I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.
I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.
Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.
Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.
We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.
I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.
“You’re a good teacher.”
I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.
I shrug in reply.
“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”
I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?
“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming up with my own words is a hardship.
“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”
He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”
“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”
Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.
I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.
Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020