The Night Singer by Jane B. Fraser
Susie trembled in her sleep. The Bad Dream was coming and she couldn’t stop it. Since her parents had died in the car accident the Bad Dream came often.
Aunty Ruth, her father’s older sister, was her only relative and had grudgingly taken Susie in. The woman had lived a peaceful life with her two cats and was not happy about the sudden necessity of raising a 9-year old girl.
Susie wasn’t happy, either, especially when Aunt Ruth told her it was either live with her or go to an orphanage. Secretly, she felt that an orphanage might be preferable to being with Aunty Ruth and her endless nitpicky ways, but didn’t say so. Life had changed so quickly since the accident, and along with her constant sorrow, now there were many chores to do each day before she could go outside to play. Aunty liked the dishes washed, dried and put away after every meal, and the furniture had to be dusted daily. Susie also had to make her bed each morning and sweep the kitchen floor every other day.
“If you’re going to live here with me, you’ve got to pull your weight and help out,” said Aunty, her bristly gray-brown eyebrows pulled down to her small and rather beady eyes. “I’m not getting any younger.”
Two months to the day that her parents had been buried, Susie wanted to run away so badly her chest hurt. She had been washing a big platter the night before, and it had slipped out of her soapy hands and smashed to pieces on the floor. Aunty had sighed heavily and shooed her away when she tried to pick up the pieces.
“Don’t bother. It’s my fault—I should have known better than to let a child touch a valuable piece of china like that. Your great-grandfather, Josiah Wadlen, brought that from England for your great-grandmother. All these years it’s been in the family and never a chip—until now.”
“I-I’m sorry, Aunty—I didn’t mean to—“ Susie stuttered.
“Never mind. Just go up to bed.” Aunty turned and, without a good night to Susie, swept up the pieces of the platter.
“I hate her, I hate her!” Susie whispered to her favorite doll, Mrs. Lolly. “I want to go home! I want Mummy and Daddy!”
She sobbed her hurt and loneliness into Mrs. Lolly’s flowered dress. Gradually her tears tapered off, and she fell asleep with her thumb in her mouth, something she hadn’t done in years.
Downstairs, Aunty Ruth sat in her rocking chair in the living room and addressed her two cats.
“Heaven knows, I wish Bob and Lucy never had that accident. I’m as sorry as I can be for poor Susie, but what do I know about raising a child? What in the world am I going to do?”
The cats’ eyes glowed in the semi-darkness, and she went on.
“Look at me. I won’t see 50 again, and I never did want a husband and kids—and now I’ve got a 9-year old girl who missing her folks and I don’t know what to do to help her.”
The gray cat stretched and yawned, displaying sharp teeth. It curled up around the sleeping tiger cat and rumbled contentedly. Aunty Ruth rocked in her chair and watched them sleep.
Susie was having the Bad Dream again. She was in the middle of snarl of stairs, twisting and zig-zagging wildly in all directions. She was supposed to climb them all; for what reason, she never knew. In the dream she was always filled with fear and urgency, and as she climbed, the stairs grew splintery and dangerous.
Moaning softly, she twisted and turned in the sheets trying to escape. Then suddenly, the stairs were gone and she woke up. Her body was covered in a light sweat, and there were tears on her cheeks. Her chest hitched in jerky breaths, and her heart was pounding.
“I got away!” she said to herself. Her Minnie Mouse clock on the nightstand read 3:07 am. The house was quiet, and the light from the streetlamp poured over the end of her bed.
She was still trying to decide if she was really awake when a small kitten walked into the light shining on the end of the bed and sat down near her knees.
“Where’d you come from, Pusscat?”
Susie was delighted. Neither of Aunty Ruth’s cats liked her and always hissed at her. Maybe Aunty had gotten her the kitten she’d begged for. She sat up and looked closely at it, then realized it wasn’t a kitten at all.
Its ears, although catlike, were set lower on the head than a cat’s, and curled up slightly on the ends. The eyes were the color of the deepest purply-blue crayon she owned, and the pupils were not slitted like a cat’s, but round. Its fur glowed in the half-light and looked iridescent, like the inside of a seashell. It sat with its plumy tail wrapped around its feet and regarded her. Delicately it extended a paw to her.
“You’re pretty!” breathed Susie, and touched the proffered paw. As soon as she did, she heard a soft, bell-like voice in her mind.
“W-what? Are you talking to me?” Her eyes opened wide. “You’re not a cat at all, are you? But where did you come from, what—“
The softly chiming voice told her not to be afraid. It knew all about her, it said, and all that had happened to her. Gently, it patted her cheek, put its head near Susie’s, and sang a Healing Song. Susie lay back against the pillow, smiling. This time her thumb wasn’t in her mouth when she fell asleep; she was too big a girl for that.
In the morning, Susie surprised Aunty Ruth by skipping down the stairs, singing “Old MacDonald.”
“Morning, Aunty!” Susie wrapped both arms around Aunty’s narrow waist and hugged her. “I’m awful sorry about breaking that platter last night. I promise I’ll be real careful from now on.”
Aunty Ruth awkwardly patted Susie’s back and said, “That’s all right, child. Now let’s see about breakfast.”
As she walked into the kitchen, she thought with some humility, “I ought to remember what my own momma used to say to me—things don’t matter, but people do.” She smiled at the thought of Susie’s unexpected hug.
That night, the kitten-like creature came to Susie again. It praised her for what she said to Aunty Ruth.
“Funny, she doesn’t seem to be so picky or mean today,” Susie mused. “Maybe we’re starting to get used to each other.”
The creature agreed, and said that trust and love can change people if they let it. Susie must be the one to reach out, it said, because Aunty Ruth wasn’t used to thinking about anyone but herself for so long. The indigo eyes glimmered with gentle humor. She had made a wonderful start, it said, and walked up beside Susie’s head. It softly stroked her forehead with its paw and sang a Learning Song.
Weeks and months passed, and gradually Aunty and Susie became more comfortable with each other. Together they worked out a schedule for chores that seemed fair to them both. Susie got better at washing dishes, and Aunty Ruth became better at holding her tongue. They even discovered that they both liked playing Scrabble, and made time to play every evening.
Susie began to trust and then to love her aunt, and the sorrow over her parents began to lessen. She never forgot them, but her sharp grief gradually softened. Astonishingly, Aunty Ruth became quite adept at reading stories with her, and even began a tradition of having a special tea party on Sundays. She took a new interest in making special treats for Susie, and it became harder for her to remember life without her. Even her cats began to warm to Susie; one day she came home to find both cats sound asleep on her bed.
The little creature visited Susie less and less. Sensing her new strength and happiness, it smiled to itself. One night it appeared for the last time when the girl was deep in dreams; good ones this time. It pressed its silky head to Susie’s, and sang a Growing Song.
Far away from Susie and Aunty Ruth, a small boy cried in his sleep, the tears soaking his pillow. The angry voices of his parents had kept him awake and afraid for hours, and his chest hurt from holding his breath. He was afraid that this time his father would leave and never come back. In his dream, he was all alone, and he sobbed in fear.
A soft paw reached out of the darkness and gently patted his tears away.