Tabula Rasa (A Short Story)

“What were you like before you were my mama?”

I cradle Daisy to my chest, and we rock back and forth to the gentle rhythm of my breathing.

“I was different.”

I smooth her hair, trace my fingers along the hollow, soft spot just below the crown of her head.

“Were you scary?”

“I might have been,” I say. “I might have been lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“I think we’ll never know for sure, little dove.”

“But why not?”

I’m quiet for a moment. I say, “Because we all get to make our own stories, and this is the one I’m making.”

Daisy’s room smells of peppermint and lavender, a combination of my tea and her soap, and something else. Something old, damp, and dusty, but familiar, like home.

“Mama, can you sing to me?”

I hum a soft lullaby, and as Daisy drifts off in my arms, I think of the decision we made, all of us. The decision to be careful with our words, to let our children tell their own stories. We felt like it was a mercy, in a cruel world, to let them make their own history and their own future.

One day, far away from now, maybe I will tell her: There’s power in words. That’s your first lesson. And there’s power in their absence. That’s your second.

Or maybe I won’t. Right now, she is free and new and utterly, completely herself. How long can this last? Time will tell.

I don’t think anyone ever really, truly knows whether the thing they’ve chosen is the right thing. When all of this started, I didn’t have Daisy. At least, not completely. She was a blip in the universe, just a tiny thing knitting herself into my body. I only had myself and a collection of painful memories, existing within a world that didn’t seem to want me. The thought of starting over, of starting anything, and of creating a better place, washed over me like a warm summer breeze, and I was certain, in that moment, that I’d made the best decision for myself.

But for Daisy?

I worry.

She’s sleeping now, curled around her favorite crocheted bunny. I hope she has good dreams, always. I hope she grows up carefree and happy. I hope she is strong.

But I worry.

What is strength without adversity? Courage without knowledge? Wisdom without history?

There are nineteen families here, all of us raising children, all parents carrying burdens we never want them to see. We all have our reasons. They are good reasons, I think, but they belong to us, not to our children.

I asked Daisy a few days ago to tell me about her bunny.

“What does Bunny do when you’re busy at school?”

“Bunny stays home,” she said.

“Yes, Bunny doesn’t go to school with you. But what does Bunny like to do when he’s not with you?”

“He sleeps in my bed and hops around my room,” she said.

“What else?”

“Sometimes, he likes to look out the window.”

“That’s fun!” And then I asked, “Is there anywhere he wants to go when he looks out the window?”

“No,” she told me. “He’s happy here.”

Daisy’s world is so small. She’s got me and our cottage, Bunny and her friends at school, the green grass and the blue sky. But there’s so much she’s missing.

“Doesn’t Bunny ever want to go places? Maybe to the beach?”

“What’s the beach, Mama?”

I didn’t tell her, not really. I only said it’s far away and warm.

We’re supposed to let our children make their own worlds, to use our words and our knowledge sparingly, to give them space to create. I don’t know if anyone else questions the goal, or the method we’re using to get there, but I do.

I do.

Because they need us, don’t they? They need our stories, they need our wisdom and our experience. Don’t they?

I hear Daisy on the steps.

“Mama,” she calls.

“Yes, baby?”

“I had a dream.”

“Tell me about your dream,” I say.

“It was a bad dream,” she tells me.

“Come and sit with me,” I say. And then, before I can stop myself, I add: “I’ll tell you a story.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the sixth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first five, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of July.

Sally’s Mill (A Short Story)

May 1, 2019

Here’s how I imagine it happened, back in 2001:

The weather outside was almost unbearable. An early heatwave loomed over the fields, and the storms that rolled through that afternoon left behind a swampy, balmy soup of thick air and hovering mosquitos. Bad as that was, the atmosphere inside the mill was worse. Thirty some bodies crammed into a dark, dusty space, all breathing and dancing and spilling drinks, jumping around to music so loud it shook your brains, yelling and singing, and just hot, frenetic chaos.  

“I’m going outside,” Jo Whitney said to no one in particular, because no one could hear her, anyway. At least, that’s how I imagine it. I’ve been told I have a good imagination.

People wondered later where she’d gone, and no one told the police about the party when they came around asking questions. A bunch of kids drinking alcohol in an abandoned, condemned building on the night before graduation? Not one of them said a word, and they wouldn’t have had anything to say, either, because Jo slipped out of the mill and into the night, and that was the last any of them – or anyone at all – ever saw of her.

May 2, 2019

Joanna Whitney’s was the tenth disappearance associated with Sally’s Mill. It wouldn’t be the last, and I think we’re on number thirteen now. Or so the rumors say. And still people go there. Kids party, the curious search, police patrol, and every few years, some unlucky soul goes missing. It’s not our town’s oldest tradition – that would be the Winter Hunt – but it is the most talked about. Well, that would probably also be the Winter Hunt, but Sally’s Mill is a pretty close second. There’s even a rhyme we say, when we’re young and more amused than afraid: “Stay away from the hill, and from old Sally’s Mill.”

It’s not much, I know.

May 5, 2019

As it turns out, my dad got caught up in it once, all the Sally’s Mill craziness, when he was about seventeen. He told me this story today, and I’m recording it here, in my second journal of the year, because I feel like someone should write this down, and because he never reads my journals and so he won’t know I told on him.

Here’s what he said:

It was a stormy night, heavy and damp and dark. Thunder rumbled through the trees, and on the horizon, lightning flashed bright and white against the black sky. My dad was at a party, and went outside to get cigarettes from his car. As he stood outside the door of the mill, smoking (gross, Dad!), he heard hounds and the call of hunting horns, howls and yelps, and people shouting, and the braying and steady gallop of horses. He heard them over the music from the party, and the rush of the wind. He said it sounded like they were only down the hill, so close by, but he didn’t see anyone. And as the sound moved closer and closer to him, he said it was like the air froze, and all he could think was, “What in the hell?” And then he ran inside, and he never told anyone. Not because he was scared. He never told anyone because he dropped his cigarette when he ran, and it started a small fire in the brush, and everyone had to run away and the police investigated and declared it an arson. The good news is, no one got hurt, and the fire didn’t do too much damage. The bad news is, my dad’s guilty of arson, I guess.

They say nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill. I guess they’re right, huh?

May 11, 2019

It shouldn’t be ninety degrees in early May, but here we are. Today is Saturday, but you couldn’t pay me to go outside in this. Today will be a reading day for me.

I feel bad for writing down what my dad told me. I think it’s sort of a silly story, but I wouldn’t want him to get in trouble for something that happened so long ago, especially when it was an accident and it didn’t hurt anybody. I’m thinking about tearing out that page.

May 12, 2019

I did some reading yesterday on fox hunting. I’m surprised it’s not obsolete. But I did learn that it never happens at night, so I don’t know what my dad heard. He was probably drunk. It was dark, and the weather was awful. He was just a kid who made a mistake, and I wonder if he made up the whole story just to justify what he did. It’s a horrible thing to think, isn’t it?

May 18, 2019

I just can’t help but wonder why people keep going to the mill. I guess people just can’t get enough of scary stories, but still: I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. My grandmother always told me she was proud of how curious I am. I’m starting to think it’s actually a curse. There are always more questions than answers, and every time you get an answer, it just leads to more questions. It’s enough to drive someone crazy. Not me, but someone.

May 20, 2019

Okay, so I’ve done some research. It’s interesting, actually. There’s nothing in the history of Sally’s Mill that makes it a haunted or a frightening or an unsafe place, other than the fact that it’s condemned, of course. It was built around 1810 by the Marsden family. They’re still around. Named for John Marsden’s wife, who lived long and happy, and tended by that same family or their relatives until it closed down for good in 1981. John and Sally had several children, kept a couple of houses in the state, and were involved in all sorts of local issues and events. The only thing I found that made me nervous is that there was a Civil War battle in the area, and some of the soldiers did hide in the mill at one point. They got caught, of course, and carted away as prisoners.

And then, I guess, there are the disappearances, but maybe that’s just coincidence? I should do some research on those, too, but I’ve got end of school exams and essays and such coming up, so I don’t know when I’ll have time.

May 25, 2019

There’s a party at Sally’s Mill tonight. Should I go? I’m not actually invited, but one of my friends is, and I’m sure I could tag along unnoticed.

May 25, 2019 (later)

I’m going. Even though it’s hotter than Hades right now and I’m not really invited, I’m going. But I’m going in smart. I’m bringing supplies: a flashlight, a whistle, a camera, a recorder, and just because I know it will be loud and miserably sweaty, some earplugs and my portable neck fan. I know I’ll look like a dork. I don’t care. People don’t really notice me, anyway.

I’m nervous, though, still. Maybe because I’m not a social creature, or maybe because of the disappearances, or my dad’s story. I’ll update tomorrow. If I come home, that is! (Oh, God, why did I even write that?)

May 26, 2019

What an absolute waste of time! A big, fat, annoying nothing. I stood inside, I stood outside. I waited. I saw nothing. There was nothing. Just the mill, and the hot weather, and a bunch of kids drinking warm beer. My head hurts. I dripped enough sweat last night to fill five buckets, and I came home with a bruise of my knee from falling down a set of rickety old stairs. And I ripped my favorite jeans.

Never again, Sally’s Mill. You and I – we’re not friends.

May 26, 2019 (later)

I spoke too soon. I feel awful. I can’t believe it.

Jackson Fletcher disappeared last night.

He never came home after the party. I did see him there, in a corner with his buddies, but I don’t remember if he left before me or not. I did see him go outside. Did I see him come back in? I’m not sure. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. Maybe he’s just at a friend’s house. Maybe he crashed his car and he’s in a ditch somewhere. That’s not better, is it?

WHY DOES ANYONE GO TO SALLY’S MILL?

And why him? Why him, of everyone there? Why not anyone else? Why not me?

May 30, 2019

I’ve considered ripping out all of these pages and burning them. I don’t know where I’d burn them, but I just don’t know if I ever want anyone to read them. I’m only a few pages into this journal, anyway, and I could scrap the whole thing.

Jackson Fletcher is still missing. I don’t think he’ll ever come home. I see it in my head. His mother saying goodbye to her son for the last time on Saturday evening, his face at the party, laughing and bobbing his head to the beat of the music, and not one of them knew. Not one of them knew it would be the last time, that he wouldn’t come home. It’s just horrible.

I looked back today on my entries about Jo Whitney, and I just…I can’t believe I wrote about it like that, like her life was a story. I can’t believe it happened again. I guess it just never seemed real.

I don’t know what I’ll do with this. I don’t know who I can tell – about this journal, my dad’s story, Jackson, the mill. Any of it. But if I don’t trash it, and you find it, and you read this one day, I’ll tell you, because now I know it’s true, what they say. I hope you stay away. I hope they tear the whole building down. I hope it burns. I hope it collapses. I hope it rots away and becomes just a distant, terrible memory. I hope you believe me.

Nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the fifth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first four, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of June.

In Search (A Short Story)

Two local men missing since April 15th. No leads. Parents plead for information.

*

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” Humans can be monsters, but everyone goes on and on about Bigfoot. Spare me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We set out around noon on the first warm day of spring. There were two of us. There was me, and there was Ty, my best friend. Ty carried the map, the tent, the food, all the other “useful stuff” (his words), and the dog’s leash. So, I guess there were actually three of us – Ty, me, and Septimus.

I asked Ty once why he named the dog Septimus.

“Because,” he said, “he looked like a Septimus. Just look at him”

In front of us now, walking up the trail into the woods, Septimus sniffed and explored, nose to the ground with his floppy, pendulum ears dangling into the leafy brush, drool trailing along behind him in a silvery, viscous path. He didn’t carry anything.

I held the camera.

“I don’t know what you think you’re going to find,” Ty said, craning his neck around to get a glimpse of me behind him. “And I don’t want to be in whatever video you make when this is over.”

“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep…’” I replied.

“You didn’t come up with that.”

“No,” I said, “that was Robert Frost. But it makes my point.”

“Which is?”

Ty walked on ahead.

“Which is,” I said to his back, “that you’ll never find anything if you don’t go looking, and there’s no place like the deep, dark woods to get started.”

“I think they made a movie about that once,” Ty said. “But seriously, it’s a good thing I came with you. You’d get lost looking for fairies and we’d find you half-starved and crazy two days later.”

“I can read a map,” I said.

“No, you really can’t.”

“What are you even complaining about? You love this stuff.”

Ty loved the outdoors the way that some people love cake. He couldn’t get enough, even it meant too much outdoors and not enough paycheck.

“Monster hunting?” he asked.

“No, of course not,” I said. “Hiking and camping and stuff.”

And thank goodness he did love the outdoors, because I wouldn’t have wanted to do this kind of thing without him, it being my first monster hunt and all. Ty and I had done everything together since he taught me how to catch grasshoppers in kindergarten, a lesson my mother was never particularly fond of. I’d always been the reader, the researcher, and monsters – fairies, pixies, Bigfoots, Wampus Cats, selkies – they were my first love.

“This is my best friend, Drew,” Ty always said when he introduced me. “He’s a weirdo.”

Over the years, I’d come to embrace my weirdness, but I’d never felt quite bold enough to do anything about it. That changed last week, when a couple of day hikers spotted strange lights on the Dragon’s Den trail. They also reported odd noises, footsteps and rumbles from the woods, from all around them.  

“Come on, man,” I said. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“In the backpack,” Ty answered. “Along with your toothbrush and the three books you insisted on bringing for one night.”

“Knowledge is power,” I said. Because that was true.

*

Missing:

Tyson Collins, age 26

Hair: Brown

Eyes: Brown

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 180 pounds

Andrew Miller, age 26

Hair: Blonde

Eyes: Green

Height: 5’10”

Weight: 175 pounds

Last seen at the Dragon’s Den trailhead, Saturday, April 15, at 11:45 a.m. Traveling with one dog, a red bloodhound. Please contact….

*

We set up camp that night about a mile from the trail, which Ty said was already pushing it. Ty dealt with the tent, while I found a good spot for the camp stove and took out the dinner supplies.

“You’re not supposed to go off trail in these places,” he told me. “It damages the forest floor.”

“I think it’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s just the two of us.”

From his perch beside Ty, Septimus howled.

“And the dog,” I added.

“Still, they have designated spots for camping.”

“Those places are too crowded,” I said. “We’d never see anything.”

“We’re breaking the rules,” Ty answered, flat and short.

“And I’m catching it all on camera,” I joked, and snapped a picture from across the camp stove.

Ty set about making dinner, a box of Velveeta shells and cheese, while I rummaged around in the backpack for my book on mountain legends.

“I bet it was just a bear,” I said.

“So you brought us all the way out here to look for it?”

Ty stirred the cheese sauce into the noodles. Septimus drooled beside him. He spooned two heaping portions into our plastic bowls, and handed one to me.

“I mean, I don’t want it to be just a bear.”

“Make sure Septimus doesn’t eat my dinner,” Ty said.

I stared at Septimus as Ty wandered off into the woods.

“I hate peeing in the woods,” I told the dog. “Probably a luxury experience for you, huh? New and different?”

Septimus panted back at me.

From somewhere to my right, Ty yelled, “Stop it, man!”

“Stop what?” I called back.

“Stop messing with me!”

“I’m just sitting by the campfire, dude. I’m watching the dog like you asked.”

Ty came back a couple of minutes later.

“Not cool, Drew,” he said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Septimus didn’t touch your food.”

“Walking up behind me that way,” Ty said. “The footsteps. I know you’re trying to scare me.”

“Wait,” I said, and choked down my last bite of pasta. “You heard footsteps?”

“Yeah,” Ty answered, “and I know it was you.”

“It wasn’t me, but we have to go check it out.”

I stood up and grabbed the camera. Ty didn’t move.

“No,” he said. “We don’t, and we shouldn’t.”

“Ty, that’s why we’re out here!”

“If it wasn’t you,” he said, “then it was probably a bear, and it probably smelled our food, and we should probably just leave it alone.”

“But…” I started.

“Unless you want to be mauled by a bear,” Ty finished.

“Fine,” I said. “Just, fine. But if it happens again, I’m going to go look, and you’re not going to stop me.”

Ty let out a puff of air, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “It’s late. We should just get some sleep.”

I wasn’t about to argue with Ty in a bad mood. I’d learned years ago that it wouldn’t work. And so we pulled out our sleeping bags and crawled into the tent.

“You gonna brush your teeth?” he asked me.

I glared back at him, unsure if he could see it in the dark.

“Okay, then,” he said.

We settled in, boots off and tucked into a corner, with Septimus nestled between us, already snoring.

*

Tracks found in search for two missing locals. No sign of belongings or human remains. Parents still hopeful. Reward offered for any information.

*

I awoke to the high-pitched sound of Septimus whining in the dark. Outside, something stirred near our campsite. I could hear the twigs snapping, the underbrush rustling, and if I strained my ears enough, I was pretty sure, something breathing.

“Ty,” I croaked.

My heart raced, and my hands shook. I wasn’t sure whether this was fear or excitement.

“Ty,” I said again, louder this time. “We have to go look.”

Ty rolled over and said, “Leave it alone, Drew.”

“No,” I yelled. “I won’t. I told you if we heard anything else, I’d go and look, and I’m going to.”

I squirmed out of my sleeping bag and pulled on my hiking boots.

“You’re being stupid,” Ty said.

“No, I’m investigating.”

I grabbed the camera, pulled its strap around my neck, unzipped the tent flap and flung it open. Before I could catch him, Septimus shot out like a rocket, barking and snarling, more aggressive than I’d ever seen him. And certainly faster.  

Ty was up in milliseconds, pulling on his own boots, huffing and glaring at me.

“We have to get Septimus,” he said.

And then we both ran, out into the woods, away from the tent and into the night.

“I thought you said I was being stupid,” I grunted out, between breaths.

“That’s my dog, man,” Ty answered.

We could still hear the bloodhound, somewhere ahead of us, howling wildly into the trees. And all around us, just like the hikers said, we heard other things, strange grunts and heavy breathing, the sharp crack of branches breaking.

“What is that?” I yelled.

Ty ran ahead of me, and I struggled to keep up. The camera banged into my chest with every step.

“Slow down, Ty!”

Ty broke into a clearing ahead of me. He stopped so abruptly, I ran into him. Septimus sat at his feet, entranced.

I saw lights. So many lights. Dancing in the tree line, lighting up the sky. Lights, and something else. Something big, twisted, looming, waiting. Something…

“Oh, my God,” I breathed.

I raised the camera to my eye.

*

Found, 1 mile from Dragon’s Den Trail, marker 10:

1 camera, Pentax K3, damaged, SD card intact

1 dog leash, blue

*

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” You think you’re hunting them. You’re wrong.

**********

Thank you for reading! This is the fourth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first three, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of May.

April’s Short Story

It’ll be up tomorrow! In the meantime, here’s a preview. Enjoy!

**********

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” Humans can be monsters, but everyone goes on and on about Bigfoot. Spare me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We set out around noon on the first warm day of spring. There were two of us. There was me, and there was Ty, my best friend. Ty carried the map, the tent, the food, all the other “useful stuff” (his words), and the dog’s leash. So, I guess there were actually three of us – Ty, me, and Septimus.

I asked Ty once why he named the dog Septimus.

“Because,” he said, “he looked like a Septimus. Just look at him”

In front of us now, walking up the trail into the woods, Septimus sniffed and explored, nose to the ground with his floppy, pendulum ears dangling into the leafy brush, drool trailing along behind him in a silvery, viscous path. He didn’t carry anything.

I held the camera.

“I don’t know what you think you’re going to find,” Ty said, craning his neck around to get a glimpse of me behind him. “And I don’t want to be in whatever video you make when this is over.”

“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep…’” I replied.

“You didn’t come up with that.”

“No,” I said, “that was Robert Frost. But it makes my point.”

“Which is?”

Ty walked on ahead.

“Which is,” I said, “that you’ll never find anything if you don’t go looking, and there’s no place like the deep, dark woods to get started.”

Silly Superstitions (A Short Story)

Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions. They existed all around her, from her mother’s belief that you should enter and leave by the same door, to her father’s insistence that you must always leave one apple in the orchard at the end of a harvest. Even the local preacher, who steadfastly believed that hearing an unattended church bell meant a parishioner would die. He’d had the bells taken down last year. Don’t do this, always do that. Lest you invite bad luck, lest you tempt the devil, lest this and that and the other thing that never, ever happened.

“Stupidity and fantasy,” Addie told her mother, as they swept the front porch one cool day in the early spring. “Y’all will worry yourselves sick over nothing and then celebrate when nothing happens.”

“I taught you better than that, Addie May,” her mother said.

“You taught me to gather acorns in a thunderstorm. What kind of nonsense is that?”

“The smart kind,” her mother answered. “Now be careful where you sweep. Watch your sister’s feet.”

Addie’s older sister, Emmy, seventeen and pretty as a peach, sat in an old rocking chair near the door, humming and stringing green beans for dinner.

“Or what, Ma?” Addie said. She stopped what she was doing, held the broom upright and put her other hand on her hip. “What’ll happen if I sweep under Emmy’s feet?”

“She’ll never get married,” her mother said. “That’s what.”

“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Addie said, and with a grand gesture, she swept the broom right under the rocking chair, brushing the bottoms of Emmy’s shoes.

“Addie!”

That was both her mother and Emmy, in a tone she knew all too well. The tone meant trouble. As in, she was in it.

“Oh fine,” she said. “I’ll go inside and peel potatoes.”

“Yes you will, Addie May,” said her mother. “And you will apologize to your sister, too.”

“What for?” Addie whined.

“Right now, Miss Priss.”

“She’s not even engaged!”

Her mother answered by way of a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

Addie sighed and turned to Emmy. She said, “I am sorry for sweeping under your feet, lest you never get married and end up a lonely old crone.”

She dropped the broom and ran inside before either Emmy or her mother could reply. She went to bed that night with a fresh scolding from both her parents, and without supper.

In the morning, Addie stayed in her bed for a little longer than usual. She listened to the breeze and the birdsong, and watched the world wake up from her window. When the sun hung high enough to cast shadows on the fields, she snuck outside – easy, since her family had already started their daily chores – and climbed the old oak tree in their back yard. She sat on a thick branch, twirling a leaf in through her fingers.

“Who cooks for you…”

That came from somewhere above her, she thought, and looked up, scanning the branches and searching the leaves.

“Who cooks for you…”

And she spotted it, perched about ten feet above her head, a Barred Owl, looking out ahead with its wide, dark eyes.

“What are you doing out here?” Addie asked.

The owl did not reply.

The second Addie moved to climb higher, the owl flew away.

“Well, that’s disappointing,” she said to herself. “Guess he didn’t want to talk.”

Addie sighed, something her mother said she was unnaturally good at, and climbed down. Sooner or later, she’d have to get this day started, and now was as good a time as any. As she made her way back to the house, she fell in step with her mother, coming back from the barn.

“Hi, Ma,” she said. “I’ll go get the eggs here in a minute.”

“We’re going into town for groceries around lunch, so don’t take too long,” her mother told her. “Where’ve you been this morning?”

“I didn’t feel good,” Addie lied. “I slept in, and then when I felt a little better, I climbed the oak tree to get some fresh air.”

“My little monkey,” her mother said. “You feel all right now?”

“Yes ma’am,” Addie said. “And I saw an owl when I was in the tree.”

Her mother said nothing, but her eyes grew wide.

“It was real pretty, Ma. It almost talked to me.”

Her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her through the kitchen door. Addie stumbled behind her.

“What is it, Ma? What’d I do?”

“Are you absolutely certain, Addie May Bailey, that you saw an owl in that tree?”

“Yes, Ma,” Addie answered.

“Not some other bird?”

“No, ma’am. It was definitely an owl.”

“God protect us,” her mother said. And then, “You stay here. I’m going to get your sister and Pa.”

“Ma! What’d I do? Am I in trouble?”

Her mother hurried out the door without answering, and all Addie could do was wait. She sat down at the table, and wrung her hands together. She didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. She was a little late getting started on her chores, but she had time to get them done, and she hadn’t stained her dress or hurt herself climbing the tree.

About fifteen minutes later, her mother returned, this time with her father and sister in toe, and said, “Now Addie, you tell your Pa what you saw in the tree.”

“An owl,” Addie answered.

“Are you sure?” her father asked.

“Yes, sir. It hooted at me. It had big eyes.”

Her mother and father shared a look, and her sister sat down beside her at the table.

“Why do you always make trouble?” Emmy rolled her eyes and rested her chin in her hands. “Had to go and climb that tree, didn’t you?”

“Emmy hush,” her mother said. “What do you think we should do, Giles?”

Addie stared at her father. He looked calm, but she could see the little vein in his forehead that always popped out when something worried him.

“We’ll just be careful,” her father said. “Nothing else we can do.”

Addie couldn’t take it anymore. She stood up, and the chair she’d been sitting in fell behind her.

“Pa, what’s wrong with me seeing an owl? I don’t understand.”

Her mother answered, wrapping her arms around herself. “They say,” she said, “that if you see an owl in daylight, that means a death is coming.”  

Her father and sister were silent, but they looked between Addie and her mother. Emmy picked up the chair.

“Are you serious?” Addie asked.

“As a heart attack,” her mother answered.

“Oh, good grief!”

“Addie,” Emmy screeched.

“More silly superstitions and stupid made-up stories!” Addie fumed. She turned on her family and pointed a straight, stiff finger at all of them. “You’re all crazy!”

She stamped out of the room to the chicken coop, and by the evening, with her chores done and her family still walking on eggshells, she felt exhausted.

“You just watch,” she said. “Nothing will happen. Nothing ever happens, and y’all just sit there and worry your lives away. Not me!”

She went to bed without supper again.

The next day, from down in the town, a bell rang. It rang every few minutes, all day.

“I thought Pastor Cory took the bells down,” Emmy said.

“He did,” her mother answered, and shuddered.

“Must be from somewhere else,” Addie said.

The day after that, Mrs. Williams, an old widow from their church, hobbled up to their house and knocked on the door. Addie saw her coming from her window, and walked downstairs just in time to hear her say that it was terrible, what had happened. Addie stayed hidden, just around the corner.

“What happened, Mrs. Williams?”

That was Emmy.

“That poor boy, Jonah Evans,” Mrs. Williams said. “Fell in the silo.”

“What?”

Her mother, Addie thought.

“Nothing the doctor could do,” Mrs. Williams said.

 “So he’s dead?”

Emmy again, her voice shaking.

“Poor boy,” Mrs. Williams said.

Addie walked into the room and said, “That’s terrible.”

Emmy turned on her. Addie had never seen Emmy in such a state. Red eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. Addie moved to comfort her, to put her arms around her, but Emmy flinched away.

“This is all your fault,” she screamed, and she ran out of the room and up the stairs.

Addie just stood there, dumbfounded, waiting for someone to explain.

“How…” she started, and then stopped.

Her mother looked over in the direction of the stairs. “Addie,” she said, “go to your room.”

And so Addie did.

That night, she crept down the hall and padded into Emmy’s room.

“Emmy,” she whispered.

Emmy lay in her bed, tucked tight beneath the covers and facing the wall.

Addie crawled in beside her, and pulled her into a hug.

“I’m sorry,” Addie said. “I’m sorry about what happened to Jonah.”

Emmy sniffled and said, “We were going to get married one day.”

“I didn’t know he liked you that way,” Addie replied.

“He didn’t,” Emmy said, and Addie could tell she was crying. Her shoulders shook, and her voice sounded thick and tight. “Not yet, but he would have.”

Addie didn’t respond. She just held Emmy as she cried. She fell asleep with her sister in her arms, and when she woke in the morning, Emmy was gone.

Weeks went by, and then months. The weather turned warm, and though the world around them felt alive and in motion, Addie and Emmy barely spoke. In April, Addie left a four-leaf clover on Emmy’s pillow. In May, Addie saw the owl again as she spent a morning lounging, or perhaps hiding, in the oak tree. She told no one, and as far as she knew, no one died and nothing bad happened. And then, in June, Emmy pulled Addie aside one day as she kneaded dough for their dinner.

“I have something to tell you,” Emmy said.

“I’d be happy to hear it,” Addie answered, and smiled.

“I met a boy,” Emmy said. “His name is Robert, and I think I want to marry him.”

Addie thought for a moment, and remembered something her mother had told her a very long time ago. Another silly superstition, yes, but perhaps, in this particular case, the right one. A dream that meant good fortune, and a sign of good things to come. Something happy.

She smiled, and took Emmy’s hand in hers, covering both in fine, white flour.

“Emmy, that’s wonderful,” she said. “And I have to tell you, because I think it’s a sign.”

Emmy looked at her with all the hope she thought she’d ever see.

Addie said, “Last night, I dreamed of bees.”

Emmy squeezed Addie’s hand and said, “You know what Ma says about dreaming of bees!”

Addie had never put much stock in silly superstitions, it was true. But right now, in this moment, she wanted to believe in this one.

“Yes,” Addie said. “I know exactly.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the third of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first two, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of April.

The Lady in the Stars (A Short Story)

“She must be lonely,” I say, and inch closer to my mother, burrowing into her shoulder. “She must be bored, too.”

“She’s not lonely, sweetheart,” says my mother. She pulls the blanket tighter around us, and we huddle together, gazing up at the night sky.

This is our tradition, every February, to greet the end of winter, and to say goodbye to the lady in the stars. Tonight, we sit together on a blanket in the sand, listening to the rhythm of the waves and the cold wind blowing through the dune grass.

“I’d be lonely,” I say. “And I bet she’s tired of the quiet, too.”

“She’s very old,” my mother tells me, “and very wise. She sees all of us, and our joys bring her joy. She’s not lonely, with the whole world and the moon and stars to keep her company.”

My family has lived on this island for as long as anyone can remember. We’re as tough as the sea and as sturdy as the land, my mother says. Together here, we’ve made it through ferocious storms and sweltering summers. We’ve learned how to live on the outskirts, on the edge of the country, and all that time, we’ve passed down the story of the lady and her home in the winter sky. And tomorrow, I’ll leave her, and my family, and this island, forever.

“James is a good man,” my mother says, “and he’ll take care of you. You’ll make lots of friends. You’ll have pretty babies, and you’ll be happy.”

She always could read my mind.

“You can come to visit,” she says. “A boat ride across the bay isn’t a trip across the ocean.”

“I know,” I say. And I do, but right now, the bay feels a lot like an endless, angry ocean, dangerous and impossible to cross.

“The lady was scared, once, too,” my mother reminds me. “She had to leave her home and family.”

“The stars needed a guardian,” I answer back, parroting the story I’ve known my whole life. “And she was chosen among all her people to be that guardian, and she accepted, because she was brave and smart, but also because she was kind.”

“Most importantly because she was kind,” my mother clarifies.

“I’m not kind,” I say. I sit up and fidget with my bootlaces. “And I’m not brave, either.”

“You’ve never been afraid of the waves,” says my mother.

“I can swim.”

“And you’ve always taken care of the gulls,” she says.

“I can’t stand to see them hungry.”

“Other people would call them a nuisance,” my mother tells me.

“I find other people to be a nuisance,” I say.

“You want to argue,” she says, “and I understand. The lady didn’t think she was brave or smart, or kind. She ran. You’re not planning on running?”

“No,” I say, and sigh. “No, I’m not going to run away. Where would I even go?”

“See!” my mother says with a laugh. “You’re very smart.”

I lie back and look up. The stars shine bright white, like diamonds on black satin.

I know what it’s like in the city, where the stars hide from the streetlights. I’ve read about it, and about the crowds and the noise.

“The lady tried to hide,” I say, continuing the story, “but the moon found her, and reminded her that imperfect things can still light the way in the dark.”

My life will look very different from my mother’s, and from what I envisioned when I was small. Back then, many families called our island home, and children ran on the beach, and lovers huddled together on the dunes, and old grandfathers sat at the pub to drink ale and tell stories. Most of them have gone now, and there certainly weren’t any men of marriageable age left for me to choose from when the time came. And so my father chose for me, a well-to-do man on the mainland, with a nice brick house and an old family. Like ours, but not like ours at all.

“The moon lit her way into the sky and walked with her to her new home,” my mother says. “And there, she cares for the stars and watches the world.”

“And they say,” I add, finishing the story, “that if the world should ever need her, strong and caring guardian that she is, she will leave the sky and walk the earth again.”

“There is always a path home,” my mother says. She reaches down and squeezes my hand. “But you might find you like your new one better, and that it gives you purpose and something to care for, just like the lady.”

“The lady isn’t real,” I whisper.

“She’s as real as you and me,” my mother says. “She’s as real as this island and the ocean, and as real as the moon and the stars.”

“She’s just a story.”

“And like I said before, you just want to argue.”

“I don’t,” I say. “I really don’t. I’m just pointing out the truth. The lady isn’t real. I’m leaving tomorrow. Everything’s going to change.”

I stand up, walk out to the water. I let it slide over my boots, and I can feel the cold through the leather. I’ve probably ruined this pair. I don’t care. I hear my mother behind me, her steady steps in the sand. She places a hand on my shoulder. I turn, and she sweeps a stray hair off my cheek. My cheek is damp, and I realize I’ve been crying. She does, too.

“My brave, smart, kind girl,” she tells me. “Your life will be just as beautiful and vibrant as you want it to be. That’s your choice to make.”

“And even the lady had a choice,” I say.

“Your father chose James,” my mother says, “because he is a good man. You can choose him, too.”

James has written me letters and sent me pictures. He’s told me all about the life we’ll lead together, and how excited he is to marry his island woman. We’ve exchanged books, and shared our favorite memories. I don’t love him yet, but I know I can.

“I do,” I tell her. “I have. But I wish I could have both, James and this island. His home and mine. Why do women always have to choose?”

“Because only women are strong enough to do it,” my mother says. “But don’t tell your father I said that.”

We smile together, and turn back towards the dunes. It’s time to go home, for the last time.

“Someday,” my mother says, “I hope you’ll tell your children about the lady. I hope you’ll tell them about this island and our life here.”

“I will,” I tell her, and I mean it with every fiber of my being, right down to my soul. “I will.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here’s the first story, if you’d like to read it:

The Winter Woman

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of March.

The Winter Woman (A Short Story)

My grandmother always says stories don’t have to be real to be true.

We’re sitting at her table by the fire, eating midnight cookies and drinking hot chocolate.

She takes a sip and tells me, “Real and true, they’re not the same thing.”

“What do you mean, grandma?” I ask.

The fire crackles, and outside, I hear the wind. It moans like it feels sad. Snow started falling while we ate dinner, and it hasn’t stopped. It’s the perfect night for a story, and my grandmother tells the best.

“Do you know about the Winter Woman?” she asks.

I know all about the Winter Woman, and I say so.

“When I was little,” my grandmother says, “they would tell us, over and over, that the woods aren’t safe. Not safe for children, not safe at night, and especially not safe in winter, when the other wild things sleep.”

I know this part, so I add, “She never sleeps.”

“Exactly,” my grandmother says. “Don’t go into the woods. Be afraid of the woods, and most of all, be afraid of the Winter Woman.”

My grandmother lives in the oldest house in town, right on the edge of the woods.

“Have you ever seen her?”

“No,” she says. “But that doesn’t matter.”

I ask why.

“Stories have power,” my grandmother answers, “because we believe in them. They have the power we give them.”

“Where did the Winter Woman come from?”

“Somewhere far away, and old,” says my grandmother.

I ask what she’s even doing here, then.

“She followed us,” my grandmother says.  

I ask who, exactly, she followed, and why, and where from.

“She’s been with us for a very long time,” my grandmother says, “and she’ll stay with us even after you and I are gone.”

“What does she want?”

My grandmother smiles, and picks up my empty plate. “I think it’s time you go to bed,” she tells me.

She does this every time, every story. She tells just enough, just enough that I want more.

“Tell me, please,” I say, drawing out the “please” for as long as I can. “You always stop at this part.”

“What would you want?” she asks me.

I have to think about it. “Maybe something warm to wear,” I say, “if I’m out in the cold all the time.”

“Is that all?”

“Well, if she’s from far away, and everything else in the woods is sleeping, and people don’t want to see her, then I bet she’s lonely,” I say.

My grandmother smiles again, and ushers me out of the room.

“You’re a sweet girl to think of that,” she tells me, as we make our way up the stairs.

“So, I’m right? She wants friends?”

“We all want friends,” my grandmother says.  

She tucks me in and sits by the bed in an old rocking chair. It creaks as she rocks back and forth.

“Will you stay until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” she says.

“Grandma,” I say, “is the Winter Woman bad?”

“Did I scare you?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m not scared. No one actually believes in the Winter Woman anymore.”

“Is that so?”

I yawn. “Yeah,” I say, and yawn again.

“Then she probably is lonely,” my grandmother says. “Now, go to sleep.”

And lulled by the rhythm of the chair, and the howl of the winter wind, I do.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the first of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted at the end of February.

The Making of Annie’s Auld Lang Syne (A Short Story)

First thing’s first: I think this is a silly idea for an essay. I’m only writing it because Mrs. Vernon said I’d get a big fat zero if I didn’t. And so help me, Jordan Nunley, if you make those weird faces while I’m reading it out loud, I will throw my pencil at you every day for the rest of the year. It’s only December 11th, buddy.  

I think this is a silly idea for an essay for two reasons. The first is that we’re twelve. We’re just going to do what our parents tell us to do on New Year’s Eve. The second is that there’s a stupid virus going around that’s keeping us from having too much fun anyway. Chances are, we’re all just going to sit at home and watch TV and eat snacks.

So, yeah, that’s “What I’m Doing on New Year’s Eve.”

But I’ve only written three paragraphs, haven’t I? And I’ve been told I need to write at least five to get a passing grade. So in the interest of my report card, here’s some more stuff that I’m making up to take up space and prove that I can make sentences and choose good vocabulary words.

My sister and I only like each other about half the time. My mom tells me this is very normal, and that we’ll be closer as we get older. Alice and I have our doubts.  

On New Year’s Eve, sometime in the afternoon, Alice will walk into my room and say: “Are you really going to spend all night in here reading?”

She’s not supposed to come into my room without knocking, but she always does. So I’ll already be kind of annoyed, and I’ll say: “Yes.”

And then I’ll go back to looking at the stack of books I’ve got fanned out in front of me, because I’ll want to choose the optimal one to end the year with. A mystery? Or a romance? Or maybe a fantasy. But I’ll take the choice very seriously.

And she’ll look at me with that face that she makes when she thinks I’m being pedantic, and she’ll say: “You’re so boring, Annie.” And then she’ll laugh and walk away.

My sister laughs a lot. Mrs. Vernon knows, because Alice was in this class four years ago, and Mrs. Vernon sent a lot of notes home to my parents about how she’s “disruptive.” She’s always laughing or talking, and she’s always busy, and I sometimes think she’s exhausting. So it never bothers me when she laughs at me, because I laugh at her, too, but only in my head. And there’s no way on earth I’d want to spend my New Year’s Eve hanging out with her and her friends, doing…whatever it is that they do. I’d rather be boring.

Except I don’t really think I’m boring at all. I write a lot of stories, and I read a lot of books. I get to live in new worlds almost every day. That’s why I’ll make sure that the book I choose to read on New Year’s Eve is the perfect choice. Isn’t that cool? I can go anywhere in any world to end the year. Alice will probably just go to the park down the street and drink something gross. To me, that’s boring.

Anyway, I’ll choose a book and start to read, and in about an hour, I’ll probably get hungry. I used to keep a bag of chips in my bedside table for just this problem, but my mom started worrying that we’d get mice. So now, all the food stays in the kitchen. So I’ll walk downstairs and while I’m looking for just the right snack, my mom will be working on dinner, and she’ll warn me: “Don’t ruin your appetite.”

My mom’s a good cook, and I think she’s actually enjoyed having some extra time to learn new recipes. We made cookies together before Christmas, and they were probably my favorite cookies ever.

My dad will hear us over the sound of the TV, where he’ll probably be watching some show on Netflix for like the fifth time, and he’ll walk in, too, and he’ll say: “Where are you going tonight?” And he’ll wink, because he knows I’m not “going” anywhere.

I’ll say: “Decided to go back to Narnia, at least for a while. Might stop by Hogwarts later.”

And he’ll say: “Safe travels. Chess when you get back?”

My dad loves to play chess. He’s been teaching me for the last year or so, and I think I’m getting pretty good. I even win sometimes, though I’m never sure if it’s because I’ve figured it out, or because he lets me. Either way, it’s a thing we can do together, which is cool.

I’ll say: “Sure!”

And he’ll say something dumb, like: “The challenge is accepted. I must prepare for battle.”

My dad’s such a dork.

Last year, we decided to have a fire in the back yard and make S’mores, but this year I think we’ll probably plan to stay inside. It’s been a rainy winter so far, and I don’t think any of us wants to get our hopes up. Except Alice, anyway, because she’s crazy, but I already talked about that.  

I’m already almost out of material, which is something my dad says when he’s trying to be funny. But I guess it’s a real thing, because it’s happening to me right now. Seriously, how do you write an essay about your plans when your plans are basically to do nothing?

Okay, so I’ll have chosen my book, and gotten some chips, and talked to my sister and my parents. Next, I’ll probably head back up and read for a while longer. I don’t know if I’ll actually choose The Chronicles of Narnia or one of the Harry Potter books, but I bet I’ll pick something adventurous. And it’ll probably be something I’ve read before, so it’s a sure thing that I’ll like it. And I guess I’ll eat dinner with my parents at some point, too. I’m not sure what my mom is planning to cook, but I am sure that whatever it is, it will be delicious.

At dinner, I bet we’ll talk about our New Year’s Resolutions. My parents both like to make New Year’s Resolutions, because they say you should always have goals. I haven’t decided yet, but I think my goals for next year are going to be to read twenty books, write ten stories, and start learning to play piano. I bet you’re surprised I want to learn piano, because I’ve never talked about it before, but I do. My mom’s been playing since she was little. If I do chess with my dad, it would be cool to also do piano with my mom.

After dinner, I’ll read for a bit more. And then at about 9:00, my dad will probably beat me at chess. And I bet that by then, he’ll have started a fire in the fireplace. Aside from chess, I think that’s his favorite thing. Alice will probably come home at about 10:00, because that’s her curfew, and we’ll just all sit there together until the ball drops.

My mom always cries a little right at midnight. She says they’re happy tears, and that she’s just really glad that we’re all together. I am, too, even though I can’t wait until Alice goes to college and gets out of my hair for a while.

And right after midnight, my mom will sit down at the piano and play “Auld Lang Syne,” and we’ll all sing. Which is the one thing Alice is good at. And then, we’ll hug and say goodnight, and I’ll get ready and go to bed. Or, to read. My parents always let me stay up late on New Year’s Eve to read.

And that’s it. That is probably “What I’m Doing on New Year’s Eve.” Unless an asteroid hits Earth or my parents win the lottery or something. Then I guess my plans might change.  

See? I told you this was a silly idea for an essay. And don’t think I don’t see you, Jordan. I hope you like Number 2 pencils.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the last of the twelve stories I’ve written as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year was: Home.

Here are the first eleven stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

Cloud Dwellers

Old Enough

Stay tuned for an announcement regarding my 2022 Short Story Challenge. I’ve got some good ideas, and I hope you join me in writing some amazing stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

Happy New Year!

Old Enough (A Short Story)

Inside the house, heat radiated from the oven in the kitchen. The old cast iron woodstove in the basement burned warm and steady. Outside, a thick layer of fresh, white snow had started to blanket the brown grass and the empty trees. It didn’t often snow in the holler before December, but this year, flakes fell wet and heavy onto the newly cold earth. The gray, bright light of a winter morning peeked through the windows, and from his perch at the kitchen table, still in his pajamas, a little boy sat cradling a half-eaten bowl of grits in his hands.

“You go on along and brush your teeth as soon as you’re done,” said his mother. “I know you forgot last night.”

“I did not,” the boy answered.

“Oh, yes you did, James Henry Cumbow. Your teeth’ll fall out if you’re not careful.”

James Henry shuddered. He liked his teeth right where they were, thank you very much, even if he did sometimes forget to clean them. He watched his mother brush a raw turkey with melted butter, and then sprinkle on salt and pepper. His mouth watered.

“After you brush your teeth and comb your hair, you can walk on down the holler and watch.”

“I did so brush my teeth last night,” he insisted. And added, “I can really go watch this year?”

“I reckon you’re big enough,” his mother said.

He jumped off his chair and ran for the bathroom. He’d never brushed his teeth faster. From the kitchen, he heard his mother yell, “And wear your old gloves! I’m not buying more if you get your new ones dirty.”

James Henry dressed in a layer of long underwear, and then faded blue jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt. From the top of his closet, which he could just reach, he grabbed an old wool hat and last year’s gloves. He made his way back out to the kitchen, and hurdled toward the front door.

“Remember, now,” his mother said, “by the time y’all are done, dinner’ll be ready and on the table. Don’t be late. Tell your daddy, too, when you get down there.”

“I will, Mother,” he said, and grinned at her as he opened the door and stepped out into the cold.

James Henry had seen eleven Thanksgivings, this being the eleventh. Every year, before anyone else woke up, he’d watched his father walk down the holler and join his uncles and older cousins and all the neighbor boys in a tradition he’d at first found frightening, but now thought of as fascinating and necessary. Slaughtering the hog would feed all of them for months.

“And well, too,” his mother would say.

“It’s messy work,” his father warned him, every year. “And it’s hard.”

“You’re not old enough to help yet,” his mother told him. “And anyway, it’ll scare you.”

He was scared, a little, as he made his way through the falling snow down toward the barn and the smokehouse.

He was scared, and his hands trembled in their threadbare gloves. But he was excited, too, and he could feel the electric zing of it all the way down to his fingertips. This year, he’d join the ranks of his elders, and he wouldn’t be just a kid anymore.

He spotted his father first, standing outside of the hog’s pen with his Uncle Virgil and with Larry, an older boy from up the hill. Beside them, there were metal buckets full of steaming water, and a table with knives and gloves.

“Hiya, James Henry,” Larry said.

James Henry elbowed his way into the circle to his father’s side, and said back, “Hey, Larry.”

“Isn’t he a little young to be down here?”

Larry hadn’t addressed that to James Henry, but to his father, who looked down and said, “Your mama let you come down here?”

“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered.

“She tell you you’re ready?”

“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered again.

“Then you can stay,” his father said.

“Yes, sir,” James Henry said, and smiled big and wide at Larry, who’d started to look down at the ground.

“Well, that’s your choice, Porter,” his Uncle Virgil said to his father, “but I wouldn’t let my boy down here quite yet.”

James Henry crossed his arms and glared right at Virgil. “I’m old enough,” he said. “And quit talking about me like I ain’t here.”

Virgil just laughed.

James Henry didn’t much care. Let him laugh at me, he thought. I’m still here. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his father smiling down at him.

“You’re old enough,” Porter said, “and you can stay down here as long as you want to.”

With that, Porter walked toward the barn, and James Henry followed him.

“Daddy,” he asked, “how old were you your first time?”

“I reckon I was about nine,” Porter replied. “Maybe younger. Times was different back then. Little ones had to grow up fast.”

“How about Mother?”

“Your mama didn’t grow up in the holler,” Porter said.

“Where’d she grow up?”

“Philadelphia,” Porter said, “and then she moved down here for me, after the war.”

“What did she do before then?”

“You’ll have to ask her,” Porter answered, “because I ain’t got time to answer all your questions just now.”

James Henry was quiet.

“You ain’t done anything wrong, James Henry,” Porter added. “We just have to get to work if we want to be done by dinner.”

“Oh,” James Henry said. “I see. Can I help?”

“You’re just watching this year. But you can stand right over there while I get things ready.”

James Henry nodded, and wandered over into a dark corner of the barn. He watched for a while, as his father gathered up some extra knives and a couple of saws, but Porter always worked in silence.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah?” Porter answered, but didn’t turn around.

“Can I go outside for a while? It’s not started yet, right? I won’t miss anything?”

“As long as you’re at the pig pen in about ten minutes, you won’t miss nothing.”

James Henry said, “I won’t go too far,” and then jogged out of the barn and towards the smokehouse. He took a moment to stop and scratch one of the barn cats on the head, and then kept on moving, over to the hog’s pen. Larry and Virgil weren’t there anymore, and so he got to take a good, long look at the hog.

He’d seen hogs before. They were fat and muddy, and didn’t move much, from what he could tell. But this hog – this one was special, because it was chosen for the slaughter, and it would feed everyone, and he’d never gotten to see one of those up close on the day before.

“I bet you’re scared,” he told the hog. “Or maybe you don’t know what’s coming.”

The hog sat in silence.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “I’m big enough to not be scared.”

Silence from the hog.

“I reckon you are, too,” James Henry added.

He reached out a hand to pat the hog’s head, but stopped when he heard footsteps behind him.

“It ain’t a pet, James Henry,” Larry said. “Stop fussing over it.”

Behind Larry were Porter and Uncle Virgil, along with a few other men and older boys. Robert, who helped with the stalls, and Tilson, who was only two grades above James Henry. And his Uncle June, too, carrying a rifle.

James Henry shivered. He knew what came next.

Porter walked up behind him and said, “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to.”

James Henry stood right where he was, and kept his eyes open.

“Suit yourself,” Porter said.

When the shot came, it was quick.   

Porter put a hand on James Henry’s head, rubbed at the top of his wool hat and said, “Why don’t you go on back to the house now?”

James Henry watched what was going on around him. The snow fell, and the wind picked up. The men moved fast, methodical. James Henry thought they looked a lot like the bands he saw sometimes on TV, like each man had his own part and his own instrument. It looked a lot like work. Like when mama cut up a chicken for dinner, or when daddy brought home a buck to clean.

James Henry stayed, and his father didn’t try to change his mind. He stayed and he watched, and once the job was mostly done, he walked back up the holler.

When he opened the door, his mother greeted him, told him to go change and wash his face and hands. The house smelled like meat and gravy, and the woodstove still burned away down in the basement. He stood in the doorway, staring out into the room.

“You doing okay?” His mother stooped down and put a hand to his chin. She turned his face right and left, and wiped a smudge of dirt off his cheek.

“I thought…” he started, but didn’t know quite what to say next.

“What did you think?” His mother moved back to the stove, stirred at a pot of green beans.

“I thought I’d feel different,” James Henry said, once he finally found the right words.

“Oh, honey,” his mother said, “it’s just what we have to do to live. It ain’t all that special.”

“Then why’d you make me wait so long?”

“Because,” she said, and sighed, “part of being old enough and big enough and grown enough is understanding exactly what I just told you.”

“It was messy,” he said. “And it smelled bad.”

“I remember the smell my first time, too,” his mother told him. “And I got sick. I didn’t grow up on a farm like you and your daddy.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-two, and you were in my belly.”

“You got sick?”

“I did. And I didn’t eat bacon again for two years. You like bacon, right?”

James Henry nodded, and then walked into the bathroom. He washed his face and hands, and changed into clean clothes. When he came back in the kitchen, his father was home, and his mother was setting the table.

And when they sat down to dinner together a little later, James Henry got to say grace.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the eleventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first ten stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

Cloud Dwellers

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The last story of 2021 will be posted at the end of December.