Fiction by Sofie Anderson
It was well past midnight when I woke to the owl-like eyes of the girl with bugs in her hair. She was hunched over me, limbs pressing down on my hips and shoulders. She wasn’t breathing hard, but I could feel her earthy stench blow over my nose and into my eyes. I opened my mouth to scream, but the girl slapped her hand over my lips. It tasted like dirt.
She lowered her face to mine, squinting, examining every detail of my face. It was then I noticed how similar we looked. We shared the same bushy hair and slender form and deep eyes. However, where my gaze was a mystery, hers was an open book. Where my arms were meatless, hers pumped with a hint of muscle. Where my hair was damp from a wash, hers was riddled with bugs.
After thrashing about and attempting to throw her off me – for I desperately didn’t want one of the ladybugs crawling around the rings of her curls to drop onto my own – I threw my head forward until it slammed into hers. The girl whined and immediately sat up, furiously rubbing the center of her forehead. I mirrored her. Then, I shoved myself away. I cradled myself in the mountain of pillows at the head of my bed. The girl blinked up at me and stopped her rubbing, reaching her hands out to poke at my cheeks. I swatted her hands away and made to scream again.
I stopped when I noticed her smile. Her lips were tugged back in what appeared to be restraint. She looked as though she wanted to laugh but was stopping herself. Her fingers poked at her own dimples. She was young. She must have been younger than me. Her face hadn’t been scarred by acne and her teeth were too crooked to have been bent by braces. She hadn’t been filled like I had been. There was still blank canvas space on her. I tilted my head, a newfound curiosity replacing whatever fear I had of her, and she did the same back at me. She closed her lips, but the smile was still present. She slid off my bed and backed up to the open window where I assumed she crawled in.
The girl with bugs in her hair waved me forward. She stepped across the windowsill and peeked back at me. She waved again. When I didn’t make a move to get up, she waited, owl eyes peering over at me from across the room. I figured I should follow since she wasn’t leaving and I didn’t want to be watched while I slept. Besides, there was something so familiar about her. There was something about her I longed for. So I pressed one foot into my rug, then slid the other from my pillows and hesitantly stepped to the window. By the time I was able to reach out and touch the girl with bugs in her hair, she leapt from the windowsill and onto the tree across from my room. I gasped, thinking she would fall, but she landed perfectly on one of the sturdier branches. She turned around and extended an arm for me.
Over my high school years, I’d learned to become a very logical person. I learned to follow strict rules and yank my head out of the clouds. I learned to do things on time and impress those above me. Nothing I had learned over the past few years prompted me to shimmy out of my bedroom window and take the hand of a girl from the wilderness. A girl who made her home in the woods behind my house. That’s where she took me.
We ran through the woods at such a fast pace that I could feel the air part for me. I hadn’t been to the woods in years, so I didn’t recognize where we were going. There was nothing special there, anyways. It was all dirt and trees. We stopped eventually, in a spot surrounded by just that.
I’d always hated the feeling of dirt under my fingernails. Dirt pressed up against my skin made me want to pick. My skin must be clean. But the girl with bugs in her hair gave me a look, her eyes wide and free, brimming with an excitement I can’t remember experiencing. She smiled and dipped her hands into the soft, wet dirt. Her fingertips dug down into the earth and curled, pulling up a handful. She squealed. The dirt that didn’t fit in her hold ran down her arms and dripped back to the ground. She let it fall, then repeated herself. She dug her hands into the dirt and pulled it back up.
I felt awkward just standing in front of her, my pristine sleep shirt a scream in the woods. I knelt down next to her, instantly welcomed by the damp earth staining my knees. She turned to me as she pulled up more dirt, a small hole now sitting in front of her. I dipped my hands into it and smoothed the dirt out at the sides. Then, I went back in, scooping out a handful. It caked my fingertips and seeped under my nails. I grimaced, for a moment, but realized it had already been done.
There was a pressure under my nails now. I dumped the dirt aside and pressed my fingertips together and there was movement. I could feel the dirt sinking into my skin. The girl with bugs in her hair giggled. She continued to dig. I followed her.
I wasn’t sure if there was a purpose to this. We weren’t finding anything interesting except for a few rocks and maybe a worm, but the girl seemed content to keep digging. So I made up a purpose for myself. When I was young, I used to see if I could dig far enough to reach water. I always thought I’d finally made it after each try. I could imagine a sudden rush of frigid water covering my hands, washing them clean, like I’d found a hidden supply somewhere deep and unspoken of. It never happened, of course. Funny, though, that as I kept digging, giggling alongside the girl with bugs in her hair, watching as a stink bug landed in her curls, my fingers began to feel wet. I hesitated, stopped my digging, and looked down. The girl with bugs in her hair laughed. Water. It began to stream into the hole we’d dug, swirling around our fingertips and toppling up the sides of the dirt walls. I gasped and tugged my hands from the water. The girl clapped next to me, little splashes of water and dirt hitting me in the face, right under my eye. My shock-twisted lips curled upwards into a smile as the water poured out of the hole we’d dug together and began to spread across the dirt and around our legs. I shot up to my feet and stomped in it, returning to the girl what she’d given to me.
I had to leave her that night and she watched as I waved goodbye and braved the climb back through my bedroom window. Dawn welcomed me back to sleep and I woke with adrenaline. I didn’t bother to shower the dirt away.
The next night, the girl with bugs in her hair was perched on the end of my bed. I was about to lay down, not to wait for sleep, but to wait for her. I knew she would be coming back. I didn’t stall us this time and we clambered out the window and raced back into the woods. She took me to see a singular old dogwood tree, something beautiful and ancient and undeniably sacred. I remembered this tree. I would come out here with my younger brother and pretend it was our secret garden. The limbs held me as if molded to my body. I didn’t wait for the girl with bugs in her hair before I began to climb. She followed me.
When I settled into the notch between two of the limbs, I found that I still fit perfectly. I could still lean back against the tree’s arm without a fear of falling. Beside me, the girl swung her legs over another branch. We locked eyes and laughed. Then, she fell backwards.
I screamed for her, afraid she would split her head open on the hard earth, and lunged forward, scraping my arms against tree bark. The sap clung to me like I clung to the girl’s leg. I almost tried to pull her up, but she hadn’t actually fallen. She was only hanging upside down. I breathed a sigh of relief and let myself fall against a branch, willing my heart to slow. The girl looked up at me and giggled. She waved her hand like she always did and I didn’t resist her call. I hung upside down next to her.
All of my blood shot to my brain. It was a heat that warmed me in the night. I looked over at the girl and giggled at how our hair bounced up and down with the momentum of our swinging. The bark dug into my legs, leaving scratches under my knees, but it felt wonderful. I welcomed the sap as it seeped into my skin.
We didn’t talk, the two of us. We never exchanged a word. It wasn’t that we were silent, but there was no good way to communicate through words. I didn’t think I’d understand her and she definitely wouldn’t understand me. But I didn’t mind. She was the best company I’d had in a long time.
The night after that, we pretended we could fly. We climbed up the highest tree in the woods and let the night air brush against our cheeks. The girl with bugs in her hair took my arms and held them out, transforming them into wings. She wrapped her arms around my middle and tucked her head into my shoulder and gave an excited shout as another gust of wind swayed us both. I felt like I could breathe fire, like my skin was unbreakable, like my hair was a mane.
Next, I was taught how to hold a spider. I bounced on my heels and squealed like a pig when the girl dropped a wolf spider in my hands. I shut my eyes and grit my teeth and waited for the horrible bite to puff my hands up into balloons. It would be seconds until I was floating up into the night. Instead, I felt the tickle of hairy feet tapping up my arms. I pried one eye open and, even though I was still dancing around panic, let it explore. The girl smiled at me and clapped her hands together, her chipped fingernails pressing into her palms, her applause more rewarding than any I’d received. The spider made its way past my collarbone and up my neck until it finally came to rest on top of my head. Its tiny feet hooked into my hair and it nestled down, content to stay where it was. I brought the spider home with me that night.
This was how we continued each night, sneaking away into the woods after midnight to pretend we were something impossible. We swam in a river of rocks untouched by weeds. We made meals out of onion grass even though we despised the taste. We made houses out of trees that remembered our touch.
Then, the girl with bugs in her hair stopped visiting. The first few nights she failed to show up, I made my way to the woods to find her myself. Some nights it took me so long all we got to do was lay in the dirt. Other nights I couldn’t find her at all. I would climb our dogwood tree alone. It was after three consecutive nights of not seeing her that I fled my bedroom one last time.
My legs had grown stronger in the time I’d been running with her, but they still burned. I wasn’t running fast enough. I sprinted through the woods, my feet digging into the earth and leaving etchings in the dirt. The tree branches slapped against my cheeks, drawing long, thin lines across my face. My feet began to stutter. I was too panicky.
I was able to find her easily. She stood by the dogwood, serene. She was picking flowers from it, a pile in her arms. We smiled at each other, even if I could hardly breathe, and she patted the ground to motion me to sit.
For our last night together, she wove the dogwood flowers into my hair. Her fingers, despite their grime, were gentle and soft. She was an artist in that moment, and I didn’t need to see myself to know I was beautiful. Ancient. Sacred.
The girl with bugs in her hair stood when all of the flowers were finally placed. I followed her and watched as she stepped back toward the dogwood. Watched as her feet sank into the dirt. Her skin turned to bark. Her torso twisted. She grew up and up, twirling around the dogwood tree. Her arms danced through the night sky. Her smile was the same. It painted itself into the trunk. Her owl eyes became knots in the wood. Her hair curled into leaves. The last thing to turn to bark was her hand, reaching out to me, calling for me. I slid my hand into hers and felt her branches wrap around my fingers.
I showered in the morning, but not after placing each of the flowers from my hair into a stout vase on my dresser. I let the water run down my back and slither under my fingernails and wash away the dirt still staining my knees. As I stared down at the porcelain floor and finally let the water push against my hair, I watched as a community of bugs fell to my feet. Ladybugs, centipedes, stink bugs, and a wolf spider. I made sure to collect them all in my hands and bring them to the dogwood and the girl who had bugs in her hair.
When I grew up, I fastened a rope swing to the girl’s outstretched hand and let my children fit into the notches between her branches so they could mold to their bodies. They would climb and dig and swing and jump and I would watch with a knowing smile as the girl became completely theirs. And, one day, I’d be the one to soothe them as they showered the bugs from their hair, too.