Five Ways to be an Orphan
Sneak out of the house while your mom is doing errands. Your goldfish and trail mix are now known as ‘rations,’ and you must guard them carefully; they are all you’ll have for many months. You will have to ford frozen rivers, hide in abandoned barns and hollow trees, because the mistress of the orphanage is a wicked woman and when she realizes you’re gone she’ll send the dogs after you. Leap from swing to slide to playhouse to stump to the big rock at the edge of the playground. Never touch the ground. If you touch the ground, the dogs will get you.
Meet up with fellow refugees at the fork in the path by the pond. Make sure to tell them your name is Alanna before anyone else gets that name. Ever since you told them about it, everyone has wanted to be named Alanna. The others have been traveling for a long time, and they have cattail fluff and Virginia creeper leaves in their hair to prove it. Share your rations. Leave no one behind.
Creep through the woods, through the spreading carpet of spider moss. Slide your feet the silent way you read about in that book on the Cherokee. Above, the sky darkens and the tree tops lash in the wind. A storm is coming. You must get to shelter. When you find a clearing ringed with cedar trees, your heart quiets with relief. This is an old place, a silent place. You will be safe here, if only for a little while.
Venture out to the stream with Maria. Cup water in your palms and suck it down, drink as though you will never drink again, splash Maria and shriek with laughter. Pretend not to notice the woman walking her poodle on the forest path. Don’t look up until the woman says, “You know, right here’s downstream from the cow farm.” Stare at her blankly. Feel the icy water sluice through your throat and trickle down your chin. “You shouldn’t be drinking out of there,” she says.
Back away from the stream without looking at the woman. She is probably a spy from the orphanage. Bite your lip. Breathe through your nose. Back in the cedar grove, do not tell the others what happened. Do not look at Maria. Let the silence grow heavy for a moment and then suggest that you all hunt for jewelweed.
Do not cry until much later, when your father has finished reading Ivanhoe and turned off the light. Lie in bed with every muscle in your body pulled taut and imagine tiny worms writhing in your stomach, writhing and breeding and devouring your body. Do not accept yet that it will always be the stupidest, smallest things that make you fall apart. Years later, remember this and contemplate all the different ways there are of believing in what cannot be seen.
Get brown twine and make a loop that goes around your head and between your teeth, so that everyone will know you are a horse without even asking. Explain to the other girls on the playground that a hurricane has just swept over the beach, carrying all the old mares, your mothers and sisters, screaming and flailing out to sea. You are all that is left.
Go around the circle and have everyone describe themselves. You are white with black splotches over your flanks. Your nose is soft and pink as the inside of a shell, and twitches incessantly. You can detect the camp of human poachers stoking a fire on the other side of the island. You can smell the purple clover honey dripping through a beehive, and the approaching rain.
If you want, you can try to convince Maria that she is not allowed to be a uni-sus. It is fruitless to attempt to persuade her to be a regular horse; concede that point immediately. But, come on, Maria. Unicorn, or pegasus. Not both. That’s impossible. There is no such thing as a uni-sus.
“Okay, but, if I have wings, I can fly up and look for enemies,” she will argue. “It’s just safer. Duh. Also, we’ll be able to use the magical healing powers in my horn.”
This all sounds very reasonable, but something still doesn’t feel right. Who needs magic when you are built out of rolling muscle, when your hide shines in the sunrise? Maria can fly if she wants. You want to run.
Take off down the street, the hard-packed sand, past the towering dunes shaped like houses. When you run, remember the time that Evan lent you his bike. It was too tall for you, and you knew that if you tried to dismount you would fall, so you just rode. Rode and rode, in wild circles around the neighborhood, your legs working furiously, your fingers knotted white around the handlebars. Evan ran behind you until he got tired, and then he just stood in the driveway, watching you fly past. At one point he narrowed his eyes at you and yelled out, “Hey! Are you crying?” But you swept by too quickly to answer. The world was blurring, the wind in your face growing sharper, and all you really knew was that you couldn’t ever stop, or everything would fall apart.
Eventually you just gave up, took your feet off the pedals and careened into the curb. Evan came running up but you didn’t want to look at him. Your forearms were red and raw and coated with grit. “What happened?” he asked. He didn’t understand. His hands moved nervously back and forth, never getting close enough to touch you.
Bite your lip as you remember this and force your breath to calm. Dodge the black branches and debris that the storm has flung in your path. As a horse, you have such speed, such relentless motion, but everything is joy.
You walk home from school alone, down the narrow road that winds through the forest. In homeroom today an announcement came over the loudspeaker: a red-haired man in a trench coat had approached some girls at the other middle school. If you see him, you are to scream and run away. You are not to be afraid to tell an adult.
An army of revolutionaries stalks the woods on either side of you. They watch your every move. At the thought of the red-haired man, they lick their swords and laugh. They all know the stories about you, how your mother was a duchess, cast out of her family and condemned to waste away in the mountains. When you were old enough you returned to claim your place in the royal court, but they laughed and slammed the gate, and so instead you found your way into the fierce camaraderie of the agitators, the malcontents. They are plotting a coup. Their loyalty is untempered by realism and they guard you like a crown jewel.
Sander winks at you through the trees. He is the same age as you, raised in the creak and slosh of the wharves, and he can joke in three languages and curse in five and climb like a monkey up masts and through sails. He picks pockets like a ghost, and he can sit quietly at your side when memories of your past overwhelm you and you need a warm body to lean against.
Covey is somewhere in the trees as well, though there’s no point in searching for her. She is a dark swift wing of a person, a midnight feather brushed once over your eyes. She slides silently through the leaves, searching for red-haired imposters who have infiltrated the rebel ranks. They will not hear her coming.
Somewhere in the vanguard walks Mosh, who will be king. His face is brutal as the studded club he carries but his eyes are soft, the color of a cloudless sky. His were the eyes that drove your mother to dishonor. Sometimes he looks at you and you know he is seeing her. On late nights when he cannot sleep, when his mind is battered with the thousands who will die for him, you sit with him in the tavern kitchen, a single sputtering candle between you. When he asks if he will be a good king, you admit that you do not know. Never ask if he is your father.
The young men sing songs of blood. The day of the attack hangs above you like a knife. For it is said, and it is true, that in battle Mosh will fall, and you will bring him back. That is why the rebels treat you with such reverence. He will lie in the city square amid a hundred other bodies, his blue eyes rolled up in his head, and you will run to him and touch your forehead to his and lead him back to the living, so that he may lead his people. You will never ask for any reward for this. No statues will be built. When the poets sing songs of you, blush and turn away.
Do not admit your disappointment to anyone when, the next day, they catch the red-haired flasher in the ball pit of a local McDonald’s. There are plenty of other dangers lurking on the way home. You will always need to be kept safe.
Find the biggest, gnarliest old tree that fell during the hurricane and declare it your fort. With the help of an army with torn t-shirts and sand in their hair, lean pine branches against the tree trunk to create walls. Pile armfuls of leaves against the branches until all but broken daubs of light are shut out. Roll stumps inside for chairs, heap more leaves for beds, send Maria back to the houses to get an old sheet to hang as a door. Help Evan heave the huge round stone out of the stream, over the bank, up through the leaves. “This can be the table,” he says. Your hands slip against the wet rock, your muscles strain, your fingers brush against his.
Inside the lean-to, everyone sits on the stumps around the stone table. Evan assigns jobs: gathering acorns, cutting grapevine, sneaking back to steal a knife from a kitchen drawer. You offer to collect honeysuckle nectar in a paper cup. Pinch each flower between your thumb and forefinger, twist off the sepals and draw the pistil out slowly, until a bead of nectar swells at the flower’s base. Touch it to the lip of the cup and watch it roll down, down, down. You could sit here until the world ends.
Eventually the sun sinks and clumps of leaves fall through the roof of the house. One by one your fellow utopians fall away, called back into the mundane world by promises of dinner, homework, capitalist lies. When Evan reappears do not look up. When he kneels to weave switch grass into the walls, stare at the table, notice caddis fly larva still clinging to the rock, twisting as the water dries away. He stands next to you.
“Were you really getting honeysuckle the whole time?”
Admit that no, you gave up, you went wading. You tried to shimmy up the great scabby trunk of the fallen tree. Stare down at the puddle of sun-colored nectar in the bottom of the cup. Some day, you and he will sit on a couch, and he will whisper advice for college into your hair, that gin has a higher alcohol content than vodka, that whiskey is a waste, that you should always read the labels to get your money’s worth.
Tonight there is so little nectar in the cup that it does not move when you tilt the cup sideways. “You gonna drink it?” he asks. Everyone else has left now; for the first time it is only the two of you in the darkening forest. Stick your tongue down into the cup even though you know you won’t be able to reach. Shrug and set it down.
“Maybe I’ll get more tomorrow.”
Walk out of the woods together. Rack your brain for things to say. Whatever you do, do not admit to yourself that there will be no tomorrow. Today was a rare convergence of marvels; tomorrow the cup will have blown away and the fort will have caved in and Evan will have succumbed to the lure of MarioKart and Nickelodeon. Focus on this day, this moment, when you are the king and queen of a new sort of society, and the whole world is the color of sunset through beech leaves.
For months you begged for a Razor scooter, yet getting it still feels miraculous. Your father brought it home one day, with no idea of its true powers. He never suspected it was really a rocket-powered hover craft that could tear across alien landscapes and leave sonic booms in its wake. He didn’t understand the depths of your yearning, but he bought it anyway, and it reminded you of why you love him. You love him so much you sometimes feel a physical pain in your chest, a terror that all the macaroni mosaics and acrostic poems in the world cannot ever convey the depths of your love.
Stop. There’s no point in thinking about your parents. Your parents have receded forty-thousand light years into the past, though to you, who sat gasping in the cabin of the ship as it defied its way through the space-time continuum, it feels like only weeks. Your planet has been consumed by floods and lashing winds. Everything you knew is gone.
Speed across a barren plain of lavender sand, and pull up along the edge of a cliff. You can see for miles from here. A blue forest spreads out below you, miles of papery silver trunks and lacy brooms of azure needles. The trees hum and shiver. If you listen very patiently, you will learn the language they speak, using the wind as their breath and their branches as tongues. They will sing you the history of this planet. They will reveal why the sky on the horizon glitters pale gold. They will teach you the thousand-year paths taken by the migrating clouds.
Look up. The clouds are passing now. Vast as cities, feathers rippling, they swim through the gold sky with long, languid strokes of their ever-shifting arms.
Put your scooter back in gear. Loop around the plain and then head straight for the edge of the cliff. You gather speed. You’ve never made a jump this big before, but what the heck, the world has fallen away from you anyway; you must fill up the planet by yourself. In a flash, an image comes to your mind of sitting on the couch under your father’s arm watching Luke Skywalker’s severed hand fall, fall, fall. Remember how he screamed, how his face twisted. Understand that the great tragedy of your life is that you will never feel this deeply. Rail against this. Accelerate. Nothing can stop you, not the weak gravity of an alien planet, not that woman with hedge clippers yelling Don’t ride off the steps! Shoot out over the cliff, fix your eyes on the gold horizon, feel your heart expand into the void. The ocean of trees beneath you stretches up their arms, straining to embrace you, their music swelling with anticipation.