The girl watched the broken plate of food slide through the hole in the wall. Next came the cracked glass of murky water, clutched by knobbly fingers. The girl rushed over, wolfed down the cold jacket potato, and drank the water. She wiped her lips with her feeble wrist, then stood next to her bedroom door, pressing her ear against it.
The plate and glass would be collected in around eight heartbeats of her finishing the water. She put a hand to her heart, feeling its rhythm through the black bin bag that made up her attire, and started to count.
On the eighth heartbeat, the scrawny fingers took away the plate and the glass. Now the girl only had to count ten more for her door to open, and finally she could go. She jigged on the spot, knees knocking. She stopped on the sixteenth heartbeat and pressed her ear against the door.
The door opened, and she ran.
‘Hurry up!’ yelled the woman, in her usual cackle. ‘And don’t forget to flush!’
The girl was not stupid, she did not need reminding to flush the toilet every time she went. However, when punishment is so severe, one learns quickly to do almost anything correctly.
‘Faster!’ screamed the woman. She pounded the bathroom door three times with her fist.
The girl flushed, then stood on tiptoes at the sink, smiling at how silky-warm the water was. Whenever she had an accident in the corner of her bedroom, and no longer needed to go to the bathroom, she would still go, just to feel the soft water, and have the lingering smell of soap on her hands. On such visits, she still made sure to flush.
‘Wash those hands! And if you don’t use soap you’ll be getting soapy water to drink for breakfast. Now come on, hurry up! Do you think I have nothing better to do all night than to stand around serving you? You’re no princess, believe you me.’
The girl flicked the bathroom light off, shut the door, and ran back, along the dimly lit landing with bare walls.
The woman was standing in the girl’s doorway like a sturdy tower, with her strong hands and heavy feet. She forever wore an apron that was once white, but was now covered in blotches the colour of wet sand. It smelt of sodden dogs and a sour something.
She pushed the girl back inside her room, knocking her to the splintery floor. She slammed the door shut, giving the entire cottage a sudden jolt, and then locked it.
The girl counted the woman’s steps down the stairs. One foot was forever louder than the other, for she walked with a sharp limp to the left. Silence always followed number eleven.
The girl sat up on her bare knees, cupped both hands around her nose and mouth. She closed her eyes and inhaled for as long as she could. The smell always brought her much comfort, and it fading always made her sad.
She picked herself up off the floor, brushing the splinters and the dust from her hands and knees. She sat lightly on her bed, a damp, stained mattress on a battered frame. It squeaked at the slightest touch. She put her right palm to her heart and whispered there was no need for it to panic. She felt it slow down to its usual quickstep.
‘At least we made it this time,’ she said, glancing over at the smelliest corner of her room. ‘Now we can rest. I know, I’m cold, too, but you know the window’s broken. I can’t shut it. Watch.’
She climbed onto the windowsill, and tried closing the top window. As usual, it would not budge.
‘Told you,’ she said. She shivered at the icy breath of winter that had been filling her room for weeks. She looked up at the grey, snow-filled sky. ‘It’s still coming down.’
The ground had been covered for at least two days; she watched it happen, and it was grand to see, she thought at the time, the way it made everything look clean and fluffy. But now she was used to it and wished it would stop. The mound on her window ledge was forever growing, and every time it caught her eye a ghost tickled her precipitous spine.
With her right hand still over her heart, she said, ‘Do you want to see the lights?’
Standing on the very tips of her tiny purple toes, she could just manage to see over the canopy of trees that surrounded the cottage. A traffic light was circulating its colours in the nearby village.
‘I know, yes. It’s really pretty.’
The sound of the television downstairs interrupted the moment.
‘She’s turned the moving box on,’ said the girl, excitedly. ‘Shall we see what she’s watching? No, it’s okay, don’t worry. I’ll make sure she doesn’t see us.’
She climbed down from the windowsill ever so quietly, and crawled under her bed. She shuffled to the eyehole that was in one of the floorboards, and peered through it. The big woman was sitting in her squidgy brown chair, directly in front of the TV. She put a cigarette in between her bulbous lips, and struck a match. But then she paused, the flame getting closer and closer to her jagged nails.
Her head shot back and her sunken eyes caught the girl’s breath.
‘GIRL!’ she roared. ‘WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU ABOUT LOOKING DOWN THAT DAMNED HOLE? IF I SEE YOU AT IT AGAIN, I’LL HAVE YOUR EYES OUT FOR SOUP!’
The girl shuffled back as quickly as she could, retreating to one of the dark corners of her room, and waited for the woman’s steps to go BOOM! Thud… BOOM! Thud… up the stairs.
The girl was shaking so much it hurt her head. But when the booms and the thuds did not come, and the faint smell of cigarette smoke seeped up through the floor, she knew the woman had let it pass, and had settled down for the night. If there was going to be punishment, it would have happened by now.
The girl put her hand to her heart and whispered how sorry she was.
‘I don’t know how she knew we were at the hole. I know, yes, it was a bit scary.’
She bit the skin at the side of her thumbnail, something she always did when she was thinking.
‘I want to watch the box,’ she said. ‘I know, I know, but… but this time we’ll be extra careful. Listen to it, can you hear it? She’s watching something about outside. I really want to see it. We like outside, don’t we? I promise a hundred times she won’t see us. Because… because I just know, that’s how.’
She walked as light as a feather to her bed. She laid down and edged to the hole, inch by inch, whilst trying to breathe as if she was not.
‘Look,’ she whispered. ‘I told you she was watching something about outside. It’s about insects. Do you like insects? I thought you did. Me too, especially butterflies. I don’t think they’re butterflies, though. Butterflies are more colourful than that. Yes, I like watching them fly past the window in summer, too. What? Yes, I know you don’t like her. You’ve told me loads of times. I know she scares you, and she makes you go fast. You don’t like going fast, do you? No, I know you don’t. Yes, I know. You’ve said it already, but please try and forgive her. It hurts you when you get angry, doesn’t it? Yes, you’re right, it hurts me, too. It’s okay, it’s okay. I know you get scared. Let’s just watch the moving box for a bit. Honestly, she won’t see us, now.’
The girl laid on her ribs for several hours, with her eye pressed to the hole in the floor. Her room grew colder. A mist left her mouth every time she exhaled, and her extremities were blue-numb. Overcome with tiredness, her eyes would not stay open much longer. The woman was now snoring like a pig, with her head back, and her mouth open. The TV showed nothing but a silent black and white fuzz.
‘Goodnight, heart,’ said the girl.
With a long sigh, she and her heart fell into a peaceful sleep.
She awoke sometime later, feeling floaty and light. She climbed out from underneath her bed, and lowered herself onto the mattress. She was just about to shut her eyes, when something extremely bright caught her attention.
‘Look at that,’ she said, sitting up and looking out of the window. ‘Have you ever seen the moon so bright? No, me neither. And look at how big it is. Look at its scars. They’re so clear. Can you see the man on the moon? Just… there. Yes, there he is. Do you think he’s lonely? Oh, really? I never thought he might have company. That’s nice. I’d like to visit him, wouldn’t you? Oh, look! It’s stopped snowing. That happened fast. When we went to sleep, the sky was full of snow, and look how full of stars it is, now. I’m so glad it’s stopped snowing. I already feel warmer, don’t you?’
The girl stared at the night sky for quite some time, puzzling over why the moon looked so big and bright and clear, but then her concentration was broken by an unfamiliar noise. It came from underneath her bed. It was a rustling, shuffling sort of sound, like a blackbird hopping over crispy leaves.
She had just decided to take a look at what it was, when all of a sudden something bat-like flew out, making her fall back onto the mattress. She was too alarmed to notice that her bed frame did not squeak. She was close to screaming, but caught herself in the nick of time, covering her mouth with both hands. She did not want a repeat of what happened the last time she screamed. The woman was not happy, at all.
‘What is it? Where did it go?’ said the girl. ‘I know, I’m scared, too. Oh, there! Look! There, on the window! What do you think it is? No, no, it’s not a wasp or a butterfly. They don’t fly at night.’
‘Finally, there you are,’ came a confident voice.
The girl’s forget-me-not eyes looked like two blue moons.
‘Is it talking to us?’ she said to her heart.
‘Yes, I’m talking to you,’ the voice replied. ‘You had to live in the middle of some woods, didn’t you! Talk about a challenge; there are bats everywhere.’
The girl spotted the creature’s huge shadow being projected on the back wall of her bedroom.
‘Aren’t you going to say something?’ it said.
‘But… I just… I don’t know… I…’
‘Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I should’ve done that first. There’s me talking about bats when I could’ve been getting on with things. I’m a moth, and I’ve been selected to come and collect you.’
‘Collect me? A moth? Huh?’
‘Don’t you know that the purpose of every moth is to go to the moon? That’s why we rest in the day, to conserve our energy, so when night comes we won’t be distracted by the sun. Of course, there are a few of us who get distracted by flames and headlights and whatnot, but I’d rather not talk about those.’
‘Okay,’ said the girl, who was more confused than ever, ‘but… but what has all that got to do with… with me?’
‘Because you’re a star, of course.’
‘Sorry, I forgot you were born a blank. Please forgive me.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong house. I’m just a girl.’
‘Just a girl? Just… a girl? No, no, no, no, no! There is no such thing as just where you are concerned. You are a star, my dear, and a bright one at that, and you can only shine so much here before you get too bright, and it’s time for you to go home.’
‘But… I thought this was my home.’
‘This is a just a temporary stopgap. If you can go home, how can this be home? It’s just a passing stage, that’s all, and now it’s time for you to return where you came from. Which is, of course, in the heavens. It’s my job to drop you off on my way to the moon.’
She looked at the moon and the stars, and then back into her little room, with its splinters, its stench, and its foul rottenness. Even though it seemed farfetched, that a talking moth had told her she was a star, it was slowly beginning to make sense, as if some forgotten memory was being churned.
This was not her home.
Of course it was not her home.
She closed her eyes, and put her hand to her heart. After a moment of listening, she said to the moth, ‘Okay, we believe you. When can we go?’
‘Now we’re talking,’ said the moth. ‘We just need to-’
‘Oh, but wait! How can you possibly take me to the moon? I’m so big, and you’re so-’
‘I was waiting for you to ask that. They don’t call me Hercules for nothing, you know.’
‘Hercules? Is that your name?’
‘Not officially. It’s more of a nickname, for I am the strongest moth in the world. Why else do you think I was chosen to come and fetch you? Now, in order for us to do this, you’re going to have to follow some simple instructions, okay?’
The girl nodded.
‘All you have to do is pinch the tips of my wings, close your eyes, and count down from ten. Got it?’
‘Okay, but what’s going to happen?’
‘You’ll see. But before all that, please repeat after me.’
The moth then began to recite a song, which the girl repeated. It went something like this:
Oh, countless stars delight,
Please take me home tonight.
I learned to live,
and how to forgive,
and how not to give in to fright.
Oh, countless stars delight,
Please take me home tonight.
For I tried my best
And passed the test,
It’s time to shine my light.
It’s time to shine my light.
It’s time to shine,
‘Right, are you ready?’ asked Hercules.
‘Okay, take a hold of my wings. Gently, mind. That’s it. Good. Now shut your eyes, and start counting down from ten. By the time you get to seven, you should begin to feel a slight prickle in your fingers and your toes.’
The girl did as she was told, and, just as Hercules said, by the time she got to seven she could feel her fingers and toes tingling, as if they were thawing.
‘Keep those eyes shut,’ said Hercules, almost yelling. ‘Nearly there!’
If the girl had opened her eyes, she would have seen every star in the universe glittering down into her room. They formed a shimmering whirlwind around her, throwing off sparks of gold, blue, violet, and orange; too much for her young eyes to take.
When she got to four, she yelled, ‘My head, it feels like it’s going to be squashed!’
‘Don’t worry! Keep going! Keep going! You’re doing great!’
As soon as she yelled ‘One!’ all the stars dashed away, back to their positions in the night sky. To a common onlooker, the girl would have appeared to have vanished into thin air, but rest assured that nothing and no one can ever truly vanish.
The girl opened her eyes, and couldn’t quite figure out where she was. She was sitting on something furry and a little bit bristly, and she was facing the stars. She looked around somewhat frantically, and realised she was sitting on the moth’s back, resting her back on a mound of hair, like long, silver grass.
‘How have you got so big?’ she said. ‘Wait, is that my-’ She gasped at the sight of her giant bed, below. ‘Have I-’
‘Shrunk? You have indeed. How else would I have got you home? They might call me Hercules, but carrying a human, I’m pretty certain, is beyond even I. Now, all we need to do is find a way out of here.’
‘This is amazing,’ said the girl, looking around her room, and then at her hands, and then down at her body.
‘A little help here, please.’
‘Oh, sorry… the window, up there. It’s always open.’
‘It’s a wee bit on the narrow side, I have to say. We can’t walk through it. I think we’ll have to have a fly up.’
‘A fly up?’
‘You know, like a run up. Now hold on tight. I can’t be having you falling off at this stage.’
The girl grabbed hold of the hairs on Hercules’s back. His wings began to flutter, slowly at first, but then faster. Then he sprang back, away from the window.
‘Wow!’ yelled the girl.
They flew in circles, around the room, getting faster and faster. The girl’s black bin bag was flapping insanely.
‘Are you sure we can make it?’ she yelled.
‘No, but it’s our only hope! Hold on! Three more laps, and then we’ll go for it!’
‘One!’ they shouted together.
They torpedoed towards the gap in the window. The girl could feel Hercules’s body shaking violently beneath her.
‘Keep your head down!’ he cried.
The girl shut her eyes, tucking her head down. After a sudden SWOOSH! she felt Hercules’s body soften and relax.
‘We did it!’ yelled the girl, looking around in utter astonishment. ‘We did it! We did it! We did it!’
The girl looked back, watching her window falling away, getting smaller and smaller, until it was just a tiny dot. The warm wind blew through her matted brown hair, which got smoother and straighter the closer they got to the moon. Her black bin bag, that she had worn for as long as she could remember, began to transform into an emerald-blue dress, and was being studded with rubies and diamonds before her very eyes.
‘Wow! Have you seen my dress? Wow! Wow! Wow!’
‘That’s the least you deserve,’ said Hercules.
‘And look at all the lights down there! Reds, oranges, yellows and greens; I’ve never seen so many in all my life!’
‘Those are towns and cities.’
‘Why is the moon down there?’
‘It’s looking at itself in the ocean,’ said Hercules, and you could tell he was smiling at his passenger.
The girl was in awe. She put a hand to her heart and realised she could not actually feel it beating, but at that moment an overwhelming sense of love and warmth filled her entire being.
Her heart was happy, and she knew it.
‘WE’RE GOING HOME!’ she yelled, and her voice echoed between the stars.
Only in deep silence could one hear the stars rejoice, ‘She’s coming home!’
Sometime later, high above the earth, the girl became aware of the woman’s scratchy voice. However, it seemed faint and dull, as if there was a veil between them. She distinctly heard the cracked glass of murky water sliding through the hole in her bedroom wall.
‘Drink!’ she heard the woman cry.
The girl habitually counted. When she got to eight, she waited for the sound of the glass being taken away.
‘Why, you haven’t even had a sip,’ growled the woman. ‘Think you deserve better than water, do you? Get out from under that bed. You better not be looking down that blasted hole. I said GET OUT! You have three seconds until I come and pull you out! One! You’ll regret this. Two! Don’t make me come in there. This is your last chance… Fine, have it your way… three!’
The girl heard the door being unlocked and pushed open. She knew that any second now the woman would grab hold of her frozen ankles, and pull her out from under her bed. But the difference this time was that her heart no longer cared a beat.