Let's Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children
By Margaret Ronald
12 October 2015
In the mornings she shakes loose any feathers that have gathered during the night (down comforter, she explained to a coworker who noticed one in her hair; that was years ago), then before she eats or washes or does anything else, she crams her feet into her boots. Stylish boots, though that's incidental; only custom-made boots will fit over the scabby talons that twinge and clench even after she's shod.
She takes the bus to work. It goes by three different schools, but she usually misses their morning rush. If anyone notices her gazing out the window, they put it down to the morning sleep-glaze that still clings to most other riders.
It's been decades since she stole any children. Centuries, maybe.
Work is another call center, taking in questions from irritated people and directing them to the right support. There's a television on the wall above the cubes, and the other women bicker about last night's shows, what they caught on the internet, which fictional character betrayed whom.
This morning, two of her coworkers are standing by the television in silence, coffee in hand. "What is it?" she asks, slowing on her way to her cube.
"Little girl gone missing," says Delia. Meherbai just shakes her head. "Snatched right off the playground."
"So her daddy says," sniffs Meherbai. "It's usually the dads, if there's a custody fight. Or the moms, other way round."
"You're just saying that because you watch too much TV," Delia says.
Meherbai shrugs. "Wouldn't be said so often if it weren't true."
She glances up at the missing girl's face, taken from a family photograph, grinning and waving a stuffed owl at the camera. It's the last that gets her, and for a moment she has to remind herself: not in decades, nearly a century, maybe more. "Change the channel," she says. "Put on one of the soaps, or something."
Her two coworkers look at her, and Delia starts to ask something like don't you care about this, but Meherbai reaches for the remote. "Don't worry. The police will find her."
"Or they won't," mutters Delia.
She heads to the cube she shares with Miryam, huge with her eight months' pregnancy. Miryam turns as she sits down, mouths thank you, and goes back to her work.
She risks a glance over the top of the cube ten minutes later. The channel's changed to a rerun of some crime show. Two serious-looking men are talking intensely in front of a wall strung with pictures of a grinning boy. The captions are on: have only so much time before the murderer . . .
She looks back at her screen, takes the first call.
She uses a name close to her old one now, mainly because her usual lie—it's Middle Eastern and hard to pronounce; better just call me (Sal or Polly or Gretchen)—doesn't hold, not with Firdus and Meherbai on the staff already. Some of them come from where she first remembers, though she's sure none of them hang the names of angels above cribs to keep her out. So they call her Lilly, and Miryam says it's a lovely name, and if she wasn't having a boy she'd consider it for her child.
She went, once, to the music festival that bore her name. It was lovely, and strengthening, but she did not go back. She told herself that it would be too easy to claim all that joy as tribute, and that would have been stealing of a different nature. But that wasn't really the reason.
She'd joined a cluster of people, passing around bottles of wine and talking in the way that only 2 a.m. can bring. She'd asked about the name of the festival, admittedly fishing for a compliment. And one young man had explained the legend: Adam's first wife, who would not submit, who went off on her own and bred demons rather than let him be on top.
Nothing of a smiling woman with owls' feet. Nothing of stealing children out of their beds. So she'd ventured that maybe that wasn't all there was to the story.
No, he told her, drunk and sincere. No, it's true, and that's all there is. I read it in a book. Well, a story. But a true story.
She'd left the circle and thought about whether it was really she who had that name. What it meant if it wasn't, if that story was all that was left to that name. If there had been children nearby—but there had not been, and instead she took to the air on wide silent wings and let it slide from her.
She took the first of the call center jobs not long after.
She reads fiction, easier to find now than it had been in centuries past. Movies, too, though she'd always loved those images on smoke and enjoyed finding echoes from one to the other (a baby carriage rolling down steps, first in black and white then in color). These days she goes to the bookstore in the mall, though that won't last; already most of her visual entertainment comes online. Most of the time, she has something on as a steady hum, to distract her from the sounds of any children playing outside or an infant crying two blocks over.
Today she picks up a few new books (one an award-winner, noted for its dark humor and worldbuilding) and leaves before she can linger by the board books. It doesn't help, though; in front of the multimedia store, watching the giant screens, is a child about two years old, all on her own. She steels herself—decades, maybe longer—and walks over, intending to ask only if the little girl is lost.
The girl looks up at her, and the well-meant words shrivel to sand in her throat. One screen blares news, a continuing crawl about the girl snatched off a playground; another shows a trailer for a movie about a man seeking vengeance for his wife and son. She's seen it—he gets vengeance, but no more; their deaths magnify his pain. The girl standing before her is too young for any of it, but her eyes are thoughtful, unconcerned.
Her wings begin to shiver invisibility around them—just to keep her safe, she tells herself, just to keep her safe from anyone else—and a sudden cry stops her. A woman starts up from a bench, having lost sight of her daughter. Lilly steps away, and the girl glances at her mother, puzzled.
Lilly doesn't stay to see the mother's reaction. She goes straight home, turns on television and computer both, and reads through the chatter. It's a good book, starting off with a cataclysm that destroys most of civilization. The rest of the book wouldn’t happen without it, but she keeps coming back to it, all those dead children for the sake of a properly exciting tale. When she catches herself, she puts the book away.
"I can't watch some things any more," Miryam confides in them over lunch. "Can't read them, either."
"Like the news?" Delia says, crunching through celery. "I don't blame you, honey."
"No, I mean, like—well, you know CSI? It seems like every week the mystery's about some missing child, some raped little kid, murders—" She shudders, curling her arms around her heavy belly.
A chorus of nods and "mm-hms" follows. "It's just how it is," Firdus says. "The Hollywood people. It's narrative structure to them—they just go for cheap emotional punches." Firdus is in the call center while she gets her degree; equal numbers of their coworkers look down on or up to her for that reason.
"Like what's-his-name," Bea at the end of the table pipes up. "With the Christmas stories. Seemed the only point of those stories was to have some poor kid have a hard life and then die."
"So it's nothing new," Firdus says. "You're just more sensitive."
Miryam shakes her head. "I don't care. I can't watch it. I can barely even think about it."
Delia puts an arm around her. "It's okay, honey. It gets better. You never stop worrying, but it gets better." Firdus rolls her eyes and mutters about some people not being able to look at things head-on.
Lilly takes a deep breath, then lets it out in a long hooo. "So," she says brightly, "anybody going to that concert on Friday?
Her feet hurt. Her feet itch.
The little girl is found, safe and sound if a little spooked by being carried off by a grandmother with mild dementia. Or maybe that's another girl, lost and found in the time it takes for the first to be truly lost. Or maybe that's another boy, wandering off and found in a river. Alive, not alive. Found, not found.
Lilly keeps her head down and works, reads, watches.
She never ate any of the children she stole, no matter what the stories said. Never. She'd remember doing something like that.
But she didn't give them back, either. She'd leave them elsewhere. An infant girl, stolen from her siblings' crowded bed, left below the window of a widow. A newborn boy, carried on her wings to a far land and nestled into a cradle beside a second boy of the same age. A prophet-to-be, left snuggled into bulrushes.
She did not devour. She redistributed. It took her millennia to realize that this hurt the parents no less than if she had swallowed them whole. Her excuses felt hollow after that.
She's sure she'd remember if she devoured them.
The news used to be her reminder to stay on the straight path—every panic over a missing child, every rehashed tragedy, was proof of how much the children were wanted. But these days she hears another voice, all the more persuasive because it's saying what she's tried not to hear for years. The news says yes, every child, but the stories, the shows, the fictions, those say something else.
The television plays in the background as she makes dinner. A detective, a fictional one, is relating the horrible death of an infant—and, more importantly, why it made him leave his job.
The baby dies neglected and alone. But the story's not about that. It's about the man who's traumatized by the experience of seeing the tiny corpse.
The boy is kidnapped and never found. But he's only prologue, the first crime behind the newest crime that drives the earnest detective.
The toddler strays too near the zombies. But the camera cuts back to the debate over governance of the human resistance.
The four-year-old burns to death, screaming for Mama. But it's all right, because if the protagonist had gone back for her, the eldritch horrors would have seized her as well, and possibly the world.
Stories of the deaths of children. Over and over and over. The children are wanted, she tells herself, so they tell her with every color-coded alert and news crawl. They would be missed. But the stories they tell say that they aren't wanted; their deaths and pain and peril are what's wanted. What reason to have a little match girl, if not to let her die on the last page?
She curls into a circle in bed, holding on to her feet, feeling feathers bristle out of her hair, forcing them to stop before they can expand. Somewhere a baby is crying, and when she tries to block it out, she’s no longer sure if it’s a real child or fictional.
She wants to tear open their stories, to plummet talons open into the pages and steal every one of those children before their authors can kill them.
But she can't. The authors have already gotten away with it, small bodies left on the way to their plot arcs and dramatic reveals and denouements.
If she could redistribute those fictional children, steal them . . . but bring them where? No safe place in those stories, not for children. And not with a child-thief, a baby-stealer, everything she used to be but tells herself she is not.
She can feel herself drawing tight around them, every new story rubbing her resolve thin.
When the blister breaks, it's not from the cumulative weight of those stories, but from a direction her carefully cultivated morals didn't think to defend.
It’s the end of another long shift at the call center, the tacit battle over television channels continuing between soaps to midday crime dramas to what looks innocuous: an arts talk show, with a lean and aesthetically weary gentleman taking questions.
Firdus stops by their cube, smug over her choice of channel. "This is the one I was trying to get you to read, Miry. He knows what he's talking about."
Miryam's on a call and waves her away, or tries to. Lilly glances up and remembers drunken conversation in the festival dark. The gentleman has a look of that young man in the circle at the festival, enough to give her a double-take, but it's not him. She gets up and stands before the screen, reading the captions instead of switching the volume back on. He's talking about stories, what they say about a culture, about subconscious expressions. When it comes down to it, he says, smiling in a studied, faraway manner, the stories we tell are really all that matters. Believe them.
And what story is mine? she thinks. Her name? Her old epithets? Believe that story, or the ones that she hears day and night?
She can't save any of those fictional children. But she can save others.
"No," she whispers, but it's the last halfhearted grasp of the rope before letting go. It feels like sweet wine after too long dry. The little voice that tells her they're not yours to save is swallowed up in this new excuse.
She can't save any of those fictional children. But she can save others.
She turns, and only after Firdus pales and Miryam gasps does she realize she's turned her head farther around than a human should. She straightens out and walks slowly to them, slowly becoming aware that her legs are bending funny, that her boots are shredding around feet that will be contained no longer.
Firdus runs—some people just can't look at things head-on—and Miryam scoots back until her chair hits the far wall of the cube. Lilit leans over her, notes how she's panting as if in labor although the baby won't come for another eighteen days, that much she can tell now. "Don't worry," she whispers, laying one soft hand on Miryam's belly. Miryam's mouth opens, but she can't speak or move. "You said you liked my name. Write it over his crib, and I'll know you know me. I'll know you care enough to worry."
And with that she goes, leaving scraps of boot-leather and scattered pinfeathers.
East, then, and the owls with her, following to see what she does. East where the line of night has already crossed, where sleep has stolen in.
She chooses the house at random. She's lucky, or they're unlucky, or both. There's a nursery, painted up in bright colors with stars on the ceiling, and a crib, and a crib's inhabitant, snuggled up on his tummy. His parents are both sound asleep in the next room, and they would not hear even if they were awake.
Lilit shivers wings to arms and comes to stand next to the crib. Even that little silken sound is enough to wake him, and he pushes up, then sits back, rubbing his eyes and frowning. Not yet walking, old enough to crawl, maybe a tooth or two behind that frown. He holds out both hands to her: up. A demand made out of trust.
She lifts him up and cradles him, and he settles in as if that seat were familiar for months, damp nose pressed against her neck. Even when she shivers back to wings, he only sighs and cuddles closer.
She whistles, and all along this side of night silent wings follow her lead, passing through glass and brick alike. Has she done this before? Some memory shivers loose, a sunwhitened city under the moon, owls sweeping across like unfallen angels, seeking all where her name was not writ—
No. It doesn't matter. Only for a night and a day, she tells herself. Long enough for the fear to set in, for them to weep from wanting you back. They won't tell stories that save you, so I'll put you in mine to keep you safe.
I can stop any time.
He wakes, a little, as she glides out of the window, and he watches his home diminish below them.