Borrowed Words

By Anne Littlewood

The first story she told him was about a little girl with silver wings that didn’t work. Then she picked up a fistful of sand and sprinkled it on his head like pixie dust, cackling as she ran away up the slide. He frowned, and took up the chase on little legs. Once upon a time, she’d sing, running barefoot through her mother’s summer garden. Once upon a time the world was ruled by ladybugs. Winking at him, she plucked another cherry tomato from the vine, and popped it in her mouth. She always named the snowmen they decorated in December. Millie and Maya and Marcus came to life in her hands, twirling around the gingerbread houses. He watched, spellbound, as she pulled the strings on the puppets in her narrative. Frosty began to melt, and the rain fell on the vineyards. My grandfather was eaten by an alligator at the bottom of a lake, looking for his brother’s watch, she told him one day, on their walk home from school. Did you see that car that just drove by? Those were my real parents. They gave me up when I was born. He nodded seriously, eyes wide as crystal balls. When they were older, she covered her walls in ink, clinging to the words of others in an attempt to remember her own. He used to read the ceiling as she screamed at her mother, trying to learn her language. When she finally trudged upstairs wearing wet cheeks and a broken spirit, he would tell her the stories he had read, wiping her tears with the words that she loved. One July afternoon they sat on the edge of his pool, touching toes in the turquoise. He asked her, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” and she answered with a kiss, falling for his borrowed words. He sat beside her on the night she asked her father for a train ticket. The man finished his drink and slammed the glass down on the table, growling at her to shut her mouth. She didn’t speak for a week, but the wind howled for her. He wrote in pen on the back of her hand, “I always blame the moon,” and she knew that he knew the truth. On her sixteenth birthday he twirled her through the vineyards and they got tangled in the grapes. “I wish I could build a fire in you that would never go out,” he whispered in her ear. She gave him her lips, and the stars were jealous. Some nights she knocked on his window, and fell into his arms. Those were the nights she’d beg him for a story, the nights she couldn’t bear to be at home. Once upon a time there were two kids that fell in love. He always got stuck somewhere in the middle. It was winter the first time she didn’t want him. He reached for her, murmured, “Love, where are we now? Where did we begin?” She hugged her knees to her chest, whispered, I don’t know. One day she ran away for the city, leaving only a note, a line from her favorite poem: “You see, I woke up one night and I realized I was falling.” He placed her last words beneath his pillow, and dreamt only of endings. (Quotes come from the following poems: Mary Oliver, The Summer Day Lucille Clifton, Moonchild Kenneth Rexroth, Runaway Li Young Li, Seven Happy Endings)