Forward and back, forward and back. The brief rush of wind in her face sweeps her hair back; centrifugal force pushes her down in the seat, then flings her upward toward the house, toward the sky, where for a moment she is weightless, suspended. Then gravity renews its tug and again the wind comes, now from behind, as she plunges backward towards the ground, gripping the steel chains of the swing like twin rosaries. Her dusty blue Skechers make a brief chirp! as they scuff well-worn grooves beneath her feet, and again she’s up, this time among the yew trees, looking down at the old trampled ferns. Then weightless, free for another brief moment before plunging to earth one more time. Forward and back, forward and back.
She thinks: This will now be “the old house” — that’s what her mother always called the one they’d left in California eleven years ago. What will she call it now that they’re moving back? Will this become “the old Pittsburgh house”? Up until now it had just been “the house” — the house on the corner, the one with cracked stucco and old timbers. The house where, when it rained hard, kids squeezed up onto the sheltered porch until the school bus came. And if it were really cold, sometimes her mother would come out with a pot of hot cocoa and a stack of miniature Dixie cups. Of course the other parents never minded, not like in California, where there’d be forms to sign and questions about hygiene and nut allergies. She tells people she remembers California, but really she thinks she just remembers her parents’ stories of what it was like. She’ll find out soon enough.
Forward and back, forward and back. Her father had hung the swing when she was much younger; back then she had to stand on tiptoes and yank herself up by the chains to slide into the soft rubber seat. “Push me, daddy! Push me!” And he would. Sometimes one-handed, absentmindedly while looking up, out to the house, the sky, somewhere far away. But sometimes he would take both hands to the chains and pretend he was launching her into space. Gripping, pushing her higher, higher each time, until he came running, clear under the swing from behind to pop out in front, gaping in mock astonishment at finding himself in the little yard behind the house on the corner. She thinks back, and tries to remember the last time she asked for a push.
Of course, she is much too big for the swing now — swings like this were meant for little kids — but it still gives her comfort, and as she’s grown, so have the twin grooves beneath her feet. Forward and back, forward and back, with each little chirp! at the bottom taking another small measure out of dirt and the soles of her too-recently-new shoes. And each time, the renewed momentum feeding some unnamed longing, just for a moment, as it flings her out into space again.
Ella. She does remember Ella — she’s certain of that. They’d been inseparable once, before Ella’s parents moved away for some university job. But that was so long ago; it was when she still believed in wishes, and her father had helped her tie a note to a balloon saying “Will you be my friend? Signed, Katherine.”
And they launched it from the back yard, right over there. And since she still believed in wishes, it was only natural that Ella wrote back from Virginia, saying she’d found the note on a balloon stuck in the tree in her own back yard. She thinks she’d be happier if she still believed in wishes.
But Ella is two people now, she thinks — the one she knows, frozen on the dresser mirror in a third-grade school photo, impish grin under neatly trimmed bangs. And the other one, maybe in Virginia, maybe moved on yet again. Fifteen, like herself, and grown into a woman.
She wonders if she will be like this to the friends she leaves behind here. How she will grow and change, but the Cerniaks and the Butlers next door will preserve this Katherine, always fifteen, moody and bookish, reticent and kind. At least she hopes she’ll be remembered as kind. But how strange to still be this person to them, to leave a ghost of herself behind when she goes. She’s not sure she likes the idea, but then, she never did like the idea of leaving in the first place. Maybe this is the magic of the swing, always going, always coming back. Forward and back, forward and back.
The swing used to make more noise when her father first put it up. He’d picked it up at a rummage sale and bought a couple of eye bolts and carabiners at Home Depot to hang it from the arbor. It looked simple enough, and made a reassuring creak as she swung. Forward — creak! — and back. Forward — creak! — and back. Two years ago, one of the carabiners gave way at the bottom of the arc and launched her backwards into the ferns.
Her father showed her the torn piece of metal. The constant rhythm of steel chain over the years — forward and back, forward and back — had worn right through the lower end of the failed ring. They went out the next weekend and bought proper mounting hardware, and she’d climbed the ladder to help him attach it. Now the chain was silent as she swung, and there was only the wind, and a brief chirp! each time her shoes punished the uncomplaining earth beneath her feet.
Someone else would be living in this house, she thought. Maybe, if they had a girl, she’d swing on this swing, too. She might wonder about the grooves. Maybe her father would fill them in, or pay someone to do that. Or maybe they’d just take the swing down, and it would exist only in her memory, a companion to the ghost of her own memory that would remain here.
They’d paint her room, of course. Her mother had loved that color of yellow — so bright, so real and warm she could hold it and squeeze it in her hand like the lemons they bought Sundays at the farmers market. When they’d put drop cloth down and opened up the first can of paint, the dripping yellow on the roller looked like magic. Her father let her paint all over the walls with that roller, and she spelled her name in letters two feet high: K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E. She’d run out of room on the first wall and had to put the “INE” on the one across the doorway. But it felt like power, like magic in her hands. It was like she was casting a spell on the room to make it her own. And even though her father had dipped the roller again after she was done and painted everything over into a smooth bright finish, her name, and the spell remained hidden beneath. Whenever she lay in bed and looked at those bright yellow walls she felt the warmth of summer, of the farmers market and the smell of fresh lemons in her hand.
Forward and back, forward and back. The October wind has blown leaves from the giant oak through the back yard — no reason for anyone to rake them now, she supposes. A few have encroached on the edges of the packed dirt under the swing, and she stretches one foot to reach them. Forward — chirp-swish! — and back, forward — chirp-swish! — and back. She waits for more leaves, but the wind has settled again, and now it’s only her motion that produces the sound, and the breeze on her face.
She muses at how time works, at how she is waiting. Waiting for more leaves to come. Waiting for her father to call to her. She would like to save up some of this waiting, to gather it up in a bag or a little bottle. She would like to place it among her keepsakes in the pink jewelry box Nana gave her when she was very small. There was a clockwork on the box, and if you kept the spring wound up, a little plastic ballerina popped up and turned slowly when you opened it. She used to love the box for the dancing ballerina, but now she loves it for the sad feeling it gives her. It contains the memories of things she’s tried to hold on to. The worry stone from Auntie Jill, the old coins, unspent tokens from Chucky Cheese. The cheap thermal photo from the arcade of her and…why could she not remember the girl’s name? She was sure they’d be best friends forever, after Ella left. And now? The nameless girl in the picture wasn’t even a memory anymore — just a faded ghost of a memory that had once been a friend.
Forward and back, forward and back. The pink box is already far away; she’d placed it under her raincoat and the shiny green duck boots that were already too small for her in one of the brown cardboard crates her parents had left in her room on packing day. She’d slept in a sleeping bag on her old bed the last night and found herself crying at the thought of being a stranger in her own house. But there were no tears now, just the rhythm of the wind and gravity, and the sure pumping of her legs keeping the swing flying through space: forward and back, forward and back.
She remembers how, when they’d traveled to Seattle that one time, her father insisted on stopping by the house where he had grown up. He knocked and explained who he was, and asked if they could come in to look. The woman made them licorice tea and set out a tray of cookies while her father pointed at rooms and windows and the back porch, saying “Oh, look — here? When I was seven, I took my mum’s best sheets out and glued them to the railing to make a circus tent!”
She imagines herself years from now, with a husband and children of her own, coming back to this place, back to the old Pittsburgh house and knocking on the door. See, there? That was my room — when I was young, we painted it bright yellow, and my father let me write my name on the wall it in letters two feet high. And out back? You see where that orange tree is? We used to have an arbor there, with a swing hung under it…
Forward and back, forward and back. The rush downward, then up into the sky, hanging there momentarily until gravity renews its tug and pulls her down, back, the rush of wind in her hair and the world is full of trees and ferns. Forward and back, forward and back. Then a voice from the steps: “Katherine? You ready? It’s time.” And she feels the downward rush one last time, a final chirp! at the bottom as the swing launches her ahead, upward and into the sky as she lets go of the chains and flies away.
[In honor of the change of seasons, this one is from an old writing exercise that I fell in love with. The assignment was to emulate Zadie Smith’s use of a repetitive motion or sound in “The Embassy of Cambodia”. I promise that the next post, in two weeks, will actually be a new story — my favorite new one, in fact! -dpc]