The night is nearly empty. Even the rodents and insects have gone. All that remains is a girl walking alone along a pitch black path. She is wearing a red dress. A streetlamp flicks off as she passes underneath. A moment later she stops outside a small house. This is where she vanished.
*She had lived here with her mother, an invalid who ate horseradish sauce straight from the jar, because it allowed her to feel mild sensations again. Something within her had frozen. The daughter was her carer and together they spent their days among jigsaw puzzles or classic TV shows. Sometimes they switched off the electricity, opened the doors and windows and just listened to the wind in the grass. Other times the girl sang; she had a voice unmatched even by the gods. A voice of feathers.
She loved her mother dearly and would have done anything to see her walk again. She longed for them both to visit the beach, to wander in the swashes while the sun boiled above them. But the mother was housebound, stuck to the sofa, with her horseradish sauce.
There was a crow who had a nest overlooking their garden and the crow had long watched the lives of this small family from his sycamore. And he had heard the daughter’s singing.
One day, while the girl was cutting the grass, the crow flew down and perched on top of the rusting swingball set.
‘I’ve heard you sing,’ said the crow. The girl looked up as the bird flew closer. ‘Because of the beauty you have brought the world through your voice, I will grant you one wish.’
The daughter had long learnt to forget wishes, so that on hearing that word – that windy syllable – she began to feel again the ache of those empty nights when her mother had first fallen ill and she had wished and wished to go back in time. This crow had dared her to wish again. And her wish had never changed: for her mother to walk again, to rejoin the world. The crow was happy to grant it. Yet there would be a cost: the daughter would fade to dust within a year. But she would still be allowed to sing to her mother, one night of each month.
That evening she sat with her mother in the living room, with this frail body who had lost so much. And as she helped her into a cardigan, for a chill was descending on the evening, she knew what she would answer the crow.
So the wish was granted. The mother could walk again, could move again, could jump again. Tea parties were held and old instruments dug out and played.
They went on holiday to the white sands of Calabria, lying below the pure blue sky. Weeks they spent there. They loved the colours most of all. In the evenings the mother attracted the interest of men and women with whom she flirted and danced and glugged wine by the carafe. They would laugh about it the next day. They laughed a lot in Calabria, sometimes for no reason at all, other times about the jigsaw puzzles or the horseradish sauce. What madness it all was!
But not long after they arrived home, the daughter could feel her skin beginning to shed. She didn’t tell her mother what was happening. Soon it was her turn to occupy the sofa while her mother acted as the nurse, desperate to bring her kin back to health. More of the girl’s body was lost to the air. Although her voice withered when she spoke, she could still sing to her mother, the notes falling like cherry blossom in the rain.
Then finally, one morning the mother came into her room and there was nothing there. She could barely rise from her bed in the weeks that followed. It was almost as if her illness was taking hold again. She could sense the frost that had once crippled her so much.
But one night, as she was flossing her molars, a lilting voice began flowing through the house. She closed her eyes, savouring the notes. The frost melted and she smiled again.
So now her daughter in the red dress stops outside the house as she does each month. All is still. All is dark. The mother has left the window open because she knows tonight she will hear her song, rushing through the reeds of the night.