"I suppose you've heard of that study that was done years and years ago with the children and the marshmallows," she said. Her hair was coiled primly into a bun at the back of her head, but a strand had escaped its hold. She pushed it irritably behind her ear as she leaned across the ladder to the books. "Almost everyone has."
Her glasses were perched on the end of her nose, only slighted moistened by perspiration in the un-cooled library. The sun was streaming through the windows with an intensity befitting a monstrous ball of nuclear fusion. "You give a child a marshmallow and tell her that if she waits fifteen minutes, she will get two instead of one. If she waits, the reward will be greater, but, as anyone who knows much about children, instantaneous gratification is more easily cognisized than far-flung goals and patience."
She pursed her thin lips as she grabs a book from the shelf. "This is not where you belong," she muttered under her breath, sticking the leather volume under her arm which sweat had made iridescent as an oil slick. The shimmer highlighted the muscles of the limb: deltoid, biceps, triceps, brachioradialis.
"Ten years later, and the ones who waited were the most successful in high school, with better grades and better attitudes," she announced, descending from the ladder. "Of course, for many, this lent a certain fatalist view of success as something you are either capable or not. However, people tend to forget what the experiment was about initially."
She set the heavy tome down on the table and wiped her hands on her billowy skirt. She exhaled slightly before going to grip the ladder and move it across the way to the other shelves of books. As it fell against the wood, an explosion of dust mites met it. They danced as playfully as sprites in the morning sun. She took the book beneath her arm again and climbed amongst the hoard.
"It was to see how children could defer gratification. It was to see what methods they used to keep themselves from something they obviously wanted when a greater reward could be attained by waiting. Self-control, in short. Something many adult struggled with, but the researchers wanted to see it in its pure form, in children," she said.
She browsed through the books, pushing the glasses higher up on her nose to better read the titles. "Battering, Battering, Battering," she murmured, peering through the dust-filled haze. She found the place for the book and shoved its brethren aside with a forceful exhale to place it safely within the cove. She descended.
"It turned out to be much about distraction. The ones that tried to focus on the goal by staring at the marshmallow eventually gave into temptation. It only took a second of a stray thought, parsing doubts, and then the marshmallow would be in the mouth. But the ones who turned away, kicked their feet, sung songs to themselves, or played with their hair did much better," she said. She wiped the sweat from her brow, going back to the table scattered with books. She looked down for a moment, examining the assortment of titles, before remembering her place. She summoned the ladder again and set it against a different bookshelf. A woosh of dust met its fall with muffled thump. She climbed again.
"The ones who stopped themselves of thinking about a marshmallow grew to be the same people who could stop thinking about a party when they had a test to study for, the same people to stop thinking about relaxation when work now would bring greater relaxation in the future. Effectively, what they did was a study of metacognition in kindergarteners."
She expressed a small sound of triumph as she spied a book. The fingers that clenched the frayed spine were long, thin, and lithe. They wrapped eagerly around, forcefully as a bear-trap famished for the taste of blood. She descended.
"It those that can think about thinking, and then figure out ways to out think their thinking that are successful. They are our great minds, our scientists and our authors, our composers and our engineers, our philosophers and our, well, not politicians per se, but the ones that stand in the shadows pulling their strings," she sighed. She placed the book on the table with the others. Her nose scrunched as she noted the disorder in their arrangement. She quickly rectified the audacity of the mess by sorting the books into a very linear tower, the larger on the bottom and the smallest on top.
"What separates the most successful of us, that which separated the germ from the chaff, isn't luck, like many claim, but the ability to twist our minds to our own will, to be able to screen out desires without so much of a blink of an eye, to forget, if just for a moment, that which we do not believe we can hear. All of us so-called smart people, are not intelligent because we can remember, but because we can forget." She stared at the books for a moment, with intensity that turned the darkness of her eyes into coals, waiting to ignite. However, the expression fled from her countenance as quickly as it appeared. She smiled placidly before disappearing behind a bookshelf.
"I used to wonder at how such atrocities could be committed in history or in life. Rape, torture, and not just murder, but genocide, again and again throughout time. Someone is always hurting someone. It seems like such a paradox considering we were evolved for group behavior," her voice came from behind the bookshelf, as light and as lilting as it always was. Her slippers muted her steps against the dust-covered stones of the floor, but her voice echoed through the room. It was almost as if she was a thousand miles away or had her lips pressed against one’s ear.
"But, it came to me. It's all about forgetting. If a child can forget a marshmallow exists, then perhaps it would not be so difficult for him to forget the men of his enemy were human. It would not be so difficult for him if he was stood up in war and commanded to shoot because, like the marshmallow, he could forget his target’s humanity. In his mind, he could twirl his hair or sing a song, or whatever was needed to distract himself," she said as she turned the corner. The strand of hair had come loose again. She placed it behind her ear with the patience of a mother hen.
The book she held against her chest was the largest of all the books on the table. She was forced to lift the previous stack with muscles straining in her arms and deposit it them on the bigger book to maintain the order she created. She smiled with satisfaction, brushing her hands against her skirt once more.
"I know people who claim they could never kill a person, but I know I could. I can make myself forget a person is human. I can make myself forget that he or she had a mother and a father. I can forget and turn the person into an it, and I can forget for a very long time." The smile was still on her lips as she said this. It was worn like a sword and shield, to defend and revenge.
"Moreover, I know I can forget I forgot. I can cover my tracks in logical reasoning and judicial thought. Once you know how to temper thought, it becomes your liege, to lord over as you please. With thought at my side, I have no doubt I could kill thousands, millions, and never cry. I could watch children be burned or women be raped, and never be bothered to stand against it. I could gut an infant at a woman's breast and be unmoved by her tears, because I can forget and forget that I forgot. I can turn barbaric wrongs into rights, with the propulsion of a shift in electrochemical balance down a few axons," she said, staring somewhere far off as the grin still stuck to her lips. "I could kill you."
The words hovered in a moment, before she continued. "But of course I won't. It is strange, isn't it, that the ability that lets me achieve high goals and the discipline that guides me to knowledge is the same that people use to kill? All the noble people who set off to change the world through sheer force of will are the most capable of bringing it to ruins, all with their ability to wait for another marshmallow. All that is stopping me from murdering and maiming and claiming like a great conqueror of old is, really, that I have no desire to do so. Especially not on such a hot day like this. But, if I did have the desire, all I would need would be a barbarian horde, and history has shown us those are not so difficult to create," she smiled, staring as if expecting a few chuckles to accompany her remarks. None was forthcoming.
She leaned over the table, so she was at eye with him. "Is there anything more you wished to know about marshmallows, Louis?" she asked.
The boy met her gaze. "No, I don't think so, Miss Grace."