from the collection of: d. heidel
She would bring her banana into the park – not the whole thing, but just the scrappy nubbins of the one that she’d eaten for lunch. The last bite – mushy as pudding, with its skin hanging down like a moth’s sloughed wings – she would carry it as if it were a bride’s bouquet. She would carry it down the northerly hill of the park, down the tree-scattered face of that hill where, on winter nights, kids ran sleds through snow and shadow, down the hill that, now in mid-summer, sat darkly green and quiet. Down the hill she would carry the last bruised remnants of her lunch, down the hill and through the bower of woods that huddled on that side of the stream. Right up to the stream she would go. And there, on the flat rock that hanged like a tabletop over the rushing water, she would sit and lay the banana down, as if a gift for the water or the wind or the sun that played up off of the water and onto her eyes and hair.
Or would it be her? Or would it be her? The other one, who had offered her own gift to the water or the wind or the sun – a type of mother’s gift. Was it she whose image now played like blinding embers across her wide eyes—oh, please, don’t let it be her, please don’t let it be her.
Over the years, here and there, a family sitting on the other side of Hummel’s Stream caught site of one or the other. They’d look up and there, in the shadows along the far side of the rushing water, she would be crouched on the sun-dappled rock. Or she would be standing, waiting for the return of something she’d lost.
“No, no, Charlie, leave her alone,” Mrs. Calaverra had said as her boy caught site of Bernice and started in the direction of the stone footbridge that would have led him to the other side. “But ma-a-ama,” he whined. Charlie saw her. He saw her and he liked her immediately. He saw her sitting on the rock with what looked like a softly-lilting bouquet. And, all around her, was light. She was under the shade of the leaning elms on the far side of the stream, but somehow the sun was flying up off of the ripples of the water and moving across her face as if she was at once smiling and weeping and laughing—oh, he wanted to see her!
“Charlie.” It was the only word Mrs. Calaverra could get out of her lips. Her mouth had suddenly gone dry, her throat tightening. She wanted to run to her Charlie, to sweep him into her arms, to smell the dirt on his skin and the little-boy sweat in his hot, brown hair. She wanted to run and sweep him up but she was frozen.
“I want to–,” Charlie looked at the girl on the rock who had stood now and raised a hand toward him. “I want–,” and now, he squinted. And he could see the bouquet, which seemed nothing more than a bruised banana peel, disappear in a shimmer of moth-wings. “Do butterflies eat bananas?” Charlie muttered to himself. And he could see the light now in the girl’s eyes, in the place where there should have been eyeballs, and she still reached out to him. And Charlie, who was only six, but knew when to pass the soccer ball and when to keep it for himself, felt a shiver. The life that gripped Charlie so firmly, the life that ran through his small body and along his hot breath, the life that coated his busy hands with mudpies and worm-slime and sidewalk chalk and grit, that very life suddenly sent a sodium-rich shiver of nerves along the physicality of his existence. It was a strange sensation brought about by a strangeness he had never seen. Charlie felt that strangeness in the twining DNA that knit his bones, through the animal instinct that churned in the deepest stem of his brain, and allowed it to fire the age-old memory of flight that pumped the small cords of muscle along his legs. Charlie ran. He ran and ran and ran until, at last, he was in the arms of his mom.
He looked back at the rock and there, the girl was swishing her dress as if it was grey water, swishing her hair as if it was dark water, moving her body as if it was nothing to her but a dance of long-forgotten flesh in a rush of water.
Mrs. Calaverra looked at the rock herself and saw something quite different – a woman, hard up against the middle years of a life that had burned itself through her veins; a woman whose skin was white but somehow burned with the sun; a woman whose lips were parched and peeled back from hungry teeth in a smile that was not at all friendly.
Charlie watched as the girl turned and walked up the shaded hill.
Mrs. Calaverra shivered as she watched the woman wander up the shaded hill. (Oh, but how does a bent and weeping willow wander? thought Mrs. Calaverra. And where does it go?)
The forest at the top of the hill was thick and filled with silence.
The next day it had been the Remblich family – Mrs., Mr., and their two daughters on the swings. It was the youngest daughter who yelled out and pointed, bringing the rest of the family’s eyes to the flat rock that sat in the shadows that day. And there, the two Remblich girls saw Bernice, squatting on the northerly side of Hummel’s Stream. They watched as the girl in the dirty-water-colored dress crouched, prayerful, and seemed to float in the shadow. The girls watched as the child laid a mostly-eaten banana down on the rock, bowed her head, and then rose up like a worn-out doll.
The Remblich girls jumped off the swings and sat close as their dad smeared peanut butter on bread.
Mrs. Remblich was busy with the potato salad but looked up occasionally to see the swaying stride of a woman who looked less like a woman and more like a scarecrow who had given up the best part of itself and was now left with nothing more than rag and wood.
Mr. Remblich raised an eyebrow. Mrs. Remblich shrugged, “It takes all kinds…” and went back to the task of dishing out potato salad.
The Remblich girls, though, watched as what looked like a scrap of banana left on the flat rock seemed to glimmer in the August sun and then – sschzwa – disappear in a shimmer of silver-green wings.
“Bernice, take Rummy for a walk,” was the command at noon. Every day. Every day, Pop was away and every noon, the help (or, Ms. Bopp, if called by her familiar) would be in the kitchen, stewing potatoes or leeks or meats or whatever else might be for dinner. The command would come – a strained voice, a ragged throat, a bark, a snarl, a grunt. “Take Rummy! Take ‘im out!” It tumbled from the drawing-room, the only room in the house where the curtains were never closed. Bernice wouldn’t go in there anymore. She didn’t like to look at Mum. She remembered when Mum had been beautiful – soft hair, glowing skin. Bernice didn’t like to look at her now, especially not in the sunlight that burned through those windows, burned every ounce of life out of the flesh of the woman that had locked herself into that room. Other children in the neighborhood would whisper, “There’s a ghost in that room… see! She stands, her face pressed against the glass and she glows!” The kids didn’t taunt Bernice; even the youngest of those rapscallions knew the power of the Hummel family. But still Bernice felt the whispers – felt them the way that she felt the hairs twitch upward along the neck in the stillness of an August afternoon; the way she felt the secret adult knowledge that underneath the glimmer of fresh snow is an earth harder than bone and hungrier than wolves. Bernice felt the whispers if only as a rumor on the wind. “Child! The dog! Walk him!” But the voice, ragged as torn knuckles, was always present. And so, every day at noon, Bernice would walk down the steps of Hummel Manor. Hearing the clamor of the midday ritual, Ms. Bopp would follow the girl outside, nod her head, and give a sympathetic smile.
There was no Rummy.
Yet still, the voice insisted, “Walk the damn dog, girl!” Bernice wilted. Mum insisted and yet, reality could not be swayed and would not be changed: the dog was dead. In fact, it had been two years dead. It had been run down by the horses that delivered blocks of ice to the manor. Hoof and wheel had opened up the mutt as if its skin was nothing more than packing paper and, inside, was an overburdened freight of putrid fruit. Brown and crimson, the bowels had come out. And now, the spilled gift had disintegrated, disappeared into the rutted lane. The last of the fermented carcass had been carried off in the beaks of carrion birds. Reality, hard as a raven’s beak flashing in the sun, would not be denied. “Walk the dog, child!” And Ms. Bopp followed Bernice outside, whispered glimmering secrets into the girl’s ear. Ms. Bopp knew that Mum’s own mind was an overburdened package, that the brown liquor was softening its borders and hazing its inhibitions and, at some point, the mind itself would leak out like a fermenting morass. And so Ms. Bopp whispered glimmering secrets into young Bernice’s ear.
“Walk the dog, walk the dog, walk the dog,” Mum prattled on from the drawing room. Ms. Bopp would ignore the commands of the matron of the house and give Bernice a special treat – a banana – and, shooing the girl along, tell her to walk down to the stream where the faeries play. “They’re magic, you know!” Ms. Bopp whispered. “Give them a gift, close your eyes, and make a wish.”
Bernice would run down the stairs and, peeling the exotic fruit, would patter off along the gravel road, imagining what this little town might look like in another hundred years, wonder if there’d ever be a child who might not whisper about the ghost of Hummel Manor, the woman who glimmered white beneath the sun. She wanted a friend who would eat a banana with her, laugh with her, and then grow quiet and whisper secrets with her there on the rock beside the stream.
Ms. Bopp nodded her head and winked, “Give those faeries a gift and they will gift something back to you.”
“Eat your carrots,” Mrs. Bontemp told Tyrone. “Aw, Mom, I don’t want those things.” “Eat your carrots or there’s no dessert, kiddo.” Little Debbies. Tyrone knew there had to be Little Debbies there in the bag of food. And so he crunched away on the baby carrots. Carrots came from the ground. The dark, wet soil. And they tasted like it – flavorless as pale, dirt-covered toes. Tyrone thought about Little Debbies and crunched away, felt the motion of his jaws and the bits of plant matter coming undone across his tongue.
As he chewed, Tyrone saw a girl walking out from the woods on the far side of the park – a girl clothed in old, brown rags that, at one point in time, might have been a dress. The kind of dress that Gramma’s porcelain dolls wore. (“Don’t touch!” Gramma would snap, “those’re Victorian heirlooms!” Tyrone would roll his eyes and wish he had a G.I. Joe or a football or something more fun than a Victorian hair-loom.) Well, here he was at the park – a place for fun. “Fun,” Tyrone whispered, “fun.” He stared, swallowed his mouthful of dirt-borne fruit, and whispered to himself, “Fun…” He put down the rest of his carrots and headed off toward the stone footbridge.
“Ty, get back here!”
Ty heard his mother’s voice as if it came from a trout’s hungry mouth – breaking the shining surface, rippling, and then gone. Ty kept moving toward the footbridge.
Mrs. Bontemp saw the direction her son was heading, saw the grey arc of the bridge, saw the cool shadows on the other side, and saw what looked to her eyes to be an old woman on the flat rock. No need to disturb an old woman – no need to cause any trouble, no need to watch her only child wander off and whisper strange things with a strange woman.
“Tyrone. Get back here. Now.”
I’m gonna have some fun. Tyrone looked at the bridge that arched with stones suspended in a matrix of mortar over the stream. He could see the stream-reflected light, frantically darting on the underside of the bridge, flitting like moths trying to escape some great curved palm. On the rock on the other side of the water, he saw the girl who was (he squinted his eyes) nine or ten years old, busy arranging a great bouquet of flowers. I’m gonna have some fun. Fun. Fun would be had.
Mrs. Bontemp felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. Her gut churned with a virulent fear. “Tyrone. Get your butt back here.” And then in a voice hackled with a mother’s fury: “Now.”
Tyrone looked back at his mom, looked again at the girl, and then again at his mom. The sun was hot but the view he still had of his mother chilled him. It wasn’t her legs, rigidly set a shoulder’s width apart. It wasn’t her finger that was pointing imperatively at the empty space on the ground next to her – the space that she expected in no great amount of time (God have mercy if your mother waits because I will not have mercy on your childish ass!) to be filled by her son. As Tyrone looked, head-cocked, at his mother, something in his own gut gave way. There was something about his mom’s presence – it was a sort of wavering, a tremor, a barely-perceptible flesh-deep shaking that ran up that pointing finger, through her arm, across her shoulders, quaked her black hair into glistening madness beneath the sun. He’d never seen that energy in her body. And it terrified him.
He came back, head hung like a scolded pup’s.
“Who is she?” Tyrone asked as he sat back down on the grass next to his mom.
“Don’t know, kiddo,” but Mrs. Bontemp knew enough to give the woman her space, knew enough of the old stories about the stream that was named for the railroad barons who had settled this land, knew enough about the way their minds had all been touched (by loneliness or intemperance or shadows that flicker beneath the heavy boughs of the woods).
Mrs. Bontemp sat down, the pins and needles edging their way out of her neck, her stomach knotting and unknotting. And, in her heart, she gave her own offering: God, take me. God, forever take me. Leave the child to linger in the light. It was August, but the air was somehow too thin or the leaves too still. Mrs. Bontemp’s heart fluttered and felt, for a moment, as if it would be lifted from her chest. A few floaters wafted in front of her eyes and then some dark patches as if ink had been spilled across her corneas.
Deep breaths, deep breaths. Mrs. Bontemp focused on her breathing and soon the leaves and grass all settled back into the deepest of greens.
Tyrone picked up another carrot, started munching, thankful for the quiet, for the blandness of the fruit of the soil, for his mother’s hand that now tousled his hair. Tyrone looked up, saw the girl lay her bouquet on the rock. Mrs. Bontemp watched as what looked like a piece of rotten fruit melted beneath the sun that showed through an old woman’s grey hair. It was hard to tell, Mrs. Bontemp thought, the sun plays tricks on your eyes – the fruit, the sun, the shadow, it all blended… even the woman’s hair looked to be a kind of silvered halo. The angel on the far side of the stream slipped back up the hill and into shadow.
“Where’s my daughter?” the matron of the house had hollered the night her daughter had disappeared. “My daughter! My daughter! My daughter!”
“Your poor husband is still looking, you old witch” Ms. Bopp said to herself. She sighed as she packed her bag.
“My girl! My Bernice! My daughter! Oh, my god. Oh, my god!” The lamps blazed throughout the house as the old lady rambled through every room, ripping open curtains, tearing them off their rods.
Ms. Bopp looked up at the house behind her as she loaded her luggage into the wagon that had come up for her from C— City.
A fresh box of bananas sat on the porch, delivered just that morning. They would keep coming and yet, Ms. Bopp thought, there would be no one to bring them into the pantry, to unpack them and serve them. They would sit there on that porch and slump into a sweet mush under their fading skins, disappear into the quiet ravages of fruit flies and the thievery of raccoons.
The matron was gone. Her mind was stark, raving gone. And there would be no coming back for her. The master of the house would look forever for his daughter, for the one person who still held the part of his heart not consumed by steel rails. He would search and search, give his fortune away to the search, search the stream bed in bare feet, search the farther shores of the Muddy Mo that ran deep and quiet on its way southward. He would search the bars and saloons farther down the banks of that great river. And, when he grew tired of the stench and uselessness of his own sad flesh, he would forsake the honkytonks that held nothing but shimmering forgetfulness, he would buy an old nag with his last bits of silver, and turn his nose west along the endless plains. There, he would eventually lose himself to thirst and hunger (the bodily reminders of the ruins of his own conscience). And out there, along a flea-ravaged stretch of prairie on the far side of Laramie, the horse would stumble. Sun would rise and sun would set, fleas would hop across the dead animal’s hide and find refuge on the man’s pocked flesh. The plains would offer no answers to the man, no answers deeper than the sand that fed the shallow roots of dead grass. He would stumble on himself for a few miles and then falter under the spell of the sun and eventually, mouth agape, he would be consumed by the land that seemed to hold no trace of the girl that he had held as a baby, the girl with whom he had laughed, the girl that would never ever grow old.
The bananas would sit and age. The gardener would dump them down the hill that led to the stream. And there, what was once young and green, would be taken up by the faeries, would be allowed to linger in the shadowed bower, would be gifted with the shifting shapes of light and dark and would linger this-way-and-that forever and ever, a gift taken by the faeries of the stream.
Ms. Bopp looked up one last time to the white face that stared blindly out from the inside of the house. Ms. Bopp tipped her hat for good measure and then hopped up onto the wagon, and bid farewell to this fair mess as she headed west. “Where you headin’, ma’am,” the driver asked. “Oh, I hear there are families with eyes set toward the coast. They may need my help. There’s a good gathering point out in Colorado, just this side of the Yuba Pass, up the Truckee River…”
The lights of the house faded behind her. And the night once again took her up.