by Andrin Albrecht
We’re going up there to appease the children.
Mother says we have to do it, that somebody has to do it every year. It’s part of how things work. When they hang the town streets with lanterns, when they have barbecues in the yards and lemonade sales at our school, when they stick the rockets between the flower beds and put on their flower masks, home-made out of last year’s wood, then someone has to pack a basket, a tuned mandolin, some Bengal matches for themselves, and hike up the hill.
This year, it’s us. There is some kind of lottery, Mother says.
Who are the children up there? I ask, but Mother is too busy to answer. She wraps a red ribbon around the basket. The pretty one I liked to play with when I was little. Mother used to scold me when I did, told me it was dangerous for a baby. Now she takes two bottles of sparkly juice out of the fridge, for us on the way. She wipes some dust off the family photo on the mantelpiece, then moves it over to the bookshelf. She packs her new mask but doesn’t want to put it on just yet because of the walk, she says. Pats her dress. Pats my head and kisses me between the eyebrows:
Come, we have to hurry, we have to get there before the music starts.
There are people in flower masks everywhere; some of them are really hard to recognize. The one with the daisy-face has to be my sister, and the one with the sunflowers that look like giant ears is Robin. I was out frog-hunting with him only last week. There’s Mr. Malkin, our math teacher––I can tell by his shiny red convertible. Everything else of him is hidden under a festival gown completely made of tulip petals. He looks magnificent, like fire.
Mother’s basket smells magnificent. She’s been baking pie all afternoon, putting so much raspberry in it that her hands turned red. I also saw her packing olives from my favorite jar, a bag that moved, and Turkish delight.
And she filled two thermos flasks with cocoa: one with a pinch of cinnamon, the other with a little bit of sherry for herself.
We turn away from the lanterns, the flower masks, and the light, and head towards the dark. The hillside is covered in forest. During the day, this area is perfect for frog-hunting, or simply to catch a break from the heat, but now Mother has to hand me a flashlight so we can see where we step.
It’s much quieter. You wouldn’t think that there are celebrations about to start. The air smells damp. I chug half of my sparkly juice just so I can taste something else.
A silhouette moves in the shadows.
Where do the children come from, I ask Mother.
She’s silent and drags me along faster. The path is steep. It’s mostly gravel here, but roots go this way across it and sometimes that way. You can see wild strawberries in the underbrush and shiny eyes that are their exact same color and size.
They live up on the hill, Mother says at last, or at least in a fashion they do.
How did they get there?
All sorts of ways. The world used to be a grim place. Wars, you know? People didn’t used to have enough to eat. Parents did bad things to their kids. And then also disease.
How horrible! And now they’re up there all alone?
Well, they’re up there all together.
What do they do all day?
Mostly they sleep. Or they do things that we don’t know about. Only sometimes, when the lights of our town get too bright, they direct their attention towards us. They become curious, or something like that. They want to partake and get frustrated if we don’t let them, you know? That’s why it’s so important that someone go up there during the festival. Lest they come down to us.
I shiver, although even here in the forest, it isn’t really that cold. Moreover, I have a good pullover: Mother knitted it for me.
For a while, neither of us says anything because the path grows steep and we’re getting out of breath. There is a brook nearby. I can hear it. There are no animal sounds. Not even frogs.
The flashlight dances over dead, white wood, and over ivy, and over little hands … No, that’s just a trick my eyes are playing. You can imagine anything when it’s this dark. Mother asks me if I could carry the mandolin for a moment.
There is still no music.
Finally, we go past an old marble fountain––water like oil when our beam falls on it––and Mother tells me to pick up the pebble that’s lying on its rim. Soon after, we step onto a clearing near the top of the hill. There is a single lantern on a post in its middle, the kind you see in town centers, and a circle of white stones around it. Mother steps onto the tallest of them, takes a box of matches from her dress pocket, opens a little hatch in the lantern’s glass case and lights it. Then she puts the basket down and unfastens the red ribbon. My bottle of sparkly juice is empty, so I put it on one of the stones. Mother lets me have the rest of hers.
Put the pebble there, she says, and points to a gap between the other stones. It fits perfectly.
We sit down in the grass, under the flickering flame, and it’s actually quite lovely. Mother tells me to switch off the flashlight and puts it in her pocket. The moon is out: a huge yellow coin, up between fizzles of night clouds in all the shades of blue, and unusual stars in between. We’re so close to the hilltop that you can see very far: the town and the neighboring town and the one behind that, fields and farms covered by darkness, the black band of the river, bits of brightness where the mountain peaks on the horizon are still capped in snow.
It’s beautiful, I say, and Mother looks at me.
Finally, she opens her basket and takes out the items in it, one by one: a picnic blanket, the two thermoses of cocoa––she tells me to be patient. Olives, pie, little tomatoes, a chunk of cheese, the Turkish delight that, in its glistening paper wrapping, looks like a pretty spring bouquet.
Enjoy, she says, louder than she would have had to, and a little startled, I start snacking.
The woods whisper. Down below in our town, lights have congregated in the square––there will be a speech by the Mayor, a marching band performance, then the first batch of fireworks, and the second around midnight. I know this from previous years. They will tie the flower doll to a balloon, or rather to three dozen because it’s been getting bigger every year. Only once it has completely disappeared in the night sky are people allowed to take off their masks.
Last year, when that happened, Mother let me have a sip of her wine. I liked that.
After she is done eating and I dig into my third slice of pie, Mother takes the mandolin and starts playing. It’s a sad song, somehow, but she has a beautiful voice, so I listen with a smile.
I don’t understand the lyrics, but I think they go something like this:
Placate pueris puellisque
We are surrounded by a semi-circle of trees and a semi-circle of sky. Both seem equally calm and lovely. Something in the trees shifts. That’s more than just leaves.
I don’t really see them, but I feel them, there in the darkness from which we just came, bits of them: a row of teeth, a few little fingers, little feet, a curved spine … I can feel their eyes, and I suddenly know—like you sometimes know something that you had a dream about and then forgot: their eyes are like the eyes of goats, with little square pupils that don’t move—at all. They have to move their entire head to see.
Mother, I say, I think there’s someone watching us …
Yes, there is, she says, and puts the mandolin aside. They’re bored, I think––or curious––or simply disillusioned.
There is something comforting about having her near me, about our pocket of light and the circle of stones that surrounds it. I look at the moon and think it has gotten bigger. Mother hands me a piece of Turkish delight, asks if I want any more olives, but who could eat olives and sweets together?
Then she takes a jute bag from the basket which shivers and squeals.
You must be hungry, she shouts into the darkness. I brought some delights for you, too!
Mother opens the bag and holds its mouth towards the trees. Immediately, two dozen little white mice with little red lines run from it. They disperse in all directions, like dandelion seeds blown across the clearing. Because of their white fur, I can see them even after they’ve reached the trees––and I can see how they get snatched up. One by one. Dark things close around their small bodies, squeeze them, lift them up, bite them in two—like I just bit the olives.
I move back until I can feel the lantern pole between my shoulder blades. The trees are whistling, even the highest branches. Is that a little head with pigtails cut out against the sky?
I can see the last mouse disappear.
Do you want a Bengal match? Mother asks me.
Yes, I nod.
She gives me three.
Together, we paint burning hearts and stars and the first letters of our names into the night. They vanish again moments after. I can hear a drumbeat coming from the town, and maybe that’s laughter? I laugh a little, too. My scarlet match is pretty and seems to burn longer than any of the others––I make a flower, a scarlet rose, and Mother applauds.
There is applause from between the trees, too. I try not to listen to it too closely, because while some of it sounds normal enough, some is more of a clanking, you know, like they don’t actually have skin on their palms.
Do they like it?
Yes, says Mother, they like it a lot! Don’t you hear? They’re all here now, and they’re getting excited …
She doesn’t seem excited. Something is off about Mother’s face. Maybe she noticed it too because she reaches into the basket again and takes out her flower mask, made entirely of white lilies. I’ve never seen it before. In previous years, Mother always wore simple masks crafted from the gladiola in our garden. This one is a lot more elaborate; it goes down to her neck and neatly interweaves with her hair, like the flowers were actually growing out of her scalp.
I hear fingernails scratching on the bark of trees, and then that horrible sound a fingernail makes when it breaks off. A shiver runs down my spine. There it is again. A little boy laughs.
Something slithers through dried leaves.
In that moment, down in the town, the fireworks start. What a magnificent view! First a random rocket from next to the river––someone couldn’t hold it together long enough!––but only moments later, there’s a marvelous barrage from the town square: fountains of silver and gold spout between the stars and make new ones. The air smells of gunpowder, even up here.
Everything trembles. There are shrieks from between the trees, little orbs lighting up, and I can see that they have hearts because there are gaps between their ribs. I don’t have eyes for the trees and the children in them, though––I have eyes for nothing except the fireworks.
On and on and on it goes. Each load is louder and more magnificent than the one before. Soon, all the people at home shoot their own rockets, and it’s not only the town square anymore—the entire town is blooming with fire. Rubies, sapphires, diamonds rain from the clouds––if only you could catch them! A particularly fancy rocket releases a swarm of flaming moths. Another one looks exactly like the moon. Maybe next year we should watch it from up here again––what a perfect spot!
My mouth is moon-shaped; my hands are cramped.
When the fireworks finally peter out, I can’t move them anymore.
Mother has used the red ribbon to tie me to the lantern post.
What? Coming from my dry throat, the question sounds like the croaking of a frog.
I’m not sure she even looks at me––I can’t see her eyes behind the lilies. Mother has started putting the blanket and the leftover food back in the picnic basket. The jute bag that contained the mice she leaves in the corner of the circle. She strokes the mandolin once again, plays a single chord and hums:
“Lacrimae meae …”
before she places it back in its case.
In the distance, here and there another solitary little rocket. I can see the circles made by colorful balloons: they look real pretty. But the circles made by eyes, they scare me.
Mother says she’s sorry. She says the children always become lonely at this time of the year, and that they need something to play with—a few mice and music just wouldn’t do. She tells me about the lottery, again. She says that she’s sorry. Sorry. Then she picks up the white pebble from the circle.
Need to wash my hands. Need to wash at the fountain, she whispers––what do you mean?
She steps onto the biggest of the stones and opens the hatch in the lantern. Down in the village, I can see the flower doll rise––it’s a giant, lifted by dozens of balloons. It looks helpless despite its size. Maybe it doesn’t want to fly.
I tear at the red ribbon, but the knot is perfectly tight.
Everything whistles: the trees, the shadows, the darkness behind me. Even the stars look a lot like little teeth, and the sound comes from between them.
I’m sorry. Every year, we need to come up here and appease the children.
The flower doll disappears first from sight, and only then the balloons that lift it get swallowed by the dark, like strawberries in somebody’s mouth. The Festival is over.
Mother takes off her flower mask. Then she opens the hatch of the lantern and blows out the light.
Andrin Albrecht was born in Switzerland in 1995, grew up speaking German, and later became obsessed with English in high school. He has since studied English and creative writing in Zurich, Colorado, and Singapore. His writing in both languages has appeared in a variety of journals, among them The Foundationalist, Down in the Dirt Magazine, and Literaturhaus Zurich. Andrin is currently pursuing a PhD in American Literature in Jena, Germany, while also working on a fairytale-esque novel, and playing electric guitar in the alternative rock band TRACK 4. More information can be found on www.andrinalbrecht.org.