The day had just begun when we found her. It was barely light; Donnie was herding Baby and me to school. We were dragging our feet, shoulders and ears hunched against the sharp crystal air. The ground was cold and hard from a late spring thaw; deeper patches of snow still clung despite the warming days.
“What is it?” Baby whispered, standing well away.
“It’s an angel,” I whispered back, my fingers poking small wet flakes from her dark hair.
“That ain’t no angel,” Donnie hissed. “Don’t touch her; you know what Dad says about strangers.”
“Strangers carry diseases. Strangers can kill us.” Baby recited, sucking her thumb.
Donnie dropped his school bag in the snow. “Cassie, I’m going to get the horse. We’ll take her up to Old Winston. She might be worth something to him. Maybe he’ll cut us a break.”
It didn’t take a genius to know we’d had a bad season last year. Money was tight, the rent was months overdue. Mother and Dad thought we couldn’t hear when they sat over the kitchen table at night, counting out the pennies and fretting, but we knew.
Old Winston was our landlord. He had the big farm house and hundreds of lush acres. We paid him four hundred a month for a leaking, wind-rattled shack and twenty acres of the hardest soil in the county. Father ploughed Winston’s land to earn steady money but it wasn’t a lot, so we farmed our bit to make up the difference.
I didn’t like Old Winston.
“Get lost, you skinny little bastards,” he’d grumble, snatching the brown rent envelope from Baby’s hands, swinging at her ankles with his walking stick. He wasn’t very quick and Baby was always off the porch fast, laughing as the wind blew his curses across the fields after us.
On top of that, he never fixed anything on the house, even when the roof fell in over the kitchen. He smelled of sweat and old pipe smoke and dirty socks. And when Father was away at market he’d come round and touch Mother’s hair and find excuses.
I stamped my cold feet, and blew on my cramping fingers, staring at her as she lay on the hard ground in nothing but a thin dress. “You can’t do that,” I choked. “He’ll hurt her, and you know it.”
Donnie grabbed my wrist hard and twisted. “What I know is mother’s got cancer, we got bills, and she’s going to Old Winston.”
As soon as Donnie disappeared down the hill, her eyes opened. They were the colour of dewdrops glinting on ferns in the early light.
“Hello, Angel,” Baby cooed, handing her a boiled sweet.
“Thank you Baby. I love Lemon Drops.” The Angel’s voice sounded like old church bells ringing on a faraway hill.
“What’s your name? Are you really an Angel?” I whispered, voice catching in my throat. She was glorious: her eyes, her hair, her skin. They all had a glow that was nothing to do with the frosty air. Every inch was beautiful.
“I’m whatever you need, Cassie. My name is Pearl. ”
“Like from the ocean?”
“Maybe, Cassie. Maybe.”
She put her arms around the horse’s neck and climbed on, Donnie still too skittish to touch her. I reached up and held her hand as we walked, down the hill, across two fields. Just to make a point.
Old Winston grinned ear to ear, the first smile I’d ever seen on him. He wrote Donnie a note, signed and dated.
All debts forgiven.
Pearl put her slender white hand on his arm and smiled up at him. Underneath he added:
Plus two months’ rent free.
Pearl touched his cheek. He crumpled up the note and started over.
All debts forgiven + three months’ rent free
Pearl never uttered a single word, but her eyes said goodbye in a way that scared me. My heart shrank watching her beautiful pale hand on his leathery wrist.
“You can go now children,” Old Winston grunted, shutting the door firm behind us. It was the first time he’d ever addressed us without swearing.
“But he’ll…” I stood rooted to the porch.
“Forget about it, Cassie. Pearl said she’s whatever we need. You told me that yourself.” He shoved the note under my nose. “What we need is THIS. She can take care of herself.”
Donnie pulled me off the wooden porch and threw me up onto the horse behind Baby. I cried all the way home. I cried all through dinner, never answering Mother’s questions. I cried at bedtime prayers. Each tear sliced through me. We left her there. We left her with him.
Sometime that night, a fire started in Old Winston’s house. His bedroom and the side porch blazed, scorching the ground, turning the remaining snow into steaming puddles that iced over into a smooth glassy sheet by morning. But for the smell of smoke, the rest of the house stood firm, as if it never happened.
The bank manager came a month later. Old Winston had no kin. The whole place, main house and shack, was ours if we’d take over the mortgage payments. Old Winston was paying the bank a hundred less a month than he’d been charging us just for the shack.
That summer we started rebuilding. With soot smeared fingers, Baby and Donnie unearthed hundreds of tiny glowing pearls from the rubble. I washed them carefully, then put them in a jam jar on the kitchen table, kissing each one before it landed, plink plink plonk, in the bottom of the jar.
published 25 November 2011
by Ron Campbell
I reckoned I'd seen it all.
Figured I'd 'bout had my share of surprises.
Had my life's full measure of the odd un 'spected occurrences.
Had my fill of the "natural shocks the flesh is heir to" as the poet says.
I reckoned wrong.
There was one more shock the Almighty had in store for me. And looking back on it I guess this one was more of the super-natural variety.
After all, ain't nothing unusual 'bout waking up in bed one morning to find your wife dead in your spoonin' arms without no warning. Turned all cold and blue and with eyes rolled all back and up like a throat slit heifer.
Nothing unusual about that.
Prolly' happens every day.
Specially in these parts, where the the winter cuts bone deep and the sun rises cold and white and never shines, just glares down all day like an angry god.
Hell, ain't nothing out of the ordinary to step in a post hole one morning a few years later and look down to see your knee bent all wrong.
Happens with a certain regularity I reckon.
Sure, not everybody has to walk the five miles to that gol' blamed mental midget of a sawbones they got for a doctor back in town, have him set the leg wrong and plaster it all permanent-like so the parts can grind forever.
Hell, if I was a horse he would have had the decency to shoot me.
But still, it ain't like I'm the only feller with a hitch in his git-along.
But this here has to be something of a gad-burned first.
Let me start at the beginning.
I was laying in bed. The ghost of the sun hadn't been up for more than an hour. I was trying to hold onto a dream that was leaking out of me from the night before. A dream I always have when the nights are coldest.
Effie still alive and full of laughter and the little sounds women make when they're puttering around in the kitchen.
In the dream the sun is warm. It slants all golden through the window and turns her freckles golden too. Her arms look speckled with butterscotch and I want to lick up every drop. And I come up behind her and brush her hair away from the back of her neck where there ain't no freckles at all and lay a small kiss there like a present for her to find later.
And she purrs real quiet-like.
And I feel like I could live forever in the space between her shoulder blades.
And then I wake up.
It's this knocking at the door.
It's those goddamned runts what live in my back twenty, out past the post hole I done stepped in so many years ago. How those dirty noisy little whelps keep getting born over there I don't rightly know. Nothing but runny noses and caterwauls at all hours. Only reason I rented that shack to them was their mother looked like Effie in a certain light.
I cracked the door and took the rent envelope from the littlest one, her hair a tangle of dried buckwheat. Late again I thought and said “Get lost, you skinny little bastards,” loud enough for them to hear but no louder.
Then came the surprise.
Through the crack in the door I saw her.
Those scrawny kids had pushed her onto my porch, where she stood unsteady but perfect, like something I'd seen in a picture book once of a girl standing on a shell, but real as you or me or this dad-gasted walking stick. In this world but not of this world if you get my meaning.
The next bit is a bit of a swirl. Like when you pour a dab of heavy cream in a pot of stew. Only this was no stew. She smelled like cut grass and good earth and store-bought soap. She smelled like Effie.
Her hand floated over and came to rest on mine. Her body followed. I could feel everything that was warm about her pour into me like sap. With her still resting on me I watched my hands scribble a note and hand it to the varmints that stood at the edge of my porch.
Some kind of reward for bringing me this... vision.
For that's what she was.
And my eyes gnawed on her like a starving man.
Starving for that space between her shoulder blades.
Later, as we lay there curled like two spoons in my bed, I unclasped the pearl necklace she wore around her pale neck. I hadn't noticed it before. I hadn't noticed that my leg had stopped hurting either. I placed a kiss on the nape of her neck like an offering. I closed my eyes. I inhaled her scent all clean and bright and sweet but not too much so.
I reckon it's about then that I realized it.
What I wanted.
What I longed for, more than anything.
It was that warmth.
The warmth that Effie had had.
The warmth of a sun that doesn't glare but shines all golden and full of promise.
And I wanted never to be cold again.
So I tucked myself between those shoulder blades and listened to the sound of our two heartbeats match up.
It sounded like two horses in an easy lope across a sun drenched field.
And there was nothing but the smell of warm wind and good earth and store-bought soap.
far off in the distance,
published 25 November 2011