At first, she thought it must just be her mind playing tricks on her. Maybe she had indeed left the milk out to sour all night. And her favorite shirt with the sweet peas embroidered on it was getting pretty old–that would explain the missing threads of the brightest colors. “I never was a good cook,” she told the birds on the third morning in a row she’d burnt her toast.
But then it was though someone began to whistle to her from the bathtub and the light fixtures and the doorjambs, one right after the other, every night before bed. The toes of her shoes were stuffed with autumn leaves each time she tried to put them on. The sugar was salt and the salt was sweet.
She looked into the mirror one morning, her hair tied into a thousand impossible knots, and told herself, “You’re going crazy.”
Laughter bounced around the room like little bells the moment the words were out of her mouth.
She turned her back to the sink and picked up a can of hairspray as a weapon. “Who’s there?” she whispered, wishing she sounded bigger.
The giggle was at her ear this time, she could feel the breath of it.
She screeched and dropped the hairspray. “You’re crazy but don’t panic. No need to panic.”
She walked calmly to her bed and sat down, facing her dresser against the near wall. She looked at the photo of her parents that sat on top of it, begging them for wisdom. She pitied the struggling potted ivy next to it and lamented her mostly-empty jewelry box.
“What?” She turned on a lamp, walked to her dresser, and squinted: there were tiny scratches all around the box’s brass latch.
She picked it up and heard the tiny crown clink against the side. It had been ages since she’d taken it out. She opened the box, held it up and sighed, wishing for the hundredth time it fit her.
“Give it to me,” someone said behind her, making her jump and drop the crown back inside. “That’s mine.”
She found the little crown in a bed of zinnias, of all places. Not around stems of prize roses, not atop a pile of jewels. Zinnias. The same simple country flowers that thrive in farmer’s gardens, across from the okra or corn. She might never have seen it at all, had it been a completely cloudy day. In fact, it’d been a full score of cloudy days up to then. But the sun persevered just long enough on that particular day to glint off the gold as she walked by. It was too big to fit on her finger like a ring, too small to slide on as a bracelet. “What is it?” she asked the flowers. “A doll’s crown?” They didn’t answer, of course, though she waited for a reply. But even she–whose only piece of jewelry was a simple silver cross–knew that it was too fine for dolls. The zinnias, they wanted to warn her. To tell her to put it right back where she found it, tell her you don’t play with fairy-sized things that haven’t been given you. (Zinnias are the kindest of the flowers, after all. If only they could talk.) As it was, she thought it was a pretty trinket and probably valuable, too. “I best put it in my jewelry box,” she said. “Somebody might come looking for it.” So she put it in her vacant jewelry box and told nobody about it. She’d take it out and look at it, sigh and wish it was the right size to wear somehow. She’d polish it and admire it and dream up stories about it, none of which were anywhere near the truth. But there was one thing she was right about. Somebody did come looking for it.
He thought nothing about paddling his small wooden boat out alone on the lake at night. In fact, he’d done it a hundred times before. There was something so beautiful and quiet about drifting on little waves under a tall twinkling sky. Like being rocked to sleep in arms that love you.
But what he didn’t know was that the sky wouldn’t twinkle for long.
Heavy curtains of clouds soon extinguished those little points of light and the soft summer breeze that called him out onto the water became a gale. His friendly wooden boat turned fiend and dumped him into the dark water.
At first, he was annoyed, as he’d worn his favorite pajamas, freshly laundered. Now they’ll smell like lake, he thought to himself.
But soon enough, he was panicked, splashing farther and farther from the boat as the storm whisked it out of reach.
Pull yourself together, he thought, stop splashing and float.
For a minute, it worked. Then it was as though slithering fingers pulled at his ankles, bit into his feet and dragged him under.
Down, down he went until his ears popped. The dark all there was, all he could see, all he could hear and taste, all he could breathe.
And then the queen of the deep, covered in scales and blooms, swam so close he could see the light that lived inside her.
They looked at each other and blinked, both surprised to see the other. She knew what needed to be done.
She brushed her fins against his fingers and he latched on. She swam and he kicked and together they neared the surface.
He knew he didn’t have much longer. He felt dizzy and the world was far away. He couldn’t feel his toes, he couldn’t even feel her anymore.
How much farther? he thought. Is this my end?
He looked up and saw diffused lightning beyond the water. He looked down and saw the light inside her fading as it fell home.
He didn’t want to look away. She’d saved his life, after all. His friend, his savior, the angel he never expected.
Her light turned pink and his head began to pound. He kicked upward still and finally felt the cool of the air touch his head.
But still, he didn’t want to look away.
Her light was a bloom now, dark red and purple. It sent showers of stars into the dark. He thought it looked like the sky. Was it the sky?
He felt sleepy and calm. He reached toward her as he felt his eyes close.
Her light grew brighter and bigger and more scarlet.
She rushed at him just before he fell asleep. She pushed him back into his world.
And he breathed.
It isn’t much. Barely a shack, really. But this little place is so full. Full of things you can’t see. At the table, there beside where the potatoes are now, was where Jimmy lost his first tooth. Pulled it out and held it up to the light so proud, right in the middle of dinner one night. And then he set it on the table and asked for a piece of pie. The hook by the door is where that shabby umbrella used to hang, the faded one with two holes that let the rain in. We’d huddle together under it while we ran out to the truck before church on rainy Sunday mornings. You remember that? And that stool in the corner over there? That’s where you stood when you were four years old and told the preacher a joke that made mama blush. I didn’t get it but the preacher laughed so hard. Mama did too…later on. The window over the sink, now that one makes me ache a little. That’s where I watched you march off into the world with your suitcase and your hat. Even still, I love that window best of all the things in this house, seen and unseen. I couldn’t do without it. Because every great now and then, I get to stand there and watch you come back.
There was no oath, no collection of words that could say everything he wanted to. So, he was silent.
Yet, they heard him.
They heard everything when they saw how his eyes gathered each detail in the room, every smirk and frown, every squirming posture, every drop of sweat.
They heard it in his lack of expression, in his deliberate steps.
They heard it in the way his hands still reached for something that was no longer there.
He walked in his deliberate way to the front of the room and turned to face them. He didn’t remove his hat because there was no one there who deserved respect. Instead, he glared at them from the shadow of the brim.
The sun laughed and seeds fell from the corners of her mouth. They burrowed deep into the earth and slept for a season.
When the sun came again, they pushed back against all that was above them. They stretched their arms to the sky, desperate to reach their mother.
But she was so very far they had to be content to follow her with their faces, to wave to her in the morning and wink at her when she said goodnight.
So they did and still do, her many, many children. And each day, she wakes and covers them in blankets of light.
We clasped hands under the big green sky, in the sticky quiet that comes before the storm. Nothing dared to move as the whole world held its breath, waiting to see what was to come.
And then it came, all at once, and the scorching breath of summer was chased away, replaced with wind that chilled us deep.
We pulled each other along, hands still tight together, all the way to the house that lived close to the clouds, where you could taste the electricity before it struck.