A girl sat on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. “It’s not fair!” she yelled to the room. “I didn’t ask for them to die!” The girl’s eyes filled with tears as she punished herself inside for saying that word.
Aunt Emilia had always been so strict about saying die in her house. She had scolded her, Sarah, for a little slip, saying severely, “The Lord did not wish us to scorn those passed away with that dreadful word.”
But they are dead, Sarah thought, and no amount of pretense would change that.
The girl surveyed her bare little room. A wooden bed, desk, and dresser, with only a single small window and threadbare carpet, these had always been the furniture in her homely room. Sarah stood and went to the dresser, gazing into the old cracked mirror atop it. She desperately hoped to see something different this time, but no. She had the same straggly shoulder-length brown hair, pale almond-shaped face, and dark brown eyes, large in her thin little face.
Sarah turned, furious with herself, her reflection, and her life. Out the window she glanced, wanting desperately to see someone kind and comforting, but what she saw made her draw back in fear. Penelope and Sasha, the chief bullies in school, were walking along the street. They were popular, pretty, and everything she wasn’t. Sarah had lately become their favorite target. She stepped away at once, but not before Sasha had seen her. She whispered something to Penelope, who smirked, and together they mock-waved at Sarah.
She turned away from the window in a rush, needing something on which to take out her anger and frustration. She wanted to smash that mirror and scatter its fragments to the world, on top of those girls down there, to show them what it felt like to be her for just one minute. Sarah made a movement to grab hold of it, but her cat, Ginger, stopped her with a leap across the room.
“Oh, Ginger,” Sarah sighed, “you always know what’s best.” For the girl and her cat both knew what would happen if she had hurled the mirror away, and it would not be good. Lonely young Sarah sometimes pretended that Ginger could understand her, and she told him all her worries.
“Mrowww?” asked Ginger curiously, seeing his owner was upset.
“The most awful thing’s happened, dear,” replied his mistress, for she felt she must get the story out somehow. “Aunt Emilia has decided to send us off to live with two old people in the country! Oh, apparently the Martans are ‘kind and hardworking folks, Sarah dear,’ but I don’t want to go live like a slave of some old grandparents! But has Aunt Emilia ever cared what I want? No, it’s always ‘Sarah do this’ and ‘Sarah do that,’ without the slightest thought of what I want to do. She’s been waiting for years to get rid of me, and now she has!”
The poor girl sank onto her bed, in a flood of tears. She knew it wasn’t fair to speak of her aunt like this, but at the moment she was feeling too pitiful and misused to care. Maybe I could run away, Sarah thought desperately. I could go and live in the woods like children in storybooks. Or I could simply refuse to go. Aunt couldn’t force me to. Her heart sank. She knew these ideas would never work. So Sarah just lay down and cried her heart out.
When at last she tired of tears, she lay still, exhausted from crying. The sun was bidding farewell to the world, spreading the sky with clouds as pale and soft as silk. Like a glorious fiery king, drawing his cloak around him, thought the girl, feeling as though an old friend had come to comfort her.
Perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad after all. It wasn’t as though she had loved the old house, for in truth it had always seemed like a prison. The mocking portraits of wealthy relatives long dead; the carpets and furniture stiff and without a speck of dust; the plastic imitation flowers, seeming to say vainly, “We are better than the live ones, for we will never wilt or die. Come, admire and pay your respects,” all seemed to be setting an example which she must follow, though she was not sure she wanted to. And as for Aunt Emilia, no love had been lost between the two. The woman had considered Sarah as a duty and a nuisance, and was constantly reminding the girl how much she owed her, Aunt Emilia, for all that had been done for her over the years.
Sarah got up and went to the window. A beautiful, tawny owl was sitting on a branch. There were no other birds. Sarah wondered if the owl was lonely. But no, she thought, its song is not one of sadness. It was a song of home, a new life, and finding yourself for who you truly are. Sarah felt and saw this vaguely, though she was too young to really understand it. Perhaps if she went away she would be like this owl, alone, but happy with her life, making herself a new path. Silly, Sarah chided sarcastically, like I have friends.
The tears welled up again, but back on her bed things seemed better. Maybe, Sarah thought, it would all turn out OK. The last thing she heard before drifting into sleep was the owl hooting in the distance. The sound gave her courage; she had always loved owls. Briefly, Sarah wondered if an owl would sing to her at her new home. But before she could think any more, she had fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
Rain pounded against the roof of the car. Sarah watched the drops race down her window, slowly, then fast, then slow once more. The sky outside was dreary and gray as the concrete road itself, wet, dull, and reeking of misery. Any hopeful thoughts she had the night before had vanished, along with the only home Sarah had ever known. She looked down at the cage holding Ginger at her feet. “At least you’re here too,” she whispered to the disgruntled auburn cat.
He frowned back, as though to say, I don’t appreciate this any more than you do, especially getting my fur wet. Cats have feelings, you know, and needs, too.
Sarah glared at the back of the woman in front of her. An elderly lady, Aunt Emilia had a tall, sturdy body, a sharp nose and chin, and a gray bun with never a hair out of place. Her shaggy great eyebrows and stern gray eyes stared sternly at the road, daring the rain to come down harder.
“We are nearly there, Sarah,” Aunt Emilia declared in her clipped, Scottish accent. “Now, child, do try to make a good impression on the Martans. You don’t want to get thrown out on your very first day.” She laughed mirthlessly, then her eyes hardened as she glanced over her shoulder at Sarah. “Not that that ever would happen, would it?”
“No,” muttered her niece sullenly, glaring at the floor.
“No, ma’am, it won’t happen.”
“I should hope not,” replied Aunt Emilia. “Now, for goodness’ sake, smooth down your skirt, child, and wipe that expression off your face; we’re here!”
Sarah looked out the window as they turned down a narrow lane lined with hedges. A rusty old white mailbox read “The Martans” in large red letters. As they rounded a bend in the drive, the girl craned her neck to get a view of her new home.
What she saw surprised her. A small, white house in need of paint and trimmed with gray to match the shingles on the roof. An old swinging chair was on the porch, and a weeping willow tree shed its tears onto the railing. Aunt Emilia gave a small sniff of disapproval, surveying the scraped old white paint, but to Sarah it seemed rather cozy, like Dusty, the old white-and-gray cat she had once owned before Ginger.
As they drew up by the house, a woman so old and wrinkled that she looked somewhat like a dried-up raisin, came out of the house and stood on the porch, waving enthusiastically to the couple in the car. Her wispy gray hair was pulled up in a bun, like Aunt Emilia’s, but she was very short, hardly taller than Sarah, and she had amazingly bright blue eyes, which sparkled as she looked at the girl.
The grown-ups said a quick “Good day,” and then Aunt Emilia drove off, leaving Sarah alone with the woman.
“Now, Sarah,” the lady smiled, “what a nice-looking girl you are. I was a girl like you in my youth, but a very naughty and cheeky girl was I.” She laughed a tingly little laugh, which made Sarah feel at home at once. “And this is your cat? Ginger, you say his name is? What a handsome tom.” She scratched Ginger around the ears as he purred contentedly. “Now,” turning to a silent old man who had just came out, “I am Aunt Emma, and this is Uncle Sam. He’s been around since the day America was founded, though it isn’t him they speak of! Why, mercy me, what am I thinking of? You must be hungry, child; come inside and have something to eat. Then we can show you your new room. It is rather small, but I think you’ll find it cozy.” And, feeling more comfortable than she ever had before, Sarah stepped over the threshold of her new home.
* * *
The sun was setting once more, in the bright glow of colors needed to say farewell to the day. But Sarah was not yet sleepy, for it was summer and light remained a long time. Before I go to bed, she thought, I will take just one more look around my new room. It was small, as Aunt Emma had warned her, but beautiful and bright, with colorful rugs and covers, big windows, pretty pictures on the wall, and decorative lamps. Sarah could still not believe it was hers.
Still not feeling sleepy, she went up to an old mirror on the wall. Who am I? Sarah thought, staring at her reflection. It looked so different, yet the same, from the one she had seen at her old home. Then a spark of inspiration came to her. Out loud, she answered, “I am Sarah. I am the mother, protector, and mistress of Ginger. I am a friend to the owl outside my old window. I am adopted niece to Emma and Sam Martan. This is my home.” Home. It was a word that had always seemed false and broken on Sarah’s lips. But now, it came to her easily, like water passing through a bridge. She was home.
Sarah suddenly felt tired, as though the weight of the world was on her shoulders. She crept back to bed and snuggled happily into the covers. Tomorrow she would play in the garden and help Uncle Sam with his work. Then she would go to school and meet new people, make friends and possibly enemies. But Sarah was not anxious or afraid. Whatever awaited her, at least now she had a home, and a family to share things with. An owl hooted nearby. Sarah wondered if it was her owl, who had flown all this way to sing to her. A line of poetry drifted, unbidden,
into her head.
As the owl finds the golden coin,
Amid the pale silks of dawn,
Then all of you homeless, children wild;
Be home, before all light is gone.
Sarah was happy, as she fell into a deep sleep. She had made herself a new home, a new life. Whatever happened, Sarah would go right on living, right on singing her song. Just like the owl in the tree.