The grandmother had finally rounded up the children and marshaled them through their bedtime routine like a military operation: brushing teeth, scrubbing hands and faces, changing into pjs, locating stuffed animals that had gotten lost in the excitement of the day. But going to sleep itself, that was another matter for three small children in beds that were not their own. A summer with their grandparents was going to take some getting used to. The children squirmed anxiously beneath their blankets.
A request for a nightlight came from the smallest voice, Lennon, aged five, who missed his parents and his light-up star mobile. The grandmother found a few tiny tea lights that seemed to do the job.
Rune, aged six, asked for another drink of water to delay being left on their own in the strange room, triggering Lennon to pipe up with a matching request. The grandmother brought in three little cups of water, and waited while sips were made, followed by the inevitable trips to the bathroom.
Zilla, aged seven, was used to having her own room and fretted silently about not being able to keep the light on while she read. The grandmother detected the anxiety, and in a quiet voice asked, “Would you like to hear a story?”
“Yes!” all three shouted, relieved to postpone the frightening prospect of sleeping in a strange house.
The grandmother nodded. “OK, but voices need to stay low because Grampa’s trying to sleep.” She heard a derisive snort from the living room where Grandpa was definitely not trying to sleep. She ignored it and, keeping her own voice soft and low in the darkened room, she began.
“Once, not so long ago, there were three animals who were the best of friends. I’m wondering if you know what kind of animals they were?”
“An owl,” Zilla responded immediately. She loved owls, collected them, studied them, and wore owl print pajamas.
“A bear,” Rune answered almost as quickly. She loved bears, and had a well-loved stuffed bear clutched at her side at that very moment.
After a span of deep thought, the smallest voice answered, “An eagle.”
“And quite right you all are too,” the grandmother said. “That is exactly what the animal friends were. They lived in the deep woods and had many adventures together. They took long hikes and had picnics where they dined on seed cakes and honey—"
“And s’mores,” Lennon inserted.
“Of course, though s’mores were for after their seedcakes and honey. They would explore the caves and swim in the rivers—"
“And travel,” Rune suggested.
“Exactly, but not in the way you think. Oh no, not at all. That’s where our story starts. One day, on their hike, Eagle flew extra high into the sky and with his eagle eyes, he spotted something most unusual in a clearing in the woods on the top of a mountain. It was shiny and round, and not natural at all. So, the three friends hiked the mountain. Well, Bear did. Owl and Eagle mostly flew but sometimes rode on Bear’s back, for she was a strong bear.”
“It’s not fair that she had to carry them,” Rune objected.
“Of course it is. She was their friend, and she knew they would help her too.”
“Like Eagle spotting the round thing,” Lennon reminded her.
“Just so. And in order for us to find out what it was, we might need not to interrupt too much. OK? Though it is OK to ask questions because it is always OK to ask questions.”
They answered silently, so as not to interrupt.
“When they got to the mountain top, what they found was a large silver disc, like a sled, with strange markings on it. Bear nudged it this way and that with a paw. It spun around just like a toboggan but didn’t do anything else. Eagle, whose beak was very hard, gave it a few pecks which made a ringing noise. Ping, ping, ping. Owl, who was very smart because she read so much, tried to decipher the strange signs.”
“Maybe they were instructions,” Zilla volunteered, forgetting not to interrupt.
“Owl thought it very likely that the markings explained what the silver sled was. But they couldn’t figure it out, and after much puzzling, Bear gave up and sat down right on the silver sled. Then the most amazing thing happened.”
The grandmother could hear several indrawn breaths. Rune asked nervously, “What happened?”
“Bear started to disappear! Owl and Eagle could see right through their strong friend like she was tissue paper! But they were quick thinking birds. They each stretched out a wing and grabbed onto Bear to pull her to safety.”
“Did we all turn into tissue paper?” the smallest voice asked.
“What happened is that they all disappeared. Only they didn’t know they disappeared because they could see themselves. It was everything else that disappeared. The trees, the mountains, the sky. Even the smell of the pines and the song of the wind. Instead, where do you think they ended up?”
“Egypt,” said Zilla who had just learned about mummies in school.
“Dinosaurs,” said Lennon, who was five, after all.
“India,” Rune decided sleepily.
“You are each right in your own way. They shot lickety-split through darkness, a strange wind whooshing all around them. Suddenly, the sled landed with a thump and began to slide downhill, just like sledding in the winter, only they were sledding down the side of a sand dune. It made a sshhhsshh-ing sound beneath them. When they came to a stop at the bottom of the dune, the three animals blinked around. Particularly Owl, for the sun in this desert was far too bright for her eyes. She thought she might need sunglasses if she was going to be visiting—"
“Egypt!” Zilla realized.
“Egypt indeed. While Owl adjusted her eyelids to the glare, Eagle spotted some white pointy things in the distance. “They look like upside down waffle cones,” Eagle reported. Right away, Owl knew they were- “
“Pyramids,” Zilla said confidently.
“Right. So, the three animals decided they would explore the pyramids. They knew they would need the sled to get back home, so they buried it a little in the sand and arranged some sticks in an X to mark the spot.”
“Like pirates,” Lennon mumbled.
“Exactly like pirates, and you’ll find out more about pirates later. For now, the three headed towards the pyramids, the soft sand sinking under Bear’s paws. They reached the Sphinx that guards the pyramids, like a big, ginormous lion. Nowadays, it doesn’t have a nose, but what Owl was quick to notice was—"
“It had a nose!” Zilla sang out softly.
“Quite so. That’s how she knew they had traveled not only through space, but through time. They had ended up a long time ago. Before the Sphinx got noseless. The nose knows, you know.”
The grandmother could hear two people breathing heavily and Zilla’s sleepy chuckle.
“The three friends stared up at the enormous pyramids,” she continued, “which were shining white in the sun. A string of camels carrying building supplies joined them with friendly snorts. The workmen were friendly too and offered them tea and some Umm Ali, which is a flatbread soaked in milk and filled with almonds and coconuts. The three animals thought this new treat was especially delicious. They ate so much, their tummies hurt, so they settled down for the night by the workman’s fire, feeling very safe and cozy. You know what they did next?”
There was no answer.
The grandmother smiled, more than ready to feel safe and cozy in her own bed now that the little ones were asleep. “That is what we’ll find out tomorrow night,” she finished softly.
And that is what they did.
Each night, the grandmother added to the tale, following the breadcrumbs of the children’s interests. And so, on the second night, the animals explored the pyramids but started to get a little homesick. They decided to return to the silver sled and head home. What they didn’t know was that the silver sled didn’t take them home. Instead, when they opened their eyes…
“…They were at the base of a volcano. They could feel the heat even through the ground. There were big ferny trees and little bubbly-leafed bushes. Strange birds were flying in the air, and it wasn’t long before the ground shook like thunder, big, slow footsteps. Boom, Boom, Boom. Sure enough, a huge animal, bigger than any they had ever seen before, was lumbering toward them.”
“Supersaurus!” Lennon offered. “I saw a supersaurus!”
“That’s exactly what was coming right toward them! Fortunately, Eagle knew that supersauruses don’t eat meat, so they were quite safe. In fact, the big beast ambled right up and sniffed at them with nostrils the size of pie plates. Then it sneezed. Ahhh-choookerfluffle!!!” the grandmother sneezed, in her best imitation of a supersaurus sneeze. A small chorus of giggles erupted from the pillows.
“The sneeze blew away the silver sled which rode on the sneeze wind like a big silver frisbee. Unfortunately, it smacked right into the side of a—”
“Tyrannosaurus Rex!” crowed Lennon.
“Who didn’t want to play frisbee, probably because his arms were so short. He was sensitive about that. He swatted the silver disc and glared at the three animals through beady eyes, which were much bigger up close than you’d think. Eagle screamed, Bear roared, and Owl let out her biggest hoot and they ran for the silver disc right as the Rex began to swing its mighty tail at them.”
“Were we hurt?” Rune cut in.
“Of course not. Bear thought quickly, grabbed her friends, and jumped aboard the sled right as the Rex’s tail flicked the silver disc high up into the air. They rode up, up, up. Like being on a roller coaster, their stomachs went down to their toes. Then the sled turned, and they rode down, down, down, and their stomachs jumped up to their hearts. Just when they thought they would fall straight into the mouth of the volcano, everything went black and the whooshing sound carried them to safety. And where do you think they ended up?”
The room was silent.
And so, on the third night, the trio learned that the sled had brought the animal friends to the Taj Mahal in India. It was as beautiful as any fairy tale castle, even though it wasn’t a castle.
“So we didn’t meet a princess?” asked Rune.
“No, but you met a friendly group of monkeys who shared some puris with you,” the grandmother pointed out.
“I don’t think I like puris,” Lennon muttered, objecting to new foods out of principal.
“Puris are like golden balloons, except very tasty, particularly with a drizzle of honey. The animal friends liked the puris very much. But India was much hotter than they were used to. A friendly elephant sprayed cool water over them through its trunk, but eventually, they decided to go home. Do you think the sled took them home?”
There was no answer. The grandmother rose and quietly closed the door.
Each night, the story unspooled under the grandchildren’s direction through time and place. And so, the three friends found themselves on the Serengeti where the animals taught them all their different languages: the moan of the wildebeest, the deranged hooting of the hyenas, the bray of the zebras, even the booming of the ostrich. The noises brought the grandfather in to investigate, wondering if the roomful of children had turned into a roomful of wild animals. It took a little longer that night for the three children to calm down and fall asleep on the plains of the Serengeti.
And so on.
They travelled to the ruins of Machu Picchu, where they discovered their own father when he was a young backpacker, standing in awe of the past that still echoed there.
“Did I talk to him?” Zilla asked. “I mean Owl.”
“It happens Owl did talk to him. A very serious conversation about how the ancient buildings had withstood earthquakes for so long.”
“Could he understand me?” Zilla inquired.
“You bet. Your dad knew that humans aren’t the only animal on the planet to talk. You just have to listen.”
The children travelled to a busy Moroccan bazaar where they ran into their mother when she was a young traveler learning about a new culture.
“Did we talk to her too?” Rune asked.
“You bet. She explored the whole market with you and treated you to serpent cake.”
There was a chorus of “No!” from the children who were not about to eat serpents.
“Serpent cake is a pastry filled with sugar and almonds, and it just so happened to be Owl’s, Bear’s, and Eagle’s absolute favorite treat of all,” the grandmother explained before they drifted off to sleep with visions of sugary pastries dancing in their heads in a Moroccan bazaar.
And so on.
One night, the grandfather noticed the fatigue on the grandmother’s face. “Maybe the kids can drop off to sleep on their own now?” he suggested.
The grandmother nodded. “Yes, I think they can. They’ve gotten comfortable here, I’m happy to say.”
She settled down into her recliner to rest her feet.
“So why do you keep telling them stories every night?”
The grandmother had asked herself the same question. At first it had been to guarantee her own night’s rest, free of little feet pattering down the hall in search of a snack, another visit to the bathroom, a complaint about a funny noise. Knowing they were snugly asleep, she didn’t have to worry if they were crying in homesickness into their pillows or lying awake frightened of the monsters that might reside beneath the unfamiliar beds.
But the grandmother knew that wasn’t really why she told her grandchildren a story every night.
She looked at the grandfather fondly. “I am not telling them stories at all, really. I am telling them that they are smart, and strong, and resilient. I am telling them they can make choices, and even mistakes, and learn from both. I am telling them that they are friends who will always help each other.”
She sat quietly for so long, the grandfather thought perhaps she had fallen asleep. And she was just about asleep but had one more thought.
“I am not telling them a story. I am telling them I love them. Every night.” And the consequences of not telling them that were unthinkable.