The mourning dove spoke to ask her what she was doing.
“What do you mean?” Adeline combed the ends of her long auburn hair with her fingertips as she sat looking out across the mercury lake. She was sitting cross-legged on the crest of a small hill which stood between the lake and town, about fifty yards from the shore. Her eyes glazed over as she stared. The lake glowed pewter, a giant pool of metallic death, and shimmered like a million diamonds in the bright light of the waning afternoon sun. Everyone said not to step foot in it. ‘You’ll die. It’ll suck you in like a giant blob,’ they warned her. She was a curious girl. But, being only seven, how could she argue?
Besides, her mother had been gulped by the lake. Adeline remembered the story well. “She was curious, like you,” Adeline’s father always smiled at her and pinched her cheek as he explained the circumstances; he always started the conversation with a smirk of pride and then, his exuberance fading, with the dullness of longing. “She was kneeling to look at her reflection. The lake grabbed hold of her and pulled her in.” Her father choked up at that part. Adeline tried not to look at him when he did; she didn’t like it when people stared at her when she cried. He would go on to tell her how much he missed her mother, how he felt helpless to do anything to save her. Supposedly Adeline had been two years old at the time, but she didn’t remember anything. She’d heard the story dozens of times, if not more. Though it had been years since the event her father’s guilt and sadness, it seemed, couldn’t be alleviated.
The dove spoke up again. “You’re thinking about going near it, aren’t you?”
Adeline dropped her hands to her lap, ignoring the bird on her shoulder. The dove pecked her earlobe.
“Ow!” Adeline yelped.
“Don’t,” the bird warned. “You know what happened to your mother.” Adeline again responded with silence. “You’d better not be thinking about it,” Belle scolded, pecking the girl on the lobe again.
“Ow! Belle! Quit!”
“Fine.” The bird stopped. Adeline rubbed her ear, now glowing pink. “Let’s go. It’s getting dark, anyway.”
The dove, named Belle, had been appointed Adeline’s nanny since she was three, when her father had depleted all his savings and was forced to return to work at the lumber mill. He was the Head Sawman and they were having some difficulty with this year’s crop of rubber trees. They couldn’t get them to cut straight; the trees kept bending and wrapping themselves around the blades.
“Adeline,” he called her into the living room. It was a small cabin—one bedroom at the back which father and daughter shared, an attached outhouse, a large pantry, and one open room at the front which served as main living area, kitchen, dining room, laundry, and whatever else they needed it for. Adeline was in the bedroom, playing with the dollhouse her father had crafted from scraps of balsa the past summer. She came running out, mud on her red ruffled dress from a little excursion this morning to feed the hens, and halted to a stop when she saw the dove sitting politely on the cuff of her father’s checkered long-sleeve.
“Adeline,” he said, kneeling. He held his arm perpendicular to his chest out in front of himself. The dove fluffed; a white down feather drifted silently to the floor. “I’m going to have to go back to work, starting today.” Adeline’s eyes grew. She glanced back and forth between the bird and her father. “This is Belle. She’ll be keeping watch over you from now on.” The bird hopped onto Adeline’s shoulder and cooed pleasantly into her ear. Adeline was skeptical; she wasn’t sure what to think and leaned to the side trying to get a good look at the dove without touching it.
“Adeline, sweetheart.” Her father brushed her tangled hair aside from her face. “Belle comes highly recommended. Remember Teddy, who used to live in the house next to us? Belle took care of him before he and his parents moved away. You’ll be fine.”
“Teddy smelled funny.” Adeline, still leaning to one side, stuck out her cherry-red lower lip. “And he wasn’t very nice, Daddy.”
“I know, Addie.” Her father sighed and rose to grab his heavy coat from the hook near the front door. He shook the coat and a cloud of dust welled up around him. He hadn’t worn it since his wife had died. He bit the inside of his cheek, focusing on more urgent matters. Winter was coming. There were trees which needed harvesting. “Belle will be here with you until I return. If anything’s the matter, she’ll fly to the mill and fetch me, alright?”
Adeline’s eyes widened again at ‘fly’. “Is she very fast?”
“I’m the fastest there is.” Adeline jumped, tripping over herself and fell over onto the floor with a thud. She’d never heard a bird talk, didn’t know it was possible. Belle, quick to react, jumped up off the girl’s shoulder then flew, hovering in the air a moment, before lowering herself to the floor, wings whistling.
Adeline’s father laughed, kissed his daughter on the top of her head, and left.
With Belle on her shoulder, Adeline walked the trail leading toward their cabin. They passed, first, the honeysuckle forest where the trees dripped so much that they had created a honey marsh in the small basin, which was overrun with bees, and bears, and anything else with an insatiable sweet tooth. They went through town via Main Street, a cobblestone road about thirty feet wide and two hundred feet in length with shops all along the edges. It turned into a dirt road at both ends and was marked by signs that said either “Welcome!” or “Thank you for visiting!” depending on which way you were headed. As they passed by the small two-story inn, painted white and decorated with long boxes of daisies along its porch rail, Adeline smiled, quietly wondering if Mr. Humphrey—the nicest man Adeline had ever met—could spare a moment right then to give her the usual complimentary ice cream cone. Belle shifted her weight nervously on Adeline’s shoulder. Adeline dismissed the potential for a treat; the dove seemed eager to be home.
Across from the inn was the Red Cottage Shop which only sold things that were red. Adeline looked down at the sparkly red shoes she wore that her father had bought for her birthday last week. The toes already had mud on them—mud had always liked Adeline—but they still sparkled like fresh pixy dust.
Just beyond town was Malady Tiller’s farm, where the scarecrow without a name who never stopped singing danced from sun-up until sundown, gallivanting through his fields, keeping out intruders. Adeline listened hard to hear him over the sound of the wind rushing through the field, the high stalks of corn whistling in the breeze and their little tufted tops dancing to a tempo of their own. “You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barleyyyy!” the scarecrow sang. “You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky as we walk in fields of goooold!” Adeline craned her neck. The scarecrow sprung through the field, only visible when he was at the apex of a leap and only recognizable by the crown of his tan hat made from woven and dried leaves of corn.
“Hello Scarecrow!” Adeline yelled when she finally spotted him. She knew, though, he couldn’t hear her. Scarecrows didn’t have ears. Belle fluffed her feathers and tucked her head into her shoulders, eyes squinting. She didn’t like the Scarecrow’s singing.
Beyond Malady Tiller’s farm was Adeline’s cabin. They called it a cabin but, truly, it was only the front of a cabin; the back half was more of a cave tucked into the side of a hill thick with turf and mossy boulders. It was an odd structure, their house, but Adeline had always liked the smell of the walls and ceiling: clean and tart, a cool autumn day eating a green apple.
There were three cabins like hers in a row, Adeline’s in the center. The Centaurs, who were patronizing creatures and not friendly at all, had lived on the right side since Teddy’s family moved away. Their cabin was slightly larger, but not by much. She didn’t speak to any of the Centaur family, especially the colt about her age who made trouble chasing rabbits and foxes through the Scarecrow’s corn field. Adeline squinted at the house, irritated by the thought of her irritation. She looked away from the Centaur’s home to the cabin on the left of hers. That one had been vacant as long as Adeline could remember. Her father told her once that an old man had lived there until he died in his sleep, and had left the house to his daughter in a will. The daughter, though, had never come to see the property. But she paid taxes on it and, because it was rightfully hers, Adeline was forbidden from sneaking around or inside it, as she was prone to do with vacant homes.
Upon entering her own den, the small kitchen—which doubled as a dining area—waited on the right. It consisted merely of a short pot-bellied stove surrounded by mounds of its own dusty grey ashes; a faded burgundy-colored rug (Adeline guessed it had once been a red rug from the Red Cottage Store) atop which sat a small wooden butcher’s block island and its two tall barstool companions; and, in the counter nestled against the wall, a makeshift sink made from a bucket which sat in a hole cut into the wooden top and an accompanying half-full pitcher of murky well water.
To the left was the living area. It was a small space, modestly decorated with animals carved from wood sitting about, a bearskin rug draped over the floor, and a large painting of purple mountains hanging above a sizeable brick fireplace. Facing the fireplace was Adeline’s father’s green-jacquard leisure chair and a small side-table which served as a cabinet for a few books and assortment of playing cards. Away in the corner, on its own rainbow-colored rug and nested in between a few boxes of toys and various playthings, was Adeline’s sitting chair draped in last year’s birthday gift: a ribbon-fringed red blanket.
Beside the front door was a small window of frosted glass, about twelve inches square, which pointed directly out toward the mercury lake. It was pure cruel coincidence, her father had said, that the thing which killed Adeline’s mother stared at them from afar through the only window they had. But, still, sometimes on late spring mornings, when Adeline woke up early enough, the sun would reflect off the lake like a mirror and shine in through the window onto the opposite wall, where it lit up with the light of heaven a photograph taken of Adeline’s parents before she had been born.
She’d stared at that photograph so many times in the blinding light of those early dawns. Adeline’s father had not changed much since it had been taken. The only differences being that, now, he had only a few more wrinkles on his face and a few more silver hairs. In the photo his broad forehead reflected the flash of the camera; he had a mop of curly black hair that he had let grow longer back then, and a moustache that curled slightly upward at the ends. He was smiling broadly, his white teeth gleaming, his nose wrinkled just a bit. He appeared to be laughing, giddy with love. It was, after all, his wedding day. Adeline thought he was the most handsome man there ever was.
But, in those early mornings, when the beam of crystal clear light lit up the photo as if it were alive, Adeline liked most to stare at the image of her mother.
She was a woman of about twenty-four years. Her wavy golden hair shone like the fresh honey which dripped from the suckle trees. She was all at once smiling and kissing her new husband on the cheek with lips that looked as soft and pink as rose petals; her eyes were turned toward the camera, glowing green as springtime grass. Her dimples—one at the center of each cheek—accented the corners of her smile. In the center of her forehead was a birthmark with the looks of a bird’s footprint, like a little bird had stepped right there on her face to bless her. The mark was so faint it was almost unnoticeable, except in the dazzling brightness of direct sun.
Adeline wished she could look like her mother when she grew older, bird print and all. Her father told her she would, but Adeline wanted to see for herself. They had no mirrors in their house. “Mirrors promote vanity, Addie,” her father would warn her. A tone to his voice obliterated any argument. “Remember Narcissus?”
In fact, the whole town didn’t have mirrors set low to the ground for children to use. They were always hung high, for adults. At the hotel once, Adeline tried to sneak a chair underneath a high-hung circular mirror in the lobby. As she was about to climb up onto her pedestal and old woman rushed up and snatched the chair away, saying, “Mirrors were not meant for your children.” Adeline did not try to move any more chairs after that.
Adeline sometimes caught a glimpse of herself in a pan of water or in a chunk of ice that she tried to make smooth by alternatively breathing on it and polishing the melted ice with the palm of her glove. But, no matter how hard she tried, the images were never clear enough. The water always splashed, the reflection whirred; the ice was never flat despite Adeline’s most ambitious attempts and her reflection came out skewed. In fact, Adeline couldn’t find a single pane of unfrosted glass anywhere in town that she could use. Frosted, all of it.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Belle would coo to comfort her then snuggle against Adeline’s neck, giving her a bird’s version of a hug. The downy feathers tickled Adeline’s chin. “You’re a beautiful girl. You’ve got long hair like your mother, long and wavy like soft clouds on windy days. How can you doubt your father?”
But it wasn’t her beauty that Adeline was concerned about. That much she could tell from murky reflections in puddles and mottled images in ice-mirrors. She wasn’t afraid of being ugly. She was afraid she didn’t have a birthmark. She was afraid she wouldn’t be like her mother.