by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, Issue 5, December 2016
Camping with my sister Phyllis feels like a cargo cult. If she hikes into Uncle Mark’s forest, stakes out a tent in the dirt, cooks instant stuffing on a propane stove, and toasts hot dogs on sticks, then she believes the happiness of childhood will come flooding back. But all I see is a sadly empty camp site. There are no cousins climbing trees, rock-hopping across the river, or searching for frogs — they’re all grown up and scattered across the country. Hell, Erika lives in Australia. Instead of aunts and uncles laughing over a lively game of Brain-Dead Bridge around the campfire, it’s just me, Phyllis, and her travel backgammon set.
The teakettle whistles, and Phyllis pours boiling water into three insulated, metal mugs. She empties packets of hot chocolate — the kind with mini-marshmallows — into the water and stirs it in.
“Who’s the third cup for?” I ask, hoping that Uncle Mark is planning to join us despite the email he sent saying he was too busy. I haven’t seen him in years.
“The fairies.” Phyllis hands one mug to me and keeps one. She pours the third onto the fire, and the hot chocolate explodes in a cloud of steam. The smell of cocoa and vanilla fills the air.
After backgammon, we roast marshmallows. Phyllis and I each make three s’mores, complete with graham crackers and chocolate. My stomach feels so full of sugar, I can’t imagine eating another, but Phyllis reaches for the bag of marshmallows again. She toasts the marshmallow to a perfect golden-brown and squishes it between two crackers and a piece of chocolate, but, instead of taking a bite, she gets up and walks to the other side of the fire. She sets it on a rock, right at the edge of the firelight.
“For the fairies?” I ask.
She nods. I wonder why she doesn’t throw them on the fire like the hot chocolate. Phyllis makes five more and sets them all out on rocks. We’ll have squirrels all over our camp by morning.
We put the campfire out with the rest of the water in the kettle and crawl into our shared tent to sleep. It looked small from the outside, but inside it feels large with only the two of us. It’s dark, but I can hear Phyllis breathing, almost mumbling to herself as we lie there.
“Are you okay?” I whisper.
She shushes me.
The cloth ceiling of our tent glows dimly. The shadowy shapes of tree branches twist about and grasp insubstantially at us. I wonder where the glow came from. There’s no moon tonight.
Phyllis’ breathing speeds up. She crawls to the front of the tent and unzips it. “Look,” she whispers.
I crawl to the unzipped crack in the tent and kneel beside Phyllis, sleeping bags tangled around us.
Lights dance behind the trees, coming closer, until the glowing figures of six childlike sprites form in the darkness. They dance and look like they’re laughing, but all I hear is Phyllis, whispering, “See!” She grabs my hand and squeezes it.
The sprites chase each other, tumbling and tripping around our campsite as if they’re playing tag. They remind me of us, when we were young and played with our four cousins.
The sprites notice the s’mores and settle down to eat them. The one closest to us — her face looks like Erika’s when she was eight. Another one could be Jason. Sprites who look just like Aaron, Micah, and Phyllis make faces at each other until they all tumble over in silent fits of laughter. Then I see one of the shadowy, glowing children brush hair out of her eyes, and she looks exactly like a picture of me from my fifth birthday. I’ve never looked happier.
I don’t know how Phyllis is doing this. I don’t know if I should be scared. But, for now, I squeeze her hand back and whisper, “You’re right, fairies.” Then I enjoy watching our memories.