To Breathe

Inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s Language of Thorns. Written 31 July 2020

She knew, as all children did, that toys could will themselves alive in a way a child’s imagination couldn’t. True, the dreams of a child filled their chests with air, brought movement to their stiff limbs and opened their painted mouths. But a child cannot give their toys a will of its own, only impose theirs upon it.

Her aunt told her of the little soldier she had loved in her youth, who had willed himself alive and, in time, outgrew her. She told the story wistfully, like she still loved the soldier, but did not begrudge him his freedom. Armed with her aunt’s story, she promised herself to never will her toys to love her.

Many children lose the power to wake their toys as they grow. They forget the breath they once willed into dolls and trains and plush bears, and so they forget how. She did not. Her aunt was there to remind her.

She kept a small handful of toys, ones she thought might someday wish themselves alive. She wondered if her will would help or harm their chances.

It was a cold night when she awoke before the sunrise. Her window was cracked open, and the wind cut through her blankets. Having woke from restless dreaming, she rose, shivering, and crossed the smooth wooden floor to close the window. Her room was illuminated dimly by the moon, draining the color from the world and softening all its edges. As she did on all such nights, she pulled the dolls from the shelf above her bed, and, one by one, sat them in her lap and asked them questions in a low whisper.

“Are you awake?” she asked the thin dancer in a pale pink gown and silver corset.

“I am,” the doll replied softly.

“Are you a dancer?” she prodded.

“For now.”

She sighed. “Will you dance with me?” The doll grew to a head above the girl, and twirled her around a pale pink ballroom filled with the dancer’s sisters, each of whom arrived as she thought their names.

Soon, though, her will shrank, and she was in her room once more, holding the doll in her lap. Returning the doll to its place on her shelf, she turned her attention to the soldier her aunt had given her on her birthday, the same day she first told the story of her own soldier.

“Are you awake?” she asked.

He arose and saluted. “Risen and ready, my lady. What are your orders?”

“Do you have a name, general?” at the question, he lost a little of the life in his eyes, his features returning to brushstrokes.

“You know me, my lady.” he said.

“You may return to your post, general.” she replied, lacking the will to invent a battle for him to fight.

“Are you awake?” she asked the little horse. It whinnied and let her ride it through the stars, but when she loosened her will, it shrank into her lap once more

Her eyes pricked as she cradled her oldest toy in her lap. Once, he had been a bright and perfectly painted boy, smiling with mischief and floating on mechanical wings. But the paint had chipped, the wings dented, and his smile was barely visible. Still, his wings fluttered and his coat shone earthy green when she asked, “Are you awake?”

“I am here, Yana.” he said.

“You remember my name.” she said with a soft smile.

“Yes.” he said.

“Do you know your name?” she whispered.

His head tilted as he thought. “You called me Theo first. Then Rainer. Once, you said I was Prince Wesley.”

“Are any of those your name?” she asked, pushing down her hope.

Confusion crossed his pointed face. “They are when you say they are.”

“And when I am gone?” her fists balled in her nightgown. The window latch fell open, and a breeze made the pair of them shiver.

“When you are gone,” he paused. She held her breath. “When you are gone, I am smaller. It is… Harder to move. And I miss you.”

She blinked. “Why?”

“I’m not sure. It is… Brighter with you.” he shook his head. “No, that’s not right. You only come when it is dark outside.”

“Is it because I help you breathe?” she asked, wilting.

“No,” he answered. “I breathe without you.”

She started. “You do?”

He shivered again, and crossed the room to close the window. He walked lightly, practically floating, and she noted the small scales that covered his spine. “It is cold tonight.” she nodded. “You have not called on me for some time.” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t see me move.”

Her head snapped up. “When did you move?”

“I have left the shelf every night since you lost your book downstairs.”

“Where did you go?” he stepped in front of her, and mirrored her position on the floor.

“I went to find your book, at first. It was behind a chair.”

“And after you found it?” she leaned closer to him.

“I explored. I was… small, at first. I didn’t leave the house. But when I could be tall without you, I went into town. I flew above it, at first. I thought being seen would make me shrink again. I watched the festival from your roof. The night after that, I hid my wings and went to the night market.”

He continued, telling her of each of his adventures spent away from her shelf, until morning light brought color back to her room, and hardened the edges.

“Why did you come back?” she asked, looking at him with awe.

“I missed you.” he said simply.

“Why?”

In answer, he stood and pulled her up, wrapping his arms about her waist and fluttering upwards. “Of all the people I met those nights outside the shelf, I found I still wanted to experience things with you.”

I wanted, he said. Her aunt had told her that those were the words that brought will to a toy. I want. It was what children used to wake their toys, and, every once in a while, what a toy used to wake themselves.

She smiled. Grinned. Laughed. He spun her, not in a ballroom or a barrack or among the stars, but in the small, cramped space of her bedroom, above the row of unasked toys still on her floor. And when they finally set their bare feet on her wood floor, he pressed his lips to hers, in an act so unexpected she knew that it had been his will and not hers that made him do it.

“I love you.” he said, taking her hands in his. His fingers were long and thin and pale, and she pressed them to her lips in answer.

“What is your name?” she asked, and he grinned.

“I don’t know yet, but we can find out together.”

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