Celia and the Swing
Celia and the Swing
Celia’s friends loved to sing. She could still remember the first time she heard them, out behind the old stable. It was late afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to dip beneath the rows of willows lining the gravel drive. She remembered the excitement she felt, drawn to the song like a moth to lantern light. She remembered the damp grass brushing her ankles, the nervousness growing and flitting in her tummy like ice-covered butterflies as she spied them around the corner.
For the whole week, Celia had been exploring the yard. Her new house had a big one, and for the time being, it was all hers. Outside was good. There was a lot to do. In her mind, it was magical. A place where anything could happen.
She didn’t like being inside. The house was old and smelled like must and mothballs. She didn’t like the way the wallpaper peeled like the skin of an old banana, or the strange hum of the rusted radiators that made the floors go click, creak, click, creak. It sounded alive, and groaned as if it were sick. And it was always worse at night.
She didn’t like how big all the rooms were, how empty and hollow they felt, the hallways narrow, all sharp and jagged edges, or the old, dusty paintings that lined the walls, pictures of long-dead people in strange clothes and eyes that looked angry. Nothing seemed right. Half the lights didn’t work, and the ones that did would spark and sizzle if you flicked the switches too fast. Even the water in the tub came out reddish-brown, and the kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. Celia was actually getting tired of eating pizza and Chinese delivery every night. All the soda was giving her tummy aches.
Mom and Dad had bought the house so they could “flip” it, though she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. First she thought they were going to live there forever, but Dad said it was only temporary. Him and Mom wanted to fix it up, and once they scraped and hammered and painted enough, some other family was going to move in. Celia wished they were that other family. It’d be nice to live in a house that wasn’t falling apart.
She watched Dad up on the ladder on the front porch, working the paint roller up and down the giant columns. He told her that it was a special kind of house. A plan-tay-shun. Celia repeated the word over and over until it got all jumbled and didn’t make sense anymore. It was like a man-shun, he said, only a bit different. One lucky family lived in it, but there were a lot of other families who worked for them. Celia thought that sounded nice, but Dad said it was a very, very bad thing, and that she’d learn about it in school. Celia just nodded.
As she watched him slop on the fresh paint, she heard a sweet lilt of voices in the distance. The sound carried across the breeze, soft and gentle as a sparrow’s song. Celia skipped along down the drive, following it to the stable. It was an old, run down thing, the wood half-rotted and covered in thick, prickly moss. She stopped and kept perfectly still, straining her ears. The voices swelled. Children’s voices.
“One little, two little, three little Indians
Four little, five little, six little Indians
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys”
Celia crept over to the side of the stable, making sure to keep low and quiet. She peered around the corner and saw them, a small group of kids, hands interlocked, slowly moving in a circle. She’d never heard that song before. It sounded old, like a grandmother’s nursery rhyme.
“Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians
Seven little, six little, five little Indians
Four little, three little, two little Indians
One little Indian boy”
She watched the smiles on their faces, the warmth in their eyes as they slowly spun like a nine-headed top.
She gasped as her foot landed on the dried twig.
The voices all paused as one, and the only sounds Celia heard were the crickets in the trees and the beating of her own heart.
She kept her eyes trained on her feet.
“Someone’s there,” one of the boys said.
“It’s a girl!” another chimed. “I saw her.”
“She was watching us,” a third said.
Celia closed her eyes. She didn’t want to be caught spying. Making new friends was hard enough, and she didn’t want to get a bad rep-yu-tay-shun. Mom said those weren’t good to have.
“It’s okay!” the first voice called. “You can come out, if you want.”
“We won’t bite!” another chirped.
Celia gathered herself, taking a deep breath before marching out around the corner. She found the children still standing in a circle. They were all smiling.
“I…I heard you singing,” She managed, “and I….I-“
One of the girls broke away from the circle, her pale dress billowing slightly in the breeze.
“It’s all right,” she giggled. “We were a bit loud. I’m glad you found us.”
Celia let out a deep sigh of relief. She didn’t want them to be mad. There was something in how they spoke, something about the way they dressed, that made her want them to like her. Though she couldn’t put her finger on it, there was energy around them, some invisible aura… as if they were angels, or living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
The girl pointed to the house in the distance.
“You live there?”
Celia looked over her shoulder. The plan-tay-shun seemed so far away. She could still see Dad with the paint, though he was only a speck.
“I…I only moved in last week,” she sputtered. “But we’re not staying very long.”
One of the girls pouted. “Oh, no?”
“That’s a shame,” another said.
“She seems nice,” one boy said to another.
Celia felt her cheeks redden, trying in vain to stop herself. She hated when she blushed.
“You have very nice voices,” she said.
“Thank you,” the tallest girl replied. “It’s an old song our friend taught us.”
“It’s one of our favorites,” the smallest boy added.
“Though it’s not as fun as swinging!” a second put in.
Celia’s heart fluttered when she gazed at the boy who spoke. He was so handsome that her knees suddenly went lax, as if they’d been sculpted with melting butter.
He smiled as their eyes met.
“Perhaps you can swing with us, some time.”
“Oh!” the first girl said, “There’s so many great places to swing around here.”
The handsome boy shyly dug his shoe into the grass. “We can show you how to do it. The right way. If you want, that is.”
Celia thought back to the playground at her old school. Aside from her friends, that was the thing she missed most. Whole afternoons would be spent on the swing set, and Celia would pump her legs till her thighs felt like they were on fire, forcing herself up higher, higher, higher until she nearly swung up above the bars. She could still remember the sound of the air whooshing in her ears when she’d lean back and close her eyes, clutching on tight to the creaky, metal chains. When she got high enough, she’d hold her breath and count down from ten before launching herself from the rubber seat, flying through the air, crying out in joy as her tummy leapt up into her throat and the green grass came up fast from below.
Maybe these new kids had their own playground, somewhere. Some magical place where the swing sets weren’t quite as rusty. Where sweet songs called birds to crystal springs, and fairies spied from cleverly hidden mounds.
“I’d like that very much,” she said, cheeks burning as the boy smiled.
Before Celia could ask where their playground was, she heard Dad calling in the distance. She looked to the house, then back at the children, fighting the urge to pretend she hadn’t heard.
“I have to go,” she said. It was painful to take those first few steps away from them.
“We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Will I find you here?”
“Maybe. Follow the song.”
Celia nodded before she turned and ran back to the house.
* * *
Dinner was takeout, again. Celia hovered over her white cardboard box, delicately prodding the chunks of lamb drowned in brown curry sludge, scrunching up her face as the spicy scent stung her nose.
“Dad, can you make me a swing?”
He looked up from his food. “A swing?” He paused for a moment as he finished chewing. “Sure,” he said. “I have the perfect place for it, too.”
Celia smiled, and as she went to bed that night, her dreams were filled with playgrounds and children’s songs, and fairy dust showering upon the old stable, shimmering among the moss and mushrooms.
The next morning she found Dad out by the old sycamore next to the drive, looking up at the gnarled, thick branches that reached out into the sky like giant’s arms. A thick rope hung from the lowest one, corded and wide as Celia’s wrist.
Dad gave it a good tug, testing the strength of the branch before he turned to her, patting the piece of wood he’d set into the bottom as her seat.
Celia was so happy she didn’t know what to say.
Dad stepped aside as she hoisted herself up onto the seat. Her feet dangled off the ground as she balanced and looked up to the branches above, up into the empty spaces between the leaves where blue sky poked through like sapphire gems.
She swung all morning and into the afternoon, sailing up to the boughs of the sycamore, feeling that familiar burn in her thighs as she propelled herself up and down, forward and back again. She leaned back on the swing, eyes still closed, and pretended that she was a shooting star falling through space, traveling at the speed of light as she skipped across galaxies like a stone across a calm, infinite lake.
She rode Saturn’s dreamlike rings, looped among the clustered moons of Jupiter, heading full speed towards the red mountains of Mars when a voice cut through the darkness and pulled her back to Earth.
“That’s not how you swing.”
Celia opened her eyes and found the children standing in a ring around the sycamore. One of the girls stepped forward and grabbed a hold of the rope. Celia caught her breath as she settled to a stop.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“There’s a better way. Once you try it, you’ll never want to go back.”
Celia shimmied off the rope swing, dusting off her jeans before stretching her sore legs.
“Come on,” the girl said, “We’ll show you the best place to swing. A secret place. Our place.”
Celia looked around at the smiling faces. One was missing. The handsome boy. She looked around to the other eight.
One of them noticed and gave a sly grin. “Henry’s there already. He’s with the Moss Man.”
Celia frowned. The Moss Man?
“The Moss Man showed us how to swing.”
“And he teaches the songs!”
“He’s very friendly,” another said.
“Come ooon,” one of the girls said. “Let’s go meet him! I’m sure he’ll like you.”
Celia looked up to the sky and watched as the red sun began its slow dip below the trees. It’d be nighttime soon. Mom and Dad wouldn’t like her out past dinner.
“I…I can’t, right now.”
The children frowned.
“That’s a shame,” one of the girls said. “The Moss Man would really love you. I can tell. You have kind eyes.”
“Thank you,” Celia managed, unsure of what to say.
She stepped forward and took Celia’s hand. It was so warm.
“That’s all right,” she whispered. “Tell you what…since you can’t come with us, how about we send him to meet you?”
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy.
The girl nodded. “It’s simple. Do you have a candle?”
Mom had a bunch. They were nestled in boxes in the cellar. Oil lamps and antique lanterns, too. Celia nodded.
The girl’s eyes brightened. “Take one and put it in your bedroom window before you go to bed. That way the Moss Man will know which room is yours.”
Before Celia could respond, the girl turned and skipped away. The other children followed suit, marching off into the woods like a row of ducklings. Celia could hear their voices fade into the trees as they sang.
“One little, two little, three little Indians…”
* * *
She did as the girl said. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Even as she lit the candle and set it on the windowsill, she wasn’t quite sure if she wanted the Moss Man to come. What was a Moss Man, anyway?
Celia closed her eyes and tried to picture it, and when she did, all she could see was a creature with a big green beard, with hands like tree branches and clothes sewn with gold and brown leaves. Maybe the Moss Man was just a silly name, and he wasn’t strange at all. If they liked him so much, he couldn’t be that bad.
Celia got in bed, pulling the covers up around her face as she watched the candle burn in the window. The soft orange flame danced in the breeze, casting a hazy, pale light across the bubbled glass.
How long would it take?
How would he even get in? Dad always made sure to lock the door before he and Mom went up to bed. Celia thought about sneaking down and opening it, but the old wooden floors were so loud she was sure they’d wake.
And if she got caught, she wouldn’t be able to explain herself. Mom would get worried, and Dad would just say it was her imagin-ay-shun. According to him, Celia had a big one. But that was okay. Kids were supposed to have those.
She waited for another hour, watching the flame flicker in the dark until her eyelids grew heavy and she sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
The smell woke her, first.
Celia’s nose flooded with the scent of dirt and mulch. She searched around the room, eyes adjusting to the dim light of the candle. It smelled like the woods. She brought her fingers up to her nose and gave them a sniff. Her nails smelled like she’d been digging through weeds. But she hadn’t. A cold, icy sting settled in her tummy.
Then she heard it.
The front door opened, hinges squealing, echoing up the staircase and down the hall. Celia pulled her knees up to her chest and scooted further onto the bed until her shoulders hit the headboard.
She thought about running to Mom and Dad’s room. But she couldn’t. They wouldn’t understand. She was a big girl. That’s what Dad had told her the last time she went to them after a nightmare. Big girls shouldn’t be afraid of nightmares. Dreams weren’t real.
They came slow, moaning up the stairs, one after another. Celia’s heart was beating so fast she feared it would burst out of her chest.
She pressed her ear to the wall.
It was walking by the bathroom.
Past Mom and Dad’s room.
By the linen closet.
Thump. Thump. Creeeeeeeeeeeeak.
The smell grew even stronger. Celia tried to pinch her nose and breathe out of her mouth, but it was no use. She couldn’t escape the stink of turned soil and wet leaves. Twigs and mud. Roots and bark and stone. Mold and rot.
When the last footstep faded, she sprang off the bed and sprinted to the door as silently as she could, twisting the lock shut with a snap.
She hid herself behind an unpacked box of clothes by the closet.
She could see the handle moving in the light of the candle, jiggling soft at first, then harder.
She gasped as the pounds grew frantic, the sound booming in her ears until her head hurt.
“Please,” she whispered, “please, go away.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and into her mouth, cold and salty.
The pounding ceased.
Breathing, now. Loud, behind the door. Rattling, heaving breaths. Deep and ragged.
Celia curled herself up in a ball.
Something bad was outside that door.
She waited all night, listening to that breathing, scared to move a muscle until the candle burned down to a stub of puddled wax and the sun rose, throwing its light through the soot-stained window.
The breaths stopped, then. She could hear the thumping and creaking down the hallway as the footsteps retreated back through the house. The jiggle and slam of the front door.
The smell faded.
Still, she waited. Another hour, she told herself. Then she’d get up. Then it’d be safe. Dad would be making coffee, soon. Then the smell would be gone for sure.
Slowly, she moved to the door, hands shaking as she went to undo the lock. She pulled it open, holding her breath before poking her head out into the hallway.
Everywhere, she saw footprints. Big footprints. Bigger than Dad’s beat up work boots. They trailed from her door all the way through the hall and down the stairs.
Footprints made of moss.
* * *
The children were waiting for her when she went outside to the rope swing.
The boy was there, too.
She said his name was Henry.
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy as he walked over to her, leaning up against the swing.
“You didn’t let him in,” he said sadly. “The Moss Man wasn’t happy.”
Celia wanted to tell him how scared she’d been. How frightening the sounds were, and the smell that made her sick to her stomach. But she didn’t want him to think she was afraid.
“Tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go like that…honest.”
He smiled. “You can tell him yourself.” He held out his hand, urging her to take it. “Come with me.”
Celia looked down at the hand. She wanted so badly to hold it. To feel how warm it was. To see him smile.
“He’s much friendlier in the daytime,” he said. The other children nodded in agreement.
Celia wasn’t sure. Yet she wanted to make them happy. She took his hand.
They marched single file into the woods.
Celia looked up at the trees. They grew larger, the further they walked. Their branches reached out and blocked the sun, shrouding the forest floor in creeping darkness. It was a strange feeling, like walking in a basement with broken lights.
Again, they sang. It was the same tune Celia had heard before, but the words were different.
“Ten little Indians standing in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little Indians swinging on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
Eight little Indians gayest under heaven.
One went to sleep and then there were seven.
Seven little Indians cutting up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Indians all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five.”
Celia didn’t like their new song. She didn’t like how mean it was, how their faces still lit up even though the words weren’t nice.
She tried to speak up, but something made her voice catch in her throat like she’d swallowed a golf ball. She tugged on Henry’s sleeve. He looked over his shoulder and just smiled, then gave her hand a little squeeze. Celia followed, tripping over the roots and broken twigs, listening as they sang even louder.
“Five little Indians on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Indians up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three.
Three little Indians out on a canoe,
One tumbled over and then there were two.
Two little Indians fooling with a gun,
One shot the other and then there was one.”
The song ended as they entered a small clearing. Celia looked around at the mossy, earthen floor dappled in pale sunlight, the deep green vines wrapped through the rocks like serpents.
An oak tree loomed in the center.
It was the biggest one she’d ever seen. The roots rose up from the moss like the tentacles of some giant beast. The trunk was so wide she didn’t even think all ten of them could wrap their arms around it. Its branches were knobby and gnarled, the bark grey and sick looking, like a lumbering old man with a thick, mossy beard.
“He’s here!” Henry whispered. He let go of her hand.
Celia watched as the children faded into the glen. Some of them scrambled up the limbs of the tree. Others disappeared behind the brambles and thickets. Some sat down on the mossy outcroppings of rocks, smiles etched on their faces. Like angels, she thought. Living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
“The…the Moss Man,” she said, voice trembling,
“Oh, yes,” Henry said.
He jumped up and grabbed a hold of the lowest branch of the oak, pulling himself up with the grace of an acrobat.
He sat down, knobby knees dangling over the edge.
Celia gasped when she saw his eyes.
The other children appeared on the limbs of the great oak, each with beady, black eyes. Still smiling. Watching like a murder of crows.
“He’s waking up,” one of them said. His voice was hollow, rattling like a whisper on the wind.
“This is his home.”
“Where he brings us to swing.”
“He wants us to teach you.”
Celia would never forget that clearing in the woods. The hazy sunlight beading off the moss. The limbs of that ancient tree rising like a monster from the pits of her darkest nightmares.
She would never forget the fear she felt as the children watched hungrily from the branches, or the sight of the thing that reared its shadowy head from behind the trunk of the oak.
As she turned and ran back to the house, pumping her legs as fast as they could carry her, she knew she’d never forget the sound of their voices, and words of that song.
She’d never forget the smell of those woods, the darkness of that forest floor.
The children’s eyes.
The ropes in their hands, knotted and looped.