by Emma Nash
Melinda Lee padded quietly along Old Rock trail. It was dusty and hot even in the shade of the forest and she could feel a line of sweat running from the nape of her neck down between her shoulder blades. The bag she carried over her shoulder dug into her flesh and bumped against her legs. But she was impatient to reach the end of the trail and pushed her legs faster, trying to ignore the heat that pressed against her temples and forced itself down her throat.
The path made a sharp right turn and opened up to a small pool that lay at the end of a long, sloping waterfall. Melinda Lee had named it Hearth Falls on account of the large stone slab that lay near its base. Sometimes, when the water was high, you could slide down it on a big piece of cardboard and land in the pool. Right now, though, the water was low and Melinda Lee had something else on her mind anyway. There was a blooming magnolia, probably forty feet tall, up the side of the falls a little way. She carefully walked up to it, dropped her bag at its base, and took hold of the lowest branch.
She made her way quickly up the tree, stopping on a sturdy branch five feet from the top. Straddling the branch, Melinda Lee fixed her eyes across the water towards the dense foliage on the other side. She lifted her hair off the back of her neck to feel the breeze, blew a spider off of her arm, and scratched her ankle, but she never took her gaze off the other side of the falls.
She strained her eyes and listened as hard as she could, but she didn’t catch sight of him until the moment he emerged from the darkness between the trees. He was long and quiet and strong; he looked like a great buck coming to meet her from the forest. She grasped hold of a branch above her and leaned out of the foliage of the tree.
“Hey, Paul!” she called down to him.
“There you are, Mellie! What’re you doing up there?” He shielded his eyes with his left hand, looking up to see her in the tree.
“I thought maybe I’d espy you this time if I was up here.” She pulled herself back towards the trunk of the tree and started back to the ground.
“You get anything?” She reached the ground and went to get her bag.
“No. Wasn’t hardly a thing out there today.” Paul dropped his empty game bag by the pool and slung the gun off of his shoulder. Melinda Lee skipped over to him and the two of them sat at the edge of the pool, rolling their pant legs and swinging their feet into the cold water. Paul lay back, folding his arms under his head and closing his eyes. Mellie looked at her feet swimming back and forth in the clear water, then at Paul.
“Ain’t you hungry?”
“I could eat. But I don’t need to.”
Melinda Lee pulled her bag into her lap and unpacked two turkey sandwiches, three apples, a bag of peanuts in the shell and a half bottle of water. She punched Paul in the side.
“Get up, anyway. I don’t come up here for nothing.”
“Yeah, Mellie. I appreciate the sandwiches. You’re getting to be a better cook than Momma.”
“Don’t lie, Paul. It ain’t flattering.” Mellie handed him a sandwich and bit into her own.
Paul chewed his sandwich and looked sideways at his baby sister. “You sure seem to be in a bad mood today,” he commented absently.
“I mean it! I ain’t mad.”
Paul chewed his sandwich. He reached for the bag of peanuts and cracked a few with his teeth.
“What’ve you been up to today?” He threw the empty peanut shells behind him.
“Not much. Mrs. Young needed help in her garden so I was down with her pulling weeds for a while before I made up our lunch.”
Paul grunted good-naturedly through a mouthful of turkey and bread. Melinda Lee finished her sandwich in silence and took a sharp bite out of an apple. She lay back and listened to the leaves singing in the wind and looked at the sun shining on her brother’s hair. She knew that it wasn’t bad luck that had kept him from catching any game. Paul went hunting all the time, but she didn’t recall that he had ever come back with anything. Once, she had followed him out. He had meandered through the forest for nearly two hours, pausing occasionally to breathe and run his fingers over a tree trunk or a patch of moss. She was getting tired and beginning to think that she would have to turn back when he turned around, laughed at her, and slung her over his back. He had carried her back home, and she laughed and sang with him and picked leaves above his head.
Paul was finishing his second apple when Melinda Lee got up and walked over to a honeysuckle bush and picked a bunch of the sweet-smelling flowers, gathering them in her shirt. She sat back down cross-legged, holding the flowers in her lap. Paul reached over and took a few for himself, and the two of them sat together, pinching the ends of the flowers and pulling the stems out and sucking on the nectar at the ends. They tossed the empty flowers into the pool and watched them spinning on the surface of the water. After a while, Mellie put her feet back in the water and tried to catch the petals on her feet.
Paul reached over and ruffled her hair. “ I’m sure gonna miss our lunches.”
Mellie’s feet stopped. She rolled a honeysuckle flower between her fingers.
“Almost done packing now,” Paul continued. “Just a few more things and I’ll be ready to go.” He reached an arm over to squeeze his sister’s shoulders. She got up and began packing the remnants of their lunch.
After a few seconds she looked up. “Well?”
“Ain’t you gonna help me? I made the whole thing and you just gonna sit and watch me clean it up too?”
“Oh. Sorry, Mellie. Didn’t know we’d be leaving so soon.” He got up and began gathering their food.
Melinda Lee said nothing, but roughly unrolled her pants and tugged her hair into a ponytail. She haphazardly repacked her bag and set off down Old Rock trail. Paul snatched up his bag and rifle and followed after his sister.
“Where do you have to be so bad?” He called lightheartedly.
Mellie hardly paused to hear him ask the question. “Nowhere. There’s nowhere I’m going.”
Melinda Lee sat listening to her family laughing. Her father patted Paul roughly on the back. Her mother smiled gaily.
“My potatoes are cold.” Mellie said it like she had water in her lungs.
Her mother began clearing the table. Her father threw a few scraps of bread to the dogs under the table.
“I made dessert special for your last night at home,” said her mother from the sink. “Mellie, come help me a minute.”
Melinda Lee stood and retrieved the two plates of strawberry cake her mother held out to her. Setting them in front of her brother and father, she recalled the time three years before when she had tried to make it for Paul on her own.
It was his fifteenth birthday, and she had wanted to surprise him with his favorite cake. She hadn’t been able to reach many of the ingredients in the high cupboards, and had improvised the recipe using what she found available to her. When she had set the finished product in front of him, Paul hadn’t batted an eye at the pinkish white mass. He marveled kindly at her cooking ability and enthusiastically ate the piece she had given him. It wasn’t until two years later when Mellie was eleven that she had learned that Paul had been sick with food poisoning for nearly a week after.
Her mother brought over two more slices of cake and Mellie sat down to her piece. It was soft and fresh in her mouth; it smelled like summer Sundays. Her parents were talking with Paul, but Mellie was still listening to his praise from three years before and hardly heard them. She was inwardly laughing at her own ineptitude when a word of her mother’s broke her from her reverie. It felt like a hot iron had been pressed against her spine.
“…basic training tomorrow! And after, to college! We’re so proud of you Paul; aren’t many Wilsons can say they’re college educated.”
Paul laughed. “Proud of me? I ain’t done nothing yet.” He took a bite.
Mellie’s cake had gotten slimy and cold. She put her fork down and excused herself from the table. Her mother reminded her to wash her dishes. Paul patted her shoulder as she passed him. She washed her dishes mechanically and walked back to the room she shared with Paul. She sat on the edge of his bed, her stockinged feet dangling off the side. His giant, worn boots sat beneath her. She regarded them between her feet. After a while she lay back and slept for a while, curled up like a roly-poly. When she woke it was dark outside and an old flannel shirt of Paul’s was draped over her. His boots were gone.
She sat up and rubbed her wrist across her eyes and blinked numbly at the worn floorboards of the room. Paul would be at the goodbye party his friends were throwing for him now. It didn’t seem to Mellie a thing to celebrate. Joining the army was like making a bet with fate that you could stand in front of a hundred people shooting at you and not get shot. If he wanted college so bad, she was sure there were other ways to get money to pay for it.
Swinging her feet over the edge of the bed, she slid to the ground and woodenly walked over to the closet. She stripped off her dirty jeans and t-shirt, leaving them in a pile at her feet, and pulled her cotton nightgown over her head. She lay in her bed, ready for sleep. She could feel the exhaustion pushing insistently against her temples and the backs of her eyes.
Lying awake in her own bed an hour and a half later, Melinda Lee was imagining what it would be like after tomorrow when she would have the room to herself. It wasn’t a big room, but at that moment it felt huge to her. And very quiet. She couldn’t sleep in all the quiet; her eyelids wouldn’t keep shut. She hummed to herself a song she had heard in church the week before. But soon it seemed that the weak sound of her humming gave the noiselessness substance, so she stopped and lay quietly so as not to disturb the silence.
When Paul came home at what she guessed was early morning, she was very still and pretended to be asleep. He changed in the dark and got heavily into his bed.
“Still up, Mellie?”
She was startled into a laugh. “How’d you know?”
“Nobody sleeps that straight. You look like a corpse.” He laughed quietly.
It was silent for a moment. “How was your party?”
“It was good. Except everyone was so distraught about how much they’re going to miss me.”
Melinda Lee rolled her eyes in the dark. “Yeah, what will we all do without you?”
“Probably just stop existing.”
“I think we’ll all be fine.”
“Hey, now. Don’t pretend you won’t miss me.”
“Careful or you’re gonna start hurting my feelings.”
Melinda Lee was quiet for a while. “I just think it’s stupid.”
“Oh, Mellie,” Paul began. He let out a long breath. “It’s just what’s right for me.”
She rolled to face the wall. When she heard his breaths even out she closed her eyes and fell asleep to the steady sound of his existence.
She woke to the sounds of breakfast. Getting up, she walked out into the kitchen still in her nightgown. Her mother was frying eggs at the stove and her brother and father sat at the table.
Melinda Lee felt that she had walked into a memory. Her father and mother looked old, and Paul looked frighteningly young. Their words were nearly inaudible, overpowered as they were by the sizzling of the eggs. Her daddy laughed at something Paul said, but the sound barely reached her ears. She stood uncertainly by the doorway, unsure of whether she should enter the scene.
But then Paul looked up and waved her over to the table, and she plunged into the memory. From then, she watched vaguely as she went throughout the day as if from a television. She watched herself sit and eat breakfast with her family. Then she watched herself help Paul pack his bags in her daddy’s truck. She felt like she wasn’t there as she hugged Paul goodbye and watched him and her father drive away. She helped her mother in the garden, visited Mrs. Young, and ate dinner when her father came home, but she hardly noticed herself doing so. The next time she felt fully conscious was when she lay alone in her room, holding her breath in fear of the silence. She felt it creeping towards her from the corner where Paul’s empty bed sat. It pressed closer every minute until she could feel it panting at the side of her bed, its fingers gently caressing the locks of her hair that fell off the side of the mattress.
Mellie shook once, compulsively, and bravely sprang from her bed. She hurriedly pulled on her boots and fled the empty room. But the quiet was everywhere in her house; it loomed at her from Paul’s seat at the table, from the corner where he had always dropped his football gear after practice, and from the old chair by the stove where he sat to accompany their mother while she cooked.
Presently she found herself on Old Rock, determinedly making her way to Hearth Falls. The night was warm and the moon remarkably bright, so that she could see every stone and root that would have otherwise made the path treacherous. She couldn’t remember the last time she had walked it without the intention of meeting Paul at its end and had the feeling that she was still expecting him to be waiting for her there.
Coming to the end of the trial, Mellie stopped to look at the place glowing in the moonlight. The stones and water were bathed white, except for a dark spot about halfway up the falls. She walked to it.
It was a deer, shot and freshly dead, lying on its side. The shot was a poor one; it had missed all vitals, going through the deer’s left haunch instead. Mellie could tell that the deer had made its was there from wherever it had been shot by the spatters of blood on the dry rocks coming from the forest on the far side of the falls. It lay now in the water, and blood ran from it down the falls to the little pool beneath the Hearthstone.
Melinda Lee looked at it for a long time. It had beautiful brown fur, made dark on its underside by the water that ran beneath it. Under the fur, she could see its muscles and tendons, and she saw that they were beautifully formed. Its eyes shone distantly in the moonlight. Finally she reached tentatively to feel it, placing her hand on the side of the animal’s neck. Then she sat beside it and cried.
She cried next to the deer until she didn’t want to cry anymore, then she got up. Her face was stiff with tears and the rest of her was wet and muddy. Regarding the blood flowing from the deer down the rocks of the falls, Mellie marveled at how quickly it dissipated, so that shortly one couldn’t even tell that it was there at all.
She walked down Hearth Falls towards the pool, careful not to fall on the slippery wet rocks. When she reached the Hearthstone, she stood on it above the pool. The water was sharp around her ankles and flowed noisily into the pool, which was nearly black surrounded as it was by the cool darkness of the forest.
Mellie sat and removed her boots and socks, throwing them one by one into the grass beside the pool. She plunged her feet daringly into the water, savoring the needles of cold that drove into her feet and calves. She didn’t turn to look at the corpse behind her on the falls, but felt that it was flowing around her on either side, escaping little by little into the shadowy hole of the pool.
She lifted her nightgown above her head and threw it next to her boots. Then she slid quietly off of the rock and into the black water.
Emma Nash is a freshman at Washington and Lee University. She was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Emma plans on using her college years to continue to foster her lifelong love of the written word.