30 April 2015

The Queen of the Forest

She stands on the edge of the glade with her hands on her hips, letting the greens and blues sink in. She’s the queen of the forest because I made her that way. Her backpack is much too big for her, and the tightened straps dangle freely. She got her ears pierced the second Mom gave in, and she wears them like Pocahontas.  Fioni is a savage, a beautiful savage, born out of the forest like Tarzan, and she’s my sister.

She’s five years younger than me, and she worships me. She thinks I know everything. And I pretend like I do, because it feels good to be worshipped. I ask if she’s hungry, and she says she can make it five more miles. She’s just being tough, and I know it. But I let her have her way.

She’s wearing one of my t-shirts because her tank-top got caught on the backpack buckles when I was adjusting it and made a rip beyond mending. The t-shirt hangs on her like a sack. We can’t afford to slow our pace, because it’s getting dark, and Fioni will get cold if we slow down.

Every once and a while Fioni’s buckle pops loose and I stop to fix it. She’s so skinny. I think she might be getting skinnier. Why do I make her do these things? Mom and Dad think I’m being a bad influence because she never does girl stuff. She’s too much of a tomboy, they say, I teach her bad manners and she’s awkward in public. They wished she was more like Mary Ann or Ellie. But Fioni doesn’t want to be like Mary Ann or Ellie. She wants to be like me.

Even when Mary Ann and Ellie weren’t in college or had boyfriends they weren’t interested in playing with Fioni anyway. All they ever cared about was getting double A pluses and what their stupid future husbands looked like. Of course Fioni likes me better. As for not doing girl stuff, who didn’t let her get piercings until she was 12? And she isn't awkward in public, she's just quiet. “She doesn’t have any friends her age…” I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Her grades aren’t good either.”

It’s not my fault. It is my fault.

I click the buckle shut and give a tug on the straps. I look into her brown eyes, curls of dark hair spilling out from under her cap—my cap.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

Fioni smiles and shifts her backpack gallantly.

“Yeah!”

“Because if you’re tired, we can stop here for tonight…”

“Are you nuts? We’re almost there.” She pauses. “Are you tired?”

“No, no.”

See Mom? She’s happy. She likes this, I told her, winning our imaginary argument. She doesn’t like me taking Fioni out like this at all. Like I’d let anything happen to Fioni. She trusts me more than she trusts anyone else. I’m her protector, her friend, her mentor—I’m everything she needs.

Supper is frozen noodles cooked on the gas stove. I bundle up Fioni with every hat and glove and vest at my disposal. She’s the queen of the forest; I make sure she feels that way.

We slurp up the steaming noodles and I name the stars for her as they come out one-by-one.

“That’s Venus, named after the goddess of beauty. That’s Castor and Pollux, the two twin sister wood-nymphs. Hercules tried to catch them, but they were too fast. That’s Leo the Lion, drinking his milk out of the Big Dipper. Oh, that’s the spring triangle. That one’s Vega, and that’s Altaire, and that one at the bottom is Antares. If you follow the Big Dipper’s handle, it points to Polaris. That’s the North Star. If you can find Polaris, you’ll always know where north is.” I’m not even sure if I’m right. But why does it matter?

“Hey look, that one’s moving!”

“That’s not a star. That’s a satellite.”

“What’s that one called?” she points to a pulsing pinprick of light near the graying horizon.

“Oh yeah. That one’s called Fioni.”

“No it isn’t!” Fioni protests, greatly delighted.

“Course it is. You didn’t know you were named after a star?”

“I am?”

She would have believed me if I said yes.

“No, not really.”

“Oh.” Fioni was disappointed.

We stare in silence for a long time. This must be what eternity feels like.

Fioni yawns. “Let’s go to bed.”

“Yeah. You go ahead. I’ll string up the bear wires.”

Fioni gets up, and then hesitates.

“I’ll put up the bear wires.”

I began to protest, but she says, “Let me do it. You’ve been doing it this whole trip.”

She sounds like me. She’s using that voice I use when I offer to relieve her of a strenuous job, a job too big or tough for her to handle. Countless times I’ve brushed her aside and said in my high and lordly voice, “here, let me do it.” That’s my line. She’s not allowed to say that. Any other time I would have never let that slip, but tonight I am too tired.  I head for the tent, making a mental note not to let Fioni pull a trick like that again.

I make a pillow out of a hoodie and a pair of jeans, pull my beanie over my ears and the sleeping bag up to my chin. Tomorrow we hike out. That’s a good feeling.

When I wake up, it’s dark. It’s raining too, from the sound of tell-tale water droplets bouncing off the tent like popcorn. I see a momentary flash and a rumble of thunder follows. I’m cold. I shouldn’t be cold. Fioni usually snuggles up right next to me. Something else is making me uneasy too. Where is the sound of her breathing? I don’t remember hearing her open the tent zipper.  Didn’t she leave to string up the…

Fioni.

Oh God, where is Fioni?

I fumble with the zipper, but it gets stuck. Fioni! How long have I been asleep? I tug harder. Oh God, oh, God, what have I done? I can’t get it open.

“Fioni!” I scream. My voice is unnaturally high. “Fioni, where are you?”

The rain drums on.

I struggle with the zipper but my hands are trembling too hard and my breathing has become shallow. And then…I hear the high, piercing sound of Fioni’s whistle.

I rip the tent open with my knife and stumble into the cold. My socks get wet instantly, but I’m already running, blowing my whistle in response and screaming “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

I’m panicking, and I know it. This is not how I should be responding. But nobody told me this was going to happen and it’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.

The bear wires are barely a two-minute walk from the campsite, but I don’t recognize anything in the dark. My socks are wet. It’s raining too hard. I can’t think. Where is my flashlight? I blow my whistle hard and bellow Fioni’s name. I hear the return whistle, coming from the left. I’m off the trail now—hacking through ferns and tripping over roots. My knees are soaked, my hands are plastered with cold mud, and I’ve cut my foot on something, but I keep on running, and I blow, blow, blow.

I break into a clearing. Fioni had delivered a flawless performance in stringing up the bear wires. Our bag of food dangles gently under the raging spectacle of rain illuminated by the moonlight. But where is she? I squint in the darkness.

“Fioni?”

And then…

Brandon…”

It’s hoarse and weak. She’s somewhere close.

“Fioni! I’m here! Where are you?”

“Down here.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. I fell. I’m bleeding.”

And then I see her—at the bottom of a twenty foot ravine. I get down on my rear and slide down the steep slope of vegetation. Some part of me that still has wits asks me how I’m going to get back up, but I ignore it. The black shapes of vines and plants lash at me like scenes from a nightmare. I nearly land on top of her at the bottom.

I scramble blindly and find her hand. It’s cold. Her breathing is weak. I smell blood. All the sudden I am sobbing, sputtering meaningless syllables and taking noisy gulps of air. I pull her closer to me. She is cold. Her hands are cold. Her face is cold.

“Brandon…”

Then I see a dark shape protruding from her left shoulder.

“I fell. I landed on a stick. It went all the way through,” she whispers. Her voice sounds so unlike Fioni. There is no sign of panic. I ask her how long she has been here.

 “I don’t know,” she answers. “A long time. I tried to… tried to find Polaris. But the clouds…” She is speaking like she is in a dream. She has removed her layers of shirts.

“I’m so hot…” she says.

 Oh Fioni. Why do I make her do these things?

I tell her she’s going to live, but she doesn’t answer. Let me do it, you’ve been doing it this whole trip. She knows I don’t know everything. She knows. I’m losing her. If she was panicking I could have handled it. I could have told her it would be alright and make her believe that she would live. And she would live, because I told her to. But not when she talked like this. I’d rather kill her than let something happen I can’t control.

“Can you climb up?”

“No, I tried…”

“Get on my back.” I order. She obeys.

I don’t know how I climbed back up the ravine, but somehow I find myself on the top. At the campsite, I can’t find a flashlight, I can’t find the first aid kit, and I can’t find any water. I put warm things on her and set her in the corner next to the backpacks, but her clothes and hair are wet and she is shivering something awful.

“Brandon, if I die…”

“Fioni, you’re not going to die.” What the hell am I saying? My sister has been impaled on a branch and probably has hypothermia. I want to throttle her, to shake her by the shoulders and demand her to trust me. If Fioni doesn’t worship me, who will? Nobody. 

“Mary Ann can have my room…”

“Fiona Jane Walker. Stop.”

“And Ellie can have my goldfish—”

Fioni!” I find a headlamp and shine it on her crumpled form. “Have I ever broken a promise to you? Answer me.”

Fioni looks at me vacantly.

“There was that one time—when I was stuck in the tree—you said you would catch me…”

“You jumped wrong. I would have caught you.”

“You said it didn’t matter how I jumped!” There was some vague surge of fierceness rising out of her dazed brown eyes.

“Have I broken a promise to you—besides that?”

Fioni thinks. “One time you promised you would build me a swing-set. You never did.”

“I’m still going to!” I rage.

“That was two years ago!”

I’m don’t even care about her wound. All I see is her face, her face fills my whole vision, expressionless and cat-like, with only her mouth moving.

“You promised you would buy me a knife!”

“Mom wouldn’t let me!”

“You said you would get back at Bobby Nelson for pushing me.”

“I would have if Mr. Turing hadn’t butted in…”

“You said that star was named after me!”

“It is!”

“You said I was smart! You said I was pretty! You said people liked me! Well, do they?” Fioni bursts out. “Do they?”

But I know the answer was no. People don’t like Fioni. She acts unfriendly and sullen back in the real world. She’s the loser of the school because I made her that way.

“I’m sorry!” I burst out. “I’m sorry, Fioni! It’s my fault! It’s all my fault!  I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

But no words come from Fioni. She is fading, literally fading, dissolving away from my sight. I try to run to her, but my legs feel glued to the ground. I feel submerged underwater, as if rising to the surface…

Brandon…

“I’m sorry!” I moan.

Brandon!”

I pull myself awake with a sharp breath. I hear the water droplets are bouncing off the tent like popcorn. The dark shape of Fioni’s bedraggled hair is looking over me.

“Are you alright?”

I scramble up and turn on a lamp. There is my little sister’s face, her cheeks beaded with raindrops, eyes brown and alive and frightened.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say in my lordly voice. It’s so much better when she’s frightened.

“You were talking in your sleep,” she says cautiously.

“Must’ve been a bad dream,” I shrug it off. “Did you get the bear wires up?”

“No,” she says. “I couldn’t figure it out. Can you do it?”


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