She Sets the Sun, by Benjamin Kling
There’s a clearing by the waterfall where the trees don’t stand because they’re afraid to be alone. They huddle together like freshmen on the sideline, a living background of spectators. The summer sun smiles at me off the water, glistens on the wet rocks on the bank and the crystal pool where the water drops plunge to their death and are instantly resurrected among their water drop friends. It’s a show the trees could watch forever.
“We just don’t have much time, you sure you wanna stop?” calls her voice from the trees. The girl who lives three doors down from me in the baby blue house with the old brick chimney and the high up bedroom window I grew up accidentally breaking with baseballs on purpose is too short to be a tree, but I wish she’d at least try to stand with them.
“Ya,” I pause and the hush of the waterfall churning and the stream gushing on reclaims the air for only a second, “I’m sure.” There’s a weathered boulder by the ledge that has moss on the far side but not on the front where I sit and take my shoes off so I can run my toes through the still wet grass.
“We just don’t have long. I need to pack, you know,” the girl I kissed on the cheek at recess in the fifth grade sits down next to me and moves her face in front of mine because she knows I won’t look up. “Would you please put your shoes back on?” the girl who babysits my little brother sings in that same lullaby voice.
I run another blade of grass between my toes and wonder if the dew is just a drop from the waterfall that got lost from its friends. I wonder if late at night when it hangs down on its lonely blade of grass, if it dreams of that moment when it stands still in the air, suspended in the sun’s grasp, dangling over everything it knows, before plummeting straight down to its death and rebirth in the crystal pool, down to the safety of its kind. I wonder if it’s scared or excited about the journey ahead, as the waterfall keeps on churning, as water drops plunge and die and are reborn, pushing the stream gently on, about the myriad of destinations to which the current could carry it.
I look from the tapping foot I took to prom, up to the wide eyes I embarrassed at their own sweet sixteen; they’re always like that when she’s mad at me.
“They don’t have waterfalls in Chicago,” I say quietly.
The hush that fills the silence seems to agree.
Her face calms, but her body tenses and she sits straight up. “Sweetie I don’t care if there are waterfalls in Chicago. I’m going there for college, not sightseeing,” spit the puckered lips of the girl who kissed me on my thirteenth birthday. “My flight leaves in ten hours. You have made me push packing off until now to spend all week doing this shit with you. We have seen all the hills, and all the rivers, and all the fucking waterfalls. I have to leave,” finishes the homecoming queen, with giant eyes and raised eyebrows.
I watch the waterfall for a moment and meet the gaze of my tall green friends who do the same. They smirk at me with the wisdom of something more permanent than myself. I assume they would have failed algebra too, yet they seem to know a great deal more than people to me.
“Then leave,” I reply to the delight of my trees who stay glued in their ovation, prepared to applaud but still unconvinced to move their arms.
The waterfall and river sing in harmony with her words, “why do you have to be so childish?” and the girl who taught me how to dance takes a step closer. The girl who tucks me in when I black out at hazy house parties looks down at me, her head the one cloud in the clear blue sky that encompasses her. The sun makes her hazel eyes dazzle and dances on her brown curls in flashes of gold.
“I know it can’t be easy for you, watching everyone else go off to school,” the girl who could never get me to do my homework recites softly, “but can you please just be normal for once and try to end this with good memories?” the first lips to tell me “I love you,” finish whispering with a kiss on my cheek.
My toes reach the end of the blade of grass I’ve been running them through and the dew rests on my toes. The hush calls my name energetically and the stream’s enticing pshh promises a journey to somewhere I’ve never been. The trees smile at me; I think they know I can’t stay. In the air I hug the sun and together we glisten on the wet rocks on the bank and the crystal pool, where I plunge to my death and am instantly resurrected among my water drop friends.
It’s a show the trees could watch forever, but she’s too short to be a tree.
“Come in,” I call to neither the girl who has left nor the trees who stay in their places. The water drops take my advice and jump to hug me and cling to my hair. The stream is clear where the light tiptoes on days like today.
I float on my back and let the water drops carry me wherever they want to go most. The sun makes my face hot and drops escape my hair, crawl down my face and hurry to the side of their friends in the stream. I wonder if they’ve met each other before, in another river or pool or glass of water, many plunges and deaths and rebirths ago, or if they are strangers who have waited their entire lives for this encounter.
The pshh of the current replies that both of these are true and neither. The water’s hug gently reminds me that it understands time in a way the assholes who denied me from college could never imagine.
As I am carried further down the river the water drops whisper to me that they have met each other billions of times, hugged each other in a million different people and killed one another in just as many beasts. They tease me; they who have danced in the sky as birds and raced through endless plains as gazelles, who have thought great thoughts as humans and no thoughts at all as ants, who have dreamed every dream, but have no more need for dreaming because they have already done all that there is to do. They laugh at me all of the experiences time will never let me have.
The trees who watch the stream nod in sad agreement; they stand forever outside a party they can never enjoy. My precious trees hold anxious water, drops who know they will swim again when the day comes that my green friends no longer have the will to watch me swim in the pool without ever jumping in to join. Perhaps neither of us are as wise as we think, the college reject and the trees who had seemed to know so much to him before.
In the water I feel heavy and wonder why I continue to float. My nose and cheeks are tender because the sun gave them too much love. I stand and stop the current from carrying me. Around me are fields of tall grass who won’t show me their secrets, they’re very selfish in that way. Above them stand the heads of my trees, who offer me their wisdom though they know neither of us know much of anything at all.
Their heads are the only clouds in the clear blue sky that encompasses them. They look down on me, but don’t say anything at all. They have no eyes and the sun doesn’t love their leaves like it did the girl’s, but a breeze picks up to swing their massive arms and finally they applaud my performance.
I trudge back towards the hush of the water drops who fall to their deaths and resurrections for the fun of it, to the weathered boulder on the ledge and the side without the moss where the grass is no longer wet, though my feet are now soaking with water drops who I’ve taken from their friends. They’ll find each other eventually, I know, they who have more lifetimes to wait than my green friends and I.
I look out towards the sky; it’s a splattered canvas of pink and orange that looks like prom night cheeks streaked with tears. The air is sweet and I realize I’d been focusing too hard on breathing to notice.
Water drops still jump from my hair to the safety of life as a blade of grass and others to soak my shoes as I tie the laces. It’s too late for them to dry off so I know they’ll get muddy, but as I take the first few steps I don’t mind.
It’s beautiful in the most appropriate kind of way, I think, that the sun reminds us how much we love it by leaving the sky.
Benjamin Kling is a junior at the University of Miami studying international relations, political science, sociology and creative writing. His piece won 2nd place in the Brighton Prize in 2018.
Brian Michael Barbeito is a nature poet and landscape photographer. Brian's work appears at Fiction International and The Notre Dame Review.