The girl in yellow, she stood motionless on top of a hill. She pressed two phones so tightly over her ears that she could no longer hear the birds chirping above her.
She had climbed almost an hour through the woods to get to there. The sun flooded through the trees, the birds adeptly maneuvered themselves between the branches, and wildflowers sprouted in every nook and cranny that wasn’t taken up by other life. The forest was alive, awake unlike her town where the people drowned under the dark, oppressive air no matter what season. She could hear the River rushing downstream, hurrying towards some unknown destination.
The view of the village was quite peaceful, as if the turmoil across the sea of pine did not exist. The grass seemed greener and the sky seemed bluer today. Embracing the sun and the wind and the nature, the girl in yellow dialed two numbers. Both rang for what seemed like an eternity, but finally, a woman picked up one line and promptly a man picked up the other. In unison, both said, “Hello?”
“I’m going to do it today. I wanted to call to say goodbye,” the girl responded.
“Don’t forget what I told you,” the man replied.
The girl whispered, “Mom? Dad? I know -”
The woman interrupted her, “Stay safe.”
She couldn’t tell if they could hear each other, but the tone of their stern, tense voices told her that they could. She had heard this tone only once before. It was the day her father left to cross the River only a few months before. He was safe now.
The sudden crunching of boots against the fallen branches in the near distance caught her attention. She quickly muttered “goodbye” into the phone in her right hand and hurled it into a pile of leaves where the trees and the clearing met. The remaining phone, filled with the deep heavy breathing that only a mother understands, remained close.
“Mother, when you arrive, I will make us food-” just as she began speaking, she spotted a military man emerge from the woods. The medallions on his crisp, seaweed green uniform reflected in the sun, and his shiny black combat boots glistened despite the permanent scratches from long ago. The girl fell silent, just as she had rehearsed with her mother. She had prepared herself to answer the man coming towards her. She hoped her mother understood her silence.
“What are you doing there, Miss?” His forehead crinkled and his eyes squinted from the sun despite the brim of his military patrol cap. It was the military man’s job to watch them. This run-in was not uncommon. If they stepped beyond the surveillance spectrum, it was the military men’s duty to follow them.
She paused for a moment, remembering her answer. “I’m speaking to my mother who is coming home today from an overnight trip to buy spices. I cannot transmit calls from where I live, so I must hike up here to call her.”
“Why don’t you use your landline phone?”
“The landline phone we have only calls people in our town. This phone was lent to me by my neighbor to call my mother at my grandmother’s house.”
Grabbing her by the arm, he stated forcefully, “You are breaking-” but she continued to innocently stare into his eyes, never losing eye contact to ensure her authenticity.
He squinted his eyes once more, seeing honesty more than deception, before releasing her arm with a heavy sigh. He spoke in a hush to warn her, “Curfew cannot be missed.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t forget. It’s still late morning. I will have ample time.” She smiled to reassure him.
The man disappeared back into the woods with no other words. He did not ask for the phone. He did not ask anything more than what seemed apparent to him: a girl calling her worried mother who was away. He would never know that her “missing” father was on a phone hidden in the brush.
Once he was a hundred feet into the forest, she murmured to her mother.
“Do not worry. Dad will get you out too.” Her mother answered with silence. Closing the phone, she began to walk south, towards the River.
The sun broke through the layers of foliage as the girl cautiously trekked down the hill, looking over her shoulder every so often. In her arms she carried a handful of leaves, covering the traces of her footsteps as she went on. She could hear the River’s rumbling nearby. He roared, like an unfed lion, waiting for his next meal.
Within an hour, she arrived at his feet. He greeted her with a rapid flow that led to unknown places. In her yellow coat, she sorely stood out in the midst of the browns and juniper greens surrounding her. Slowly, she inched towards the mud where the River kissed the Earth. Once more, she swung her head back, squinted her eyes, and searched vigorously for any signs of the military man. But all she heard was the whistling of the wind.
Her eyes still lingering on the great height of the pines, the chilled water encompassed her. The icy springtime water crept up her legs as she marched into the River. As she moved deeper and deeper, the water stuck onto her body with the same strong force that she had used when she refused to let go of her father’s hand before he had crossed the River. Waist deep, eyes closed, the adrenaline pulsed through her body as her heart leapt through her chest and her forehead wrinkled, as the River grew stronger and angrier as it swirled around her. Her clothing became heavier, water filling her pockets as if the River was trying to drag her down into an endless pit of darkness. She grew tense; frightened that she may have to swim. It was a skill she knew she would need, but it was neglected in her childhood days when drills and marches consumed her adolescent afternoons.
By the time she was shoulder deep, she was only a third of the way across. Her tiptoes struggled to touch the ground and with her chin raised, she saw the blazing red and orange sky above her dissipate into pink. Panic flooded her mind as she realized she had no choice but to swim. His current constantly nudged her balance every few seconds. Lifting her feet, she began to kick and flail her arms. But they failed her. The deeper she sank, the faster the air began to leave her chest. The River rushed up through her nostrils, slowly filling her throat and her burning lungs with water. He pulled her harder and harder as she tried to get away. The River did not wait for her. He had no mercy. He kept pulling at her feet, refusing to let go. Eventually, she had no choice but to give in.
He engulfed her, pulling her to the bottom. She felt the muddy floor against her shoes and she bent her knees, pushing herself off of the bottom. She returned to the surface for a moment. Several more times, she bent her legs and propelled towards the surface, her body tensing and burning each push upward. She had only moved a few feet from where she had been completely submerged, but she was already tired. Again, she kicked off the bottom and she began to kick. This time, she arched her back and kicked at forward angle. She moved her hands apart and together, propelling her body forward.
Apart. Together. Apart. Together. He pushed her downstream with even more force, but she kept going. She could feel a pounding through her whole entire body as she kicked harder. Apart. Together. Apart. Together. She was almost there.
She could see the shore on the other side. Its singing birds and croaking frogs shattered her concentration and she lost control of her body. She was ready to sink again, but, to her surprise, her foot hit earth and she stood there. One last time, she looked back as the dusk quickly turned to night. One last time, she glanced at the forest, the village, the River that kept her hostage, even when she had done nothing wrong. She turned forward, staring straight at the land that supposedly promised her freedom.
As she left him, she felt the weight of the River across her shivering shoulders. He hung heavy in her pockets. But she kept walking straight into the forest.
Night soon fell and without light, without warmth, it was only a matter of time before she would become food for a bear or freeze. She kept going, remembering what her father had said about a nearby town. She kept walking until she spotted a pile of branches in the distance. It was small, just long enough to fit her whole body and just wide enough to fit for her small stature. The branches strategically met at the top, making a triangle with the ground. Someone who had escaped must have created the shelter not long before her.
On all fours, she crawled inside and laid atop the soft leaves as she saw the night sky reveal its flashing stars. She always thought that they were fairies in the night sky, looking after her when she was afraid. This seemed especially true as she shivered. She thought the sky would look different across the River, but it was still the same.
Her body could not stop shaking and the girl rose to look for branches to start a fire. Her father had taught her how to build one years ago, long before he had purchased a gas stove, and although she had not made one in two years, she still remembered fiercely rolling a piece of branch between her palms, its tip against a wooden plank and some tinder.
With the scavenging done, she sat down beside her shelter and began rolling. Faster and faster, the sticks twirled between her small hands and soon enough, sweat formed in her palms. Though she didn’t find tinder, some dry leaves did the trick. Testing for warmth, she put her hands against a flatter piece of wood. Sure enough, it was gaining heat. Soon, the girl was basking in the glimmering warmth. Although it was small, she tended to it with fierce attention and care, as if she was looking after a child. The fire turned to glowing embers and the night sky became darker. Lying down, she planned her morning, starting with finding the trail that her father had explained would be only an hour walk from the River. Maybe she would run towards the path. Maybe that would get her there faster.
At the bottom of the path there would be a town. Maybe there would be people walking by. Maybe her father would be waiting for her and she would run up to him and take comfort in his embrace. Then, as the embers died, she fell asleep despite the cold, hoping to wake up to the sunrise.
Yoon Soo (Suzy) Shin is a senior at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. She enjoys reading shorts stories and essays by David Sedaris, Nella Larsen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Edwidge Danticat and likes exploring themes such as love, transnational identities, and the cross section where these two themes meet. In her spare time, she likes watching Parks and Recreation, going hiking with her dad, and playing Cards Against Humanity with her friends.