Friday, April 15, 2011

The Sunset, the Stars, and the Summer Sky

Once, the little girl lay in her bed and heard her father come home, and her wide eyes shot to the bedside clock.  It read 9:38 P.M.  She heard him downstairs, trudging through the mudroom, into the kitchen.  She heard the sound of the many bottles on the refrigerator door tinkling against each other as he opened it.  She could picture him clearly in her mind: walking around the shadowy house in his blue work shirt and his brown pants, his hands stuffed into his pockets.  She tried to send him mental messages, shutting her eyes tight and balling her hands into fists, as if this would make her a better human radio transmitter.  She sent messages like Please come up here and I’m still awake!

And it worked.  Before she knew it, his wide frame was a shadow in the doorway of her bedroom. 

“Awake?” he grumbled.  He had a voice made for growling and grumbling and muttering. 

“Yes,” she whispered.

“It’s late, kiddo.”

“It’s not very late.  You’re still up.”

“I’m a big person.  Big people stay up late.”

“Mommy doesn’t.”

“Mommy has a headache.”

“Poor Mommy,” the little girl said sadly.

“Poor Mommy,” her father said sadly.

“Tell me a story.”

“Did your mother tell you one?”

“No.  She wanted to, but I said no.”

Her mother made a living by telling stories.  She wrote and illustrated children’s books, books that featured the recurring character of Hamlet the Neatest Pig.  He was a pig who refused to be dirty like the other pigs and took baths and wore deodorant.  But she did not like her mother’s stories.  She would always turn down her mother’s offers for a story before bed– in the nicest way possible, of course.

“Tell me a story, please,” she said, putting her hands together in mock prayer.

He looked at his watch.  “I’m beat, kid.”

“It doesn’t have to be long.  You can tell me one you’ve already told me, so you don’t have to make one up!”

“Shh,” he whispered, putting a finger to his lips.  “Keep your voice down.”

“Sorry . . .”

He came into the room, the floor creaking under his boots.  He sat on the edge of her bed and folded his hands in his lap. She looked at his hands – hands large enough that they could swallow her head entirely and block out the moon and sun and the sounds of the birds that sang in the cherry trees that lined their yard.  And the fact that he would never do anything like that made her love him entirely.  She loved him in a way that frightened her.  She loved him with a kind of love she had yet to discover words for, and would never really discover words for, even after she had grown up and gone through a messy divorce and wept at her father’s funeral.

“Which story, then?” he growled.  His breath smelled of beer and pretzels.  “How ‘bout the one about the crows in the graveyard, the ones who sing songs that bring back the dead?”

“No,” she said.  “Not that one.”

“The one about the boy who ate the cake made of bad dreams?”


“Help me out here.”

“The one about the Princess.”


“It’s my favorite.”

“Okay,” he said.  He moved his head from side to side and she heard a slight cracking sound.  He exhaled and burped and smoothed his mussed hair with his big hands.

“Once upon a Time, there was a Princess.  She was, of course, the most beautiful Princess in all the land.  She had fire-colored hair – like yours, but longer – and she had blue eyes – like yours, but bigger – and she had fair skin and an elegant neck and very nice knees, too.   She was so beautiful that the Sunset and the Stars and the Summer Sky were jealous of her.  She was so beautiful that she could never really show her face in public, because all the men in the kingdom would swoon at the sight of her, and then they would neglect their duties, and they wouldn’t tend their lands, and there would be no harvest, and everyone would starve.  So, naturally, that was a bad thing.”


“But, at the same time, to deprive the kingdom of seeing such a beautiful sight would be cruel and unusual punishment. So once a week, on Saturday afternoon, the Princess would come out onto the balcony of the castle and just stand there for an hour.  And everyone from the kingdom would come and look at her.  And she would wave to them and they would all be smitten.”

“Even the girls?” the little girl asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes.  Even the girls.  She was that beautiful.  Anyway, after a while, the Sunset and the Stars and the Summer Sky got together for a meeting.

“‘Something has to be done,’ the Sunset said.

“‘It’s not fair for the Princess to be so beautiful,’ said the Stars.

“‘The people are so taken with looking at her that they no longer stop to look at us,’ said the Summer Sky.

“So they hatched a plan.  Whenever the Princess wanted to look at the Summer Sky, the Summer Sky would fill up with huge, black rain clouds shaped like skulls and daggers.  And the Princess would grow sad.  Whenever the Princes wanted to gaze at the Stars, the Stars would all black themselves out, casting the night in solid darkness.  And the Princess would cry.  And whenever the Princess wanted to watch the Sunset, the Sunset would refuse to set and instead rise up higher and higher until the Princess grew hot and sweaty and got badly sunburned.”

“Poor Princess,” the little girl said sadly.

“Poor Princess,” her father said sadly.  “After a while, the people of the kingdom grew angry.  They complained that the Princess had become too beautiful.  And that her beauty had driven the Sunset and the Stars and the Summer Sky into revolt, and that as a result the crops were growing poorly due to the sun never setting and overheating them or due to the rain clouds that would appear and block out any light at all.  And sailors were constantly crashing their ships, no longer able to navigate by the Stars.   Something had to be done.  So the elders of the kingdom gathered all their gold together and went deep into the woods to the cave where the King of the Wolves lived, and they offered him the gold if he would go and claw the face of the Princess and ruin her beauty.”

“Why would a wolf want gold?” the little girl asked, already knowing the answer.

“Because this was no ordinary wolf.  The King of the Wolves was in fact an infamous thief, who had once robbed a witch. The witch had enchanted him and turned him into a wolf.  She had told him that the only way to cure his curse would be for him to gather all the gold in the world – without stealing it.  It would have to come by him legally.  So the King of the Wolves was, naturally, very eager to take on this job.”


“The King of the Wolves crept into the Princess’ bed chamber one dark, starless night.  And as she slept and dreamed of her kingdom the way it had once been – with beautiful sunsets, bright summer skies, and shining stars – the King of the Wolves raised his claws, ready to strike!”

“Then what happened?!” asked the little girl, her voice excited and anxious, already knowing the answer.

“He couldn’t do it!  He was too taken by her beauty!  And he realized that, if he couldn’t do the job, the people of the kingdom would want their gold back.  So he began to howl in sadness.  His howling woke up the Princess.  She sat up in bed, startled, and asked the King of the Wolves what was the matter.  He told her about how the people had hired him to ruin her beauty, and he wept as he told her he could not do it, and he told her about the horrible enchantment that had been placed upon him and how he so badly needed the gold.

“‘You poor creature,’ the Princess said, stroking the fur on his head.  She felt sadness – overwhelming sadness for both the King of the Wolves and herself.  She hated that she had become a source of pain for the people of her kingdom.  And she hated that they wanted to destroy her beauty.

“‘I’d be better off dead,’ she said, and she asked the King of the Wolves to kill her.   He said he couldn’t do that – he would feel terrible about it!  But she didn’t give him a chance.  Before he knew what was happening, she had taken one of his paws in her hand and cut her own throat with one of his claws.  She bled to death! 

“Well, when the people heard of the Princess’ death, they all felt terrible for the part they had played, and they decided to throw her a lavish funeral parade.  They lined the streets with flowers and hung black, lacy ribbons on all the trees.   Even the Sunset, the Stars, and the Summer Sky felt bad, so, for the funeral, the Sunset arranged itself so it was always setting and looked its prettiest – the sky half pink and half dark blue.  And at the same time, the Summer Sky let its sun shine bright – in the part of the sky that wasn’t quite set yet, of course.  And the Stars came out in the part of the sky that was dark, and they were bright and big and beautiful.  The whole kingdom was bathed in an unnatural, beautiful, eerie light. 

“They put the Princess in a glass coffin so that as they paraded her through the street all could look upon her beauty one last time.  They marched her body up and down the streets, her glass coffin pulled on a cart by two white horses.  The King of the Wolves was, at this point, very depressed.  He felt so terrible for his part in the death of the Princess that he came to pay his respects.  He walked right up to the horses, but the horses – being horses – were very scared of this wolf.  So they started to scream and kick wildly.  As a result, the cart carrying the Princess shook and the glass coffin fell to the ground.  But it didn’t break--it was very strong glass.  But the Princess’ stomach – bloated from death – broke open, and all of her bright green stomach bile poured out and splashed against the clear coffin for all to see.  And this made everyone sick, so they began throwing up into the streets and onto each other.  Soon, the entire kingdom smelled really, really bad.  Like, just awful.”

“Like Grandma’s house.”

“Anyway,” her father said, ignoring the remark, “try as they might, they could never get the bad smell out of the kingdom--even after they had scrubbed all the puke away.  And the puke had stained the streets a gross yellow color.  And so, with the combination of the death of the Princess and the eternal stain and smell of vomit, there was no more beauty in the kingdom – no matter how clear the Summer Sky was, or how bright the Stars shinned, or how picturesque the Sunset was.  The End.”

He paused and cracked his neck again.  “And do you know where that kingdom was located?”

“No,” the little girl said, already knowing the answer.

“Right here,” her father said, pointing to the floor.  “In Philadelphia.”

The little girl smiled and lay back against her pillow.  “I love that story, dad.”

“I love you,” her father said, and kissed her forehead. 

He rose from the bed and made his way to the door.

“Are you and Mommy still fighting?” the little girl asked, almost as an afterthought.  Her voice was slow and sleepy.           

Her father paused and thought about the question.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Don’t worry about it.  Your mother is 
just having a rough month.”

“Poor Mommy,” the little girl said sadly.

“Poor Mommy,” her father said sadly.

“Goodnight,” the little girl said, and she was almost instantly asleep.

“Goodnight,” her father whispered.  He shut the door and made his way back downstairs.  He opened the last of his beers and made his bed on the couch and drifted into a sleep filled with dreams he would not remember.

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