Harry Bent has eyes like Woman Hollering Creek — beautiful, blue, and haunted. We met one fall night after sunset on the spit of land that balances the chapel out into the stream. We were juniors in high school that year. I had run out of my house letting the screen door slap hard behind me. Voices were loud and angry in the next room and neither Ma nor Pa noticed me leaving. I ran as fast as bare feet on pavement could, until the end of the street where the road turned to dirt and felt like velvet on my soles. I smelled the earth, the water and the sweet air that pushed me towards the chapel like it had so many times before. When the steeple came into view I let my arms stop pumping and fall at my sides. I breathed deep and took soft steps through a carpet of clover, pulling handfuls of pecans from the tree at water’s edge before I saw him leaning back against its trunk. His eyes were red and wet and set on mine.
“You know the legend?” he asked.
Who doesn’t? But I let him tell it to me anyway.
“The weeping woman haunts these shores.” He took his shoes off and plunged his feet into the water. “Her tears keep the creek flowing even in the worst drought.” His gaze was far away and I knew that I’d never hear the story told again as he told me then. “She was a young girl with child. She gave birth, then drowned the baby here in these waters.” Harry slipped away from the water’s pull and returned to the pecan tree.
“I wish everything in the world tasted like pecans,” I said finally, cracking open a shell, pulling the meat out and placing in on my tongue.
Harry reached into the clover and brought his hand up, a ladybeetle crawling across his finger. “I wish we all had hidden wings on our back,” he said, “so we could fly away.” He held his hand to his mouth, blew a gentle breath and we watched it lift its glossy red wings and light into the evening sky. The night was warm and Harry’s words felt like a cool mist against my skin. I didn’t know how I’d go back home and trade them for the words my father shot like arrows. Then Harry said, “See you tomorrow,” and I knew I could make it through another day.
After that, we met there every night until winter came, planning our escape. “I’ll get a job,” Harry said one night as he ran with outstretched arms to shoo a crow from the pecans. “I’ll save enough money for both of us to leave.” I thought that his Pa must be horrible, too.
His voice got stronger and stronger the more we talked and some of it rubbed off on me. “I’ll tell my pa to stop drinking. Before I leave I’ll say the words that run circles through my mind,” I said. There’s one thing I didn’t tell Harry, because he’d worry too much. He’d worry that Pa would catch on and things would get even worse than just strong words and a slap now and then. So I didn’t tell him how each night when I returned home from our meetings and I felt as beautiful and strong as a ladybeetle on the wind, I’d slip into Pa’s room, which reeked with liquor, and pull a folded bill or two from his wallet to hasten our escape. I tucked them into the inside zip pouch in the backpack that I’d had ready since Harry made me believe that I could really leave.
Winter set in hard that year and more than the clover, the ladybeetles or the pecans, I missed Harry. On a night dark as the end of time Pa was sick of the winter too and he took it out on me something awful. He was still hollering my name as I grabbed the backpack and ran through streets dusted with snow. The air burned my lungs as my heart beat hard with the hope of finding Harry there on the edge of the world when I needed him most. Before the steeple came into view I saw smoke from the chapel’s chimney. As I neared, a dim light shifted inside. I set the backpack on the doorstep, and quieted the latch as I pushed the door open. Standing in a puddle of melted snow on warped floorboards I watched the light from the candle nubs play on the faces of the minister and his wife, and make the bride and groom’s shadow dance on the empty pews; Harry’s shadow, there, moving as it had when he shooed the crows from our tree so many times.
The minister’s monotone continued, “If anyone can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or forever hold your peace.”
I rolled our secret around on my tongue, dry and rough until a cough rose from my throat and escaped my lips. All eyes fell to me. I thought about cracking the secret open like a pecan between my teeth. But Harry’s eyes were wet as they met mine. Instead I blew a gentle breath into the air, wishing that wings would lift him from his place at the altar and we could fly away together. But he looked at his bride and I followed his eyes towards the infant in her arms. I left as quietly as I entered, only wanting to tell Harry one thing: In the end I would make my escape almost exactly the way we planned it.
Ruth Schiffmann puts pen to paper always hoping for that magical moment when the words take on a life of their own. More than a hundred of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. To read more of her work, visit www.RuthSchiffmann.com.