The Third BirchThe Moss children played in the birch grove almost every day. The three oldest liked to climb the trees, or play tag or hide-and-seek among the smooth white trunks. Amelia, the youngest, thought of the grove as more than a place to play, though no one knew that, because no one paid her much attention most days. She was just “the baby,” and considered by her older siblings to be too young to keep up in their games, even if she could have run. They showered her with love and attention when they thought of it, and forgot about her when they ran off to play their games.
So Amelia sat under the third birch to the left of the path, the one none of them could climb because it had no branches for a long way up. Some catastrophe had stripped it long ago. John tried to shin up it sometimes, but even he couldn’t do it. Sarah and Timmy didn’t even try, because if John couldn’t climb something, there wasn’t any point in them attempting it. So they left the third birch to Amelia, and she left them to their games.
Amelia was something of an after-thought, three years younger than Timmy. The other three had come along one right after the other, only 16 or 18 months between. So naturally they considered her the baby, and alternately cossetted and ignored her, as older siblings do, the more so because she couldn’t run and climb as they did.
Amelia, at age 6, still understood many things the older kids had forgotten. She understood the sound the breeze made in the top of her tree, and she understood what the rabbits were saying when they came and wiggled their noses at her. They never came to the other children, because they were never still. Rabbits liked children who sat still, and Amelia, who had a twisted foot that kept her from running well, sat still far more often than any of the other children.
One spring afternoon she sat with her back to the tree, admiring the grove, and feeling loved and comforted by her smooth-barked friends. He brothers and sister were playing tag, and she watched with a little smile. Some days Amelia hated not being able to run as fast or walk as far as the others. Some days she hated being left out. But on this day, she didn’t mind. She was thinking.
Other children had trouble keeping secrets. They chattered constantly, so words came out without their willing it. Amelia, in learning to keep still while the others ran about, had also learned to keep quiet. She had no end of secrets, secrets no one else might think were valuable, but which she knew to be the secret of joy.
One of Amelia’s secrets was a mother fox and her kits. They denned under the fence post a yard or two from her tree, and she sat there so often, and so quietly, that the foxes had stopped worrying about her. When the others ran off to the far end of the birch grove, the mama fox came out, and today, three fuzzy kits came out after her, brand new and wobbly on their little legs. They didn’t walk even as well as Amelia did. They wobbled about and played in the sun on the soft, new grass, until a shadow overhead warned of a hawk, and then the mama fox shooed the kits back into the den, following them down the hole in the ground. And Amelia sat and hugged her secret to herself and smiled.
She was still smiling when the others came back.
“What are you so happy about?” Sarah asked. Sarah never did believe that Amelia could actually be happy. Sarah was so full of energy that sitting still wasn’t even a possibility. How could Amelia be happy when she couldn’t run about?
“Nothing,” Amelia lied. “It’s a nice day. Who won the game?” She could always distract them by asking about their games. The question started Timmy and John to arguing. Each thought he had won, but Sarah finally told them she had. Amelia kept smiling, because she knew that she had won.
Another day, Amelia sat under her birch while a gentle rain fell. The others had gone running for the house when the rain started,
and forgotten her. She could have gotten up and walked home, and she knew she should have. But the rain wasn’t very wet, and she liked the way it shone on the trees. It turned the white of their trunks whiter, and made the black scars blacker, and that was so beautiful it almost hurt. That was another secret.
But secrets ended on the last day of school. The others ran ahead to change clothes and then go play in the birch grove. Amelia, who had now finished her first year of school and knew a great deal more than she had a year before, including that her school clothes were now her play clothes, went straight to the birch grove and her tree.
The farmer who owned the grove was there, with his three grown sons. And the trees either side of the path lay dying on the ground. The farmer had decided the path needed to be widened so he could take a wagon through, but Amelia didn’t know that. She knew only that her best friend was dead, and she flung herself on its smooth, white body, weeping. The farmer couldn’t dislodge her, nor could his sons, and they stood about scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.
When her brothers and sisters came, Amelia lay on the slaughtered birch, and neither moved nor spoke.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015