Today’s story, Krista Rivers’ “Nature’s Song,” is our third prize winner in the 2020 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our judge found that Krista’s story reminded her of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow taxi,” and that “she takes up concerns of the human destruction of nature” while weaving in the fantastic elements of nature and song. Enjoy!
When she was eight years old, the world was beautiful.
Sunny skies smiled down upon fields of grass drowning in blooming wildflowers and gorgeous emerald green. She could spend hours running through those fields, stopping only to spin around and around, finally falling down on her back so that the clouds could dance with her. They spun far above her head, and she would often pretend they were flying. Pretend that she was flying. And even if it was only for a brief moment, it was a flawless one that just about stopped time. And then soon, all dreams of flying fulfilled, she would be off again, a smile shining almost as brightly as the sun streaming down upon her face. She relished in the feeling of her hair streaming behind her, each flowing tendril dancing in the wind with a life of its own. For such a small girl, the meadows were truly endless, just rolling hills of summer green.
And then the world began to sing.
It was not the traditional tune that would drift through the radio, but instead an ancient song that was not heard in her ears but felt in her heart. The wind would sometimes tickle her ear with a breeze, or the wildflowers would sway as though in rhythm at her waist. The birds carried so many little melodies that could be appreciated by anyone, but only she could hear the hopeful calls of the growing fruits in the greenhouse or the wise buzz of the old oak tree by her childhood home. All of this endless song filled her with a sense of whimsy that she couldn’t describe, the sharp scent of the cool morning air always able to awaken her urge to join the thriving nature around her.
The only time the streaming expanse of meadow would come to a halt was when she would run to the gardens, their overwhelming grounds spreading farther than her gleaming young eyes could see. She didn’t quite have one coherent memory of this place where her family made their living, but she could know it even if she closed her eyes. She ran onto the soft farmland, the damp dirt giving under her feet and adding a bounce to her step. It was as though she was leaping across the clouds she so often admired, only she knew she was still on the ground. Though she ran along at what felt like a breakneck pace, she still managed to weave between delicate stalks of green, hopping over divets in the dirt as the land swelled up and down like waves, row after row.
At last, she made contact with the one person she had come to see. She buried her face in the thin cotton of her mother’s t-shirt, the fresh smell of earth and clean linen filling her nose. Straight tawny hair, so very similar to her own, fell around her like a curtain. The strands tickled her back as her mother knelt down to hug her, the young child in her arms giggling in delight. Under her mother’s arm hung a familiar wicker basket full of luscious scarlet tomatoes, the ripe fruit just begging to be eaten. But she chose instead to submerge her face back in the sea of white fabric, a warm feeling swelling in her chest as she felt the vibrations of a light laugh echo from her mother’s sternum. She pulled back to study the ever so slightly lined, loving face that she knew so well, the warm feeling only growing the longer she looked. Her mother’s voice was soft and gentle, a smile toying with her lips as she spoke. “What have you been up to today, Robin?” The little girl shrugged, a minuscule grin upon her silent face. Her mother curiously watched as she stuck a tiny hand in her pocket, feeling around until she came upon the item she was looking for. Robin pulled it out victoriously, her outstretched hands holding it in offering. Her mother gasped in delight at the sight of her new gift.
It was a small yellow flower, a buttercup, in fact. Robin did not often pick the flowers in the field, but she had found this one with the stalk broken at the very edge of the meadow. At least now it could still be enjoyed by someone. Her mother accepted the little token with pride, tucking it behind her ear as she ruffled her daughter’s hair. Robin caught a whispered “thank you” from the older woman as she pulled her in for another hug. Her father watched from a short distance away in that same field, and though little Robin did not catch it, he was smiling from ear to ear.
Once the workday had ended, they all came together to watch the sun explode into a myriad of colors, washing the periwinkle sky in swatches of pink, indigo, and a dreamy, dusky coral. Her father had found a classic picnic blanket in the closet, for the small family had decided to dine on the grass with a barbecue dinner.
After the sun had set, Robin and her father counted the fireflies that then filled the air. As they fluttered against the serene night sky, their luminous glow blended beautifully with the gleam of the stars. Her mother disappeared inside the house, only to reemerge a few minutes later with an abundance of supplies overflowing from her arms. Marshmallows, a dangerous amount of chocolate, graham crackers, and three metal rods needed to create s’mores caught Robin’s eye, and she quickly ran to help, small hands grasping for the beloved treats. The rest of the night was filled with warmth, laughter, and an almost overwhelming sense of bliss that bubbled inside of her until she felt she would burst. Thoughts of that perfect day and night would forever be able to elicit a smile from Robin’s lips.
She just wished that there wasn’t a wave of loss that came with it.
As she grew, Robin became increasingly attuned to the call of the night, the alluring cover of darkness revealing things she had been too young to notice before. The flickering light fixture in the kitchen was the only light by which Robin could see her parents’ tired eyes and pinched lips, construction brochures and official papers flooding the kitchen table. The fading glow was just bright enough that Robin could see her father’s white knuckles clutching one of these pamphlets, the same flimsy material giving under her mother’s shaking grip. The table was always awash with those documents, the confusing mix of numbers and letters too much for her brain to handle when she did get close enough to read. The only thing that she could fully understand were the bright red words stamped on the paper with a devastating finality. “FORECLOSURE NOTICE,” they read, each letter a brutal knife wound to Robin’s young, fragile heart. She would remember the nights where her pillow was drowned in tears, the soft fabric absorbing the pain that her delicate soul could not seem to handle. She spent more and more time in those fields just so she would never again peek into her parents’ room and see her mother’s empty gaze, her head in her hands as she sat on the side of the bed, her father laying a shaking hand over her shoulders.
Those same wicked papers littered the wooden floor like toxic waste.
Teenage Robin, newly thirteen, sat in that same field once more, screaming desperately at the stars still twinkling in the sky. Their persistent calm only fueled the pain slowly poisoning her shattered heart. She shrieked until her throat was raw, asking her only true friends, the sun and the sky and the stars, all of the questions she was too scared to ask anyone else. She sat there for hours, her hands dug into the dirt, begging for answers she was so desperate to find. She asked why she deserved all of this pain, why she had been chosen to bear this burden. Why, if they were so mighty and wise, they were still powerless to save her from this terrible fate. Why they could not make the cardboard boxes labeled “Robin’s Stuff” disappear one by one until they were all gone. Why they couldn’t let her stay.
But the stars had clouded over, and the night was even darker than it had been before.
With a sigh and a poorly concealed sob, Robin gathered her pride, her wits, and her flashlight, and started the long trek back to the house that was not quite her home anymore.
The stars did not even say goodbye.
The next day, the U-Haul pulled into the driveway for the last time, the sound of wheels on gravel enough to jumpstart her heart into a wild panic. Robin stood in the driveway littered with possessions, clutching a box of her most treasured belongings. Though it had only been a few minutes of waiting, the cardboard was already stained with old, tired tears. She looked at the sky with puffy eyes and a shaking lip, asking a question with her mind, unable to hide the bitterness in her gaze. But the tears refused to stay contained, and soon her anger dissolved into liquid along with the deep sorrow hiding within her chest.
But miraculously, the sky decided to answer her plea.
As she sobbed, looking at the old, rickety house that she called home, the skies opened up, pouring millennia of pain upon the farmland that her family had loved for generations. Robin crumpled to the ground, letting the water run down her face, the raindrops washing away the stickiness that had dried upon her cheeks.
As the car pulled out of the driveway and Robin could only watch her home grow fainter before her eyes, she sobbed like never before.
And the sky cried with her.
If only for a moment, Robin knew someone else felt her sorrow. At least the skies mourned for her, and she knew that she was not alone.
And there was a new emotion in her chest, one telling her that perhaps it would all end up okay.
That, too, did not remain for very long.
The apartment was fine, she supposed, if one liked living in the dictionary definition of a blank canvas. Every room was awash with a blinding white, the color totally overloading her system. The absence of the vibrant life of nature was just another dagger to her chest, this one somehow finding a brand-new place to sting. The boxes were already littered across what was supposed to be her room, this sorry excuse for a home disappointing her once again.
She only had one window.
The carpets were old, the walls utterly bare, and her heart was finally empty, depleted of all the sadness it was capable of.
Which, apparently, was a fair amount.
The room itself was normal size, but to Robin, a creature of the sun and open-air, it felt like a prison. She felt the need to claw at her throat, the gravity of her situation beginning to tighten around her neck like a noose. The pressure was almost too much, but her saving grace was the slightly open box that caught her then-wild gaze. Bright colors poked through the drab cardboard, the brushes and pigments calling to her like never before. She had tried to capture the beauty of nature in paintings many times, but she had never needed it like she did today. There was a part of her that knew she wouldn’t make it through the night without them, and that the white would consume her before sleep could. She needed a reminder that the colors were still with her. She threw the box open with a vengeance, paint bottles rolling over the floor to her feet. As the first stroke of pigment hit the wall, the anxiety swelling in her stomach like a tsunami was reduced to a simple tidepool, her tears acting as waves lapping upon the shore. She threw herself into the work, faint echoes of the nature music flowing through her bones, whispering in her ears to remind her that her friends still loved her. That despite her doubts, they truly missed her the way she did them.
And they did.
Because when she started a garden box, whispering a small prayer at the bright seed package before carefully burying the little seeds, the sun shined down upon her and the wind came to bless her little flowers. Before long she had a flourishing box of buttercups greeting her every morning, those blossoms that sang to remind her that nature still loved her. That the wind would never stop playing with her hair and the grass would never tire of tickling her ankles with little dewdrops in the early morning. They, and the flowers swaying in the pretend breeze on the a-little-less-than-white-wall, whispered that little happy lie back in her ear until she felt okay.
Okay is such a delicate word.
It had been about a month in the new home before Robin was able to sneak away, taking her rickety old bike up from the basement and back outside. The gears creaked in the cool almost-morning air, but Robin could care less, knowing that what awaited her would be worth it. When she had dreamed of this day, her nose would always tingle in anticipation of seeing her old friends once again. She had imagined how the brook would bubble in delight, and the butterflies would flock around her and land on her shoulders like they always did. She wanted not to just remember the warmth of the pure sun upon her face but feel it, relishing in the sensation as the glowing spots fluttered up and down her arms like fireflies.
She was not expecting the smell of smoke.
The sun was at its peak when she crested the final hill, her thighs burning from the strenuous ride. Just beyond it lay a forest full of aged memories, the only barrier between her and the home that she would always belong to. But before that day, before clearing that final row of trees, Robin had not fully realized that it no longer belonged to her.
The bitter tang of metal and crude oil sat heavy in the air, her feelings of confusion only amplified by the clamor of a hundred voices intruding into what should have been her sanctuary.
The bright yellow of plastic helmets blinded her, but the iron monsters with their sharp claws and long arms looming over the whole site were what really struck the terror into her heart. They only occupied a small section of her home, but her heart throbbed with newfound pain nonetheless. She could only watch as the metal monstrosity bit into the land that her family had owned for over a century, swallowing it within its jaw in one fell swoop. Her house was already gone. But that was not even the worst of it, for though nature was still there, she could not hear it sing. Instead, the symphony of wonder was drowned out by what she had always called the metal song, a chilling call so tortured and inhuman that it had the ability to drown out almost anything.
But not this.
A new wave of sound washed upon her in such a way that she could not even think. The still-fertile dirt stained the denim of her jeans as she fell to her knees, her own hands not being able to protect her from the cacophony in her mind. Robin could barely move, her ears barraged by utter screaming, a type of which she had never heard, but knew nonetheless.
It was the screams of the dying.
They were the screams of her friends.
Each little blade of grass ripped brutally from its home was a bullet lodged in her chest, and after ten minutes her heart was so full of them that the organ felt more metal than flesh.
It felt like hours before she could even move from her spot on the ground, the land now thoroughly watered with her misery. She left her old home with a feeling of cold so potent that it cut through her fingers and toes like frostbite. The chill emanating from the dull, lifeless metal seeped into her pores, invading her skin with goosebumps that she could not shake. The ice-cold poison oozed from flesh to bone, her heart beating slower and slower with each step she took away from that place. That place that was once her home. The place that would never be again.
But that was not the worst of it. Her heart came to a stop as she realized the stinging metal and the filth-ridden machinery had stolen from her the most precious gift of all.