Pia kept the old house alive by holding her breath. She was eight years old, and it should have been a good year because of the 8s in her address (848 Elkhorn Woods Road) and the 8 in the year (2038), but her Aunt Alice was fixing up the house and ruining it. Except for her bedroom. The workers hadn’t found her bedroom yet. So, outside her bedroom, she had to hold her breath. No matter. Bit by bit, she would become amphibious and grow an extra lung. Charles Darwin knew that, and it had made him famous.
During a dinner downstairs with Alice, she tried breathing from the spot where her new lung would grow. She thought of Daddy first. She didn’t care what people said—Daddy had disappeared into the trees. Daddy was trees and oxygen. Then she thought of Mama, trying to find another breath. Pia was seven when Daddy had disappeared, and Mama had died six months later.
“Lastopia, darling, you must remember not to inhale your food,” Alice said.
They sat at the long, walnut table.
“It’s doing something rather unsatisfactory to your complexion.”
After Daddy disappeared, Mama, even with cancer growing in her, would spend hours with Pia in their yard, under Daddy’s dwarf cherry tree, lying next to her on the Norwegian waterfall quilt. Mama had hair like corn silk, and she always wore flowy dresses with pastel colors, and bright sashes around her waist, or bright scarves around her neck and shoulders. On the quilt, they looked at the clouds passing by, which could be the same thing as breathing, and the way some of them fit between the cherry branches.
Then Mama’s words came to her, and Pia, triumphant, knew she would make it through the pasta primavera.
“The mountains there close to the fjord went straight up and would catch the sky, like these cherry branches do. You were glad for them, to hold the sky for a moment before it left. This quilt came from Laerdal, and see the way that mountain is, a band of sky above it, a waterfall coming down it—you can’t tell where the water comes from, unless the sky has sprung a leak. That’s how Norway is. Daddy would love seeing us here on this quilt, and I bet he sees us. I bet he’s looking at us through cherry leaves.”
“Or from Elkhorn Woods,” Pia had said.
“Yes, there too.”
“Where do you think? That part of the woods?”
“No, everywhere, baby. He’s in every tree.”
After finishing her pasta, Pia ran up the stairs and flung herself onto her bed, safe, just as the neighbor ladies arrived for their Friday social with Alice.
Pia’s room still had its soft green carpet. Underneath the carpet was wood that looked like skin after you’d taken a bandage off. The renovation guys had tried sanding and polishing the wood they’d uncovered in the rest of the house, but Pia could still see the old skin. She sat up and hugged Rabbit, the largest and softest of her stuffed animals, and gasped for air. She wasn’t crying. She just sometimes forgot to go back to using her old lungs, and that caused tears to come out of her eyes.
Rabbit was the bravest and craziest of her animals. The others always tried to talk her out of things.
All at once, her breathing became normal. Rabbit would go too. She found her yellow penknife, put it in her pocket, and opened her snack box, choosing a granola bar. She paused and took one more.
Alice and her guests were in the dining room. Pia crept to the stairs and decided to crawl down them backward, with Rabbit under her shirt. The steps toward the bottom no longer had a slant to them. Once Daddy had had to chase away a monster that tried to get upstairs; that was what had caused the slant in the steps.
Pia stopped. Daddy could move on the old stairs like somebody’s hand on a piano. He played Beethoven on them.
“Imagine for a child to see such a thing,” Alice was saying.
The voices were loud downstairs. Pia tried not to understand them as she descended. If she understood them, she would be seen—that was the rule. Squeezing Rabbit at the bottom, she stood and walked to the door and quickly pressed the green button by the door handle. She had to do that to get back in. The button was on a screen that let Alice know everything that happened. But nothing squeaked anymore, and hopefully Alice would be too busy this evening to notice her special green button.
Outside, Pia swung past Daddy’s dwarf cherry in the back yard and stopped at the orange nylon fence. You weren’t supposed to go past the fence, into the place where Elkhorn Woods used to be. Yet Daddy needed help. She took out her penknife but dropped Rabbit. Sorry, Rabbit. She picked him up again and held him between her left elbow and ribs, then sawed through the nylon bands with her knife.
The fog let in enough moonlight that she could see. She knew the path by heart, but it had ruts in it from the machinery. Old Shaggy Bark, the big tree in the bend before the sassafras grove, was gone except for a stump, which stared at her fuzzily. She began to run.
“Daddy,” she said in a whisper.
The bittersweet vine that used to live in the sassafras trees had fallen in a heap over the path, and she had to stop. She threw Rabbit to the other side.
“Daddy,” she said again, cutting through the vine.
On the other side, she picked up Rabbit and began to run again. Where the trail had gone downhill, it still went downhill. She came to the cherry and the maple that had grown up circling each other’s trunks, where she had thought she would get married one day. Here the fog was so thick, it still held the trees in the sky.
“Daddy,” she said, this time speaking out loud.
Come, I’ll show you where he died.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Terri. Terri would be Pia’s sister, say, if Pia had a sister. Just not a twin. An eternal twin, maybe, but definitely not an identical one, though they claimed the same face in the mirror—they were too different. Terri had followed Daddy that day, when she shouldn’t have.
All Terri wanted to do was show her the place. She was never interested in playing.
Quiet, or go away, or help me put the trees back up, Pia told her.
You can’t do that.
With the fog you can. The fog is like stories.
Can’t you see those stumps?
Pia saw them now, the walnut’s and the maple’s. Daddy had told her about tree rings. These had a lot more rings than eight, which meant she could fit inside them. Daddy and she would both fit.
“Daddy,” she whispered.
Cutting a tree that way made entrances into the xylem and phloem, which were like straws that carried water and food, and that’s how a person could get into the tree, through these straws. But what Daddy needed to do was to get out. Even the stumps would die because they had to have trees on them to live.
It’s just a little farther to where it happened.
Pia walked to the streambed, where there had been a mini foot bridge. The men had broken the rules and run their machines over it. She picked up three rocks in the dry bed and returned to the maple and cherry stumps.
She wouldn’t follow Terri because Daddy could find his way to this wild black cherry. He could get here by going from root to root. She put one of her rocks on the cherry stump and another one to balance on the first. She balanced the third one on the second. When the stream was rushing, Daddy used to set thick rocks in the water and hold her hand as they crossed to the other side. Now the fog was the water, and her rocks would help him get across to where the tree had been.
Come to where I am, where it happened. It’s not far.
Pia hugged Rabbit and turned back to the house.
You can’t just leave me.
You’ll die. Like if you walked away from your heart and lungs and everything.
You shouldn’t have followed him. You shouldn’t have watched. You’re the one who’ll die, because you won’t find enough to eat by the stumps.
Then let me eat one of those granola bars.
One’s for me and one’s for Daddy.
Pia took a couple of steps, but then returned to the maple stump. She lifted the third rock, a small one with a hole through it, off the second, and on the way back to the house she held it tightly. Maybe this was the rock she could turn to skin.
Three big steps, and Daddy could make the crossing. The third step would be on this last rock, which was why she must always keep it close to her.
Pia opened the door and stepped quietly back into the house. In five steps she made it to the stairs.
“Lastopia,” Alice said.
“Where have you been?”
Alice wore high heels, a brown jacket with shiny black buttons, and a coral scarf spilling from the jacket collar. Pia stopped at the scarf.
“Now, young lady, about that hair of yours. I’m surprised you would let a buzzard make its nest there.” Alice spoke slowly and made words stretch like a hammock. “Now, why don’t you show me you can tie that hair back better?”
Pia set Rabbit down and re-did her ponytail.
“Better, better. But your hair simply refuses to be coerced, doesn’t it, dear?”
Alice put a hand on Pia’s back and ushered her upstairs to her room. She followed Pia in and closed the door and looked around. Pia’s body tensed.
“Lastopia, I have a deal for you. Would you like your room to stay as it is?”
Pia’s lips started quivering.
“Can you help me with one thing, if we keep your room the same?”
“I’m going to be here, at least until you graduate from high school. Your Uncle Walter is staying in New York, but I’ll be here with you. I want you to know that.”
Alice sat beside her and held her with both arms, like Mama used to do. Pia gradually let her head rest on Alice’s shoulder. Compared to Mama’s willowy body, Alice bore herself like a statue.
“I have a couple of things for you,” Alice said. “Can you wait here for me?”
When Alice returned, she was carrying two bags. From of one of the bags she pulled out Mama’s waterfall quilt from Norway, which had gone missing. “It was a mistake for me, baby, to store this away from you.” Alice said.
From the other bag she took out two large books, bound with blank pages.
“Do you think your daddy is still in those woods?”
“Well, Miss Lastopia Clare Larsson, do you know the best way to help him?”
“Absolutely the worst thing you could do would be to run out there in all that devastation, which is not life-giving under any circumstances. No, the best way to help Oscar would be to write the amazing story of how he’s managed to still be with us. You have two blank books to write this story out. Let me know if you need more.”
Alice stood up and straightened out her clothes and her hair.
“This is your room, and I’ll not change it, Lastopia. Here you can be as you want to be. But outside this room, young lady, you are composed, and you are in no other place but this world as it is.”
The last story Daddy told Pia had been scary.
“It’s got to feel like skin before it’s ready,” Daddy had said that day.
They were sitting under the dwarf cherry tree in the yard, and Daddy was clutching a rock in his hand, staring at the sky. His eyes, usually blue, now looked the same gray as the sky, as if the sky had flooded them out.
Pia was seven, and she couldn’t figure out why Daddy wasn’t at the library. Usually he worked there on Saturdays.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Like when you can’t tell the difference between your skin and the rock,” he said. He unclenched his hand, and the rock was attached to his palm.
Pia leaned her head against Daddy’s arm and squinted at his fingers. They looked petrified.
“Then the things that have been lost forever—things you’ve loved and never thought you’d see again—can come back out.”
A shiver passed through her.
Daddy set the rock on the ground and with the back of his fingers, normal again, stroked her cheek. “Hey, baby, would you like a story?”
Pia jumped up. This meant they were going into Elkhorn Woods. Daddy hadn’t taken her into the Woods since the Elkhorn City Council decided to sell it to people who would cut down the trees. As the librarian, Daddy wanted to keep the trees so the library could still have its nature walks, and so he could still walk with Pia there.
At Old Shaggy Bark, Daddy began to tell her a story about a girl who had a favorite rock where things could live that had died. Like the girl’s puppy, Whiskers, who had gotten run over. Or the monarch butterfly. Or the Sequoia trees that burned up in a fire. This part of the story was fine.
The scary part was when the girl’s father disappeared and the girl ran into the woods to find him but got lost. Then a witch named Agnes found her. Agnes was only as tall as the girl’s knees, and she had a nose shaped like a vacuum cleaner’s hose. This witch wanted to take the special things out of the girl’s rock, including her father, and use some of them in a stew, and take selfies with some of them, using a fluorescent-green smart phone.
The girl ran away from this witch and found herself deeper in the woods. But a witch who looked exactly like Agnes found her. This witch was Agnes’s twin. Her name was Angie, and she was nicer. She had a rock too, and she showed it to the girl. It was soft like clay.
The second witch, Angie, told the girl to be a good mommy to her rock, to keep holding it so it would turn soft. That way her father could be hatched.
Daddy had made his voice sound like the witch, and that meant he was wrapped up in the story and it would last a long time.
Yet when Pia and Daddy reached the streambed, Daddy stopped.
“I’m going to keep walking, baby, but you need to head back to the house. Mommy’s probably wondering where you are.”
Pia frowned. Daddy always let her walk with him.
“But what happened to the girl?” she asked.
“The girl made it home to her mother.”
“And did her father come out of the rock?”
Daddy didn’t speak right away, and suddenly Pia didn’t want to hear his answer.
“Tell me a different story.”
Daddy put his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her around. “Find a rock to put these woods in, baby. And hold that rock to keep them alive.”
He gave her a pat and told her to head back.
Pia went home, of course. She always did what Daddy told her to do. Only she didn’t find a rock then because she had wanted to forget the story.
Pia didn’t go home.
Pia waited a couple of minutes and then followed Daddy.
You’re not Pia! You are Terri!
Pia thought Terri was like the bad witch, Agnes, wanting to steal precious things from her. Sometimes Pia fled to different worlds—to be with Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon—but even in those worlds Terri could often find her, and they would bicker.
Alice had come upon them once. “Lastopia, would you be so kind as to introduce me to your company,” she had said, and ever since then the question kept echoing in Pia’s head.
Pia had refused. She didn’t want Alice to like Terri better. Terri only needed to learn to be quiet.
“The thing about imaginary friends,” Alice said, “is that they like to stay in their bedrooms.”
“Why?” Pia asked.
“Well, they breathe best in their bedrooms. Outside, they may run out of air.”
Good, Pia thought. If Terri ever annoyed her too much, Pia would take her outside, then run back in by herself. She didn’t need a sister anyway.
Pia always woke in the morning before Terri, and the first thing she did was go to her corner by the dormer window, where it still smelled like the old house. There she and Rabbit would hunch over the blank book. The floor trim kept trying to cover up a crack in the wall, but it was never wide enough. The smell came through the crack—a smell like dust, when dust was happy.
If she couldn’t think of anything to write, Pia simply held her rock. It had a dip in it, with a small hole at the bottom of the dip. Her thumb fit nicely into this dip and slid easily in and out of it. She liked how her thumb couldn’t fall through the hole.
Would she have to become old like the witches to turn her rock soft? Or grow a long, ugly nose?
Usually Daddy’s stories were funny, and they always had endings. But not this one.
She put Rabbit on her lap. “Why?” she asked Rabbit.
The girl found her rock and began to hold it. Maybe that’s how the story could continue. The rock had a small hole in it. That made the rock related to the sky, which meant that it was different from other rocks.
Something like that. A rock related to the sky could more easily turn to skin. If only those witches didn’t have noses like vacuum-cleaner hoses. Pia didn’t know how to write stories about noses shaped like vacuum-cleaner hoses.
About the time Terri woke up, Alice would call for Pia. A good thing—it meant Pia could leave before Terri criticized her story.
The new kitchen reminded Pia of after an ice storm: everything in it looked hard, like it could crack, and the light was always crazy there, bouncing off the walls.
Before entering, Pia often looked at Alice’s shoes on the rung of the bar stool, and she could then guess what scarf Alice would be wearing. The magenta, the coral, the turquoise. Somehow that helped her meet Alice’s gaze.
The kitchen used to be bigger, but now it had a slippery granite island in the middle of it. By the time Pia climbed onto her stool, the island always had three glass egg cups on it, each with a steaming poached egg—two for Pia, one for Alice. Also a basket of buttered toast, a bowl of apple butter, a small glass of orange juice for Pia, and a mug of coffee for Alice. One rule in this kitchen was that each piece of food set on the island had to be in its own dish. That was why the jar of Eden Apple Butter couldn’t ever be placed on the island. Some of it had to be taken out and put in a bowl.
Alice’s smart phone was allowed on the island. During breakfast, the smart phone gave Alice ideas about questions to ask Pia. Sometimes the trim around the phone exactly matched Alice’s hazel eyes, but sometimes it was brown. When it was brown, that meant it had robbed some of the brown from Alice’s eyes.
“Do your classmates have phones, Lastopia?” Alice asked.
Nearly all of them did.
“Some,” said Pia. She didn’t want Alice to give her one. Daddy thought the light that came out of them was poisonous.
“I hear they’re already talking about Megacorps at your school, to help with the transition to middle school and high school. What have you learned about them so far?”
Alice’s eyes were green this morning. Pia liked them better brown.
“They’re the big businesses that become your life when you grow up,” Pia said.
“Yes, I suppose that’s accurate,” Alice said. “What does that make you feel about middle school?”
“I don’t want to go to middle school.”
Alice sipped her coffee while peering over her glasses at Pia. “I feared this would be the case. What if you needed to get a job with a Megacorp to live in this world?”
“I’d climb up in a tree, and the squirrels would help me make a home, and they would bring me nuts. And they would teach me their language.”
My wife and I live off the grid in the north-central Kentucky woodlands. Being close to the elemental things that support us—rain that we harvest for washing and drinking; sun that gives us electricity and heats our bath water and cooks our food in a solar oven; wood that keeps us warm in the winter—has given me both material for writing and a deep love of my surroundings. It has helped me to build the tactile world in my novel.
In ROCK, SKY, GIRL, a speculative coming-of-age novel for adults, two orphaned children, Pia and Jim—neighbors who live, respectively, with an aunt and an uncle—turn to the natural world for solace. As they grow up in the Outer Bluegrass of Kentucky in the 2030s and 2040s, they become increasingly isolated among their virtual-reality-loving peers and eventually realize they are in danger: responding to a labor shortage, the staff at their high school has begun administering drugs to students that will help get them onto corporate tracks. Tipped off by a sympathetic guidance counselor, Pia and Jim escape that danger while falling in love with each other, only to have the same corporate forces close in on them as they attempt to live off the grid on an eroded ten acres. Pia’s extraordinary imagination allows her to experience lusher, hoped-for worlds. Yet it also strains her relationship with Jim—and now they learn that her special mental powers have been targeted by a big tech conglomerate as a possible asset in its new frontier of resource exploitation.
I wrote the novel to explore the struggle between what is alive and what is not—and how we will manage to live and love in a time of machines.
Mark Schimmoeller is the author of Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), a memoir that received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Nonfiction (2014). His short work has appeared in The Lascaux Review, Orion, Mudfish, and The Christian Science Monitor. ROCK, SKY, GIRL was longlisted for the Blue Pencil Agency’s First Novel Award in 2021.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023