Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tea and Diamonds

Tea Party

Flickr Short Story © M. Sprouse

Susan thought she heard the child's voice lifting with the gentle breeze as it meandered through the ancient pines that separated the cottages. She couldn't make out the words, but she was almost certain that she had heard a child's soft voice coming from the circular clearing in the thick woods.

The clearing had been created eons ago by people now long forgotten. No one was really certain why it had been made though several different ideas had been bounced around by locals and visitors alike for as long as Susan could remember. Old Mr. Gasper was certain that it was a prehistoric "burial arena". Professor Paterson suggested, on more than one occasion, that it may have been used for some sort of pagan ritual. Some even mentioned the word "sacrifice" but they were all very careful not to use the terms loosely around the children. For whatever it had been then, it was now the perfect play circle and the children cherished it.

The clearing was about 20 feet in circumference and it was situated directly in the middle of a thick circular wave of stoic pines which stretched around it for roughly 40 feet. The woods were so protectively thickly walled around the clearing that one had to practically walk into it before actually seeing the circle itself. Once within the clearing, it seemed always to be filled with warm sunshine and the seasonal scent of wildflowers which, curiously, grew only around the border of the clearing - never inside.

Susan heard the voice again. It was mixed with the delicate sound of tiny china tea cups clinking together and gentle giggles. This time, she was certain that the voice was that of the mysterious little girl whom she had seen before, but only from a distance. Someone had told her that the girl was staying with her aunt for the summer in the Pemberton cottage which was located not far from hers.

The girl seemed petite and fragile somehow. Susan had only seen the girl as she was running through the woods, usually laughing or chasing some sort of butterfly. As she ran through the woods, the child's face would bounce in and out of bright spots of golden sunshine which had been split into fractured beams by the long limbs of the trees. It reminded Susan of the flickering of the old family home movies that she had watched as a child. On summer nights, with the aide of an ocean of thick, sparking extension cords, her father would proudly project the aging films onto the side of the cabin. Sitting under a blanket of stars, she was entranced with the imagery as it flowed in silent sepia hued waves across the weathered clapboard siding of the summer cottage. She and her sister Kate loved watching those films.

Kate. Susan winced. She had tried to think as little about Kate as possible. She simply found it too painful still. For a brief moment, she became angry at herself for letting the memory slip in under the gate. It seemed to be happening more and more now and these moments always took Susan for a surprise. Mostly, Susan was surprised at how emotional she would still become when she thought of Kate, even after five years. It had been five years hadn't it, Susan thought to herself. Five years had passed since her beloved Kate drowned to death in Paterson's pond not two miles from where she stood straining to hear the little girl's voice. Once, when Susan had driven into town for a few items, she had overheard two townswomen at the local general store speaking about the death.
"Folks say that once you stop struggling, drowning is supposed to be the most peaceful way to go" one of them said.
"Well, how on earth would they be able to determine a thing like that?" asked the other woman somewhat impudently.
Susan quickly left the store without her items. She was haunted by the vision of Kate gently smiling as she drifted down into the black murkiness of the icy pond for weeks.

Again she heard the girl. Instinctively, she moved towards the direction of the child's lilting voice - towards the clearing. Within minutes, Susan was at the outer parameters of the circle of thick trees. She realized suddenly that she hadn't been her since Kate's death. In fact, she had vowed never to enter into the circle again. It seemed so distant now, those endless summer days spent playing with Kate in the clearing, like an old relic long sunken to the bottom of the sea. She had convinced herself then that it was best to forget about the clearing and Kate. These weren't memories that she wanted to hide somewhere inside only to have them resurface like an old love letter that wafts unexpectedly out from between the pages of an old discovered book. She wanted to eradicate them forever.

Whack. The branch seemed to come out of nowhere as it whisked across her face, snapping her out of her memory fog and back into the moment. She could hear the child's voice growing stronger and, as if compelled against her will, her feet pulled her deeper into the tree ring and closer to the clearing. Susan could sense the deep, mossy green hued darkness now to her right, left and behind her as she moved, almost trancelike, closer to the direction of the voice.

She still couldn't quite make out the girls words. The voice now seemed to be coming from every direction and it reminded Susan of the excited breathy voices of children trying to observe something fascinating while not being discovered. How many times had Kate whispered silliness into her ear in that very same manner? Finally, she could make out brief glints of light coming from the clearing ahead. One time, Kate had discovered a bed of tiny quartz crystals twinkling in the sun as they shimmered underneath the icy waters of small stream which flowed through the woods. "Look Susan! Diamonds!" Kate had shrilled. The light coming from the clearing had that same sparkling quality. Susan felt her eyes fill with warm tears.

She now stood at the edge of the clearing with nothing but a thick growth of tall reeds separating her and the mystery girl. Though she could not make out the girl's face, she could see the child through the reeds. In the middle of the clearing sat a little white-washed table with four tiny chairs, two of which were taken by different, yet oddly familiar, looking dolls. Susan stood silently at the edge of the reeds for what seemed like an eternity watching the girl whirl about the table from doll to doll pouring imaginary tea from a tiny pitcher into each cup and giggling. Susan's hands began to tremble as she prepared to part the reeds and enter the clearing.

Susan stood wide-eyed and stunned, unable to move as the curtain of reeds now gently closed behind her. The girl was now, almost magically it seemed, instantaneously seated and staring into Susan's eyes with a wistful and knowing look as if she had been in that same spot all afternoon, all week, all of the last five years. Could it be? Susan felt no longer part of herself. It was as if she had walked into child's watercolor painting tacked onto an old plaster wall. The child, the mystery girl, she looks so much like... it isn't possible. It can't...

"Welcome Susan," spoke the child calmly and easily. "It's been such a long time. Won't you join us? We've been expecting you." Susan was still unable to move as a windstorm of thoughts and remembrances made it's way across her mind. As Susan watched, the child now slowly lifted her arm and gently opened her outstretched hand.

"Look, Susan," the girl spoke. "Diamonds".

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