Mama says that everything will be okay.
She is warm and her arms are soft and even though I am frightened, I believe her. Mama never lies.
I like to say that I am big, because I am 9 years old and older than most of the other kids I’ve met on the journey. But today it feels nice to be little. Little and safe.
I curl up tighter in Mama’s arms and close my eyes to pretend. We are river otters, like the ones I saw in a book once.
We float in the current, and I sit perched on her belly above the rushing water. The sky is brilliant blue and my fur is soft and the sun shines on us, wearing a smiley face and sunglasses. There are other animals, fish below us and frogs near the shore and birds above. On the shore, there are flowers and trees and tall blades of grass.
We are resting for now, but Mama is taking me to a new home where the water is warm and flows gently, like a lullaby. She says when we get there I can play in the shallows with the other animals. I think I will like it there.
Mama says that it’s okay to pretend, but that I have to remember the real stories, too. She is very smart and she tells me which ones are real so I don’t forget or get them confused with the pretend stories.
When we were walking, she told me stories to help me forget how tight my shoes were on my feet and how heavily my bag dug into my shoulders. She didn’t like me to ask where we were going, or how much longer we’d have to walk. So she told stories instead, and I did my best to remember them so I could tell them to myself when Mama was tired of talking.
This one’s pretend.
Once there was a prince who lived in a kingdom made of soil. Everyone in the kingdom loved him, because he was very kind. He knew how to care for the soil and brought seeds to the people every season so that they could grow all sorts of vegetables and other plants from the walls of their soil houses. His palace was always covered in flowers and fruits, which he shared with everyone.
One day, in the middle of winter, some of the people decided they were not satisfied with the kinds of seeds the prince had given them. (Satisfied means happy). They wanted the plants he gave them to grow in the summer. So they attacked the palace, killed the prince, and took all the seeds. But the plants wouldn’t grow because it was too cold and the winter sunlight was too dim. And when summer came, the kingdom had no more seeds to grow. Everyone, even the people who didn’t steal the seeds, had to leave and look for a new home or they would starve.
And that was how the soil kingdom fell.
Mama’s stories, real and pretend, don’t have happy endings like the ones in books. At first they made me sad, but not anymore. That’s just how Mama’s stories go.
After we walked, we rode in the back of a truck. The wooden boards on the sides were rough and gave me splinters, and the dust from the spinning tires made me cough and sneeze. But it was nice to not have to walk, and to have somewhere to set my bag down.
There were other people who rode with us, all of them strangers. There were two other kids, a brother and sister, who were very little. Their mama was always very tired because they wanted to be held, or fed, or sung to. My mama was kind and offered once to hold the daughter for a little while, but the girl was afraid to be away from her family and cried loudly. Mama didn’t offer again.
The little kids made me scared. They asked questions that I did not want to ask, like when they would get to eat, or where their dada was, or why the sky was brown and dusty, not blue like it used to be.
They were too little to know that the answers were probably scarier than not knowing.
This one is real.
We lived in a country that believed it was great. It was almost like the Titanic; everyone thought it was too grand and strong to be destroyed. (Grand is like great, but in a fancy way).
Even the strongest places will someday fall. And that’s what happened, but it happened slow and then all of a sudden, like a big tree dying for years and then falling over in a storm.
Since it happened like that, nobody expected it, and lots of people hid and hoped things would get better.
We waited for as long as we could, like little chipmunks in hibernation. But we aren’t like chipmunks or bears, we can’t stay in one place and wait for the bad things to pass. We have to be like swallows and find good things for ourselves.
Swallows are little and fragile but they are strong. They can travel thousands of miles to get away from the cold that would kill them. They know when it is time to move on and find somewhere new, and that is how they survive.
Sometimes, when swallows migrate, not all of them make it through the journey. It’s sad, but it’s okay, because the swallows who do make it can sing real songs to remember them.
We’re going somewhere that will be better. Maybe not all the way good, but better. We can tell the real stories and remember the people who won’t be there with us. We will be okay.
Now we’re on a boat filled with new strangers, and we float in the current and Mama holds me tight. Mama says it’s not a sea, it’s a really big lake, and when we get to the other side we will be safe.
I am afraid of the water, which is dark and deep and thrashes like a tantrum in the wind. I am frightened because our boat is small and I can’t see the shore to know which way I would need to swim if the waves knock us over.
Mama hugs me tightly. Her breath on my hair is warm and reminds me of the way the wind ruffles the swallow’s feathers when it flies.
Mama says everything will be okay and asks if I want to hear another story, a real story. I settle deeper into her arms to listen and remember.
This one has a happy ending.