In 2013, I won second place in the Annual Bookshop Santa Cruz Short Story Contest with the piece below. Enjoy!
Among the Trees
I was a lonely child. Instead of playing with neighbor children, I searched for treasures amidst the black Georgia soil. Barefoot and knotted hair, I walked through tall grass towards the ancient oak trees. I marveled at their size; the branches reaching upwards and outwards, gnarled over time. These trees became the border of my Irwin County kingdom, my land in which I roamed; 130 paces from my dilapidated porch, passed the fallen fence, two leaps over the trickling creek until it emerged. Some days, after my hike, I’d sit beneath the branches, stifled by the heat. Reflecting on my trail, I’d watch for movement, ready to run at an instant, away from the broken building inhabited by those I do not name. They’re simply he and she. She being frigid, he with scuffed cheeks and whiskey-laden breath. His eyes never knew me, his callused hands did. Once I meagerly asked for water and his hand brought me to the floor. “Rats don’t need water!” he scowled. Rat was all he called me and all I ever knew.
On colder days, I dug, searching under hanging limbs. Most days I left empty-handed. But one humid afternoon I found something—tarnished silver, encasing a blue stone; a perfect pendant. To keep it, it had to remain a secret, tucked away in my dress pocket until safely placed in my pillowcase at night. Every day I carried it, hoping for luck. I once heard she talking about a local man who carried acorns for luck. She cackled, “Only the idiotic would do a thing like that,” as she burned meatless pieces of chicken on the stove. I was given leftovers, the scraps they didn’t finish. Little did they know I’d sneak bits of bread at night while he was slumped in his recliner and she snored deeply. After I found the pendant, I began stealing milk as well. Maybe it wasn’t luck it brought me, but courage.
Weeks passed as my kitchen excursions continued; brave I had become. And so, I decided to explore the forest beyond my familiar border. Pendant in hand, I stepped into the jungle. It was cool here, calm and silent. I brushed against the bark, feeling warmth with each touch. Lost in amazement, I was unaware of the boulder at my feet. As my body flung forward, my hands flew outward throwing the pendant away. Panicked, I frantically searched between leaves for my treasure. I crawled amongst the wreckage, my fingernails black, caked in mud. Hopeless, I looked around; I didn’t know where I was. As I surveyed my environment, I saw movement on the horizon approaching me.
“He,” I gasped.
I scrambled backwards watching the figure grow. Slamming against a tree, I closed my eyes and rocked in fear. The footsteps quickened. I felt the earth beneath me move as the crunching of leaves burst inside my ears. Then suddenly, silence. I bravely opened my eyes. An elderly woman stood before me, her frail hand reaching out. Her skin was dark chestnut, weathered. My eyes met hers; a deep coffee brown, the whites yellowed from time.
“Whatcha doin’ out here all alone?” She paused, examining my bloodied hands.
“Oh child,” she quivered, “yous musta took some nasty fall. Yous come with Miss Bailey, E’rthing gonn be just fine .”
She guided me through the wooded maze to a small, quaint building. The rusted roof shone bright. Paint chips spackled the structure, revealing the aged wood. We stepped through the front door into a small sitting room. Sunlight poured through the white linen-draped windows. The room smelled of the outside world; fresh with hints of soil.
“Here now,” she said, “lets wash them wounds.”
She took a hot, damp rag and brushed the dirt from my body. I hissed, burning from the heat. Once finished, she handed me a glass of iced tea with honey; it was sweet and earthy.
“Whatcha name child?” she inquired.
I sat silent, gazing at her questioning brow. She waited calmly, seeing my hesitation.
“Rat,” I mumbled as I sipped the brisk drink.
“Rat? Come now,” she smiled, “Yous ain’t foolin’ Miss Bailey. Whatcha real name?“
“Rat,” I stated.
Puzzled, she sat she sat in silence, staring. Her look of concern bothered me. It was a look I didn’t understand. I tried to think of another name I had been called; nothing. Frustrated, tears began to brim. I looked around and found something to focus on—a photograph in a dusty frame. A young girl stood with long braids next to a tall man dressed in a white shirt and slacks.
Miss Bailey noticed my gazing and stated, “That’s me and my Daddy. Ain’t he handsome?”
I smiled at her, seeing the picture was important to her. Then, I noticed an item she was wearing in the photo. A pendant. My pendant. My head spun, flashing to the moment of my fall. I slammed the tea on the side table and dashed out the door.
“Whas the matta?” her voice called in the distance.
I pushed through the thicket, coming to the rock that forced me to the ground. I began to search.
“I will find you!” I grunted.
Amidst my frenzy, I saw a flicker of light. I snatched it up along with a handful of wet dirt.
“Miss Bailey! I found it!” I exclaimed.
Breathing heavily, she shouted, “Darlin’, you scared me to pieces.” She gasped, “Now whatcha you find?”
I handed her the treasure, awaiting her reaction. As she studied the object, her jaw dropped.
“What on earth? Where’d you find this?” she wept. “It was my grandmothers, given to me on my thirteenth birthday. I lost it years ago.”
She sat silently, lips quivering, eyes fixated on the pendant.
Her face was bright and reflective. “Darlin’,” she looked at me, “you’ve done made this a happy day for Miss Bailey.”
She fell to the forest floor and wrapped her feeble arms around me.
We walked hand in hand towards her cozy shelter. She talked about her family, mainly her grandmother and the history of the pendant; she lost it sixty years ago as she strolled through the forest. She was near twenty at the time and enjoyed her daily walks.
“These trees here, theys great listeners.” She continued, “…and they talk back child. Theys tell you things, like how to love and how to live. That’s why I stay here with them trees.“
She stopped and turned to me. Bending down, her face inches from mine she said,
“Child, I see in your eyes, you ain’t been loved. But yous full of love and as sweet as my honeyed tea,” she smiled. “Now I don’t know where yous come from but I see that these trees gave yous protection. And so did this.”
I looked down at her trembling hands and saw the pendant.
“Ayla, this belongs to ya now. It found you so yous gonn keep it.”
“Ayla?” I questioned.
She smiled gently and touched my face. “Ayla was my grandmothers name. It means Oak Tree. And that’s you, strong, significant, and warm.”
It was on this day, that I was born.