The Strange Little Girl Down the Road

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A VG Serial: Hills of Eden

Episode 24

I always think of her standing on the porch waiting for me.

Of course, that’s not the way it is, but I guess I try to fix her in my mind and hold her there for as long as I can and that’s the way I have to do it.

When she stands on her front porch, she is very still. The sun is going down, making spectacular light plays in the green trees, the rays getting  all tangled up and shooting out in different directions, furnishing  the emerald leaves until you can’t look at them anymore.  Shadows lie all around the porch like the cast-off garments of children.

She is staring down the lane, past the gate in the picket fence.

The sun is sliding down the edge of York mountain, but is stuck there for a long moment so that it catches her in a single dazzling beam. The fine loose hairs on her head are like spun fibers of copper light, delicate as spider’s silk. You wouldn’t notice these usually if the sun wasn’t stuck there on the corner of that mountain, wedged in there like a twenty-dollar gold piece. Her face is more distinct than it usually is. It is difficult to fix a face in your mind when you’re too shy to look at it direct.

But, when she’s standing there on the porch like that, bathed in light, caught there in the failing rays of the struck sun, you can see her features very clearly. You can see her eyes and the way the colors shift like the stone in a mood ring. Hazel eyes that pick up glints of gold from the sun and green from the leaves and bronze from her summer skin. The eyes are the hardest to hold in my mind. Even when she’s standing still like that, her eyes are the biggest mystery about her. She is looking, but what does she see? What is she looking for, or who? Every time her eyes change color, I am puzzled.

The first time I saw Hollie MacGuire, she was picking berries at the old, abandoned Griffin place. There had been nobody living there for years, but the blackberries didn’t know that—they grew in wild profusion all over the meadows and the hills.

Hollie was singing some little song to herself. I couldn’t hear the words, but her voice was musical, soft. I always cut through the Griffin place to go down to where the beaver have built dams on Osage Creek and pooled up the water over deep holes where the small mouth bass lurk in their secret underwater nooks. I was carrying my fishing pole and a plastic box full of lures, a knapsack with a sandwich and a couple of colas in it.

I made a noise and Hollie stood up in the blackberry thicket, startled.

Her lips were purpled from nibbling on berries. But the sun caught her hair and spun through it, threading it with golden honey. She smiled at me after a frowning moment and something inside me melted. She blew a strand of hair away from her mouth. The simple dress she wore was faded from many washings. She was thin, with a frail, country-girl strength in her bones and limbs. She seemed full of a sad joy that I can’t explain. As if she had found something wonderful that was too late to enjoy as she once might have, like discovering a favorite childhood doll in an attic trunk that stirred up memories of other times.

“You’re the man who lives down the road,” she said.

“Yes. Jim. Jim Lawrence.”

She told me her name.

“You must be Pat MacGuire’s daughter. He plowed my garden for me this spring.”

“His wife,” she said, a shadow sliding across her face.

MacGuire was in his sixties. This was no more than a girl. Nineteen? Twenty? She looked even younger than that. Well, this was the Ozarks. Such things happened, I was told.

She looked at me oddly. I was staring. My mouth dropped open. “I’m sorry. You look so young,” I stammered.

“I’m eighteen.”

“Yes.” I didn’t want to say any more. My mouth tasted of foot as it was.

“Want some berries?” She held out her pail to me. I took one, more to be close to her than anything else. She smelled of the fragrance of earth and growing things. There were scratches on her arms from the brambles, white streaks on suntanned skin. Her hair was tied back with a faded ribbon, but the loose strands kept moving over her face, as if caressing her. Her eyes were large, bright. Open, like her face. A book to be read, studied.

“Goin fishing?”

I nodged.

“Can I watch?”

I guess I shrugged. It’s hard to remember now. She came with me down the path to the beaver dams. I found a spot, put on a yellow #2 spinner, snaked it along between the bank and a beaver house. The second cast brought a bass out of hiding. I felt the line pull taut and then the water boiled.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “You got him. Big one.”

She laughed like a child as I played the bass, reeled him in. I threw him on the bank and the sunlight smelted silver on his sleek skin, stippled it with pastel colors of the rainbow. I took him out of the grass and slid a stringer through a gill. I secured one end of the line to a strong root sticking out of the bank, tossed the fish back in the water.

“I love fish,” she told me. “Pat doesn’t fish much anymore. He used to take me fishing up at Table Rock.”

I caught two more small mouths, a sunfish, a big bluegill and a sucker. I threw the sucker back in.

“I’d like you to take the fish,” I told her, “cook them up for you and your husband.” The last word was a lump of cornmeal dough in my throat.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that.”

“Sure. I can’t eat all these. No freezer. But I fish all the time. Take them.”

“Thank you, Jim.”

I took the lure from my swivel, put it back in its plastic box, fastened the swivel to an eye on the pole. I sat beside her in the shade.

“I’ll split my sandwich with you,” I said, pulling it from my knapsack. The sandwich was bent. Hollie laughed and it sounded so strange, I wondered if it had been a long time since she had laughed like that.

I smoothed out the crumpled sandwich, took it from the plastic sack and pulled it into two pieces. She took her half with its ragged edge when I handed it to her.

She ate without self-consciousness. When we were finished, I leaned back against the tree and watched Hollie take the hem of her dress and dab off the corners of her mouth.

Hills of Eden will be published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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