Cozy Flash: “Fragile”

Elody was in love with the Large Animal Lady. Her name was Celie, and she cared for the horses and goats in the Traveling Entertainment Extravaganza. Elody’s stage overlooked the animal pens, and during setup, Elody watched Celie wrestle the goats into their pen, watched her brush and saddle the frisky pony and the ancient mare. She filled her eyes with Celie during setup because, once the Extravaganza opened to the public, crowds surrounded Elody’s stage and walled her in.

Elody routinely drew the largest crowd of anyone else in the Extravaganza. COME HEAR ELODY THE GLASS GIRL, shouted the flyers that preceded the caravan’s arrival in town. LUNGS OF GLASS, VOICE LIKE A CHOIR OF ANGELS. Once, she’d had lungs made of regular human tissue, but Elody didn’t remember what it felt like; nor did she remember the procedure that had installed the glass lungs within her ribcage. She only knew that now, her voice echoed with bell-like peals and harmonics, and her lungs were as fragile as spun sugar.

Unlike Elody, who performed alone, Celie worked alongside the Small Animal Twins, who were responsible for the chickens and guinea pigs. The sound of their laughter carried through the humid, buggy air. Sometimes, Elody imagined what it would feel like to laugh so hard that she doubled over and clutched her stomach and collapsed in a heap on the hay-covered ground. To grip Celie’s hand and swing it as they ran alongside the horses. But it was useless to torture herself like this. Her lungs would shatter into a million pieces if she ran and played and fell, and she was far too valuable to the Extravaganza to risk such a thing.

One mid-summer morning, the Traveling Entertainment Extravaganza parked on the outskirts of a bustling town. They had the entire day and night to set up, a luxury appreciated by everyone but Elody. She was too valuable, too fragile to help build her stage or drape it with silks. She wasn’t allowed to go wandering, lest she trip on coils of rope or bump into careless workers. She couldn’t even watch Celie, who was off somewhere exercising the horses. She sighed with a sound like a finger stroking the edge of a wine glass and began to run through her vocal exercises, testing her harmonics. A pair of birds wheeled overhead, drawn to the frequencies of Elody’s voice, and Elody attempted to mimic their sharp, piercing cry.

A startled shout disrupted the sound. Elody looked across the field, where Celie limped away from the mare, obviously injured. Without thought, Elody ripped a strip of silk off a bolt leaning against her stage, and trotted across the field toward Celie.

“Are you hurt?” she asked.

“Oh, I’ll be fine. She didn’t mean to bite me,” Celie said, gesturing at the mare. “She just heard something that spooked her.”

Heard something. Elody thought of her imitation of the birds, of the frequencies her voice might have reached without her realizing it. Oh, no.

“Hey, is that for me?” Celie said, looking at the silk in Elody’s hands.

Elody blushed and held it out. It seemed like such a small thing compared to the bruise that blossomed on Celie’s calf, wet and purple and swollen. But Celie mopped up the horse spit, then tied the silk to cover the bruise. “Don’t I look fancy!” she said, admiring it.

Celie grinned as if nothing was wrong in the world, but how could that be? Her calf was still swollen and she limped when she walked. The tattered, ripped edge of the silk mortified Elody with its inadequacy. It was her fault the mare had spooked, her fault Celie had been injured. Flustered, Elody turned and looked back across the length of the field, with its stones and dips and hidden holes. She could have tripped a dozen times over on her way here, and damaged herself beyond repair. Her breath came out in delicate wheezes, like the whisper of pan flutes. How could she safely make her way back? What on earth had she done?

“Hey,” said Celie, seeing Elody’s distress. “It’s okay. Really. Horses spook sometimes.” She followed Elody’s panicked gaze across the field. “Do you need help getting back? I’ll walk with you.”

“No! I mean, you shouldn’t. You’re hurt. And anyway, I shouldn’t walk back. I shouldn’t have walked here. I could fall, or…” She brushed away a frustrated tear. “My lungs are worth too much to the Extravaganza to risk it.”

Celie’s brows lowered in thought. Suddenly, she brightened. “I have an idea!”

She called over the Small Animal Twins, who, after a quick conference with Celie, stuffed a wagon with armfuls of horse blankets, which they then hitched to the mare. Favoring her uninjured leg, Celie climbed into the wagon and sat in the middle of the blankets like a bird in a nest. She beamed up at Elody. “Now you!”

There was nowhere to sit but on Celie’s lap. When Elody lowered herself down—carefully, so carefully—Celie wrapped her strong arms around her. “See?” Celie said. “I’m extra cushioning.”

One of the twins clicked her tongue and the mare began to pull the wagon across the field. Secure in Celie’s arms, Elody barely felt each bump and jostle. Celie brought her lips close to Elody’s ear and whispered, “Your lungs aren’t what make you valuable, you know.” Elody’s heart pounded so hard that her lungs vibrated with each beat. But they didn’t shatter into a million pieces, and for the first time, Elody wasn’t frightened that they might.

Celie slipped her hand in Elody’s. Carefully, so carefully, Elody interwove her fingers with Celie’s. Together, their hands felt sturdy and strong. They felt precious. Elody laughed like a chorus of angels. She gripped Celie’s hand, and Celie gripped back, and as the wagon trundled its way across the field, Elody felt as though they were running, arms swinging between them.

— Jennifer Hudak

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