"Jenna. Are you awake, Jenna?"
She was awake, but just barely, in the state before vision emerges, when all sounds feel distant and flat without location. There was a hand rubbing her shoulder, and her eyelids were still heavy. She tried to open her eyes, but it was difficult. She saw, first a shining strip of white, then a hazy burst of yellow. She rubbed them over and over with flattened fingers, so itchy and cold, before she began to discern.
She had been sleeping on the ground, her face still itchy, lined with marks from the grass pressed against her cheek. There was soft, yellow sunlight, warm earth on her hands as she began to sit up, and the most pleasant, sweet scent was surrounding her. There were apple trees, all uniform in size, rounded at the top, in every direction she could manage to see.
"The itchy eyes are normal. It will go away soon," said the voice behind her.
She turned around, still groggy and saw a woman in a white dress, sitting next to her, with legs tucked in to the side. The woman was smiling, looking her over as if to be sure that every part of her was intact, and unblemished. She reached out and brushed some grass from Jenna's sleepy head.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Meryl," the woman said.
"Where am I? How do you know my name?"
"You are in the orchard. Lots of little girls come here, and I know all of their names. Try not to be frightened. You are safe here. Are you afraid?"
Jenna scratched her head and looked around. Her vision was growing clearer now, and she saw that it was an orchard, indeed. The apple trees stretched out for rows and rows for what she thought might be a mile in all directions. Despite being in this strange place with a strange woman, she felt quite calm.
"No. Not really. I feel...strange, but not afraid."
"That's good. You should get up and stretch your legs. It's a short walk out of the orchard, but you should make your way out in a few minutes. Be careful not to wake the other girls; that's my job. They need to be awakened at the proper time."
"The other girls?"
The woman pointed behind her, and as Jenna turned her head to look, she noticed another girl sleeping under an apple tree several rows away. She was also small, and looked about Jenna's age, perhaps seven or eight.
"Lots of girls come here. You should walk now, darling. Time is limited."
"Where am I supposed to go?"
"It doesn't matter. Any direction will take you to the same place."
She stretched her legs and began walking, passing several other sleepers nestled in the thick grass, all under different apple trees. She was careful not to disturb them as she walked through what seemed like a hundred rows of apple trees, all perfectly trimmed and covered in apples of deepest red.
Eventually, she came to a clearing, with a garden, and a fountain carved out of stone of a beautiful woman holding the hand of a small girl pointing into the distance, as if showing her something the girl had never seen before. There were other women in the garden. Some of them were painting, some were drawing and sculpting, others were singing for each other in turn, and some sitting in circles humming strange music in unison. Their clothes were very strange also. Some of the women had bright silks tied around their bodies in different ways, some had patterns painted on their skin and face, but none of them were dressed the same.
Jenna walked around, watching all the artists and performers — who all smiled at her without exception as she passed. She stopped to look at all the different paintings, some of animals, some abstract, even some with dark, scary creatures, and though they were frightening in appearance, it didn't seem to affect the spirits of anyone. The scene was of wonderment and creation, and it seemed that even the darkest things were kept at bay by the honesty of each expression, each work a testament to something very human.
"That is amazing," she said to a woman painting a bird she had never seen before. The canvas was taller than a person, and the woman used a paintbrush that was longer than her entire body to reach the top of it, and even though it seemed impossible, she painted the most intricate details holding it with just the tips of her fingers.
"How long have you been here?" the painter asked with a smile just like all the others.
"I just got here, and I don't know where I am. I don't know what I'm doing here."
"It's alright. It's not easy to understand this place. Lots of people come here, but there are very few explanations for why it happens. Do you remember where you came from?"
"Not really. I feel like I was somewhere before I woke up in the orchard, but I don't remember what I was doing or why I was there."
"Well, maybe not so much has changed then — though however you got here, I am glad that you came. We love having new girls. It brightens the place up so much."
Jenna thought that idea very strange, as she was certain this was the brightest, most colorful place she'd ever seen, or must have seen if she could remember much at all other than her name.
The woman looked out far past the garden and pointed, "You should go down to the shore now, over that way. It isn't far. I'm sure you will love it."
Jenna walked through the edge of the garden, and saw an ocean in the distance. The land began to slope downwards into a rough, natural beach with long sparse grass, followed by sand which went between her toes. She thought she had been wearing shoes before. Perhaps she left them somewhere.
The sun was lower now, almost setting on the water. The waves were hitting the shore, large, but not violent, and she saw fires burning all down the coast. There were more women surrounding them, wearing even stranger clothes than the women in the garden. Some had feathers and masks with weird faces on them, and they were dancing. She saw some of the women in the water, swimming and calling out to each other between their laughter.
She approached one of the bonfires, and saw different types of dances, changing spontaneously. Some women were moving like crabs or spiders as others jumped over them. Some just spun, never stopping, holding blue fire in their hands that made long streaks as the light slowly began to grow dim.
A masked, dancing woman with feathers and palm leaves tied to her elbows came running towards her from the fire, and pulled back a face with large teeth as she approached. She was giggling as if someone had tickled her just before she ran over. She was incredibly happy.
"Can you swim?"
Jenna looked around in thought, because she could not remember if she could swim.
"I'm not sure."
"Come with me."
The woman took her by both hands and ran with her toward the water. When they were both knee-deep, she let go of Jenna's hands and dove in. Swimming beneath the surface, she emerged several feet away in deep water.
"Swim to me," she said. "You can swim, I know you can."
She walked forward, the warm waves splashing her shoulders, soaking the only dry parts left on her shirt, then jumped in, kicking and paddling as hard as she could. The mask woman was smiling, completely confident in her, and kept motioning her forward, encouraging her until they met where even tippy toes could not feel the bottom. The sun was burning the sky pink and purple behind them.
"I knew you could do it."
"I'm getting tired, though. I don't know how much longer I can swim," said Jenna.
"Then float, my dear. Lean back and breathe in. Breathe in deeply. It will keep you from sinking."
Jenna breathed in and leaned back, as the woman gently helped her raise her legs to the surface of the water.
"That's it. You'll be fine. Just float. Breathe everything in."
And she did. She was not sure how, but she was floating, and it felt wonderful. The stars were beginning to come out, and for some reason it made her sleepy. Her eyes closed, and she felt peaceful, hearing the waves and dancers on the shore, and she slept. She slept for a long time...
...and then woke up. She was under a lone, twisted apple tree in the woods far behind her aunt's backyard. In her hand was an apple from the tree, half eaten. From the distance she heard her aunt calling her name, and she remembered how angry her aunt got when she was late for dinner, so she tossed the apple to the ground, and ran as fast as her short legs could go.