I was eight that summer, a girl with golden-brown hair and unparticular freckles. I never went anywhere, never left North Dakota–not even to go to South Dakota–but I traipsed our neighborhood the way my gray cat explored and re-explored rooms.
Mr. Thorn’s house on the corner was the one that drew me, its walls patterned with drooping peels of white paint and shifting congregations of boxelder bugs. But the long, rectangular windows with their shades always drawn and the windows shaped like orange slices, coated from the inside with something like soot, frustrated my curiosity.
Mr. Thorn was a widower. He stayed in. I had only seen his hand as he reached out to collect the mail, his long nose, the fizz of whiskers at his chin. I thought him fearsome and terribly old. As long as I lived, his wife had been dead.
I often took breaks from kicking pinecones to creep into the remnants of a garden that I found under the long grass behind his house. I lay in the dirt and looked up at ladybugs on the undersides of leaves. Mulch stuck to my antbitten legs. I found secret raspberries and ate them in handfuls of sweetness and grit.
One day, as I was walking slowly through the dirt alley, collecting feathers, I noticed colors in Mr. Thorn’s backyard. I approached, and the colors turned into clothes heaped in a pile, like leaves for burning. My hands plunged in and grabbed silk scarves, a turquoise Mexican dress. I found an umbrella that opened into black lace. I slid on gloves with bite-size buttons. A crack: I startled myself when I stepped on a large seashell.
“You! I see you!” I looked up. Mr. Thorn was coming toward me, across the yard fast. He lashed a long stick, spanking the crisp weeds. Grasshoppers flickered out before him; a dust of mites rose. “I know who you are!” His face was red.
I scuttled, arms full of someone else’s treasure, strewing scarves behind me. I trailed ribbons. I dropped —
“Wait!” His voice.
I looked back; Mr.Thorn was stooping to pick up the umbrella. I hated myself for making him stoop, but now my escape was certain. I ran home and up the stairs.
“What on earth?” my mom asked after me.
I was hiding what I’d found in my closet when there was a knock on the front door that sounded like doom. I heard my mom say, “Hello, Mr. Thorn,” and my heart drooped in peels. I knelt at the banister, peered between railings and watched him point up at me, at my gloved hands encircling the rails.
Mom looked at me, at the gloves on my hands. “I’m so sorry,” she said to our neighbor. Then, to me, “Come down here this minute.”
I came down the steps, slow as a bride. I took off the gloves, looking down. My eyes rested on Mr. Thorn’s walking cane. Wood turned into antler; the handle was white and twisted.
Instead of taking the gloves I held out to him, Mr. Thorn gave me the umbrella I’d dropped. “Take this. It’s yours.”
“We couldn’t—“ my mom began.
“I insist.” He touched my shoulders with his big hands, and bowed down to whisper in the cave of my ear, “Come visit me. Come visit your house.” My eyes adjusted to him, stepped into that dimness, and in that moment he looked familiar to me, and not old, and not fearsome.
My mother spoke in pleasantries. “Eight years and I still think of your wife’s garden, those preserves of hers. A fine lady.”
Mr.Thorn straightened. “To think, I thought it was time to let her go.” His eyes on me were heavy as his hands.
My mother smiled goodbye, then sent me to my room for stealing from a dead woman.
On my bed, next to my sprawled cat, I felt something sharp. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out a handful of seashells. Another gift? I looked closely, for messages. I saw the spots inked on the curving shells, which reminded me first of the spots on the backs of ladybugs, then of my own freckles.
As the shells scraped against each other in my closed hand, hard as teeth, I began to suspect that nature had only so many substances. My cat’s fangs curved smooth, like his claws; his claws were the same as thorns. His whiskers doubled as the stems of feathers. My fingernails were insect wings. The soft pinecones I kicked in alleyways shared scales with fish. Outside my window, the trees rose up and splayed into hundreds of antlers. My own veins seemed then no different than ant paths in the dirt, no different than roots going down and down.
Could the material of a soul repeat itself? I closed my eyes and tried to remember Mexico, beach sand scorching my bare feet, my skin patterned by shadows of lace.
Amber Burke is from North Dakota. After graduating from Yale, she worked as an actress for several years in New York and LA. She is in the process of completing her Writing Seminars MFA at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches creative writing and yoga.