“Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow! That pure congealèd white, high Taurus’ snow…”
Again, I faltered. It was the word congealed. Generally, I enjoyed the fun Shakespeare had with words, but every time I hit this line, I imagined that fuzz you got on your teeth in the morning if you forgot to brush the night before.
“You’re thinking about teeth again, aren’t you?” Ray said.
“I can’t help it! The high Taurus snow part is perfect. I’m thinking white, there. Glacial white. Fresh as a mountain whatever.” I tapped the script. “And then he goes and ruins it with the crow reference.”
“It’s a comparison. It means Helena’s hands are very, very white.”
“Seriously, if you tried a line like that at Becker’s, you’d find six dudes asleep at your feet and one frothing at the mouth.”
“Because he’d be insane.”
Grinning, Ray bent toward the floor and tapped at the phone he’d laid there. “Congealed. Take shape, coalesce, especially to form a satisfying whole.” He glanced up. “How does Google’s interpretation work for you?”
I rolled the concept around in my mind a little, disregarding fuzzy teeth and trying for coalescence. A satisfying whole. My gaze strayed toward the floor and I found myself distracted by Ray’s feet. They were pale, as far as feet went. And kinda delicate for a guy’s feet. His toes were long and straight and his nails were clean. The sparse hair across the top and on his big toe stood out darkly, making me think of the crow’s wing comparison. A little smile tugged at one corner of my mouth.
“What?” Ray’s tone bordered on suspicious.
“You always take your shoes off when you come over.”
One shoulder hitched up slightly. “Is it a problem?”
“No, it’s…” I glanced up to find him regarding me with a coded expression. As if my response would decide his response. I’d never seen that look before. I hesitated to call it vulnerable, because Ray didn’t do vulnerable. He wasn’t shy, or reticent. He spoke his mind, and meant it.
“I like it,” I continued. A tiny crease winked into existence between his brows. Otherwise, he didn’t shift one way or the other. He was still waiting. Askingwhy without asking. “It means you’re comfortable here.”
His smile happened then, as sudden and unexpected as sunlight peeking over a mountain top. “Cool.” He wriggled his toes. “Your place is much quieter than mine.” He glanced down at his script, but I could see the color creeping up out of his shirt collar. “What to try again?”
Ray tapped the script. “From kissing cherries.” His blush spread a little higher.
I leaned in close. “Nah, I think I’d rather kiss you.”
Clouds continued to break over the western horizon, giving way to a sky of blue tinged with gold. Every breath of wind was warmer than the last. Soon the sun would warm Karen’s back—but it would not ease the prescient poke that held her spine stiff, her chin high.
It will rain again tomorrow. Sylvia’s whisper floated somewhere between her ears, a tickle against her mind. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll be fine.
What if it doesn’t rain the day after tomorrow? Karen answered. What if it doesn’t rain the day after that?
They’d talked about Sylvia extending her roots into the ocean, but only as a way to pass the time. Both knew the salt water would kill her. Even now, with her roots bound into the shape of the boat that carried them, she risked herself. Instead, she dangled tendrils from her boughs, seeking moisture from the air. Now they stirred in the warming breeze.
Karen turned away from the prow of the small vessel and leaned into the trunk of her tree. She wrapped her arms around the scratchy bark and pressed her cheek into a space above the window, a patch that might have been worn smooth by years of similar embraces.
“I’m afraid,” she murmured.
In answer, Sylvia began to hum. The music pulsed deep within her trunk, beginning in the chamber where she’d carried Karen’s seed, nurturing it until she birthed a spindly-legged child.
The water beneath her hull stirred into a light chop. Overhead, a flock of birds wheeled down out of the parting clouds, their black feathers glistening in the sunlight. The wind strengthened, freshened. A capricious gust reached inside the boat and plucked a paper shape from the floor, tossing it overboard. One by one, Karen’s workings lined up behind the boat like chicks following their mother.
Karen’s throat moved as the song caught her. Her first hum sounded cracked and broken. Then her voice rose above the beat of wavelets bumping the hull, entwined with Sylvia’s deep and resonant murmur, sweetened, rose, and called to the birds circling overhead.
No song could bring land where there was none, or call clouds back together against the sun. But she would continue to sing for Sylvia, because Sylvia sang for her. It was the least she could do—and the most, perhaps—for her mother and her home. For the tree who would sacrifice all she was to save her daughter.
Sylvia might be nothing but an empty shell when they found land. But Karen already carried a new seed inside her. As soon as her feet touched soil, she would send her toes down deep and spread her arms up high. Face pointed toward the sky, she would sing this very song until her face stiffened and her mouth disappeared beneath ridges of crusty bark. Then she would nurture her seed, grow it until she was ready to birth a wobbly new child.
Shading her eyes, Karen looked toward the western horizon. She saw nothing. She turned back to her tree and sang a new verse, one where she birthed more than one seed and taught the song to daughters and sisters and aunts and nieces. Where she became a forest, her song so loud, even the birds carried it.
Overhead, the birds cawed, and in that shrill cry, Karen heard hope.