I decided to start working on a novella in my free time (not for publishing, just to see how long I can keep a fluid storyline, or if I can at all). I'm still in the beginning, but I figured I'd toss it up.
Working Title: Dancing in the Mist
I know about that girl who disappeared in the field on a wet spring day. Ashlyn they called her; the girl who always walked through the flowers, until the mist swallowed her up. Ashlyn Vela was her full name, but she went by many others throughout her short life. Infectious names that whirled and stung around her head like “fool, freak, and imbecile”. If I still had the capacity to feel sorry for them, I'd weep for those men and women that went out of their way to hurt Ashlyn. Weep, because of the three names I wrote, they were of the nicest. The worst of the bunch were too ghastly to keep around, so I will never write them down.
This type of treatment has always occurred with those who choose to swim upstream. Although, use of the word “choose” is fickle at best. Ashlyn never chose to be ridiculed, or beaten, or alone, for example. She did, however, choose to be happy - to be herself - tragic as that choice turned out to be. Ashlyn was neither slow, nor strange. She was a beautiful, and strong girl with a penchant for singing, lonely walks, and the sea. She was both delicate as a flower, and strong as the sun. She was as though a fairy from the old tales we all read in school.
She left us many years ago, and the day I learned the truth of her disappearance was the day I wrapped my life up in a small burlap sack, and left my sleepy little town, full of similar people. The same type of superstitious fools and bigots that are to be found in any town like this. The dirt under their fingernails did well to hide the blood on their hands for many years. Carthage Springs may never recover from what I did to it, but the way I see it, that's considerably a better deal than Ashlyn was given. My name is Henry Showalter, and I was the boy who walked through the flowers, and slipped away through the mist. My name is Henry, and I am the man who destroyed Carthage Springs.
I had been too young – too scared – to know it back then, but since I've known her – the way a man knows a woman – I have loved her. A few weeks before my 16th birthday, I lost my chance to let Ashlyn know how I felt. However, it is my expressed hope that if any trace of Ashlyn still dances on in this world, it will find its way to the content of these papers, and know of how much I cared for her, and of how much I hurt this town for what it did.
I'll always remember the first day I spoke to her. She was beautiful back then, with a dark ring around her left eye, both of them red and puffy from crying herself to sleep. Beautiful, in the way she called my mind away from the typical occupants of a 16 year old: baseball, clubhouses, and general mischief. She made me want to put my arms arounnd her, and whisper plans of running away, thoughts of which I had been musing for quite sometime now myself.
You see, I too was different, but carried with me the ability to blend. A skill, which Ashlyn had not a lick of talent with. We lived in a small southern town, known for its pecan pie, hard-faced men, rocky beaches, and misplaced prejudices. Misplaced, because it was not wicked men or their wicked ways that our town hated. Instead, our town hated colored skin, outspoken women, and religious tolerance. A bad white man, for example, was a more important human being than a good black woman. I believe judging somebody on their looks to be as universally abundant as it is universally ludicrous. For these reasons, I considered myself lucky to have been born to a mother who was an outsider. It was through her that I received the love that every human being is cursed to be without. The love to see that the color of ones skin does not dictate the strength of ones heart. I was shown that being a woman was not a handicap, that in many ways, women were stronger than a man may ever know. Most importantly though, I learned to fight for these ideas. Picking this fight would be the knife that whittled away my life, leaving a pile of strips tossed off to the side, and the skeletal remains of a strong branch. However, I am not just a single branch as most people of that town were. I have many roots, with which to keep me grounded, and many other branches, so as to constantly reach toward the sky.
As I mentioned earlier, I had been planning on running away for quite sometime. My mother, god rest her soul, passed away when I was still young, and the relationship I had with my father was dangerous. I must have been six or seven when influenza took her from us, and my father and I handled the grief differently. I looked inward, and tried my best to live in a manner that would make my mother proud. My father, he opted for a lifestyle that would destroy his liver, and break whatever small bond him and his son may have had. My mother had always been physically frail ever since I was born (one of many reasons my father would come to hate me), but she never complained. My father did so twice as much to make up for that.
I've always believed that a great man will encounter three even greater loves in his life. The first of these great loves is that of the immediate family. I call this the warmth. It is the kind of love that you bundle up, and brave even the fiercest of winter winds, so as to spend Christmas day with. It is the kind of love that always has enough dinner when you make an unexpected visit. Secondly, the that of the one true love, of which I call the passion. It is the kind of love that drives you mad, and sets fire to your blood. It is the kind of love that you look forward to seeing in the morning just before slipping off to sleep. Lastly, the final of these great loves is that of your children. I've spent many hours thinking of the perfect name for this, but I always am drawn back to the drive. It is the kind of love that you tuck in at night, promising to chase off any monsters that dare show themselves. It is the kind of love that you see more and more of yourself in, with each and every day that they grow. With warmth, passion, and drive in your life, there is no telling what a man may be capable of. I believe myself to be a good man, and a strong man, but have never considered myself to be a great man, because I lost my first two great loves, and I have yet to come around to finding the third. It is with great sorrow, I tell you I'm unsure if I ever will, at that. How could I lay with a woman who holds not the entirety of my heart; how could I raise children who could never feel the warmth of my mother's smile?
When thinking of my mother - although I still hold a great many memories of her close to me - I always first recall the same night. I had been crying for quite some time when she found me. Walking over, she used her small fingers to tip up my chin, and give me the most wonderful smile. Wiping tears away with the back of my hand, I managed to blurt out “I'm sorry I made you so weak, momma,” in between gulping down oxygen to fuel more sobbing. Until the day I die, I will never forget what she said to me. She held my head close to her chest, and raked her fingers through my hair. “Henry, don't you understand?” she said. “I don't need strong legs, or a back, or even lungs. I have the strongest heart in the world, and you gave me that, darling.” To any of you who have the fortune of a good mother, you'll know that there is no other love like it. No pain killer, no psychedelic, no therapy like that of just a second of being with her. I miss her more as each and every day passes.
By comparison, the only good memory I have of my father is the stench of alcohol seeping out from under a door, and whispering into his ear as he threw a lamp at me. I consider this a good memory, seeing as how he missed. Mother had always told me my father was a good man when they first met, but changed when they moved back here. She blamed the town, and had many fights with him over taking me away from it. “This town has teeth!” she used to scream at him. I had never understood what she meant by this until Ashlyn came around, but it most certainly did. It is of great misfortune to Carthage Springs that I too, had teeth, and a considerably stronger bite.
Enough of all this lamenting nonsense, though. Let us jump ahead to that day I first managed to work up the confidence to talk with Ashlyn. It was a Wednesday, and as per usual, she sat alone on the side of the school. Today, she was talking to a plant – an endearing quality of hers that of course added fuel to the flickering fire of ridicule. As I approached, she eyed me suspiciously, although I personally had never insulted her. I never for a second blamed her for that apprehension, though. Afterall, if you're not stopping a problem, you're helping it.
Being 16 is a strange time for anyone. We haven't yet trained our mouths to fully transfer what it is we're thinking, and what we're thinking is usually a hormonal mess. Everything is growing, and our minds are unaware of which direction to run. The outcome, is that the things we say are usually embarrassing, and often resulting in the opposite of what we had initially hoped for. I wasn't lucky enough to get “embarrassing”, instead, I managed to find “explosive”. “Your eye looks pretty bad” I tossed out casually, holding my body sideways, and tilting my head. I realize now, I held myself this way out of fear, but my body language probably appeared as though arrogant and offensive. I suppose it must have, seeing as how she reacted.
To any kid on the playground, I was wincing in preparation of the tiny fist flying at my face, but that's not the truth of the matter. Honestly, I was already wincing from the stupidity of what I just said; my head saying so much, but my mouth blurting out so little. “Looks pretty bad” I heard repeating in my head, as those knuckles flew towards my face in slow motion.
The crunch of my nose breaking was quickly followed by the laughter of the children, and the stomping of Ashlyn's feet across the dusty school yard. I didn't really register any of it though, as the blood poured from my nose onto the ground. All I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. I was in love. Perhaps that seems strange to you, but if you don't understand what I'm talking about, perhaps you've never been in love. We are all strange, to some degree, but love is by far the strangest incident we will ever experience. It is the culmination of emotion, the driving force behind both the greatest, and dumbest things in history. The bulk of my time spent with Ashlyn was usually in the vein of the latter.
“No, Henry! Keep your head tilted up, and quit talking!” Mrs. Margaret said from behind a fat finger waving in my face. She was one of only three teachers in our school, and just so happened to carry with her the know-how to treat all sorts of ailments and afflictions. It's all just part of the trade, though, seeing as how she was the mother of eight. If you're still unaware of how I could think women to be stronger than men, let that sink in with you. Eight children, on top of being a teacher of 32. Mrs. Margaret was tough as nails, and sharper than one too. She was an incredible woman, and I'm still fairly ocnvinced she hated me.
To this day, even though I think she may have never liked me, I beleive she was one of the only good people in town. The Great Depression – as they'd later come to call it – was still young like me, but when it eventually jumped into full swing, Mrs. Margaret would leave the town to go live with a sister in New York City to help out. She'd never come back, and I thank whatever powers may be that she didn't. I'd have hated to see this town change her, if it could that is.
Despite many attempts to keep me quiet, my mouth ran faster than I could think. It's actually sort of funny, in a sense, that I had no real moderation at this age. By moderation, I mean to say that my mind ran too fast for my mouth, or my lips moved too quick for my brain. They wouldn't have the trust to work together for many years to come. Currently though, my heart beat wildly, and all I could do was ride along with it, babbling to the ever uninterested Mrs. Margaret.
After finally shutting me up – by threatening to break my nose again – she got the whole of what went down. I started off strong, explaining how I walked over to ask about her black eye, but I spent perhaps a bit too long describing how Ashlyn looked, sitting on that patch of grass, speaking to a drooping leaf of some plant. “It's not important how Miss Ashlyn looked sitting by herself, Henry!” she yelled at me during the recant. Clearly Mrs. Margaret and I had vastly different concepts of what was, or is important. The way Ashlyn looked that day was was exactly why I had a broken nose. Not to mention the way she spoke, and dressed, and isolated herself. My nose broke for a great many things about Ashlyn, the way she looked just so happened to have been the easiest to explain. The only change I made to the story was of how my nose was actually broke. I told her it was from tripping and falling, and not at all from the punch of a girl I had 30 pounds on.
As I finished the story, Mrs. Margaret placed her hands on her hips and looked me directly in the eye. “Henry, I've had twelve children tell me Ashlyn punched you directly in the nose. I ought to paddle the both of you,” she spoke in a slow, and stern voice. I eventually managed to talk her out of it, although I assume she thought it only because I was embarrassed at being beaten by a girl. The truth though, was that I'd die on the spot if Ashlyn was punished because of me. I'd be out of the race before I even had the chance to truly dig in my feet and push for it.
Walking from the nurses office most kids my age would be broken from the howling laughter of the students. Perhaps fortunately for me, at that moment, I was untouchable. I beamed sheepish grins at the kids, already deep in thought of how to next talk to her. Sitting in Mr. Lutz arithmetic class – a class of which I held only moderate skill in – I couldn't afford even the pretense of feigned interest. After the third piece of chalk was thrown at me, I again grinned as I floated through the laughter of the boys and girls of my classroom. Staying after school to bat the chalkboard erasers together was where I had my next grand idea! “Batting” is what we called it when you'd have to stay after to smack erasers together, so as to clean them. The clouds of chalk reminded me that on foggy days, Ashyln would skip school, and go play in the grassy fields near the ocean. I decided I'd stage an accidental meeting, and spend my day with her. A great foreshadow of the things to come was the fight my father and I had when I told him where it was I was going.
“The Bramblewood?” my father yelled, still sobered; a great occasion seeing as it was already ten past eight in the morning. “Yeah, I'm just going for a walk, school is out today, on account of the fog,” I replied, unused to seeing my father really care much for anything. Years of alcohol abuse took its toll on my father, and I was particularly fit for my age. Stumbling over to me, my father gripped a handful of my shirt, and pulled me in close. Looking me directly in the eye, he said “you stay the hell away from that place, do you hear me, boy?” Putting my hands on his shoulders, I wrenched his arms away, and set him down onto a wooden chair on our porch.
I understand now it wasn't my fault that things turned out the way they did, but for many years I blamed myself for what came up next. Perhaps it was the foreign scent of sobriety on his breath, but for whatever reason, I told my father the truth of what I had planned. As I finished, my father's attention flickered in and out for awhile, until he finally looked up at me, and told me again to not walk near The Bramblewood. I did, and would regret telling him my plans for years. I was a stupid fuckingkid, thinking I could rekindle a relationship with my father, but much like his status as a parent, his mind was long since gone. The Bramblewood held secrets much darker than its shade, secrets I wouldn't learn until it was too late.
It had been a few days since that Wednesday, that wonderful day that my nose broke, and my heart grew. I can't recall which day of the week it was, but when telling friends, I always say Monday. So it was a Monday, and a thick sheet of fog blanketed the town. You may think with even such low visibility, it would be easy to slip out of town unnoticed, but you've obviously never lived in a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and you couldn't hide a cough iny my town without tales of your deathly ilness reaching every door before you even got home. If Mr. Peterson the baker, for example, would have walked out of his front door only seconds earlier, he would have noticed me walking towards the ocean in the east, when our school was found on the west. Small-town minds devour gossip, and honestly, to this day I find myself hard pressed to blame them. When nothing exciting happens around you, you fabricate. Hell, that was one of the reasons I think I came to love Ashlyn, her quality of day dreaming at all hours. Regardless, Mr. Peterson would have told Miss Karen – the widower – of what he saw. Perhaps he would add his own spin on it. “I saw the Showalter boy-”. “Henry?” Miss Karen would chime in. “Yes, Henry, I saw him sneaking around town, trying to avoid notice, seemingly up to no good,” he'd say. As Miss Karen made her way to pick up groceries, she'd stop by the barbershop to say hello to Sal. Sal was the only remaining member of the town that was in class with her. The rest had moved on, from the town or otherwise. Sal loved Miss Karen, but would never talk about it. This made him her choice of catalyst for an especially juicy piece of gossip.
Eventually, rumors would be dropping alongside locks of hair, as old Jack Parker the milk man paid for his trim, and continued about his day. He would tell everyone on his route the news of how Henry was lurking around town with a whicker basket. Mildred Blass, the pastors wife would pick up the news alongside her milk, and tell the women of her knitting circle. She'd talk of how the Showalter boy was seen with a shovel, and a black eye trudging about town. The Arbor boys would pick it up while snatching sweets from a group's table near a window, and they'd run home and tell their siblings. The Arbor family had nearly 12 children, everyone of them with a sweet-tooth for hearsay. They'd talk about Henry and a native american girl were running through town together. This snowball would roll all over town, picking up bits and pieces along the way. "Oh, he had alcohol on his breath, and bloodshot eyes. Just like his father, that no good Harry Showalter!" "I feel sorry for the boy, losing his mother and all. But that's no reason to be picking fights in the street." "I saw that Henry carrying a knife, and talking about killing a man!". It would snowball, and pick up all sorts of fantastical nonsense before finally ending up at door to the school. Miss Margaret was no fool, and after she whopped me all across town, she'd march me right up to the door of every house in town, and have me apologize for whatever transgretions I had supposidly comitted. She knew I was innocent, but "it's for the peace of the town, not you," she'd say. I'd have to spend weeks under the watchful eye of the entire town, vulture eyes, hungrily awaiting what trouble I next manage to get myself into. I'd never talk to Ashlyn if that happened.
Very carefully, I managed to slip out of town without running into anyone, and ran down the old dirt road that lead to The Bramblewood. The wood, although truly a forest in fact, was a seldom visited location for the folks of Carthage Falls. Every now and then, a young woman would get lost in the woods, and her body wouldn't wash up ashore for days. This lead to all manner of folk tales, ranging from ghosts that haunted the trees, all the way to a witch that lived deep inside the woods. We were all taught the stories when we were young, and the majority of children took them to heart. There was a game the boys used to play during summer that was a combination of bravery and running speed. If you couldn't ignore the sneers and taunts of the children around you, the point of the game was to run to the wood, and smack the base of a specific tree. The Hearth Trunk we'd call it, the largest tree on the outskirts of the forest. Undaunted, I was the only child to walk past the tree, beaming with pride at the look of horror on their faces. The whipping I received when I returned home to Father O'Leary sitting on my porch, telling my father what my group of friends told him I did wiped the smile right off of my face.
I stared at the forest for a moment, petrified with fear. Not of something as silly as ghosts or goblins, mind you. The much more real fear of talking to a woman. What was I to say, what was I to do? My legs chattered to eachother as I worked on finding the courage, when suddenly a flickering caught my eye. A red ribbon lay wrapped around a branch a few feet past the border of trees. Knowing it had to be hers, I decided to take the risk, and started off. Sweaty hand gripping for life to the handle of a small basket full of apples and sandwiches, I made my way through the trees towards the small field I assumed she would be playing in. A good fifteen or so minutes passed before I came into the clearing, and stood frozen in place once I did.
There she was, my Ashlyn, standing in the middle of the field. A small rivulet ran through the clearing, eventually emptying itself into the Atlantic Ocean. A small wash-out sat near the middle of the field, and the carcass of an old fallen tree draped itself over the stream. A great, hulking mass of a tree, surely a reminder of hundreds of ruined homes when it fell. Ashlyn stood on the log, dancing across its entirety, leaning over to smell the wild lily that grew alongside the bank. To this day, I do not believe it was the sight of her perched upon this log that froze me, but the voice that came from her. A beautiful voice pitched joyfully through the blankets of fog, now laying low in the field. It was a silly song that I knew to be an original.
"Here sparrow, here lark, join me on the log.
The air is cool, the water's fine, go on and ask the frogs.
I see you fog, I see you fog, sneaking onto the tree.
Quit being greedy little lily, and let your dew fly free!"
She sung to the birds, as she whistled and threw her arms into the air. Turning on the balls of her feet, and crouching down, she spoke in a low voice, and sang to the frogs. Dancing across the log, she kicked playfully towards tufts of fog, laughing in rhythm, and lightly smacked the the lilies, sending a shower of condensation into the air. Slipping, she plummeted from the log, and fell into the stream. I understand, especially after what happened at school just a week prior, how much it must have both angered amd frightened her to see me on the edge of the field fall down laughing.
Picking up a sizable branch from the ground, she stormed across the field, brandishing it like a baseball bat. “You leave me alone, Henry Showalter!” she yelled, face strained in anger. I wish I was such a damned fool, I never even looked at her face to see how serious she was. I was too preoccupied with kicking my feet and laughing. You see, I wasn't laughing at her in insult, I merely found what had happened to be so wonderful, and I couldn't keep the laughter inside. My heart was swollen, and I had to let it out. A wrist-sized branch catching me across the shoulders certainly set me right though. Everything came rushing back as I looked up and saw the look of terror in her eyes, tears just on the brink of flooding out.
“What do you want from me, Henry!” she yelled, starting to cry a little. “Why won't you just leave me alone?” I tried to roll myself up to tell her, but she caught me on the leg, making me grip it and roll in the moist dirt. Eying my basket, started to lift the lid with her branch; “What do you have in there, Henry? Something to throw at me? Something to humiliate me with?” I shook my head no, but as she opened it in entirety, she looked at the contents with absolute bewilderment on her face. “It's lunch,” I managed to say. “I wanted to bring you lunch, to apologize for yesterday”. Again, those suspicious eyes fell on me, and she lowered her branch only a hair before speaking up. “I don't know what you're up to, but you leave me alone, you hear?” she said. With that, she turned, and ran from the field, leaving me rubbing my leg to try and alleviate the pain. I hammered my fist into the dirt, tossing out my collection of swears, perhaps the onyl things my father had taught me in the years following my mother's passing.