(finalist for the 2022 Boston Review Aura Estrada Short Story Contest)
Because it was surrounded by a sea of endless trees, we called the village the island. Instead of bowing into walkable trails, our thickets rose in insurmountable waves. On a crisp day in spring, the tangle of leaves and branches was so thick that a young child beached at the wood’s edge was discovered dead only after we’d had our morning tea.
She wasn’t one of ours. At least, we didn’t recognize her, and this brought fear shivering into our hearts. Umma, who stitched our children’s school clothes, identified the dead’s torn dress as her work, a years-old creation, horribly out of style. But Gunjun, whose livestock shed was clean and well-insulated and therefore the likeliest hideout for a little stowaway, hadn’t noticed any unusually bipedal rustlings. The child seemed to have appeared from nowhere only to die on our shores.
There was talk of starting a police investigation. Of course, we didn’t have police, only two firehouses. We were idyllic in our isolation, each of us taking care of the all as our founders had intended. Occasionally when we sensed the presence of a beast prowling the wooded dark flanking our homes, several of us would be selected through lottery to patrol the perimeter with lanterns, beating tins with brooms to scare away what lurked. But never had we seen an investigation sprout so proudly at our feet. We had no protocol to follow, no law enforcement to turn to or detectives to hire, and so we followed our translucent hunch: surely the children must know something.
The youngest and oldest seemed nearly bored by the sudden appearance of the child, but those caught in the middle wailed and hid their faces in their mother’s skirts. Perhaps it was the image of her rigid body so like theirs in size that upset them.
We have a special ceremony for our lost children, for the innocent, though it does sharpen the pain of loss and we’d stop altogether if it wasn’t a founding tradition. We bury them where the woods come in to meet us, a widow’s peak at the top of our island, an inlet of trees boasting clusters of blazing white leaves in spring. The children point at them, whispering flowers, but we know them as markers for the consecrated burial ground of souls lost too young. Death’s little kisses, we call the floating leaves. But for this child who was not ours we merely dug a hole in the ground while our children recited rhymes in their classrooms, unaware. Staring into the unceremonious dirt, a spoiled plum of a memory fell into our hands, a round bruised little thing: the last time we’d buried a child. Hattie’s and Seok’s little boy, not too long after Hattie herself.
Hattie had some trouble breathing in her last months of pregnancy and died in childbirth. Seok lost his mind when he lost his wife, took to drinking and forgot to name the baby. He must’ve forgotten other things too, since the boy shortly followed his mother out the door.
The older of Hattie and Seok’s children had taken to calling the younger baby brother while Seok grieved his wife, and so when it was time Paulie, who carved the headstones, chiseled out “Baby Brother” and the single year the boy’s life had joined his. Seok had begged the man to list it twice, once for birth and once for death, but Paulie maintained that if he was in the business of doling out vouchers for grief, he’d be out of business very soon.
And so the little grave was marked just once and planted with the body in the ground out in the grove of death’s little kisses. The funeral was mostly amber light filtering through the high feathered branches, the stillest blue skies punctuated with a single curdled puff of gray threatening to wring itself dry on us. We had held hands and bowed our heads over his buried life and prayed. With our eyes closed we felt the first few beads on our bent necks, warm as spit and just as surprising.
We yanked our heads up mid-prayer, and the world seemed more water than air, thick with the smell of washed earth, clay made clean. Our funeral dresses all soaked through. Umma wore a doily of a pillbox hat and complained that it had done nothing to save her. We remember running back to our porches, holding our black linens above the mud, the surprise of relief—the skies had been so unusually still, we’d known something was coming.
We spared our children the sorrowful spectacle for this dead child. Despite our discreet burial they remained mournful, so we remained vigilant. If they would not forget her, neither would we.
We wanted answers urgently, but we had to be patient with the children. First, we explained death: a sweet man did you a favor that looked a bit ugly, but then you got to move to an even more perfect island, where there were always rainbows shimmering in the slanting light and clouds appeared only when the sun had just begun to freckle your skin. The children took rather too well to that idea, looking around wildly for a path to heaven, and so we had to invoke death’s fear. Never to come back, the dead were, and some who died went away somewhere terrible, filled with tentacled monsters and the stench of stale potpourri, and though it was impossible to know who would wind up in this terror, the children who told their adults everything they knew were certainly spared. With this the children were rather inconsolable, so we softened the horror: several long-lashed goblins nibbled at your toes while you suffered a not-quite melty grilled cheese, hopped on your unmade bed while you tried unsuccessfully to nap.
Still, those middle children would not admit to knowing the mysterious child, or even to not knowing. They would simply look at each other, tongues sticking out with the effort of the lie, hands in pockets as if holding the truth in their tiny fists. When we questioned them one by one, we could get them almost to break, but then they’d look up at the back-right corner of the ceiling, blow out a great puff of air, cross their arms, and, ever so pointedly, shrug. Every one of them.
Several of us took our progeny aside, believing our own parent-child relationship to transcend the others’, and spoke with our children plainly, logically: It was a matter of island safety, the safety of all the children. No one would get in trouble, we simply needed to know. When that failed, we cooed and coaxed with promises of date puddings and extra recess, staying up past bedtime to chat up the adults while we sipped too much wine and slicked off the day before bed. We believed ourselves close to cracking some of the younger ones, but they held firm, the whole troupe of them. We respected their commitment.
Island. Who had come up with that? We guessed one of those first children, one of the founders’, our own generation’s most ancient mothers and fathers who remembered the outside world, maybe missed the sight of a sky vivid with pollution lying endlessly flat against the ocean. For us, island was home first, signaling water and beaches and beaching only as a footnote in a textbook.
Ages ago, centuries or decades (no one bothered with the math), the founders, our grandparents, lost their day-care aged children to a fire. That was all they had in common. Some had known one another’s names, had waved in carpool lanes. Maybe one or two had even scheduled playdates. For the most part, though, they were strangers stitched together by grief. Or maybe it was a shooting? Surely we’d heard the incidents discussed by our adults when we were children, but facts had a way of falling from our heads unused.
The founders bought this land themselves. They could afford such a thing, college funds and mattress money accumulating for nothing without their babies, capital from several lawsuits, against, let’s say, the party responsible for the mechanical failure that started the fire or the leaves on the ground in the yard for kindling or the volunteer firefighters simply for coming back empty handed, or if it was a shooting after all, perhaps the police for not following their emergency procedures or the gun lobbyist organization settling for peace and quiet, law and order.
The founders hadn’t expected to stay for much longer than a few years. Just until they were brave enough to go back into the world. Afterward, they’d come back to the island to summer together, maybe, and remember fondly the grief they’d tucked neatly away. They hadn’t planned on having more children either. How could they possibly care for new ones, love them wholly and allow them to run reckless down grassy knolls, knowing how suddenly they could simply step sideways into the morbid air and vanish.
But that had been the point of the whole endeavor: to forget, to heal, to escape the world. And it must have worked, because suddenly they began to, all of them, dream of babies. The insistent softness of vellum fists clasped around thumbs, the powdery smell of soft skull beneath swirled hair, the stupid chubby looks when they smeared their first fistfuls of chocolate frosting into their nubby first tooths. They dreamt of the cooing noises their first-borns had made when it was raining, the color of the darkened windowpanes as they stared out at the world together, safe, glowing in one another’s warmth.
The dream babies led to real ones, in successive waves, one or two by accident and several on the first try, so many of them born within months of each other, a new batch baking each season. The older siblings, born in that old world of highways lit by successive taxis and overpasses that looked like arcs of energy crackling with impending doom, were given small pumpkins to care for and shown how, with love, they could swell just like a mommy’s belly.
In a family way, all of them like that, it hardly made sense to leave, and their children grew up scampering through some fields they’d cleared, and those children had children, and here we are now, happy as clams sauteed in butter, as our grandmothers once said, though we’re not sure if creatures of the sea appreciate being eaten. The creatures of land certainly do not.
Soon after the sourceless child’s secret burial, the children began an interrogation of their own on the history of the island, eyes hard and illegible. We hurried on their coats and pushed them back into the big room where schoolteacher Ongel told them what we’d gleaned:
We had all arrived on the island together, equal, immigrants. We had each chosen how we would spend our time and feed our families. The founding woman who had shamed the original offenders into shelling out blood money kept on at what she did, helping us sort our arguments when they happened in exchange for daily bread and fruit and lamb. We think a founder or two may have been librarians, since we have stores and stores of books that we wave toward when the children say they are bored and that we sometimes retrieve to help us reach higher shelves or knock beehives off trees. We think they must have taken other jobs, because no one has written anything down about our island or any of its founders, if librarians are even responsible for such a thing. We’re not sure, as we have no librarians to consult. Two of the founders had been doctors, but neither had brought much in the way of medical equipment, and of their children only one had become a midwife—the remaining of that litter preferred tangible tasks like basket weaving and wood cutting to the reading of thick books the rest of us only ignored. The founder who had groomed great globs of money and chased bear markets in the other world felt she could not in good conscious keep up the practice here. It’s not our way, she said, and seemed proud when she said it, proud of herself and our island. She tended to the animals instead. Come to think of it, she may have been Gunjun’s great grandmother, but there’s no way to truly know. Maybe it’s odd that we keep no family trees or accountability, but we like it that way, all of us feeling like cousins, our blood mixing like primordial soup.
Ongel parroted our age-old curriculum, history lessons beginning and ending with a melody one of the older first children had devised: If you can’t recall the past, it can’t be called upon to hurt you; history forgotten is history overcome. Our own children were the first to point out, that doesn’t rhyme, and Ongel reminded them that it was composed by a schoolchild after all, one their own age, and repeated what our mothers told us—history was what was wrong with that old outside world. Groups of people did terrible things to other groups of people, couldn’t forgive themselves, wouldn’t admit to any wrongdoing at all. And the people they did these things to, people whose anger conceived inside of them with every denial—what right did anyone have to ask their forgiveness? Our children, every color the cows came in, asked, not people like us? Ongel mollified. Who could do anything to children like you?
But the children pressed on, started to ask about leaving the island. How, we laughed, and why? They asked if someone, a child even, might come from beyond the trees. And we kept our voices light, how and why, how and why, as if dismissing the questions and not choking them down.
We were never forbidden from leaving the island, we simply hadn’t bothered to hack through nature’s thorny fence. We were safer here, together. Our air was purer, even if the mosquito count was higher. The founders had bought a remote plot astonishingly larger than the area cleared to live on. When they’d put the finishing touches on their utopia, they reseeded their tracks out, obscuring any path from that old world to our island. They barred intruders but encouraged their children to revisit the world with mildly mustered enthusiasm. They asked their oldest boy on his fifteenth birthday if he would want to be sent to a boarding school, back out in that other world, but his memories of it were hazed with his parents grief, with gunfire or ordinary fire, who knew.
So the boy stayed. The couple who baked sourdough breads and more indulgent things had just had a third child, and the woman had gotten a case of the post-blues, and the oldest of our island’s brood found himself with his first job. With all those bright new babies and swelled bellies bumping around the place, the business would be bursting with birthday orders.
The blue woman was tickled pink as she witnessed the island’s true draw on its oldest boy: each afternoon after the ovens emptied, he swept flour from the floor with an eye to the window, and each afternoon after the island’s oldest girl grazed her goats, she brought them home the long way through the market, dawdling in the square. He would ask the bakers if he could have the last bun and wrap it lovingly with twine to bring out to the girl whose pleased laughter sounded like the bells her goats wore on their ankles. The bakers began shaping their buns into hearts, studded with chocolate and smothered in strawberries, and though these buns nearly sold out each day and were directly responsible for a late wave of babies, they made sure there was always one remaining to stoke the children’s fledging romance. The boy wasn’t imaginative enough to fathom the reason behind this change in recipe, and the girl couldn’t resist noticing. The bells grew louder and lovelier.
Some nights when the island gathered around a great big fire to celebrate the coming or going of warm weather, the two oldest children would sit just akimbo to the group, a stone’s throw away but also a yell. Whatever they whispered evaporated into the mist of chirping crickets and the young ones chasing each other in dizzying patterns. Their murmuring delighted the founders, who had been so jaded by grief and then so consumed by their bright new babies that for a time they had forgotten the giddy rush of proposals. They discussed whether it was their duty to guide the boy, who was barely able to sound out a word as long as “engagement” when they plucked him from the old world, or to keep quiet and let things develop, and as they passed this question around the fire again and again for years, the boy instinctively fashioned a tiny ring of sourdough to signal his feelings, and so the founders simply had to tell him what he’d meant by this gesture and what it ought to mean to the girl. The young couple rushed headlong into marriage and served chocolate-studded strawberry-smothered buns at the island’s first wedding, and the outside world receded further.
These days our island’s first sweet couple—that’s how we thought of them, a collective first kiss—barely clung to life, but they were alive still, with us. They didn’t do much in the way of advice, but they babbled to each other adoringly and this comforted us a great deal in these times of torment and confusion.
As summer warmed we discovered we could sweat the obstinacy from our children to obtain answers. The more social parents among us organized a complicated round-robin soccer schedule, and the rest, whose jobs or multitudes of offspring wouldn’t allow for extracurricular involvement, ordered their children to run laps around the perimeters of their houses, sprints up and down the stairs. We didn’t let them open their windows or turn on their fans in the soupy heat of night. Slowly, they melted, though still, all we got was condensation: three names.
Moony, Binta, Nomi. Three little girls, with dark hair in braids down their backs, tied with black ribbons. None were soccer camp girls.
We tried Moony first and realized how she had earned the nickname. She flapped her butterfly lashes at us, seeming not to remember the dead child in question, and burst into song if we pressed her too hard. Nursery rhymes, mostly, though also a dirty limerick that made several of us blush. Binta, an intelligent-seeming girl who we were sure was the brains behind the whole thing, began to bite as if she were a rabid dog, and then suddenly clung to our legs wailing until Gunjun returned from grazing the goats and snatched her child home, shouting at us we’d gone too far. Nomi, beloved on our island for her chirp, was a perpetual ringleader, bossy-pants, know-it-all. Ongel adored her. We counted on her to kiss our parental asses with answers.
But she wasn’t too interested. The one time we could find her by herself, unaccompanied by adult chaperone or fellow intern of mischief, she sat quite still in her backyard, perched on the tire she’d cut from the swing we’d installed. All the children had them, identical, wrangled from the rusted jeeps that lay unnecessary and unused in the abandoned lot past the farming fields. She was staring up at the tree it had once hung from. She blinked at it a few times, shrugged. The trees drowned her, she said, and the more we insisted, the more she did, too. Finally she wrapped her arms around herself and muttered only, Ask Verdelle.
Where is she, we asked, and she shrugged. Where she always is.
We couldn’t quite picture her in our heads, Verdelle. A young girl in a uniform with a braid down her back like the rest. That much was easy. Harder was plucking her from the mass of school children. We had an impression of her fingers pressed against the glassmaker’s window, but not the furrowed intensity of her unblinking eyes. The precocity of her special basket for running errands, but not the hypnotic quality of her crisply adult voice.
The girl finally crystalized in our minds when we could recall her brother: Hattie’s boy, born early and wriggly. Verdelle, her father’s dutiful nurse, baby brother’s avid champion. Her little arms pumping as she hustled to the store for diapers when Seok couldn’t bear the pity of the town. Placing a custom order for a beautiful glass rattle the mottled amber-honey color of sunshine after saving up some coins she’d earned or found. When the boy died she’d gone mute, Ongel remembered. Stopped answering questions, didn’t seem to soak up the lessons skittering across the blackboard. She would read thick textbooks from the island backstock no one bothered with, or else stare out her window at the grove of white leaves.
If only we could remember how the funeral went. Whether we completed the ceremonies or simply fled in the rain, whether the words lord save those left behind fell from our mouths into the wet earth unused, whether little Verdelle’s face had gone from cherry to stone at our heartlessness—who’s to say.
We found her at the widow’s peak of our lost children, sitting on a carpet of death’s scattered little kisses. Verdelle looked struck when we relayed Nomi’s theory for the mysterious child. She told you? Just like that? We shook our heads dumbly: She only said it was the trees. Verdelle wore an expression of smug assurance, looked like she might settle into a long period of silence like the rest of them.
But we didn’t have patience for that any longer and didn’t have to think too hard about bullying the girl. Her father was reliably drunk after all, asleep as often as he was bumbling to himself at headstone-carver Paulie’s place, who also brewed and sold his own liquor. Some say it’s a miracle our island has sustained so long, and many attribute that miracle to Paulie’s stuff, a vile cloudy grey syrup that a sane person wouldn’t sip casually but the bereft could take by the dram and suddenly wake to find the lonesome night of grief had passed unnoticed, the mourner thinking of nothing in the morning but his own head’s pounding.
So we twisted her arm, in a manner of speaking, and actually. Finally sound escaped her gritted teeth: How can I articulate everything you’ve ignored?
Articulate? Ongel hadn’t taught her that word. But wasn’t that why they’d come here, our founders? To tend their brood gently, to shield them from outside dangers, to give them the space and the leaves and the sky needed to grow in a way unthinkable in that other world. And hadn’t they been mini-moguls, our founders, a world-renowned blogger who had reported on human rights outrages in big-city nail salons and the doctors who’d concocted exacting herbal supplements that helped us conceive and unconceive before the dreams visited and the legal powerhouse who’d won us the capital that bought us our land. We felt ourselves the keepers of an especially pure lot, untouched by the frailty and injustice of that old world. But our hand-me-down values grew vaguer each time they were handed down. Why shouldn’t we let our home-grown genius lend them new shape? We looked at her, our worldbeater, and tears glassed our eyes.
Seeing our awestruck faces, Verdelle almost laughed. Have you heard of asthma? She looked at us expectantly, and it was our turn to plead ignorance. Malaria? Pre-eclampsia? Pulmonary embolisms? When our fish mouths stayed open she sighed at our stupidity. She patted the ground beside her and said lay with me, and so we did.
Maybe only some of us wondered how strange we looked, adults splayed like a garden of starfish. Overhead, branches crowded the sky’s clouded face gazing at us, unimpressed as Verdelle’s. Grass tickled our necks. Crickets announced themselves. Small creatures rooted for and hid their suppers in the underbrush so close to our prone scalps. Wind skimmed our skin and when we closed our eyes the sun showed us rosy patterns.
We’d forgotten why we’d surrendered ourselves to earth when we heard Verdelle’s voice again, nearly lost to the small comforting noises of the simple life all around us.
You left him there. All alone, without Mama. And then she erupted, lungs gasping for air between snotty sobs: the trees, she explained finally in terms we could understand, the trees that had taken her little brother had taken the girl in question, too, and hadn’t we known all along, and wasn’t it time we did something? Protect us. Her pleading voice rough and cracked like bark. We tried to pet and reassure her, but she spat at us, you buncha little bitches, and one of us may have slapped her for that, but then we sobered and recollected ourselves.
Dig up the bodies, she said.
We waited for the late afternoon, for the heat to drip from the air. We dug up the bodies, dirt collecting under our nails and in our shoes and somehow behind our ears like perfume. She’d furled a practice book into a megaphone and barked the orders while kernels of ache nestled into our shoulders and the fleshy parts of our lower backs.
We lined up the bodies, too many, in rows. Arranging them chronologically was impossible, we’d forgotten which bodies belonged to which headstones, and each of them looked impossibly fleshed, like they’d been lost just yesterday. We lined them up by size, from bread loaf to fawn. Tired looks on their faces, as if long-lashed goblins had woken them from their naps.
All of them?
She put the megaphone down. Gave one sharp nod.
We drew scalpels in lines from sternums to navels, and each time we found a crumple of crusted leaves suffocating their tiny lungs.
The girl was kind to us when we repented, but firm. We could wait for your father, we suggested, and her laughter was cold. Of the several reasons to delay, even we knew most were based in cowardice.
She rallied us.
We sharpened our farming utensils, siphoned gasoline from the rusted-out wranglers in a forgotten heap taken over by creeping vines and animals burrowing for homes. As the sun went down, we gathered what we could burn, and with torches belching orange flames we marched into the woods to face down the dark, the trees that were our gods, our historians and our keepers and our fate. The trees that encircled and kept us.