2nd Place Fiction
Excerpt from Fifty Common Years
In five days at the lake, none of the O’Hara children had ventured near the Estate. It was on the same property as the little village of summer cabins, but it was secluded by a long drive of white pebbles and weeping willows. Uncle James had told them that the family who lived there owned the cabins, and to not bother them, because they were kind to rent out the cabins and didn’t need any trouble from “you lot.” He said it in a fond way, but Liam remarked late one night while lying on their cots that it wasn’t Uncle James who thought they were hicks. Johnny asked what a hick was, and Liam answered, “You, that’s what.”
It was the golden hour before sunset as Johnny wandered through the green woods. He waded through the tall grasses that nearly reached his waist and picked a couple of stems of Queen Anne’s lace to give to Anna. Even the woods here seemed wealthier, and his chest filled with the scent of old evergreens that still looked young. The tall green grass was soft like a blanket and wove around his feet tenderly. His footsteps were so quiet that he could hear quail singing above him, somewhere up in the safety of the white blossoms that crowded every branch. He didn’t have his gun here in Connecticut, but even if he had, there would have been no reason to use it. There was almost more food at the cabin than they could eat, and in the stillness here Johnny felt, although he wouldn’t have the word for it until he was older, that he was in a sanctuary. That was what money could do for a person, he thought. When you got it, you don’t have to disturb the places where the birds do nothing but sing.
Gradually as he walked, the distance clear in his head like a map, the trees grew closer together and he pushed aside the boughs of a willow tree. Thorns dug at his hands. He wiped the specks of blood on his trousers and stepped into a low clear area where the trees parted and then met up again over his head. Sunlight fell on everything, and Johnny’s eyes stung a little after the shadowy green woods. Ivy wrapped up like loving arms around the trunks of old oaks. He heard water and squinted and saw a stream not far from him. It was all glowing, the trees and the yellow flowers and the water. There were beautiful places at home in Leary, but they were dark and dense and they made Johnny feel cold to think of them. He had never been somewhere that looked so warm as this.
He rolled up the legs of his trousers. His mind was opening and settling and comforting. This was his. Not the place; the place belonged to the birds and the honeysuckle and each tiny fish, but that he was here alone—that was his. He bent and scooped a handful of the damp dirt from beside the stream. The feel of earth against his skin felt like old memories.
Johnny hopped off the short dirt ledge above the stream and waded into it. It was cold and sent a chill up through his feet and ankles. He braced his teeth together. Everything was colder in Connecticut. He kicked about to make sure there were no snakes near him and then began walking along the streambed, aimlessly, the joy of wandering flooding back into him.
He knelt to watch a school of little silver fish slip past him, and when he raised his head he froze. Someone was sitting in the water downstream from him. He squinted, but the glow of sunlight washed away any features. Then he saw brown hair and realized it was a girl with her head turned from him.
She was sitting on the edge of the dirt and sand, skirt pulled up and feet in the water. Johnny watched her with interest and then felt bad that he watched her when she didn’t know he was there. He started to turn and go back the way he had come when she said, “Hello?”
He turned back around. “I didn’t know there was anybody here. I’m real sorry.”
“I’m always here. What are you doing here?”
She had straightened and was looking at him. “Are you staying in one of the cabins?”
“How’d you find me?” Her voice had a northern clip.
“I…well, I ain’t been lookin’ for ya. I just been walkin’.”
“Oh. You walked all the way from the cabins?”
He nodded again.
She stood and held her skirt bunched in one hand. “Want to see a beaver’s dam?”
Johnny had seen dozens of beaver dams in the creeks at home, but he wanted to see this one more. She waited for him to reach her. The sun would be down below the trees soon, and it painted the water orange and gold. It wasn’t deep and was clear right to the bottom where their feet pressed against the bed of pebbles.
“I’ve seen you at the lake sometimes.” She smiled at him, and Johnny thought it was nice of her to let him come with her. He wondered if he would be as nice if it were her who had stumbled upon one of his coves or creeks or mountain roads in Leary.
“There are always a lot of you there.”
He kicked at the rocks. “My uncle says there are too many of us.” She smiled again. Johnny said, “How come I never seen you there?”
“I see you from the other beach.”
“Are you from the south?”
Johnny noticed that her eyes were the color of the bluebells up in the clearing and didn’t know why he thought of that. “South of…where?”
“I don’t know, down south. My daddy always says that. South of here, I suppose. My daddy said it’s warm all the time.”
“It ain’t warm all the time,” Johnny said, shaking his head, grinning at the thought of winter. “There are mountains and they make it cold.”
The girl pointed ahead of them. “There’s the dam, down by the pond. I like swimming better up where we were. The pond’s dirty.”
Johnny had never considered whether any of the swimming holes at home were dirty. It was water, so it seemed like it all ought to be clean. They walked up to the dam, a little mound of sticks with water gurgling against it and flowing away when it couldn’t get through. “Be nice to live right on top o’ a pond,” he said. “Jus’ reach out your door and you can catch a fish.”
She laughed, and again Johnny was reminded of bluebells.
They looked at the beaver dam and knocked on some of the sticks and proclaimed it was a good place to live. Johnny thought he could hear music in the trees as they walked back along the streambed, but it might have been his imagination. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Marianne.” She plucked a handful of white and blue flowers from the grass bordering the stream. “It’s long.”
“I like it,” Johnny said, and he did. He told her his name and barely heard himself say it.
Marianne bent down, getting the edges of her skirt wet. She fished her hands about in the water and Johnny paused, waiting for her, and then he felt water against his face. She splashed him again and her mouth opened in a laugh. In a moment, they were both laughing, and Marianne’s dress was dripping and Johnny was wet up to his knees. It was cold, but her laughter was so clear and wild and he wanted to keep listening to it so that he didn’t really mind the chill.
They climbed back onto the muddy patch of beach and then into the clearing again in yellow twilight. They were wet from head to toe and both smiling. Marianne’s curls drooped down her back. Johnny, watching her gently pluck the petals off the white flowers and tossing them into the stream, had nearly forgotten that the clearing existed.
“No one else has ever come up here,” Marianne said. They sat cross-legged in the grass as she deftly tied together a crown of flowers and Johnny picked at the bark of a stick just to give his hands something to do. “My daddy knows it’s here, I guess, but most times people just stay near the cabins or the lake.”
“You don’t live in one of the cabins?”
She shook her head. “I live in the big house.”
The way she said it was natural, as if she knew that most people didn’t live in such big houses, and at the same time as though it wasn’t at all out of the ordinary.
The deep purple glow of dusk settled over the clearing and Johnny remembered he would have to hike back through the woods to get home. Marianne was twisting together the ends of two yellow flowers, and she tied them tight and then leaned over to Johnny and put the crown of flowers on his head.
“You look like one of those little boy imps from the fairy picture books,” she said, smiling, all of her glistening in the last light. The sun glowed against her back through the tall oaks on the other side of the stream, and in the fleeting brightness all Johnny could see of her was a silhouette and a laughing mouth.
He had never read a picture book with fairies in it, but he made an impish face at Marianne and jumped like a mischievous sprite to his feet. “You’ll have to catch me if you want it back.”
She was after him in a moment, and both of them, barefoot, barely left the imprint of their feet on the thick, soft grass. Johnny knew he wasn’t running back towards home, but where his inner compass told him the estate house was. He didn’t want Marianne to have to walk home alone from the cabins. He wove in and out between the tree trunks and only caught out of the corner of his eye glimpses of the moss and twisting ivy and the dense thorny thickets of roses. He heard her behind him, out of breath but still laughing, and everything Johnny felt was a blur of green and the phantom touch of the way Marianne’s fingers had brushed against his hair when she crowned him.
The trees thinned and Johnny slowed. He turned around just as she reached him, and he took the flower crown off his head and put it on hers. “It looks prettier on you, an’ways,” he said.
Marianne blushed a little, although Johnny wasn’t sure why. “We’re both all dirty,” she said, shaking out the hem of her dress.
Johnny wiped the dirt from his hands on his trousers. “I’m always dirty.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe. I know the way from here.”
The white estate house rose out of the trees some distance away. Johnny nodded and he said, “I’ll see ya. Marianne.” The name sounded even longer when he said it, gentle and drawled out.
“I didn’t ever want anyone to find me down there,” she said before she turned toward the house, “but I’m not mad you did…Johnny. I don’t mind.” She slipped away past a row of pine trees and all he could see was the white flowers on her head, for a second or two, and then they were gone.
It seemed like he was facing northwest, roughly, and the cabins were east. The sky was darkening, and he pulled himself away from the pines and started walking and then began to run again. There was something in him that was too big for walking.