To those who ail
In body and mind
Delia had the ears of a cat. Where others might hear from a distant room a vague, indistinct murmuring, she could tell the owner of the voice, their mood, and very often, enough of their words to decipher meaning. She had lots of practice, you see.
She was listening now from her invalid chair in the second story nursery, where she spent every waking hour, to a conversation taking place in the front hall.
“Is there anything I should know?” Asked a male voice new to Delia. His words quavered slightly, discomfort wearing a mask of professionalism.
“Let us ask Miss Brown,” came the bland reply of Mr. Coolidge, the family butler. “Miss Brown,” he summoned, “come here. The new parish priest has come to call on Delia and wishes to know if there is anything he ought to be made aware of.”
“She’s not a ghost.” Miss Brown spoke in her jesting tone, which always bore a hint of sourness. Despite her brusque nature, Delia liked the housemaid very much. Miss Brown saw to it personally that she was never short of books, good ones, with adventures and pictures.
“Delia is a clever girl.” Miss Brown went on, “Don’t let cause she’s quiet fool you none. She’s a good thing, only a bit tart from time to time, and who wouldn’t be in her shoes?”
Delia imagined Miss Brown’s emphatic nod and heard her heavy footsteps as she trod away, her pail of ash swinging on its squeaky handle. Delia’s cheeks flushed with appreciation, and she planned to sneak the housemaid a sweet, or perhaps one of her new silk handkerchiefs.
“The nursery is up the stairs, second door on the left.” Said Mr. Coolridge, “The madam requests that you not overexcite her.”
Iris heard the newcomer say, “But certainly!” and then his shoes ascend the stairs. Moments later, the door creaked, and Iris turned to see a man with a sorry face enter the nursery. His cow eyes were ugly, his hair thin and aimless on his head beneath his black priest hat, which he now held beneath his arm.
“And how are we today?” Asked the stranger in a tone dripping with sympathy.
Delia wanted to reply, Cursed by the devil! Enslaved to this chair for eternity, for I would not sing him a ditty, just to see what his response would be.
Instead, she said quietly, “Well enough, sir.”
The man nodded with a watery smile, “I am the new parish priest, Father Baldwin. I have taken it upon myself to visit all the— er— that is, to acquaint myself with my congregation.”
Delia knew he meant the infirm, the crippled, the blind, or deaf. It irritated her when people did not say what they meant. She wasn’t a different species because she was ill; she wasn’t stupid or strange; her mind was no withering violet.
Feigning innocence, her ungenerous tongue said, “You will want to be seeing my mother and father then, not me.”
“No, I— er, arranged with your mother, my meeting with you especially. She thought I might do you some good since you cannot attend services.” He sat on the armchair quite close to her and patted her hand with his knuckley fingers.
Delia swallowed. She could go to services with the others, if they were willing to carry her, and brought her chair so that she could recline. But they didn’t. She would be a spectacle, and it wasn’t worth the hassle, they said. But what she heard was that she wasn’t worth the hassle.
“How kind of you,” Delia said flatly.
“Yes, well,” Father Baldwin said in that meek manner which isn’t really meek at all. “And how are you feeling today?”
“The same as every day,” Delia replied. Entirely too much like every day.
“I see, I see. Would you like me to read you a passage?” He said it as a statement, not a question.
But Delia quipped a quick, “No.”
The priest jerked a bit, nearly tearing a tissue-thin page of his Bible. He blinked as though the last thing he had expected was for a quiet, ailing girl to reject his reading of the Word. But you see, Delia liked the Psalms best and knew that was what the priest would read, and she didn’t want his sappy voice to ruin it. The words meant too much, ran too deep.
After a few swallows, Father Baldwin recovered, “How about a prayer?” He asked hesitantly.
“Please,” Delia replied. He opened his mouth to do so, but she cut in, “In the privacy of your own home if you don’t mind. After all, the Lord said to offer your prayers in your closet.”
The minister blinked his cow eyes again, knowing not what to say or do. He looked at his shoes, then at Delia’s, which twisted inward a little on the elevated cushion of her reclining chair. He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing.
“Do you require anything?”
Delia motioned to the table at her elbow, which bore a large tray with lemonade, water, a pot of tea, and plain biscuits. She pointed to the floor on her right, where a stack of books rose tall, then to her ditty bag on her left. It was a scroungy thing, with many strips of fabric stitched to it like tassels on a gypsy’s skirt. They were the scraps leftover from her mother’s and sister’s gowns, and inside were more, waiting to be made into something new: doll dresses, coin purses, and hankies, whatever she could think up.
Delia’s gestures served as her only reply. Now she returned to stare at her caller with a level eye. The priest nodded, licked his lips, and rose, saying, “Well, it is my prayer you find some relief.” He patted her shoulder, and Delia shifted, the medical brace supporting her spine, pinching her underarm.
Thinking she recoiled from his touch, the priest sniffed, affronted, and strode from the room, a cloud of insult in his wake.
Delia sighed and slumped as much as her brace would allow. She glanced around the empty room, where afternoon light cast beams through the tall windows onto the nursery carpet. It was very quiet and still. The gramophone in the corner had long since ended its song, and Delia could do nothing to put on another. She could ring her bell, and a servant would come, but she wanted to be alone. And yet, was lonely at the same time.
Delia thought of the priest. He had done nothing wrong, but still, he had annoyed her. Was that his fault or hers? She felt guilty for treating him the way she had. He had only been trying to comfort her, and perhaps his intent was genuine, not merely fueled by duty. Delia breathed heavily again, her ribs pressing against the rigid brace. She rolled her aching neck and took up her ditty bag.
Sewing was her favorite way to pass the endless hours. The task took enough concentration to blot out her discomfiture and dissatisfactions. There was so much she could not do. Most things. But here was something she could do. She could make things. On occasion, she made clothing for her own dolls, but most of her hours were spent sewing for her sisters. She fashioned elegant ball gowns trimmed in lace and ribbon, serving maid uniforms, and morning dresses for their female dolls, and suits, pantaloons, and flashy piratical attire for the men.
Delia wanted them to love her even though she couldn’t play with them.
She was well into hemming a new set of flower-printed bloomers when Miss Brown entered.
“I see he left in a hurry. Did you chase him away, naughty girl?”
Delia squirmed, “I’m tired, Miss Brown. Could you roll me to the window?”
“Oh, now.” The maid tutted, “You know your parents say the sun ain’t good for you. Takes your strength and darkens your skin.”
“Just for a little while, please,” Delia begged, longing to feel the kiss of sunshine, even if it was through panes of glass.
Miss Brown met Delia’s sad gaze but could only hold it for a moment before breaking. She huffed and took hold of the back of Delia’s cumbersome chair and hefted it over to the bay window.
“I’ll return in a quarter of an hour to put you back, there’s a dear.” Miss Brown petted Delia’s hair, which wasn’t white-blonde like Winnie and Anton’s Delia’s youngest sister and eldest brother, or rich honey blonde like Viola and the twins, Chester and Fletcher. No, Delia was a flat scraggly blonde, somewhere in between.
Miss Brown scuttled to the door, checked both ways for Delia’s mother, and darted away to her chores.
The sunbeams felt like the taste of candy on Delia’s skin. She rolled up the ruffle-cuffed sleeves of her dress and let sunshine hug her in warmth. Delia detected the faint sound of giggling taunts and looked out the window into the garden beyond. There she caught glimpses of her siblings, gamboling and playing in the grass around the flower beds.
Fletcher and Chester played soldier men, and Delia knew it wouldn’t be long before they tackled one another. Winnie sat in a wicker basket playing with her doll. She struggled to change its dress into one Delia had sewn and was whining for Viola to join her and help, but her older sister was busy helping Anton build a fort out of branches the gardener had just trimmed from the oak tree. And beneath said tree, slept the governess, Miss Twissletwit, a book splayed open on her voluptuous chest.
Delia’s eyes stung, so she closed them, but it did nothing to dampen the sound of their merriment. She couldn’t decide whether she liked hearing them or whether the pain of it outweighed the pleasure.
She imagined being out there with them, the things she would do to make the fort better, how she would bring Winnie inside, and they’d build the house around her like Wendy from Peter Pan. She would make fairy dolls out of sticks and leaves, tying them together with long grass. Together, they would make daisy crowns and necklaces. They would skip and chase until dinner.
Delia stopped then. She couldn’t bear it. Taking up the bloomers in her lap, Delia began to stitch fiercely, despite feeling dreadful and having fuzzy vision. So focused was she on trying to see straight that she didn’t notice the sounds of her siblings until they galloped into the nursery, shouting protestations and complaints. Governess Twissletwit herded them all inside like the distractible kittens they were and chided the twins, for they had indeed gotten into a tussle and torn their good trousers. In the hullabaloo, Winnie must have gotten the nudge for her stockings were soiled with mud, and she was crying.
I wave of overwhelm washed Delia, the noise and activity catching her off guard. Her muscles tensed, her neck throbbed, and her head swam. Catching sight of Delia by the window, Governess Twissletwit shushed her charges and shooed them into the adjacent sleeping room where the clothing wardrobes were kept.
Winnie fought her, breaking away toward Delia, “No, Miss Twitty! Wait!”
Delia’s littlest sister snuffled back her tears and held something out to her, stating proudly in her high-pitched voice. “It’s a wish flower, for you.”
“A dandelion,” corrected Viola from the bedroom doorway.
“Yes, a dandywion.” Winnie said, as though she knew this already, “They make wishes come true if you bwow off all the fwuff in one go. I twied this many times,” she held up seven fingers, “and got dizzy, but I couldn’t get them all!” She cupped her hands and whispered into Delia’s ear, “I puwed all of them off one, but Viowa says that doesn’t count.”
Miss Twissletwit insisted Winnie come that instant before she got mud on Delia’s chair, and the little girl obeyed. Delia was sad to see her go but also relieved. Her littlest sister was loud and energetic and liked to be very close to people when she talked in her squeaky four-year-old voice.
Once her siblings were tucked away in the adjoining room, Delia gazed at the flower in her hand. The dandelion’s bright green stem felt soft with teeny tiny hairs, and its top was fluffy and white like a thousand baby feathers.
A wish. One wish.
Delia regarded her body- frail, pale, and every inch of it aching- closed her eyes, and blew forcefully. She waited a beat, feeling a swirl of dizziness, then winked one hopeful eye open. There, on the edge of the bumpy white knob, clung a single tufted seed, wavering, wavering. Delia held her breath. Please, oh please.
Bang! went the nursery door, and the rattling shake was just enough of a jar to shake the last seed free. It let go and drifted into the air in front of Delia’s nose. She smiled. But the smile soon faded as her father barged into the nursery.
“Miss Twissletwit!” He shouted, his mustachios twitching, “What is the meaning of this? There are mud drippings all through the house. Did you not remove the children’s soiled belongings before entering? They shouldn’t even be getting this messy. Well behaved children DO NOT!”
Miss Twissletwit reappeared in the bedroom’s doorway, looking harried. Chester stood at her elbow without pants, Fletcher still wore his torn pair, and Winnie had one leg out of her muddy stockings.
Their father gasped, “Their mother has the ladies arriving for the garden party any minute! The governor’s wife will be there, and she must make a good impression! Look at my children! They look like a hoard of beggars. And another thing-” he paused, catching sight of Delia in the window, “Delia!”
Delia jerked, her breath catching.
“What are you doing in the window?” Her father demanded.
Miss Brown appeared in the nursery doorway. Her eyes widened at the confrontation, and she hurried past.
“I-” Delia began, but her father was already careening her away and into the shade of the room.
“You know the sun is bad for you. And besides, you’ll freckle. Freckles are unseemly.”
“Viola and Winnie go in the sun,” Delia said quietly.
“They are healthy, besides they wear hats. What is this on the carpet? Weeds! Great Scott, Miss Twissletwit, are we rearing barbarians? What am I doing? I must ensure the lawn is set up properly. Miss Twissletwit. Get things in hand.” With that, he marched away all a jitter with nervous energy.
Delia blinked and panted. Her neck, shoulders, and back cramped terribly as Miss Twissletwit shoved her charges into the other room and closed the door firmly behind her.
Delia’s empty eyes stared at the ceiling as she calmed her breath and tried to unclench her body.
If only her wish could come true. What wouldn’t she give, if only it would come true.
That night, Delia slept fitfully. But then, she always did. Her brace was uncomfortable to lay in, and she was never allowed to take it off. Sometime in the night, she woke hungry, not having eaten enough during the day. She nibbled the stale biscuits on her nightstand and sipped the lukewarm milk, but then her tummy hurt, and she lay for an endless stretch in the dark of the nursery, watching the flicker of the night oil lamp play on the patterned wallpaper.
Just as she was certain dawn must be near at hand, Delia drifted off. It felt as though she had scarcely lost her way to sleep when she felt a soft, cool touch on her arm and a melodic voice like the sweetness of spring saying:
“Wake, oh wake, my darling dear, and see what your dream has brought you!”
Surprised to hear a stranger’s voice, Delia popped her peepers wide and saw bending over her the strangest being she had ever seen. His face was white, and a bob of white covered the top of his head. His body was long, thin, and green, and his arms and legs looked like- well, like leaves.
“What are you?” Asked Delia, sitting up lightning fast.
“I am the Dandelion Lord, but you may call me Dandy. I’m not one for titles.” He smiled so winsomely it instantly banished Delia’s unease, “Come now, I have granted your wish! Do stand up and try it out.”
Before she had another moment to think, Dandy helped her to her feet. But what was this? She wasn’t dizzy! Not in the slightest! Her strong legs stood steady on a carpet of long, fresh grass.
“Where…” Delia was going to ask where they were, but suddenly that didn’t seem to matter. She was standing, and she felt… good! She took a deep, hearty breath. Her ribs were free, her brace was gone, and her back felt no discomfort at all. Delia wiggled her toes and rolled her arms, admiring them in the sunlight. Her skin glowed with color and life, and her heart beat steady and firm with her growing excitement.
“What has happened to me?” She asked in wonderment. “I’m- I’m well!”
“I told you,” laughed Dandy. “I granted your dandelion wish!”
Delia looked down at her body, feeling a surge of energy well inside her. She touched her dress, a colorful array of patterned cloth, pieces and layers, ribbons and lace, and with a fantastically twirly skirt. Delia beamed and spun like a ballerina, her long hair fanning out, now as bright and silky as sunshine on dewy buttercups. Her very soul brimmed with life. She felt bold, adventuresome, wild, and free.
“What shall I do first? Oh, what shall I do? I can’t believe it! I have dreamed of this so many times, but never what to do first.” Delia’s joy rose to bursting so she jumped and skipped circles around the dandelion man.
“Everything!” Dandy laughed, “Everything and nothing. You can do anything in Dreamland!” he announced with a flourish.
Delia looked out across the meadow. All around, near and far, on hills, in valleys, up trees, walking dirt lanes, were people overflowing with glee. Loved one’s reunited, husband’s and wives, Papa’s and daughters, boys and their long lost pups. Some individuals rolled in piles of money. Others made snow angel’s in a snowy Christmas wonderland. Some ate mountains of ice cream without getting tummy aches or swam in a great pond of chocolate milk. Delia saw athletes on pedestals, receiving shiny golden trophies to ruckus choruses of ‘for she’s a jolly good fellow.’ Some children turned into mermaids or flew or talked to animals. The land thrummed with music, laughter, and happy chatter, effervescent with beauty and enchantment and love.
It was pure wonderment.
Hand in hand, Dandy and Delia danced and sang through the meadow of wildflowers, greeting the other wishers as they went. Dandy told her about the other guardians of wishes and dreams and pointed them out to her as they passed. There was the Wishbone Lord, a jolly skeleton who clattered when he frolicked, the Genie Prince, a jade man wearing many beads and ornaments, the Overseer of Wells and Fountains, a bubbly woman with laughter like a brook, and, Dandy’s face went dreamy when he gazed on her, Starlight, a celestial lady, with shimmering white skin like diamonds and opals.
“Over all of us,” Dandy added with reverence, “Is the King of all Goodness.”
Delia plucked a perfectly plump raspberry from a bush as they capered onto a wandering path and popped it in her mouth, “Where is he?” She asked, the berry’s tart juice coloring her lips and tongue. Delia liked the sound of such a King and wanted to meet him.
“Oh, he is busy running the universe.”
Delia paused her chewing and thought for a moment, “If the King of all Goodness is running the universe, then why aren’t all things good? Why didn’t all these people have their dreams come true there?”
They passed an ice sculpture standing in a field of his creations: dancing figures, fairies, and sea creatures, seeming to swim in the air.
Dandy bowed his head politely and carried on, answering Delia, “It’s far more complicated than that, I’m afraid, deary dear. But the King of all Goodness is a master strategist. So wise is he, yes, you can trust him that all will be good in the end.”
Delia looked down at her bare feet, shuffling through the snow of the winterland but not an ounce cold. “When I made my wish, I thought I would be healthy in real life, at home.”
“Oh no,” replied Dandy, “If you were meant to be healthy in real life, you would be.”
Ahead, in a bend in the lane, Delia spied two sisters crying happily and hugging one another’s necks. “Where is my family, Dandy?”
“They weren’t a part of your wish, you see. They aren’t here.”
This concerned Delia greatly, but she distracted from her worry, for they had arrived at the edge of a small, brightly-colored, hockety-pockety village. Vendors everywhere sold fantastic gizmos, succulent sweets, and mythical pets: dragons, griffins, and pegasi. Every person was dressed in wildly different ways. Some were all covered in buttons, others in bows, bells, or tassels. Some dressed in ball gowns; others only wore their underwear. But everyone everywhere was merry and smiling as if every moment was a lark, and they the keepers of it.
Dandy and Delia turned cartwheels in the square, and a shopkeeper covered in flowers from her head to her toes gave Delia a little nosegay of lilies. She thanked the good lady, tucked the flowers into the waist of her tatty dress, and she and Dandy carried on their way.
On the other side of the town, they splashed through a creek of strawberry lemonade until they were so exhausted from play, they sat down on the shore with a plop. The fatigue Delia felt was nothing like the sort she was used to, when it felt like the earth was dragging her down, down, down against her will. No, this felt as though her every muscle had taken a large, fresh breath of brisk clean air and now let it out luxuriously.
She lay on her back, her face glowing with sweet bliss, and watched the cotton candy clouds drift by in flavors of cherry, orange, and grape.
Warbler’s warbled, song sparrows sang, and faraway children chanted playful rhymes. Through the sky above flew a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Over its rim, a red-headed boy appeared. Smiling with glee, he tossed Delia a present by parachute. Delighted, Delia caught it and undid the green velvet wrapping, uncovering a softer-than-air teddy bear, holding a peppermint stick. She hugged the teddy and sucked the peppermint and thought that Dreamland couldn’t be any better if it tried.
Delia looked down at her skirt and noticed what she hadn’t before. The frock wasn’t fashioned out of any old scraps, but from the lace of her mother’s best gown, and there was her father’s embroidered handkerchief, the striped fabric of her brother’s sailor suits, some polka dot cloth from the horsey she had made them, and strips of material from all the dresses she had ever made her sisters.
“Won’t I ever see them again?” Delia asked Dandy, and he knew just who she meant.
“Not if you stay here, I’m afraid.”
“I have a choice, then? Whether to stay or return?”
Dandy nodded. Delia contemplated this awhile, fingering a string of beaded trim.
“Won’t they miss me if I stay?”
Dandy answered, “I can make them forget. But they’ll be worse off without you.”
“How so? I didn’t do anything while I was there, Dandy. I was too sick.”
“You taught your brothers and sisters to think about others, to be considerate of others’ feelings and thoughts. They aren’t good at it yet, but they’re improving. You taught your mother and father to realize that they cannot control everything, that they need to rely on someone bigger and better and stronger and wiser. Those are very important things to learn.”
Delia felt confused, “But I haven’t taught them any lessons.”
“Not like your Miss Twissletwit. But there are different kinds of lessons. You teach them just by being there, by being you. You teach them bravery and goodness when you don’t feel good and still smile and do nice things for them. You teach them patience by sitting in your chair every day, and gratefulness, when you say thank you for the smallest things. You change them for the better. Because of you, they go out and likewise change others, and on and on. So really, you are quite pivotal.”
“Oh.” Delia had never thought that people might need her. She always seemed to need them for everything; it was nice to be needed in return.
“But Dandy,” she said, “It’s so terribly hard living there. I feel so awful all the time. I’m left out of things. I’m lonely. And I- I just don’t understand why it has to be that way for me.”
Dandy folded his leafy arms over his leafy knees, like sepals over a rosebud, “Life is made of mysteries, darling dear, most to which you won’t find the answers. But it’s not for you to try and search them all out. All you are to do is the best with what you are given, and someday, someday, the King of all Goodness will show you the answers and you will see that every little bit made sense after all.”
Delia frowned, “I don’t much like waiting.”
Dandy laughed, “No human does! But it will be worth it in the end, all the same, you’ll see. The King said so. And if ever there is one to be trusted, it’s him.”
Delia pondered this quietly on the banks of the creek for a long while, splashing her feet in the pink water, enjoying the delicious way the bubbles tickled her toes. She thought about her life before, how when she needed help, her father would see it done, her mother would dote on her, and her brothers and sisters would bring her little presents. They always made sure she was well taken care of. It would have been terrible if she had needed them, and they hadn’t been there.
“I think Dandy,” Delia swallowed hard, “I think I should go back. I can’t fully enjoy Dreamland, knowing someone needs me there.”
Dandy nodded soberly, but his throat wobbled too much to speak. The tiger lily sun began to set on Dreamland, casting rays of orange and glittery gold across the land. Dandy led Delia to a bed of purple wisteria fronds and snuggled her in warm. The stars soon filled the night sky, dazzlingly bright, like sugar crystals in the heavens. As Delia blinked sleepily, Starlight wafted through the valley, her voice weaving an angelic lullaby.
Dandy sat beside Delia and stroked her hair with his cool, leaf hands, and just as she was drifting into slumber, he whispered in her ear, “Because of your selfless choice, my dear, I’ll grant you an amendment. Every full moon, I’ll return for you, that you may have one glorious day in Dreamland. Until then, feel each small joy, my child. Sleep now, sleep.”
Delia was awakened by a kiss on her nose. The nursery was filled with the indigo haze of predawn, and beside her bed stood Winnie, glancing furtively over her little shoulders. A sly grin spread over her chubby cheeks, and she pulled a jam jar from beneath her pinafore.
“Let’s you and me eat it, Delia, before Miss Twitty wakes up!”
Delia struggled to sit up. The aches had returned to her frail, pallid body, but so had love.
Delia took one of the spoons from Winnie’s sticky fingers, and as she dipped it into the blueberry jam, she noticed by her pillow a single dandelion flower.