“Is it him?” Ruby’s voice held undisguised eagerness.
Tulsa stepped back hurriedly from the window, afraid to see what was in her mother’s expression.
“Dylan? Oh, I don’t know,” she hedged, her voice a little too high. “He borrowed the dogs to walk down at the Bay Trail, I don’t expect he’ll be back for a long while.”
“He sure does like to walk.” Marmi’s dark, snapping eyes reflected the light from the fireplace, her seamed, weathered cheeks ruddy in its warmth. “Curious boy who comes to pay a call on a girl’s dogs.”
“I think he’s marvelous,” Ruby said righteously, fingers patting her upswept black curls. She had set her hair especially carefully today, and wore two bright circles of rouge on her cheeks. “There was a time when every young man knew the length and breadth of his hills, could walk the lanes with his head held high, but men these days… Dylan’s a real man, like they don’t make ’em no more. You’re lucky he thinks so well of you, Tulsa.”
Tulsa felt the dig and her face bloomed a mottled red. It was never, “You’re lucky to have him,” but “you’re lucky he’ll take you.” Tall, skinny and plain, Tulsa knew she wasn’t like her mother, who was curvy and raven-haired and full of flashing eyes and artless chatter. Ruby was always at her about Dylan Carlson, the tall, dark-haired boy who had attracted so many ardent glances from the town girls. Tulsa turned away and busied herself with twisting her school ring on her middle finger. If she didn’t know better, she’d think Ruby wanted Dylan for herself.
But she’s my mother, Tulsa remonstrated with herself. She wants me to be happy.
Ruby had married early — far too early, at fifteen, to avoid the scandal of Tulsa’s conception one moonlit night during the Midsummer Revels. Though the entire village knew the name of her seducer, Marni, Ruby’s mother, had urged her daughter to deny it, to go away, saying, “Why marry him? Can’t you see he’ll give you nothing but grief?” but Ruby could not see what much of the village saw, and when he left her, older by aeons at twenty one, hardened and bruised, she hated her mother and everyone else for being right, hated her mother for offering her sanctuary in the airy, pine-floored farmhouse where she’d been born, and hated her further for calming the red-haired, red-faced, screaming child who already eluded her. Now at thirty-two, Ruby was a restless evil, yearning for what she had never had, resentful of her own daughter’s freshness, and longing for something nameless. Tulsa felt her mother’s inner seethings and counted the days before she could go away to school and leave behind the chatter of the small village and Ruby’s scything tongue. Dylan was college-bound, wealthy, and easy to be with. He had appeared as a welcome savior, off-handedly including her in his world with the easy assumption that she would be grateful, and she was, she was, but… but…
“A man can walk too much,” Marni said, getting up from her chair and setting aside her whittling. “Tulsa. Come out with me, my girl. We should see where he’s gotten off to with the dogs.”
“Mother,” Ruby began querulously. “Why can’t you just leave well enough alone? He’ll come back after dark, won’t he, and I can feed him some of my chicken and dumplings. You know what the village says about my dumplings.”
Marni turned her jet bead eyes toward her daughter, the incurious, changeling child she did not understand. “That I do,” she said shortly. “Come along, Tulsa.”
Shrugging into a heavy canvas coat and wellington boots against the chill and damp, Tulsa followed her grandmother through the kitchen porch and out the back door. Once freed from her daughter’s lowering influence, Marni was no longer a picturesque little old lady, sitting by the fire but again the Boss Lady in her rough plaid Mac and her high boots, stumping along with her gnarled walking stick, turning her head to look over the land.
The hired boy was bringing in the sheep, the working dogs barking and nipping and gathering in the herd. Marni made an irritated little ‘tch’ of teeth to tongue, and Tulsa knew her grandmother was missing her old Aussie sheep dog, Shep, who had bounded along beside her until his death of old age last fall. It was another death since Big Jake’s death two summers ago, and Tulsa patted her grandmother’s shoulder in a show of sympathy. While Tulsa could not make up for the ache that was the loss of her grandfather, she had bought home two red retrievers, Bonnie and Clyde, just this past Spring, a bargain with Patti Kinslet from the 4-H club, in exchange for an ewe who had borne twins.
Almost overnight, Tulsa and the Twaine Harte farm had been the envy of every small boy in the village, especially Robin Kipling and Rudy Styles and their gang, all ten-year-old hellions Tulsa sat with when their parents went to Moose Lodge dances. The boys wanted the dogs to hunt with, and were forever crashing about in the woods, trying to trap rabbits and shoot deer with their puny bows and arrows. Before, Robin come out to the farm to play with the dogs, as his folks lived only across the creek near the spur trail, and he had tramped along with Marni on her wanderings, which took her to the edge of their property, and through the oak wood. But lately, only Dylan had taken the dogs, and Robin hadn’t come by with Rudy for awhile.
Dylan was impressed by the dogs, at least Tulsa supposed so; it was only after the dogs that he has shown any sign of knowing she was alive. Once he’d started seeing her home, he had offered almost every week to “take them off your hands,” and hied away over the hills to stretch his legs. The retrievers, big puppies, really, seemed happy enough to lollop along after anyone going anywhere, and were growing fat and glossy. Still, Tulsa thought, it might have been nice if Dylan had showed up with such regularity to look after her.
She thought she must have sighed, for Marni’s attention turned to her with a sudden ferocity.
“What does she see in him, then?”
“She? Ruby? What does she see in whom? Not Dylan, surely?”
Marni gave her granddaughter a flat glance, and Tulsa reined in her raveling thoughts. Marni did not appreciate muddle-headedness. “You mean her, don’t you? My mother?”
“Ruby has more interest in that prig than you do. Why is that, do you think? And what’s he after? The land?”
“I–I don’t know, Marni,” Tulsa stuttered, battered by her grandmother’s questions, not willing to too closely her comment about Ruby. “He’s not a prig, I don’t think. He’s just… Dylan.”
Dylan. Rather …aloof, tall, dark haired and a mid-year transfer to the village higher school. He did not speak idly, was not interested in sport, except for long-distance running; he qualified for a Letter jacket, but never wore one, nor a class ring. He was not a joiner; rumor had it that his father was a Bank owner in the city, and had moved them for their mother’s health, but no one knew for sure, and he would never be asked. Dylan never socialized and joked in the hallways, but spoke only in class, where his words seemed chipped from ice and very smart indeed. Most of the girls in Marni’s year had swooned over him, with that aristocratic curl hanging over his forehead, and most of the teachers favored him, holding up his work as an example. His pale face was chiseled and refined and just as cultured as marble stone as he looked down a little haughtily at the farm boys and ranch girls who surrounded him like constellations. He had a cool, unblinking gray gaze that was partly unnerving, and partly exciting to the girls who flocked around him like hypnotized birds. Tulsa dreaded to meet his eyes, afraid of what she’d see.
He had not really spoken to anyone but Tulsa, and her only recently. And, when she thought of it, Tulsa didn’t know why he had spoken to her, why he’d taken to walking her from her bus. It has been a heady excitement, at the first; had he sought her out because she hadn’t chased him? But she had been more bewildered and embarrassed at the way Ruby had made a fuss over him than proud, and before long, the mystery of why he spoke to her was superseded by the question of how long until Ruby did something unspeakable, and ruined everything. Why was he taking the time?
Had anyone else asked her, she would have bristled, indignant that they found her dubious parentage, her fiery red hair, her village background or long narrow face wanting, but Marni would ask the hard questions, the whys, and really want to hear an answer. It disturbed Tulsa that she didn’t have one.
“They say his father is wealthy… why would he want the farm? And, how would he think to get it from me, since it’s yours?”
Marni tsked, and set off walking at a stronger pace. “Everyone knows you’ll inherit, God knows your mother doesn’t want this spread. All I know is this Dylan walks this way every Wednesday now, whistling up the dogs and taking off toward the Baker’s place like he’s calling on kin. With all that town cash, why doesn’t get a dog of his own, I’d like to know. I don’t like it.”
Tulsa stumbled on something invisible then caught herself, her fingers bunching into fists in her deep flannel pockets. Marni’s words set up a ricochet in her mind, an awful echo that plummeted toward her stomach and bounced.
“I don’t like it.”
It was the words of a Matriarch, a woman whose will shaped the world around her. When Marni didn’t like something, she worried at it, dislodged it, searched it out root and branch, and destroyed it. Her grandmother often said that life was too short to have truck with that which she did not approve, and while the town folk showed an equal amusement and astonishment at Big Jake’s widow, Marni Atterly’s “high-handed ways,” it was to her the village came when they needed a salve for their herds, a cup of bilberry tea and an hour of windbagging, or when something harder when things more serious threatened their families and livelihoods. Marni was a power when she was curious, when she was unhappy, and she rooted out answers like a long-tusked boar.
Tulsa felt a frisson of nerves. This thing with Dylan would no longer be a delicious mystery, a thing for the others in town to wonder about and gossip over her good fortune. Marni would find things out, today, and once seen in the light, maybe the magic might fade, Dylan turn out to be a callow user, and Tulsa would no longer be special standing in his shadow. She was suddenly terrified of power of her grandmother’s regard.
“Is that why you wanted me?” Tulsa blurted. “Because you don’t like it? Or is it him you don’t like? You think he’s leading me on, two-timing me with someone over in Baker’s woods, and you want to have me see you tell him off, is that it?”
Marni slowed her pace and turned, head tilted curiously. “Do you think I’d ask that of you?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Tulsa flushed, and ducked her head. “You want me to see something. Isn’t that why?”
“I wanted you,” her grandmother said, lifting her chin, “so you could come away from that empty-headed mother of yours and get some fresh air into your lungs. No more. I thought I’d stop and see if there were rose hips in Fern Dell, and we could pick a bunch and make up a bit of jelly. Do I need more of a reason than that to have my granddaughter walk the hills with me?”
“No,” said Tulsa, unaccountably happier. “I just… I don’t know, Marn. I just wanted to know.”
Marni looked at Tulsa’s thin young face, flushed with exertion but less pinched now, and she felt bone deep weariness. “You’ll be going away from us soon,” she said almost under her breath, “and a good thing it will be for you, too.”
“I’ll miss you, gran,” Tulsa said with a surge of unexpected emotion. “You know I will. I’ll come back. I’ll finish school but I’ll come back.”
“Only the hills will miss you more, “Marni said, and pressed her hard hand against her grandchild’s cheek. “It will be good for you to get shut of this place for just a while, though. Just for a while.”
They hiked on in silence for awhile, Marni feeling a great deal calmer as they moved through a tangle of madrones and scrub oak. Ferns, thimbleberry and wild rose bushes nestled beneath sheltering branches of the hazelnut trees which lined the trail. Shy woodland starflowers and bluedicks were just opening in the thin warmth of the sunshine, and lichens and mosses furred the huge rocks which jutted up from the forest floor. Suddenly, birds were darting through the sparsely leafed branches and a bark echoed back toward them. Marni picked up her pace yet again, and Tulsa lengthened her stride as well.
“We’ll just take back the dogs, won’t we,” Tulsa said, feeling her stomach constrict with a nameless dread. “No matter if he’s with someone else, we’ll just take back the dogs, won’t we, and we won’t make a fuss?”
Marni gave a curt nod, and kept on walking, feeling what her grandchild felt, a nape-prickling sort of alarm, a susurration of the wind, whispering almost coherently in her ears. She strained to listen. Something… something…
In the clearing, Tulsa gave out a sudden laugh, for there was, wedged crookedly into a thick-trunked hazelnut tree, a hunting blind, of sorts. Its inexpertly nailed walls gave the identity of its builders, Rudy and Robin, and probably Wilt and Chris, whose fathers might have been a bit more free with the scrap lumber and tools. It was inexpertly camouflaged with bits of branches and leaves sticking out at odd angles, and a rope ladder rolled up on the ledge, which gave evidence of its being occupied. At the base of the tree were tied Bonnie and Clyde, chewing on sticks, flags of their tails waving.
Without thinking, Tulsa gave out a shout. “Hello the house! Some great hunters you are, didn’t even see us coming, did you?”
Bark scraped, and Tulsa heard an abrupt, brief tussle, and a thump. For a brief moment, she made out Rudy’s tearstained face, peering palely from between the branches.
“Rudy?” she moved worriedly toward the tree. “What are you –“
“Catch him!” Marni shouted, pulling the dogs by their leashes away from the tree. Tulsa bounded forward with a little shriek and extended her arms as thirty-five pounds of rapidly falling boy struck her and dropped her like a bag of lead onto the hard cold ground.
“Ow!” she complained, feeling her arms wrenched their sockets. “Rudy, what happened? Why didn’t you use the ladder? Are you all right?”
Rudy was crying, a hopeless, breathy sound, more the keening of a wounded animal than the roaring of an injured child with a bruised ego. He was shaking and also unpleasantly wet Tulsa soon discovered. She shrugged painfully out of her canvas coat and wrapped him in it, her shoulders still hurting too badly to struggle to her feet while holding him. There was no chance of him letting her go. He was clinging to her like a limpet.
“Rudy, love, where’s Robin? Where’s Chris and Wilton? Did you all have a falling out?” Tulsa’s eyes lifted to her grandmother’s, who was staring at the hunting blind with a raptor’s chilling gaze. Rudy sobbed on wordlessly, burying his trembling in Tulsa’s coat.
“Never mind, love,” Tulsa crooned. “It’s all awful now, I know, but we’ll find those boys, and we’ll sort this, we will.”
Rudy shuddered and sobbed harder.
With her grandmother’s assistance, Tulsa struggled to her feet, and, bearing her unwieldy burden, staggered toward the woods again, murmuring nonsense to calm Rudy’s crying. The dogs galloped alongside of her, breaking the trail and flushing out birds, who rose with a clatter of indignant wings. Too wrapped in trying to elicit some sort of response from the worryingly silent Rudy, Tulsa focused only on the trail before her and the boy in her arms. Before long, the woods subsided again into crisp silence. The birds settled, muttering, and the only sound was the soughing of the wind, rattling the branches against the sky.
When Dylan Carlson dropped from the hunting blind, Marni was ready for him. Rudy had left behind his bow, and the first of a series of arrows ripped into the soft flesh of Dylan’s groin and his legs. They were only little makeshift arrows from a little homemade bow that belonged to a little boy, but Marni had been sharpening the metal while she waited, quietly honing the aluminum between two stones the woods had offered up from its floor. As Dylan shrieked and tore the arrows from his body, Marni let off a volley of stones, thrown hard and true, like she had thrown sticks for Shep to fetch. Her gnarled old hands might be crabbed with arthritis, but her wiry arms were strong from years rocking coyotes and of hauling lambs over her shoulders and dragging them back from danger. Dylan did not stop to look for her, so unexpected was the onslaught. Instead, he ran, bruised, bloody and breathless, into the wood, as if his life depended upon it.
It did not; if he had seen her, he could have easily overpowered her, an old woman armed with a blackthorn staff and a handful of stones. But he didn’t see her. He was not curious enough to find out the source of his pain.
Later that night, Tulsa slipped away from the house. The whole village was buzzing with conjecture. Rudy hadn’t spoken to anyone except for Tulsa Atterly, and she’d asked the Doctor around before she’d gone home. Rudy’s own folks had no inkling but that Doc said their son appeared to be fine, but he’d need them to keep close for quite some time, and a general word went out for all the young ones to keep out of the woods for a time. Then Doc had sent off for the rangers to come, but no one knew what to make of that, either.
Marni Atterly had time for a few visitors to the farm, and she said there were vagrants in the woods, and she’d be locking down her animals tight from here on out. Conventional wisdom in the village was always to follow Marni Atterly’s advice, so barns were locked, herds were brought in close to the house, and the children’s whereabouts were known. It seemed best, if Marni said so.
Tulsa had left Clyde with Rudy, but Bonnie bounded at her side, stiff-legged and silent as she crept into the shed and picked up a shovel, and a bucket.
It wasn’t hard to find the tree, nor to climb the rope ladder, which had been left down. If she had seen them in the darkness, Tulsa might have used the arrows littering the ground, but it was enough to climb the ladder and stuff the kerosene soaked rag into the crotch of the tree. As it burned, Tulsa dug a firebreak around the base, filled her bucket with earth, and waited, Bonnie sitting alertly beside her.
The smoke would draw the village men down, curious and worried, and she might tell them gypsies must have set the fire, if she chose, but she might instead keep to the shadows and watch as the secret burned. The villagers would find the blind, assume the fire had started there, and tear it down board from board. They would chop down the hazel tree, and for its ill luck, they would dig at it, root and branch, and destroy it. They would turn the soil until it was erased.
It would be dismissed as a one-off thing, gypsies in the wood, keep the children away and safe, send out the rangers to be sure the blighters had moved on elsewhere. Curiosity about the incident would fade. But Tulsa, like her grandmother, would keep watching, circling the woods, peering into the faces she saw. It was no good being afraid to look, no good at all.
This story is based on this image, by Rhi~’s Photos
Please do read the original blog post attached to the photograph; it’s much more powerful than any piece of fiction. More stories found with The Usual Suspects on Ficktion.ning.