The Wild Thing With People Feet Was My Favorite

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I liked the way he hung from the trees, his big feet dangling. The other wild things had beaks and long claws, scaly or feathery or rubbery webbed chicken feet. One had a parrot-head, one had a beard, and one had long reddish hair. One had a big nose smashed flat and a fat belly like the old men at the café where my father hid out Sunday mornings when he was trying to avoid my mother. One was smaller than the others and looked like a goat, but I liked the people-footed wild thing best: his horns, his gray fur, his square white teeth. I liked the dark landscape lurking on each page, the wall of trees, the big sky and carved moon, the ocean Max sailed across, in and out of weeks, for almost over a year, which seemed a very long time when I was four.

I’m sure my mother read the story to me first, but I remember my year-older brother turning the pages, forming the words, forming the world out of the words. In the old worn copy I still have, he wrote out lessons to teach me to read and write, jumbled sentences, syntax thrown off, whether to use lie or lay, rise or raise, and when I finished each exercise, he graded them with a purple marker, though neither of us understood, at four and five, that sentences could take more than one form, words could be arranged in more than one way.

When we weren’t rearranging sentences, we drew monsters on the blank pages before the story, before Max is sent to his room without any supper, before he makes mischief of the worst kind by chasing his dog with a fork and driving nails into the wall. Our mother caught us once, and took the book away, and we sat cross-armed and frowning in our room. That night, while she cooked in the kitchen, I thought about Max yelling, “I’ll eat you up” like a curse before sailing off, the moon above him hung like wax, the little waves slapping at the boat. I always imagined that his mother would be sorry when she came to check on him and he was gone, that she would wail and gnash her teeth and cry.

The monsters we drew were attempts to recreate the beaks and horns and people-feet of the wild things, the suggestion of danger in their big wide eyes. They seemed, the ones Mr. Sendak drew, to have some secret knowledge of the dim places of the world, as if a child’s imagination runs to darkness. Sometimes, late at night, the TV flickering blue from the other room, throwing my parents’ shadows on the walls as their nightly argument grew, I thought of the land of the wild things as full of dark promises, a place where we could be what we held in our secret hearts, could let loose the anger we sometimes felt—at our mother, our father, our brother who tried to stifle the sentences we felt inside us, anyone who would not let us be what we wanted to be.

The one with people feet, I thought, had once been human, but had changed. He grew wild. Everyone grew wild at times, from the Baptist preacher down the road who told us we were going to hell at the pinnacles of his sermons; to my brother, who threatened to run away over the hill behind our house when he grew angry; to my mother and father when their words turned sharp and they aimed them at one another like claws. The one with people feet had grown wild, his once-human body sprouting horns and grey fur, eyes yellowing, only his people-feet left now. Like the others, he roared and gnashed and bit and stomped and swung from the trees and howled at the moon. wildthing

Or perhaps he was monster becoming more human. We did not know if Max was becoming more like a monster or teaching the wild things to be more like him. It seemed important. Out the windows of our room, a peach tree that bore no fruit was wrapped in webs that would eventually kill it, tiny caterpillars writhing beneath the thin silk. Frost hung in the fields as our father left and our mother smoked one cigarette after another in the living room. Sumac shone red in the cold morning. Behind the house, the woods closed in, a place that seemed as dark as the forest that grew in Max’s room. When I got older, I would walk through it to hear the silence of my own heart, much as Max imagines a world waiting for him, a place where there are no rules or regulations and all the inhabitants are as hard and wild as he wishes to be.

The wild things have claws and teeth, but Max, not much older than those who first come in contact with the book, tames them all with the magic trick of staring into their eyes without blinking once, and there is for me in these lines the idea that humans have the greatest capacity for wildness. They call Max the wildest of the wild things, and name him king and carry him on their shoulders, and when he tells them he is leaving they threaten to eat him out of love. I didn’t know when I first read the book about love that could consume you, not until my daughters came crying into the world, but there was in the words a darkness that seemed to linger in the shadows of the trees, and I guessed even then that love could be so strong as to lead to hate, worry to anger, that evil is often more alluring, the suggestion of what would happen to Max if he let the wildness take over.

He leads them in the wild rumpus, and afterward sends them off to bed without any supper, handing out the same treatment he received, for the same reason, imposing the same rules he sought to escape. He has grown lonely. Not even the people-footed wild thing can help him, for it is only a wild thing, a thing conjured out of the dark places of our hearts, when we grow wild and angry and make mischief of one kind and another.

Eventually, smelling the food from faraway lands, Max decides to leave. He wants to be where someone loves him best of all, and though the wild things roar and gnash and stomp and howl, Max climbs into his boat and sails back over a year, in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room, where he finds forgiveness from his mother in the form of his supper waiting for him.

wildthings2The entire text is 339 words. Barely a single typed page. The people-footed monster is shown seven times, and each time he wears a different expression, from sleeping to gnashing to jumping at the moon, all the poles of human emotions, the wild swing from sadness to joy to despair. When my daughters were younger, I pointed out the wild things’ people feet dozens of times, along with the little goat wild thing that is the same size and same color as Max. All of the monsters have some human characteristic, even the fat one and the duck-footed one and the one in the sea that breathes hot air on Max’s boat, but I never asked my daughters if the wild things were human turning into monster, or monster becoming human. I find myself afraid of the answer now. The wild things are everywhere, with their big eyes and claws and horns. They roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth, although we only recognize our own voices, our own weapons, see ourselves in their big yellow eyes. It is easy to forget the story is imagination when we can see the wildness of ourselves everywhere, in cities where the dead lie in the streets while bombs go off in the distance, or in elementary schools where gunshots ring out and children scream in terror. Some nights I wonder which we are, which way we are turning, if we are coming out of the darkness or sailing straight for it.

On the front cover of the book, there is only the sleeping people-footed wild thing, and Max’s empty boat. On the back cover, there is only the moon, the little stream rushing by, a few trees and a flower. As if everyone has gone, and only the empty night remains, the moon like a chalk mark. It is interesting to note that the title is neither a question nor a statement, but a wondering, something in between: half one, half the other.

When my parent’s marriage fell apart, they became like wild things themselves as they stood in the kitchen banging on the counters, their eyes as hard as the sentences they hurled at one another. There is no father in the story, and after mine left, I read the book again, trying to understand why. After the divorce, we moved to a different house, one that seemed empty and lonely and full of despair. Where the Wild Things Are was packed away with the other books we had outgrown and only occasionally got out to read, on nights when the moon came over the blue hills like a sail, full enough to throw silver light down on the world. After we moved, my brother and I wished for some escape from where we had ended up, and I began to drink a lot when I felt hopelessness settle in on me, the belief that I would never find a place to soothe the wild anger that often flared up inside me. When my children were born, I sometimes heard my voice grow hard, and I wondered what I looked like to them, if I were turning into a monster, eyes wild, hands curled into claws.

The book sits in the attic now, its bindings broken, all the pages colored on. Max’s eyes have been stabbed out in some of the pictures, but the monsters still stare at us with their big yellow orbs as if they have something to tell us. I am still trying to rearrange sentences into some sort of order, still trying to find the right verbs, the right syntax to convey meaning in and out of weeks and through the years. Mr. Sendak is gone, and late some nights, my heart grows dark and I wish for a wax moon to rise out the windows, for trees to grow in my room. My children are no longer small enough to hold. They no longer sit in my lap and listen to my growling voice as I read the wild things’ words. They no longer point out the wild thing with people feet. They read by themselves now, and sometimes the monsters and darknesses of the world call to them and they grow angry or sad. But they still sleep above us, and most nights I am not filled with my own hurt and worry, so I climb the stairs to their room and smooth the hair back from their warm foreheads. Then I go through the house turning off all the lights, and stand there in the darkness listening to the quiet, wondering why anyone would ever wish to leave such a place.

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Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University. More from this author →