Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Quiet Companionship of Beasts

Image from Play With Me, by Marie Hall Ets (1955)
Play with Me (1955)
Story and pictures by Marie Hall Ets

Liam Heneghan

A poorly drawn girl strides arms akimbo into the meadow. The girl has yellow hair gathered back by white bobbles. Before her is a tree, roughly drawn with a series of charcoal  strokes. About the tree grows scattered vegetation, also roughly drawn. A grasshopper, represented obscurely by a black squiggle, has settled on a lolly-pop shaped leaf. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The little girl interrogates the grasshopper. Will the grasshopper play with her? His answer is mute though emphatic: he leaps away. Behind him the lolly-pop shaped leaf retains chomp marks, for the grasshopper had been at meal. A nearby frog, cautiously stares at her. He too contemplates food; he is waiting to catch a mosquito. The frog resists the child’s efforts to engage it in play.  In answer to her efforts to catch him, he too leaps away with a marvelous abandon: his legs splay wide, his arms splay wide. A turtle resting on log also resists this girl’s mania for play and plops back into the pond. A chipmunk runs up a tree, a blue jay scolds her and flies from the girl’s pleading and outstretched arms, a rabbit runs for his life, and a snake slinks into his hole.

Deserted by the creatures the child settles into a desultory mood. She blows milkweed seeds from their kernel, and slipping into a milder register still she noiselessly sits down by the pond. She gazes at an insect navigating the surface waters. In her silent watchfulness the animals now return. Not exactly for play at first, but for that sterner form of communion, namely silent companionship. The grasshopper sits near her, as does the frog. The turtle returns to his log. One by one, chipmunk, blue jay, rabbit and snake return. With these animals delicately comes a fawn who approaches the child and licks her cheek, kissing her as if in reward for what the girl learned that afternoon. In their own way, can not each in this merry little community be said to be at play? It is not perhaps the more violent play that the yellow-haired girl had envisioned. There is no romping, there is no cavorting. Rather this is play with the gravitas that attends respectful beings when they convene. No doubt moments later the grasshopper will return his attention to the loppy-pop leaves, and the frog will take up his station hunting mosquitoes. But right now none of this company are making demands upon the others, each animal, a solitary emblem of their kind, is paused in a quite chain of being. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The yellow-haired girl learned in that afternoon what we have been unlearned since the time of the Greeks, though the naturalist did not forget it: beings emerge from their literal and ontological un-concealment when we patiently abide by them. 


  1. This is indeed such a beautiful post, exquisitely written, inspired and of a very authentic gusto; and, in my life, very timely, such a delicious reading of a children’s book.

    1. Thanks Cristian - I really appreciate your kind words.


  2. Thanks again for this exquisite post. I find it awesome that the idea about the unconcealment stays true to the book as written and drawn, doesn’t falsify, stretch or twist it. I have seen a few of Marie Hall Ets’ illustrations for ‘Just Me’ (the rabbit, the rooster, the horse, the cat Biddy, Gonky), and many more from ‘In the Forest’, charcoals. Those for ‘Play with Me’ are more appealing. The girl is golden, the Sun is vacant. There’s an edition where the Sun and the girl’s dress are electric blue. Other editions show on the cover a medallion portrait of the girl.