An imaginary spring with accompanied animal chirps and the occasional ribbits played in Theadora’s worn Beats headphones as she lay on her back facing the ceiling, wishing she could control her anxiety so she could get some sleep. The blunt she rolled and planned to smoke in its entirety did little to ease her troubled heart, but she found amusement in the smoke rings she sent into the air. Her mother Antonia told her that she’d been listening to what she called ‘Nature Noises’ at bedtime since she was born, even before, as these were the outdoor lullabies she enjoyed herself. The only difference was that while Thea’s sounds generated from a playlist, Antonia grew up sleeping with her windows open at her family home, nature’s noises playing an infinite melody that never sounded the same.
In her sixteen years Thea never visited what Antonia called home, but her mother spoke of it like a mystical palace that needed escaping. Antonia left six months before having Theadora Shea Foret and never looked back, refusing even to explain to her only daughter why she didn’t want her to meet her grandmother or anyone else in the family. Instead, over bottles of cheap wine, Antonia Mae Foret described acres of land populated with trees and a home with a conservatory. She romanticized the fruitful gardens that she resented tending to and spoke darkly of the grounds being secluded by a large body of water and a haunted forest. The home even had a name, Foret Manor.
“‘Foret’ means ‘forest’ in French,” Antonia recited, as it was once recited to her. Foret Manor was built by a wealthy French merchant named Gabriel Toussaint towards the end of slavery. The home was made to accommodate the man and a host of slaves who were purchased in New Orleans, one of whom he kept as his wife, Aba Toussaint. Upon abolition, Aba and the beautiful girls sired in their forced union took ownership of the home after his death. In fact, they also adopted a new surname to commemorate their freedom as women of color, Foret.
Thea’s smoke rings took her gaze to her ceiling, where Antonia spent hours alongside her years ago, placing glow-in-the-dark constellations as accurately as possible so that when the lights went out, Thea had her own night sky above her bed, just as Antonia enjoyed from her own conservatory. She tried to imagine herself at Foret Manor, in that same space. She’d never been there in real life, but once she fell asleep, she’d wake up beside a vast river with trees all around. Like a Disney Princess, everything living in the forest sang to and for her as she wandered barefoot, marveling at Mother Earth’s beauty. At times, she’d become aware that she was dreaming and climbed trees without fear of falling. She’d jump from the tallest branch and glide to her next destination without wings; only the knowledge that she could do whatever she wanted in this fantastical dream.
She’d wake up in her bed, not in Foret Manor but that feeling of freedom and power remained inside her through the day. She grew to love those dreams; she craved them when she realized that she could consciously roam the grounds and experience her mother’s home for herself.
Theadora saw her ability to live through her dreams as being gifted two worlds to reside, one she fell asleep to escape, while the other she could force herself awake when she felt necessary. She’d never shared this with anyone, as most people confessed to forgetting their dreams. She personally felt significance in both worlds and found herself trying to understand if one complemented the other, or if each world operated independently.
Antonia usually came back after two days and her absence neared a week. Thea was unsure of what to do or who to call, as they’d never prepared for a situation where Antonia wouldn’t make it home from her disappearances. She decided that night after sliding the Beats over her ears that Antonia wasn’t home the next morning, she’d have to tell an adult at school. It had to be Ms. Davis, Thea’s art teacher. She couldn’t imagine trusting anyone else.
She traced the glowing shape of Capricorn, her favorite constellation. She’d listened to podcasts and read articles of the myth behind its origin, finding it much more interesting than anything she’d heard her friends describe in the Bible. By the time she turned ten she made the decision that maybe she was more of a star and moon follower than a cross wearing person.
None of that stuff could be seen in the sky anyways, she reasoned with herself. Unless Heaven was the sky with constellations, maybe that would make sense. Her classmate Karynne told her that when you die, you go to Heaven with all your favorite people and things.
“But you had to be a good Christian too,” she said. Antonia and Theadora weren’t Christians, and if Antonia was dead somewhere, how would she find her in Heaven? Did that mean she may never know what happened to her mother if she was dead, until she dies? She thought about borrowing a Bible to see if there was anything about finding missing mothers and family members, but the thought made her heart race. She realized at that moment she was terrified for her mother, and she was completely alone.
She forced herself to study the ceiling constellations and listen to her nature noises with no more thought of death and Heaven. She hoped to hear Antonia shuffling around with a hangover the next morning, apologetic and cooking her favorite breakfast. More than anything as she drifted off, she hoped that if she came back this time, she wouldn’t leave again.
It never rained on Foret Manor in her dreams, but this time the sky darkened while Theadora’s skin felt the soft pats of giant raindrops on her scalp. She brought her hands to her hair, finding it tangled and matted. Her only thought was the urge to fix it before school. She took a well-worn path towards the house, barely realizing that she was seeing it for the first time in her dreams, as she was only able to focus on her hair. She sped up to get out of the rain and saw her mother sitting on the porch with a comb, brush, and hair products beside her. Antonia smiled, and gestured for her to have a seat.
She sat between her knees as she always had growing up and Antonia began parting her hair. Neither of them spoke for a while; Theadora just felt grateful to see her. The feeling of her fingers applying grease to her freshly parted hair soothed her, and any feelings of anger at her departure and disappearance melted away. Finally, Antonia spoke.
“Thea, I’m so sorry, my love. I’ve gone home.” Theadora opened her mouth to speak, but her voice refused to cooperate. She tried to turn to look at her mother, but her body stiffened. She knew she was dreaming, but this time she had no control. Antonia continued to work on her braids, appearing to be gentler than Theodora remembered.
For the remainder of the dream, Theodora fought to speak or at least look at her mother, but she appeared to be frozen there on the porch, between her mother’s knees while she braided. She suddenly felt anxious at her lack of control and decided to try and wake herself. Theodora squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, readying to jolt her body awake as she’d done on a few occasions when she found the dream overwhelming.
She counted to herself, one, two, three. She forced an internal scream that sent her back to her house, her bed, alone.
She brought her hand to her head, tracing the scalp of her freshly braided hair and collapsed to the ground, crying uncontrollably.