Emma, whose glasses glittered pink and yellow along the rims. When I looked at those glasses, I wanted to eat them, crunch their rock sugar-shine and suck the lenses like hard candy.
When we were paired together for manure-shoveling duty, we dropped our shovels as one and snuck behind two bushes heavy with berries I didn’t recognize. Shadowed by their leaves, she pushed those glasses up her nose and told me she was descended from Vikings. I think that’s why I’m so angry all the time, she said, wrapping skinny arms around her knees.
I spent a long minute squinting at her, trying to picture her in a horned hat, trying to catch a glimpse of this ancient anger clawing its way along her bloodline through the centuries. I didn’t realize she was waiting for a response until I saw her lip start to tremble.
Fumbling to make it okay, I told her she could come home with me to the coast, where we’d steal a boat from the harbor near my house and become twin terrors of the seas. We made plans to pillage the whole Pacific Northwest together, and raid every coastal candy store we could find. But after we left the bushes, she did not talk to me again.
The goats, whom I never got to milk. I spent long afternoons at the butter churn dreaming of how good a milker I would be, how their square pupils would soften with love at the careful touch of my hands. But night after night, I forgot to set an alarm and was woken instead by the rooster’s crows, more than an hour past milking time.
I remembered to set my alarm, once. I tumbled into the barn that morning to see a crowd of surprised faces, all turning towards me. Their hands still lingered on wrung-out udders when they asked; didn’t you know we meant to get here at six, not wake up at six?
They let me help carry the buckets out, as a consolation prize. When my grip wobbled, warm froth slopped over the side of my bucket and onto my sneakers, leaving a milk mustache on my muddy toes. The nearest goat bleated, eyeing me balefully.
Bridget, whose auburn hair hung to her knees when it was loose. The farm owners made her braid and tie it up during chores, but whenever she was out of their sight she ripped her headband loose and let the braids swing. She bragged to the other girls that having red hair made her a prophet, able to see centuries into the future, though telling us too much about her visions might scar us for life. She didn’t notice my coppery head until someone else pointed me out with an air of gotcha.
When I saw her scowl forming, I blurted that I was a prophet too, and could prove it. I screwed my eyes shut until light burst behind my eyelids. I said I saw stars falling into the ocean until all the seas were boiling hot, and a dragon made of stone emerging from the mountain nearby and descending on the streets like a locust swarm, chowing down on cars and street signs with its stalagmite teeth.
In the moment, with my vision full with light, I believed everything I said. But when I opened my eyes, the crowd of flat faces told me my words had not rung true for anyone but me.
The barn cats, whom I tried to win over with every trick I’d invented for stray cats by my house—a clicking tongue, an outstretched hand, soft renditions of pop songs where I substituted “kitty” for “baby” or “my girl” for “my cat.” But I never caught their interest, no matter how long I spent crouched in their domain. I had nothing to make me superior to a sunbeam or saucer of goat milk. Even when I cried, they showed no desire to smooth the tears from my face with their sandpaper tongues.
Any of the other girls at camp, who lacked reasons to pay attention to the youngest one there. In later years, I would learn to make my Alaskanness exciting, to conjure up fibs about morning commutes on the back of a polar bear and penguins I walked on a leash. But at seven, I had no unique icebreakers but the fact that I had never seen a Taco Bell. That did not make me exotic, only sad.
My only trick to win others over was sacrifice, which I used liberally. Every night, I gave up my early spot in line for the showers and retreated to the back, steeling myself to dodge the pondweed and duck droppings that the showerheads coughed out over the last bathers. Every afternoon, I volunteered to be the one who did not jump from the hayloft to the bales below, but instead counted off who did. I sang the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah until my throat was hoarse, while fresh bodies hurled themselves from the edge with every chorus.
I thought I had succeeded at something when the others asked me to sing to them again, later. I taught them my favorite songs from music class, and they repeated each line back to me, giggling and merry. It took me too long to notice the way they were singing, consonants snapped off short and vowels stretched like taffy. The same way I sang, only taken so far that words no longer sounded like words, and broken up by giggles every time two or more girls darted glances at each other.
I could not change the way I sang. But I could keep doing it, even around the rock in my throat.
The mysterious thing in the sky, on my last night in Ohio. I was walking from the kitchen back to my dorm, cradling a mug of steaming cocoa with honey, and tilted my head back to take in the stars. But when I looked up, there was too much light—warm light, golden and so, so soft.
It was a sphere, that light source, with the perfect roundness of a planet; Saturn without its rings, or the sun missing its sunglasses. I could feel my heart slowing down as I watched it. I thought I could look at it forever.
Then I blinked, and my mug was cold between my palms, and the sky was empty of anything but raindrops sluicing down. They broke the skin forming on the cocoa’s surface and trailed down my cheeks like tears.
I rarely remember that night, and when I do, I don’t truly believe that it happened. But when I remember, I think less about what I saw than about what I heard; high notes, clear and piercing, floating down to me. I know them, until I try to hum them. Then they splinter in my throat. I can sing better than I used to, but still not well enough for this song, it seems. I doubt I will ever know how to sing it. But I am thankful, still, for whatever sang to me.
Born and raised in Alaska, Ari FitzGibbon currently lives and writes in northern California, and has work published or forthcoming in Atticus Review, Paper Crane Journal, and The Lumiere Review. You can find Ari on Twitter at @unassumingowl.