A Fairy Tale
It had been as hot and humid as only Iowa could be on that awful July day. Tom and Dick had taken the twins, Harry and Lucy, to the pond where the older boys had rigged a tire swing from an old cottonwood tree and took turns swinging out over the pond, dropping in, and swimming back while the younger ones played in the muddy shallows.
Tom had just started swimming back when he heard his brother, Dick, holler, “No, no! Harry! Turn around. It’s too deep there.”
Tom kicked for the bank where he had just seen Harry’s head sink under the water. It wasn’t more than a few seconds before he reached his little brother and pulled him to safety. Dick dropped into the water and swam back to them. Harry wasn’t hurt, he’d just swallowed a bit of water, which he promptly coughed out, then sat up and looked around.
“Where’s Lucy?” he asked.
The boys craned their heads this way and that calling, “Lucy! Lucy!”
Dick ran back into the water, up and down the shallows, thinking she, too, must have wandered in and fallen. Tom searched the shore looking for any sign that might indicate where she had gone in.
“I think she went this way.” Tom stood pointing down at a set of tiny footprints that led away from the shore toward the edge of the cornfield. For this pond served as a reservoir for a rudimentary irrigation system, which pumped ground water out and over the vast cornfields that blanketed the land of Iowa.
Dick came running up with Harry in his arms, and all three stared unbelievingly at the poignant tracks which were all they could see of their sister.
“She went into the corn,” Rick said in a hollow voice.
Now in those days, nearly every square foot of Iowa that was not given over to a small town or a farmstead was covered in field corn, grown specifically to be fed to pigs. Pigs raised and fattened on the farmsteads and sold to the citizens, who were also, it might be said, raised and fattened on field corn. The circle of life, some called it. The old farmers just shrugged and said, “It’s a living.”
The corn itself grew tall with long, loose, deep green leaves that rustled in the slightest breeze, brushed against each other, and wrapped around their long slender stalks like a million leathery arms. A dozen paces into a field of tall corn and even an adult might not know which direction was the way out.
“Never ever go into the corn.” Every farm child in Iowa grew up with that mantra in their ears. And now little Lucy was gone. Into the corn.
“Take Harry home, and bring help.” Tom said. “I’ll look for her. She can’t have gone far, but …” He gestured around at the wall of corn that nearly surrounded the little pond.
Dick agreed and set off with Harry along the narrow track that led from the pond to the farmhouse.
Tom called out, “Lucy, Lucy,” over and over as he made his way along the row where the prints of her little bare feet had led. The prints disappeared almost immediately where the dried lower fronds spread across the rows. Tom was still in his bathing trunks and barefoot and the rough edges of the leaves scraped his arms and legs as he went. The only sound was that of leathery green leaves whispering together and the crack of dried fronds under his feet. He stopped and put his hands to his mouth as a megaphone.
Nobody answered. Nothing stirred but the corn.
Hot tears ran down his cheeks. Tom wiped them away with shaking hands, then turned and ran back to the beach for his clothes before taking up the search in earnest. Heading to the field again, he noticed a cloud of blackbirds taking wing in the distance. Something had startled them, but Lucy could never have gotten that far, could she? Nevertheless, when he entered the cornfield this time he headed toward where he had seen them.
She must be so scared, he thought, and the image of her, lost, frightened, crying for her brothers, nearly tore his heart in two. He battled back the tears and stumbled on through the rows, calling her name again and again.
Lucy was never found. Dick brought their father and a couple of the farm hands to help look while his mother called the neighbors, and soon the fields resounded with cries of “Lucy! Lucy!” until a week later when it was determined that all hope was lost.
But their mother could not resign herself. “I hear her sometimes at night, crying,” she said, and nothing could persuade her that her little girl was gone forever.
As for the brothers, even though their parents had insisted that they not blame themselves, they could not help but do so and the inconsolable grief of their mother weighed heavily on them.
A month after Lucy’s disappearance, Tom was shaken awake by his mother.
“Tommy. Tommy. I can hear her. She’s still out there. Please. We have to go find her. She’s so frightened. We can’t just leave her.”
“Mom, he whispered. “She’s not there. We’ve looked everywhere.”
“Please, Tommy. It’s the least you can do.”
It was the closest his mother had come to blaming him, so he got up, pulled on his clothes, and, leaving her looking after him from the front door, trotted toward the track that led to the pond.
The farmyard looked strange in the moonlight, the barn and silo awash with shades of silver gray, throwing jet black shadows over the coops and pens that sheltered beside them. Moonlight silvered the track leading to the pond as well, and Jimmy ran as fast as he could between the rows of still-standing corn.
The pond shone bright as a silver dollar with only the shadow of the old cottonwood with its tire swing marring its perfection.
Tommy prowled along the edge of the corn peering into the jet black rows.
“Lucy? Lucy?” He wasn’t shouting, but his voice sounded too loud in the quiet night, and he was suddenly afraid. Ashamed of himself – after all, he had been sent here to calm his mother’s fears, not his own – he straightened up and shouted, “Lucy! If you are here, show yourself.” He would at least be able to assure his mother that he had tried, even if he felt foolish doing so.
“Shhhh,” the corn seemed to whisper, although there wasn’t so much as a breath of nightwind. “Shhhh.”
A grating sound like that of rope on wood came from the direction of the pond. Jimmy whirled around to see the shadow of the tire swing suspended on the surface of the water looking for all the world like a noose.
“This is crazy,” he muttered. “I’m going home.”
“Home, home,” the corn seemed to echo in his ears.
He tried to whistle to keep up his courage, but could only manage a weak tinny sound and when he reached the track that led between the rows, he dropped all pretense and ran.
“It was just a dream, Mom,” he told his weeping mother. “She’s not there.”
It was a month later, to the day, when Ricky was shaken awake by his mother.
“Ricky. Wake up. She’s out there somewhere. I can hear her calling me. Please. We’ll find her this time.”
“Mom, he whispered. “You know she’s not there. I’m sorry.”
“Please, Ricky. It’s the least you can do.”
It was the closest his mother had come to blaming him for his failure to watch his sister, so he got up, pulled on his clothes, and, insisting that she wait for him, trotted toward the track that led to the pond.
Ricky made his way through shadows cast by a full moon that played hide and seek in a sky of drifting clouds. The track to the pond flickered in and out of the moonlight causing him to stumble over hidden ruts and startle at black outlines of cornstalks moving in the gentle breeze.
The pond, when he reached it, was covered with the shadows of fluffy clouds that moved across its surface like sheep grazing in a dark meadow. The rasp of rope on wood sent a shiver up his spine, but it was hard to discern the image of the tire swing against the eddy of clouds among the ripples.
“Lucy. Lucy.” He was trying to whisper, trying not to awaken anything that should not be awakened, but the hoarse growl that emerged from his own throat frightened him more than the sound of the swing. She had not disappeared out here in the open, he chided himself, so screwing up his courage he tiptoed toward the edge of the field calling her name, quietly now, hoping that it would be enough to summon her, if his mother was right, or to prove one way or another that she would never be found.
“Lucy, Lucy,” the corn whispered back. “Lucy.”
Ricky reached the edge of the field and peered as far down the rows as he could when the brief flashes of moonlight allowed, but no one appeared. No one answered. And when at last he hollered her name as loud as he could, there was not even a hint of echo.
The clouds had gradually drifted together into a solid bank that would bring rain in the morning, but which now covered the moon completely leaving Ricky to find his way back in near total darkness.
“She’s not there. She was never there, Mom. Now go back to bed.” He pushed his way past her, his body shaking, ashamed of the tears streaking his face. He went back to bed, even more ashamed that he had succumbed to the night terrors and had not been able to comfort his mother.
Sure enough, a month later their mother was back in her boys’ room, this time shaking little Harry awake.
“Harry. Wake up. Lucy is whispering in my ear.”
“What is she saying, Mom? Tell me.”
“She says that she is waiting for you. You are the only one who can bring her home.”
Harry looked toward the window where he could see the moon shining full and bright in a starless sky.
“I want to help, but I’m scared, Mom.”
“Please, Harry. It’s the least you can do.”
It was the closest his mother had come to blaming him for his failure to watch his sister, so he got up, pulled on his clothes, and, insisting that she wait for him, edged gingerly out into the moon-dark yard. An overcast sky threw gray shadows everywhere. A hooded figure stood where the old hand pump should have been. A dinosaur had taken the place of the corn harvester, with its long chute, which stood ready for the morrow when his father had insisted that they go into the field where Lucy had disappeared. Black branches of tree shadows had become the claws of a monstrous bird that raked the very ground he had to cross as they shivered with the wind.
Little Harry, trembling with fear, was about to turn to run back into the house, when he heard a whisper in his ear.
“Don’t be afraid, Harry. I’m waiting for you.”
So he plucked up his young courage and ran across the farmyard as fast as his legs could carry him.
When he came to the track between the rows, he tried to walk slowly, quietly, listening as hard as he could for Lucy’s voice, but he heard nothing. Nothing but the corn whispering to itself on either side of him where the rows between the stalks were painted black with shadow.
The pond was slate gray in the ambient light and so still that it looked to be frozen. Even the shadow of the tire swing was lost against the shadow of the tree from which it hung. An otherworldly silence had fallen over the place.
Harry walked slowly along the margin of the pond until he reached the spot where they had seen Lucy’s footprints heading for the cornfield. Wishing for the first time in his short life that he were smaller, he bent over double, as if to hide himself from prying eyes. He was tiptoeing toward the field when suddenly he heard a whisper.
“I’m here, Harry. I’m coming.”
Harry looked up and stared as hard as he could into the dark rows between the stalks. At first there was nothing to be seen but sere gray stalks and dry leaves of the corn. Then Harry froze in his tracks. Had something moved in there? He thought himself too old to believe in ghosts, but now he wasn’t so sure. On the other hand, what if it wasn’t Lucy? There were more dangerous things than ghosts in the real world.
“Wait for me, Harry,” the voice whispered again, and now he saw what seemed to be a little figure coming toward him, pushing the shadows of the corn away.
Carefully, Harry advanced toward the black rows.
A small figure stood out in soft pastels amongst the shadows. Harry paused. “Lucy?” he called. His voice seemed to echo in the vastness of the night.
“Harry? Harry! Yes! I’m here!” The voice was no longer a whisper. It was the voice of his little sister who appeared at the very edge of the corn, barefoot, wearing the same faded blue shorts and overlarge hand-me-down tee shirt she had been wearing when last he had seen her.
Harry ran to her and threw his arms around her.
Her skin was cool, but the night was cool as well. “Are you real?” he asked, as he hugged her. He set her down and looked into her eyes which appeared like deep blue pools. “Are you real?” he asked again.
“I’m real to you, and if you take me home, I’ll be real to Mother. But I won’t be real to anyone else. You mustn’t tell them. Will you take me home, Harry? Mother needs me.”
Harry took her hand in his. “I’ll take you home, Lucy,” he told her.
So together they walked home in the moonlight that streamed from a sudden break in the clouds. Home, where their mother was so overjoyed to see them that she woke the household, but no one other than she and Harry could see or hear little Lucy. And when he grew up, Harry’s cornfields produced firm, rich ears, and his Red Duroc pigs won all the Blue Ribbons and became famous for the best bacon anyone in the county had ever tasted.
The three brothers had gathered once again on the Home Place, as they called the farm on which they had grown up. Their mother had died peacefully in her bed after a long illness, and the three had come together just in time to say goodbye.
“Poor woman,” Tommy said. “She believed to the end of her days that Lucy had returned.”
“I wouldn’t call her ‘poor’,” said Ricky. “She was a good mother. She loved us all. So what if she pretended that Lucy was still here? I think it kept her from losing her mind to her grief. Remember when …”
The two brothers exchanged glances. “I remember,” said Tommy.
Harry sat in his chair by the bedside. Their mother was gone, and with her had gone little Lucy. His cheek was still cool where they had kissed him goodbye, and the whisper of the corn marked their passage. It seemed to be saying, “Thank you, Harry. We love you.”