Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Frog Haven Draft 070110 Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Invitation

Sissy listened for voices. She turned and stretched her neck and ears in each direction, but all she heard were robins and red-wings calling, the hum of flies, and a chorus of green and bull frogs in the pond. A faint breeze in the trees. The regular pond sounds. No boys. She let her breath out slowly in relief. She was glad to be alone.

The boys might be shooting baskets at McAllisters’, damming the creek in Dzabel’s woodlot, hitting hardballs in her own backyard or any number of other things, but at least, for the moment, they weren’t at the pond. Sissy was glad because the boys were often so loud. She could be loud, too, but, at the moment, she was in a quiet mood.

A water skater glided over the surface of the water, its feet dimpling the pond like falling raindrops. A water boatman surfaced, bobbed once and rowed back into the murky green depths. Sissy watched until it faded out of sight. Down in the narrow part of the pond, a great blue heron squawked a great squawk and took off, releasing a huge white dropping as it tipped first one way and then the other to fly between the elms along the far shore of the pond. The neighborhood kids called the herons “cranes,” except her brothers, Marc and Michael. They knew better. Like Sissy, they knew the names of flowers, trees and birds, but often kept their knowledge quiet, not wanting to seem nerdy to the other kids.

Sissy, however, wanted to be the first and best. The smartest. She was the one in the front row center in school, waving her arm to be called on. “Nobody likes a smart-ass,” one of the other kids hissed at her. Sissy was shocked. She didn’t like that bad word. Besides, she wanted to be both smart and well liked. It wasn’t fair.

“Nobody ever said life was fair,” Sissy’s mother reminded her. “Just you be sure not to use any bad words. Two wrongs never make a right.” Sissy sighed, thinking about it. It still didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t her fault she was smart. Some people made smartness seem like as bad a handicap as being “special.” By which they meant not smart. Sissy thought being smart should be a good thing. She thought she was special. Other people treated her like just another person.

“Give someone else a turn, Maria,” Mrs. Waverly would say, pressing her hand down slowly to tell Sissy to put her hand down.

“But I know the answer,” Sissy would groan. Her real name was Maria, Maria Luisa Mancini. When Michael was little, he couldn’t say Maria, so he began calling her “Sissy,” short for sister. Now, her relatives and everyone on Van Vleck Drive called her Sissy while most of the teachers and kids at school called her Maria. Except her best school friends like Peggy Bell.

A few kids at school, especially new ones, upon hearing her nickname was Sissy, tried calling her a sissy. That didn’t last long. Sissy was a tomboy and proud of it. She believed she could out run, out bike, out climb, out bat any boy in the neighborhood. There were many contests to prove it. She often won, but Paul or Marc sometimes beat her. Although she liked to think of herself as peace loving, “a pacifist,” as her Papa would say, she did not hesitate to attack anyone who called her a sissy and meant it the wrong way. She would knock them down, sit on them and flail at them with her fists. Marc and Paul tauntingly called it the old windmill technique. They meant this in a mean way, and their taunting often caused her to turn her fist windmill on them, often to further taunts and laughter.

Sissy groaned at the image, dismissed it, and climbed carefully up the slanting elm. She stuck her head into the tangle of grapevines where a pair of cardinals had built a nest. Sissy had watched them gathering long strands of grapevine bark. At her mother’s suggestion, she had unbraided her own hair and left some strands of it for the red birds. She sometimes remembered to bring hair from her hairbrush, too, wadded into the watch pocket in her jeans. The birds had woven her hair into the nest. She had been watching it ever since. Now the baby cardinals were almost ready to fly. Fledge, her mom called it. The stood at the edge of the nest flapping their wings. Tufts of down still fluffed from their heads and they looked like cartoons to Sissy. She hoped they learned to fly quickly on a school day next week. She was afraid the boys might hurt them. She hoped they would not fall into the pond and drown. The world seemed dangerous for a baby bird.

Distant shouts pieced the stillness, coming slowly closer.

Oh, no! The boys! Sissy thought.

Sissy backed down off the elm and walked away from the pond into the swamp, intending to take the long trek through the cut grass and out into Doolittles’ backyard to avoid the boys. Not that she didn’t often play with them, she did. But she didn’t want her quiet mood ruined by their rowdiness. Contemplative, her Papa would call it. He was proud of her “contemplative streak.”
Unfortunately, it was too late. The boys had spotted her bright red loon shirt and were calling to her. She debated whether to join them. She looked down at the long red slashes and burning welts from the cut grass on her bare arms and legs and decided, as her father would say, that wisdom was the better part of valor. She turned back. She was curious to see what the boys were up to anyway.

Her brother Marc led the way, followed by Paul LeFevre, Kelvin Moore, Donny McAllister, her brother Michael, Guy LeFevre, and finally Bill Taylor. They carried big white construction pails that she imagined they had “borrowed” from the construction site past the pines behind Taylors'.

Marc said, “We are taking Bill to the fort to initiate him into the gang. We had a vote and decided you could join too. We weren’t going to let any girls in, but you’re not like sissy girls . . ."

“Even if you are a Sissy,” Paul interrupted, laughing.

“He means your name,” Marc said, soothingly. “You can join if you want, but you have to pass the initiation tests. Just like Bill. Want to come?”

“I guess so,” Sissy said, doubtfully. Something seemed fishy to her. Paul looked just too pleased with himself.

“Then go to the end of the line behind Bill and follow us,” Paul said, drawing himself up as tall as he could. Paul was small for his age and even the much younger boys were taller than he was. Sissy was tall for her age and towered over Paul. But he seemed bigger than he was. A lot bigger.
Sissy normally made every effort to avoid taking orders from anyone, especially Paul LeFevre. She thought he was a meany. But now she was even more curious and went quietly to the end of the line behind Bill. The gang went single file now across the plank at the narrow waist of Blackfords' pond. It was really Moores’ pond now. It belonged to Kelvin’s parents. But it had been Blackfords’ pond so long no one could remember to call it Moores’ pond and even the Moores had begun calling it Blackfords’ pond. Sissy couldn’t remember the Blackfords and had begun to think they were legends and not real people like the Moores.

Sissy watched the boys wind single file through cattails, reed grass and “pricker bushes.” Paul was first now, followed by Marc. Donny McAllister, Kelvin Moore, Michael, Guy, Bill and Sissy. The order they walked was the order of who bossed whom most of the time. Paul, Marc, Donny and Bill were in fourth grade, going in fifth. Paul was the size of a second grader, but he was tough and mean. Bill was tall but stood hunched over. He was often considered a wimp. The other boys picked on him. Sissy was the oldest of the whole group. Most of the time, she could boss Marc and Michael when she was alone with either of them. But sometimes the two of them stood up to her, and Marc almost always stood up to her when Paul was around.

The fort was made of old salvaged lumber nailed around four trees. One side had a window that came from Moores’ when they had remodeled their back sunroom. The frame was yellow and it had lots of little windowpanes, some of which were broken or cracked. A thin yellow curtain was attached to the inside and fluttered spasmodically in the breeze. On the other side was an old door that didn’t fit right and hung crookedly from a broken hinge. Two old doors covered with tarpaper and plastic formed the roof. A strip of green translucent fiberglass at one end let in a little light. The floor inside was covered in the back by two pallet boxes scrounged from the construction in the pines behind Taylor’s. Different colored, mud-stained pieces of rug were nailed to the pallet boxes. A small empty wire spool acted as a table in front of the pallet boxes, and upside down white construction pails flecked with putty and spackle acted as chairs around the spool. The floor around the table was wet and muddy. The fort was on a small rise in the swamp behind the pond, but the water was higher than usual after several days of rain.

They paraded through the fort and out the broken door to the “back yard” where another larger spool and more over-turned pails sat. There was a fire ring full of burned deposit soda cans. Sissy counted enough burned cans to have turned them in for a hot fudge sundae if they had been undamaged. What a waste. And what a mess besides.

“You and Bill build a fire,” Paul commanded, throwing her a pack of matches. None of them were supposed to build fires without permission. It was strictly against the rules. The grown-up rules. The kids had their own rules, sometimes, Sissy thought, wryly.

Read Chapters 2 & 3

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