The afternoon sun shone, liquid warm and dappled through the leaves. The girl sat, thin arms pulling a stiff circle around her small knees, up in the branches. Bright light beamed off her hair, a woolly blonde halo high in the foliage. She had been told not to climb that tree.
“I’ve told you not to climb that tree Mariella.”
Her mothers voice was steely, coldly reasonable, floating disembodied up the old trunk. Mariella closed her eyes, tight, forcing sight back out. She would have closed her ears if she could without appearing childish. After a few long moments she heard the familiar sigh, resigned disappointment flittering through the autumn air. The screen door swung closed, flapping weakly against the wooden frame of the house.
She opened her eyes.
From up here she could see all the way over to the next white farmhouse, and beyond that, above the low hills, the smudge of dirty orange sky that marked the city far below. She nestled further back, into the warm, rough arms of the old tree. From this nest in the sky she tried out her dreams. From this small circle of bark she took flight each day, her wings pumping powerfully, pushing the ground away from her, as far as possible. It was from here that she watched, mesmerized, as that nondescript pool of orange sky slowly wheeled into a dazzling glow, so bright it blotted out the night stars nearby.
She dreamt of all the people waiting to meet her in that city, the future men awaiting her allure, the red carpets to be walked, faceless strangers calling her name. As she dreamed, the night fell around her, draping the tree in its velvety black.
Mariella was never afraid. Instead she felt relieved, hidden, disguised by the night. From here, draped in black velvet, beguiled by the glittering stars, she was untouchable. There were no disappointed silences, no lacking, no hint of disenchantment high in her tree. Sometimes she crept out of bedroom during the witching hour, in the deep of the night, to climb to the highest branches, the cool evening air rippling through the thin cotton of her nightdress. Abraham Finch, their old caretaker often saw her from his cottage window, a slight ghostly figure, steadily climbing the old oak over by the old plantation house, surrounded by fireflies. He didn’t know that it was Mariella.
She was a quiet girl, but she longed for adoration. Above all, she wished to be touched. In this house, this huge, empty home, with basements and attics and dusty spare rooms, there was no touching. There was no yelling. Only low, reasoned requests, bestowed with at least a metre or so of dead space between them. She couldn’t remember her father ever touching her. Her mother, only once.
Mariella had slipped on the porch steps, a rogue nail punching into her shin. The cut wasn’t deep, but enough to start her bottom lip trembling and send her inside in search of solace, shoulders downcast. Her mother had reached out, almost instinctively, as though to comfort, but at the last second had retracted, almost stricken, and Mariella, an eight year old girl with the rust of blood seeping steadily down towards her spotless white socks, was treated to a halting pat on the shoulder. She saw her mother shudder in barely restrained revulsion as she turned away, back into the dim parlour.
So each night she ignored her mother, those perfectly lined lips shaping the same words, muted and resigned, knowing that she would go away soon. Like all of this, it would all go away soon.
As soon as twilight fell, she would be alone in her tree.