The school grounds held few secrets, for they swirled with voices eager to tell and retell, but beyond the outside wall and across the train tracks there was a hidden place. Ana found it one day after classes. She was on her way to buy coconut oil for her mother when a rotting stench surrounded her and gripped her feet to the tracks.
A horn bellowed from the right. No, she tried to gasp. She could not just stand there. Gravel clattered underneath as she leapt down into a bush beside a dirt backroad.
The train slammed the air beside her. Through its fierce, angular rhythms, she watched the gap that she’d snuck through in the school’s barb-wired wall.
In the quiet of the aftermath, she knelt at the roots of the bush and found what had beckoned her senses. A cat stretched mortal in the soil with ants poring its eye sockets. The smell wasn’t unpleasant, to her surprise, because it somehow spoke of a refuge where force dissolved.
There, by the stalk of a budding yellow flower, a reptilian skull faced her directly and cast a frosty venom that sluiced up the veins of her arms to tighten her muscles solid. The filth at her knees was a charnel ground littered with the vertebrae and ribs of many creatures.
Ana told no one about the place, not even when her best friend Maya asked why she’d been so quiet.
Gripping the tie of her uniform, Ana declared that she was thinking about her next story for the school newspaper. That was believable because that was what they talked about every lunchtime in the shade of the cinnamon tree. They didn’t speak each other’s languages perfectly, but they understood.
For a while, Ana would visit the bush of decay to offer her respects and curiosity. The cat disintegrated and one day most of its bones disappeared, harvested by an unseen keeper. A week later, two geckos took its place, corpses side by side, still warm to her touch. Why did the animals of the neighborhood choose that root-torn soil as the destination of their final march?
Ana even considered revealing the secret place in the school newspaper, but that was stupid, and besides, something much more important came up.
One day after school, Ana walked homeward with Maya, who was on a tirade about her recent crushes with her peculiar mix of warmth and bile.
Ana could see, in the darkness under the eyes of her friend, that these feelings came to Maya as dryads of the night. They rode on the backs of mosquitoes that pierced her dreams, taking her blood and leaving images of boys from the other school down the road. The visions were impossible, and their transgression of an ancestral divide impelled her to confess these curses to Ana in the daytime.
For some reason, the spirits that came to Ana at the edges of her sleep were more nurturing. Maybe they were the same fey, born in the threads of trust that stretched between the two friends and their two languages, two colors of silk woven to cradle Maya’s possibly terminal affliction.
The spirits that came to Ana conspired about her future, which they could influence without being able to see. A journalist, she wondered, or an investigator of myth, but usually by the time she’d awoken, she could no longer remember.
Like always, they walked together after school and had to part ways at the clock tower crossing. But that day, Maya said goodbye in tears. She told Ana that the school administrators were making her study somewhere else. The two friends were, after all, on opposite sides of the fissure that had split the soil across the school grounds.
The seismic rift could not be seen by the adults and could not swallow the cinnamon tree, because the cinnamon tree traded its scents for the laughter and whispers carried by both languages. It wasn’t just Ana and Maya who sat under its branches during lunchtime, but many other students as well, including some of the dozens who would be sent away because their voices bore the wrong words.
The next day at school, Ana arrived early to research in the library. Maya was nowhere to be found. The librarian monitored Ana’s efforts meticulously but did not dare to ask. When she left for class, her draft in the newspaper submission bin had the headline: School Administrators Expel Students in Violation of Anti-Discrimination Law.
At lunchtime, Ana spoke to no one and ate nothing. Even the cinnamon tree wafted no spice into the air. Beneath her feet, the invisible crevasse gaped. She prayed that it would not swallow her too.
Whispers, she noticed. And too many eyes on her, half-concealed behind the pillars of the veranda. Hopscotch games were put on hold.
Ana gripped her pack and went inside to the submission bin, taking the longer route to avoid the administration’s offices. The other students working on the newspaper flinched when she entered and paused. They watched her without moving, like prey.
She clutched her draft so violently that paper mountains and valleys rippled through the bold typeface. Tearing it into pieces would not be enough. Fire was out of the question. High heels clacked closer down the hallway, sharp strides of the vice principal, so Ana rolled out the open window, gasps and chatter in her wake.
Still clenching her pack, she crept low against the back wall until she got to the opening by the train tracks. There was no time to check if anyone had followed her.
Concealed beneath the damp foliage of the bush, she clawed at the soil, picking deeper through bones and fragments, that ripe miasma reaching into her nostrils and slowing her heart. With the cats and rats and lizards she buried her story. The dryads rode atop the train towards their next battlefield and never spoke to Ana again.
Podcast: Read by Florita Gunsaekara