Antithetical

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Chapter 5 - Isolde

I look at Mum from the kitchen doorway, with an odd feeling in my stomach. She is ashen, and trembling violently as the sits in the wooden chair. No way is she OK.

I walk into the kitchen and scrape back the other chair. Mum jumps about a foot in the air, blue eyes bright with tears and wide in alarm. Then she relaxes, furtively wiping her cheeks, and puts on a strained smile.

“Hi, honey. Didn’t hear you there.” Her voice is falsely cheery.

Mother,” I say, stressing the word as much as I can, trying to let her know that her act isn’t working.

“Yes?” she asks with faux innocence.

I regard her, looking at the purple bruises under her eyes, the forced smile, and the shaking of her hands, which she tries to hide under the table.

“Mum, I know something’s wrong.”

She looks somewhere south of my eyes. “Nothing’s wrong,” she insists.

“You’re looking pale all the time. And like you’re going to start crying,” I continue, trying to make eye contact with her.

“Nonsense,” she says brusquely. “I’m fine.”

“Mum, tell me what –”

Suddenly she’s up, and running out of the kitchen, her long legs taking big, quick strides.

I get up to go after her, but she has already locked herself in her bedroom. I can hear quiet, muffled sniffles. My heart thuds and aches as I swallow, wondering what to do. Mum has never been like this before. Dithering outside her door like this, I feel so useless.

I thought that my mother and I are close, but I seem to be wrong. She used to confide everything in me – a secret we rarely had, but now . . .

What should I do? She usually prefers to talk her problems through with me, but evidently that is not the case right now. What would be so horrible that she has such a sudden change in demeanour?

I tightly interweave my fingers, agonising over the subject. After several minutes of debating with myself, I decide to go in. With a soft knock, I enter the room.

She is face down on her bed, shuddering slightly. With a twinge of pain in my chest, I hesitantly walk towards her. My hand hovers above her before I place it on her shoulder.

“Mum,” I say softly.

Her body quivers. “Isolde,” she sighs with a tremor in her voice.

She turns her head towards me, her long hair, jet black like mine, plastered to her face with wet tears. My arms automatically go round her, and I lay my cheek on her head, putting my full weight on the soft bed.

I don’t press for details, but stay in that position with her for a long time.

*

I swing my legs as I sit on the low-hanging tree branch, waiting impatiently for Isaac.

Progress with Mum has been slow. She hasn’t said anything except: ’I’m just upset about something. I will tell you – later.”

Her vague answer didn’t really lessen the worry.

I look around me, finding calm in my pure surroundings. I love this forest. A quiet section of woodland well away from central Brackleby, hardly anyone but Isaac and I ever go here, which makes it all the more special. It’s within a stone’s throw of the cosy cottage I share with my mother, so I don’t need to travel much to get to my favourite place. It’s the clean, simple atmosphere that entices me so. And the opportunity, so carefully concealed in gnarled tree branches, and thick clusters of bushes.

I am never out of things to do here. Sometimes I just walk in, and lay down on the soft green grass for hours. Gaze at the life that flourishes before me. The trees, old and wise, young and spindly. They sway gently to a dreamy rhythm in the light breeze. The flowers, pushing through the soft earth, questing the golden sunlight which falls in wide shafts through the canopy of trees above.

I often spot young does teaching their clumsy fawns in meadows. An innocent, elegant face there, a shiny brown coat here. Glimpses through my hiding places. And the smell – I just love to inhale the pure scent of undisturbed nature. It’s like an intake of energy, the cool air filling my lungs and spreading throughout my body.

Then the tree jumping! Leaping up a difficult plant, my hands and elbows and knees aching and scratching as I aim to get as high as possible. Then kicking my fear out of the way, and sending myself airborne. I am truly alive in that split-second. The wind stinging my eyes, colourful birds fleeing their nests, my seemingly weightless body. Suspended in time as undiluted joy courses through me. The hard impact on the next tree is short-lived – I like to go incredibly fast. Jumping from tree to tree, not thinking, just enjoying. Soaring through the air, not letting gravity control me. Flying.

A sudden rustle in the trees brings me out of the spell. Isaac emerges from a thick grouping of saplings to my left and seats himself next to me.

Something about his appearance is out of place – frowning, I scan his face. There is an ugly looking bruise on his left cheekbone. I grab one of his hands and inspect it. More bruises, darker around the knuckles.

Isaac pulls his arm away, muttering something under his breath.

“Am I going to get an explanation?” I ask, sighing. The woods may often be a place of happiness for me, but there’s also Isaac, with his abusive father. Coming with a tight face and sarcasm and snapped words. He’s my best friend, but very frustrating. He just doesn’t let loose. Just cry ‘to hell with the world’ and act impulsively. He never wants to know what doesn’t strictly need to discovered. He just assesses the situation, and makes his firm, stubborn decision. No dithering. No change of mind. A good thing, sometimes – he’s a loyal person. Sometimes bad, though.

Aside from that, I love him like a brother. Isaac’s bursting with creativity and humour, if his Dad has left him and his mum and Gideon alone for the day. We can mostly relate as if we were twins, and I can trust him to cover my back.

“It’s not my dad, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says, and smiles wryly to himself.

I relax ever so slightly, but I don’t like that half-smile on his face. “Then?”

“Uh . . . long story.”

“I have time.”

Isaac glances at his watch. “I don’t.”

“OK, summarise.”
“Some people were doing illegal organised fights –”

I grit my teeth. I thought he gave that up. “Don’t tell me you –”

“No, I didn’t participate. Some guy tried to attack me. Actually,” he says, making a face, “More like half a dozen.”
I press my lips together to stop myself from chastising him for getting himself involved in things like that. Isaac doesn’t like anyone telling him off, least of all me.

“Don’t go all over-protective mother on me,” he warns.

His words remind me about my mother. I feel my face droop as I silently fret about her.

Isaac notices. “Isolde –”

“It’s my mum,” I murmur, biting my lip. “She’s been acting depressed lately.”

“Have –” he begins, but I shake my head, not wanting a conversation about it.

“Never mind about it. Let’s go climb some trees or something.”

Isaac opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, but snaps it shut soon after. “OK.” We get up and start moving.

I take a deep breath in of the mild air, feeling it fill my lungs. Hot weather may often be nice, but the cold, clear air sure helps de-stress me.

I briskly walk around various plants, until I find a suitable tree – one hard to climb, but not impossible. I immediately dart up it, my hands and feet placing themselves where they need to be without much thought. It’s second nature to me now.

A few of the branches are too delicate to hold my weight; one even snaps off completely when I press my foot down on it. Difficult.

Once I’m several metres up, I glance down. Isaac is right behind me. The height makes me a bit dizzy; I turn back around and continue ascending. Funny that an enthusiastic tree-climber like me is actually afraid of heights. I’ve learnt to deal with the fear, but it’s still there.

I come to a part of the tree where there is nowhere to put my feet, and grind my teeth, determined to scale it somehow.

“Let’s go down,” Isaac says from underneath me.

No.”

I reach upwards, ignoring the queasy feel in my stomach. I tightly curl my fingers around the branch above me, and pull myself up, feet dangling in the air.

“Isolde!” Isaac exclaims, his tone mingling between exasperation and worry.

I don’t reply, concentrating on the task. I’ve done this many times before . . . though it is a greater distance this time.

The muscles in my arms strain and ache as I try to pull myself up, up, up.

With a groan, I manage to get onto the branch, body curling around it as I breathe heavily. I shakily get to my feet, careful to hold onto an overhanging limb.

I look at the neighbouring trees, feeling the thrill. I’m high – much higher than I thought. The tops of other trees are below me, as is the rest of the forest. I slowly revolve, marvelling at the sight of the clearings and bushes, the clusters of trees and patches of flowers. The feeling is amazing – I can’t put it into words. I open my mouth and crow triumphantly into the vast woods, hearing my voice echo throughout. Isaac calls me, wanting to come down, but I keep on going higher. This is one of the tallest trees in the forests.

And though I am already high, I only want to go up.

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