by Christopher Barzak
One morning, I woke up angry from a dream of eight feet tall geese that nipped at my ankles. When I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I realized it was the fern brushing its lacy leaves against my feet. The fern had been growing beside the foot of my bed for nearly a month,coming up between the floorboards. I’d tried to remove it, pulled it up by its roots, but it only grew back within a few days, a persistent reminder that things were not right in the world. Ferns should not be growing in bedrooms, unless they are potted. Vines should not grow over mailboxes,unless the mailbox is in a jungle outpost. Tiger lilies should not grow in place of a girl’s eyelashes. There are rules in this world. I told the fern this myself, but it pretended not to know what I was talking about.
Suddenly I heard Hester’s geese in the back yard, and her voice ringing out for them to fall in behind her. When I looked out my window, I saw her back turning the street corner with a line of ten geese following. I decided to follow as well.
They didn’t go far — to the park, only a few blocks away from our place. There the geese wandered aimlessly, seeming without true purpose, just like real geese. I watched Hester slip into the pond and begin washing her face, her hair. The pond could have held twenty children, but Hester filled the whole thing.It looked like a water hole with her inside it. I was going to call out to tell her she shouldn’t be out alone like this, that there were still crazies around who would rather see her disappear than take a bath in this pond, but I stopped when I saw her rise from the water, look furtively from side to side, and step into the little grove of trees near the pond.
I followed in secret, casting my own furtive looks over my shoulder. I felt like a spy, capturing enemy information. What’s going on in that head of yours, Hester? I wondered. Besides a tree growing, that is.
I came down on the other side of the trees, in case Hester had placed one of the geese down by the pond as a lookout. She was hiding something — that much was obvious. Luckily, the park was well groomed. "Managed," is how the groundskeepers referred to it, so there was no underbrush to rattle through, which might have alerted Hester.There were well–trod dirt trails, and little flower gardens between trees, everything patterned like an English garden. I ducked from tree to tree, my back pressed against the bark so Hester wouldn’t see me. I felt invigorated by my own cleverness. I was primal and silent — I thought maybe I should try hunting. And then, all at once, I came upon Hester kneeling downin what appeared to be an "unmanaged" section of the grove.
Here were brambles and thorny bushes, vines creeping up the sides of trees that grew wild with branches; there were ferns and wild flowers growing along the forest floor — and it did seem like a forest, not a park at all. There were even rings of mushrooms. I was waiting to see a fairy arrive. Hester knelt down on a patch of moss near the base of a large weeping willow.The weeping willow that grew out of her head swayed above her and the weeping willow that grew in the grove swayed along with it, but there was no wind. Hester picked something up from the mushroom ring in her pale white hands, and as I snuck closer to see what it was, a branch broke beneath my feet. I had grown too comfortable sneaking through the managed sections of the park,clear of debris and noisy branches. My dreams of big game hunting evaporated as suddenly as I’d dreamed them.
Hester’s eyes snapped open. She lifted her head and looked at me as if I were one of the crazy people who left death threats on our answering machine. "Stephen!" she shouted in surprise, staggering up from her kneeling position. The fear in her eyes reminded me of a deer caught in headlights, even though I hadn’t seen a deer in our town for at least five years.I thought she was going to run, but she didn’t. "What are you doing here?" she asked instead.
"I’m sorry, Hester" I said. "I was going to call out, but then you came inside here. What is this place? What are you doing here?"
"Don’t worry about it," she said, her face firm. "It’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone you saw me here. Not even Mom and Dad."
I raised my eyebrows. "Do you seriously think I’m going to leave here, say nothing, and not try to find out what it is you’re hiding?"
"I’m not hiding anything," she said. "I’m protecting something. There’s a difference."
"Sometimes you have to hide something to protect it," I said. "Come on, Hester. You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone. Promise."
At that moment she peered down into her cupped hands at whatever she was holding. Then she opened her hands a little and lowered them so I could see.
She was holding a grayish colored egg. It was about the size of a football, but in Hester’s hands, it appeared to be the size of a chicken egg. Blue spots polka–dotted its surface. "An Easter egg?" I asked, which was the first thoughtthat came to me.
Hester nodded. "Yes. But not how you’re thinking."
"It’s not an Easter egg, really," said Hester. "Just sort of. It’s bringing something back to us. Something dead is coming back again."
I reached out to stroke the egg, but Hester pulled her hands back as soon as I made a move towards it. "No!" she shouted. "You can’t touch it, Stephen. No one but I can touch it."
"I wasn’t going to hurt it!" I shouted back. "Don’t be so bossy, Hester!"
"I’m sorry. It’s just that those are the rules. Only me, Stephen. Only I can touch it. I’m its guardian. I’m the guardian of the egg."
"What are you guarding it from?" I asked, and Hester looked over my shoulders, then from left to right, as if there might be unseen presences eavesdropping.
"From them," she said. "From the people. If anyone knew about the egg, that it was the cause of my changes and all the other changes around here, they’d destroy it. Just like they do with everything else."
"Why not keep it at the house then?" I suggested.
"Because that’s the most likely place to look. If I keep the egg somewhere public, they’ll never find it. People always look where they’re not supposed to be looking. If I keep it where anyone could find it, they won’t even think to come here.Also, the egg needs a place with trees and clean water. The park is growing stronger now."
It was true. The park was slowly but surely being overtaken by a new growth of trees and wild flowers. A surge of underbrush and brambles grew over and between trees like the strands of a spider’s web.
"But is this a good thing?" I asked. "How do you know the egg isn’t evil?"
"Because I know," said Hester. "I just know, Stephen. You’ll have to trust me."
Both of us had asked for trust from the other. This was something new to my relationship with my sister. We’d barely held a conversation before this one, except to argue and put each other down. Suddenly I felt like we understood each other, had jumped over the preliminary forgiveness ritualsand gone straight into a deep and meaningful friendship. I wasn’t ashamed of this feeling. I wasn’t ashamed of Hester anymore either, even if she was over eight feet tall, white as a clown and covered with vegetation. I knew to trust her, as she knew to trust the egg, and so I did that, and went home with her that morning,and said nothing to anyone about her secret.