Children In the Dark
by Marjorie H Morgan
The sand is everywhere. I can feel it in my hair and in my sandals. It is under my fingernails. I tasted it in the warm corned-beef sandwiches on the way home. The sand claims everything it touches.
It is dark in here.
My breathing is so loud.
In the light, before the perpetual darkness, there were balloons and ice-creams. The whipped cones were piled high with chocolate flakes and hundreds and thousands scattered on the top like coloured sand. We all had smiles and bright eyes. Eight eyes.
I remember earlier.
It was today. Or was it before?
I remember the seaside. The way we used to build castles and the stories to fit in with them.
‘There was a princess’, Dad said as he patted the side of the castle, ‘and she had not slept for a week because she missed her toy bear. You see, she had lost it when she was playing in the forest but she couldn’t tell anyone because she was forbidden to go to the forest. So she sat in her room and cried herself awake for seven long nights.’
‘Jamie, go and get some more water for the moat,’ Dad turned to me as I sat flicking sand in the air.
‘Oh, Daddy! Can you finish the story first?’ I didn’t want to move, scared that I would miss the ending.
‘You know we have to do this right, don’t we? And all good structures need a defence system to protect them. So, off you go. More water for the princess.’
‘OK, but don’t tell any more of the story till I get back, will you?’
‘The princess will be waiting for you,’ he promised, ‘now, go ahead. And use the big red bucket this time.’
I scampered off towards the shore. The small pebbles were warm beneath my feet as I skipped along swinging the empty bucket round on my arm.
‘Water, water, don’t run away. I’m coming to get you,’ I sang. Laughing I turned back to where Daddy and Morrie were sitting and they waved at me. I waved back and ran on towards the small waves that slapped the narrow hard line of sand in the fight with the sea.
‘Got you!’ I filled the bucket up until it was too heavy to carry. Before I reached the castle half the water had sloshed out onto my legs and the sand leaving a speckled path behind me. It reminded me of the bread stones that Hansel and Grethel dropped to find their way home. The sun swallowed up my tracks by the time I threw myself back down onto the hot sand.
‘There we go, that looks better already’, exclaimed Daddy pouring the few drops of remaining water into the small dry moat. ‘Well done little man, you’re Daddy’s little helper, eh?’ The water left the surface so quickly. The effort of my journey to the sea was disappearing before my eyes. It was hard to see it go. But Daddy just smiled and straightened Morrie’s sunhat.
‘So. Where were we then? Can you remember?’
Morrie beamed, giggled and kicked her legs in the air.
‘The princess was missing her teddy that was lost in the woods,’ I offered.
‘Good memory. That’s right. Look. There she is looking through the window. Does she look all sad and worried?’
‘Daddy? Does she find the teddy bear? Does she?’
‘We’ll have to see,’ he replied mysteriously as he stood up and started to walk away from the castle.
‘Where you going Daddy?’
‘To the forest, it’s over here; come and see.’ He stopped about five of his big paces away from the princess’ castle and started to draw a circle in the warm sand. ‘Morrie, bring those shells that you’ve got in the bag, and those lolly sticks. Thank you. That’s a good girl.’
We ran to his side. I stood there and looked up at him.
He was as big as a redwood tree to me.
He started to make the forest in the sand. We passed him the sticks.
‘That’s good, isn’t it Morrie?’ I wished Morrie could talk like other children, but her tongue did not fit into her mouth properly.
She nodded with a big smile. Her mouth was filled with teeth that made their own pattern. She hummed sounds only she could understand. But her diamond eyes of gladness shone at me and Daddy. We both smiled back and then laughed as Morrie began dancing in the forest sand. Her smile was part of the universal poetry; that smile saved me on dark days.
On the way home Daddy told us some more about Princess Francine but Morrie fell asleep before the princess got into the forest to find the teddy.
‘More later then, when it’s time for bed,’ there was a big sigh from in front of the big head-rest where Daddy held on to the steering wheel.
‘Please tell me what happened next, please Daddy.’ I leaned forward and touched his arm between the seats. A half turn of his head and I saw that his eyes were wet.
‘Sand in my eyes, Jamie,’ he sniffed and rubbed his eyes, ‘it gets everywhere. We’ll be sitting in sand for the next week!’ he tried a hearty laugh but it broke into a huff of air.
I knew these times as I had been in them before. So when Daddy stopped speaking I became quiet and heard the rest of the story in my head. I had heard it many times before, but I still liked to know what was going to happen. Sometimes he changed the way the princess went to the forest, other times she had to try for many weeks before she could get out of the castle. It was always different to the first time I had heard the story. I choose my best version from all that I remembered.
‘The princess waited until it was dark and all the servants were asleep. The moon winked mischievously as it slipped between the clouds. The princess decided she needed steady light to rely on so she took a candle from her huge dressing table and quietly crept down the long dark corridors of the dark castle. Slowly she worked her way along until she came to a small door in the kitchen, where she saw a little boy sleeping on an old sack with a gun dog curled up next to him. The dog looked up at the princess and then closed its eyes and lay back down with the boy.
The princess went to step over the boy, because he blocked her way to the forest, but he stretched out his leg in the middle of his dream and she fell. The princess screamed in anger. The boy, who was the cook’s only son, woke up with a start. He had never seen the princess before and all he knew was that there was a sudden loud noise that had woken him up. Jack sat up and rubbed his leg and then his eyes while looking in bewilderment at the girl crumpled at his feet. She had long hair and it looked as though she wore all her clothes at the same time. Her dresses were so thick.
For two minutes they sat and looked at each other. The dog stood up, stretched lazily between them then curled up on the sack again. Waiting. Jack and the princess listened to the silence punctuated by breathing as they lay in the gloom of the kitchen. They listened to themselves waiting. They were both waiting to see what would happen. No big people came to see what had happened. It was quiet again. Princess Francine spoke first.
‘What is your name boy?’
‘I’m Jack. Who are you?’
‘I am the Princess.’
‘Is that your name? ‘The Princess’’ he enquired.
‘No, I have many names, but you can call me Princess Francine.’ She was curious that he should question her as no one ever did. She bit her lip nervously as she watched him. He made her feel interested in him.
Immediately he began to move she spoke, ‘Help me up boy,’ and stretched out her hand, ‘I need to get a candle as you have caused this one to go out.’
‘My name is Jack and I am not allowed to touch the candles or the fire ‘cause I’ll get into trouble.’
‘I am the Princess, you will do as I tell you.’ Her gaze was met with curiosity. Jack did not move towards her he just looked at her and laughed. Then he laughed again stifling the sound with his hand.
‘I’ll help you only if you tell me how you move in so many clothes.’
The princess laughed and jumped to her feet. She liked this rude boy Jack. She wondered why she had not seen him before because he appeared to live in her castle. She made a mental note to tell her father that she wanted him to play with her everyday. He would have to be cleaned first, but he would do she thought. He had a sparkle like quartz; similar to the jewels in her missing teddy bear.
‘Come with me,’ she whispered, ‘I’m going on an adventure to the forest.’
‘I’m not allowed to leave the kitchen until me dad comes back from his night walk,’ Jack said hesitantly. He thought maybe he should obey his parents before listening to this strange girl in the big clothes and curly hair. But then she smiled at him and he forgot what terrible punishments would be delivered to him if he was discovered.
‘Me Dad’s gone for rabbits,’ he added uncertainly. He wished he had not said a word to the strange and beautiful creature who was now in his live dream. He wanted to tell her all his past and future in a moment. And to know hers.
The princess saw that she had caught a thread of his interest and went on, ‘I have been before, to the forest, I have been there before. I know where to go, I have left my jewelled teddy bear near the yellow river and I cannot sleep without him.’
Jack stroked the dog and looked directly at Francine.
‘Me mum is the cook and she is sleeping in the next room, but I know she will be angry if I go with you.’
‘I will make things all right for you. I will talk to my father, he’s the King you know. Everybody does whatever he says. Your mother, and father, and everybody, they will do what he says. They do what I say. Come with me.’
‘If you are really a princess who can do everything you say then you can tell the big people what to do, so why don’t you get them to find your precious bear then?’ Jack still had not made a move towards the closed door. The princess had retrieved her candle and relighted it from one on the table.
She did not answer him, she only beckoned him to follow her.
Jack went through the doorway behind the princess and soon they were in the dark forest. He was not afraid and they walked side by side. It was quiet in the blue-black night. The darkness did not shout.
It was silent in the Weald.
Their breathing bounced loudly of the sentient trees.
Gentle darkness wrapped them.
The sun woke the children. They lay linked together by the foot of a fallen tree with the teddy bear clutched in the princess’ arms. Throughout the night curious rabbits and deer paused to inspect them curled without fear in slumber. The blackbird and the starling fought for choral supremacy as the darkness gave way to the dawn.
The king sent his servants out into the Weald to find the princess when the search of the castle grounds had been exhausted. He ordered the special guards to be beaten for not protecting his daughter in the dark then he sent the bruised servants out to look for her.
The children were on their way back to the castle when the gun dog ran up to Jack and jumped happily around his legs. The cook was angry at first but she soon forgot to be upset when she saw her son again. The king was told that Jack had protected the princess in the forest and he believed everything his daughter told him.
Jack and the princess played together until they are grown into big people. The princess always got what she wanted. For years the woods called them back home together. And they lived happily ever after and stayed together forever.’
I smiled to myself as I watched Dad taking Morrie from the car and up to her bed. He was so strong that she looked like a small feather in his arms. He was also carrying the beach bag and blankets. Morrie stirred as she was lifted over his shoulder but she slept on. She slept as much as she laughed. The bliss of ignorance.
I dragged my feet behind me as I followed them indoors. The itchy sand was falling from the folds of my shorts.
‘What are we going to do now, Daddy?’
‘I’ve got to put Morrie to bed, then you’re going to have a wash and hop into bed as well young one.’
‘Oh, Daddy! Do I have to? It’s too early, it’s still light. It’s daytime. I’m not a baby anymore. Can I watch a cartoon instead? Just for a minute? Please?’
‘OK. But only until I’ve finished unpacking the car and put Morrie down. Then it’s bed for you. OK? It’s been a long day … and I’m tired too.’
'Thanks,’ I did not hesitate to hear him change his mind. I dropped the bucket and spades at the bottom of the steps as Daddy strode upstairs. I ran to switch the TV on.
‘Goodnight princess,’ I hear his voice coming down the stairs and realise that I have been sleeping. I cannot remember anything except the rabbit running through the wall to escape from the fox on roller-skates.
Then it became dark in here.
My breathing was so loud.
My thoughts were silenced. I was glad to forget.
Stretching I look towards the door. I expect him to come and get me now. But he stops to answer the phone in the hallway. I bet he didn’t want Morrie to wake up and start humming her words again.
‘Oh. It’s you. What do you want?’
His voice drops to a harsh whisper.
‘No. I’ve already told you that…’
‘Look Christina, I can’t keep doing this. I have to look after them myself. You have your own…’
‘I know, but you made the choice to leave.’
‘Hold on a minute…’, he comes to the living room and looks at me. I pretend to be asleep still.
With whispered tones he carries on talking.
I know who he is talking to, so I start to cry the quietest tears that I know how to make.
‘Well, we went to the beach today because they like to build sand castles and it was a nice day. A day to forget not to remember. I want them to forget you now. No more …’
I can’t forget the soft fingers that used to tickle me and the full lips that would blow into my stomach until I stopped breathing because I was laughing so hard. I can’t forget the long lashes that fluttered over my cheeks while I was half asleep. I can’t forget anything about her because it was only a year ago.
‘Of course Jamie remembers, but Morrie, well, you know what problems she has.’
‘Christina. I thought it would be different. I thought you’d come back to them, to us, but you have another life now…’ I’m sure I can hear his voice changing. It sounds the same as when she first went away “for a holiday”; but she never came back.
I looked for her in the bright days and in the dark days.
In the sun and in the sea.
She promised she’d come back.
‘How dare you!’ I open my eyes and look towards the light. Daddy sounds angry.
‘You don’t know what hard is Christina…’
Hard like granite. Hard like diamonds. Big as mountains. My world is a single grain of sand and she lives on the other side of the moon. I cannot fly.
‘I have to go now. Please don’t call here again.’ I hear him say quietly.
The pause goes on without end. I hold my breath waiting for more words, waiting for a change in Daddy’s silence. I hear the waves slapping the hard narrow hard line of sand that fought with the sea. I am in the past. Before today. Before a year ago.
‘Remember Jamie, big boys don’t cry.’
He startled me with his sudden movement toward my corner. Then, just as suddenly, he wheeled away in the opposite direction. A line of sparkling crystals in his wake. He must have had holes in his pockets where the sand poured through.
When he is gone he still does not vanish from my eyes. Neither does she. Ever. Swarms of shapes float before me from dawn to dusk and in the dreams that fill the moments in between.
‘Jamie?’ The sound comes from far away and I am drawn towards its source. But my neck is stiff from having been in the same position for hours. I try to turn and the heaviness that I know as my head refuses to comply. My Medusa hair is weighing me down and pulling me under. I want to reach out and pull the shapes into the light. To make them real and change the story I am in.
‘Jamie?’ the voice is familiar and I want to open my eyes to see the shape of the utterance but snakes have taken my will away and buried it beneath their bellies.
Sleep seems more beautiful than the bands of colour in the rainbow newly flung high up into the sky.
I have my own brightness. That I cannot share with anyone - not even Morrie and her everlasting smiles. My grain of hope that the past will become now.
There are beautiful deep reds and vibrant oranges vying for supremacy beneath my closed lids. The venom has closed them for a while.
Without seeing I could tell. I could tell that the water was in Daddy’s eyes again.
The sand scratches my heel as I shift uncomfortably. I can’t change the ending of this story.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2012