to tell the difference between shooting stars and satellites
Wendy Darling believed in fairies all her life.
This was based in kindness, not faith. It was a fearful thing. Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night panicked at the thought she might stop one day. What a world, to place the life of even as flawed a person as a Tinkerbell in the hands of children’s ability to believe.
Coming back, Wendy expected to miss the magic, the beauty, the feel of the wind in her unpinned hair. She expected to miss Peter, and she did. But she didn’t expect to miss the exhausting task of being the Lost Boys’ young mother.
And she didn’t miss it, not exactly. Wendy missed being useful, and she missed being listened to.
But she told her brothers stories, at night, still. She watched the light grow in their eyes and felt powerful for the first time since Neverland.
Michael came home from school crying one day. A boy on the playground had said fairies were stupid and fake. The teachers thought it was exhaustion or the disappointed hopes of a child who still believed his big sister’s bedtime stories. When father laughed at him at table, John hesitated for a moment and then joined in. Wendy pled an upset stomach and fled to her room.
Michael had nightmares for a week of a shining tiny person breathing their last on a Neverland forest floor.
Shaken awake in her own room, Wendy padded down the hall and creaked open his door. She gathered her smallest brother in her arms and said, “We’ll believe enough for all of them, every one. You and me, Michael, we’ll save them all.”
In the other bed John, pretending to sleep, squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted so badly to be grown.
His father had always told them true men protected people who needed it. John sat up. “I do believe in fairies,” he said, and his siblings chorused, “I do, I do.” Michael stopped crying. John started.
Wendy often asked herself why they had come back. The question surfaced over particularly tedious chores, or when her father came home drawn after a long day and picked apart her every flaw over the blandest supper Wendy’d ever tasted. But it surfaced also when she was happy, fetching sweets from the dime store, when Michael raced through the halls, hollering, an old shirt hoisted on a broom as a conquering flag.
Once, she had known how to fly. She remembered and it ached.
They tried to settle back in, all three of them, to shake lost boys and pirates from their heads. A year after leaving Neverland, Wendy’s mother asked why Wendy never brought nice girls home to play with. It took effort not to laugh.
Wendy didn’t say, “Nice girls? Tink tried to get the Lost Boys to shoot me out of the sky, tried to blow up her own home on the off chance she might get me, too.”
She didn’t tell her, “The mermaids would have liked to drown me, too, babbling away in those dolphin sounds that Peter could understand but that just gave me shivers.”
“All I want to be is a mother,” Wendy said instead, and meant, all I want is to be of use, to have people need me as much as they did. I want someone to believe my stories as much as Peter did.
She didn’t say, “And what could those girls offer me? I fought pirates. I touched the very stars.”
“I have all the friends I need in John and Michael,” Wendy offered. At mother’s frown, she added, “I’ll try harder.”
She joined a club against her own wishes. The club girls talked about dresses and Wendy thought about swords and crocodiles.
Wendy thought, these silly young things have never heard that tick tock and shaken in their boots. They’ve never seen the stars up close.
The club girls talked longingly of their mothers’ lipstick, of debutantes and growing up, and Wendy thought, How many fairies have you killed?
The years rolled on. Wendy fell in love with boys who needed her, who fascinated her, a long line of sharp-boned muses who forgot to eat their vegetables for weeks.
These boys only knew one kind of woman. They expected mothers, all of them, women childless or not, beautiful women with strength and graces pressed into their souls. If they had ever found Wendy crying over a thimble, they would not have known what to do with this alien fragile thing.
So they did not find her so. Wendy Darling was well versed in being the thing people needed her to be. Even to the most magical place she knew, Wendy had been brought for one reason. Peter’s boys had needed a mother.
That thought sat rancid in her stomach for days, but then she remembered: Peter had lingered at her window all those nights not because he needed soup or love or tucking in. He had loved her stories.
She had taken the wild boy, the lost bird, the starcatcher, and had stolen his breath away with words of her own making. On the other side of years and years, Wendy caught her own breath.
She started carrying a thimble in her pocket. When Wendy felt powerless, like a thing and not a person, she slipped a finger against the chill shape. It was a slip of puckered metal, an odd knick knack of women’s work. But once, Wendy had named it something else, given it power.
Boys boasted around her, of jumping fences and wrestling, of stealing kisses. Wendy thought, you think you know the power of a kiss? I once defeated death with a thimble, because I gave it a name. I believed. Words are power, and the words are mine.
One day, someone did find her crying. Wendy was in the girl’s lavatory. It had been a little thing, John snapping at her over breakfast, and then some boy in the yard saying something careless. Wendy had thought, I once knew how to fly, and suddenly everything seemed too dirty and too confining to stand. She hid in the furthest stall from the door, and cried angrily about every speck of magic she had lost in her life.
There was a light knock on the door and some wispy little thing from the club Wendy’d been calling her penance peeked in.
“My grandma died last year,” the girl said. “I was crying in the next stall over.” The girl sat up on the edge of the sink and said, “Do you want to hear a story about her?”
At the next club meeting, Wendy listened. A grinning redhead always used the past tense when she spoke of her father. Another girl, wan, flinched at loud sounds. They knew the sound of the ticking clock, these young women, some of them better than she ever had. Wendy had walked away from one beautiful world and into another. They had lost one, or many; or wished they could fly away the way she had gotten to, once.
Wendy stopped crying in bathrooms, mostly. She started checking them, quietly, and offering shoulders and stories of a magical land to the people she found there.
Wendy listened. One of the club girls was obsessed with trains, the way they take you away, the way they come back on schedule, the sound of them. Wendy asked, and she listened. A young woman whose hands folded in her lap like a wayward haystack stared out the window, entranced by a world only she could see.
Wendy thought, you’ve never seen the stars up close. She thought, maybe I can show you.
She dragged them all out one night, late, when they were out in the country for a school trip. They snuck out of their lodgings and got in terrible trouble for it, but that night the moon was missing and the sky was dusted with more blazing stars than they had ever seen, except for Wendy.
None of them but one odd duck knew the boys’ parts, but they did their best to dance there beneath them, to pretend they could catch starlight on their outstretched tongues.
Wendy wondered what the mermaids would have said, if she had ever learned their tongue. She wondered what stories Tinkerbell could have told her. She wondered if Tiger Lily would have taught her how to dance.
She wondered why none of the women in Neverland had been able to speak to her. She wondered why she hadn’t tried.
Michael sprouted inches and inches, his voice dropping to an alien depth. He stopped planting broomsticks tied with old red shirts on the dining room table and declaring the room claimed for Neverland.
Michael buried himself in books instead, as though that might be a way out. He started scribbling in journals, for all John teased him about it. Wendy was sure that those messy lines were not all poetry about the chin of the girl down the street, sure some of them were the adventures Michael was having still, somewhere inside. She was sure. She hoped with every ounce of herself, hoped like it was the kind of faith that makes children fly.
John buried himself in books, too, but all his joy in it was wrapped up in how they helped him win: win grades, and commendations, pats on the shoulders from their learned teachers, their father’s nod at supper. Wendy’s father had always terrified her, his hooked rage, the way he ran from meeting to appointment, pursued by the tick of the clock on his heels.
John joined debate, cricket, an honors society or two, a young businessmen’s club for boys. Wendy told him once, in a quiet moment alone, that she could hear the tick tock at his heels, too, these days.
John squeezed her hand. “Me, too, but it’s okay Wendy. C’mon, I always wanted to be a pirate.” He squeezed her hand again. “I’ll be better than he ever was, Wendy. I’ll be good.”
In their nursery room games, years ago now, John had always played Hook. Michael had played Peter.
Wendy had always been the narrator, the storyteller, the minstrel. She thought she rather liked it that way.
Wendy grew into a young woman. She went out dancing with her friends, whispered a pretend background for every eligible young bachelor who watched them, and listened to her friends’ laughter make those stories true.
They talked about dresses over light lunches, about boys and babies, about industrialism and pollution, about Plato and Darwin, the epiphanies and practicalities of falling in love. They talked Eleanor, the wispy girl from the bathroom, through her parents’ disappointment as she pursued a life as a legal secretary. Wendy dictated stories to give Ellie something interesting to practice on.
Another friend taught Wendy how to crochet. They made piles of socks for a charity drive, meeting up in the afternoons to sit in a sunlit window and crochet and talk the light away.
Wendy ran her hands over the heaps of warm socks when they were done. She was a girl who believed in magic, and this took her breath away, how patterns and patience could lead to this, could build something so good and solid.
Wendy woke and slept, told stories, kept a thimble in her pocket, breathed.
She wondered what she was building.
No child ever grows up. They grow out. They grow down and deep, textured and heavy. They grow.
One day, decades later, Peter lighted on her old windowsill, chasing down a runaway shadow.
He thought she was her daughter. Wendy watched Jane stare up at this fey creature. Wendy could feel the weight of all the years between her daughter’s anxious gawky adolescence and her own taller years, the backaches and the tragedy, the things her hands had built. Peter would never know them. Wendy wanted to weep as hard as she once had, at fifteen, over a thimble.
Wendy went downstairs, made a bag of sandwiches that she put in a backpack with some sturdy clothes and a pair of good shoes. Her daughter would not be going on any adventures clad only in a nightgown.
When she got back, Jane was flying. Wendy’s heart was breaking, was singing, was soaring. Peter was laughing. His shadow was watching her. It knew more than it told and always had.
Wendy pulled her daughter back to earth. She gave Jane the backpack and said, “You be brave. You be good. Remember to talk to the mermaids. Ask them to sing to you. Tell them your stories.”
The fall of Icarus by René Milot