Fragments

The marble of blue glass rolled across the dusty, rutted path. It was a sharp, vibrant blue almost exactly the color of the cloudless sky, which stretched out above like a paint-drenched canvas- perhaps one that was about to dry up and crack. Fiery blazes of heat scorched the air, which was so thin and desiccated it seemed as though someone had wrung from it every last drop of moisture and left it thirsty and gasping. Shimmering beams of light poured relentlessly from the sun. It filtered through the marble and re-formed on the dirt behind it, a perfect window of white light and swirling, pale blues, outlined by a pale line of shadow. The reflection lengthened and blurred into a gray streak as it followed the marble across the road. It was still moving with some momentum, but with each rut it encountered, it slowed and seemed likely not to come rolling up the other side. About halfway across it came to a rut that was longer and deeper than the rest. Clearly, the wheel of some large carriage or wagon-maybe a Conestoga- had made the imprint. Either way, the person driving the wagon that had made it must have chosen a wet day to travel, for crusty ridges that had once been displaced mud lined the rut. The marble just managed to ease over this ridge on one side. With a small flurry of dust, it tumbled to the bottom of the rut, and came to a halt at last. All was still on the road again.

Then a little girl with blonde hair and a flushed, dirty face scampered out of the yellow prairie grass sweeping alongside it. She grabbed at the marble, but not before a skinny, sun-browned boy in patched overalls darted out after her and closed his fist around it. He flashed the girl kneeling on the ground, who was his younger sister, a nasty grin, at least until she looked away with a trembling frown and a distinct look of sadness in her blue eyes. The boy looked from her to the marble in his palm several times, then bent down and pressed it wordlessly into one of her grubby little palms. She looked up at him wonderingly. Her brows climbed her forehead, and her mouth hung open slightly, revealing several gaps where her baby teeth were missing. Only when he half shrugged his bony shoulders and gave a humble little nod did she break into a wide grin. It seemed to change her whole face. Bright afternoon sunlight played across her face, illuminating it, catching in the highlights of her hair. The girl's eyes, peering out of a grimy mask of plastered sweat and dirt, were all too knowing for a child's; they had seen too soon some of life's sorrows, but at this moment, even if only for this one moment, they were pools of joy, as blue as the marble she held, and she hadn't a care in the world.

Still looking delighted, the girl slipped the marble into a pocket on her dress. Most of it was a pale color like frothy cream, but a much brighter yellow clung to the lacy hems and lined the pleats on the waist and the edges of the pockets, as if the whole dress had once been brighter, and through years of sun and dirt and repeated scourings in a hot wash bucket, these little blotches of dye were all that remained of the original color. For a moment, the girl rested her hand over her pocket, fingering the marble through the thin cloth as if reassuring herself that it was still there. Then she glanced up at her brother. He stood raking his front teeth over his lower lip. A horizontal wrinkle carved its way across her forehead, and worry filled his brown eyes.

"We gotta get back quick, Iris" said the boy. "It's gettin' late. Pa will have noticed we was gone by now."

The girl didn't budge.

"Come on, then, let's go!" her brother exclaimed. He grabbed her hand with one that was equally sweaty and dirt-covered and yanked her to her feet. He started to march off ahead of her down the path. She only stood motionless where he had left her, staring after him, dizzy and suddenly breathless. Hot air pressed in around her. Sweat gushed from her pores, dampening her hair. It was so hot that the air seemed to shimmer, so that as Iris watched her brother, he seemed to waver insubstantially, like an image on rippling water. Iris clutched her forehead.

"John!" she whimpered. "John!" Her brother was getting further and further away, but Iris still did not move-could not move. It was as if her feet were rooted to the spot. "John! Come back! Please, come back!"

Finally he turned around.

"Come on!" he shouted impatiently. Upon seeing her, though, his face changed, and his eyes lifted with concern. "Iris? What's the matter, " he called.

"I..." she croaked. Great black shadows swum across her eyes, and her head spun. A hot breeze whispered by, stirring the yellowing grasses to each side of the road and making her skirts swirl around her bare ankles.

"Iris?" John started running toward her. She was swaying where she stood. "Iris!" he screamed. He reached her side just in time to catch her in his arms as she collapsed.

"Iris?" he whispered. He rocked her from side to side in a gentle manner. "Wake up, Iris, wake up!" With a few grimy fingers, he gently combed a lock of damp blonde hair from her forehead. The girl's skin was cold and clammy. Then, as if a terrible idea had occurred to him, his hand froze on her brow, perhaps paralyzed with fear. "Oh, Iris, please, wake up! You can't die!" He scrubbed at his eyes, which had grown wet. "Don't die, Iris, don't die, please!"

Of course, she was not really dying, but it never occurred to the young boy that she had simply fainted from the heat, and what was he supposed to think, as she lie limp in his arms, hardly breathing?

"It's all my fault, Iris," he whispered, stroking her hair. His voice trembled when he spoke again. "It was my d-dumb idea to go up to t-t-town and buy a marble with my birthday penny. I should have gone alone...P-Pa even said you was too delicate for this kind of heat. But, remember, you begged to come with, so I said y-yes. I s-said y-y-yes. I went and tol' you I didn't think it would do no harm...that it would be fun. F-fun!" he gasped. "I said it would be fun, but it killed you." He squeezed his eyes shut and let out a moan. Tears streamed down his cheeks. "Iris, please..." All kinds of horrible thoughts raced through his mind. "I killed my sister, I killed her...it's all my fault...Iris... you'll never open those pretty blue eyes of yours again, Iris, because of me...never be a teacher like you wanted....because of me...Iris"

John lie her gently on the ground and knelt beside her, clasping his hands together in prayer. Then, grief seemed to overwhelm him, and he lie his head on her side, sobbing into her dress.

John lie like this for some time. Occasionally he stopped crying and wiped at his tear-worn eyes, sucking in damp, heavy breaths and looking around at the empty expanse of prairie grass that stretched out beneath the clear blue sky as if for a clue, something to tell him what to do next. Then his gaze would fall upon the limp body of his sister Iris, and he would collapse over her again, weeping. Before long, a half hour had passed, followed quickly on its heels by another, and then another, until his shadow stretched out on the road before him, long and dark. John hardly lifted his head, or even glanced up from Iris anymore. He seemed to have lost all sense of time and direction. He didn't realize that at that very moment, just a few miles away, his father was storming through the house in an enraged stupor, bellowing incoherently and tossing chairs down the staircase. Some time ago, he had finished draining every last drop of liquor the farm could offer up, and then had stumbled out the back door to discover still unbeaten rugs hanging on the clothesline; goats, chickens, and cows wandering aimlessly throughout the yard, and the fence the children had left open on their way out swinging slowly on its hinges. The two children should have been home hours ago, while their father was still oblivious to their absence, but now worries about what he would do when they finally returned home were the furthest thing from John's mind.

"I'm sorry, Iris. It's all my fault you're dead," he sobbed. "I'll bury you next to Ma; you would have wanted that."

Then a voice sounded from behind him.

"Dead? Young man, unless you make it a practice in your family of burying the living, I would advise you not to pick up your shovel anytime too soon."

Looking stunned, John looked over his shoulder and found the source of these words.

The woman who had spoken was gazing down at him with thoughtful green eyes. She was an old lady, perhaps the oldest John had ever seen. The heavy creases above them would have made her look as if she were permanently slightly weary or drowsy, but for the thoughtfulness, and intense liveliness the boy saw shining through her eyes. Her face was weathered and sun-darkened, and deep, shadowy valleys lined her sagging skin. She was thin, and slightly hunched over at the shoulders. The woman was dressed in a faded tea gown of brown paisley print, a style that had not been popular for more than 20 years, and beneath the feathered hat perched atop her head, white ringlets the color of snow poked out at odd angles. However, despite her appearance, there was a certain air about her, a certain way she held herself, that suggested that if one were to peel back the dull layer of old age that had settled upon her body, one would find a woman who was still vibrant with life. Perhaps her spirit was still joyful and youthful, and that was what the boy was seeing in her eyes.

John scrubbed at his cheeks. Something that looked like hope had sparked momentarily in his bleary, red-rimmed eyes.

"I...I don't understand," he said. His voice shook. He squinted up at the strange woman. "S-she h-h-hasn't m-moved for h-hours."

"Of course she hasn't," the woman replied soothingly, patting the boy's shoulder. "but she's unconscious, not dead. Why, I can see her breathing from here."

The boy looked from the woman to his sister. "Unconshish?" he asked uncertainly.

"Unconscious," she corrected gently, and upon seeing the expression on the boy's face, added, "It means that she's fainted. From this dreadful heat, I suppose...it does feel rather like stepping into an oven. I don't know what you children were doing out here; you ought to have brought some water..."

But the boy appeared not to have heard anything beyond the first few sentences; at these, a wondrous expression had begun to spread slowly across his face.

"So she's really not dead?" the boy exclaimed, grinning. His face, washed nearly clean by his tears, was shining and wet with joy. "She's going to be alright?"

The woman pursed her lips. New lines stood out around her mouth. "Well, young man, she is alive, but-you say she's been like this for hours?" She shook her head, looking down at the limp form of Iris lying on the dusty ground. "If she's been lying here on the road the whole time beneath the hot sun, I fear she's probably far worse off now than she was before. If you would have gotten her home right away, and given her some cold water, I dare say she would have been on her feet in no time. But now that she's been out in the heat for so long... "

John looked terrified. Their gazes connected, and his eyes flashed. "But she'll be alright, won't she? If we give her some water like you said, and, and..." he trailed off, tracing a line in the dust with his toe. He looked as though he were struggling with himself, perhaps fighting the urge to cry even as doubt dampened the spark of hope that had flickered inside him, so that he would not have to lose his sister all over again. "Iris, she's not going to..." he broke off bitterly. "She's not dying, is she?"

"Your sister-Iris?-will be fine, young man. We'll carry her to my house; it's not too far from here, but she looks a trifle heavy for me to carry all alone, so if you would please help...Yes, that's it, thank you-by the arms would be better..." John had given a start and bent down beside Iris quickly. Together, the old woman and the boy set off down the road, with Iris lying hot and fevered in their arms, breathing shallowly as if in a deep sleep.

They trudged along for some time before any words passed between them. John glanced over at the woman occasionally as if he were going to speak, and, perhaps realizing that he didn't even know her name, bit his lip and turned his gaze elsewhere. It was slow going. The woman set a steady pace which John easily matched, but appeared to be straining herself to do so. With each step she took, little clouds of dust rose behind her, as if her feet did not quite manage to part from the ground. Sweat ran down both their faces, dripping from their chins. Every so often the woman reached into her pocket with an exasperated sigh and began attempting to cool herself by flapping at her face with a large flowered fan.

The afternoon eased slowly into evening, but the sun lost none of its intensity. John tread lightly on the road, as the soles of his feet had begun to feel raw and burned. He seemed to struggle to maintain their slow pace. He would pull slightly forward, then sigh impatiently and fall back again. Finally it seemed as if he were fed up.

"How much further is it?" he demanded.

"We're almost there now, young man," she said calmly, taking no notice of the anger filling his voice. She shifted the young girl in her arms. "You know, it's about time we both remembered our manners and learned each others names, don't you think?"

John glanced at her, plainly startled. "What?" he stammered. "Oh...oh yes...forgive me, ma'am..." he said, and blushed.

"Nonsense, child, there is nothing to forgive. Now, I'll start. My name is Adelaide Silvontes. You may call me Adelaide."

"Mrs. Silvon-I mean, Adelaide, my name is John. John Henkleburr, and this is my little sister, Iris. I'm 12, and she's just turned 8."

"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, John."

"You too...Adelaide," he said shyly. "Um...pardon me asking again, but where exactly did you say you live? My feet is kind of burning; see, the way Iris and me came, we was walking on grass, so we didn't need no shoes. And I'm getting awful thirsty from this heat..."

"Don't you worry," Adelaide said. "As soon as we reach my house, you shall have all the cold well water you want. As for your feet, we can walk in the grass right now, if you think you'd find it preferable to the road."

"Um..yes, that would be just fine, Adelaide," John said, clearly relieved. "If you don't mind, that is."

"I don't mind at all," said Adelaide serenely.

They walked on for several minutes, until suddenly John blurted, "I feel real bad about Iris. I should'a seen that she was still breathing, it's just I was so upset. If she had died, it would of been all my fault, you know, 'cause Pa told me I shouldn't have brought her out in the heat, but I didn't know this would happen, though, and she begged to come with me......she loves playing marbles and seeing the lake and stuff...I hope you don't think I'm always so...so..."

A crease between Adelaide's brows deepened into a furrow, and her green eyes grew thoughtful. She gazed at John.

"So caring, perhaps? Now, young man, it sounds to me that everything you did today was because of your love for your sister. I'm probably about as helpful as a dry well during a drought when it comes to giving advice, but if I may be so bold as to offer my opinion anyway, I do believe the only mistake you made today was that you did not consider the consequences of letting Iris come. That was very foolish, of course, and you should not have disobeyed your Pa. She very well could have died, and you're right lucky I came along when I did, because if you had left her lying there much longer in this state, she probably would be dead by now." John was staring at the ground, his lower lip trembling. Adelaide took notice of this and continued in a much softer tone. "But I suppose you will have realized all this by now, and feel guilty enough as it is without a lecture from an old crow like me." A weary smile floated across her lips. "Just don't feel too guilty. Letting your sister come was not wrong, in itself; you only did it to make her happy. Do not regret your sadness, or your tears. They only prove what I said before: that you are a very caring person."

John blushed, and smiled gratefully at Adelaide.

"Nobody has ever talked like that to me before," he said.

After a moment, she smiled wryly and replied, "Then fortune has favored you. I've been told that I possess a very blunt tongue."

"Oh, no! I meant it in a good way!" John protested. "All Pa ever does is tell me he wishes I was a slave, so he could sell me for the ten cents I would bring, or somethin' like that...and he's always drunk like somethin' fierce, runnin' around and breaking things...I don't remember Ma much. She passed when I was only 4- on the day she had Iris- but I bet she would of talked to me like that too. You know, nice-like, but still tellin' the truth. I dunno if Pa thinks I'm important enough, but I bet she would of. I bet she would of." John smiled, and he appeared suddenly much wiser than his 12 years. "You know, you're real nice, Adelaide."

Adelaide's wrinkled, sagging face seemed to shine.

"Thank you John," she said quietly. "It means more to me than you know to hear you say that." She fell silent for a moment, and then looked around as if she had just noticed where she was and gave a small start. "Oh! Well, would you look at that! We're here!"

Smiling, Adelaide gave a wave of exaggerated regality to the right, where withered corn plants stuck up out of the flat dusty ground in hundreds of tidy rows that swept toward the horizon in all directions in a vast, rippling sea of yellows and browns. John, whose gaze had followed her waving hand, peered at the indicated spot, plainly confused.

"Er, Adelaide..." He eyed the columns of corn, "where exactly is here suppose' to be?" he asked skeptically, but Adelaide had already moved on and did not hear him.

*A/N: I started this years ago, and I'm aware it probably needs some work. So...opinions? Is this worth continuing? I have a bit more written, but otherwise I'm not sure where I was planning on going with this.