She poked the stick down into the sandy soil. The rain from the storm that greeted them the night before had saturated the ground to the point where the stick made a satisfying popping noise as it entered.
The wet pop and ooze of black red water from the hole mesmerized her.
Soon she had traced a great line of dots from the back door of their new home to where the old ramshackle doghouse stood sad with lack of an occupant.
She tried to make out the faded name painted long before they arrived in this place. Painted in the hand of someone who cared. She saw two short names both beginning with R, but could not make out the letters well enough to know.
Behind the doghouse she leaned down until its smaller roof peak lined up against that of the larger house.
The old weather cock turned and she smiled at the notion of a dog needing to dope the wind.
With a roof like that, she thought, the old boy just might.
She lifted her head up and caught sight of a figure standing with back turned through the dirt in the attic window.
Funny she thought, mom shouldn’t be back from the market, but then a glimmer from the woods caught her attention.
She was fond of nature, or more precisely, the thought of nature, having never, herself had much experience with nature itself. The books she had read in their home in the city, however, had made her long for the woods, long for her time to walk, like an Iroquois Indian princess through the lands of her people.
She loved to read, and imagine. Her mother, though they had little, always saw to the books.
She looked up at the glitter. It was a tin can that had been cut into a star then had its edges bent up so any hint of breeze would make it turn in the wind.
The can, though now rusty and old, still had life left in it, and unlike the dog house, served a purpose.
She was entertained.
Entertained at the notion that a toy had a purpose, and a maker, and she felt less alone now knowing someone else had walked the woods.
Before she was fully aware of her action, she reached up and cut the string with the knife that her mother insisted she carry.
“It was your father’s,” she had said. “In case anybody asks.”
She couldn’t remember his face, and she had never seen a picture, so the knife, and her mother’s stories were all she had.
The knife was sharper than her recollection of and that of her mother.
Several times recently, she had to remind her mother of some misplaced fact, or event out of order.
The string run between two pressed fingers was matted with the mud dripped down from the branch high above her head. It formed an icicle of sorts upon the tin star.
She carefully held it out in front of her as it turned prompted by the movement of her walk back toward the house.
The kitchen sink was not clean to begin with, but when the muddy star hit the bottom, she felt guilt. Mother had always been a clean freak.
She listened for the sound of footsteps in the attic, but heard nothing.
Under the sink, she found a soiled towel and used it to clean both star and porcelain.
The star was a bit of genius.
It was most certainly not the work of a dull mind.
She unwound a piece of fishing line from one of grandfather’s old reels. She had known him, like her father, only as a phantasm brought to life from her mother’s memory. She understood intuitively that if he had seen her cut his silk line, he would have been very disappointed.
A few minutes of wiping and knot tying and the star was almost new again.
Even the rust shined.
In the forest once again, she looked up at the severed string and realized her inability to hang it as high as it had been when she cut it down.
She made do with what she had, then followed, head down, her line of dots back to the house and under view of the attic window.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the figure again, then looking directly, she realized it was just a trick of shadows between the branches of tree and glass.
Her stomach was her clock.
Her mother was nowhere to be seen.
It had not been the first time she had made dinner for herself, but she understood it was the first time she recalled abandonment without her mother telling her first.
There was some cheese and bread left over from their train trip.
The porch swing protested it’s age, but it was the only perch that gave her a view of the dusty lane.
With her meager portion of cheese and bread expended, she napped until she heard her mother’s feet.
“What are you doing sleeping out here Cal?” her mother asked.
“Wondering where you were,” she answered through the fog of waking.
“Same place I said, just took longer than I thought, didn’t you hear me?”
“Yes, then you were home and…”
“I wasn’t home, you are dreaming. You remember that orchard we saw on the way in?”
“It is owned by a nice man Mr. Hansen, a widower who seemed quite ruffled when I asked him if he needed pickers. He said he needed somebody to sell fruit at his wagon in town. His boy is going off to college it seems. So I have work, which is good.”
She reached into the pocket of her apron.
“With an advance.”
She put an apple down in front of the girl.
“Got some cheese and bread left,” the girl said and cut the apple in two with her jack knife.
“Mr. Hansen’s foreman has a son that goes to the school, he said he would have him come by and walk you there on Monday.”
“I’d like that.”
She realized what she meant with that was school, even though she was open to making a new friend.
School wasn’t always a place she liked, but it had been a long time since last she was in class. She had made friends there, and had learned new things. Most of all she liked learning, though she discovered school was often a place to follow orders.
Then, before she even had a chance to feel comfortable, in the middle of it all, in the middle of the night, her mother packed the bags and they left. Then it was summer come months early.
She knew how to read so she brought her learning with her. Her learning came from both the books in her suitcase that took up more room than her clothes. The books had been tools for her open mind.
The morning was the kind of cool that put sugar in the apples.
The foreman’s son waited at the end of the lane.
“I’m Isaac,” he said.
“Cal,” she answered.
She had never liked the name, and it showed.
“Short for something?” he asked.
“Just Cal, I had the misfortune of being born right after the farmhouse inauguration.”
She continued when he showed he didn’t understand.
“Calvin Coolidge, after the assassination? His father swore him in?”
She gave him the benefit of the doubt. There was a slight possibility that she might not have known if it wasn’t for her name.
“What do you know about the stars in the woods?” she decided to change topics.
“I know you can’t see them very well.”
“Not the stars in the heavens, the tin stars.”
She walked to the spot where she had hung the star when she saw that he didn’t understand.
The star had been moved back to its place high up on the branch.
“Dunno,” Isaac said, “ain’t any of them in the orchards. Maybe they’re to scare birds off the fruit.”
It might have been a believable story, if there had been fruit near where they hung.
School was school, a small one room building with all the grades stuck together. She knew it would be a big difference from her last school, but not this different.
She learned two things. First, Isaac was not well liked. Second, she had no problem keeping up with the class.
In the evening, she informed her mother of both.
“I learned something about Mr. Hansen’s wife today,” she said over the sound of frying eggs.
“What was it Mother,” Cal asked employing her most interested tone.
“Books, I will show you Sunday.”
Sunday couldn’t come quickly enough for Cal.
She loved surprises and tried her best to keep from asking Isaac, which in and of itself was not terribly difficult since Isaac, it turned out, was the sort of school bully thug that inhabited every schoolhouse she had ever entered.
He was the sort that enjoyed putting frogs in drawers and pigtails in inkwells more than anything that might have been mined from a book.
On Sunday, they put on their best dresses and walked down the road to Mr. Hansen’s farmhouse. Cal looked behind every tree for a sign of Isaac and his slingshot, but he was nowhere to be found.
When they arrived Mr. Hansen greeted them at the door, alone.
“Welcome,” he said, “just taking the roast out of the oven.”
He turned and walked back into the kitchen, leaving them to hang their own shawls on the coat rack.
“Not much for formality,” Cal’s mother said in a low whisper.
The table, set plain with no tablecloth or napkins, echoed the observation.
The lack of formality was forgiven when it turned out that Mr. Hansen was a good cook.
Where her own mother might have made apple pie, Mr. Hansen settled on Apple crisp, but the whole meal was constructed with care using ingredients from his own labor.
It was the best meal Cal had eaten in a very long time.
“Well,” Mr. Hansen said after Cal and her mother finished the dishes, “I imagine you are excited to see what your mother discovered earlier in the week?”
She was and said so.
“Right this way, my ladies,” the old man said and extended a crooked elbow to both.
When he threw back the door at the end of the hall, Cal couldn’t help but gasp.
There, in the middle of an orchard, in the middle of farm land, in the middle of nowhere, were more books than Cal had seen outside of a Carnegie library in her whole life.
And, they were clean.
“When can I go back?” Cal asked as they walked up the lane.
“That is up to Mr. Hansen, but don’t overstay your welcome.”
She didn’t, in fact, Mr. Hansen needed the company.
Cal could sense that Mr. Hansen was lonely. Isaac, true to his nature had no need to visit an old man. She knew it was something he learned from his father.
Thursday afternoon found Cal with mint tea on the table a safe distance from the astronomy book she was reading.
Mr. Hansen sat at the table reading his newspaper.
“I forgot to thank you for hanging the star for me,” Cal said reminded of her manners by the late Mrs. Hansen’s taste in books.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Mr. Hansen said.
“The tin star that was hanging on the string in the woods behind our house. I took it down and cleaned it, then wasn’t tall enough to return it to its place so I hung it low. When I came back with Isaac, it was hung higher.”
Mr. Hansen’s face turned whiter than it was before.
“I would like to see if you please,” he said, then helped Cal on with her coat and donned his own hat.
He reached behind the door.
“Might see a pheasant for supper,” he said and took his shotgun in hand.
The star was just where she had last seen it.
It had lost some of its sparkle from the frost, but still danced.
Mr. Hansen stood and stared.
“You hung it there?” he asked and pointed at the lower branch.
“Then when you came back, it was here?” he pointed again.
“The Amish think that a tin star is a sign of good luck,” he said, looking up at the cut string hanging from the branch.
“Where did you get the line?”
“Grandfather’s fishing reel. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“You mind if I look at the reel?”
She started to walk back toward the house. The holes in the soil she had poked with her stick had long been trampled by her coming and going, but the path was the same.
Then, when she looked up from behind the dog house, she saw it again. There was a figure in the window.
This time, it didn’t move.
“Do you see her?”
She pointed at the window.
He looked up.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
She realized he was right. There was nothing in the window.
Mr. Hansen waited on the front porch swing while Cal ran to retrieve the fishing reel.
“You said your mother had the reel before she came here?” he asked.
“She said she had, it came in a box. I had never seen it before.”
He turned it slowly over in his hands.
He was looking for something then stopped when he found it.
Then, she sensed, he was taken back to some distant memory.
“Where were you born?” he asked.
“In Florida, in the Keys. My mother was working for the railroad company.”
“Nope, I was born in the project manager’s house, his wife was a nurse in the war.”
“I suspect, then how long did you live there?”
“Until I was three, then we moved to the city.”
“You remember Florida?”
It was a funny question. Of course she remembered Florida, the beaches, and all the men who had come to build the roads. Her mother’s cooking. Fishing and the beautiful Ibis.
She nodded her head, then wondered if they were her own memories, or the memories of her mother’s stories.
She tried to remember.
“What about the storm?”
She had no answer because she didn’t understand the question.
“1926, around September. Florida got hit hard by the hurricane.”
She tried to remember.
“It doesn’t matter, you were very young.”
Mr. Hansen pulled some of the fishing line out of the reel and Cal heard the tinny popping of the ratchet.
As it clicked, she was trying to remember Florida, and the storm.
In her mind came a flash, it was a woman walking, not on a beach, but through a wooded area, then there was a bright flash.
The sun reflected a halo from behind her head, darkening her face.
“I’d best get back to my work,” Mr. Hansen said then was gone, leaving nothing but the reel in his place on the swing.
Cal walked inside.
She knew that her mother would be at work until the traffic, such as it was, died down. That gave her at least an hour.
She turned the latch on the front door and found a high chair.
The rope that pulled the hiding stairs from the attic was shiny from age.
Though she had to lift both feet off the chair and hang for a moment, the stairs finally dropped.
Open, they looked more menacing than they had closed.
Up in the attic, there was the smell of dust and the unknown.
She had never believed in spirits or the like, but she knew there was a lot about the world she hadn’t yet had the time to learn.
She lit the wick on the hurricane lamp just to be safe.
When her weight left the stairs, they rose back into the ceiling leaving her grateful she had the foresight to bring the lamp.
Outside of the dirty window, she saw the doghouse, and beyond that, the flash of light from her tin star. The natural light of the glass made the sky above the star light up in all the colors of the rainbow.
The dust on the floor of the Attic was thick.
She noticed quickly that there was no sign of passage.
With the lantern lighting an arc on the floor in front of her, she walked to the window.
There was no sign anyone had passed.
She turned to assure herself that her own feet were leaving prints on the floor.
She could see each step of her track from stairs to window.
She tried to stand in the exact spot where the figure had stood.
Then she saw among the stack of boxes a single apple crate that looked different from all the others. Where each of the others had a thick coat of dust, the top of this crate was clean. It was as if somebody had flown across the room, careful to not disturb the floor and inspected this single box.
Inside of it, there were books.
She turned each of them over in turn and recognized the titles. They were the same books she had borrowed from the library over the last year. They were mostly the adventure books that her mother had teased her about reading. They were books for boys, about animals and wars, but she had always felt compelled to read them, and now she saw a hint to why.
At the bottom of the box there was a single book she hadn’t read. Etched in gold leaf across the front of the book was a wildly stylized title;
“The Drummer’s Tale.”
She opened the book.
She took the book and walked down the stairs.
It was too chilly to sit outside and read, so she placed the book on the kitchen table.
She realized she forgot to reset the latch on the door when she heard her mother knocking.
She opened the door and helped her mother with the parcels she carried.
“Mr. Hansen paid me a visit today, and dropped off a few things,” she said, “he told me to tell you that they were favorites of somebody you both know, he said you would know what it meant.”
There were loafs of bread and salt pork, and two books.
The first said, “The Big Blow,” and she flushed at the title of the second, “The Drummer’s Tale.”
She held on to it with white knuckles until she could place it on the kitchen table.
“I got a little spooked at the wind,” she said as a point of explanation for the door.
“It happens some times,” her mother said, then busied herself with the preparations for dinner.
Cal picked up the books and moved into the sitting room.
She opened the front flap of the second book and read the inscription.
August, 3 1926.
I hope your life in your new home is as full of love as ours was there, especially now you have added two more to love.
Mrs. Dorothy Hansen
She leafed through the pages of the copy she had recovered from the box and the copy Mr. Hansen had given her.
They were identical down to the date of publication.
She stacked them atop one another and saw that the edges of Mr. Hansen’s copy were darkened and rolled as if the book had been read dozens of times.
The copy from the box upstairs looked as if it was newly printed.
Then she concentrated on “The Big Blow.”
It was a picture book that replayed the history of the Miami Hurricane and the attempts to rebuild in its wake.
There among the photo pages was a single photo of a beach where houses had once stood. Standing on the wreckage were dozens of white ibis. The side of the ship behind them bore the name Florida Star.
The caption on the photo read, “First to return after the storm.”
It was exactly the way she remembered it, exactly the way her mother remembered it for her.
She turned to the first page and began to read.
By the time she fell asleep curled up on the couch, she had been given an answer.
She knew her mother had lied.
Almost all of the stories she told about going to help rebuild after the storm conflicted with the words in the book.
She wondered what else her mother had lied about.
Wondered enough to pretend to sleep as her mother made the coffee and exited through the front door.
It was Saturday, with mom gone all day to sell fruit.
The smell of the coffee lingered in the house as she rolled over.
She didn’t finish “The Great Blow,” she didn’t need to.
What else had she lied about?
She poured a small bit of coffee in the bottom of a cup and added a large portion of boiled water.
It had been her intention since moving to train herself for the taste in small doses, a science experiment. After a night of fitful sleep, she wanted to feel better. The coffee always worked for her mother.
When she returned to the table, the edges of the books caught her eye.
Inside of the book that had come from the attic, there was a small but noticeable gap between the pages midway.
She opened it while juggling her cup.
A photo fell to the floor.
Across the back was written, Maggie, Diana, Cal and Rob Roy, Nov 1928.
She turned the photo and saw a woman with her mother’s face, that wasn’t her mother.
The woman in the photo was happy, and smiling, she didn’t wear the face of a woman who worked so much and loved so little.
Sitting on the left side of the woman was a little girl who wore the face she saw in the mirror, on her left a boy.
Curled up at their feet was a big white dog with a long face and long thick hair.
Cal walked toward the front of the house, turned and held up the photo.
Despite the passing years, there was no doubt that the photo she held in her hands and the picture her eyes were sending her brain were the same.
She sat down and looked the boy in the eyes.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Then she heard a creak from the attic.
The trip upstairs was easier for knowing the route, but she still rushed.
The source of the knocking was the window, that had blown open.
She moved to push it shut, but stopped.
The flash of light from the tin star hanging in the tree caught her full in the face.
When her eyes readjusted to the light in the room she saw a figure standing under the tin star, that spun ferociously. It was a boy who pointed to a spot under the tree.
Again she was on the run, down and out of the house, then standing at the spot beneath the tree.
First, she dug with her hands, then when they started to hurt, she dug with a stick, but when the stick wasn’t fast enough for her she ran to find a tool, any tool that would help.
Down in the cellar entrance she found a shovel.
Three feet beneath the surface the consistency of the ground changed, and then, another foot deeper the shovel hit something that yielded but didn’t fill the shovel.
She had seen what filled the bottom of the hole before.
At Mr. Hansen’s house, outside on his porch full of potatoes.
It was, she had learned, burlap.
She sat down.
There weren’t potatoes under the dirty burlap sack.
Instead, she could see through the rip in the burlap caused by her shovel what was unmistakable to her. It was, she thought, the shape of a human skull, but there was something odd about the teeth. They were the sharp and pointed, built for the tearing of meat.
Then she saw under a thin layer of dirt that covered the burlap a rusted tin star.
She looked up into the tree and saw that the star she had cleaned was no longer present.
Her scream echoed into the forest.
She dropped the shovel halfway to Mr. Hansen’s house.
He had given her the photo for a reason.
He answered the door to her frantic knocking.
“I wondered how long it would take you to come around,” he said. Then he noticed the state of her clothing.
“What have you been up to?” he asked.
She started to cry.
A bath, a warm towel and a hot cup of chocolate later, she was able to stop.
“I recognized your mother the moment she arrived.”
“Then why didn’t you say something?”
“I can’t. It might upset her, and after all your mother has been through, she doesn’t need any more of that.”
Cal knew that she deserved an explanation, but she didn’t wish to press. She had been trained better.
Besides, she had never felt more comfortable in all her life.
“Your mother used to live in the house where you live now.”
She had questions, but decided to wait.
“She was born there, she met her first love there, my son.”
Cal began to put the pieces together.
The only thing missing from the photo was a man, a father. She had assumed that the photo had been taken by him, but she realized that she was looking at the man who took the photo.
“I took that photo two days before the news about your father came.”
He stood up and walked to the table in the center of the library.
He took a key from around his neck and used it to open a drawer. He lifted the contents of the drawer, a glass topped box, and set it between them.
Cal looked down into the box.
She saw a yellowing telegram notice, and read the first line.
We regret to inform you of the death of your husband.
Next to the letter, on a pillow of velvet was a medal, an angel with shield and sword hanging beneath a rainbow colored ribbon. There were two stars pinned into the ribbon. Stars, with the same number of points as the one that hung from the tree.
“It’s your father’s victory medal. The Army sent it with the papers for his citation star. It was the only thing they sent home. That was what started it.”
He waited for the question, but continued when it never came.
“That was the first event that started her slip into madness. The news of her husband’s death made her begin to forget. She started forgetting her child hood and the death of her own father. The forgetfulness continued little by little as if her mind was slowly wiping everything bad out of her memory. Then on November 7th, three years after the death of my son, the accident happened.”
He struggled as if he didn’t want to go on.
My wife, and a boy were working out on the main road in the fruit stand when a loaded milk truck broke lose.
My wife, the boy, and his dog were crushed.
“What was his name?” she asked, but knew the answer.
“Calvin Coolidge Hansen.”
She hung her feet off the pile of dirt from the hole she had dug while Mr. Hansen wrapped the new burlap bag around the two skulls.
“The day of the milk truck was the last day I saw your mother. My wife was buried down at the church, but I didn’t have the heart to bury Cal and old Roy anywhere but here. This tree, its shade was their favorite place.”
She helped him put the dirt back over the bodies.
When they were finished, he helped her nail a crude star she had cut out of a can top to the side of the tree.
“She most likely will never remember.”
The girl nodded.
“Come around the house tomorrow, and maybe we can see about you getting a puppy.”
She reached out and put her hand in his.
“Would you mind if I called you grandpa?”
“Not around your mother, at least. You mind if I call you Di.”
“Not around mother.”
Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.