Where the Wild Things Were
Little stars swung around the ceiling of her room in a slow arc, shooting stars glowing translucent green. I’d painted the walls a deep shade of ochre yellow, and my wife had sketched tall flowers, carefully filling them in with blue paint. Our little daughter, Ruth, didn’t notice that her lines were wobbly or that I’d run out of the right shade of yellow in the middle of the sloped attic ceiling. If she knew our slip-shod efforts as young parents weren't perfect, she didn’t say anything about it. In her eyes, we were angels, superheros, kings, and queens. And she was the princess of her perfect kingdom.
Ruth had recently discovered the magic of books.
“Oh! Is that a monster?” Ruth squealed, grinning as she pointed to the sea monster on the page.
“Yes, ‘and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year, to where the wild things are.’”
She tried to grab the book from my hand, but I held on firmly. “I’m still reading,” I said, tickling her neck. She giggled, squishing my fingers under her chubby cheeks.
“Look, Pa, he has a boat,” she observed, pointing at Max with his wolf suit. “He’s scared. Have you been scared, Pa?”
I shook my head. “Never. Not even once. I make the monsters scared,” I growled, clawing her curly head of hair.
The wooden door creaked, tarnished knob turning. June stuck her head through the doorway, orange light framing her body. “Sam, what are you doing? It’s 9:45! We have church tomorrow!”
Ruth ran out of the sheets to her mom, jumping up and down, reaching for her through the doorway. “Mommy! Pa and me are reading the monster story!”
“Monster story?” She cocked a dark eyebrow at me, grabbing her daughter by the arms and lifting her up in a flurry of pink pajamas and kisses.
I nodded sheepishly, showing our coverless copy of Where the Wild Things Are. She hummed knowingly, setting her daughter on the bed.
“Get under your covers. Pa and I will finish the story with you.”
But Ruth had other business to discuss. She reached under her bed. “Mommy, I saw a monster in the closet, and I used my crayons and my paper and drew a picture of him—”
She was kneeling on her bed, pointing at different scribbles. June nodded and asked questions about the worn out, crumpled drawing, gasping at the right times.
“He has big horns and a happy smile and six legs and white hair and big claws—”
“Wow, he looks scary!” June said, pointing at it. “Show it to Pa.”
Ruth turned to me, her excited grip pinching the paper.
I blinked. Through her scribbles, I knew this monster by name.
I glanced at June. Her narrow green eyes, unmatching her content smile, knew it as well.
Ruth extended the paper to me. “You can hold it, Pa.”
“Wow! He looks like a real-life monster.”
“I saw him! In real life!” she exclaimed as if my comment alluded that the monster was only imaginary. “He is real!”
“I believe you,” I said, kissing her forehead and setting the monster drawing on her nightstand. “Let’s finish your book; then it's time to sleep.”
She moaned, but we got through the book. She wailed like a puppy when we snuck out of the room, turning out the lights.
Stuffy-nosed tears hiccuped as we did the dishes downstairs.
“She’ll be okay,” I said, handing a soapy, chipped plate to June.
“What did you think of Ruth’s drawing?” I asked. “It looked like—”
“Mr. Nightengale. I knew you would recognize it. That drawing surprised me.” She watched her towel rub around the surface of the plate.
“Yeah, do you really think she saw him? That definitely wasn’t a critter from the backyard. I’d know that horsey smile from anywhere,” I said as I dripped more soap on our flat-bristled scrub brush.
“I don’t know. Did you see him on the way home from work? It’s hard for me to notice . . . visitors.”
“No, but I’ll watch for him. He was the only one friendly to us in the Weald. Remember how he wanted you to sell flowers in the market instead of joining that gang? Ouch,” I growled, pulling my hand from the steaming trickle of water.
June twisted the sink knob. “No, I can’t forget. He always wanted to keep me alive and far away from that gang. He’s the only reason we’re alive and at home. Do you think he wanted to meet our daughter? He swore we’d eventually fall for each other and have an army of children.”
“Maybe. Or he’s still bitter he wasn’t invited to the wedding.” I hummed, noticing a spider crawl under a crack in the wall as I scrubbed crusty ketchup.
“Once we have enough money to buy interdimensional postage, I’ll personally write him an apology. In cursive, how he likes it,” June chuckled.
She looked up at me. “Do you think he needs us again? I’d do anything to go back and dance in the Weald. Just one more time.” She grabbed a plastic pink cup and stood on her tip-toes to open the cabinet.
I wiped my hands on the bottom of my shirt and wrapped an arm around her waist, swiftly kissing her cheek from behind. I grabbed the cup from her outstretched hand and put it away without taking my heels off the ground.
I grabbed her hand and spun her around, stepping in front of her, right arm outstretched. “Well, I can dance right here. Care to join me?”
She smiled knowingly, dimples creasing her freckly olive cheeks.
She stepped forward and back, rocking on the balls of her bare feet. I copied her but ended with two stomps and a twist, clapping twice and catching her green gaze. We broke off into an old dance we had learned long ago in a different, monstrous land.
We spun around the short dining table, past the rows of dry roses hanging from the ceiling and into the dark living room. She flipped backwards over the center table and landed in a dip, wild ponytail dusting the floor and her pointed leg in the air, bright teeth shining. My mind saw her as a silver-furred monster; my ears only heard the music of pounding drums and deep, wooden instruments, moving with the beats of my heart.
I shot her a wink, then lifted and unraveled her out of the thread-bare living room and up the stairs. Our backs faced each other with palms together, knees low to the ground. It made a rhythm that brought back the sound of swift, crisping cymbals to my memory.
I broke the symmetry by jumping backwards and landing on the vinyl floor of our kitchen with a boom, making a nearby wedding photo drop to the ground with a clatter. It stole my attention from June, who jumped and landed on her butt.
“You let me fall!” she growled with a smile.
“Was I supposed to catch you?” I yipped jokingly, lifting her up into my arms.
We spun in circles, jumping and landing and crossing our feet in an ancient jig, June extending her arms and legs over me, laughing with gusto. The drums thundered and the cymbals crashed, a throbbing arena of sound and moving heat, our feet pounding heartbeats racing sweat flying faces grinning roars shouting and stomp—
right arms bent, braced against each other. Faces close, both with breathless grins. Strands of light hair settled against the sweat on June’s forehead, her eyes like burning jades. We grabbed each other's faces and gave each other a hard kiss.
I don’t remember how we decided to crawl onto the roof outside our bedroom window, panting and smiling, quietly talking after our dance throughout the house. We didn’t notice when little Ruth had stopped crying; she must have fallen asleep while we were moving through the ancient courting dance the village monsters would do. The sky looked starrier than when I’d come home.
I’d wrapped a fuzzy blanket around both of us.
“Thanks for getting her in pajamas and reading with her, but she needs to be in bed earlier. She gets fussy during the day, and it’s hard to help her while I’m on the phone with clients,” June said.
I nodded. “Of course. I’m trying; I wish I got home sooner. We just got a big architectural contract. We keep getting projects thrown at us last minute.”
June nodded. “I get it. I do appreciate your help. I love Ruth, but . . . it’s been harder to take care of her.”
“Really?” I asked, confused.
A cold breeze picked up the loose hairs around June’s face, the pale moonlight reflecting on her smooth forehead. “I’m starting to forget the Weald,” she said quietly. “I want to go back.”
“What?” I asked. “Have you forgotten living among monster tribes in the desert and eating fried scorpions as delicacies? Being captains of monster armies? Hiding in old catacombs of dirt and bones? Falling down a rabbit hole and every bone of your body warping into a monster?”
She shook her head. “No, no, I remember all that. I think about what we did and went through every day—no one could forget that. But I can’t remember what it felt like to be a monster.”
I snickered, bewildered. “It felt like being stuck in a jungle cat’s body and smelling like one, too,” I said.
She poked my bicep. “I wasn’t the clumsy one with the ram horns and lion feet, breaking every pot in the northern kingdom with your big blue tail.”
I pushed her face away, and she giggled, pulling my hand down. “I didn’t choose to look like that,” I grumbled. “Not all of us can be delicate monsters like you, with silvery gray hair and kitten feet.”
She blew me a raspberry. “I did not have kitten feet.”
“Did too,” I huffed, tickling her toes. They were icy. “You still do.”
She stepped on my hand, giving me a head butt on my shoulder. I wrapped her in my arms, leaving a big kiss on her hair. She relaxed, putting her head on my shoulder, and I loosened my grip. We sighed in unison.
“I just . . . I just want one more time to run free like I used to . . . to climb castles and never get tired . . . and feel the cold mountain air . . . alone for one more time. Then I could breathe again.”
“Can you not breathe?” I asked, looking down at her.
She answered with a sideways glance. She didn’t want to talk about the burden of her daughter.
Eventually she spoke. “Do . . . Do you think we could go back?”
“June, how do you think we could go back? Even if a gateway could be opened, why would we involve ourselves with the Weald again?” I must have growled at her because she looked hurt.
“I just . . . I miss it. If it were only for a day, I could handle staying here. I was a queen there. Now I’m . . . just a mom.”
I held my wife closer. Her hair smelt of dried flowers. “June, please don’t look for a way back. We have Ruth here. Your business. My work. Our family. Life is good. You don’t need to change it.”
She sighed, rubbing a sleeve across her eyes. “We have changed a lot since then.”
“Yeah. We are pretty different. I have a rad dad bod,” I stated.
“And I have some killer arm flabs.”
“You mean the tiny bit of fat above your elbows?” I asked, grabbing her arm and squeezing softly.
“And you have great mom hips.”
She cracked a smile and guffawed, eyes squinting. Since returning from the Weald, it was my goal to make her laugh daily. That was my score for Saturday.
She rubbed her eyes, breathing out little giggles. “Why, thank you.”
I chuckled and put my head on hers, to which she told me her neck hurt and to not do that.
When I glanced up, I thought I saw a shadow or a silver ghost in the yard. It stood where the autumn woods met our patchy, leaf-strewn lawn, bleached by the full moon. He turned around and waved, his other five legs dragging on the ground. I waved back, opening my mouth to say something to June, but after I blinked, our old friend was gone. It was best to say nothing. After all, June could only see a moonlit yard, her empty flower garden boxes, and puddles of shadow in the dark forest. This was enough for our little family. Like a flipped coin in a dark river, Mr. Nightengale had returned home, leaving quivering chains of the creaking swing set and the two of us to enjoy cricket songs on a starry night.