8

Salome' Byrd

The Wind Girl

Towering benevolently over all in its domain, as tall as a house, a strong and sturdy oak tree observed the small suburb where a young boy and girl grew up right next door to each other. From one of its highest limbs hung a plain wooden, home-made swing suspended by long coils of rope as sturdy as the ancient plant itself. Beneath the shade of this tree, beside this swing where they had pushed each other and talked long through the morning laid that girl and that boy to watch the clouds and talk even more together. It was under this very tree, in fact, several months before their world was forever altered that the boy swore to always, always love the girl and only the girl and show her he truly meant this love every chance that he got.

Unfortunately, though they had been inseparable for just a little more than twelve years, the time came for the girl to move away. The sun set over the mountains before the pair finally walked back to the house that the girl would soon be leaving behind, and it was only with the utmost reluctance and a heart breaking at the final sight of her beautiful face that the boy finally let go of her hand and released her to leave him. Neither one slept well that night, dreaming of days when they could be together again and realizing how very long it might be until then—it might never even happen.

By morning, naps stolen in the moving van by all in her family and house already inviting ghosts to come and roam its empty halls, the girl was gone. Fighting back tears, the boy ran to his room after seeing this forlorn and lonely sight to consult the phone number pinned lovingly and carefully beneath four thumb tacks and an unbroken sheet of cellophane tape; and he called the girl to talk, eating his meals quickly and finishing his homework in record time so he could call her back as soon as possible and hear again her wonderful voice.

Every day he called her for weeks, his face bright and happy and filled with energy each time they talked. Oh, to hear her voice! To hear her giggling and speaking and joking with him! It was heavenly, and there was nothing more to it. One day, however, the boy dialed the number for his best friend and heard only the answering machine. The girl did not pick up her phone that morning. The boy, dejected but still hopeful, placed his phone in his back pocket and rode his bike up to the hill where they had last seen each other. Here he leaned against the trunk of the tree and sighed, waiting intervals that seemed eternal before trying again to reach her. Nothing. No sweet voice, no laughter, no words. She was simply not responding to his calls. Head back against the tree, he waited. Perhaps she would call him. Perhaps she would call and the phone would ring and he would be able to talk with her again.

As evening drew near, beckoning the boy back home for dinner, he had no choice but to leave the tree and place his phone back in his room. The next morning, however, he took his phone in hand and went again to the tree where all his sweetest memories resided. He called and called and called, but never did he receive a response. Always it was the answering machine on her phone, nothing more. He sighed yet again and looked to the very swing where she had sat only a few months before.

"My love… why won't you speak to me?" the boy asked that empty air on the wooden swing, as if it would come to life and give him some kind of answer. In his mind, his imagination, it did.

"What do you mean?" that imaginary version of his beloved girl answered him, "I will always speak with you, whenever I have the chance. I love you." He knew it was an empty promise, an empty devotion of love, only the wind passing through the tree and through his own hair to make him think of things as they could be rather than how they were. Even so, it made him smile a little. He talked long into the night with this imaginary girl, pausing only to try again for a response from the real one… only to get the same result he had encountered before.

From this day on, the boy brought his phone to that tree and that swing and talked with his imaginary girl between attempts to call her. One day, he heard a real person on the other end. Giddy with excitement, his tireless efforts finally paying off, he didn't even care that it was the girl's father who spoke rather than the girl herself. Surely he would hand the phone to her before long.

"Hi. Sorry about how long it's taken for her to switch her phone back on. She's really busy right now, with the final recital of the dance school's academic year coming up and some talent scouts rumored to be there… she's practicing too much for other distractions. She'll call you as soon as she has a free moment, though, so just please hang on," the man explained calmly, thanking the boy for his patience and hanging up the phone before the one under the oak tree could say a word back to him.

"He's only being an overprotective father. You know how those are. I'll still talk with you anyway, no matter what he says about it," the imaginary girl on the swing reassured him. He smiled more reluctantly this time, but still the girl's words really were reassuring to him. Again he talked with her until it was long past his bedtime, waving to the swing as he left as if there really was someone sitting there.

He continued to come to that tree and swing daily, waiting… and waiting… and waiting more for a call that never came… until, hearing her sweet voice on the wind in the trees, the boy simply stopped bringing his phone at all… and instead, talked with the girl built by his own memories and the whispering siren call of the wind.

Each time they spoke, he added a little more to his image of the girl who never called him. He gave this version her counterpart's long sun-blond hair one day, her soft and caring jade green eyes the next, her lanky limbs and delicate hands after that, even that very same smile he had so long ago vowed forever to adore. On a cloudy, overcast day when the wind pushed a swing that had no physical form to weigh it into the gentle arc in which it moved he finally gave this almost-as-good-as-real-absolutely-perfect wind girl the same lyrical laughter of she who he had promised forever to love.

Time spent with the wind girl became time spent with the real girl, and together the two grew into teenagers as the years went by… and the real girl worked hard for those who had scouted her in that final recital that was now almost as long ago as the days when she had last seen the boy she loved. She thought of him every day; humming to songs they both had sung together in the past when she danced, remembering his face and writing his name on the margins of her papers during classes, dreaming of him when she went to bed in her dorm room every night, and wishing… so desperately wishing that she had time in her days to call him… or to see him, if the gods she knew could be so kind and generous to her. Some nights, denied even short breaks from her practices or dragged away to another task just as she pressed those last few numbers to connect to his phone, she would cry herself to sleep with fear; fear that he would find someone else, that she would be swept up by another, that they would not have what once they'd had as children. Oh, anything! Anything but that and she would be happy! Anything.

The boy remained oblivious to this, content with the wind girl who laughed and sang and talked with him from her lovely perch beneath that strong and sky-reaching bough of the tree they had both so long considered their own. He smiled again, hummed during the days, laughed at others' jokes and joined in games and lived life as if his beloved truly was still there; no longer going to the same school or living just next door, but close enough that each day when their separate places of learning closed their doors for the afternoon she would be waiting for him on that swing.

He fell more and more deeply in love with this wind girl every time he saw her soft face and heard her voice and felt her laughter resonate through his very bones as lively as his own did. The way she looked, grown up so graceful and so beautiful. The way she moved, playful and joyful and filled with grace in every little thing she did. The things she talked about, brilliant and interesting and wonderful. The things she loved, the things she hated, every perfect thing about her made him sigh, love-struck, every time he thought of her. He could hardly wait to leave school each day and go straight to that hill, to talk with his love and see her perfect self again. The wind girl was the first thing he thought about when he woke up in the morning and the last thing he dreamed about as he fell asleep at night. She was his everything.

Then, one day near the boy's eighteenth birthday, he came back in his house for dinner and, shutting the door behind him and beating the light and barely-there February snow off of his boots, he heard his mother's voice yell out to him from somewhere in the kitchen.

"Oh, you're home! I was cleaning your room today, and you have one missed call! It was from… hmmm… let me remember…. Oh, yes! That sweet little girl who moved away! What's her name…? Well, you remember her, right? There were actually a few calls on there, so whatever it is it must be pretty important!" she called out, barely audible over the whirring of the vacuum.

"Why would she do a silly thing like that? She's in a different school, but she still sees me every day! Honestly, is she so lovesick that she miss… misses… me… already…?" Fingers fumbling, the boy dropped his coat from his hands and felt his face grow pale as his eyes widened and his heart began to race. No. No, had he truly fallen so far? No! It couldn't have been! He spun around to place his hand on the doorknob, planning to run out to the wind girl and ask her for advice. But no… no, that wouldn't work either.

The boy ran up to his room, frantic and confused. Criminal! That was what he was, a criminal! And no crime was worse than the one he had committed against his beloved. No crime that he could think of. The light on his phone flashed anxiously at him, trying to show him that he had someone to call back. He kicked the thing forcefully underneath his bed and crawled onto his bed, wrapping himself in a thick coating of blankets and imaginary shields. Then he clicked off his lamp, hoping against all hope that he could somehow fall asleep in spite of everything; and for a moment, all was dark and silent and he began to feel a little better. Then, for little more than an instant, a glaring orange light reflected off of the walls and painted his room a sickly orange-red-white kind of color that made his stomach knot up like a writhing snake inside him. Could he not be allowed to forget what he had done? Could he not be given some time to himself? Pulling the blankets all of the way over his head, he tried and tried to ignore the light; but it was his conscience that beat him down more mercilessly still.

By morning, he found himself sprawled out on the bed, legs tangled in his sheets and most of his blankets thrown haphazardly across his floor. Eyes bloodshot and heavy and heart even heavier still, he struggled just to get himself to move. Parents called up to him to tell him he would be late for school, friends visited to make sure he was okay only to leave, uncomfortable, when they saw that it was his emotions which were far more broken than his body, teachers called to warn of falling grades, and all the days the boy could think only of the two women he had so suddenly abandoned.

One was still blinking persistently on his phone each night, more and more calls accumulating but never listened to, while the other waited desperately on that now ice and snow coated swing he was no longer there to maintain. Perhaps she had even come to the swing and simply walked away, seeing he had not cleared it for her. His throat made its way into his heart with thoughts like these, his breath coming short and his heart twisting as if held in the palm of some very cruel person's hand when he thought that perhaps the other girl was calling so much because she wanted to tell him that she had found someone else—or that she hated him—or that she was never coming home—or that she was, gods forbid this to ever happen was all he could really think about it, that she was dying.

Unable to eat or drink or sleep or even breathe properly, the boy could feel himself dying with each passing hour. His two loves hated him now, surely, and how? How could he choose between them? How could he have become such a wretched person? How could he face either of them now? How could he face… anybody, now that he had become such a low and detestable criminal as he was? Even tears would no longer come to him, and all he had was the bed to which he grew ever number as time went on, no longer able even to feel the mattress beneath him when he needed to anchor himself back to the world. Nothing. Nothing could help this terrible situation. Nothing could help him now. He was beyond saving, beyond salvaging. He was a hopeless case of terrible infidelity.

Then, singing loud and happy and light-hearted and giddy as she dropped her bag on the porch of her childhood home, the girl herself in all her real flesh and blood came to knock on the door of the house which her love never had left in all the days since that fateful call. His mother answered; glad to see the sweet little girl she had always felt she would have been happy to have as a daughter-in-law one day. She hugged the girl like a grandmother hugs a granddaughter she has not seen for several special occasions. The girl smiled even more, equally glad to be in the presence of such accepting people; glad to be home at last, after so many long years in foreign places among strange and commanding people.

She practically skipped up the stairs, landing lightly just in front of his bedroom door. Paused, listened for signs of breathing, and then she knocked quietly on the door. However, no answer came from the depths of the room. The girl frowned and tried again. Still, no response. Worried now, the girl tried a third time. Still nothing. Without another second to think about it any further, she listened to the weary creaking of the hinges on the door as she gently pushed it open and walked into a room that would have been immaculate if not for the blankets scattered around the floor and the phone shining insistently on the ground just beside a bed where some form lay sprawled out like a creature trying to force itself to grow bigger when there was really no bigger for it to grow.

"Hello…?" she asked hesitantly, creeping near. Something was wrong with this animal. It had been hurt somehow. How could she help it?

The boy blinked, the first movement he had made in days, and turned his head to see that sun-blond hair and those gentle green eyes. Then he jerked up from his prostrate position and scrambled to move himself back against the wall, clutching his blankets close to his chest which was slightly sunken with hunger; blinking rapidly his red and puffy, worn out and slightly crazed eyes. His greasy hair matted down on top of his head, his hands shaking as unsteadily as the rest of him, his lips cracked and dried with dehydration as he had been force-fed only enough water (he would not permit people to stay long enough for more) to keep himself just barely alive. It was obvious that he was in trouble, and the girl's hands went to cover her mouth so that the movement might distract from the tears now brimming in her eyes. What had happened to him? What had forced him to be this way? What had hurt him so badly as this?

"No… I… I know I left you alone all these days… I didn't clear off the snow, and I didn't come to talk… and I… I broke another promise, I know! I know that! Please! Please don't hate me!" after a long moment of silence, the boy broke out into these pleas of desperation. The wind girl was angry with him now! Surely she would leave him! Surely he had hurt her! Oh, what had he done?

"What… promise? What are you talking about?" the girl asked softly, creeping up to him like a wildlife researcher who does not want to scare away her subject.

"First was the promise to… to her… the promise that I would always love her and only her. I broke that by falling in love with you, and then I broke my promise that I would come again to meet you by that swing under the old oak tree where you wait for me every day. I promised I would come right after school was over, didn't I? But I stayed here instead, avoiding both of you because I knew that I had wronged you both. I hear your voice by my window at night, my perfect and wonderful wind girl, but I hear her voice every time I close my eyes. I love you both so much… what am I to do?" Body still trembling, at last the boy cried as he brought his knees up to his chest and finally allowed himself to sob into them, all his emotion pouring into those tears he shed for the women he loved.

Then he went over his history with the wind girl, and in doing so he described her exactly as he saw her, "You… my love who waits on the swing… you have such beautiful hair, the color of the sun on a perfect day. You have eyes like fresh spring grass that holds all of the life of the world in it—as your eyes hold all of our life in them—and such thin and delicate arms and hands. You have a laugh like music, a voice as soft and sweet as a summer breeze even when you shout to be heard above the bitter cold of winter. You have a smile that melts my heart and a giggle that rebuilds it again into something even better than it was before. You have a blush and a motion and a grace and a beauty and… and you have my heart. I cannot give it to any other. No person is as smart as you, none so clever or so creative, no other woman could be as beautiful as you… no-one could ever compare with everything you are…" his voice fell low and guilty, his heart twisting painfully yet again as he remembered that this wind girl was not the only one. There was another, another far away whose calls he had yet to return. Another who left him alone in silence for so many years and whose voice he could not bear to hear again for fear that he would find himself even further torn between these two loves. Who could he choose, if there was no-one to compare with either of them?

The girl thought about this for a moment, watching the boy's pain-stricken and tear-lined face as he sat there in the thrall of nostalgia and in the pain of keen awareness that he was still in the present day with her. She thought of all he had said, of how he had described this other woman he had fallen in love with, and she thought deeply of the swing. No-one else knew of that swing. It had been only those two, the boy and the girl who had vowed to love each other always when they were only twelve years old, only they had known of the swing on the tree. Had he told another girl, then? No… not if his description was any clue. The girl smiled and placed her hand atop that of the boy she had loved so long.

"She sounds beautiful, this girl who waits on the swing for you every day; but how would you describe me, the girl who moved away when we were only twelve and who became a great dancer and who has returned to our little suburb because she decided that the commute to the studio she was offered in the city nearby would be bearable if only she had her beloved boy to be there for her at home whenever she needed him? What would you say I am like?" the girl asked, wry smile still on her face and eyes sparkling with the mirth of what she knew.

The boy looked into her face for a long time, at her hair and at her eyes and at the delicate fingers pressed on top of his own hands, and his eyes grew wide with the realization: there had never been another girl waiting on that swing for him. There had been no wind girl, only the wind itself. He had not broken his vow to love this girl forever, he had simply prevented himself from seeing anyone else as an option. He was no criminal. He had still been faithful! He crawled down from the bed, eye-to-eye with this woman he had loved so long, and pulled her into a warm embrace; crying again, though this time with relief and with joy.

"I thought that I…! I never imagined that it was just… my imagination! I… I forgot, I'm sorry! I'm so, so sorry! I still love you, so much! I will always love you!" he pushed his face into her hair and breathed in her scent and sobbed to her as he had never cried before.

"It's easy to forget," she whispered, thinking of how she had begun to hum other songs than those they had both loved and how she had written things other than his name in the margins of her papers and how their time apart had eroded away her memories until the day she smelled the cold winter air of her home town once again, "but you would have remembered sooner or later. You can talk to the wind like you talk to me, but can you hold it in your arms this way?"

"No… no, nothing could ever be as good as you. Not even my image of you," the boy answered her, smiling again. Then he pulled her close and brought his lips to hers, and they kissed for the first time; and with that they knew that no matter what obstacles stood in their way, no matter what other imaginary people tried to replace their reality, they would always love each other and refuse to let anything come between them. They had promised, after all.

And as for the wind girl? The snow thawed, the ice melted, the swing was dried off by the nurturing rays of the sun, and the girl who had lived in the boy's imagination was swiftly replaced by the true form of the girl who had held his heart all along: the girl who he could hold in his arms.