Some developmental psychologists say that pre-speech, babies don’t think in a way that we would qualify as “thinking.” That may be true, but Olivia learned listening early.
She could see stories the way sailors can eye the sea and the wind and know without hesitating where one wave will crash and another will rise. Olivia could see stories as if they were maps laid before her in a second world that existed physically only because she was aware of it.
That is, in fact, how I came to exist. Like so many other beings, she imagined me out of vibrating air.
Her parents told magnificent stories. They sent her mind arching and diving through lands made of food and lands where animals spoke, lands under ground and lands where the small was big, the big was small and even one that had only a single tree, a single glorious tree in all the world. And they read to her.
She grew so practiced at imagining that when she began to speak, certain characters she had created, characters like me, never left her side. We trailed along, existing because she had thought of us, because she imagined with such power that we went on existing even after we were forgotten.
In the beginning, I could not understand the rules of the real world. I did not know that the food I ate was imagined, or that when I climbed a tree and fell, I would only be hurt if she thought it so. Sometimes I was a mermaid and it became very difficult to move about. Sometimes I was a dog or a bear and I felt inexplicably happy or hungry or clumsy because I could not always see my own form.
Later, her mind tamed and I began to understand my own world better. I became more static – at least in shape. She made me into a little girl like herself, but older and wiser so that I might advise her. I was always very tall.
There was a moment, though, when I realized how different Olivia and I were from one another.
It was late at night and we were awake. She was lying in bed, not more than six years old, I think, and I was wandering the house, waiting for a dream. Her dreams were like standing on a waterfall, then: gorgeous so long as they weren’t terrifying.
I went to the basement, thinking I might ward off the terrors of the deepest dark, that I could be brave for her while she dozed. But down in the basement, a band was playing. I stared, wondering if a dream had begun, if my girl upstairs had drifted off and joined me here. But, no, these were not the characters of her type, and I could feel her still awake upstairs.
A tall woman, in sharp profile, played the piano. She wore jeans and cowboy boots and her hair was shiny brown and long over her shoulders. There were two men seated facing me. One beat a box turned drum and the other played an old guitar. And there, in the middle of the room, was a campfire.
It dawned on me that the scene was imagined. It was in my world. Somehow it was shocking. I had a world. It was separate. Olivia was not here.
The men spotted me and stopped playing. The woman stopped, too, and glanced over her shoulder,
I must have looked horribly surprised. She smiled and turned, drawing her legs over the piano bench to face the fire and me.
“You must be Olivia’s friend,” she said. “You’ve grown.”
“Come sit with us.” She smiled and gestured to a stump sitting on the basement floor in front of the fire.
I couldn’t believe it. I could feel Olivia drifting into sleep – it made me dizzy – and I knew this was not hers. It would be a few minutes before she whisked me away to her dream.
Even though the band was watching me and had stopped playing entirely, I could hear the echo of music, almost as if the notes were escaping from the woman’s big hands clasped and still on her lap.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Can’t you tell?”
I examined these three adults. I looked at their faces and their eyes. They were so relaxed.
“Oh,” I said, “you’re her mom’s friends.”
It was the first time I collided with another person’s imagination.