“I can’t sleep.”
My words are muffled as Mum pulls pajamas over my head. She pretends she didn’t hear, but I know she did.
Picking me up, she sweeps me into bed and slips me beneath the smartly-folded sheets. In the evening chill, my bath-fresh skin shivers against the damp hair on my neck. I stare at my comforter. White-gold buttons of light are sprinkled across the patchwork, my only proof of my captivity.
“The sun is still awake, Mum,” I point out. “His mum hasn’t got any rules about when he goes to bed.”
She merely smiles and tucks the covers around me. “Mother Earth has her own ways, and I have mine.”
For a moment, I scowl. Earth must understand her children better than mine understands me. I wish she were my mum, and I, her fiery child dressed in salmon and scarlet and gold.
Mum’s voice interrupts. “You want to pick a story?”
“A story isn’t going to make me sleepy.”
“No, but the fairies will.”
I blink. Mum gives my hidden toes a squeeze as she rises, then walks to the shelf hanging over the foot of my bed. It was Grandma’s, I think. Everything on it is old and small and too fragile for play: a pocket watch that has lost its tick. A little porcelain dog that’s only spotted because he has lost most of his paint. Clouded spoons that Mum says aren’t baby spoons at all, even though they are small enough. A thimble. A magnifying glass that turns the whole world yellow when you look through its old glass.
Oh, and yes. An oil lamp.
Mum lifts the lamp and holds it where I can see it. The blue glass is pristine, its petite size just right for some of my dolls. Only, Mum doesn’t trust my dolls with it.
“It’s a special lamp,” she says. “When the faeries come, the flame will come from nowhere to flicker and dance. Watch here, while I read your story. See if you can catch the faeries listening in. Because when faeries come, sleep will come, too.”
I’m skeptical. Mum might tell me anything, I think, in order to keep me in bed. Mother Earth would not do that, I am sure. The sun must be thinking that, too, for the spots on my carpet have deepened from white to pink, like face of someone who has laughed too much.
I try to settle into my blankets as Mum peruses the bookshelf. I stare at the blue glass lamp, but everything around it is dark.
“Which book do you want?” Mum calls.
Squinting, I follow her finger as it grazes their spines. The words mean nothing, but I know the colors of the binding, and which ones we bought from the library sale, and which ones I spilled chocolate malt on last summer at the beat, and which ones I colored inside when Mum was not looking.
I pass the latter up completely, going for the ones from the library sale. There are stories about knights, and dinosaurs, and busy cities full of mice. But which of them will make the faeries appear beside the lamp, and the wick inside it burn?
“That one,” I say, pointing to a slim volume near the end of the row.
Mum pulls it out. “Small but Might: Or, Tales of the Mouse-King,” she reads. A smile tugs at her mouth. “You think this will make the faeries come faster?”
I say nothing. I am busy watching the spots of light shift again, this time from pink to crimson.
With a nod, Mum settles down beside me and begins to read. The story is good, of course. I know it by heart. But tonight, it’s not the story I’m thinking of. The blue glass lost in darkness on the shelf above me as, wide awake, I stare.
Where are the faeries now, I wonder? Are they still cavorting under what’s left of the sun? Or are they hiding in the darkness of my room, stifling their glow behind cast-off shoes and bins of toys, until the exact right moment?
I stare and stare and wonder.
No faeries come.
When mum finishes the story, I’m still wide awake and bitterly disappointed. “The faeries are cooperating,” I say crossly. “How am I ever supposed to get to sleep?”
“Their ears are not as big as yours, you know. Sometimes it takes more than one story to bring them.”
“Maybe they’re just naughty.”
Mum chuckles. “Maybe.”
I pick another story. Mom reads that one, too. In the middle—just before the dragon stops breathing fire—a flash of a light scrapes the corner of my eye, and a trill fills my ears.
But then, I realize it’s just the last of the sun winking at me before he falls asleep, and the fly Mum tried to swat while I was in the bath.
The last button of light dies on my comforter. I am cozy under it, but sad that even the sun can go to sleep when I am still awake. Mom shuts the book with a snap. Startled, I look up. Her inquiring face bends close, poised for a kiss.
“One more,” I say aloud as her kiss hovers above my head.
“Even the sun is tucked in,” she says. “Little girls and big stars both need their sleep.”
“You said sleep won’t come until the faeries do.”
I do not know which works with her: my logic, or the fact that mum loves stories just as much as I do. Either way, she regards me for a moment, then returns to the bookshelf for third volume.
And that’s when I realize something. “Mum,” I say.
“Maybe faerie stories aren’t for little children, at all. Maybe they’re for faeries.” I point to a slim blue volume on the shelf. “Pick that one, please!”
She strokes the cover. The words are worked in gold embossing, and underneath, a faerie peeks out from a leaf “’TALES OF THE FAE.’ This is one of my favorites, but you haven’t wanted this one in a long time.” Her smile seems bigger than usual.
I settle back once more, satisfied. Mum opens the book and begins to read, showing me the pictures as we go. I only half-see them, for I am watching the lamp overhead, willing it to burst into flame like the sun of its own solar system.
As Mum reads on, I hear and see even less. The shelf is still dark overhead, but my eyes blink in spite of me. For a split second, I see the faerie from the story: a hummingbird riot of color and shimmer flashing past. Wonder fills me from the tips of my tucked-in toes to the furthest strand of damp hair.
One faerie soon becomes two. They curl up amongst the knickknacks, folding their hands in their laps as they listen politely. One sashays over to the lamp through a cloud of shelf-dust. One touch of her wand, and suddenly, the whole room is a blaze with a light brighter than even Mother Earth’s child.
“Mum!” I shout. “You were right! You were right!”
But Mom is gone, and so is her book. Only fairies flit all around me now. I cry again but soon lose myself in a tunnel richly mosaiced with living jewels. Colors dance. Lights flicker. A thousand wings beat a lullaby in my ears. I sink deeper into my bed sheets, awed at the sight.
So awed, in fact, that I never notice that the room is completely dark now. A hand tucks the covers under my chin. All is still and quiet, except for the fire and the faeries and the last faint whisper of Mum’s good-night kiss.
©2014 Lisa Walker England – all rights reserved
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