Nana used to tell me stories when I was little. I stayed with her during the day while my parents were at work, all the way up until I went to kindergarten. I would sit at her kitchen table, happily munching away on a braunschweiger sandwich, kicking my legs that couldn’t touch the floor yet and beg her for more stories, more stories, more stories.
She had so many, but she had one in particular she told more than the others. I don’t know if it was her favorite, or mine, or both. It may have been my favorite because I could tell it was hers.
Now, it’s all I have left. The only one I remember. Some things from childhood tend to… slip away. Before you even realize they’re gone.
I want to tell it the way she told it… one last time. Because then I’m never telling it again.
Many little girls don’t know how lucky they are. Never fall victim to that way of thinking, little sparrow. I knew how lucky I was. I had my Papa.
My Papa was a good man, a strong man. My Papa was a hero, and not just in the way that a lot of daughters think their fathers are. He was a real hero.
You see, little sparrow, before I came to America, I lived in a village. It had once been small but slowly grew to a bustling, thriving place full of life and magic. I can still remember the lovely buildings, the flow of people in the streets, the pretty storefronts with their shiny glass windows. It was a beautiful village and I knew how lucky I was to live there with my Papa because my Papa protected us.
Not just my mother and I, he protected the whole village. He was a hero, as I said. Even though I loved our home, it was not always a safe place.
You see, in our village, there were monsters.
Now I don’t want to scare you, little sparrow, but do not believe the people who tell you monsters aren’t real. Monsters are very real, they are alive and well, and they often hide in plain sight.
That’s what made my Papa a hero. He could spot these monsters, find them lurking beneath their disguises of pink human skin. They seemed fine enough, normal enough, but he knew how to identify them and he taught me too.
There’s something… wrong with them. You know it right away. Something glinting in their eyes. Something in their very being. It makes the hair on your arms stand up.
I wish you could have met him, little sparrow. He was so handsome, so strong. Every day he dressed, a warrior hero going into combat, ready to save us from the monsters.
I knew they were around, you see, since my Papa had told me about them. I even saw a few and lived to tell about it. One was a child, like me, but not like me… not really. I could feel it as he stared at me from behind his monster mother while we waited in line at one of the shops. I stuck out my tongue at him but he continued to stare, dark eyes wide and glassy, nothing behind them at all.
He couldn’t hurt me, though. He probably knew who my Papa was. And besides, my Papa had taught me well.
I still had nightmares about him. The monster boy. Hiding beneath my bed, waiting for me to go to sleep so he could dig his hands into my guts and eat what was there. (I imagined that was what they did. Ate you from the inside out. It just… felt right.)
One night, when I was six years old, my mother and my Papa got into a fight. She wanted him to stop fighting the monsters. Imagine that! Stop fighting the monsters, leave our village vulnerable and exposed! She wanted that little monster boy to eat out my insides!
I used to simply favor my Papa over my mother but that night I began to hate her.
A few months later my Papa went back into battle but this time he didn’t wear his warrior clothes. He dressed like a normal man. He almost looked like one of the monsters, he was dressed so strangely.
I knew he wasn’t a monster, of course. He gave me a handsome wink and a kiss on the forehead and told me he’d be back soon, not to worry. He didn’t speak to my mother. They hadn’t been speaking for some time, if I remember just right.
That night, I could hear the monsters in the streets. There were screams. Breaking glass. The sounds of madness. The monsters were being beaten back into the darkness where they belonged and I only hoped my Papa would come home safely.
I lay awake in my bed and promised myself that if the monsters hurt my Papa I would hurt them back.
My Papa came home, though. He came home from fighting the monsters not just that one loud, frightening night, but many days and nights after that. Each time, he seemed a little weaker. A little more… broken.
I wondered if the monsters were eating my Papa from the inside out, just in a different way.
The village showed him their gratitude, though. They gave him beautiful treasures. Proof of his heroism. He accepted them with pride and kept these treasures in a shiny box of black lacquered wood. He let me look at them whenever I asked and even let me wear them.
Slowly but surely my Papa helped defeat the monsters. Even though I knew that scores were still out there, roaches skittering into musty corners of the world, he vanquished so many of them. Because he was a hero.
This went on for many years. My mother stayed in opposition with him but eventually grew quiet, sullen, a spoiled child who didn’t get her way. Even I, a child myself, could see it happening. It was as though she were a monster herself.
But time went on and once I was a teenager, most talk of the monsters had finally faded away and we left our village forever. My Papa was given a special pass to come to America. A special pass, imagine that! He had skills the Americans wanted to use — monster hunting skills, I’m sure — and so my mother and my Papa and I came to America, where eventually I met your Pop-Pop, and eventually your Daddy came along, and now there is you. My little sparrow.
For that, I am so lucky. I am lucky I had my Papa, rest his soul, to protect me from the monsters. To protect all of us. Because of my Papa, our world is a safer place.
There are no monsters lurking beneath your bed, little sparrow, and for this you can thank my Papa. The hero.
I can still see Nana’s delicately-wrinkled face lighting up as she told me her story. Every time she told it, it was the same: the monsters, her Papa the hero, his special pass to America. It never differed, she never exaggerated. In her mind, it may as well have been carved in stone.
I loved this story. So you can imagine the deep sadness I felt when I realized I can never pass it on to my own children. In fact, like I said, I can never tell it again.
Until recently, I thought this story was all I had left of my Nana. But I was wrong.
She passed last month. It took some time but I found out via a clandestine call from her lawyer that she’d named me as the beneficiary of something specific in her will. She didn’t want anyone else to know because it was so special, so sacred, another family member might steal it for themselves.
Nana left her little sparrow something quite special indeed. A black lacquered wooden box.
I don’t know what I’m going to do with my great-grandfather’s numerous Nazi medals, but I know my Nana was right about one thing. Monsters do hide in plain sight.