There are days in August when you can hear the grass reaching for the sun. Long days where the air sticks to your skin, the heat slides along your limbs like butter, and the silence of winter frost is a buried memory. Cicadas call out their pulsing song from the trees while the soft sweet smells of dirt and living things rise up from the earth. It was on such a day that Charlotte first slipped out of the house after supper, while her mother washed dishes and her father caught the tail end of a baseball game. She shut the screen door behind her with a muffled click and crept on bare feet down to the fairy circle at the bottom of the yard.
It wasn’t much of a fairy circle, she thought, frowning at it. The pictures in her book had shown rings of tiny mushrooms peering up through the grass, often in the shade of an ancient oak tree. Here the grass just grew different. Wilder. It formed a lush tangle of dark green; standing out against the rest of the yard which, thanks to her father’s diligent efforts, was a pristine sheet without a dandelion or tuft of crabgrass in sight.
But Charlotte had done her research. Fairy circles are formed by fungi growing just beneath the grass. They grow in neat circles and are only visible if they produce mushrooms or affect the grass above them. She thought this one might be Calvatia cyathiformis, which makes grass grow faster. It was not as picturesque as the ones in her books, but it was a fairy ring, and it would have to do. She patted down her hair, which was sticking up after her mother’s latest attempt at a haircut and smoothed down the front of her shirt. Then, she stepped into the circle.
Charlotte had considered this possibility and she was prepared to be patient. She settled down into the middle of the circle. The stiff grass prickled her skinny legs as she folded them in front of her. She placed her hands in her lap, lifted her chin, and gazed towards the woods at the bottom of the yard. Her thoughts drifted from one place to the next. The sky above shifted from blue to lavender, and the first few fireflies rose up, blinking their soft yellow lights.
Charlotte waited, staring out into the trees. It was so much easier to be outside. Down here she could just sit and do nothing but watch the lightning bugs float in the warm summer air. The sky was dark purple when she heard the creak of the screen door up at the house. Her mother’s voice rang out.
“Charlie! Come inside before the bugs eat you alive!” The screen door swung shut with a sharp smack.
Charlotte held her breath until she heard the voice again, muffled inside the house. She had at least a little longer before anyone came out to get her, she thought. But, the screen door slammed again and she heard the thud of her father’s footsteps. She listened as his footsteps crossed the porch, descended the three steps to the yard, and rustled through the grass.
“Time to come in, kiddo, or your mother will have both our heads.”
Charlotte craned her neck to face him, wiggling around where she sat. He was standing just outside the circle, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, which had been hastily crammed into the pair of old white tennis shoes he kept by the back door. Behind him, she could see the glow of the TV through the screen door. It was on commercials.
“Can I stay a little longer?” she asked.
“What are you even doing out here?”
“Watching fireflies.” She didn’t like lying, but it made things easier.
“Well, come in by the time it gets proper dark, ‘kay?”
He trudged up through the yard, and she heard the screen door slam shut behind him once more. She wasn’t sure how much longer she’d have to wait. She tried to lose herself in listening again, but her mind kept drifting back up to the house, waiting for the bang of the screen door. Instead, she focused on the small chirps of something hidden in the grass in front of her. She closed her eyes, focusing on the tiny sound, trying to identify it.
“Mind if I join you?”
Charlotte jumped. She hadn’t noticed her sister come up right next to her. Cassie was standing just outside the circle, hands on her knees and a faint smile on her face. She wore her work uniform, a black polo shirt with the logo of Julie’s Diner embroidered over her heart.
“Sorry for scaring you-- what were you listening to?”
“I think there’s a frog in the grass.”
“Oh neat, what kind of frogs do we have in our yard?”
Charlotte thought for a moment. “We have Hyla versicolor, the tree frog. And Pseudacris crucifer, the spring peeper. But there’s a silent p at the front of Pseudacris, which I always forget, so if you look it up in my book it’s better to look for spring peeper.”
“Can I sit in the fairy circle with you?”
Charlotte considered this.
“Why not?” Cassie looked confused, but not hurt like Mom or Dad would look. That was one of the nice things about her.
“Well, I think they’d miss you.” Charlotte looked back down at the grass as she said this, ignoring the painful space between the words.
“Why are you sitting out here?”
The words spilled out of Charlotte, like a thread pulled from a fraying sweater.
“Well, I was reading in that fairy tale book that I got from the library, and there was one about a family whose baby was taken by fairies, but they swapped in a fairy baby instead. And he got upset about stuff that didn’t make sense, and he talked too much, and he didn’t like the food they gave him. They tried to love him but it was hard. Their real baby grew up with the fairies, until one day he came back and the whole family was happy. And I looked up how to find fairies and apparently one way is to step in a fairy circle. So I figured I’d just go down here and wait until they took me back.”
“Until they take you back?”
Charlotte felt a wave of irritation. It wasn’t fair for Cassie to play dumb and make her explain things that were obvious.
“It makes sense. I make things difficult.” She looked at the grass beneath her legs. “You don’t get it because it’s easy for you. People like you. You can be what they want you to be. Mom met with the principal again today, it took hours.” She snuck a glance at Cassie and was surprised to see that she looked angry.
“It’s not-- “ Cassie began. She sighed, and started again. “The point of life isn’t to make other people like you.” Charlotte frowned. This seemed like the kind of thing that people said because they wanted it to be true.
“Besides,” Cassie continued. “If you left, who would tell me about the different types of frogs in the yard?”
“You’d have all of my books,” Charlotte said, “I wouldn’t mind you reading them.”
“Yeah, but I can’t remember the names. I need you to remind me when the pee is silent.”
Charlotte snorted. Cassie smiled.
“Will you come inside and help me count my tips? Mr. Rollins was there tonight.”
“Another two dollar bill?”
“Yeah, he must have, like, hundreds of them stashed under his mattress or something.”
Cassie put out a hand, and Charlotte took it without thinking. Cassie pulled her up off the grass. Without the sun to warm it, the ground was cool and damp. Goosebumps prickled across Charlotte’s legs. She stepped out of the circle and followed Cassie back up to the house.
The sun set at last and the night unfolded. Cicadas blared in the trees. High above them, the stars appeared one by one. Warm yellow light spilled out from the windows of the house, where two sisters examined a crumpled bill, heads clustered together over the coffee table. Down in the yard, moths fluttered up from the grass and bats darted down after them. Near the creek, in a ring where the grass grew just a little more wild, something started to happen. A tiny bit of movement here, a brief gleam of color there. A careful observer would not have seen it. Like the flickering stars high above, the movement vanished when you looked straight at it. But it was there. In the corner of the eye, on the edge of what is possible, a reflection of another world pressed very closely to our own. And in that world, they were dancing.