"What is this?" The child moved to step forward, across the soggy soil, but the man stopped him, placing a firm hand on his shoulder.
"Somewhere very special," he said quietly, carefully sliding himself into the space between the gravesites, unwilling to tread on either one of the women beneath them. He urged the small boy to follow.
He got down on his hands and knees, dirtying the legs of his slacks, and crawled into the little opening that had formed in the base of the tree.
If one looked closely, it was actually two trees that had merged together as saplings, both now one enormous oak.
Slowly turning over onto his back, he helped the child to squeeze into the tight opening, both nigh having to scoot along on their bellies to reach the center of the opening.
It was a small, cavern-like hole that had grown in around the center of the pair of trees, and the man had hollowed out a space, exposing some of the roots of the joined trees in order to make enough room for himself, and the boy.
There was a metal container buried somewhere- Ah, there it was. He blew the excess sod from the lid so that the contents would not be ruined. "Do you still have that gift I gave you to hold?"
The child looked panicked for the briefest of moments, but then dug around his back jeans pockets and retrieved it, depositing the present in the elder's waiting palm. "It broke," he said sorrowfully, his little voice meek.
The man looked down to the dried starfish in his hand, no larger than a quarter, and frowned for a moment. Three of the five arms had broken off; no doubt it had been accidentally sat upon. He smiled suddenly, "That's okay. I don't think they'll mind too much."
"Who are they?" the little one asked, curiously shuffling around to see what was inside the box as the man opened it up.
It was filled with other dried starfish, sand dollars, sea glass and all sorts of small shells. He brought one each year, and any time he felt he could use the advice of the two women under the tree. This was the first time that he'd brought his son along with him. He was five, now, and he knew they would have loved to have met him.
His answer was chosen carefully. "Friends."
The young one must have seen the strain on his father's face, for he didn't ask any more, only watched quietly as the lid of the container was shut and the whole box was placed back into the ground.
The pair crawled out, and helped to dust the grime off of one another, mostly to no avail. He led his son around to the front of the tree, only a few yards from the edge of the mountainside, facing the ocean, and bid him to sit down beside him.
Must be something, he thought absently, allowing his gaze to drift over the brilliant hues of yellow and orange that had painted themselves across the softly churning waves, a golden pathway to the sinking sun on the horizon, to have a view like this every day.
The women were buried oddly, he knew. Well, perhaps not oddly to them. To them, it made perfect sense, of course. They were placed in their graves as though sitting upright, facing the sea. It was one of the things they had in common, possibly the topmost thing, their love of the ocean. The idea made him chuckle quietly without realizing it.
"How long ago did they die?" The child could not hold in his inquiries any longer.
"Die?" the man repeated, putting on a confused face for the boy. "They're not dead at all."
While his son tried to wrap his head around that one, his father explained.
"People don't ever die, not really," he went on. "Everyone leaves a mark, however small or seemingly insignificant, on the world. Especially our loved ones. We always have our memories of them, don't we?"
Slowly, the little one gave a nod.
"These two gave a little something extra of themselves to the world, though."
"Oh, yes." He took his son's hand and laid it upon the trunk of the old oak tree, pressing his on atop it. "They, for one, gave us this beautiful tree. They left their imprints on so many people as well, inspired so many lives, told so many stories."
He could tell he was beginning to go off on a tangent for the almost vacant look on the child's face.
"Speaking of stories," he said suddenly, deciding to simplify it a bit more for the little one, "how about I tell you a story?"
"Alright. Now, once upon a time, there were two ladies. And these ladies looked just like any other ladies, except for one, little thing." He let the suspense grow, watching his child's eyes widen. "These two ladies were magic," he whispered conspiratorially.
The boy leaned in closer, intrigued. "What kind of powers did they have?"
"Well," said the man, "these two ladies could control words."
The child sat cross-legged, in complete awe of the tales and adventures the two magical women had as his father relayed them to him, a look of absolute wonder on his youthful features.
These women had moved mountains with the work they did, built new lives for people in need, and spun lovely stories that inspired countless writers like them. They traveled to far-off lands and learned from every person who was willing to teach them.
Only a faint sliver of sunlight remained against the horizon, and the early-evening stars were beginning to peek out of the darkening sky by the time he was finished spinning his son the yarn. Not because there was no more to tell, but because he had drifted off, allowed his imagination to wander.
How perfect it must have been to be able to have lived as they did, to weather every storm with a loved one held close and to make fantastic journeys across seemingly endless seas.
While he never knew them personally, he felt like he did, with all the research he'd done on the pair. Every waking moment of every day was spent doing that research, it seemed, trying to get a better feel for their personalities.
He knew all the facts, and could answer any question about the women slung at him, but he wanted to make his biography a little more
Special. Closer to home.
The man had been under this illusion that if he visited their gravesite as often as he did, he might understand them better.
A frightening realization that he would never be able to properly get inside their heads loomed in the back of his mind whenever he stopped to let himself ponder on them.
There was also the horror that no one had ever really been able to understand the two of them but each other. He had spoken to nigh hundreds of descendants of those lives they had touched, but none of them could give him the information that he needed.
Years spent trying to retrace their steps, he feared, was all in vain.
No one could possibly retrace all of their steps, he reminded himself, glancing over to his son, who had nodded off in the grass beside him.
They left far too many footprints.
A soft sigh escaped him as he stood, gathering up the child to head back to the car. Balancing the boy on his hip, he gave the strong oak tree a final, caring caress before turning away.
Black clouds were rising perhaps a few leagues off, threatening to drop rain on them before they made it home.
He felt a tickle down his spine once he'd slid into the driver's seat and started the engine. The man's gaze drifted to the rear-view mirror, first to his snoozing son, and then out of the back window to have a last look at the tree.
For a split second, he saw two young girls in white up in the oak, one laying down across a branch, idly swinging one of her legs, the other busying herself with writing in a spiral-bound notebook.
Though there was only silence, he could have sworn he could hear their delighted laughter.
When he twisted in his seat to see them with his own eyes, they were gone. Shaking the idea from his head, he calmed himself and started off down the road, hoping to get home before the rain got any heavier than its current drizzle.
The girls played, far out at sea, dancing across the rain-rippled surface, allowing the water from both above and below to soak them through. They giggled and spun, taking one another's hands, feeling the downpour deep into their very bones.
This was their favorite place in all the universe. Nowhere, in all of their celestial travels, was as beautiful as the ocean in a rainstorm. The smell of salt and crisp, new raindrops was something they would never forget, no matter how far away they got in the cosmos.
Their tales of hope and exploration were carried across the Earth upon every cloud, and echoed against the shoreline in each crack of thunder.
One of the young women bent suddenly and scooped her hand into the rolling waves, splashing it up at her companion, who then wrestled her down into the water. She pushed her friend down, allowing their bodies to sink to the ocean floor.
They lay there and discussed new stories to tell to the world, just as they did in their adolescence, and then decided to pay visits to the offspring of the many friends they had made in their journeys, just as soon as they were finished with their newest escapade. But, for now, it was time to leave.
The smaller of the two took the taller girl's hand and they walked across the seabed, singing songs from their youth about the moon and haunted lighthouses, going wherever it was the current would take them next.