Children’s Work

by Melissa Wain

Cheyenne found this one in the bathroom.

Stained glass, a chunk the size of her hand, edges smoothed by some mysterious force. She knew the figure in the glass. Against the blue background, underneath the golden halo and the white robes, was a little girl. She had pale skin and short brown hair. Tiny chunks of amber glass stared out as shining eyes. 

It had been inside the bar of soap in the shower—it took quite a bit of scrubbing under a hot faucet to get it clean. Whatever force hid these throughout her house was getting quite daring, she’d admit that. She was lucky she’d spotted it. Her usual scouring of her home for the incriminating fragments didn’t usually include bars of soap. 

Cheyenne pulled the shoebox out from under her bed and opened the lid. She placed the stained glass on top of the pile, the glass shifting and glinting under the light. Not much room left, now. She’d have to get another box soon. 

Knocks sounded on her door, and she quickly shoved the box back under, moved her bin of winter clothes in front of it, and hurried to the door. 

Isabel, her little sister, stood on the other side. When Cheyenne opened the door, a smile spread on her face. “Will you read to me?”

“Of course,” Cheyenne replied, giving her a smile of her own. “Let me get my book.”

Isabel walked in as Cheyenne picked up her current book, an Emily Dickinson anthology. Her little sister had always been a fan of poetry, devouring every work she could find. Maya Angelou, Warsan Shire, Robert Frost, and Kaveh Akbar alike had passed through her hands. 

There were some things in these poems that weren’t appropriate for seven-year-olds—Cheyenne knew this. She didn’t try and stop Isabel from reading them, though. She sensed that Isabel already knew, somehow, about these things. Whatever the poems talked about, no matter how dark, Cheyenne could see an old recognition in Isabel’s amber eyes. 

Cheyenne watched Isabel as she spoke. She noticed the little details the glass never showed: the crookedness of her teeth, the smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose. Even so, it was impossible to deny the resemblance. A little girl immortalized in glass.

Isabel scooted up so she rested against the pillows, and Cheyenne sat down by her feet, opening her book to a new poem. “Ready?” She asked.

“Yes,” Isabel said, pulling up her knees and resting her chin upon them. Cheyenne cleared her throat and began to read. 

“‘It was not Death, for I stood up/And all the Dead, lie down…’”

Isabel listened, enraptured, as Cheyenne read through the poem. After she’d finished, she smiled. “That was beautiful.”

“Dickinson always is,” Cheyenne agreed. Isabel scooted forward with a grin.

“Can you read ‘I felt a Funeral, in My Brain?’” She asked, eyes bright. Cheyenne paused for a moment. She’d never told Isabel about that poem before. 

She didn’t ask. “Of course, I can,” she said, finding the page and clearing her throat. “‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain/And Mourners to and fro…”

She kept reading, slowly working through the book at Isabel’s request. Isabel picked every poem by name, enraptured by every syllable and line. 

Still, she was only a child, and it was late. Soon her eyelids began to droop, and she slumped against the pillows. Cheyenne kept reading, picking poems of her own when the requests stopped coming, and didn’t stop until Isabel was curled up on one side, fast asleep. 

She closed the book and sat with it in her lap for a while, silent. She tried to think of where Isabel could have heard of those poems. At school, maybe, or on TV. Something normal. Not everything had to be unexplained. Not everything was stained glass.

And yet, somehow, she knew. No one talked about Emily Dickinson in first grade. No one brought her up on TV. 

The box under her bed seemed to swell and breathe. 

Cheyenne scooted off the bed and turned off the main light, leaving the room dim, lit only by the bedside lamp. Isabel stirred but didn’t wake and stayed asleep as Cheyenne pulled the blankets over her. The clock read eight-thirty. Isabel would have to go back to her own room eventually, but for now, she could stay. 

Cheyenne paused over her, watching the rise and fall of the blankets as she breathed. Her face looked peaceful, brow smooth and eyes closed, her hair lying scattered over the pillow. She looked young.

She was young. No matter what strange events occurred around her or what unknowable things she seemed to know, she was still just a child.

A little girl immortalized in glass. 

Cheyenne rested her hand on Isabel’s head, smoothing back her hair. Something burned in her chest, something fierce that gave her claws and teeth. 

“I am going to protect you,” she murmured, hand tightening at her side. Isabel didn’t stir.

Cheyenne moved over to her desk, which sat to the left of the bed. She still had homework to do, after all. She opened her math textbook and picked up her pencil, scowling at the half-finished equations on the page. They taunted her. Each one sat like a brick wall she had to bash her head against.

It wasn’t surprising that her mind began to wander. She thought of the first time she’d found a shard of stained glass—she’d only been nine, her sister a baby. She thought of the time Isabel had dug up a flowering rosebush in the park. The blooms were bright and healthy, the dirt above them undisturbed. She remembered every time Isabel had failed to ask a question all other children would ask—what’s war? What’s poverty? What’s racism? —because she never needed to. An understanding, a solemnness, came over her every time.   

Their parents had no idea. They knew Isabel was quiet, introverted, and bookish, but that was fine. That was normal. What would happen if they knew about the odd occurrences? What would happen if anyone knew? If they sensed the way the air would bend around her when she laughed too loud, if they saw the way the fireflies papered her window at night, pulsing yellow like the heartbeat of a sun. 

She wouldn’t let that happen. Cheyenne knew people—people were angry, scared, and turned on their neighbors without a second thought. That would not happen to Isabel. No matter what happened around her, she was still a child. She was still her sister. 

A creak sounded to her left. A soft voice called out, “Cheyenne?”

Cheyenne smiled and closed her math book, grateful for the excuse to quit. “Hey, Isabel,” she said, turning towards the bed. “You fell…”

The words died in her throat. Isabel cocked her head. 

“What’s wrong?” She asked. Cheyenne closed her mouth, swallowed.

Isabel was sitting up in bed, the blankets bunched around her waist. Sleep had mussed her hair and wrinkled her t-shirt. Her eyes, however, were wide open and alert.

Behind her head was a golden halo. 

Cheyenne remembered the paintings she’d seen of saints. Their eyes turned upwards, their hands held out in supplication, and the golden halos behind their heads, hovering as if by holy magic. 

This halo was not painted. It was a solid gold disk, polished and shining in the low light. A ring of circular engravings ran along the edge. Thin rods of gold hovered around it, like sunbeams from a child’s drawing. It glowed with soft, warm light. It turned in a slow, gentle rotation behind her head. 

Cheyenne stared. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Isabel tilted her head to one side, like a curious fox—the halo followed. “What’s wrong, Cheyenne?”

The innocence in her voice helped soothe the staccato beating of Cheyenne’s heart. She swallowed and shook her head.

“It’s nothing,” she managed, eyes tracking the slow movement of the halo. “Go back to sleep.”

Isabel didn’t lie down. Her brow furrowed. “You look pale.”

“It’s nothing, really,” Cheyenne repeated, managing a weak smile. “Go back to sleep. You need to grow into your halo.”

The second the words left her mouth, she wanted to snatch them back. Why did she say that? She never brought up these things around Isabel—it was an unspoken rule. So why…?

Isabel smiled. “No, I don’t. You never do.”

Cheyenne fell silent. She stared at Isabel, her amber eyes, her round, pale face. The golden halo rotating behind her head a holy crown, a magical gift—a something. 

She looked at her freckles and mussed hair and small hands folded on top of the blankets. Her heart burned. Her claws poked into her skin. 

Isabel was immortalized in glass, but she was still a child.

“I’m going to take care of you,” Cheyenne said. Isabel smiled.

“I know.”

“Good.” Cheyenne took a deep breath. “Go back to sleep. It’s late.”

“Can I stay here?” Isabel asked, clutching the blankets to her chest. Cheyenne smiled.

“Of course.”

Isabel grinned and laid back in the bed. Her halo pressed into the pillow, but it kept rotating, moving against the fabric without making a sound. It didn’t seem to matter—in moments, Isabel’s eyes were shut, her breathing evening out as she slipped back into sleep. 

Cheyenne watched her, and the fire rooted itself into her heart.   


The Conference of the Trees