For the past few months, I’ve been struggling to work on my in-progress novel, TBH. It’s not that I’m at a loss for where the story is heading, but for some reason, I just can’t work on it. It’s been a little frustrating not to write, so yesterday I decided to just sit down and see where this little seed of an idea would take me, and this short story is the end result.
by Melissa L. Colon
The tall grass tickles against my leg as we creep through the hammock. My feet sink into the muck with each step, mud oozing between my toes, clinging desperately to my skin. It squeals and squeaks in complaint as I pull each foot free, and we continue this dance, the muck and I, on our way to the Tuskawilla River. Beside me, Bran does the same, walking between me and the stream. We don’t dare walk in the tannins filled spring water, where Alligators lay in wait. While docile unless hungry, they can startle easily, and their massive jaws, once locked on their prey, are deadly. Bran stops, pointing soundlessly at an enormous Alligator, perhaps seven or eight feet long, lying along the opposite side of the banks, sunning itself in the late winter morning. It lays still, as if it doesn’t have a care in the world, but its eyes are open, staring our way. My breath catches at the sight of it, and I fight the urge to wipe away the beads of sweat that are building at my temple, as the sun’s rays reach through this patch of forest, beating down relentlessly on us. Bran grips his walking stick tighter, pulling it from the muck as we begin moving forward again, our eyes warily on the beast that could take us down without much notice, but as we go, the Alligator closes its eyes, as if sensing we aren’t anything to fear. We continue on like this, stopping from time to time, navigating exposed root systems, climbing over downed trees, or surveying the woods for other four-legged threats, but soon we’re at The Crossing.
The Crossing is the scariest part of the journey so far for me. I never like wading through the murky, brown water. Besides the big beasts, enormous, venomous snakes live in this section of the hammock as well, and I’m glad Bran is with me. I’ve never made this journey alone, but Bran has and returned to tell his tale of adventures many times. As if he knows I’m thinking of him, or maybe he just senses my trepidation, he smiles down at me. His brown hair, wet from the humidity and heat, hangs in his face, almost hiding his bright blue eyes, but I see the twinkle in them as he looks at me. He turns his attention back to The Crossing, poking his stick into the brown water, churning up the silt, making it harder to see what lurks beneath, but he seems satisfied that nothing is waiting to pull us under and turns to me once more.
“It’s safe, Cailey. But you can ride on my back if you’d like.” He waits for my decision, offering neither judgment or encouragement.
Taking a deep breath, I whisper, “I’ll walk.”
Bran nods, stepping into the water without hesitation, and I follow, suppressing the urge to gasp at the coolness of the water. The Crossing is fed by an underwater spring, not far from where we are, so the temperature, even in the shadow of the Great Trees, is a welcome coolness on this oppressive morning. If it weren’t for the dangers all around, I would stand there all day, but Bran moves forward, and I follow behind, his stick pushing away rocks, and frightening away fish and other creatures. Once we’re on the other side, we head away from the stream, farther into the hammock, where other animals await. Small, furry-tailed rodents dart up trees, and a larger bandit faced one wakes long enough from his hovel to confirm we aren’t a threat. Rumors of the wild dogs and big cats keep my eyes sharp, but we have yet to encounter either of them, and I’m glad. The hammock gives way to the ruined road, exposing the old civilization to us, and it is just the beginning of the sights that interest me along the way. I know not to step on the road. It’s cracked, gray and black surface burn bare feet, especially on a day like today. Bran’s steps become lighter now, more hurried, but I lag behind, staring at where the road ends.
“Can we go?” I ask Bran, my voice betraying my excitement. I’ve only been once, and it seems like a lifetime ago now.
“Just for a few minutes.” I know I’m asking a lot of him, delaying him on our journey, but there might be something inside. Something I haven’t seen in, well, forever, it seems like.
Together, we walk alongside the ruined road, following it to the remains of a brick building. It was a School once, whatever that means. Grass and weeds have taken over most of the property, bright purple flowers pushing their way through cracks in the road. School appears to be sealed up tight. Doors with no windows are on the side closest to us. We walk to the back, and I see what Bran tells me was the Playground, buried in the tall grass. He warns me not to go out there, and even though I want to see what this thing called a Playground is, I know I need to listen to him, or he’ll pull me away, and back on track to our mission. Bran leads me to a door, pointing to the dirt covered shards of glass that have been laying on the ground forever.
“Don’t step on any of that,” he says, pushing what he can out of the way with his stick before ducking through the door and into the building. I slip in behind him, and he pushes me to the side of a long hallway before calling out, “Hello? Is anyone here?”
His voice echoes and then silence returns as an answer, so we wander together down the halls of School. This is the first time I’ve been inside, so I peek excitedly into each room, wondering about the dusty furniture left behind. They sit in neat little rows, like soldiers waiting to be called to duty. There are chairs next to these four-legged, tiny tables, and I ask Bran about them.
“Desks,” he answers. “Students used to sit at them, while the Teacher taught them lessons.”
“Oh.” I ponder his reply, staring into the room. School is a learning place. I hadn’t understood that before now. “It seems very formal.”
“I think it was,” he tells me, knowing I’m comparing this setting to the way we learn in our village. “I think some settlements may still teach like this, but I don’t know.”
I nod, following Bran further into School. He smiles down at me as he stops in front of another open door. “I think you’ll like this.”
We enter, and I stop as I see what this room is. Even though the roof has collapsed on a large portion of it, there are ancient books in here, some still in decent condition. I can’t contain my excitement as I hurry to where they are lined up next to each other, and pull first one, and then another, from the shelf, holding them close so I can see their covers in the dim light. In the village, we only have a few books, and I’ve read them all so many times, that they are starting to fall apart.
“Can I take some?” I ask, and he nods, walking over to another shelf to check some out for himself.
Yanking my knapsack from my back, I pull it open and survey the contents, trying to decide how many books will fit inside. I think maybe six or seven if I arrange everything right, and turn to the shelves again, getting lost in so many choices.
“Hurry up,” Bran says as he stuffs a few in his bag as well. “We need to get going.”
I grab the books and shove them inside, but they won’t all fit. Quickly, I pull out my change of clothes, my lunch, and my water skin, rearranging everything, but it still won’t close. A sigh of frustration escapes me, and Bran kneels beside me, grabbing two of the books I’ve chosen, and places them in his own pack.
“Thanks,” I say, smiling up at him as he nods.
“Can we go now?” He words it in the form of a question, but it’s not, and I close my pack, getting to my feet as I sling it over my shoulder. The weight of the books is going to make my joints ache soon, but it’s worth it, and soon we’re out of School and back on track. We are only in the woods for a few moments before we’re amid the ruins again. This one is called Neighborhood and people used to live here. What’s left of their homes intrigue me, but I’ve wasted all the time I could at School and know better than to ask to look inside any of these relics. Side by side we pass between two of the houses, and just behind it is the river. A canoe sits tied to an old dock, and that’s our destination. As we get closer, the splashing sound of a startled Alligator catches my attention, and my heart starts beating faster in anticipation of our time on the river. Our history books tell us that the river used to be a lake, over-filled with Alligators, but after the Great Storming Time, when the waters rose, and the people fled, all of the lakes became interconnected into one giant river that travels south to the decimated village of Bourne, and north all the way to trading city of Jack.
Bran leads the way, pulling the canoe close, and tossing his pack in before turning and motioning to me. “Get in.”
He reaches for my hand, and when we touch, a slight tingle escapes like a shot, heading straight up my fingers and settling in my heart and belly simultaneously. Bran looks at me as if he’s felt it too, and for a moment I hope he has. I climb into the canoe, moving carefully onto the seat farthest out, settling my pack next to his, and grabbing one of the oars. Bran slides the boat into the water and climbs in behind me, using the other paddle to push us away from the dock. We glide effortlessly into the river, working as a team to point our canoe northward. A welcome breeze tumbles down upon us, and I shake my head slightly, willing the air underneath my dark brown hair. This river, though dangerous, winds through some of the most beautiful scenery, and as much as I concentrate on the rhythmic strokes of my oar, I can’t help but take in the few Alligators floating like logs on the water. A family of Otters plays along the banks, and a Black Bear drinks from the shore not far from them. Raptors dive for lunch, coming down with talons splayed, and a moment later, their fierce wings flapping furiously, a wide-eyed fish dying in the sky. We pass under the remains of a bridge, it’s span a shadow from the sun for just a moment, before we’re back out in its streaming rays once more.
“I need to get my hat,” I tell Bran, settling the oar on my lap as I lean forward and rummage through my pack, careful not to lose any of my books or get them wet. A moment later, I have it, and I settle the wide-brimmed straw hat on my head, pulling the tiny strings under my chin and securing them there. Sliding my oar back into the water, we continue on, making good time to our destination.
It’s late afternoon when we near the shores of Providence. The last time I was here, I was just a little girl, and the memories of that time assault me like a pesky Mud Dauber. Shoving the thoughts back down where they came from, I help steer the canoe to one of the smaller docks, and Bran carefully hops out, tying the boat up before I hand him his pack and mine. He drops them on the wooden planks and grabs my elbow as I stand, helping me get from the canoe to the dock without falling into the water. Providence is much bigger than our village, with several dirt-covered streets laid out in a crisscross fashion. Wooden sidewalks link the buildings together nearest to the docks, and as I watch the people walking along them, I’m suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. We’ve traveled all day, and the heat and humidity have made my hair stick to my face and neck. When I look down at my hands, I see the dirt covering them, and my feet look even worse. My dress is plain and filthy as well, and I worry that the people of Providence will be repulsed by me.
“Maybe I’ll wait here,” I say to Bran, stopping in my tracks and turning back to the shore. “To make sure no one steals the canoe.”
“No one will steal it,” he says, reaching for my hand, lacing his fingers in mine. “Besides, we’re not going back until tomorrow.”
I nod, remembering, but I still can’t force my feet to move forward into the crowd of well-dressed people. Bran follows my gaze, and it’s as if he can read my mind because he says, “It’s okay.”
He pulls me along through the streets, but I can’t tell where we are going because I keep my head down, afraid to see the looks that anyone we pass might give me. When we finally stop, I glance up at the building before us. It’s a house for The Motherless. People like us, and Bran pulls on the rope, ringing the bell at the front door. When it opens, a kindly woman stands in the doorway, and Bran introduces us to her.
“Come in, come in,” she says. “I’ve been expecting you. Was it a rough journey?”
“It wasn’t too bad,” Bran tells her.
“Well,” she looks us over, and I lower my eyes to the floor once more as she says, “I bet you’d both like a bath and a meal.”
“Yes, please,” Bran answers, and I whisper a thank you as we follow her through the house. The heavenly smell of whatever our dinner is going to be wafts through the air as she leads us through the kitchen and outside. The yard is fenced in and behind a row of skinned logs is a real copper bathtub, with water already waiting in it.
“Who wants to go first?” she asks and Bran offers to let me, so I nod shyly and follow the woman to the relative privacy of the bath.
“What’s your name again, Honey?” she asks as I tug at my dress, pulling it off and placing it on a hook drilled into one of the logs.
“Cailey,” I whisper, shy around this stranger who is about to see me in a way very few people ever have.
“That’s a pretty name,” she says. “How old are you?”
I shake my head and answer, “I’m not sure. Maybe fifteen.”
She seems surprised by my answer, and I know it’s because I’m not very tall. Bran, who I know is seventeen, towers over me, and most people in our village forget that I’m almost of age because of my petite nature.
“Well, I’m Mrs. Peale, in case you didn’t get my name before.” She motions me to a stump, where I sit down, pulling my shift tight around me as the evening wind stirs. “Let me scrub the dirt off your feet first. Otherwise, your bath water won’t be very pleasant.”
I watch as she dips a small brush into the water, then reaches for one of my feet. I’m embarrassed by the way they look, but if she’s disgusted by them, she doesn’t let on as she carefully runs the brush against, first the tops, and then the bottoms of both feet, loosening all the grime and muck from today’s travels.
“Did you see anything interesting on your journey?” she asks and I hesitate before I answer.
“A School,” I finally say, looking down at her as she glances up at me. Her face is soft and round, her eyes compassionate, and I wonder how she came to work for The Motherless. I want to ask her, but I’m afraid it will upset her.
“A School,” she repeats as if that’s the most fascinating thing in the world. “That is interesting indeed.”
“There were books,” I whisper, letting her in on the secret, but not the fact that I have seven of them in my pack and Bran’s.
She pauses for a moment and then gets back to scrubbing, but as she works she asks, “You can read?”
“Yes,” I answer. “Not very well, but good enough.”
“That’s good,” Mrs. Peale answers. She pats my feet and says, “I think you’re ready.”
I pull my shift off and slip into the water, sighing at the way the warmth tingles against my skin. Mrs. Peale hands me a bar of soap and reaches for my clothes, taking them to a washing barrel to soak. She disappears into the house as I run the soap over my arms, down my skinny legs, and then across my chest. I spend several minutes scrubbing dirt out from under my fingernails before I finally start soaping up my hair. Kneading my scalp with my fingertips feels lovely, and I duck under the water several times before my hair is squeaky clean. Mrs. Peale returns just as I’m finishing up with a towel, a new shift, and a dress that is probably one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.
“I think these will fit you,” she says as she helps me from the water. She turns her attention to the tub while I dress, pulling the plug and letting the water drain into the narrow trough underneath it. I watch with interest as the water flows at an angle away from the house and into the yard. When the water from my bath is gone, she replaces the plug and by that time I’m dressed.
Bran steps out of the house with several buckets to fill the tub again, but he stops as he sees me, and smiles gently at me. He leans in as I pass him, whispering, “You look very pretty.”
A warmth I’ve never known fills me, settling in unexpected places, and I almost skip back into the house behind Mrs. Peale.
“Let me help you with your hair,” she offers, and I nod, settling into the chair she pulls out for me, waiting as she carefully combs out my hair, pulling gently on various tangles, and for a moment, another memory, one similar to this, washes over me, and I fight back the tears that have unexpectedly ignited out of nowhere. When she’s done, Mrs. Peale heads to a shelf and selects several plates, handing them to me and pointing me into a dining room with a long table, covered by a soft, white tablecloth. I set the plates in front of each chair, and come back into the kitchen to see what else I can do to help Mrs. Peale. As she hands me wooden spoons, each one made painstakingly perfect, laughter echoes through the house as the front door opens. Children of various ages come streaming into the kitchen along with a man that I guess might be Mr. Peale. As she points the kids to the sink to wash up, Bran appears in clean clothes, just a tad bit big on him, and his dark hair hangs in his face as it always does. Introductions with the other Motherless are made, and we settle into the chairs in the dining room as Mr. and Mrs. Peale take the seats at the head and foot of the table. One of the children says grace, and soon the pot with a savory stew makes its way around to each of us. I watch as the children take one heaping spoonful from the pot and do the same, passing it to Bran who is sitting next to me. Then, a plate of homemade bread is handed to me, and I take one, anxious to sink my teeth into this incredible smelling meal.
Bran makes small talk with Mr. Peale, and the children tell Mrs. Peale about their day in the fields. It’s hard to follow all the conversation, and between the bath, my filled belly, and the journey, my eyes inadvertently close as I start to nod off. Laughter startles me awake, and I grin good-naturedly at the kids.
“Why don’t I show you where you’re going to sleep tonight,” Mrs. Peale says, and after she assures me that she doesn’t need any assistance cleaning up, I agree.
I follow her up the stairs to a room with four wooden beds lined up in a row. They’re just big enough for someone my size and for a moment, I wonder how Bran will fit into one of these. Mrs. Peale says goodnight, and once she’s gone, I slip out of the pretty dress, hanging it on a hook next to the bed, and climb under the patchwork quilt. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m fast asleep, dreaming of the wild hammock near our village and of Bran’s smile.
It’s early morning when the girls wake up, the sun barely streaming through the windows. Hearing them move about the room, I decide to get up too and grab the dress Mrs. Peale gave me, pulling it on and holding the fabric close to my nose, taking in the unusual, fresh scent. I follow the girls downstairs to the dining room where breakfast already awaits. It’s some sort of porridge mixture, but it tastes good, and there are biscuits to go with it. As Mr. Peale and the kids head out to their fields, Bran and I clean up for Mrs. Peale before we get ready to go.
“Your clothes are clean and dry,” Mrs. Peale tells us, and as Bran grabs his to go change, Mrs. Peale says to me, “You can keep that dress. I also have something else for both of you.”
We follow her to the front porch and there, waiting for us, are boots. “I’m guessing they’ll fit you.”
Bran grins, and I can’t help but hug Mrs. Peale around the waist. “Thank you!”
“Come back any time,” she says, as we head into town, clean, fed, and well rested.
Reaching for my hand, Bran pulls me close, his heart beating in concert with mine for just a moment, before he releases me. We pass several storefronts until we find the one that Bran’s looking for.
“Can I help you?” the man behind the counter asks.
“You have an order waiting for us,” Bran tells him. “For Spring Hammock.”
“Oh, yes,” the shopkeeper replies. “Follow me.”
He leads us into a side room, and points to several cloth bags, tied shut with rope, and says, “That’s yours.”
Bran reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a pouch filled with coins and hands them over. The shopkeeper looks inside and seems satisfied with the amount, nodding that we can take the goods. Bran grabs several of the bags, and I take the remaining two, and together, weighed down with the supplies our village needs to get us through the next few months, we follow the dirt road down to the docks. Our little canoe is waiting for us, and Bran gets me settled into the boat first, our knapsacks go up in front of me, and he tucks the supply bags behind me. Once he gets in, we push away from the dock, leaving Providence behind. It’s a long day ahead of us on the river, but as we paddle in unison, my thoughts wander to the events of the last twenty-four hours, and the day spent with Bran.
We’re almost to the dilapidated dock we left from yesterday when I see several of our villagers waiting for us. They’ll help us haul our goods home, and it surprises me that I’m sad to see them, but I realize it’s because I’ve enjoyed this time alone with Bran, and it’s about to end.
As if he senses my thoughts, or possibly he feels the same way, he leans forward slightly and whispers, “I hope you can come along next time.”
A smile breaks through my features, and I nod happily as I answer, “I’d like that.”