It started with the paving stones, circles of concrete heavier than the children who bore them, bent-kneed and staggering, between our houses. Bits of garden paths and front walks disappeared, leaving wet worms wriggling on newly exposed circles of earth. We traced muddy footprints from negative space to positive, finding pavers arrayed in a crooked line, heading toward the trees. A narrow avenue into the woods behind our homes.
“We’re out of stones,” the children told us. “The fairies need more.” We nodded, helping their small bodies clamber into minivans and SUVs for a trip to the home improvement store. We wanted to encourage them. We grinned at each other across the aisles as our children selected supplies. Gravel. Small lanterns with batteries that didn’t need the sun. Boxes of scraps the store gave us for free—broken tiles, splintered shims, a few curled carpet remnants too irregular for closets or hallways.
Our children bent their heads together and conferred about requirements, whispering visions half-remembered after fitful nights in their personalized, Pottery Barn’d bedrooms. Dreams with common elements, as similar as palettes of vinyl siding and matched entry lanterns and low-profile evergreens beneath our double-glazed windows. They did not share specifics with us, and we ceded them privacy, indulging their independent plans.
A single cashier checked us out, cooing over the children instead of talking to them. “And what’s all this, then?”
“For the fairies,” said a small voice. It could have been any of them—not one of mine, I don’t think, but my phone had buzzed in my hand, reminding me of work, or perhaps the dentist, or maybe that I was overdue for a vitamin.
“How sweet,” said the cashier.
We exchanged rectangles of plastic for rectangles of stone and glass, and returned home.
What relief, a summer project for the children. Something nearby that required no attention from us, and absorbed theirs as soon as they arose—always earlier than we wished they would—rubbing their sleep-crusted eyes and murmuring about their need to go outside, attempting to exit the back door before we could even get them dressed. We hurried and set them loose in our backyards, returning to our e-mails and our appointments and our overdue bills, and if the children were a little too focused, a little too quiet, who would complain? One or two of us raised our heads periodically, like prairie dogs, peeking out of kitchen windows and screened porches to see the kids still there, bent solemnly over their tasks.
The path wended deeper beneath the boughs.
“What’s back there, anyway?” one of us chuckled over backyard beers one night, and another of us said “just an empty lot.” An undeveloped patch of nothing-yet. We saw one lantern burning above the first stone, but the woods were behind nightfall’s velvet curtain.
“We should call them in,” one of us would say, and the children would return, one of them a little taller, maybe, another with redder hair than some of us remembered. We tucked them into bed, watching spidery lashes close over eyes that seemed lighter than the mossy green of morning—perhaps more peridot, but didn’t some distant aunt have light eyes? Don’t LED bulbs brighten colors?
We kissed foreheads whose curves felt strange against our lips.
“Aren’t growth spurts weird?” one of us would ask another, getting into our adjacent cars in our adjacent driveways, late for work and daycare, and the response—right?!—was so curtly reassuring we would buckle at the knees. All of this was normal. The hair and the height, the awkward postures, the unfamiliar tones and phrases—thank you, Mommy, for the dinner, it was delicious—all normal. The bird skeleton, hollow bones arranged beneath a Hello Kitty pillow in a perfect facsimile of flight, missing only muscles and feathers, this was normal. Thank God.
Normal, too, that they were always hungry, but odd they had stopped saying so. Odd, too, that they weren’t hungry for our help. We found them nourishing themselves with seeds and berries in knotted baskets hidden under leaves. We tut-tutted about safety. Never, never without us checking first. Their apologies were so swift we let them stay outdoors, sure they’d learned our lesson. And if it seemed, at times, as if they were no longer eating, we volleyed new messages across the driveways.
“Have yours gotten super picky?” our voices quivering.
“Oh, my God, I thought it was just me!”
It was familiar, the dread. The quiet voice that tiptoed next to us, whispering that something wasn’t right. That voice sidled up to all of us. Its constant presence became a universal force that unified. We’ve all been there. The children you carry grow up to carry themselves. The days are long, the years are short.
But none of us could say how many days or years had passed. Phones and calendars and apps would tell us, and we would shake our heads. Impossible.
Cold nights would drive us from our beds, the unexpected chill reminding us of seasons and other forces beyond our control. We framed ourselves in darkened doorways, leaning against penciled lines we’d stopped adding to the soft wood, unable to keep up with the growth. Those pajamas fit last week, but now…?
We measured quickened heartbeats against the soft breathing of unfamiliar bodies.
We gazed through panes of glass, past hanging prisms and crayoned sketches of wings, our eyes alighting on that single lantern swaying beneath the border of overhanging branches. We wondered where the path was leading, other than away.
Audrey Burges writes in Richmond, Virginia. Her debut novel The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is forthcoming in 2023 from Berkley/PRH, and her work also appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Pithead Chapel, Cease, Cows, HAD, Into the Void, Slackjaw, The Belladonna, and other outlets. More of her writing is available at audreyburges.com, and you can follow her on Twitter: @audrey_burges.