Annie Warren spoke in tongues—every time she opened her mouth garbled sound flooded out. The only people on God’s green Earth who knew were her ma and pa. They told her never to speak in front of strangers, and the girl listened.
They told the neighbors she was mute. Better to have a mute girl than a girl who speaks in tongues. Lord knows what people might’ve done to her. There were God-fearing men in the valley and Mrs. Warren still remembered what happened to the old woman at the edge of town when whispers started floating that she was a witch. Her whole shanty burned to the ground in the middle of the night, the woman and her cats dying of smoke. No one would ever admit to the arson, of course. But everyone had their suspicions.
So it went that Annie Warren never spoke a word in public until the summer she turned nine. That was the same summer they put the railroad in. Looking back, she should have known what was going to happen, but at the time she had been too young to understand.
Annie woke one morning to the sound of squawking birds in panicked flight. She rushed to the window and watched them fly from their trees as a metallic ringing pierced the valley. Annie had never heard the sounds of war before, but she imagined that was what it sounded like. Before she could let out a cry, her pa appeared beside her and scooped her up on his back.
“Now lil’ miss. Don’t you worry about nothing.” He bounced her once on his back until she giggled. “They’re just laying down ties. And your pa is gonna help them. Let’s you and I walk down there together.”
Annie always walked barefoot. She tried to explain why to Ma and Pa once, though they couldn’t understand her. She hadn’t minded. They tried their best, Annie knew. But they didn’t know how to listen.
Annie listened to everything. She listened through her feet, through her hands. As she walked alongside her pa, pressing her calloused heels into the dusty road, she listened. Above the line of trees she saw great black clouds as though the forest was burning. She expected to hear the crack and hiss of blistering wood, but the earth was silent. There were no cries of agony from the branches. Only muffled splutters from the gray sky. No, the forest was not burning. It was choking.
She wanted to ask her pa why they were walking towards that black cloud. But she knew better than to speak in public. Her family had taught her that silence would keep her safe. Instead, she clutched her pa’s hand and whimpered.
“Don’t you worry lil’ miss.” He grinned at her with a snaggletooth smile. She smiled back, but she could not relieve the sickness in her stomach.
Annie wanted to shout, “Can’t you hear anything?” but she knew the words would warp on her tongue.
So Annie walked silently with her pa, pulling at the hem of her dress, as the earth gasped for air. The earth knew that she could understand it, and every tree she passed seemed to rustle its branches at her in disdain. They accused her: how dare she not do anything?
Annie had helped before, in her small ways. When the flowers were dying in the cold, she huddled beside them, speaking rays of sunshine from her mouth. When the crops were dying in the drought, she lay in the dirt, under the moon, letting rivers flow from her words. Annie could make things be. And all she needed was her words.
When her pa stopped at the edge of a clearing, the banging and clanging had become so loud Annie felt as though nails were being hammered through her heart. She did not try to look at her pa for reassurance anymore and, instead, balled the hem of her skirt tighter in her fist. Her pa would tell her not to worry. His words would be useless.
From the clearing, Annie could peer in the valley below. Through the clouds of coal dust and dirt she could see men hammering away, slamming spikes into railroad sleepers. They were laying down tracks, just like her pa had said. Carts were pushed back and forth on the tracks, a horrible clattering noise that echoed off the mountains. The railroad stretched like a long scar through the valley. Something once perfect no longer was.
Annie looked up at the storm clouds sweeping in over the mountains. Everyone thought they were nestled away so safely in their valley, but Annie knew the truth. Her little village rested in the palm of a sleeping giant. A gray thunder cloud hovered over the giant’s shoulder for a moment before racing across the sky. The earth rumbled, sending fresh panic through Annie’s little body. The earth had told her a lot of things, but she had never felt anything quite like this before. The giant was stirring.
“You run back to Ma, okay? I’m gonna spend me some time with these fellers. They say the pay is good. You’ll run and fetch me when it’s time for supper?” Pa asked.
Annie nodded, but she wanted to scream.
So it went for some time. Annie got up in the mornings with Pa and walked down to the new railroad. She would wave to him from the edge of the trees before running home to help Ma in the garden. It never rained during that time Annie’s pa worked on the tracks. It only thundered. All the while, every night before she went to sleep she heard the sounds of the earth gasping for air.
Annie went out into the garden one night, when the earth’s choking kept her awake. In the darkness, she couldn’t see the black cloud that hung over the railroad tracks. She wondered if it was still there or if it had settled into dust. Digging her fingers into the soil, she felt the earth shake with fear. No, the black cloud was still there, and the giant was still angry.
She sat down in the garden, her dark hair disappearing under the rows of corn stalks. Under her voice, for fear of waking up the neighbors, she sang to the winds. Annie wasn’t sure what the song would have sounded like to those passing by, but there, alone in the darkness, she thought her melody was beautiful.
Gooseflesh rippled across her skin as the first wind swooped down. It rustled her hair and rattled the corn stalks as it rushed over the garden. She imagined it flying over their town and through the trees at the edge of the tracks. What she would have given to watch that wind plow through that coal cloud, scattering it with one great poof. Her fingers still gripping the dirt, she heard the earth take its first real inhale. Annie exhaled.
The earth thanked Annie. Despite it being the middle of the night, Annie watched as a small green vine pushed upwards through the soil, unfolding into a bright blue morning glory. It was the same color as Annie’s eyes. She whispered her thanks to the earth, plucked the flower, and tucked it behind her ear.
Annie slept soundly that night. She thought the railroad couldn’t do any more harm now.
The next morning, when Annie walked down to the tracks with her pa, his lunch pail bumping against both of their legs, she felt the earth tug at her feet.
“It’s alright,” she wanted to tell it. If she could have spoken, she would have said, “Nothing can hurt you now.”
But she remained silent. The earth tugged at her feet harder. Annie dragged her feet with each step she took.
“Are you alright, lil’ miss?” Pa asked.
Annie looked at him with her wide blue eyes and nodded. She kicked dust up with her feet, telling the earth she would go to the tracks and that was final. Thunder growled overhead. Annie whispered an apology under her breath. The sky remained as gray as ever.
When Annie and Pa reached the clearing, he stopped and patted her head. “I love you lil’ miss.”
Annie knew he wouldn’t understand her if she said it back.
Later that evening, Annie leaned against the window while her ma paced in front of the door. On the table, supper was getting cold. Annie longed for the honey biscuits, but she knew they wouldn’t eat until Pa came home.
Ma leaned over Annie, looking out the window one last time. Annie always thought her ma was like a bird, flitting from one thing to the next. Ma took a few helpings of biscuits and a good chicken wing and wrapped it up nicely in a cloth. “He must be working late. Can you bring him his supper?”
Annie took the cloth in her hand and Ma kissed her on the head. “Come right back. And don’t talk to anyone.” Annie rolled her eyes at her ma. “I know, you know. Now go.” She patted Annie’s backside and scooted her out the door.
Annie ran down the dusty road, listening to the earth hollering at her as she went. With each step it tried to slow her, tugging at her feet, reaching up to grab her ankles. She kicked and stomped as she rushed along, tripping over the earth that struggled to hold her still. “I have to give food to Pa,” she whispered under her breath. The road was empty. There would be no one around to hear her. “Why won’t you let me go?”
Lightning flashed in the sky, just over the railroad tracks. The cloth of food slipped from her fingers. She understood.
The earth did not try to slow her now. She tore down the road and through the woods. Around her, the trees whispered condolences. Branches reached out to touch her shoulders, offering comfort. Annie paid them no mind. She brushed them off and kept racing ahead, until she stood at the top of the clearing, looking down into the valley.
A cluster of men stood around a broken body. From her spot on the hill, she couldn’t see the face of the dead man, but she knew at once who it was.
“Pa!” she cried. It was no longer his name when it left her lips, but the warped cry of a wounded animal. The rail workers in the valley turned to look up at her.
She ran down the hill, fell, and got back up to keep running. When she reached the circle of men, they wouldn’t let her through. She was stopped by a wall of arms; hands pulled at her shoulders and hair. Their voices told her “get back, don’t look”.
She gnashed her teeth at them and wailed. The earth understood her sorrow. For the first time in weeks, the thunder clouds opened up, and it began to rain.
“Come on, kid.” One of the men squatted down to Annie’s height. The rain washed streaks through the dirt on his face. He held her arm. She hated the way his calloused touch felt on her skin. “You should go home. He’s not coming back.”
She tried to wrestle out of his grip and get closer to Pa, but the man only held on tighter.
“Let her look,” one of the men said quietly. He had a wide hat that covered his eyes. Water dripped from its brim.
“Come on, we should clean him up first. She shouldn’t have to see that.” The man holding Annie’s arm let go of his grasp.
“Do you want to see your daddy?” the man with the hat asked. Annie nodded. He took off his hat and held it in front of him. He gestured to the men and they stepped to the side, opening like a gate to her pa. Annie looked up at their faces as she walked by them—all of the grown men looked at her with pity.
Annie knelt in the grass next to her pa, trying to find a memory of him inside that broken body. The arms that used to carry her were bent at unnatural angles. His usually smiling face still registered the surprise of the runaway cart. No one had bothered to close his eyes—blue like hers. She almost reached out to touch him, but was afraid she would break him even more. The rain sent the dried blood at Pa’s crown down his still face in rivers.
The earth was crying; the raindrops soaked through Annie’s dress and turned the ground beneath her to mud. Annie wished she could cry. But the tears wouldn’t come. Digging her fingers deep into the mud, she let out a scream. Annie felt something deep inside her break loose. Her face began to turn red. Her breathing came in short gasps. This was the kind of anger she had only ever seen, but never felt. This was the anger of the winds that could uproot trees. This was the anger of the waterfall beating away at rocks.
Suddenly, there was the sizzle of water striking heat. Annie looked down at her arm, so hot that each raindrop simmered against her skin and turned to steam. This was the anger of the sun.
She put her hand on the rails. They began to melt and the smell of steel crept into her nose. Annie clenched her teeth together and held onto a wooden railroad tie. With a yell, she pulled the tie out of the ground. The steel attached to it rippled like a wave. The tie crackled like wood on a fire. Annie stomped her foot and the world rumbled in support. It wasn’t thunder. Annie knew better this time—it was the giant of the valley.
“How –?” the man with the hat began to ask. Annie couldn’t hear the rest of his question over the shouts of the other railroad workers. They ran at her. Annie felt their hands—all of those hands—tugging at her dress and her hair.
For the first time in her life, Annie cursed. She brought hatred into being. The earth felt her pain and reached up, wrapping itself around the feet of the men. They kicked and cried as their legs became encased in mud. Annie did not yield. She continued her torrent of words, the curses warped on her tongue to something even more malicious. Wisteria vines crept out of the forest and slid down the hill. They wrapped themselves around the men’s arms and pulled them to the ground. The men thrashed about, sending purple wisteria petals into the air.
The wind told Annie to run. She listened and didn’t look back. She already knew what she would see: the men wrestling the wisteria and Pa’s lifeless body on the tracks. Nothing she did would ever bring him back.
Annie ran home surrounded by a cloud of steam. The sky crackled with anger.
Ma was in the doorway, shouting, “Annie, get out of the storm!”
Annie let out a cry of relief upon seeing her ma. The mud squelched between her toes as she ran. She was soaking wet, covered in mud and blood, but her ma held her arms out to her.
“Annie, what happened?” she asked.
Annie ran into her ma’s open arms. Ma screamed. She pushed Annie off of her. Bright red burns rose on her forearms and hands.
“What did you do?” Ma cried. Her skin began to blister.
Annie gestured to the rain. The rain would heal Ma. The earth would help. Ma wouldn’t move. She just wept, holding her arms out in front of her.
“The rain! The water!” Annie shouted, pointing and jumping, but Ma wasn’t listening.
“Please…” Ma whispered. “Please don’t touch me.” Ma backed into the house, while Annie stood out in the rain. The door swung between them.
The tears that Annie had longed for at the tracks began to sting her eyes. Pa was gone, and Ma… Ma was afraid of her. For the first time in her life, Annie felt like a monster. She curled up in front of the door, crying and screaming like the storm around her. The sweet smell of burning pine wood choked her and stung her eyes.
Annie scrambled away through the mud. There was a scorch mark on the door where her head had rested. She was a monster. A demon. A child of fire—destructive and uncontrollable. She cried, and kicked at the mud. She was alone.
A thought blew over her, calming her like a lavender breeze. It was up to the giant now, Annie thought. He had been stirring, and she would wake him. He would tear up the railroad. He would heal Ma. He would make sure no one was hurt like Pa again.
Annie wiped the tears from her eyes and pressed her hand against the door, leaving an imprint burned into the wood. It was a promise to Ma. Annie only hoped she would understand.
On the other side of the valley, the woods thickened. Spruce firs grasped the edge of the mountains. Annie held on to each trunk, pulling herself up the steep incline. The fir needles stabbed at her feet, but she couldn’t feel anything anymore. When she lifted her hand from the tree bark, she left scorch marks behind.
She heard the sound of rushing water. Despite the roar of the rain around her, the earth whispered to her and she followed. Her feet burned the decaying leaves beneath her feet.
Annie found the river that had called her. It asked her softly, “Please?” Annie did not wait. Jumping into the water, she disappeared below the surface with a puff of steam. She screamed and let the bubbles fly from her mouth. Annie thought of Pa on the tracks. She wondered if Ma would ever find out what happened to him—or if she would ever see Ma again. The river held her as she cried, promising her it would be alright.
When Annie surfaced, it had stopped raining. She was no longer burning. Through the tops of the trees, she could see glimpses of the sun. She swam to the edge of the river and took a long, cool drink. Water dripping from her hair and dress, Annie continued her walk through the forest. This time, the earth did not fear her; instead, it reached out to help. Stones turned themselves into steps, letting her scale the side of the mountain. The earth whispered to her that she was not alone, and sang to her through the birds in the trees. Annie listened for Ma’s call, but she never heard it. The earth was kind to her, but at that moment she longed to hear nothing more than her own name in her ma’s mouth.
The line of trees began to thin, and then Annie broke right through them. She was at the summit, on the shoulder of the sleeping giant. Above her the sky was a mix of gray and blue, as the thunder storm continued to roll on. The smell of rain still hung in the air. Below her, in the valley, she could see the houses of her village, tiny brown flecks against the green fields. She tried to spot which house was hers, and wondered if Ma had treated her burns and begun to look for Pa. From this height, she couldn’t see the railroad. The earth looked better that way.
She crossed the narrow ridge of the giant’s neck, and climbed onto the pile of rocks she knew was his ear.
“Hello!” she shouted. “We need you!” The giant understood. The earth shook.