Probably not the best written of my short stories – but I figured I would share it anyway.
The people in that little Pennsylvania Dutch town were far more used to the solid serviceable long skirts and shirtwaists their women wore, with hair tightly pulled back, as much for convenience as for propriety. The ability to milk cows while keeping perfectly coifed hair was nearly nonexistent. Thus, it was not a wonder that the townspeople – woman, man, and child alike – stopped and stared at the out-of-towner walking their dusty streets in her carefully tailored dress and modern haircut. The woman herself noted the stares and smiled internally. She might have expected nothing had changed here in 25 years – right down to fashion.
“S’cuse me, ma’am.” An elderly gentleman swept off his hat as she passed his little shop. “Might I help ya with somethin’?”
The woman smiled at him. “Mr. Jeffreys – how nice to see you. Still providing the town with all their blacksmithing needs, I see.” The man’s eyes widened considerably and he peered at her face suspiciously for a moment before his jaw dropped. “Mrs. Withers!”
“No, Mr. Jeffreys – it’s me – Caroline.” Her smile lessened a bit.
“Course – course.” The man corrected hastily. “Thet’s what I meant – it’s jest – ya look so much like her – yer ma, thet is.”
A shadow of deep sorrow passed so quickly over Caroline’s face that Mr. Jeffreys wondered if he had only imagined it.
“Thank you.” She said quietly. “I was sorry to miss her funeral.”
Mr. Jeffreys shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Truth was, most folks in the little old town had thought it real indecent of Miss Caroline to miss her own ma’s funeral, jest cause . . . “Well, whatcha doin’ back here, Miss Caroline?” He asked rather directly with a hint of edge.
“I – I’m not really sure.” Caroline sighed a little, seemingly lost in thought for a moment before giving Mr. Jeffreys another smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “See you later, Mr. Jeffreys.”
She swept gently on, leaving the old man scratching his head before rushing off to spread word in the old town that Miss Caroline was back.
Caroline was a bit sorry someone had stopped her so soon. She had been hoping for a bit of anonymity before the gossip chain started. But had she pretended not to know Mr. Jeffreys and he had found out later who she was, as was inevitable, she would have dearly hurt the old man who’d been so kind to her as a child.
What was she doing back here? The truth was, her train had been passing through on her way back to New York. It was a fluke – it had only passed through due to an incident on the main track, but Caroline was off the train before she knew what she was doing. Part of her wanted to run back to the safety of the train station, but the rest of her suddenly had the urge to see all the dear old places she had haunted so many years before. She hastened past all the people who stopped and stared, not quite ready to make polite conversation, stopping only when she reached a low lying, single story building. Yes, then she stopped. Here it was – the place she had probably spent a majority of her growing years – probably more than at home, much to her Ma’s frustration. A lonely old building with faded brick that only enhanced the enchanting appearance. She pushed open the door and went in, pausing in the entrance to inhale deeply the smell of books, both old and new, and felt a thrill of delight as she realized nothing at all had changed about that at least. The children’s corner was still there, with small tables and chairs scattered about, and the long shelves of books that had seemed innumerable to her as a young girl.
“May I help you?” She turned about quickly, startled at how young the voice sounded, expecting the kindly voice of elderly Miss Adrienne, but instead beheld a girl of about 18, looking at her expectantly. “Oh – no – that is. Yes – ah – Miss Adrienne?” She was flummoxed by her own disorientation at the unfamiliar face in a familiar environment.
“Oh – I am so sorry.” The young girl’s face was encased with apology. “Miss Adrienne died several years ago.” She looked at Caroline curiously. “Did you know her?”
“Yes. Yes. Many years ago. I am quite sorry to hear she is gone.”
Caroline left her childhood place of delight with some reluctance. She would have loved to stay for hours, as she once had – to delve deeply into those mysterious book shelves filled with other worlds. But there were other idyllic childhood haunts to visit and a 4:00 train to catch. Besides, the library just wouldn’t be the same with Miss Adrienne fluttering around. And how the tongues in town would waggle at a 45-year-old woman sitting amongst the dusty library books like a young girl!
When she stepped outside the door, she could feel the difference. The eyes that looked upon her still held curiosity, but a more palpable, knowledgeable curiosity. Eyes a little wider, glances more furtive. Oh, my, but Mr. Jeffreys had done his work well. Like as not, there wasn’t a soul in town who hadn’t heard that little Caroline turned big city editor had come to back to town.
It was almost 3:00 by the time she finished. The brook, the diner, the parking lot that had once been the teen hangout, the school – long shut down to make way for the large new one. It was all so different and yet near enough to her memories to make her homesick for the life – for the people – she had once known.
She ended the nearly idyllic visit of her old haunts on a park bench overlooking the river. Of course, the bench hadn’t been there last time she was here – back then she and . . . well, they had made their seats on the banks of the river, regardless of how dirty their clothes got. She involuntarily smiled at the thought and sighed as she stood up, reluctantly casting one last look at the clear sky as she turned her footsteps back toward the train depot – and stopped.
She barely recognized the wizened old man in front of her, whose eyes were cast on the ground as he greeted her. Whether they were downcast due to shame or anger, she didn’t know – and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. She took a deep breath. “Hello, Pa.”
His eyes rose for just a second as if surprised to hear her call him that. “Heard you was back in town.” “Just for today.” She responded rather too quickly. “I am headed back to the train depot now.”
An awkward silence followed. The pressure grew in Caroline’s heart as she tried desperately to decide what to say next and instead found herself edging around the old man, suddenly eager to get to that station. An eerily similar image to 25 years before.
“You still angry with me, daughter?” The abrupt directness of the question rattled her.
Of course not. Caroline wanted to reply automatically, but the words stuck in her throat and came out more as a low, guttural sound.
“Do you have time to stop by the workshop?” Her father apparently wasn’t surprised by the lack of response.
Caroline hesitated and nodded, following her father down the street of gawking neighbors, conflict tearing her apart. If she was honest, she didn’t know if she was still angry. 25 years was a long time – and so much had happened since then. She had shoved all of this down so deeply she wasn’t even sure what emotions she was experiencing.
“I want to show you something.” Her father paused in front of his storefront and looked directly into her eyes for the first time. The moment seemed to take his breath away almost as much as it did hers. “You’re so pretty, Caroline – just like your . . .” His hand stopped halfway to her face as he sensed her automatic recoil in anticipation of his touch. He dropped his hand and led the way into the closed shop, pausing just in front of the back door to the workshop. Caroline stepped through. Her eyes closed as she inhaled the smell of wood dust and creativity, immediately transported back to her childhood for the hundredth time that day. Her father turned on only one light and hesitated only a moment before lifting an old sheet of cloth from a carved figure.
Caroline stared. At first there was no emotion – just examination – and then a layer of the carefully built wall around her emotions came crumbling down, as though one gentle touch had managed to find its weakest spot. She swallowed hard to keep the tears away, still unwilling to show that much emotion in front of her father.
“I carved it after her death. For the funeral – but – I just couldn’t bring myself to put it up. Not without – well – I always felt like I made it for you, Carrie.” He swallowed hard himself. “Sure was sad you couldn’t make it to the funeral. I mean –I know you was busy – your ma woulda understood – I guess – but . . .” his voiced faded away as he ran out of words and Caroline found herself again unable to respond. There was no excuse for her own cowardice in facing her mother’s dead face after having run off without so much as a goodbye.
She stepped forward and ran her fingers lightly over the carved wood. Her lovely mother’s smiling face seemed alive, her laughing eyes sparkled just for Caroline as she danced with the small girl with bouncing curls, a live reenactment of the past. Despite desperate attempts to keep it at bay, a tear rolled down her cheek. Her pa always did have a way of making wood come alive. So had Andrew – which was why her father apprenticed him in the first place. Caroline turned away from the image of her mother’s face, unable to bear it.
“She missed you too, Caroline.” Her father whispered in response to the tear on her cheek. “But – you should know – she never blamed you. She was never angry with you for goin’ away like you did. Always said it was just what you needed. She was so proud of you and what you made of your life.”
Caroline’s entire face wrinkled in an attempt to keep some vestige of control over her emotions.
“He woulda been too.” His voice dropped even lower as he pulled back another covering from a much smaller piece of work.
Caroline’s lips parted and she approached it in spite of a sudden, overwhelming desire to retreat. Her fingers went out and carefully touched the young man’s face, and then pulled back again just as quickly as though she had violated some distance of time and space. Then they moved forward again – a little more slowly – a little more carefully, and she gently traced the waves of hair – the brown wood did not take away from the memory of how jet black it had been. Eyes of green, sparkling with humor and lit with love, looking down into the face of a far more innocent, young version of her face. The curve of the cheeks, the brow – it was all exactly as she remembered.
She gazed with abandon on the young couple, so in love, and then threw her arms around the sculpture, sobbing as she had the day she lost him. Her father stood back, his own eyes filled with a tragedy that had never been forgiven, as grief-stricken as she was at the memories of the boy that he, too, had lost. As her sobs quieted, he moved closer and knelt on the floor next to her, laying a wrinkled hand on her shoulder. “Carrie?” his voice was tremulous with a mixture of grief and hope. “I – I am so sorry. It was a terrible, terrible accident. You know – I wouldn’t have hurt him for the world. Not for the world.” Now he was crying, his own bitter memories taking over of the day he had brought the boy into the forest to harvest trees for their work. All it had taken was one tree, falling the wrong way.
Caroline felt strangely relieved by the words recalling the incident, as though it released some pent up burden.
She turned to face her weeping father and saw in his eyes all the loss he had endured. A boy he had loved as a son, a wife of 40 years – and his only daughter. She threw her arms around him, overcome with a sorrow that, for once, was not her own.
“I forgive you, Pa.” She whispered. “Will you forgive me?”
He wrapped his arms about his daughter in response, and they wept together, the last 25 years swept away under a canopy of forgiveness.