Phantoms of yellow light drift among the reeds, their reflections dancing on the surface of the river. Eva’s laughter sparkles and splashes like the water around her toes as she chases them, her short fingers closing on air over and over. I watch her from my perch on the lowest branch of a willow tree. My legs sway as I drink in the sound of her happiness, a sound I once thought had died with our parents.
Smiling, I lean back. The wind creeps through the thick tapestry of leaves above my head, allowing the deep blue sky to wink through. Deep blue like the eyes of the girl who first showed me this place. The daughter of the village baker, I met her while running errands for the matron of the big house. Her pale cheeks were always dotted with flecks of flour, even as she led me through the meadow to this secret place. When I heard the calls of the mourning doves and saw the willow branches drowning themselves in the river, I knew I would bring Eva here.
We had to sneak out; the matron rarely let the younger ones leave after supper. The river wasn’t far, but we walked slowly, her small hand clinging to mine. Some of the meadow grass was tall enough to tickle her face. She let it brush her cheeks and comb her brown tangles with soft yellow fingers. Her brown eyes would catch on the occasional glimmer from a lonely firefly, but it would wink out before she could turn her head.
The river had already transformed into a parade of lights when we reached it. Eva held back, unsure of what she was seeing. I leaned over and whispered in her ear, then led her down to the water. A swirl of fireflies floated skyward as we approached, and she smiled. It was a shy smile, as if she was afraid the willows would reach down and snatch it away, but it was there.
That smile is the reason I’m here tonight, watching the light slowly drain from the sky. Tiny grey clouds rimmed with fire float near the horizon, and I picture the same brilliant orange gathering on the cold walls of the orphanage. That color means washing dishes and seeing to the lanterns there, but here it means peace and laughter. If I can take her away from there, away from those kids with their sad eyes and thin faces, and help her remember how to laugh, it is worth the risk of punishment.
The matron caught us once. After a stern lecture on the dangers of the river at dusk, she sentenced me to two weeks of garbage duty in the kitchen. The matron kept the younger children out of the kitchen, but my sister walked with me as I hauled the sacks of rotting rinds and stale bread to the compost garden. She didn’t say much, but it was enough to have her footprints beside mine in the garden soil. Once my penance was complete, the matron tried to keep an eye on us, but the big house is home to many orphans. Eva and I keep to ourselves, and the matron soon forgot our escapades as she scurried after the troublemakers with her apron strings flapping.
A small hand on my ankle pulls me out of my thoughts. Eva is looking up at me, her brown eyes big in her lean face.
“What is it?” I ask her.
“They’re coming out,” she replies in a whisper, pointing toward the river.
“Better hide, then,” I whisper back, slipping off the branch. Together, we crouch in the grass, eyes sweeping the riverbank. The earth is cool against my hands and knees, and I shiver a little despite the warmth of the evening. A stray stalk of grass tickles my ear as I shift my weight. Shaking my head against it brings a stern look from Eva. She lifts a finger to her lips and frowns, looking for all the world like our mother as she does. A hard lump swells in my throat as she turns back to the river, and I try to swallow it as I pull my eyes away from her matted hair.
Eva sees the first one. Her tiny arm points upstream, and I follow it to the boughs of another willow across the river. At first, the dim light makes it hard to distinguish, but its eyes give it away. They fade and glow like the fireflies in the reeds, watching the evening from between the willow leaves. I squint, trying to make out its body in the shadows. Before I can, Eva points again. Another pair of pulsing yellow eyes has appeared. They hover above the water, resting in a faint hint of shadow against the sky. We watch as the shadow grows darker, drawing in swirls of deep purple and blue as it begins to resemble a human shape. The head turns downstream, and the gaze of those firefly eyes sweeps past us. My breath catches in my throat. I am not afraid of them, but all the same, I don’t want them to know we are here.
Eva gasps and leans back into me as the air in front of us begins filling with another shadow. Wisps of cold flow in tiny streams over my arms, sending goosebumps skittering across my body. The shape slowly turns its head as the colors of the evening sky swirl into arms and legs. Eva’s head presses into my chest as her breathing quickens, but she doesn’t hide her face. My own breathing becomes shallow as the creature’s haunting eyes come to rest on us. Staring into their soft, warm light, I feel my fear begin to fade like the sunlight in the sky.
A memory springs into my mind without warning. I am with my parents again, returning home after the midsummer festival. Baby Eva is burbling in her sling across Mother’s back, and Father is carrying the prize chicken he won in the archery contest. My shoes are small next to his. On the edge of the forest ahead, I can see our small cottage waiting for us. My stomach rumbles at the sight, ready to feast on Father’s prize, and I break into a run.
Eva’s head lifts from my chest. Looking down, I see her reaching upward with both arms as if waiting for Mother to pick her up. The shadow leans toward her, its eyes bright. A shock of fear burns the tears from my eyes, and I grab her wrists.
“Stop it!” she cries, struggling against my grip.
I wrap my arm around her middle and pick her up without replying. The shade rears back as I stand. Eva is squirming in my arms, crying to be let go. Turning, I come face-to-face with another shadow. Its eyes burn like lanterns, their yellow light filling my vision until I am drowning in it.
When my eyes clear, I am with my parents again. We are sitting around the table, the prize chicken crackling over the fire. Mother is placing a bowl of berries on the table. Father’s face is stern as he leans over his bow, rubbing it down with an oil-soaked rag. The smell of roasting meat fills the room, and my stomach rumbles again. The berries are sweet and juicy, and they stain my small hands red. When it is time, I pick up the spit and hold it out. Father slides the chicken onto a waiting platter and sets about carving it in his solemn manner. I want to watch him, but Mother asks me to fetch water from the well. When I return, she leans forward to dip her pitcher in the bucket. Eva starts crying from her crib in the corner.
The thought of her explodes through me, clearing the memory from my eyes. Deepening twilight surrounds me again. The shadow in front of me has vanished. Eva has also disappeared. Waves of nausea flow through my body as I turn back to the river, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
There, by the riverbank. She is following a shadow into the water. I sprint after her, calling out her name as I run. My feet splash in the cold water, but she doesn’t turn around. Around us, pale eyes flicker in anger at my intrusion. Refusing to look at them, I reach toward my sister, to pick her up, to carry her away from these shadows.
My hand passes through her wrist as if it were smoke. Desperate, I try to grab her waist, but my arms only close on air. My knees buckle, and the river rushes in to cover them. Eva turns to me, eyes closed and lips spread in a quiet smile.
“They are taking me to Mommy and Daddy,” she whispers.
“No they aren’t, Eva! Mommy and Daddy are gone,” I reply, my voice tight in my throat.
“They’re here.” Eva’s eyes slide open and look at me. “They want to be with me.”
Her brown eyes are pulsing with yellow light.
Tears fill mine as she turns back to the river. Reaching for her, I watch my hand pass through her body. I can see willow branches through her matted hair. A sob catches in my throat as she takes a shadow’s hand and sinks deeper into the river. By the time her chin touches the water, her skin is the same color as the evening sky.
The last of the daylight is fading from the solemn willows. The shadows are fading with it, but I will remain here, my tears falling into the river that took Eva from me. The shadows will return tomorrow night, and I will be waiting for them to take me into their twilight. Eva is there now, and maybe our parents are with her. They are waiting for me to join them, and I will go.
Around me, the glowing of fireflies shimmers on the cold, dark surface of the water.