INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
When I was a child, making up a game was often better than playing it. It was the pretense to make believe — the who’s who and the what’s what — that gripped my interest. Most games were only preamble — my sister and I kept a notebook of the family trees of our fairy alter-egos, for example, and spent hours building their house out of bark and moss. But as far as I can remember, we never actually pretended to be fairies. The “fairy game,” as we called it, was really just sitting around, thinking about fairies.
The siblings in Joshua Harmon’s “Rope” are far more sinister than my sister and I. They imagine that their older brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods, that he sneaks out at night to visit her. But for them, it’s not a game. It’s an obsession that has tipped into reality. The first line of the story, “Our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods,” is repeated many times throughout, becoming and incantation that fulfills its own hypothesis.
The way that the phrase is turned and twisted, reused and made new again, is a testament to Harmon’s secret life as a poet. Well, not so secret; he’s published two poetry collections, along with a novel and a collection of essays. But he’s a poet even when he writes fiction, keeping track of words like an adept air traffic controller: it’s a recursive chaos of crossed paths that the reader experiences as order.
But, like the best poets, Harmon is also a storyteller. I would never call this a coming of age story — it’s too unconventional — but “Rope” does capture, in a completely original way, the alluring mystery of adolescence. It’s sexual curiosity before sexuality. The scene the narrator and his sister imagine is at once prurient and innocent: their brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods, but when he goes to see her, he only asks to hold her hand.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by Joshua Harmon
Our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods. Mindy and I believe that Jamie, our brother, stole the rope from Joe Letourneau’s father’s garage, where everyone has seen the stacked coils of it beside the broken-toothed rakes and broken-spoked bikes and broken plastic bits of last Christmas’s toys that Mr. Letourneau saves there, or that Jamie doesn’t even use a rope — too rough and raspy on his girl’s skin — but clotheslines that for months he has at night collected from the backs of houses, using his knife to snick off a length here, a few loops there, or that Jamie has simply snitched the clotheslines new and tight-wound from the wicker basket we once saw them in at the hardware store where our mother had gone for a new lock to put on the door, after one of the men our mother had brought home had left, keeping the copy of the extra key our mother had, a few weeks earlier, sent us to have cut.
At supper we catch our brother sneaking food into his pockets. Later, when he’s supposed to be doing his homework at the yard sale desk in his room, we know that he’s bellying over his windowsill, slipping down through the branches of the maple there, to bring the food to the girl he keeps tied up in the woods. We know that what our mother or our grandmother might think only a wind-bothered branch bumping against the house is our brother’s foot finding a hold, his knee knocking a clapboard. We have seen him swipe the hairbrush from our mother’s nightstand, carry it into the bathroom, and, with hair shiny and tucked behind his ears, replace it in her room. When it rains, he steals an umbrella from the closet and sits in the woods with the tied-up girl, holding the umbrella over her head to keep her from getting wet. We believe he also holds her hand. We have guessed he may read to her from a book, sometimes — these days there seems always to be some silent word he is testing out on his lips. Mindy thinks he gives his girl cigarettes pinched from our mother’s and grandmother’s purses to smoke while she waits for him to come to the woods after school and put her hand in his.
“How can she smoke if her hands are tied up?” is what I wanted to know. “How can she hold hands?”
“Do you think he holds the cigarette up to her lips?” I also wanted to know.
“How can he hold the cigarette, the umbrella, and her hand all at once?” I did not even bother to ask.
“Wake up, wake up, sleepies, wake up,” our mother says, and we wake to warmth — first me, then Mindy, yawning and rubbing her eyes — to the smell of smoke beyond the blankets from a fire already filling the woodstove. The smoke smells too smoky, like the fire didn’t catch at first, paper blazing blackly away to ashes before it could spark sticks, wood scorched but not burning, until someone added more paper and kindling and kneeled on cold stones to blow embers into flames.
Still, under these bunched and rumpled blankets is the most warmth, and under them we stay — my legs, Mindy’s, a breath, a wrinkle, a cool edge by my hand, a kick to free a foot from a tangle of fabric. I can hear the reel of rain on the roof. Through a barely opened eye I see our mother’s dark face over my face in bed, her dark hair hanging darkly down to frame it, her robe a loose knot. “Wake up, wake up,” she says, almost singing the words. Mindy turns away, and the blankets make a sound that says hush, hush.
Our mother plucks at those blankets and tugs a corner free. The smoke smell is fainter now. What little of the day I can see through an eye half-opened and shut, opened again and shut again, invents itself in blue clouds and rain beyond our drop-streaked window. A Saturday should always be a sleeping day.
But our mother yanks the blankets away, her hands gathering up all the heavy covers and sweeping them into a heap on the floor. There is a sticky taste on my tongue. There is Mindy’s scrunched-up foot, and Mindy’s half-asleep whine at the lack of a covering. There is someone’s eyelash stuck on the pilled pillowcase. Then there is our mother.
“Wake up,” our mother says, looking from me to Mindy. “Wake up. You need to find your brother.”
Our mother found Miles not long after the fourth of July, early one evening as the crickets rubbed their legs in the wild weedy grass behind the house. Our mother came home in a loud pickup truck we did not remember seeing, loud enough that until the man driving it turned off the engine we couldn’t hear the crickets. She came home with summer’s first paper bag of corn for us to shuck the husks and silk from, which she set on the front porch between the two slack-wove folding chairs, with a six-pack of brown bottles that clinked when she carried them into the kitchen to find the churchkey for, and with Miles, who creaked shut the door of his pickup truck, walked up the porch’s two sagging steps, and held open the screen door for us, a stub of cigarette in his mouth and his sleeves rolled up to show greeny ink under his skin that might’ve shaped a face or a flag or a flower, or that maybe might’ve said someone’s name.
“Hey,” he said to us, nodding once beneath the grease-fingered brim of his cap. Fireflies winked in the dusky yard behind him. “Corn’s on the porch.”
“You’re letting in the bugs,” Mindy said.
Miles had nine and a half fingers and a ponytail and pants that never fit his hips. “Ask him” was what our mother told us to do, and “don’t ask” was what he told us, jacking up those pants and correcting the curl of his cap brim, when we asked him what had happened to the rest of his finger, but then one side of his mouth would pull back and he’d poke us with the smooth-skinned end of that stump until we ran away. That stump, the end of it, had a seam like the ends of the plants our mother pinches off, saying, “Grow, grow, damn you.”
Days it rained, we’d hear Miles’s snores even after we came home from school, but on clear mornings the sound of him revving his pickup truck to keep it from stalling in the side yard’s worn-away grass would wake us. What woke us at night was the loose loud slur of Miles’s voice, or the stumble of his feet over the porch steps as he and our mother came home from wherever it was they’d gone.
Our mother and grandmother would splash glasses of tap water over Miles and Jamie when they got at each other, Miles usually getting at Jamie a lot more than Jamie could get at Miles, on account of his arms’ length and the strength in even that four-and-a-half-fingered hand. Once they were getting at each other so much, unbalancing a lamp and banging into the coffee table, our grandmother fetched the broom from the broom closet and smacked them both with the flat of it, near cracking its handle over someone’s wet shoulder or back, while she and our mother, tugging someone else’s furious red fist until it slipped loose, screamed at them to stop.
Mindy and I never did do much more than watch.
“Almost thought I’d forgot what it’s like to have a man in the house,” our mother, tipping back to her mouth the last trickle of tap water from a glass, said to our grandmother.
Our grandmother righted the lamp and kneed the coffee table into its proper place.
Somewhere in the house — upstairs, the back hall, the cellar — hard to tell — a door slammed.
But Miles one night didn’t come home to park his pickup truck in the side yard, and to none of us but all of us our mother said, again pulling back the curtain to confirm the bare patch his truck had over a few weeks made, “Don’t think I didn’t know.” We were all tucked against the table in our chairs, waiting for our grandmother to bring the supper to it. Many of the times after Jamie and Miles got at each other Jamie would not come home for supper either, and so we wondered if this time Jamie had got at Miles the most before our mother and grandmother poured the water, and if he would, like Jamie, come home late, in a huffing sort of sulk, clipping the back door barely shut behind him to creep up the stairs almost too quietly to catch, though our mother, sitting up in the dark, could always hear these things and would catch him anyway.
My eyes looked at Mindy’s and then to Jamie’s, though his gave away nothing that he might have known.
“Oh, I knew,” our mother said.
There was a pack of cigarettes that Miles had kept in the refrigerator, and there was a lopsided pair of scuffed and heelworn boots that Miles had left kicked into a corner of the hall, but our mother said that no, he would not be back, not even to collect his things.
“Him?” she said, smiling out smoke from her mouth.
She coaxed a deep-voiced laugh from deep in her chest.
We saw the cigarettes in the refrigerator for only a few days before they were gone, and Mindy thought that Miles had come back and taken them no matter what our mother had said. “No,” I told her, and that afternoon pointed out to her Jamie, out back at the edge of the woods behind our house, breathing out smoke of his own, while his lips shaped shapes we thought might be new things he was thinking to say to the girl he keeps tied in the woods.
We don’t know who the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree in the woods is. We don’t know what the girl looks like. We would like to think she is pretty, and Mindy says, in the quiet after-bedtime darkness of our bedroom some nights, that she would prefer the tied-up girl’s hair a pale shade of blonde, perhaps tied with a green ribbon, but never a bow.
We know our brother has told his friends. Pressed against the stickered surface of his door when they’re all shut inside his bedroom, we’ve heard them talk. We’ve heard the words “gorgeous,” “wicked,” “pound on you,” “no way,” “not yet.” We’ve heard other words, and words we couldn’t make out, and the simple rough grunting and smacking of boys hitting other boys hard with their hands and, possibly, their feet.
We wonder who else knows. We’ve tried to count the girls in our school, in our brother’s older grade — the girls testing each other’s eyeshadow in the hallways, the girls whose bra straps the boys reach to snap in class, the girls old enough for a Saturday afternoon permanent or a pair of pierced ears if they want one, and some of them do — but can’t tell if any one of these girls is missing. They walk down the halls of school and we watch them, counting them silently to ourselves, noting in a notebook their numbers — there are so many of them, these older girls. We study a blush-bruised face, note a hand’s chipped fingernail polish, observe the handbeaded bracelets knotted around their wrists, memorize the careful line lipstick has left at the corner of a frown, tally the unbuttoned buttons of their blouses, practice their practiced walks.
We don’t know who the girl is.
Downstairs, dressed, hair gathered into ponytails, socks tugged on, eyes rubbed and red, we wait for more news. Our grandmother has tipped over the chairs in the living room as if she might find our brother beneath. “Lit the fire and then left,” she says. She shakes her head. “Just left, I guess.” she looks at the woodstove. She holds the broom in her hand. She has swept a pile into the middle of the floor. “Watch where you step,” she says. I watch her watch where we step.
The chairs look the way the chairs looked when we used to make forts, or caves, or sunken ships, Jamie heaving them over for us to crawl beneath.
“Squeeze this!” he’d dare us, holding out his arm, clenching his fist, and showing all his teeth. Under the skin of his arm a hard bump trembled. “Feel that?”
Our mother stands at the kitchen window, cupping a hand to the glass and peering out. Inside, we can barely hear the rain. The fire in the stove snaps. “He’s somewhere,” our mother says. “Somewhere out there. Probably somewhere inside a house, knowing him.”
“Take the flashlight in case you need it,” she says.
“There’s still some oatmeal on the stove,” she says.
“Don’t forget a jacket,” she says. “A scarf, maybe.”
“Well, you’d better get going,” she says.
“Aren’t you going?” she says.
Our grandmother kneels to sweep up the clots of dust and hair.
Each afternoon, when the tied-up girl watches the sun’s red smear through the trees, she shivers. This is what we think. We think she shivers, thinking of the cold night to come. Shivers, thinking of the deep darkness and how quiet it gets in the dark woods at night in the fall, when the only sound is the sound of her blood in her ears, a sound that sounds louder the more she thinks of it.
Has our brother brought her blankets? We’ve checked closets, toppling the stacks our grandmother folds the towels into, hunting for the ripped and raggedy blankets our mother says at this point are only useful for spreading out in the yard to lie on. And sometimes, lying awake in our own bed, we worry: what of roaming and collarless dogs, forecasts for frost, the long wait for sunrise, the man that Sarah Quinn said she saw carrying a knife in the neighborhood? How does a girl sleep, standing up, against the rough bark of a tree, in the cold quiet dark of the woods at night? How does she go to the bathroom?
Jamie showed us how to stack five or six or seven pennies on our elbows and quick-snap our arms to catch them. He showed us how to give the Indian sunburn, demonstrating first on my arm and then on Mindy’s. He showed us how to steal packets of sugar from Mike’s on the way home from school and to keep them in our jacket pockets for when we were hungry, or, he said, in case we got lost in the woods. He showed us where the trails in the woods went, and how some connected, and why others looked the same but weren’t the same, and whose backyards the trails ended at. He showed us how to fit a chain back onto the bicycle it had fallen off of. He pulled aside the low branches of Mrs. Mathews’s bushes to show us the white mothballs tucked in the grass and woodchips there, and said that even if Chris Cervini told us they were ivory, they were not. He showed us the way to fan a paper book of matches and light them all at once — he called it a kind of cocktail. He showed Mindy how to shape a fist so she wouldn’t break her thumb when she threw it, and showed me how to turn my shoulder toward a punch.
He did not show us how to steal pouches of Apple Jack from the store or how to tuck it into our cheeks or how to shoot brown spit through our teeth at someone else’s new white sneakers. He did not show us how to breathe to light a cigarette, or how to inhale its smoke without coughing. He did not show us which kids sell strings of firecrackers for a dollar. He did not show us how to take three pink pieces of chewed-together gum from our mouths and rub it into Sarah Quinn’s hair so that the next day she would have to come to school with a boy’s haircut and small red ears. He did not show us how to use a pocketknife to cut off a toad’s leg. But these things too we learned in time.
Our feet are the first parts of us to get good and wet. But soon what we wear turns darker, hangs heavy — the trailing cuff of a pantleg, the tops of our shoulders, the drooping ends of our sleeves.
“It’ll take more than that to melt you,” our mother said, twisting the umbrella from my hand just before we left. She opened the door for us. The spring stretched tight. By the time we circled around back to try the back door, ducking below the windows our mother could spy us out from, the knob was already locked.
We sidestep the root-ruined sidewalk squares and head down the street. We do not see any people. What we see is the mostly yellow grass footing wire fences, two dented tipped-over cans spilling newspaper and chicken bones, yellow and brown leaves banked and blown and now shiny with water, orange and red leaves that corkscrew quickly down through the rain. The leaves smell of rot. The leaves stick to our shoes. The leaves clog the sewer drains and float on the water flooding the curbs.
Our mother has never sent us to hunt up Jamie, and we don’t know where to begin to look. We hop puddles to the houses where dogs don’t bark, to knock on doors and ask for him. “He’s probably somewhere inside a house,” Mindy says.
I make Mindy walk in front of me. When she turns around to see if I’m still following her, I say, “Walk.”
“Go to that house and ask if he is inside,” I tell her. It is a white house with a white fence and a driveway nicely swept of leaves. I watch Mindy unlatch the gate, watch her walk up to the door. Blinking, I inspect the clouds for signs of a possible break in the weather.
“He is not inside,” Mindy says, coming back.
There are, along these streets, within even these few hilly blocks of potholes and trees we call our neighborhood, so many houses — here a half-hung shutter, here a chimney’s relaxed pitch, here a porch light still palely burning, here a push mower left to rust in the rain — all the curtained windows, all the closed doors. There are so many houses it is hard to figure for sure where our brother might be, or might have been. There are so many houses we wonder how many doors we will have to announce ourselves at to ask after our brother.
We think of the places, if not inside a house, Jamie could be: the scoop of muddy dirt beneath the back porch, the crook of the tree behind Joe Letourneau’s garage, walking in a stream to keep a dog from tracking his scent, behind the school bouncing a ball off the bricks.
“He is not inside,” Mindy says.
“He is in the woods,” Mindy says.
Our mother did not send us to find Miles when he did not come home for supper. She did not wake us too early the next morning to search for him in the neighborhood. After another day or two of — when she thought we wouldn’t notice — looking to see if there was, perhaps, a pickup truck parked in the side yard’s worn-away grass, she said, “Ought to get some grass seed for that dirt patch.” But she did not send us to the hardware store with a dollar or two for a sack of seed.
What our grandmother said about Miles, some night not long after he didn’t come home, was, “He’s not the kind to tie the knot.”
She had said this same thing about many of the men our mother found and brought home, and even, once or twice, about our mother.
“No, but he’s the kind to tie one on,” our mother said, laughing another bubbly cough from her chest. She mashed her cigarette out in the ashy saucer next to her plate and uncrossed her legs. Jamie forked up another mouthful of our grandmother’s potatoes and gravy. He swallowed. He scrubbed his mouth with his napkin and fisted it into a paper lump. He pushed his plate away.
“Can I please be excused?” he asked.
“May I,” our grandmother said, her cigarette bobbing between her lips as she thumbed her lighter three times for a flame. “May I please be excused.”
When we first found out that our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods, we did not think to tell anyone. We imagined he would tell them all, at supper, when our mother asked us what we might have learned or done or not done that day, in the way of lessons or trouble or chores. But when Miles was there it was him our mother asked of, and once Miles had left Jamie had little cause to say anything at supper beyond “Please pass the salt.”
We thought to see her for ourselves. One afternoon after school we spied Jamie out from the upstairs window as he picked up a whittled stick and walked into the woods. We ran down through the house and out through the snarls of weedy growth behind our house to the edge of the woods. We watched Jamie from behind a tree. We saw the back of his t-shirt vanish down a trail, the tip of his stick slashing at low-hung leaves.
At the first fork we headed right. Mindy placed an ear to the ground, and came up with dirt in her hair. She touched a finger to her lips and pointed. We soft-stepped over old leaves, twigs, curls of birch paper. We stayed low. We did not jostle a branch. We kept our heads. We counted the side trails on our fingers. We watched. We listened. We waited.
We waited longer.
I gave Mindy ten fingers for a view.
“He’s gone,” Mindy whispered.
Jamie, pulling from his pocket two pieces of rope, showed us how to tie a stevedore’s knot, a sheepshank, a hangman’s noose, a cat’s paw, a lariat loop, a clove hitch, a double sheet bend.
“Jamie’s the kind to tie the knot,” Mindy said.
But Jamie said that a girl never has a head for two things — directions and rope.
“No girl I’ve ever known,” he said. “No, not even either of you,” he said.
“Of course, all you really need to know is your basic square knot,” he said.
He said that we’d forget every knot he ever looped and undid and looped again, pulling the ropes tight, cinching the ends, to show us how. He said that we would never remember the trails he showed us in the woods, or how they connected, or why some looked the same as others, or whose backyards the trails ended at.
“Of course, the best things aren’t on the trails,” he said.
“I’ll show you again, if you want,” he said.
“No, like this,” he said.
“See?” he said.
“Forget it,” he said. “Just stick with me.”
We often wonder who else — besides us and Jamie’s friends — knows about the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree in the woods. We believe, sometimes, that we have heard rumors among the kids who ride the school bus out to the end of Old Reservoir Road. Mindy tries to hear the whispers two boys share at the corner of the schoolyard’s painted-on kickball diamond. I look for penciled words on desktops or folded notes dropped in the hallway.
We believe there are boys who meet in someone’s cobwebby cellar. The boys draw their plans in the sawdust on the cracked cement floor. The boys pass each other messages written in code and sketch maps in invisible ink that shows only against a candle flame, or if you dip the paper in lemon water, or if you breathe on it for ten minutes. The boys head into the woods with binoculars and penknives, with compasses and walkie-talkies, with canteens and waterproof matches, with rope of their own. They rattle the dried goldenrod stalks with sticks, imitate the hooting of owls, hunt among the trees for the girl they have heard is tied to one.
Sometimes we worry that they will find her some windy afternoon when our brother is shut in his bedroom, doing whatever it is that he does in there.
From sidewalk to woods is a distance not more than a person’s front yard, house, and backyard, if we find the right backyard where one of the trails begins, but in the woods where the rain-raked trees have lost their leaves we know we’ll only get wetter than we already are.
We keep walking through the neighborhood.
A brief spell of hard rain falls. We wait it out on the porch of a house where no one answers the doorbell that Mindy, because she cannot hear it chime, presses twice. We wonder if, somewhere in the woods, Jamie is holding the umbrella over the head of the girl he keeps tied to a tree.
“Jamie,” Mindy calls out. “Jamie!”
There is a chance, we agree, that Jamie will be behind the school in the rain, thinking of how to rescue his ball from the gymnasium’s flat roof, where he has accidentally thrown it. There is a chance he is at the store to buy some candy for the girl he keeps tied up, or to buy her a magazine he can hold up and flip for her to see the photos of, or to buy her a carton of chocolate milk to share while they wait for the rain to end.
There is a chance, even, that Jamie is by now back at home, his wet things placed on the hearth beside the fire he built hours ago — a good chance, we agree, that he is in his bed, dreaming of his tied-up girl and all the secret things he will tell her.
“May I hold your hand?” could be one of them.
Rain drips from the ends of Mindy’s soaked ponytails, and, I guess, from mine.
Our sneakers seep water when we step.
“Home?” Mindy asks.
“Home,” I say.
What I want to know, waking sometimes to an early light and lying back against my sleep-squashed pillow with my arms behind my head while beside me under the blankets Mindy breathes, is does the girl our brother keeps tied up in the woods struggle to get loose from the knots binding her to the tree? Does she rub the rope against the tree she’s tied to? Does she work her cold fingers to a place where they can pick an end of rope free? Do the forest animals hear her crying and, coming to see why she is sad, chew through the knots our brother has practiced so often that he says he can tie them one-handed in the dark?
Or does the girl not mind being tied to the tree? Does our brother bring her the things she wants, and does she like the quiet of the woods, the long low slant of sifted sun and then the hours of mottled moonlight, better than the four walls of her bedroom, the days of desks and chalk dust?
Back at home, what we do not expect is for the front door to be locked, for our mother’s car to be gone from the driveway, for the chimney to show no smoke, for our own house to be as quiet and empty as most every other house we have walked to this morning to test a doorbell or rap a knuckle.
We check the knob of the back door — still locked — then see if any of the windows might be open.
“Who leaves a window open in the rain?” is what I think to say to Mindy, but, rain dripping down me, lift her on ten fingers to try anyway.
We ring the doorbell. We knock.
“Grocery shopping?” I say. “Laundromat?”
“Getting their hair done?” Mindy says.
“Too early,” I say.
We try the doorbell again, pushing it so long my fingertip turns white.
And then there is nothing to do or say except what Mindy says: “We still haven’t checked the woods.”
Does the girl, awake some night in the woods, feel a terrible thirst, and wish herself home to stumble half-asleep from bed to bathroom’s yellow light, where she runs the faucet for a minute before gulping up cold water in her two cupped hands?
Does she plot, during those long hours of darkness, how to trick our brother so that she can escape and somehow tie him to the tree, using the same knots she has watched him shape?
Does our brother bring her fresh clothes to wear?
Does he turn his back while she changes, or does he watch? Would she run if, while she changed her clothes, he kept his back turned, like a gentleman would?
We think, sometimes, Mindy and I, that we would know the answers to all of our questions about the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree if only we could know her name.
Tree trunks black with rain, bush-snagged leaves, every branch’s hem of drops, a path’s single slippery rain-slicked rock: into the woods we go.
“I don’t know” was what Jamie told me when I once asked him who had first made these trails, who had figured out the shortest way to circle a hill out of sight from a house’s top-floor window, who had cut back the pricker bushes, who had beaten down the weeds.
“Indians?” Mindy had asked.
The trail, buried under wet and bunched leaves, is hard to follow. With a sogged sneaker toe I scrape away leaves and sticks, candy wrappers and bottlecaps. Bits of glass stud the muddy dirt beneath. Low branches clutch the cellophane sleeves of cigarette packs, and under the orange ferns are the weather-whitened and rain-stuck pages of magazines. A rusted can of spray paint has caught in a tangle of branches. Holding back a branch so it doesn’t whip Mindy’s face, I take a step forward.
“If we knew her name, we would know the name to call as we walk through these woods,” I think to say to Mindy, who instead holds her hands to her mouth and calls, “Jamie!”
We believe a man jogging through the woods one afternoon ran past the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree, but never saw her. Did he stop to tie a loose shoelace and look the wrong way, or was he watching only the ground, to keep from stumbling on a rock? We don’t know if she called out to him, or bit her tongue, or if the noise of his feet on the pine-needled dirt and the rush of wind in his ears kept him from thinking that he heard anything more than one bird calling to another.
In the woods, we can’t hear the sound of cars splashing through puddled streets, can’t hear the sound of someone calling inside a wet dog, can’t hear anything except the stutter of rain against the leaf-covered ground and the scuff of our own cold feet through soaked leaves.
The light, since we left, has not changed, and it might be any time at all.
We walk, and keep walking, and still keep walking, but all we see are leaf piles and bushes and trees with no girls tied to them.
Mindy has stopped to rummage deep down in her pockets, where, I see in a moment, the sugar packets she long ago stuffed are about the only thing about us that is still dry. And they are slightly damp.
Mindy bends her body over to keep the rain off, rips a corner, and lifts an envelope up to her mouth. She empties it in one go. She tears open another.
“It is,” our brother once said, “instant energy.”
“Can I have one?” I say.
“May I have one?” I say.
On cold clear nights when wind worries the sashes in our bedroom window, Mindy and I tell ourselves that the girl our brother keeps tied up in the woods has a father out searching for her, a tall father with strong hands and dark eyes. The tied-up girl’s father weeps when he sees her old kindergarten photo on the mantel — her white turtleneck with its pattern of tiny hearts, the missing teeth in her smile, her pale blonde hair — and pulls on his boots and walks out into the night, vowing to find his daughter by daybreak, this daughter he has wished to come home for so long.
Other times, when the wind is not so loud, the night not so cold, we tell each other that she has an older brother, a brother who knows the woods as well as Jamie does, a brother who will untie the knots and rub the blood back into her stiff wrists and, holding her hand, lead her back out of the woods.
I blink rain from my eyelashes. I curl my fists as far into my wet pockets as they will go. Next to me, Mindy chatters her teeth and hugs herself. All around us, the black spikes of bare trees lift their limbs into the rain. We have found some bits of what might once have been rope, and a bright yellow rope untied from someone’s swingset, and a length of old jumprope missing its handles, but not a girl tied to a tree, and not Jamie.
“He probably took her someplace dry,” I say, “someplace to get her out of all this rain.”
“Probably did,” Mindy shivers out.
“They’re probably all home by now,” I say.
“Probably are,” Mindy says.
“Home?” I say.
“Home,” Mindy says.
We walk back through the trees, the broken branches, the fallen limbs, the red-leafed twigs that rain has knocked loose. We follow what looks to be a trail’s rocky route, circling ahead through the mostly bare trees. We step through dead ferns and old thorny growth, step over a banged-up street sign post with a clump of concrete still stuck to its end. We hunch our shoulders. We sniffle.
We do not remember seeing the circle of sooty stones, the burst blackened pods of last summer’s milkweed, the burned branches scattered about, the crumpled cans, so much broken glass. And we know we have not seen the two boys squatting on their heels, their wet jean jackets pasted to the curves of their backs, their wet hair hanging to hide their faces.
“Have you seen our brother?” I say, thinking one of them might be one of the boys that Jamie at times lets into his room. But when they each look up from the magazine they have been looking at, I can tell that they are older than Jamie and his friends, old enough to have wisps of hair at the corners of their mouths, old enough to smoke on the street where anyone might see them, old enough to go to the older school and so not have heard about the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree. One boy’s jeans are ripped at the knee, and I can see part of his leg. He folds the wet magazine shut, rolls it up, and tucks it under his ripped jacket. His brown eyes, looking at us, squint against the rain, and tiny beads of water have caught in his dark lashes.
“Maybe,” he says, standing up.
“Who’s your brother?” the other boy asks us.
“What are you two doing out here?” the first boy wants to know.
The girl our brother keeps tied to a tree has spent clear nights counting the stars. She knows that in another week, once the weather breaks, she’ll recognize every star anyone might see from the middle of the dark woods. She has spent afternoons watching birds flick through low branches, scatter leaves with their beaks, and, at sunset, flock to roost in the branches above her. When the wind is still and the dried leaves no longer rattle, she can sometimes hear a back door latching shut somewhere in our neighborhood beyond the woods, or a pulley squeaking under an old sash cord as someone forces a window up, or someone’s mother’s voice added to the air to summon someone for supper.
She has looked forward to the sun rising red through a morning haze more times than she cares to think.
“He keeps her tied to a tree,” I hear myself say.
“No, only that she’s somewhere in the woods,” I believe I also say.
“Don’t you think we’d untie her, then?” I seem to ask.
“If we knew, we’d go there, since that’s where our brother’d be,” I may say.
“Well, I guess we’ll try,” I think I say next.
“No, we already looked over that way,” I say, or consider saying.
But what I wish I have said is nothing.
Somewhere in the woods, the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree waits. She has waited all night, all morning, the rain soaking her pale blonde hair. Her hands and feet are nearly numb, and she hopes that soon Jamie will come to untie her, will hold her hand and wrap a dry coat around her shoulders while he shows her the trail that leads from the woods, the trail so covered by the rain-ragged leaves that no one else can see it. She wishes that he will build a fire for her the way he lit one for us this morning. But Jamie does not come, Jamie does not untie her, Jamie does not guide her from the woods, Jamie does not build a fire.
And so we lead the older boys away from her. Because we can’t find her, we know that wherever we walk through the woods will not be the place where she is tied.
“A little more this way,” Mindy tells the two boys.
“I think over here,” I say.
Soon she can no longer hear the sound of our feet and the older boys’ feet tramping through all the fallen leaves. The woods are quiet, and she can hear only an airplane far above her, or a bird calling from a branch, or the steady patter of rain. She cannot hear us walking into the woods, cannot hear the older boys following us, cannot hear their heavy steps as they stumble on roots and branches, cannot hear their heavy breath just over our shoulders.
The rain has slowed. The clouds seem darker, and the trees. There is a wind. The wind smells of smoke, of all the smoke rising from the chimneys of the houses in our neighborhood beyond the woods. The boys have brushed their wet hair from their dark faces. They have taken off their belts. The tree presses against my back. A few feet away, Mindy stands against another tree, her hands also snared by her sides, and I pretend that I cannot hear the things she is saying, the sounds she is making.
“Like this?” the boy at my tree asks, working the yellow swingset rope in his hands.
“I guess,” I can barely whisper.
“Can I?” the other boy says, coming over from Mindy’s tree to mine.
In the darkening woods, after we have passed, the tied-up girl hears boys: boys shaking the raindrops from the bushes for a sign of her, boys carrying hand-sketched maps and sharpened sticks, boys hooting among the trees like owls, even older boys with magazines they have stolen from their fathers and carried into the woods to study. Then she is glad of the ropes, glad that Jamie’s careful knots hold her so tightly against the tree’s pebbled bark, glad that she can hide against the tree in the middle of the woods, this tree that has for weeks shed its leaves upon her. She holds her breath. She does not move her feet. She waits. She knows that the boys will tire in the damp dusk’s spitting rain, will grow bored of searching for her in wet woods, will punch each other’s arms as they follow the muddy trails toward the windowed lights of home. She knows that only after supper, when the rains have ended and the clouds have cleared, will they again think of her, that only as they lie in their beds listening to the restless, nervous winds will they imagine how tomorrow they will return to the woods, hunting for the tree she is tied to.