Windows in the Deep Woods

by Joanna Gardner
Maeryn unclipped the canteen at her belt and took a sip. The lukewarm water left an aftertaste so metallic it was almost floral. Lilac aluminum. Lavender steel.

“Mae,” Izzy said, walking beside Maeryn through the trees, “what are we doing here, really?” Izzy’s forehead had puckered along its worry lines, and fugitive wisps of silver frizz haloed her face, having escaped from the bun she attempted to clip up every morning. Izzy was only thirty-nine, but her hair already had gone entirely gray and was now in as much disarray as her rumpled checkered shirt and canvas pants.

“Don’t you think I’d tell you if I knew?” Mae said.

Mae was heading further and further into the forest with four of her sisters—Aster and Veda at her left, and to the right, Izzy and Fiana. From the air Mae imagined they would have looked like a ragged V of migrating cranes, or a Marine patrol through the woods. The thought made her glance at Aster, at the shrapnel scars streaking her face, the missing pinky and ring finger on her right hand, the chestnut hair she kept cropped close like a helmet. To this day Aster wore clothes that wouldn’t get in her way in a fight: tank top, cargo pants, boots laced up her calves. After her third tour of duty she had come home to stay. No one would guess from her untroubled expression how she still twitched in her sleep, or shouted, or groaned.

Aster wasn’t the only one who had limped home as an adult. Mae, Veda, and Izzy had all found refuge there as well, in various states of disrepair. Only Fiana had never left, and now the five of them kept house together. Mae had come back after college to join the nursemaid brigade in Dad’s last years, then stayed on as Mom deteriorated. After Mom’s funeral she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—come up with a reason to leave. The best she could do to reach the outside world now was to collect calendars filled with underwater photos of coral reefs and wrecked ships, and the dazzling fish who inhabited them.

“Aunt Ethyl didn’t say anything?” Izzy was constitutionally incapable of letting anything drop. Not since the mining accident that killed her husband. It had taken a year for her to emerge from the lightless pit that dropped her into, and the Izzy who came out wasn’t the same Izzy who had fallen in.

“No.” Mae heard her own voice tighten, like a wrung rag. “Not a word. As I have already mentioned.”

Mae would have been jumpy even without Izzy’s tension. The sensation of leading her sisters unnerved her. She was the middle child, for pity’s sake. The seventh of thirteen girls. The invisible one. Even in family pictures she never seemed really there. Sure, she had the same arch to the eyebrows as everyone else, the same set of the jaw, but otherwise she seemed part of the background, set dressing for the rest of them. She had no training for leading this little flock of cranes.

She tried to focus on the lift of her legs, the water-softened earth catching her feet, and the wet weight of the pack against her back, but mostly she noticed the chill. Shade and damp had soaked so far into her skin that she could barely remember being warm. Back at the house on its windy hill, summer had reached a sun-baked peak, but cool rains had started the morning they left, and continued frequently enough to keep anyone from drying out. Mae’s jeans and old gardening shirt smelled of sweat soured by mildew, like wet laundry left in the washer overnight. Mae tried to smell the forest instead of herself. Fern, root, and moss. Stone, leaf and soil.

“Fiana,” Veda said lightly, clearly trying to change the subject. Not a single hair was out of place in Veda’s brown braid, and somehow her linen shorts and shirt seemed freshly cleaned and pressed. “If I were a pie, what kind would I be?”

It was their oldest game, taught to them by Aunt Ethyl herself before Mae was born. If I were a tree, what kind would I be? If Aster were a cookie, what kind would she be? Phantom shreds of individuality within the continuum of the family.

“Blueberry, of course.” Fiana’s voice floated out around them all. “But you’re not a pie. Not today.” Fi’s limbs moved easily inside her shapeless ivory dress, sewn from the same pattern and the same muslin she always wore.

“All right.” Veda had lost everything after her husband’s arrest and their subsequent divorce, but she had gained a depth of calm that no turbulence seemed to touch. “If I were a bird?”

Fi peered up into the branches. “We’re all cranes.”

A weak breeze ran over Mae’s skin, strong enough to blame for the gooseflesh that rose in its wake. Not that she should be surprised at Fi picking up on her thoughts. She scanned the forest ahead, searching for something, anything, any reason at all why Ethyl would have sent them stumbling and bumbling into these woods. But she saw only the trunks of trees, some straight and some swaybacked, disappearing into the watchful layers of canopy above.

“Aunt Ethyl never liked us,” Izzy said. “Remember her violet jelly? Tasted like soap on a cracker.” She shuddered.

“She wasn’t that bad,” Aster said, smiling.

Mae used to ride on Aster’s back on the three-mile walk to Ethyl’s house when Mom needed peace and quiet, usually to deliver another sister. Ethyl had always scowled upon their arrival and then proceeded to ignore them as much as possible. Once, when Mae was seven and Fiana was being born, Mae had lain down in one of Ethyl’s flower beds. It overflowed with pansies, petunias, thyme, anything that would flower in the washed-out shades of purple Ethyl loved so much. Mae still remembered the scent of earth and herb as she rested there on her back gazing into an opal sky edged with the colors of the blossoms. And then Ethyl found her. Ethyl seemed tall as a tree as she stood looking down. Little Mae had flinched, certain of retribution. But Ethyl had only given her an odd look, almost a surprised smile if such a thing were possible on Ethyl’s severe features, and then nodded once. Ethyl died not long after that. Hers was the first funeral Mae had attended.

“But why did she send us out here?” Izzy shrilled. “We’ve been walking for five days. In the rain. Tadpoles are hatching between my toes. Where are we going?”

Mae clenched her teeth against the wiry edge in Izzy’s voice. No one answered Izzy. Mae had no answers, and pointing out that it wasn’t raining now wouldn’t make Izzy relax.

Had it only been a week ago that Maeryn had seen Aunt Ethyl in that dream, from the dry comfort of her own bed at home? Ethyl had worn a calico dress and apron in shades of her signature periwinkle. She had looked straight into the gaze of Mae’s sleeping self, and then turned and pointed to the forested northeast, into the hills that rolled upward until they rolled right in among the mountains. Her meaning was clear: Mae and her sisters were to go in that direction, together. Well, the five of them at home anyway. The other eight sisters out in the world had become almost mythical in Mae’s mind. They were voices on the phone recounting real estate transactions. They were magicians capable of coping with checking accounts, goddesses who could hold down jobs or raise families of their own or, in some cases, both. Mae had no idea how they did what they did.

Mae mentioned the dream at the breakfast table the next morning. No one paid much attention except Fi, who watched Mae so closely she didn’t even blink. But the next day, when Mae woke up, Aunt Ethyl was standing beside the bedroom window, hands folded at her aproned waist. Mae rubbed at her sticky eyes, and Ethyl turned and pointed out the window into the same distance she had in the dream. Mae felt the same understanding she had before, that Ethyl was telling her to gather up the sisters and head into the hills. Then Ethyl vanished, collapsing in on herself to a point where her solar plexus had been. Mae went to the window and scanned the dew-spangled garden terraces below the house, but there wasn’t any sign of Ethyl.

The minute Mae pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen that morning, Fi leaped from her seat in front of the sunny window, which had lit her white-gold hair like electricity would a bulb. Mae told them all what she had seen, and the three remaining responsible ones—Aster, Veda, and Izzy—exchanged glances. Later that day when Mae was helping Veda in the garden, she straightened up and found Aunt Ethyl right in front of her, close enough that Mae caught an astringent whiff of the witch hazel rinse which Aunt Ethyl had used to wash everything—towels, sheets, hair, hands. Ethyl turned and pointed into the hills, this time so that Mae could follow the line of sight down Ethyl’s arm and finger.

Fi had come running out of the house at that moment, just as Ethyl vanished again.

“Mae?” she shouted. “Mae! Are you all right?”

That was enough to bring Izzy and Aster running too. The five of them formed a circle there among the pumpkin vines as Mae told them what had happened, again.

“We’re going,” Fi declared. “Right now. Come on.”

“No one’s going anywhere yet,” Aster said. “How long would we be out there?”

They all looked to Mae, who raised both hands helplessly, palms to the sky. “I haven’t any idea.”

They turned their attention to Fi.

“Well, Miss Fiana?” Veda said. “Any guesses?”

“We need to go. Mae isn’t making this up.”

Mae still hoped that was true. The way her heart had leaped each time Ethyl pointed into the hills, the way her body had leaned forward toward them—it was a command, yes, but one she wanted to obey. Had she imagined the whole thing? Was her relatively reliable sanity cracking beneath the weight of isolation? Besides, Fi was the one with the otherworldly tendencies. Why hadn’t Ethyl appeared to her?

“Okay,” Aster had said, after a silence. “We’ll go. Those old backpacks still in the attic?”

Veda nodded briskly. “Think so. I’ve some work to finish up here. The rest of you, off to the kitchen. Start cooking.”

And so they had boiled eggs, baked turnovers, and packed cheddar, pots of cherry jam, and Aster’s knobbly homemade bread. They set out the following morning with full packs and canteens. That had been five days ago, five days of traveling under the surveillance of the forest, sleeping on pine needles, soaking in the daily rain, not knowing where they were going or why.

“We can’t keep walking forever,” Aster said. “When we’re halfway through the food, we turn around.”

“No turning.” Fi gazed into the canopy as she walked.

“No turning?” Izzy looked wildly around at the others. “She just said no turning. We’re not listening to that, are we?”

“Fiana Lou, watch where you’re going.” Aster cast a frown over at Fi.

They had started down a steep slope that required careful navigation around rocks and fallen trees. Sunlight gleamed among the leaves for the first time since they’d stepped beneath the canopy, and Mae felt her knees tug and twinge as they caught her weight with every step.

“I still don’t understand,” Izzy muttered. “What did Ethyl want from us? To get us out of the house? So she could rifle through our sock drawers? Float around in our nightgowns?”

“Does it matter if we understand?” Veda said.

“Yes, it matters! Of course it matters! Besides, I thought you didn’t believe in messages from the great beyond.”

“Maybe that doesn’t matter either.”

“I don’t know what has gotten into—”

Izzy’s voice broke off, and Mae looked up, squinting against the sun. The slope had flattened out and opened abruptly onto a clearing, a round grassy meadow speckled with buttercups. Clear sky unfurled above, and Mae had the impression of a changing of the guard as the forest handed the job of watching over them to that endless depth of blue.

“Mm.” Veda stretched her arms like wings. “Hello, sun.”

Then Mae saw the wall. Thirty yards across the clearing rose a massive stone rampart that curved along with the edge of the clearing, tall as the surrounding woods.

“What on earth...?” Aster said, her voice low.

Only Fi kept walking. Mae and the others had stopped at the edge of the trees. Halfway across the clearing Fi shrugged out of her pack and let it drop without a backward glance.

“Here we are,” she said, and then she was stepping into the shade of the wall and spreading both hands over it. Her white skin glowed against the black stone.

“Careful, Fi.” Aster hurried forward to join her, and the others followed more slowly.

The wall was a smooth expanse of cut granite, each block fitted precisely to its neighbors apparently without the need for mortar. Mae put her own hand on it, and felt the depth of its coolness. For all she could tell it was a mile thick.

“Okay then,” Veda said. “Here we are.”

“Where?” Izzy wailed. “I don’t understand. What is this? Who built it? Why here in the middle of the hills?”

“Mae?” Aster asked, ignoring Izzy. “What now?”

What now, indeed? A shudder ran through her body, deeper than bone, warmer than marrow. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. “This is where Ethyl wanted us to come. Let’s see if there’s a door.”

Trailing one hand along the stone, she began walking around the wall, following its curve out of the shade and back into the sunlight.

“What are those?” Aster pointed.

Mae was already stepping back, trying to understand. Windows? If so, they weren’t like any others she’d ever seen, bulging out like that. It looked like glass spheres had been set into the wall, in different colors, different sizes, and at different heights. Each an eye, a globe. One was ruby red, another turquoise, the third milk white, the fourth wavy amber, and the last one a clear, verdant green.

“Oh no,” Izzy said. “No way. Absolutely not. I’m not going one step further until somebody explains this.”

Veda whirled to face Izzy. For a moment Mae didn’t recognize Veda with her features twisted in fury like that.

“Would you give it a rest?” Veda snarled. Izzy recoiled. “What makes you think you get to understand? Can’t you relax your sphincters for five seconds and let things be as they are? And don’t you dare retreat into one of your moods. We have coddled you long enough and it’s time you took care for your own peace of mind.”

Mae felt paralyzed. Izzy opened her mouth to reply, but instead of words a choke hacked from her throat, and then another, and another. Izzy sobbed so violently she seemed barely able to breathe. Mae and Aster rushed in to soothe her, cooing, patting her back and arms. Then Veda stepped between Mae and Aster to hug Izzy and apologize until they were an upright pile of torsos and tears.

Fi spoke over all of them. “It’s warm.”

Mae and the others spun to face her.

“If I were a window,” she continued, “I’d be a red ball.”

Fi stood in front of the red window globe. It was on a level with her face, and a glow from the glass cast a carnelian light over her pale skin and hair. She had one hand on the curve of the glass, and as they watched, that hand sank in past the surface. The warmth of the sun on Mae’s damp shoulders turned to prickles of apprehension, or anticipation, and she reached out for Fi, as though to pull her from quicksand.

“Fiana,” Aster said, slowly, “why don’t you take a step back? Come on, love. Easy now.”

Fi closed her eyes and let her hand sink in past the wrist.

“So warm,” she said, then looked at them. “It’s time.”

“Time for what, Fi?” Mae asked, although the answer formed behind her sternum even as she heard her own words. Time for everything to change, in ways she was only beginning to be able to imagine.

Fi smiled at her as though they had a secret joke. “If you were a window, you’d be the color of the water in your calendars. A planet of ocean.”

“Mae,” Aster murmured. Mae couldn’t tell if it was a warning or a plea.

Mae glanced around at the rest of them. “She’s right.”

Fi put her other hand on the surface of the red glass. It sank in to join the first.

“Aster?” Fi prompted.

Aster licked her lips. “If I were a window, I’d be a white sphere. Like that instant of peace when the grenade goes off.”

“Okay,” Veda said slowly. “I’ll play. If I were a window, I’d be green. The color of leaves, not money.”

“Izz?” Fi asked, eyes closed.

“What will happen to us?” Izzy wheezed through her shuddering breath. “What if we’re not together on the other side? What if we can’t find each other? What if—”

Aster cut her off. “Izzy. Enough.”

“But,” Izzy began, then a hiccup snapped her chest and she exhaled. “All right. If I were a round window, I’d be amber. The color that’s left when a lover dies.”

“I wish the others were here,” Veda said. “I wish we’d called them one last time.”

Fi nodded. “Me too. But when has any one of us not been with all the rest, really?”

Mae dropped her pack and approached the ocean-blue window, on a level with her chest and the width of her shoulders. She extended both hands toward the shimmering glass. At first it was cool and solid against her palms, but then it rippled and softened, yielding to her skin. Her hands moved in past the surface. The warmth was so hot it should have burned, but it didn’t. It spread up her arms until it eclipsed the heat of the sun on her shoulders. It felt the way a rosemary cake smelled in the oven, the way maple syrup tasted.

Veda stood to her left at the waist-high green window, and beyond her Aster was already reaching for the white one. To Mae’s right, Izzy’s hands were sinking into the amber glass and beyond her Fi’s arms had disappeared up to the elbow. Mae’s breath caught at the sight of them, at all their broken beauty.

“It feels like home,” Izzy said, and hers was the last voice Mae ever heard. “But how can that be?”

Mae turned her attention back to her own blue window and the hot glass wrapping her hands. She kept her eyes open as the window welcomed her wrists, forearms, elbows and shoulders. The heat raced ahead, into her head and neck and chest. As she and her sisters took to the glass, veins of many colors marbled her vision—turquoise, red, green, amber and white, but weaving in and around all their mingling was Aunt Ethyl’s unmistakable pearly shade of violet.
Joanna Gardner is an assistant fiction editor at the literary journal Many Mountains Moving. Her stories have appeared in Drops of Crimson, Halfway Down the Stairs, Expanded Horizons, and others. You can visit her online at www.joannagardner.com.

© 2010, Joanna Gardner