“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” Momma’s voice rang out shrill and off-key as I stood outside her bedroom door and peeked inside. She was in a rocking chair in her room with the baby doll I wasn’t allowed to touch wrapped tightly in a blanket. She sang to the baby doll when she was sad.
“Yes, he’s a good boy to sleep for Momma. He sleeps like he’s supposed to.” She cooed at the doll and touched its plastic face tenderly, as if it were real. For a long time I thought the baby doll was real. But it never made any noise and she left it forgotten in its crib in her room for days at a time. Eventually I realized it was just a baby doll.
Then I’d made the mistake of picking it up and rocking it, too. Momma had been very upset with me. I had gone three days without food, locked in my room.
“Sweet little baby, Momma’s joy. I’m gonna go buy you some new toys.” She sang the made-up words. She always made up words to this song. I wasn’t sure if she didn’t know the real words or if she just liked singing about what she was doing.
Then she threw the baby doll across the room and screamed, “Demon child!” over and over again as she stomped her feet. I ran back to my room as fast as I could and prayed she wouldn’t come after me.
“Della?” Woods’s voice broke into my dream and my eyes snapped open. I looked up into his concerned face.
“You okay? You were breathing hard.”
That was all? I smiled. I was okay. I could live with the memories. If the terror didn’t come with them. “I’m fine,” I assured him, and cuddled against his side. “It was just a memory.”
Woods ran his fingers up and down my arm. “Do you want to talk about them? Maybe if you told me, you would stop dreaming them altogether.”
I started to say no and stopped. I had been telling people no for years because it sent me into the darkness when I let myself think about it. But I was better now. What if I did tell him my dreams . . . what if it could actually help?
“Okay,” I said, not looking up at him. I kept my eyes on his chest. I wasn’t scared of the memories now. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to open myself up to him that completely. It would make me feel more vulnerable than I had ever felt. He would know my horrors. No one really knew them.
It was time.
Woods tightened his hold on me and I focused on the warmth of his arms. I was safe. Telling him was safe.
“She was rocking the baby doll. She always rocked the baby doll when she was in one of her dark times. She sang to it and made up words to lullabies. I knew, even at five years old, that her singing to a plastic doll was wrong. Something was wrong. So, I would watch her. She never rocked me. Seeing her rock the doll confused me. Why would she rock a plastic baby doll? The baby was a he. She called it a him. She never called it by a name. Just ‘sweet baby’ and ‘baby boy.’ That was weird, too, because the boy they’d adopted before me was never a baby when they had him.” I stopped a moment and thought about looking up at Woods to see what he was thinking. But I had more to tell and I didn’t want to watch his eyes and see his reaction.
“If she ever saw me watching her rock the baby she would yell at me and often hit me. She would tell me to be quiet, that the baby was sleeping. Or to go fix my brother some food and make sure he ate it. I hated making my brother food. I knew he’d never eat it and that it would get old and stinky before she’d finally give in and throw it away. The smell of rotten food permeated our house. I hated the stench.” I lay still in Woods’s arms. I knew that what I was telling him was disturbing. I knew it would bother him, but it was helping. He had been right. Talking about what I’d lived through with someone who loved me, not just a psychiatrist, helped.
“When she was rocking the baby doll she would eventually realize it was plastic. I never knew what it was she saw but she would start screaming demon child and she would throw it across the room like it was on fire. Then she would claw at herself and pull her hair. She would tell the doll she was sorry that she had let him go to the store. She was sorry that she hadn’t kept him safe. But then she would point and scream demon at it again. I didn’t usually watch that part except for once. It terrified me. When she started screaming I would hurry back to my room and close my door. That’s what I was dreaming about tonight. One of those moments.”
Woods let out a long, shaky breath. “Shit,” he whispered, then pressed his face to the top of my head. He didn’t say anything else. He just held me. That was what I needed the most.
It didn’t feel like I thought it would, opening myself up like that to him. I had always thought that showing someone what was inside, what had been my life, would expose me in a way that would make me unlovable. But I didn’t feel that way in Woods’s arms. He held me tightly to him and kissed my head. No other words were needed.
My eyes closed and I relaxed in his arms. I had always felt safe with Woods. That wasn’t new. But now . . . now I felt like I’d found my anchor. My entire life I’d held on to anything I thought could hold me still and keep me from going under. I had clung to Braden for years, hoping that having her would remind me I was normal. That I wasn’t in that house anymore. But even though she loved me, she had never made me feel completely secure. She couldn’t give me the grounding I needed. I thought no one would ever be able to give that to me. Not after all I’d seen and lived through. I knew now that it wasn’t true. With Woods’s arms wrapped around me and the beat of his heart pressed against my chest, I knew he would hold me steady. If I ever fell, I’d have him to catch me.