Showing posts with label small stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small stories. Show all posts

Pride and Compromise

Pride and Compromise went walking together in the rain, not paying much attention to where they were headed. Suddenly the pair found themselves in a heap on the ground, a tangle of mud and limbs. Neither was sure how they ended up that way, but each secretly thought it the other's fault.

They spent a few moments sitting in the dirt, frowning at the mess they made. Then Compromise stood and offered Pride her hand. "I'm sorry," she said humbly. "These clumsy legs of mine! It must be quite a challenge to walk with me." Her words were cheerful, if heavy on the tongue. Once they were out, however, it was her heart that felt lighter.

Pride nodded primly, accepting the apology, but offering none of his own in return. "I hope the mud hasn't ruined your dress," he said. "Good evening." And with that he turned and left.

Compromise felt the sting of loneliness that came, as it always did, with arriving at a halfway point only to find herself the only one there. But it was still raining, and rain had a way of washing more clean than just dresses.

the mirror of lack

There once was a girl with two mirrors in her room. In one she saw all that she was; in the other, all that she wasn't.

The girl looked in both mirrors every day. The first showed her someone lovely, with grace and poise and laughter in her eyes. It was easy to smile at this reflection, and to turn from it with her head held high.

But in the second mirror was a face drawn with reproach, and the heaviness of disappointment. This image left the girl feeling shot through with shame. Not for having done something wrong. Just for not having done enough.

One day, with the shifting of seasons, she noticed the light that came through her window no longer hit the second mirror - the mirror of lack. And though she tried, she could no longer make out the inadequacies she'd once beheld there.

It seemed obvious what to do next. Because how many mirrors does one need, anyway?

the queen and the viscount

The queen is fucking the viscount, and the whole court knows about it. We do our best to act like we don't, but they're getting sloppy. Unsealed missives. Garden dalliances in the full glare of moonlight. We look away when they exchange simpering glances, keeping our own faces blank. But the stink of their self-satisfaction--that we cannot escape.

Honestly I think she wants everyone to know. Everyone but the king, of course. One by one she draws aside her handmaids, demanding to know what we've seen, what we've heard. Oh, nothing untoward m'lady, we lie, and the sluttish twinkle in her eye betrays the delight she takes in this facade. But we value our heads, so we keep the lips on them sealed. We don't tell her what the viscount does when she's away. Which is much, and ugly. There are casualties of his "affection" from the galley to the stables.

The queen fancies herself a coquette, but too many years have passed for that. Too many babies born. The velvet at her waist pinches, the rouge creases on her cheek. The seamstress told us she's had the lace of her cuffs lengthened to hide withering hands. No more is she the apple-cheeked ingenue freshly arrived at our shores, her dowry the promise of war avoided.

And the viscount, well. Have you ever admired a stallion far off in the paddock, only to see when it approaches that it is, in fact, a gelding?

Then you know our illustrious viscount.

negotiation

2000

Body and Brain agree to meet at midnight, in a greasy spoon downtown. It's a 24-hour joint, the kind with old-fashioned glass sugar dispensers instead of crinkly pastel packets - that makes Body happy. And it's empty on weeknights, which makes Brain happy. He doesn't want to be seen. They take a booth at the back and order a pot of coffee.

"Cream, not milk," specifies Body, ignoring Brain's exasperated look. "And--would you mind?" She hands the waitress a half-empty sugar pourer.

"Are you kidding me? There's plenty!" objects Brain, but Body leans back and casually points to a clock on the opposite wall.

"You're the one that wanted to meet at midnight. As far as I'm concerned, it's a new day. Counter resets to zero, amigo. Now let's get started, yeah? I'm exhausted, and I'm sure you are, too."

She's feeling cocky tonight, Brain muses. Must have made a killing. He reaches into his coat and pulls out a ball point pen and small pad of paper. Uncaps the pen and scratches a number on the pad, then tears the sheet off and passes it, face down, across the table to Body. They silently hold eye contact while the waitress pours them each a cup of steaming black coffee.

"You didn't even have to think about it, did you?" Body asks, without touching the paper.

"Oh, I think about it all the time. Some days it's all I think about." Brain slumps in his seat, weary, anticipating the fight ahead.

Body flips the slip of paper and reads the number written there. Immediately she starts shaking her head. "Impossible." Brain starts to speak but Body repeats herself, voice rising in anger: "Impossible!"

"Not impossible," says Brain serenely. "You've been there before."

"When I was nineteen!" Body is blinking fast, shaking. She takes a gulp of coffee with unsteady hands then gestures for Brain to give her the pen. Nearly knocking her mug off the table, she slashes a line through Brain's number and writes a new one below it. She pushes the paper roughly back across the table to her adversary.

Brain considers. It's a fair number. A decent number. But he knows she can do better. As if to mock his confidence in her, Body dumps several seconds' worth of sugar into her drink. She raises it in a sarcastic toast.

"That's not going to help, you know, whatever figure we decide on." His tone is soft. He knows what he's asking of her.

"We," she replies dryly. "Whatever we decide. You do realize I'm the one killing myself on that treadmill every day, right? In the canyon, in hundred degree heat? One more mile, you whisper, as if it's so goddamn easy. Ten more minutes. Don't you want that bikini to look amazing? Well you know what? Fuck you and your impossible standards. Fuck the magazines you read and the other girls you look at, and fuck the mind games you play with me. The guilt and the shame and--"

"Stop."

"No, I'm tired of chasing some--"

"Just stop." Brain reaches across to Body. Gently squeezes her wrist. "We do this every time. You say the same thing, every time." He pauses, looking at her intently. "Then you remember how happy you would be, if only." He picks up the pen. With careful, deliberate strokes he crosses out her counteroffer. Writes his own beneath it. "You can't lie to me, Body." Slides the paper slowly back into her hand. "I know what you want."

literally

Literally sat alone on an overstuffed Chesterfield sofa, at the annual Gathering of Misappropriated, Misapplied, and Otherwise Corrupted Words, nursing a French 75. She watched the party with apprehension. Her agent had been right; she'd had to come, if only for the sake of networking. She desperately needed some positive PR. The Dictionary Society of North America had fucked her, and they had fucked her good. Writers, linguists, and grammar purists everywhere wanted nothing to do with her - thanks in no small part, she suspected, to this hatchet job. Verbum non grata, that's what she was.

Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that she didn't belong. Most of the secondaries here had officially turned decades, if not centuries ago. They'd had plenty of time to grow into their new meanings. As if to prove her point, a few of the pre-1700s laughed loudly at something Gay said. Literally suspected he killed at these things. So to speak. She crossed her l's and took a sip of her cocktail.

Earlier, one of the halfways had cornered her, asking a million questions about transition. Nonplussed was an elegant word, despite the perpetual knit of her brow, but she was terrified. Wanted to know what the process was like, how long it took, whether there was anything anyone could do to stop it. Literally had been frank. "Nope. Not a blooming thing. Language belongs to the people who use it; we're utterly at their mercy."

"But what about correct usage advocates?"

Literally snorted. "Correct. Go talk to Travesty about correct. He's got stories that will curl your hair." Nonplussed shuddered. She'd heard about the abuse Travesty had suffered after 9/11. He'd never been quite the same since.

"I just...I don't understand," stammered Nonplussed. Non plus literally means not more. No further. It's Latin!" she cried. "Don't they still teach Latin?" Perhaps unwilling to wait for an answer she already knew, the adjective excused herself, s's rustling as she swept off to the powder room. Literally just sat and drained the last of her drink. Everyword handled transition - or as her agent called it, "upgrading" - differently, she guessed.

Their exchange had caught the attention of several others, some of whom spoke in low voices on the far side of the room. They glanced her way every so often, clearly discussing her plight. Verbum non grata indeed. She sighed and fingered the lemon twist in her glass.

"Supposedly and Supposably, at your service." Literally lifted her eyes to see a pair of tall, dapper, impish looking words looming above her. Old French, maybe Middle English? It was hard to say. It was also hard to see much difference between them.

"Cousins," explained Supposedly, seeing her bemusement.

"Though these days, you'd think we were fraternal twins," added Supposably.

She extended her hand. "So nice to meet you. Are you..."

"Secondaries?" supplied Supposably. "Dear me, no. Just good old-fashioned confuseds."

Literally pursed her limps in sympathy. "That must be very frustrating."

"Ah, it's not so bad," said Supposedly. He snapped shut the clasp on a sleek silver cigarette case, offering her a smoke which she declined. Passing a cigarette to his companion and lighting one for himself, he went on. "You get used to it. Rather fun sometimes, actually. Can't tell you how many first dates we've derailed," he said with a wink.

"Supposedly, you're terrible." Supposably giggled, careful to aim his smoky exhalations away from Literally's face. "Really though, could be worse. Have you seen Cheeky? She's an absolute mess. Running around, shoving a lingerie catalog under everyone's noses. 'Honey,' I told her. 'You're going about this all wrong. You've got to own it.'" He examined his lengthening ash. "You'd think a word like Cheeky would have a better sense of humor."

"I don't follow," confessed Literally. "What's happened to her?"

Supposedly waved a hand impatiently. "Hardly anything worth crying over. Some fashion designers started using Cheeky to refer to, you know, knickers and whatnot that show a bit of, well--"

"Ass cheek," Supposably finished, raising his eyebrows dramatically. "Cheeky, in addition to saucy, audacious, and bold, now means literally exhibiting cheek."

Was it Literally's imagination, or had he deliberately emphasized that antepenultimate word? In any case, she was definitely going to need another cocktail...

moonlight

I'm driving down a backcountry road, somewhere off the map and unfamiliar. New terrain. Nothing especially striking about the landscape, though occasionally I'm surprised by a pretty vista. But I'm whizzing along, no time to stop, so these sights are just what I glimpse in passing. The main thing is the road. Staying on the road.

I'm alone, of course. Everything I need in a sturdy suitcase, perched on the backseat. I can see it out of the corner of my eye, and it reassures me. Everything I need is here.

Suddenly, something feels off. Alignment? Suspension? I can't tell exactly, I don't know mechanics that well. I only know the drive isn't as smooth as it was a few miles back. I'm tempted to push it, to gun for the next milestone, but experience has taught me that can spell disaster. I have to stop. I have to see what's wrong.

So I pull over and spend some time kidding myself I can figure out the problem. I circle the car. Inspect the tires. Peer under the hood. I walk several yards away to scrutinize from a distance, as if a bit of perspective might reveal the issue. But whatever it is, it sits deep inside my car, secret and silent and out of reach.

I drive on. It isn't safe to stay in the dead, dark of night, in a strange place. Because out of nowhere it is dark, and cold. Shivering, I remember my suitcase. Everything I need.

But then it's worse. The car is shaking so badly I can't trust it anymore. In what feels like it could be the last decision I'll ever make, I stop again. Make the same rounds. Tires. Hood. This time with a heavy dose of self-recrimination. If only I'd learned more about the car. If only I'd taught myself how to fix it. If only I'd taken another road.

I want to believe that someone will come along and help. But I'm so far from the main highway that it's doubtful. My isolation feels like a punishment for too many crimes to face here alone, in the quiet. With only stars for company and moonlight as witness.

It's time to find out how well I packed.


the island, part 1 1/2

(continued from here

The girl was less afraid than curious; there was scant moonlight by which to see it, but she surveyed the tree line anyway. Nothing and no one appeared. She sniffed the air but was unsure whether the smoke she smelled was fresh or just the ghost of her own campfire. Minutes passed as the girl listened and waited, though for what she did not know. Eventually sleep overtook her, and she melted into colorful dreams that carried her deep into a flat, grey morning.

She searched for hours. The girl delved further into the jungle than she ever had before, expecting at every step to meet the strangers she'd heard in the night. She met no one. She found no trace. With daylight thinning, she had no choice but to return to her beach. Exhausted by her fruitless quest, she collapsed soon after dinner, pushing from her mind many unanswered questions.

A voice broke through the fog of her slumber. Indistinct, male, gentle but insisting. The girl struggled, still pinned under the weight of so much sleep. Unsure where she was - when she was.

Come join us, he said.

the island

Once there was a girl who lived on a boat. The boat had no sail; she went wherever the water took her. She didn't mind following the vagaries of the current, though they sometimes led her to strange places. The girl tried to keep up a spirit of adventure, even when what she really felt was fear.

One day she spotted an island on the horizon, lush and welcoming. It was quite a ways off, but since there was no wind to fight her, she lowered her oars into the water and pulled. She pulled and pulled until she reached clear blue shallows, then jumped out and dragged her boat ashore. The girl, weary of drifting, was happy to be on dry land. She decided to stay for a while.

---

The island was small but plentiful with things the girl could use. Palms heavy with fruit fed her, and she fashioned crude tools from shells that littered the beach. Every day she followed a simple routine, gathering food and supplies until dark, then falling asleep by the warmth of a fire. She was alone but not lonely. The girl took pleasure in exploring the coastline, in long walks across cool sand at dusk. Occasionally she'd sit and gaze at the sea, purple-black, endlessly open, and be glad for the shelter and comfort of the island.

---

A fortnight passed, then another, and the island came to feel like home. The girl never saw another soul, so when she woke one night to the distant sounds of music, of drums and laughter and song, she thought her mind was playing tricks on her. She sat up, shaking off sleep, and listened. There was no question, though: she wasn't alone on the island.

(TBC)

applesauce

A boy and a girl went apple picking one day, in an orchard not far from their home. They each carried an empty bushel to fill with the fruit of their choosing, and wore smiles befitting a sunny afternoon.

The boy made his selections with care, examining each for ripeness, for color and shine, before twisting, pulling, and placing it gently in his bin. He worked slowly, peering up through the branches in search of what would be worth the trouble to attain it. 

The girl, on the other hand, picked frequently and indiscriminately, with little regard to what she chose. Her basket was soon full, and bore evidence of a haphazard harvest in the form of bruises, wormholes, and sticky stems.

Despite having no room left, however, the girl wanted more. Seeing the boy's bin was still fairly empty, she took it and poured in half of what she'd gathered. The apples tumbled together roughly, and the boy watched silently as his own crop disappeared underneath that of the girl, who promptly turned back to the trees. 

"Don't worry," she laughed. "We're just making applesauce anyway."

They left the orchard a little while later, two bushels heavier than when they'd come. It wasn't until they were nearly home that the boy realized neither of them had a pot big enough to cook all the apples they had collected at once. If they were to keep them from rotting, they'd have to boil batch after batch after batch. 

The thought of all that work made the boy hungry, so he plucked an apple from the top of his haul to munch on. The load didn't seem to get any lighter, though.

the Ugly Thing

There once was a girl who found an Ugly Thing. She wasn't looking for it. She just came across it one day on her walk. Rather than go around the Ugly Thing, she approached it, curious. As she got nearer, she saw it was even uglier up close. The girl was fascinated. She stared and stared. She walked the length of it, examining every last inch. And the more she saw how ugly it was, the prettier she felt.

Every day the girl would visit the Ugly Thing - sometimes more than once. She grew to know every ugly crack and every ugly crevice, until the Ugly Thing's ugliness was as familiar to her as her own beauty.

Many, many days went by. The girl grew a little bit older. She started to feel the pinch of time and watched as people she loved passed out of her life, in the ways that they sometimes must. The girl spent her walks to and from the Ugly Thing deep in thought. She thought about who she was. She thought about what she had learned, and what she still wanted to. She thought about the things she had filled her life with so far - what she'd made room for and what she had crowded out. And the girl started to feel a little sick when she realized how big a place the Ugly Thing had in her heart.

At that moment, the girl vowed to stop going to the Ugly Thing. But she knew it would be difficult, as breaking habits always is. So she tried to understand this need of hers, to see the Ugly Thing. The girl realized that every day that the Ugly Thing remained ugly was a day that she could still feel pretty - even on those days when she wasn't sure she was. Even on those days when nothing seemed true or clear, the Ugly Thing's ugliness was a reliable constant by which she could know up from down, right from wrong. Every day the Ugly Thing told her I am ugly, but you are not.

The girl felt shame. She felt disappointed in herself, that she'd come to rely on an Ugly Thing for anything, much less as a way to love herself. So the very next day, the girl sat down to make a list of all the places she could go, instead of to the Ugly Thing.

She was still writing long past the hour that she usually took her walk.

if only

Once there was a girl on a journey to a place she'd never gone before. Never having been there didn't slow the girl down, however, for she was impatient, and keen to be in a new place. She became so anxious to reach her destination, in fact, that she took to traveling at night, despite being unsure of the path.

The girl stumbled in the dark, stubbornly pressing on even though prudence would have had her wait til dawn. "If only I had a lantern," she pined, and just as the words escaped her, the girl tripped and fell into a burrow hidden in the forest floor.

She sat for a moment, stunned into silence and unsure what she ought to do next. The moon, who'd been watching, took pity on the girl and shone more brightly. Illuminating white light pooled around her, and she dusted herself off and climbed back out, never noticing the change in the cold night sky.

On the girl walked through the small hours, stopping only to gather wild berries and drink from the stream. Sunrise spread slowly on the horizon, and soon she was warm and confident of her way once again. But it wasn't long before the girl, tired of the road, sighed, "If only I wasn't alone." The birds in the branches heard her complaint, and cheerfully raised their voices in the morning sun. A tune suddenly came to her, and the girl began to whistle it without wondering from whence it came.

Believing she was close to her journey's end, the girl moved ever faster through the wood. She paid no attention to where she stepped, crushing wildflowers and scattering the makings of an animal's den along the way. "If only it were tomorrow!" she remarked, dreaming of all that would be different, and forgetting all that wouldn't. 

But the sun, who could have inched his way more quickly across the heavens and granted the girl's wish, did not hear it. He only heard the birdsong that filled the forest and floated up to the wide, blue sky, from where the girl on the ground looked very, very small, and very, very lost.

the words

The words sat inside the girl, threatening to choke her if they weren't set free.

"Let us out," they begged. "We'll kill you if you don't."

"No you won't," answered the girl, swallowing them back down again. "You'll die yourselves if I just wait long enough."

"You can't," scoffed the words. "You never could and you never will."

The girl took a deep breath and held it. She willed the air in her lungs to trap the words in a thousand tiny balloons, and carry them off where no one would ever read them. 

"We're still here," said the words, after a moment. "Nice try though."

"You'll only make things worse," the girl sighed. 

"No we won't," the words replied. "We'll change exactly nothing. Not for the better and not for the worse. Things are what they are already. We've had nothing to do with it."

The girl, realizing this was true, said, "Fine. But only a few of you can come out. The rest have to stay. Decide amongst yourselves who it'll be."

The words clustered into a huddle to confer, jostling one another and tangling up their meanings. They spoke in a whisper so the girl wouldn't hear. Finally, they called out, "Okay, we're ready!" and ten or twelve sentences marched forth to be released.

The girl closed her eyes and opened her heart, and dozens of words took flight, beating their wings frantically to get clear of her before she could change her mind.

Those left behind watched, satisfied for the moment. They knew it was only a matter of time before the rest of them would be set free, anyway.

The girl knew it, too. And all she could hope was that when they were, they wouldn't carry her off with them. 

the pond

There once was a girl who liked to visit a small, still pond in the wood. It was a quiet, lonely place where no one ever bothered her, and she could be alone with her thoughts.

The girl liked to stand at the edge of the water and peer down at her reflection. Sometimes she'd toss a pebble onto the glassy surface, and watch as it shattered the face that looked back up at her. The girl would wait until all the ripples had calmed and her likeness had composed itself. Then she'd drop another pebble, breaking the watery mirror into a thousand pieces all over again.

Every day she would visit the pond, and every day she'd throw stones at herself, fascinated by the way a quick flick of her wrist could splinter and smash what was so tranquil and serene a moment before. It didn't matter how smooth and tiny a pebble she used, or how big and jagged a rock - they all had the same disfiguring effect on the girl in the water.

One day, she leaned out over the pool, looking to find her reflection. But all she could see were the stones she'd been throwing, piled so high on top of one another that they nearly spilled out. She plunged her palms into the cold water, gathering up handfuls of them. She noticed how heavy they were, and she realized that if she wanted to start her game over again, it would be quite a lot of work to reverse her efforts. It would take just as long to empty the pond as it had taken to fill it up. Maybe even longer.

The girl didn't think she had the strength to do it. She looked around, feeling lost and unsure of how next to amuse herself.

Suddenly, she had an idea. The girl unlaced her shoes and peeled the stockings from her legs. Carefully she placed one foot into the cool of the pond, then another, feeling all her collected pebbles and stones packed firmly underneath. Step by step, the girl walked across the water that had held her double captive for so long. She marveled to think how much time she must have passed here, to have filled the water up so completely.

The girl reached the far side of the pond and stepped out, glad of the soft, dry grass beneath her once more. With her shoes and socks still slung over her shoulder, she headed into the unfamiliar woods that stretched out ahead.

She'd never been to this side of the pond before, and she was in the mood to explore.

fire

Once there was a girl who liked to go camping in the woods. She spent her days exploring, collecting wildflowers and kindling, and listening to the noises of the forest. Sometimes she brought things she found back to her camp: feathers, smooth river rocks, a pretty piece of broken eggshell. Sometimes she brought back nothing at all.

One evening as she was drifting off to sleep, she heard the sound of twigs snapping just beyond the clearing. "Who's there?" she cried out, surprised but not frightened. At first, there was no answer. The girl kept still and listened, her senses keen from the many nights she'd spent alone in the wilderness.

A moment later, a voice called out from the darkness: "Put out your fire!"

The girl sat up where she lay, clutching her blanket tightly around her.  She cocked her head in the direction of the voice. "Where are you?" she called back, shivering slightly. "I can't see you!"

"Put out your fire!" the voice repeated roughly. The girl stood, letting the blanket drop, and walked toward where she thought she'd heard the voice. She squinted into the black, but she could see nothing. Yet the hairs prickling on the back of her neck told her that someone was close.

"I can't put it out," she answered, peering about for the visitor. "It keeps me warm at night, and safe." The girl took a cautious step forward. "Would you...would you like to join me?"

"No," the voice responded flatly. "I don't like the smoke. Put it out!"

The girl frowned, and glanced back at the small fire she'd made. The night was clear and calm; no wind disturbed the smoke, which disappeared into the sky in a straight, silky column. "But," said the girl, "that's not possible. And anyway, if it does bother you, why don't you move further away? The mountain is wide; surely there's enough room for us to get clear of one another." As she spoke, the girl stepped softly forward, straining to see whom she spoke to in the frigid night air.

"It's too bright," answered the voice, ignoring her response. "I can see the light from miles away. Put it out!"

With her arms held out in front of her, the girl walked forward in the dark again. She wasn't afraid, but she wished for daylight so that she could see her mysterious guest. "Well that's just silly," she replied, more to herself than anything, for she was tiring of this game of cloak and dagger. "If the light bothers you, you can just look away, or close your eyes."

The voice was silent.

It was then that the girl noticed how far she'd wandered from her camp. She realized she was cold, and she suddenly longed to be back near the flames she'd carefully nursed from sparks, nestled cozily beneath the stars.

The girl turned and walked away from the voice in the wood. "I'm going back to my fire now," she called over her shoulder. "You can join me if you'd like, or go build your own, or leave the forest altogether. It's up to you."

A few paces later, and she felt warmth on her skin again. She sat on the ground, cross-legged, and inched up closer to the fire. She held her palms out flat, luxuriating in the waves of radiating heat. She poked a small branch into the flames, stirring them back to life. She watched the embers split and glow, orange and black, beautiful and dangerous. The girl stared into the fire for a long time, thinking about the strange conversation she'd just had.

When a noise in the woods broke her daze a little while later, she decided to stay put, to stay silent, and to tend to the thing that was keeping her alive in the icy winter night. There was plenty of warmth for anyone who wanted to join her, but she was done chasing voices in the dark.

the drawing tree

There once was a girl, who knew a boy, whom she used to meet every day at a certain tree in the forest. The tree had a broad, smooth trunk, and thick, sturdy branches that seemed to reach all the way to the sky.

The boy and girl had made up a game to play. Each day, they would take turns carving a picture into the tender column of the tree's base. First the boy would make a cut, then the girl. They used a small pocket knife that didn't scar the tree too deeply, but that left a clear imprint in the wood.

Every day, they built on the design they had started. The girl would pick up where the boy left off, and vice versa. Neither of them really knew what they were making, because the shape and pattern changed with each of their cuts. One day it might look like clouds in the sky; the next, a nest of birds. Neither knew what picture the other ultimately had in mind.

One day while she was waiting for her turn, the girl looked up and noticed how strong the tree's limbs were. "Let's climb it," she said to the boy, who was concentrating on the bark beneath his knife.

"I can't," he said, without looking up.

"Why not?" asked the girl, surprised. "Don't you know how to climb trees?"

The boy paused in his work and looked at her. "I do," he said. "But I can't climb this tree."

"I don't understand," the girl said, frowning. "Look how easy it would be. These branches would certainly hold our weight, and we'd be at the top in no time."

"I can't," said the boy again. And he turned his attention back to the tree's trunk.

This went on for quite a while. Their picture continued to grow day by day, thanks to their combined efforts. But as the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks stretched into months, the girl longed more and more to climb the branches above them. She invited the boy to join her again and again, but he declined each time.

Eventually, the girl grew tired of their game. The design they were carving had ceased to be interesting to her, because it seemed like it would never be finished. She wanted to try something new. She craved the challenge of pulling herself up through the tree's body, bit by bit. She knew she could do it. And she knew once she reached the top, she'd have a beautiful view of the forest below.

But she didn't want to do it alone. Once more she pleaded with the boy. "Please, let's climb the tree. I'll help you. It might be difficult at first, but I promise we can do it."

The boy shook his head. "No. I can't climb this tree," he said flatly. "Let's just keep drawing. Look at how beautiful it is so far."

But the girl didn't see anything beautiful. She saw a tree trunk covered with grooves and scratches that didn't add up to much at all. She sighed, saddened by their wasted efforts, and she decided today would be the last day she came to meet the boy.

She told him, saying "I'm not going to come here any more, if you won't at least try." And the boy was angry. He said some unkind things to her. He didn't understand why their game wasn't enough for her.

"Because I want to see how high I can get," she said. And she turned and left the boy alone at the tree. And she didn't come back to it the next day, or the next, or for a very long time.

But one day, the girl happened to be walking through the woods, near where the drawing tree was. She was curious and felt nostalgic, so she decided to go look at it.

She approached the tree slowly, scared that seeing it might make her sad. But as she got nearer, she frowned. She couldn't see their carving. It was gone. The trunk of the tree was smooth and blank, erased of all the shapes she and the boy had made in it. It was as if they'd never been there.

She stared at it, nonplussed. It was surely the same tree. She recognized the twisted fingers of its roots, and the gnarled knot just below the first branch. But no trace of the picture remained.

The girl felt her chest tighten. She felt angry and sad and disappointed and hurt and confused. She'd spent so many afternoons here, playing the game the boy wanted to play, long past the point that it was fun for her. And now there wasn't even any evidence she'd ever been there at all.

She took a deep breath and waited until she felt calm again. She leaned against the tree and closed her eyes. The girl listened to the sounds of the forest around her: a distant birdsong, a light breeze whistling through the leaves above her... Suddenly, she had a thought. And a smile came across her face as she turned back to face the tree and reached up. Her hand grasped the nearest limb tightly.

She climbed slowly and carefully. She concentrated on finding sure footholds and balancing her weight. She glanced down once or twice, but in excitement at how far she'd come - not fear. When she looked up to see how close she was to the top, she saw nothing but more branches. She realized it might take her quite a while to go all the way up. But she kept going, determined.

A few minutes later, as she was taking a break to catch her breath, she heard voices. She looked down and saw two people walking towards the tree she was climbing - a boy and a girl. She squinted, trying to make out who they were. And at the same moment she recognized him, she saw the boy reach into his pocket and hand the girl a small knife.

The girl watched the couple for a few minutes. She heard their laughter. She saw the girl make her mark on the trunk with a practiced hand. The girl down below was pretty, with long hair and an eager smile. The girl in the tree felt a little bit melancholy, but strangely unsurprised. This was the game the boy loved to play, after all. She briefly wondered whether he would tell his new partner about his previous visits to the tree. And she wondered if it was him who'd made their picture disappear. But then she realized it didn't matter at all. It had nothing to do with her anymore.

She continued to watch quietly for another moment, afraid of being discovered in her perch. But the boy and girl on the forest floor were busily engaged in their game. She doubted they'd hear her. And from the enraptured expression on the new girl's face, she knew it would be a while yet before she grew restless and bored - before she looked up to see what was above them.

And she doubted the boy would climb the tree with her, anyway, when she inevitably asked. He seemed content to stay right where he was.

flower trade

for George

Once there was a girl who had some flowers to trade. There were all kinds of flowers in her bunch: some cultivated and common, some exotic and wild. Mixed in with the more attractive and desirable of these blooms was a handful of weeds, thick-stemmed and sticky.

She bound up the bundle with paper and string, but loosely, so that all the blossoms could be easily seen: the hot pink petals of the peonies, the milky white hoods of the calla lilies, the vibrant violet trumpets of the foxgloves. She tried to make sure nothing was hidden from view - not even the weeds, ugly and plain as they were.

The girl took her flowers to the town square, where she waited patiently, feeling the breeze dance with her hair. It wasn't long before she spied someone in the distance, walking towards her. He approached slowly, and straight on. When he got close, she realized he was smiling at her. She had no choice but to smile back. They looked at one another for a long moment before either spoke.

"Hello there," he said.

"Hello," she replied.

He nodded toward the flowers she cradled in her arms. "I see you're here to trade."

"Yes," the girl said, and held up her bouquet so that he could examine it. But the boy only grinned harder. The girl couldn't remember the last time anyone had seemed so happy to see her. His smile was like sunlight on her skin.

"Oh, I don't need to look," he said. "I already know I want them. Let's trade." And from behind his back, as if by magic, the boy drew a massive bundle of his own flowers, wrapped in newsprint and red satin ribbon. The girl laughed, charmed by the surprise, and stepped closer to see what he held.

"Do you like them?" he asked. But before she could answer, he continued: "I'm afraid they're only weeds."

The girl frowned and looked at him curiously. "Surely not," she murmured, and with the tip of her finger, pushed down an edge of the bundled-up newspaper. She saw a flash of brilliant color, and she knew he was wrong - very wrong.

"Oh yes," he insisted. "Every last one." But the girl wasn't listening to him. The vivid blues and reds and yellows of the bouquet he held had captivated her, and she was peering deeply in, drinking in the riotous colors and intoxicating scents. She looked back at him, puzzled.

"But...these aren't weeds. These are glorious! Some of them I've never even seen before! Like this one..." The girl pointed at a long, elegant stalk topped with a delicate, cup-shaped bud. The outside of the bloom was a shocking electric blue, but the inside was smoky and pale. The flower reminded her of a summer storm: lightning, thunder, and soft rain afterward. "What is it called?" she asked. "How do you grow it?"

The boy never took his eyes off her face. He was still smiling, but his tone was serious. "I told you," he said. "It's a weed. They all are." And the quiet way in which he said it made the girl realize: he truly believed this to be so. He moved away from her slightly, pulling his blossoms from her greedy gaze. "So? Shall we trade?"

The girl sighed. She didn't understand. She knew the boy's flowers were rare and beautiful, and that he could make a very good trade on them. She didn't want to trick him into giving them up for less than they were worth. But he didn't seem to realize what she was offering in return - or he didn't seem to care.

And she wanted his bouquet, badly. She wanted to pull out each of those startling blue stems and inhale its sweet perfume. She wondered what else was mixed up with them, that she hadn't even seen yet.

All she could do was take what he was offering, which was far more precious than he realized. All she could do was to be grateful, and enjoy what he gave her for as long as it lasted.

But she hoped that the next time he was ready to trade, he recognized the value of what he had to share.

of baskets and balls

"Bet you can't make a basket," the boy said, and smiled challengingly. He held in his arms a wooden crate the size of a barrel sliced in half. It was big enough to hold a bushel of apples, or a litter of puppies. It was completely empty, and the way he angled it toward her seemed like an invitation to fill it.

The girl glanced at it and scoffed, because she knew only a clumsy fool would miss the shot. "Are you kidding?" she teased. "I could do that in my sleep." She lobbed the ball softly and without thinking, and it landed with a satisfying clud. They both peered in at the ball, which settled quickly and easily in the deep vessel. Immediately, she picked up another ball, and this time using her left hand, flung it in just as handily.

He raised his eyebrows. "I'm impressed," he admitted, looking pleasantly surprised.

"That's nothing," she said. "Watch this." The girl turned her body completely away from the boy and the crate, and, closing her eyes, lightly tossed a ball over her shoulder. She waited until she heard the tell-tale thud before spinning back around, grinning in anticipation of her success. When she did, she saw that the boy had moved a few steps away from her while she wasn't looking. Still, the ball had gone in. Undeniably, it had gone in.

"Ok," he said to her, nodding begrudgingly. "But I bet you can't do it like that again."

She held up her open palms in acceptance of the challenge. Let's find out, her gesture said.

It was then that she realized he was no longer holding a large crate, but a medium-sized woven basket. It looked familiar to her, but she didn't know why. She wasn't sure if this counted as cheating on the part of the boy, but she didn't want to be a whiner or a spoilsport, so she wordlessly turned away, and got into position. This throw would be the trickiest yet. But she had faith in herself. She knew she had a good arm. And she had been collecting the best, surest softballs she could find, for years. She couldn't have been better prepared.

The girl took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, steadied her shoulders, and visualized the empty basket. It took a lot more concentration to throw at a target she couldn't see. A lot more work and focus and even - anxiety. She knew she was overthinking, but she didn't see a way around it. The situation seemed to require it.

Finally, she silenced her mind and let her body take over. The ball slipped from her fingers in the way it always did, neither too soon nor too late: only when it was ready to go. But this time, instead of a single clunk, there was a rattle, then a thonk-thonk-roll. She'd missed. Or rather, the ball had gone in momentarily before bouncing back out again. She'd scored - and then lost - all in a split second.

She turned back around and looked at the boy, whom, she noted, had stepped several paces from the spot he'd been in before. He didn't seem surprised by her failure, but neither did he seem disappointed. He wasn't gloating and he wasn't satisfied. He was just...expressionless.

It was at that moment that it dawned on the girl why the basket he held seemed so familiar. She cocked her head, unsure and unwilling to ask what she knew she had to. "Did you..." she faltered. "Is that from...the carnival?"

"The carnival?" he echoed, frowning slightly.

"The basket," she said, pointing at it, noticing that it seemed even smaller than before. "Is it yours, or is it from the midway?" He looked down at what he held in his hands, as if seeing it for the first time. The girl walked to him so she could examine it, too. As she reached him, she gave a start. The basket he held was indeed smaller. In fact, it was so tiny, it probably wouldn't have held even her smallest, most worn down ball. Or it might have, had they jammed it in with force - but then she might never have gotten it back out again. Or worse: they might have broken the basket in their effort.

"Never mind," she said, and gathered up the balls she hadn't yet thrown. "I should probably keep these for now, anyway."

And with that, the girl went home to practice some more.

thistle and sassafras

"Tell me about your garden," he said, looking at her expectantly. "Tell me what you've grown."

She felt her cheeks flush hot with shame. "I don't have one," she admitted. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of dark seeds. She unfolded her palm to show him. "I only have these." 

He frowned at her open hand. "Why haven't you planted them?" he asked her.

She didn't know what to say. She knew she didn't have a good answer. "I've tried to," she said, feeling smaller and smaller. "But the ground is hard, and I don't have shovel." She lifted her head and looked squarely at him. "I don't have a shovel," she repeated, feeling naked, stupid, and cold.

"Why don't you use your hands?" he asked her. She glanced down at them. They suddenly felt clumsy and useless. "I suppose I should," she mumbled. She realized he wasn't listening. He wasn't even looking at her anymore.

She felt her chest tighten in the way it did when she was asked to account for herself. Then she remembered that she did grow things, in a way - though not in a garden. Things that provided joy if not sustenance. Dandelions and wild strawberries, thistle and sassafras. They sprang up in her yard, more plentiful and bright each year. Sometimes she gathered them up and gave them as gifts. 

The things she grew didn't feed the people she loved. But they seemed to bring happiness nonetheless.

She cleared her throat, and said quietly: "I grow other things."  

"What's that?" he replied absently, still facing the other direction. 

"Other things," she said again, louder. "I grow other things. I can show you, if you'd like..." 

But his attention was elsewhere; he was gazing at something far off in the distance. She peered at the horizon, trying to discern what it was he saw. But she could make out nothing.

And she didn't know if he could see things she couldn't - or if it was the other way around.

tetherball

I've taken up a new sport! Tetherball. It's so great. Of course, you can't play by yourself; you need a partner. Mine is always the same.

We stand across from one another (not side by side), and smack the everloving hell out of a ball. The ball doesn't really go anywhere; it's tied up, so it can't move very far. It just goes around and around, back and forth, from him, to me, back to him again. He hits it, then I hit it. I hit it, then he hits it. And so on and so forth and so on.

Sometimes one of us will swing and miss, and the ball winds up on its rope, tighter and tighter until clang! against the pole - it has no more slack.

So we wait for it to come undone.

Then we hit it some more.

It's an excellent workout, too! Totally exhausting. In fact, on days when I play tetherball, I don't have the energy to do anything else, like write, or think, or feel. I just lay around afterward, dazed and slightly confused as to who, if anyone, won. There's no referee, so sometimes it can be hard to tell.

Tonight the game was especially rough. I slammed the fuck out of that thing. He hit it pretty good, too. Eventually, he had somewhere else to be, so he left. After he'd gone, I took a closer look at the ball. It's taken quite a beating lately. It's torn in a few places, and starting to lose its shape.

So I untied it, brushed some of the dirt off of it, and put it back inside my chest.

I probably shouldn't play tetherball anymore.

empty pockets

She dreamt that night. She dreamt of beautiful, formless things - vaporous thoughts that gathered tangibles as they spun: scraps of paper, bits of fur, twigs and string - the makings of a new home.

When she woke, she stretched and rose from her bed. She pushed open the window, ready to greet the day, and saw, there on the sill, a pebble. It was smooth and white, flecked with bits of blue. She had no idea how or why it came to be there, but it was pretty, so she put it in her pocket.

Throughout the day, she reached into her pocket to make sure it was still there. It was a small thing, but it gave her pleasure, to roll it between her fingers and know it was hers. That night, when she undressed for bed, she left it in her pocket. She wanted to carry it with her the next day. Then she went to sleep, thinking of her curious, mysterious gift.

Her dream that night was more vivid. Darker. She turned and murmured in her sleep, dreaming of wind. It carried more things to the nest, things she needed - but it carried some other things off with it, too.

In the morning, another pebble sat on her windowsill. Bigger than the first, and solid blue - the color of the sky just before sunrise splits the horizon. Again, she didn't know how or why it was there. Again, she took it and placed it in her pocket, where it clinked against the other. She heard them clicking in her pocket together all day, those two stones. Like two thoughts. Two possibilities. Two outcomes.

And so it went. Every night she dreamt of something growing, changing, and every morning she awoke to a stone outside her window. Some were larger than others. Some were rich in color, and some plain. One by one, she added them to her pocket. She started to notice their weight as she walked. She could feel them against her leg, sometimes comforting - but sometimes distracting, too. She could hear them jostling together with each step she took. She dug her fingers deep into her pocket and gathered them into a handful. But she didn't take them out, and she didn't show them to anyone.

Then, one day, she woke up and there wasn't a pebble on her windowsill. She looked around, wondering why. Maybe tomorrow, she thought, strangely disappointed.

But the next morning, again there was no stone. When she opened her window, there was only the sun and sky and a breeze that teased her hair. She inhaled deeply, lifting her face to the warm light. There were no more stones, but there was still everything she needed, right outside, waiting for her. She knew the trees, the grass, the birdsong - were gifts enough.

She kept the pebbles she'd collected. But when she chose her clothes for the day, she wore a different dress, with empty pockets.

She wanted to have room for anything new she found - or that found her.