Editor’s Note: The following is very loosely based on autobiographical events. It’s what happens when you wake up and can’t go back to sleep. It’s a writer’s curse, I suppose. I guess I can thank My Muse. And just so we’re clear, this is fiction inspired by actual events, not some coded message about my health.
She awoke from the dream with a start. One breath before, The Mother had been standing at the edge of the garden, its ivy-covered stone walls curving inward on either side like cupped hands. In the dream, she and Eldest Daughter had been in deep conversation at the garden’s entrance (or its exit, depending on your perspective) when Littlest Daughter, who was standing beside her bed, crying, awakened her.
The Parents’ Bed was reserved primarily for The Parents; however, whenever one of The Children had had an unfortunate dream or was otherwise unsettled, The Parents permitted whomever arrived first to settle into the space between them. The Mother glanced behind her to find that space now occupied by The Son, and recalled that earlier in the evening he had crawled up and over her, so lightly that she had barely even noticed.
“I’m afraid there’s no room here, Sweetheart,” said The Mother gently. “You can go sleep on The White Bed,” she said, pointing toward the doubled-up featherbed The Parents kept on the floor of their room for occasions such as these. For even though the bed was King-sized, there was only enough room for one “kidney-kicker” at a time, The Father had said.
Littlest Daughter walked away and the mother allowed her eyes to close once more, still wrapped up in the misty haze of the dream where she had been standing cradled in the palm of the garden with Eldest Daughter only seconds before. The pair had just said goodbye for what would be the last time in the physical world, and were clutched together in a tight embrace, neither one willing to be the first to let go. The Mother allowed herself to float downward back into the dream.
Just then Littlest Daughter appeared at bottom of The Parents’ Bed, having used the upholstered trunk at the foot as a stool. The Mother felt her movements inching closer to The Son’s feet. Her eyes flew open.
“There’s no room, Sweetie,” The Mother said again. But Littlest Daughter ignored her and kept advancing. The Mother sighed deeply and threw back the covers. She then walked around to the foot of the bed and stood in front of Littlest Daughter.
“I told you, Sweetie, there’s no room. Let’s go to The White Bed,” said The Mother, again pointing to the soft, cloud-like mound on the floor.
Littlest Daughter began to cry, loudly. The Mother began to panic. She did not want The Father to wake up. Although The Father was a warm, kind person, and a gentle father, he valued sleep and became grouchy when awakened in the night, by anyone, for any reason.
“Just pick her up!” The Father said, groggily from beneath a cluster of blankets.
The Mother’s eyes widened. “Of course, ” she said.
The Mother reached out to Littlest Daughter, scooped her up and carried her over to The White Bed placing her on the soft fluff. Littlest Daughter immediately crawled out onto the carpet, crying again, loudly.
“Climb in, Sweetie” The Mother said, now sitting on the floor beside her. “And I’ll cover you up.” Littlest Daughter continued to cry.
The Mother sighed, then scooped up Littlest Daughter and placed her in the hollow of her lap. With her left arm The Mother cradled Littlest Daughter’s head. With her right arm, she draped Littlest Daughter’s legs across her thigh. Littlest Daughter’s tiny bobbed head nestled beneath The Mother’s chin.
The Mother began to rock back and forth, rubbing Littlest Daughter’s back, all the while making a soft, “Shhhh” sound, interspersed with light kisses to the top of Littlest Daughter’s head.
The Mother thought back to the dream from which she had awakened only moments before. The dream had been about The Leaving. The Mother had held court inside the house and said The Goodbyes to everyone. Faceless individuals for whom she felt a deep attachment and love surrounded her. The Mother was hugging, crying, and posing for photographs with The Family, when suddenly The Time had arrived.
Eldest Daughter, as the eldest, had been tasked with making The Arrangements and, in the dream, The Mother had felt very sad. Although She knew it was best to go peacefully—after all everyone had A Time; this was simply Her Time— The Life had felt unfinished to her. She did not want to go. In the dream, she clasped hands with Eldest Daughter and together they walked toward the garden’s edge until they could see the path just beyond its walls. It was at this point The Mother had first heard Littlest Daughter crying.
On the floor of her room now, cradling Littlest Daughter in her lap, The Mother herself began to cry. At first only silent tears, dampening Littlest Daughter’s hair as they rocked. Soon the silent tears became sobs and The Mother could not hold back her sorrow. She squeezed Littlest Daughter tighter.
“Why are you so very sad?” Littlest Daughter asked.
“Because you are,” The Mother replied.
The Mother then kissed Littlest Daughter’s head, gave her one last squeeze and placed her gently on The White Bed, pulling the comforter to her chin.
“Goodnight,” The Mother said, planting a last kiss upon Littlest Daughter’s forehead.
“Huggy?” asked Littlest Daughter, spreading her arms wide.
The Mother leaned into the embrace. She thought of the dream. She thought of the garden. Of The Leaving. Of The Time. Before it had become The Leaving, it was The Knowing, the first soft whispers of The Plan.
She recalled when she had first heard The Knowing. It was long ago, soon after The Wife had become The Mother. She had been traveling in the deep underground metro system of The City, when The Knowing washed over her. In her sixth year, was all it whispered. The Mother, being a new mother, was panic-stricken, as all new mothers are when the threat of danger comes out of the shadows to grasp at their Children. The Knowing washed over The Mother like waves against the shore, in and then out again, retreating momentarily and then descending, again, with a roar.
Over time, The Mother began to dwell on the notion of The Knowing less and less, until it was merely a smokey swirl just out of reach from time to time. When The Child had reached four years old, she became The Sister. Then The Mother’s thoughts were consumed with The Son and The Daughter, and she allowed herself to forget about The Knowing.
It wasn’t until The Mother had her third Child, Littlest Daughter, that The Mother’s fears about The Knowing began to creep back in. You see, once Eldest Daughter had aged beyond her sixth year—at the time, she was simply known as The Daughter and also The Sister—The Mother began to doubt the inevitability of The Knowing. Perhaps she had misunderstood? What if in whispering in her sixth year, The Knowing had not forseen The Daughter’s Leaving, but her own?
And indeed as each year stretched into the next, as each successive wave of The Knowing hugged and then retreated from the shore, The Mother had come to understand that The Knowing was for her ears alone. She believed The Knowing was a signal to her that The Time (Her Time) would come in Littlest Daughter’s sixth year—which was now less than three years away. The Mother wasn’t ready. She felt unsettled. Whether two years or twenty, The Mother doubted she would be ready even by then. She simply couldn’t bear to leave them.
Littlest Daughter then gave The Mother’s back a soft pat, as if to say, “It’s okay. Don’t worry.” The Mother smiled. Despite being fiercely stubborn sometimes, Littlest Daughter had a tender heart.
The Mother stood up and walked to the bathroom. Her nose was stuffy because of the crying and she needed a tissue. As she sat there in the dark, on the closed toilet blowing her nose, she replayed the scene in her mind, pausing on Littlest Daughter’s question.
Littlest Daughter—only three years old—hadn’t asked the obvious question “Why are you crying?” (Obvious because it reflected an understanding only of what could be seen: The Mother’s tears.) Littlest Daughter had instead asked, “Why are you so very sad,” which The Mother now realized reflected Littlest Daughter’s ability to see beyond her tears, into the fears that provoked them. In addition to her tender heart, Littlest Daughter possessed a wise mind.
Once more, The Mother smiled.
Then she walked back to The Parents’ Bed, climbed in and pulled up the covers. Closing her eyes, she settled back into sleep.