By Katrina Leuzinger Owens
Julia had cried so much the night before that her eyes still carried the sting of salt, and the fresh wave of tears only made the pain worse. It grew to a constant ache, like the way a bruise on your cheek reminds you it’s there with every frown or sigh. Each tear now brought a remembrance of the ones that fell before.
Without company, phone, compass, or any notion of a destination, Julia pushed farther into the forest. People got lost in these woods. She knew that. Sometimes people went for walks and never came home again. Especially the people who were fool enough to leave the path.
Julia was not on the path now. The dried pine needles cushioned each step of her bare feet. The canopy of leaves overhead shielded her from the sun, the light filtering down to her face in a warm, green glow. The birdsong drowned out her sobs.
She never thought of the forest as hers, even when she did eventually come to inherit the cabin and the land behind it. When she was a little girl, she thought the towering trees were her friends. Constant companions, full of branches to climb and sweet persimmons to eat. Now she thought of them as a blanket draped over her shaking shoulders. The forest pulled her in and held her close and told her beautiful, evergreen lies about how it was all going to be alright.
Julia brushed away a curtain of kudzu vines and stopped at the foot of a live oak tree. She’d never seen one this big before. Not so tall really, but wide; almost sprawling. A trunk that could have swallowed up her car and branches twisting out in all directions. Every surface of it teemed with life, from the lichens creeping across the bark to the butterflies alighting in the branches.
But what made Julia stop short when she saw it was the hollow at its center. It had a small lip, like a shelf, before tunneling down into the center of the tree. At first, when she saw the glint of metal on that lip, she thought her tired eyes were playing tricks on her. Nestled there amongst a cluster of fallen leaves was an engraved teaspoon made of real silver.
Her teaspoon. The one she’d saved when the rest went to the pawn shop.
She also found three dimes, a half-empty bottle of glitter nail polish, one rhinestone earring, a broken piece of crystal vase, the brass key to a bike lock, and a hairbrush with wire bristles and a wooden handle.
All gathered in the hollow like a treasure trove. All belonging to her.
Magpie, Julia thought as she picked the objects up and turned them over in her hands. The little black and white birds were forever filling the tree canopy with their high pitched cries, and though she’d never witnessed it herself, they were known for stealing shiny things. They were supposed to be good luck.
This must be a magpie’s nest.
“Is that what you call me?” a voice asked from inside of the live oak tree.
The collection in her hands scattered on the ground as Julia leapt back, her heart fluttering in her chest.
“W—Who’s there?” she stammered.
The pause was just long enough for Julia to become convinced she’d imagined the voice. And then it spoke again.
“I won’t give you my name, but you may call me Magpie if that pleases you.”
Julia peered into the impossibly black space the voice seemed to echo out of. She got the distinct impression something was peering right back. Her eyes darted from the hollow to the glinting things on the ground.
“Why do you have my stuff?” she asked.
“They’re mine. You gave them to me because we’re friends.” There was a slow cadence to Magpie’s voice, as if each word were chosen with great care. “We are still friends, are we not?”
She didn’t say the word out loud. Perhaps if she had, she’d question the absurdity of having struck up a friendship with a tree, or with the something that lived inside one. Or perhaps she didn’t question it because she could feel the truth of it in her very bones.
Friend. My friend.
Fresh tears fell, dotting the collection at her feet, and this time they didn’t sting her eyes.
“You shouldn’t leave them on the ground,” Magpie said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Julia dropped to her knees and gathered up the fallen spare change and misplaced jewelry, replacing each one on the lip of the hollow.
“I enjoy the things you leave in my forest,” Magpie said. “I like the way they shine.”
“Then why did you take the hairbrush?” Julia asked as she picked it up and pulled a pine needle out from between the stiff bristles. She wondered if this was the real reason she’d never thought of the land as hers. Some part of her had always known it already belonged to something else.
“Because he struck you with it,” Magpie said.
Julia’s mouth went dry. Without meaning to, her hand went to her cheek.
“I do not like him here,” Magpie continued. “Why do you allow him to stay?”
It took Julia a moment to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth.
“I… I don’t see a way out,” she whispered.
“Would you like one?”
“Would I like what?”
She could hear the smile in Magpie’s voice.
“A way out.”
Julia’s hand curled around the hairbrush like a fist.