Just The Lights

 

Just The Lights

Barbara Biles

The sun was up, the sky overcast. Josie skipped along beside her father, her hand in his, and saw their reflection, a bonded pair, in the blinded windows that they passed. He whistled a tune that cheered her and confirmed that she belonged in this very moment.

“Tell me about the Spunkie, Papa.” This was a favourite request when Josie’s mother, who was not fond of hearing about spirits, was out of town.

“Lights, dear. Strange and suspicious lights appeared over the loch.”

“And a loch is a lake, right?

“Right.”

“And do they come here, those fairies?”

“No. They live in Scotland. And they are not exactly fairies. More like ghosts.”

“Well I think they are fairies. Do they live anywhere else?”

“They have been spotted on the continent but I only know about Scotland, as you know.”

“And you saw the Spunkie yourself?”

“Just the lights, Josie. Just the lights.”

  On this morning, a spangle of lights, not lights diffused from a ceiling fixture, shone through the window of one building. It was one-storey rather than two like the others on this block and the window was draped with a white sheet and Josie supposed that some kind of stranger existed inside. Although the town was small and people claimed that everyone was known she was not yet old enough to make this claim herself. As they both looked in, her father broke his tune but then continued on as though everything was normal. Except their hand grip was broken. Except he did not pick up on another tune and their pace quickened though they had plenty of time before he would open his store in the next block.  

Once settled at the back of the store, Josie spun in her father’s desk chair while a farmer paid for a tractor part and prophesied on the weather and vowed to teach Ottawa a lesson. All of no significance to her. It cued her to look for her friend to play out the next part of her day. “I’m going to Carol’s, okay?” she said to her father.

“See you back at lunch,” he said. Josie’s mother was off to the city for a day of shopping and a night of visiting with her sister, Auntie Irene. Josie and her father would cross the street to the hotel and she could order fish and chips and a butterscotch sundae.

She was on her way to Carol’s house, anxious to resume their paper doll scenarios, developed the day before, when she ran into Terry who was older and prone to going down streets and alleys that Josie would never go down herself.

“Where you going?” said Terry.

“Carol Smither’s.” 

Terry put her feet on the ground and maneuvered her bike, pushing along with tip toes and matching pace with Josie. Her front wheel wobbled at times, having to go so slow. “She’s at Mary’s house. They put up a tent.”

“Oh,” said Josie in her ultra-neutral tone. Had not she and Carol been, like her mother said, two peas in a pod the day before and had they not vowed to continue with their paper doll fairies in a tableau inspired by her father’s will-o-the-wisp tales? The ones she begged him to tell over and over?

Suddenly Terry turned left at the corner and right into the alley and Josie followed along, corralling her feelings of betrayal and disregarding her natural inclination to keep away. They skirted ruts that held rain from the day before and candy wrappings that stuck to the ground. Empty beer bottles glistened through weeds and grassy edges and the unpainted backs of the buildings looked oily ochre brown. The one-story building was different though. It was painted blue with grey enamel steps. Thistles and dandelions grew along the base and stinkweed and wild grass spread out towards the lane. Lights had shone out the front of this building, just a little earlier, but the back was totally dark. The door window was covered with a dark curtain.

“They’re bohunks,” said Terry as she aimed a pebble right at the door. It struck with one sharp clink, obviously hitting metal.

While the urge to flee hit Josie, big time, a corner of the curtain lifted and the head and shoulders of a girl appeared.  Josie had never seen her before. The girl was wraith-like with dark brown hair and big eyes that for some reason did not seem matched. Her face was without expression. Josie could not help but stare before fear clicked in and she ran.

“She can’t talk, you know,” said Terry as she coasted by. “She’s dumb!”

***

They never warned of staying out of certain alleys but Josie suspected that she had taken a route that her parents would not recommend. Therefore she would not bring it up. She would not ask about the building, surely never meant to be a home, with lights flashing in front and a dumb little girl staring out the back. And just how dumb was she? Could she not read nor write and why couldn’t or wouldn’t she talk?

Josie headed to Carol’s, just in case Terry was wrong, and knocked on her door.

Mrs. Smithers opened up. “Well Josie,” she said, “Carol is at Mary’s today and will be staying overnight. Perhaps you can try again tomorrow.”

“I’ll need my paper dolls then,” said Josie, embarrassed by her own anger and feeling close to tears. “I need them for another friend!” It was a lie of course but a good one, she thought, and she headed back to the store with the shoe box of fairies under her arm while dark purple clouds formed overhead.

It was easy to pass by Mary’s house on the way back to the store. Sure enough a tent was pitched right next to the crab apple tree and she could hear Carol and Mary’s voices. They giggled and scuffled while flashlights jitter-bugged through canvas walls. A pox on them, Josie thought.

***

There were four of them; fairies with flowing pastel dresses and sashes and wild flowers permanently set in their hair, but none had wings. They were mostly like teenage girls with magical skills who prepared fairy food, tiny biscuits with cream and clover honey, and they treated girls and boys, especially boys, to secret meadow ballets. Sometimes Josie and Carol performed the dances themselves before getting back to their story. It was so much fun. But never again. Never again. 

As she laid out the paper fairies on her father’s desk the ceiling lights flickered and the store turned dark. The scent of newly applied oil rose from the wooden floor and filled the air. It was a warm aroma, familiar and reassuring. Then a wild crack of thunder, a powerful boom, rattled the china and windows and jiggled the front door. She thought about the H-bomb they were talking about on the news and about how her mother often said H instead of hell, as in “Who the H do they think they are?”

The first ping of hail sounded like the pebble hitting the dumb girl’s door but then a swath of white stones began to attack the windows and the cars out front. She covered her ears and her eyes, and cowered at the back, waiting for it to be over, but suddenly the town siren filled the air and both she and her father rushed to the front. The sidewalk and road were white like a snow day in winter but not a reason to send out the warning. There was nothing unusual going on that they could see and the onslaught seemed to be over.

“Maybe it’s an electrical short,” said her father. They both breathed a sigh of strange relief and Josie ran out to collect some ice stones, sounding delirious whenever she found one larger than before.

***

The news travelled fast as it does in a town. Lightning struck the tree and the tent. Of all the places it could come down it chose Carol and Mary’s sanctum. And it rendered Josie speechless.

It was a town of mourning. It was a town of hail damage talk. It was a town of broken windows and Josie’s father was set to work cutting glass in the store for all those affected. One Saturday morning, while robins announced imminent travel south and the sun was just rising because the days were now shorter, Josie held her father’s hand, or he held hers, as they headed to the store. But on this morning he stopped at the one-story building. The window was opaque because cardboard lined the other side of fractured glass. Light could neither travel in nor out. He let go of her hand and knocked on the door. An old lady, with a kerchief tied under her chin, peered out through the narrow opening then hollered something Josie did not understand. A man with a mustache appeared and gestured for them to go inside. Bohunks, she remembered Terry saying, and DPs too, whatever that meant.

Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy filled the air and the dark-haired girl with the unmatched eyes was dancing away, oblivious to their arrival. Above her head was a twirling glitter ball sending spangles of light onto the ceiling and the floor and the cardboard window.

Suddenly the girl was aware of eyes on her and she ran and hid behind her father, clinging to his shirt, hiding her face as best she could.

“My daughter,” the man said, “she doesn’t speak since they burned our house. But we are lucky still, to finally come here.”

“I want to fix your window,” Josie’s father said.

“Ah, we cannot afford.”

“But it’s on me. I will do it for free.”

***

The shoe box of fairies sat on a shelf at the back of the store but had become invisible to Josie’s eyes. Sometimes things don’t exist anymore, like the Spunkie who lived in her father’s time and created receding lights that scientists now say are ignited methane gas on the rise. They probably did look more like ghosts than fairies. It had been a wonderful, fanciful world, the one she and Carol had created, when Carol was still alive.

“I have an idea,” her father said once he had cut the glass and wrapped it with brown paper. “Bring your box of paper dolls and share them with Alina.” 

The dumb girl now had a name. Josie also learned that she could read and write. Both girls simply had nothing to say out loud. Perhaps they could dance under the glitter ball with a fairy in each hand. It was possible.

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