Valentine

*~*~*

Every night, there was a new story to be told.

Every night. No matter how late, no matter how tired—he would wait for her to come home, softly close the door behind her, and in the coal-dark, her braids unwound, soot drifting past her half-closed lids—into her arms he came. It was always Valentine. When he cried it was her, when he was sick—a baby, he buried his face in her neck; when there was pain. She would hold him close and calm him with the rhythm of her heart, give him his safety, bringing him by hand with her love. Always Valentine.

Seven years older on this earth was not such an enormous gap in knowledge or in strength, at least not once they were both grown-up, brave souls leaving childhood behind. Later on, maybe, she would be secure in her role of older sister. But back then, in the aching darkness of his childhood, she was everything. She knew the words to every song, the ending to every story. And every night, a new story to be told.

The myths and fables, passed down barely recognizable, and endless fairy tales, raveled and unraveled, citified—the beast an evil Bowery slumlord, Beauty a kind-hearted working girl from queens—pirates and dragons and princesses with hair of gold. Family legends from the old country that neither of them had ever known, invented fields and rolling hills in a tiny town in Italy that neither could pronounce. And the stories about their father, who hadn't been Italian at all, but a luckless Irish gambler who had died when his son was only three years old. And those were Anthony's favorite stories of all.

"What happened after that, Valentine?"

"Well, Papa leans over to me then, and he says, real loud so the whole table can hear, 'I'm gonna whisper in your ear what hand I got, Val, an' you gotta promise not to have any expression at all. Jus' keep a straight face like a told ya.' And I nodded. So he leaned over, and he said to me, real quiet, 'I got a royal flush, now keep that poker face on, kid.'"

Anthony sat up a little. "So what'd you do then?"

"Well, I couldn't help it...I let out this huge grin. The more you try to keep a straight face the harder it is to do it. You know that...every time you get a good hand, you start smilin' like the cat that ate the canary..."

"Do not."

"Do so. Anyway, the whole table realizes they're gonna lose. Everybody folds. After we collected the money an' were about to leave, I looked at papa's cards, to see what hand he had..."

"And?"

Valentine smiled, her eyes half-closed, holding back a yawn. "Two pair. Fives and threes."

Anthony laughed at that. "How old were you?"

"Oh...six, I guess."

"So I wouldn't have been born yet."

"Nope. Not for another year."

"Can you tell me about when I was born? How on th' way to the hospital--"

"Not tonight, Anthony," she said softly. "I'm tired."

It was past midnight. They were sitting up in her bed, and she slid down, resting her head wearily on the pillow. Anthony burrowed down next to her, head resting next to hers, her dark curls falling across his face, still smelling smoky from the factory air.

Opening her eyes a little, she reached up and kissed him on the forehead. "Bed now."

"Tell me another story?"

Valentine sat up, smiling, the covers heaped around her shoulders like a cloak. She reached out her arms like wings and in them she enveloped her brother. He closed his eyes, happy, and knowing in his heart that it would always be Valentine, Valentine ssh, ssh, tell me where it hurts, holding him close against her...and resting in her arms he had that safety, eyes closed, drifting, drifting.

And slowly, softly, Valentine began the story.

"Once upon a time, there was a prince..."

*~*~*