Brenn watched the child at play in the mosaic of autumn leaves and frowned over how stupidly often her heart played tricks on her. Hadn't she sworn to keep every semblence of emotion far from her, that she might have have to endure the pain of losing again? Like an old sword-wound that had closed over and yet remained unhealed, Brenn's heart was fire encased in ice; there might be tenderness there but it never saw the warm light of day.
Watching him play in the gutter, the old wound throbbed. Nina would have been the age of this little boy--seven or eight now. Her hair had been black too--black and soft like kittenfur, growing in short curls close to her head. Brenn clenched her jaw and locked the door memory had thrown open. "Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypres let me be laid." Shakespeare wrote tragedies enough...he always had something to say.
The child continued his game in the cobbled gutter by the road. Pretty thing, he was gathering the bright red dogwood berries filling the gutters with a rolling sheen like rubies. Every now and then the wind pushed against the tree and a shower of more berrries rained down on his head. Brenn watched him still, too enthralled by the gentle peace of this picture to mind the sharpness of the ache. She would be sorry for watching, she knew. But then, life was full of regrets. She'd rather have the greedy pleasure of this present moment than freedom from the hurt that might very well follow.
Rich October wind blew again and the child glanced upward. Brenn felt the breath go out of her as their eyes met. His were hazel traced with dark lashes; merry as thrushsong and deep as evening. She was exposed--as bare to this child's soul as if she wore nothing and knelt at his feet. The knife-edge pressed deeper into Brenn's chest, and she was furious. What right had a child so young to speak without words a message so piercing?
His gaze lingered and Brenn saw herself and him as if from afar--a moment suspended in the flow of Time. It might last an eternity; it might burst, bubble-wise and go rushing away in a torrent of days never lived again. All anger fled from Brenn's heart. She clutched at the preciousness as a sailor drowning, and bent to gather a handful of the blood-red berries. "Hey," she said slowly, not trusting her own voice.
The child smiled and opened his chubby hands, exposing his cache of rubies to the leaf-spangled sunlight. "Hey," he answered.
Speech dissolved the ethereal haze over them and Brenn breathed easier. She took a step or two away from her bench, holding the dogwood berries like a talisman to ward off any fear the child might have in so strange a meeting. Fear! Laughter bubbled inside of Brenn. He was not afraid--it was she who felt the strange terror of loss. One thing she knew--if the child spooked like a frightened fawn, she would shatter inside.
But mercies raining down, the child came forward to meet her and smiled again. "Do you like tree-jewels?" he asked.
"Is that what you call them?"
"Yes. Is there another name for them?" The wind played in his curls and he pushed them off his forehead with an impatient hand. How Brenn longed to do it for him. "I'm Nat," he said.
She clenched her fingers. "Brenn." Saints be scolded, those were Nina's eyes. If she had not held Nina's poor, battered frame in her arms and wept as only a mother can weep, Brenn might have questioned her sanity.
"Where do you live, Nat?" she asked.
He observed her with his head to one side like an inquisitive sparrow. "Why are you sad?" he asked, ignoring her question.
Brenn thought about protesting against the accusation, but the hazel eyes were so deep and true. "Because I have...lost something I loved very much."
Nat fingered his tree-jewels and watched her. "Have you looked for it?"
Brenn's laugh glowed with scorn. "Many times, in many ways."
"And do you never find it?" he asked.
There was complete silence between them except for the rush of a few cars that rumbled over the cobbled road. Nat poured the berries from one palm into the others. "When I lose something...when I lose it for good..." Brenn waited to see what oracle might fall from his lips--she was sure something would. "When I lose it for good, I just look for something better to love even more."
Brenn bowed her head, humbled and ashamed. Of course it was simple. She felt now the chill of the red October wind and the cold made its way to her heart. That familiar stiffness was returning and it hurt all the more for have been chipped away...if only for a moment.
Nat patted Brenn's shoulder. "I don't know what you're looking for, but you might need these." He poured his trove of crimson treasure into Brenn's cupped hands and smiled again. "I hope you find it someday."
And as Brenn looked into Nat's merry eyes--full of childhood's simple confidence--she wondered if she was nearer to finding it than she'd ever hoped.
I'm Rachel Heffington; in varying degress, that will mean a dreamer, a writer, a people-lover, and a great many other things. I write chiefly because I read, and I read chiefly because the love of Story is writ on my soul and I cannot escape it. I hope I can inspire readers with an ache for that one Story of which we are each a part. I released my debut novel, Fly Away Home (available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble online) in February, 2014, and my short Cinderella retelling (The Windy Side of Care) is scheduled to be released in the Five Glass Slippers collection published by Rooglewood Press in June.
I am so pleased to make your acquaintance; do stick around and partake in the whimsy!