Benjamin is a Miami-born writer who, try as he might, cannot suppress his affinity for things that feel magical. He loves immersive fiction, and his work often revolves around issues of family, gender identity, and sexuality.
The silver subway car barrels down the tunnel, slowing to a stop with a long screech. Posters plaster the walls of the station, peeling off to reveal a colorful mosaic of two giant fish and an arrangement of bright blue tiles that reads Delancey St. Adelaide swings her rucksack over her shoulder as she pushes her way onto the platform and finds an empty bench. In one hand, she clutches an extra pair of scuffed high tops, and in the other, she holds a letter.
88 Matchings Lane
Coleford, GL16 8LG UK
25 May 2005
New York is compelling and vast, but in a very different way from the Forest of Dean. Dad was wrong to claim that the world is filled with dreary people. Perhaps he was only referring to the English, in which case, I suspect he is correct.
I’m settling in fine. I was unpacking my diaries yesterday and discovered something I meant to give you long ago. I’ve included it in this letter. Can you believe it held up after all these years?
Please visit. I would love to have you. Dad called the other day, and we caught up a little. Unfortunately, I’m enjoying myself too much to come back any time soon, but please give him my love.
Alongside the letter, Adelaide holds a small piece of paper containing a list, transcribed in a child’s handwriting:
- Never stray off the forest trail without the other.
- If Adelaide wants to read Helen’s diary, she must ask first.
- Never speak about potions or spells in front of Dad.
- Count every red cap toadstool you find and record it in the journal.
Do not chase the swan.Do not even look at the swan.
The final rule was amended after an unfortunate encounter in the back garden one morning. Adelaide was collecting kindling by an algae-infested pond, where she found a beautiful swan gliding across the dark surface. It had made its first appearance on their late mother’s birthday, so Adelaide suspected it was their mother reincarnated. The sisters knew better than to go near it, but they checked the garden for it every day, declaring its visits an omen of good fortune. That is, until the swan suddenly took issue with Adelaide and charged at her. She screamed, scattering her kindling across the garden as the bird flapped its wings and snapped its beak, chasing her into the water. After that, the swan was decidedly not their mother, and the sisters only looked at the pond from the corner of their eyes.
“Hello, you,” comes a voice from over Adelaide’s shoulder, pulling her to the present. A young woman in a red gingham dress stands on the platform, beaming.
Adelaide squeals and leaps to her feet, embracing her sister. “That was the most crowded train I’d ever been on in my life!” she says, breathless. “I was sure I’d get turned around. Thank goodness you found me.”
They follow the sour stench of sewage out of the subway and climb into a taxi. The ride is quiet at first, but by the time they reach the apartment, they have launched into a conversation.
“I finally found a flat in London,” says Adelaide, following Helen down a beige-colored hall. “It’s nowhere near the city center, but I can afford it with a roommate.”
“I wanted to live near Chelsea, but you wouldn’t believe how quickly places disappear,” says Helen, stopping to unlock a door with a brass A13 on it. “Honestly—you’ll find a place you like, and within a day, it’s been taken by someone else. It’s mad.”
Compared to the clear air of East Village, the inside of the apartment is humid and still. The windows overlook a rusted, dilapidated fire escape, which Adelaide first mistakes for a balcony. The walls of the kitchen used to be white, but it seems that after years of cooking with poor ventilation, they have been stained a sickly yellow color. Dishes cover the counter. It is so cluttered, Adelaide almost misses the orange tabby cat curled up in one of the open cupboards, fast asleep.
“Sorry, it’s a maze in here,” says Helen, pushing a stack of boxes out of the way. “I haven’t taken time to unpack. God, it’s worse than Puzzlewood.”
Puzzlewood is a dense forest near their childhood home, where Adelaide often got lost and Helen often led the way home. Together, they climbed over enormous, knobbly logs carpeted with soft moss, tumbled down muddy slopes into piles of dead leaves, and when they could not decide what to do next, they followed the glistening trails of slugs to discover untouched corners of the forest. They sat for hours, mixing brook water with black mud and learning to braid dandelions into each other’s hair.
Ten years had passed since they last ventured into Puzzlewood. When they started secondary school, Helen began to visit the salon. She loved the feeling of a stranger’s fingers pressing into her scalp, and the women who worked there welcomed her with lively discussion and gossip about the happenings in Coleford.
One late December day, after a row with their father, Helen sat down in one of the maroon chairs, the rim of the sink pressing into her neck as she laid her head back. Before she could stop herself, she was saying, “I think I want to try something new.”
Her hair, which once fell straight down her back in a sensible braid, was crimped and trimmed into many layers that thickened around her shoulders like an immense mane. Her stomach churned at the sight of her reflection—she was terrified and thrilled, and the only person she wanted to tell was her sister. But when she got home, the front garden was empty, so she faced her father alone.
Down the country road, Adelaide wandered through a frosty meadow covered in oat grass, guided by a second-hand botanical journal. An inscription on the front cover read, To Addie, with love, from Jules. Jules was a child of the Devereuxs, an unusually kind family that lived on the outskirts of Coleford. The Devereuxs invited Adelaide inside after school, taught her which mushrooms to avoid, which trees were endangered, and how to brew home-dried tea leaves. When Adelaide’s father scolded her for pretending to ride a broomstick, Jules taught her to translate her imagination into something less conspicuous.
“I am Frau Holle, goddess of Yuletide and protector of the woods,” Adelaide recited, squatting to pluck a branch of bright red holly berries and twisting it into a crown. She marched through the meadow and pushed through the front gate of her home as the soft white clouds muddied into a harsh gray. It was dark inside the house, except for the kaleidoscopic glow of the Christmas tree and a light spilling down the hallway from the kitchen, where Helen and their father sat in front of a half-eaten pot of shepherd’s pie. They turned to face Adelaide as she stepped into the lamplight.
Helen was the first to speak. “Dad and I are having a private conversation,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “Can you wait upstairs?”
Adelaide obliged, pausing when she got to the very top of the staircase. She sat close to the railing, where the floor was less likely to creak, so she could see into the kitchen.
The skin on their father’s hands was red. Blisters stretched across his knuckles, marred by white cracks and peeling skin. He traced the rim of his plate as he spoke. “…That bizarre family down the road is only making things worse. I’m not sure what games you used to play, or what stories you told her, but she won’t let go of these delusions.”
Helen was frozen. “But we were children. We were just pretending.”
Their father shook his head and heaved a grave sigh. “She’s not a child anymore. She’s losing her way.” He pointed an accusatory finger at Helen’s hair. “You never cared about your appearance before. Why did you do this? For attention? Do you want people to look at you?”
It sounded as if a snake had coiled around Helen’s throat. It took her a few moments to respond, and when she did, her voice was very small. “The girls at the salon said it’d look nice.”
Adelaide clapped her hands over her mouth to keep from gasping; their father had smacked the table with his palm, and it made them all flinch. “Don’t you see what you’re doing? Dear God, it’s like you’ve been brainwashed. You’re her big sister. If she sees you sneaking off without permission and daydreaming during sermons, she’ll think she can, too.”
A thick, pulsing silence followed. “She’s young, and she’s losing her wits,” their father continued as he stood from the table. His knife rattled on top of the plate as he carried it across the kitchen, tossing it into the sink with a clatter. “Take some responsibility. She needs you to be a role model, not a rebellious brat.”
Helen hunched over the table, shameful, her hair looking somewhat shaggier than it did before. She watched as their father disappeared through the back door, into the garden.
The botanical journal was open in Adelaide’s lap—perhaps she had subconsciously done this to look preoccupied—presenting a watercolor illustration, clusters of white flowers bursting across the page, streaked with red, green, and yellow from the fairy lights on the Christmas tree. It was impossible for her to be quiet. She mopped the tears off her cheeks with the sleeve of her sweater, stood, and crept into her bedroom, pressing the door shut behind her. She waited for her sister to bring up the conversation she had with their father, but even in the petty quarrels that followed, Helen never mentioned it.
The years did something to their arguments. They weren’t erased, but it became harder to remember the details, and soon they vanished like buildings in a blizzard. Indistinguishable, but everpresent underneath layers of snow and ice.
Adelaide sits on the floor of Helen’s living room, combing her fingers through her sister’s dark brown curls. “French braids are tricky to do on yourself and even harder on another person,” she says, contemplating whether or not she should give it a try.
A minute passes and comfortable silence has just settled between them when Adelaide hears a sniff. Helen is crying.
Adelaide freezes. “What’s wrong?” After a few moments, when she receives no response, she continues. “I stopped by the market on my way in. Let me make you something.”
There are no pans, bowls, or kettles to be found—just one large cast-iron casserole dish, which Adelaide fills with water and heats over the gas stove. Once it begins to boil, she drapes three herbal tea bags over the rim of the pot, withdraws a series of tiny jars from her rucksack, and lines up the items on the counter in front of her. One by one, she twists off each cap and empties the jar’s contents into the pot: crushed ginger, a pinch of skullcap, a teaspoon of honey, and a drop of vanilla bourbon. A pleasant scent engulfs the entire apartment, and soon, Helen drifts toward the kitchen, lingering in the doorway.
“Jules used to brew us the best tea,” she says. “Do you still keep up with her?”
A small smile creeps across Adelaide’s face. “When you left, Dad kept a closer eye on me. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house much. But Jules and I reconnected recently. She’s going to be my roommate in London.”
Shining brown bubbles form on the surface of the concoction as it reaches a simmer. A golden haze breaches the cloudy kitchen windows, casting honey-colored light on the worn furniture and soft floorboards.
“Your letter was short,” Adelaide continues, dipping a wooden spoon into the pot. “But you sounded happy. Are you happy?”
Helen considers this, glancing over her shoulder at the empty sitting room. “I think I hate this place,” she says softly. Her face is hardened and earnest, though her lower lip trembles. “I have never felt so suffocated. I can’t understand it.”
Adelaide lifts the pot and spills the tea into two large mugs. They take their seats at the kitchen table, hugging their mugs with their hands. The orange tabby finds its new napping spot in Adelaide’s lap.
“When we were growing up, I was so in love with the idea of escaping to a city, and now I feel like I’m going mad,” says Helen. “How is it that I live in the biggest city in the world, and I still feel as lonely as I did in Coleford?”
“It’s a shock to go somewhere new. You’re far away from Dad—”
“That’s the point.” Helen presses the mug against her lips and shakes her head. “You were always so independent, even when we were little. How do you handle being alone?”
Helen’s question amplifies the distance that has bloomed between them. No one ever sought guidance from Adelaide, because she was the youngest, and to do so would mean the rejection of an unspoken order. “I was never lonely before. I had a good sister,” she answers. A moment passes, then she draws her hands forward in an expansive motion and says, “These days, when I’m anxious, I take a deep breath, like I’m trying to fill a fishbowl in my stomach.”
“You’re braver than me. I wish I could travel like you do.”
“You don’t have to stay here.”
“I can’t come back home. Somehow, it’ll be worse than this.” Helen drops her hands into her lap, and she begins massaging her palms. The raw skin and red blotches on her fingertips betray her nervous habits. For a moment, Adelaide sees their father: withering hands, bound to the vestiges of an old English village.
Adelaide can describe Coleford in many ways—pastoral, simple, quiet. No, not quiet. Silent. But as she sits in an unfamiliar kitchen, plagued with the incessant noise of the city, she feels a soft tug in her chest. Even with all its shortcomings, the village is familiar. And that makes it alluring.
She reaches into the pocket of her jacket, pulls out the list they wrote as children, and folds it into Helen’s hand. “Then we’ll go somewhere else. Come with us to London—just for a little while.”
The orange tabby lifts itself onto the table and saunters over to Helen, staring at her with expectant eyes.