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Once upon a time there was a little girl called Rosalie. She had blue eyes, curly red hair and a bright, sunshiny smile. She was a happy little girl. She liked to run and play ball and wrestle with the other children. She also liked to dress up in fancy clothes and go to parties at the palace. She got to do that a lot, since her father and mother were the King and Queen.
Her whole family lived in a big castle, and it was fun being a princess. But sometimes Rosalie felt sad. Usually, she had a good reason to feel that way, like the time her dog ran away or when somebody she cared about was angry with her. But, at other times, she just felt sad for no reason at all. Everybody feels that way sometimes, and when Rosalie did, she knew just what to do.
She would climb to the very top of the highest tower in the castle. That’s where her secret room was. From up there, she could look out all the way to the sea. The room was her very own special hiding place.
One day Rosalie was sitting in her secret place feeling lower than low. Nothing had gone right for her that morning. She had left her clothes in a heap on the floor the night before, so when she got up, they were all wrinkled. When she had finally gotten most of the wrinkles smoothed out, she realized that she had lost one of her shoes. By the time she found it under her bed and was all ready to go out, she was too late!
This was the day she was supposed to have breakfast with her grandmother, the Old Queen. But when she arrived at her grandmother’s room, she was told that the Old Queen was resting and could not be disturbed. One of the ladies-in-waiting had suggested that Rosalie come back at lunch.
Rosalie was disappointed. She had been looking forward to this visit for days, and now she had missed it! Rosalie loved her grandmother. Most people were afraid of the Old Queen, but not Rosalie. She knew her grandmother could be very stern and bossy and she liked to tell people what to do, sometimes in a very loud voice. People were so afraid of her that all the Old Queen had to do was look at them in a certain way and they would hurry to do whatever she wanted.
But it was different with Rosalie. When the two of them were alone, her grandmother would hold Rosalie on her lap, telling her stories and singing songs that only the two of them knew. The Old Queen never seemed to get tired of Rosalie or annoyed with her, as all the other grownups did from time to time. She knew her grandmother loved her very, very much.
That was what made Rosalie sad as she sat up in her secret room. You see, her grandmother had been sick for a long time, and the day before, Rosalie had heard her father and mother say that the Old Queen might not live much longer.
That broke Rosalie’s heart. In her head she knew that every living thing dies, but she had never thought about what it would be like if her grandmother wasn’t with her anymore. Thinking about that made Rosalie cry.
As she cried, she remembered all the times when she was upset and her grandmother had said to her, “There, there, my Rosa. Cry your little heart out. Cry all the hurt away.” She would hold Rosalie in her arms, pat her hair, and rock her softly back and forth.
Now, as Rosalie cried alone up in her tower, she started rocking herself in the same way her grandmother had done. Before long, she had rocked herself to sleep.
Well, maybe she was asleep and what happened next was just a dream. But when Rosalie raised her head and opened her eyes, in front of her on the stone sill of the tower window was the most beautiful bird she had ever seen! It was as large as her grandmother’s rocking chair and as white as the fluffiest cloud on a summer day. A glow surrounded its smooth feathers and its eyes were a cool blue. And it had the longest and most elegant tail a bird could ever have.
Rosalie was so surprised that she gasped. Startled, the bird flew away at once, but in a moment or two, it was back on the window sill. It looked right at Rosalie and began to sing the most beautiful bird song that anyone could ever hear.
Rosalie didn’t know where the bird had come from, but right away she knew what to do. She climbed onto its back and clung to its snowy feathers. Before she could think another thought, she flew right out the window, riding on this wondrous creature! Rosalie didn’t know where they were going, but somehow she sensed that the bird had come to be her friend. And she knew its name. The beautiful bird was Angeline.
At first Rosalie was frightened to be so high in the air. When she looked down and saw the palace far below, she shut her eyes and held on even tighter to Angeline. But after a while, she began to enjoy the sound of the wind rushing past her ears. She liked the up-and-down motion of Angeline’s wings as they flew. And the warmth and strength of the bird’s downy body made Rosalie feel safe. So she opened her eyes and began to enjoy the ride.
As they flew, she could see the grounds that surrounded the castle. There was the brook where she would sometimes go fishing with her sisters. And there were the fields where the farmers were plowing and planting. A flock of sheep was grazing on the hillside and the shepherd boy was asleep under a tree.
Rosalie and Angeline flew over the woods beyond the fields. Rosalie could almost touch the treetops with her toes. On and on they flew, all the way to the sea. There she could see the fishing boats and the men and women repairing their nets on the beach. She watched two little girls who were supposed to be helping with the nets, but were playing tag with the waves in the surf instead.
That reminded Rosalie of how much fun she’d had last summer when she’d come to the seashore with her grandmother. They had played and laughed and told each other stories. They had walked along the shore collecting sea shells and telling secrets. Oh, how Rosalie loved her grandmother! She knew she would miss the Old Queen so much. She missed her already.
Rosalie never said a word to Angeline, but just as soon as the girl began thinking about her grandmother, lying sick in bed back at the castle, Angeline turned around. And, in just two beats of her great wings, they were back flying over the castle. As they passed the window to her secret room in the tower, Rosalie thought she could see herself lying in the room, sound asleep. How can that be? she thought. For here I am flying outside. By now, it didn’t seem strange at all to Rosalie that she was flying.
But she quickly forgot about seeing herself because Angeline had flown right into the window of her grandmother’s bedroom! The Old Queen’s lady-in-waiting was asleep in a chair beside the bed. Somehow, Rosalie knew that even if the woman had been awake, she would not have been able to see the girl or the beautiful white bird. Rosalie knew, without knowing how she knew, that when she was with Angeline, they were both invisible!
Rosalie’s grandmother lay on the bed. At first, the girl thought she was asleep. But as Rosalie came nearer to the bed, the Old Queen opened her eyes slowly and smiled.
“Ah, my little Rosa. I am so happy to see you,” the old woman said softly. “And you have brought a friend,” she added, smiling at Angeline.
Even though Rosalie knew that she and Angeline were invisible, it didn’t surprise her that her grandmother could see them. It was just another secret they shared. Rosalie climbed up onto the bed and snuggled close to her grandmother.
She knew that if anyone else could see her they would scold her and tell her not to bother the Old Queen. But she also knew that her grandmother wanted to be cuddled and hugged just as much as Rosalie did.
As they lay there, Rosalie rested her head on her grandmother’s chest. She could hear the Old Queen’s heart beating. It sounded very weak and tired.
Finally Rosalie said, “I heard them say you are going to die, Grandmother. Is that true?”
“Why, yes it is, Rosa,” replied her grandmother. “In fact, I have been dying for some time now. It’s rather pleasant.”
Rosalie was confused. She felt so many feelings all at once. She was surprised and angry because she hadn’t really believed that the Old Queen would die. She was afraid because everyone said death was a terrible, scary thing. She felt sad because she knew that when people die, they aren’t there anymore and she didn’t want her grandmother to leave her. And she couldn’t understand why her grandmother didn’t seem scared or sad. Rosalie felt so confused that she started to cry.
Her grandmother held her close and stroked her hair in the way she always did when Rosalie was upset.
“There, there, little Rosa,” she said. “Don’t be afraid. Remember when we were at the seashore and told secrets?”
Rosalie wanted to tell the Old Queen that she and Angeline had just been to that very same seashore and that remembering the fun they’d had was what brought them back to her room. But she just said, “Uh-huh,” and sniffed.
“Well,” said her grandmother, “I am going to tell you the best secret of all! Soon I am going to die. But do you know why I am not afraid? It is because I know what death is. And it’s wonderful!”
This didn’t make any sense to Rosalie. She knew what death was. It was when you are cold and stiff and they bury you in the ground and you aren’t there anymore. That didn’t seem wonderful at all!
“Oh, no,” said her grandmother, as if Rosalie had spoken her thoughts aloud. “Death is just a doorway to a wonderful place! It’s not a place you can take your body, but I have visited there, and it is the most beautiful place you can imagine, Rosa!”
“If you can’t take your body,” said Rosalie, still sniffling a little, “how did you go there?” She knew her grandmother would never tell her something that wasn’t true, but Rosalie just didn’t understand.
“Sometimes,” said her grandmother, “when a person is very near death, she can leave her body for a little while and visit the place beyond dying. Her body stays behind in a very deep sleep,” replied the Old Queen. “But the spirit–the thing that makes me who I am, and makes you who you are–that goes to the new, special place.”
Rosalie thought about the times when her grandmother had been asleep for days and days and everyone said she was in a coma. She thought about the times when the Old Queen was awake but didn’t remember where she was or even who Rosalie was. The little girl wondered if this was when her grandmother had left her body behind to go visit that special place.
The old woman began to speak again, but this time she was speaking to Angeline, who had fluttered over from the window sill and was now perched at the foot of the bed.
“Thank you for coming, Angeline. I know you will be a great help to my little Rosa.”
Rosalie was surprised. “Do you know Angeline, Grandmother?”
“Oh, yes,” replied the Old Queen. “You see, Rosa, Angeline lives in that special place I was telling you about. I knew that my dying might make you feel sad and lonesome, so I asked Angeline to come to you. I wanted you to have a special friend to play with when I go.”
Rosalie liked the idea of having Angeline for her friend. She had enjoyed flying over the countryside on the big bird. Perhaps we can go on adventures together, she thought. “Will Angeline come to me whenever I call her?” Rosalie asked.
“Well,” replied her grandmother, “most of the time she will visit you while you are asleep. But if you ever need her help, just think of her, and she will come to you, to remind you of how much I love you.”
Rosalie reached over and touched the soft feathers on the bird’s breast. As she did, Angeline began to coo. She sounded almost like a kitten purring. But then the girl turned back to her grandmother.
“Angeline is a wonderful gift and a fine friend. But, Grandmother, I don’t want you to go!” She held the old woman tightly and began to cry again.
After she was all cried out, her grandmother said softly, “I know you don’t want me to go, Rosa. But I must go. I love you so much. I love you more than you will ever know. But even my love for you cannot keep me in this life when it’s time for me to move on to the next one.
“You are so young. Right now it seems to you that this life is all there could possibly be. Many very old and wise people think that, too. But, Rosa, this life–where you are born, grow up, live and die–is just a small part of what life really is. It is a very important part, but a small one. There is so much more. And now, it’s time for me to go on to the next part.”
“Then I want to go, too!” cried Rosalie. “I want to go to that wonderful place! Please take me,” the little girl pleaded. “I want to go with you!”
The Old Queen smiled and hugged Rosalie closer. “Rosa,” she said, “do you remember the time when your older brothers were going hunting and you wanted to go with them?”
Rosalie remembered that day well. She had cried and pleaded and fussed so much that they had finally said she could go with them. What a terrible time she’d had! The big boys walked so fast that she had to run to keep up with them. And when she wanted to rest, they told her she was being a baby.
She had been cold and hungry and tired. And she didn’t like it when they killed the deer. By the time they got home, she was miserable. Yet her brothers said that it had been a wonderful hunt and they couldn’t wait to go again! To make matters worse, she learned that her sisters had all been allowed to play hide and seek in the orchard. That was Rosalie’s very favorite game and she had missed it! But what did that have to do with this?
“Rosa,” her grandmother said, “if you went with me now, think of all the games you would miss here. Besides, Child, it just isn’t your turn to go yet. You are not finished here.” She gazed lovingly at Rosalie and continued, “But I am.”
Rosalie thought that her grandmother had never looked more like a queen than at this moment.
Held close in the old woman’s arms, the little girl felt that she was waiting for something, but she didn’t know what it was. The Old Queen closed her eyes and her breath sort of slipped away. Inside her chest, the weak, tired heart slowed down and, finally, stopped.
Just then, Angeline rustled her feathers and flew over to the window sill. Rosalie was so startled by the sound that she looked up. Angeline began to sing a lovely song. And just outside the window, Rosalie could see her grandmother . . . flying! But when Rosalie looked back down on the bed, she was surprised to find that her grandmother’s body was still there.
From outside the window, her grandmother called, “I love you, Rosa.”
“Wait!” cried Rosalie. “I want to come with you!”
“Climb onto Angeline, Little One,” her grandmother said. “She will take you part of the way with me.”
Rosalie did as she was told. This time she didn’t feel the slightest bit afraid to be flying so high.
“Isn’t this wonderful, Rosa?” said her grandmother with a light laugh. “I feel as free and strong as a girl!” They flew together, toward the sun. Rosalie thought the bright light would make her eyes sting, but it didn’t hurt at all. But as they flew closer and closer to the light, her grandmother was getting farther and farther away from Rosalie.
“Grandmother!” she called into the light. She could no longer see anything but the light.
“I love you, Rosa!” she heard her grandmother say. The Old Queen’s voice sounded far away and at the same time right inside of Rosalie’s head. “I love you, Rosa! I love you, Rosa! I love you, Rosa!”
And then the light became so bright that Rosalie had to close her eyes.
When Rosalie opened them again, she was back in her little room in the tower, all alone. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, feeling very strange. She knew she had been dreaming but couldn’t quite recall the dream. She thought she remembered something about flying like a bird and going to the beach with her grandmother.
Suddenly she remembered that she was supposed to have lunch with the Old Queen! “Oh, dear,” she said to herself. “I hope I’m not too late again!”
She ran to the window to see if she could judge the time by the sun. She felt surprised that the bright sunlight hurt her eyes and she had to look down. And there, on the window sill, she saw something. She didn’t know why it seemed important, but she knew that it was. So she picked it up, and it made her feel peaceful and happy. It was a single, perfect, white feather.
Rosalie hurried down the tower steps. Her shoes clicked loudly on the cobblestones as she ran across the courtyard to the Old Queen’s apartments. When she came in the front door, she ran right into her father, the King, who scooped her up in his arms.
“Please, Father, I want to see Grandmother! I’m sorry I’m late. Please may I go in? I want to show her this feather I’ve found.”
Instead of answering her or scolding her for being late, her father kissed her. Then Rosalie’s mother came up, and, together, the parents told the little princess that her grandmother had died.
After that, Rosalie didn’t hear anything they said. She could only look at the white feather she held in her fingers. She wasn’t sad or surprised. In fact, she felt strangely happy. Her father carried her into the Old Queen’s room so Rosalie could see her grandmother’s body and say goodbye.
With the King holding her snug in his arms, she looked down at her grandmother’s face. I have seen her like this before, thought Rosalie. And as she gazed at the body of the Old Queen, she knew that her grandmother wasn’t inside of it anymore.
Some women were crying, and then her mother said, “She loved you so much, Rosalie. Why, her very last words were about you. She said, ‘I love you, Rosa.’”
Inside her own heart, Rosalie was aware of the deepest love she had ever known. Then she began to cry. She cried harder and longer than she had ever cried before. But she never let go of the beautiful white feather. And when she had finished crying, she felt happier and lighter than she had ever felt before.
Rosalie kept the feather for a long, long time.
© Patricia Rose Grigadean, 1988
Illustration by Ric Cruz