By Ellen Huang
Aidan heard the voice one night before he fell asleep. At first, it was so small it could have been his imagination. He was far into the warmth of sleep, holding tight to the remnants of his last doll, but he could just barely make it out. It seemed to be saying, just for him, “Let me out of here.”
Then, he also heard it, a little breath whispering, in the morning before he opened his eyes to a room full of sunlit colors and a day full of twittering birds.
He wondered why it first chanted in Japanese, which was more of his mother’s tongue, but he didn’t think much of it. He heard it carried in the wind when he walked home from schooldespite the loud crunch of leaves beneath his feet. He heard it anytime he was alone under the juniper tree, keeping away from his mom. He heard it when he touched a blank piece of paper and brushed colors over its mist-white surface. “Let me out of here.”
It was there for him when his mom threw his toys away without his permission. When he was worn out from tears she told him he should not be crying, he would escape into his room, into his bed, and fall back into his mind. “Let me out of here.”
Soon, the words blended into his better language. Aidan could hear it in the creak of the swings, the squeak of the doors, the pattering of branches knocking on his window to wave hello. “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out of here.”
”Honey, you can find better uses for your time.” His mom’s voice cut through the little song Aidan had been paying heed to, carried softly in the wind. The window was barely open, but through it he could see the juniper tree he liked to rest under the shade of, and what little breeze he could catch from outside was nice and crisp. Now that he was forced to return his mind to this stuffy room, noise took over. The slightest clang of a dish being left on the dishwasher to dry, the sweep of his mother’s slippers pacing around the floor, the clink of spoons against bowls took over. He strained to hear the soothing little voice again, but it was gone. He kicked under the table, pushing a chair leg.
His mom continued on, only slightly glaring at the chair that screeched a little across the floor. “How will girls want to marry you if you can barely carry your own feelings?”
Nine years into his life, it seemed stupid to him for his mom to try to make him careabout girls. Aidan was keeping a mental record of how long he could go without looking his mother in the eye. He just kept adding to the record, staring harder than he thought possible at a soggy bowl of rice porridge.
”Crying over silly girls’ toys like that won’t do you any good,” his mom said. “You’ll see.”
His mouth half full, with spoon pointing out from his hand, he muttered, “They were mine and you took them.” His voice came out louder than he expected, echoing in the room.Well, she needed to hear it.
His mom breathed sharply. “Did I take everything from you? No. But you are a young man and I expect you to behave like one. This is for your own good. No more dolls.”
”They were mine!” He slammed the clanking spoon against the bowl.
”They’re not for you.” His mom was overly focused on the apple she was cutting. Under her breath, she added, “I did what I had to do.”
“That’s not fair! They were not just for girls!”
She shook her head. “You still don’t know. They are.”
“Why? Why did you even get them? Why can Molly at school play with trucks but I can’t — ”
“Aidan, I don’t have time for this whining.”
”No, you never listen! What if I took that old locket from you and said oh you’ll get over it?”
His mother gasped and dropped the knife on the cutting board. “That’s enough, Aidan!”Now she looked at him. “You speak to your mother with respect, young man!”
Now Aidan looked up into her eyes, never mind the cold treatment. “What mother?” The room shut up into a thick silence then. Aidan, refusing to look up from the soggy porridge, heard the tingling voice return, in the back of his mind, and he almost felt like singing to it, a declaration. It was too warm, too stuffy and tight in this room.
* * *
”What is this?” his mother asked, pressing her finger upon one of the paintings he had taped up to the walls of his room.
It was a masterpiece for his age, she should have said. It was a watercolor painting he had made in his spare time, with colors he blended himself. Soft sea green, bluer-aquamarine, light blushed pink, brushed together to form a skipping little fairy boy, with sprightly legs and flowing wings. Molly at school had called it beautiful. “A painting,” Aidan mumbled, suppressing the fear in his voice.
His mom stared and frowned at the picture. She traced her finger on the little specks of glowing gold sparkling around the fairy. Some were dots and some were shapelier than others because when he made them he wasn’t sure what they’d be yet. Aidan cringed a little as his mother’s finger pressed on one of the little lights.
She shook her head. “People will make fun of you for this. I know this is hard for you, but for your own good, I have to help you stop being a sissy.” His mom began to take the painting down.
”What? Mom, no — !” Aidan reached out to grab it from her, but too late as he heard a terrifying ripping sound. It might as well have torn him straight down the middle and left him like helpless, discarded tissues into the trash.
”No!” Aidan cried out, snatching the paper out of her hands, grabbing the other torn half from the ground. His vision blurred at the fairy’s head, stripped from his lively winged body. It would never be the same, even if he taped it back together. “How could you?” he cried fiercely, holding the halves dear to himself.
She looked down, only quiet. And only quiet remained, until she straightened up and left. Aidan collapsed into a fetal position, holding his disembodied fairy painting.
Sometimes you carry something only the worthy can see, his teacher had once said. But how could he think of his mom as unworthy? Either she was wrong or he was. Aidan looked at the remnant of his painting bleeding into blurriness.
Fighting through his tears, he heard the voice visit him again. It drifted in the wind outside, muffled by the glass, tapping at his window along with the rain. It whispered in his ear with every drop that swam in his eyes.
”You have to let me out of here.”
At last, like a dream, Aidan stood and let the voice guide him. He creaked the door open and snuck past his mom’s room, reassured by the flickering light under the closed door that her attention was elsewhere. He pulled on a jacket, crept down the stairs, and opened the door against the blustering rain outside. His face was wet already anyway. The rain speckled on his face, drizzled on his body, drumming with faster and faster tempo. He let the raindrops roll over him as he continued toward the backyard, to the juniper tree. The tree, the magical tree, was there for him.
He shoveled up layer after layer of dirt beneath the tree, wondering what treasure he would find. The voice was getting more excited. It was a child’s voice, maybe smaller than his. “Get me out of here!” it exclaimed urgently in his mind. Soon, all other sounds — the beating rain, the slice of the shovel into the dirt, the howling wind — faded until there was only the voice.
At last his shovel hit something hard, and he got down on his knees in the wet dirt and felt in the hole a solid surface. Digging his hands onto either side of it, he pulled out a box. He brushed at the wet dirt, leaving smudges, and found some worn-out markings on the side.
Lightning and thunder cracked in the sky. Aidan clutched the box tight to him, dirt and all, and ran back into the house. And there, panting in the dark security of the room, dripping wet and tracking mud by his socks, he opened the box.
Then, the room was lost in fog. Aidan gasped and fell to the ground, coughing, as the room slowly cleared.
In the midst of the fading grey, there was a glowing bit of gold. It took shape, and slowly coming into view, a songbird hovered above him, singing the most beautiful sound he ever heard.
The next thing he knew, he opened his eyes, lying in bed, the covers thrown off. There was no mud on him. It was as if he had never left the room.
* * *
All through school the next day, the smell of rain lingered everywhere, and the sun peeked a little from the clouds. Aidan felt lighter than he had felt in a long time, as if he were lifting his feet off the ground, as if a small part of his mind was excited to see the world anew. A song escaped from his lips from time to time. School felt insubstantial as clouds, a thing to pass through. He caught glimpses of eyes stuck on him, noticed clusters of bodies scooted away from him, and faces contorted before him. Other kids just never understood the wonderful sense of ease a half-remembered dream could leave behind.
But upon coming home, no sooner had he closed the door than it was as if he fell back to earth, stumbling into the stuffy confinements of the room. His mother stood in the way, arms crossed, staring down at him sternly. “Your teacher called. She says you’ve been disrupting the class.”
What? She did? “But I didn’t do anything!” Aidan insisted.
“She says you’ve been singing during class while she was talking.”
Aidan shook his head.
His mother turned, looking out the backyard where beneath the tree were a hole, clumps of dirt, and a fallen shovel. “That’s not all you’ve been doing. Aidan, what’s gotten into you?”
Suddenly something sparked in his brain, and his heart beat faster. He felt an odd mix of emotions — excitement, love, fear, anger, grief, joy — flash inside him. He swallowed. It was as if…he were seeing his mother for the first time. Her short cut black hair, curled at the ends though disheveled. Her deep brown, almond eyes, ringed with a soft, darker shade. How she could have been young once. She was beautiful. She was scary. She was the world.
She gasped, her eyes wide and burning with threat, with fear. “Aidan, stop that singing.”
But he wasn’t singing. He was only staring out the window. There was a little bird perched there.
“Aidan, I mean it.”
The bird was a beautiful, tawny color, and its eyes were black as coal. It lifted its head confidently, its feathers shining, almost sparkling .
“Aidan Michael Yamada, you stop that this instant!” Her sharp, shrieking voice overfilled the room. Suddenly, he looked at this woman, this grownup, overshadowing, standing in his way, in a little fear. The thought flickered in his mind, It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything.
He gave substantial voice to the thought. “I’m not doing anything!”
The bird fluttered away. Her voice must have scared it away. The whole neighborhood could have heard it.
”Aidan, do you hear me?” the woman’s voice spoke with a shaking edge. She was turning red. Then she blurted: “You don’t have a father! Don’t you understand? Everything I do is for you to be a better man than he ever was!”
The words cut through the room, sharp, and settled into Aidan’s heart, hitting hard. Those stupid words, again. His fault, always his fault. It was enough to make him lose his head. He looked up at her, hard, in the eyes. Somehow, he felt lifted above the ground, as if he were the one looking down at her. He felt recycled wounds rise to his throat, to the tip of his burning tongue. . .
It was all a blur. Something took over, and he wasn’t sure what he said, but he saw her face burn from the inside, and eyes tremble. Aidan stomped up the stairs, leaving his mother’s face in her hands.
Some time later, he lay flat on his bed, trying to immerse himself in a book. He hated the feeling that ate at him, the feeling that a father he never had and never knew could consume so much of his freedom. Did this invisible father enjoy feeding on his identity? Did his mom want to kill him on the inside? Aidan always had to bury these feelings, but they had a way of worming back and gnawing on his insides. So he needed the book to bandage his wounds, to keep his head. He lay stiffly, staring straight ahead at the words on a page, trying to let them speak to him, let their voices win over his mind.
The door creaked open. He cringed at the sound. His mother came in, stiffly holding a tape recorder. “I don’t think you hear yourself,” she said in a voice that tried to remain calm. She clicked play, and left the room, pulling the door shut.
Aidan sighed and set down his book, leaning in towards the tape recorder. It started as an eerie sound, but it slowly flowed into the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It was the voice of flowing rivers, of wolves howling to the moon, of birds in the spring, of angelic choirs, of mermaids in storybooks, of dreams.
Then he heard the words. “My mother, she slew me. My father, he ate me. My brother, hekept me and buried me beneath the juniper tree. What a good bird am I!”
He gaped, speechless. “That can’t be right,” he said aloud, shaking his head. He clicked play again. Again came the flow of the spellbinding, unearthly voice. Then the words rang clearer: “My mother, she slew me. My father, he ate me. My brother, he kept me and buried me beneath the juniper tree. What a good bird am I!”
“No…way,” he could barely get his words out. Shuddering, as if the whole room might close in on him, feeling a presence in the room he could not see, Aidan swallowed and clicked play one more time. The song rang even clearer. This time, though, as he played the tape, he did not hear his own voice singing, but a different one, slightly higher-pitched, coming out from underneath. Instead of the soothing calm he had felt earlier, he felt his heart pound, racing, and the hairs on the back of neck prickle.
“All right!” he yelled, eyes wide, jumping up on his bed. “Come out and tell me what you want!”
The room was eerily silent.
“I got you out of there!” Aidan cried, remembering. The box! He leapt down onto the floor, got to his knees and searched beneath the bed frantically. He searched through his drawers, on his desk, through his blankets and sheets, tossing everything into a pile on the floor. Where was it? Where was the freaking box?
Then upon his desk he saw the bird. It was there, real as ever, its tawny feathers shining in the lamplight, its black eyes looking at him with intensity. Aidan couldn’t breathe.
His eyes roamed to the mirror on the wall, and there he saw a little girl.
He nearly screamed. But when he whipped around, there was no one there behind him. He checked the mirror again. She was still there, in the mirror, in place of the bird’s reflection. She and the bird were one.
Her mouth opened, and she sang. Aidan backed away in a panic at first, but he couldn’t escape the voice. The bird fluttered over and perched on the bedknob. As he looked into its eyes, he could hear the girl sing:
”It’s so warm, so dark, so tight in this room.
I want to live life, I’m going to live soon!
Get me out of here, I cried, let me take a breath.
They got me out of there, but first I met death.
You found me, my brother, heard what I was saying.
You took me and buried me, when you were just playing.
I don’t want bedtime anymore; I want to play, too.
Let me say goodbye to Mommy, then goodbye to you.”
Aidan shuddered at first, taking this all in. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. This was all a nightmare, and he had no sister, and his mom wasn’t a murderer, and there was no voice haunting the room.
The little girl in the mirror let out a laugh of bliss, as if she finally felt freedom.
She sang again, and he immediately threw his hands over his ears, pressing hard and shouting, “LALALALALA” against the tides of her voice. But her voice won him over anyway, seeping into his mind, chiming with:
“Let me say goodbye to Mommy, then goodbye to you.”
The voice gently guided his hands under the bed until they felt a solid box and slowly dragged it out. The voice escorted his hands to brush off the sides of the box and lift it into the light. Some red markings on the side glimmered. His eyes could make out the letters: his initials, “AMY.” He could also see etches into the box and old crayon scribbles that struck him as familiar.
“My…my old drawings…” he said, letting out a gasp. He remembered drawing smiling stick figures and hearts and poor attempts at a skull and crossbones to make a treasure chest. Stick-figure fairies with huge circle heads and loop-de-loop wings darted across the box like old cave paintings. He put his hand on the wild old drawings of flowers, now smeared with red and tainting the pink of the loop-de-loop petals. He hadn’t seen these drawings in so long.
”It’s a gift,” said the girl.
He looked into the mirror again, where the girl stood. Her deep brown eyes were full of trapped light. Her short black hair in pigtails shone like the beautiful tawny bird’s feathers. She could almost pass for a fairy, for an aura that pulsed around her when she stood still. She was his height. She was his age. She looked like she could have been older once. Could have touched the grace of being taller and bigger, but let go of that. And her smile was so innocent, trusting him. That’s when Aidan realized: This is my sister. I have to help her.
”What do you want to play?” Aidan asked.
The girl in the mirror smiled, and began becoming see-through, like mist. She raised her translucent hand up slowly. At the same time, Aidan found his arm mirroring the movement, his fingers curling as her fingers curled. Follow the leader, sang the voice in his mind.
* * *
Hands in his pockets, he crept step by step down the stairs, slowly turning to the figure sitting there by the dining table. The woman’s hair was in disarray, her head in her hands. He approached her, step by step. She looked worn and weighed down, bent over, long overdue for some rest.
“Mommy.” He shuddered at the voice that escaped him — it was his, and it wasn’t his, at the same time. It was louder than he thought it’d be. But tried to find comfort in the echo of the voice. My sister is with me. His eyes darted to the kitchen knife, to scissors, to the shovel. He almost thought of going back. But he was calm when he stopped before the woman.
Her brown eyes turned to him. As if part of him would see them for the last time and wanted to memorize, he took in all the details. They were tinged red; there was darkness around them. There was darkness in them, the black in her pupils like ink, the brown in her irises shimmering. They reflected light in the forms of little specks of gold. Searching deeper, in the eyes he beheld a vision of the woman when she was younger, looking down with concern at a locket around her neck, slowly caressing it with her fingers. The locket chain was gold, and the heart at the end of it was a shimmering light red, like the hearts on the box. But she looked pained, as if she were bound with the chain, and the locket might as well have been a millstone weighing down on her neck. Then she was looking down at her stomach, slowly touching it, with no less pain.
She was a torn-apart mess. It reminded Aidan of when he searched for his dolls desperately, when she took them away, yanking last one out of his grip.
Something had been yanked out of her grip too, long ago, leaving her with pieces.
”It’s so warm, so dark, so tight in this womb.” An echo of the voice whispered in his head.
Aidan cringed at visions he saw in the eyes, then he blinked, returning to the present. His mother looked afraid, almost as if she knew he saw her then. Almost as if she could hear the voice — the eerie, scary, beautiful little voice — too.
”I want to live life, I’m going to live soon!”
”So which are you?” the mother said, trembling. “Aidan or Amy?”
No clear answer came, but what came out of his mouth next surprised him. “It’s okay, Mommy.” Then he felt his arms wrap around her and her confused shaking.
He suddenly was very aware of his quick breathing. He looked out to the backyard behind her, where the skies were clouded with gray. Where the shovel waited next to the dug-up hole beside the juniper tree. He panicked. No. His heart was thumping hard as if it wanted to be let out. No. He didn’t want to have to bury anything or anyone.
Aidan felt the sting of tears he should not have been crying. His eyes flicked to the table, where torn pieces of paper shimmered with tape. His watercolor fairy boy’s decapitated head, placed carefully back.
Then Aidan felt his heart flash with many emotions — confusion, hurt, fear, awe, love — but the greatest of these was love. Soon, the voice subsided from his mind, and he blinked, suddenly realizing he was actually hugging his mom. And this time, his mother embraced him back.
Maybe there’d be no burying anyone tonight.
Reflected in the glass window, the little girl smiled, satisfied.
Outside, the sun, shining like gold, peeked out from the clouds. Out of the corner of his eye, Aidan saw a little bird outside the window. Flying into the sun with shimmering wings, it was singing the most beautiful song he ever heard.
Ellen Huang’s mind is that of a shapeshifting nixie interested in too many things in the human world. She recently graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with a BA in Writing (and a Theatre minor). She has pieces published in Perfume River Poetry Review, Hummingbird Review, The Driftwood, The Gallery, Whispers, Ink & Nebula, Rigorous Magazine, The Folks, Quail Bell Magazine, Between the Lines, Our Daily Rice, As I Am.