THE GIFT

I have a child, a daughter. Twelve years old forever. Her name is Eve and I haven’t seen her for 10 years. She would be a woman now if she still roams the earth. I haven’t seen her since a winter’s day on the beach.
If I had born a son I suspect I would have called him Adam. But I had a daughter and her name was Eve. Born in 1985 in a hospital in Byron Bay, the mid-wife passed her to me and my life began. Life had been an endurance to me. Splashes of sunlight in a dark place but that all changed with Eve, as if all parts of my life were waiting for this moment. Life was all about Eve. My husband, if he ever deserved such a title, had long abandoned me. Not for him the howling of a child or wet nappies in the bathroom. “I’m a romantic,” he informed me.
A sunny child who played in the meadows, gathering wild flowers and singing nursery rhymes, Eve had a head of red curls and the palest cheeks, dotted with magical freckles. Her eyes were the colour of topaz and just one look from those fringed jewels had me giving her whatever she desired.
While Eve was emerging from her chrysalis I discovered I could write. I wrote stories for children and made my living from it. I spent the days, Eve close by, weaving magic for young minds. Fairy stories of enchanted gardens and castles made of ice. Eve loved mythical creatures; unicorns and dragons, King Neptune in the ocean, wet and wild and mermaids. A world of hidden jewels and shipwrecks of long ago.

I missed her when she started school. Sometimes I walked past her school at recess and stole glimpses of my cherub running barefoot in the school grounds, organising the other children in their games.
Chubby fingers grew slender and white. Her curls gave way to waves and then straightened to a long band of burnished copper. The buds on her chest began to grow into breasts. She could be found always, ducking her chores, sitting on the swing in the garden, hung from the big old jacaranda. Strong ropes and timber seat. Her head in a book, sighing as I called her to sweep floors or wash dishes. Such a princess should not have to do such chores but I needed her help, I couldn’t do everything. My daughter had to help and learn the way of the world. We cannot spend all day spinning straw into gold or making daisy chains. We have work to do. She still loved my stories, begging me to write faster so she could read them.
We lived in a small cottage by the sea. Eve collected shells and pebbles from the beach. Her jewelry box groaned with them. She loved the shape of the shells and the texture of the pebbles. She would run their coolness through her fingers. She had gone to the shore to add to her collection that day. Carrying a small basket in her hand which she swung through the air, in which she would hoard her quarry. The morning was shrouded in black leaden clouds, turning the ocean gun metal-grey. I could smell a storm on its way.
“Darling, the weather looks set to turn. Please stay by the house.” I pleaded.
“Mum, you worry too much. I’ll be fine. Promise.” She smiled and left.
I sighed. “I’ll be down as soon as I’ve finished washing the dishes.”
I watched her head down to the edge of the sea while I scrubbed the breakfast bowls clean. I wiped my hands when I had finished and went to collect my shawl, wrapped it around myself and headed for the beach.
The ocean lay before me like a wide belt of mercury, the beach deserted. Had Eve evaporated like droplets of the sea, absorbed into those heavy clouds? My heart beat faster, I called her name. Only the gulls replied. Where had she gone? The beach stretched out right and left of me, as far as the eye could see. A lone figure with a dog approached.
“Did you see a girl?” I blurted out to the elderly man, white haired and smiling.
“No love. Sheba and I haven’t seen a soul this morning, have we girl?” He addressed the black Labrador by his side, as black as he was white. He continued his coast-side amble and I went back to shouting Eve’s name into the wind.
I stayed on the beach, through the breaking of the storm, I hardly noticed the rain, until cold bit into my bones. Alone on this winter’s day with no sign of Eve or her wicker basket.
I don’t think I slept for weeks after she disappeared. I wrote of lovely girls taken by jealous queens or besotted princes. Of children who sprouted wings and flew away with the birds to other realms.
One day Eve’s school mistress came to see me, wondering where her star pupil had got to. I wasn’t making much sense, the police were called. They offered a verdict of drowning. But Eve had been a strong swimmer.
I inhabited another world by then. A world of make-believe. A world of good and evil. Beautiful princesses and wicked sorceresses. I wrote fast. The stories became successful and I made a lot of money. But I rarely left the house, relying on kind neighbours to collect my groceries. The only exception was a solitary walk along the shore every morning, searching for my daughter. Calling her name into the blankness of the sky. Through winter frosts and the scent of summer. Cloudless skies and pelting rain. I found shells and pebbles, pieces of wave-worn driftwood, garlands of seaweed but no Eve.
Grief became me and I became it. The pain of her loss was sewn into the fabric of my life like fine thread. She haunted my dreams and my waking hours. Sadness seeped in and stayed. I grew thin and pale. Tears splashed and filled my home like Alice’s had. But this was no wonderland.
I lit a candle for her on her birthday. I made a wish for her safe return. Her thirteenth, fourteenth, eighteenth and twentieth years. I celebrated without gifts or parties, excited shrieks nor gasps of wonder. Only a house echoing in the emptiness and a lonely woman getting older. Would she look like me now or had she left this world a child? Did she miss me, yearn for me as I did for her?
Sometimes I think if I had called her Jane or Mary, she would be here with me still. And sometimes I think that I don’t have a daughter whose name is Eve. Maybe I fantasised those twelve glorious years. Imagined her pre-Raphaelite beauty and her love of books.
I walk on the beach ten years after I last saw her, my mind skipping and fluttering like a dancing flame. Perhaps Eve is a mermaid now. Adorned with necklaces of coral and pearl. Iridescent and ethereal. Now you see her, now you don’t. Has she become a star, burning bright and strong but many light years from now? A ghost star perhaps, burnt out long ago but still visible and alive to me. I often look up at the night sky and wonder which one is my Eve. Are the stars close together or far apart? Is she alone? Is she afraid?
I beachcombe in my favourite place, the beautiful bay where I live, the bay that may have swallowed her whole. At my feet I find a feather of pure white, as white as Eve’s face. The pebbles on the shore dot the beach like the freckles on her face. The red of the setting sun reminds me of her hair. Like a fire that licked at her face.
A white bird lands at my feet. A dove perhaps. Now I know where my feather came from. It looks at me and sings a song. Is it trying to tell me something? The sadness lifts a little, the pain is less intense. Somehow I know that Eve is alright. She is at peace, wherever she is. She has moved on and now it is my turn. The tears spring from my tired eyes like the tide coming in. I think of my beautiful girl and I know I will never forget her.
I have a daughter and her name is Eve.

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