Phoebe

(Originally published 18 April 2010)

The man stood with the boy on a green, green stretch of land where trees and insects and furry animals and wonderful music resided. They surveyed the slope of the planet, and whispered between themselves on where to build a simple structure. The purpose of their labor—and indeed, their very presence in this place—was to create a permanent shadow on a small section of the green, green stretch of land they lived on. There meals might be eaten, and old stories might be told.

The big red star in the sky was gentle that day, and provided light without stinging pain. From the forest came gusts of wind, which delighted the trees and insects and furry animals. The man and the boy were just as happy to hear and feel the wind, were overjoyed to be wrapped in the cool, snaking pockets of air that whistled through the leaves and kept perspiration from developing above their brows. They worked and worked.

The man told old stories, much as he would when the construction of their shadow-maker reached its conclusion, and the boy listened and laughed and felt happy and sometimes sad. There were stories about the boy when he was a much smaller boy, and he’d heard them many times before. Even so, there was an unusual freshness to the storytelling, and he was happy to hear them in that place, feeling what he felt, busy with his work. Spring, of all seasons, he thought, is a timeless one; its warmth often commanded the dust that had settled on his mind to stir and shake around. He felt wonderful and a little glum and awake and enriched and worn down and dizzy. Spring, he thought also, can make one feel many different ways at the very same time. He listened and listened.

And there were stories about learning colors at an early age (“My, how young you were! Just eight months on this planet and already dark blue had become distinguishable from just plain blue!”), stories about the other boys and girls who had lived and now lived away someplace else (“I miss them, I miss them! Every day I miss them—I do!”), stories about old friends—good friends—who now slept in the ground beside where the man and the boy did their labor (“Do you remember how she lifted her head that day—her very last day—and felt the last thing she’d ever feel?”).

The man and the boy looked at each other with bubbling eyes from which long-gone sorrow still encircled from time to time. The two of them turned to the old gravestone, which they’d both neglected to remember, despite being so close, and felt terrible for having done so. That is where she slept and would sleep forever and ever, they thought, and moving pictures flashed on the surface of their eyelids and danced along dusky paths of their tired minds. They dreamed and dreamed.

A friendly tree had stretched out its tiny arms above the old bricks and upturned earth where the little girl slept peacefully in the brown box they’d wrapped and placed her in many years before that day. “There’s our little girl, our little girl . . .” the man had managed to say on the day that she’d gone off to dream, on the day they’d entrusted the earth to watch over her for as long as the earth should exist.

“You remember that day, don’t you?” the man said to the boy now.

“Of course I do, Dad.”

The man and the boy were silent again. They turned to look at tiny patch of earth where she lay. A statue of a kneeling angel watched over the spot, hands forever clasped in quiet prayer as a languid breeze sailed through the trees, bringing with it the smell of lilacs. The small winds patted at the tree that covered the grave, and the big red star in the sky allowed spots of warm yellow light to flicker on the surface of the ground.

The boy lifted his head to catch the breeze, just as she had done so many years before. She would have liked this day, he thought. The man looked at the boy and smiled a sad smile for a long moment. His eyes were fathomless and full of joy and sorrow at the very same time. It was, after all, the season to feel many different things all at once. The man and the boy turned to their labor, still remembering old stories, still absorbing the warmth of the big red star. From then on, when the breeze roused them from their work, it would mean something different than it had before. They promised themselves to never forget why that was.