By John Thomas Tuft

Frannie stopped talking the day her mother died. When you are five years old and your world is shattered, the desire to engage with it can disappear altogether. Her father, a college professor at a small college in a little town in central Pennsylvania, tried everything he could think of to help Frannie start speaking again, but to no avail. His own loss carved a hole in his heart that he kept threatening to fall into, but having to be there for Frannie kept him just teetering on the edge. Frannie insisted that the only clothing she could wear was the Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger costume, with the cute tail, that her mother made for Halloween. Daddy spent every evening after putting her to bed, sitting in the darkened living room listening to Iron and Wine sing The Trapeze Swinger, over and over. He had phone calls and notes from Frannie’s teacher at school, complaining that once in class she was putting on the black domino mask, but he did not see any harm in that.

The only food Frannie would eat was macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. Every single night. When it became necessary, as it always does, for Daddy to wash the costume or bathe Frannie, the only way she could tolerate either was to keep the mask on her face. So, there would be Frannie silently storming around the house in her underwear and mask while the washer and dryer took forever, or sitting in the tub, mask on, antsy to get the torture over with and get back into Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger’s skin. Daddy would sigh and mutter, “I’m a ghost to you, you’re a ghost to me” hoping, I suppose, that his dearly departed wife could hear his yearning, as he tried his best to care for their little girl.

Thanksgiving came and went without anyone giving thanks. Frannie sat in silence every day in school, writing what answers she knew and ignoring those she did not, as most of us do. The other kids teased her about always looking like Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger with a black domino mask(think Lone Ranger), but they simply did not understand. Daniel is a shy Tiger, quiet, questioning, and always honest. And the mask meant nothing of Frannie could leak out by accident and disappear like her mother had done. With the end of the semester meaning he was busier, Daddy hired a college student, Angela, to watch Frannie after school. Angela respected Frannie’s desire to get through life at her silent pace and kind of liked macaroni and cheese and hot dogs herself. She did add green beans to the menu, however.

Each day when Frannie got home, after a snack, Angela took her on a walk into the woods near the house. Sometimes she talked to Frannie, telling her stories, or telling her about the different birds and plants. And other times she simply walked with Frannie, seeming to understand the necessity of wearing a Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger costume to remember who you are and a black domino mask to keep any part of you from leaking out and disappearing like someone that you loved very much. One day on the walk, Frannie found a wounded bunny. She carefully scooped it up and took it home. There Angela helped her feed it with a dropper and bandage its wounds. And keep it safe and warm to heal. The next day, she found a wounded bird. Frannie cradled it in her hands all the way home to care for it, keep it safe so it could heal.

And so it went. The next day a tiny chipmunk, with a cut on a back leg. Then an utterly cantankerous baby blackbird, followed shortly by a garter snake who couldn’t bend. One by one, the girl in the Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger skin and the black mask, brought another wounded animal home and nursed them as though each was her own. A squirrel with a broken leg, a spider that might have been blind, a turtle who could only walk in circles and even a mangy puppy she named King Friday and a starving kitten she named Lady Elaine. Daddy tolerated this growing menagerie in the basement while he sat in the darkened living room each night wondering if he would ever again feel safe and warm enough to heal.

Christmas morning, Daddy awoke to a murmuring commotion out in front of the house. He looked out the window and gasped. Cars had stopped and people were gathered, staring at the large cardboard box in the front yard. He ran outside to see for himself. The box lay on its side. Inside, on one side sat King Friday, on the other Lady Elaine. Staring down at a nest of cotton holding a baby squirrel and a blind spider. Gathered around were a blackbird, turtle, chipmunk and snake, among other injured souls. And watching over all was a little girl, dressed as Daniel Stripe-ed Tiger, trying her best to be Frannie. Such a hush fell on this place, that everyone around knelt there in the snow as she took off the black mask and smiled at him. “Mommy says Merry Christmas, Daddy. We love you.”

And they do. They truly do.