Daily Yonder readers may be familiar with contributor Kathleen M. Jacobs, who’s written commentaries on a variety of topics for us, including hygge, the trails of West Virginia, and “The Andy Griffith” show. Beyond the pages of our publication, she is an author of books for young readers. For our latest collaboration with Jacobs, we are premiering a new piece of that creative work, a collection of six short stories that speak to the lived experiences of Appalachian women. It’s a subject that comfortably overlaps with the cultural mission and coverage focus of the Daily Yonder.

You’ll find the first trio of stories below, and the second trio here.

PANCHLORA NIVEA

Ada Weevil tapped on the crusty outer shell of the cockroach with the tip of a black plastic-coated bobby pin that she kept an ample supply of in her back pocket.  She used one on each side of her hair to hold in place the straight bangs that she was trying to grow back.  And as she bent to examine the cockroach, the bobby pin on the right side loosened and settled beside the cockroach.  And until she picked it up to hold her bangs back in place, her vision was blocked in that eye temporarily, putting on hold for a few minutes the further examination of the specimen.  She tried closing her right eye and relying only on her left eye.  She found herself chuckling, even though she knew that what she was thinking was not funny.  She recalled a distant cousin who had a lazy eye and a mean disposition.  She didn’t want to be like him. “He’s meaner than a snake,” her pawpaw always said whenever anyone brought up his name, turning his head to the right and spitting a line of tobacco juice onto the front yard, his hunting dog, Daisy, jumping back a few feet every time. 

Her mother was annoyed whenever Ada forgot to pull back the fallen strands with the bobby pins, but Ada didn’t seem to mind the intrusion.  She just dealt with it.  Her mother often repeated those same words, as if in a mantra, but she didn’t like to hear Ada say them.  It wasn’t until many years later that Ada knew why.  Her mother didn’t mind so much the growing-out stage, which was something Ada had decided to do more than once, but it was the bangs falling into her eyes that caused her mother irritation, like the itch from a bad rash.  Ada never could figure out why this cycle bothered her mother.  After all, she was the one who had to contend with the annoyance and yet for Ada it wasn’t really an annoyance.  She liked to watch them fan out as she blew air upwards, the created wing span somewhat humorous to her way of thinking.  At other times, she liked to snap her head with enough fervor to send the growing bangs to the side, even though they remained there for only a brief moment before sliding back down.  But this game she liked.  And she would often chuckle at its cyclical nature.

“Ada, would you please pull those bangs back with a bobby pin.  You know how I hate it when they fall all over your eyes.  Honestly, I don’t know how you stand it.”  And Ada’s mother would send from her mouth a cloudy stream of cigarette smoke, which Ada hated as much as her mother hated her bangs falling into her eyes.  She couldn’t understand why her mother smoked one after the other, until she learned in health class that it was an addiction, like her father’s alcohol.  And one like her father’s that would eventually leave an unhappy trail in its wake, like a feral cat.  Ada knew this certain demise without reserve.  And her mother knew it too, as she sat by the opened window, a slightly moth-eaten throw wrapped around her shoulders like she was expecting the summer heat to change suddenly, readying herself for inclement weather.

She knew better than to tell her mother what she thought every time she scolded her for something that seemed so unimportant.  To Ada’s way of thinking what did a few wild strands of hair mean next to world hunger and poverty and global warming and a mother addicted to nicotine and a father addicted to alcohol?  What did it matter that she let her bangs grow out—again—and that unless she held them back with a bobby pin the world would end if they fell into her eyes.  She didn’t know who would care or why, but apparently her mother did.  Naturally, Ada didn’t vocalize any of these thoughts.  She yearned to, but instead played them over and over in her head, which ended up bringing her a tremendous amount of satisfaction.  Ada wanted desperately too to remind her mother of the dangers of cigarette smoking, but only repeated the litany silently, having bookmarked a page in her health textbook, checking off each one with a different colored pencil, to keep the repetitive boredom at bay.  She knew that her mother knew the dangers without being told, like her father, but their apparent denials said otherwise.  She wondered about the perspective of it all.

The black, plastic-coated bobby pins were kept on her mother’s dresser top inside a chipped china dish with painted, faded pink roses in the center, a honeybee etched inside the bud working at its nectar.  Ada liked to move the pins to the sides of the dish to reveal the roses, but they always slid to the center, befriending the roses that were apparently embarrassed by their growing lack of appeal, like the pink fingernail polish that seemed to chip from Ada’s fingernails before they even had time to completely dry, because she was too impatient to wait.

“She opened and straightened the black, plastic-coated, bobby pin—something else her mother would have scolded her for, since that meant the end of yet “another perfectly good bobby pin”—and poked gently at the legs of the cockroach, noticing that one of them was missing.”
 

Ada spotted the comatose cockroach as she left the library, nearly stepping on it, but seeing it just before the ball of her right foot started its descent, tripping over her flip-flops as her eyes met the legs of the insect, Dr. Grub catching her before she toppled him over, too.  

“Whoa there, Miss Ada.  What’s your hurry?”

“Oh, Dr. Grub, I’m so very sorry.  I was just about to squash the living life out of that cockroach there which seems to be deader than a doorknob anyway, but you know how I just love bugs, even dead ones.”

“Yes young lady, I know you do.  Well, carry on,” and he set Ada back on solid ground, picking up the book her favorite librarian had suggested she read, because she knew how much Ada loved the life of bugs.  And recalling now the opening sentence of “The Metamorphosis” seemed to lessen Ada’s embarrassment just a bit.

“Thanks, Dr. Grub.  Carry on.”

Dr. Grub chuckled and winked, and Ada tried very hard to focus on the cockroach instead of Dr. Grub’s lean frame and angular jawline and deep-set chocolate eyes, not to mention his perfectly pleated khaki trousers and his starched white cotton shirt, his monogram in navy blue block letters on the shirt’s pocket, the cuffs turned inside each sleeve, not over the sleeve, like her daddy wore.  And everything else about Dr. Grub reminded her of her daddy.  She didn’t want it to, but it did.  She imagined that her daddy might have seen himself in Dr. Grub, too.  Ada closed her eyes, shook her head as if to clear her mind of any thought of her daddy, and crouched down to further inspect the insect.  She didn’t have time today to fantasize about Dr. Grub and her mother one day marrying and all of them living happily ever after, Dr. Grub convincing her mother to stop smoking cigarettes incessantly and return to her former self—the one in the photograph on top of Ada’s second-hand dresser, her mother wearing a red, white, and blue cotton sailor blouse with three buttons designed to look like sailboats, her teeth sparkling white like piano keys, not the growing color of light rust,  her hair clean and fresh and resting in waves on the tips of her shoulders.

She opened and straightened the black, plastic-coated, bobby pin—something else her mother would have scolded her for, since that meant the end of yet “another perfectly good bobby pin”—and poked gently at the legs of the cockroach, noticing that one of them was missing.  She also noticed that this insect had only three legs, not six like the other cockroaches she kept.  Another mysterious observance was that this cockroach was very pretty in color, unlike the other cockroaches that she had amassed in her collection.  And suddenly, as if she had just been told that summer would last another month, her heart fluttered just a bit.  She realized that this specimen was a Cuban cockroach, something she had only seen pictures of in her insect field guild.  She further examined its underbelly’s intricate, transparent webbing, pulling out from the back pocket of her Levi’s her small orange spiral notebook and skinny red pencil, trying to record if its various greens matched more the color of faded lawn grass or pistachio, her very favorite nut. 

The insect’s coloring was completely different from the reddish-brown shading of all the other cockroaches she had seen before, which was very close to the recent auburn hair coloring that her mother had applied to her own tresses:  Clairol’s Balsam 612rb, medium reddish brown.  While the cockroaches that she had in her collection had the translucent webbing that reminded Ada of stockinged-faced burglars, this one reminded her of an intricate x-ray film that revealed layer upon layer of a delicate, flaky pastry with pistachio cream filling in between its multi-layered construction.  It also reminded her of a vintage photo negative that was tinted in a pale color of yellow, two couples posed, frozen in time; the ladies looking demure; the men, unabashed.

Ada’s daddy convinced her that the reason she loved pistachio nuts was because when her mother was pregnant with her, she craved them.  Her daddy would shell them night after night for her mother for nine long months until he was convinced that he wore the shading of the nut on the tips of his fingers.  Ada looked and looked for the remnants of the shading whenever he took her hand on their walks through the woods behind their rural Appalachian home collecting butterflies and caterpillars and moths and beetles and ladybugs and melodious cicadas and crickets and grasshoppers.  But even when she squinted and became nearly comatose from being fixated on his fingers she could never see the color of pistachios.

“Oh, it’s there,” he said, whenever she insisted that she couldn’t see it.  “You’re not looking close enough.  Maybe one day when you are older, you will see it clearly,” he would say in his gentle, almost whisper-like, voice.  But that was so long ago, that Ada would find herself surprisingly in tears trying to recall those moments that, over time, had blurred—much like the negative she kept in an old cigar box, along with her dead insects and her collection of vintage Cracker Jack prizes, and the smallest bird nest she had ever seen. When Ada flipped the insect over, she discovered overlaying, feather-like wings that when lifted were like looking through a slightly-frosted window, on an early winter’s morning.  Ada found that without remembering when, she was no longer crouching over the bug, but eyeing it at ground level, oblivious to passersby entering and exiting the library.  She lifted the bug from the concrete pavement and gently touched its slightly oily body.  A warm summer breeze, dripping from the sweltering humidity, picked up enough momentum to sweep Ada’s bangs back like magic, setting to flutter ever so slightly the wings of the banana cockroach and suddenly Ada wished it was alive and set free to fly.

SHUFFLE

Dewey Allan’s head had fallen straight forward, his chin resting at the base of his neck, a few gray strands of his fine hair lightly touching his bushy eyebrows.  The half-read newspaper mimicked his own resolve, resting limply on his knees, and once again his wife of nearly fifty years found herself recalling days when their energy level was much higher and they were less prone to drop off to sleep mid-morning.  Fanny, rising from her old, nearly-threadbare faded green floral upholstered chair to walk towards him, bended at the waist just a bit and leaned in slightly towards Dewey to check to make sure that he was, indeed, breathing gently, barely tapping his rounded shoulder before walking to the scratched cherry table that had sat at the front entry for more years than she could recall.  She pulled open the drawer, and reached underneath the stack of K-Mart receipts and Kroger receipts and Walgreen receipts to recover the stack of cards that she had created and amassed over the past several months from watching segments of HGTV’s “House Hunters,” the deck tied with a satin aubergine ribbon. 

Fanny had created each card from sheets of multi-colored construction paper, using the ace of hearts from a deck of playing cards as a template, remembering now the child-like thrill she felt when she pushed her buggy down the aisle of school supplies, memories of shopping for pencils and notebooks and boxes of Crayola Crayons for her children who were now grown and married with children of their own traveling through her memory, like the steady trickle of water that constantly ran from their kitchen faucet.  She recalled that initially it had been a rather silly idea, but now that the project was complete, she thought differently.  Fanny, she had said to herself at the time, you have lost your mind.  But since she began the project, she was convinced that it might have been a good idea after all.  Perhaps one of her best ideas ever.

She recalled making the trip to K-Mart several months ago when Back-to-School promotions were underway, advertisements in the Sunday paper spilling from the center folds onto her dated red and white chrome kitchen table like leaves falling from the trees at the beginning of the fall season.  Advertisements for jeans and shirts and athletic shoes and backpacks and school supplies that ranged from the obvious to hand sanitizers and packs of Kleenex tissues blanketed the table top.  Fanny observed the scattered sheets of colorful advertisements and recalled from her days of decoupaging that a light coating of adhesive just might improve the lackluster table top, covering up years of use, and suddenly dismissing the idea completely after realizing that she would always know what was underneath.  Fanny sighed and picked up the pile of advertisements and crushed them into the trash can underneath the kitchen sink.  

Now, she sat at that same kitchen table, rocking back and forth as the right back chair leg had lost its footed cap, causing it to wobble just a bit—not necessarily in an annoying way as much as in a rhythmic, somewhat therapeutic way, allowing Fanny time to replay in her mind the day last summer when she had made the trip to K-Mart to pick up a new Barbie doll for her granddaughter’s birthday and a pair of cotton flannel pajamas for herself and a pack of Fruit-of-the-Loom undershirts for Dewey.  It was on hearing the excited voices of a group of children a few aisles over from her in the office supplies section of the store—right next to the outdoor barbecue grills—that caught her attention.  And she found herself led to the cacophony of voices, guiding her buggy past shampoos and conditioners and toothbrushes and toothpastes and myriad analgesics, smiling at the children selecting neon-colored spiral notebooks and packs of mechanical pencils, before she found herself almost unknowingly pulling from the shelf the pack of multi-colored construction paper and a box of colored pencils and a pair of craft scissors and a bottle of Elmer’s glue and a wooden ruler, throwing them into her cart with equal abandon.  And before she knew it, she began to laugh uncontrollably, until the children all chimed in, unsure whether they were simply humoring an old lady or actually finding the whole experience as jovial as she found it.  And in the end, it was irrelevant since either way brought Fanny a feeling of happiness and hopefulness and excitement that had remained an elusive visitor for longer than she was willing to admit.

She remembers pushing her buggy rather quickly to the check-out counter, glancing at her wrist watch to make sure that she would arrive home in time to make lunch, settling into the dip of her chair’s seat, sipping an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola, and watching “House Hunters” at noon, Dewey shaking his head from side to side at her routine and smiling gently at the same time.  She had grown to resent the head movement, finding it, like most of his repetitive bodily movements, both irritating and unnecessary, but still finding the grin endearing.  And as incredulous as it might seem—and it certainly seemed so—it was still his sweet, gentle smile that continued to bring her the unmeasured joy not unlike the lingering feeling of waking to falling snow on Christmas morning.  And while the cracking of his right thumb and the rising of his eyebrows and the restlessness of his legs in bed at night seemed to be more pronounced now than ever before, Fanny was certain that he was just as annoyed with her incessant lip-biting and fingernail cuticle trimming, even though she secretly hoped that he was not in the least bit annoyed by anything she did or said.  This thought made her smile, even though she knew it was ridiculous to entertain.

When Fanny slipped from the open-ended pack of construction paper a golden yellow sheet, she smiled.  Dewey’s favorite color had always been yellow, and she found herself—without giving it any thought at all—selecting the golden yellow colored sheet to start her project.  And, looking over both shoulders to assure herself that she was alone, she brought the sheet of construction paper to her nose and inhaled.  Suddenly, she was back in Miss Sally’s art class as a first-grader, and she closed her eyes for a brief moment and smiled.

Little by little, Fanny created one card after another, each with decorating ideas that she, in time, might try herself. Cards that had drawings of farm sinks, hardwood floors, paint colors, lighting fixtures, stainless steel refrigerators, walk-in showers, and a fireplace in the master bedroom.

With the precision she had once used in every task she tackled, from preparing meals to household chores to detailed costume designs for her children’s holiday attire but that had diminished over the years since they had left home to start lives of their own, Fanny found herself humming Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” as she laid down the ace of hearts, drawing from a mechanical pencil a speck of lead, and tracing around the playing card.  Taking the craft scissors from the heavy plastic wrapper and cutting out the 2 ½” x 3 ½” yellow card, she opened the box of colored pencils which, to her surprise and delight, had already been sharpened.  She chose a Mediterranean blue colored pencil, because the couple from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on today’s episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters” had paired yellow and blue in their ocean-front condo.  She wrote the date across the top of the card and a description of the condo and the view and the striped yellow and blue side drapery panels that flanked the two sets of French doors that led to the patio.  Her rendition, while rather simple to create since it merely involved straight lines representing windows and doors, delighted her.  She held the card at arm’s length and tried not to be pleased at what she had created.  And yet, when she looked to her front picture window, she could easily see that it could work in her own small, country cottage, the colors especially uplifting during the long frigid months of winter.  And yet, the card needed more.  She retrieved from the corner of the family room her knitting basket, pulling from it a shank of blue yarn and a shank of yellow yarn and clipped a small sample from each.  She Scotch-taped the pieces of wool to the card and said, “Done,” and set it aside.

Over the course of the next several months, Fanny rotated the brightly-colored sheets of construction paper:  yellow, purple, green, blue, pink, red, and even black.  With every new episode of “House Hunters,” Fanny looked forward not only to the selection and design choices of the homebuyers, but little by little found herself making changes to what the new homeowners chose.  And little by little, Dewey began to watch with her, catching her completely off-guard one day when he said, “I think they should choose house number three.  It’s the better investment.”  Fanny stopped eating her toasted pimento cheese sandwich and looked at Dewey as if he had just risen from the dead and was walking across the Sea of Galilee. 

“What did you say, dear?”

“Oh, uh, nothing,” and she grinned and turned her head so he wouldn’t see it.  

Little by little, Fanny created one card after another, each with decorating ideas that she, in time, might try herself.  Cards that had drawings of farm sinks, hardwood floors, paint colors, lighting fixtures, stainless steel refrigerators, walk-in showers, and a fireplace in the master bedroom.  She became more and more adept at her artistic skills and more and more detailed, returning to K-Mart to purchase little packs of multi-colored beads and gold filament thread and even splurging on a pack of dollhouse-sized wallpaper. 

After several months and a few dozen cards had been created, Fanny discovered that a couple of cards were missing.  She recalled a card that rearranged the placement of the living room furniture, after seeing an episode that had so intrigued her.  It was the first time that she had actually changed something in her own house immediately after watching a show.  Their once vibrant red leather sofa, while worn from years of use on the arm rests and at the back where Dewey often rested his head, was no longer flush against the wall.  With the help of the young man who mowed their lawn, the sofa was brought out a few feet from the wall so that a pathway was created behind it—something a young Asian couple had dubbed Feng shui, Fanny recalled.  And while Dewey had simply shaken his head at the pronouncement and rearrangement, Fanny noticed that he had begun to walk around the back of the sofa in order to gaze out at the small pond outside their living room—something that he had seldom done before.  And she noticed, too, that he often stopped on his journey, resting for a bit as he leaned on the back of the sofa looking around the room in a way that she had never before seen him do.  And whenever she played this scene over in her head, a certain delight came over her that she couldn’t quite describe.  And yet it made her happy to know that he had noticed that something was different.

Fanny continued to look through the stack of cards and discovered that the first card that she had created—the one with the Mediterranean blue and yellow striped drapery panels—was one of the cards that was missing.  She looked round her at the floor thinking that it may have slipped from underneath the aubergine ribbon and fallen, but she did not see it anywhere.  Then, she returned to the hall table drawer, removing all the sales receipts, but still nothing.  It was then that she heard the sound of drilling, and walked slowly yet deliberately to the front of the house.  Perched on the ladder above the picture window was the young man who mowed their lawn, installing drapery panels, Dewey shaking his head up and down in approval and grinning.  And Franny quietly took her seat at the faded green floral upholstered chair, the dip of the seat offering familiarity and comfort and watched Dewey, the missing card peeking out from inside his back trouser pocket.

SYLVIE’S NATURE

Michigan Avenue meanders through the town, east to west, from the desecrated center of Coal Country, parallel to the still Kanawha River on its left; a line-up of pink, blossoming dogwoods on the right hides the rusted railroad tracks.  And yet, the rocking sounds of the slow, once-loaded, but now only partially filled rail cars can still be heard in a loud whisper, if you lean in close.  And we follow as if in a trance, the irregular, clickety-clack sound as the train’s wheels roll over the rail joints.  Like most of us, these cars are tired; and yet, we still listen.  We still find something more than a bit reassuring that while it may only be a speck of the familiar, it is still a speck.  And for most of us, that is surprisingly enough.

Sylvie Martin’s travails are familiar to each of us, as our own journey mimics hers in ways that we can not only relate, but also in ways we can’t relate at all.  While she, too, visits the sick at the long-term care center the next town over every Monday and reads aloud to the nursery school children on Wednesdays and works part-time evening shifts at the only restaurant left in town, The China Buffet, it is her hour-long, weekly walk every Saturday morning through town, through Plum Creek Hollow to the maximum-security prison that sits like a cherry on top of a hot-fudge sundae (although it’s clearly anything but), that both separates and connects us one to the other.

Her weekly walk begins at the far east end of town, as she stops, squints, and fingers the remains of the red-stenciled name of the dance studio, the image of the faded, bubble-gum colored pointe shoe barely visible—except in her mind—trailing ribbons reduced to dashes.  She pulls from the weighted, camo print backpack slung over her left, stooped shoulder, a tissue and dabs at the corners of her puffed eyes, shakes her head of the disappearing vividness, and walks west.  Her limp is pronounced, like an exclamation mark in motion.  For as long as anyone can remember, Sylvie taught ballet to every little girl in the valley who dreamed of one day being a ballerina; in the end, it being only just that:  a dream, but a dream nonetheless.

She crosses the barren street and wedges a wilted daisy between the weathered driftwood that has been nailed to an oak tree’s thick trunk.  The canary yellow painted, crudely-written message has survived seasonal attacks:  John 10:11, a childlike sketch of a white dove in flight carrying a barely-visible red heart in its mouth and three carved, brown crosses below it.  She crosses back and continues her journey.

“All that remains of DB’s Furniture Store are three oak rocking chairs blocking the sidewalk, moving slightly with the warm air, and Sylvie stops for a minute, arrested by the wondering of the ghosts who remain in motion.”

“Good morning,” Elsie bellows from her opened kitchen window, as she wipes dry the dishes from the draining rack.

Sylvie only lifts her chin in response, but Elsie knows that is all she has to give, and it is enough.

As Sylvie makes her way through town, friend after friend offers a wave or a greeting, but nothing more, knowing that Sylvie’s mind is intent on making her weekly journey to do nothing more than to sit with Billy and make small talk and perhaps laugh a bit and, if they’re very lucky, cry even less.

While some in this valley have barely avoided incarceration for criminal deeds such as possession of drugs, spousal abuse, embezzlement, and myriad other atrocities, Billy knew that after he carried his shotgun out of the house one frigid winter day last year that he would end up incarcerated for life.  He had warned his son-in-law “for the last time” that if he ever hit his daughter again, he would kill him; and he did.  He had discussed it with Sylvie as if they were discussing plans for their yearly summer visit to Myrtle Beach.  It was that innocuous. 

Before he left to drive fifteen minutes east of their home, Billy kissed Sylvie good-bye, and she hugged him close, knowing that nothing would ever be the same, embracing what was to come.  And knowing that Billy had just been diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer simply, to them, paved the way for what had to be done.  They each accepted the inevitable outcome with the calm of a gentle wave that would take them both far out to sea, showing immense gratitude for such a timely gift. 

Sylvie knows each abandoned house and business along Michigan Avenue:  the ones facing foreclosure, the ones occupied by those waiting for a certain exit, and the ones with algae-covered, above-ground swimming pools nearing collapse, the children having long ago moved on to greener pastures—she hopes.

It’s a day covered with Mediterranean blue skies, white puffy clouds, and patches of sunlight slipping through.  The butcher shop where bologna was cut thick from a gleaming, white porcelain slicer and served on Betsy Ross white bread with lettuce, tomato, Longhorn cheese, mayonnaise, and a smile and a wink, now boarded-up with plywood the width no match for the all-beef staple.  Coils of fresh Italian sausage lined the meat case, like garden snakes.  And shouts of victory from a game of poker in the back room drifted on a breeze, out the door.  She smiles, recalling that Billy was often playing poker and that whenever she and Ellen stopped by, Billy would wave and throw each one a kiss.

Mongrels yawn in front of the fire department’s one truck, gleaming in the late afternoon sun, with neither sound nor movement, just catatonic stares, as their gaze follows the lone resident making her way west along Michigan Avenue to the abandoned school yard, sans students & teachers, athletes & fluffy, sparkly, pom poms held in the hands of bouncing cheerleaders.  Weeds and overgrown brush and scattered trash inhabit the ground that was once alive with revelers keeping crossed all appendages for a way out.

“Tell Billy to hang in there, Sylvie,” Billy’s childhood friend offers, each of them knowing that there is not much else he can do.  Her neighbors have stopped asking if they can give her a ride up the hollow.  This journey is a journey she must make for herself, her way, in retribution for a sin committed that she knows was pure, certain choice.

She whistles a tune from Grease and tugs at the waist of her black denim, ankle-length jeans, pulling down on the black, crew neck tee.  She passes the only store in town that remains open for business—The Bible Book Store—and hurls first one pebble after another at its spalled brick exterior. The store’s owner, Maggie, stands at the window and gazes at her, until she doesn’t.  All that remains of DB’s Furniture Store are three oak rocking chairs blocking the sidewalk, moving slightly with the warm air, and Sylvie stops for a minute, arrested by the wondering of the ghosts who remain in motion.

The bright red-tiled, polished exterior of the Corner Thrift Store retains its spotless front window glass panes.  She steps up to the front, kicks off her thin flip-flops, sets her backpack on the ground at her feet, and pulls from it a frayed, fabric cosmetic case.  She’s as thin as a whippet.  She applies a generous amount of cherry-red lip color to her cracked lips, presses them together, and emits a certain popping sound, adding a light chuckle.  She looks up to the black, metal lattice strips at the top of the red-tiled building and brings the strands of her jet black tresses together, combing through each with her fingers. She reaches into the jeweled, back pockets of her jeans and pulls a long, white, silk ribbon. She ties the ribbon first into a bow and then decides to just let the ends trail, after first knotting the ribbon.

She steps back, looks at herself in the clear glass, and shrugs as if to say, “It’s as good as it’s gonna get.”  Her resolve is blinding.  A police cruiser passes with the slowness of Steinbeck’s turtle crossing the road, brakes, nods in her direction, and moves west, more than confident that there is no eminent danger.  She crosses the street, walks under the railroad trestle on a winding road that leads to the all-male, maximum security prison.  On her left is a crystal clear stream, with a forest of mountain laurel covering the hillside.  The water skips over the carpet of pea gravel.  She removes her flip-flops, wades across, and emits a near-reverent, “Ahhh.”

When she reaches the far side, she sits down on the barren ground and removes from her backpack a paper plate, a plastic fork and knife, a can of sardines, and a sleeve of saltines.  Each of these she sets on top of a clean white cloth.  A tiny spider, a butterfly, and a praying mantis join her at a distance.  She picks up a bird feather and a fallen acorn and puts them in the breast pocket of her tee shirt.  She eats with intention, making the sign of the cross before eating the first bite.  When she’s thirsty, she cups her hands and gathers into them a taste of the clear, cool water, splashing some on her face and absorbing the splash with a fresh tissue.  Satiated, she leans back on her backpack and closes her eyes for more than a few minutes.  And then she rises, pirouettes, gathers unto her what is hers, and continues along her certain journey, her soiled, faded, frayed pointe shoes dangling from her back pocket.  Motorists who pass underneath the railroad trestle wave, without beeping their horns, knowing that Sylvie would not welcome much else, knowing that Sylvie is readying herself for the final leg of the journey.

“She can identify nearly every family in every house she passes, stopping to pat the heads of the dogs that seem to know it’s time for Sylvie. Even they know to keep the barking to a minimum.”

Entering the hollow, Sylvie stops first at the post office—a simple, white painted, block structure where the American flag and a black and white POW/MIA flag sway gently with the warm, morning breeze.  She passes the meandering creek on her right and somehow feels as if her spirit has left her and joined the light ripples.  She can identify nearly every family in every house she passes, stopping to pat the heads of the dogs that seem to know it’s time for Sylvie.  Even they know to keep the barking to a minimum.  Once she passes Anderson’s Boarding House, with its pretty, blossoming Bradford pear trees, she stops briefly to gaze at their beauty, admiring once again the symmetrical design of the two-story, black shuttered house with its second level, end-to-end porch that mirrors the one on the main level, her eyes traveling to the three dormers on the third floor. 

As she approaches the final ascent to the prison, where she will be reunited with Billy, the sun has emerged in full, its rays ricocheting off the heavy, steel, barbed wire of the fence that surrounds the facility.  She knows that Ben, a high school friend, will be at the gate, and will, as much as he doesn’t want to, put her through the same machinations that she is put through every week.  And as Ben fights once again the tears that fall from the corners of his eyes, Sylvie will smile, Ben will stop crying, and she will be allowed to enter a space from which she has no desire to leave, knowing all along that every step on her way back to town will be more tortuous than ever, but knowing too that she will willingly make it every week, until there is no longer any reason; until the skies open and welcome one of their own.

Come back next week for three more stories and the conclusion to “Wellspring.”

Kathleen M. Jacobs, an author of books for young readers, was recently named ‘Runner-up Best Author of  West Virginia’ for 2021 by WV Living Magazine. Jacobs lives in Charleston, West Virginia.


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