by Montana Rogers
artist: natasha chomko
&&&&Margaret stood in the window, her face frozen, reflected in the glass pane. Her green eyes appeared as large apples hovering from one of the branches of the crab apple trees in the backfield. The trees stood decrepit and bare, shivering in the stiff breeze that blew across the top of the hill before plummeting down into the valley and settling, like a cat curling up by the fire. The branches of the trees were the brown of decline and gnarled; the orchard had stopped giving fruit long ago. Margaret traced the jagged scar on her knee.
&&&&As a child, she had spent hours running through the orchard, climbing the trees, a monkey’s game of hide and seek. She smiled remembering how the branch had cracked under her weight and she had tumbled through the branches, ripping her pants, then tearing her skin. As she landed in the long, tangled grass, she felt a stinging pain and then relief that she had not broken her arm, her leg, her nose, which was her mother’s constant fear. She imagined her friend Silas from next door swinging out of a neighboring tree and her little brother, Jack, running up behind him.
&&&&&&&“You’re fat,” Jack would say.
&&&&&&She would tell him to shut up, shoot a sideways glance at Silas. She would wonder if she was too heavy. She had grown three and a half inches over the summer and her school uniform felt tight when she had tried it on in preparation for classes starting the following week.
&&&&Margaret blinked. That was the last time she climbed the crab apple trees. As she turned from the window, something at the edge of the yard, before the rock wall that led into the orchard, caught her eye. Two yellow lights blinked off, then on. She pressed her face close to the glass. Those aren’t lights. The two golden spheres sparked, catching the last rays of the sun as it sunk into sleep. The coyote’s fur was gray and sandy-red, a disguise that gave him confidence, nestled among the large gray stones of the early-colonial border walls, the grassy fields, and patches of brambles and creeping vines.
&&&&“What are you looking at?”
&&&&&She recognized the voice. But her father had died several years ago, when Jack was only five. Lightning had come out of the sky and struck him down as he tended the trees in the orchard. Margaret jumped back from the window and the coyote leapt over the wall, disappearing into the orchard. “Nothing,” she pulled her wool scarf tighter around her throat. “It’s cold in here, isn’t it?” She hesitated to turn around, to face her father.
&&&&“I suppose it is, sweetheart.”
&&&&Her father sat tall and straight in the leather chair at what had once been his desk. His hair was still dark; eyes bright and kind. The faint smell of his old cologne and the lavender soap her mother bought permeated the room, like before.
&&&&“Dad?” Margaret felt tears in her eyes.
&&&&“Margaret. What did you do?” He shook his head. “You went climbing in the orchard after your mother said not to, didn’t you?”
&&&&“I haven’t climbed in the orchard in ages,” Margaret said, confused.
&&&&“Are you sure about that?”
&&&&Margaret nodded and went to the couch in the corner of the room. “What are you doing here?”
&&&&“I’m here to see you,” her dad said, steepling his fingers and resting his chin on them.
&&&&“How?” Margaret said.
&&&&Before her father could answer, sounds from the first floor of the house sang up the stairs. She heard her mother in the kitchen and what sounded like Jack playing his oboe, practicing, something new, unusual. She thought she had heard all of her brother’s music.
&&&&“He will learn how to compose one day,” she could hear the pride in her father’s voice.
&&&&“He’s very talented,” Margaret smiled and looked at the mantle above the fireplace on the other side of the room: photos of young Jack and Margaret in frilly clothes bought by their grandmother, her father’s mother. Another photo, one she had not seen before: a young man. Jack? He wore a graduation gown and their mother stood beside him, her hair gray, eyes crinkled with a smile, but strained.
&&&&“You were talented, too.”
&&&&“I try too hard. Jack has it easy.” Margaret frowned. Then she realized what
her father had said.
&&&&“Were?” Margaret turned back to the window. “Dad, I don’t want to be here anymore.”
&&&&“I’m not keeping you here,” her father rose and put a hand on her shoulder.
&&& “This isn’t real, Margaret,” he squeezed her shoulder and warmth radiated through her body.
&&&&Margaret blinked and the room fell out from under her feet. She was lying in grass that reached past her head and into the sky, piercing the white fluffy clouds that floated by, shifting into shapes: a rabbit, a swan, the shaft of a knife, no clouds can’t be knives. Something tickled her knee, she instinctively reached down and rubbed the scar, its puckered surface familiar and comforting. The grass whispered in her ear, it bragged of the beauty of distant lands, the hopes and dreams that traveled along its network of roots. It asked her what she wanted, what could she contribute? Margaret felt the roots of the grass, wriggling beneath her. Was she crushing them, killing them? The earth was warm, burning up, the roots clambered over her trying to find a way out, home, to safety.
&&&&Margaret sank into the earth and she hoped that somewhere beneath the surface she would find water. She was thirsty, parched. Her throat felt dry, like the baking paper her mother used on rainy afternoons in the kitchen when they made chocolate chip cookies. The earth closed over her and she took a deep breath. Dirt spilled into her mouth and she panicked. Then calmed; it did not taste of sand or detritus, but of baked apples and cinnamon. The earth continued to swallow her up and for the first time she wondered where she was going, but as soon as the thought came to her she had arrived. She was standing in the orchard, staring at her house. Jack and Silas ran up the steps and through the back door, shouting. Margaret could not hear what they were saying. She began looking for herself, certain she would not be far behind the boys. Then she saw where she was. She was crumpled under a crab apple tree. She crouched down next to her body and saw blood gushing from her knee and a large bruise forming on her head. She took the scarf from her neck and tried to tie it around her younger self’s knee. A branch cracked behind Margaret and herself. She turned and there staring out from the brush were two golden eyes. Margaret dropped the scarf and tried to shake her other self awake.
&&&&“Run!” she shouted, but she could not hear herself nor feel her frantic pushing and shoving. Margaret watched as the coyote stepped out of the grass, his nose high in the air. He looked around, checking that he was alone. He crept closer to Margaret’s fallen self and tilted his head, examining her bloody knee. His tongue flicked out of his mouth and glanced off her leg, smearing the blood. Margaret shouted again, but nothing happened. The coyote could not hear her and her other self continued to lay motionless. The coyote licked the leg once, twice, three times.
&&&&Margaret crouched next to the coyote. He did not seem interested in hurting her. He licked and licked and with each lick cleaned away the blood that had been spilled. Margaret gazed at him and retrieved her scarf, wrapping it once more around her neck. The coyote shifted, burying his nose in her younger self’s hair and kneaded his paws against her shoulder. A breeze danced through the orchard, catching in the coyote’s fur. Margaret’s nose tingled with the hint of lavender and cologne. Margaret saw her hurting self stir, but her eyes remained closed. Her hand reached out and twisted itself into the coyote’s fur. The coyote licked the purple bump on her forehead.
&&&&The coyote’s ears pricked and he backed away from her fallen self, quiet, gentle. Then, Margaret heard the shouts coming from the direction of the house too. Her hand fell away from the coyote’s fur. With one last glance, he melted into the tall grass, behind a row of crab apple trees. Silas, Jack, and her mother ran to the heap on the ground. Her mother bent down and gave her cheek a couple of quick slaps, calling her name. You’re okay. Open your eyes, my beautiful girl. Her father’s voice faded into the grass and leaves of the trees.
&&&&Margaret felt a searing pain in her head. She opened her eyes and her mother’s face came into focus. Her mother pulled her into a tight hug as Silas and Jack patted her back, laughing away their fear. Silas tugged her wool scarf from one of the tree’s low hanging branches.
&&&&“Too many cookies,” Jack teased.
&&&&Margaret frowned at her brother and took the offered scarf from Silas. She looked past the tree that had betrayed her into the tall grass. Two gold eyes stared back.
Montana Rogers is a writer and educator. Her fiction pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in gravel: A Literary Journal, The Sea Letter, and emerge. She is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio.