She Opened One Eye
by Aislyn Gilbert
Cynthia’s braids were way too tight. She sat all through morning service and all through brunch and all through the ride home without complaint, but even she had to admit, she was suffering. In that big gold church with rows and rows of pews and rows and rows of people and fancy hats on ladies and stained glass windows and giggling babies, Cynthia couldn’t hardly even turn her head! When she tried to to look to her mother, sitting beside her in a purple dress and dark pantyhose, the choir, in their long robes, the rows of doughnuts waiting for her in the lobby, or anything else in that place besides directly forward at the preacher, her own hair pulled her gaze back to center with all the charm of an angry rattlesnake. Now though, she was dying to get home.
“Wasn’t that just inspiring, Cynthia?” Her mama said, unlocking the doors of their beat-up silver sedan. She always said something like that after church. Just inspiring, she’d say, or I been looking for a pick-me-up, or I needed that today, baby. Her mama was the kind of woman to demand to be called Ms. Hardy, never Emelise, but hug just about everybody who looked at her long enough on Sundays.
“‘Course,” Cynthia said. “Inspiring.” Abram would’ve said something nicer, or recited a bible verse, but Cynthia didn’t. She flung herself from the car and kicked off her shoes to walk barefoot in the soft grass. Her yard was big, at least for her neighborhood, and the grass was green and long. The Big Oak took up most of the space, bigger around than she could squeeze in a hug, and much taller than her one-story, pale yellow house. Cynthia took a few steps backwards as she looked, longing for the shade.
Ms. Hardy scoffed. “You’re gonna burn your feet up if you’re not careful,” she said.
She giggled. “I’m enjoying the gifts God gave us.”
“Uh-huh, sure you are,” Her mama said, hands on her hips. “And you can continue to enjoy it after you change out of your Sunday dress.” She opened the screen door and gestured with one arm like Cynthia sometimes saw butlers do on TV. She laughed and hopped inside, leaving her little red slippers on the porch.
She always liked her house. The walls were bare and light, and the sunlight shone gold through the slats in the blinds. She could always peer through the space and see her backyard, see the weather, and decide whether or not she wanted to scramble up that large oak or stay inside and try to make friends with the sometimes curious, sometimes vicious cat. Even now, from where she stood, she could see that towering oak standing sturdy in the light breeze. Its leaves were bright, its trunk unknotted, but… Something was off about it. The branches, Cynthia thought. What’s wrong with its branches?
She rushed to her room, changing into her overalls and sandals. It wasn’t uncommon for a branch to snap in a storm or to sometimes find a mysterious newspaper caught in the leaves, but from the window, whatever it was didn’t look like some flyer for the “Old-fashioned, New-Flavored” diner down the street. Her sandals flap-flap flapped against the smooth tile as she ran to the door.
“Now where do you think you’re going without me, huh?” Her mother said, grabbing her and tickling her stomach. Cynthia squealed. The two wrestled, each trying to land tickle-attacks on the other. Somehow Cynthia managed to twist out of her mama’s grip, and she landed squarely on her back.
“Oh, and Abram’s here, baby,” She said. She prodded Cynthia with her bare foot. “So get going.” Ms. Hardy helped her up with one arm, and she brushed herself off.
“You seen the tree yet?” Cynthia said.
“The tree? Sure. It’s green, it’s big, and it’s waiting for a certain dynamic duo to finally climb all the way to the top…” She said, nudging her daughter. She pouted.
“No, Mama, I mean have you looked at it?” Cynthia held her mother by the elbow and led her outside the back screen door. “I swear, something’s different about it.”
And something was. As the two looked up at the skyscraping oak, it was suddenly very clear what had changed. A branch, one of the larger ones closest to the bottom, had grown with a perfect circle in the center. Not like the loop-de-loops on a rollercoaster, Cynthia noticed, but like a porthole. She looked around the rest of the tree. There was another, two branches up, and another, on the other side. The longer she looked, the more she saw, branches and branches and loops and loops hidden in plain sight by vibrant leaves. She ran up to inspect the tree, leaving her mother to stare at it in awe.
It was not a loop-de-loop like a rollercoaster, but like a telescope--a perfect circle in the middle of the bough.The edges were smooth, and there was no sign of someone sawing the wood or stretching it. In Cynthia’s mind, it was as if the branches began to miss each other as they grew apart, and gradually curved back into each other.
“Hi Cynthia!” A high voice said. Abram. He hopped their fence and looked between Cynthia and her mother’s shocked faces. “I knocked, but nobody answered. How was church?”
“The tree is growing in circles!” Cynthia said, pointing wildly. “How’d we never see it?”
Abram’s eyes widened as he finally saw the anomaly. He spluttered. “It’s growing in circles!” He said.
Cynthia grabbed his shoulders. “Get yourself together!” She said. She shook him.
“That just don’t make scientific sense,” he said as his head wobbled side to side. “Plants don’t grow that way. We learned it just last week in Mrs. Moreau’s class. She said--”
“Well, she’s wrong,” Cynthia said. She dropped her arms.
“Then how did…” He said, trailing off. All they could do was stare.
Besides the branches, the tree was normal. It was still the same tree she climbed on warm summer days for shade, the same tree whose flat boughs she sat on to read, or to look across the street into her neighbor’s yard. It was still just a tree. A tree with… circles in it. Sure, Cynthia thought. Just a really, really weird tree.
She moved closer, gesturing for Abram to follow, but he stayed rooted where he stood. She sighed.
“It’s just a tree, Abram.”
“But what if it ain’t?” He said. He refused to look at her, his eyes darting to the house, the leaves littered on the ground, the neighbor boys riding their tricycles up and down their driveway. “I don’t want you to fall into some kind of tree trap because of this. What if it’s like Narnia, and you find a whole other world in there?”
“What if it’s like Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and you once you learn the truth you can never ever go back to the muggle world?”
“What if!” He said. She didn’t have much to say about that.
She looked the tall trunk up and down. She wasn’t worried about any Alice in Wonderland scenarios, and she knew that even if she did get transported to a whole different world, she was obviously the scrappy heroine and would end up charming the entire alternate universe and get back home safely, having learned a lesson about life or something. At least, that’s what she always assumed.
As she approached the tree, though, her mama stopped her.
“Maybe not today, baby,” she said, looking at the tree like it might gnash its teeth at her.
“What? Mama, it’s just a tree.”
“Yes, but…” She closed her eyes. She did that sometimes when she thought about what to say next. She smiled and sighed. “You know how we Hardies are, right?”
“Hospitable?” Cynthia said, hoping she would laugh.
“Superstitious.” Her mother’s eyes were hard and flat as she looked at Cynthia, a warning look and a sad one. But she was right. Was there anybody in New Orleans that wasn’t, at least, superstitious out of habit? She sometimes saw her mama cross herself when the neighbor’s dogs started howling at night, and leave a room the same way she came in. Cynthia never ever let salt go spilt and un-tossed over her shoulder. Even Abram’s daddy dripped perfumed oils around their big brick house when Abram had those night terrors that made everybody on the cul-de-sac sweat. But Cynthia didn’t know any rules for curly-branched trees.
She agreed, though. What did she know about the powers that may be?
If there was any real magic on Earth, it was Ms. Hardy’s cooking. She could turn red beans and rice into a God-sent blessing that filled the belly and warmed the soul, and, as she liked to say, there was always “Plenty more where that came from!” But no second or third helping of any of Cynthia’s favorites could fix the feeling in the pit of her stomach. Abram stayed to eat with them (“I’d sure love some cornbread if you’ve got any to spare,” he had said, digging his bare toes into the dirt), but nobody could seem to find it in them to start up a conversation in the thirty minutes they’d been staring at each other across the dinner table.
She folded her rice over itself with her spoon, turning it round and round and round to see the same rice, same beans, same spoon she’d been seeing for eleven years. Not that it wasn’t delicious--every self-respecting citizen on the street agreed that anything Ms. Hardy whipped up was--but it was just the same thing she always ate. Same food, same table, same silverware. But outside was something entirely foreign, and she wasn’t allowed to experience it.
Abram finished his second huge helping of rice, the most recent spoonful of which cascaded down his chin. He wiped his mouth on his wrist, which he then wiped on his jeans.
“Um.” He said.
“Yes,” her mama said. “You’d better be getting home, huh?”
“My daddy doesn’t need me home until eight.”
“Oh.” She said.
Cynthia’s spoon clinked against her bowl as she folded the rice.
“I’m sorry I don’t have dessert ready,” her mama said. “I know how you two love pie.” She smiled, but her eyes stayed hard, like before.
“That’s alright, ma’am,” Abram said. Cynthia tuned them out, head in her left hand, spoon in her right, as she stared outside at the breeze whirling around the Big Oak tree. Tiny tornadoes, sucking up leaves and dust and spitting them out, only to swipe them into their arms again.
Her head snapped up. “Huh?” She said. Her mama was looking at her from across the table, subtly jerking her chin at Abram. Oh.
“Uh, Abram,” Cynthia said, looking to her friend, who looked up from his rice with a blissed-out expression. She resisted the urge to laugh. “It’s been nice havin’ you over. But I’m awfully tired.”
“Oh!” He said. “Right. Thanks for having me.” He got up, crumpled his paper napkin, and stomped outside.
Ms. Hardy sighed, and Cynthia echoed her.
“That boy sure is something.”
“That’s just code for annoying, mama.”
They shared a look.
Cynthia couldn’t hide her worried expression. What happened to the tree? Why today of all days did it change? Why was everybody so afraid of some branches? Her mama touched her hand.
“I know it doesn’t seem fair,” she said. She had almost the same sparkling, smiling eyes as that morning. “But I just want you to be safe.”
Cynthia nodded, defeated. How could she argue with that?
The amount of convincing it took for her mother to let her climb the tree was immense. Cynthia did the dishes first thing in the morning, set the table for breakfast, and even made two long yellow polenta cakes on the red plates her mama liked best. She set out the honey, and the milk, and, since she had a fundamental misunderstanding of how breakfast should be done, she also put out two Twix bars from the cupboard. She would have made more, but she didn’t exactly know how to make biscuits. Her mama made everything better anyway.
When Ms. Hardy finally woke up for her early shift, she wandered from the coffeemaker to the bathroom to the coffeemaker again before she saw Cynthia sitting at the table, beaming up at her with plates of now-cold breakfast. She blinked.
Cynthia took initiative and decided to go all-out. She pulled out the chair for her, poured her a glass of milk, and did those waving, wiggly hands magicians and those QVC girls used. While her mother was still groggy and possibly more suscept to advertising, Cynthia reminded her of just how responsible she was.
“Remember when you went to work all day and then to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Arnaud?” She had said, practically jumping into Ms. Hardy’s view every time she turned a different way. “And you left me a dinner to heat up and I stayed all day at home after school and you came home and I was okay?”
Her mother tried to speak around spoonfuls of honey and grits. “Humph,” She said. Little yellow grains plopped from the corner of her mouth onto her robe. She brushed them onto the linoleum.
“And remember when Abram’s daddy was going off to the city for the day and he didn’t have any place to go and he came over and I made rice for the both of us and we were fine?”
“Cynthia, I know you’re responsible,” Ms. Hardy said, wiping her mouth. “But that tree--”
“Mama I’m already eleven!” she said.
Her mother was close to cracking, she could tell, so she pulled out the big guns. She begged a little bit. She didn’t count all of them, but she had at least thirty “Please!”s before her mama finally threw her hands up in the air.
“Fine!” She had said. “Climb the stupid tree! If you break your legs falling through them holes it is not my problem.” She waddled away in her purple house slippers muttering and mumbling something about “cursed plant” and “pain in my behind,” but she had agreed, and Cynthia was satisfied with that.
Now, she was perched on the highest branch she could easily reach, swinging her legs. She didn’t know many tunes, but she mumbled one that always seemed to get stuck in her head. It was a remixed version of “Frère Jacques” with some nonsense onomatopoeia thrown in for good measure (and because she didn’t know all the lyrics).
The Big Oak was tall enough to overlook not only Cynthia’s yard, but the neighbor’s yard, and their neighbor’s yard, and their neighbor’s yard. If she craned her neck, she could see Abram’s back lot across the street, where he was hard at work burying his screaming five-year-old brother in the dirt. Since the weather was so nice, most of the kids were out rolling in the grass or speeding down the street on bikes, but she was happy here. She liked the shade, the leaves framing her seat like a natural throne, and the quiet. Plus, she could spy on the neighbors.
She caught a quick glimpse of the Fortier twins three doors over in their matching red jersey shirts as they burst through the front door, their disheveled mother trying to hand them helmets, which they proudly and loudly rejected. One of the boys held up something, a diamond shape, made of purple construction paper and twigs. The other, not wanting to be left out, held up his own, but it was caught by a gust of wind and it soared high in the sky, tethered by yellow yarn. Kites.
Ignoring their mother, the two boys ran alongside each other, racing down the street, arms waving, looking back at their twig-and-string kites. One caught a big gust of wind and flew straight up like a rocket, and one brother jumped and strained to hold it. Another strong breeze flung the kite sideways, slipping out of the little boy’s grasp and careening into the winding branches surrounding Cynthia.
It was close, just a few branches up, securely sandwiched in a thick patch of wide, green leaves. As the wind blew, the kite wriggled and wiggled, struggling to break free. She felt sorry for the poor thing. It didn’t even have a proper handle, and one of the twigs used for its skeleton had splintered and bent from its crash landing.
“Don’t worry!” she called out to the little boy, “I’ve got it!” She began climbing.
She inched up to the next branch, and the next, being sure to find a foothold before she attempted the jump. For all her experience, she wasn’t one to scramble up as fast as she could. She scooted across the bough, huddled and holding on to each side. She reached out… and got it. The kite was a little roughed up, but not unusable.
As she climbed down, though, she saw the circle. Open. Looking. Her hands itched, sweat, as she watched the curl of the branch. What was on the other side? She moved closer to it. What would happen if she pulled the kite through, easy as a sewing needle? Would it come out the other side? Would it refuse to go past the entrance, like a forcefield? She held out the kite, moving slowly closer to the circle…
“Hey!” a voice said. Cynthia snapped back to reality. The little boy was waving at her from the street with both arms. “Thanks for gettin’ my kite!”
“Sure thing,” she said. She climbed down the tree, careful not to step too close to the holes. Like her mama said, if she broke her legs, she had to ask somebody else for help. She hopped the fence and handed him his tiny kite. He took it, but didn’t check its supports, or see if it had ripped. His light eyes never strayed from the Big Oak.
“What’s wrong with your tree?” he said. Cynthia glanced behind her, though she knew exactly what he meant.
“Nothing,” she said. She crossed her arms. “It’s just a tree.”
The little boy frowned. He looked at Cynthia, then up at the tree, as if deciding who to believe. Cynthia felt a strange heat on her back, as if someone were watching.
“Okay,” he said finally. He ran off, kite trailing behind him.
She turned, slowly, to face the Big Oak. She had same feeling she felt sometimes before opening a dark closet door--the heart-pounding, almost-puking of what could be beyond. But she didn’t understand why. It was her childhood tree, her favorite playset, her other bedroom, her solace, her sanctuary. Now, when she looked at it, all she could see were the anomalies. The branches were warped, crooked, straining to hold the new weight of the curls, the smaller twigs and branches bending with their twisted shape. Why now, she thought, looking up at the oak. Why here?
She couldn’t understand unless she investigated. She walked towards the tree, climbed over the gate, and looked up at the Big Oak. So what if it was crooked and curled? What if it was nothing? What if it was amazing? She reached up, grabbing hold of a low branch and preparing to pull herself up.
“Cynthia?” a voice said behind her. She turned. Abram crossed the street between them, eyebrows knit. “You haven’t climbed that tree, have you?”
“Why does it matter?” she said.
“We don’t want you to get hurt.” he said.
“I’m fine.” She turned to the tree.. “It’s just a tree.”
Abram elbowed her. “You don’t know that.”
“Then let’s find out!” She threw up her arms. “You can’t tell me it’s dangerous or haunted or cursed or whatever because you don’t know! Nobody does!”
“I don’t want to know, Cynthia,” he said, frowning. “I’m not even curious.”
“Then why is it your business?” she said. She felt like her chest was going to explode. She clenched her fists. “Why do you care?”
They were silent for a while, Cynthia looking up at the tree, Abram looking up at Cynthia. It was painful. She felt like someone dropped a cold stone in her gut, heavy and unignorable.
“Let’s experiment,” Abram said, finally. She looked over her shoulder at him. “Let’s figure out what’s up with this crazy thing.”
Cynthia started smiling, started facing Abram. “Uh huh,” she prompted.
“If it’s like Narnia, then we have to limit our visits to only on the weekends,” he said. A grin grew on his cheeks. “If it’s just some plant mutation, then we prove Mrs. Moreau wrong.”
“And make serious cash selling it for scientific research,” she said.
“Exactly.” He said. Cynthia wanted to cry. She wanted to dance. Most of all, she wanted to climb that gosh darn tree. She wrapped him up--skinny bones and worrying head and all--in her arms and spun him around.
“Abram you literal angel,” she said. “I’m gonna climb that tree if it’s the last thing I do.”
He wilted in her arms. “Don’t say stuff like that, it’s bad luck.”
She wanted to drop him, but she propped him up and let go instead. “Can’t back out now,” she said.
Cynthia pulled him to the base of the tree, filling his cupped hands with pebbles and blades of grass. She grabbed one of the lower branches, walking her feet up the trunk and pulling herself up. She straddled the branch, scooting close to the curl of its limb.
“Hand me some rocks,” she said, kicking her legs to get Abram’s attention. He tried to hold them out, one by one, but she gestured for more. She took a handful of pebbles. “Are you ready?” she said.
“I have no idea what’s going on right now,” he said.
“Okay!” she said. She looked through the opening of the branch, like peering into a koi pond to see the fish. Nothing seemed strange, but neither did her tree before yesterday. She had to be careful.
“What are you--” Abram began, and Cynthia dropped the pebbles.
They fell to the ground, uninterrupted. She frowned. A strange kind of tightness swirled around her stomach. Why was she disappointed? It’s not like gravity stops working just because you hope for a miracle. But… still. She hoped.
“Maybe it only works with living things,” Abram said. “Try a leaf.”
Cynthia obliged, dropping a large, flat leaf through, too. It fluttered to the ground, twisting and flipping through the air, undeterred. She frowned again.
“Maybe… Maybe it’ll work with an animal,” he said. He bent over in the grass, pushing aside leaves and overturning rocks. “I can probably find a roly poly somewhere…”
“I’m alright,” she said, deflating.
“Really!” Abram said, still shuffling around at the base of the tree. “I bet I can, just give me a second.”
“No,” Cynthia said. “No, really, Abram, I don’t want ‘em.”
She slid one leg over the side and hopped down from the tree, bending her knees like her mama taught her. It’s all in the knees, her mama would say. Waving off Abram’s attempts to cheer her up with more random chunks of dirt and rocks, she tried to think of what her mama would tell her to do. She pictured her mama in her mind, tall, brown, and in a purple dress and dark hose, just like she wore to church. Chin up, buttercup, she might say. Try, try, again, she might say. There’s always tomorrow, she might say. For some reason, these things didn’t cheer Cynthia up.
“When’s your mama coming home?” Abram said. “You can come have dinner with me if you want.” He shrugged, all bony shoulders and worrying forehead.
“That’s okay, Abram,” she said. She didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to look at anyone for a while. She wanted to lay down for a long, long nap. Maybe, she thought, if she lit candles just right, and walked around the house in just the right way, and maybe slept with her pajamas on backwards, when she woke up this whole mess would disappear. Her thoughts brought up another strange round of queasy feelings. What did she know? She was eleven, not even twelve-and-a-half like Abram, and too much hurt by the little things. That’s what this was, right? A little thing.
The sun was slipping lower and lower, dripping orange over the black trees on the horizon. The air was hot, the tickling breeze cool, hinting at nighttime, and Cynthia’s frame practically shook with fatigue. Though she knew she was still very much a kid, she half-missed her younger days of napping after lunchtime.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Cynthia said, shuffling her feet in the grass.
“Tomorrow,” he said. She watched him carefully drop the pebbles and dirt piled in his hands, and brush off the mud on his shorts and bare legs. He climbed over their short fence, and looked back at her once before running to his front door and retiring inside. Cynthia took that as a cue to go to bed herself. She hoped she would wake up early enough to see her mama before she took off for whatever it was she did during the day. She was sure to take her shoes off on the porch, and, after some brief consideration, put on her pajamas backwards. Just in case.
Someone shook her awake.
It was very early morning, Cynthia could tell, the time of day where the air is cool and the just-rising sun pools around the corners of rooms like silver ponds. Her mama was saying something, but she couldn’t hear what.
“Get up, baby,” she said. Cynthia rubbed her eyes. She was still in her robe--a ratty old thing she always said she’d throw out but never could--so she wasn’t waking her up to say goodbye for the day. Her hair was even still in its patterned scarf, all piled on top of her head.
“What… What’s it…” Cynthia said, still groggy. She heard her mama laugh under her breath. What was so funny? Why was she up this gosh darn--excuse her language--early in the morning?
“There’s something outside I want you to see,” she said.
“Is it breakfast?” Cynthia said.
“Just get up and get your slippers on,” she said. So she did. As her mama walked out, she slipped into her fuzzy shoes and crept along through the hall.
It was quiet and still, Cynthia’s house, in the early morning blue. It was a strange place where reality was ever-so-slightly altered--too gentle, too dark, too calm to be real. Cynthia knew was never a tranquil place in New Orleans, not even in funerals. Her mama led her through the tiny grey living room, to the kitchen, to the screen door, cold to the touch, outside. The Big Oak towered, waving in the light, warm breeze, silhouetted by the pale light of morning. Everything, even her mama, was grey.
“I wanted to be sure nothin’ new happened,” her mama said, “So I checked the tree after you went to bed.”
“And I found something.” Her mama led her by the wrist, slowly, up to the base of the tree, pointing up to one of the middle branches’ curls where, to Cynthia, there was a little black lump of… something.
“That’s something alright,” she said.
“Go see for yourself,” Ms. Hardy said. She gripped the lower branch with both her hands and kicked off her slippers. Ms. Hardy reminded her not to cut her feet. She nodded. She jumped up and pushed, like pulling herself out of a shallow pool, and stood on the low branch. She repeated the process with the next branch, grabbing and jumping and pushing and standing. Her mama hissed.
“What?” she said.
“Please don’t get hurt,” her mama said. Cynthia rolled her eyes.
“I got this,” she said. She pulled herself up to the next branch, grabbing and jumping and pushing, swinging one leg over the branch and sitting back. The “something” rested at the other side of the branch, sitting inside on of the smaller holes, only as big around as an apple. It looked like a bowl, or a cup, and as Cynthia scooted closer, she saw it was a bird’s nest.
“Oh my gosh!” Cynthia said. She tried to be quiet. “Oh my gosh,” she repeated.
“Look inside,” her mama said. She did, leaning over, and saw three small, blue-speckled eggs nestled in the small twigs and bits of leaves. She resisted the urge to squeal.
“Oh my gosh,” she said again. She couldn’t find any other words.
“Maybe your tree ain’t so dangerous after all,” her mama said, suddenly with that tone of hers. In the dark, Cynthia could still tell she was getting choked up. “No mother, human or animal, would let her babies stay somewhere they’d get hurt.”
Cynthia climbed down carefully so as not to shake the eggs too much, and her mama scooped her up in a tight hug.
“I just worry, baby, I worry enough for the both of us,” she said. She sounded so happy. There was none of the tense shoulders, or the superstition, or the fear. It was just her.
“I get it,” she said. As they walked back inside, Ms. Hardy to get dressed for work and Cynthia to fall back asleep, she looked back at the tree one last time. In the rising sun, the tiny tips of the leaves were illuminated with pale yellow and glittering green, and, now that she knew where it was, she could see that little bird’s nest, snug in its place. It was just like it used to be, and entirely different. But she wasn’t afraid.
Cynthia had made up her mind. She was going to solve the mystery of that stupid Big Oak if it was the last thing she did. She was going to dive in completely and totally. She was going to Finish This. The problem, she found, was in the completion. Despite the bird’s nest, the sunlight, the warm breeze, the memories, the tree was still wholly different, and she still looked up at it with the kind of hesitation she felt reaching into the wafer jar on the top shelf of the pantry. She knew the tree--and the wafers--wouldn’t bite her, or poison her. But the feeling stayed. How could she trust something that changed so suddenly, something everyone had warned her about?
She felt safer in the sun, when it sunk, lazy and low, so she waited until evening. Her mama would be home any minute, and she figured that was for the best. No one made her feel safe quite like her mama. What if she fell right through and broke her legs? She wasn’t a baby or anything, but she had to admit she was a little nervous. Not scared, no, not scared. But nervous.
Abram stood stiffly by the screen door, watching Cynthia. He, like usual, invited himself over when she had stepped out of the house (“Got time for company?” he had said). She could tell he was anxious. She was, too.
Cynthia picked out the perfect branch, high up, but not so high up she might get hurt. No, just about ten feet, just tall enough for her to feel the breeze. She climbed to it, all shaking hands and wobbling knees, and swung one leg over the branch.
She paused on the precipice of that open wheel, watching for any sign of terrible, snarling monsters from under the bed. Or the closet, she considered. Who knows what’s in there. She braced herself on the edges, hands wrapping around either side. It reminded her, suddenly, of sitting by the toilet to throw up. She braced herself.
“Stop!” Abram said. Cynthia turned to him, annoyed.
“What now?” she said.
“You can’t do this alone.”
“What happened to getting to the bottom of this?” she said. “I thought we were in this together.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Wait for me.” He climbed, slowly, as usual, up to a parallel branch, straddling it and holding the ring in his dirty-smudged hands like she did. She blinked at him.
“You know we might not come back, right?” she said.
“I know rocks fall through it, and leaves fall through it, and it hasn’t bit us yet.”
“You know something might be on the other side?”
“I know it could be something great.” he said.
Cynthia smiled. He sounded like her.
“Then on three,” she said. Her heart was beating out of her chest.
“On three,” he repeated.
“One.” She leaned over the ring. Her palms sweat against the bark.
“Two.” He held on tight. His brows furrowed.
“Three!” She braced herself, and shoved her head straight through.
Silence. She opened one eye, then the other, exploring her new surroundings. At first, they seemed fantastical; overhead was sparkling green, where tiny storms of petals whirled around pebbles and the sun--Or whatever they call it here, she thought--illuminated every ridge and vein of the petals, seeds, and shed blossoms as they waved and tumbled in the breeze. She thought there wasn’t going to be any Alice in Wonderland scenarios, but here she was in her own! She’d never seen anything more beautiful, more light, more… real. It was all in front of her.
She looked to her right. Abram was looking up with the same dazzled expression she was sure she wore, too. His face was pink, glowing with excitement.
“Look!” she said. The sky was growing with all manner of foliage--grass, small dandelions, yellow and gray, and clover, blooming clover, all pink and white and in the tiniest bunches. “I’m gonna get closer.”
She pushed her head farther, father, reaching her arms in to help hold her up, getting closer and closer to the flowers and leaves above. Abram followed suit, pushing his arms completely through and relying on his chest to hold him atop the branch. Their heads were dizzy, muddled, buzzing, but the new world was so enchanting. Every blade of grass, every stem of every wild flower shone in the dying sun. Orange, yellow, vibrant green.
“What if…” Cynthia started to say, lowering herself even more. She couldn’t just slip through the portal. She had the feeling that if she did, she might never come back. She moved just a little farther…
“Just what in the hell are you two doing?” A voice said. Abram started so hard he nearly launched himself entirely into the new world, like a dive into a swimming pool, but he scrambled for handholds and swung right down onto the ground. Cynthia looked over. Her mama stared at them, still in her work clothes, hands on her hips. That didn’t make much sense. Mama wasn’t in the new world, was she?
“If y’all wanted a playset, you should’ve told me! I’d throw a swing on there,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. Cynthia sat up slowly. There she was, clear as day, her mama, her house, her everyday backyard. She couldn’t bring herself to smile.
“Hi Ms. Hardy,” Abram said. His eyes didn’t leave his shoes.
“Aw, now why’re we pouting?” Her mama said. “It’ll only take a weekend or two to set something up for you.”
Cynthia wilted, staring at the ground below. What a fool she was. She went messing with the supernatural, she ignored her mama’s advice, and she disappointed Abram, too. She was almost angry that she did all this worrying for nothing, for just some trick of the light in the grass. How could she have been so stupid? She held to one side of the tree and swung off, landing hard and hurting her ankles. She didn’t say anything, though, just looked at her mama, eyes welling with tears. Her face scrunched up with worry.
“Oh, no, baby, what’s wrong?” she said, taking Cynthia in her arms when she ran to her, holding her tight. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“They’re nothing, mama,” she said into her mother’s shoulders. “Nothing at all.”
“The branches,” Abram said behind them. “They don’t do anything but take up space.”
Ms. Hardy leaned back to look at her daughter, who nearly shook in her hands. A few pieces of leaves and grass had landed in Cynthia’s hair, and she smoothed it out, looking in her left eye, right eye, left eye. She was strong, her daughter, even when she started to cry like this, all quivery, eyebrows knit together.
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Cynthia said, not looking at her. “They’re just. Nothing. Nothing’s special about them.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” her mama said. She looked up from the ground, confused. Her mama broke out in the biggest smile she’d seen this week. “Seems like a perfect place for a hammock.”
“Mama, come on!” Cynthia said, giggling despite herself.
“I’m serious!” she said, squeezing Cynthia’s hands. Her eyes sparkled. “If you want this tree to mean something, let’s make it a home again.”
“How?” she said.
“If you have some old blankets, we could tie them up for a swing,” Abram said, eyebrows low in concentration. The grim set of his mouth was gone now, Cynthia noticed, and he somehow seemed so much older. “Maybe we could hang some birdhouses.”
Cynthia’s heart did a leap. “Do you think birds would like that? Would they be afraid?” She wondered how strange the branches must look to birds, and how suspicious she would be of a birdhouse tree, were she a lonely sparrow looking for shelter.
“Two of them trust the tree enough to build their nest,” Ms. Hardy said. “Remember what I said? Mothers would never put their babies in danger.” They shared a smile.
“I think I have a few little birdhouses in the garage,” Abram said, as blunt as ever. Cynthia remembered her mama saying he ‘sure is something’ and raised her eyebrows at her. “They might be banged up but I’ll go get them.”
“Thanks, Abram,” her mama said with a wink to Cynthia. “We’d appreciate it.”
He jogged across the street with the kind of gait that meant he had a purpose. Cynthia tried not to laugh. He didn’t even think about politeness, did he? He just lived for himself and others, and that’s it. No dancing around the subject, or pretending he couldn’t help. Just doing. He turned around when he got to his front door and waved at her, as if to say “I’ll be back in a minute!” and she waved back.
As the Sun sank low and the horizon turned a bright, cherry red, Cynthia, still half-held by her mama, looked out at the yard and beyond. The Fortier twins were coming inside to sleep, each gently pushing the other as they wobbled towards their porch, kites in hand, one still conspicuously bent. Across the street, Abram’s little brother waddled around the yard and his daddy swooped by to pick him up just before he hit his head on the steps. She could see Abram’s outline where he rummaged through the dark garage, whistling a nursery rhyme she almost recognized. It was loud inside the houses, loud in the nearby city, and the far-away echo made the streets all the quieter.
She was very still. The tree was just a tree. The branches were just branches. The leaves just leaves. But it was hers. And here, in this inbetween of day and dusk, the leaves lit up in yellow, orange, and gold, the birds’ nest nestled in the glowing curls, the whirling of petals on the ground that she had so desperately hoped were part of a new world, her eyelids growing heavy, it was beautiful.