From the tenth floor the streets were a world of living Barbies and Kens. Staring down from the mansard, Marie wondered why would her dad prefer to travel around the seas when he could sit there with her and her raven, naming every passer-by, giving them identities, assigning lives.
“That one is Rose,” she pointed at a woman standing across the one-way street. It might have been a teenager, maybe a woman in her twenties, impossible to say from that height. But she was dark-haired and wearing a yellow hoodie. “She’s texting her best friend Violet.”
“Rose and Violet? Why not Mauve and Periwinkle?” enquired the raven, poking mild fun at her seven-year-old friend.
She stuck up her nose, oozing an infantile superiority as she chose to ignore him. “They have a party tonight, she can’t go dressed like that,” she noticed.
Stepping back into her bedroom, she opened the inlaid chest. Painted white, embellished with pink inlay work from old times that formed a garden of lilies, it was bursting with Lilliputian clothes for every occasion. “Red or green?” she asked for her friend’s advice.
The raven’s look shifted between the clothes and Marie, but before it could say anything, the distant thud of the front door captured their attention.
“Marie, you got mail!” The nanny screamed from the living room.
Marie and the raven exchanged an excited glance, then Marie jumped up and dashed to the nanny, for she knew what that meant; there was a new postcard from her father. It didn’t matter how many digital photos he would send her, postcards were her favorite thing. She cherished those tiny pieces of paper and loved collecting those mementos from places she’d never seen, like a real treasure.
Her father worked on luxury liners. She didn’t know what his job was exactly, all she knew was that it kept him away from home for weeks, sometimes even months. This last postcard captured the russet twilight of a place called Walvis Bay. As was her habit by now, she asked her nanny to help her locate the place on the world map. The globe, together with most of the furniture, was ancient inheritance, dated a good two generations into her father’s bloodline. A corner of Old England right in the center of Brooklyn. Marie was very careful not to ruin it as she marked the latest place with a blue post-it, under the watchful eye of the raven. One hand on the west coast of Africa, one on the pink post-it that marked her home, she tried to figure out how long would take her dad to come back to her. On that globe, barely one of her steps.
The enjoyment though never lasted long. Once the initial enthusiasm was over, once her dad was again just a slip of colored paper on a map, Marie cooped herself up back into her isolation. She barely left home, her nanny had given up long ago, for Marie didn’t want to be somewhere else in the event that her father was to surprise her with an unexpected return. She didn’t want to miss even a single second of his presence, rare as it was.
Staring at life passing by her windows, she had mastered an unreasonable patience for a child. Tantrum hid in quiet silences, friendships condensed in black feathers.
One day though, a phone call came instead of a postcard.
The static paper landscapes were replaced by moving images in form of news. The foundering of a cruising ship. The new Titanic, they said, and she had no idea what that meant, what it had to do with her dad. Unblinking, Marie listened to her nanny’s explanation, her mind reworking the images in the process; lifeboats, flames, a dark stain swallowing everything.
Why was her nanny so upset? There were lifeboats rescuing everyone. Her dad was on one of them. She only had to wait. He’s not coming back, kept repeating the nanny.
In all of this, the raven was a mute witness.
He’s not coming back.
What was a child expected to do? Cry herself to illness? Shut her eyes? Take what she’s told for granted? Wait for him to come back? Marie pondered all her options, none fit her. She wasn’t easy to tears, she didn’t take anything for granted, and most important, she had waited enough.
This left only one decision.
She emptied her backpack from every futility and filled it again with the little she might need. She had perfected the art of packing from years of studying her father. A change of clothes, underwear, soap and all the money she could get out of her piggy bank.
“Where are we going?” the raven inquired, gliding and landing on Marie’s backpack.
“To find dad.”
The raven didn’t move from the backpack, just cocked its little head in what seemed perplexity. “You can’t find him.”
“Of course I can.” Her arms folded on her chest, in a mix of resolution and defiance.
“You can’t and you won’t.”
Marie moved closer, reclaiming possess of her backpack. Her swift gesture made the raven take flight, just to land again on her shoulder.
“I will find him.” Those were the final words of someone who wouldn’t take you can’t as an answer.
“You can’t because he doesn’t belong to your world anymore!” The raven took off, fluttering between Marie and the door in a useless attempt to stop her. It worked, for a mere few seconds in which the little girl seemed to weigh the meaning of its words.
“Is there another world?” she enquired, one brow knit in astonishment.
“Not one you can visit,” the raven said gravely.
“How do you know he’s there?”
“It’s my world. I just know it.”
If this was the case, then what was the problem? “Good, then what are you doing still here? Go and find him.”
“I can’t take him back.”
Hit in her belief, Marie held her breathe. “You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.”
As it always goes with children, Marie wasn’t the one to yield. The globe and all the postcards collected over the few years of her life were all she needed to put together and single out recurring paths and cyclic breaks.
It would take a while, but she knew they could do it.
And so started their journey, on the coasts of that fateful spot where Marie’s father had been seen last. For almost one year, she and the raven went searching every city her father had crossed, reconstructing events, discovering facts, little anecdotes about him. The more they travelled, the more she found out things about him. She realized, she didn’t know her father at all.
At some point, the raven stopped her. Their trip had brought them on the glacial Norwegian soil. “What are we doing?”
Marie stared at him, confused about what it meant. “Searching for my dad.”
The raven didn’t say anything, not for a long while. “I think we should part ways.”
The girl’s features took on a shade of letdown. Of all the people failing her, her only friend.
“We are searching for two different things, Marie,” the raven revealed what she couldn’t see, “that’s why we can’t continue this journey together. I’m searching where he is, you are searching who he was.”
“Who he is.”
Under a cloud of bitterness and sorrow, the two friends took different ways, not knowing if they would ever meet again.
Postcards always in her hands, Marie pursued her research with the fiery resolution that only desperation and loneliness can provide. Little by little, city by city, she came to piece together the personality, habits, tastes, of her father. So many facets besides the loving one she remembered. Remember. Memory. That was her father was becoming for her as she grew and start to lose memory of how he was. Did she ever know how she was to begin with? Everything was blurry. The more she travelled, retracing his steps, the more she was getting to know a complete stranger.
But the little memories she still preserved, flashes of a childhood ended too soon, those weren’t fading, guiding her through miles and years.
She watched the pile of postcards getting thinner and thinner with each stop. She would never admit it, but hope was starting to wane.
By the time she stopped in India, she was seventeen. The little hospital in the south of the country barely looked like that. At a first glance, one would think it was a house. It was a woman Marie had met at the local market to tell her how funny it was that there was a man there with her same features.
The woman hadn’t told her though, that the man had been in a state of coma ever since he was found, almost ten years before.
Marie’s legs were weak, her heart drumming, as she carefully approached the bed. So many thoughts and questions crowding her mind as she stopped, eyes closed, a few steps away. What if it wasn’t her father? Would she even recognize him? Would he recognize her? Would he be happy to see her? Or mad for the journey she had taken?
But when she found the strength to open her eyes, she saw the sleeping figure in front of her and something inside her broke. He was her father, there wasn’t a single doubt about it. But this wasn’t how she had pictured meeting him again. She took in the whole view. Tubes seem to tie every part of his body, his hair were roughly disheveled by the breeze coming in through the open window. Outside were trees of every shade of green. Only then she noticed a small bird on the bed pommel. Instinctively, maybe more protectively, she shooed it away with one hand.
The bird landed on the windowsill but didn’t go away. Instead, it kept its gaze on Marie.
“Is that how you greet old friends?” it dared, when nobody else was around them.
Marie jumped back, startled by the animal speaking. Birds don’t speak, she told herself. But before her words were out, she started to remember.
Her raven. Her childhood. It had kept searching all this time, just like her. It didn’t fail her as she thought when she was little. It had kept its promise and found her father.
“Is there another world?”
“Not one you can visit.”
“How do you know he’s there?”
“It’s my world. I just know it.”
Now she could finally see what he had meant, back then.
“You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.” This wasn’t a bet, it never was.
She smiled at her old friend and offered her hand for it to rest. She then took a seat by her father, on a corner of his bed so she wouldn’t disturb his long sleep. But as soon as the mattress bent under her weight, her father stirred, almost imperceptibly at first, then opened his eyes. After meeting for the first time in ten years, Marie’s words to the raven were short and sweet. “I win.”