Sky // Hide + Seek: 6.19/26.16
This idea wanted to be a much, much bigger story. Two weeks passed before I convinced it to be a short story, but someday it may come back and get its revenge. With chapters.
Hide + Seek.
by jade crystal harmon
I am rinsing dry milk from my daughter’s favorite cup at the kitchen sink when my ears start to prickle. I fumble the water off, grip the edge of the counter, and brace myself. I wait, trying to steady my breathing. It’s like waiting for a sneeze or a contraction. My eyes rest on the sill above the sink, cluttered with my children’s sacred debris – smooth pebbles, flowers floating limp in mason jars, a tiny cicada shell.
And then the prickles explode. The Knowing rushes through me, a pulse of pins and needles from toe to scalp that leaves a premonition behind like the flotsam from a wave. I squeeze my eyes shut. Black wings. Screams. Fire. Running.
I suck in my breath hard.
The Knowing fills me with a sinking dread, but there’s a foam of annoyance on top. My premonitions are always late. Some people have dreams of the future months in advance. Mine barely give me enough time to put on tea for an unexpected guest.
I can see my kids in the backyard through the window above the sink. Bixby and Hestley, the twins, are practicing their levitation. They leap off of the elm branches and seem to catch wobbly, invisible ropes, yelping when the spell snaps. Shilo, their little sister, is digging in the soil with a silver serving spoon. A shadow flits over the dry grass. Then another. The sirens start.
I don’t know when I start to run, but I find myself in the backyard. I’m pretty sure I didn’t teleport. Transport magic leaves a lemony aftertaste in your mouth. I can feel my bare feet crushing the grass, little stones jabbing my heels. I’m still gripping Shilo’s cup.
I see more shadows dart over the grass. I stop to look up. The Black Wave is flying in tight formations over the village, screaming like mad kestrels. Curse the elders. They swore we’d be safe here. We wove those shield spells around the town for weeks and the Wave has shattered them.
The kids see me running, hear the sirens. I watch their terror bloom and throw out a fast freeze. I hate doing it, but I’m panicked. They each stop in mid-stride, their minds sliding into sleep that will evaporate in about three minutes.
Okay, I think, breathing into my nerves. List the options. Transport? No time to weave a portal. Fly? Be seen, get caught. Hide? I could conceal us all so well the flyers would never even smell us. But I hear a low boom and the ground trembles from a magical energy pulse. No good hiding from explosions.
Another boom, closer.
A cicada, utterly oblivious to our drama, begins to sing its rasping metallic whine in the tree above us. You poor critter, I think. Dozing in the dirt for a decade only to emerge on the eve of a civil war. Another cicada begins to buzz. Then another until the sound is so loud it drowns out the distant booms.
And then I feel the clockwork of the spell shaping itself in my mind. The way out. The ridiculous, beautiful, horrible way out.
I run past little Shilo, crouched like a statue in the dirt with her big spoon and dusty purple socks. I dive into the honeysuckle bush that is her special hideout and find my old potions box. Inside are a hundred tiny compartments for herbs and roots. She has packed it with her treasures, pebbles and pinecones and a dozen pale cicada shells. I pluck them out delicately, loving Shilo with a surge and wondering if her premonitions are stronger than my own.
As I crawl out from the bush, the kids are starting to wobble and rub their eyes. I run to them and gather them onto my lap, though it’s a tight squeeze. I’m smelling their sweet sweaty hair while they cling, just silently clutch.
“Hey,” I say into the knot of arms and heads around me. “I know this is really scary. I’m scared, too. But we’re going to be smarter than the bad guys. Are you ready?” I feel squeezes and little nods of compliance. The ground rumbles.
I give each child their shell, a tiny chitinous exoskeleton that I place into a soft, sweaty palm. The mad hawks cry far above sending a shiver over my skin.
“Babies, we don’t have time to run and Mama can’t weave a transport fast enough. So we’re going away. Far away. It’s gong to be dark, it’s going to be very strange, but we’ll be together and we’ll be safe.” I squeeze them with my big mom arms that feel like they could circle the world. “Are you ready?” They nod, eyes wet. “Now, follow my words, I’ll lead you through the spell.”
My voice is warm. The words are vanilla in my mouth, so I know it’s working. My children repeat each syllable, cicadas clasped between their fingers. We get to the middle and I see realization spark in Bixby as his eyes go round. Hestley nods to him with a lopsided smile. One twin is terrified, the other is thrilled. Shilo stares hard at the grass, working each syllable carefully. She doesn’t know many spell words yet, but she knows it’s deadly serious business.
We must say the spell four times, once for each of us, before I knot the weaving and push it into motion. The shadows are coming faster. I feel another explosion thrum through the ground. We are on the third round when we begin to smell smoke; we’re starting the fourth when our eyes start to sting. I am memorizing the exact curves of their round cheeks, the precise gold highlights of their messy hair as we reach the end.
I say the words that knot the weaving. I give an energetic shove with my core that starts the mechanism. The lawn begins to grow rapidly around us as we plummet down into our tiny new bodies, our clothing disintegrating in the crackle of transformation. The huge bowl of blue sky looms high overhead.
I was four the first time I transformed. My brother turned us into cats. He had been young and unskilled, so it had hurt a lot and we’d been sick a whole week after our mom returned us to ourselves. This was nothing like that child’s botched spellwork. In school I had laboriously changed into The Thousand-Thousand Creatures and passed my transformation studies. Now all I need is a bit of the animal and the rest is smooth and oiled, clean and surgically precise.
I feel my body logically compartmentalize itself, folding whole organs away with origami creases. I feel my thoughts simplify, my thirst awaken. My cicada mind feels the bomb tremor, but at my size it’s an earthquake. An overpowering compulsion to dig seizes me. I have to flee the terrifying light, the yawning brightness of the sky. I burrow.
I cannot believe the power of my tiny body. I dive into the earth, down into the safety of the darkness.
A firey energy pulse bursts into the kitchen with its little window. The glass explodes into the sink. A brigade of hawk flyers lands in the yard and finds it empty, scattered with toys. I hear the crazy rage in their screams as we burrow deeper.
Deep, deep below, we finally sleep.
Time below is long and unspooled with no rhythm. I can feel them all, Bixby, Hestley, Shilo, Over many moons I tunnel toward them until we are all bunched into a tiny space, suckling on tree water ambrosia from tiny roots, waiting with a seventeen-year patience. The darkness is safe. We are far below the frost line of winter, below the boiling of war that burns itself out leaving a scarred, quiet peace. Moss grows on the rubble above. Trees sprout.
And then a dream of light, of colors I don’t have words for. I am filled with a craving to climb. We dig, tunneling up, and I hear the others in the soil crawling upwards, too, the excited hum of a million cicadas climbing to the sky.
The darkness crumbles away into the ecstasy of light. I march with thousands of others toward the trees, the sky pulling me with an ache. We finally rest high in the branches and our pale nymph shells begin to molt. As the multitude of cicadas pull off the cloaks of their childhood and unfurl damp wings, I feel the origami of my body unfold, the transformation reversing with clockwork precision as lungs, cuticles and heart chambers, follicles and freckles rearrange themselves into the exact places they had been seventeen years before.
I sit, blinking raw eyes and squinting in the intense sunlight, taking in huge breaths with lungs both new and familiar. My eyesight begins to clear, the pupils remember how to adjust. I see the forms of the bodies I know, the smell of warm, sleepy children. A powerfully familiar surge unlocks the human memories and brings it all back in a flood. Already the cicada years in the world below are fading as our minds shift operating systems.
The children blink and rub their eyes as they sprawl on the mossy ground that had once been our backyard and is now a young forest. There is no sign of the house. The littlest one – my unfolded mind tells me she is Shilo – is glancing nervously at the sky. The twins, who are so different from one another, are trying to stand on wobbly legs.
The forest is very quiet. Instinct pushes my mammalian brain into action. I scoop up the children and hug them to my chest. They peer over my arms at the woods and sky with wary, newborn eyes.
“It’s okay,” I murmur. The words feel strange in my mouth, but become more certain as I speak. “I think we’re safe now.”