Swinging Statues was a game our older cousin Ella taught us.
“I’ll show you how to play,” she said, gripping us by both hands and spinning us laughing, teetering, dizzily around and around and then letting us go. On the edge of vertigo, we’d learned to freeze in place. No talking, no laughing, no moving. Statues. Holding whatever position our last spin had set us into. While she, with a pretend clipboard in hand and a pretend audience following along behind her, went from one of us to the other to the other judging us as pieces of art. We, Lilith, Lisbeth, and Lila.
Immobile like granite, we’d have stayed still forever for her approval. To be voted best statue. For her.
That day, while our parents visited inside out of the heat, Ella taught us to play under the great live oak tree in our front yard and then, a few hours later, when she left us, we dreamed about being just like her when we grew up to fourteen ancient years old. Like her, we’d have a fleeting smile, a stone-cold shoulder for any who tried to command us, and maybe even our own rooms, toys we didn’t have to share. The way we saw it, Ella had it all.
A week later, we girls played outside at dusk as the fireflies flickered into view and then out again. Sporadic, tiny lightbulbs. We played with the scent of honeysuckle hanging in the air like summer perfume, touching down on our skin with the heat and sticking there to us. And we played while above our heads the silkworms spun their elaborate and suffocating webs in the branches of our tree.
“Time to come in, girls,” our dad called out.
“Daddy, look!” I said, pointing up.
“That’s a silk web,” he said, coming over to us.
“Can we take it down and make a dress from it, Daddy?” Lilith asked.
“Can we, Daddy?” Lisbeth asked.
“It’s not that kind of silk, girls,” our dad said, staring up at the tree for a long moment. We thought he’d forgotten the time and that maybe we could play another game. “I should do something about that. But if I take out the silk, the worms will die. And if I don’t, the tree will die.”
“Because of the silk webs?” we asked, surprised. “Because of the silkworms?”
We called them silkworms and he told us they were also called oak worms, oak leaf rollers, loopers, Lepidoptera: Tortricidae.
“It’s a shame,” he said, as we all stood underneath our front yard tree with our necks craned upward to view the thick, white cocoons and the dangling caterpillars. “One thing dies in order for the other to live. But that’s the way it is. And who am I to play God?”
“How do you play that?” I asked.
Our dad laughed. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
Over the next weeks, my sisters and I played the new game we’d made up and called God. Always fair, we alternated roles between the three of us; God, a silkworm, a tree.
One evening, without being told to, we came inside. But the house was too quiet, holding a hint of something between the walls that worried us. Light voices. Our parents talking. We crept up to listen. Still as statues. Mute as stone.
“How do we tell the girls?” our mother asked.
“They know about the trees. They know the silkworms are smothering the trees. They’ll understand,” our dad said.
“How do we tell them?” our mother asked again. Then her voice went so soft we almost missed it. “By her own hand.”
We didn’t know what that meant.
A few days later, frozen in place at the front of the funeral parlor, we couldn’t believe it. Not even as we saw her lying in the polished, mahogany box. We stood there, the three of us, waiting for her to move. But nothing happened. And though we weren’t qualified as curators, we all thought Ella was as still as any statue we’d ever seen, as beautiful as a piece of art. We saw her with our own eyes and with our hearts broken in our hands like shattered bits of marble. Still, we didn’t believe it. There at the front of the room, we glanced at each other knowing that if we played her game what had gone wrong would right itself.
When no one was watching, we snuck outside.
In the shade of a line of unfamiliar live oaks, we played Swinging Statues just the three of us. First, we spun ourselves across the rigidly manicured lawn, and then, frozen in place the way she’d taught us, we waited for her. Not catching each other’s glances, we watched for her. Not moving. Not talking. Not even listening to the sound of the worms spinning their silk above our heads. Not feeling the heat brush our skin with honeysuckle scent. Not seeing the flickering fireflies.
We froze in place unable to believe that our cousin had herself been flung into immobility. For — those times she’d played with us — we’d thought she was exempt from being a piece of art. She’d been the curator, the director, the critic, the docent. But we had seen her lying so still, her face neither judging nor laughing, her limbs unmoving.
Our dad had said that one thing dies in order for the other to live. That he wouldn’t play God. He wouldn’t. But we had.
That dusk, no matter how long we played. No matter how many times we swung ourselves across the funeral parlor grass. No matter how still we stayed, Ella didn’t leave her box. And, finally, looking up at the silk coated branches of all those blighted trees, we wondered if without our help, by herself, she’d learned to play God too.
Amanda White has a degree in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her stories have been featured in Flash Fiction Magazine and the online journal Réarrange. When not writing she travels, dreams of food, and makes friends with fictional characters.