The sky exploded with a dazzling flash and a tremendous roar, and beneath it, Sofia awoke with fright. Her heart performed a distraught little dance of fright inside her chest as she lay under her sheets wondering whether or not to wake Mamma. It’d be too silly to admit she was afraid of the sounds outside, too childish. She was seven years old now and she should be strong. Brave. What was so scary about a few loud bangs? She would do the big girl thing and lie here and sleep until morning. Just put her head back down and…
Another roar from outside, this time louder. It shook the whole building. Sofia could almost swear she could see the walls quake through the darkness and begin to cave. And for a moment she could envision horrible dark forces coming through the walls, terrors too foul to speak of, things that came from the same place that those terrible loud roars in the sky came from.
Sometimes, Sofia thought, it was okay to let Mamma know she was scared.
She fumbled clumsily through the darkness, stepping lightly on her way to where Mamma was sleeping. It was chilly tonight but at least it was warmer and safer indoors. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be out there right now. She shuddered to think about it.
She found Mamma wrapped in her own blanket and lying still. Was she asleep? Maybe she shouldn’t wake her. Maybe this was all a really silly idea after all. She should go back to her own bed and sleep through the noises like the big seven-year-old she was.
‘Sofia?’ Mamma’s voice, whispering. She was awake. ‘Sofia, darling, are you alright?’
For a moment, Sofia said nothing. But then her voice came through the darkness softly, as though discreetly poking its head out to check it was safe before making itself known. ‘I’m a little bit scared,’ she admitted.
Mamma sat up immediately and extended her arms out to the child. Sofia sat in her mother’s lap and the two embraced.
‘Oh, Sofia,’ Mamma soothed. ‘It’s okay. Is it the noise? We’re safe in here. It’ll finish soon.’
Mamma felt warm. Sofia could feel her heartbeat. It was dancing almost as animatedly as her own. But surely Mamma wasn’t frightened? Surely her heart danced the dance of courage, not fear. She was clever and strong. She always knew what to do. If any of those awful monsters Sofia had imagined did come through those walls, Mamma would chase them away. They would be so frightened of Sofia's Mamma that they’d never bother her again. That’s what Mamma did.
‘Here,’ Mamma said, offering Sofia some of her blanket. ‘Come and snuggle in with me. It’s cold tonight.’
Sofia got inside the blanket and the pair lay down together facing each other. Mamma began gently stroking the child’s hair. She couldn’t see her face, but Sofia knew somehow that her mother was smiling at her; that warm reassuring smile that always made everything feel so much better, even on the darkest and coldest of nights. She could feel it as though it was a warm beam of sunlight. That smile alone would surely be enough to send the monsters running in the opposite direction; how could anything stand against the owner of such a thing? In the end, love always wins.
‘What do you think would make your feel better?’ Mamma whispered. ‘Is there something special we can do to help you to not be scared?’
‘I’m not that scared,’ Sofia said, feeling a little braver than before. It was true – being far away from Mamma and hearing the loud rumbles from above had been a little frightening, but here in her mother’s blanket it felt much better. Much safer. Nothing could scare Sofia when Mamma was so close by.
Another crash sounded from above their heads. This time it sounded closer. Much closer. It sounded like something great and terrible and dark and evil had set its wicked sights specifically on Sofia and her Mamma. It wanted to destroy them. Sofia jumped and her arms pricked with goosebumps, making her suddenly feel very cold again. She tried not to gasp but the sound rushed out of her as though the breath in her lungs was so afraid of what was happening outside that it wanted to escape her body and flee to safety.
Mamma wrapped her arms warmly around her and squeezed her closer. ‘It’s alright, my love. It’s alright. Sshhh.’
They lay together in silence. Sofia’s body was tense. She was listening out for any sign of further rumbles but for several moments she heard nothing but her mother’s strong heartbeat. Was it quicker now? Could Mamma really be afraid of what Sofia was?
‘Are you scared, Mamma?’
Mamma resumed stroking Sofia’s hair and kissed her softly on the cheek before replying. ‘No, sweetheart. Because I know we’re safe. But it’s okay to feel frightened sometimes. I’m here with you and I’m not going anywhere.’
Once again, Sofia could feel that smile. That deterrence for anything evil that might lurk in the shadows around them or in the sky above them. She calmed again.
‘What about a story?’ Mamma suggested. ‘One of your books?’
‘It’s too dark,’ Sofia said. ‘We won’t be able to see it.’
‘I can use my torch,’ Mamma said. ‘You’ll be able to see all the pictures. It might help you to not feel afraid any more. What do you think?’
‘Yes,’ Sofia nodded enthusiastically. ‘Yes, I’d really like that.’
Mamma planted another soft and warm kiss on her cheek before turning around and rummaging in a bag that Sofia knew was close by. She rubbed at the cheek her mother had kissed because it felt funny. Damp. But not just because it had been kissed. For a second, Sofia thought that the last rumble must have made her cry a little, but the other side of her face was dry. There was no doubt about it; a tear most certainly was there upon the face of Sofia, but her own eye hadn’t cried it.
Mamma turned back to Sofia and suddenly a warm light enveloped them. The torch. She could see Mamma’s face now. It was dry after all, but her eyes were a little reddened. And she could see the book in front of her. It was one she hadn’t read before.
Brave Ionna in the Night
The front cover was beautifully illustrated. It showed a young girl of around the same age as Sofia. She was lying in her bed in a dark room. At her bedroom window, little wavy lines had been drawn to suggest some sort of noise coming from outside. And at the door to the bedroom stood what looked to be some dark, foreboding figure.
Sofia was startled. ‘Mamma, is this a scary book?’
Mamma’s big beautiful, calming smile broadened. ‘No, my love. This is a very old story. It was my favourite when I was a little girl. Your grandfather used to read it to me every night.’
‘Every night?’ Sofia questioned, a little astonished.
‘Yes,’ Mamma said. ‘You see, when I was little, I was a bit scared of the dark. I didn’t like when the lights went out and I used to imagine all sorts of horrible things in the darkness. And I especially didn’t like stormy nights with lots of thunder.’
‘You were scared of thunder?’ Sofia asked, finding herself even more surprised.
‘Yes,’ Mamma said. ‘But this book really helped me to realise that all my fears were nonsense. Shall we read it?’
Sofia nodded. She was very intrigued to hear this story and to see the pictures. If the front cover was anything to go by, there would certainly be pages and pages of beautiful images.
Mamma opened the book to the first page and began reading.
'One dark and stormy night, Ionna couldn’t sleep. Outside her bedroom window, the rain hammered against the glass and in the distance, thunder roared like a hungry monster looking for something good to eat.
'Every time the thunder rumbled, Ionna could imagine a terrible creature stomping through the darkness and looking for little boys or girls to eat. It would have five hundred eyes for finding children, a giant nose for sniffing them out, and a long, slender tongue that could taste the air and lead it in the right direction.
'But of course, Ionna knew this was nonsense. She knew that monsters didn’t exist. And when she felt afraid, she would make up a rhyme to help make her feel better.
'There is no monster in the dark
With hundreds of eyes and teeth like a shark
No terrible titan that prowls the night
No ghastly giant bringing angst and fright
No matter what I fear or dread
I know I’m safe here in my bed.
'And with a sigh, Ionna closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
'But then she heard a tapping on her window. Tap, tap, tap. And Ionna knew that it must have been something dreadful. A skeleton with bony fingers. A goblin with an awful grin. A vampire with sharp, pointy teeth awaiting its chance to bite a little girl in the darkness who checks her window to find out what's tapping against it.
'Ionna wanted to open her curtains and look out of her window to find out what was there. But she couldn’t. What if she saw something truly frightening?
'And then she remembered that this was nonsense.
'What is out there making that noise?
Something with an appetite for girls and boys?
No, it’s just the branch of the silver birch tree
Blowing against my window and flapping free
No matter what I fear or dread
I know I’m safe here in my bed.
'Ionna settled back down in her bed. Once more she closed her eyes and tried to think of all the nice things she might dream about. Riding on the back of a unicorn as she soars through the clouds. Swimming with dolphins and jumping through the waves. Laughing with monkeys as they swing together through the trees.
'But something still didn’t feel right. Something felt altogether wrong. Ionna dared a little peek into the darkness around her… and she spotted a dark figure standing at the other end of her bedroom in front of her door.
'"It’s a man!", she thought. "Or a monster. Standing unmoving and staring at me in my bed! What is he doing here? What does he want?"
'But when she looked closer, Ionna found once more that it was nonsense.
'There is no scary figure at my door
No evil presence that I can’t ignore
The thing which stands over there afloat
Is nothing more than my hung raincoat
No matter what I fear or dread
I know I’m safe here in my bed.
'Ionna took a deep breath, and with a smile she fell asleep and dreamed of pleasant things.
'In the morning, her mother asked her how she slept. "Wonderfully!" she replied. "There were all sorts of monsters in and outside my bedroom. But I made them go away."
'"How did you make them go away?" Ionna’s mother asked.
'"I discovered that they all lived inside my head," Ionna said. "And when I knew this I was able to make them all leave."
'And each night before Ionna fell asleep, she reminded herself that she was forever safe inside her bed.'
Mamma didn’t close the book. She allowed Sofia to have a good look at the final image. It looked an awful lot like the front cover, except now everything was bright instead of dark; the curtains had been left open on this particular night and the brilliant light from a beautifully drawn full moon shone magnificently into Ionna’s bedroom. The tree just outside of her window was calm enough tonight that two little birds sat snugly together in a nest and slept soundly. The sky was still with just a few thin clouds stretching across the horizon. Inside Ionna’s room, Sofia could now clearly see the raincoat hanging on the door. It was blue with white spots. And lying there in her bed, Ionna slept with a smile on her face that rivalled Mamma’s for how comforting it was.
‘What do you think?’ Mamma asked, now finally closing the book and switching off the torch. ‘Did you like the story?’
Sofia hesitated before nodding. ‘...Yes.’
But she heard it in her own voice. A sort of… uncertainness. A kind of unease. And she knew that Mamma must have heard it too.
‘Is something wrong, Sofia? Did the story not help to make you feel safer?’
She paused once more before giving her honest answer. ‘…Kind of.’
‘Are you still frightened?’ Mamma asked.
‘Yes,’ Sofia said.
‘Why?’ Mamma asked.
‘Well,’ Sofia started. ‘The things that Ionna was afraid of in the story turned out to be not real. But the things I’m frightened of are real.’
Silence. Mamma probably didn’t know what to say. Mamma never lied to Sofia. But she probably didn’t want to scare her either.
‘Ionna was scared of thunder, like you when you were little,’ Sofia continued. ‘She thought it sounded like a monster. And that’s what I think when I hear those sounds outside. But it’s not thunder I hear and it’s scarier than any monster.’
‘Sofia, my love…’ Mamma’s voice was shaking.
‘And then she thought she saw someone in her room,’ Sofia interrupted. ‘Maybe a bad man. But a bad man couldn’t come into her home because she was in a safe place or a safe time. But we're not and I’m scared that a bad man really might come here. A bad man with a gun. And he could.’
‘The story was really good,’ Sofia interrupted. ‘But I don’t know how to be brave like Ionna when there are real things outside that can hurt us. Ionna said the monsters lived inside her head, but the things I'm scared of live in the real world.’
And she realised now that she was weeping. Crying soft silver tears which drizzled down her cheeks like rivers of anguish and fell through the darkness to land in the same place that hope seemed to be in these new, frightening days: somewhere unseen.
‘Hush, little child,’ came a voice. It was not Mamma’s, but it was not unkind. It sounded like it belonged to an elderly lady. Through the darkness a stranger was trying to console Sofia as Mamma held her tightly. ‘We’re safe in here. Those monsters can’t hurt us.’
Mamma said nothing more for several minutes, and Sofia understood why. There was an old saying that Sofia had never really understood: Those sitting above can easily spit on those below. She thought now that she had some understanding of it because it was almost literally happening outside. And she couldn’t understand why. Why did she and her Mamma have to suffer? Why did anyone down here have to suffer for the evil and greed of one man? Where was the help? What did Sofia and Mamma do to deserve this?
Eventually, there was nothing left to do but cling together as though each feared losing the other in the dark. They cried quietly, so as not to alarm the other nor wake anyone else. And as they lay together they found it impossible to drift off to sleep.
They were not alone; dozens of other frightened Ukrainians lay awake inside the Kyiv underground metro station as outside, the Russian bombs continued to scream like monsters as they fell and shattered in flames.