by M.E. Garber
Detilba wasn’t at home. Then again, she never was. She was outside, against all Momma’s rules, when she saw the things. At first, she thought they were more leaves, or shadows of leaves. But there were no shadows on that gray, sunless day. And when the wind quit and the leaves ceased flying, the shadow-things continued swaying in the air under the trees.
Soft sounds came from them, a rustling like whispered laughter. They sounded so very happy that, despite the shadows’ disturbing appearance, Detilba leaned closer.
She loved happy things. It took her mind off the dullness of everything around her. She gravitated towards fun the way a moth flew towards a flame, her mother always said, rolling her dark eyes. Momma was always so tired, so grumpy. Detilba tried hard to be good and studious, tried to make up for her pale-brown skin, but something within her danced the moth’s flame-dance.
“Hello,” she said in her most polite voice.
The shadows paused. Their music muted, and Detilba thought she’d scared them.
“I’m Detilba. Who are you?” She tilted her head at the shadows, and laughed as the dancing shapes swept around her, chiming and rustling in a dust devil of delight. She giggled as they tickled down her dark amber arms, under her chin. Her skirt flew out around her like she was dancing, and Detilba heard their rustles as dry whispers in her head.
We are glamours. A sending from the woods.
Detilba giggled again. The woods — just a tiny woodlot surrounded by urban decay — were just over there, past the parking lot behind her and the run-off ditch next to it. A line of scraggly trees, more dead than alive, ran from there to the barren city lot where Detilba played with broken glass, sticks and her Dolly.
Detilba played here regardless of the weather and her mother’s warnings. Bare earth soothed her the way no cartoon could. She’d been tossed out of daycare again and again, a fence proving no impediment to her escape from paved playgrounds to the grass on the other side. She just couldn’t help it. Now no daycare would take her, so Detilba stayed home.
Her gaze lingered on the woods.
No one was out on such a miserable day. Rain threatened to fall any minute, and then she would run home. Momma worked, like everyone else, so the neighborhood was as good as deserted. Detilba wasn’t lonely; she was used to being alone. But maybe the glamours were lonely?
“Would you like to come home with me?”
They rustled and whispered, chiming their delight. We cannot go far from the trees. But you can visit us, in the woods.
“I’m not allowed in the woods,” she said, hopping from foot to foot as a light sprinkle damped her hair. A scorched scent rose from the cracked and weedy sidewalk. “I have to go now. I’ll be back tomorrow. Bye!”
As she raced ahead of the storm, the glamours chimed a sad farewell that made Detilba sorry she hadn’t gone with them. She hated making anyone sad.
Three days later she made it back. Detilba peered under the trees, but no glamours danced there. No chiming, rustling sounds carried on the breeze. Just the distant drone of traffic and the occasional wail of a siren some blocks away. Weak sunlight shone on mud left by days of cold rain. The vacant lot was more puddle and mud than solid ground. Despite her desires, Detilba hesitated to leave the dry sidewalk for what Momma would call “that mess” before her.
She gazed across to the woods, where the glamours said they lived. I’ll play in the parking lot, she decided. The stoney lot was much drier, and Momma would be so upset if her clothes got muddy. Then she’d know Detilba had been out playing, instead of in the apartment watching TV.
Detilba climbed over the rusty guardrail. Four junked cars sat by the entrance, blocking the view of the road. On one side, a windowless expanse of warehouse edged the lot, and on the other side, a low run-off gurgled with muddy water as it flowed toward the drainage pipe at the fenced-off road.
The struggling trees got a little larger near the run-off stream. She went to them. Gravel crunched under her feet, weeds and grass tickled her shins.The breeze rubbed empty branches together above her head. It sounded so sad, like the trees were crying. Detilba ran to the nearest one and gave it a hug.
“It’s okay, tree. Your leaves will come back in the springtime. Birds, too. And flowers. Warm sunshine and Momma will get a better job then, too. She said so. Maybe then Gramma will stop hating Momma ’cause I’m so pale.”
Lonely chiming noises caught her ear. Detilba whirled toward the sound. The glamours bobbed along the treeline towards her. If they’d had feet, they’d have been kicking at stones. Bouncing up and down, the girl waved and, after a glance toward the front of the lot, she called to them.
“Hello. Hello glamours! Are you coming to see me?”
The chiming increased as they raced towards her. Detilba clapped her hands and danced as they swirled around her, from ankles to over her head, again and again, their volume swelling as they rose. Finally exhausted, the girl stood, her chest heaving and her eyes bright, as the dancing shadows hovered before her eyes.
We missed you, they chimed softly. No one else comes here, not ever. They send us to look, again and again, but we have only seen you.
Detilba’s heart broke at the sorry tone, but she nodded and explained to them that everyone works far away, that in the evening they run inside for eating, watching TV, playing computer games or emailing people far away.
“Momma says it’s not safe, and anyway, there’s no place to go here. The parks and playgrounds are all way past the highway.” She waved her hand in the direction of the traffic’s grumbling drone.
The glamours whirled more slowly at that. Their edges softened and they appeared to droop in the air. Even their chiming sounded mournful.
Our masters will be unhappy to hear this. The sound was like a doleful tolling bell. Despite her earlier joy, Detilba felt very, very sad—almost like crying.
“Will you get in trouble?” Her voice quavered. She knew what it was like to be punished for something that wasn’t your fault. Like when that mean girl at the playground had thrown Detilba’s doll in a mud puddle and ruined her fancy yellow dress with the white lace trim. Momma had yelled at Detilba when she’d been unable to stop crying to explain what happened. Now Dolly wore a bit of an old beige towel secured with a safety pin. They didn’t go to that playground anymore, either.
The glamours shuddered. No, not exactly. But if we don’t bring someone to them, there will be…consequences.
Detilba knew about ‘consequences,’ too. It always meant something bad.
“I’ll come with you. I’ll tell them it’s not your fault.” As soon as she’d uttered those brave words, her knees began to shake and she whirled her head around, looking to see if anyone heard or saw her. If Momma found out….
But the glamours danced and zoomed high into the sky, exploding with delighted chimes. Detilba laughed and raced after them, not looking back again, even when she slipped in the muddy stream and got water all down her pants and squishing in her shoe. The glamours hovered over her, whispering encouragement and making soft clucking sounds that reminded her of chickens, so Detilba forgot her wetness and the scolding her mother would surely give. She smiled at the glamours and followed them into the weedy verge of the scrubbly little woods.
Roots and stones pulled at her wet shoes. Detilba fell, all the way to her hands and knees. When she rose to sitting, tears streamed down her cheeks. She’d skinned her knee on the rock, and it really hurt.
Come, come. The glamours danced before her. Our masters can fix your hurts.
Now they were soft yellow-greens and gentle blues, not just gray shadows. Detilba forgot the pain, which really wasn’t that bad after all. Her mouth made an ‘O’ of surprise as she looked at the shifting colors of her friends.
They flushed a light rose around the edges, then drew back, whispering encouragement. Detilba climbed to her feet and followed.
They led her to a clearing surrounded with young trees yearning upwards in thick clusters. In the center was a large rock, taller than Detilba and flattened on top. A thin crack no wider than her palm bisected it top to bottom. But the far side drew Detilba’s breath out in a gasp. There loomed the largest tree she had ever seen. Speckled browns and grays at the base, it stood as wide as a car is long. Up and up it rose, bare branches tangling in grays and creams, the tallest tips blindingly white against the soft blue sky.
Loud chiming drew Detilba’s eyes back to the glamours. They had grown larger now, the colors fuller. Shades of blue she had no name for melted into purples and greens without end. Detilba’s eyes misted, thinking how beautiful her friend was, how much more lovely even than Dolly’s lost yellow dress.
Wait here. We need to get them. We’ll be right back.
And the shimmering glamours floated toward the rock and disappeared into the crack. The tinkling cut off, and Detilba was left alone. A breeze sighed in the branches above her. They waved a bit. Smiling, Detilba waved back, then glanced around.
Goosebumps rose on her arms as she looked at the dark crack where the glamours had fled. It made her feel funny, deep in her stomach. She didn’t like being alone anymore. She took a slow step backwards. Then another.
A rock appeared underfoot, and Detilba fell, landing on her butt. The air rushed out of her lungs with a whoosh, and she couldn’t move.
The glamours emerged from the rock, tinkling with a high-pitched delight. They rocketed through the air before circling around and around Detilba’s head, making her dizzy. But she wanted to go home. She was going to say just that when light flashed from the rock, and her jaw dropped open.
A beautiful person emerged from the narrow crack, then another and another. They were pale, narrow people, taller than Detilba but shorter than her mother, and they stood before her in dresses of bright colors and dazzling whites – one in bright summer-sky blue, one in orange like fire, the last in shimmery green. Their gray eyes looked down at her with interest, but Detilba saw reserve in them, too. Like the playground monitor who wanted to like you, but wasn’t sure if you were a good kid or a bad one.
Detilba scrambled to her feet. The rock tried to trip her again, so she gave it a small scowl and stepped over it carefully. Then she looked toward the thin people and smiled shyly.
“Hi. I’m Detilba. Who are you?”
The people looked at one another, murmuring softly in some language Detilba couldn’t understand. The one in green was a lady. Her hair was long and yellow, and braided in some strange and beautiful way all over her head. The other two had darker hair, not quite brown, and it flowed in thick ponytails down their backs. Around their brows all three wore bands, like thin crowns, with a jewel in the center that matched their clothes.
“Welcome, Detilba. We are pleased to meet you. You may call me Lady Sycamore.” The woman in green spoke softly, her clear words lilting musically. Lady Sycamore gestured to the man in orange, then the man in blue. “My companions are Lord Oak and Lord Willow.”
They nodded regal heads towards Detilba, and she nodded gravely back. A glance down at her own worn, stained clothes made her frown. Why hadn’t she worn something pretty today?
Because you don’t own anything pretty. Just like Dolly.
She frowned and shook her head. Looking up, Detilba met the stares of the three beautiful people. Her skin prickled, feeling their invisible touch. She froze, her tongue licking the inside of her teeth.
“Did…did I do something wrong?” she asked in a soft voice.
Lady Sycamore smiled, and Detilba felt goodness flow from her the way warmth flows from a heater. Lord Willow smiled next, and from him came the essence of gentleness. Finally Lord Oak nodded and creased his narrow face into a smile. He radiated strength. Lady Sycamore stepped forward and her smile became warmer still. Detilba flushed as happiness and a desire to please this strange woman filled her.
“No, child. You must forgive us. We were not expecting you to be so young. Time is different here, and we overcompensated I believe. But our sending is not in error.”
The glamours tinkled and chimed, the colors shimmering as they cascaded over and around Detilba’s head. She laughed again, her shabby clothes forgotten.
“You did good. They said so!” Detilba agreed with the delight in the chiming tones, and the glamours pulsed gaily for her.
“Will you come with us, Detilba?” Lord Willow said in a soft voice. He held out his long, narrow hand for hers, and Detilba saw the blue gem on his forehead wink in a shaft of sunlight. Almost, it seemed to speak to her. It was all very strange.
“Where are you going?” she asked, edging back a little. “Back inside the rock?”
“Well, yes. But it’s not just a rock, you see. It’s a door. Into our world.”
“It’s very beautiful there,” Lady Sycamore added.
“And much warmer than here,” said Lord Oak. His voice was deep and reassuring. Detilba wanted to run to his side almost as bad as she wanted to run away, back to her apartment and the static-y TV you had to smack to make work.
Detilba shook her head, stubborn in her uncertainty. “No. No no no. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave my Momma. She’d be so sad without me. And angry, too. I’m not supposed to leave the apartment, she says. I gotta go home now.”
“You are free to leave, of course,” Lady Sycamore said in a soothing tone. Calmness washed over Detilba, from her tensed feet, to her racing heart, and up through her whirling mind. When it rippled all the way through her, she was relaxed and unafraid.
“How did you do that?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.
Lady Sycamore smiled, and Detilba’s heart felt glad. “I just let your happiness out of the fearful box you trapped it within. You didn’t want to be so afraid, did you?” Her eyes twinkled.
Detilba shook her head. “No. Not really. But I really don’t want to go inside the rock, either. Do I have to?” She put all her pleading best into that question. It drew a small frown from Lady Sycamore. Detilba felt bad. But not enough to take back her question.
Lady Sycamore looked to Lords Willow and Oak, who raised eyebrows then shrugged. Something passed between their eyes. Detilba saw it but couldn’t figure it out. They all turned to look carefully at her, and her heart raced.
“No. I suppose it is not mandatory.” The slow words filled the quiet glade. “We can all gather here, in the Gateway. It will be more difficult, but that cannot be avoided, it seems. You will—.” A small frown, then, “Can you return here tomorrow?”
Detilba started to nod, then she frowned and shook her head.
“No. Momma is off tomorrow. She wouldn’t let me come here. She says it isn’t safe.”
“Your mother? Could you bring her?” Lord Willow leaned forward as he spoke.
Detilba frowned as she shook her head ‘no’. Why would they want Momma here? Fear edged forward, and this time Detilba didn’t want Lady Sycamore to send it away. She scooted back.
“That is too bad, Miss Detilba. We would like to meet her, to tell her what a fine child she has raised. Are you certain you couldn’t lure her here? So we could…give her a gift of our appreciation?” Lord Oak’s reassuring words melted Detilba’s knees. She reached a hand out, rested it on a sapling tree. The bark was rough under her fingers. That, too, reassured her. She smiled at him.
“I can try.”
She pushed out her lip as she concentrated. “If I tell her a dog took my Dolly here, that I saw it from the window, where I’d dropped it, she might come. And I could follow.” In her mind, the picture played out as if it’d really happened, as if her beloved Dolly were resting here, in the mud. Momma spanked her for lying, but this seemed like truth right from the start. It ripped at her heart, and she swallowed her tears, reminding herself it hadn’t happened yet.
“That seems like a very good plan.” Lord Oak’s words warmed her.
“So, tomorrow morning, then.” Lord Willow said, goodwill glowing in his eyes.
They turned to go, but the glamours buzzed and chimed, and Lady Sycamore turned with a small frown between her eyes.
“Ah. Let me fix your wounds, child. Small as they are, we don’t want your hurts on our consciences.” She waved a hand. A glimmering light, like the glamours but smaller, closer to dust, flitted to Detilba’s wet shoes, scraped knees and palms. A tingling swept her skin and bones where it touched, and Detilba hissed in surprise. The glittering melted, disappearing before her eyes. Detilba’s legs were whole again, healthy and brown and unhurt. Her hands too. Her clothes were dry and clean.
She looked up to thank the Lady, maybe even go with them, but they were gone. The glamours, too. The woods felt empty without them, and dark. Branches creaked overhead, and a bird screamed warning. Detilba turned and fled back to her apartment, her heart racing the whole way.
“I don’t know what you were thinking, dropping Dolly out the window like that. Sometimes, Detilba, I think you try to find ways to annoy me.” Her Momma sighed as she lifted Detilba over the guard rail into the gravel lot. “What color was this dog, anyway? Are you sure it was only one?”
Detilba nodded. “Yes Momma, it was only one. A spotted one, with long ears.” She added the last in a hurry, knowing Momma hated pit bulls and would turn right around if she thought that kind of dog took Dolly. Momma looked around, her hands on her hips.
“Well, where to now, young lady? I don’t see any dog here.”
Detilba pointed to the wood. “There. I saw it go into the trees.”
“How could you see so far?” Her mother gave a suspicious glare.
“The yellow color, momma. It stood out.”
“I thought you said the dog was spotted.”
“Spotted yellow and white.” She nodded, eyes wide. A tear trembled on the edge of falling as she let herself think of Dolly, all alone in the dark forest. “Hurry, Momma! Dolly’s afraid.”
Her mother sighed, and mumbling under her breath, trudged over the run-off, now almost dry, and into the edge of the trees. Detilba hurried along, skipping in her mother’s wake and trying not to sing.
“There!” Detilba pointed low to the ground as a yellow glimmer raced ahead of them. The glamours—Detilba recognized them—drew her Momma into the glade. They raced a few yards further, until the trees fell away and the cracked rock and immense tree stood before them.
“There it is!” cried Momma as she stepped into the clearing. Just feet away lay a scrap of pale rag. Once Detilba crossed the tree line, it rose up into the glamours, chiming sweetly.
“Hey!” her Momma cried, drawing back with her hands wide to fend it off. Her mother’s habitual anger toward anything strange reminded Detilba of Lord Oak and his safety.
“Momma, it’s okay. They’re just glamours. They’re nice, really.”
“What are you—”
“Angelia Harper. It has been a long time.” Lady Sycamore’s voice pierced the air like an arrow.
She stood, along with Lords Willow and Oak, with a stranger – a gangly girl of ten with ebon skin far darker than Detilba’s, and eyes darker still. Those eyes raced over Detilba, then lingered long on her Momma. It made Detilba feel strange, that girl eyeing her Momma so. She slipped her hand into her mother’s nerveless grasp.
“Who—who are you?” The gasp was so unlike her mother that Detilba looked up. The ashen face above hers was barely recognizable.
“Momma, Momma, I’m sorr—.” Her words were cut off as her mother snatched Detilba off her feet and up to her chest, wrapping her arms around Detilba as she backed away.
“We met many years ago, Angelia. Just after your daughter was born. Do you recall? The memory was buried deep, but now, it should emerge.” Lady Sycamore’s voice was soft. Detilba looked up to see her mother’s fearful face turn to a thoughtful frown.
“We made a bargain,” Lord Willow said, taking a half-step forward. He raised empty open palms into the air, indicating all of them in the clearing. “Do you remember it now? A desperate bargain made during desperate times?”
“You…you wanted my…baby.” Her Momma’s words dropped like slow stones, echoing around the woods. The arms around Detilba tightened until they hurt.
“We wanted to trade.” Lady Sycamore stressed the last word. “Only for awhile. Not forever.”
“For the benefit of both,” Lord Willow added with a slight smile.
“No! I have my baby, my Detilba. You can’t have her. Not now! Not ever!” Her mother clutched her so tight Detilba thought her arms were breaking. She cried out. The arms around her loosened and Momma’s face dropped to her own. Wetness coated Detilba’s cheeks, and the little girl realized her Momma was crying. She’d never seen her cry before. Not ever.
Her mother jumped.
They both looked up to see Lord Oak with one hand on her mother’s shoulder, his other on the dark girl’s back.
“No, your daughter is here, Angelia. This is the girl you wanted a future for. The one you sacrificed five years of your love for, so she could know safety, beauty, and joy. So she could return to you full of hope, full of knowledge. With a future, despite her dark skin.
“Detilba is our child, given into your care so that she may explain your ways to us, teach us what to fear, what to embrace. She will make the inexplicable plain to us, and is our hope for the future. Your child, Sage, is here.”
All eyes went to the girl, this Sage. He thrust the girl forward. Despite the shove, she moved with grace. She straightened her narrow shoulders and raised her head. Dark eyes met Detilba’s then locked on her mother’s.
Detilba’s feet hit the ground. She stood, shocked still as her momma knelt, one arm around Detilba’s shoulders, and reached a shaking hand to the girl’s cheek. Detilba looked from one to the other. The similarity was undeniable; Sage looked more like Momma than she did.
Suddenly, her Momma threw both arms around this Sage. The girl stood stiffly, then lifted slow arms and finally, melted into the embrace.
Standing alone, cold fear clutched Detilba’s belly. She looked up at Lord Oak.
“Who is my momma, then?” she whispered. She wished she’d never brought her mother here. She wished she’d never met the glamours. Her eyes burned with tears waiting to fall, and she sniffed. Two times.
“That would be me, Detilba.”
At the familiar voice, Detilba looked up, her mouth hanging open. Lady Sycamore stood before her, her eyes offering love and apology in equal measures.
“But…you’re white.” Detilba held out her dark amber-colored arm.
As Detilba watched, Lady Sycamore darkened by degrees, her skin first glowing tan, then shading darker to match Detilba’s, and finally going to pure black, darker even than her Momma–than Angelia’s.
“With us, dear one, coloration is as much suggestion and desire as inheritance.” Lady Sycamore blanched to her former paleness. “Do you want to trade your looks?”
Detilba looked at her arm, looked at the soft brown skin there, and tried to imagine it white as snow, her hair spun gold like Lady Sycamore’s. It didn’t look right to her. It wasn’t who she was. Not really. Maybe it had been, maybe it would be again. But not now.
She shook her head. “No. I like me like this.”
Lady Sycamore nodded and gave an approving smile. Detilba grew an inch under that praise. The fine Lady Sycamore opened her arms wide and Detilba launched herself into them with a loud laugh. Giggles erupted as a tingling began when their flesh touched, and Detilba knew that, skin color or not, this woman was her mother. Her blood sang with joyful recognition. With—for the first time in her life—a sense of rightness. Of belonging. It washed all fear away.
The parties drifted apart, slowly heading to their own worlds, when the words pierced the air.
Detilba looked back, her dark hand in Lady Scyamore’s small pale palm. Her Momma…Angelia Harper…stood with an arm around Sage, hugging her tighly. But her other arm was outstretched toward Detilba, and the look on her face – it broke Detilba’s heart.
Loosing her hand from the soft grip, Detilba barreled back across the glade and launched herself at her Momma’s hips. The familiar arms encircled her once more, and Detilba was comforted by the scent of Momma, of the stale air of home, of all that she’d known. But she drew back.
Looking up, she found her Momma’s eyes on her.
“I’ll always be your little girl, and you’ll always be my Momma.”
“Oh, Detilba!” Her Momma began to cry, and Detilba gave her a hasty hug. She turned to Sage. The black-as-night girl stood with hands clasped tight before her.
“Take care of her for me. And Dolly, too. Okay?”
The girl nodded. “I give you my word on it.” She paused, her head tilting much like Lady Sycamore’s gesture. “And you, take care of Mother Sycamore for me. And the others. They need your joy, I think. That’s what your name means, in their old tongue – Joy. As I am ‘Wisdom’ in this world.”
Detilba nodded, then hugged the girl impulsively. As they smiled to one another, Detilba whispered to her.
“Momma likes happy, but she likes it better when I’m smart, and quiet. She’ll like you best if you study hard, I think.”
“Then we’re going to the right places,” the girl smiled, her teeth so white against her dark face they dazzled.
“I can sing there? And walk barefoot in the grass?” The girl nodded. “Then I think so too.”
Detilba turned and ran back to the colorful party waiting beside the rock. She clasped Lady Sycamore’s hand in her own once more, then turned and waved to Momma and Sage. But they had already turned away, heading back towards the muddy run-off, the gravel lot and the tiny apartment in the dingy building. Why had she never before noticed the world was so gray?
The rock loomed before them. As they walked toward it, Detilba’s hand clutched Lady Sycamore’s. But the rock dissolved as Lady Sycamore touched it, and colors ran around Detilba like so many birds. She opened her mouth, and all that came out was a gasp of delight, then a laugh of pure, unrestrained joy.
Detilba was, finally, home.