By Jenya Green
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
Once every seven nights, the child watched from her window as the flowers, shrubbery, and trees folded themselves up and went underground. It happened suddenly and without fail as soon as she spotted the third star to appear in the night sky, at this time of year glimmering over the tip of the cypress tree.
The plants had stayed put Before, back when that star still hung low on the horizon, blinking just over the fence line. But now, she’d spot the star, and at once, with a slurping sound like the one her lips made when she pulled a red sauce-covered strand of spaghetti into her mouth, the greenery would collapse in on itself as the earth sucked it up.
It reminded her of one Christmas, Before. She and Mama and Daddy had gone to see The Nutcracker, and the Christmas tree grew up and up, layers of pine branches unfolding themselves—only this happened in reverse, much more quickly, and, of course, she wasn’t wearing her shiny red patent leather shoes, and Mama’s hand wasn’t squeezing hers. Mama’s hand wouldn’t—couldn’t—squeeze hers, ever again.
She’d tried talking to Daddy about it, in the mornings, while she ate the bites of frozen waffles he’d carefully cut for her. Daddy would look right at her when she spoke, even when he was hastily stuffing her lunchbox with snack packs and cheese sticks.
“Daddy,” she’d ask, “are there forests and flowers and things where Mama is, underground?”
Kneeling, Daddy would place his hands heavily on her shoulders.
“Sweet pea, Mama isn’t underground. She’s in Heaven, watching and loving us.”
She sensed that, in some way, her father was trying to protect her, but she found it comforting to think of the cypress and the small maple tree blooming out of the underside of the earth, roots clinging to a rocky ceiling and leaves hanging down wild and loose, like her hair when she dangled herself off the back of the couch. She imagined her Mama, bare feet buried in the upside-down grass, crunching her body upwards to pick a sprig of the upside-down lavender they had planted together.
She didn’t like to think about what Mama must be doing the other six nights of the week, when the plants and trees were on the top side of the ground and she was alone. When the child considered this too closely, looking out at the barren backyard, gray moonlight coating dirt and concrete and piles of river rock abandoned by their usual blanket of greenery, she’d often start to cry. She imagined her tears pouring off the windowsill and dripping onto the earth, where they’d be sucked through like the foliage. She thought all that water must be flowing out as an upside-down river for Mama to walk next to on the other side.
She saved her tears for these nights, alone with the moon and her three stars. At first, she’d cried to Daddy, but she learned fast that he didn’t have a place to put her tears. When her feelings got too big and started spilling from her eyes, he seemed to become hard and soft at the same time. He would tense his shoulders but lift his eyes upward helplessly, like he was looking for his own father to reach down, grasp him under the armpits, and lift him away from the earth.
Desperately, he’d urge, “Don’t cry, my love, don’t cry. Mama doesn’t want you sad. Put on a happy face, Sweet Pea.”
She smiled for Daddy, but every seven nights, she added water to the underground river. She knew that one day, the river would become too swift and wild. It would burst through rock and soil and into her backyard, toppling trees, knocking over fences, and, if she wasn’t careful, drowning her and Daddy both.