For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first met Vale. I can’t recall a moving van or any awkward introductions. We didn’t play together as toddlers, ignoring each other until, by chance, we became playmates. It just happened—first, she wasn’t in my life…then she was.
My earliest memories of her are all the same: “Okay, Stephen,” she’d say, brown hand crooked on slender hip. “I’m Queen and you’re my faithful servant. Let me sit on my throne so I can knight you.”
I always smiled and said, “Okay.” I don’t think there was ever a time when I played King and she was my servant. I just never considered it.
In my boyish mind, Vale’s backyard spread out like a vast green lake, dotted with the occasional island of flowers. Against the back fence stood a single tree; it could have been maple—maybe oak. The trunk rose solidly for three or four feet, then split off into six slimmer trunks: wide enough for a child to scramble through, close enough to shield him from prying eyes. We pulled ourselves into the mossy interior and side by side we crouched, peering up into the leafy canopy. It was the perfect treehouse—our crowntree. That was our name for it.
In the middle of her backyard lay a concrete ring about fifteen feet in diameter. It could have been a paved border for a flowerbed, but for all the years I knew Vale, it only held grass, carefully maintained as the rest of the lawn.
Aaron, Stephanie and I sat on the ring and made up stories about it. “Maybe it’s a circus ring, and that’s where all the acrobats and animals perform.”
“Naw, you’re lyin’. It’s where they gonna put a swimming pool!”
“You’re both wrong. It’s a launchpad for aliens and if they catch you, they take you away for a long, long time and when they bring you back, you’re the same age you’ve always been, but everyone else is old and gray.”
Vale never said what the ring was for. In fact, she never even touched it.
I saw Vale’s mama, once. It happened early one morning, when dew still covered the grass, sparkling in the dawn’s weak light. I woke to a silent house and slipped out on some whim.
Vale’s house stood directly across from mine in a cul-de-sac made of several houses forming a tight ‘C’. Something pink flashed in her backyard. I thought it was Vale, but instead, it was her mama. Wearing a sheer pink nightgown, she rocked on her hands and knees in the center of the ring. She stared up at the sky, tossing her dark, curly head and moaning as if something cut her deep.
I must’ve made some sound because she gasped and scrambled to her feet, clapping her hands over her ears. When she saw me, she smiled—oddly, her hands stayed where they were. “Oh, you’re Vay-lee’s friend.” she said in a soft, breathless voice. “She’s asleep right now. Can you come back later?”
Vay-lee. I never heard Vale’s name pronounced like that before. We always called her ‘Vell‘. “I just wanted to sit in the crowntree for a while.”
“Crowntree?” Vale’s mama raised her eyebrows, thin and delicately arched. Everything about her seemed fragile, like a figurine made of spun glass. She looked at the tree and her laughter tinkled into the air. “Why, it does look like a crown, doesn’t it? I never thought of it like that before. I keep forgetting children see things differently. I must tell the others.”
She dropped her hands—her ears looked fine to me; I don’t know why she’d covered them earlier—then, gathering up her nightgown, she skipped effortlessly out the ring, avoiding the concrete. She came over to place a hand atop my head. I barely felt her touch through my springy hair. “Of course you may wait there, child. You may wait for her as long as you like.”
I watched Vale’s mama head towards the house. Maybe it was the rising sun dazzling my vision, but her steps were so airy and light, her bare feet hardly sank into the grass.
You could tell what mood Vale was in by the color of her eyes. When she was happy, they stayed a serene green. When she was sad, they turned to a deep blue so mournful it made your own eyes water. When she was mad, I swear, they changed to an odd shade of purple, bordering on fiery red. It made her special since the rest of us only had normal brown eyes to go with our normal brown skin.
Some weeks after I saw her mama, Vale brought out a bucket of pastel chalk. She said that we could draw anything we wanted to on the ring. Aaron drew cars and trucks. Stephanie had some flower princess thing going. I couldn’t think of anything artistic, so I mostly drew spirals and arcs.
Vale didn’t join us, but watched with meadow eyes from the center of the ring. When every inch of gray was covered, she stood up and hopped lightly across, her feet barely brushing our drawings.
“Hey, Vale,” I asked, “how come you never walk on the ring? You jump in and out of it, but I’ve never seen you walk on it.”
Those eyes twinkled like sunlight off a brook hidden deep in a forest. “You really want to know why?”
We leaned forward.
“It’s a game we play. My family and I. If you touch the ring…”
We held our breath.
She smacked Stephanie on the shoulder and bounded off, her long legs flashing in the sun. We chased each other, leaping in and out of the ring at first, then around the backyard and out into the cul-de-sac. After Aaron tagged me, I spotted Vale crouching in the bushes beside her front porch and ran up to her. “Found you, Vay-lee!”
Her whole body went still, so perfectly still that she blended into the bushes. Without saying a word, she pushed past me and went into her backyard. Aaron, Stephanie and I followed behind, trying to figure out her stony silence. She gathered the chalk back in the bucket, carefully plucking each piece up without her fingers touching the ring. When she finally looked at us, I stepped back, startled by the brooding storm clouds of her eyes.
“Don’t ever call me that again.”
Her flat words stung, so I tried stinging her back. “Why not? Your mama called you that!”
She paused at her back door, the storm clouds lightening to a misty fog. “She only calls me because she knows I hate it.”
The next day, I came back to see her squatting next to the ring, her curls hanging down so I couldn’t see her face. Our chalk drawings had already begun to fade into misty, indistinguishable marks.
“Sorry I made you mad yesterday.”
She sighed deeply, not looking at me. “It won’t matter, I guess. You’ll forget this anyway.”
“All this,” she spread her hands out. “Playing here. Sitting in the crowntree. Acting like queens and knights. One day, it’s going to stop. You’ll forget me.”
“No, I won’t,” I retorted. “I’ll come here every day, even when I’m a grown-up. We’ll get married and live here, and every night we’ll sleep in the crowntree and you’ll be my Queen and I’ll be your knight.”
At that, she raised her head, her eyes the cobalt of an ocean, fathoms deep. “Let’s go to the tree.”
I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
Aaron started playing basketball more. He liked to point out the faint line of hair above his lip. Stephanie traded her dolls for double-dutch and eyeing the guys playing kickball in the street. My voice developed a sandpaper roughness that scraped on my larynx. I had a harder time squeezing into the crowntree.
On the outside, Vale never changed. She looked just the same as I always knew her. But as we grew older, she became moody and distant. She spoke less about queens and knights; when she did, her words were flat, listless. Sometimes, she didn’t talk at all—just sat in the tree, gazing up at the leaves far overhead. I told most of the stories now, resorting to stuff I knew: swimming, the new school year, that girl in fourth period English who kept staring at me…
She leaned against me and let me talk. And as long as she let me sit in the crowntree with her, I was happy to oblige.
A few days after my twelfth birthday, Vale asked nonchalantly, “Wanna come to a party?”
“My folks are throwing a party next week. They said I could invite you.”
“Really? All right! I always wanted to meet your folks. Wait ’til I tell Ma—”
“No!” Vale grabbed my arm. Her eyes had gone black, a complete absence of color. “Don’t you dare tell your mother or father! I’m supposed to invite you and only you. No one else can know!”
My mouth dropped open. I clamped it shut, but it dropped open again on its own accord. “Uh…okay…I won’t tell.”
On the night of the party, I told my parents I was going to Aaron’s. Nobody was around when I stepped outside—strange for a Saturday night. Usually everyone would be trying to get in one last game before being called in. Instead, the streets were empty and the other houses squatted dark and silent. Even my own house became hazy and indistinct the further I moved from it. The only things that felt solid were me, Vale’s house, and up in the sky, a surprisingly fat taffy moon.
Cars crowded in front of Vale’s house and around the perimeter of the cul-de-sac, even askew on her front lawn. Every light in her house beamed from the flung-up window shades and music pulsed out, a piping melody interlaced with percussive beats too deep to be bongos. I felt its vibrations pulsing through my sneakers, tugging me onto the front porch. I knocked on the door and it opened, spilling yellow light and warmth and laughter.
“Stephen! How good it is to see you!” Vale’s mama stepped out, wearing the sheer pink gown I saw her in before. This time, I became conscious of her body sketched within. “Vale’s inside—why don’t you come in?”
I started forward when Vale herself came out, wearing a shorter version of her mama’s gown. “Actually, let’s go around to the back. It’s too crowded in here.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me off the porch. I looked to see her mother still standing there, the light behind her casting the expression on her face in shadow. “Aww…but I wanted to see the inside of your house—”
“I’m sorry,” she explained, “it’s just that, if I let you in the house…it’s better out here. You can meet my father and all my cousins.”
The whole backyard had been transformed. Little twinkling lights swayed and danced on invisible electric cords strung about the yard. In the farthest corner, opposite the crowntree, the source of that strange music revealed itself as a small band playing flutes, drums, guitars and some instruments I didn’t recognize. And the people! Laughing, eating, talking to each other, some dressed like Vale and her mama, others in fabric so thin it appeared to float off their bodies. One lady seemed clad in nothing but bright purple flowers. A tall, angular man—Vale introduced him as her father—wore a tunic made of green leaves. It felt like a costume party, though Halloween was still a few weeks away.
Everyone had the same kind of hair: ringlets as chocolate as their skin, pouring over their shoulders and backs. Looking at so many people looking so much alike, I wondered for the first time about Vale’s ethnicity. Was she black? Indian? African? We’d been learning about different races in school, but Vale didn’t fit the profile for any of them…and asking now seemed kind of rude.
A woman who could easily pass for Vale’s mama strolled towards us, bearing a tray of biscuit-like lumps with shredded cheese on top. I reached for one, but Vale grabbed my hand. “No, don’t. Here—I got some food for you over here.”
She pulled me over to the crowntree and pushed a sandwich and a can of pop into my hands. I scrunched up my face. “What’s this supposed to be?”
Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder to the people milling about. “This is gonna sound weird, but I don’t want you eating or drinking anything here unless I give it to you, okay? Even if my mom offers anything to you, don’t take it.”
“How come?” That stuff on the tray, whatever it was, looked really good.
“Because…well…you see…” She turned to face me. There was something odd about her face, something I couldn’t pinpoint. She bit her bottom lip, then spoke in a rush, “Because we’re leaving tonight.”
Stupidly, I asked, “Leaving? Where?”
She looked at me. Really looked at me, her twilight gaze sliding into night. “We’re going away. Far away. After tonight, we won’t see each other again.”
Suddenly, the party no longer mattered. The fancy food, the strange music, the exotic people—none of it mattered. I stared at Vale, trying to make her words fit in my head. “But why?”
Vale glanced into the sky. It hit me, then, that she looked older than usual. Maybe she wore make-up, like Stephanie started doing lately. But where Stephanie’s red lipstick and purple blush made her look like a plastic doll, the darkened planes of Vale’s cheekbones were sharper, her lips darker, fuller than what a child’s should be. And, as she looked at the party, her eyes caught the circling lights in the yard and gleamed, just like a cat.
What was Vale?
“I didn’t want you to find out like this,” she said. “I was going to tell you the other day in the crowntree. But my mom insisted you come instead. She likes you, you see.”
“I don’t get it—”
“No, and I don’t want you to,” Vale smiled, tucking a curly strand behind her ear…which looked pointier than before. “Wanna dance?”
My mind barely had time to grasp the sudden change of topic when she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the concrete ring, stepping right on it with her bare feet. “We can stand on it now,” she told me as I gawked at her, “But don’t take your shoes off. Whatever happens.”
I thought the band would play some familiar R&B, but they merely upped the tempo to their drumming and piping. Some of Vale’s relatives joined us, spinning and twirling, stepping on each other’s toes, laughing in each others’ faces. Despite the wild dancing, no one stepped into the grassy center. Everyone avoided it, kept their feet exclusively on the ring—the odd rules of Vale’s game reversed.
I looked down at my own feet to make sure I also stayed on the ring. To my surprise, I saw drawings etched below my feet. A lopsided flower. A car with wheels too big. I recognized my own childish scrawl of spirals, loops and circles. The chalk drawings we did when we were—what, nine, ten?—reproduced perfectly in fluorescent blues and pinks.
“How did—” but my words spun from my lips as we whirled faster. Vale’s hand was soft, but it gripped mine with a strength I couldn’t imagine from any other girl. Through our connection, I could feel the pounding of the drums, the music coursing through us like a never-ending lightning bolt. I threw back my head, gasping for air. The moon, large, yellow, fat, hovered above us like an ancient eye, unblinking.
More people joined us; their movements growing wilder, the music more frantic. I felt swept up in some powerful, giddy wheel. With so many people, there should have been tripping, stumbling. Our feet should’ve garbled the drawings into oblivion. But no one fell. No one touched the center. The drawings remained intact—in fact, they glowed even brighter.
Suddenly, Vale pulled on my hand, hard, and we stumbled out of the wheel of dancers. She steered me to the crowntree while I veered, dazed and unbalanced. My hands scrambled to find purchase on the trunks. Vale boosted me up with a push on my butt. “Get in. Hurry!”
Impossible to believe, but the entire party now revolved on the ring—even the musicians, their robes, instruments, and skin blurring together. The light from chalk drawings below illuminated their faces in bright, garish hues. Vale’s mama abruptly came into focus, her head thrown back in a shriek of glee—then, just as quickly, she was swept away.
My head reeled. “Vale…I feel funny…”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I told them you weren’t meant to see this.” Although most of Vale’s face was deep in shadow, I could still see her eyes, a swirl of riotous color reflecting the unnatural lights from the ring. “You’re safe here. They’ve taken the ring but…there’s enough of me in the tree to keep you safe. Enough for a while, at least.”
She stared entranced at the dancers as she said this. Through my tilting senses, a thought popped in my head: if there was enough of Vale in the tree—whatever that meant—then a part of her was also still in the ring, spinning to the wild music. It frightened me because it looked like she was starting to forget me, forgetting we were friends, forgetting her life here. I had no clue how to keep her anchored to me.
Until an idea came, formed out of desperation.
I pushed myself off the trunk and kissed her on the lips. They were softer than I thought they would be and sweet, like she had been drinking apricot juice. When I pulled back, she kept her eyes closed a heartbeat longer, then slowly opened them.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. Then she cocked her head and smiled.
It was the same smile she always gave, but now it looked so foreign, so mature, promising me things I had no business knowing. I suddenly wanted Vale with an ache that crushed the breath from my body. I wanted to pull her dress up, feel her stomach against mine…
At that moment, I think, my childhood vanished. It dried up and crossed me over into the adult realm before I even knew what happened. Before, I was happy just to be with Vale, but now I hungered for something more. There would be no more stories. No more pretending. No more knight and Queen. A deep, overwhelming sorrow rose in me and I buried my face in my hands.
For her part, Vale let me cry without touching me or saying a word. When I finally wiped my nose on my sleeve, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I did want you to come with us, but you can’t.”
“I know,” I tried one last stab. “I won’t forget you. Really.”
Her laughter chimed softly as she turned away. “Oh, Stephen…grow up.”
Down below, the music built to a feverish pitch. The dancers and light bleared together, a whirling dervish, an out-of-control Tilt-o-Wheel. Vale braced herself between two of the trunks, leaning her lithe body out into empty air. “It’s time. No matter what happens, stay in the crowntree. It will protect you.”
She looked back at me, and her final word made no sense. She said her own name, tenderly, but with her mother’s pronunciation: “Vay-lee.”
Then she launched her body into the air, almost floating to the ground. She ran, her hair streaming behind her, and the swirling bodies engulfed her. She became lost to me among the hands and arms and legs and hips and breasts, and always, always the pealing laughter.
I could just step out, I thought, my foot poised to follow her. I could let myself drop, lose myself in the dance. I was ready to do it. The thought of being without Vale was agonizing, a loss too much to bear.
But just as my hands loosened from the trunk, just as my body tensed to jump, another sound broke through the music: a piercing, childish scream, full of wild joy and abandonment.
Vale had already forgotten me.
I tightened my grip on the crowntree, placed my foot down on the mossy undergrowth, and watched as the moon above grew more yellow and fuller than possible. Watched as our childhood chalk drawings slipped off the pavement and wheeled in the air like a drunken mobile. Watched as the dancers raised their arms, the music crashing in crescendo. Watched as the moon sank down, right there on the grassy center of the ring.
I don’t remember much of what happened next: just flashes of neon color and wild shrieks of laughter, almost howling like animals. But the moon—I definitely remember the moon, filling up my senses until I wasn’t sure if I’d swallowed it or it had swallowed me.
The neighbors found me late in the afternoon of the next day, fast asleep in the crowntree. I woke up just in time to be dragged home by my folks for the worst whuppin’ of my life.
Vale’s house stood abandoned, the front and back doors hanging open. Nothing was left, no furniture, no clothes, no food, not even dust on the floors. All the cars had vanished, the grass flattened and trampled, flowers and leaves scattered everywhere. In the backyard, the concrete ring lay warped and cracked—not a trace of chalk on its broken surface. The grass in its center had been blasted away, leaving behind bare, scorched earth.
Of Vale and her kin, there was no sign.
Weeks later, I snuck into her backyard. Ignoring the crowntree for once, I took off my shoes and socks and boldly stood on the ring. Between the cracked fissures of ruined cement, mushrooms sprouted like tiny white pebbles. My toes curled upon the cold stone, but nothing happened. I didn’t expect it to.
In college, while researching for my thesis paper, I stumbled upon Vale’s name. The way we had said it meant as it sounds: a valley or a dale. But there’s another meaning to her name, one that goes back to Latin roots. When pronounced as vay-lee, it meant ‘be strong’, which was another way of saying ‘good-bye…’
Another family lives in the cul-de-sac now, their children as normal as my daughter. They tore down Vale’s old house to build a larger one in its place, re-sodded the backyard, removed the concrete and put in a wooden playset. The father likes to sit in his backyard; he says it’s quiet and peaceful. The only thing that bothers him is a mushroom ring that pops up every single year. He tried pesticides, weed-killers, even went organic once, but the mushrooms keep coming back.
The crowntree is still standing, too.
It stands proudly, its leaves lush and green, a solitary guardian of the past. When I press my hands against its bark, I can hear Vale speak to me in fairy tales.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still taste her fruity essence on my lips.
I tell the stories to my daughter now, who listens silently, wide-eyed. When we visit, I bring her to the crowntree and lift her into it. She giggles, peering through the trunks. “Okay, Daddy,” she says. “Let’s play pretend. I’m Queen and you can be my faithful servant.”
And as she stands waiting, brown hand crooked onto slender hip, I press my head against the tree. “Okay,” I say and Vale’s voice echoes my own.
LaShawn M. Wanak has published short stories, essays, poetry, and is working on her first fantasy novel. She lives in Chicago with her husband and 3-year-old son, but is in the process of moving to Wisconsin. Her blog, the Café in the Woods, will remain firmly ensconced where it is.
The tree and the stone circle actually exists. I looked at it for the first time when I helped stuff 5000 Easter eggs for a church function. The tree looked just like the one my sisters and I played with in our backyard. Sitting on that stone circle with all those eggs to fill, “Crowntree” pretty much wrote itself.