by D.A. Steen
Mary Simms wavered from her chores—daydreaming. The chickens cackled and crowed about her feet—but she paid them no mind. She squeezed the corn feed in her left hand so tightly it hurt. It was late summer, 1871, and her dreams of ever escaping Hatton Springs dimmed even as the sun’s bright morning rays blazed across her face. She couldn’t help but wonder—had it not shone brighter in yesteryear? And was not the speed with which the earth raced in its great arc around the sun—going faster this year, than last?
Mary pretended she could make time stop. She believed all the great orbs in space would, by her will, fall as still as the breath she held. And in this moment, for as long as she could hold her breath, Mary’s destiny would be her own.
Lily called out and broke the spell.
“Mary, hurry up or we’ll be late for school,” Lily said, spilling water from the pails she carried to the pig pen.
Mary released the breath she held. All the great orbs in space raced forward again, once more.
She laughed sadly at her folly, and over her shoulder, said to her sister, “Says the student to the teacher.”
Lily, in the eighth grade now, smiled at that.
Mary had finished school two summers ago and thought her days of classes and tests were behind her. But then last month, Mrs. Irving, the beloved schoolteacher—had passed away quietly in her sleep. For forty years she had been loved and adored by three generations of students who had passed through her classroom.
The town was devastated. But the real shock belonged to Mary when the townsfolk unanimously chose her to be Mrs. Irving’s successor. All had agreed that ever-bright Mary would be perfect as the new teacher of the Hatton Springs School. For she had a special something. There was a brightness about her. And the town hoped she could share that brightness by lighting up student’s minds—and helping them to learn those things magical and new.
Life called, and you answered, her mother had said.
But the head-spinning rapidity with which it happened had stunned Mary.
She’d had plans. Hopes and dreams of escaping Hatton Springs. Maybe teaching English in some foreign land. But never, ever, had she considered staying. To even think it was anathema to her entire being.
Only Mason Dean, her boyfriend since the seventh grade, knew how deeply she hurt.
“I see you smile, Mary,” he’d said. “You smile to the world, and yet behind the façade I see the scarlet scar across your buried heart. You’re a wild bird thrust into a cage. And you’re not foolin’ me, none.”
The roosters and hens clucked their impatient disdain with Mary—still clenching the corn feed in her tiny fist.
She conceded and let loose the feed through the air. The chickens cackled their approval and fought madly for position when Mary emptied the rest of the bucket of feed on the ground.
She turned to Lily, back from the pig pens with empty pails and the unmistakable odor of nature on her boots.
“C’mon,” Mary said. “Time for breakfast.”
Their mother was setting the table when Mary and Lily walked in. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, and salted hoecakes with butter. Mary would have preferred honey on her hoecakes, but this year hadn’t been a good one for the bees.
“Good morning, Mary,” her mother said. She already had that prodding tone in her voice with which Mary was all too familiar. Her questions would start up anytime now.
“Good Morning, Ma,” Mary answered. “Where’s Papa this morning?” Perhaps a deflection would save her.
“He had business in town, early, and he was up and gone before the sun was up,” she said.
Her family farmed one-hundred and forty acres, mostly wheat. They also had six cows, two horses, twenty-one chickens, a goat named Lady, a dog named Daisy, and two fat pigs they called Bugsy and Sue. Sue was the ugly one. That’s what they always said.
Her mother handed Mary a glass of milk, still warm from the cow, and sat down at the table across from her. She stared at Mary, deliberating for a moment, and then turned to Lily.
“Lily, after breakfast I’ll braid your hair before you and Mary head off to school.”
“Yes, Mama,” Lily answered.
Lily had been blessed with the most luscious, brown hair. And Mary had caught more than one boy stealing looks at her from across the classroom.
Boys, Mary thought, sighing. Her thought drifted across the table like smoke curling away from a blown out candle.
As if reaching her mother on cue, she asked, “Mary, did you have time to grade those papers? After Mason left here yesterday, you holed up in your room all afternoon. We missed you at supper.”
Mary groaned. She would give anything not to have to deal with this.
“Mason asked me to marry him.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Well, what did you say?”
“Yeah, what did you say?” Lily asked. “You told him yes, didn’t you?”
Mary kept her head down and whispered, “I asked if I could tell him today.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why would you do such a thing? Poor Mason Dean! What you must be putting him through, Mary.”
“I thought you loved Mason,” Lily said.
The moment hung across the table. Lily rolled her eyes and chewed on her hoecakes. Her mother stared at her, shaking her head, and sipped her coffee.
“Mary, you have been off in your own world, here lately,” her mother said.
“Someplace far away,” Mary whispered.
“She’s been like that at school, too,” said Lily.
“Lily!” Mary said.
“Well, it’s true,” Lily insisted.
“What about Mason?” her mother asked.
Mary had enough. She grabbed her book bag and stood.
“Lily, you come along when you want. I’ll be waiting on the hillside. Don’t you worry none if we’re late. It’s not like they’d start without us.”
“Mary,” her mother said, disapprovingly.
Mary opened the cabin door and made to step out—but before she did, she turned and gave her mother a slight, but reassuring nod. I’ll be alright.
Across the meadow, Mary trudged along until she reached Dandelion Hill. It was her favorite place to go when she was frustrated with the world. There, she sat beneath the Shagbark tree and stared out across the rolling prairie.
She needed time to think. She loved Mason dearly. She didn’t want anyone else. She just wasn’t ready to settle down… and be somebody’s wife. And now, with this teaching job—
Mary heard something behind her—foreign to her ears. It was far off. A low hum. The sound resonated and rumbled with a bass so low it tingled her arms and legs.
She turned and searched in the direction from whence the sound came. And far off, back behind the cabin, beyond the black hills, something moved in the sky.
Mary had never seen anything like it before. It looked like an enormous metal bowl, flipped upside down, and spinning slowly. It floated in the sky toward the farm.
Mary saw Lily come running out of the cabin. But, then—half caught in a run, Lily froze, mid-stride, and fully off the ground, hanging in the air—not moving at all.
And it wasn’t just Lily. Every farm animal Mary could see was frozen still—caught in a half-movement. Only the wind stirred.
The sight of it bewildered Mary.
As it got closer, the orb completely blocked out the sun. It was larger than their entire farm.
Finally, right over Dandelion Hill… it stopped and hung there—still—in the sky above her.
Mary stared up in absolute astonishment.
What is it? she thought. It must be God.
The rumble fell silent. The giant orb stopped spinning. Mary could hear her heart thumping fast and loud. She was so scared she thought it might come flying right out of her chest.
She watched the orb—hanging there in the sky above her—silent and still.
Then, she heard a sound. In the beginning, it was just a whisper in her head.
Then the whisper became a voice.
The one who stops time.
And the voice became many.
I can hear them, Mary thought. They’re all talking… about me. Wondering what to do—with me.
Mary, unaware she’d been holding her breath, let it out and breathed in the sweet, country air.
She’s too young.
It’s too soon.
Then slowly, as if time were starting up again, the colossal wheel in the sky began spinning. And slowly, lazily, it drifted off in a direction different than that which it had been going.
The farm animals stirred back to life. Lily landed on the ground and came running across the meadow towards Mary.
I guess they decided, Mary thought. And so have I.