By Anna Popnikolova
“Hillary? Hey, Hillary?”
“Would you-” The girl pauses, eyes squinted against warm May’s glare. “Would you get down from there?”
The girl on the roof does not respond, her eyes upon the flock of birds streaking the sky overhead. She reaches her arm out towards them as if, by stretching it far enough, she just might-
“Hillary!” The girl stomps her foot on the gravel, sharp stones grinding against the heel of her boot.
Hillary pays her no mind. She is taken with the mockingbirds. They circle above, playing around their call-response game, repeating one another until there is nothing remaining to repeat. Once there is nothing left, they fall silent—as there is no sound for them to mock. And what are the mockingbirds to do when there is nothing there for them to mock?
The girl on the ground places a hand on her hip, watching Hillary’s sunrise colored hair and white blouse ripple in the breeze. “I’m not joking anymore! Hillary!”
And again, Hillary reacts with no more than a disparaging glance in her direction.
Hillary cups her hands around her mouth, brings herself to her knees, resting on the very edge of the roof. She tilts her head back, looking up towards the mockingbirds, and lets out a holler, the same fashion of the birdcalls prior. The cry echoes, bounding off pines and running through the ground in a tremor. It grates against every strip of birch and apple blossom in the wood. The heavy tension hanging, thick humidity that enveloping the woods splinters with the shout. The jagged shards of reality are suspended in the air for a second, tentative. As if they are waiting to see what happens next, defying gravity before clattering down.
Hillary gazes up at the sky, where the fowl she just called to hang. They question the sound they have heard, wonder if it is their own, or some otherworldly emanation.
A feeling engulfs the surroundings, both tranquil and soaked with anticipation, for what might happen next.
Hillary traps the air inside her lungs, shoulders uptight with expectation. The girl in her confusion, cannot tear her eyes away from the roof. Hillary, her hair like fire, flames licking at her neck, sits with one corner of her strawberry-patterned skirt hanging over the edge of the roof. Even the air is holding its breath, delaying the entrance of a cool breeze for the steaming August afternoon. Because the air can sense it.
Something is going to happen.
Just as it seems that every childish hope anyone might’ve had for the magical scene may have been for null, one of the mockingbirds repeats Hillary’s exclamation. The others, still unsure, drift hazily around.
Another repeats it.
And, moments later, the entire flock explodes into shrieks and cries, all an exact imitation of Hillary’s. The sounds ring out in the sky, the clouds waver with the commotion, the splintered atmosphere falls, bits and pieces of calm, now nowhere to be found. Like the shattered bits of a broken wine glass, the fragile silence crashes to the ground. The pieces litter the ground like forgotten memories, the moments before.
But this is after.
The girl’s hands hang limp. She had released the picnic basket that she was holding. It clattered to the ground, lid cracking open, a few apples spilling out onto the parched earth. The apples roll around for several seconds, then come to a collective stop, one resting just next to the girl’s foot. She bends down to pick it up now, her preceding surprise replaced with annoyance.
“Have you gone mad?” She shouts up, towards the single figure on the roof, sunbeams jutting out from around Hillary’s curved silhouette. Like a painting, or a photograph, she stands, illuminated by the glow behind her, casting a paper-thin shadow onto the surface where she rests, with a goddess-like complex. As if, at that moment, she is pure. As if she is perfect.
Hillary simply glances over her shoulder, and nonchalantly shrugs, as if she does not think much of the previous events. As if everything surrounding her is exceeding in such normalcy that she is quite plainly bored of it all. As if nothing might interest her, not much will excite her. As if she is above such mortal and typical things, such as excitement.
“Will you come down, now?” The girl calls. She wipes the apple on her skirt, the dust coming off and staining her plaited dress. She tries to brush off the marks, and when she realizes she cannot, she huffs and drops the apple back into the basket. “Do you find this amusing?”
But Hillary does not come down. She is entranced by the mockingbirds. They twirl overhead, they spread their wings and fly. They fly. What an incredible thing, she thinks, to fly. Her arm reaches out towards the birds, again. They are… perfect. She wants so badly to touch them, to feel them. Their soft plumage and feathers, to hold them. Hold herself with them. She is drawn to them, in their entirety. They are so peaceful. They create such beautiful chaos. Such beautiful chaos, that she wants, more than anything, to be part of them. To wreak havoc on the silence with them. To fly aimlessly above the earth with them. To be a part of something larger than herself.
The girl below watches as Hillary stretches both arms toward the birds. She can almost see it happening, the winged creatures swooping down, grabbing onto Hillary’s arms and skirts, and lifting her up and away, into the heavens. It is like something out of a storybook. Like a fairytale. Like magic.
But, the harsh reality is that they do not. The birds pay her further no mind, they are far too involved in their erratic screeching, repeating, and circling, challenging each other to be louder, better, brighter than all the others. And, no matter how hard she wishes, no matter how far she reaches, no matter how loud she shouts and how lovely she’d like to be, Hillary is not a part of the mockingbirds.
Yet still, she stands on the very edge of the roof, arms up towards the birds, in a manner one might assume if surrendering a battle he does not wish to fight any longer. The wind, now having resumed it’s everyday rhythm and activity, pushes her hair from side to side, burning hair which falls into her golden eyes. She does not move to remove it, does not toss her head to adjust the bangs. She is fixed on the birds. The birds. How lovely it must be. How—
“Hillary. Come down. Right now.”
“Hush.” She whispers, in response. Of course, not loud enough for the girl to hear. Not loud enough for the birds to hear, as they continue chattering along. Not loud enough for even the wind to hear. Such a whisper, so soft. It rolls from her lips like velvet, and drifts in the air in front of her, for so long, that even she begins to doubt it.
The girl on the ground wrings her hands. She can see it, flashing. Hillary, reaching for more footing. Finding none. Tipping forward. Flying downward. Naturally, gravity wins. Gravity always wins.
But in this horrid image, she is beautiful, Hillary, as she falls. You see, she always wanted to be beautiful. She always rouged her cheeks and scruffed her hair and painted her nails, in hopes that she, one day, could be called pretty. For the possibility that one day, someone may look at her and think how ethereal a girl I see.
And during those fear-stricken imaginary moments in the girls’ mind’s eye, Hillary is beautiful. Beautiful as she falls. Her terracotta hair swirling around her head, the force pushing it upward, letting it float, even as Hillary herself plummets. She does not fall for long. But it happens animatedly, slowly, as if everything is drowning in molasses, and time wishes to last longer. Her skirts billow in the air, strawberries and cotton. But her eyes are closed, as if she expects to take flight any minute. And, even as she crashes into the ground, the beauty never leaves her. Her visage is calm, her skin smooth and undisturbed. She does not worry. She fully anticipates being with the mockingbirds.
She longs for it.
“But—” Hillary still whispers. She is talking more to the birds than to anyone else. With a final glance towards the clouds, bright white and shadowed only by the sun, still brighter, her once outstretched arms now fallen at her sides. She takes a step backwards. “I suppose not.”
“Hil?” The girl on the ground says, looking back up at the girl on the roof. Strawberry skirt and strawberry hair. Her bare feet scrape against the grainy shingle as she steps backward, until she reaches the window that she’d emerged from.
Hillary disappears behind the glass, and appears seconds later at the front door, which creaks open and walks out onto the ground. The spiky rocks bite into the soles of her feet, but she doesn’t even flinch nor make a grimace.
The girl is smug with the feel of being right, and winning this unspoken argument that the two seemingly had. She hands the picnic basket to Hillary, and wraps her fingers around Hillary’s forearm, as if she does not believe she is real. As if she cannot quite comprehend that she is alive, safe, and well. That she is not a puddle of pink and white skirts, that the grass was not stained red with her despair.
That everything is quite alright.
With a slight nod, and timid smiles, they right themselves. Hillary smooths her hair, tucks it behind her ear, and cracks a smile. The girl brushes off her skirt, one last time, lets the yellow fall around her legs, narrow plaits and flowing sleeves.
As they both make their way down the dirt road, kicking up dust as they walk, commenting on the daisies that grow along the path, the girl keeps her fingers wrapped tightly around Hillary’s arm. She does not trust that the excitable girl will not run off somewhere else and get herself killed. She does not trust that she will not just disappear into thin air. She does not quite trust that Hillary is truly real. She doubts the very existence of such a being, and thinks that, if she lets go of her for even just a second, Hillary may evaporate into the humid air, and become nothing at all. For maybe she was not anything at all to begin with.
“Lovely day, is it not?” The girl inquires of the warm tempered afternoon.
“Yes. Splendid.” Hillary responds, a smile, quaint.
Their skirts swish around their ankles as they walk, Hillary’s hair pools around her shoulders like silk. The sun still laughs. The trees rustle and whisper to each other. The fragments of silence still lie scattered on the ground, where they left them, and the air is now filled with sound. The sound of the ground hushing under their feet. The sound of the flowers and grass, grasshoppers and bumble bees buzzing about.
And of course, from their respective perches along the apple blossom branches, they sing, and the air is evermore dewed with the sound of the mockingbirds.