Anna plucked bare a circle in the grass, depositing the sprouted blades on a tiny mound beside her crossed legs. Strewn about her were remnants of a day she now doubted had ever occurred. She lifted the cloth from her pail and sniffed at the cold crumbled biscuits and bottle of souring milk. Someone had eaten her lunch, possibly one of the twins.
She clapped her feet together and rubbed at the trampled mosaic of blood, grass, and mud. Papa said she was sweet all the way to her feet, but her toes were tough from pebbled paths and river rushes. He called her his little moon shadow. Leather sandals, good as new, lay next to her homemade fishing pole and an empty fish basket.
Anna stretched out onto her back and listened. The clack clack clack of the mill set the rhythm as she hummed a few notes of a familiar tune. A bald eagle pair were joined by a massive golden, taunting then soaring away. Anna began to improvise a bolder melody, notes diving with the powerful birds.
Perhaps she was only invisible to humans. She sat up and added more grass to the pile, a nest for the eagles. They seemed so small from her river’s edge view, but she had been close to one once when she was following Papa near the barn. It had stood atop the lightning tree and Papa brought her closer, softly closer, until she was directly below and could hear it tearing at the bird who had become its lunch.
She would have to make a much larger nest, of course, if there was any hope the eagles would join her. Maybe they would bring her a fish. She patted at the knife in her pocket, proud to be six and an expert fish-gutter. Papa told her to be proud, and so she was. Rinsing her toes in the marshy bank, she cut some reeds to add to the nest. A determined fisherman kept steady pace as she crossed his path, her wiry arms laden with stray twigs and leaves.
Anna tried to form a circle with the debris as the sun dotted a distant silo in a lowercase “i.” Margaret had taught her the alphabet. Anna tried to read, but found her mouth made the wrong sounds when she copied Margaret’s pursed lips and wrinkled brow. Now she wished she’d learned to braid a straightened plait like the one that divided Margaret’s left from right. If she could braid the reeds, maybe she could make a more attractive nest for the eagles.
Late to the river this morning, their secret fishing hole had already been taken. They had searched for a new spot where a father and six rowdy children could catch some fish without upsetting anyone. Nathan had brought his friend, Bill, and when they found the perfect place under tangled willow branches, Anna sat in silence, admiring the newness of this extra person.
Now most of the fisherman had packed and walked up the trail, or raised their boats out of the sucking water onto rickety trailers behind rusted trucks. They fished to survive. Anna watched the eagles against the pulled taffy clouds. The evening breeze blew a wispy lock from her matted curls, tickling her ear into spine shivers.
Today Bill told her about the Invisible Man, scooting closer, eyes entranced when he discovered she could pronounce, “invisible.” He breathed hot secrets into her attentive eyes, “The man could be right here in the boat with us!” She glanced at Papa and his wink told her to act scared, and so she did. Bill laughed and dove into the water with the twins.
Margaret counted the lunches again, then licked the corner of her shirt and tried to wipe a smudge of dirt from Anna’s nose, “Really!” Anna ducked away and Margaret spun back around on her bench, the pendulum braid swinging her frustration. Silt-seeking fingers found a puddle and a pile of sand and mixed a paste in which Anna intended to dip the offending braid. Above the boat, a lost circling cormorant caught her attention. Anna lay back on the bench and hummed along with the sound of playful splashing.
The nest now resembled the rubbish heap at home and she wondered if she should keep building, or tidy up the area that seemed to be her new home. If she was invisible to humans, it now seemed likely she was also invisible to birds. She sat on the nest, nibbling stale biscuit crumbs and thinking of night.
To Anna, nights were full of warmth and adventure. When the others had gone to sleep, she sat with Papa by the fire as he read his stories until she drifted off. Sometimes she would awake in the night, the wedding quilt tucked tightly around her, and see his silhouette at the window, waiting for something or someone.
On this night, there was no warmth. The eagles had gone and the mill whistle had last blown while sunlight paths still teased the river swells. The quiet was lonely, but not yet frightening. She thought of Bill’s story and wondered what kinds of things she could do now that she was invisible. Margaret was an easy first target. She lay on her side and curled tightly into the nest as she drifted into dreams.
Sleep was broken by crunching gravel and searing lamplight. The warmth was immediate and complete as he collapsed onto the nest and enfolded her in patience and pride. There were no apologies in the circle of arms and reeds and light. He tugged one of her errant tangles and sighed, “That’s my girl.”