On the Cliff

Are you okay? 

Autumn’s cautious whisper sends ripples through Gwyneth’s thoughts, the effect similar to a flock of water fowl disturbing the silence of a pond. Gwyneth’s standing crooked, hunched over a lopsided duffel bag like a beaten scarecrow; her hair is tied to the side, firmly bound and cast away like a bushel of straw. She rests her hands on the towels folded on top of the duffel bag, then proceeds to pick at the loose threads. 

Mom? 

Gwyneth says nothing. Instead she listens to Autumn’s breathing, toy train huffs of breaths, the kind only a child can produce. 

Autumn would protest this. I’m not a kid anymore, she would say. I’m ten! 

The thought makes her chuckle at first, but no less than a second later, it saddens her. Gwyneth takes a deep breath, only to inhale the unwelcome odor of industrialism, scents of gasoline and decay rushing up her nose like smoke through a chimney. She twitches, but refuses to break. Having lived in this city of ashes and arson for seven years, she has learned to ignore the smell. She has learned how not to be flammable. 

But then there is Autumn. 

Gwyneth imagines Autumn — soft and naive, like dresses laid out to dry — standing on the oil slick floor of a dark room engulfed in flames, frantically searching for exits she always assumed were there. Gwyneth thinks of Autumn, trapped between walls of metal, and the uneasy feeling of running out of time suddenly becomes more real. 

The letter she received yesterday (The property belonging to Mr. James Morrow… on Blackthorne Mountain… is now under the possession of Mrs. Gwyneth Morrow Stanton… please determine your plan of action) burns bright in her mind. 

It’s the perfect excuse, and the plan is simple. 

They can leave right now and come back two weeks later, claiming it to be a matter of urgency, using the letter as proof if they have to. To be safe, she will put the note she prepared on the kitchen table before they go; the note is written in a language her husband will listen to, something along the lines of “we plan to examine the property to determine its price point”. As her husband always says… money talks. And in this case, it is lying. 

The existence of multiple escape routes gives her enough reassurance to act. Without looking at Autumn, Gwyneth addresses her: 

Put on your shoes and coat, Autumn. 

Why?

Just… do as I say. 

You’re acting really weird.

I want to take you somewhere, okay? A little trip, just the two of us. 

Grabbing the duffel bag’s long strap, Gwyneth hoists it over her narrow shoulder. She shoves her heels into her boots, then reaches for Autumn, who reluctantly offers her hand. Her heart beating fast, Gwyneth thrusts her key into the splintered keyhole. 

Just the two of us?

Yes. Just the two of us.

They descend the metal stairs that connect the first floor to the apartment’s lobby and then head straight for the parking lot, where Gwyneth’s car chirps to life. The duffel bag is tossed in between an assortment of other items, a portable stove and two sleeping bags among them. After checking to make sure Autumn is buckled up in the back, Gwyneth gets comfortable in the driver’s seat. Her hands, cold as corpses, tighten on the wheel.  

This is really happening. Resigned to a dazed state, Gwyneth turns to stare out the windshield as if preparing to say goodbye in a glance. Flecks of grime lay speckled across the glass, but she sees it: the sky, the road, the way out. There it is, the exit, past the buildings, barely visible behind the boxes and blocks they call a city; she wants to see it, the sky, haloed in horizon, sprawled out in a panorama. Overwhelmed by emotion, Gwyneth’s eyes shift out of focus. But she sees it — the light — flickering in front of her. Calling out to her.  

Gwyneth pulls out of the parking lot and escapes in broad daylight.

Seven hours and two pit stops later, Gwyneth turns a corner and finds that there is no more dirt road to travel. This must mean they are here. The sky is a deep blue cloak, and tucked into its soft folds is Autumn. She lies asleep in the backseat, head tilted innocently, a stream of saliva dribbling down her chin. 

Gwyneth shakes her awake. Wake up, we’re here. 

Autumn yawns. We’re here? 

Yes, now hurry on out. You don’t want to miss the sunset. Come on, hurry out.

They step into the sprawling field that awaits them and begin making their way through the grass. Lining the edge of the clearing, evergreen trees point towards the starless sky as light gusts of wind whistle through them. 

They eventually reach the far side of the field, which is really a cliff’s edge built into the side of the mountain. It’s danger disguised by perspective, a wolf lurking beneath flower beds. Gwyneth is aware of the danger, having grown up alongside it, but Autumn stands oblivious at the cliffside, looking out instead of under. 

The day has since turned to dusk. Together, mother and daughter watch a tentative sun approach the horizon as if seeking closure. The upper half of the sky is painted in lilac hues, the bottom a soft orange. The ethereal gradient pours onto the multiple faces of the mountain, red rocks flickering amber, phantom candlelight. This view, like something from the thermosphere, seems too phenomenal to exist on Earth. 

They stand and watch as the stars make themselves into being above a landscape that shifts and contorts. When the final shreds of light come dangerously close to disappearing, Gwyneth closes her eyes and harmonizes with the fog. 

Switching on a flashlight she brought from the car, she addresses Autumn’s shining face. 

This way. I have one more surprise for you.

They walk away from the cliff and back across the field. After convincing Autumn to surrender her hand for holding, they venture into the thicket. Within minutes they stumble into a small clearing, and within that clearing, a small cabin with a wooden porch and a red painted door sits patiently in the center. Gwyneth’s heart soars like a bird when she spots a familiar watering can on the window sill. She takes a step forward, and she is home. 

The days march along — quickly, spiritedly. City girl mannerisms sulk off, and the countryside sweeps in to greet them. Autumn likes to weave flowers into her hair and picks them from the meadow adjacent to the cliffside. Gwyneth finds freedom in keeping herself busy, every menial task affirming capabilities she forgot she had. It has been years since she has done productive work. Here on this cliffside, hidden in the palm of the mountain’s hand, Gwyneth is in her element. 

By the way, whose house is this? Are we going to get in trouble? Autumn asks from the corner of the cabin’s only room, where she lies sprawled out on her stomach.  

Gwyneth chuckles to herself. Looking up from the portable stove — she is making chicken soup from a prepackaged mix, complete with herbs she picked earlier to freshen it up — she gives Autumn a warm smile. 

It’s mine, Autumn. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Upon saying those words, Gwyneth finds herself imbued with an unprecedented amount of euphoria. 

But then Autumn ruins it all — as if thrusting a dagger into her chest, she renders Gwyneth unable to speak; as if pulling the curtains over the window, she sucks all the light out of the room. The damage is done by a single sentence: 

When are we going home? 

And Gwyneth’s smile shatters like glass. For a taut moment, she is caught between a scowl and a straight face. In the end, she settles on a stern look. 

Not this again, Autumn. 

I want to go home. 

You better not mean that.

It’s not that I don’t like it here, Autumn insists. I’m just starting to get bored. 

Being bored is a privilege, Gwyneth bites back. 

Okay fine! Autumn hisses. I’ll go pick flowers for the window. 

Gwyneth sighs. Fine. Don’t get too close to the cliff, she calls out. But Autumn is already out the door, running barefoot away from the cabin, her dress blowing apart in the wind like rose petals. Gwyneth watches Autumn’s retreating figure until the swathes of pink disappear from view, and she is left staring, glassy eyed, at the aftermath.

Autumn comes back empty handed. Gwyneth chooses to ignore this childish rebellion. 

They finish the chicken soup. They speak, tight lipped, to one another. But before they go to bed, they brave the cold that arrives with the night and, armed with flashlights, trudge through the meadow to reach the cliff. Standing close but with caution, looking out and not at each other, mother and daughter view the same universe with two different sets of eyes.

You know I only want what’s best for you, Gwyneth speaks into the silence. 

I know. But you’re not me. And I still don’t know why we’re here. 

Because I grew up here, Gwyneth reveals. I made a big mistake, pretending to be a sweet-faced city girl to impress your dad. Now I’m stuck being a housewife, chained to walk in the same circles I’ve always walked in and… and I missed this place. I miss who I was when I was here. 

A strangled sound — something between a sob and a mewl — emerges from Autumn’s throat. Why are you telling me this? she whispers. Why are you saying these things? Do I mean nothing to you? You — her voice rises like steam, piping hot, scalding — You said you’re a housewife, but… what about being a mom?  

I’m telling you this to make you understand, Autumn, Gwyneth pleads.  

Understand what? That you grew up in a forest? Autumn exclaims sarcastically. And why now? Why didn’t we come back sooner if coming here was so necessary? 

I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving again! Gwyneth shouts. But it’s different this time because you’re here. Even after we leave a part of this place will stay with you, and that consoles me in more ways than one. 

Autumn does not respond.

You can escape whenever you want to now, Gwyneth goes on, her voice dropping to a whisper. I’m sorry for telling you hurtful truths, but I’m doing it because I want to be a good mother to you, Autumn. 

Autumn lets out a quiet whimper. 

Gwyneth is no fool: She recognizes the differences that separate them like a chasm. She, after marrying the first man she met in the city, never stopped yearning for the softness of grass beneath her feet. Autumn, raised in an enclave of industrialism, spent her childhood boxed in by various shades of brown. 

But now Autumn is here, in the center of Spring. She will experience one good thing after another; a plethora of pinks woven into a sunset, bunnies scurrying through the underbrush; the perpetual glow the sun adopts when Summer knocks on Spring’s door. And once Autumn begins to understand the value of waking up to birdsong, and breathing in the scent of pine, the forest will settle in her chest like a gray squirrel burrowed into the heart of a tree. 

Dormant but ever present. Destined to awaken at some point. 

With tentative hope Gwyneth sneaks a glance in Autumn’s direction, seeking to pull sentences from the structure of Autumn’s face. But to her frustration, Autumn has hidden her face from view. She is looking not at the sky, but under it. She is looking, mutely, down the face of the cliff.

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