Two o' clock in the afternoon, and the household sleeps.
The June day is bright and cloudless, as blue and yellow as the toile curtains on the nursery windows. Outside, the grass crisps and the spinach gives up on making food to shoot its flower stalks skyward. The rhododendrons sulk and spit the last of their petals onto the side lawn. The neighbor's cat sprawls in the shady space between them, keeping a just-in-case eye trained on the deserted bird feeder. A block away, someone's dog barks.
The window to the baby's room is closed against the sound of the barking dog. The room faces south, and is too warm even though the baby's mother turned on a fan before escaping to her own cooler bed on the north side of the house. The air stirs and curls with heat. The baby -- three months old tomorrow -- blinks and fidgets, but does not cry.
Above her head dangles a padded mobile: woolly lambs in shiny pink ballerina skirts. She reaches toward it, but finds her own hand more distracting than the toy. What is this creature at the end of her arm, this starfish, this fan, this chubby arthropod? She works the fingers, curling and splaying them by turns, her vague button eyes struggling to focus.
Hot, so hot, enough to prickle up red bumps on her nearly-newborn skin. She frowns and frets. The hand, attached to her yet curiously alien, folds into a fist and pumps in the air. She has no words, not yet, but behind her eyes she remembers things: fresher air sifting down from spinning blades near the ceiling, the cool glide of the quilting cotton used to make her blanket, the pleasant scratch and give of broadloom carpet.
The baby smiles and gurgles and reaches. She wishes.
The universe adjusts.
When the baby's mother wakes up, the crib is empty. The nursery door is still closed.
The baby is sleeping on the living-room floor.
Five years pass. The baby is now a small girl, more sturdy than elfin, with straight brown hair in a bowl cut and a pugnacious tilt to her chin. Strangers often mistake her for a boy, a misconception she neither encourages nor resents. The fanciful name her mother chose for her -- Soleil -- has not been heard aloud since her baptism; the family calls her Sol, not remembering that she herself coined the nickname.
There is another baby now, a squalling shrieking red-faced colic-ridden thunderclap of a tiny body that seems to run on rage. Everyone in the household -- her mother, her grandmother, lanky teenaged Uncle Jack -- tiptoes shadow-eyed through the afternoons when the baby is napping, their faces tight with tension and fatigue. Only Sol seems placidly immune.
"For such a solid child," her grandmother tells her mother, "she's certainly good at making herself scarce when she chooses." It is not quite a complaint -- Sol is a sunny pocketful of quiet in a five-alarm household, a precocious reader who spends hours immersed in chapter books written for children twice her age, a logical, linear thinker who prefers Lego and Lincoln Logs to dress-up and tea parties. Asked to amuse herself quietly, she obliges.
The exhausted mother accepts the gift of Sol without questioning it, and Jack has problems of his own to distract him from the peculiarities of his solitary little niece. But the grandmother, who raised six children and, by osmosis, most of their friends, is inclined to be more suspicious of silence than of noise. Something about Sol is … off.
"Every time I turn around, she's halfway across the house," she tells Sol's mother. "Walks like a cat, that child. I'll leave her in the bedroom and by the time I get down the stairs, she's there ahead of me. No normal little girl is that quick and quiet."
Sol's mother shrugs. "I'll tell you one thing," she says, casting a brief harried look toward the closed nursery door. "I wish Arwen would take a page from Sol's book. I can't take much more of this constant screaming."
The grandmother eyes Sol, who is curled like a cat around a book in the big faded recliner in the living room. "Where does she get all those books from, anyway?"
"They're library books, Mom."
"When was the last time you took her?"
The mother frowns and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Last week, I think," she says. "What's the problem? She's just sitting there being good."
"She's got a sneaky way of disappearing. I never know where she is." The grandmother purses her lips and snaps the dish towel she's been folding. "You're going to have problems with her in ten years. Mark my words."
No one has taken Sol to the library for months, in fact, but that hasn't stopped her from getting new books. When she finishes one, she wishes she had another; this is enough impetus to blink her from the tiny bedroom she shares with the baby (unless the baby is fussing, in which case Sol gets moved to the living room sofa) to the children's section of the library, six blocks north. That's how she thinks of it: blinking. Her eyes close on one reality and open on the new one.
I want to re-read Shel Silverstein. Blink, the library. I want a piece of string cheese. Blink, the kitchen. I want peace and quiet. Blink, out of the mall concourse where she's trailing miserably behind her mother and grandmother, and into a tiny walled garden.
She recognizes the garden because she saw it in a book once and loved it; it's the place she sees in her head when she's sleepy or sad or trying to tune out her sister's crying or her mother yelling at Uncle Jack to take out the trash. It's Christmastime where she came from -- the tinny carols from the mall's PA system are still ringing in her ears -- but here in the garden it's perpetual summer, just the way she remembers it. There's bougainvillea and trumpet flower and the strange mechanical-looking purple blossoms of the maypop; the air smells of roses and honeysuckle. She shuffles her snow-booted feet on the flagstone path, bruising the red-flowering thyme that's planted between the pavers.
"Where did you come from?" someone asks, and she whirls in her winter coat, startled; in the book, there were no people in this garden.
"Pittsburgh," she says, and the man laughs. He's not old, but he's adult-shaped; ancient, to five-year-old eyes. The knees of his trousers are sprung and stained green. He strips off his muddy gardening gloves, eyeing her wonderingly.
"I almost believe it," he says. "You look like a Christmas elf."
"In the book," Sol says, ignoring this, "this garden has a fish pond."
"Oh, the book," he says. "Is that how you found your way in?"
"I can go anywhere that I can see," Sol informs him. "Do you still have the big red and gold fish? And the mermaid fountain?"
Together they feed the fish, big lazy koi who drift toward the surface at the first sight of people. Sol trails her fingers in the dappled water and unbuttons her coat.
"Where's your mother, elfling?" the bemused gardener wants to know. "Assuming you have one, and you didn't just teleport from the North Pole?"
"I have a mother," Sol says. "She's Christmas shopping."
He steeples his fingers together. "Won't she be missing you?"
"Probably." She shrugs. "I'll blink back in a minute. I don't want to, though."
"No? Why not?"
"It's nice here," Sol says. "Green." Her face is tipped toward the leafy canopy above the pond, her hands splayed on either side of her, gripping the stone edge of the bench. "Can I come back sometime?"
"Any time you want," the gardener promises, and she smiles at him. It's a toothy little-kid smile -- she hasn't lost any of her baby teeth yet -- and he finds it reassuringly human. Just a little girl, after all, he thinks, and then that thought slides away from him as she closes her eyes and disappears right in front of him, so quickly and thoroughly that unless she hadn't left one of her mittens behind on the bench, he wouldn't be certain she'd ever been there at all.
Back at the mall, her mother and grandmother are surrounded by a tight knot of people, some of them in uniforms. Her mother is weeping. Sol pushes her way through a forest of legs and presents herself, wilting a little under the scrutiny of the crowd, the babble of questions, the fresh flood of parental tears.
"I went to feed the fish," she says, and the baffled adults look up and around until their eyes land on the pet store halfway down the concourse. Laughter from the onlookers, scolding and shaking and hugs from her mother, a benevolent lecture from the big blue-suited security guard. On the way home, her mother breaks off every other sentence into a by-now-familiar refrain: You can't just disappear like that! Don't ever do that again!
"I won't," Sol promises, but she is thinking about the secret garden, how the canopy of light and shade and green breathing things around her made her lungs feel bigger, her heartbeat slower and stronger at the same time. At home there are new books, with new pictures of new places in them. And if she can see them, she can go there -- she's just proved that to herself.
"You'd think she'd have been at least a little bit upset, knowing she was lost," her tight-lipped grandmother says in an undertone. "I don't think she cried a single tear."
In the backseat, Sol smiles out the window.
Anything is possible.