A girl needs the courage to face a new home and a new school all the way across the country
I only felt like myself when I was listening to stories.
It was no surprise, really. Words were my sanctuary. I had never been good at making real friends, but those in books had always welcomed me with open arms. I had lived in the same town my whole life, and the friend I had had since preschool had moved away the previous summer. We hadn’t seen each other since.
Books were different. They never moved away. They always stood beside me.
My cousin was my only real friend. She was six years older than I was, the kind of person to whom words come as easily as breath. She always told me stories.
We used to sit outside on the porch, which wrapped around the back of my house, in the sky-blue hammock that hung between two of the posts. When I was smaller and too young to get into it on my own, my cousin would lift me onto it, nearly tossing me off again when she got on herself, causing the hammock to sway back and forth like a ship on a stormy sea. We sometimes took ice-cream sandwiches outside, or bags of pretzels, or carrot sticks, and we’d munch on them and watch the butterflies and bees dart among the brightly colored flowers of the garden. On windy days, we’d bring a kite and watch the breeze play with the kite tails as it dipped and dived through the air.
She used to tell me stories: fantastical tales of other worlds which could only be reached through mirrors, of lands of eternal snow and ice and sun. She would describe the blaze of a sunset over a restless sea and the patterns of the stars seen from the highest tower of a castle perched on the tip of the world.
Sometimes, she read to me from books with bright illustrations painted on the covers. But usually, she would tell stories that didn’t come from a book. These were the ones that spun images of fantasy in my mind—of a princess in an azure gown with a bronze-plumed bird perched on her hand, or a forest-green dragon reclining on a vast horde of treasure, or a wizard in starry robes watching a phoenix circle in the sky.
There was a land among the clouds where only fairies lived, one story began.
An elven girl once floated on a raft down a river of light that ended in the stars, went another.
The daughter of the king did not plan on being trapped in the tower for long, began a third.
These days were perfect. They were the times I savored, the moments I wished could last forever.
But nothing can.
It was June. I had turned 12 a few days before. We were moving, my parents said, to the other side of the country. They said I would make new friends, that our new home would be even better than where we lived now. But my cousin was different. I knew no friend could ever replace her.
* * *
We sat in the hammock as we had so many times, with the wind swaying us back and forth and sunlight playing on butterfly wings as they fluttered through the flowers. My cousin told me that she’d be going to college soon. She said she’d write. I knew she would. But no words could change the miles that would stretch between us, a void wider than the sea.
She seemed to sense my thoughts, because she said, “Penelope, have I ever told you about the girl who went on a quest to find a feather but found something much more important?” I shook my head.
“No? Well, in a far-off land where trees speak in the language of wind, where magic is more natural than earth and sea and sky, there was an elven girl with moon-black hair who was afraid of change, of the shifting future and the uncertainty of what would come next. There was loneliness and fear in that world as much as in this one, and for her, she had a name to lay upon it. For all the elves go on a quest when they turn 13, and she knew hers would change her life forever.
“Her 13th birthday dawned on a sunny day, with bluebirds and orioles singing sweetly in the trees. And she learned her quest would be to find the silver feather that the phoenix Avis left when she was reborn from fire on the top of Blue Mountain, whose cliffs reared high above the clouds.
“The elven girl embarked on her journey, as tradition decreed. She scaled Blue Mountain by way of a forgotten road. She faced ancient monsters, outwitted cruel thieves, and went long days without food or drink. After the sun had risen and set more times than she could count, she reached the fabled place. She looked high and low, but she found no silver feather, nor any sign that it had ever been. All there was, was a bracelet made of cedar beads, one of which was shaped in the form of a dragon. She took it back with her, but she knew she had failed.
“When she returned home, ashamed and uncertain, she was greeted by the sage of her village. The girl told him of her failure, expecting to be rebuked or worse, but the old man simply smiled.
“‘Why do you cry, child?’ he asked, and to the elven girl’s dismay, she realized tears were indeed running down her cheeks. She bit her lip and tried to keep her voice from trembling.
“‘Because I have failed my family.’
“The sage laughed, a low, husky sound, like the rustle of dry rushes on a riverbank. ‘You have found what you needed most,’ he said. ‘Your goal is simply a destination. Your journey is what is important.’
“He laughed again, and suddenly the girl understood. Her quest had never truly been for any material thing. For along the way, while facing more adversity than she ever had before, she had found courage and resilience inside her that she had never known she had. Her quest had never truly been what she needed most. What she sought had been found in the journey.
“She showed the sage the bracelet, and said, ‘So this is nothing, then.’
“‘Far from it,’ said the sage. ‘Think of it as a way of remembering your quest. A thing of your quest—and your journey.’”
My cousin fell silent with the end of the story.
“Is courage my quest?” I asked.
My cousin smiled then, the breeze playing with her hair so that it danced around her face. “No. Courage is your journey.”
* * *
The day before I left, my cousin gave me a bracelet. Each of the beads was crafted out of a rich red wood.
“They’re cedar,” she told me.
“Like in your story?” I asked, remembering the tale she’d told me.
“Yes,” my cousin said. “Do you see that bead?” She pointed to one larger one, which I realized was a different shape from the others. “It’s a dragon. Just like in the story.”
I peered closer and saw she was right. It made me smile. “Thank you,” I said.
My cousin smiled at me. “Use it to remember—and to make—your journey, just like the elf girl. When you wear it, it will give you the courage to make new friends. You can look at it and think of me.”
I always wore the cedar bracelet after that day.
* * *
My cousin was right, of course. The bracelet gave me courage to do new things, to make new friends, to make myself a new home. I knew I missed her, but it was easier than I had expected. We wrote every week, and we both knew we’d see each other again.
And when we did, we would find some far-off, secluded spot. We’d sit together as we did in old times. I would feel the warm reassurance of my cedar bracelet, and she’d tell me a story.