I asked the tree-being who carved it to etch your name in the rattle’s side, the name I’d given you, not the one they foisted on you after I’d left. I’m sure your guardians threw the gift out the moment my airship turned in the winds and cast about for the stars once more.
I’m sure you won’t find it even if you look.
When you turned one, I wasn’t there. I came three months late, missing birthday cake and candles and your little face all covered with blue and purple icing because you’d dug right in and screamed when they finally took the mashed sponge away. They called you messy and loud and insisting. As if those traits were sins.
I brought you a puzzle made of watery pieces that gurgled and bubbled and were entirely toddler-safe. I made sure of that. The card wasn’t so much, but I wrote about the world I’d been to, told you all about the fish-people, their tails leaving wakes of silver through the water, their caverns of glowing algae, their doors of waving seaweed. I told you how their babies played in globes that looked so peaceful, so delicate being tugged after one of their many parents, and yet were made of the strongest of substances, protecting them from the sharpest teeth in the waters.
I wanted one for you. Ached for the ability to tug you after me, protected, loved, as we sailed through the portals and dodged bursts of stardust fumes.
We played, you and me, with the puzzle, and you repeated gargled words at me. Fishie. Wawa. You had trouble with ‘star’ and it came out ‘ar.’ Like a little sailor. But when I called you that sweetly, your guardians grew furious, demanded I leave so that I didn’t pervert your future with ideas of airships and starry portals and distant planets.
My airship broke down on my third trip away from you, in a place filled with cold volcanoes, erupting ice throughout the atmosphere. There’d been a people there once, long ago, but no longer, and it was lonely with just my crew. I wrote you letters, many many letters that I could never send, as we progressed with repairs. I envisioned you on the swings or learning your letters and shapes and animals or toddling, rolling through the grass.
I wondered if the puzzle I’d given you had become a favorite. Or if it had been thrown away like the rattle.
I brought you back a piece of that place. Otherworldly blackened metal, compressed by ice and time, almost in the shape of a heart, its center carved out to form a box with a lid of swirls. Our mechanics had found it among a dozen others when digging for iron and copper to forge for our engine. An antique from a people we know nothing about, with a shape they could not possibly have considered how we consider it. But when we look for meaning, we find it. And I hoped you’d find meaning in it when I returned.
You were three and a half. You opened it up and asked me what was supposed to go inside. I told you to put your favorite treasures inside, so you placed a dandelion. I didn’t tell you that it would die, because that felt too real.
In all my dreams of you, I hadn’t envisioned the way you would speak. Full sentences. Thick, toddler accent. You said star clearly now.
When you were five, they let me sit with you outside. They pretended not to be watching through the windows, pretended you didn’t have a tracking unit embedded in your hand where that scar that didn’t belong caused a great ache in me. I tried not to think about it. Instead, I pointed up at the network of stars above our heads. You wanted to know whether they were hot, whether they burned when I got close. It was sweet. Your concern.
I wish it had lasted.
I explained that the portals were more air and lightness, that they kissed my skin as my ship sank through them. You wanted to know if there were tentacles that pulled my airship through the portal. I laughed. Told you yes, even though that wasn’t the truth.
I’d brought you a songstone that time, from a place where music was people, the songs alive and floating, beats and rhythms their souls, and cadence their hearts. They sang bits of themselves into these songstones and taught me how to do so as well. Those songs it plays, some are lullabies from my own absent mother, memories from when I’d groggily turn during midnight hours while she’d lean over me, her voice soothing. Others are chanties sung aboard my ship, censored, of course, so your guardians wouldn’t confiscate my gift.
When it was time for me to leave, you asked me why you couldn’t come with me.
I couldn’t tell you the truth, at least not the whole truth. So I told you it was my job, that I must make a living.
You didn’t know what a living was, so I told you it was to make money.
You said you would give me the money in your tiny airship-bank.
When I returned the next time, you were almost seven. You had drawn me a picture of the stars, with tentacles writhing about them, grabbing at my airship, with me at the tiller. It was all wrong, yet oh so right. The paper was faded by the time you gave it to me, dust collected on the colors. You had to dig it out from a pile of other pictures you’d drawn. Those ones were of friends I’d never met, events I’d never gone to, dreams I’d never been privy to, and nightmares I wasn’t there to soothe away.
I still have that picture. I’d pressed it between panes of glass, the best I could find, and strapped it to my console near my tiller. My crew knows not to ask about it.
It was the only gift you ever gave me.
It was during this trip that I brought you soaps from a goblin market. They were in the shapes of stars and ships and krakens. I told you that when you used them, they’d slowly reveal a present inside, little tchotchkes: a snowflake stickie that frosted the windowpane you pressed it on; a tiny metallic bird that would repeat stories you told it; a dragon figurine that blew smoke from its nostrils and blinked long blinks.
All important in their own ways.
It was a selfish gift on my part. I wanted you thinking of me every day, wanted you excited about what was hidden inside, to cherish the small gifts from Mommy, long after I was gone.
I brought with me documentation when you were nine. You probably don’t remember, but I submitted a plea to the courts during that trip, fighting the “insufficient stability needed to mother a child” that was stuck in my file. I had a room set up for you aboard ship, perfect for a nine-year-old. I had diligently been removing the members of my crew with concerning histories, replacing them with more parents, more highly educated, well-rounded people in order to conform to the government’s view of “acceptable environment.”
I’d brought back a scaled cloak, cut too big for you—I’d been worried it might be too small, so I’d erred the better way, which led to you tripping over it as you ran about the grass, pretending you were one of the lizard-race dwelling on a desert planet filled with black and red sand and shining quartz that winked. I told you the females of the race harvested scales off their own backs, since they molted faster and more frequently. The scales were then sewn into fire-proof cloaks for those of their planetary visitors not equipped to withstand their atmosphere.
I took a photo of you running in the cloak. An action photo. I replay it often, watching your legs pump and your smile widen.
You told me the little metallic bird from one of my soaps chirped funny stories with bad words—echoed from my crew, no doubt. You didn’t realize that your guardians used that mistake against me in my plea. You didn’t realize that your laughter, your excitement over hearing a little metal bird say “shit riggin’” was the reason I lost the chance at getting you back.
I didn’t tell you. I hugged you tight instead, breathed in your scent, felt the warmth of your arms as I said goodbye yet again.
You clutched that tiny dragon, with its little smoking nostrils, as I walked away. The cloak you wore sagged upon your sloped shoulders.
The next year you barely spoke two words to me. You took the gift I gave you—a shirt woven from spider silk and distilled stardust fumes—and set it, unenthusedly, on the couch between us.
You picked at the threads on your pants. They were old pants, I noticed. Hand-me-downs from your guardians’ older biological boys. I spoke to them about it, but they said that was the way things were.
I found the lawyer from my previous plea, told her about the clothing, about your smaller room, your school struggles. Explained that no one could be as worried about the stardust fumes pulsing out from the portals as they’d been when you’d been a baby, that protections had gone up in the past decade. But she wouldn’t take my case.
She said I was a lost cause. Said I should give up on you.
I sped through my next departure, rushing my trades, pushing my crew, taking the headwinds through the sea of stars and past the portals at a breakneck pace. There were many a moment out there, with the astral winds whipping at my hair, the stardust fumes making my eyes water, that I thought of your tentacle portals and wished they were real, that my airship could be passed from one portal to the next, quicker than on the winds, so that I might get home to you sooner.
But when I returned bearing a bag of books, each requiring a special means to read hidden words, you didn’t want to see me. Your guardians said you weren’t there and I could tell they were well-meaning, repeating your angry words after I’d knocked. I begged at first, telling them that I had another deployment, that I would be leaving in days for another planet, but they wouldn’t budge.
I had to linger at your school, where I watched you chat with your friends during recess. I kept wishing you’d come near the fence, that I might secret a conversation, but you stayed close to the door, drawing with chalk, your face pensive. Once recess finished, I walked around the fence to sneak a look at what you’d drawn. It was an airship, with you at the tiller and a baby kraken crawling up your arm.
That gave me hope.
I left the books at the front door of your house, an innocuous note on top with your name, the one they’d given you so you wouldn’t feel the instinctual urge to throw my gift away. I didn’t dare say more. Didn’t dare tell you how to read the books. Couldn’t tell you that the one with the Cetus constellation needed starlight. Couldn’t reveal that the one with the dragon needed to be read through the dragon figurine’s smoke.
I couldn’t even tell you how the words inside the book with the textured, scaled cover would glow if you were wrapped up in your soft lizard-scaled cloak, all the world blocked out. I imagined you one night with a flashlight, your world glowing red in reflection as you scribbled a few words into what looked like blank pages. Then, tired, you would snap the flashlight off. You would blink in wonder. The words in the book, the ones I’d put there, would glow, would speak to you across the starry expanse and you would flip the pages faster and faster.
Until you get to this one.
I wonder if you’ll be there.
…If you’re brave enough to press that snowflake tchotchke against your wrist. Leave it there until your tracking unit is frosted over, making you untraceable.
…If you’re sneaky enough to have the metallic bird record and repeat the password for your guardian’s house alarm.
…If you’re strong enough to hold that cloak above your head the whole time as you race down the street, so that no camera can see you.
…If you’re forgiving enough that you’ll wear the spidersilk shirt that’s linked to the spiderling I have on board, that I may find you.
I hope, but I don’t know you as well as I wish I did.
So, I just imagine you are all those things: strong and brave and forgiving. I imagine you’ll ask about the name I had etched on that rattle your guardians threw out. I imagine you’ll like the room I have been saving for you, filled with clothes and books and trinkets from all the starlit worlds I’ve visited…without you.
And when the stardust fumes puff from the first starry portal—the first of many—I imagine you’ll throw your arms out, a smile widening across your face.
Like the one I have replaying over and over again as I sit here hoping. And waiting.
Just as you’ve always done for me.
Copyright © 2022 Marie Croke