Swan's Tree

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Cassie stares at her sister through the boughs. Here, she feels like a star must, silver moonlight weaving a tapestry of apple blossoms. She glances at her sister’s profile. Helen’s long blonde hair is bleached of color in the lavender light. A tear glints on her cheek.

“Helen?” Cassie whispers. “You okay?” Her sister shakes her head. Cassie remembers––

Dinner parties where women in peach dresses pinched her cheeks raw, gossiping over her head as if she were just another item in one of Mum’s expensive collections. Helen grabbing her hand, the two of them like blonde Houdinis as they escaped to the apple tree. Too high for a four-year-old: she clutched its bark with her hands, terrified of falling. But Helen made monkey faces (“I am the dignified Mrs. Kayne, and I disapprove of the oysters in the oyster cocktail sauce. Take it away!”), and she forgot to hold on, crashing through the strong branches, screaming with laughter.

Her brother’s announcement that he was dropping out. Kevin, her hero, her idol, and her parents’ deep disappointment. In a confused blur of tears, she ran for the tree, barely registering the older girl sobbing besides her.

Her fourteenth birthday party, when her parents gave her two months of elite summer camp in Northern California. Until then, she’d never been parted from her sister. Panicked, she raced for the cover of August leaves, refusing to come down as Mum pleaded, even when Dad threatened a grounding, preferring to stay hidden from their sight. Only Helen had climbed up after her, two blankets folded under her arm.

Now, she feels silly and self-conscious, perched awkwardly on a too-thin branch, like a turkey fooling herself that she’s a beautiful swan who owns the sky. They aren’t little kids anymore; Helen’s wedding is Saturday. Cassie likes Jim, but wishes Helen would wait. Wait and stay her sister. Wait to be sure.

“Do you… want to talk?” she murmurs, gentler now, and her sister starts. Cassie studies the yellow light blinking in the distance. Home. Helen shakes her head once, blonde strands catching in the moonlight, and they lapse into their parallel eternities.

For once, Cassie doesn’t cry. The silence between them only mocks what she always feared. Cassie reaches out to grab her sister’s hand but stops herself. Feels the rough bark under her other palm. Knows little girls always grow up, even as trees stay gnarled and bent.

“I’ll do your hair, Helen,” she decides, and tries to smile. Wraps her arm around the tree’s thin trunk.

Smiles.





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