Read Part 2 here.
Permit me voyage, Love, into your hands. – James Agee
When school was out for the year, her secret became almost impossible to keep, and her desire to keep it private seemed important, yet odd to her. She wasn’t able to do Miss Georgia’s shopping on the way from or to school, timed along with her usual errands. Now she had to figure out times to get away from the increased housework her mother expected of her in the summer, and find ways to keep her younger brothers from tagging along. Sometimes she’d hear the boys talking about walking around the shanty trying to get a glance at the witch. Their foolish talk angered her, yet she would also become frightened and avoid going there for days afterward. Still, something about Miss Georgia reminded her of the pocket warmers her brothers always carried in the winter, a secret comfort all her own, a glow that was untouched by anyone else, very simple, and very special. She believed that she was special to Miss Georgia, too, and not just because the woman needed an errand runner. Missouri had noticed that whenever she had been unable to go to the store for Miss Georgia, the lady hadn’t needed extra things on the next trip, and had none of the exasperation of having been put out. Instead, Miss Georgia seemed to have simply missed her. She always noticed if Missouri had thought of a funny story on the way over, or if the wind had given her a chill. She never picked at it, she just noticed it, showing this by the way she smiled, with a certain tilt of her head.
That summer was different from others as well. The drought was something no one was prepared for. Neither her parents nor any of their friends could remember anything like it. The boys still loved the forest and the prairie, and didn’t seem to notice how abnormally dry it was. She found herself only looking on at the boys as they played, unable to join in their imagined feats as in previous years. They rolled in the grass, or swept the brittle reeds with their feet, in order to hear the rustling and cracking of the dying plants. They seemed powerful, creative, and fearless as their steps released the camouflaged flying-grasshoppers from the waist-high grass.
Some of the color of a normal summer had survived at the pond. The ragged blue chicory flowers seemed brighter than ever there, and the violets and rainbow irises with pheasant-tail splays of fresh foliage seemed like mirages after crossing the rasping prairie grass. One of the boys said that the hag came there to say her prayers and to perform secret rites. It was true that along with the familiar wild geraniums, other plants grew here that were nowhere else in the forest. Passionflower climbers with their strange and ornate blossoms were entangled with bittersweet nightshade vines, their blue-violet leaves covering heavy crimson fruit.
True, the pond was not far from Miss Georgia’s place. Missouri liked to lounge there under a special shade-tree and watch the swallowtails and pale cabbage butterflies flitting over the blue vervain and orange colored day-lilies on the far bank, in the direction of the shack. She would imagine the little house beyond the clumps of trees and gentle curve of grassland, thinking of how it must be for Miss Georgia to live alone. The sense of journey that the prairie invited felt very different to her now. She could imagine traveling for an eternity on its waves of fluffy grain, and somehow returning to the pond. There seemed to be an invisible canopy of atmosphere around the place, holding in moisture and the sweet fragrance of flowers. Once an old man she’d found fishing there had told her that the pond was fed by some underground spring, tapped by miners a century ago. In another part of the state, she had once watched the land being torn open to reap slabs and boulders of coal, like great blue-black whales being exhumed from the shrinking prairie. She had found it hard to believe that the pond had been created by a mining accident, or anything else so violent. It was for her an essential organ of a life, which contained the forest, prairie, and scattering of thinly settled neighborhoods, like her own. Her father’s newspapers said that mining might become profitable in the area again with new methods and technology. While he was hoping for better work, this was another threat that made her feel both frightened about the years moving forward, and desperate to be safely grown-up when, she imagined, nothing more could be taken from her.
Only a week ago she had found wild strawberry plants with their bright fruit and fluffy white petals mixed in with the red clover not far from the pond, but beyond its lush self-protective canopy. The berry patch began to fade on the same day she’d discovered it. She organized some of the younger boys into an irrigation team. They had brought several large plastic buckets to dip the water from the pond and quench the earth beneath the trees. She had been a strict taskmaster, and had forbidden them to eat the berries, or to step on the fragile plants. Although the boys seemed to understand that what they were doing was important and noble, the buckets were soon abandoned to the children’s exhaustion and interest in tadpoles and dragonflies. In a few days the berries and clover were thoroughly desiccated. The day she discovered the failure of her project, the sheriff drove his big van through the dusty roads at nightfall with the roof-lights flashing. He was warning people not to camp or build fires in the woods.
This strange summer, the older children looked forward to the Little League tournament more than ever. They hoped to see everyone they hadn’t seen since school let out, and root for, or make fun of the younger kids, to participate in a familiar ceremony of summer, in a year when everything else was strange. On the day of the tournament, Missouri was stuck at home with her brothers Jimmy and Michael. The two boys were really too young to be left alone all day. Phyllis had gone to visit friends. Missouri was relied on to take care of them at home, but she was not trusted to perform the almost impossible feat of supervision required to safely cross all the busy roads on the way to the public park where the tournament was held. For several hours the boys bombarded her with ideas of how they could go to the tournament and not get caught by their parents. They started throwing things around the house, and didn’t stop until after she had promised to take them somewhere.
She wanted to go to the pond. She had at first had the thought of going there to water the strawberry patch, but then realized that this was a hopeless task. After a while she decided that they could have a picnic there under the shelter of the trees. She went to the refrigerator and found nothing pick-nick like, but there were some hot dogs in the freezer. She decided to cook them in the woods, something she had done several times last summer. When she remembered the fire precautions that had been issued, it was too late; she had leaked the idea to the boys. She thought of the plastic buckets near the pond from her watering project and felt confident that with water so near there couldn’t possibly be a problem.