Today's Reading

PART ONE

MARY

ONE

Her journey from Alton to Springfield should have taken no longer than two days, but as the stage driver himself said, "That's no more 'n a hope." At any second of any hour, they might have to pause for a fox or a passel of wild hogs. One morning, it was a pair of rattlesnakes, sporting themselves in the sun. Two hours later, a pile of bleached bones, uncertain in provenance.

Wagon tracks would end without warning, or the old Indian trail they were following would fade back into prairie. More than once, the path would vanish altogether beneath stagnant ponds, obliging the passengers—men and women alike—to walk ahead, with gnats and horseflies for companions.

Farms were few here. Look to every quadrant, there was no signpost, no settlement. Only grass, rolling on like a tide. Higher than any man, pawing at the windows, swallowing whatever it absorbed. Bucks disappeared all the way to their antlers. An entire flock of prairie chickens could feed unseen and then, startled into flight, blacken the sky with their wings.

And as soon as the sun dropped, the prairie wolves began to howl. The sound didn't bother her so much at first—she made a point of using the word charming—but on the third evening, the calls began to coalesce, as if the wolves were solving a problem amongst themselves, and she began to wonder how many were out there. A hundred? A thousand? Were they even now circling the stage?

She awoke the next morning with a start, convinced that something was grazing on her shoulder, but it was just the slumbering head of a Presbyterian deacon's sister. This lady until now had kept a cool tone with Mary, but the duress of the journey must have loosened her tongue for, later that day, the woman gave a light rustle to her traveling dress and asked: "Are you coming to Springfield for a visit?"

"Something between a visit and a stay."

"Depending on how it goes, you mean."

Mary flushed. "How is it supposed to go, I wonder?" Thinking, as she spoke, that her companion would retreat into convention, but the woman's dry contralto began to quaver with purpose.

"I'll tell you how. You're to find a husband, that's how. Pretty girl like you, it shouldn't take you long."

"You're very kind," Mary answered, faintly.

"You have family, then. Waiting for you."

"A sister, yes. Elizabeth Edwards." She glanced at the older woman, waiting for a gleam of recognition. "Her husband is Ninian Edwards." Still waiting. "The son of the late governor."

"I do apologize," said her companion. "I can't be trusted with the names of this world."


ON THE FOURTH day, Mary awoke to find a jaybird perched on the lip of her window. Miles from any tree, what had possessed it to travel so far?

The words came back to her then, unbidden. Tell-tale-tell.

Blame it on Sally, the Todds' nursemaid. She used to tell the children that jaybirds were Satan's messengers, flying down to hell every Friday night to recount the sins they'd witnessed. "Down in that bad place," said Sally, "there's a little devil setting up on a stool so high that his tail don't touch the floor. What's up, Mr. Jay? he says. And Mr. Jay twitters, Well, for beginners, Mary hid Sally's slippers when Sally was trying to rest her feet in the garden. Old Man Satan bellows, Write that down in your big book, little son. Who else? So, Mr. Jay twitters, Well now, Elizabeth helps Mary in all her mischievous doings. And Satan says, Write that down, too. Careful. Don't trust nary a thing to your remembrance. So then Mr. Jay says, Miss Ann hollered when Sally curled her hair..."

It was dazzling to think how many sins could be committed by a brood of six children—and how stingily Satan's messenger could hoard them in his brain. One summer morning, Mary found a jaybird sitting in a tulip tree and began calling up to him. "Howdy, Mr. Jay, you are a tell-tale-tell. You play the spy each day, then carry tales to hell."

Just then, the bird flashed its wings in a crack of air. The upper beak parted from the lower, and a thick suety maw opened before Mary's eyes. At the sound of her scream, Sally came limping over. "Child," she said, gathering her up, "that bird can't do a thing to you 'less you let him."

Gazing now at the jaybird on the other side of her window, Mary could afford to smile at the memory. Only the smile soon faded, and with a vigor that startled her fellow passengers, she began pounding on the window until the bird flew away.
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