MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Zugunruhe*

Kimberly Behre Kenna

Last time we hiked this late in the season, Charly begged to go home. She said the wind had teeth.

“Mom, why do birds fly south in the winter?” My six-year-old shoved her hands in her pockets and kicked her way through the leaves.

“They sense cold coming on so they travel to their warm winter homes.”

“Is Lyla in her winter home?”

My arms goose-bumped. “Lyla’s somewhere safe. We can’t see her but we will someday.” Charly hugged my leg, her cold fingers numbing my thoughts. I rubbed her back. “We should head home.”

She took off running. “No! We haven’t gotten to the rock yet.”

I jogged to catch up, handed her my gloves. “Please, put these on.”

“I’m not cold, Mom.”

I held up her hand. “Your fingers are blue.” She stuck her thumb in her mouth and sucked at it, a habit I thought she’d outgrown. “Look, the big rock is right there.” I pointed. “We’ll climb it and eat our cookies at the top, then head home before we turn into ice people.” I rubbed her hands.

“Stop, you’re hurting me, Mommy!” She pulled away and stomped off.

I followed. The smell of decaying leaves spun a dizzy image. The arm of a red corduroy jacket. A leg twisted impossibly at the base of an oak tree. I squeezed my eyes shut, exhaling the memory.

“Look what I found!” I opened my eyes to see Charly teetering at the top of the rock, arms extended toward the sky, shaking something red. “It’s Lyla’s!” she said.

I clutched my throat and knelt down. The damp earth bled into my knees. The wind shook me senseless.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” She leaned toward the edge, peering down at me.

I leapt up and ran to the rock where she stood eight feet above me. “Move back from the ledge!” I cried. Her eyes bantered and she lowered her hands, a curtain containing my horror.

Charly sat down, dangled her legs over the precipice, and dropped the red thing. It floated to my feet. There was a hole in the thumb where Lyla had bitten through. Twin girls, twinned habits. I held the stiff wool to my nose.

Then there she was at my side, a soft surprise. Charly took the mitten from me and held it to her own nose. “Lyla smelled like apples but this just smells like moss.”

I sat down at the base of the rock and Charly flopped into my lap. I stuck my index finger through the hole in the mitten, held it up and wiggled it like a puppet. “I may smell like moss but I’m still me,” I said in a pitched voice. “Just because you don’t see me doesn’t mean I wasn’t here.”

Charly held up her index finger and addressed mine. “I don’t feel good, Lyla. I need you to come home.” She frowned and bit her lip.

I let my hand drop to my lap, opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out.

“My head hurts, Mama. Like the time I fell off my bike and got stitches.” She touched the scar on her forehead.

I held up my mitten hand. “You’re cold like your Mama says,” my finger admonished. “You need to listen to her.”

“Mama doesn’t listen to herself sometimes,” her finger retorted.

I pulled off the mitten. “Now what do you mean by that?”

Her finger stood tall and she put it on my nose. “Your nose is red and runny but all you do is tell Charly that she’s cold.”

“That’s what mothers are for. To keep their children warm.”

“How you going to keep me warm if you can’t keep yourself warm?”

I breathed in the life of her. I breathed out Lyla.

Charly fished around in my pocket for the zip lock bag of oatmeal cookies. She pulled one out, broke off a piece and fed it to me. She nibbled the rest. I chewed and chewed. I’d have to masticate it to nothingness to get it down. Like memories, I finally swallowed.

Charly stuck her chubby fist into the mitten and opened and closed it, addressing me in a squeaky voice. “Mama, I miss you and Charly. I wish you two would visit me at my winter home.”

The cookie had left a rank film in my mouth and I held back a gag.

She put her hand back in her lap. “Now you look blue, Mama.”

One of the last orange leaves floated into my lap as if it had finally given in to winter. “Sometimes, Charly, sadness holds me so tight it’s hard to breathe.”

She looked at me for a long time, then she smoothed my hair back from my forehead.

“Something’s holding me tight too.” She held her index finger to her ear, listened, and nodded. “It’s Lyla. And she says she loves us.”

Charly looped her arms around my neck, her mittened hand like a bird on my shoulder. I stood and settled her on my hip. Then we took off, wind at our back, down the trail toward our warm winter home.


*Zugunruhe: The restlessness of birds before migration