Requested by @RunNerdGirl (Little’s Story)
Maya climbed into the back seat of her father’s SUV. Her black suit felt itchy and her shoes too tight but there was no point in complaining. She looked out to see her mother Aretha rest her head on her father, James’ shoulder as they walked out of the funeral home. Her mother hugged a blue and silver urn to her chest. Other mourners were pouring out behind them.
While Maya knew the funeral of her grandmother should have been a sad occasion, she had barely known the woman. Her few memories were vague at best.
When the family received the call that her Grandma Nama had become sick, only Maya’s mother flew out. It was decided there was no point in taking Maya out of school so close to the summer and both parents missing work for what was thought to be a simple illness.
Aretha had stayed on for a month, caring for the old woman until she had finally passed on. James was heartbroken that he hadn’t been there for his wife, but they both agreed it was best that Maya focus on 7th grade for as long as she could. Maya and her father had packed and started their drive on the first day of summer break.
The funeral had taken place the day after Maya and her father arrived in the little mountain town where her grandmother had spent her life. It wasn’t exactly what Maya would have called the start to a great summer vacation.
Her parents climbed in and both turned to give Maya a sympathetic smile. Her mother reached out with one free hand and squeezed Maya’s knee.
“Thank you for being so strong for me.” She said with tears in her eyes. “Your grandmother was always so proud of you even if she never got to spend as much time with you as she wanted to. Life always seemed to get in the way of our plans and Mother never could leave her home for very long.”
Maya nodded but couldn’t meet her mother’s gaze. She was sure if she did, her mother would know she didn’t have to be strong. The hardest part of the whole trip so far was the talk her parents had the night before about possibly moving into her grandmother’s house and leaving Arizona behind.
The drive out of town was a silent affair. It didn’t take long before you couldn’t see the small town was swallowed up the surrounding forest though as soon as they started the descent, you could make out the oval shape the buildings had caused in the trees. It looked a bit like a section of mushrooms in a glade.
“Is there going to be wifi at Grandma’s?” Maya broke the silence ten minutes into the drive. She looked at her phone for the 12th time since they had started up the mountains. There was no signal.
Maya’s mother turned to her. The smile was teasing and the skin around her pool blue eyes crinkled. Not for the first time, Maya wondered why her mom didn’t worry about laugh lines like so many of her friend’s mothers.
“It looks like you’re going to be off-grid while we’re here.” She said. “I think it might be good for you.”
It’s probably because she’s still beautiful even with the lines. Maya thought glumly. Not like me. I’m going to have to worry about that when I’m older. I look like dad.
Maya sighed and looked from one parent to another.
Her mother was beautiful, that couldn’t be denied. Aretha had one of those timeless looks. Her blue eyes, smooth skin with a natural blush, and wavy light brown hair was stunning. Maya had seen photos when her grandparents were younger. Aretha was her mother’s child in everything except the hair color. Her grandmother had a head full of white-blonde hair. Even with the small difference, everything about the two women flowed, from their looks to their gestures. Even her mother’s words seemed to fall from her lips like water from a fountain. She always knew the perfect thing to say and when to say it.
James, on the other hand, could only be described as ‘average’. Nondescript brown hair that wouldn’t lie smoothly blended with the mud brown eyes. His face showed signs of acne scars and his nose was on the larger side. He was neither too tall nor too short.
Maya knew her parents loved each other but she never in a million years could have told you why. They were just too different.
The only good side to this was it gave Maya hope that someone would love her even with her father’s average looks. She only hoped she would grow out of her clumsiness and awkwardness.
Another sigh escaped her as she shoved her phone into her backpack and stared out of the window. She knew the mountain landscape should have been beautiful. In a way, it was, but all Maya could think about was how far away they seemed from everything normal.
The forest stretched out in all directions, only broken by the occasional rise of a hill or mountaintop. It looked a little like an ocean to Maya.
Not that I’ve really seen an ocean. She thought. The last time I was near one was when I was three. Grandma was with us.
She thought back to that time. Her memory of it was a bit fuzzy, clouded by time and her own made up stories of it. When she was little she used to believe her grandmother and mother had taken her into the ocean. Not just to play in the wave but out into the deep waves until the water was everywhere.
Maya had made up a story about going down onto the ocean floor and seeing all the fish. They talked to mermaids and one even gave her a pearl straight from an oyster. All the creatures under the water knew them and welcomed them like old friends. It was an elaborate fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.
While Maya really did have a pearl from that trip, the rest was little kid story telling. Her kindergarten teacher had written a note home about telling tales on the day Maya had brought the pearl to show and tell. Maya stopped telling that story after a punishment that included no dessert and an early bedtime.
“Nearly there, kiddo.” Her father’s voice snapped her back to the present. “Do you remember this place?”
Maya looked out the front window as her father turned down a narrow road. She knew they had visited her grandmother, but once again, she had been very young and remembered more of her made up stories than her actual experiences there.
Nothing looked familiar to her and she said as much to her father.
“I remember it all.” Her mother said dreamily. “I loved living here. Even the winters were fun when we couldn't leave due to the snow.”
“Was it always just you and grandma?” Maya asked, more to hear her mother speak than any real desire to know.
“Yes.” Her mother’s voice was soft, lost in memory. “Papa died when I was very young. I don’t have many memories of him, just what mama told me.”
Her voice faded out and Maya looked away. Her mother was crying quietly. She again felt bad that her mother was so sad when she couldn’t shed a tear for the old woman she had barely known. Maya wanted to cry for her mom’s sake, but her grandmother's death didn’t seem to touch her the same way. Again, Maya was just like her father in that respect. He hadn’t know his wife’s mother all that well either.
The trees all looked the same to Maya as they traveled down the bumpy dirt road. When the house finally came into view, it seemed as if it were a part of the scenery.
The two story cabin was the natural color of the wood from which it was made. The shingles were a darker shade of brown with green moss throughout. It blended perfectly with the forest as if it was always there.
They piled out of the SUV, grabbing suitcases as they went. Maya’s mother had her tears under control and you could tell she was happy to be back in her childhood home. Her mother had always loved the greenery of nature and had never quite taken to Arizona, where Maya had lived for as long as she could remember. This was her mother’s world as much as the desert was Maya’s.
The inside of the cabin was as natural as the outside. Everything was green and brown with flower and water motifs throughout. Maya’s mother took a deep breath.
“She never changed things.” She whispered. “It even smells the same.”
Maya took a quiet sniff. The house smelled to her like soil after the rain.
“Petrichor.” The word popped out before Maya realized she said it.
Her mother swirled around and beamed at her. Maya instantly smiled back. It was an automatic reaction that no one had yet been able to resist.
“Yes!” Her mother breathed in deeper. “That’s exactly what it is! I forgot there's a word for it!”
She hugged Maya tightly.
“Do you know what would be nice?” Her mother asked, pulling back from the hug. “What if you picked some wildflowers in the woods for the dinner table while your father and I get settled? If I remember, there’s a beautiful patch near the stream just down that little path.”
She lead Maya, arm around her shoulders, towards the kitchen window which looked out on the backyard. There was a well-worn dirt path disappearing into the trees. The forest closed in, making it impossible to see further than a few feet into it.
“I don’t know if that’s so safe.” Maya heard her father walk up behind them. “She might get lost. Wasn’t she four the last time you came to visit with her?”
Maya’s mother shook her head and smiled as she walked towards the back door.
“You can’t get lost in there.” She said to Maya. “The path is clearly marked and, of course, the forest spirits will protect you.”
Her father laughed.
“As you say.” He kissed his wife before planting a hand on Maya’s shoulder.
“Stay on the path, don’t get too close to the stream and don’t be gone long, okay?”
Maya looked at him suspiciously.
“You want me to go by myself into the woods?” She asked.
Her father shrugged.
“Your mother’s usually right.” He said. “You’ve been cooped up inside a car, hotel room or the funeral home for the last 48 hours. Maybe a little fresh air will do you good.”
Maya looked out at the quiet and calm forest. It was early afternoon and the sun was shining brightly but Maya didn’t quite trust the ocean of green and brown.
“What about bears?” She asked. “Or other wild animals?”
“Like your mother said,” he winked at Maya, “the forest spirits will protect you.”
Maya’s shrug echoed her father’s but followed her mother upstairs to the bedroom she was going to be using. She didn't feel like helping unpack so picking flowers would be a better waste of her time. Besides, unpacking might make the idea of the family moving in all too real.
The room her mother lead her too was bright and airy. The walls were a sea foam green with white lace curtains on the windows. Aretha opened the window to let in the forest breeze.
Maya set her backpack on the bed and looked around. The bedspread was made of blue and green patchwork with blue pillows at the head of the bed. On the shelves were seashells, books, and delicate little souvenirs from a girl’s life
“Was this your room?” Maya asked, feeling her mother’s presence exude from every design choice.
Her mother nodded but didn’t speak. Maya could tell she was fighting tears again.
“It’s beautiful.” Maya said. She walked around, touching a small jewelry box made from smooth river stones.
A ‘merowp’ sounded in the room and Maya jumped as a medium sized white cat came out from under the bed. It’s eyes were two different colors. Like the bedspread, one eye was blue, one was green. It’s nose and inner ears were a delicate shell pink color. It jumped up and started purring audibly upon seeing people.
“Is this Grandma Nama’s cat?” Maya asked, startled by the sudden arrival of the animal. Back in Arizona, they never had a pet. Everyone agreed they just didn’t have enough time to give one attention.
“That’s Su.” Aretha said as she reached out a hand to the cat. It purred louder and arched up to reach the hand. “She’s very friendly.”
Maya moved forward, not trusting the unknown feline. Her only experiences with cats had been her friend Jenna’s gray and white fluffy one. The encounter hadn’t ended well for Maya’s arm. Granted, Maya was trying to put a bonnet on it at the time.
The cat perked at Maya’s movement and let out another ‘merowp’. Maya couldn’t help but smile at the rumbling, soft creature.
“Is she our cat now?” Maya asked. She looked at her mother hopefully.
“Should she choose.” Aretha said with a sad smile. “Though I have a feeling she likes you.”
Aretha hugged Maya tightly and left the room without saying another word.
Su rubbed her head against Maya’s hand one more time before curling up near the pillows.
Maya assumed she was being dismissed and undressed quickly. She didn’t spend much time in woodlands but figured she would choose her most comfortable clothing. Donning jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt with a Japanese wave design, she left her mourning clothes in a piles on the floor before running down the wooden steps. Su followed right behind.
Her mother was smiling again when she saw Maya. She smiled wider at the t-shirt. Maya had word it specifically because she knew it was one of her mother’s favorite.
Aretha held out a small pot and trowel. Maya took them with a questioning look.
“Were you planning on holding the flowers in your hands on the way back?” Her mother asked.
“I…I was just going to pick them and hold them in a bundle.” Maya said. “Isn’t that what you wanted? Flowers for the table?”
“These make more sense.” James said as he brought over a pair of scissors and basket.
Maya saw a light in her mother’s eyes fade when she traded implements with her father. The look lasted only a second before she tilted her head to take Maya in.
“Take both.” She said as she put the pot and trowel into Maya’s basket. “You can choose which is best.”
James shrugged again and Maya echoed it. She went out the back door and headed for the path in the woods. Su decided to continue following Maya, who was happy for the company. Maya tried to remember the last time she had been at her grandmother’s but once again her memories were more of the little kid stories she had made up more than whatever had actually happened.
She looked around at the trees as she walked, hearing vague echoes of names in her mind. Not tree types, like cottonwood, aspen, and spruce, but names.
She told me the trees had names. Maya thought. Everything had a name and, if you would just ask politely, they might tell you.
Maya shook her head. She often wondered if her entire childhood would only be made up stories. She never could tell real stories like her friends did because she could only remember the fantasies she had told herself.
Still, the names continued in her head. She stopped in front of a large Douglas fir tree.
“Entleranmin.” She whispered as she reached out to touch the bark.
The wind picked up and rusted the branches above her head as Su let out another of her special ‘merowps’. Maya pulled her hand away then smiled at her silliness. For a second she believed the tree had heard her.
Su walked ahead of Maya then turned back to see if she was following. Maya decided the cat probably knew the way better than she ever would so tagging along wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Su continued on with purpose for about a mile before turning off a small secondary path. Maya hesitated but saw the path was well marked. She doubted she could get lost with only one way to go.
The trees seemed a little closer to the path than before but it felt familiar and safe to Maya thought she couldn’t explain why. In most stories, forests were dark and dangerous but this forest had none of that feeling.
The path ended at a small glade with a stream running through. As her mother had said, the glade was full of beautiful brightly colored flowers.
Maya took a final step off the path and stopped. The area felt different. The wind rustled through the flowers and sounded like the murmuring of small voices. Su looked back at Maya and made her Su-noise.
“What is this place?” Maya whispered. She felt she should know it but it was only a story in the back of her mind.
The gnome lives here. Maya thought to herself. He takes care of the flowers for Grandma Nama.
“That’s stupid little kid stories.” Maya whispered to herself. “I’m nearly 13. Gnomes aren’t real.”
She walked towards the nearest patch of flowers and knelt down. She pulled the scissors from the basket and reached out.
The rustling of the wind grew louder and Su jumped in front of Maya.
“Su!” Maya pulled the scissors back. “I could have hurt you! Move you silly cat!”
“Merowp!” Su pushed her head into Maya’s hand. She had to put the scissors back into the basket.
Maya reached out to move the cat but a voice from behind made her spin around, falling on her backside.
“Are you Nama’s child?” A little man, shorter even than Maya, stood in the middle of the glade. He was wearing clothing in the shades of brown and green though Maya couldn’t guess what the cloth was. “You don't look like her though it is some years since I last espied the girl-child.”
The man came closer to Maya, making her jump to her feet. Su stepped into the new space, standing proudly between Maya and the man. He gave Su a smile and rubbed behind her ears before looking back at Maya.
“No, you’re not little Arethusa but you favor her fiercely.” The man nodded as he stepped back. “Maybe a little more human than she. The glow in you is weak.”
“M…my grandmother was Nama but my mom’s name is Aretha, and I don’t favor her.” Maya stumbled over the unfamiliar sentence.
“Ah!” The man beamed at Maya. “I see! I do remember you, little Maya! You must forgive me as time flows differently for me. Nama’s lifespan was so short, as she knew it would be when she married the human.”
Murmurings could be heard all around now and Maya knew it wasn’t the wind.
The plants are talking. Maya thought. They remember me. I almost cut the flowers but that would have been wrong. I would have hurt them.
Maya shook her head to clear it. The thoughts were coming fast but they made no sense. Everything was too odd, to fairytale. This small man was just one more piece in the strangeness.
“You do not remember me, I suppose, as you were such a youngling when you last came. I am Erdon!” He bowed low, then swept his arms to encompass the garden. “I have tended this patch of earth for your grandmother for as long as memory serves. She always loved flowers so I obliged by growing them in her favorite part of the forest. Even after she married the human and became mortal, I continued to tend it. Of course, she eventually came back.”
Maya shook her head again. Nothing was making sense. She half wondered if she was having a break down of some sort. She sat on the nearest stone and put her head between her hands. The murmurings took on a worried tone. Even Su merowp’ed softly and put a small white paw on Maya’s knee.
“I know this place.” Maya said uncertainly. “But it can’t be real. I made it up in a story.”
Erdon shuffled forward. Maya could see the dark leather of his boots.
He used to make funny faces at you. Maya thought. And he taught you all the names of the trees and flowers. Their real names.
“Are you feeling ill, child?” Erdon asked.
Maya shook her head, it was the only thing she could do.
Grandma Nama was an undine. She knew now it wasn’t a story, but a memory. Thoughts of her grandmother came back more strongly. She lived in the river here until she met Grandpa. She married him and gained a soul but she could never completely go back.
Maya looked up at Erdon and laughed. He smiled, though seemed unsure of her. Su tilted her head like Maya’s mother did.
“This is Grandma Nama’s special place.” Maya said softly. “I remember coming here. I remember you.”
Erdon’s smile was genuine this time.
“And I remember you, little Maya!” Erdon gestured out again. “The forest remembers you! Nama always said you would return one day, though she was not sure if you had enough of her spirit to remember. You do favor your mother fiercely though so I knew you would.”
Maya laughed again at the strange little man, the gnome.
“I do not favor my mother.” Maya said. “I look exactly like my dad.”
It was now Erdon’s turn to shake his head.
“Inside, little one.” He said seriously. “What’s outside is so very temporary though it is a hard lesson for humans to understand sometime. Your glow is weak from being away from the water so long but I see it shine in you.”
Su let out another cry, clearly happy this time and rushed towards the opening in the woods.
Maya looked up to see her mother coming through, holding the silver and blue urn. She looked at Erdon then Maya with concern on her face.
“I remember, momma!” Maya rushed and hugged her mother, suddenly overwhelmed at the memories and the force of them. She cried at the loss of the grandmother she finally remember, the beautiful woman who died only because she had loved a mortal man. Her grandmother never regretted her choice, even when her beloved husband died young, leaving her with her young child.
Maya knew her mother’s name was as Erdon had said. Arethusa, named for a river nymph and a beautiful orchid. Maya, named for the water she rarely ever saw. Her mother, like her grandmother, had left behind the worlds they loved and knew for the love of a mortal man. Maya may not have had the full force of that blood, but she felt it call to her in this sacred place.
Hand in hand, Maya and her mother walked towards the stream. Maya remembered how deep and cold it would be. Together they would send her grandmother’s ashes back to the home they always longed for. Maya knew they would be staying in this place. She wanted to be here. She belonged here and always had.
For the first time in what felt like forever in her short years of life, Maya finally felt like she was home.
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!