Ling believed in wood-folk with her whole soul. The magic of a mid-winter snowstorm over sleeping fields opened a doorway into a world of scheming squirrels and spirit-filled pine trees. A cawing raven warned the tree-stump mouse family of a stalking calico cat while swaying trees forecasted an impending storm.
Though Ling could hear the voices plain enough, their actual words eluded her. The sound of their murmuring sent a warm thrill through her chilled body as she trudged across the newly fallen snow with a bulging backpack slung over her shoulder.
Skipping up the frozen steps to her snug house at the end of the block, she huffed a white plume of smoke into the air. Before turning the door handle with her mittened hands, she turned and bowed goodnight to her wood-folk-friends. No doubt they wished her well through the silent evening glow, and she, in turn, would not forget them.
After tugging off her wet boots and dropping her pack in a heap, she tiptoed down the dark hall toward her father’s study. His bent figure leaned over a hardwood desk with a computer screen outlining the edges of his head. Swallowing back her anxiety, Ling timidly tapped on the doorframe.
A shuffle and a snort precluded his slow turn. Black eyes in a pale face peered at the doorway.
Ling dropped her gaze.
“So, you made it home on time today.”
Ling nodded but stayed in place. “Yes, Papa.”
He granted permission to enter with a slight beckoning gesture. “Come in.” His gaze darted back to the screen. “There’s not much more I can do here today.”
Ling scuttled forward and placed her small hand on the arm of his chair. Her eyes flickered to the screen. A gorgeous painting of a woodland scene snatched her breath away. Her fingers rose as if to touch the gently swaying tendrils of an enormous weeping willow.
Her father wrapped a loose arm around her waist and drew her closer, his gaze joining hers. “It’s for a mid-western university. They want to demonstrate their inclusiveness by commissioning art from every culture in the world.”
Ling blinked, the spell broken. “Inclusiveness?”
The old man shrugged. “Art can be a unifying force.” He tilted his head. “Of course, it can be enslaved by a propaganda machine just as easily.” Ling’s puzzled frown brought a tired smile to her father’s face. “You are too young for such things. Enjoy your freedom while you may.”
Placing her hand on his silky sleeve, Ling pressed his arm in excitement. “I saw a red fox sneaking across the field. He’s been threatening the other animals, wants to rule the west woodland. Do you think the—?”
A shrill call cut through the air. “Ling? Come here, child, and bring your school bag.”
Her whole body drooping under a sudden weight, Ling stepped back toward the door. She gazed at her father. “You should draw a fox peeking out from behind the tree.”
The old man’s eyes shifted from the picture to his daughter, surprise on his brow but pleasure in his eyes. “Why?”
She trudged across the threshold, her eyes darting toward the kitchen. “Because—there’s always a fox around somewhere.”
After hours of study, Ling’s eyes burned with exhaustion. Her blurry vision made it difficult to make out the text before her. Her mother filled the kettle for tomorrow’s tea and set it in its designated place on the stove. The immaculate room stood in readiness for the next day to meet the demands of a peak performance.
In her weary haze, Ling wondered if a kitchen could revolt—demand a rest from the never-ending grind of routine preparations. Pots and pans, stovetops, counters, scraping, cleaning, bubbling, oil, smoke, dishes, and grime, wiping—endlessly wiping—it all away, only to start over the next morning before the sun even hinted at the day.
“What has gotten into you, child? You’ve been sitting there for an hour, and nothing is done. You know your exams are next month. You want to be ready.”
Her mother placed a damp hand on her shoulder. “You won’t succeed unless you work hard and try—”
Her mother stared down, their gazes locking.
An implicit allowance offered Ling courage. “We’re supposed to make a family tree and describe our cultural heritage in class next week.”
A stiff jerk and the mother’s gaze shifted to the wall. “That won’t be hard. I have our whole lineage written down, and your father can tell you what each person did for a living.”
Ling shook her head, dissatisfaction pressing on her shoulders like a lead weight. “I’d rather take one of Papa’s pictures to show. That would—”
Her mother turned and swiped the clean counter with a vicious smack. “Pictures are only illusions. Don’t be ridiculous. Our family has survived a great deal—more than most—and we did it by facing facts and working hard.”
“But Papa’s pictures—”
“Your father makes pictures because he is paid to do so. He is an illustrator. He works at his job—as you will too before long.”
Her mother’s unflinching gaze squeezed Ling’s heart.
“It’s survival of the fittest, just like all the books say. And you, Ling, must survive.”
Ling’s gaze dropped to the floor. A small brown knothole in the wainscoting caught her eye. In sudden wakefulness, she thought she saw a small mouse dart out an inquiring face, blinking a question at her. It seemed to ask, “Why?” But Ling had no answer.
Two dozen years later, Ling pushed her father’s frail form engulfed in a wheelchair through the wide doors out into spring sunshine. A trailing line of elderly people sat like potted plants on the edge of the retirement property. Small blooms added texture to the scene. She found a quiet corner and pressed the brake lever with her foot. Her father, asleep again, would rest in the mild sunshine for an hour or so, until the nurses collected their charges and set them all in a straight row at the long table for a noon dinner.
A passing nurse stopped and patted Ling’s shoulder. “I heard about your mama. So sorry. But your papa is beyond worry now. Just be glad he’s so content.”
Ling nodded and choked back a rising sob. She let her gaze fall on the surrounding scenery. No one could fault the clean and professional atmosphere. Suddenly, her eyes fell on the swaying branches of a weeping willow in a neighboring yard.
She felt a hand on her arm. Looking over, she met her papa’s gaze. “I painted in the fox, but I forgot something.”
With wide-eyes, Ling marveled at her father’s sudden lucidity. “What? What could you have forgotten, Papa?”
His eyes drooped in weariness, though a feeble finger shook in emphasis. “I forgot to paint a little girl—to admire the tree and keep an eye on the fox.”
Novels by A. K. Frailey
Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg
Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN
Coming in 2018…
OldEarth ARAM Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)
Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r
The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5
The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00