She asked me, last night, to tell her a story.
She’s changed since the day I pulled her out of the collapsing star that was our home. Since I snatched her from his gaping black-hole clutches and fled, holding her too close and too tight like I was turning her back into a part of me, since I drove haphazard and wild out of the state with her clamped in my arms, swerving through traffic and through tears. Her eyes are a little less wide and afraid. Her voice is a tiny bit clearer.
She asked me to tell her a bedtime story. It’s not the kind of request she could have made in that house, not when I was trying to put her to bed amid shouting and smashed plates, not when he was screaming his lungs out for quiet. That she asked me, that she knew it was all right now to ask me, it made something warm and sweet rise up within me. It made my heart swell. But I was speechless.
“Do you know any stories?” she pressed. “Could you tell me one about animals?”
Animals. She’s always loved animals. Two years ago, on a good day, we all went to the zoo together. She was too young to walk by herself, but she reached her pudgy fingers toward the lions as we gazed in at them; she opened and closed her hands like she wanted to bury them in those huge manes. She put her hands in my hair instead. She told me to roar like a lion. I laughed and held her over my head like baby Simba and drew the smiles of other zoo-goers, but all the time she was only staring at the lions.
That night he hit me. When I brought her to bed, she put her hands in my hair again and I flinched. She didn’t ask me to pretend to be a lion after that.
I still couldn’t think of what to say. “I… what kind of animals?”
“Any kind.” She tucked her blankets up to her chin and nestled against her pillow, staring up at me.
I told her stories sometimes, when she was still a part of me. Maybe there’s a part of her that remembers that, somewhere locked away. They were lazy stories - stories I’d murmur to her as I cooked dinner, steam rising from a bubbling pasta pot and the smell of oregano in my nose, stories of far-off castles and oceans and dragon caves. Sometimes older stories in the form of rhythmic lullabies, the kind my grandmother used to sing before she told me she was going off to live in the clouds. They’d rumble through my chest, the murmurings, and reach down to her, and sometimes I’d feel her kick in response and I’d take that to mean she liked that part. I’d repeat it just to see if it would make her kick again.
Those stories were all I had time for then. Before I met him, when I was still in school, I used to stay up all night wrapped in blankets and gulping coffee and tapping out story after story on the family’s old glacial desktop computer. Red, itchy eyes and sore fingers and a cascade of scenes that existed so sharp and clear in my head - scenes I absolutely had to make exist in words, so one day they could reach into the heads of a thousand other people. High romance and tragedy, cries from rooftops and gleaming swords on battlefields and mountains filled with treasure and children born with faerie wings. I printed the stories out and shoved them into the empty spaces in school binders, along with the scrawled-full notebooks that never made room for schoolwork.
Then came him. And after him, her. And I didn’t have time to write anymore, I had to cook and clean and work the shifts I could get at the grocery store, and later on the stories were hammered out of my head and left shattered on the floor with the wineglasses.
And I swept them up and fell silent. So it’s been a long time, now, since I’ve told anyone a story.
I didn’t know where to start. She was staring up at me expectantly and I searched in my mind for any spark of inspiration. A story about animals? Did I remember any old fables I could repeat back to her? I ought to, I used to peruse old fable books for inspiration, but none came to mind last night. They all seemed to fade away and belong to a world divorced from this one. A world before my daughter existed, a world where I was impossibly younger than I am now. A world where sleepless nights were something wild and adventurous, and I’d never kept myself awake out of fear.
“Let me think,” was what I said, and I thought a long time.
She was patient. While I dusted off those far corners of my mind, those rusted gears that used to fly at a pace that frightened me long ago. She held my hand, and the feel of her hand in mine reminded me how small she still was. How much of her there still was left to appear.
“I’ll tell you a story about a raven,” I said. “There was a raven - uh - a raven who lived in someone’s attic. He… he made a nest up in the rafters, and he ate worms and bugs and fruit from the garden.”
She paid close attention. She looked like she was trying to memorize every word. I had no idea where I was going, and it wasn’t at all like the process of letting words pour out of me I remember from earlier years - but I had to start somewhere, and a raven was as good a place as any.
“Sometimes he’d… meet a little girl out in the garden,” I said. “She’d bring him water in a glass bottle. She talked to him about her friends and her family and going to school. They were friends. And - and sometimes he’d bring her little pieces of fruit, get them to her by flying up to her windowsill.”
She smiled. She wasn’t quite looking at me by that point; her eyes had gained a faraway look, like they were imagining what I told her. Like they could see the raven and the girl and the window and the tree. I realized - and it was a more shocking thing to realize than it should have been, maybe - that I had the power to shape what she saw in that moment. That I was her world-weaver, that my words were creating something that would be printed on the pattern of her mind. Just like the words I tapped into that old desktop after my homework was finished and the sun had long gone down.
“But one spring it didn’t rain so much,” I said, and my voice had gone a little hushed. “The tree didn’t bloom like it usually did. The grass in the yard turned yellow, and the price of food and water went up. And… and the raven found it was harder and harder to find anything to eat.”
She blinked. Still not looking directly at me. Her voice turned hushed as well. “Did he get hungry?”
“Yes.” I swallowed. I still didn’t know where I was going, but she seemed to be with me so far. “Yes. He got hungrier and hungrier as the days went by. He dug up more of the ground looking for worms and tore apart the few fruits on the tree, but he was always hungry anyway. And he was even thirstier than he was hungry.”
A pensive look stole over her brow.
“But the little girl stayed his friend,” I said. “She - she tried to bring him food and water, still, when she could. Even though she got hungry and thirsty too. And she would still tell him about her day, and sometimes even climb the tree, though the branches were brittler because of the drought.”
This wasn’t at all like the kind of story I’d have scribbled down into one of my school notebooks. This drought didn’t have a waterfall. The girl should go on some sort of adventure to bring water back. Battle a troll. Solve a shapeshifter’s riddle. Learn to fly at the raven’s side. But I couldn’t think of anything like that. The story was being ground out of me like crushed-up rock. All I could think of was what would happen next.
She’s so small, but it wasn’t very long ago she lived under that roof with him along with me. She still remembers it just as well as I do. She can see his shadow on the wall, hear his stomping footsteps, she can smell the liquor on his breath. She felt just safe enough, last night, to ask me to make her see something else.
“The little girl’s father,” I said, “found out she was sharing her food with the raven. One night he caught her at it and brought her into the house and shouted at her. The raven didn’t hear what he said, but he heard the angry tone, and he heard when the little girl started to cry.”
She squeezed my hand.
“Well, the - the next day…” I shut my eyes and thought, hard, about what it felt like to be thirsty.
“The next day?”
“The next day the father came out with a big bowl of water for the raven,” I said. “Fresh and clear and colder than anything the raven had drunk in months. He had a sort of grim look on his face, but he left it by the base of the tree, where the raven could see it, and went inside and locked the door.”
She was looking right at me again. She was hanging on my every word.
“The raven was so thirsty he could barely beat his wings,” I said. “He didn’t have the energy to make any noise. It had been days since he’d had any water. But when he fluttered down to the bowl the father had left out, he didn’t drink a single drop.”
She gaped at me. “Why not?”
“In fact,” I said, and my voice was a little more decisive now, “in fact, he mustered the strength to fly up to the little girl’s window and knock his beak against it until she opened it. And he signalled to her that she should run away. He hopped around her room until she’d packed up her things, and that night he guided her out of the house.”
“Where did he take her?”
“He didn’t know where to go, but the girl happened to know the way to an aunt’s house, and she managed to get there by sundown the next day. It was another house with a little, stunted tree, and the grass was just as yellow there. But her aunt took her in.”
“But…” She was transfixed. “But why did the raven tell her to run away?”
I smoothed her hair back from her forehead. She was getting sleepy, but she was hanging on to wakefulness until I could finish the story. I searched several seconds for the right words to string together.
“He was practically dying of thirst,” I said, “but he wasn’t thirsty enough to drink poison.”
And my daughter was silent. She leaned back on her pillows and stared at the ceiling, and didn’t move when I rose to turn out the light. She didn’t make another sound until I heard, listening at her door, the slow, deep breath of sleep.
I don’t know where that story came from. I don’t know how I came up with it. I never used to ask myself where my ideas came from; back then, the question was only how to ever turn them off. I don’t know if that story was a peck at the remains of an earlier time, or if it was a drop of rain. I don’t even know if there’s a difference.
What I know is, she asked me to tell her a bedtime story. Every day I think she’s learning to forget, a little more, the things he taught her in that house. The fear and the silence and the waiting for anger. The lack of any anchor, any safe harbor, the tearing open of her own home to an enemy who hated her. Since I finally managed to rescue her and bring her towards something new, I think she’s healing.
That’s enough for now. So I went to bed myself.