She danced with me, she did.” Anna narrowed her hazel green eyes, and nodded at the squirrel beside her on the branch. “Danced for hours—aye, even into the night.”
But the squirrel, busy chewing on a fir cone, just ignored her. And kept munching. All the while, its tail licked the air like a furry tongue.
Anna laid her hand on the trunk of the tree, the great fir she called Old Master Burl. Then she gave the branch a bounce. It creaked as it rocked both herself and the squirrel. She closed her eyes. And for a thin sliver of a moment, she wasn’t in that tree at all, but in her mother’s arms, swaying to a dance she could barely remember.
From a time she could barely remember.
With the mother she could barely remember.
“And she sang to me, too,” said Anna dreamily. “A song all soft and slow and whispery. A song that blew like the wind … aye, and beat like a heart.”
She bounced the branch again—this time so hard, the squirrel dropped its cone. With a burst of angry chatter, it scampered up the trunk. Bits of bark rained down on Anna.
“Flying fish eggs,” she muttered. She pulled a sticky wad of sap out of her hair. “Look what that little beast did to me, Burl!”
She gazed up at the tree and filled her nose with the familiar smell of fir, both tart and sweet. She didn’t need any answer. Not from Old Master Burl. She just knew he heard every word she said—sometimes before she said it.
A few hairs came off with the sap. Anna turned them slowly in her hand. The day’s last light caught them, and they gleamed as golden brown as summer squash. What color, she wondered, was her mother’s hair? And was it long, so long it swayed whenever she danced?
Suddenly she heard a sound. Aye, a pitiful sound, halfway between a squeak and a whimper. Cheeeyup. Cheeeyup.
Anna spun around, searching for whatever had made it. There—it came again, from the roof of the cottage that stood beside Old Burl.
She slid down the branch and leaped onto the roof. Her knees, covered with leggings she’d woven from strips of sea kelp, crunched into the thatch. But just as she landed, the branch sprang back and swatted her right on the bottom.
“Now, Burl,” she scolded. “Remember your manners!”
A wind rustled the fir’s needles, and the whole tree seemed to shiver with laughter. Anna herself couldn’t keep from grinning. How could she stay angry? She liked Old Burl’s pranks as much as he did.
Using both hands, she grabbed hold of the brittle thatch and climbed up the side of the roof, all the way to the ridgepole. She stood there, on the very top, feeling tall. Tree tall. Like Burl’s own little sister! Her grin widened.
On one side of the cottage, she could see the wide ocean, striped with rolling waves. On the other side, she could see the dark forest, whose branches moved with waves of their own. Endless water on her left, endless woods on her right. And in between, the narrow strip of rock and sand and sea kelp that was her world, her home.
And the home of Master Mellwyn, who had built this cottage for them both.
Anna’s grin faded like a footprint in the sand. The master had changed—sure as sea foam. She didn’t have to be nine years old to see that. And their life together had changed, too. Something was missing now. Something she needed.
But what? He hadn’t hurt her. Or grumbled any more than usual. And he always shared his fish, even if the catch wasn’t hardly worth cooking. And no matter how far he ranged on the ocean during the day, he always came back to the cottage at night—except for the one night of the year he sailed to the Farthest Reef.
What was it, then?
Anna gazed out across the lagoon and the open sea, feeling the briny breeze on her cheeks. A pair of dolphins leaped out of the shadows: two gray bodies as sleek as sand dunes. A mother and her child, swimming together.
She swallowed. What she wanted was something more than fish to eat or straw to sleep on. Something the master just couldn’t give her. Something even more precious than the friend she often wished for, who would always be ready to climb a tree.
No, what she wanted most of all was … a mother. And not just to dance with her, and sing whispery songs. A mother, a real mother, could help her know who she really was. Where she came from.
Where she belonged.
That sound! What in the name of crab claws was it? She stood still on the thatched roof, straining to hear it again. But she heard nothing besides the roll and slap of the sea.
For a while she watched the waves, painted as bright as shells by the setting sun. Then her head turned, as it so often did, toward the forest.
It brought bad luck to look that way, into the very eyes of the forest ghouls. She knew that. And if she somehow forgot, Master Mellwyn never stopped reminding her. But how could it hurt, just this once?
Her back straightened. And she looked, for just an instant, at the forest’s dark and shrieking groves. The very places where ghouls lurked. Where they licked their fangs and carved up their prey with bloody claws.
Then she spied the great ridge that rose beyond the farthest edge of the forest. From its folds, as rumpled as a blanket, curls of mist spiraled into the sky. And on top of that ridge grew a single tree—so tall, she could see its shape even from here.
The High Willow. The master had warned her never to watch it, whether in mist or in moonlight. Or above all in full daylight, sharp against the sky, as she saw it now.
She watched the High Willow, so tall atop the ridge. And a strange new feeling swelled in her chest. A feeling she couldn’t quite name.
Something about this tree spoke to her—aye, called to her. If only she could fly across the forest and go to its side! Touch its bark, its branches. Hear the rustle of its leaves. Mayhaps even climb—
That sound again!
Anna shook herself, as if waking from a dream. The cry came again—weaker than before. Whatever made it was hurt, she could tell. Badly hurt. With an effort, she turned away from the tree and toward the sound.
Across the roof, next to the chimney, she spied a small, tattered nest. And inside it, something smaller, barely as big as a clamshell. Something wriggling, and alive.
A baby bird!
“I’m coming,” she called, using her best mother bird voice. Then she spread her arms wide, like wings, and balanced herself on the ridgepole. With a flap, she set off, dancing down the rooftop.
“I’m coming, my little one. Flying as fast as I can!”
She gave her arms an extra strong flap. But her balance shifted, and she started to slip sideways. Just then, a sharp breeze stirred Old Burl. One of the tree’s branches smacked against her side—and knocked her upright again.
It all happened so fast that Anna didn’t seem to notice. Or to realize how close she’d come to falling. She just kept on flapping toward the nest.
When she reached the little bowl of straw, thistledown, and sea grass, she found the scrawniest sparrow she’d ever seen. The bird’s gray feathers, stuck with bits of broken shell, splayed every which way. One of his wings looked deformed, bent almost in half. And his slim yellow eye watched her crossly.
“Oh,” cooed Anna, “what a right handsome fellow you are.”
The little creature just snapped his beak at her.
She gathered up the bird and put him in the pocket of her apron. “Come now, let’s go down together. The master will be getting back soon, and he’s sure to be hungry.” She cocked her head. “Just like you, aye?”
She tried to stroke the sparrow’s wing, but got a fierce nip in return. “All right then, little one. I know just what you need. A spot of food, a bit of warmth, and…”
She paused, smiling to herself. “And a mother.”