That textured patch in the gap between liquidambar leaves is the crown of her head. Coarse-weave brown, with silver wisps like glow-worms. They remind me how long we’ve been doing this. Our nightly performance has changed over time. She no longer bawls my name, she stage-whispers it. Soft, but intensely audible.
I don’t usually lower my voice. Bugger what the neighbours think. But tonight it’s a tiny sound carried on the breeze, fluttering past her ear like a dead leaf.
Don’t want any.
The glow-worms hesitate. Should she insist? She’s tried threats, cajoling. Bottom line is she can’t climb up here and get me. Or force spaghetti-bolognese-boiled-carrots-and-brussels-sprouts down my throat.
Molecules of night hang in suspension. Stars delay their rising. Gnats tread air.
Lucy, this has gone too far. I want you inside in twenty minutes. Your father and I …
I listen to her vinyl sandals scrumpf through wet grass, prepare to step down, land heavily on the concrete path. Like a conductor, I could wave in the skreek of the sliding door, waggle a finger for each heel-fall, welcome silence with a levelled baton.
Instead, I lie back in my nest, staring up at leaf-blotted stars and mouthing her name. Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.
Three years ago, when Emily, my only friend, moved interstate, I took to spending recess and lunch in the library. At the back of the main room, spiral stairs led to a loft where old magazines sprawled on dusty shelves. In the gum tree whose lemon-scented leaves pressed against the loft window, a magpie was raising her brood. As I watched them that first day, a National Geographic slid off its shelf, landed near my toe. Was Lucy a Tree-Climber, After All?
That’s how we met. I, crouching on green shagpile; she, staring at me through the polymer clay eyeballs of her reconstructed face. We were both eleven. We didn’t look alike, except for the brown eyes. But something made me feel I was gazing at my reflection in a brackish pool. After I found Lucy, I didn’t try to make any other friends.
Her skeleton, a broken necklace on black velvet cloth, didn’t have any feet, just a single ankle bone. By contrast, the toddler Australopithecus afarensis whose discovery had prompted the National Geographic article had a large, curving, wiggle-able big toe. So she could shinny up the home-tree if a leopard slunk by, crawl into her family’s nest at sunset.
Nest? Yes. After dark, our ancestors became wingless birds who folded up their bipedal bravado in the hair of trees.
That afternoon, a hail of Bunnykins cups, bowls and plates dispersed Sal, Prue and Mattie. Psycho! Sal shouted over her shoulder as they fled inside to tell on me. The tree-house was mine. I swept the rest of the girly rubbish over the edge. With my brother’s help, I moved the pine platform about 10 feet higher, covered it with earth and dead leaves. The scents of growth and rot creep down to meet me as I scale the trunk after school every day.
My nest – our nest – contains nothing but an Arnott’s biscuit tin of clippings about Lucy culled from magazines and newspapers. I’ve grown quite a bit since the day I evicted my sisters. When I’m up here now I have to crouch in a way that pulls me back three years, and three million. Side by side, we gather fruits, dig for plants, suckle our babies. Our people live in a range of habitats, but I’ve always known that our home-tree grows beside a lake, its roots slipping among strange shapes of ancient fish.
I’m not allowed to sleep up here. Come down by dinner-time is the rule. Recently, I’ve been bending it more and more, testing the give of its fibres. Tonight I don’t care if it breaks. I’m not coming down. Lucy’s fall hurts less up here, even though, squinting through the swirl of autumn leaves, I can plot every micro-second of her trajectory.
I saw it at breakfast time, on the front page of the newspaper fortress Dad hides behind.
Lucy fell from tree, new CT scan suggests
The skeleton of Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid, shows injuries best explained by a fall from a tree, a team of scientists claim. Full story page 10.
Braving Dad’s outrage, I snatched the paper, ran out of the house, scrambled up here. It wasn’t easy in my school dress, which I tore on a forked twig. Through a smear of tears I read the article over and over. Bits of it have lodged in my head like shivers of glass.
We wanted to piece together the story of her life. We had no idea we’d find the clues to her death … She landed feet-first, probably at the edge of a lake … Almost certainly, death came quickly … quickly …
Twenty minutes must have passed. Another coat of dark blue has deepened the sky. I’m ready to face them. Heels tensed, hands gripping branches, eyes trained on the outside light. If Dad brings out the ladder –.
These are the fractures we see when a modern human falls from a great height.
FAYE BRINSMEAD lives in Canberra, Australia. A lawyer by day, she writes short fictions in all the snippets of time she can find. Her work appears in Reflex Fiction, MoonPark Review, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, formercactus and Vamp Cat Magazine, among others. Say hello on Twitter @theslithytoves.