Forest on the Moon (first few pages)

by Eric St. Pierre
25th June 2022
Mrs. Gray put the lights out several hours ago, Nell thinks. She’s nearly sure of it because she has counted constellations and their stars several dozen times. Not all of them. Only the ones she knows. And the ones she’s made up, which she is positive are there. She dreamed of them. She drew them and gave them names. That’s what makes a thing real. Nell lies in the top bunk closest to the window. Mr. and Mrs. Gray don’t know she’s in the top bunk closest to the window. Each night after her evening chores are done and lights out! has been announced, she carefully peals back the made sheets and the coarse green blanket of her assigned single cot near the door. She takes extra care not to ruffle the sheets or disturb the pillow. When she can no longer hear Mrs. Gray’s footsteps and all lights are put out, she gingerly places a bitesize candy bar beneath her cot. She then untucks herself, sits up, and slides her feet into her slippers. She checks again for Mrs. Gray by placing her ear against the wall. She hears water rushing through the pipes in the walls. She hears the muffled sound of Mr. Gray playing Chopin from his Crosley record player upstairs. That’s when she knows the coast is clear. Nell makes her way across the dark and sprawling room to the top bunk nearest the window. This is something she could do with her eyes closed. She knows this because she’s tried it. ‘What would it mean to be blind?’ Nell crosses paths with Dorothy, who wears a pink nightgown too small for her. They exchange winks and nods. Dorothy gives two thumbs up. Nell flashes a thumb in return. This is their nightly ritual: a chocolate for the choice cot nearest the window. Not a word is spoken. The currencies of Gray’s Home come in many forms, but the deal is part of the economy in which candies, chores, and choice spots are negotiated. Nell reaches the top bunk nearest the girls’ room single window and delicately moves the nearly sheer curtain to the side. The moon is covered by clouds tonight. Nell opens her eyes as wide as she can hoping to catch a glimpse of a hint of the moon that might peek from behind the billow. No such luck. That the stars would be unobscured and not the moon is a great unfairness. A crick in her neck. Nell turns from her back to her side to face the window. “Ain’t you ever going to sleep?” Alicia, the girl in the bunk below Nell, complains. Shushes and groans from around the room. “Ain’t you ever going to sleep, or aren’t ya?” Whispers Alicia. Sandpaper in her throat. Nell closes her eyes and counts constellations from memory until sleep blankets her. *** 4:25 am. At least that’s what it feels like. It will be another hour before Mrs. Gray enters the girls’ room, claps her hands three times, and says, ‘Up and up, young ladies. Today is new and the hours are few,’ or some other jovial aphorism. It will be another precious hour before rumpus and flair erupt from the boys’ side of the Home. This is her golden hour. From the top bunk nearest the window, Nell can see the azaleas that line the land on which her home, Gray’s Home for Unfortunate Children, sits. She can see the sweet olive trees among the bushes near the cow parlor at the far end of the field. A light breeze tickles the sweet olive leaves. Nell imagines thousands of green piano keys played by a great invisible giant. She pretends she can smell the fragrance of the tree, pungent and immediate. A waxing moon rests now unobscured in the fleeting minutes before the sun makes its brilliant and piercing spectacle. Hello. There you are. I have missed you so much. I have missed you, too. A tap on Nell’s shoulder. A pull at her nightgown. With one eye closed and the other half shut, Dorothy yawns like a hippopotamus in the Nile. The communion between Nell and the moon is broken. Shuffles and scuffles from below. “Already? Just a moment more,” Nell whispers. Dorothy shakes her head and begins to climb to the top bunk. Nell hops down with a sigh. “I’m tellin’ if you keep on wakin’ me up. It ain’t right,” says Alicia from the bottom bunk. “I’ll tell Misses and Mister, too.” Nell kneels and speaks softly. “You promised you wouldn’t,” Nell says. “I get no chocolate. I get no peace in the dead of night or the dawn.” Alicia punches the bunk above her. “I don’t get to pick where I sleep. Heck, I don’t get to sleep t’all anymore.” “I’ll make it right. Don’t tell.” Nell says. Dorothy snores lightly from the top bunk. “Uh-huh.” Alicia pulls the covers over her head. Waiting for Nell on her own unmade and ruffled cot is a candy wrapper. There are chocolate fingerprints on her white pillowcase. She turns the pillow and hides the wrapper beneath it. She lies on her back on top of the coarse green blanket and stares at the ceiling, wishing she could see through it. She turns her head. Across the room, the window is a glowing speck a thousand miles away. She closes her eyes. * The hour went by more like a minute. It seemed as though Mrs. Gray had clapped her hands three times and said, ‘Up and up, girls. The day waits for no man and hesitates for no lady,’ nearly the moment Nell had closed her eyes. The morning routine, in which she had participated one thousand five hundred and thirty-six times, now thirty-seven, came and went in a flash. It goes like this: clapping hands to snap young girls into wakefulness, bright light from opened curtains. Then, there is the long line to the latrine. The floor is cold if you forget your slippers. The boys pick at girls and rush past to their latrine, their line is never as long as the girls’. Brush your teeth, do your business, and wash your hands. The morning duties are always written in perfect cursive on the blackboard in the dining room. Dozens of little shiny heads peer over one another to see who among them is to milk the stubborn heifers in the milking parlor; who gets to pick oranges or vegetables, and who gets to bring in flowers from the field. All assignments are based on Mrs. Gray’s mysterious formula. Mrs. Gray says it is determined on merit and behavior, but the girls know better. They dress appropriately for their morning work. “Whadya get?” Alicia asks Nell back in the girls’ dormitory. “Sweeping again. The whole porch and walkway. Then, dishes after breakfast.” Nell fastens a black apron over her work dress. “I got the tits. The whole flink of ‘em. Me and the new girl. Lady Gray has it out for me.” Alicia pulls her work dress over her head. “Wish she’d let us wear long pants.” “At least you don’t have to make butter,” Nell says. “I suppose.” Alicia struggles with her dress. “That’s for boys anyhow.” “You don’t want to milk the cows?” Nell says. “O’course not. Don’t really want to have no folks neither, but so it is.” Alicia gestures. “Trade with me,” Nell says while untying her apron and tying it again. “If you sweep, I’ll milk the cows and do the dishes.” “Whatcha got against sweepin’?” Alicia scrunches her face. “Nothing at all,” Nell says. “What’s it worth to ya?” Alicia raises an unsculpted eyebrow. “I’ll let you sleep,” Nell says. Alicia scoffs. “No, I mean I’ll give you my lone cot near the door when Dorothy and I trade. I’ll get her to take yours. You’ll be all to yourself. No moving about from me and no snoring from Dorothy,” Nell says. “No snoring from Dot? A cot to myself?” Alicia furrows her brow. “I’ll be all the way across the room near the door, you say?” “That’s right. All the way.” Nell nods and unties her apron. “Deal.” Alicia spits in her hand and extends it to Nell. She hesitates. “I’m just kiddin’ you.” Alicia wipes her hand on her apron. “Why do you want to milk the cows anyway? It’ll stink you up all day,” asks Alicia. Nell looks past her for a few moments. Alicia motions for eye contact. “I like the sweet olive trees out there by the parlor. They smell good,” Nell explains. “Sure. You’ll hav’ta work with new girl Naveena. She’s weird, you know. She doesn’t sleep in the girls’ room. She’s too good for us. I heard she sleeps at the foot of mister and misses’ bed like a little dog,” Alicia laughs. “I heard she has parents. I heard they’re loaded and just don’t want her around because she spooks all the business and society types that come in and out of their mansion all day.” Alicia smirks. “I know things. You should listen t’me.” “So, we’ll trade then?” Asks Nell. “I said deal. That means it’s a deal.” Alicia says. “Thank you.” Nell is suddenly embarrassed for offering thanks. “Yeah.” Alicia’s face softens, and she looks away. “Wash your pillowcase today. I ain’t sleepin’ on that mess.” “You got it,” Nell says. * Nell approaches the pasture with a milk bucket swung over her shoulder. She wants to skip, but her stomach is empty this early morning. It tells her to not move around so much. She unlatches the gate, steps through, and latches it behind her. She walks along the edge where the sweet olive trees and azaleas meet the fence line. She notices two girls bent over harvesting yellow and white flowers from the field. They pluck the best ones and put them in baskets. Their hats keep falling off. Nell stops and squeezes a handful of sweet olive leaves and flowers. She holds it to her face and inhales deeply. Her flesh tightens and her eyes cross. Is this what it smells like up there? She pulls a folded piece of paper from the pocket of her apron and covers it under the brush beneath the tree. She takes a handful of the tree’s flowers and leaves and places them in the front of her blouse against her bare skin. Her eyes readjust to the eerie young morning light that spreads across the pasture. The flower-picking girls place their hats upon their heads again and dance with one another in a circle. Nell sees the new girl enter the parlor in the distance. Nell corrals cows into the dirt-floored parlor. Naveena, the new girl, helps lead them each into their stalls. “You ever done this before?” Nell asks. “No. Misses said Alicia would show me,” Naveena says. “We traded.” Nell sits her bucket down and motions for Naveena to do the same. “What did you trade?” Asks Naveena. “Nothing. I can teach you.” Nell sits on a stool and begins her chore. “It’s not hard, then?” Asks Naveena. “No, not hard.” Sound of milk spraying the bottom of the bucket, “Your hands will cramp. Just think of something else when they do because you have to keep going.” Naveena sits on the second stool and begins to mimic Nell. “You have done this before,” Nell says. “Haven’t. Never been on a farm ever. It stinks in here,” Naveena says. Nell stops milking and pauses. “Here.” She pulls some of the sweet olive pieces from her work blouse and extends an open palm to the new girl. “Hold on to this. It helps with the smell. Stick it down your blouse.” “Wow, thanks! This’ll help a million. What’s your favorite class here? I used to like theater classes before but there aren’t any here. So, I don’t know what I like. Probably art. Yeah, Miss Stevens, the art teacher is the sweetest and nicest teacher we have, even though her name is a man’s name. Steven. At least it isn’t Miss Donalds.” Naveena bobs her head as she speaks. “Well?” “Well?” Nell pauses. “Oh, art. Yes, I like art the best, too,” Nell says. “Miss Stevens is lovely. She likes my drawings.” Long moments pass. The only sounds are shuffling hooves, milk hitting buckets, and the occasional moo from a heifer. Nell’s stomach growls, breaking the quiet. “What do you think about?” Naveena asks after almost an hour of milking. “About what?” Nell says. “When your hands hurt,” Naveena answers. “Do your hands hurt?” Nell says. “No.” The new girl’s shoulders rise, her chin dips. Nell adjusts on her stool. “I like to think about stars. I mostly like to think about the moon, but the stars, too,” Nell says. Naveena perks up. “What do you know about the moon? You want to know what I know about the moon?” Naveena speaks rapidly. “When I used to go to school, my teacher said there’re craters on the moon. Big, huge holes. I said no ma’am, that’s a man up there. He got his eye poked with a rocket ship. Teacher said I couldn’t go to school anymore because I wouldn’t believe her. Mom and Dad said…” Naveena stops milking. “I don’t see a man,” Nell says, “I see a forest.” “Then you’d be told you can’t come back, too. Just like me. Your mother would have to teach you spelling and adding instead,” Naveena says. “What happened to your mother?” “Nothing happened to her.” Nell stops milking. “She’s on a trip. When are your parents picking you up? When is your mother going to teach you how to mind your business? Why don’t you think about that instead of being nosey?” “I’m sorry,” Naveena says. “We’re done anyway. It’s time to eat. Help me carry the buckets behind the house. And give me back my flowers,” Nell says. *** Breakfast is served at several tables lined up in the dining room. Boys and girls sit together. Mr. Gray says his acts of thanks before the children forget all manner of pageantry and politeness. Nell nudges the buttermilk biscuit on her plate with a fork. She stirs her grits and nibbles her fresh scrambled yard eggs. The glass of milk in front of her goes untouched. Naveena sits across from Nell and is sandwiched between two boys: Donald, who has been a resident of Gray’s Home for Unfortunate Children since the age of two, and Digory, a stout boy who does not speak. A small blackboard hangs from his neck. It dips in and out of his grits. Nell gags as she watches it bob up and down. “Digory, please. Your blackboard and grits,” Nell says. “Your maners.” Donald punches Digory on the arm. A flying piece of biscuit smacks Donald in the face from somewhere down the table. He snickers. Sheepish Digory wipes at the blackboard with the cloth from his lap. He nods, then shakes his head. “Really, Digory. You mustn’t…” Nell pauses. Written on the blackboard that hangs from Digory’s chest, as though by magic, are the words, look behind. Behold, a red robin pecks and dances outside the window behind Nell. She stands, causing her chair to tip backward. “Let it in,” Nell breathes deeply. “Let it in!” “Let what in, madam Penelope?” Mr. Gray calls from the end of the table as he dabs his mouth with a white embroidered napkin. Silence. Every eye is on Nell. “The bird at the window, sir,” Nell says. The children chortle and gibe. “Ain’t no bird, Nelly. Look.” Alicia points to the birdless window. “Settle down, all. Birds come and go from here always. We won’t let them in today. We won’t let them in tomorrow,” says Mrs. Gray. “Digory’s blackboard. He…” Nell gestures to Digory. There is no writing scrawled in white chalk hanging from his neck. She replaces her chair. It scrapes along the wooden floor. Digory holds his chalkboard close to his chest and continues to eat. “Right then.” Nell adjusts. “May I be excused for chores?” *** The kitchen is unlike the other rooms at Gray’s Home for Unfortunate Children. It is as unorganized and cluttered as the rest of the house is tidy and distilled. There are piles of ancient recipe books slick with old grease. There are markings on the walls indicating who was there and who has a crush on who. The house staff congregates there to socialize in between duties. The wall furthest from the entrance is covered in a faded mural. It depicts an image of a few dozen of the children and workers who have come and gone over the years. At the center is the Home atop the great green hill with its waves of hills splashing forth from it. Bookending the scene are figures of an elderly man and woman, one pointing upwards, and the other with a hand over the heart, respectively.
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