There is an abridged audio version of this available on my podcast, if you’re interested, but this is the full version of the story.
The front door closed quietly as the birds began to awaken in the slowly dawning morning. There was an audible click as the latch engaged, and the muffled sound of light footsteps hurrying away. Inside the cottage, there was only the sound of uninterrupted soft snoring from the single bedroom.
The worn curtains were closed, blocking the rays of the sun from illuminating the dim interior completely with the newborn day. Only a few fortunate sunbeams managed to slip through myriad small holes and tears in the ancient curtains, spilling their mottled golden light against the walls and doors, questing for shadows and destroying those they found.
In the bedroom, sleeping deeply, a little dark-haired girl of about five lay sleeping, her body half-uncovered by a raggedy quilt. Her long hair was bound in a tight braid that was caught up at the nape of her neck and then finished off with an intricately woven band of soft crimson-dyed leather.
The diminutive slumberer was clad in a threadbare, off-white shift that was a little too big for her, sagging off one of her exposed shoulders. A button-eyed, yarn-haired ragdoll of indeterminate gender was clutched protectively in one dainty but grubby hand.
There was a slight shuffling sound under the bed as a sunbeam moved far enough that it illuminated some of the darkness under the raised bed frame and the quietest suggestion of the thump of something coming into contact with the far wall.
The whisper of sound must have been just enough to grab the child’s attention, as her eyelids began to twitch a bit and then opened, revealing luminous brown-green hazel eyes.
She lay on the still-warm mattress as though considering whether or not to get up, but soon enough, she pushed the rest of the quilt off of her body and in the same motion, assumed a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Her feet dangled about an inch and a half from the hard greystone floor, and she kicked them out into the air, giggling as the hem of her shift fluttered in the air before settling back onto her bony knees.
“Mama?” she called expectantly, but there was no response. She waited a moment.
“Mama!” she yelled with more urgency. Mama was never so far away that she could not hear it when her daughter called for her.
This was very strange, indeed.
Only the sound of the chained old guard dog barking in the front yard greeted her louder call. An expression of concern beetling her brow, the little girl slid off the bed and padded to the front door, her bare feet making a slapping sound as she made her way across the hard floor, into the front room and then to the lone door to the outside world the ratty old stone cottage possessed.
Wrestling with the heavy latch, she forced the heavy wooden door open and looked out into the yard, seeing only bare, mucky, half-frozen ground outside. Small dirty piles of stubborn snow that did not seem to realize that Spring had arrived a few weeks earlier dotted the landscape in shadowed areas.
A tiny bit of anger then colored the child’s fear. Mama never left her on her own! But now she had, and the little girl did not know what she was going to do. Returning to the house, she determined to wait as patiently as she could for her mama to return.
Perhaps it was time to start being just a little bit worried, but not too much. She did not want to disappoint mama when she finally returned home, whenever that would be.
To try to distract herself, she changed out of her nightshirt and into her daytime clothing, slipping her second-best apron over it all in order to keep things as clean as she could. Mama hated it when she dirtied her clothes.
The child then performed the few daily chores assigned to her, but those were over far too quickly in her determination to be strong and positive about whatever it was that had befallen Mama.
For the first time, she noticed the folded piece of torn paper on the table, under the base of the empty egg bowl. The heavy ceramic bowl was spider-webbed with myriad cracks across the clear varnish that protected the flowery design which decorated its surface.
Mama had long ago told her that the weighty treasure had once belonged to her own Mama, Nana Badu. Not for the first time, the little girl wondered who might have had it before Nana Badu, and imagined a lineage back to the beginning of, well, everything.
With the kind of wide-eyed reverence only a child can express, the little girl lifted the bowl in both hands, then set it to the side, before picking up the mysterious document.
Opening it, the child saw that it was written on, but as she was unable to read, could not decipher the symbols that were scrawled across its surface. Whatever it said, it was a link to her mother, so that was important. Folding it, and then folding it once more, she slipped it into the single pocket of her apron, to keep it safe and close to her.
Mama had never allowed her to use the stove, so she did not know the first thing about cooking, so she would have to wait until Mama got home to have either of the lidless treasure chests that contained thick and tasty liquid gold. Her stomach growled at the thought, impatient in its hunger. Knowing it might fool her tummy into thinking it was full, she salved her gnawing hunger pangs with regular sips of water from the metal bucket Mama kept handy on the kitchen counter. It was a trick Mama had taught her a few months ago when food was scarce, as it had been all winter long.
As the day ground on, the child became even more fretful, often going to the filthy, torn and then mended oiled-paper-covered window and staring out at the horizon. Except for passing birds, it was unchanged. She would sometimes pull the letter from her pocket and stare at it again, then once again put it away.
Stomach still growling despite all the water she had drank, the little girl took the single piece of fruit she had located, a wizened apple, and made a supper of that. The sweetness of the thing was almost cloying as she chewed up each aged-toughened bite and swallowed it down with a sip of water, but when one is hungry, one eats what is available when there is no better option.
That was another hard lesson that Mama had taught her.
The woodstove upon which Mama cooked, that also warmed the cottage when the weather was cool, was dark and cold now, with no way to light another fire, were she able to do so. Shivering a little, the child went to the bedroom and climbed up on the bed, where she wrapped the quilt around herself and waited in the darkness, the shadows that had fled from the light of day venturing out once more to establish their dominance over the night.
Finally laying down, she pulled the quilt over her head to hide from the dark and also the frightening creatures that called it home, somehow managing to doze off. As she slept, her breathing was occasionally interrupted by a soft whimper, even sleep being unable to ease the depth of her distress, instead bringing terrifying nightmares to haunt her.
The ragged music of crickets chirping, and the occasional mournful wolf howl broke the silence of the night, the sound distorted a bit through the hardened clay and straw walls of the cottage. Something skittered across the old thatched roof, sending bits of dirt and dry grass down onto the floor of the bedroom, the sound waking the child, who sat up in bed, hoping it was her Mama, finally come home.
Feeling just a little brave, she opened the curtains from the window over the bed, hoping to catch sight of something that would help her feel better. The soft glow of the full moon brightened the room a little bit, which helped it not be quite so dark and scary. Liking this result much better than total darkness, she decided that rather than close them again, she would leave them open.
Tears welled in her eyes as she realized that maybe Mama was not going to come back after all and maybe she was all alone now. She shuddered with sudden grief, and the brimming tears tumbled over the twin dams of her eyelids, crashing over her cheeks in a salty river of loss.
The Thing stepped out of the shadows of the closet, approaching the bed, enormous clawed paws held out to catch at the little human figure on the bed. It was something it had done since the little girl first started thinking there was a Thing in the closet, perhaps a year ago. It was surprised that it did not see the other human in the bed, but that did not stop it. The other human never saw it in the night, as she had stopped believing in the Thing in the Closet long ago.
The other human had other, more real fears of her own to face. She had no time for Things.
Sensing something was very wrong, as the little girl, never cried, the Thing came to a halt half a hairy foot from the edge of the quivering bed. The Thing felt the brush of the Monster Under the Bed’s questing tentacle, but otherwise ignored the creature.
The Thing once again reached out a hairy paw to the little girl as though to snatch her up—
The child launched herself at its chest, grabbing hold of the dank pelt, pulling herself up higher and pushing her face into its matted fur, sobbing with all of her soul. The Thing, taken aback, stood stock still at the unfamiliar contact, not knowing what it should do next. This was not normal.
A tentacle curled around the Thing’s hairy calf; the Monster was confused as well. Children screamed and hid under the covers when Things and Monsters were about. This was beyond their experience.
Long minutes passed, and the Thing found that the little girl’s weight was painful to support with only shaggy fur, for much longer than a moment. Moving slowly, to avoid startling the child, the Thing awkwardly put its long arms around her, being careful not to scratch her with its curved, ivory-colored claws.
The little girl did not even tense up, instead throwing her arms around its neck and clasping her hands together behind it. The Thing did not understand what was going on at all.
“Mama’s gone, Mama’s gone!” she sobbed into the Thing’s now wet pelt. “I don’t know where Mama’s gone!”
A cautious tentacle stroked the little girl’s back, leaving a damp outline on her nightgown, and the Thing looked down to see the Monster, fully emerged from its den under the bed. The Monster’s expression was inscrutable, as it had no actual face, but it seemed it was as confused and concerned as the Thing by this unexpected development.
Coming to a decision the Thing sat on the bed, which made holding the child much easier, as it gave it a lap to set her on. The Monster pulled itself up onto the bed, taking up the space where the other human would have been, had things been as they should have.
The little girl continued to cry, and the Thing waited to discover what would happen. Would she come to herself, realize what had happened, and go back to the natural Thing/Monster/Child arrangement?
Sometime later, that question was answered, when the little girl took one last sobbing breath and sat back on the Thing’s lap, looking up at it. She scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and sniffed loudly.
“My Mama’s gone,” she repeated, this time calmly but with a slight catch at the end. “I don’t think she’s coming back.”
The Thing looked down at the little girl, huge glowing blue eyes casting a glow across her pale cheeks. She shivered, but the Thing felt no fear in her. Then it realized how cold the cottage’s interior was with no fire to warm it.
Reaching down, it picked up the quilt, which had fallen off the bed during the emotional firestorm, and wrapped it carefully around the child like a cloak.
“My name is Emma,” she stated mumbled, wiping her tears away with the back of her tiny hand. “What’s yours?”