Sculpture of Apollo and Daphne

Those Who Point Like Arrows

By Lana Spendl

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“We can all shift forms, can’t we? Isn’t that what the myth tells us?”

Little Pablo yells “Beta” and flings the ball at me.

I clutch it at my navel, but the blow spreads through me in a loss of air. Julio is watching from beneath the tree, and I repress my reaction, relax my facial muscles. “Let’s stop here,” I say to the children.

Pablo looks at me smug.

The four children and I are sitting in a circle on bare earth. Julio, their camp counselor, sits a few meters away. In his early 20s, he is a youth carved in marble. I am 44. All around us, a plain extends with yellowed grasses, and in the distance, before the wooded area leading back to the camp, a rock formation rises tall. Scents of manure, from a farm somewhere, drift in warm air.

I have a assigned a Greek letter to each child and asked them to speak it soft as they toss the ball around. It is a game I played in the former Yugoslavia as a girl, and the foreignness of the letters places children in a similar trance here in northern Spain. But this child has been unwilling to cooperate. He has been aiming the ball at one of us and then flinging it at another.

The children’s camp, where I come in the summers to lead each batch of kids through a day of activities, lies not too far from here. This week, there had been a mix-up with the calendar, and when I parked by the dining hall, I found that everyone except four kids and one counselor had been bused to the village for Family Day. These were the children whose families could not make it up from the city.

The counselor, Julio, insisted I stay, and—in a show of infantile strength—pulled my bag from my shoulder and with one arm placed it over his head and across his chest. He insisted we hike out to the plain and go through the activities I had planned for the day. I imagined he was trying to get out of this babysitting gig, but as we walked the wooded path and I mentioned I lived in a nearby village, he closed in and said that he had a few hours to himself on Sunday and that he had never been there. Flattered, surprised, I thought I would consider inviting him.

Now, as he watches me with the children, I am self-conscious in my long, sleeveless dress. Even though I feel attractive in mirrors and as I move in my limbs through the sun of the world, I feel my lack of plumpness, my lack of glow. My skin is pale and a bit loose, my arms freckled.

I lower the ball to the ground by my side. “Why don’t we tell some stories?” I ask the children. “Does anyone know of a Greek myth?”

Their shoulders sink and they look at one another.

Pablo shoots up onto his knees like a rocket. “I know! I know one!”

My jaw tenses. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. The one about the nymph who was running away.”

“Running away from what?”

“From a god.” He remains on his knees, head above the rest. “A god was chasing her, when a cherub struck him with an arrow. He was in love, and he chased and chased and chased her, and she prayed to her father to help her, and her father turned her into a tree—like, her arms became branches and her hair became leaves—and then the god could not have her as a girl anymore, but he still hugged her as a tree.”

The redheaded girl next to him winces.

I am surprised he has offered us a legitimate myth. “Yes.” I settle into an erect spine, resting hands on knees. “The god Eros had small arrows, and some were tipped with gold and some were tipped with lead. When he shot a gold one into someone’s heart, the person was filled with love. When he shot a lead one, the person was filled with hate.”

Pablo is nodding along as if he knows it all already. The others’ eyes are glued to me.

“The god Apollo laughed at Eros one day, and Eros became upset. Eros then shot a lead arrow into the heart of the nymph Daphne, and she was struck with hate. He shot a gold arrow into the heart of Apollo, and Apollo was struck with love. And Apollo pursued Daphne until she prayed to the river god to free her, and the river god transformed her into a laurel tree.” I pause to let it sink in. “Do you all know what laurel trees are?”

The sitting three shake their heads.

“We take their branches and make crowns for our heads.”

“I’ve seen that!” Pablo says.

Annoyance runs through me. “Why don’t we play a game,” I say, addressing the others. “Someone can be Eros, someone can be Apollo, and someone can be Daphne.”

Pablo, chest out, inches his way toward the center of the circle on his knees, ready to be picked.

I look at him square in the face. “Since you offered us the myth, you can be Daphne.”

His butt almost falls to his heels. “But I’m a boy.”

“Well, now you’re a nymph. Quite the upgrade. We can all shift forms, can’t we? Isn’t that what the myth tells us?” I cock my head to the side.

With tragic brows, he turns to one kid, then another—helpless, wounded—and looks over his shoulder to Julio.

Julio opens his mouth to say something but closes it immediately after, shakes his head at the boy, and shrugs. He looks disconcerted by my action, like the child. I feel turned off.

More solid in myself, I say to the redhead: “You are Apollo. You are the god of archery who is worshipped across the land.”    

Surprise glimmers in her features, then satisfaction spreads. The essence of a being awakening to power. I want to fold her under my wing.

Pablo glares at her as if she has stolen his loot.

I assign the role of Eros to the slight brunette by my side—she blushes—and the role of the river god to the tall, lanky boy. I rise to stand and brush the dust off the back of my dress with my hands. “Now, take ten minutes. Find tools, find adornments. Then I will call you together, and we will play our game.”

They scatter in the direction of the rock. Pablo gives me a hateful stare and plunges hands into pockets and heads after the others like a curmudgeon. Satisfaction twists in my chest.

In my periphery, I sense Julio and feel exposed without the children. He is leaning his shoulder against the tree. I walk to him slow, crossing arms over chest and gazing at the patches of earth and grass at my sandals.

“So different with just the few kids,” I say. “Than the usual crowd.”

“Gives you time to get to know everyone one on one.”

My cheeks warm. He looks charming, relaxed, his hands in his pockets. I can imagine him on a city street, talking to a young woman. To many young women. “Do you study at the university?”

His eyes dart the ground, dark, and he shifts from the tree to stand erect. “I finished last year.”

“I see. Do you work? Other than this, I mean?”

He turns his body to face the children and squints across the plain. “I’m looking.”

I seem to have plopped a hard reality onto his head. The flirtation, the focus on me, is gone. He does not want to look me in the eye. The image of a smooth young man vanishes, and I am left with its underbelly: frustration, insecurity, impatience, resentment. He lives with his parents, I am sure. My interest withers. “I’m sure something will turn up.”

His Adam’s apple bobs.

The silence stretches. I feel mild disappointment. My expectations, through a will of their own, have developed in the space of a mere hour, and I feel embarrassed. I am wanting him to be something he is not. I am wanting him to flow past obstacles like water around stones—smooth, knowledgeable, confident, aware—but he is still so young. There is a chasm between the interactions he can offer and that. I turn my body toward the children, as well.

I raise my eyebrows at the other children, as if the game is the reddest, darkest, most velvety secret I know.

In the distance, Pablo hangs from the side of the rock by the hands, inching feet upwards. The other children, in the grasses, bend to pick up sticks and flowers.

Concern concentrates inside me. I cup my hands around my mouth and yell, “Five more minutes.” The three in the grass turn. Pablo does not. “And let’s please be careful.”

Pablo finds footing and rises and rises again, and he is now a meter off the ground. I remember falling from a rock formation on the Dalmatian coast as a child and slashing open my tongue. A vacation characterized by a blur of people, the foam of waves, the metallic taste of blood. The rush to the hospital. I head in the direction of the rock, picking up the side of my skirt with a hand, and then stride more quickly.

As I approach, the three on the ground surround me like fish circling a morsel, and the redhead holds out her sticks like a witch’s broom. “Look, Bistra. Look how many I got. I plan to shoot everyone.”

The joy in her eyes troubles me. I palm her head and continue to the base of the rock. I stand below Pablo—moss covers the gray surface in patches—and even though I could encircle his ankles with my hands, I cannot pull him down for fear of scraping his face and causing him to fall.

“Pablo,” I say. “Pablo, por favor.”

His sneaker, determined, hovers for the next ridge up.

As he rises, my blood pressure rises with him.

With a strained voice, he says, “Apollo will never get me up here.”

Guilt scurries through me.

The redhead sidles up to me and says to his bottom, “I am a god, Pablo. I can get you anywhere.”

I press her to my side with an arm. “Not now, sweetheart.”

Julio, like a man awakening from a nap and coming out to see what the commotion is about, approaches. “Pablo, come down,” he booms.

The child looks to him, startled. With his cheek to the rock wall, he pauses, and then, resolute, looks with his other foot for another ridge up. He ascends.

Julio fumes, rooted in place. The sun is relentless.

The child makes it to the top and plops down, his foot hanging, the sole facing me. Sunlight leaks over his shoulder as he stares at me, triumphant.

My anger flares. And I become aware of myself in this spot, holding a child by my side, keeping her silent with an embrace. I feel the other children looking to me for direction. The young man who feels wronged. And I want out, out of this role, out of this cinematic scene—but it is as if the breeze and the sun and the grasses and the children’s gazes and Julio’s come-ons have all conspired to place me exactly here.

From above, the child pronounces: “I don’t even need to be turned into a tree now.”

I can no longer hold my tongue. “Yes, but let’s see how long you last.” My words are dark. But I am in no mood to apologize.

“You,” I say to Julio. “You stay with him here.”

His gaze wavers, but he does not dare cross me.

“The rest of us are going to go play another game, a game for three. A game I did not even tell you about because there were four.” I raise my eyebrows at the other children, as if the game is the reddest, darkest, most velvety secret I know.

The redhead looks as if I’ve given her the Christmas gift of a lifetime.

“And I’ve got golosinas in my bag. Enough for thirty kids. But we can share them all among us.”

Their eyes go wide—golosinas are like gold to the happy miner—and without casting a glance to the boy on the rock or the big boy on the ground, I hurry across the plain, raising my skirt with both hands, stalks grazing my calves, and feel the three children running at my sides. We are delighted and breathless, as if we’re returning home from a journey.

We fall to the ground around my purse—a smaller circle, tighter now—and I claw through for the plastic bag of candies. I open it on the ground between us and they giggle and squeal and laugh, and the redhead pushes the boy’s arm playfully. The boy raises a gummy worm into his mouth. The redhead a cola bottle. The brunette a gummy bear.

I bite into a sugary peach. “I don’t ever eat these, you know?”

“Why not?” the redhead asks.

“Because at my age, you have to worry about eating right for your health.”

“I will never stop eating these,” she says, chewing with her mouth open.

“Neither will I,” says the river god.

The slight one remains quiet, but she lifts candy after candy to her mouth like a squirrel hoarding nuts.

I peel a gold coin, place the chocolate against the roof of my mouth to melt, and lie on the ground next to them and close my eyes to the sun. They rustle through candies next to my ear. I feel the redhead crawl around my feet and lie down, too, on the other side of the circle. I give her a sideways glance. Her eyes are closed. Her pale lashes make me smile.

“Pablo is always causing trouble,” little Eros says from the other side.

I open an eye to look at her. She chews furious, her full attention on the bag. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. The other night”—she pulls two worms that have stuck together apart, then lowers one into her mouth—“he took a pet tarantula one girl had brought and let it loose in the tent where I sleep with some of the girls.”

I rise to an elbow. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.” She shakes her head. “No one knows when he did it. Because after we go to sleep at night, the counselors walk back and forth in front of our tents and tell us that if they hear a noise or if anyone comes out, they will throw us into the cold river.”

This sobers me into an adult again. I harden, annoyed. Like a lion from his pride, I cast a glance across the plain at Julio. He stands at the base of the rock, speaking to the child, arms open wide.

“But, somehow, he came over—or maybe he did it before we all went to sleep, when we were brushing our teeth in the bathrooms or something—and let the spider loose. And one of the girls felt something on her leg in the night and turned her flashlight on and screamed, and then someone kicked the front pole of the tent and the whole thing toppled down.”


“Uh-huh. It was scary. We all had to come out. Shake everything. And then”—she looks at me dead in the eye, slowing her chewing—“they made us put the tent back together and get back inside.”

The redhead, rising out of her trance, says, “You guys are scaredy-cats.” She crawls over my extended legs like a puppy to the bag of candy. Only one cola bottle remains. “Maria!” she exclaims at the brunette. “You had so much.”

Maria pulls back, then straightens her spine and raises her chin in faux pride.

“A person can’t look away for two seconds.”

“It was sitting right here. You could have had it.”

“It doesn’t mean it’s all yours for the taking. Have some modesty.”

What does she know of modesty? I smirk.

His tone cuts like a bitter teenager. Inside me, defensiveness flares, but surely, he is talking to the child.

In the distance, Pablo turns over and throws a leg down the side of the rock to descend. I see him struggling to keep his grip at the top, and my body tenses. Below him, Julio stands with arms extended, as if holding a barrel.

“Does Pablo often climb things?” I ask no one in particular.

“I’ve never seen it,” the boy says absently.

 “Why don’t we head back over?” I rise slow, eyes on the rock.

“But what about the game?” the redhead whines.

Pablo’s foot is searching for the next ridge down. Not finding it, he rises again and pauses. Then he tries with the other foot. From the ground, Julio yells something—directions, perhaps—and I wish he’d shut up and let the child concentrate.

I start walking over.

The boy strains to look down over his shoulder to Julio and then, losing his grip or his footing or both, slips and drops into Julio’s arms and the two topple to their sides on the ground.

I break into a run, the earth shaking on all sides, and I reach them and fall to the ground and pull Julio from the boy and take the boy’s face in my palms. “Are you all right?” I examine his head for cuts and scrapes.

He breaks into a wet, pink, wrinkled cry. He shoves me away with his hands and grabs onto his foot. The foot suffered the impact.

I sit back, palms on earth, to give him space.

Julio, glaring at the base of the rock between me and the boy, says, “You see what you’ve done?”

His tone cuts like a bitter teenager. Inside me, defensiveness flares, but surely, he is talking to the child. Pablo sobs, and my softness swells, and I find myself wanting to hug his shoulders and caress his hair.

Like an older brother, Julio turns to him. “Come on. I’ll carry you.” He rises, brushes dust off his hands, and gathers the child—who extends his arms up willingly—into his embrace.

His even tone with Pablo confirms that he was casting the blame on me. I am left in shock, as if every object inside me has been flung up and hovers in mid-air.

The three children, wide-eyed, approach.

I push against the dry, packed ground to stand and say, “Everything will be okay. We will take care of Pablo.” But I feel off kilter, and I smooth my skirt over my thighs and rake loose strands of hair behind my ears in an inexplicable urge to make myself presentable.

The children look as if their sky is about to fall.

“Follow me,” Julio says to them. “I won’t hear protests.” He swings toward the trail in the woods, and the boy’s hanging legs swing with him.

Pablo’s weeping continues, rising and falling. The lanky boy and redhead follow. The slight brunette winces at me, whispers an apology, and—taking a quick and dutiful breath—runs after the bunch.

They disappear into the entrance to the trail, and the warm breeze moves and shifts the branches that border it. It dawns on me that my gig at the camp is over, and I calculate my losses and how this will tighten my tight summer income. I bounce into embarrassment and hug myself, and then, through the trees, I hear the child raise the volume of his sobs, as if in exaggeration—for pity, for attention, or simply so the sound can reach me like the manure that drifts through the air—and I feel the wrath I felt as I watched his face sneering down from the top of the rock earlier.



Lana SpendlLana Spendl is the author of the chapbook of flash fiction We Cradled Each Other in the Air. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Rumpus, Baltimore Review, The Greensboro Review, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3, and other journals. 

Header photo of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 1622 sculpture Apollo e Dafne (Rome, 2019) by Slices of Life, courtesy Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Photo of Lana Spendl by Michelle Pretorius. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.