Girl Among Thorns: Chapter One
I hate bridges. They start on one side of a gaping hole and don’t stop until they reach the other side. Sometimes the hole is dry and you can look down into a gash in the earth. When it’s like that, the bridge looks like a band-aid laid over the gash and there is always a danger that some drunken fool will meet you halfway across and send you plunging through the rail that runs along its sides.
Sometimes the bridge spans a river and that is the kind I hate worst. A watery death seems like an awful way to go. Maybe that’s just because I stared death in the face on the water more than once, but I’ll get to that later.
I liked bridges at first. But that changed when I was about three. Until then, I have vague memories of walking across a bridge with my great grandma whom I thought was pretty wonderful and my big brother Dustin, whom she thought was the best thing that ever happened to our family. We were right smack in the middle of that bridge when I realized that she loved Dustin more than me.
How do you figure out something like that at three? Maybe it was because she took his hand every time he offered it and didn’t seem to notice mine. Or because she didn’t seem to hear a word I said while everything he said made her laugh or reach down and tousle his hair.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my big brother. He was eleven months older than me and my only playmate. It’s just that I knew, right from the beginning, that everybody else loved him, too, and I just wished some of that love could be left over for me. Anyway, I never liked bridges much after that.
As much as I hate bridges, I love open fields, especially when they’re filled with cotton-pickers. I don’t think they have those anymore, but I used to watch them moving slowly along the row, paying no mind to the sharp casing as they dug the round white boll out of it. Some of them sang but all of them looked like their back hurt. By the time the Arkansas sun was high in the summer sky, they started looking bent, as their canvass sacks filled out, trailing behind them like long tails between the rows.
One day I was out in the front of our house, watching, when a car went by without a driver. When I got older I knew I had to be wrong about that, but at three or four years old, that is what I saw. Maybe it was because I was really short and the driver was hunched down behind the wheel, but I couldn’t think about that then.
I ran as fast as I could, which couldn’t have been too fast because I was bow-legged and the heavy metal braces on my legs slowed me down. If I got to going too fast, my legs would drag and the top part of my body would just keep going, landing me in dirt. The adults were in the house when I dashed through the door letting the screen slam shut behind me, and started telling them what I saw. Words fell over themselves like my upper body over my bowed legs.
My excitement waned as I realized nobody believed me. I don’t blame them now, everybody knows a car doesn’t just go down the road by itself. I insisted that I saw it, even when my daddy started getting mad. I hated it when he got mad because I adored the ground he walked on.
When he looked straight at me and said, “Chelsey, that’s a lie,” I felt like a balloon that has just been popped with a needle. Not only did he not believe me, but he thought I was a liar. I had to convince him of what I had seen. I grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the door.
“Please, Daddy. Come look.”
In my heart, an organ that after all had only been doing its job for three short years, I felt an intense need to prove my innocence. I had learned already that good girls don’t lie. I also knew that bad girls weren’t worth much. I’m not sure how I knew that, but I’m pretty sure I had figured it out. So I simply had to get my Daddy to see the truth. He had to see that car.
I drug him out the door, heard the screen slam shut behind me, and stood beside him between the house and the cotton field. The dirt road that crawled along the side of the field was empty. Daddy shook his head and walked back into the house leaving me standing there alone in the front yard.
I guess I realized that Daddy must be right. A car can’t go down the street without a driver. I didn’t know if I was crazy, or maybe a liar after all, because people don’t just see things that aren’t real, do they? Not unless something is wrong with them.
That’s the first time I knew something was wrong with me but it wouldn’t, unfortunately, be the last.
Daddy must have forgiven me because he let me work on the outhouse with him soon after that. At least, I think it was soon. It’s hard to keep the timeline straight when you are only three years old. I may have turned four before he let me help him clean the outhouse.
An outhouse is something you don’t easily forget. The smell of it is the most obvious part but there are other memorable features as well. For one thing, it stands alone like a small house, but it is only about four feet across and six feet high. Big enough to accommodate most people, but I did hear once about a rather large woman who got real busy in the outhouse and knocked the thing down. I could imagine how she’d feel, sitting there all exposed on that skinny bench with a deep smelly hole under her. Just thinking about it made me get that slimy feeling that I’d felt when I lied about the driverless car, all over again.
That is why I was so proud of Daddy when he added a real bathroom to our three-room-house. I don’t remember where he put it in the order of things, because our house was what some called a “shotgun” style. It was long and narrow to accommodate its tiny lot and you had to walk through one room to get into another.
You’d think, living in such a tiny house with every room connecting like that, I’d have lots of memories of my mother. But I don’t. She was there all the time, but I don’t remember one thing about her until I was in the first grade.
That was when I told my Grandma Kelsey that I wanted her to be my mother. I don’t know if I was just trying to flatter her or if I had some more substantial reason for saying such a thing, but Grandma promptly rebuked me and told me what I fine mother I had. She was probably right, but somehow I hadn’t realized it. I’m sure she was right. I never heard anything bad about Mother, but somehow I hadn’t noticed any of those fine qualities either. How could I see cars without drivers when such a thing doesn’t exist and yet not see my fine mother when she was right there with me most of the time?
Now, I knew something was dreadfully wrong with me but I had no way of knowing what that “something,” was. If I hadn’t promptly forgotten the next chapter of my young life, I might have figured it out sooner. But I did forget. I think it took all my energy over the next twenty-five years to keep that horrible memory buried because somehow memories have a life of their own and they are like cadavers that aren’t quite dead when they’re buried. They keep clawing at the dirt, trying to get out of the grave and make their presence known.