Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dream Bird: A Bedtime Story for Parents

Up and down a cozy cul de sac that overlooked a park, sensible parents would read one or two stories to their children before turning off the bedroom lights and whispering "Sweet dreams." Some children fell asleep before their stories were finished, and these parents kissed their children's faces mid-sentence. Their gratitude was unmarked, they were sure, by any trace of anxiety. We almost never admitted that each day is a triumph over barely considered dangers, but as the days accumulated, one after another—as surely as if we were building a fortress with heavy stones, one by one—we felt protected. One by one, as the dim glow of night lights appeared in all the upstairs windows, a safe circle ringed our neighborhood.

          Some parents, though just as loving, were less sensible. Like other children, Lily demanded more bedtime stories, but instead of whispering "Sweet dreams," her mother would tell more and more stories until finally she would turn out the light and tell one last story she made up.

          Nothing would come to her at first, as she imagined dipping into a well reflecting a starry sky, but as she imagined the jumble of stars and the modest splash of her dipper breaking the water's flat surface, she would recite...

Once upon a time in a far off land, there was a great white bird the color of snow in the moonlight, maybe larger than a house, with cold, glittering feathers, a hooked beak, and razor-sharp claws. This bird flew in circles over a street where all the children slept, except one. 

          This one child who was wide awake was very beautiful and very clever. She demanded more and more bedtime stories, until finally her mother, who was exhausted, declared, "Enough!" She left the child's room without another word, closing the door behind her.

          The little girl's name was Lola, and she was furious with her mother and all her rules and decided it was time to teach her mother a lessonshe would stay up all night and play with her dolls and not sleep a wink. 

          But just then, as she sat up, before she even had a chance to creep out of her warm, cozy bed, she heard a strange sound. 

          The wind was blowing fearfully, rattling the windows, and the sky was suddenly dark and very low. Where had the big, round moon gone, and why had all the stars vanished? Lola pushed off her covers and parted the curtains of her bedside window so she could see the whole circle of her neighborhood laid out before her. And what do you think she saw?

          A gigantic white bird, bigger than Lola's house, was flapping away, covering the whole sky and stirring up a terrible wind that was sure to make a mess.

          Lola snapped the curtains shut--held up her favorite dolly and said to her "My goodness!"--and she shivered so hard the bed shook. "I must go to sleep now," Lola said out loud. "I will simply close my eyes and go to sleep and wake up in the morning, and this will be a dream.

          So Lola pulled her covers up over her ears, squeezed her eyes shut, and hugged her favorite dolly. After a while, she felt drowsy and warm and safe and was almost asleep when--what was that?

          Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, like mice in the wall, but it was on the roof, right above her bed.

          Why on earth didn't Lola's mother hear the racket this bird was making? How could she sleep through this terrible danger? 

          Frankly, Lola was always a little impatient. She was finally ready for a good night's sleep and this awful bird was becoming a nuisance. 

          Lola pushed open her window and whisperedso as not to wake her mother upbut very crossly, "Quit making that racket! Some of us are trying to sleep!"

          Were those diamonds bouncing off the rooftop, landing like ice cubes at her feet?

          "PsssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhtFoof!"  Instead of an answer, Lola heard a truly terrible noise.

          "Oh, for heaven's sake! Are you okay up there?" asked Lola.

          "No," squawked the bird, blowing his beaky nose,"of course I'm not all right. I'm crying, if you must know. If you don't go to sleep how will I ever be able to give you dreams? And if you don't dream how will you ever grow up to be big and strong? Oh, dear God, I am a failure and my mother will be so very unhappy with me that I don't do what she tells me to and, really, all I want is a cup of tea and a good friend."

          Lola scratched her head and blinked, wondering if she was asleep or awake. She was very beautiful and very clever, as I said before, but did I mention that she was also very kind?

          "I'll be your friend, Birdie," she said. "Why don't you come inside and I'll make you a cup of tea with hot milk and lots of sugar?"

          "Really?" asked the enormous bird. "Oh, that would be grand!"

          Birdie pushed and squeezed at the open window and finally backed his way in, with Lola's help. She tugged at his long, lustrous tail feathers until his backside filled up the entire room and Lola was squeezed against the wall.

          "But where's your head, Birdie? Oh, dear." Birdie was stuck. Lola thought he might be embarrassed about his predicament so she said, "I'll just be back in a minute with your cup of tea. Maybe I should meet you outside. Do you think you can get out?"

          "Yes, dear, I'll be fine," sniffed Birdie. "How thoughtful you are for such a little girl."

          Lola tiptoed downstairs and heated a kettle of water on the stove as she'd seen her mother do so often. She carefully stirred milk and sugar into two cups of hot tea (without spilling) and filled a plate with her favorite cookies (her mother usually allowed her only one cookie at a time) and two napkins and took all of it to the front door on a big tray. 

          When she opened the door, there was Birdie, stretching his wings from one end of the street to the other, grooming himself. Lola put the tray in front of him and they sipped and ate and laughed and whispered all night long.  When the first, weak light of day began to fade the imprint of stars and moon from the black sky, Birdie ruffled his tail feathers.

          "In exchange for being such a good friend, Lola, I would like to give you a great gift," said Birdie, bowing his head low. "Won't you climb on my back?"

          "Oh, no," said Lola, "I can't. What would my mother say?"

          "Please," said Birdie, "I promise to bring you back safe and sound and your mother will never know that you've flown away."

          "I can't," said Lola, as she climbed the enormous bird, hanging on to his feathers and pulling herself up. "I really shouldn't. I mustn't..."

          "Now wrap your arms around my neck and hold on tight!"

          Lola hugged Birdie with all her might. He smelled like mothballs and magic and his feathers were cool and stiff. She heard the great flapping of his wings as they began to lift up off the front lawn, the two of them, circling up, up, over her house and above the tops of trees, higher and higher till Lola felt dizzy and squeezed here eyes shut.

          When she opened her eyes again, she beheld a quiet neighborhood of stars high above the earth and she felt warm and safe and excited, all at the same time, just the way she felt in the summer when her mother helped her float on top of the water. 

          "Good morning, sleepy head!" The next time she opened her eyes, Lola was amazed to hear her mother's voice. There she was, our Lola, safe and warm in her own cozy bed being kissed by her dear mother.

          "I had a dream," murmured Lola, rubbing her eyes and looking around the room for diamond tears the size of ice cubes. Luckily, they were nowhere to be found, because her mother surely wouldn't have understood. Lola was relieved, but also, perhaps, a tiny bit sad because her friend had seemed so real.

          "What's this?" said her mother, picking a white feather out of Lola's hair. "Must have  come out of your pillow while you were sleeping. Here, blow on it and make a wish."

          Lola smiled. "I think I'll keep it. Maybe if I tuck it under my pillow I'll have more dreams."

          And after that night, Lola always slept with a white feather under her pillow and she always looked forward to bedtime.

Unlike Lola, Lily often fell asleep before the story was over, but her mother always finished telling the story anyway. Although she really wasn't especially anxious, telling the story all the way through helped remind Lily's mother that growing up was not only a perilous journey, fraught as it was with unspeakable dangers, but also a great adventure.

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