by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
The water splashed under Huckle’s boot in the most satisfying way. Repeated little stomps made smacking sounds and rapid ripples. Big stomps from running jumps made a slapping sound and spattered the water high enough to annoy his dad.
“Come on,” Terrence said, grabbing his eight-year-old son’s hand and pulling lightly enough to cajole the boy but not hard enough to hurt him. “If we hurry, we can make it to both Arrin Abbey and the Westle Church before lunch. Wouldn’t that be fun?” Terrence spoke with the tightness in his voice that meant he was trying not to sound annoyed. But he was. Huckle could tell. And Huckle decided to push at him.
“Okay, Terrence,” Huckle said, knowing his father hated it when he called him by his name instead of just Dad.
Huckle watched his dad for a reaction and saw his jaw clench. It was subtle. But his dad was mad. Huckle had become an expert in reading him since his mom had died four years ago.
Still Huckle decided he’d pushed his dad far enough for now, and he stopped splashing through the puddles and just walked nicely, the way his dad wanted him to. Even so, when they got to the abbey, Terrence said, “Why don’t you just play outside.” He pointed to the side of the building where a rundown swing set and slide, slick with water, huddled under a clump of trees. “You don’t seem to care much about seeing the insides of these amazing old buildings anyway.”
That stung. Huckle did like going inside, seeing the paintings of the funny elven people, and hearing the stories about how the various abbeys and churches along the Western Isle Coast had been founded, hundreds of years ago when the planet was first settled. But he didn’t want to tell his dad, so instead he stomped off to the dilapidated mockery of a playground (he was too old for playgrounds anyway) and found a big puddle to splash in.
Huckle kicked the water. The puddle under the clump of trees was deeper than the ones on the sidewalk, and the bottom was slick mud instead of firm concrete. So his kicking foot slid and the momentum carried him through, splat, onto his butt in the mud puddle.
Huckle was too old to cry. At least, that’s what he told himself as he sniffled back the tears and stood up in the middle of the puddle. The water came up to the ankles of his boots, and they were waterproof. But when he’d fallen, some of the muddy water had poured right over the top of his left boot. His foot felt squishy. Huckle wiggled his toes inside his soggy sock.
“Great,” Huckle scolded the puddle with sarcasm. “You’re the meanest mud puddle I’ve ever met.” He was tempted to kick it again but wasn’t actually that stupid. Instead, he started wading through the water, spreading ripples as he went, moving toward the playground. Maybe he could sit down on one of the swings, take his boot off, and wring out his sock.
While wading, Huckle imagined how different today would be if his mom hadn’t died. He pictured snuggling on the bed in the hotel, watching movies because it was too rainy outside. Or miniature golf. One of those restaurants with loud music, lots of TV screens playing sports, and a balloon for him. Something fun that his mom knew he would like, instead of always chasing one historical site after another.
One thing was sure, Huckle thought bitterly, she wouldn’t have left him alone outside to fall in a puddle.
“Don’t be so sure,” said a woman’s voice, full of laughter. It came from down low, causing Huckle to look down at his feet.
The water in the puddle had cleared and reflected the sky so perfectly that it looked like a portal into another, upside down realm. Except it was brighter, sunnier there. The sky was clear blue, and the sun gleamed like all of the stars in the night sky had come together, making one giant star. And Huckle’s own reflection was all wrong. Instead of a boy with shaggy brown hair, sullen eyes, and a sardonic frown, Huckle found himself staring at the face of a girl with cascading green hair, sparkling eyes, and a lopsided smile. Her cheekbones and nose were very similar to Huckle’s though. Almost eerily so.
“Who are you?” Huckle asked, almost flubbing the words and saying to the imposter-reflection, “Who am I?”
“Your mother, silly,” the green-haired girl’s smile widened into a grin. She had pointy teeth and far too many of them. The effect should have been demonic and frightening, but Huckle felt soothed by the sight.
“No,” he said. “My mother had brown hair–”
That surprised Huckle. Of course, he had brown hair. And normal teeth. Although, he remembered times when it felt like mirrors were laughing at him, telling him lies. Sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, his brown hair did seem to have a mossy shade to it. He felt his teeth with his tongue — they were very sharp. But of course, when he opened his mouth to look at their reflection in the water, all he saw was the green-haired girl laughing at him.
“Trust me,” she said. “Your teeth are just like mine, no matter what your father has you convinced that you look like.”
“It’s not him.” Huckle wouldn’t let this girl speak badly of his father. Especially if she was his mother, because that meant she had left him and not died. Whatever problems Terrence had, he’d never pretended to die and disappeared into a mud puddle for years. “I’ve never seen anyone that looks anything like you before. Why would I want to look like that? If anyone’s convinced me that I’m normal, it’s me.”
The green-haired girl nodded solemnly. “Would you like to see yourself for real?” she asked, twisting one of her feet where it joined in the puddle with Huckle’s. It was the restless motion of a bashful child. She really looked much too young to be anyone’s mother.
“Okay,” Huckle said.
The girl jumped into the air in her upside down world, spread a pair of songbird wings that had been folded behind her back, and fluttered far enough up to clear the space where Huckle’s own reflection should be. Her flapping waves disturbed the water, but after it settled, Huckle’s face resolved, shadowy and reflected on the surface of the water, obscuring the bright grove of upside down trees behind it.
Huckle blinked. His eyes sparkled. His mouth twisted with a subtle wryness. His hair was mossy green, and when he opened his mouth, his teeth were indeed sharp, pointy, and many. The weird part was that he didn’t feel like he looked different. He looked like himself, like he always looked; he simply hadn’t thought about how strange he looked before. “How strange…”
The green-haired girl landed, feet to feet in the puddle again, and folded her bird wings behind her back. “This means you have magic, Huckle. If you were able to deceive yourself that well. And others, too, I’m guessing?”
“Yeah…” Huckle agreed. “No one has ever teased me for looking… weird.”
“Like a sprite. You’re a summer sprite.”
Huckle raised an eyebrow skeptically. Although, the greenish shade of the eyebrow in his shadowy reflection, still just visible on top of the brighter image of his mother, eroded his skepticism some. “Okay, what kind of magic?”
The girl shrugged, raising both her shoulders and the edges of the bird wings behind them. “We’ll have to experiment to find out.”
“Wouldn’t you like to come stay with me in the Summer Realm?” She smiled, and all of Huckle’s surly skepticism melted away. He knew that smile. He remembered it looking at him over the top of picture books and staring at him from behind proffered ice cream cones. This girl really was his mother.
“Can you…” he faltered. “Can you show me how you looked to… the other humans, you know, when I was little?”
Huckle’s own faint reflection wavered on the surface of the water, like a breeze had disturbed it. When the puddle smoothed again, the boy’s reflection was replaced by a shadowy aura around the green-haired sprite. In her aura, she still had sparkling eyes and a lopsided smile, but she was taller; her face was broader, more filled out. She was a middle-aged woman with normal teeth and long brown hair.
“Verdana?” Terrence’s voice strained with emotion from behind his son.
Huckle looked over his shoulder to see his father. Terrence was standing at the side of the puddle, grabbing at his salt-and-pepper hair with one hand, covering his mouth with the other. There were tears in his eyes.
“All the years that I’ve looked for you in church mirrors and altar glass…” The man covered his face with both hands now. When his hands came away, his stricken expression had been traded for laughter. “Of course, you’d hide your portal in a mud puddle outside the church. I should have known.”
Terrence knelt down, right in the puddle, and stuck his hand into the water, holding it out towards Verdana. “Come home,” he said.
The aura of the brown-haired woman vanished; the green-haired sprite spread her bird wings and flapped away into the upside down air. Then a cloud crossed the sun, and the bright reflection dimmed, leaving Terrence and Huckle looking at reflections of only themselves.
“No!” Huckle cried. “Bring her back!”
“If I could make her do anything, don’t you think I’d have done it by now!” Terrence shouted back at his son, both of them still staring at the murky surface of the mud puddle. “I’m sorry…” Terrence stood up and backed away from the muddy water. His shoes weren’t built for puddles; they dripped and squished as he stepped back onto firmer ground.
Huckle cried now. He didn’t care how old he was. If he was like his mother — and he seemed to be — maybe he’d look like an eight-year-old boy for centuries. Who knew how old Verdana was.
Rain fell from the sky like tears, but it cleared up after only a few moments. The cloud finished crossing the sun, and the puddle brightened again.
Verdana stood with her feet joined to Huckle’s, replacing his reflection again. “I’m sorry, too. This isn’t fair to you.” She spoke to Huckle, but after her words, she glanced at Terrence, standing outside the circle of her portal. “I tried pretending to be mortal for a while. I can’t do it anymore.”
“If you really tried–” Terrence pressed.
“I did.” Her words held the finality of a supernatural being, speaking through a dimensional portal. But they were also the tired words of a mother caught in a custody battle. “Let me take him for a few months; show him his other heritage. That’s why you’ve been looking for me, isn’t it?”
“You knew I wouldn’t come back to you.”
Terrence looked away. “Yes, I knew.”
Huckle wanted to stamp his feet, splash, and make his parents pay attention to him, instead of to each other. But he was also afraid that the slightest movement of his feet would fill the puddle with ripples, break the spell, and banish his mother to her mysterious Summer Realm without him forever.
“Why four years?!” Huckle whined. “Why did you wait four years to show up in a puddle?”
His mother, the strangely young pixie-like girl, smiled sadly. “I was watching you through puddles all along. I stayed away… Because I didn’t think I deserved you. Not after I left. I couldn’t stay, but I wasn’t a very good mother if I left my baby behind.”
Huckle felt warm and confused by being called his mother’s baby. He wanted to lean forward and tumble down into her bright, sunny, upside down world. Into her motherly arms. He wanted her to hold him and cradle him and read him stories, tuck him into bed, and be there when he woke up.
But he was also furious. “How dare you! Leave me alone and then watch me — without me knowing!”
“You weren’t alone…” Both of his parents said it, almost at the same time. Then they looked at each other for a long time, not smiling, not frowning. Just looking.
Finally, Terrence stepped close enough to the puddle to reach out and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Do you remember the story of how your mother and I met?”
“You went to the same church…” Huckle started the story but trailed off as the pieces started to fall together.
“We did,” Terrence said. “In a way. I was a member of the congregation, praying to the elemental spirits of this world. Our planet is a special one. You know that.”
“On the… interstice… between two dimensions?” Huckle had heard this part before, but he’d never thought much about it. It sounded like fantastical science mumbo-jumbo. Something he wouldn’t have to learn about for several more grades.
“Right,” Terrence said. “The spirits are real. They were here before humans colonized the planet. Back then, in colonial days, they visited our dimension more often. We set up churches to worship them. Mostly, they’ve stopped visiting.” He glanced over at his alter-dimensional wife.
“Except sometimes,” she said.
“Your mother answered my prayers.”
“I was curious about the churches, and the beings praying in them…” Verdana looked at her son. “…aren’t you curious? About the other world you belong to?”
Terrence stepped into the puddle to stand beside his son, unworried by his soggy shoes. Huckle’s heart leapt into his throat at the ripples that his father’s movement caused, but he calmed down when he saw that his mother didn’t disappear.
“You need to go,” Terrence said, wrapping his arms around Huckle. He squeezed his son tight. “Find out what kind of magic you have. Then come back to me.” Terrence held his son by the shoulders and pushed him far enough away to stare steadily into the boy’s sparkling eyes. “Promise you’ll come back to me.”
Somehow, Huckle’s fate had been decided. Parents had a way of doing that — claiming to give you a choice, but really deciding for you. Yet Huckle couldn’t mind too much. He was too busy wondering if he’d have songbird wings like his mother’s. Or be able to cast spells. Fire spells? Water spells? If it was the Summer Realm, was it always warm and sunny there?
“Promise me,” Terrence said, clutching his son close.
“I promise,” Huckle whispered to his father, hugging him back.
After a final hug goodbye, Huckle leaned forward and tumbled head first through the cool splash of the pond. On the other side, he was caught by his mother’s arms.