The girl missed her once upon a time, but a story drew her out of darkness just the same.
They called her girlchild, fair child, little girl or, when they were annoyed, brattling, but she thought of herself as just Girl. She supposed she was pretty, they always told her so, but she was starting to notice that she looked different from the others. The other younglings were thinner, darker, less clumsy than Girl and they snarled when the bigger ones petted her. Sometimes she didn't like the younglings even when they didn't snarl. They raced around, playing games she didn't understand, and left her to get lost in the woods. Other times she was grateful, for when the big ones forgot her, the boychild slept beside her and kept her warm.
Girl hated the cold, though none of the others seemed to mind. The boychild found her blankets and rags to put on her body, and she followed him around after that. Sometimes he tired of her and ran away, jeering like the others. It happened one day that Girl followed him, but he decided to go play a game without her. She tried to join, running after on slow small legs but she soon lost him, and, panting, followed in the direction she thought he and the others had gone.
It was quite late. The moon made strange shadows in the trees. Girl thought she'd been walking forever, and after a while she knew she would never find them. She thought to turn around, but wasn't sure where she'd come from either.
If Girl listened to stories like Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Grettle, she would have been frightened to be alone and lost in the dark woods, but Girl had never heard any stories at all, so instead she just got sleepy. When she was tired of walking, she stopped and lay down in the soft grass, curling it around her to make a bed. It wasn't so different from the bed she slept in most nights, only the grass tickled more because it wasn't so patted down.
Bright sun woke her, shining through a patch of leaves that were less dense than she was used to. She looked up, blinking at the unfamiliar day, watching the shaking black leaves above her with fascination. After a few minutes Girl noticed voices and she jumped up, excited. The others must not be far away and she could catch them. Maybe for once, she'd win their game.
Girl tore through the bushes. The tops of ferns brushed her shoulders as she ran and she thought with some relief that she might be better at running now her head cleared the leaves. She ducked instinctively around blackberry bushes, practiced enough to avoid being caught by their thorns, and jumped over tree roots. The voices were getting louder. Girl hurried, encouraged by the sound. As she came closer Girl slowed, realized the voices were not of the other younglings.
There was shrieking and laughter, not so different from the sound of the younglings, but the pitch was different and an unfamiliar smell reached Girl's nose. On top of the yelling were voices like those of the bigger ones, but they were quieter, more even. A voice stood out as she came closer, female and calming. It was like and not like Girl's mother. Girl walked carefully, sniffing like a frightened cat, until she was close enough to make out words.
"The King of Denmark grew angry that his wife could not have a baby." Girl froze, thinking of the Master, the one the bigger ones followed. Girl's mother had given birth to a baby only a few days ago, and it had died, and the Master screamed so that Girl and all the younglings hid in the trees. Girl crept closer to hear more of the voice.
"And she found an old woman walking on the path, and the old woman stopped her and said, 'have you any bread? I am so hungry!'" Girl jumped, for the voice had changed to a quavery whine, and it frightened her, but it continued as it had been before. "What do you think she did? Do you think she gave her the bread?" The voice stopped and Girl stopped as well, afraid to make a noise. After a few seconds silence Girl heard a puff of breath, like the bigger ones made when they were annoyed. The voice continued. "Well the Queen gave the old woman her bread, even though it left her nothing to eat, and she couldn't think how she would make it all the way to the next country." Girl started moving forward again, more carefully than ever.
"Before the Queen could continue on her way, the old woman stopped her and said, have you any wine?" This time Girl was prepared for the changed voice, and she didn't stop moving forward. She could see through the trees now, it seemed to be a clearing like the one she slept in only there was no river and it was much much brighter. Girl had to squint her eyes and then even close them, but white dots danced behind her lids.
"I am so thirsty!" continued the voice. "And the Queen was a kind woman, so of course she gave the old woman her flask of wine though that left her with nothing to drink herself. She wondered how she would make it to the next country. But before she could continue on her way, the old woman stopped her again. The Queen was afraid, because she had nothing more to give the old woman but the clothes on her back and she didn't want to walk into the next country naked. Wouldn't that have been funny Nissa? If the Queen had sailed all the way to Sweden naked?" The voice stopped again. Girl could hear humming in the pause, and her eyes were beginning to clear. She peered around a tree. There were no more trees on the other side of the clearing. This was so unexpected that it took her a moment to notice the people in the clearing, or even the sound of the voice.
The clearing was full of strange shapes and people clothed in bright colors. Younglings ran about laughing and screaming and bigger ones, all female, sat speaking in low tones. The voice continued, and Girl saw that it came from a tall female nearby with pale hair, almost white, who was looking down at a youngling. The youngling was the source of the humming, and looked about the same size as Girl. She was facing the tree Girl hid behind, playing with a pile of stones.
The woman reached down and touched the black hair of the youngling, then continued speaking. "The old woman said, you want a child, and the Queen, surprised, said yes. The old woman told her to eat one hundred rosebuds. The Queen thought that seemed like a strange thing to do, but as she was very hungry and no longer had any bread, she agreed. When she finished she was very full and very thirsty. The old woman told her to drink from a nearby pond, and the Queen did, and when the pond was empty, the Queen was no longer thirsty. 'Now you will have a child,' the old woman told her, 'but you must make sure no one sees her before her thirteenth birthday or she will turn into a terrible monster. The Queen was so happy that she would now have a child, she didn't mind about the last part, and delighted, she ran all the way back to Denmark where she told the King what had happened." Girl knew most of the words but hardly understood what the woman was saying. The youngling continued to hum, and Girl, liking both the sound of the humming and the woman's voice, cautiously emerged from behind her tree.
The woman was still speaking and did not see Girl. "The princess was very beautiful and very clever, but nobody could see her until her thirteenth birthday. What was the Princess' name, do you think it was Nissa?" The woman stroked the youngling's hair again, and the youngling hummed more loudly. It had a happy sound. "On the day before the Princess' thirteenth birthday, the King forgot his promise and he went into her room. Instantly, the beautiful girl turned into a monster. The King was very frightened, but the monster Princess told him that a guard must be placed in the room with her every month, or all of Denmark would have a great famine. Do you know what famine is Nissa? That's when there is no food, and everyone goes hungry. So the King agreed to put a guard in the room every month, and locked the door behind him. For a year and a day, the King and Queen placed a guard in the room, and each of the guards disappeared, so that soon all the soldiers ran away rather than be posted guard. Can you blame them? One day a traveler came to Denmark and the King convinced him to be the guard for the next month. The traveler didn't know that all the guards kept disappearing, but he soon heard, and he thought he'd better run away. When he got to the path, an old woman stopped him and asked him for his bread. He was a kind man, though he wasn't brave, so he gave the old woman his bread. She said to him, 'you cannot run away, for they will chase you and chop off your head.' The traveler was very frightened, for it seemed to him that he was doomed either way. So when the old woman asked him for his wine and bread, he gave them to her, thinking he wouldn't need them much longer anyway. She told him, 'when you go into the room, take off your shoes and point them away from you.' Not knowing what else to do, the traveler went back to the castle and did as she said. What do you think happened to him?"
Girl was unable to stop herself. She stepped towards the youngling and the woman. "Did the Princess eat him?" she asked eagerly, and the woman looked up at her with a gasp. The youngling at the woman's feet stopped humming, and looked up at Girl. Her eyes were friendlier than the womans, friendlier in fact than most of the younglings Girl knew. She smiled, and the dark haired girl smiled back, eyes brightening as they met.
Breeze had been playing for hours and Lily knew she could play for hours more, but Lily had been tired of the game for years. If she sat still for a minute longer the half buried tires would leave permanent tracks in her butt. Lily pushed herself to her feet, kicking up dust and irritation. She had only herself to blame, she'd first invented their let's pretend sport, but Breeze had leapt into the game with all the joy of a creator. Now the game was more hers than Lily's. Lily sighed, hoping Breeze would notice and stop, but the girl stayed, oblivious, near the ground. Hoping for distraction, Lily's eyes swept the playground. It wasn't much of one these days. The lines of tires marked an overgrown volleyball court, but there was never a net that either girl could remember. The court had been sand, then sawdust, and now there was hard dirt with bits of grass and weeds poking through. Once there was a jungle gym, monkey bars, even two good slides, but gradually they'd been torn down and paved over until only the tires, hot barren concrete, and a sad set of swings remained outside the elementary school.
The first time Lily spoke to Breeze on that better playground, they were both so small Lily could hardly remember it. What stuck better in her memory was the sound of Kristen, Breeze's mother, telling a story. Her voice was calm and comforting and for Lily, that was the first understanding of what "mother" could mean.
On the other side of the building a field tried to be a running track. Behind that were the trees, dense and sharp as a child's cutout.
When they'd been no more than six, just released for recess, Lily, distant and more gloomy than usual said, “What if faeries lived in the woods behind the school?" She'd pointed to the dark wall of pines and mossy vine trails. Breeze not only agreed but wondered, what do they look like? Are they tiny or giant and do they fly? Do they have butterfly wings and do they run naked at midnight under the full moon? What do they eat? Can they breathe underwater or do they have to bathe in spiderwebs just to keep from melting away in the sun? The little girl prattle went on and on, exhausting Lily so that she'd wanted to forget she'd spoken at all. Breeze could never be turned away once she found something wonderful. Soon the two girls were on their hands and knees, searching the soggy grass for faerie food and drink. A cracked filbert shell filled with the residue of last night's rain could be a fairy princess' strawberry mead. The fallen pine needles were swords or roof thatch or once, Breeze suggested, tiny diving boards for a faerie pool. Lily, then nine years old, closed her eyes and thought of blood and teeth and feathers scattered in the air. Faeries, she'd insisted, do not have swimming pools. They played other games, stories snatched from whatever book Breeze's mother was reading her. They were Susan and Lucy, searching for Aslan. Fighting Nazis in Denmark, they took turns being Ellen and Annemarie, rescuing each other from imaginary German Shepherds. One day they were hobbits plotting to trick a dragon and steal the lost dwarf treasure. Next they were girl detectives at the Westing mansion, trying to find out who killed the millionaire. Other times Breeze made up games not from any book; alien animals escaping from an intergalactic zoo or apprentice wizards transforming the world, and they'd play that for a few weeks, but they always returned to play the faerie game again.
At twelve, almost thirteen, it was getting to be a bit much. Aren't you too old for this game? wondered Lily, but she loved Breeze too much to say the words. With laughter she could call her stupid, dweeb, freak, airhead, but to imply that it was time for Breeze to leave her dreams in the stinking shadow of old rubber tires, Lily knew that would be more hurtful than punching her in the stomach. Worse than kicking apart the carefully arranged faerie homes nestled in the half moon tire guts. Even as Lily imagined the confetti of twigs and moss and broken nut shells carried away in a gust of wind, Breeze lovingly constructed a chair from a broken pine-cone and a flat piece of bark. Her hand was almost touching the bed of rocks and animal dander.
Breeze's hair fell in spikes around her neck, curling along her chin as she crouched over her play. A thread spool table nestled near the back of the tire. Four chairs of sorts made from folded leaves. Lily sighed, more loudly, but the smaller girl continued to bend over the faerie house. Dust stirred around Breeze's shoes as she hopped in place, humming slightly. Lily had once suggested using doll house furniture, or miniatures collected at the Scandinavian festival, but Breeze insisted that this would be cheating. It would also be expensive, for the homes disappeared and had to be rebuilt continually, but Lily thought the cost would be worth it if it helped Breeze tire of the game. Perhaps not. Some bits couldn't be bought. Resting against the outside, a stack of twigs lay stacked in a fragile pyramid for firewood. Ugly yellow flowers, not true flowers but cromagnum buds, were laid carefully along the inside ridge for decoration.
"That's pretty," admitted Lily looking closer, and it was true. Alone the tiny buds were bland unpleasant smelling cones, but strung on the fresh woven line of field grass they looked almost like lanterns, brightening the underbelly of the forgotten tire with nothing but good intention. Breeze jumped at the sound of Lily's voice, loosing her balance and rocking backward into the dirt. One hand jutted back to prevent her rolling onto her back. She shot Lily a quick reproachful look. "You were dirty anyway," Lily said, and she helped the smaller girl to her feet. Like a parent, Lily brushed the worst of the dust off Breeze’s clothes. "Let's do something different," she said in an even tone, and Breeze, pulled from her trance-like fascination, recognized the plea underneath.
"Okay," she agreed readily enough, looking at the white-blue sky above the treetops. "It's getting late anyway, wanna go home and see when Mom's making dinner?" As always, Lily winced slightly at the word "home" and, as always, Breeze pretended not to notice. Lily's stomach was aching and she was getting that sick feeling that came from having gone too long without eating. She had been more absorbed in Breeze's game than she realized. Unlike Breeze who seemed to feed on the air, Lily was finding she needed more and more, with seemingly not enough food in the world to sate her hunger.
"Will she mind?" asked Lily, responding to Breeze's automatic dinner invitation.
"No, you know she won't," said Breeze.
Lily shrugged and nodded, looking at the ground. She'd always eaten nearly a meal a day at Breeze's home, and though neither Breeze nor her mother or father seemed to mind, Lily was getting to find it embarrassing. Breeze had never been to visit Lily and she'd long ago learned to stop asking. Unsaid words clung to them like sweat, locking them in place. Lily stared determinedly at the ground, Breeze gazed off into the distance. It was mid June and gusts of damp wind played at their hair, tugged at their shirts. The school sat mutely at their backs, the threat of knowledge dulled by summer. At this time of year it always seemed to recede into the trees as though it meant to sleep there until September. The sound of the river through the woods was louder than usual and the woods were taller, as suppressed wild parts pushed back the orderliness of the school year. Already the grass was long from neglect and in another few weeks a child could lay down and be hidden from view. Then the grass seeds would come, pretend wheat for faerie bread, and before it was cut again the field would be as high as Lily's waist. Or it had been the year before, but she seemed to have grown too much. Her clothes, only a few months old now, were already tight and short. Lily would stick out of the trimmed grass like a blade missed by the mower. Her face reddened. It was a relief when Breeze shouted, breaking the stillness. Lily glanced up to the trees where the smaller girl was pointing just in time to see a shadow shift along the trees before disappearing.
"It was that boy again," said Breeze, her hand still pointing to the empty pines. "Who do you suppose he is?" Lily watched the woods for further movement, her face so intent that she might have been glaring. The trees were bright in the late afternoon sun and every shadow stood stark against the sharp pine needles and rough yellow bark. Lily's eyes grew hot and stinging from staring and she blinked rapidly. After a few minutes a squirrel skipped over the edge of the school field and then vanished again, but the boy did not reappear.
Lily picked up Breeze's battered hip pack, looking away from the line of trees, and handed it to her. "Let's get out of here." Breeze swung her pack in the crook of her elbow and Lily smoothed her hair, then the girls set off to Breeze's house.
Breeze's real name was Nissa Breeze Falkner. Her father liked to tell the girls about the time she got sick when she was less than a year old. "You yelled so loud, a breeze went out the window, so we knew we named you right," said Ronnie Falkner. "It's a wonder you could, with that awful wheeze." A cold turned to bronchitis, and when Ronnie and Kristen Falkner brought her to the emergency room a second time they were told their daughter had asthma on top of everything else. It was the saddest thing they'd ever seen, that little baby, so flush and healthy one minute, pale and withered the next, with a nebulizer that covered her entire face just so she could get enough breath to scream. Lily had heard the story almost as many times as Breeze. She remembered Breeze being pulled inside to catch her breath when they were very small and sometimes she came inside with her. She was frightened by the shiny translucent mask that Kristen pulled over her friend's face so that only her eyes and untidy hair poked over. Even more frightening was how Breeze, usually vibrating with boundless energy, changed to something still and tired. For a few years, Lily thought it was the machine that subdued Breeze, and she was sad, thinking Kristen was hurting her. Kristen saw the worry and explained that Breeze was very sick and the machine helped her feel better.
Breeze was stronger now, though she still carried an inhaler and Lily could hear her thick breath as they walked down the road. That wasn't only the asthma, June was the peak of allergy season, and the constant sound of Breeze's snuffling labored breath was a reminder to Lily that she was lucky in some things. It was living in a valley; the pollen got trapped there whether it was flower or grass or winter mildew. In June nearly everyone was sneezing or coughing, Lily supposed she was immune from overexposure. As they passed through Breeze's back door, Lily listened to her friend breathing in whistling tufts, until Breeze stopped in the mud room to take a puff off her inhaler. Kristen called from the other room and Breeze, holding her breath, waved at Lily to answer before shoving the inhaler back in her bag. "We're in here," said Lily as Breeze let her breath out with a huff and a grin. Lily was more bothered by Breeze's asthma than Breeze, and that attracted Lily. It was good to feel sorry for someone, even someone as glad and exuberant as Breeze. The pity kept the envy at bay.