The dark-haired, serious-faced man wandered in the woods, trying to untangle his brambly mind. He had so much to do with what had lately happened to him, so much to consider. A wise decision could mean worlds; a foolish whim could cost dear, devastate it all.
His long black coat drifted in a breeze. The air was crisp, but not unpleasant, and robin’s-egg blue flushed the sky. A female robin herself twittered on a bare branch overhead.
Dead bracken broke under his feet to reveal peeping crocuses. The entire world seemed to creep with muted color growing strong, except for this young man. He folded his hands behind his back and breathed in.
“You clumsy—you’ve stepped on my dress and ruined my game! Oh!”
Distracted, the man glanced down. A little girl sat cross-legged in the newly overturned soil, the corner of her rosy pink dress under his boot. A frown puckered her expressive brow, but her eyes under long white lashes were too-pale blue.
She brushed aside her wispy blonde hair caught on her pointed nose and tugged insistently on his coat. “Come down, you oaf, and see what you’ve done!”
Gravely, the tall man bent his long legs and knelt in the dirt beside her. She pulled her skirt back to her knees, and between her outspread legs she had glass marbles, beads, wooden blocks, downy feathers, small round stones, and smooth sticks, now crunched. “You’ve broken the tower.”
“So sorry,” he said quietly.
She started. “I don’t know your voice!” She placed her twiggy fingers on his pale face and brushed them across his cheeks, jaw, lips, nose, eyebrows, lashes, forehead, and forelocks. “Or your face!” she exclaimed.
“I believe I’m only a stranger, madam,” he said, the hint of a smile on his lips. She felt it and dropped her hands, folding them in her pink lap.
She pressed her lips together. “You’ve still broken my tower.”
“Who was to live there?”
“Perhaps no one, perhaps the king and queen, or perhaps some elves for tea. I don’t know. That’s what I must make it beautiful.”
“What is your name, madam?”
He could tell she liked being called that. “Madame Elizabeth. But you can call me Lizzie, because I like you.”
“Thank you,” he said, conveying proper respect through his tone. His dark brown eyes always watched Lizzie’s face.
“Do you have time to rebuild my tower?” she asked plaintively. Her eyebrows were furrowed, worried.
“I would love to,” he told her solemnly, “but I must beg one question.” He lowered his voice, leaning in. “Are there—spiders here?”
Quickly, she put her hand on his mouth to decipher if he smiled, but he was serious as ever. “Perhaps. Why do you ask? Something so queer!”
“I’m terrified—terrified—of spiders,” he said, a delicious shudder in his voice. He made a face for the benefit of her fingers, still muffling his lips. “Can’t stand them!”
“And you a grown man!” Lizzie giggled.
“One is never too grownup or too manly to fear spiders,” he said sternly, his eyes narrowing.
“You’re pouting,” she declared.
“Agree to disagree,” he said.
Her laugh was silver ripple as she clapped her hands. “You’re silly!”
“I’m bewitched,” he said, a smile twitching on one corner of his pale lips. “You are enchanting me, Lizzie, making me happy.”
“You don’t feel happy. You feel…” She frowned. “I’m not sure.”
“Then let us think about it as we build your tower.”
She grinned and sorted between the objects she would use and the ones he would use. “Who are you, stranger?”
He gathered unbroken sticks from the surrounding ground. “My name is Wrestling Crane. Who I am is another matter entirely.”
“What?” he said, mock-defensively, as he stuck his sticks upright in the earth.
“I’m glad ‘tisn’t who you are. ‘Tis a funny name.”
“It’s short for Wrestling-with-the-Devil. I seem to be doing a lot of that lately,” he said, his voice dropping to a murmur.
“Pardon?” he said with some surprise.
“The tower needs more leaves,” Lizzie repeated impatiently, her palms traveling along the ground until she found some. She handed one to him and demonstrated what she wanted him to do. “You slide a stick through it, like so, and web the tower walls together.”
“Ah, I see,” Wrestling said after a pause.
They worked without talking, but not in silence. At length, Lizzie squinted hard and said, “Tell me about our tower.”
Wrestling hesitated, inhaled deeply, and sat back. “It… it reaches up and up, higher than where the birds come from. It pokes right into the bluest part of the sky.”
He paused again, considering her and the tower in turn. “It’s what it feels like to fall and not to know what will happen, when strong arms catch you by surprise. That’s blue.”
“Oh!” Lizzie sucked air into her thin gut and gasped, “I know that. It’s so clear when you say it, Mr. Crane.”
He tried to laugh, but the sound came strangled.
“I’ve decided what you feel like,” Lizzie said softly, laying her tiny hand over his.
“You feel like blue. I think strong arms are going to catch you by surprise, Mr. Crane.”
His chin lifted, and he blinked, surprised. “Lizzie… you can’t possibly…”
Her brows puckered, as if she could hear him shaking his head at her. “Don’t you act like a grownup now, Mr. Crane.”
He looked down and smiled. “Never.”
Wrestling Crane meandered on his way from the woods, bells ringing musically in his clear, open mind. The breeze refreshed him, and under a sky of bluest catch-you-by-surprise blue, the world crept with growing color—including Wrestling Crane.