Mama, can you tell a story about me and Eliza?
I groan internally. Sigh externally. And come up with a short tale of girls and magic and adventure. It's not very good. But it's the best I can do.
John can spin yarns off the top of his head that leave the girls in stitches. My stories are usually about something that's in front of me and are never very funny. But still, she asks. And sometimes, I say no. Not right now. I don't feel like storytelling on demand when I'm trying to plan dinner or change a diaper or think through something I wanted to write for myself.
The request comes far less frequently since Claire started school, but she asked me last week. And instead of groaning or giving her a flat no, I stalled. I told her I would tell her a story on Sunday. Since Sundays are for Storytelling, after all. This is what she got.
Once upon a time, there were three sisters: Claire, Eliza, and Ruth [Aside: This opening is not an option. It is a requirement. A mandate. You might as well not begin if you don't begin here.] But this story is only about Claire and Eliza because babies don't know much about how to conquer the dark.
Claire and Eliza found out all about that during one cold, autumn week in 2010. It all started the night the girls stopped listening to their mother.
Please pick up your room and get ready for your bath!
Mom's voice cut through their bedroom door. Claire and Eliza were playing house on the bottom bunk, between walls made of blankets. A world of their own.
Toys and clothing covered the floor, and both girls knew it. It would be such a pain to put it all away. Claire whispered, hoping her parents wouldn't hear, Let's just put it all in the closet. They'll never know.
They worked quickly, shoving everything inside.
After their bath and bedtime books, Dad kissed them goodnight. Thanks for picking up your room, girls! The closet door was still closed. Claire could see a coloring book poking out. She told herself she would put everything away tomorrow after school.
In the morning, Claire was eating breakfast when her stomach sank to her knees.
I'm going to pick out your clothes for you today -- we're running late. Mom walked down the hallway and Claire darted after her.
Oh, I can get --
The closet door was open. Claire gasped. Mom held a dress -- not the one Claire would have chosen, of course, but that wasn't why Claire was so surprised. No, the closed floor was clean. The tornado of clothes and toys from the night before -- all of it -- was gone. Claire took the dress from Mom's hand and waited until she left before whispering to her sister.
Eliza, look! Our mess is gone! She showed Eliza that the stuffed animals all stood smartly at the foot of their beds. The library books were stacked on the shelf. The dirty clothes were all in the hamper. Everything was where it should have been. It was a miracle.
But as they were getting ready to walk to the bus stop, both girls were frustrated. I can't find my other shoe, Claire complained. And Eliza had slipped into one Croc but it's mate was nowhere to be found.
Mom opened the front door, impatient. Grab a different pair and come on! We're late!
They scrambled for second choices -- shoes that were slightly too small or too hard to get on -- and left in a rush.
After school, Claire and Eliza kicked off their shoes, raced to their room, and closed the door. They had games to play, scenes to invent. They could not be bothered.
After dinner came the usual call. Clean up, girls! It's almost bedtime!
Eliza looked at Claire but neither sister said a word. They got up and began tossing everything into the closet. The door barely closed over the mess.
That night, Claire couldn't fall asleep. As she lay awake, she saw something so curious that she sat up in bed.
The shadows on her walls were moving! They were dripping off the walls!
She rubbed her eyes and leaned forward. This was no trick -- the shadows collected in a puddle of darkness and slid across the floor and under the closet door. Then the door opened slowly and each toy and t-shirt moved on its own accord, encased in its own mysterious shadow. Then everything was still. It took Claire a long time to fall asleep after that.
In the morning light, Claire told Eliza everything she saw. They checked the closet before breakfast and found it as clean as it was yesterday.
Both girls felt weird. They were happy about the help but this just didn't seem right.
And when it was time to walk out the door, shoes were missing again. This time, neither girl could find either shoe.
You girls are going to have start taking better care of your things. If we can't find those shoes, you'll have to use your own money to buy new ones, Mom threatened.
On the bus, Claire's friend Sydney asked her why she was wearing dress shoes. It was a gym day. So Claire told her the whole story about the mess, the miracle, and the missing shoes.
Sydney was unimpressed. Oh, that happened to me when I was a Kindergartner. I started sleeping without a nightlight. There were no more shadows and nothing else went missing.
Claire was quiet the rest of the way to school. There was no way she could sleep in the pitch blackness -- she was more scared of the dark than she was of spiders. There had to be another way.
That night, Claire and Eliza held a secret meeting in Eliza's bottom bunk. They whispered ideas.
Maybe we could trap one of the shadows?
Maybe we could camp out in the closet and just ask for our shoes back?
Neither girl felt very good about anything they came up with. Suddenly, Claire had a brainstorm. Maybe if we leave something for the shadows, they'll give us our shoes back!
Like what? Eliza asked.
Candy! They said together.
So they asked their parents for a treat from their Halloween buckets. They hadn't had dessert that night, so Dad said yes. They dug in their buckets and rushed back to their room.
Should we give it all? Eliza asked.
Maybe we can just take a little bite.
So they opened the wrappers and each nibbled the smallest sample she could manage. Reluctantly, they wrapped up the rest and tucked it into the farthest corner of the closet.
Neither sister could fall asleep. They heard their parents go to bed. Eliza, are you still up?
Claire climbed down her ladder and snuggled next to her sister. They fell asleep without seeing anything.
In the morning, the first thing they did was check on their offering. It was still there.
Maybe shadows don't like candy, Claire reasoned.
Well, I do. Eliza ate the rest of her piece. Claire did, too -- their plan hadn't worked, but why waste perfectly good candy?
Claire wore her too-small shoes to school again, and the girls held another meeting that afternoon.
The shoes couldn't have just disappeared, Eliza mused. Maybe we should just look for them.
But where? Claire shot back.
Well, where would you hide something if you were a shadow?
How should I know? Claire was getting irritated.
I think we should look in the darkest part of the house.
Claire shuddered. Okay. But we have to go together.
They dug out their flashlights and went -- where else -- to the basement. They both knew where to look. Holding hands, they crept into the laundry room. They were edging between the boxes under the staircase when it happened -- Claire walked straight through a spider web. She stifled a scream as she brushed it away but really howled when she saw the spider crawling on her arm. Eliza rescued her with a quick puff of air. And then their flashlights found them -- two pairs of shoes, tucked neatly under the bottom stair -- in the darkest corner of the house.
That night, when the usual call came --
Clean your room and get ready for bed, girls! --
Claire and Eliza picked up everything that was out of place and they went to bed with their nightlight on. The shadows stayed solidly on the walls. In the morning, they found their shoes right where they had left them. And from then on, Claire and Eliza always listened to their mother.
Claire loved this story. Lapped it up. And Eliza? She was scared shirtless. Oops.