September 30, 2019

BEDTIME STORY by Wendy Lynn Newton

"Remember what I told you about the teddies?"
"They only ever speak one word,
and that's their secret name..."
“This is the story of four little bears and the four little girls who owned them.”

Four pairs of beady eyes locked onto Momma’s beneath sleepy lids and long, curled eyelashes that twitched and fluttered like the down of a baby bird’s feathers as it settles into sleep. Outside the wind was beating like dragon wings against the flimsy walls of their small, wooden hut, and the open fire spluttered and crackled and smoked in the draft, as if it was answering the dragon’s moaning call to come inside and claim it.

“Is it a scary story?” Twig asked, gripping Prickle’s chubby hand with her own, trying to keep the wobble out of her voice and her cup of frothy hot milk from spilling. 

Momma nodded her head. “Very,” she said and gave them a wink.

“So scary we won't be able to get to sleep?” asked Splinter, sliding her hand over the rough wooden floorboards to Thorn’s and locking pinky fingers together.

“I expect you won’t want to,” Momma replied, and she pulled the scratchy grey woolen blanket a little higher over Prickle’s knee.

“And if we do we’ll wake up screaming?” asked Twig, her brown eyes as dark as the blackest corner in the room.

“I’m afraid so,” Momma answered, “so it’s probably best to stay awake,” and she dropped a chocolate morsel into each of the girl’s cups.

“The four girls were four sisters and the youngest was born but four years after the eldest took her first heaving breath in the world, not more than eight years ago.”

“Just like us,” whispered Splinter as she licked a smear of chocolate from the corner of her mouth.

“What were they called?” asked Prickle, and as Momma said each of their names, “Violet, Daphne, Rose and Petunia,” she pointed to each one of the girls with a crooked finger, and they giggled and squirmed as it pushed and wriggled and tickled into each of their chests. 

“Each one owned a bear that they were given on their first birthday, and the bears owned each of the girls right back, which is quite rightly the way it’s supposed to be with teddy bears.”

“Did they have names?” Twig asked, yawning so wide her pink tongue lolled right out of her mouth.

“I expect so, but they're secret names. Only the teddy can tell you what it is, and it’s the only word it can ever speak. It whispers it in your ear, if it likes the look of you, and then you know you can tell it every secret you ever knew in your heart to be true. Even the ones you daren’t tell me.” Momma leaned in towards the fire and her round face took on a rosy glow like a ripe apple about to be plucked from an autumn branch. “But once its name is known, it never speaks again. Unless the little girl gives it up to some other little girl, but that’s not very likely, if I know anything about teddy bears and little girls.”

A single “Oooo-ooooooh!” floated up towards the rafters with the smoke, as the girls settled deeper into the feather eiderdowns strewn across the dusty floor.

“One night when the girls were fast asleep in their beds - “

“With dragonflies in their hair?”

“And ladybugs in their eyelashes?”

“And beetles crawling through the straw in their mattresses?”

“And rooks watching in the rafters, waiting to pluck out their eyes and blind them if they started awake?”

Momma smiled and nodded as each of the girls added to the story, and the girls forgot to blink or take a breath or sip their milk. 

“ - in the biggest, grandest, fanciest house you could imagine - “

“Like the one at the top of the hill?”

“Just like that one, Petunia, with the sandstone front and the wide, sweeping driveway and turrets at the top, and the secret garden behind. I mean, Prickle,” Momma corrected herself and smiled, and the four girls giggled again, and each leaned against the other with their heads resting against another shoulder.

“One night, in the middle of the darkest part when even the moon at its fullest shudders to cast a shadow, when they were fast asleep and dreaming of bowls of curds, and candied eels, and plates of green walnuts stuffed with mouldy cheese, and rotten medlars for breakfast, someone came calling.” Momma leaned over and threw a faggot onto the fire, and the coals pulsed orange like dragon’s eyes, and the smoke curled to the rafters like its breath, and the flames licked the wood like its fiery tongue, while the girls warmed their tiny pink fingers over the top of it and blinked with sleep. 

“Who was it that came calling?” asked Splinter, breathless.

“Was it a friend?” asked Thorn, pulling the thumb from her mouth.

“Not a friend,” Momma shook her head as she poked the fire, and her eyes lit up as if she was the dragon that had found its way inside.

“A servant then,” suggested Twig, “the cook, with bags of sour corn, and mealy-wormed flour, and blighted steel-cut oats to bake into rock-hard breadsticks squirming with maggots, to break their teeth on over breakfast.”

“It’s night-time,” corrected Prickle, as she popped Thorn’s thumb back in her mouth, “the servants are fast asleep too. Aren’t they Momma?”

“Fast asleep, Twig, just like their parents in the other wing. The girls are on their own, all alone, far away from everyone else in the house who might save them, should they be able to get a cry out in time. Dreaming of dark things roaming the hallways, and scratchy sounds like fingernails scraping against the windows, and stinking breath flaring across their bare necks, as they roll in sweat-soaked cotton nighties that twist around their legs like a nooses’ rope, with only their teddies to warn them if something should come crawling into their room.”

Splinter’s eyes were as wide as Prickle’s mouth. 

“Do they warn them, Momma?” Twig whispered. “The teddies?”

“Remember what I told you about the teddies?" Momma whispered right back.

“They only ever speak one word, Twig," murmured Splinter, “and that’s their name. They never speak again.”

Momma shook her head. “They never speak again, unless someone else claims them, and that’s only to say their name,” and her eyes were suddenly as dark as the snuffed-out coals in the grate.

“So we can get inside the grand house without anyone waking up?” asked Thorn.

“And rip the little girls’ guts out while they’re sleeping?” suggested Prickle.

“And suck the blood from their entrails?” squeaked Twig.

“And cut their heads off, clean off their necks?” screamed Splinter, clapping her pudgy hands together.

Momma nodded slowly.  “So finish your milk and clean your fangs, and when midnight strikes, I’ll wake you up. And if you’re really good girls and drink all your blood, I’ll let you keep the teddies. And then we’ll finish their bedtime story.”
Wendy Lynn Newton is an Australian writer of fiction and creative non-fiction.  She is the author of two non-fiction books, and her short stories and feature articles have appeared in many key Australian and international literary and media publications. Wendy is a Full Member of the Australian Society of Authors and spent several years as a member of Write Response, a team of independent Tasmanian arts reviewers. She is currently working on a young-adult science fiction trilogy, and lives in northern Tasmania with two out-of-control chihuahuas and two indifferent cats. Instagram @wendynewtonlaunceston

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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