She named every branch on the way to the top of her favorite climbing tree. From there, she could see the big bell that rang for emergencies or special occasions. She could see the pond and the red dirt damn, the dilapidated bridge that crossed the creek and the path that led up to the well that was always about to run dry. The trails her father carved and maintained through the land re-routed themselves every day. Every time she walked them, she was lead somewhere totally new, but no one else in the family ever seemed to notice. If she climbed high enough in her tree, at the right time of day when the light was golden, she could see the trails draw giant symbols through the woods – a big arch would intersect a straight line just south of the house, then in an instant loop around to cross another straight section going west towards the sun, then zigzag and wind far into the back pasture.
While she drew pictures of the fireplace at night, she wondered if the trail’s drawings were big letters that strung together into words and sentences that her father couldn’t utter in any other way. She loved her father in a strange way because she could crawl into the painting that he picked out with his mother when he was twelve years old. The scene in the painting looked exactly like the creek that ran through the land they lived on, which made everyone believe that he had dreamed of the land since he was young. It hung above the fireplace that she drew in the evenings, in between the stained glass windows that she never had the patience to draw accurately.
The way into the painting was her most precious secret. And one day, she started to store the letters and shapes she saw in the trails inside the painting, and piles of them swelled up over the years. When she was in the painting she could arrange the letters and shapes into coherent phrases that she knew were genuine sentiments her father dreamed to her before she was born. They would have conversations this way, which was strange because all she had to do was think something and her father would know it. There was no complicated translation process or time travel to their communication in that direction. But she enjoyed the process of climbing the tree, hiding the letters in the painting and then tackling the word puzzle of putting together her father’s thoughts inside his dreams.
The only problem was that she could never figure out how to bring the conversations back with her when she would crawl out of the painting and back into the living room. Maybe if she had been more vigilant in her attempts she could have found a way, but the piles of letters and shapes in the painting eventually grew out of control and started to block out the light and clog up the creek. Some of the letters floated away before they amassed so much that they damned the creek completely and began to rot and dissolve in the stagnant water. This was of no concern to her in her youth, but the accumulation and decay really started to burden the whole system of things when she got older.
When they put the place up for sale, no one wanted to buy it because the creek had stopped flowing and anyone could see that soon the trees would start to die. She was scared that it was all her fault. He assured her that they would all share the blame equally, since each person had dreamt their own story of the land and none of us could seem to save it, to re-write a better ending. In our last days there, he hung the painting in my climbing tree, from the limb I named Esther, and I dreamt the creek flooded and swallowed it back into itself.
To Mom, From Donna
She had a crazy childhood after I left. I’ve always known it would be challenging for her to have me the first four years of her life, then disappear like I did, but now it seems like her memories of me aren’t actually of me. She remembered the real me for a good while, but then she started to only remember what she remembered of me those first few times, and now she just remembers her memories of remembering me. It’s different. At first when she would think of me, it was practically like we were really together again. She would walk into our bedroom, and it looked almost exactly like it was before I left. The bed was in the corner, pushed up against the wall, the pink elephant bubble lamp hovering overhead. Our toys and Barbies remained strewn all over the floor. The chalkboard easel leaned into the corner with pastel chalk dust filling the rail, and the pass-through closet door still connected our room to mom and dad’s. We would still talk and play together and I continued to brush her hair and braid it into pigtails. When she clung to me, I felt her warmth. Then I started to notice that when she visited, she would want to do the exact same things we did together last time, in the same order. We’d play dress-up with mom’s clothes, sneaking into her room through the closet. We’d draw pictures, and she’d ask me what to do about Bubba’s sadness now that I wasn’t there anymore. Sometimes I’d answer differently, but she’d always rest her head in my lap and I’d brush and braid her hair. It didn’t really bother me so we just did the same things together, over and over again for a long time. It was hard on her, being the youngest in the family, so I wanted to help however I could, but gradually it seemed like something was different. Even if I didn’t ask her one of the questions I always asked, she would respond as if I had. The first few times this happened, I pointed it out to her and we laughed it off. I wondered if she was having trouble hearing, because sometimes she would talk back to me but sometimes she wouldn’t react at all. One day when we were dressed up and trying to sneak into mom’s room, the closet didn’t lead anywhere anymore. It was just a long hallway of clothes with a dead end. What scared me was that it didn’t faze her at all. The day I looked in the mirror and saw that all the color had drained out of our reflection was the last day she seemed to actually see me. From then on, she played with me and talked to me, just like she always did, whether I was there or not. All the things in our room that she didn’t regularly touch faded until they were completely gone. The walls grew transparent, and the floor seemed to drop out of the house leaving only the narrow pathways she walked in her routine. I could reach out to touch her, but there is no warmth. To her, I‘ve become a story she reads to herself, and now in her loneliness she acts out her part and mine.
They applied sensors to her entire body – scalp, face, neck, chest, stomach, arms, and legs. Medical tape assisted the routing of all these wires into a bundle that merged with her hair, weighing heavy on her head, then plugging into a motherboard hanging from her neck. Her body’s secret melodies were being siphoned through these wires, translated and amplified next door. Each rapid eye movement struck a tiny bell. Breath played the accordion. Every heartbeat thumped a bongo drum. Her brain waves held long notes on a harmonica. And her leg movements were simple piano chords. The room where she lay poorly imitated a bedroom, landing somewhere between hospital and hotel, and they watched her on camera. During the night, they watched her dreams, sucked out of her brain and displayed on a television. During the day, they’d buzz in on a loud speaker and tell her to turn over or stay awake. She never fell asleep during the day, but Colleen walked across the room at one point, which was very odd.
I read a short story while she played piano and we both drank our morning coffee. I braided her green hair and our reflection in the mirror anticipated nothing different in our daily routine. Read and coffee. Walk to school. Bumble around projects. Share leftovers. Come home. Go to sleep. But my mother and brother sat on our living room floor fussing about the day. “Guys, you aren’t really here, just look into the mirror and you’ll see that I have nothing planned for you today. This must be a misunderstanding…”
They asked her how long she thought she’d been sleeping, which angered her because she was exhausted and was just about to fall asleep when they barged in. It all felt like a sick joke. She ate the food they brought her and tried to read a book, but just ended up staring at the wall and pacing through the hallways. The windows were even blacked out in the room, and the chair was cold loud leather. She felt locked up and turned inside out – her body’s music playing somewhere her body wasn’t, her dreams harvested.
The car jolted, Colleen screamed, and red blood splattered all over the driver’s side of the windshield. I’d been half asleep so she yelled to me that we hit a deer. In hysterics, she stopped in the middle of the road and I franticly coached her to pull over to the side. My body pounded, so startled, and I spoke in short bursts as I reached for any part of her to grasp onto. My loudest thought was that I didn’t want her to see all the blood. I didn’t want her to see body parts smeared over her car. I didn’t want her to see the dead animal. She held her face in her hands, and I hoped she’d stay that way, but she unfurled and tried to open her car door. It had been dented in, so she couldn’t get out and I felt slightly grateful. I got out to assess the situation. I walked through the beams of the headlights and around the side of the car. There wasn’t blood everywhere and I couldn’t find the body. When I turned to walk back around the car, my head was yanked back by some tangled mass extending from my hair.
She rolled back towards the side of the bed and they asked her how long she thought she’d been asleep this time, but her mind was totally empty and shocked and all she could remember was tossing and turning in that bed, like a fish tethered to a line by its head, flailing and thrashing, restless.