Whispers in the dark wake Ari. For a moment she feels fear until she recognizes one voice, but the other is too soft for her to hear. The voices are outside her bedroom door and she remains still, afraid the owners may know she’s awake if she moves.
“Thank you. Return to your home and rest,” Ari’s mother says to the owner of the softer voice.
“Good night, Meah,” the owner of the voice says, growing fainter as he walks away.
Waiting until the sound of footsteps fades, Ari sits up in her bed. She stares at her door curiously. Who’d be visiting her mother so late in the night? The only answer that came to mind was a messenger bringing important news.
The only news important enough to wake her mother about would be a message from her father.
Ari throws her covers from her and quickly moves to the door. She opens it a crack and peeks into the hallway. Empty. But she knows her mother won’t read a message from her father anywhere. There’s only one place she’ll go for privacy.
Quietly walking down the hallway, Ari heads for the stairway leading to the first floor. She moves cautiously even though she knows her mother isn’t wandering the halls. She opens a door leading outside into a small courtyard at the center of the house.
The air is warm as torches burn brightly around the courtyard. A pond with fish lazily swimming in circles reflects the light from the flames, the reflections of the torches becoming deformed as the fish swim close to the surface. One corner of the courtyard has large rocks carved into a table and surrounding chairs. Another corner has rows of different plants. There are plants for healing, eating, and for beauty.
At the center of the courtyard is a white tree. It is almost as tall as the house and the trunk is thick with large roots burying into the earth. Sitting on a bench beneath the tree is Ari’s mother, Meah Gurek.
Meah’s hands are shaking slightly as she reads the letter, her eyes moving over the words quickly, rereading certain lines to ensure she doesn’t miss even the smallest bit of information.
Ari waits for her mother to finish the letter before stepping out into the courtyard. Her tiny, six year old steps sound giant in the silence of the night, but her mother doesn’t seem to notice until Ari is standing next to the bench.
“Ariana Gurek, what are you doing out of bed?” Meah asks, forcing a smile. “Did you have a bad dream?”
Shaking her head, Ari climbs onto the bench and scoots close to her mother. Meah wraps a comforting arm around her and Ari eyes the letter. “Is it from daddy?”
“Is he coming home?”
Lifting her head to look up at her mother, Ari pulls her legs closer to her. “Is he ever coming home?”
Meah brushes a loose strand of hair from Ari’s forehead. She takes a deep breath, trying to keep the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know, darling. He doesn’t know either.”
“But he’s been gone for so long already. When he left the tree was only as tall as me.”
“I know, but what he’s searching for is hard to find. It takes time.”
Ari lowers her head to her mother’s lap and her eyes strain to see the letter. She sees the familiar handwriting and her heart hurts. A few drawings are included, but before Ari can get a good look, Meah folds the letter and places it back in its envelope.
“Let’s get you back to bed. It’s too late for little girls to be awake.” Meah stands and holds her hand out to Ari.
Taking her mother’s hand, Ari stands and the two head back inside. As they walk down the hallways, Ari squeezes her mother’s hand. “Why’s daddy afraid?”
Looking at her, Meah slows her steps. “How do you know he’s afraid?”
“In the letter, daddy said he was afraid. Why’s he afraid?” It was the only line Ari made out before Meah put the letter away.
Meah doesn’t answer as they reach Ari’s room. She helps her daughter climb back into bed and sits as she pulls the sheets over Ari. “Ari, daddy is going somewhere far away. So far away that he won’t be sending any more letters. He’s afraid because he believes he’ll never come home. He’s afraid he’ll never see you or me again.”
The tears finally break and roll down Meah’s cheeks. Ari watches her mother and slowly sits up, touching the tears with her fingers. Meah takes Ari’s hand and clears her own tears.
“If he can’t come home then we should go to him,” Ari says.
Smiling, Meah shakes her head and gently lays her daughter back down. “Your father and I knew what this journey meant, Ari. There was always the possibility he’d never come home.”
“Why can’t we go where he is?”
“Because this journey he’s on is too dangerous. When you’re older you’ll understand.” Meah composes herself and clears the last of her tears. “Now, time for sleep. Good night.” She leans down and kisses Ari on her forehead.
Standing, Meah heads for the door. She clutches the letter to her chest, taking deep calming breaths.
“When I’m older, I’ll find daddy and help him. Then we’ll come home together,” Ari says softly as though to herself.
Meah turns to quiet her, but changes her mind and continues out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Ari turns away from the door to look out the window. She sees the branches of the tree in the courtyard and closes her eyes, falling into dreams of her father finally coming home.