The first time I saw Henry David Al-Ismail Rahman I thought he was an elf. He sat on a branch high in the crown of the Great Smoke, balancing with his knees tucked against his chest. I squinched my eyes, trying to see him better, but he was so high in the giant oak his body was more silhouette than color. A storm boiled the clouds above us, daring me to climb up where I could really see him.
I’d already touched every empty nail hole I could reach on the south side of the tree trunk, imagining, like I always did, that when I walked back to my house both my parents would be there. Then my big sister Ellie would be her old self again, ready to hang out with me the way we did before the divorce. Every Saturday, when Ellie left for her weekly soccer match, I walked to the Great Smoke and traced the disappearing nail holes.
My dad had taken our sturdy plank steps off right before he left. “You girls are getting too big for a tree house,” he’d said as he pried them off. “It’s not safe, you know, to sit up there when I’m not around.” He’d pocketed the nails and stacked the chunky wooden blocks in a neat and useless pile at his feet.
The day he left, Ellie nailed wood scraps up the opposite side of the tree, on the north side where a holly hid most of the blocks from view. She moved our tree house platform, plank by plank, to a notch way higher than I could climb, so high our dad would ground her forever if he saw it. Even now, a year and a half later, the Great Smoke was hers. I’d finally made it to the platform this spring, the day after my twelfth birthday, but Ellie didn’t know I could climb that high.
I looked from the elf to the rough bark in front of me as I edged between holly and oak and climbed, feeling for the balance point on each block before I shifted my weight to it. They were slick with moss and tricky, but maybe this was the day that the impossible would be possible. Maybe it would start with an elf.
Sometimes the fifth block turned on its single nail, dumping an unwary climber into the leaves Ellie had piled below. I passed it with a prayer, close to silent as I climbed. I’d learned how from spying on Ellie.
The blocks ended below the first branch, where Ellie had run out of nails. The branch was tree thick and impassible except for the knot beside it that I hooked my arm over, hoisting my body and swinging my leg on top of the branch to pull myself up. I straddled it until my breathing slowed. Hitching from block to branch was the worst part of Ellie’s steps. I’d almost fallen several times.
The elf sat higher than Ellie’s platform, where the Great Smoke broke above the trees around it. All I could see was his cloaked back and a dark thatch of hair. The branch he sat on swayed in the rising wind, but he didn’t clutch anything for balance, a totally elvish thing to not do.
I climbed up three branches before I had to lie down and hug the limb beneath me, pressing my stomach into solid wood until my dizziness passed. I closed my eyes tight, fighting images of falling and breaking my legs or dying or both in the leaf pile below. I couldn’t stop climbing. I’d only get one chance at an elf; I was sure of it. Ellie would include me on every future climb when I told her about it.
Something scrabbled above me, squirrel sharp. A few flakes of bark hit the back of my neck. I looked up, straight into a pair of baffled eyes.
“Are you acrophobic?” A boy crouched on the limb above me, his round face scrunched with concern.
“I’m Christian.” I looked away from his worried eyes. The mysterious folds of elvish cloak were nothing but pudge rounding out the center of his body.
Something shattered in my chest, leaving a mess of splinters that hurt and dissolved as fast as I blinked my eyes. A fat boy instead of an elf is a hard disappointment.
“You’re thinking too much about falling,” he said. “It’s upsetting your balance.” His voice had a lilt to it that made me think of music.
He swung onto my branch, near my head. The branch dipped and jiggled under his weight. I gasped and clutched harder, digging my fingernails into the bark beneath me.
“Now I’m thinking about falling,” I said. “Get off before this limb breaks.”
My stomach hurt from pressing into a tree knot. I sat up and scooted closer to the massive trunk behind me. If the branch cracked and fell it would take the fat boy, not me. The boy stamped one foot, then the other, setting up a vibration that drove me to the next branch up.
“I could be an elephant and this branch wouldn’t break,” he said. He walked up and down the length of it, bouncing every few steps and spouting facts about wood fiber and tensile strength. “My father showed me this tree last winter and told me oak was tough as iron, so no worries, we’re safe up here.” He moved with cat grace and steadiness that didn’t fit his lumpy body.
“What are you doing up here?” I said. “Did you use our steps to get here?”
This boy was older than me, but I’d never seen him on our ridge before. He was round and bookish looking, not the type Ellie would be friends with. Plus he was a boy, and lately Ellie didn’t like them either.
“Did you nail those blocks? They have wobbles that are not steady.” He looked at me with doubt crinkling his forehead. I was small for twelve years old, with skinny arms and legs that looked weaker than they were.
“My sister, Ellie, nailed those blocks in over a year ago. She’s fifteen now, but she still comes up here to check on things.”
I climbed another branch to Ellie’s platform. I had to establish Great Smoke as our tree, the Fairmont kids’ tree. So what if it wasn’t beside our house; we lived a short walk off the ridge, down a twisty trail that led to our backyard. A gust of wind blew clusters of leaves across my arm. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“You shouldn’t be up here with a storm coming.” I focused on the nearest cluster of leaves as I clutched the edges of the plywood platform. What was he doing in our tree?
“Have I seen you at Smoke Ridge Baptist?”
This is what my mom always said when she met someone she felt uncertain about. It let her know pretty fast where to put them on her safety scale, Smoke Ridge Baptist being at the top and other answers ranging below. The boy glanced away without answering, a shade of disappointment crossing his downcast eyes. I didn’t ask again, mainly because I didn’t know what to put on my safety scale. Smoke Ridge Baptist was my mom’s favorite place but not mine.
“I will show you something.” The boy swung up to my branch and beyond, heading back to the narrow limb where I’d first seen him perched.
Startled, I glanced down, all the way to the ground. My gut tightened and fluttered so hard I could barely breathe, but I crawled after the round-faced boy, watching his back to keep from looking down again. His skin was honey colored, with blushes of red on his face and arms.
Past his head and across the broad river valley the Smoky Mountains rose, clouds rolling in the sky above them. Mt. Pisgah rose above the rest, topped with a TV tower blinking a tired red eye.
“Look at that,” the boy said, pointing down instead of across the plain. The French Broad River wound below, barely a glint in the distance. The highway ran close to our hill before it crossed the river. An overpass bridge was draped with a flash of red and white. The boy pulled a small pair of binoculars out of his pocket and peered through them, then held them steady while I looked.
A dark-skinned man stood by a Confederate flag in a Confederate uniform. The flag was draped over the bridge so all the cars beneath could see it. He was old, but he stood tall and straight. His face was a blur but my skin crawled when he turned toward our hill. I felt like he was staring right at me.
“That’s Solomon Randolph.” I handed the binoculars back. “He says we didn’t learn what we needed to from the Civil War.” I squinted at the distant bridge, trying to remember what else my parents had said about Solomon. “He’s showing his love for the south even though all the slave stuff that happened was terrible. It’s a political thing. People yell at him about it all the time. He’s a spectacle.” I’d heard several teachers at school say he’d made a spectacle of himself. Spectacle was not a compliment.
The boy stared through his binoculars at the bridge for a long time. I backed away from him when thunder rumbled again.
“We’ll get electrocuted if we stay up here,” I said.
“I have already been struck by lightning once,” he answered, without taking his binoculars off Solomon. “Not directly. It struck a power line by our house in Khartoum and ran through the wires. Our walls sounded like little balls of glass breaking and made the hairs on my arm rise. My mother said it lit a part of her brain that had been sleeping, the part that moved us over here last summer. I am still waiting to find out what part of my brain it affected.”
The boy talked fast, as if words were piled up in his brain, ready to tumble out the second he opened his mouth, almost as fast as a song, almost as fast as elves might talk. He knew a lot about electricity, how fast it travels, how tiny bits feed our thinking and large volts kill us, how it can light a building or burn it down. “I think a lot about the lightning that caused us to move here,” he said. “It’s fire, you know, the quickest kind, which is really energy.”
I pressed my chest where it cracked and ached every time I glimpsed hidden life that turned out to be ordinary. Elves to fat boys. One minute there’s something extraordinary brimming at the edge of sight, the next minute it dissolves into a lump of facts, like divorce or the boy in front of me who was going to get me in serious trouble if Ellie saw us up here together.
“What’s your name?” I had to ask him quick, when he drew a breath between words. He was telling me a lot, but he wasn’t saying why he’d climbed our tree, why he sat so high studying an old man with an outdated flag.
“Henry.” He mumbled it without turning around.
“Are you friends with Ellie?” I bit my lips, knowing his answer. Ellie had mostly girl friends but lately boys had started following her around. Cute, athletic boys. Ellie didn’t show anyone the Great Smoke though. It was too private.
If other kids found out about the steps and platform here my spying days were over. Ellie kept secrets under the platform that she wouldn’t stash there with other kids around. She kept books our mom wouldn’t like wedged between the platform and tree, in a notch that stayed dry. I’d found a spiral notebook with some poems written inside in Ellie’s big loopy handwriting, and a sequined cat ear that looked like it belonged on some Halloween costume.
The poems weren’t great; they were mostly about beautiful smart girls, which Ellie already was, or about how unfair life was, which I already knew, but I checked them every week to see if she’d written anything about me. The book was Lolita. I read the first page, got bored, and forgot to put it back under the platform. That’s why I’d returned to the tree, to put it back exactly where Ellie had hidden it.
“I see Eleanor at school. We are in the same geometry class.” Henry tucked his head down a minute, frowning at the binoculars in his hand. Eleanor was Ellie’s proper name, the one our mom insisted that teachers use. That confirmed he wasn’t friends with Ellie. He must be smart, though, to be in accelerated math. Lolita lay on a branch beside him, half covered by spring leaves.
“I need that book.” His face reddened when I pointed to it.
Lightning forked across the valley, a snake’s tongue of brightness licking out from the bank of clouds blowing toward us. We swung down to the platform, where Henry placed the book exactly where I’d left it. I snatched it up, lifted the platform and tucked it back in the tree fork with the poems.
“Forget you saw this hiding spot. It isn’t mine.” I felt like a traitor, giving away Ellie’s secret, but my life would be over if Ellie found something out of place. I’d be the main suspect, no matter how hard I protested.
Henry lifted his eyebrows and pointed to the notebook. “Eleanor wrote the poems? They’re good. It’s hard to write sonnets without sounding stupid, especially the rhymes.”
I swayed and clutched a branch, sucking in air. “You can never tell anyone about them. Ellie will kill you if you do, then she’ll kill me.” I lifted the platform again, checking to make sure everything was exactly the way she left it. Henry had been careful, but I adjusted the notebook anyway.
I scowled and swung down to the top ladder block. Henry followed, tearing thin scabs of bark loose when he swung onto the first block.
“I can keep a secret.” He looked down at me, his eyes dark and steady. “Eleanor doesn’t talk with me anyway. Our social orbits don’t touch at Asheville High.” He laughed, but he looked down at his pinkish brown hands, his laugh fading to a dry cough.
I reached out to touch his hand with sympathy. I’d learned, just this year, how much it hurt to be pushed out of a friend group, but I snatched my hand back before I touched him, unwilling to admit how familiar I was with the hurt of it. Everyone, even kids like Henry, wanted to be friends with popular girls, not losers. I lifted my chin and flipped my hair back the way I’d seen Ellie do.
I didn’t tell Henry about stepping in the middle of each block. He was halfway down when I reached the ground, stepping with a confidence that made me wonder if he’d climbed them before. I flipped the fifth step above my head; it was always loose, leaving it at an angle to test him. If he’d climbed more than once he’d know about the twisty ones.
His foot slid over the angled step and kept sliding, ripping bark and leaves as it dove, pulling his pants and shirt and startled face through air. He knocked me over with his flailing arms, hitting the leaf pile with a weighted thud before I did.
He clutched his ankle and rocked back and forth without a whimper. I spit dry leaves and stood, raking leaf duff out of my hair. My stomach lurched when I saw the grimace on his face.
Bruise-colored clouds were piling up overhead. It wouldn’t be long before rain fell.
“The steps would function better with two nails in each one,” he said, “nailed at either end, you know? For stability.” His voice grew clipped, more foreign sounding, then thinned to silence.
“You better go home,” I said. “It’s going to rain soon.”
I searched through the brush around us for a stick he could use as a cane. When I found a strong one I spent a while brushing it off and testing it. I wanted to bolt for my house but guilt was settling inside me, turning and fluffing and growing heavier by the minute.
“Okay. This is a very painful sprain.” He winced when he stood, leaning on the branch I handed him. “I should put ice on it as soon as possible.”
“Are you sure? You were halfway down before you fell.” I pointed at the wide trunk of Big Smoke, at the crooked block above my head.
“I am most sure. I can feel it swelling.” He lifted his hurt foot higher. “Is your house close by? I could really use some ice.”
“No. I’m the only one home and I can’t let strangers in the house. Or boys.” I didn’t offer to get ice, nervous that he’d follow me. My mom would freak out if she drove up and found him there. If Ellie was with her she’d give me a look that said what a loser I was for hanging out with someone outside her social orbit.
“I’ll walk home with you,” I said, guilt dropping my chin a little. “I’ll find some ice if you can’t make it all the way.”
I followed Henry down the Woolsy Dip path, toward the college where my dad used to teach history before he quit to build houses. Henry plowed through Woolsy Dip and headed up the next ridge, past the college and past my neighborhood range. A smatter of rain blew over us as the wind picked up. I looked back at the campus below and the long slope back up to my house on Smoke Ridge. I’d never make it home before the storm broke.
“Are we close to your house?” I was panting from the climb. The June air was heavy and still between storm gusts. Henry lurched when his hurt foot hit the ground, but he kept walking.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” he said.
“You didn’t ask.” I don’t like telling my name. It almost always leads to embarrassing questions, sometimes to jokes that make me wish my parents weren’t so attached to family names.
He stopped and turned. “So what is it?”
He looked at me a few minutes. “I have a really long, weird name. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
Henry’s eyes were brown, but in the afternoon light, rings of green and amber glowed around the edges of his iris, reminding me of the leaves that trembled overhead in the Big Smoke. I held his gaze. He couldn’t have a weirder name than mine.
“Alarka Lee Nimblewill Fairmont.” I blurted it out in a rush and waited for him to laugh.
“Henry David Al-Ismail Rahman.” He turned and continued limping up the hill.
“You aren’t Christian are you?” I paused, shocked and curious at the same time. I knew Jewish kids at school, but Henry’s name sounded more foreign than that. I flushed, embarrassed that I’d asked him about Smoke Ridge Baptist. I started to turn back, sure he was offended, but he limped steadily forward, obviously in pain but not complaining. The guilt of twisting that block tumbled through me. I tucked my head down and followed him.
“My father is Muslim, my mom used to be Christian, but she is Muslim around my father and Pagan, I think, when he isn’t around. I’m an atheist. That means I don’t believe in God, but I don’t talk about it with my parents.”
My mouth dropped open. I closed it quick, before he could turn and see my surprise. I didn’t know where on my mom’s scale atheist would go, or if it fit on the scale at all. Everyone had a God, even if it wasn’t the true one we heard about every Sunday, the father of Jesus.
“We moved here last fall from Sudan. From Khartoum. It is mostly Islamic there, you know.”
“So did you move from Sudan or Khartoum?”
He paused and rubbed his head. His hair was short, but thick black waves sprang up between his fingers. “Khartoum is a city in Sudan, the capital city.”
“I know, but what I mean is, did you live in the city or the country?” I swallowed, hoping I didn’t sound as idiotic as I felt. I was headed for eighth grade next fall but I wasn’t the best at geography. Sudan was really far away. I did know that fact.
“The city. But before that I lived in Nuba, in the hills, but they weren’t mountains like here in Asheville. We moved to Khartoum when I was ten.”
“Does Khartoum look like Asheville?”
I tucked my chin back down at the finality in his voice. The houses we passed grew shabbier, with faded wood shingles and steep roofs, except for the occasional brightly painted ones with sculpture in the yard and young couples watching babies play on their wide wooden porches. Henry stopped when we reached a stone wall that was so old the rocks were black. The top of it was rounded once, but stones had fallen out of the crumbling mortar, leaving sharp edges and gaps.
“We are here.” Henry pushed an iron gate open. A crumbling brick walk led to a stucco and shingle house with a slate roof. It was a big house but one of the shabby ones, with vines tangled up one wall and patches of stucco missing. A man stood in front with a trowel and bucket, slapping goopy plaster over a bare spot and smoothing it out. Some of it dripped into the shrubs below. He turned when Henry banged the gate shut, looking at me with something close to astonishment.
“You bring a friend to visit our home?” His voice was careful and British, but his skin was a darker honey than Henry’s. He wore a loose white shirt and a white turban on his head. I tried to not stare but he looked like a king out of the Bible, with his dark beard and strong face.
“Welcome, young man, I am Ibrahim, Henry’s father.”
I was used to the mistake; my hair was short. I wore jeans and a tee shirt that any boy would wear and I didn’t have a hint of the figure Ellie had.
“This is Lark,” said Henry. “Alarka Lee Nimblewill Fairmont, who lives on the other side of the college. We’ve been exploring.”
Henry crossed his arms and looked at me with a warning in his hooded eyes.
I usually didn’t mind being called a he. There are advantages to being thought a boy. But I worried, standing in front of Henry’s father, my guilt over Henry’s foot nothing to the uneasiness I felt under his pleased gaze. This kind of lie was sinful.
“Henry hurt his ankle on my tree.” I stuttered a little when I spoke, feeling a confused urgency to explain why I was there, standing in front of this Bible king’s house with a storm bearing down on us. “I walked him home, to make sure he got here safely. He hasn’t complained, but his ankle must be hurting.”
Henry’s father knelt and probed Henry’s ankle. “Some ice will help. You are fortunate to have a friend, a small surefooted one with a big heart.” He smiled at me, a warm smile to let me know being small was okay. “This city boy,” he clapped Henry’s shoulder as he stood, “has forgotten how to walk over hills.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything about Nuba.” Henry pressed his lips together, his eyes black with resentment. “It’s barely swollen. I invited Lark over for a snack, that’s all.”
I backed away from them. Getting in the middle of fights between friends and their parents is the worst, and Henry wasn’t even my friend. Rain spattered in another gust of wind and Ibrahim swooped back to the wall, covering his bucket of plaster with a graceful twist. He was tall and thin, as unlike his pudgy son as a body could be.
Rain poured over us, and Henry and I ran to the front porch. His father tamped the lid tight with his foot and stood in the downpour, frowning at the bare patches of wall above his head. Rain pelted his turban and glistened in his beard but he didn’t brush it away. He could have been a statue from some lost time except for the annoyance in his eyes.
The inside of Henry’s house was ablaze with color. There wasn’t much furniture but the floors were covered with red oriental carpets and the walls were deep yellow. The smell of fresh paint was everywhere. Large pillows patterned in orange and turquoise were scattered around a low table in a room we passed.
Henry headed straight to the kitchen where a short woman with a white bun was chopping carrots. She dropped her knife when she saw Henry’s limp and rushed to him exclaiming in a language I’d never heard. She had dark skin and the same greenish-tinged eyes as Henry but she was so old her face was a mass of wrinkles. She pushed him into a chair and lifted his foot, easing his tennis shoe off and clucking over his swollen ankle.
“It needs ice, Grandmother, ice,” Henry said. “This is Lark,” he added, pointing at me. The grandmother glanced at me and nodded.
“She doesn’t speak much English, but she understands everything I say.” Henry waggled his finger under his grandmother’s chin. She slapped his hand away, then stroked his head before she put a kettle of water on the stove.
“Ice, Grandmother,” he repeated.
“Whatever it is, Henry, get it yourself please,” called a voice from the back porch.
Henry rolled his eyes toward the porch. “That is my mother.”
A woman as round as Henry burst through the back screen door with a bowl full of lettuce. Her reddish hair frizzled out of a bun as wet strands worked loose. Some of them sprang straight up as if she’d been electrified instead of caught in the rain. Her skin was paler than mine, her face and arms covered with freckles. I looked at the floor to keep from staring at her. People aren’t supposed to notice skin color, but Henry’s mom was so different from the rest of his family I couldn’t help it. She didn’t talk with the lilt they used either.
“We’ve only got another week or so before this lettuce bolts,” she said. “The peas are yellowing, but the beans I planted under them are coming up nicely.” She charged to the sink and filled the lettuce bowl with water, talking about different vegetables without pause. She didn’t notice me in the hall doorway until she turned and asked Henry why his foot was on the table.
“Introduce me to your friend, Henry.” She dried her hands and touched his ankle with a frown. “You need an ice pack on that. What happened? Hobble into the study so you can prop that foot on a stool instead of the breakfast table.”
Henry’s mom hardly took a breath between her streams of commentary, but she carried a brightness and interest into the kitchen that that made me feel almost comfortable.
“He walked really far on it,” I said, “without complaining once. I couldn’t have done it.”
“A brave thing to do, but not the smartest.” She rummaged in the freezer and pulled an ice pack out. “Your father would have done the same thing. Where is he? Surely he isn’t getting soaked just to finish patching stucco.” She handed the ice pack to Henry with a distracted look toward the front hallway.
Henry’s grandmother put a plate of sugar-dusted date bars on the table and two cups of strong sweet tea. She smiled at me and nodded at the date bars, then returned to chopping carrots without saying a word.
Henry leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “Do not say you are not a boy. Not ever to my grandmother. Maybe not ever to my father.”