Cora read the story, for most of the afternoon and into the evening.
Her bedroom window was dark when she finished. The book’s front was lettered, ‘A Song for Chloe’, and it was warm between her hands. The cover was a diffused swirl of pink and blue, gold, lavender and peach, and it shone like the inside of a seashell. She lay on top of her bedspread and looked at it for a long time.
The silhouette of a man with a saxophone was in the middle of all the color; he was so small she had to look closely to see him. Cora had the strange idea that the swirl of brightness was his music, come to life. She wondered if you could actually see music, and she wondered who he was. She had looked at him since she was very small, because the book had always been on the shelf, even if today was the first time she had read it.
A woman stuck her head in the door.
“You have a long trip tomorrow,” her mother said. “Better try to get some sleep.”
She saw what Cora was holding and stopped. She came into the room and sat down on her daughter’s bed. She took the book from her, gently, and looked at it.
“Is this a story about my grandmother?” the girl asked.
The woman stared at the book she held, for what seemed like a long time. When she blinked, it was as though she was coming back from somewhere far away.
“Your great-grandmother, actually,” she smiled. “Though I’m not sure that she’d want to be thought of as anyone’s great-grandmother."
“Is this what she was really like?” the girl asked. “Do you remember her?”
“I remember her.”
The curtains moved gently in the window. A gust of breeze brought the fragrance of bougainvillea and night-blooming cereus. It carried a ghost of salt, sand, and the ocean.
“This is what she was like,” the woman nodded. “It’s her story, after all. She said it was about all of us, though, mothers and daughters. Her mother, mine… then you and me.”
“I feel like I remember her now, too. It’s like I know her. Isn’t that strange?”
“Not strange at all,” the woman answered. “That’s what stories are for.”
“Her name wasn’t Chloe, though,” the girl said. “Not in real life.”
From far away, there was a faint moan and a whistle, a sound very much like a train, one of the old ones that run on steam. Neither of them seemed to notice the sound, and there were no train tracks nearby, so it might have been something else.
“She didn’t believe in real life,” her mother said. “I don’t either, most of the time."
The woman reached across and switched the bedside lamp off. She handed the book back, stood and bent to kiss her daughter.
“Get some sleep,” she said, and went out.
Cora turned on her side, holding the book close. As she fell asleep, she had the odd thought that she smelled cinnamon. She didn’t see the bedroom curtains move strangely in the open window, because her eyes were already closed.
She dreamed that she stood on a dock, looking at the ocean. It was night-time, the kind of deep cobalt that you only see in stories. A Blueberry Moon sparkled on the water. There was a fisherman a little way away. Endlessly patient, his silhouette sat and watched the stygian waves. Cora called out a hello, but he didn’t answer, so she turned and walked toward the beach. There was another girl waiting for her on the sand; a girl with dark eyes, eyes that were very still, eyes that were a lot like her own.
“Wake up,” the dream-girl called.
Cora opened her eyes. She was back in her bedroom. The curtains again moved gently, and the dream-girl floated into the room. She was beautiful.
“Are you Chloe?” Cora whispered.
The dream-girl didn’t answer. Her face, her brow, the shape of her mouth and the line of her chin were perfect. She wasn’t beautiful the way that women on television were beautiful; she was beautiful like the Moon, like warm wind, like trees at night. She smelled wonderful, like cinnamon and honey and clean salt water. She was young, but when she turned her head slightly, she was ancient. Her features showed every age, from small girl to old woman, but her beauty didn’t change.
She was exactly what a girl should be, if left uninterrupted by lessons and mirrors and decoration. If this was her great-grandmother, Cora hoped that she was at least a little bit like her. The dream-girl smiled and nodded, as if she understood perfectly.
“I am?” the girl whispered.
“You are,” the dream-girl said. Her voice was silver. “We’re together.”
She held her hand out for the book, and Cora gave it to her. She opened and turned pages until she found the one she wanted. She held it up, and Cora read out loud the words she pointed to.
“There are no ends…”
The dream-girl kissed her cheek. “It’s all just starting,” she whispered.
She moved to the window and was gone, leaving only the moving curtains. It was on the second floor, but Cora knew that had the dream-girl could fly. It wasn’t a strange idea, because flying is how everyone moves around in dreams. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
Outside, on the street beneath the bedroom window, a man came up the sidewalk. He walked with the slightly comical gait that old men affect when they are in a hurry and want to appear young. He stopped and made a show of checking his pocket watch in the yellow streetlight. He wore a train conductor’s uniform with brass buttons, and he looked splendid, even in the dark.
The train whistled again; far off but getting closer. The old man whistled back, just seven notes. Cora heard it in her dream, and she recognized the opening bars of ‘I Love You Madly’ even though she didn’t know the song in real life. She smiled in her sleep.
The conductor snapped his watch closed and hurried off. The street was perfectly quiet again.