She stops when she reaches the pond and shields her brow, the last rays of light dipping into her dark eyes. The stillness of the water surprises her. She is angered by its calm; its betrayal of summer’s splashes and shouts. In defiance of the silence, she hears them, the hollow call of “Marco”, and the giggling reply of “Polo” – feels the fear of being caught and the relief of being found – of warm, wet arms circling hard around her.
Her smile wanes as the evening breeze rustles the wrinkled leaves beneath her. She rubs her fore-arms below her thin button-down, easing the goosebumps the emptiness has laid upon them. Hearing the jingling of her sister’s Pandora bracelet, she continues further into the forest. The mud sticks like strawberry bubbalicious to the bottom of her Converse, and the wiry branches dishevel her sandy hair, but she does not slow her stride. She stops when she sees her tree, the maple whose roots have resurfaced, and wrapped inwards, protectively.
Sam leans her back against the maple’s scabrous trunk, and its knotted roots semi-circle her. Tilting her head back, she looks to the branches that stretch to the sky, her eyes settling on the sturdy limb that arcs outwards, and she recalls the endless hours spent, nestled like a bird in its nook, reading worn paper backs from Saturday’s garage sales. Whirling around, Sam reaches her arms up, round the tree’s trunk, and hauls herself into its broad bough. She grabs hold of the next branch and pulls herself higher. Straining for another limb, Sam hears a painful snap beneath her foot, and suddenly is cast from the tree’s arms, onto the forest floor.
Brushing herself off, she sees her sister approaching, her auburn braids swinging like the slender reeds by the pond’s edge. She jumps over the roots, and lands with a soft thud inside the horseshoe.
“Sa-am! Mom said—“ she’s about to chastise her sister for running ahead, when her blue eyes land on the yellow bird at the base of the tree’s trunk, and her words suspend, like their tire swing, mid-air. Reluctantly, Sam turns, her interest overpowering her innate desire to ignore her younger sibling.
In the murky soil, a frail goldfinch lays, its feathers matted, and its wings, splayed.
Silently, in the sounds of hearts beating, the sisters observe the fallen bird, and soon, her sister points a quivering finger at its right wing; a wing where Sam had already noted a faint flutter.
Sam looks at her sister, and can see it in her wet eyes. The desire to take the bird home. To nurse it back to health. To release it from her bedroom window, into the safety of the sky’s blue.
It was a look she no longer trusted.
Moving decidedly towards the maple, she kneels at its trunk, and scoops the goldfinch into her sweaty hands, feeling its pain permeate her palms. Turning to face her sister, Sam cups her left hand, a clammy nest, and gently transfers the fading finch. She places her right fingers on its head, and in a move as innocuous as turning on the bathroom faucet to brush her teeth, twists her wrist.
At the sound of the fine crack, her sister lets out a slow, visceral scream. Sam drops the bird and begins to run, first losing her footing, her chipped nails grazing the black earth, and then quickly regaining her balance. She flees from her sister, who has dropped to her knees by the finch’s side, and sits motionless, as their mother’s stone fairy, in the foliage.
She runs further away from the golden glow of the evening lights that have arisen from their home, drifting like mist towards her, and disappears deeper into the woods, into the shadow of the pines.