I always start with the right, I am thinking as I enter the lake. It’s my stronger leg. It’s the way we are taught to sprint: propulsion from the muscle relied on most.  Careful and light today.
Here for endurance. Careful. Breathe. I watch my breath leave my mouth, chattering.  I put my arms out. It’s not just the cracking but the slipping I am worried about. It’s not just the falling but the cold. I suck in a breath
“Careful, princess!”
I can hear them laughing. The temperature hits me like a wall I am braced against. It has dropped ten degrees since we left this morning and three degrees since entering the dip of the lake. I can’t move but I have to and I don’t know how far they will actually make me walk. It’s sixteen miles across. Are they waiting for the first crack or do they really expect this? Are they waiting for me to turn around? Are they waiting for the truce?
“Truce,” I hold out my hand.
I know there will be no truce. I don’t even know why I say it except for my natural urge to acquiesce to anyone similar, but darker, to me. Call it harmony. Call it diplomacy but it’s not the same as fear. You do not engage with fire and fear it. You are grossly underestimating it while trying to manipulate it.
Camille grabbed it though.
“Truce,” she said.
Right before New Orleans.
Liliana grabbed the stick in my hand demurely, sticking her tongue out, sort of biting it, then proceeded to break it in half. Head lolled back in a wild guffawing, you’d think she had broken a finger. Or wanted to. Like a banshee, my mother would say about her. I don’t like you hanging around with her. My sister and I eating our oats asking about the weather. What boots should I wear, mother. Whichever one kicks her hardest.
She has put the leaf out and she is whispering about our agreement. I am trying to get close enough to pinch her so she will stop talking about it in front of Kamelia but also keeping distance. Nothing contagious about sinister girls except how quickly their friends become them. That’s another thing my mother said. That girl is malevolent, Katarina. Why you bother with her?
As she bathed me, she discovered new bruises.
“Just climbing a lot,” I swatted her hand away. “The way girls do.”
Each scratch, each red mark, noted.
“Why doesn’t Kamelia have marks?”
“We don’t let her climb the trees.”
Though mothers sense things, the daughters bore from them cover them the same way they feel it. Call it kinship the psychic bond that develops between families. One truth detected, one lie to lob back. One bad feeling, one unctuous grin. One bath, five stories. My mother; my poor fucking mother.  How devastating the day of the hike must have been for her; disappearing without note and then waiting up like that for hours before sending the men out and how far did they go? I bet she went to Liliana’s house first, spit raging and finger wagging. The girl’s mother unaware and drunk, five kids and no help and no care and probably closing the door in her face. How long did they walk to track our boot marks in the snow? And how long before it started to snow again covering everything? Has she ever listened to us? Listened to where we go? My lies so big and gravid birthing more deception. We weren’t allowed to traverse the woods like that but did it anyhow and what killed me in the final moment was the crack heard at a distance so potently and the thought of my mother lighting candles on the altar cursing Liliana and then the cracking beneath me, my tongue finally acrid enough to break. Break into cursing Liliana.
“Let’s go for a hike,” she said.
“It’s freeeeezing. And it’s gonna snow.”
“No way.”
“Yes, look at the sky,” I point up.
We are just outside my cottage, hooded, our wolf fur boots and mink velvet mittens. We would be chattering soon; frozen stiff with air between us and no words. But then. In the eye of it, the hope of it, the same as we always were; me tepid and her, pushing.
“Come on!” she hit my shoulder.
I looked back at the house. I remember that. I looked back at the white paint and oak awning. We had a stunning and century old oak tree in the back that Kamelia and I used to sit in and under. We spent entire summers there. Me, looking for bugs to pet. Her, fanciful, telling stories to herself. Our property was mostly beechwood save a couple oaks: the one we kept and the one we cut down. Mostly grove of beechwood and birch behind us. Some oaks. The elusive firs.
“Fine,” I began walking briskly to stay warm and without turning around, sensing her looking back too, “and we aren’t taking Kamelia.”
Loga wasn’t that far but it wasn’t easy. Lucky for us, we spent all of our free time walking, circling, running and chasing. I was always looking up eagerly, avid for interaction from some other creature, waiting for falcons. Listening for their cries. Waiting for them to swoop.
“They hunt in pairs you  know? Packs. Not many birds do.’
Liliana was always looking down, looking for rocks to throw, things to break, or insects. I looked for insects too. Not the same way.
“Look,” she held it’s decapitated body towards me.
“Fuck, eww, Lily.”
“I didn’t do it!”
But she threw the bunny’s body towards me.
“Fuck, Lily, GROTESQUE.”
I stepped around it, scowling, holding my stomach.
“I didn’t do it,” she repeated, not looking at me, continuing to look at the ground. “Some animal left it.”
Dancing around it that day I had this thought and it returned to me before the lake, when she told me she had a surprise for me and reached into her pocket: no animal would take the head. In fact, they’d take the body and leave the head if need be. It was a fast thought but it lingered. The day of the bunny was before the snow. Before the languid miles. The day of the encumbering barbed wire to greet us.
The first mile was easy, normal, no snow, she was right. My mind wandered. Spent some of it looking up but there were no birds. Looked down for fox prints. Twiddled with some stones in my pocket on and off; a habit, for luck or memory. My brain was eidetic. Every time I touched the stone I was taken to the oak tree; the day of the bear. My sister and I had been at the bottom of the tree and we had been playing “imaginary” again; a game she made up where we choose new names, new identities and we act out the characters. She always wanted something royal, fantastic and I was much more pragmatic longing to explore the grass and pick out ladybugs. Learn to identify things. Watch beetles walk. Follow them. For her enjoyment, often I played her knight or maid and I would always have to stop something right before it happened–a witch, a wizard, a war. A portending event was lurking everywhere we stepped. That day I remember vividly and more so as I turn each stone in my pocket.
“I will be Zoe; the most magnificent queen of the land and you will be….’” she was holding a long stick with two little twigs coming out of the top that she thought looked like antlers and called it her magic doe wand. “You will be my dog.”
“Of course.”
She placed a woven dandelion chain around my neck and called it a collar, made me “eat” bark that I pulled with my fingernails, made me howl a lot as we skipped around the tree. Laughing, her hair every way, long, dark, thick and crimpy, she was only eight then and impressionable. Weak kneed. Innocent but gregarious, curious. A tad puny. Not my rival; a deep well of love existed between us and it was just the three of us in that house. She needed me to be her knight and I was. And her dog, and she had me on the ground searching for bones as she skipped all around the tree and I began rubbing my hands all over the dirt letting the smoothest pebble come to me. Tactile and interested in make believe only in the tangible; that is, how many times can I recall something by touching and is that real? Is this special? If I think hard about a black bird and one appears, did I call it? If I hold this pebble twice, will everything come back to me. As I felt the cream-colored one, letting pulses glide up and down my spine, imprinting the smell of air I can’t even palpably explain out of the corner of my eye, I saw him.
First, I gripped a second pebble: dark brown and ruddy.  Then, I remember what my mother said, “Be careful of wolves.”
I remember Kamelia gasping on the wooden floor, knees up and watching her knit.
“We rarely see wolves, Kamelia,” I was stirring stew from the kitchen. I remember this now, and then, and now again.
“Foxes won’t bite you,” my mother kept going, hands continuing with the needle, not looking at us but not not looking at us either. The way mothers can.
“And even though it’s rare, your father once saw a bear–three actually, a mother and her cubs. The most dangerous of all.”
I remember Kamelia, singing softly just behind me, brazenly imperturbed. Not loud enough to warn someone, but loud enough to cover the snap of twigs.
“Kamelia,” I  whispered and without pause, quickly added. “Statue.”
Deferential to her bone, she trusted every thing anyone ever said. The child stopped right there and turned into marble.  I stood up slowly backing into the tree and pressed my left hand on it to get a sense of distance. Right hand still clutched the two stones. Because I heard no scream, I knew she was facing the other way towards the other grove. I knew she would wait until I said “dancer” to move again.  The big brown beast stared and was standing on its hind legs but no made other moves as I continued backing up. Relying on a hawks’ eye view,  sideways, to find her. She was impeccably still and ethereal in her stance; right foot pointed out, and left arm raised with a green leaf in her hand, a couple dandelions, the yellow poking out. Buoyantly, even in a state of terror,  I floated around to face her. It felt preternatural like walking through sky. Everything slowed to almost a halt and I slowly took her hands, pebbles pressed against her greenery and whispered.
“Follow me. Don’t turn around. We are playing leader.”
She nodded and we didn’t have far to go. Twenty steps and we are inside and the bear did nothing but watch, alarmed, I realized, she hadn’t been singing before. He hadn’t heard us. Both of us had retreated into some microcosm world of investigation using the environment as a jump off.  She was doing the thing I watch her do when she thinks no one is looking; responding to some internal stimuli, moving her mouth without sound and smiling like she is talking to someone. Like she is responding to someone. I did not take my eyes off the bear. Even rounding the corner, I watched the bear through the side window. He did not move. I turned the knob. He did not move. And when we were inside with the door softly shut, the bear got back on all fours and turned to walk away into the forest.
My sister will not speak again until I tell her. I stand at the window watching back to her. She stays at the door looking at her feet. Infantilization harms and possibly stints children
“and so does fucking everything, “ I sneer, sweaty palm on railing and I am leaning over the side, not guessing the height of the road I walked a thousand times but guessing  the timing. I put my left foot up for height.

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