It was, without a doubt, her favorite place in Pittsburgh. If asked, she would have told you that it was her favorite place in the world. But Pittsburgh was her world.
As the van hummed slowly amongst the college students milling about to their classes, her eyes stared out through the window. She could see the great tail of a dinosaur to her left, it’s stone neck hidden behind a row of trees. To her right, a massive fountain splashed merrily from children kicking at the water and parents trudging in to stop them from going too deep. At the center of the fountain, the statue of a man stared down at her. When she noted his horns and hooves, she suddenly felt very glad that she was in a car that was driving away from the fountain.
“Hazel,” her mother’s voice came like a lasso, pulling her back into the car and away from the goat-footed man. “Mommy’s gonna try to finish some of these reports. Stay within my sight okay? If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.”
There it was, Mom’s favorite tune. If you can’t see me, I can’t see you. How many times did she have to tell Hazel that? And how many times had Hazel sneaked off into the wooded areas of Schenley Park, never once hearing her mother call out her name with concern?
The car rolled to a stop, and Hazel heard the shifting of gears as her mother placed it into park. The van door slid open with a grinding SLAM, shuddering slightly while Hazel hopped onto the asphalt. The sun was high, and she could see it reflecting brightly off of the windows of the conservatory across the street from the park. Hazel had always thought the conservatory strange. There were plenty of plants out here in the park, and you were allowed to climb any tree you wanted, as long as you could climb back down once you reached the top.
She turned back to look at the statue of the goat footed man. She couldn’t see it anymore, but she knew the fountain sat just on the other side of the trees that blocked her vision. That somehow made it worse, knowing that, if it weren’t for the trees, he’d be staring right at her.
It was Hazel’s first time at the fountain. Her mother had told her something about the statue that sat in the center, but she was too delighted by the water to listen. The stone floor was slippery against her tiny feet, and she could feel particular patches where algae had begun to grow.
“That’s too far, Hazel!”
Hazel turned to look at her mother, perhaps to tell her that she could handle herself, when she suddenly felt the ground shift from beneath her feet as she slipped, coming down hard in the fountain. Her vision flashed white as the back of her head slammed against the concrete. Water filled her nose and blurred her vision, and still the water churned and churned, filling the area over her as she lay groaning. It was a pain she’d never experienced before, amplified by the rush of water that filled her mouth. Filled her nose. Filled her ears. And through the water, she saw a face. An unwavering bearded face with horns that seemed to be ambivalent toward her pain. She remembered trying to yell, and then her mother’s arms around her.
Hazel’s mother was drowning in paperwork again. It usually only took a few minutes. Her thin eyebrows would knit themselves closely together, so that it looked like one long line, and her expertly-lipsticked mouth would go slightly slack on one side as she muttered softly to herself.
Hazel turned away from her mother, considering the park in front of her. She made her way to a tree that had a particularly low hanging branch. She turned to look at her mother once more, but her mother’s face was buried as ever in her paperwork.
Hazel reached her hands out above her, testing the distance between herself and the branch. The tips of her fingers grazed the rough bark of the tree. It was the only taste she needed. She knew she could climb it.
A rabbit padded up to the tree and sat up on its hind legs, watching her curiously. When she was younger, Hazel would have attempted to chase the rabbit, but after gaining experience interacting with the wildlife of the park, she learned that rabbits are always just too quick for people. Hazel leapt toward the tree, catching a firm grip on the branch and closing her fingers tightly. Her feet pressed up against the trunk, and she walked herself up with some effort. This was the hardest part, she had to swing one leg over, while keeping the other planted firmly on the tree.
“That’s it, watch your left foot there.”
Hazel lost her grip and fell from the tree. She felt the earth greet her back with a THUD. It didn’t hurt as badly as she’d expected, but she did take a few moments for her to catch her breath before looking around. She saw her mother, still enraptured in her papers. A little boy and his father flew a kite with minimal success, and a couple lay on a blanket together, staring up at the clouds. But no one near enough to have spoken so clearly in her ear.
“Before you go to the trouble of lifting rocks to find out who said that,” said the voice. “It was me.”
Hazel turned and saw the rabbit, its brown fur flecked with black, still standing on its hind legs. The rabbit cocked its head to one side, regarding her with equal amounts amusement and impatience.
“Hello,” she said. Hazel was not always obedient to her mother, but she was often more polite than one would expect, and certainly would extended proper salutations to anyone she was meeting, especially a so clearly well-spoken rabbit.
The rabbit’s head straightened up at once.
“You seem…less surprised than most at the fact that I can talk,” he said, his foot tapping on the ground with three RAPS.
“I’m sorry,” said Hazel quickly. “I think it’s amazing, really!”
“Yes, well,” said the rabbit, tutting his tiny tongue. “That’s better, though I’ve had people faint before, do you know? One man actually wet himself.”
Hazel laughed, and she was pleased to see that the corners of the rabbit’s mouth twitched.
“Do many rabbits talk?”
“Everything talks,” said the rabbit, pawing absentmindedly at his ear. “It’s listening that not everyone can do…humans mostly,” he added. Hazel thought this was very true.
“If you’re set on climbing trees for the afternoon, that’s all well and good, but I had an adventure planned for today, and I think you can help.”
Hazel felt the word yes fighting to escape her lips when she looked at her mother.
“I’m supposed to stay close to my mother,” she said.
“Oh, we won’t be going far,” said the rabbit. “Anyway, we rabbits have a saying,” and he made a series of chattering noises. “Which loosely translates to, as long as you’re in Schenley, you’re not far off.” Hazel did not entirely understand what this meant, but she liked the way it sounded, and would not admit to a rabbit that she didn’t get the meaning.
“Then let’s go,” said Hazel, standing upright and wiping the grass from her jeans.
The rabbit took off through the grass. He was difficult to follow. Rather than running in a straight line, he darted left and right, sometimes stopping here and there, as though he were connecting dots that only he could see. He ran up the stone steps that opened up to a small patio, where Hazel and her mother had once taken pictures for Christmas cards. At the time, Hazel had complained to the point of tears about having to sit still. She always remembered moments like that. Moments where she felt embarrassed about her past behavior.
“Schenley is restless,” said the rabbit. He’d climbed up onto the wall and was looking over the hill, the Pittsburgh skyline visible in the distance. Suddenly, as though a great gust of wind had been building for miles, the trees parted and Hazel could see the shining form of the goat-footed man.
“He has lost what is his,” said the rabbit quietly. He too was staring at the statue. Hazel heard the distant sound of rushing water growing louder and louder in her ears. She suddenly felt helpless, like she had lost control of the ground beneath her feet. Her breath began to shorten-
-and as suddenly as it had all happened, the trees righted themselves and the statue was hidden from sight once more.
“Him?” said Hazel, pointing toward the spot where the trees had parted. The rabbit nodded.
“But luckily, we found it,” said the rabbit. He lifted a flat stone piece of the wall and pulled something small and shiny from underneath. Hazel saw that he was holding a coin. Not like any she’d ever seen though. It was strikingly golden, with the face of a horned man on one side. “It must be returned to him.”
“Why?” asked Hazel, apprehension mounting in her throat at the thought of the goat-footed man.
The rabbit shrugged.
“It’s important to him. The lords of parks all have their trinkets. Trophies that they need in order to feel like themselves. I suspect this,” he held up the coin in his paws, “makes him feel brave. We all have things that we keep to remind us who we are.”
“And why do you need me to do it?”
The rabbit looked as though he were struggling to get these next words out.
“There are things rabbits don’t like to do,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is that the fountain where he sits is on the other side of the street. Say what you will about humans, but you show a stunning lack of fear when it comes to crossing streets.”
A silence passed between the rabbit in the girl, and Hazel understood at once that she had said something wrong.
“What’s easy for one person is not always easy for another. Do you think you could fit into the hole I’ve burrowed as my home?”
Hazel answered quickly.
“Correct. I’m not here to teach you lessons, Hazel the Child, but I should tell you that the comparison of one’s ability to another’s disability is never a productive thing to do.”
Several years later, Hazel would think fondly upon these words, but on that particular summer’s day, she simply nodded solemnly because she knew it was the right thing to do.
Hazel and the rabbit stood in a gazebo at the corner of the park, the crosswalk laid out in front of them. The white lines climbed over one another against the black asphalt, and cars drove past in odd spurts.
“Would you like to come with me?” she said, looking down at the rabbit. He sat next to her ankle, looking out across the street. “I could carry you across.”
“No Hazel Child,” he said. “I’m afraid you must do this on your own.”
“It was very nice to meet you,” said Hazel politely.
“I’m sure it must have been. As far as humans go, you’re one I wouldn’t mind having around the park.” He twitched his ears playfully and nuzzled his nose against her feet, then he took off like a shot, darting across the fields in that same crisscrossing action. Hazel started down the steps that led down from the gazebo, and waked across the street.
No one stopped her as she stepped onto the sidewalk and made her way by herself. The odd adult would give her a strange look every now and then, but most must have assumed that she knew where she was going, as she was trying to make it look as though she did. There were a few occasions when she had wandered from her mother and kind strangers took her for a lost child. They often “helped” her back, but she felt as long as she looked toward the ground, no one would stop her.
The sidewalk began to curve as she made her way around the bend, and the sound of water lapping against water filtered into her ears. The fountain came into view, and she felt the coin grow heavy in her hand, like the pull of a magnet when you hold it close to the fridge.
Hazel didn’t remember walking up to the fountain. She certainly remembered how it loomed closer and closer, and how the features and details of the goat-footed man came into sharper focus, but she didn’t remember doing the physical act of walking up to the fountain. However, she was suddenly at its base, and staring up into the face of the goat-footed man. His horns protruded from his curly hair, and she wanted very badly to turn away. She wanted to run back to her mother. Hazel could hear the sound of the water growing louder around her. She closed her eyes.
Water filled her nose.
Water blurred her vision.
The goat-footed man stared down at her with his unmoving face.
Hazel opened her eyes and stared into the metallic eyes of the goat-footed man. She stepped a foot back and pushed forward as she threw the coin high into the fountain, into the extended hand of the statue. It clanked against his open palm and landed with a small SPLISH into the upper bowl of the fountain. The sound of the water became less pronounced. It was no longer a rushing white noise, but a soft, soothing trickle.
Hazel looked down at the water and began to unlace her shoes.
“This happens every time, every time Hazel! You run off and get dirty or wet or…”
Her mother’s voice went on as she continued to list things that Hazel did when she wasn’t looking. The van hummed along, and Hazel looked out the window as they drove. Flagstaff hill passed her, and she saw the small form of a rabbit running across the field, burrowing quickly into a hole that she herself could never hope to fit inside. A squirrel climbed a tree and disappeared into its leaves. At the gazebo, a swarm of bees had begun to nest near the roof, and people were making serious attempts to create a wide space between themselves and the gazebo as they walked.
They passed the fountain and Hazel saw the goat-footed man staring down at her. His unmoving eyes stared past her, his legs were unmoving as ever, and his extended hand reached out for nothing in particular. But Hazel could swear that on his thin, metallic lips, sat a small smile that she was certain had never been there before.
Written by Patrick Crossen
Patrick Crossen is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He's a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and writer of fantasy fiction. When he's not writing, he's eagerly checking his mailbox for the Hogwarts letter he insists is still on its way.
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