The teachers agreed. Even they spent only the time necessary with her—nothing more; nothing less.
“It’s not her fault,” her mother, Emma, would say.
On this day, Principal Latimar called an all-too-familiar meeting about Madeleine.
Emma Thornburton walked into his office, held up her hand and said, “Madeleine has been through a lot with her father’s passing. She is a sensitive, kind child. Why can’t you let her be?”
“She’s threatened Charlie Banks.”
“Well, she told her teacher Charlie choked a young dog.”
“And what did the teacher do?”
“The teacher asked Charlie. He said he hadn’t, and Madeleine was lying.”
“And you believed Charlie?”
“Mrs. Thornburton, she told a group of her classmates she owned an invisible horse named Dru, fairies lived in the woods behind your home, and her best friend is a ghost named Lacy. These are just three examples of her lying. So, yes, the teacher believed Charlie.”
“So why am I here?”
“Madeleine told Charlie he would be punished for hurting the puppy. Next thing you know, Charlie took a tumble off the slide and broke his arm.”
“That’s not Madeleine’s fault!”
“Charlie said she made it happen.”
“How? Charlie outweighs Madeleine by at least twenty pounds. He could have fought her off!”
“She told Charlie he broke his arm because he hurt one of God’s innocent creatures. So her ghost-friend Lacy pushed him. Now all the children are going to the teacher telling her Madeleine says they will be punished, too, for not telling the truth about Charlie and the puppy. We can’t have this kind of behavior. It’s affecting her entire class.”
Emma Thornburton nodded. “I understand. I’ll take care of it.”
“You best. Otherwise, Madeleine will be suspended until you get her some mental help.”
Emma Thornburton sighed. “Thank you, Principal Latimar.”
Shame, frustration and despair overwhelmed Emma as she left his office. When she felt this kind of despair, which was often with Madeleine’s antics, she shopped.
Emma looked at her watch. “Thank goodness they are keeping Madeleine in school today. I have an hour.”
Emma jumped into her silver Toyota Camry and took off—maybe a little too fast.
She returned just as the bell rang. She smiled as she looked in the rearview mirror at her new prize: a small, stone statue of a regal cat. “It will be perfect in my backyard!”
She watched Madeleine coming toward the car and groaned.
“There she is, alone and talking to someone who isn’t there. What is wrong with my child?”
Madeleine settled into the backseat.
Emma said, “I met with Principal Latimar today.”
Madeleine’s rosy pink cheeks turned white. “You know about Charlie?”
“Yes. And I know you are scaring the entire class.”
“He hurt that puppy, Mama! I saw him.”
“No one else did. They think you made it up. I think you made it up, too.”
“Did you push Charlie off the slide?”
“How did he fall? And why did he blame you?”
“He was being punished for hurting the puppy,” Madeleine whispered.
“Yes! God punishes those who hurt the innocent!”
“Really, Madeleine? You know that’s not the way the world works. Otherwise, the person who left your dad on the side of the road to die would have been found and punished. That didn’t happen, did it?”
“Maybe it did. But daddy wasn’t like a puppy.”
“No! He was better.”
“Yes, Mama,” Madeleine whispered.
“You must stop telling all these tales. You MUST!”
“They aren’t tales Mama. They are the truth!”
“THAT’S ENOUGH! I don’t want to hear another thing about fairies and ghost friends, do you hear me? You won’t mention any of these things at school. Do you understand?”
“But people need to know Mama! People need to stop hurting the little ones! That’s what God wants!”
“I told you. There is no God. Your dad would still be here if there was.”
Madeleine looked at her hands.
“You aren’t allowed to go into the woods anymore.”
“Why not! My friends won’t understand if I don’t visit them!”
“You are making up all these so-called friends Madeleine! Stop it. Now. Do you want to end up in the loony bin like your Aunt Della? DO YOU?”
“No ma’am,” Madeleine murmured.
“And you must stop telling your classmates they are going to be punished.”
“But they need to know. If they are sorry then they won’t be!” Madeleine crossed her arms and burrowed into the seatback. She looked to her right.
“Oh, Mama. This statue is beautiful! It looks real.”
Madeleine touched the cold stone. “I think it could be real.”
She leaned forward and pulled on the back of the passenger seat. “Can I name it?”
“Do you promise to stay out of the woods?”
“Then you can name it.”
Madeleine looked deep into the lifeless eyes. She turned to her mother. “The cat wants to be named Fantasia.”
“As if you need to be reminded of any fantasy thinking,” Emma answered.
“Please. It’s what it wants.”
“It’s what you want. Right?”
Madeleine studied her pink and white sneakers.
“Madeleine you must be responsible. It is you who want to name this cat. Right?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s a start. You can name it Fantasia.”
Madeleine smiled and petted the stone. “I know you are pleased, Fantasia,” she whispered in the stone cat’s ear.
Emma took the concrete statue to the garden and placed it on a bench overlooking the pond.
The cat stared straight ahead, seeing something Madeleine only wished she could.
She sat next to the statue. “Do you see a better life out there somewhere?”
The cat continued to gaze into the distance.
Madeleine threw her arms around the cat. “I wish you were real. You look so wise. Maybe you could tell me how to make Mama understand. Maybe you’d help her believe there is a God.”
Madeleine forgot about venturing into the woods. On the days when loneliness threatened to engulf her in everlasting darkness, she spent hours with the stone cat who stared at the horizon.
Many days Madeleine tried to follow its gaze. All she saw were the trees. Trees that surrounded the home and housed her friends.
“They are not imaginary,” Madeleine said to the cat. “They miss me. I miss them, too. But I have you now. So it’s not so bad.”
The cool of autumn gave way to winter’s icy breath.
In spite of the cold, Madeleine visited Fantasia every day.
“Put on your coat!” Emma would scream as she scurried for the door after finishing her homework.
Day after day Emma Thornburton watched her odd child through the kitchen window. Worry and anger turned to despair. She’s getting worse. Now she’s obsessed with the cat. She’ll never be normal. It’s time to ask for help.
Emma made Madeleine’s favorite dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. She watched her small child eat. Tears filled her eyes. This may be the last time I get to spend a dinner with her.
Emma straightened her back in determination. “We’re going for a ride tomorrow.”
“We are going to visit Aunt Della.”
Madeleine’s eyes grew wide. “I don’t want to go.”
“You are going. And to be honest, it is time for you to stay a little while in the same place. I can’t help you. Maybe someone else can turn you into a normal child.”
“NO!” Madeleine cried.
“Yes!” Her mother answered. “And say your goodbyes to the cat. It won’t be here when you come home.”
Madeleine burst into tears and ran from the house. She threw her arms around the cat, put her head on its cold stone shoulder and sobbed. “She can’t take you away! What will I do without you?”
For a moment, just for a moment, Madeleine thought she felt warmth through the stone. She touched the shoulder again. It was cold.
Madeleine dangled her legs from the bench swinging them back and forth in a scissor-like motion. She stopped moving.
“I know! We will go into the woods. My friends will know what to do. Then you’ll be safe!”
Madeleine waited for the house to go dark. She tiptoed to the kitchen. “I’ll need something to eat.”
At eight Madeleine’s cooking skills were limited. She pushed a spindle-backed, pine chair from the table to the cabinet. She inched the cabinet door open and grabbed a jar of peanut butter. She pulled the white bread from the breadbox and made herself two sandwiches. She stuck them in her small backpack. “There.”
She put on her heaviest coat and winter boots over the thermals, jeans and sweater she’d worn to bed. She grabbed her mother’s fleece-lined leather gloves.
“She’ll take me away for sure when I get back. But Fantasia is worth it!”
Madeleine held her breath. She pulled the latch on the door, opening it inch by inch to avoid the loud squeal. One squeak escaped. Madeleine held her breath and listened.
No movement in the house.
She ran for the tool shed.
Madeleine wrestled a wheel barrow free from its spot by the door. She struggled to keep it upright and set its wheel on the path. She made her way to the stone bench.
Madeleine put her tiny arms around the cat and lifted. “Oomph.” Too heavy.
She searched the darkness. She spotted an old board leaning on the back fence.
Madeleine dragged it over and placed it between the bench and the wheelbarrow. She managed to scoot the cat onto the board. Gravity did the rest.
Madeleine guided the pushcart unsteadily toward the woods. My woods, she thought.
She came to an old White Oak. She smiled up at the tree.
“Oh, I’ve missed you.” She threw her arms around it.
“You’ll be safe here, Fantasia. The oak will make sure of it. I’ll visit when I can.”
Madeleine turned to leave.
A tall, bronze man stood in front of her.
“Oh. Hello. You scared me!”
The man smiled.
“You aren’t one of those bad men who hurt animals and children, are you?”
“No.” White wings opened from his sides and spread wider than the oak tree.
“I guess you must be an angel?”
“Yes. I am.”
“Why are you here now? I’ve never seen you before.”
“Well, I’m your guardian angel. I’m here to take you home.”
“I can get home by myself. It’s that way.” Madeleine pointed down the path she travelled.
“Not that home. Your home in Heaven.”
“Yes. You see, you were only supposed to be on this earth a short time.”
“Well, God made you special. He made you to see things others cannot. He gave you a protective spirit—even though you are so young. You have been brave. Ridiculed and punished for telling the truth. Yet you gave a voice to many of God’s small creatures.”
Madeleine looked around her. Snow Rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and even a red fox peeked out from behind the White Oak. She smiled.
“God wants you to come to heaven now and help with his creatures there.”
“Oh, ok. But what about Fantasia?” Madeleine looked into the wheelbarrow. It was empty. “Fantasia!” Madeleine cried, tears spilling down her cheeks.
“Madeleine,” the Angel said.
She looked up at his kind face.
“I am Fantasia.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes. All those days of your life where you were hurt by others, where you felt completely isolated and alone and thought the darkness would swallow you, I was there.”
“I knew you were real!”
“You are loved, Madeleine. Let’s go home.”
The Angel held out his hand.
Madeleine tentatively took hold of it. She nodded.
The sky glowed a brilliant blue as they shot like stars into the dark canopy.
A small child’s boot tracks and the unmistakable footprints of a large cat remained.
Emma Thornburton searched for Madeleine. She found the footprints at the tree. And nothing else. She searched the woods every day for over a year.
Guilt overtook Emma. It crushed her. She could not stop reliving the last words she said to Madeleine. She eventually checked herself into the asylum where she would have put her child. She died there. Some say of a broken heart; others say of a guilty one.
It is said that even today, when there is a heavy snow and the moon is high, a child’s laughter is heard at the old oak tree. And if you listen closely you will hear the soothing sound of a purr. A purr that touches the heart and heals the mind. And on those cold, bitter days, a small set of boot prints and cat paws appear as if invisible beings are walking. They stop at the old oak tree, then disappear as if they never were. Just like Madeleine and her cat.