TITLE: The Sparrow’s Sad Song, Chapter 1, 11/18/2019
By John Hunt
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Near the small town of Sedalia, amid the county roads that border its ridge and fields that paint the golden plains, Possum Trail winds through a stretch of woods as it leads to the prairie some distance beyond. Long ago forged by fur traders and Osage natives, the rolling path, hemmed with tall oak and Indiangrass, lay overgrown with weeds and wild thatch, neglected, and for the most part, forgotten.
Ryan and Caity knew they weren’t allowed to go that far from home, especially not by themselves, and for Ryan, not so soon after his illness. But with a stubborn streak that butted against everyone, Caity decided there was no way anyone would keep her from doing what she wanted. And Ryan, well, Ryan would follow her anywhere she went. So the two friends found themselves smack in the middle of the trail that day, racing, as they often did, to the end.
“Slow down, Caity,” Ryan shouted as he gasped for breath. Caity had gained a substantial lead over Ryan, so much so, in fact, she had almost reached the clearing. Although the two already turned twelve years old that summer, and he would usually beat her on any given day, that afternoon proved a turning point for them.
“Hurry up, you slow poke,” Caity shouted in reply. Fiercely competitive, Caity never willingly let anyone beat her at anything, especially not a boy, not even Ryan. Her mother ingrained the competitive spirit in her from birth, with expectations she place first in her equestrian team, reach the top of her fifth grade class, and play Beethoven by age six. And since her father left with the military earlier that year, the expectations grew even worse. Sprinting the last few yards of the trail, Caity stopped where the path ended and the thicket gave way to a broad expanse of prairie grass. With an ecstatic giggle, she yelled, “Beat ya.”
Ryan clomped the last few feet and stopped alongside her, his hair disheveled and his shirt soaked with sweat. With scarcely a glance in Caity’s direction, he bent over, rested his hands on his knees, and took some deep breaths. “You know I done had the ammonia,” he chided.
Folding her arms in indignation, Caity replied, “You’re just mad because you lost.”
Caity, of course, knew of Ryan’s illness that winter, and of how much it had taken from him. She even knew about the breathing tube, the IV’s, and how everyone said he’d died at least twice. And while Ryan always seemed kind of feeble to Caity, that summer she thought he turned ever more frail. Still, despite his weakness, she just couldn’t help herself. She had to win.
After Ryan’s breathing calmed and he appeared to no longer hold a grudge, Caity ventured into the prairie, wading through the rustling blades as Ryan followed grudgingly behind. She paused only a moment to pull her long, brown hair into a ponytail, a lesson learned from their last outing when she spent an hour detaching wild burs.
“Y’know, we should probably be gittin’ back,” Ryan said to her.
Still ahead by a few paces, although this time at just a stride, Caity pushed further into the thick grass, oblivious to Ryan’s concern. “Quit being a baby,” she said.
Despite her bossy demeanor and bullheaded disposition, Ryan liked Caity. With her light freckles and soft brown eyes, he thought of her as pretty, although not necessarily beautiful. Not that he’d admit it anyway. In any case, it seemed no matter the disagreement between the two, or how much they may have fought, they always found themselves by each other’s side.
In the middle of the field, out of place in that seeming frontier, a cast iron fence rose above the horizon, a fence that cordoned off an area approximately of a city block. Painted black, with reddish-brown rust along its edges, the bars poked jaggedly above the grass, ominously keeping strangers out, or something in.
“What’s that?” Ryan asked, his eyes wide as he looked over the structure. Without answering, Caity hurried toward the fence, while Ryan struggled, stepping in long strides to keep up with her.
The fence stretched on for what seemed forever, with iron posts leaning to and fro and sections twisted against themselves. Near the middle, in what looked like a courtyard, the railing rose from either side, meeting above in an ornately-fashioned arch. Beneath that overhanging metal, rusted open and wedged in the dirt, a gate appeared, an entrance that seemed to beckon whoever would to come in. Then, just beyond them, the two noticed the shapes of what occupied that field. Evenly spaced, just visible through the grass, sat the unmistakable form of tombstones.
Ryan immediately didn’t like it. He’d seen Night of The Living Dead, after all, and knew what happened in graveyards. “This is stupid,” he said to Caity. “Let’s git goin’.”
Ignoring him once again, Caity walked under the arch and over the threshold, passing the first row of headstones as if she had some sort of purpose. Ryan thought he sensed the sky darken and the temperature drop about ten degrees at that moment; nonetheless, he followed her, since he sure wasn’t about to be left alone. That’s how they always git ya, he reminded himself.
Near the back of the cemetery, above the other headstones, sat a tall monument, its stone weathered with time and its features worn. Caity reached over and touched the dark granite, gently, as if touching an old friend. Ryan, in turn, crept cautiously behind, just close enough to read the chiseled inscription: James Carlton, January 5, 1802 – April 22, 1864, and Mary Carlton, September 8, 1809 – April 29, 1864. “Humph,” he said, pensively. “She went and died exactly one week after him.”
“Yeah,” Caity replied. “She couldn’t go on without the love of her life.” Caity seemed enamored by that large stone, or by the thought of enduring love, or both.
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