Authors: Wendy Delsol
“Sounds pretty important,” I said. Although it was a side of doomsday to go with my meal and I still didn’t want the guy at my kitchen table, I guessed it was good that there were smart people looking out for the earth.
“Speaking of important,” my mom said, “how’s school?”
“Good. I kind of made a friend. She asked me to write a fashion column for the school paper.”
My mom perked up. “That’s great news.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Why not? It’s perfect for you. And the writing portion of it will be good experience.”
My mom was not a huge fan of my interest in fashion. Not as a future career, anyway. She claimed my aptitude tests predestined me for something more challenging. Our compromise was that I’d get a bachelor’s degree before becoming the next Stella McCartney. She was certain it would be from UCLA, both my parents’ alma mater, but my dad and I were cooking up a college choice that was a lot more interesting or, rather,
beaucoup plus intéressant
“I’m just not sure they’re the kind of kids I want to hang with.”
My mom gave me a look. Before moving, she’d given me the have-an-open-mind lecture.
“Plus, it’d be a tall order,” I said. “Writing about fashion up here. I saw a guy today in overalls. Honestly. And a girl with white shoes and dark panty hose. Panty hose!”
“Kat,” my mom said. My rant had embarrassed her. I could tell.
“Family budgets around here can’t afford too many trips to the mall these days,” Stanley said. “Maybe that’s your angle. A way to make a difference. Fashion for the budget-conscious.”
The guy looked at me like he wanted to be congratulated. Like he’d had some sort of epiphany or mentoring moment. I stared at him for a long time. It became awkward. I continued to stare. “Great idea, Stanley,” I said finally. “And maybe I could do a nutrition column and call it Donuts for the Diet-Conscious.” I’d gone too far. I knew it immediately. My mom looked at me like she didn’t know me, or want to, anyway. She was either too mad to discuss it right then or didn’t want to make Stanley feel any more awkward. I’d knew I’d pay later, plus interest.
With her face pulled tight, my mom stood and cleared plates. Stanley stood and proclaimed the scouring of pots and pans his specialty, holding up two big hands like ruddy mitts. I sat at the table listening to my mom rattle dishes and slam cupboards. I overheard Stanley say, “I don’t take it personally. Divorce is tough on kids.”
I got up and logged on to the computer in the family room, leaving them to their domesticities. Normally, I considered Twitter the greatest invention since slingbacks — there was something about that little blue bird I couldn’t resist — but that night I just couldn’t focus.
My mom came into the room, mentioning dessert and a movie on the Lifetime Channel. The Lifetime Channel! She had an avowed weakness for love stories, extra cheese, tissues on the side. My dad used to run from the room with his hands covering his ears. The good news — my mom couldn’t be too angry if she was talking to me; the bad news was plated and carried in by Stanley. Any log-shaped chocolate concoction is gross. A couple of PhDs should have been able to figure that much out. I excused myself and went to my room.
Crying. Incessant crying. A newborn in distress. But where is it coming from? To my left? To my right? No, behind me, definitely behind me. The baby needs help. Now.
The wails lengthen, an unbearable crest of despair. I need to find the baby, but something is wrong with my legs. They swell to twice their size, until I have to muscle one around the other by lifting with my arms. Hair, ropy strands of matted hair, grows over my forearms and hands; it tangles in my fingers as I struggle to wrangle my elephantine legs. The baby is gasping for air between heartrending sobs. Then the baby is just gasping. And then silence, momentary silence, is followed by rushing air. This is no ordinary wind; something ancient and angry is rustling through a grassland, which rises under my feet as I still struggle to maneuver my lifeless limbs. Seedlings sprout at my feet, then grow to my knees, burgeoning and expanding until broad flat fronds slap at my face and block my progress.
Darkness gathers as leaves the size of patio umbrellas unfold above me. And all the while the wind increases in intensity, a roaring tunnel of air, lifting me off my feet, my grotesquely swollen toes floating like red balloons, and then slamming me to the ground with a menacing peal of laughter. I land hard on packed dirt frozen solid. The chill instantly sends sharp coils of pain drilling deep into my bones. “Please, not cold,” I shout out loud. The gale whips above my head, a swirling mass of blowing leaves and twigs, until it becomes a determined mistral river flowing in a single direction. I have no choice now but to crawl, snakelike, using the currents of air to propel me forward. I grasp, with Neanderthal arms, at stalks of plants the breadth and width of barrels, until my chest and legs are scraped raw on the icy ground.
Again, a child’s cry; it’s muffled by the wind but pulsing, tauntingly, before me. How could an infant survive, even a moment, in this harsh and foreign jungle? It needs protection; it needs shelter; it needs warmth. I drive forward. Along the darkest of forest floors, I make one final advance, my legs dragging behind me like the tattered train of a moth-eaten gown. Again, the sharp mew of a newborn, and I, finding a last bastion of strength, claw myself forward another ten feet. Suddenly, the wind subsides and then there is light, glorious light. Newly energized, I manage two more pulls and then feel something warm ladle over me until my legs grow lithe and slim, and my arms smooth and sleek.
I am at the edge of a clearing; enormous stalks encircle a ring of soft grass. In the center lies a tiny babe, naked atop a bed of soft leaves and petals. Tufts of dandelion fluff float in the air, which is perfumed with flowers. The child’s arms flail and her legs kick. A girl, I realize with a glance at the crease between her legs. She holds in each hand, and even with her fisted toes, a curled vine laden with purple flowers, which close as they draw my attention and ribbon slowly over the child’s body.
I am so entranced by the scene before me, I fail to notice the perimeter of the clearing. As the baby settles into a contented coo, my gaze falls on four large stump-carved seats surrounding the grassy ring. The rough chairs are spaced evenly apart, seemingly at the four points of the compass, with the child equidistantly centered to each. Then there is a rustle in the trees, and I watch as Jaelle, wearing a long flowing white gown, walks quietly into the clearing.
“Jaelle,” I call. She can’t hear me. “Jaelle, it’s me, Kat.” No reply. “Jaelle!” My voice increases in volume and intensity, yet Jaelle still does not respond. She takes a few steps farther into the ring. She approaches one of the stumps, runs her hands along its rough-hewn surface, and lowers herself into the chiseled seat. She then reaches behind this forest bench and pulls what appears to be an orange cape over her shoulders. She settles it comfortably about her shoulders, so that I am at first fooled into thinking it’s a cloak of sorts. As I watch, though, flames lick up the back and onto Jaelle’s neck. She doesn’t seem to notice. Terrified for her safety, I call to her: “Jaelle, be careful!” She still doesn’t hear me, nor does she appear burned or even aware of the heat. She adjusts the fire cape, seemingly luxuriating in its warmth. She sits back, crosses her legs languidly, settles her gaze upon the newborn, and falls into a pleasant, sleeplike sentry of the beautiful child.
I woke disoriented, but filled with a sense of wonder. There were so many confusing elements to the dream, if that’s what it really was. It seemed so much like a vision, or alternate world. Even I had been somehow different there — primal and instinctive. The clarity of the images and the degree to which I could remember details were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It had been so tantalizingly real: the baby’s cries, the howling wind, giant plants, and the child — a girl, surrounded by four stump-carved chairs. The essence had contacted me. As I sat puzzling out the clues, realization spilled over me like a bucket of cold water. Not only had my vision introduced me to the child, but it had confirmed a vessel as well: Jaelle.
I collapsed back onto my bed in both relief and bone-rubberizing shock. So it was true. I was a Stork. I, Kat, was special. I, Katla, was the youngest to have such powers. I, Katla Gudrun Leblanc, had influence on the placing of souls. It was like when my sixth-grade teacher selected me to welcome the visiting congressman in front of the entire school assembly — times a thousand, then squared, then cubed. Then and now, I was both honored and scared out of my mind. I took a deep breath and focused on something small, and manageable, and positive: Jaelle. She wanted a baby and was my friend. This was a no-brainer. Part of me wanted to start scratching then and there. Gather up, girls, we have a winner, but then old Tall-and-Dour, Grimilla, came to mind. She had already warned me that I must learn “protocol and patience.” The wrath of Grim would rain down on me were I to call a meeting before I’d seen the occupants of the remaining chairs.
And besides, I didn’t fully understand what had been revealed to me about the baby. A girl was all I could announce for certain. I didn’t think reporting “she clutched vines” much of a description. And what was up with Jaelle and that cloak of fire? I trusted that Hulda would help make sense of the dream.
For now, I’d just have to follow Grim’s advice and be patient. First chance I got, though, I planned on scratching my darn head until blood and pus trickled down my neck. And this, I thought with a groan, was what I had to look forward to.
Nonetheless, I bounded up the concrete steps to Norse Falls High that day, another unseasonably chilly one, with a kick in my step — not easy in Doc Martens that probably each weighed more than some of the smaller freshmen I passed. Big buckled boots contrasted with a woolen kilt and my black leather motorcycle jacket was a combination I loved. A few kids did double takes, something I was getting used to and nothing that could spoil my mood. I, girl with gifts, simply needed to have another dream, jam three more women into the log-chairs, send a bouncing baby girl Jaelle’s way, and then the whole ordeal would be behind me, special me.
A glint of hope charged through my system. Or were those my powers surging? Talk about a head trip.
A big group of kids gathered around the school’s front bulletin board. A large sign reminded students that voting for Homecoming King and Queen was just a few days away. I overheard one girl say to another, “Monique will be such a pretty queen.” I coughed, a big rheumy hack. The two girls moved away quickly. I noticed a folding table set up to the side. Penny was one of two students staffing it; a spool of tickets and a metal cashbox sat in front of her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The Homecoming Dance is one week away. The committee just announced this year’s theme, and I’m selling tickets for Saturday’s bonfire.”
I craned my neck to get a look at the large silver lettering at the top of the corkboard.
“Enchantment Under the Sea?”
“Isn’t it great?” Penny sat high in her chair.
“Sure.” I was pretty certain that was the theme, the exact theme, in
Back to the Future
. And if I remembered correctly, it tampered with the whole space-time continuum, but who was I to split atoms?
“I’m on the committee.”
Of course she was. She was probably on every committee and in every club, from the Back-to-School Cleanup Crew to Teacher Appreciation Week Cupcake Captain to Spirit Squad Battalion Chief. Penny was a genuine go-getter, the sign-me-up type. “That’s nice.”
“We probably do things a little differently from your school in California.”
Penny scooted forward in her seat. “The theme is always a big secret until the Friday before.”
“And then Saturday night is the big Asking Fire,” she said with bright eyes.
“See,” Penny said. “I knew I’d get you. It’s a tradition. The Saturday before the dance, the school throws a big bonfire event. Girls write the name of their chosen guy on a piece of paper and throw it into the fire. Then the boys have until the bonfire burns down to ask someone. The fire is supposed to have magical properties. If a girl has true feelings for a boy, the fire will grant her wish.” Penny looked at me with a sort of rapture. She was, obviously, a believer.