The sunlight was thin and stubborn that morning. It had found its way in and among the pale green leaves on the shrubs so that it lit up the naked branches at their bases. Riva, barefoot in the damp grass, was leaning so close to this enchanted undergrowth, a miniature forest unto itself, that it looked as if at any moment she might lose her balance and be swallowed into the untamed outskirt of her backyard. Riva had an oft-remarked-upon tendency to look astonishingly serious for an eight-year-old, and at this moment her face was set in an expression of intense and whole-hearted concentration. She leaned, she peered, she couldn’t or didn’t hear the swish and smash of the screen door and the almost silent patter of little feet, and then there were small, unwashed hands around her neck and muggy child’s breath in her ear, and Lily whispered, “Do you see them? Are they here?” Riva started and stood straight up, whirled around and put her hands on her hips in order to glare down at Lily with the full power that her relative stature – both in physical height and in being oldest – afforded.
“You scared them away. You always make too much noise and then they run away!”
Riva’s purpose in squatting in the garden, sitting back on her small, serious haunches with her chin in her fists, her purpose in staring deep into the overpopulated and semi-wild flower beds that bordered their backyard, was her ongoing hunt for fairies. Riva possessed many techniques for use in this pursuit. Some had been substantiated by books, wonderfully illustrated and meticulously detailed, written by adults who were either whimsical or cruel. More Riva had found in her own mind and come to accept as absolute fact. All had been reiterated – to Lily, to the friends who came to play after school – to the point of gospel. The rules were these: finding a snail meant that no fairy had been in that spot for a while, but a shimmery, goopy snail trail meant that a fairy had just left, taking the snail as mount. Fairies liked to be around butterflies, they liked purple clovers in the grass, they liked when fat fragrant drops of dew hung just about to drop from the bottoms of leaves, so Riva looked for all of these things. The grail of fairy finding, though, was a place where a fairy would have liked to go, an indent in the soil covered with a curled leaf which could have been a sleeping spot, or a nook in a tree-trunk lined in moss, thrillingly cozy and perfect for hiding from a rain storm. Each time she found one of these places, Riva was sure that a fairy had just departed from it, and to these places she was sure that fairies would imminently return. So she sat by them, very patiently, absolutely silently, using all of the force of her eight-year-old will to not look away. The fruitlessness of the hunt thus far made it no less passionate, no less arduously undertaken; each moment of waiting and watching was imbued with breathless faith.
Each time their mother let her out to play, Lily inevitably spoiled Riva’s efforts. She was never able to be silent enough. She would knock Riva clean over from her watching crouch when she tried to throw clumsy, short arms around her neck. She asked hapless, innocent questions about what fairies ate or whether they ever got in fights with each other. And even though she would quickly lose interest in the hunt, she would insist on sitting next to Riva, plucking at the plants around her, playing with her own toes, humming tunelessly. So Riva would anger. Riva would get wretchedly, uncontrollably angry, and when her sister’s face finally crumpled, in that moment thin as a blade of grass before Lily cried, she would feel equally her guilt and satisfaction. The next immediate emotion was always defensiveness, preparedness to fight with fists flying, self-righteous tears streaming down her cheeks, lungs straining in protest against whatever adult showed up to punish her for Lily’s misery.
“You always ruin it!” Riva yelled today. Lily let come the tears, sat plunk in the grass in her too-short dress and cried without thought or struggle. Riva’s inner mechanisms began to spin excuses (“Mom, she can’t play the game properly, and I’ve explained to her a million times!”), but for once, when Lily sounded the stricken, doleful wail of the little sister scorned, no champion came to its call. Riva hesitated and then, because someone had to, took Lily into her arms. She held the small dark head very tight to her chest and stroked it as her sister hiccupped. This whole routine was rote by now; and she truly believed that she had seen a glimmer of gauzy blue wing disappear into the tangle of stems when Lily had come running.
It started to rain that night after dark. Lily and Riva were watching TV with their mother, and Riva closed her eyes and tried to drown out the bubbly voices and the laugh track to hear the sound of drops on the roof.
Her mother’s voice broke the safe patter. “Shoot! Riva, did you bring your toys in from the yard?”
“You’re lying. Go get them in, they’ll be soaked.”
“I did it last time. It’s Lily’s turn.”
“No!” Lily protested.
“Somebody please go get the toys.”
Riva glared at Lily, and Lily sulked.
“You can both go together. How’s that for a compromise?”
With a heavy sigh, Riva got off the couch. Lily followed. At the back door, Riva stopped. “I’m not going. It’s your turn.”
Lily had very big, very dark eyes and when she was afraid they grew, aggressively occupying her whole face. She gripped Riva’s sleeve and looked up at her. “No. Come.”
“I’m staying right here. They’re mostly your toys.”
“Please! Please come!”
“Lily.” Riva put her face close to Lily’s. “You’re not scared of the dark, are you? Being scared of the dark is for babies.”
“I’m not a baby! I just want you to come with me. Please, Riva.”
“If you don’t go get the toys right now you’re a baby and a chicken.”
She made her words deep and slow. “If you don’t go right now you’re a baby, Lily.”
Lily’s face contorted. She was stuck between equally terrible and impassable fears. One last time, she looked up pleadingly. Whatever organ secreted compassion – it felt like it was located behind her bellybutton – convulsed, but Riva saw no room for clemency, and she let Lily find nothing that could be appealed to in her eyes. With a small whimper, Lily hurled herself head-long out the back door. Riva stood with the door frame digging into her spine, cross-armed. She watched Lily run into the black night, lost sight of her in the rain and the darkness.
Riva waited with the door half open. After too many minutes, she stepped out in her bare feet onto the patch of gravel just outside. A solid stone of guilt had started to grow in her stomach. She kept thinking she was seeing Lily’s bobbing black head running back towards her, but the dark blanketed her eyes. Finally, she ran out into the yard.
“Lily, where are you?”
Everything was wet and she could feel loose grass and weeds clinging to her feet and leggings. The air was thick post-rain, a quick downpour that had come and gone with the nightfall.
She saw Lily’s dark, soft head turned away from her at the far end of the yard. She was crouched, sitting back on her heels, looking into the shrubs. The toys were still scattered in the grass. Riva yelled and ran, but Lily didn’t turn until her sister was right behind her. Riva could see dimly that she had dirt on one cheek and that both her knees were scraped under the skirt of her little dress. Her eyes had grown even wider, two miniature moons in the orbit of her face.
“Lily, what on earth?”
“Riva, I –”
Riva gave a short shout as Lily opened her mouth. “Lily, what did you do? I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
Lily’s lips were red and crusty. On either side of her front teeth, her milk teeth were missing, leaving her tiny canines eerily white and exposed. Riva grabbed her chin. “What did you do?” she repeated.
“I fell,” Lily answered, her face small and scared. “I…I just fell.”
Inside, there was, predictably, hell to pay.
“You couldn’t have gone outside, Riva, just once?” Riva’s mother did not shout, but she spoke very loudly. Lily, sitting on the bathroom counter, submitted pleasantly to having her limbs cleaned and bandaged up, even though Riva knew that the antiseptic must sting.
Riva’s father sighed, said, “Riva and the Lilliputian,” and shook his head, as if this summed up the whole incident. Then he put Riva to bed without a story.
Their father went out and looked around the backyard the next morning, gathered the discarded toys, but did not find Lily’s teeth.
Later in the day, Riva, finally unpunished, was allowed to go play outside. Lily came with her. Even though today, Riva would have felt too sheepish to be angry with her for fidgeting, Lily sat very quietly next to her, peering into the garden as intensely as her older sister. After a few minutes of silence, during which Riva spotted a promising snail shine and a gloriously plump patch of clover, Lily made a small sound, a laugh that was almost a hum. Riva turned and Lily smiled at her, an impish grin full of gaps. In her eyes, there was a keen little glint that Riva had never seen there before.
“What?” If she had known about apprehension, Riva would have been feeling it.
“I saw them.”
“Saw who, Lily?”
“I saw the fairies.”
Riva drew away from Lily as if she’d been hit. “No you didn’t.”
Lily nodded slowly. “Yes.” Her eyes narrowed. “They took my teeth away.”
Riva started breathing quickly and shallowly, felt her eyes prickle. “You didn’t, Lily.”
Lily made the small laughing noise again.
“You didn’t see them, Lily!” Riva stood up, trying once more to gain the upper hand on little, crouching Lily. “You didn’t see them!”
Lily said nothing.
“Lily, you didn’t see them! I made them up!”
Lily looked, not at Riva, but into the wild tangle of the under-garden.
“Doesn’t matter. I saw them.”
Riva stumbled away from her sister. Fully crying, she ran back into the house, slamming the back door. She ran to her upstairs room, past her mother without answering whatever she was asking, slammed the door there, too, and launched herself face-down onto the bed. But a few minutes later, she went to the window and looked out onto the garden. Lily, still crouching by the outskirts, had her nose in the shrubs, peering in for signs of fairies.