, she discovered, that would yield no coins: boredom, for one. Disinterest. Peace seemed to break even; if she was at peace there would be no coins, though if she thought about it and realized she was at peace, she began to get pleased with herself, and within this sense of self-satisfaction was the burgeoning of a quarter, which felt like a sort of buzzing in her cheekbones. She knew if she let it go on too long it would slip down and she would feel something cold and metallic on the back of her tongue and she would have to spit it out into her hand. Mostly she could feel it coming on and self-regulate, she discovered. Whatever she felt bubbling up in her, she coached herself, could be diffused by thinking very carefully. Anger, when her Mom was acting especially overprotective, the yawning loneliness that seemed to creep up on her when her Dad surreptitiously counted the change in the jar - she could, she found, keep it all at bay. She just had to take a few deep breaths and think of something neutral, something that didn’t merit any change - like listing in her mind all the steps it took to tie a shoelace. That wasn’t worth anything at all.
Joelle Kidd is a writer, editor and journalist who lives in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, THIS Magazine, Living Hyphen, Prairie Fire and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first novel. Twitter: @joelle_kidd, website: joellekidd.com.