She looks up at me from the strawberries. We’re in the garden, which is a large room with long rows of plants. The trees are in the back, against the wall. The walls are gray, and there is a bright, glowing sphere Mother created in the middle of the ceiling, which she said helps the plants grow.
We're picking fruit right now. I’m supposed to be picking the grapes off the vines, but I’ve been too caught up thinking.
Mother has long black hair and a smooth, light skin. She is beautiful, and assures me I am as well. But I wouldn’t know. I don’t really know what I look like.
There's something called a mirror, but Mother says it can hurt me, so we don’t have any. I can look in water, but it’s always fuzzy. I don’t know why.
I know I have dark red hair, and pale skin. My hair is frizzy and long, and I can never keep it down. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve never seen anyone before. And Mother doesn’t mind.
“Yes, Alexandra?” She says.
I’m sitting on the other side of the row of fruits. “I was wondering if maybe for my birthday I could go outside?”
There are two days until my eighteenth birthday. Mother will usually make me a cake, and she always has the best gifts.
She looks back at the plants, and places a strawberry on top of the others. “You know that it’s not that simple.”
I’ve never left our home. Mother says it’s to protect me. She says the world is a terrible place, and she doesn’t want me to ever have to endure it. She goes out every once in a while, and will sometimes bring me back different things.
It’s not that I’m unhappy here. But I’ve never been outside before. I’ve never seen the thing called the sun, or clouds, or the moon, or stars. Mother has told me about them, and has painted the walls in my bedroom to show me how they look, but it’s not the same.
I want to see the ocean most. Mother says the oceans aren’t as beautiful as they used to be, but I still want to see it.
“Why not?” I ask. I already know why.
“It’s too dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“What if someone protects me?”
She pauses, then continues to pick the berries. “What do you mean?”
“Can you find someone to protect me while I’m outside? I only want one day, then I’ll come back.”
“Let me think about it.” She says, standing. She picks up the basket, and walks to the door.
I sigh, and finish picking the grapes. That usually means no.
Mother nods, and I grin, jumping up to hug her.
We’re in the den. We just finished dinner, and Mother told me I’ll get to go outside for my birthday tomorrow. She will have someone here tomorrow to protect me.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
She smiles. “I’ll be watching, and if anything happens to you, I’m taking you back here immediately.”
“Okay.” I agree. “Who’s going to protect me?”
“It’s a young girl your age that I trust. Her name is Charlotte. She will show you around, and keep you safe. She’ll be bringing a sword.”
“What’s a sword?” I ask.
She pauses. “It’s sharp, like a knife, but much bigger. People use it to fight or defend themselves. It might look scary, but Charlotte won’t hurt you.”
“Will I be able to see the ocean?” I ask her. “And the sun and moon and the stars?”
She smiles. “Yes. You’ll have to come back before it gets dark, but you can look at the stars before you come back inside.”
“What if I like it out there?” I ask. “What if I don’t want to come back?”
She sighs, and looks away. “I might let you stay out there. But I can’t protect you then.”
“I cannot stay out there. It’s too dangerous for me.”
She holds out a hand. A small glowing sphere forms above her hand. She does that a lot; to help the plants grow, to cook, to clean. I don’t get what’s wrong with it.
“This is something the people out there call magic. If it’s in the wrong hands, it can be deadly. I’m what people call a witch. If they knew I had magic, I could be taken away.”
“Who would take you?”
“There are some bad people out there.”
“That’s why we stay here?” I ask.
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Why am I here?”
She’s quiet for a moment. “Because I promised to keep you safe.”
“The world.” She says. “But I can’t keep you forever.”
“Why did you pick Charlotte?” I ask her. “If you could be taken for magic and all.”
“She also has magic. She’s a bit reckless with it sometimes, but I know she will protect you. She’s wanted to meet you for quite some time.”
“Do you think she’ll like me?”
“I think she will.”
I go to bed early, excited for tomorrow.
I’m waiting impatiently for Mother to return with Charlotte. I’m wearing a long black skirt, and a white blouse. I have a bouquet of flowers for Charlotte-roses, my favorite.
Mother appears in a swirl of flowers. The girl, who I assume is Charlotte, is beside her.
Charlotte has golden hair tucked into a neat braid. She’s wearing a pair of trousers, a white blouse, and black boots. She has what I think is a sword at her hip. Her pretty blue eyes scan the room, then land on me. She smiles.
“You must be Alexandra.” She says, walking over to me. “I’m Charlotte.”
I smile, and hand her the flowers. She seems surprised, but takes them, still smiling.
“Thanks. These are beautiful.”
She snaps, and the flowers weave themselves into her braid. I’ve seen Mother do things like that, but she prefers to do things herself.
“Okay, Alexandra,” Mother says, walking to me. “You are to stay with Charlotte at all times, understand?”
“Charlotte, please don’t use your magic in front of people. Keep her safe, and try not to attract attention. Meet me back in the forest before sundown.”
Charlotte nods, and studies me. “Your hair is going to attract attention. Is it alright if I do something to it?”
“You can try.” I say.
She smiles, and wiggles her fingers at me. I can feel my hair twisting around itself in a low bun at the back of my head. She nods approvingly, then turns back to Mother.
“I’ll take care of her. Don’t worry.”
Mother nods, and pulls me into her arms for a hug. “Stay safe.”
“I will. Thank you Mother.”
Charlotte takes my hand. “Close your eyes, or you’ll get dizzy.”
I do. Suddenly, I hear rustling, and chirping. I open my eyes.
We’re surrounded by large trees. I look up, and see endless blue with white smudges scattered about. A bright glowing sphere, like the ones Mother makes, is up there, shining brightly. Spiky green grass covers the ground, except for a long strip of flat dirt weaving through the trees.
Something shoots through the trees, and I move closer to Charlotte. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
Whatever it is, does it again, but this time towards us. It’s a small brown thing, with arm-like things on either side of it. It stops in front of us, and pecks at the ground. “That.”
“That’s a bird.” She tells me, laughing. “There are lots of birds in the forest, but there probably won’t be as many when we get to town.”
“What are they for?” I ask, cautiously leaning towards it.
She shrugs. “Nothing really.”
It makes a chirping noise that surprises me, and I step away. Charlotte laughs, and pulls me to the dirt part.
“This is the path to the village,” She tells me. “Lucky for you, today is the festival.”
“Festival?” I say as we start down the path.
She nods. “It’s when everyone gets together, and we have fun all day. There are games, all kinds of food, and dancing. It’s awesome, you’ll love it, I promise.”
I freeze as something hops in front of us. It’s bigger than the bird, but still fairly small. It has fuzzy gray on it, and tall ears on the top of it’s head.
“That’s a rabbit.” Charlotte says as it hops into the trees.
I nod, and we continue walking. Soon, the trees stop, and there is just grass. I look past that, and see tall things that look like the house's and shops Mother painted. In the far back, I see what must be a castle. I can see the gray walls, and tall towers. I can hear things coming from somewhere near the middle, but it’s too far to make out.
“Here,” Charlotte says, holding out a hand. “We’ll get there faster.”
I take her hand, and close my eyes. When I open them, we’re behind a tall structure, in the shape of a person.
“What’s this?” I ask her.
She glances up. “That’s a statue of one of the kings. You’ll see lots of those.”
The noise I was hearing is clearer now. It’s filling the air, along with laughs and shouts. It’s loud, and seems to have a beat. There are different sounds, some shrill, some like heavy footsteps. They all mix together well, making pretty sounds.
“What’s that?” I ask.
She grins. “Music! Come on!”
She pulls me from behind the statue, and my eyes widen. There are people everywhere.
Some of them are smaller, and some my height. Some look older, like Mother, and some older than that. They all look happy, and walk around talking and laughing.
In the center of it all, around a gray statue of two people holding hands and grinning at each other, are people spinning around with others.
“What are they doing?” I ask Charlotte.
“Dancing.” She says. She points to a group in front of the statue. One has a metal rod, and their fingers move along it as they blow into one side. Another is pounding on a circular thing, and another has a roundish contraption with several strings. “They’re making the music.”
“Wow,” I breathe, looking around. I can smell lots of things, and I can’t place any of them. “How do you dance?”
She pulls me towards the crowd. Nobody even glances at us, as she grabs my hands.
“There isn't really a right way to dance.” She tells me. “Just spin, and hold on to me.”
I hesitate, so she spins us around, holding onto my hands. We dance along with the other people, though I tense when they get near. Charlotte spins me under her arm, and I laugh as she pulls me to her.
“Told you you’d love it.” She says as she twirls me back out. “Let’s go get some food.”
She pulls me through the growing crowd, and I stick close to her. She stops at what she tells me is a dessert stand. The table has all kinds of food. There are cakes, cupcakes, and cookies, and it smells like the kitchen when Mother bakes. Charlotte hands the lady behind the table three bronze circular things, and the lady hands her two cupcakes.
I try the one Charlotte hands me. Mother’s are much better, but it’s delicious nonetheless.
We keep walking around, and Charlotte points things out to me. Everything is so pretty, and I’m thrilled to learn each new thing.
Charlotte shows me different games, though I’m not very good at any of them. There’s a group of girls handing out flowers, and Charlotte takes a pretty yellow one, and tucks it behind my ear.
“HEY! GET BACK HERE!”
Two people sprint through the crowd, both holding several different types of food. They’re thinner than most I’ve seen, and their clothes look old. The crowd parts for three bigger people with swords, who chase after them.
“What was that?” I ask Charlotte.
She sighs. “They stole something. It’s a crime, and they could get sent to the dungeons if they’re caught.”
“Why’d they steal it?”
“They’re probably just hungry. There are a lot of people who don’t have enough money for food.” She says, leading me away from the crowd.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
She smiles. “It’s a surprise.”’
We walk a little further, and I gasp as we stop in front of a long stretch of water. We stand in what she says is sand, and I look out at the long blue. The water shines as it churns, and it laps at the edge of the sand. It’s absolutely beautiful.
“Do you like it?” She asks me.
I nod. There are other people over here, some holding hands, some laying in the sand, some sitting on benches. Everyone seems calm.
“Thank you,” I say softly. “I’ve always wanted to see it.”
“Your mom told me.” She says. “Do you want to go in it?”
I blink. “You can go in it?”
“Yeah, it’s called swimming. It’s like a bath. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
“In my clothes?”
“I’ll dry them after. You can just step in it if you want.”
We take off our shoes, and walk to the edge of the water. The sand is warm under my feet. I lift the bottom of my skirt, and dip my foot in the water. It’s cold, but I don’t mind. I grin, and walk farther, Charlotte right behind me. The bottom has small, smooth rocks that shine under the water.
My eyes widen as something brushes my foot. I yelp, and grab for Charlotte, who laughs.
“It’s okay. It’s just a fish. It won’t hurt you.”
I look at the roundish creature with a triangle like tail. Charlotte points at it, and it swims away.
When we go back to the sand, I notice the sun has been slowly sinking in the sky. The blue is getting darker, and it’s a bit harder to see.
“We’ll have to get back soon.” Charlotte says. “But we’ve got time for one more thing.”
She leads me away from crowds first, to dry my skirt and her trousers. Then we go through the crowd again. The smaller people, who Charlotte said are children, are mostly gone. It’s quieter now, and the music is soft and slow.
Charlotte keeps hold of my hand as we walk down the street. We pass lots of houses and stands, but we keep walking. We stop in front of a big tree with long branches. There are small round things Charlotte calls bells tied to the branches, and when the wind blows, they let out a pretty jingling sound.
“What’s this?” I ask her.
She points to the bark of the tree. There are words carved all over it, and some circled by hearts. “It’s called the Love Tree.”
“Years ago, the king and queen met here, and they fell in love. Everyone believes it has good luck, and it’s become a monument, I guess.”
She thinks about it for a second. “Well, there are different forms of love. You love your mother because she takes care of you. Some people love others because they make them feel a certain way.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you feel a really special connection with someone, like you’d do anything for them, then you may be in love. They mean the world to you, and you never want to be away from them. It takes most people a long time to fall in love, but some people fall in love at first sight.”
“Have you ever fallen in love?”
She lifts a shoulder. “I’m not exactly in love, but there’s someone I like a lot.”
She nods, smiling. “Yeah.”
“Who is it?”
She just smiles, and looks back at the tree. I see two other people pressing their lips together, and turn to Charlotte.
“What’re they doing?” I ask.
She glances up, and lifts an eyebrow. “That’s called kissing. When you love someone, sometimes you can kiss them.”
I nod slowly. “Okay.”
We stay at the tree a while longer, but it’s getting darker, and Charlotte says we’ve got to go. She leads me behind a house, then uses her magic to take us back to the forest.
“So?” She says. “How do you like the world?”
“I like it.” I say. “I don’t like animals much, though, but everyone seemed really happy. I like all the food and music.”
“Ready to go home?”
I nod, and she grabs my hands. I close my eyes, and when I open them again, I’m back home.
“Alexandra!” Mother says, standing from the chair she was in. She pulls me into a hug, before pulling back to examine my face. “You’re okay?”
I smile. “I’m fine. The world is amazing. And…”
I look over at Charlotte, and remember the Love Tree. I want to put my name on the tree, and fall in love, and maybe try-what was it? Kissing.
“I think I want to go out more. There are so many things I want to do.”