The Warden Girls
By: E.R. LeVar
An old bonnet of hers still rests on a hook on the wall, long blue ribbons trailing down to the floor. A well-worn shawl drapes over the back of the chair, holes in the knitting letting the sunlight through to speckle the table legs. The muggy air sits low and hot, no movement back and forth through the open window. The moth-eaten curtains don’t so much as stir. A few hair pins litter the floor, fallen out of old creases and folds. A broken toy sits on a shelf, a wooden horse missing its hind leg. It leans precariously to one side. Some herbs are strung up from the ceiling still. A basket has been abandoned on the ground, a large hole in one side and stained at the bottom with the dark red juices of the berries that grow nearby. Sunlight enters the dark little space through cracks in the walls as well. The floor creaks, burdened by the movement of shifting weight. The bed sags under the pressure of age and cast-off bottles, bags, and clothes.
He swears, pulling more clothing out of the drawers and casting it back onto the bed. A clatter of hairpins rains down to the floor. Somewhere in it all, a silver locket rests, containing two locks of dark curls. It is not in this drawer, on the bed, on the floor. It is nowhere, yet, that he has looked. He shoves the drawer back, pushing hard with his shoulder when it sticks in the grooves. He crams it back into place with a shudder that shakes the wall as well.
He stands, and a list runs through his mind: rope, soap, jerky, burlap, oil, twine. He doesn’t have the things he needs to patch all this stuff up anymore. He kicks the broken basket out of his way, heading for the door. The cost–he cringes at the cost, but it will have to be. The few coins he has clink together in his pocket as he steps through the door.
The very walls of the shack quake as he slams the door closed. He tumbles lightly down the steps to the worn dirt below, pounded into place by his own feet over the years. He begins to whistle as he sets out under the green canopy of the woods, leaving the little house behind. Its roof droops, and the walls are askew. It was never meant to last this long out here in the woods, but she always knew what to do. It will collapse into dust someday soon, he assumes.
The trees grow thicker and then grow thinner again. They spread out, open up to the road. It is dust, clouds stirred up by the tramping of feet and hooves. Out here, on the edges, the large houses are far apart, shaded porches giving shelter from the beating sun overhead. Only a few silent watchers rock on their porches today. Their eyes bore into him as he walks past. He hates that, too–has always hated this part of the walk, where the trees open up and leave him exposed. He hated it even when he was small enough to tuck himself away from their gazes in the folds of his mother’s skirt. He cannot hide anymore today, and she is no longer here to offer refuge.
The thick, muggy heat makes the houses like ovens on a day like today. The others, the missing faces from the white-painted porch chairs, have gone into town, away from their shade. Laurie knows, then, what this means. The Warden girls must have come into town. They drag all the onlookers with them when they go.
His feet kick up dust from the road. The dust settles in the folds of his trouser legs. The houses grow closer together, the porches smaller, and then up ahead, the first shops come into view. Clusters of men and women lounge in the shade, gathered together to talk. Laurie pauses to shake the dust from his legs in great clouds. The women wear large hats to shade themselves, to protect themselves from that brutal sun, and perfume and sweat wafts toward him as he draws near. None of them acknowledge him today–not a sniff or a snort or a turn to move away. They are too busy with their gossip to bother with him now.
In any other town, they wouldn’t even notice his skin. He’s no darker than any other sun-kissed man in the world. It is only because they know. It is only because they knew his mother that they notice his skin.
They don’t even lower their voices as he approaches. Bits and pieces of gossip fill the air, surrounding him. He does not look to listen. He simply cannot help but overhead.
“You know, that old Elizabeth never mentioned any family out east! Not once in all these years.”
“Strange, isn’t it? Three young girls out of the blue. Educated overseas, too, I’ve heard.”
“Just the eldest one, for a year or two. That’s where their odd fashion comes from, I reckon.”
“Like costumes, like a theatre play. Some just–”
Another woman further up the lane complains, “–I find them rather stuck up! Those girls keep their noses in the air. Think they’re better than us just because–”
“Oh, Mabel, that’s just because you don’t know the dear girls–”
A little woman, face a splotchy red in the summer heat, whispers louder than the rest, “–pestilence, I heard.”
“Pestilence? Whatever do you mean? Is it the fever again?”
“Or some nasty swamp plague,” the red-faced woman says with a violent shake of her head. “I heard those girls live out in the swamp somewhere. Or did, anyways, before they came here.”
“Now, I heard they came from a town by the sea–”
They certainly came from the sea. They had told him all about the sea. He can envy them that, at least: the sound of the waves in their memories. He doesn’t understand, can’t understand why girls like these would come here to this place, so far, far away from the sounds of the sea of which he can only dream. Sometimes, before she had died and left him alone in that house, he would go off to seek the hilltops and the sun through the trees. Sometimes, when his mother still breathed, he would imagine when he crested the top of a hill, he would be able to look out and see the freedom of the sea.
“I wish those men would stop sniffing around those little girls,” huffs young Anna Davis, glaring at the young men all lounging about. She has only just been married herself. “The men should just leave them be.”
“They’re just doing what men do. They all wish to take home a pretty, young wife someday. Out here, that’s no guarantee.”
“Well, still, I don’t–”
There is a stir, a breath of life in the languid air around the shaded porch of the little, old millinery. The whispers turn to true words, and people gather closer to the door. He looks up from his trudging march when they do. He catches only a glimpse, that elusive glimpse, of the girls: purple, white, and pink in the crowd. The flowers on their hats fill the air with a natural perfume, strong enough for him to catch even out here. The flowers are all that he can see in the midst of the offering hands of those other young men so “excited to have bumped into you here!” Then, in an instant as he continues on by, he catches a flash of that milk-colored skin just like the skin that his mother once wore, and he is taken just as suddenly elsewhere.
He didn’t mean to come upon them in the woods that day. He hadn’t even heard them until he was close. He and his mother used to bathe in that pond on hot and lazy summer days when he was only a boy. It was the late spring heat that spurred him there that day. The blackberries were yet unfurling spring leaves in bright green, and he was wandering among their thorns when he heard the voices of the girls. Laughter and splashing reached him there, and something made him carry on, further into the thorns. Something made him push his way through the thick bushes at the end and out onto the sun-speckled mud of the little pond bank.
They shrieked when they saw him emerge, and he realized at once his mistake. Here the blackberries grew thick and tall, and they must have blocked him from view. His apologies tumbled from his lips as soon as he knew, but their shrieks of fright turned into shrieks of laughter before he even said a word. He had been surprised by them, too: three young, beautiful girls up to their ankles in the pond, loose spring dresses dragging in the dark water below. Their flowered hats were on the bank by his feet, cast aside. The eldest of the three pushed back her chestnut curls with a smile, wading closer to him. Her hem dripped water like jewels at her feet as she stepped out again. Her feet were bare, and Laurie looked away from them. She held out her palm to him as confident as anyone.
Her handshake was firm, too. He met her eyes when they shook, and there was some power in her gaze, in her grasp, in her greeting that took his voice away. He stared; for too long, he stared. She smiled, and the others still out in the water began to giggle. When he at last found his words, gave his greeting in return, those other two laughed.
“We are very pleased to meet you, Mr. Laurence Fox,” said the eldest, dropping her hand and looking over her shoulder to her sisters there. Their laughter subsided at once. “We are the Miss Wardens, you know, though we really would not mind if you call us Meg, Eliza, and Jane. I do hope we have not been trespassing on your pond, Mr. Fox.”
It was almost a question but somehow not quite.
“No,” he answered her, still staring too much. “No, it’s not mine. This is nobody’s land.”
Her smile lingers even now in his mind, and he stares into the crowd for a glimpse of her straight, white teeth. She lifts up her head as she steps down to the road. The brim of her hat rises up, and he can see her young, blushing face. She seems to meet his eyes, too, for an instant through the crowd. She seems to smile at him, before that arrogant dog of a man offers her his arm, blocking her from view. She places her little, white hand in the crook of the offered elbow. The man even smirks toward the others at her touch, looking away from her so she cannot see. Laurie almost growls as John Grieves leads all three girls away. Laurie doesn’t know why Meg would even let that man lead her, anyway. It is something all these girls do nowadays.
He would be a fool to stay. He knows that. They are all fools, anyway, flocking around the new girls in the town. Certainly, not one of the girls will stay. She most definitely will not stay. They must all have plans to return to the sea some day. He would be a fool to stay. He tells himself this as he buys thread, needle, and rope. He reminds himself this as he buys sugar and flour, some jars for preserves. He reminds himself this as he buys oil, ink, and glue. He reminds himself this as he carries all of his purchases away. Home is nothing more than a little camp in the woods with a ramshackle structure in the middle. His little shack leans to one side. It will fall down someday soon. Laundry is strung through the trees. Some shingle slats have fallen and broken on the ground. He ignores all of this as he forces the warped wood of the door open and lays his new purchases down. He would be a fool, a true fool, to stay.
And yet again, he is certain she smiled at him today.