The Flock

River, sunrise

The Wabash River (photo by Bala K, Creative Commons license)

The speck of Indiana called Waverly rests in a placid region near the banks of the Wabash, where the river loops and wriggles, coyly postponing its inevitable rendezvous with the Ohio. The surrounding hills rise modestly above the horizon and, in the late 1800’s, this unassuming topography pretty well reflected local opinion of how people should behave.

At that time, a newcomer could easily disrupt the regular thrumming of Waverly’s carefully controlled existence. And did, one particular December. The townspeople knew two things about her for sure: her name—Mary Bight (the postmistress had told them that much)—and that she’d moved into old Mr. Thompson’s cottage soon after it was empty, since he now occupied an even smaller and more permanent space in the cemetery behind the Methodist church.

Word was he’d caught a chill from sleeping with the bedroom window open past Thanksgiving. “Never had a lick of sense,” the neighbors said, and the deteriorating condition of the cottage, with its reclusive tenant, confirmed it. They predicted the house wouldn’t last the winter, and the women of the town shook their heads and tsk-tsked as they hurried by on their way to Mr. Grassley’s store, as fast as the frozen puddles allowed.

No one knew where Mary came from, why she was there, or who her people were, providing a vacuum they filled with endless speculation. Mary thanked Rev. Applewood for his brief visit, but she didn’t appear at church. She nodded to postmistress Quaid when picking up her parcels, but turned away, studying the return addresses, unmindful of Miss Quaid’s affronted eagerness. Mary politely greeted the women who paid calls shortly after her arrival, but did not invite them inside. The tiny house was “too much of a mess,” she said, and their invitations to Christmas teas and open houses were neither accepted nor reciprocated.

In the winter, when Mary should have shoveled the front walk and knocked the heavy snow off the evergreens—and since she didn’t do this, several of the yews had become grotesque topiaries—she put on her crimson coat, and the townspeople saw her ramble across the fields that edged the town, a drop of red on snow clean as bandages.

In spring, when Mary should have planted her peas and lettuces and later her annuals and still later her tomatoes and peppers, she instead sat at a deal table by the open front window and clattered away on her new typewriting machine. Grassley’s young clerk, Tom Cooper, had delivered the big wooden crate on a handcart and would have helped her with it, but Mary told him to leave the box on the porch and prized it open herself. Stenciling on the box showed it arrived by train. If the new railway service, not yet a year old, brought goods that filled the crowded shelves of Grassley’s store, it also brought unfamiliar people—including Mary Bight—and noisy typewriters and city newspapers, and it made the places along its lengthy route seem closer than they ought to be.

Mrs. Parker next door complained far and wide that she had to listen to the unsettling sound of Mary’s clackety-clack-ping!, clackety-clack-ping!, morning to night. Mrs. Parker, whose few ideas were doled out by a parsimonious husband, couldn’t for the life of her figure out what Mary could be writing, day after day. Who could she be writing to? How could she have so much to say? Why couldn’t she use a pen, like regular folks? Curiosity flamed and crackled.

Postmistress Quaid, who regularly sharpened her eyes, nose, and tongue on the whetstone of local gossip, swore Mary Bight wasn’t writing letters. She hardly ever mailed or received a one. “Books, books, books. That’s it.”

As spring arrived and Indiana turned its face to the sun, Waverly’s menfolk passed the Thompson house at a stroll, hands in pockets, as if they had nothing really to do and might be available for any odd job, should Mary appear at the front door with its sagging screen and call out to them. Their palms fairly itched as they considered how a hammer and some strong nails could repair the sprung boards on the porch and right the tilting shutters. And, what they could do with a brush and a couple gallons of Grassley’s white paint!

Mary was a good-looking young woman, and the men hoped to (but never did) catch a glimpse of her bending over a laundry basket or trimming the distorted shrubbery, chestnut hair pinned away from her face, lissome arms stretching overhead.

So, she lived among them, almost unseen but very present, when the events began that were fixed in the memories of Waverlians as distinctly as photographs glued to the crackling pages of a family album. Even townsfolk who only heard the story many years later, as it was passed parent to child, could recount some version of the debacle, which had about it the mingled clarity and confusion of a dream.

 

The townspeople awoke that June Sunday to weather so fine it must have been sent direct from God to encourage churchgoing. Along Mary Bight’s street came the weekly procession of straight-backed ladies done up in corsets and restless men choking in their neckties, all of them in their too-tight Sunday shoes, truly church-bound. But their progress halted at the Thompson cottage, where a growing cluster of citizens gathered, heedless of the church’s nagging bell.

A length of clothesline stretched across Mary’s yard, and pinned to it like miniature bedsheets and waving from the lower branches of the new-leafed trees like starched handkerchiefs were pages and pages and pages covered with Mary’s typing. From outside the yard’s tired fence, the torrent of words blurred grey. Several larking older boys tried to reach over the splintered pickets and grab one of those tantalizing papers, but they were just out of reach.

“Who does she think she is?” stout Mrs. Grassley asked, a sufficiently vague and all-purpose indictment.

“That’s a lot of writing, surely,” said young Tom Cooper, awestruck. The church bell rang insistently, and, out of lifelong habit, they at last responded. For generations the bell had been the town crier as well as its timepiece, even though the bell’s latter role was somewhat supplanted by the ear-piercing whistle of the 12:15 pm train arriving from points west, the 5:30 pm en route to Chicago, and finally the 8:27 pm speeding south, all the way to New Orleans.

On that Sunday, after the opening hymn and before the benediction, a bank of dense clouds rolled across the darkening sky, accompanied by a west wind that scoured the churchyard, sought out the dessicated leaves lodged against untended gravestones, swept them neatly into corners, then scattered them again. The wind slipped through an open church window and danced with the feathers on Mrs. Grassley’s fashionable hat and startled Mr. Grassley awake. And it played with the papers hung in Mary Bight’s yard, teasing them down from the trees and off the clothesline.

When the good folk of Waverly arrived home, a few found one of Mary’s pages skipping across their lawns or wind-plastered to their porch rails, and what would have