Ma says the world is a bad place. She says keepin’ away is our best bet for safety. The earth is like a ship’s biscuit, and all the people are weevils burrowing away, tryna hide their evil. That’s what she says. I agree, because no-one says nothin’ to Ma that’s not what she likes and gets away with it. But sometimes I wonder what’s on the outside; behind the trees that bow and whip their leaves in the wind like hair on a wee girl’s head. I sometimes sit at the window and just think things like that. Ma says it’s a waste of time dreamin’ – that it’s just lettin’ fluff gather in your brain and that good, smart girls never say what if. But I’m not a smart girl. I’m just Lilith Weaver, Lil for short – and I like dreamin’. Ma doesn’t need to know that.
That’s where I am when I see the men; at my window gazing into the striped candy sky, watching the great big ball that’s the sun disappear behind the carpet of trees and hills surroundin’ us. I see a backpack first, like the one in the hall next to my boots caked in mud, but ours is ripped and torn as if a giant bear has slashed at it – theirs is as clean as a baby’s bottom and so new, something like Ma would try and borrow from the shops if we needed. Next I see a bald head, and then suddenly Ma is in the room and grabbin’ at my shirt and pullin’ and rippin’, movin’ me to my bed and forcin’ me to sit and her fingers dig into my shoulder and I know there’ll be a bruise there tomorrow I can feel it. And Ma has the blinds closed now and she’s cursin’ and hissin’ sayin’ keep your head down and I told you not to sit there and stay where you are or else. So I do as she says, like always, and try not to mind the scratchin’ of rats under the loose floorboards as I close my eyes and let myself free into my head – where nothin’ goes wrong an’ Ma is never mad an’ I have my own horse and no lump on my neck.
The next day Ma tells me I’m not allowed to leave the room and this is strange so I open my mouth to say jus’ that and she snaps,
“You’re not a goldfish so shut yer mouth,”
She gives me crayons and paper, tells me to occupy myself and leaves, barrin’ the door behind her with a rusty chair like she does when she’s about to go somewhere without me. But I’m not a little kid. I’m nearly a grown-up. It’s my birthday tomorrow and then I’ll be double digits. Ten, it tastes funny in my mouth – like sawdust and left over buttered crumpets mixed together. I don’t know how that can taste good but it does and I’m excited. I hope Ma doesn’t forget.
She sometimes doesn’t come back for days and once a whole week and even then she didn’t actually let me out my room for lots of days after. I counted; I was stuck in my room for a whole nine days with only the rats for company and a cracked bottle of water and slices of bread.
She never lets me starve; but she says I don’t deserve the luxury I get when she only has her ciggies for food. But when I said we could share ciggies and bread she slapped me on the cheek and it left a mark. I saw, we don’t have a mirror but we have one silver spoon for special occasions and I saw in the back of that.
I also saw my face and it made me said and I wanted to cry so I hid in a tree for the day. Ma says I shouldn’t care because no-one sees essept her and she doesn’t fuss but I hate my face. I remember when I got the lump and at first Ma didn’t say anything’ then one day she looked, properly looked, and that’s when she left me and didn’t come back for a week. She never told me why, she jus’ said I’d be the death of her and where were her bloody ciggies.
She never let me do anythin’ after that. She said I was sickly and pale so why was I runnin’ around when I should be preservin’ my energy. I asked her what for but she jus’ ignored me. And now she’s leavin’ me again. It gets so borin’ and tiresome not doing anythin’. I never understood that: not doin’ nothin’ makes me more sleepy and aching than walkin’ around. Ma said I’m jus’ strange and normal kids would love havin’ my life – no school or anythings to do. But I always wonder what it would be like. Each of the bruises on me I can name from what I was dreamin’ of when Ma found me and said I needed punishin’. She said I learn slower than a dog.
Ma raps on the door before she leaves. It sounds like the crack of twigs under foot in the woods and it makes me jump scared.
“You know the rules,”
She whispers through the crack.
Then she leaves.
I scuttle over to the window and watch her shorn head bob out of sight, wild red hair like a forest fire burning up my vision, by the time I can no longer see her; the world is blurred around me. Stuck here, again. Before my birthday. Half of me hopes that she has jus’ gone to get my birthday present, but I know really who she is leavin’ me for. The Lion and The Rabbit – where she says she goes for grown-up times. Why can’t she jus’ take me with her? It’s so borin’ here. I got used to bein’ lonely long ago when I only reached up to my Ma’s knees, but you can never get used to bein’ bored; it’s not possible.
I’m still awake when the sun lifts above the trees. I like to pretend it’s a balloon with an invisible string, and every mornin’ the person holds it up to show me that I have a friend.
The sun, the moon and the stars are really my only friends, I know that now. Ma’s never left me on my birthday before this.
I eat the dry bread left for me slowly, puttin’ half of it opposite me, so it feels like someone’s still here. Then there’s nothin’ left to do.
Maybe I should try the door.
I tried once before but learnt my lesson – Ma came back and found me out.
I still have the bruise, it never faded. It looks like an old and sick yellow rose bloomin’ on my skin.
The door shudders. I keep pushin’ and pushin’ with all my strength and it shudders a bit more like the weepin’ willow tree opposite my window when the wind is tearin’ through the world. I can feel the chair stuck un’nerneath the handle.
Then the chair scrapes against the floorboards and I nearly fall over on to my face.
It feels strange roamin’ the house without Ma here. Like I’m a thief. I go into Ma’s room first, her clothes are all topsy turvey and on the floor like real carpet. Next I go into the little room with the scrappy sofa Ma arrived with one day. There’s papers everywhere. When I walk past one flutters to the ground like leaves fallin’ from a tree so I pick it up and place it back where it was. Ma will know otherwise. She’ll be able to tell.
There’s a picture of a girl on the front. She looks tired, like she hasn’t been to sleep in a long time and wishes she was lyin’ on her bed and dreamin’ of things. There’s words on the front and I spell them out with my mouth.
I can nearly read properly, Ma taught me with a pencil and paper she found once when we was campin’.
S-I-G-N-S O-F C-A-N-C-E-R.
I don’t know what that is, cancer, but I don’t really care either – at least I can read the words. That’s better than most girls my age Ma says. She says jus’ because I don’t live with lots of people doesn’t mean I’m backwoods and different. She says we’re jus’ as good as everyone else – if not better, because we can live by ourselves and cope.
I wish we could try copin’ with people sometimes though.
I can hear voices.
A sharp shock runs through my bones and I feel strange and wobbly, like the jelly I once had that fell on the floor and Ma made me eat.
I crumple the leaflet in my fist and tiptoe to the window.
A hairy face stares back.
I think I scream, I’m not sure. Everythin’ goes silent suddenly and then the face is in the house and it has a hair on its chin, looks like a bear, and it’s peerin’ at me and sayin’ words like I knew it wasn’t right, I thought that woman looked a bit shifty – and then my head goes dizzy and I feel the way I do if I’m about to fall on the floor soon.
Then I fall on the floor.
When I wake up the face is still there and it’s a man called Jim and I jus’ nod.
I say my name is Lilith Weaver, Lil for short, and I’m not a good girl because I like dreamin’. And the man laughs: it’s not a nice laugh, but it’s not bad either like Ma’s is. It’s somewhere in between and I don’t know what it means but the man does because he turns away and then I close my eyes because I feel tired again.
When I open them again the man says lots of things to me which I don’t really understand and I move my hand because it’s full of pins and it scratches and the leaflet falls on the floor.
The man’s eyes go down to it and his face changes all of a-sudden and he says Right let’s go. Let’s get you somewhere safe.
I try to tell him that’s why I’m here, because Ma said I’d be safer here but he doesn’t listen and I don’t know what to do so I go with him.
I wonder if Ma ever thought that when she left, I would leave too.
That when she came here with me, I would go back with someone she told me to stay away from.
I don’t think she did, and neither did I. But I went anyway, because it was my birthday and she forgot and I’d had enough of forgetting – also the man said I could have a cake and it could have a horse decorated on it; like in the pictures I have from the book Ma gave me.
I think when Ma left, a part of me left with her – the one that did what I was told and never said anything bad. It was always there, I have the bruises to prove it – but I think that day I was like a balloon cut from its string; I floated away from its owner and became free.
I live in the sky now.