I woke that night to a rustling downstairs. It was late—too late for the kids to be up, unless Arthur had had another nightmare and retreated to his under-the-table den for safety. But the kids’ doors were closed, my three children immersed in their respective dream-worlds. In a few hours Cammy, the youngest, would bound into my bedroom bursting with tales of blue and red Teletubby-type creatures gamboling across lime-green pastures. There would be a carnival—“yes mommy, rides and everything!”—she’d exclaim, and she’d been on the Ferris Wheel with “the yellow one,” who’d given her cotton candy on a stick! And it was rainbow-colored! Sweet Cammy, who saw the world through rose-tinted glasses, even in her sleep, her sippy cup always half full.
At age six, my middle child Arthur had already lost that primary-color innocence—if he’d ever had it at all. The horizon of his dreams was not a straight line delineating sea and sky but a muddle of grey. A foggy world of good guys-turned bad; tortuous paths through scarred landscapes; dark places where unseen horrors lurked and faceless monsters dwelled. He didn’t often talk about his dreams, but I could read them in the faraway look in his eyes. They spoke of experience beyond his years: Tiger tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night . . .
The eldest, Zoe, aged eleven, claimed she didn’t dream at all. “Dreams are pointless,” she’d say. Or, “I don’t have time for dreams.” But I knew differently. And how I wished I’d listened to her that night, three years ago, when she’d come screaming into the bedroom with a garbled message I’d been too quick to dismiss as the ramblings of a child.
* * *
Downstairs, I searched for the source of the disruption. We’d had mice, even rats, over the years, and I hoped it wasn’t that. I’d set traps in the garage and hadn’t had any captives lately. And our cat, Charlie, although past his prime, humored us with the occasional catch. I liked to think he kept the vermin at bay.
I stepped into the living room, the moonlight percolating through the half-drawn venetian blinds, casting neat geometric patterns across the fraying carpet. My gaze fell on an upturned box of Cammy’s dollies splayed across the middle of the floor. One of them, with its wispy white hair, lay on its back, its glassy eyes glinting in the moonshine. It seemed at once floating in the limp light yet caught in a cage of shadows. I picked it up and returned it to its resting place in the box.
Nothing out of the ordinary here. I wondered whether I’d imagined the disturbance, whether it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me again. But then I heard a dull, rhythmic thud. This was no rat.
* * *
When her daddy was still alive, Zoe went through a phase of creeping into our bed in the middle of the night, sobbing quietly. I’d assumed she was sleepwalking; she didn’t talk, didn’t make eye contact. My husband Rob and I would silently cradle her little body between ours and gently lull her back to sleep. She’d awaken the next morning as if nothing untoward had happened. She offered no details of any visions or dreams, and I didn’t ask. Maybe part of me didn’t want to know. She seemed too young to be plagued by the stuff of nightmares.
The night before Rob’s accident, she’d run into our room screaming, her words garbled as she struggled to stay afloat, as if some unseen riptide was dragging her farther and farther from the safety of our shore. It took us a long time to calm her down. When she did finally drift back into a fitful sleep, I lay awake, listening to her ragged breathing, while Rob slept soundly on the other side. I was envious of the way he could switch off as soon as his head hit the pillow. How he could so easily exit the waking world with all its gnawing worries. The rest of the night was punctuated by panicked, incoherent utterings: “Don’t go!” “Run away!” and “Daddy!”
At least that’s what I thought I heard.
* * *
Rob and I had met at university. I was doing a year abroad, escaping my provincial Pennsylvanian upbringing for the excitement of a world apart from the trappings of a typical American college. Something—call it intuition—had compelled me to take the less-traveled road, to venture to a British university, where I knew no one and no one knew me.
Ours was a fairy tale romance: the handsome, bright English gentleman sweeping the unassuming blonde maiden off her feet. That year was nothing short of bliss, and when I returned to the States to finish my degree, our long-distance relationship flourished. If nothing else, having that experience heightened our attraction. In America, I felt displaced, present in body but not in spirit. Moving across the ocean seemed the natural thing to do. So, with nothing but a wedding dress and a couple of suitcases in tow, I got on a plane and left.
For the two weeks preceding our wedding, I stayed with Rob’s parents. My soon-to-be mother-in-law, superstitious to the point of lunacy, insisted on stowing my wedding dress in the loft, accessible only by ladder.
“You can’t possibly let Rob see the dress before your wedding day!” she warned. “It’s bad luck!”
Rob just shrugged, his pointed glare conveying, Pick your battles. So, I stayed quiet, trying not to cringe as she shoved the dress, which I’d managed to transport 3,000 miles without it getting crinkled, into the loft.
“There,” she said, as she replaced the wooden access panel, “You’re safe now.”
* * *
The morning of Rob’s death unfolded like a typical Sunday. He’d crept out of bed early to get ready for his run, somehow not waking me and Zoe, or baby Cammy and Arthur, who shared the room next to ours. It was the lead up to the London marathon—he was doing it for charity—and that day was to mark his longest run to date: 23 miles. The night before I’d helped him map out a route that took in the quiet country roads, a few miles of canal towpath, some cross-country trails. A bit of everything. Part of me was envious he had an excuse to get away from it all for a few hours on a glorious spring day, while I stayed at home with an infant and two young children, whiling away the time. But I supported him. He was a loving husband, a wonderful father. I decided that while he ran, the children and I would bake. What a picture it would be: Daddy would come home, euphoric and glistening with sweat, and we’d share a wholesome banana loaf.
I awoke to more of Zoe’s cries. Half awake, half asleep, she looked at me with big, fearful eyes and said, “Where’s Daddy? Tell him not to go!” When I came to my senses, I could hear the quiet click of the front door shutting as Rob left. I could have stopped him, I suppose. He would be bracing himself against the big maple tree, stretching for a few minutes, before he set off. I could have jumped out of bed, gone outside, and invented a story for why he had to stay home. I’m not feeling well honey or I really need you to help with Cammy today. And he would have hesitated for a moment as he came to terms with his dashed plans, but ultimately, he would have stayed; he was that kind of guy.
* * *
I came to discover that my mother-in-law’s superstitions stretched beyond the realm of wedding dresses. Once, after a shopping trip with Zoe—she must have been around three—we’d stopped by her house so Zoe could show off her brand-new Clarks shoes. They were patent leather, with buckles she could manage all by herself. When we got inside, my daughter proudly thrust the shoebox in her grandmother’s face, then removed the shoes and proceeded to put them on the side table. “No shoes on the table!” my mother-in-law squawked menacingly. Stunned, Zoe retracted her arms and dropped the shoes on the floor as if they were on fire, then buried her head in my arms and sobbed quietly.
“Don’t you know it’s bad luck to put shoes on a table? Think of the dirt…”
Zoe didn’t understand the irrationality of old wives’ tales, and of course not a speck of mud marred those unworn shoes. Shh, I whispered, stroking her curly brown hair. I didn’t dare voice my disapproval. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. The shoes already seemed to have lost their luster, I thought, as I looked at the pair of them lying on their sides, like pristine vessels grounded before their first voyage.
* * *
Birds. That was my mother-in-law’s biggest superstition. Birds in churchyards, birds on greeting cards, birds circling overhead… clear omens of disaster. Most ominous of all were birds in the house. “Have I told you about Uncle Albert?” she’d said countless times. “How the morning of his death Aunt Helen found a raven in the bedroom?” And she’d proceed to recount how all the windows were closed, so it was a mystery how the bird had gotten in. All they knew was that, a few hours later, Uncle Albert, fit as a fiddle, had a cardiac arrest. Dead before he knew what had hit him.
Like Rob, I thought. Dead on impact. A hit and run on a blind corner. At least he didn’t suffer. It’s just the ones left behind who feel the pain.
* * *
The police knocked just as I was taking the banana bread out of the oven. The sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted through the house. As I went to the door, I stole a glance over my shoulder. It was one of those Hallmark moments: kids smiling in the kitchen as they licked the remains of the gooey batter off their fingertips—an image forever etched in my mind, our final seconds of innocent oblivion. What if I’d just battened down the hatches and not answered the door? Sealed us off from the ugliness that awaited on the other side? But I didn’t. I answered it brashly, wanting to show off my good fortune to whomever stood on the other side. Look at me, I thought smugly. At my beautiful children. Come, sit down with us and enjoy some freshly baked cake. The windows were open, the sun pouring in. The birds chirped contentedly.
* * *
Rob and I had never discussed funerals: what we wanted, and where. Burial or cremation? Church service or not? In the waking nightmare of the days that followed his death, I had to make some flash decisions: his body was so mangled I didn’t want it buried in that state, so it would have to be cremated. Although I’d flirted with the idea of a God, Rob was an atheist, through and through. So, a simple send-off at the crem. And what about the children? Should they come to the funeral? Cammy was only a few months old; she wouldn’t know either way. At three, Arthur wouldn’t be able to process what was going on; better to leave him with a babysitter. Zoe was the only one old enough to understand. She would come. But what would she make of it? Did she blame me for not listening when she’d tried so clearly to warn me? Did she have any recollection of that morning? I would never ask her. And she would never tell. Instead, I played ignorant, afraid that admitting I should have heeded the warning would lend undo credence to a child’s words and cast her as some sort of seer. After all, I didn’t believe in premonitions, even when death was staring me in the face.
In the end, the funeral was a small affair: me, Zoe, Rob’s parents, a few close friends. The officiant delivered a forgettable eulogy while I wept quietly in the fold-out chair, well-entrenched in the first stage of grief: denial. As we left the crematorium, I saw my mother-in-law pause on the neatly manicured lawn outside, reach into her black handbag, and toss something over her shoulder.
“Why is Granny throwing dirt?” Zoe asked.
“It’s not dirt,” I replied blankly. “It’s salt.”
* * *
I found the source of the noise in the dining room. As I entered, warily at first, all seemed quiet and normal. The breakfast bowls were laid out on the table as always, ready for morning. Four spoons glinted in the moonlight. I had to stop myself from instinctively grabbing a fifth. It was in these quiet times, somewhere between sleeping and waking, that I could forget my grief and weave my own dreams. In the morning Rob will get up, make some coffee and sit at his usual place at the table, waiting for me. I’ll join him, and we’ll chat and make love while the kids sleep…
I felt the air shift around me and a drifting feather alerted me to the intruder. There, on the windowsill, a dove perched. It stilled as it registered the threat, then took flight, manically beating its wings, more feathers flying as it proceeded to pound, again and again, into the closed window. As I approached, its flapping became wilder.
“It’s okay,” I crooned. “You’ll soon be free…”
I moved closer, feeling the flutter of wings fan my face. I could almost taste the frenzied panic as I wrested the window open. The cool night air whooshed in; then, the dove flew away, a flash of white streaking across the inky sky.
When I turned to go back upstairs, I saw Zoe watching, bleary-eyed.
“Is that bird going to be okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And so are we.”