Old Tilly sat on a rusted lawn chair outside her trailer. A lead-gray sky pressed down on her, and she listened to thunder rumble in the distance. She stared at the heap of dried watermelon seeds she had spat out the day before on the ground next to the chair. She sniffed the wind that had whipped up and wondered what trouble would visit her home today. Tilly turned her attention to the small curved knife she held in one hand and resumed scraping it against the whetstone she held in the other. Her plan had been to stalk the field behind the trailer park for wild herbs to harvest, but with the sky darkening and going green, Tilly knew she would not have time before the storm hit. Her customers would just have to wait.
Tilly glanced up from her work and noticed a figure down the gravel driveway. Her tired eyes could not make out the person, but she knew. She could always feel Arabelle coming towards her. The child had an energy that announced her coming from a mile away, quite literally. Tilly frowned. She could tell that Arabelle was sad and angry.
Tilly sighed and put her knife and whetstone on the ground. As Arabelle approached, Tilly grabbed the edge of the lawn chair to keep from being pushed back by the child’s presence. She noted Arabelle’s swollen, red-rimmed eyes and the wrinkled brown shopping bag she clutched to her chest. Tilly assumed that she must have gone home already after school. She had changed out of her school uniform into jeans and a black T-shirt. This child wears far too much black, Tilly thought. Arabelle dropped the bag in front of Tilly.
“Valerian root. I know you needed some, and I saw some growing in the ditch along the edge of the wheat field on the Masonville Road.”
Tilly picked up the bag and opened it. “Would you look at these. Nice ones. It took a good eye to find these. Thank you much.” Tilly crumpled the mouth of the bag shut. “So how was school today?”
Arabella said nothing. With the toe of her ragged slipper, Tilly pushed an upended bucket towards Arabelle. “Sit. Talk to me.” Arabelle plunked herself down on the bucket. The muffled sound of distant thunder rolled over them. She began to fidget with the end of her long brown braid. “Mr. Hendrix, my teacher in science class, was telling us about Saturn. He was talking about the rings and what they were made up and stuff. But he was wrong. I know because I read all about it in one of my dad’s magazines…”
“So you told ‘im, huh?”
“Bet he didn’t like that much, did he?” Tilly cackled. She did not think much of Dan Hendrix, a wet-behind-the- ears college boy whose only pleasure in life seemed to be in making the locals look and feel like idiots.
“He told me not to be such a-know-it-all. Then everybody in the class laughed. Then at the lunch kids started saying I was stupid.”
Tilly leaned forward in her chair and began to shake leathery finger at Arabelle. “Now you just listen here, girl. You are NOT stupid. In fact, you’re one of the sharpest people I know. Don’t you listen to them. You shine and people living in the dark sometimes just don’t like it.”
The fact of the matter was that Arabelle wasn’t just sharp– she was stunningly brilliant. Arabelle had the uncanny ability to observe and learn from every aspect of her world, particularly the natural world. She had an intuitive sense of how animals moved through the forest, where the best herbs and plants grew, and how the weather would turn. All of nature seemed to converge in her heart, and she expressed it back to the world in beautiful drawings, paintings, and carvings of wood and clay. She was an artist of extraordinary ability.
This did not surprise Tilly. Lenny Gardner, Arabelle’s father, a jack-of-all-trades and a local who had never graduated from high school, was an artist himself. Between doing odd jobs for his neighbors and the sale of a few of his sculptures to tourists driving through town, he made a modest living for himself and his daughter. Arabelle’s mother, a party girl with the short attention span, had abandoned them both when Arabelle was a baby. Lenny had done well to keep his brilliant daughter engaged through books, music, and art. He even got her a microscope. Arabelle responded by drawing, painting and carving the things she saw in the world and through the gifts her father had given her. There were times, thought Tilly, that the energy of the natural world came forth not only in her artwork but through her own life force.
Arabelle’s gifts, though, made her an outcast, a misfit, a person, as Tilly had just reminded her, who scared the bejeezus out of everyone. Tilly’s calling, she believed, was to guide the girl in continuing to manifest beauty and light and not to reflect the darkness and ugliness thrown at her.
“And don’t you think on what Dan Hendrix says. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.” Tilly giggled. “You know those letters that come after college people’s names? Ph.D.? All that means are the words ‘piled high and deep’!”
A faint smile came to Arabelle’s face. “Mr. Hendrix doesn’t have a PhD. He has an M.A.”
“M.A.? You don’t wanna know what that means.” Tilly threw her head back and began to laugh. Arabelle’s shook her head and chuckled.
They both turned towards the sound of crunching gravel. A dusty black pick-up bounced along the trailer park driveway and came to a stop in front of Tilly’s trailer. The driver’s door squeaked open and a middle-aged man with a beer belly slid out and slammed the door. He hitched up his pants and belched as he sauntered over to Tilly.
“I’m here for my order. ”
“And what order would that be, Pete? ”
Pete shuffled back-and-forth on his feet. “You know good and well… For the wife…for her, um, lady-troubles.”
“I seem to recollect that now. Coming right up.” She grunted as she hoisted herself off the lawn chair, clutching closed the front of her ragged house-dress. “Be just a minute”. She waddled to the steps of the trailer door and slowly climbed the steps. She disappeared into the darkness of the trailer.
Pete leaned up against the power pole next to the trailer, crossing his arms. His gaze swung around and leveled on Arabelle. She stared back at him.
“What are you looking at?”, he snarled.
Arabelle lowered her eyes.
“You’re Gardner’s kid, aren’t you? You tell your lazy good-for-nothing old man that he better finish mending the fences around my paddock or he can give back the advance I gave him. He should spend more time working and less time in — what does he call it?– his ‘stoo-dee-oh’.”
Arabelle got to her feet. Pete shook his head in disgust. “Calls himself an artist. Only city people would be fool enough to buy his crap. And I hear you’re no better — scratchin’ in your pad of fancy paper, think in’ you’re better ‘n us.”
Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white light enveloped them followed immediately by a shattering crash of thunder. The metal in the trailer vibrated, and the air seemed to buzz with electricity. Pete flattened himself against the side of the trailer.
“Whoa! That was close. Hey! Hurry up in there. I need to get home before this storm breaks.”
Tilly was already emerging from the trailer, breathing heavily as she navigated down the steps. She tossed a white plastic shopping bag to Pete. Then she reached over and cupped Arabelle’s chin in her hand. She looked hard at her. “Don’t. You are better than that.”
Arabelle’s eyes filled with tears and she nodded. Tilly patted her on the shoulder as she turned to Pete. She snapped her fingers and spread open her hand towards him. “Forget something?”
Pete scowled as he reached into the breast pocket of his denim jacket. He pulled out a twenty and handed it towards Tilly.
“The deal was for forty.”
“Forty? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? I am not paying $40 for a bag of lawn clippings.”
Tilly stepped up to Pete and whispered. “If you don’t pay me what you owe me I will let everyone know that my herbs are really for YOUR little problem.”
Pete reached up and shoved Tilly in the chest, sending her backward against the side of the trailer. “You say a word about that and I will have the county come out and condemn this thing you call a home. You’ll be out on the street you crazy old bat. ”
Tilly simply stared at Pete, her watery blue eyes filled with rage.
Arabelle screamed, “Stop it! “.
Pete glanced at Arabelle, then back to Tilly. Finally, he stepped back from Tilly, reached into his pocket, and pulled out an additional bill. He tossed the money at Tilly’s feet. “Crazy old bat” he muttered.
As he turned towards the pickup, he looked up at the sky and gasped. The clouds had grown darker, overlaid with a sickly green cast. About a half mile away, he could see a funnel cloud whipping its tail back-and-forth as it sought to find a place to touchdown. Pete cursed and yanked open the door. In a matter of seconds, the pickup was rocketing down the gravel road.
“Arabelle! Don’t do it!” The wind nearly drowned out her words.
“It’s too late! I can’t stop it! It’s too big!”
“Then come inside! Quick!”
“No! I can lead it away!” She spun around and started running.
“Wait!,” shouted Tilly, but he words blew away with the wind.
All that evening and into the next morning, Tilly huddled in her trailer and prayed that Arabelle would be safe and that no one would die in the storm. In the middle of the next afternoon, when her electricity was finally restored, she switched on the television. She heaved a sigh of relief as the newscasters reported that in spite of the severity of the storms, no one had been killed and very few buildings had been lost.
As the newscast was wrapping up, one more story was reported: “As we close this evening’s telecast, we want to show you this odd phenomenon in a wheat field near Masonville.” Tilly smiled as she viewed the aerial footage of an intricate pattern of circles pressed into the golden field.
ljgloyd (c) 2015