My Tangerine Girl: First loves are the hardest to forget

She had tangerine hair. Thick and tangled like an unkempt bush. Every spring after the snow had melted, we hurled ourselves into the backwoods, and like wild boars, we charged. Twigs snapped and cracked scratching our skin. Our legs and feet were like thin twigs dipped in mud. She’d holler at me, “Keep up young one!”

I loved her. It was a complicated kind of love. She was six years older than me but was a mother to me. She’d eventually become the only mother I’d ever remember, but she was my sister. Adopted sister- well, foster sibling really- but blood or not we were family.

Once, we ran all the way to the end of the backwoods and reached a clearing. Blades of grass tickled my chin and grazed her waist; Beyond it was a forest darker than any we’d ever seen before.

“Let’s die here,” she said gliding her palms over the tips of the tall grass.

“Here?” spitting out some fuzzy debris that had entered my mouth, I brushed away the grass poking my eyes, “Heck no, when I’m eighteen we’re leaving this place.”

She glanced at the sky as though a bird had flown past and smiled to herself, “I know you will, James.”

After a few minutes I pushed her playfully and ran, but she didn’t move. She stared at the shadowy forest.

“Did you hear that?” she said.

I lifted my head to listen better; it was a squeaky chirp. She ran through the meadow; her bushy red hair bounced till the darkness engulfed her. We followed the small cry till we reached the base of a thick tree and laying there amongst its massive roots was a chick. Brown and fuzzy. Immediately, She picked it up and cradled it close to her heart.

“We need to put it back.”

I glanced at the fifty-foot tree, somewhere up there as a nest and possibly a mother-bird. I sighed.

“How did it end up on the ground?” I wondered.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “we need to help get it back to its family.”

“We could take it home-”

“No!” she said holding the chick protectively as though the mere mention of home would conjure its horrors, “It will never go to that place, never!”

 

With the bird cradled in my hand, I climbed branch by branch. Acorns fell plopping on the ground.  She was already ahead of me. Her toes grappled a branch as she hoisted herself up. Pine needles poked and prodded me as though the tree were trying to stop me from going any further. The chick chirped. I clenched its soft body in my hands.

“Found it!” she said.

When I finally reached her, I heard chirping. Three fuzzy brown birds were walking around their nest. I placed the fallen bird back with its siblings. She rustled my hair then directed my head away from the nest. A valley of trees and mountains surrounded us. The sun was near the horizon casting magnificently dark shadows across the forest, and the clouds were a vibrant swirl of colors. Pink, orange, and gold. In the distance, we could see the river turning and twisting westward.

“I hope this is what the end looks like when it comes,” she said.

Years later, we were plucked from our foster home and sent to different nests, but I always made it back to her. We’d run through the backwoods and climb the same tree soaking in hundreds, possibly thousands, of sunsets. Till one day at her apartment, I found her hanging from a wood beam. Her freckled feet had turned blue and tiny gnats had gathered at her eyes. Dry tears had stained her cheeks, and her mouth was gaped open as if she were sobbing while the noose was suffocating her. But somehow her hair seemed brighter than ever. A vibrant cluster of orange-gold hues. Forever bright like tangerines.

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