An Abstract

Bits and pieces of this have been floating around in my head for a while. It’s an opening to one of several stories I wouldn’t mind telling, but I’m not sure what direction to take it in quite yet. At any rate, enjoy it for what it is at the moment and feel free to leave me feedback.

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Flashes of light…where am I?

Voices…Elliott? Is that you?

“…they must have hit around 50 miles per hour…going to need to intubate…”

Shapes…moving…so cold…

Am I drowning? Why does it feel so peaceful?

“Get him to theater 5. Orderly! Would you please do something about the smack-head near the nurse’s station?”

Nurses…hospital. D***. Not drowning.

“Anesthesia, go. Move that light over. We’ve got a long night…”

Elliott…sweetheart…

“What’s he holding?”

“It…it’s a ring box, doctor.”

“Oh…oh no…Come on, like we needed another reason to do our jobs! Suction.”

So quiet…shapes… fading…what’s that thumping?

Counting…who’s counting?…Like a kid’s game.

Sleepy. So sleepy.

Elliott.

ELLIOTT.

“Heart rate is spiking! 90 bpm and rising!”

Not me. Not now. Where is she?

Getting so much warmer…can’t…stay…awake…

“He’s out. And he’s stable.”

“Good. Let’s get to work.”

Other People: Thoughts on Red Scarf Girl

When the world as you know it is suddenly turned upside down, what do you do?  How do you keep going when there seems no way to move forward?  What would you do in order to be accepted?  Who would you betray in order to assuage those in power, in order to save yourself? 

Those are questions I hope I never have to ask myself for real.   But Ji-Li Jiang, a twelve-year-old Chinese schoolgirl, was forced to deal with all of those dilemmas many times during the 1966-1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Her 1997 memoir, Red Scarf Girl, tells of two of those tortuous years of her life, during which her once promising future faded away as everything familiar became alien and unwelcoming.

Up until May of 1966, twelve-year-old Ji-Li believed that nothing she strived for was beyond her grasp.  As the star student at Xin Er Primary School, she had good reason have such confidence in herself.  One fateful spring day, she gets an invitation to audition as a dancer at the Central Liberation Army Arts Academy.  She rushes home to tell her parents, grandmother, and younger siblings of her chance.  She expects them to be thrilled, but instead, her father tells her not to audition.  “..the political background investigations at these academies are very severe,” he tells her “…our family will not be able to pass these investigations.”  Ji-Li is confused and heartbroken by the unexpected refusal.

But this is only the beginning in a long line of rebuffs as a result of Ji-Li’s hitherto unimportant ancestry.  “Our Beloved” Chairman Mao, had decided that China must be revitalized, and that was to be accomplished by getting rid of “Four Olds:” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.  Unfortunately, Ji-Li’s grandfather, who died long before she was born, was a landlord, now considered one of the “black classes.”  Because of this seemingly innocent family history, the Jiang family will live the next few years enduring daily accusations of being “capitalist, reactionary monsters,” and will be under the constant fear of arrest.

At first, this terror was hard to fully convey to me, the reader.  As an American, free speech is my most precious national treasure, and honestly, as a Republican, I’m quite used to distrusting the government.  Of course, I knew Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communists were in the wrong, and how could Ji-Li, such a bright-eyed girl, not see it?

Under the Cultural Revolution, it seemed like almost any success that didn’t come from the Party was assumed to be ill-gotten by exploiting the working masses.  But instead, Ji-Li revered Chairman Mao as heartily as the cruelest Red Guard—after all, isn’t her own red scarf a Party symbol?  Through all of the abuse the regime brought upon her, she considered the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” as its instigators termed it, as ultimately necessary to better her country, to save it from “revisionism and capitalism.”  To me, all the party policies enacted under this revolution seem clearly ridiculous (“This is called the Good Fortune Photo Studio.  Doesn’t that mean to make a lot of money?…that’s exploitation.”).

I’m not the only one who wondered at her credulity.  Ji-Li writes in the epilogue that many of her American friends have had the same reaction.  Her explanation is simple: “…We were all brainwashed.  To us Chairman Mao was God.  He controlled everything we read, everything we heard, and everything we learned at school.  We believed everything he said.”  I was also a little taken aback at her praising Chairman Mao for defeating the Americans in Korea.

But, eventually, through Ji-Li’s concise, yet involving writing, I came to forget that this was Communist China.  Instead, it was just another modern country, and I found myself worshiping the Red Guards as a standard all schoolchildren should measure up to.  I chanted communist propaganda along with Ji-Li and the rest of her class.   I became just as horrified as Ji-Li when she found that all her enthusiasm for a New China was useless in the face of her bad class status.  I was downcast when so many promising opportunities for advancement were denied her because of her background.  I was hurt when her own classmates begin denouncing her as a class enemy with a rightist father.  I felt sick when Red Guards ransacked the Jiang’s apartment, and when her father was sent to prison.  Every day I expected Ji-Li to give in to the pressure almost every superior was pouring on her, and for her to finally denounce her own family as capitalist pigs.

In fact, I realized, it even seemed logical for her to do so.  In the words of an official: “You are different from your parents.  You were born and raised in New China.  You are a child of Chairman Mao.  You can choose your own destiny: You can make a clean break with your parents and follow Chairman Mao, and have a bright future; or you can follow your parents and then…you will not come to a good end.”  All the success Ji-Li ever wanted could be hers if only she broke with her family.  It wouldn’t be so hard.  After all, Chairman Mao wanted her to.

But something stops Ji-Li each time she resolves to go to the Red Guards to make such a declaration.  In the last chapter of the book, she finally comes to realize why: nothing will ever replace her family.  No political affinity can replicate the familial bonds.  It is this conclusion that made me fully see Ji-Li as not so different from me, communist indoctrination aside.  When a soldier calls her mother a “despicable thing,” Ji-Li just barely suppresses the urge to shout: “She’s not a thing, she’s a human being!”  If that’s not an American sentiment, I don’t know what is.  Ji-Li’s utter loyalty to her family, in spite of all their supposed faults, proves her to be human as well.

One of the conclusions Ji-Li draws from her own story is equally American, perhaps resulting from her eventual emigration to this country: “Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country.  This is a as true now as it was then.”  The outward corruption in Chairman Mao’s China is readily apparent (false accusations stemming from fabricated evidence, personal quarrels brought to the public sphere).  But where does this moral destitution come from?

Since Red Scarf Girl is not meant to be an examination of every Chinese culture, but is simply an account of the trials endured by a faulty attempt at culture change, and there no in depth discussion of an power higher than Chairman Mao.  There are rare supplications to “Allah,” such as when Ji-Li uses a primitive fortune telling method (and is told that some good and some bad will happen; one cannot but wonder if this type of ceremony would be classified as a “Four Old”).  But for the most part, Ji-Li appears to muddle through entirely on her own.  But this is hardly surprising, since any sort of religion was doubtless not encouraged in the state schools.

However understandable, since Ji-Li’s only desire is for earthly success, and since it is continually denied her (even up into college, as she reveals in the epilogue), it makes for rather bleak reading.  But still, Red Scarf Girl has reminded me of one thing: however easy it is to stereotype people on the other side of the world, one mustn’t forget that they are people, human beings “muddling through” like the rest of us.  They are not robots traveling their appointed circuit.  They have thoughts, and feelings, and no matter how the world turns, their family is just as important to them as it is to me.  There are other people in the world.  I often forget that.

Writing with Wings

Years ago, while I was contemplating what made certain movies great and others not-so-great, my thinking went like this: good stories need to have a message—they have to teach the viewer something. But they’ve also got to be entertaining, because if the story isn’t interesting then nobody will care about the message.

Horace
Horace (drinking something dulce, perhaps?)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was articulating the age-old purpose of literature as expressed by Horace in the Latin phrase “utili et dulce,” which means “useful and sweet.” The “useful” bit is the teaching aspect and the “sweet” bit is the part that entertains.

This two-fold purpose is almost everywhere one looks, so in this article I’m going to use the word “literature” to mean “a story told in an artistic way.” Notice that this definition of literature does not demand any definite form—it can be fiction, non-fiction, a poem, a movie, etc. Not an ordinary definition, and not one I typically use, but it may be helpful for this discussion.

Instructing and Entertaining

Why should literature be both instructive and entertaining? To find out, let’s not trust to the word of an ancient Greek alone. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, points out that an even older source than Horace expounded this viewpoint: The Bible. Ecclesiastes 12:10 says:

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (NASB).

The first part of this passage “delightful words” corresponds with the “delighting” bit, while “words of truth” corresponds to the “teaching” bit. So we see that even the Preacher sought to write what was both true and beautiful!

This is an important connection for writers to make, and I have found both in my own experience and through observation that emphasizing one side of this balance too heavily is very easy to do. Teach too hard and a Christian work of fiction becomes little more than a jazzed-up sermon. Tell a story that entertains exclusively and the reader may experience thrills but ultimately find the story forgettable.

However, I believe that in particular the “delighting” aspect of literature is neglected in Christian writing (although lately I haven’t noticed it as much. Perhaps we’re improving?). I used to be this way: I would come up with a good moral that I wanted my story to have, and then I developed a story that reflected that moral. I focused entirely on the teaching component of literature and completely ignored the entertaining part. The results were contrived, lifeless characters who did things not because certain actions were part of their character but because that’s the way it had to be for me to get my message across. Needless to say, this is not an effective (or affective!) way to write.

Much more could be said (and has been said) on this topic, but the essence is still this: the purpose of literature is both to instruct and entertain. They’re like the two wings of an eagle, and both must function together for the eagle to soar.

There are other reasons why writers should embrace the two-fold purpose of literature, and to gain a fuller picture I would recommend reading The Christian Imagination. It is a collection of essays (most, but not all, of them very thought-provoking—that’s the problem with collections) by Christian writers about reading and writing that fueled the ideas in this post, particularly the essay entitled “’Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” by Leland Ryken.

Lost and Found: Part Two

The following is the second part of the short story “Lost and Found.”Pine Trees and Sky

Even as he recognized the awful sound, Henry’s legs were already turning in the direction it came from.

“It’s Alice!  Go get Mr. Harrison!” he yelled over his shoulder to Danny and Fred, before sprinting into the trees.

“Alice!” Henry shouted.

His feet waded in leaves, and broken sticks made him stumble.  The noise of running feet didn’t seem to get any closer, but then, after several minutes of racing in what he thought was the right direction, Henry heard a sharp cry just as he skidded to a halt in a clearing: Alice was on the ground, crying and gasping as she clutched her ankle.

Alice was panting hard from her run.  Thinking about the snake that she had seen beside the stream still sent shivers down her spine.  Then she heard something large crashing through the leaves.  There was silence.  She considered letting the bear just eat her; then she changed her mind.  Her two tentative, teary eyes looked up.

“Oh, Henry!” Alice exclaimed.

Springing from the leaves, which scattered about her, Alice leapt up to rush to Henry and then collapsed as her injured ankle stabbed with pain.Pines

Henry ran forward and grabbed his little sister to keep her from falling.

“Are you all right, Alice?”

“I guess so.  Other than my ankle – I fell over a tree root – and that s-s—snake I saw,” Alice stammered.

“Here, sit down.”  Henry took charge of the situation, lowering Alice back to the ground and then slinging his backpack off his shoulder and digging items out one by one.

Henry took the sock and shoe off Alice’s hurt foot and wrapped the sprained ankle – well, he thought it was sprained – rather haphazardly in some springy gauze, which he taped with Band Aids.  Then, he pulled Alice’s water bottle from her backpack and handed it to her.  After completing these tasks, Henry sat down beside Alice and drank some of his own water.  The liquid was cool and sweet on his tongue.  As he rested, Henry strained his ears to hear the stream, but all he heard were the noisy songbirds and squirrels and the wind in the trees.  Henry peered hopefully into the forest in the direction he had come from, hoping to see the glint of the stream in the slanting late-afternoon sunlight.  No stream appeared.

“Are we lost, Henry?” Alice asked.

“Uh, I’m not sure.”

“Doesn’t ‘I’m not sure’ mean that we are lost?”

“Yes, we’re lost.”

“Well, how do we get un-lost, Henry?  What stuff do we know?”  By we Alice meant Henry, of course.

“I’m not sure, other than that moss grows on the north side of trees.”  Henry couldn’t help laughing at how stupid his words sounded.

“What did you learn from being a Boy Scout?  I thought they taught boys how to get un-lost,” Alice said, wrinkling her brow.

Henry frowned in thought, “Well, Mr. Harrison said that we’re supposed to stay in the same place and yell for help.  Let’s try yelling!”

Alice energetically joined Henry as they both shouted “HELLLPPP!!”

“Stop shouting.  Let’s listen,” Henry cut Alice off breathlessly, and they both became very still.

After a minute of concentrated listening, Alice whispered, “I don’t hear anyone.  Do you, Henry?”

“No.”

Henry waited for a minute more.  What can we do? he worried.

“Why don’t we eat something while we wait.  They’ll probably find us in a minute or two, anyway,” Henry suggested.

Despite his optimistic words, Henry didn’t feel very certain that they would be found soon, but he realized that Alice needed his encouragement.  All the leaders in the books he had read focused on keeping their companies’ spirits up.  That’s the least I can do to help, Henry thought.  He rummaged through the pack and produced a couple of peanut butter sandwiches Mom had made for them earlier and handed the one with Alice’s name written on it to her.

“Thanks, Henry.”  Alice accepted the sandwich gratefully after dusting some of the gritty brown dirt and bits of leaves from her palms.

Soon, the pair was munching happily away.  It was almost as if they had both forgotten being lost, Alice’s hurt ankle, and how lonely and scared they felt.

“Wonder what Mom’s making for supper?” Henry mused aloud.

“I think the menu said gumbo and French bread,” Alice answered.

“That sure does sound good.”

Alice murmured her agreement, staring at the leaves that littered the warm ground.

“Henry?”

“Mmm?”

“Shouldn’t we try to find the path or stream now?  It could be a while before they find us, and I sure don’t want to miss the gumbo.”  Alice felt her optimism blooming now that she had eaten.

“Sounds like an idea to me,” Henry concurred, taking the empty sandwich bag Alice gave him and stuffing it in the backpack with his own peanut-butter-smeared bag.

Henry closed the backpack.  Shouldering it, he stood and gave Alice a hand to help her stand on her good foot.

“I’m sorry for sending you back alone to Mr. Harrison,” Henry apologized as he helped Alice stand, putting her arm around his shoulder for support, “Did you see the snake when you were walking back?”

“Yeah.  I thought it was a coral snake, and so I ran away from it,” Alice admitted.  “I’m sorry for getting you lost with me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Henry mumbled, turning red at Alice’s apology.  He felt that it was all his fault they were in this fix.

“Oh, just a minute.”  Henry remembered something and slung his backpack to the ground.

“What is it, Henry?”

“I know where I entered this clearing, and I want to use my compass to figure out which direction it is.”

CompassHenry placed his compass on a flat spot of ground.  The arrow spun for a moment before stopping.

Facing the direction from which he had come, Henry began muttering to himself, “All right.  That way’s north.”  He pointed to his right.  “So that means we came from the west.”  Henry waved his hand at the woods he had traversed a few minutes before.

“Therefore, to find the stream, we need to head west,” Henry finished, slipping the compass back into his pack and swinging it onto his shoulder again.

The brother and sister began trudging west, stopping occasionally as Henry tried to find significant signs of where he had crashed through the underbrush.  An exclamation of “I think it’s this way” broke the silence every once in a while.  Ten minutes later, as she was leaning against the rough bark of a pine which chafed her resting hand uncomfortably, Alice suddenly exclaimed:

“Henry!  I hear the stream!”

At Alice’s words, Henry hurried forward, and in a moment he broke out of the trees and beheld the glistening stream.  Running back, he helped Alice, and they both stood in front of the stream, smiling with relief that they had found it.  The wind carried people’s yelling voices to them, and the pair began to shout excitedly, “We’re here!”

A great crashing noise grew louder every second with nearing yells, and a moment later, Mr. Harrison and the Boy Scouts broke into sight coming up the stream bank.  The spikey-haired boy spotted Henry and Alice and let out a wild yell.

“There they are, Mr. Harrison!”

Then there was mayhem and a stampede that even wild buffalo might have trembled at, as the relieved group burst upon the newly-found children.

Five minutes later, Alice and Henry, half-crushed from energetic hugs of relief and back-slapping, stumbled out of the forest cover onto the path near the bridge.

Path

The boys laughed and cheered so uproariously, that it took all of Mr. Harrison’s vocal power to be heard over them.

“Quiet, young men!” he yelled as they stopped on the path.  Then he turned to Henry and Alice.  “Please tell me exactly what happened.”

Alice looked at Henry.  He took the hint and began to talk, “Well, Mr. Harrison, I told Alice to go back to you, and she was walking back along the stream when she saw a snake and became so scared that she forgot about staying by the stream and ran off into the woods.  I found her right after she fell and sprained her ankle.  We waited a few minutes for you to find us, and then I decided to find the stream, and that’s where you found us.”

“You did a good job of keeping calm, Henry.  I’m proud of you.  Next time, though, both you and Alice need to be a bit more careful and not forget my orders,” Mr. Harrison cautioned.  He turned back to the rest of the group and barked, “All right, let’s head home now!”

And so, with Henry and Mr. Harrison helping Alice along, the group set off down the trail, towards home and gumbo and a life that would never quite be the same again.

Alice looked up at her older brother.  His brown hair was plastered to his hot face and his blue eyes were tired, but when he saw Alice looking at him, their eyes met, and they both smiled.  They understood that while they had been lost they’d found something else: friendship.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life is a jumble of cancer struggles, family dynamics, spiritual wanderings and signs, Parisian epiphanies, warring character traits, and contemplations on the meaning of community.

Does that sound like a whole lot to tackle in one memoir? It is. To make it even more scattered, Rod Dreher seems to be conflicted or undecided on many of the topics. For example, most of the time he describes his sister Ruthie as a loving and kind mother, wife, and teacher. He often refers to her as a saint (in the Roman Catholic sense of the word)! The rest of the time he describes her as rude, disapproving, and close-minded when he made decisions different than Ruthie’s – such as living away from their hometown, writing for a living, home-schooling his children, exploring his Christianity more deeply, and cooking a French dish. Yes, that last one’s a real example. Another time he tells how frustrating and limiting he found living in a small town and having a father who did not understand him…and then admits that the same frustrated relationship is repeating itself with his own son.

Dreher also leaves many interesting stories unexplored. In particular, his aunts’ service in France during WWII and his investigation of abuse in the Roman Catholic church leading him to switch denominations intrigued me. I hope he writes more on these in the future.

Despite the flaws, I finished the book quickly because many of the questions he raises are ones young adults and parents will answer simply by living their lives.

  • Do I let peers, family, school, culture, or church pressure me into accepting something that’s incorrect? Or have I chosen the opposite opposition as a reaction, not as a measured decision?
  • Do I choose a career or passion that requires me to move far from my extended family?
  • Do I let a few individuals in a group turn me off to the entire group?
  • What is my duty to my extended family? What is my duty to my child? How would I resolve a conflict between the two?
  • Where do I have prejudice because it’s different – not because it’s morally wrong – and how do I root that out and not pass that on to the next generation?
  • What am I doing to cultivate relationships with others? Do I need to seek reconciliation with anyone? How do I show love for another while not giving approval to their sins?
  • How would my family tackle a life-threatening illness? How can I help others going through one right now?
  • Will I choose to make family and community relationships an idol? How can I keep it in proper perspective?
  • How often can a person change denominations before he or she burns out on the idea of church and God altogether?
  • How much navel-gazing can one do before becoming an indecisive mess?

 

I did not find a satisfying story nor the secret of a good life in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, but sometimes just being called to reflect on your own decisions is enough. Recommended.

Lost and Found: Part One

Path

“Mom!  Please tell Alice she can’t come with me on the Boy Scout hike today!”  Henry yelled out of his bedroom door down the hall to where he heard his mother banging about in the laundry room.

“But Henry,” Henry’s 9-year-old sister interjected, “Mama said I could come, instead of staying with Grandma and Grandpa, while she cleans the house.  Mama says it would be better ‘cause they’re tired from their long trip.”  Alice bounced on Henry’s rumpled bed, her words jumping in time with her, as she sank her hands into the pleasant softness of Henry’s mattress with each downward bump.

Saturday morning sunlight sparkled cheerfully off the Calvin and Hobbes and Spiderman comic books that were sprinkled across Henry’s bedroom rug.  Henry turned around and faced his bed, snapping, “Alice, stop bouncing on my bed!  Mom said no such thing, I’m sure.  Besides, it’s a Boy Scout troop; why would they let a girl come, anyway–”

Just then, the children’s mother appeared in the doorway and said, “Actually, Henry, I spoke to Mr. Harrison, and he said that Alice could come.  After all, she is 9, and you can keep an eye on her.”  Mom strolled into the room with a cheerful smile, a pile of Henry’s clean laundry billowing in her arms.

“Alice, would you please dismount from Henry’s bed?  It’s not a pony for you to ride on, and I need to put Henry’s clothes there.  Thank you.”  Alice obediently plopped off the bed, smirking at her brother while her mother’s back was turned and mouthing I told you so! with triumph.

──

That afternoon…

Mom’s word was law.  Henry knew he would certainly get a whipping when Dad came home from work if he argued about Alice accompanying him, but he wasn’t about to stop sulking about it.  Frowning, Henry bounced in the front seat beside his mother.  He clenched the slick, sun-warmed leather of the armrest to keep from sliding around in his seat, while his bulging, brick-hard backpack banged against his shin.  The can of bug spray inside of it swished with every jolt.  Henry glared at his backpack and kicked it in annoyance.  His flashlight flickered on, making Henry even madder as he snatched it from his backpack’s side pocket and switched it off with a sharp click.

“Is something wrong with your backpack, Henry?” Mom asked.

“No, ma’am,” Henry muttered.

At the sound of life in the front seat, Alice’s head popped up in the backseat with the snap of her closing book.  “How soon will we be there?”

“Just five more minutes, and we should be at the trailhead.  Oh, and Henry,” Henry’s head jerked up, “I should be back to pick you up at five o’ clock.  Mr. Harrison said you’ll be done in three hours at the latest.  It’s a long trail, so don’t forget to drink a lot of water.  Make sure Alice drinks hers, too, and be sure to keep an eye on her,” Henry’s mother ordered.

The green mini-van turned off the rough highway onto a gravel road that was even bumpier.  Gravel rattled in the wheel wells.  Alice dove to save her little blue backpack from slipping off the seat beside her.

A minute later, Mom was hugging Henry and Alice good-bye and bouncing away, leaving them with Mr. Harrison and the rest of the Boy Scout troop.

“All right, boys – and Alice,” Mr. Harrison added after a pause.  “We’re going to have to walk pretty fast to finish this 8-mile trail by five o’ clock and still have a chance to spot some important plant specimens.  Fasten your backpacks and let’s get started!”  Following his command with immediate action, the short, lean man hitched his pack higher onto his shoulders and began striding along the trail, a pack of ten or so boys and one little girl huffing to keep pace behind him.

Pine TreesAlice caught the scent of pine trees and old leaves as she trotted along with the group.  Oddly, the decomposing leaves – still moist from a rain shower early in the morning – reminded Alice of Henry’s bedroom smell, but a little nicer, she thought.  A squirrel chided her from above.  This first sign of wildlife brought snakes and spiders slithering and scuttling into Alice’s train of thought, and she tagged a little closer to her big brother.

Henry didn’t even have to look to know where his sister was.  He heard her panting right behind him.  Scowling, Henry walked faster.  Why couldn’t Alice just stay at the back of the group?  Did she want to embarrass him in front of his friends?  Danny and Fred never brought their baby sisters, or brothers, with them on hiking trips.

Fred’s voice brought Henry out of his thoughts.

“Wow, Henry!  Your mother must really trust you if she’s letting you take Alice along with you.  I don’t think my mom would ever let Jane come with me,” Fred commented, bestowing a friendly jab on Henry’s arm.

“I don’t have a younger sister, so I wouldn’t know, but I think Fred’s right.  It does sound like your mom trusts you,” Danny joined the conversation on Henry’s other side.

Stunned by this admiration, Henry struggled to find an answer.

“Well, uh, I guess she trusts me.”

The boys’ conversation was interrupted as Mr. Harrison halted.  He pointed, like a witness accusing a criminal of a foul deed, at a vine on the side of the path.

“Do you see that, young men?  Can anyone tell me what that plant is?”  His head turned, and he surveyed the group through his scholarly-looking spectacles.

A tall boy with spiky yellow hair promptly broke out, “It’s poison ivy, sir!  ‘Leaves of three, let it be!’”

“Correct, John,” Mr. Harrison approved with a smile.  “Now, while we’re on the subject of dangers in the wild, can anyone tell me the rhyme about the coral snake.  It could be vital to your survival in the wilderness, because the coral snake is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world and happens to live right here in Louisiana.”

Silence descended for a moment, and then Henry quoted, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.”

“Quite right, Henry.  Good job boys; now move on.  I’m hoping to reach the Pine Woods stream before long.  It crosses the path, and there should be some interesting wildlife in the area,” Mr. Harrison turned on his heel and advanced, his words floating back to the boys and Alice, who were now in motion again.

“Henry?”

Henry stared ahead, pretending he hadn’t heard Alice.  He even quickened his pace a little, hoping she would become discouraged and leave him alone.

“Henry, we won’t see any of those snakes Mr. Harrison mentioned, will we?  You’ll keep them away, won’t you?” Alice’s tone was worried.

“No, I doubt if we’ll see any.  Besides, Mr. Harrison will be sure to look after you, so you won’t need me, Alice,” Henry replied.Stream

Gradually, a rushing sound grew in volume from the direction in which the trail was winding.  Then, a turn in the path revealed a little stream burbling beneath a wooden bridge which sprung smoothly across.

Mr. Harrison braked to a stop and faced the boys to announce, “We’ll be taking a ten-minute break here.  You can explore along the stream if you like, but don’t wander off.  For those of you who are interested, I’ll point out some of the unique plants and animals that live around a stream like this.”  The yellow-haired boy joined Mr. Harrison as well as Danny and Fred.  Henry followed his friends, and Alice shadowed him.

As he stood listening to the drone of Mr. Harrison’s voice, Henry’s thoughts wandered.  He wistfully imagined how much more would he enjoy this trip if Alice would stop plaguing him.

After about a minute, Danny tapped Fred and Henry on the shoulder, and they wandered away from the group to talk.

“What do you say to walking upstream a ways?” Danny asked.

“Sounds fine to me,” they agreed, and began strolling upstream, in the opposite direction from where the other boys had disappeared.

Henry stuffed his hands into his pockets and pursed his lips as he whistled quietly, following his two friends.  For a moment, Henry forgot his shadow; however, a rustle and crunch in the leaves behind him soon reminded him of Alice’s presence.

Addressing the air in front of him, Henry spoke, “Alice, why don’t you stick with Mr. Harrison.  We’re going to explore, and I don’t want to have to worry about you.”

“But Mama said for you to look after me, not Mr. Harrison.”

Henry tried a new tactic.

“Alice, I’m the one in charge right now.  Go back to Mr. Harrison.  We’ll be back before the 10 minutes are up, anyway.”

Henry heard footsteps receding behind him down the stream bank.  Then there was silence.  Henry walked a little faster, trying to suppress the guilt that he felt at sending Alice away so rudely.  It’s safer for her, anyway, he argued in his head, joining his friends again.  The boys began to talk, and Henry started to forget all about Alice.

Suddenly, a shrill noise pierced the hot sylvan air.  There was the sound of running feet crashing off into the woods from somewhere downstream.  For one moment, Henry’s brain didn’t register what the noise was, and then the next moment he remembered it.  The house spiders, roaches, and millipedes knew that noise like it was their closest friend.  The amusement park rides that turned your stomach inside out knew that sound.  And so did Henry.

 

To be continued…