Once upon a time, an old and extremely stout woman ran the café. She was often scolding and often angry, but her hands were gentle. She never ran out of bandages and handkerchiefs. And despite her size, she was always on her feet.
The old woman had once been a soldier and a writer. She had traveled all over the world and brought back many strange and wondrous things. The girls were always coming across them. A gypsy shawl from Leicester. A Nordic bugle. A Chinese freighter traveling in the stillness of a medicine bottle. An ancient African flag of war. A tiny model of a B-52 Raptor.
In the old woman’s time, the café was a place of frightening innovation. Swedish meatballs would appear and disappear. Sometimes, the girls would enjoy a week of hamburgers. And sometimes, they would use a cunningly crafted Chinese vessel featuring serpents forever curling towards an oblivious and melancholic raven as their hotpot. The headmistress didn’t approve of all this. She believed young girls should eat simple and wholesome food. But she was rather partial to a good souvlaki herself.
When the old tea shop woman was finally too old to do anything but seat her massive bulk in a chair and gaze in fretful contentment as the girls ran the shop, a little girl suddenly arrived on the doorstep. She was apparently hers. The old woman doted on the little girl, who was the tiniest and sweetest thing you could imagine, forever content to lie in her lap and make strange and endearing noises.
But the great love the woman bore for the child was increasingly tinged by worry. The child didn’t seem to grow. She was tiny at eight. She was just as tiny at fifteen. She seemed even tinier when she was twenty-five.
And so the little girl became lonely. The other girls, handsome and impatient children, were too busy with their games of hockey and dreams of war to pay too much attention to her increasingly sophisticated babble.
Her only friend, apart from the old woman, was the headmistress, who brought her first fairy tales and then massive tomes of advanced calculus and criminology and linguistics that the little girl couldn’t even lift.
And so she became content to lie splayed on the old woman’s lap as the old woman held the book open for her and turned the pages querulously. For amidst the wildflowers of her pain, was the increasing worry about what would happen to her child when she was gone.
Sometimes between her frenzied reading, the little girl would crawl up the chairs and onto the tables and point at the old woman’s curios. “What’s that, mommy?” she would ask in her high-pitched voice that sounded so much like Heartbreak putting her daughter to sleep.
And one day finally when she had filled scores of notebooks with her tiny handwriting, the little girl tucked herself into the old woman’s lap and closed her eyes. She began to worry about all the objects in the tea shop and the men and women who had owned them. And with a sigh, she dug herself deeper into the night that was her mother’s skirt and began to dream.
She dreamt of a proud and fiercely independent race of master builders with skin like black rain, patiently assembling temples and mosques and universities. She dreamt of a tall and forbidding woman with one eye and a bloodied sword leaping into battle with a savage roar. She dreamt of gypsy women with vermillion on their hands and sequined skirts dancing slivers of rain into grass-bound palaces for their large brood of husbands and children. She dreamt of twin sisters holding hands in a vast garden under the statue of Pan, silenced by the joy and sorrow of their inevitable parting. She dreamt of bloodied battlefields brought to a sudden poignant peace by a single act of courage.
And suddenly the little girl was in her dreams. She was astride a raven passing through Stonehenge to the forever young Valley of Death. She was snuggled at the Queen of England’s feet as the Queen drove her fighter plane through the ravaged warzones of the world, trying to make war submit to peace. She was in the Queen of Norway’s briefcase when the Queen was prosecuting a capital murder. She sat on Ganesha’s deal table and sharpened his pencils as he wrote furiously with his snout. She brought him meatloaf from an American penitentiary and sweets from the sweet shop under his abode. She shared the dawn with a man going to the gallows and caught a severe cold when she danced in the rain with that little tribe of naked men and women who inhabit a tiny country that’s never in any atlas.
And the little girl discovered that there are many ways to travel instantly across the unfurling ball of jarring fabrics we presume to call the earth. There were so many hidden doors and strange exits. She discovered that all psychiatric wards tunneled into Bedlam, that incompleteness was an agony that manifested itself in the same way in all the secured worlds of misery hiding in plain sight. She discovered that Guilt was really a pair of savage black dogs that barked and clawed furiously at those who sinned, but became quite tractable and cuddly when their victims repented.
She lectured stunned and fearful Harvard students on Proust atop the head of a blond freshman before diving into a Vera Bradley handbag and popping up on the Queen of Denmark’s podium as she announced the Nobel Prize winners for the year. She disappeared into the podium and arrived at a New York orphanage otherwise known as Unhappiness. She dwelt amidst the maimed and unruly children until the rigidity of her strange sweetness won them to a reluctant peace. And then she dived under one of the beds and found herself in a tiny German alley. She lay splayed across the thigh of an ambitious drug dealer with an Ivy League degree as the latter planned with ruthless efficiency how to inundate Berlin with coke. And then she grew tired and crawled through a drawer onto the palm of a scarred and dour nun.
She lay there until she began to feel a great uneasiness. It was as if someone was trying to reach her and the air itself was a cavalcade of bullets piercing her skin. And when the dogs appeared at the nun’s door, the little girl was shocked into remorse.
She opened her eyes and found that the old woman had been aged by tears and worry and that the headmistress now had gray hair.
“I’m sorry, mommy,” she sobbed and resolved only to travel when the old woman was sleeping. This was difficult because the old woman was kept irritably awake by the pain in her ancient bones.
And so the little girl babbled to her of all the places she had been. And the old woman clung desperately to her dearest possession, unsure whether to be happy that her daughter was happy or whether to be worried by her sweet madness.
And then one day the Angel of Death came quietly, kissed the heartbroken little girl and carried the sleeping old woman away in her soft arms. And the little girl went to live with the headmistress who was a very wise older girl and let the child do exactly what she wanted.
And if you visit the Valley of Children, as many strange and excitable people of markedly foreign appearance are doing these days, you’ll find the little girl splayed on her back wherever the headmistress is. Usually, she’s quite still. Sometimes, she will wiggle about until the headmistress silences her with a kiss. And sometimes she will speak in Romany or Ancient Latin or in the even more ancient language of the ravens. Many universities have expressed interest in the child, but she is safe in the headmistress’ custody.
The girls run the tea shop now, tracking in the mud and grass from the hockey field. They seem rather content with their cold chocolate and potato cake sandwiches. They don’t seem to notice that the old woman and the little girl are gone. Some of these girls are too young to have known them.
But even if the girls of the valley of children are as handsome and impatient as ever, there is a new, wondering sweetness in their rugged faces. You can almost see them a few years hence, enthroned by the simple beauty of their nightgowns as they lift curious and perpetually excitable dark-haired faery children to their breasts.
And the strangest thing is this. The girls keep discovering strange and beautiful things under their pillows and on their little desks. A tin of Turkish Delight. A cheongsam in the sternest shades of lily. That flower which is Fire. A hammer with strange symbols on its anvil. A miniature model of Buckingham Palace.
But where is little Sinbad now, I wonder. I rather fancy she is on that bleak Yorkshire moor where three over-imaginative and entirely tragic sisters live. Perhaps one of them will write of a strange, dark child whose unpropitious arrival brings chaos to the ordered world of the moor’s inhabitants.