The nurse outside the door was talking about her again. “It lifts her spirits, gets her mind working,” she said. Esther hated being called “her” and was sure the nurse was exaggerating. Of course I forget things at my age, she bristled but then listened hard to hear every word. “Every time you read to her, she’s brighter and more focused the whole day.”
Somebody reads to me? Oh, Myriam’s stories. I like those. Readjusting herself, Esther waited as patiently as she could in her chair by the window. Patience was hard in this place where not enough happened and she couldn’t remember the last time she laughed. It was better when Myriam came, good to see and touch her, good to have something different to think about.
Finally that familiar face appeared, and Myriam bent to hug her. “Hi, Mom! You look great today!” Kiss on the cheek. Smell of Dove soap. Sound of a chair dragged close to hers.
Esther sighed. Myriam was a good girl. But her hair! “When did your hair go gray,” she blurted.
Myriam laughed, “I don’t know, sometime in my forties, I guess?”
“Goodness, you’re not that old!”
“I wish,” Myriam said and held up a book Esther recognized. It was a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the cover picture obscured by red crayon that a long ago little girl thought made it look prettier. When Myriam was young, Esther had read her a bedtime story from that book every night.
“Ready for another one?” Myriam asked her with her beautiful smile.
Esther nodded, settled back, and closed her eyes. “Read me just the first two sentences and don’t tell me the title,” she said. “Let me see if I can tell which one it is.”
“Okeedoke,” said Myriam and began: “Once there was a wise king who seemed to know everyone’s secrets. His subjects suspected he must have watchers in every little village, but not a one was ever found.”
Esther’s eyes snapped open wide. Myriam had so loved that one they must have read it a hundred times. “Wait, it’s…it’s…oh, shoot!” She almost recognized it, but then it slid away. Not remembering was so frustrating. Damn it, she thought. She’d been thinking swear words more often lately, and sometimes they slipped out. Not this time, though.
“Let me read a little more and then you’ll get it. Here, listen,” said Myriam, and Esther concentrated. “Every evening after his dinner, the king would dismiss everyone else from the room and instruct a trusted servant to bring him one more covered dish of food that he would eat all by himself.”
“I know that one! It’s about people understanding animal talk!” Esther exclaimed. “A servant sneaked a bite of the king’s food and then understood baby crows, three fish, and ants!” I remembered! “But what was that called? Don’t tell me.”
“Think about that special last thing the king would eat every night,” Myriam prompted.
Esther closed her eyes again and tried to see in her memory the first page of the story where the title was, but the vision that came to mind instead was a tiny girl nestling close to her in bed, one who usually fell asleep before the story was over. Little Myriam, with those black curls and such long lashes, she thought and opened her eyes.
“Myriam? What are you doing here?” Her daughter’s expression was an odd combination of sadness, dismay, and surprise. “What’s wrong dear?”
“Nothing, Mom. You fell asleep, that’s all.” Then she paused, “Remember how I used to fall asleep while you were reading?”
“I was just remembering that! But I didn’t know you were coming today.” When did she come in? “I wouldn’t have taken a nap if I’d known you were coming.”
Myriam shook her head, the shadow of that sad look still on her face. “It’s no problem, Mom. You know, I don’t think I ever told you, but I had dreams, nightmares sometimes, when I fell asleep before the end of a story. It was like my mind wouldn’t let the stories be unfinished, so I made up endings in my dreams.” She laughed, “Not all happy ones, either!”
I wish she’d told me about that. To think something I did gave her nightmares… “Like what? Tell me what you imagined.”
“Let me see,” Myriam said turning to the table of contents. She ran her finger down the list and finally tapped one title. “Like this one, The Frog Prince? We must’ve stopped when the frog kept reminding the princess about her promise to let him live in her castle and eat off her plate. Well, in my dream I was the bad princess, and when the frog came to eat off my plate, I ate him. I remember I woke up chewing on my pillow, scared to death I’d eaten the little frog prince.”
At first Esther was appalled, thinking of that precious girl awakened by a nightmare, alone in her bed, but then she started to laugh. First it was a chuckle, and then a giggle that grew into what her beloved Gordon would have called an old-fashioned belly laugh. Myriam laughed at her mother laughing, and the two of them kept it up until the nurse stuck her head in the door to see what was going on. Seeing the look on the nurse’s face, they laughed even harder, each of them sneaking looks at the other’s face and feeling pure joy.
After their laughter faded to snickers and finally silence, they held hands and sat quietly. I’ve got it, Esther thought, and whispered, “The king ate white snake every night. I always thought that was awful.” Then she cleared her throat and added proudly, “The story was called The White Snake, right?”
“It is, Mom. Good job!”
Esther nodded thinking, See, I don’t always forget. “Let’s finish the story,” she said and smiled her old smile. “It’s got a happy ending.”