It was a night when the stars seemed to fall, one by one, from their positions in the sky, to fill the Ohio summer air with a twinkling luminescence. Their arrival began once the purple shades of twilight receded, abandoning the land beneath to darkness. Distant trees in the town below Windy Point soon awoke like Christmas in July, as graveyard winds from the hill’s summit cascaded a shower of winged sparks into their uppermost boughs.
Little moon faces within little moon houses rushed to every sill to witness this nightly ritual of summer. Upon seeing the nestled stars winking tenderly in visible trees, every pair of bare feet in every home all over the town flew to the pantries to reach hungrily for their star catchers on mountaintop shelves capped with white wisps of flour and sugar. Away they rushed through screened porch doors and down whitewashed steps to the bristly grass of an Ohio jungle teeming with neon-green speckled, waxing and waning light, and the gentle clinking and tinkling of Mason jar glasses anxious to be filled with tomorrow’s dreams.
The children scattered like ants between mole-hill houses, to nearby fields, and up into the branches of ancient trees to shake the waiting stars loose from moonlight limbs. And speaking of moonlight! high in that clear and inky sky, hung that beacon of night, gazing its old man’s countenance down on that little town. Mary Louise sensed its presence glowing on her back, as she zigzagged through the ghostly silhouettes of children clutching their star-filled jars to their heaving chests. Down the paved hill from her home on Windy Point’s summit she descended like a feather into a well. Arms outstretched, eyes pinched shut, wind in her hair; she floated to the outskirts of the town nestled below. Without a moment’s hesitation, she reached with her right hand upon the leveling of the hill, not once opening her eyes, to catch the cool and familiar palm and fingers of her friend, Irene. With an about face on naked toes, both chests inhaled a full dosage of night magic, and began their hurried ascent back to Windy Point, hand-in-hand.
As the crowd of children thinned and the air chilled at the hill’s peak, the two girls stood catching their breath, preparing themselves for their forsaken voyage. For peering back at them, with forgotten names long effaced by the winds of time on their slate faces, were the crooked stones of the graveyard, a sight that Mary Louise was all too uncomfortable with. Being one of two homes to sit at the edge of the cemetery (the other belonging to the undertaker himself), Mary Louise’s bedroom window provided her with a generous view of this dismal heath. But, what lay on the other side was a hill that sloped down into an open meadow of gold and lavender at dawn and cerulean grasses and green starlight after dusk, with the enchanted wild woods lining the outer edge clear on the opposite end. It was this hill the two young girls longed for, and it was this hill alone that provided them with the strength needed to venture through this land of endless sleep.
Taking each other’s hands once more, both inclined their heads to the Moon and let out a unified howl to scare wandering souls back into their graves. Without a moment to lose, they were off at a hare’s pace, bounding through the seemingly endless track of cold stone and high grass. Jumping at shadows and over a fallen monolith alike, they squealed like mice as they made their way to the other side. With one final desperate leap over the hill’s rounded edge, they took flight, landing with a tumble and a roll on the inclined earth’s blue grass. Danger now long behind them, they stretched out shoulder-to- shoulder on the curving hill, polishing the heels of their bare feet into the cool sward, and pinched each other back into existence.
“We’re here Mr. Moon, oh! We’re here!” they cried.
He nodded approvingly, blowing one last breeze of wing-speckled fluorescence down upon to tickle their cheeks before opening his ears to their dreams and desires.
“What will it be tonight, Abe? What shall we wish for?”
“For starters,” declared Mary Louise, “stop teasing me with that terrible name!”
“My apologies dear lady,” Irene retorted as she stood and bowed subserviently in a mocking manner, her face framed in moonlight. She whipped around twice and craned her head to the sky. “Hey there, Mr. Moon! Mary Louise here wishes for a new name!”
The nocturnal denizens in the distant woods stirred.
Pulling her giggling friend back to the ground, Mary Louise seemed to grow heavy in heart, as if reminded of a recent premonition. Wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, Irene settled upon sensing the immediate change in the air, and turned her head in the grass. “Come on now, I was only teasing! You know my father calls you that because he thought so much of your grandpa.”
The Moon looked only on Mary Louise.
“No. It’s not that,” said the troubled girl. “It’s Mammy.” An immediate dead calm ensued in the surrounding night, as if the moon commanded all to return to their homes and the stars to the sky. A gentle breeze licked Mary Louise’s forehead, coaxing her to breathe out the apparent worry that troubled her so.
“What is it?” pushed her friend.
“She’s kept me awake this past week with an awful cough,” Mary Louise surrendered, trussing her hands to her chest. “It sounds terrible.”
Irene’s intense stare held for a moment, and then she turned her eyes to the Moon. “I’m sure she’s fine Mary Louise. Have you ever heard the way my pa sounds when he has one of his spells? You’d think the devil was trying to break loose.”
“But your pa smokes like a chimney. Mammy doesn’t, being a Quaker and all.” She closed her eyes to conceal the haunting din of that dry desert cough.
“Has she seen Doc Herb?”
Mary Louise opened her eyes, smiling to herself. “You know Mammy.”
“You could help her find sense in it.”
“She doesn’t want me to fuss.” Mary Louise explained, twirling a blade of torn grass in her fingers. “I came close this morning, when the coughing got real bad.” She tossed the blade. “When she saw me coming she put on a smile and fixed me breakfast.”
“Why are old people so stubborn about doctors?” Irene asked, swatting a moth from her hair. “Hey! Maybe you could talk to Doc Herb yourself. I know he’d listen.”
“Yeah. Maybe,” Mary Louise said to no one in particular as her eyes took on a sudden glaze, fixed on the Moon above. Irene turned to her friend again in sympathy. Taking Mary Louise’s hand gently, she then too stared into the eyes of that wise, pocked expression high in the sky.
Minutes seemed to go by for a brief eternity as the graveyard whispered the town to sleep on the other side. And as each child crawled under the stiff cool sails of their four post ships, with bedside dreams in jars holding their vigil until morning light, Mary Louise envied them, for she knew their slumber would carry them across the cemetery and through the trees of the wild woods and down the Ohio River to Cairo and then to the Great River beyond! Oh, how she wished she could raise her sails and join them! But her mind was clouded by unpleasant thoughts, and she feared that her only port of call – if she slept at all – would be towards the hungry, desperate growl of the graveyard’s foghorn heard from the distant shore of her bedroom sill. Yet, as she felt this all to be true, her eyes never stopped scanning the Moon’s surface for some answer that must be hidden in the regolith that powdered its sun beaten face.
“Irene?” Mary Louise whispered from somewhere in a fog. “Do you suppose he really listens?”
“Who?” Irene asked with puzzle-piece edges forming on her brow.
“The Moon,” her friend dragged out, clinging to the tail of an exhale.
“Gee. I don’t know. I never really gave it serious thought,” Irene considered before breaking. “Come on now Abe! I thought we were talking about Mammy!”
“I still am,” Mary Louise seemed to reply from somewhere far off in wide-eyed wonder, as she swept away piles of lunar dust with her Mammy’s porch broom.
“You are not! You haven’t said a word in ages!”
“Am so!” returned Mary Louise for a brief moment to slap her friend’s arm. “Listen!”
The two girls lay quiet. One heard what the other could not. A cricket serenaded them with the fiddling of a song, and once the concert was through, Mary Louise gripped her confidant’s hand tighter, and began, “It’s me Mr. Moon. Mary Louise. And I’m afraid I need you now more than ever.” Irene turned to her friend, now grasping the situation.
“It’s my Mammy, you see? She’s taken sick,” Mary Louise continued. “There’s an awful cough in her chest.”
The denizens in the near woods ceased their stirring.
“She’s all I have,” Mary Louise explained. Irene reached over with a hand to wipe away the tears brimming from her friend’s eyes. “You must help! She’s been there for me since I was a baby. I know it’s serious, I just know it is!”
The Moon seemed to ponder to itself in a still quiet, and then disappeared behind a wall of slow-coming clouds from the West. The hour of wishes was over, and behind its soft, midnight mask the Moon registered all it had heard that night, and raked its sands smooth for others to draw their dreams upon. For Mary Louise, however, its quick escape only seemed to seal the doom that lay ahead of her dear Mammy, leaving her fuller of questions than before.
“I’m a fool, Irene, a fool!” the girl cried desperately to herself, thrusting palms stained after a day of blackberry picking to the sides of her head.
“Now you stop that Mary Louise!” Irene demanded, leaning closer to console her friend. “Now look at me.” Although she had a difficult time seeing her with the absence of the Moon, she felt Mary Louise’s moist stare. “These are Depression days, and you know what that can do to our thinking! Times are bad for everyone, you know that, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the ones we love too.” She ran her fingers through her friend’s wavy, dark hair. “Do you hear me, Abe?”
Mary Louise lost her desperation to a smile and then gently pinched Irene’s knee. “Oh, you’re right. As always you’re right.” She wiped the tears from her eyes.
Irene sensed an amber glow coming from somewhere on the other side of the graveyard, and turned her head towards it. “It’s getting late, we better head back.”
“Okay then,” Mary Louise managed.
Standing to stretch her knees, Irene reached down through the dark and pulled her friend up from the grass, now pressed in the shapes of their bodies. Turning towards the graveyard, they took each other’s hands and raced away from their hill overlooking the meadow and the woods so deep. It was as they came to the plain of the cemetery when they realized that the amber light was coming from Mary Louise’s bedroom window. Mammy was calling her home as a lighthouse calls home those lost at sea. And for the first time that night, while bounding over the resting places of those long before her, she felt a warm light fill her, the warmth of an amber glow struck and contained within a globe of glass.
The house rose from the hill’s summit whitewashed and beautiful that night, with every window bestowed with the gift of candlelight. Within, Mary Louise washed the blackberry memories from her hands in the kitchen basin, preparing herself for bed. She could hear the soft movements of Mammy in silk slippers, shuffling across the hardwood floors in the next room. “Mary Louise, are you just about finished?” she asked just as softly.
“Yes, Mammy,” Mary Louise answered drying her hands.
“Now you go on up a while. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Mary Louise crossed the kitchen to the staircase that spiraled up into the ceiling, and ascended to her room. As she made her way up, she could make out the muffled coughing coming from somewhere downstairs. She froze on the top step, and closed her eyes tightly. “Had he listened?” she asked herself for the thousandth time. Behind and below her, she heard the gentle sweeping of Mammy on the first step. Mary Louise was already in bed snuffing out the lantern flame in her window before Mammy made it halfway up the stairs.
As she lay there wide awake, waiting for Mammy to arrive, Mary Louise stared intensely at the door to her room, imagining what Mammy would look like standing within the wooden frame. With the troubling waters stirring once again in her mind, she realized to her horror, that she had forgotten what Mammy looked like entirely. She fought with her mind, battling with reason, but she could only make out the shape of Mammy, and nothing distinct. The harder she focused, the more she tried to envision eyes, nose, a mouth, and hair. It was as if the very memory of Mammy was being consumed and fed to her fears, lost to darkness, becoming the dust that settles on yesterday’s memories on fireplace mantles. And she cried.
But, as quickly as this blackness crept upon her, it lifted with the padding of silk outside her door. And just as a slice of Mammy came into view, a slice of the moon peaked out from behind clouds now moving to the East, fully exposing its round face to the little white house below, and into the window of Mary Louise’s bedroom. Fully framed within the doorway, Mammy stood there like a vestige of a happier past, and it all came flooding back to Mary Louise. She remembered!
Her dust cap neatly in place upon her delicate head, Mammy stood in her hand sown house dress, drying her hands on her cotton apron. My, she was a welcomed sight! The moonlight captured all the beautiful wrinkles etched by life upon her face and the soul that still shone brightly in her eyes. Mary Louise couldn’t take her eyes off of her, and studied her over and over again from head to foot, just in case she would forget again. Just in case.
And as Mammy stood there with a pensive smile, allowing her granddaughter the chance to uncover her secret dreams and fears, Mary Louise was upon her, bed sheet sailing in moonlight, her arms wrapped gently around her grandmother. And whether the wetness on her apron was from her own hands or the tears of a child, she did not know, but she sensed the uncertainty that hung heavy from Mary Louise’s shoulders. From the living area downstairs, she heard the old clock strike midnight, shaking the dust free from the fireplace mantle. And with the delicate probing of a hand soft from floury years, she raised Mary Louise’s chin, and made certain that their eyes met.
“What troubles you, dear?”
Silence filled the room aloud with moonlight, and Mary Louise couldn’t find the words to say. Gazing up into the deep pools of her Mammy’s eyes she saw seasons past. She relived the carving of pumpkins and the raking of leaves under autumn-red sunsets. She tasted the winter cream rising from the necks of snowy milk bottles on the porch outside. She counted the birds returning north above a meadow bursting rainbow bright. And she heard the metal springs of the immense swing recoil as she sat close to her Mammy, on that beautifully whitewashed, wraparound porch, overlooking the little town below and the mountains beyond.
And together, no explanations necessary, they smiled, and then they laughed, and then they smiled some more. With her head held close to her Mammy’s chest, Mary Louise listened, and she listened intently. Under skin and bone, she could clearly make out the beating of her grandmother’s heart, pumping forth life into that delicate body. And as she listened more, she could feel the moonlight air flow into Mammy’s chest and fill her weakened lungs. “Keep breathing!” Mary Louise thought to herself. “Breathe in that moonlight, Mammy, breathe it all in!” And when there was no more moonlight to take in, Mary Louise looked first to her grandmother’s eyes and then to her dust cap.
“Could I brush your hair, Mammy?”
Without even answering, she took Mary Louise by the hand and led her to her room. Sitting on the cedar chest at the end of her bed, Mammy removed her dust cap as Mary Louise situated herself behind her on the cool sheets, brush in hand. And as she brushed the silvery river of hair that flowed well past shoulders and back, Mary Louise became lost on the silvery sands of a distant moon, and she found herself to be quite at peace.
Suddenly, there was a click, as if the setting of an hour hand deep within her Mammy’s chest, and then, an exhale of winter onto the mirror before them. Mary Louise ceased her brushing and looked to the winter steam that had rested upon the mirror. Behind the steam her Mammy’s face was hidden, but around the fog was the flow of long, silvery hair. Mammy’s shoulders quivered beneath Mary Louise, and then gradually, like the lift of a fog from the cemetery beyond, Mammy’s face was revealed within the mirror.
Together, they looked upon the old woman’s face, and saw something that they had not seen for quite some time. Their eyes lifted to each other – an old woman gazing upon the reflection of youth and a young girl gazing at youth restored in her Mammy. With tears in their eyes and the soft drumming of old lungs knocked of soot and lined with moonlight, Mary Louise brushed her grandmother’s hair once more. Over and over.
Dawn was upon them.
The moon shook hands with the rising sun and whispered something gently to his daytime companion. Traces of that whisper fell upon the little white house, in that small Ohio town. Through a window of the little white house, the whisper entered, tickling the edges of laced curtains. There it settled warmly upon the bed and the faces of a granddaughter and her grandmother as they slept soundly for the first time, in quite some time, and for many more times to come.