Emily lived under the old house for as long as she could remember. She never questioned why. It was dark and she was alone, but she was used to it.
A solitary window, high up the wall, let in a little light and she had piled up boxes, crates, and anything she could find, to reach it. Now and again she climbed up to peek out at the world. She stood on her tiptoes to get a good view and sometimes she would push her face through the bars and breathe in the air from outside.
The garden out front was overgrown and a high broken fence surrounded it. Beyond the garden was the forest where the big black birds lived. Occasionally they would perch on the fence and caw to one another. Emily would join in, stomping from one foot to the other and flapping her arms. The birds, thinking she was one of their own, pecked at the bars to try and free her, and they would poke their beaks through the gap and drop morsels of food for her to eat.
One day a gang of raggedy children came and played in the overgrown garden, and hearing Emily caw, assumed that she was a trapped bird. From then on, whenever they visited, they brought scraps of food to drop through the window. The children talked to the trapped bird, but as Emily could not understand their strange language, she would caw and flap at them.
And so Emily lived. A tiny, trapped bird. Living on scraps in a dark cellar, with only the birds to speak to.
“Where are her Mum and Dad?”
“The story doesn’t say.” Ali tucked the covers tight around Kate, tapped her nose affectionately and turned the page.
Emily spent her days performing strange rituals to pass the time – marking the sun’s single ray as it moved slowly across her dark floor, slowly cleaning herself and changing her clothes, moving all the items in the room from one side to the other, building and reinforcing the stairs to the window and looking for bugs, some of which she ate, some she kept in a jar.
At night she wrapped herself in a rug, climbed into a box and went to sleep stroking her own face whilst cawing gently.
Her dreams were dark and dismal, much like her surroundings.
“I have bad dreams too, sometimes.”
“I know sweetie, but you have to remember they are just dreams.” Ali read on.
One night, for no apparent reason, she woke, clambered up to the window and looked up at the sky. She saw lights dotted around the darkness. She imagined that someone had poked through the black cloak of night and revealed a bright and wonderful place behind. She had never noticed the stars before.
From then on her dreams became more vivid. She dreamt of the bright place behind the sky. Long, lustrous wings grew on her back and she soared with the black birds. They glided in and out of the holes of light. Sometimes the light stayed with her and she could still feel it in the pit of her stomach when she woke.
The next time the children visited they left her food and they banged and clanged at the bars. This time more loudly and more frantically than before. Emily hid.
“Why do they bang?”
“I think they are trying to help her.”
“But they are scaring her!”
“Maybe they don’t realise.”
Finally they left and she collected the food they had dropped. Amongst the morsels was a small object, possibly the item they banged with. She picked it up and examined it. It was long and cool in her hand. One end was big and heavy, the other ended at a point.
Realising that the object had a function, she jabbed repeatedly at the air with it. Then she stabbed at a block of wood among the clutter on her makeshift stairs. The tool lodged tight in the block. As she pulled it out, the wood splintered and cracked. She examined the split in the wood closely then stared at the tool in her hand. Suddenly her fingers started to move fast as they grasped their purpose.
The tool picked and chipped and scratched at the block of wood. When she finished she inspected what she had made. It was the perfect image of her own face.
For days she looked to the wooden face hoping it would show her what to do. She licked it clean and kissed it, although she could never recall being kissed. She pressed the cold wooden face against her own.
“She needed a friend.”
“We all need friends, don’t we?”
Each time she looked at the face, its dark wooden eyes stared back at her.
“Why doesn’t the face tell her what to do?”
“Can wood speak?”
“No, but this is a story. Anything could happen.”
“That’s very true.”
Waking one night, she looked for the face, but she couldn’t see it. Panicking, she scuttled over to where she left it, but it was not there. She let out a sorrowful caw. Then she spotted it.
The face was on the floor, split in two – right down the middle. A sliver of moonlight illuminated the space between.
It was trying to tell her something. She could feel it. Following the gaze of the broken face, she saw how one eye looked at the tool while the stared at the window and the lights beyond.
Emily felt the light turn on inside of her. Seizing the tool, she climbed up to the window and banged as hard as she could on the concrete surrounding the bar.
She banged and chipped. Caw!
And bashed and smashed. Caaaw!
And pounded and beat away, until her hands bled. CAW!
Eventually the bar loosened; she could feel it move! She grasped it hard with her bloody hands and rocked back and forth in a frenzy until it was free. Finally she pushed the bar through the window with a mighty scream that took her by surprise. The birds fluttered from their resting place in the forest and swirled as one across the night sky.
She looked at the space she had made, and then she looked at herself. She glanced at the face on the floor and turned to the lights behind the sky. Everything was so clear, so still, and so beautiful.
She breathed in the cool night air, let out a loud caw and flapped her arms.
Ali closed the book and looked at Kate.
“Right, sleep time.”
“Does she climb through? She escapes! Where does she go?”
“That’s where the story ends.”
“Well they have to end somewhere.”
“But what happened to the girl?”
“What would you like to happen?” She brushed the errant hair from Kate’s frowning brow.”
“I’d like her to climb through the window.”
“Ok. She climbs through the window and she is free.”
“But you just made that up. It doesn’t count.”
“I’m going now. I’ll leave the light on for ten.”
Kate waited till Ali had left the room and then she picked the book up from the floor. She turned to the back page and studied the picture of Emily looking through the window, her little face reflecting the moonlight.
She grabbed at the pen on her bedside table and scribbled the face out. Then with tongue poking out and a determined look on her face, she carefully sketched a picture of Emily flying amongst the stars. She placed the book back on the floor, smiled, and closed her eyes.