Anna hid in a cave of sumac branches, made airy by the August breeze. The hours turned red and fat while she stayed missing. No one called or searched or knew how she stared alone at the swaggering limbs and pulled sticky, feathered seeds from milkweed pods, brushed at the dust of monarch wings, all pulsing like late summer hearts. She was less than a half mile from her house.
On a nestled bed of damp milkweed innards, she nursed her anger. The attention she had always known from her parents and the other adults in her life had become an empty carton, soured and upsetting.
The egg-laying, full pupa growing days were now behind her family. At home, orchestra bright with cries, her mother kissed and worried new babies, changed and continued on without checking on Anna, playing the games they had made up together or cutting off crusts. It was all the worst sort of hurried, careless attention. So this afternoon, she was having her revenge; she was not just a part of the house to be shushed or sent on errands. This would show Anna’s importance to all of them, the adults who stared and smiled, snapped photos and kissed pink toes.
Her stomach growled, but her bitterness filled the space where food should be as she swatted mosquitoes and imagined her parents realizing she was gone, for they must have noticed by now. Soft wings whispered past her head as she sat in full dark. Tears and a hushed call, “Daddy, Daddy.” She had brought juice in a thermos, but had finished it long ago, and she couldn’t remember exactly where the creek was that ran along the edge of the field she had crossed. The trees were familiar from afternoon trips with her friend Rachel, but the darkness settled like heavy wool, and she could not even see stars when she peeked out through the branches. The fear of what she had done grew, until she couldn’t stop her tears or the shaking in her legs, no matter how hard she tried.
And then she felt her body picked up by the skin at the back of her neck, right where the hair stopped growing. It was a gentle mouth, but a sharp pinch where whatever thing that had grabbed a hold of her did its clamping and lifting. The air was thick with breath that tucked in and out of her ears as she bounced along in the dark, dangling and suspended like the fish she had once pulled out of the lake on the end of a pole.
She was placed on the ground beside small mounds of fur and the thickness of breath again, great gusts moving over her like searchlights close to the skin. There was warmth and the heavy weight of a body lowering and shifting her in the small space. She slept. Her lungs slow in exhales as she matched the rhythms that surrounded her. And then feathered claws, a sharp touch, hints across her face. Without opening her eyes, she reached and tangled herself in furry parts that rolled and blended. A mouthful of bristles, the papery nudge of a nose and she was upside down, on her back, spun and embraced, nipped and explored in a frenzy of warmth and the dead leaves of a den. When at last she looked, two brown noses hung before her, behind that, eyes black, but shifting, glints of light angling as they stared. The heavy liquid of breaths continued, and she screamed. Fully awake, she scrambled to her knees and burst out toward the small crevices of light nearby.
Morning shadows and strips of light fell around her as she rolled away from the noises and paws. Her own breath echoed now in her ears, but the feeling of fur and claws and noses had vanished. She worked to put her shaky legs beneath her; looking up toward the tree tops and the light, she stood. Turning a slow circle, she felt the word forest deep in her mind without using her voice. It made no difference which direction she looked, the trees were identical in their sentinel height. The morning sun felt warm, but a breeze lifted the ends of her hair and she shivered. All the parts of her that were summer exposed and had stayed warm in the rolling of fur, now cooled. For a moment she wanted to crawl back where she had been, sneak in and root in the tight space that had held her through the night. But the memory of the mouths and fur so tangled and mixed, the scream she could not control, made her abandon this idea immediately.
In the quiet of the trees, she listened and heard the faint dancing of water across rocks. When she reached the stream, she put herself face first in the cold, copper rush. And then for the second time, she was lifted and carried, this time by arms rather than teeth, as the sound of “Anna, Anna, Anna” replaced the noise of the stream. Her father squeezed her as he walked. She loved the smell of soap and his sharp coffee breath as he murmured into her cheek, rocking her and holding with a strength she had never felt before. Looking up from his shoulder as they moved with steady bouncing beneath the trees, she saw a flash of brown, a shrouded sense of something watching that would not leave her, even though, from that day forward, she stayed away from the woods.
Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher whose work has been published in a variety of literary journals, including: Story, Mid-American Review and The Baltimore Review. Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two kids.