Once Upon a Time

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The air raid sirens go off at midnight. I help the matron hurry the children out of their beds and out to the shelter, hushing the few that have already begun to cry. Many of them know where to go, what to do. We’ve practiced this enough times, and this is not our first night sleeping on the dirty cots in the underground bunker. For us, the war has been a long one. Sometimes I think it will last forever.

I carry the youngest down the steps. A few of the older ones are excited, bouncing on the cots, scattering pillows and cushions as they avidly discuss our chances of emerging in the morning to a bombed out facility and no home. The smaller ones, the more timid, are crying softly. The matron leaves one of them to cling to my skirts and hurries to scold the ones on the beds and smooth the covers.

I gather the children to me, clustered into a corner out of the matron’s way. One of the bare bulbs has gone out already, the rest are weak. The room is filled with shadows. I can see the fear in the children’s pale faces, in their wide eyes, in their too-thin frames. They are too young for this fear, too young to be rushed out of their beds in the middle of the night to hide from bombs and hate. I take a deep breath and say the bravest thing I know how, the only thing that may help now, “Once upon a time . . .”

Instantly, every eye in the room is on me. They gather to me like chicks, and I push down my own fear and tell them stories until they fall asleep on the bed or curled up at my feet. Stories to keep back the night, to shut out the sirens and the bombs, the hate and the fear. Stories to let them be children again.

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